I came upon this quote by Sinclair Ferguson:
True faith takes its character and quality from its object and not from itself. Faith gets a man out of himself and into Christ… Even those of us who have weak faith have the same strong Christ as others!
My pastor Andrew Kamm asked me to write a few words to expand upon with Ferguson is saying. To do that, we’ll need to talk about justification.
Justification is the legal declaration from God that announces that a sinner is righteous in God’s sight. Justification includes the forgiveness of sins and the crediting (or “imputing”) of Christ’s righteousness. This can be done on the basis of substitution and is often called, “The Great Exchange”. 2 Cor. 5:21 explains it this way: “For our sake He [God] made Him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” Christ took all of our sins and we get all of His righteousness.
We receive this justification not by any work we do but we receive justification by faith. Luther’s rediscovery and powerful articulation of the doctrine of justification by faith alone – that sinners are justified by God through faith – is at the very heart of Protestant Christianity.
But with justification by faith there is an important distinction to be made. To put it in technical language, faith is the instrument, not the grounds of our justification. Faith is the open hand by which we receive justification not the reason we can be justified. This may seem like a subtle point, but it is important: to confuse the instrument and grounds of justification will drive us to despair by placing ourselves back on the treadmill of good works.
The grounds of our justification is the perfect and finished work of Christ. We can be justified because Christ accomplished redemption. Faith is what unites us to Christ and His perfect work, not what makes His work perfect for us. If you walked on a frozen lake and you didn’t fall in, the reason was not the strength or quality of your trusting that the ice will hold you but rather the fact that there are ten feet of solid frozen ice under you. Christ is mighty to save on His own account.
Ferguson reminds us that our faith is not placed in our experience of God but it is placed in God Himself. Though our experience of God and the strength of our own faith changes throughout the days, weeks, and years, God Himself does not. We look to the object of our faith to overcome all of our own shortcomings. Faith allows us to take our eyes of ourselves – our lies, our evil, our ugliness – and to look at God – His truth, His goodness, His beauty.
I can think of two applications that should flow from this great truth:
- To all of those who struggle with faith – take heart! The weakest faith clings to the strongest savior!
- The prayer of the exasperated father, “I believe, help my unbelief!” (Mk. 9:24), should be our response when we recognize our faith is failing. It is the prayer of the converted – it is addressed to God Himself and recognizes Him as not only the giver of faith but as the one who maintains it in us. Here is a great hymn to help us in our prayer in worship: