June 8, 1997
Bethlehem Baptist Church
John Piper, Pastor
WITHOUT FAITH IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO PLEASE GOD
By faith Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained the testimony that he was righteous, God testifying about his gifts, and through faith, though he is dead, he still speaks. 5 By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death; and he was not found because God took him up; for he obtained the witness that before his being taken up he was pleasing to God. 6 And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.
Becoming Radically Free
Last week we began our exposition of Hebrews 11 by asking why it is here and what it has to do with our lives today. The answer I gave was that it is here to help us become the kind of people described six verses earlier in Hebrews 10:34. These were Christians who "joyfully accepted the confiscation of their property" in the service of Christ and the cause of love. In other words, they were radically free from the love of this world and the values that drive most of what passes for success in America. They were free from this bondage because, verse 34 says, "they knew that they had a better possession and an abiding one."
That's where chapter 11 picks up. "Now faith is the assurance (or the substance) of things hoped for, the conviction (or the evidence) of things not seen." In other words the "knowledge" or assurance of 10:34 ("they knew they had a better possession and an abiding one") is now called "faith." And a whole chapter of living examples of this radicalizing faith is about to be given. So the point of chapter 11 is to flesh out and demonstrate more stories of faith so that we would imitate the faith and inherit the promises of God.
Imitation and Inheritance
You can know we are on the right track here by remembering Hebrews 6:11-12, which described exactly the same pattern of imitation and inheritance: "We desire that each one of you show the same diligence so as to realize the full assurance of hope until the end, that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises." That's the point of Hebrews 11 - to give more examples of "those who through faith and patience inherit the promises" so that we can imitate their faith and join them in the inheritance.
And if you wonder whether you should only look at Old Testament saints in this way for encouragement and imitation, Hebrews 13:7 says no, you should also look at those who taught you the word and be inspired by their faith too. "Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith." So this is a big issue in the book of Hebrews. Have heroes. Know some church history. Know some missionary biography. Know some great Christian businessmen. Know some great women who poured their lives into family and church and community for the sake of Christ. Know their faith and be encouraged by them and imitate them. That's the point of Hebrews 11.
Enduring, Doing and Receiving
Or we could take verses 35-36 in chapter 10 and say that this expresses what is at stake as we read chapter 11. The writer pleads with us: "Do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised." Notice the three-step pattern: 1) enduring confidence in God; 2) doing the will of God in the power of that confidence; and 3) receiving what is promised.
What I feel impelled to stress as we take another step in Hebrews 11 this morning is the need for our endurance, as verse 36 says: "You have need of endurance." Day before yesterday I was in Charlotte at the Christian and Missionary Alliance annual meeting. David Wells was one of the speakers, and we had a chance for a brief conversation. We talked about the perils of doctrinal weakness spreading in an evangelicalism that defines itself increasingly in terms of methods and relationships rather than truth. At one point in the conversation he said something very crucial, and then later repeated it in his message. He said that many people don't realize how vulnerable and how perilous is the life of faith.
What he meant was that we dare not take for granted the faithfulness of our churches or our denominations or our schools or our families - or even of our own hearts, as if vigilance and conscious endurance were not continually necessary. Without earnest attention to truth and faith, everything decays, including our own personal walk with God.
So with renewed concern for my own faith, and the faith of our church and the faith of your soul and your family I say this morning in the words of Hebrews 10:36, "We have need of endurance." We have need of endurance! Oh, how clearly I saw this in the lives of pastors that I spoke to in Charlotte, some with tears, who had lost their joy and their passion and didn't know if they could press on in the ministry. The issue of endurance, and perseverance for the long haul, and staying alive, and thriving and being renewed day after day, and finding the pace to finish the race - It is a huge issue for us all. And there is no resting on past experiences. There is no casual coasting. Today's zeal can become tomorrow's doubt and boredom. And today's sense of spiritual numbness can become tomorrow's ecstasy and power.
Men of Old Gained Approval
That is why God gave us Hebrews 11. Example after example of true faith so that we will be "imitators of those who through faith and patience (longsuffering, endurance) inherit the promises."
