I Am the Light of the World:
True Faith vs. Temporary Faith
I believe this is an extremely important sermon, for I want to confront head-on what I believe may well be one of the most destructive false ideas in your life. American Christians are often so worried about what laws the government is enacting or what junk Hollywood is producing that we don’t even see that one of the most destructive ideas attacking us is not coming from outside but from inside of professing Christianity. I believe understanding this false idea is one of the keys that unlocks the reasoning behind the way we typically conceive of our relationship with God in our day. It helps to explain why we think that baptism is not part of conversion, why praying a prayer gives us assurance of salvation, why church membership is optional for the Christian life, why pursuing holiness of life has little to do with our salvation, why going to a Christian camp means more to our walk with God than partaking of the Lord’s Supper, or why revival meetings are the way to save America.
That false idea has to do with faith. What is faith? What it its real character? If you answer that question incorrectly, it can have devastating consequences. We all know that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, so faith is pretty central to the gospel, isn’t it? If we go wrong here, it will impact everything else about our lives, just as an airplane that flies one degree off course will end up far from its intended destination. Today I want to talk about true faith vs. temporary faith. You absolutely must learn to distinguish between the two.
The difference comes out clearly in our text today – John 8:30-59. When Jesus declared himself to be the light f the world at the Feast of Booths, the Pharisees rejected him, but many others believed in him (8:30). So Jesus went on to address those who apparently believed his message. He told them that they must remain in his teaching, and then they would be free (31-32). The would-be believers responded by questioning the implication that they were not free. They appealed to the fact that they were descendants of Abraham to prove that they were free (33). Jesus clarified that the one who sins is a slave to sin; therefore, since they were slaves, they did not have a place in the household of God. The Son (always used of Jesus in John’s Gospel) is the one who can make them free (34-36). Jesus then went on to prove that though they were the physical descendants of Abraham, they had an entirely different father than Jesus (37-38). As Jesus unrelentingly pressed this point home on them through the last two sections of the chapter (vv. 39-47 and 48-59), their astonishment and anger boiled over. Incredibly, those who believed in Jesus just moments before were now ready to stone him. It is abundantly evident that their faith was not a true faith; it was a temporary faith.
This is a theme that has been building throughout the Gospel of John up to this point (cf. 2:23-25; 6:60-66). From this Scripture then we learn this crucial lesson: Faith is not a decision as much as it is a disposition of the heart. It is not the decision of a moment; it is the disposition of the heart. Faith is a living, active trusting in Christ. It is a sure and settled knowledge of Christ that unites us to him. Real faith flows out in love and obedience to Christ.
In the Gospel of John, we learn both the content and the character of genuine faith. The content of true faith is centered in Jesus. He is the Christ, the Son of God. But not only is there right content to genuine faith, there is also right character. The character of true faith is living and active. In the Gospel of John we find that “Faith receives, obeys, drinks, hears, comes, beholds, eats, abides, goes, knows, sees, follows, enters, hates, loves, and more” (Schreiner, New Testament Theology, 560). In our text Jesus emphasizes the abiding character of true faith. This means that those who are truly Jesus’ disciples continue in his teaching. They obey his commands. They hear what he says and they follow where he leads. Jesus emphasizes this even more in John 15. There he teaches that “those who do not continue to abide will be destroyed forever because they will be severed from the vine (John 15:6)” (Schreiner, 564).
That leads us to contrast the character of true faith with temporary faith. Temporary faith can be called faith because it responds to the same content as genuine faith. It can also be called faith because it initially appears to have the same characteristics as true faith. A person hears the preaching of the truth of Christ and is moved, intellectually or emotionally, to accept it as true and to make some kind of a commitment to Christ. However, looking at our text, we can see where the flaws begin to show up. (1) Temporary faith does not remain; hence (2) it does not continue in Christ’s word; (3) it continues in bondage to sin; (4) it does not hear the words of God; (5) it does not know Christ for who he truly is.
In order to make the character of temporary faith clear, let me show you a couple other biblical examples. The first one is a man named Simon, who was a magician (Acts 8:9-24). That is to say, he was a magician until Philip came and preached the good news of the kingdom of God. The Scripture tells us that he believed and was baptized and publicly continued with Philip. It is pretty hard to believe that this was some kind of insincere profession of faith. Simon was truly amazed by the signs and miracles, and he wanted to identify with Christ. Nevertheless, when Simon offered the apostles money in order to get their miracle-working power, it became evident that Simon did not possess the truth. He was not a genuine believer, even though he was a man who thought that he was a believer. “…He still manifested the signs of his old unregenerate nature. The poisonous root of superstitious self-seeking had not been eradicated from his heart…” (F. F. Bruce, Acts, 171).
Another powerful example of this kind of faith was given by Jesus when he told the “Parable of the Sower” (Matt 13:1-9; 18-23). Notice that that the second two types of soil, which represent heart responses to the message of the kingdom, understand and receive the word. Christ specifically states that person represented by the rocky soil received the word with joy. There was an immediate and full-fledged embrace of the truth. Yet he has no root in himself, and it becomes evident with the passing of time and the trials that it brings that he is not the genuine article. Remember, faith is not the decision of a moment but the disposition of the heart.
Promoting Temporary Faith Today
Now that we have seen the clear biblical distinction between true faith and temporary faith, I want to show you how we often promote temporary faith today.
First, we promote temporary faith in our presentation of the gospel. Here I want to use the example of Evangelism Explosion. I use this example because it is one of the better widely taught evangelistic methods in the U.S. in the past 40 years. They clearly recognize that faith is not merely mental assent but is trusting in Christ alone for our salvation. That is excellent. But they fail to deal with the very real and very common phenomenon of temporary faith, and so they leave the real impression that trusting in Christ is the decision of a moment. This faulty view is expressed in three ways.
