Man (Part 3)
Chapter 9 — The Race of Life
Coming to faith did not mean we ended our journey. But it gave us a heart to run and put wings on our feet. Now we are running for a different reason, and the prospects are not uncertain. With Paul we can say, "I do not run like a man running aimlessly" (1 Corinthians 9:26). The writer to the Hebrews exhorts us, "Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us" (Hebrews 12:1). To those who keep the faith the promise is, "They shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint" (Isaiah 40:31).
It will pay us to spend some time talking about keeping the faith. Faith came to us as we heard the gospel message (Romans 10:17). If we are to keep the faith, we need to keep hearing that same gospel message. This means that we need to regularly read the Bible ourselves, and we need to regularly hear the gospel being proclaimed. Faith does not come to us independently of others, but the message of Christ is mediated to us by other believers. We need to fellowship with those who have come to faith and who regularly gather to hear the gospel preached. A burning ember soon goes out if isolated from the mass of burning embers.
Two dangers confront those who would keep the faith: false expectations and discouragement.
When we reflect on ourselves, we see the self in two ways: as it ought to be and as it actually is. God bridges this gulf by the forgiveness of sins and Christ's righteousness, which are ours by faith. At the same time, God gives us His Spirit for inner renewal and outward reformation. These are evidences that we have come to faith. So with God's help we set out to become what we ought to be. That is the way it should be. If a man doesn't want to become what he ought to be, we fear he does not have the Spirit of God, who always creates a burning desire to be everything we ought to be.
Some, however; are led to entertain false expectations, especially if they have had a glorious awakening to faith. With such a bright new beginning they imagine that all their "enemies" are slain. With God's Spirit, with their own endeavors, or both, they think they can bridge the gulf between what they ought to be and what they are. Of course, they are thankful for God's forgiveness to get them started. But if they avoid self-hypocrisy, they will get a clearer and clearer picture of the length and breadth of the law's requirements and of what God would like them to be. The perception of the "ought" will sharpen. And although growing in faith, the faster they run, the further they will see themselves from the goal. Besides, there are no degrees of righteousness with God. Their righteousness must be entire, wanting nothing, or the gap remains as wide as ever. Apart from the forgiveness of sins there is no difference with God between the best man and the worst man on earth.
As we run the way of faith, let us not entertain the expectation that the tension between the "ought" and reality will lessen because we are improving. This tension becomes greater. The man who has run the furthest and climbed the highest in the way of faith will be most conscious of the distance between what he ought to be and what he is. He will rest more on God's mercy and forgiveness and will smile at the idea that forgiveness is only for beginners.
Nevertheless, it makes a difference whether we run toward high attainments or sit on the road. Keeping the faith is like riding a bicycle. If we don't go on, we fall off. But it is better to lose life itself than to lose the faith. There are unlimited possibilities of self-improvement to the glory of God and the blessing of our fellow men. There is no limit to the usefulness of one who forgets himself and gives himself to be used by the Spirit. This world has been blessed by giants of faith. But ask where they put their faith, and they will point to the blood of Christ. Ask whether they are any nearer what they ought to be, and they will groan or laugh aloud.
Yet for all this, some people continue inventing new techniques whereby they think they can influence an all-powerful God to put an end to the human abyss. They want to show by their rounded personalities or their charismatic blessings what God can do for the rest of mankind. Then when they find that God does not cooperate with their excessive zeal, they often fall into discouragement or desperation.
It is sufficient to live by the remedy we found at the first. It will surely be sufficient till the last. And if there be any difference, it is this: We will feel our need of mercy at the end more than we did at the beginning. The wholeness of life teaches us that we cannot be fully restored in any dimension of life until we are restored in every dimension. Since we are part of the community of faith, a community likened to a body (1 Corinthians 12:12,13), we cannot run ahead and become perfect until the whole body of believers becomes perfect together (Hebrews 11:39, 40).
In the final analysis the decisive thing will not be how far we have run or how high we have climbed, but only, have we kept the faith?