Now to make the connection between last week's text and today's, you may remember that I did not say a word about Hebrews 11:2 last week. I was saving it for today. It makes a perfect bridge to today's text. Let's read verses 1-2, "Now faith is the assurance (or substance) of things hoped for, the conviction (or evidence) of things not seen. (2) For by it the men of old gained approval."
Let me paraphrase this to bring out its meaning: We see that faith is two things, as verse one says. 1) It's being sure of God's promises - that they are worth putting our hope in ("the substance of things hoped for"). 2) It's being sure that the invisible God and his hand in creation do in fact exist ("the evidence of things unseen") which we saw illustrated in verse 3. And then he says in verse 2: we see this because it's played out in the lives of the Old Testament saints: "For by it (=by this kind of faith) the men of old gained approval (= were attested by God, or pleased God)."
So the lives of the Old Testament saints are illustrations of this kind of faith. They don't prove that faith is what verse 1 says it is. They illustrate it. In fact the writer doesn't try to prove that this is what faith is at all. He sees this as one of the most basic assumptions of the nature of reality. His whole interpretation of the Old Testament hangs on it. Let me show you simply what I mean.
The first two Old Testament illustrations he gives of the truth of verse 2 (that the men of old gained approval by faith) are Abel, the second son of Adam and Eve, and Enoch, the seventh generation after Adam, mentioned in Genesis 5. So he says in verse 4, "By faith Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained the testimony that he was righteous (there's God's approval, or attestation - the same word as in verse 2), God testifying (same word again) about his gifts, and through faith, though he is dead, he still speaks." So what the writer focuses on with Abel is that God approved his offering and in that counted Abel righteous or just. And he says that the key to Abel's being approved was that he made the offering by faith. It is not just what we do that matters, but how we do it. Do our actions express "the assurance of things hoped for"?
Then in verse 5 he gives Enoch as an example of the principle of verse 2 (that men of old gain approval by faith): "By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death; and he was not found because God took him up; for he obtained the witness (there's the same word from verse 2 - gained approval or was attested) that before his being taken up he was pleasing to God." Two times in Genesis 5 (verses 22 and 24) Moses says that Enoch "walked with God." This is why the writer of Hebrews says he pleased God. So he concludes that "by faith" Enoch was blessed by God with translation into heaven.
Now the writer is fully aware of the problem he has created. He has chosen two Old Testament saints to illustrate his principle in verse 2 - that by faith the men of old gained approval - when in fact in neither of these Old Testament stories is faith ever mentioned. This is no slip-up. He knows exactly what he is doing. And if we are willing to follow him, we will see how profound his insight is.
He is not arguing for the nature of faith from these Old Testament texts. He is not saying: because I find faith mentioned in these stories, therefore faith must be the way they pleased God. His argument is just the opposite, in fact. He sees faith in the stories, not because it is mentioned, but because these men did, in fact, please God, and there is no other way to please him than by faith.
Look at verse 6. That's what it says. Catch the flow of verse 5 again. It ends by saying that Enoch "obtained the witness that before his being taken up he was pleasing to God" - that is, he walked with God. Then verse six picks up this fact of Enoch's pleasing God and argues like this: "And without faith it is impossible to please Him." Now that is why he sees faith in the lives of Abel and Enoch. The Bible says that both of them pleased God - Abel in his "better offering" and Enoch in "walking with God." And then the writer concludes that this offering and this fellowship with God must have been by faith, because "without faith it is impossible to please God."
Now this is very basic reasoning. And Oh, how I pray that you will all respect, and cultivate in your own God-given minds, the reasoning of Scripture. If someone had shown me as a youth that the Bible reasons rather than just asserting, it would not have taken till I was 22 to begin to discover so many of the riches of God's word. This is basic reasoning. I would say that an average 8 or 9 year old can get this.
Two statements lead to a conclusion:
· Statement #1: "Without faith it is impossible to please God" - or positively, "Only with faith will our obedience be pleasing to God." · Statement #2: Enoch pleased God. Now what's the conclusion? · Conclusion: Enoch had faith. Or: it was by faith that Enoch walked with God and was taken up to heaven. This is how the writer arrives at the statement of verse 2: "By [faith] the men of old gained approval."