1. They assume that you can know if someone is truly trusting in Christ or in self simply by asking questions and getting answers (Evangelism Explosion, chap. 6).* In other words, they fail to account for the fact that no human being knows his own heart fully. We can and do deceive ourselves. We may possess the correct truth content of faith and yet not have genuine faith. This is revealed more by our living response to Jesus than by our answers to questions.
2. They seek a commitment from the one to whom they are witnessing by carefully leading him through a prayer. They make this statement, “Many commitments have been lost at this point because of the way prospects were asked to pray” (Evangelism Explosion, 99). I respond that this is categorically and emphatically false, and without any biblical support. True faith will not be thwarted simply by an awkward or inept presentation. To imply that it will is to turn the gospel presentation into a sales pitch aimed at getting an immediate decision.
3. But the most glaring point at which they communicate that faith is the decision of the moment is when they deal with assurance of salvation. Here are the exact words they teach people to use when witnessing.
Now, Rene, you just told Christ in your prayer that you trust Him alone for your salvation. As best you know your heart, Rene, did you really mean that?
Well, Rene, do you believe that Jesus Christ meant what he said in this promise you just read [i.e. John 6:47]?
Then let me ask you this question: If you died tonight in your sleep – and you just might – where would you wake up?
Who said so?
Rene, now if you were to meet God at heaven’s gate and He were to ask you “Why should I let you into My heaven?” what would you say?
I’d say, I’m trusting in Jesus Christ as my Savior.
(Reaching over and shaking her hand…) If you really meant in your heart what you just said in that prayer, then you have the promise of Jesus Christ that your sins are forgiven….(The “if” clause is inserted here in order not to give the person a false assurance. We are saved by trusting in Jesus Christ, not by saying that we trust in Jesus Christ.) (Evangelism Explosion, 100-101).
The last parenthesis quoted is clearly attempting to erect a barricade against a false idea of faith, yet it is a flimsy wall because of what has just been said: “If you really meant in your heart what you just said in that prayer.” Really meaning it in your heart is not a biblical description of true faith. I’m sure that Simon “really meant it” when he believed and was baptized, but his life demonstrated that he was still in the bondage of sin (Acts 8:20-23). Those who are like the rocky soil in Christ’s parable receive the Word with joy! There is no insincerity in their profession of faith. But, as it turns out, they didn’t have true faith. The decision of a moment may be entirely sincere, but this is not the biblical measure of genuine faith. Thus, perhaps even unwittingly, Evangelism Explosion is promoting an inadequate understanding of faith.
Second, we promote temporary faith by pop culture Christianity. When we tie Christianity, that is, following Christ, to the consumerist fads of the moment, we actually encourage a temporary faith. We live in a society that has been perfecting the art of tying Christianity to whatever makes it mass marketable. But this shallow, sentimental kind of attachment to Christ does not constitute true faith. I came across an excellent example of this last week. Russell Moore says about country music:
Roots music, after all, is remarkably honest about things commercial music often doesn’t want to talk about: despair, loneliness, heartache, sin, redemption, sowing what one reaps. [I would disagree with this statement. I don’t know of any kind of music which refuses to talk about these things. Furthermore, commercial music uses exactly these themes, among others, to market itself. JDP] And in so doing, this music often unveils what it looks like to be, in Flannery O’Connor’s words, “Christ-haunted.” Often, in this music, there’s a Christian subtext but no Christianity. There’s some kind of redemption but no crucifixion. There’s grace, and grace abounding, but often grace that sin may abound.
This is how Willie Nelson can end a concert by moving, without comment, from crooning “Whiskey River, Take My Mind” to softly singing “Amazing Grace.” The point isn’t that Willie does this. It’s that he knows stadiums full of concert-goers want him too.
In the music of the Bible Belt, we can hear something of what it means to be simultaneously the Publican and the Pharisee. It’s a religious identity, indeed a “Christian” identity, with a tortured conscience. That’s an awfully heartsick place to be. (http://www.russellmoore.com/2011/01/14/introducing-the-cross-and-the-jukebox/)
If your faith is a “Jesus Take the Wheel” kind of faith, then you had better examine yourself carefully. If your faith is a “Veggie Tales” kind of faith, then you had better fear. Let me get even more controversial. If your faith is a Casting Crowns rock concert kind of faith (or Bill Gaither vocal band or so on and so forth), then you have been warned. If your faith is a revival meeting kind of faith, be very careful. If your faith is a camp fire kind of faith, you need to tremble. If wearing a “Jesus Rocks” t-shirt makes you feel like a bold witness, but you don’t have a clue about why some people ought to be welcomed and others excluded from the Lord’s table, then you don’t know much about real faith and the way it works.
This is why I am so dead set against sentimental and shallow expressions of faith devoid of substantive truth and staying power. This is why I do not like pop culture expressions of Christianity. They lull hearts to sleep and inoculate them against true conviction of sin, true repentance, and true faith. Remember, faith is not the decision of the moment but the disposition of the heart. A faith that only gives you sentimental attachments to Jesus is not the same thing as a faith that follows him against the world, the flesh, and the devil.
There are other ways in which we promote a temporary faith, such as by a Christianity that strives to be intellectually acceptable to the world. But for time’s sake we will have to stop now.
When the Gospel of John says that these things were written so that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, he is talking about true faith, not temporary faith. What kind of faith do you have?
*All citations are from D. James Kennedy, Evangelism Explosion: Equipping Churches for Friendship, Evangelism, Discipleship, and Healthy Growth. 4th edition. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 1996.