If it were good for us and for God's glory, He could turn us into saints as pure and glistening as the angels in the twinkling of an eye. Why doesn't He use His power to make us, at least in soul—character; mind — all that we ought to be?1
1. It is an exhibition of His wisdom. It is good for our faith. It keeps us running after His mercy, gives us more sympathy with fellow sinners and makes us long for our Lord's return.
2. It is an exhibition of His power. He keeps us righteous in His sight while we are still sinners in ourselves.
3. It is an exhibition of His mercy If God made us perfect and left us in this fallen world, we would suffer hell. Christ's suffering in this fallen world was beyond imagination. God would spare us from that.
4. We will add what the Bible teaches: In this life we can be righteous before God only by faith — Romans 1:17; 3:20; Psalm 143:2; Galatians 5:5).
Some, seeing they cannot resolve the tension between what they ought to be and what they actually are, try to solve the problem by getting rid of the law. "You don't need the law if you have faith!" they cry They may even sing the good old song, "Free from the law, 0 happy condition." But what do they mean by "free from the law"? If they mean free from its penalty or from trying to get life by keeping it, they are right. But if they mean that faith frees us from the law as a rule of duty, they are wrong. The law is the "ought." It is the will of God. It is all that we should do. There is law in the New Testament as well as in the Old. "Be forgiving!" "Love your enemies!" "Carry one another's burdens!" "Be humble like Jesus Christ!" "Speak evil of no one!" are some of the many "oughts" in Paul's letters. The man who says, "I live by no law," has made an impossible law — to live by no law. If he obeyed this law, his life would be an unplanned, disorganized blot without order or meaning. Life is like a poem to be composed or a canvas to be painted. There must be form. While love is the principle of all obedience to God, law gives love its form. Unless the law of Christian duty is kept before us, we will take forgiveness for granted and will feel that we scarcely need it at all. The life of faith does not presume on God's mercy Faith cannot exist with an evil intention to ignore the will of God.
The path of faith is straight. But on either side is a deep ditch for those who lose the faith. On one side is the error of thinking we can be saved by splendid attainments. On the other side is the error of believing we can be saved while disobeying the express will of God.
This means that those who run the way of faith have two distinguishing attitudes. Because God honored His law at Calvary, they too respect the laws of life. But also because of Calvary, they believe their righteousness with God is by faith alone.
When we fall let us remember that we are still in God's favor if we are still in the faith. Let us get up and go on because God is for us and His Spirit is with us. His promise is sure: "Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you" (Hebrews 13:5). God never runs out of mercy, so let us keep the faith. We may be down, but we are never out if only we keep the faith. In the final analysis the decisive thing will not be how often we slipped or fell, but did we keep the faith? For faith, faith alone, is our righteousness (Romans 4:5) because it lays hold of Christ, who is pleasing to God. This is life —to live by faith.
We should not make our experience the center of our attention. While honesty and some self-examination are in order; we must not dwell on our failures and shortcomings. It is a law of the mind that whatever gets our attention gets us. We should not even dwell on our good experiences and make them the center of our concern or Christian witness. We must not dwell on God's gifts so much that we forget the Giver. Dwelling on one's spiritual experience is a cause of much discouragement.
Do you remember ever trying to balance a broom on your finger? When you kept your eyes on the top of the broom, all would go well. But the moment you started watching your finger; the broom would fall over.
In the same way, we must keep our eyes on what Christ has done for us and what He is to us at God's right hand. When we believe this with all our hearts, His Spirit works in us — unconsciously Someone once put it this way: "I looked at Christ and the Dove of peace flew into my heart. I looked at the Dove and it flew away
Let us remember that the decisive thing is not how thrilling or how mundane or even how baffling our experience in running this race has been. It is only this one question that matters: Have we kept the faith?
1 Why not include the whole man? How we unconsciously make the unholy (unhealthy, unwhole, unwholesome) proposition of separating body from soul!