Why Faith Pleases God
But we are not at the bottom of things yet. The argument is not resting yet on the deepest truth about God. Yes, Enoch pleased God. Yes, without faith we cannot please God. Yes, Enoch (and Abel), therefore, had faith, and acted by faith - illustrating the principle of verse 2. But where does this premise - this statement - come from that "without faith it is impossible to please God"? What's the basis for that claim? What's the bottom of it? The foundation?
He gives his answer in the last part of verse 6. First he makes the claim: "Without faith it is impossible to please [God]." Then he gives the foundation. Here's the bottom of it all: You can't please God without faith, "For (= because) he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him." Because of this, only by faith can we please God.
There are two parts to faith in this verse which show why it pleases God. Beyond this the writer doesn't go. He rests his case here. This is the bottom of it all. First, he says that faith believes that God exists. Second, he says that faith believes that God is the rewarder of those who seek him. Because faith is these two things: it pleases God.
Now ponder this with me for a moment and you will get to know your God more deeply, perhaps, than you have ever known him. That's why this verse is here; so that we will know God. He does not say why God is pleased by these two aspects of faith. He just says that he is. There is something about the nature of God that makes this obvious. It does not need an argument. It belongs to the very essence of what it means to be God that God should be pleased by these two things.
He is Real and He is a Rewarder
Let's put them into our own words. God is pleased by us when two things about him are reflected in our relation to him. One: that he is real; and the other: that he is rewarding.
Behind these two assertions about God are two great facts:
1. God exists absolutely. He did not come into being and will never go out of being. He is not becoming or growing or changing. He said, "I am who I am" (Exodus 3:14). That is his name. He absolutely is. Therefore, he is pleased when this absolute existence is known and embraced. He is pleased when what he is is reflected in our lives.
2. Behind the assertion that God is rewarding is the fact that God is so full and so completely self-sufficient that he overflows. Rather than needing our service, he is like a never-ending Spring of life and energy and joy and beauty and goodness and power. Therefore it pleases God when we come to him in a way that affirms this and delights in it - when we come to him as a Rewarder.
Now the writer of Hebrews simply asserts that this is what faith does: faith comes to God with the confidence that he is, and faith comes with the confidence that God will be a generous Giver. He is not arguing that faith is this way because he finds it defined in the Old Testament stories. He is saying: given the absolute reality of God's being and God's fullness, this is what faith has to be. This is the end of the argument. This is the bottom of the reasoning.
We could say it like this: what pleases God is that our hearts and minds display God's being and God's beauty. That we display God's existence and his excellence. That we display how real he is and how rewarding he is. This is what pleases God, and this is faith.
Faith Depends on What God is Like, not on What we are Like
Which brings us back to verse 1. Notice how the two parts of verse 6 correspond to the two parts of verse 1. "Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." That's verse 1. The "conviction of things not seen" corresponds to faith's belief that God exists (verse 6a). And the "assurance of things hoped for" corresponds to faith's belief that God is the rewarder of those who seek him (verse 6b). Faith has at least these two components: one is the conviction that there is a great unseen God who exists absolutely and does not depend on us in the least. And the other is the assurance that this great unseen God is a God of love and bounty and free and sovereign grace for all who seek him in truth.
I began by saying that in our day the life of faith is vulnerable and perilous. Schools, denominations, churches, families, and souls are vulnerable to the subtle encroachments of the world and sin and error and Satan. Vigilance and endurance are crucial for your soul and your family and our church and our Christian schools.
What we have seen in Hebrews now is that the nature of faith and the vitality of faith is rooted in what God is like, not what we are like. You don't find out what Christian faith is by consulting your felt needs. You find out by consulting the nature of God. Therefore, if you would have your faith be strong, and your soul be strong and your family be strong and your church be strong and your denomination and schools be strong, know your God. Know your God!
The more you know what God is like, the more conformed to his greatness will be your faith. You will be more and more assured of things hoped for and more and more convinced of things unseen. And God's existence and fullness will be wonderfully displayed in your life.
Copyright 1997 John Piper