“Make every effort to add to your faith…”
—2 Peter 1:5
The last point of introduction to my main topic of Christian growth is the text above, as God’s endowment clearly now becomes the basis of man’s responsibility.
We are called upon to add to our faith. Not only is there a turn from God’s action toward our responsibility, but it seems as if the focus has changed in another important way as well. We have moved from the power of multiplication to simple addition. We have moved from the wide open spaces of God’s flowing favor into the straight and narrow gate of human responsibility.
One might be tempted to say at this point, “Why go there? I was doing fine when God was multiplying his benefits to me, why do I have to settle for this painful proposition that involves my sweat and trouble and tears and which sounds like a bloody lot of hard work?”
The Christian church both now and throughout history has often caved in at this very point, and the result has often been a watered-down gospel message of cheap grace. Cheap grace is a buzzword to describe a Gospel that is all endowment with no real responsibility attached to it. Cheap grace is no doubt an appealing message to many. But it remains a refuge only for those who have settled on their own selfish ends and who reject the combined offer and mandate of Christ’s kingdom.
That a Sovereign God has granted real responsibility to human beings is something that can be hard to understand, and perhaps even harder to practice, but it is a constant fact that the believer choses to accept. Whenever we lose our joy in the wonder of the Gospel, the fact of God’s gracious favor to us, our struggle will almost certainly intensify.
But our God has left us with plenty of support to help us in this struggle, a vast endowment given by God to support our effort to be what we now possess in Christ. But there is also another important support in Peter’s argument. There exists a very important hinge, a kind of connecting point between the sovereign action of God and the responsibility of men. That hinge is faith.
Faith has fallen on hard times, at least the idea of faith currently resident in the consciousness of contemporary society. To many people in our society, religious faith is seen as a form of intellectual blindness, and a blight if not a disease. This broad brush understanding of faith is certainly understandable given the several forms of misguided religious fanaticism that grips our age. Some expressions of so-called religion reveal themselves as nothing more than modern examples of that most ancient of creeds, the will to power.
We need to get our idea about faith, at least Christian faith, instead from the Bible, and in so doing will find that it’s nature is almost the exact opposite of these veiled desires for power, that it has an ethic of human concern and compassion that leapfrogs even the best human altruism—because it is rooted in a giving, self-sacrificing God and it gets its power from His enabling hand.
Mere human ideas of religious ethics can go no farther than futile attempts at moral improvement. The simple mathematics of human nature is that our own behavior never is able to push very far beyond what we want and what we desire. Therein lies the rub. What we want and what we desire isn’t really all that good most of the time and in most situations. Human beings are huge bores in that they are predictably lustful, greedy and self-centered. The only way to real moral improvement has to be through the circuitry of better wants and desires. The Christian faith introduces unto the stage of human wants and desires a singularly unique ethical ‘ought’, a new reason for motivation and a new dynamic power to achieve it.
What drives this all this newness is not primarily the Christian ethic or even the Christian truth proposition, but the Christian faith, which is man’s fundamental posture, if you will, towards God. It is grounded in and coheres to a certain understanding of who God is, who man is and how God and man relate to each other. The first thing to understand about Biblical faith is that it is preeminently the whole-life response man makes to God in the knowledge of man’s own limitations in the light of God’s enormous abilities and promises. I need to ratchet that very philosophical sounding statement down a little. This response that man makes, that you I and I make, comes in through the gateway of the Christian Gospel, where in a very specific way we apprehend and receive that God has done something incredible to break down every wall that was separating us and Him. Once that gateway is open, a new form of living is available to us, the life of faith.
It will be helpful to unpack faith Biblically to get the full gist of what Peter has to say and offer to us. If we don’t do that, we might very likely deal with mere shadows of what the Bible and what Peter is saying, and not with its heart and substance of the argument.
Peter is about to launch into a list of things he will tell us ‘add to your faith’. This really ought to prompt us to ask an immediate question: why is faith separated out from the list that follows? If you will remember, faith was the starting point that Peter mentioned back in verse one, the first endowment given to those who were the audience of Peter’s letter.
Having already given Christians a lot of reason for their effort in following God, Peter now has faith at the head of the list as a kind of hinge that connects God’s sovereign purpose with human responsibility. In the grand mystery of how God has chosen to work in time and space in this universe on the behalf of human beings, faith plays not just a part, but is really the core response or posture that always accompanies Christian salvation and in the work that Christ does in saving people. No one put this better than Jesus Christ in John 6:28 in response to this question, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”
Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”
Peter’s own understanding of the importance of faith shows up in places like in this first epistle, 1 Peter 1, where he speaks of the gift of salvation in the following words:
This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.
Peter sees faith as the durable container in which the Christian life is lived. To Peter, just like Jesus, faith is really the marker or descriptor of being in Christ; being a Christian; being saved. Later, Peter says:
In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.
This harkens us back to what Peter had said at the very beginning of the chapter about the preciousness of faith. Peter is now expanding upon that idea by comparing faith to a precious mineral: gold. I once heard a sermon on this text where the preacher’s main point was to explain in great detail how faith was like gold. I still chuckle to myself about that sermon, because gold is the one thing Peter tells us here that faith is not like, in that it is much better and much greater. But Peter is telling us here that the resilience that faith gives us makes it superior to gold.
What is the real efficacy of faith? Biblical faith is a game-changer, a transformative influence that affects all of life and make men and women new; it points them in a new direction and gives them a wholly new destination. Peter says later:
Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
In church history, it wasn’t until the Protestant Reformation that the church finally came to some kind of settled understanding of what God had revealed through his prophets and apostles concerning the importance of faith. Like Jesus and like Peter and other Biblical writers, the Protestant Reformers held that the human response to God through faith was the Biblical gold standard of Christian profession, as well as being the bottom line concerning doctrine and practice. Their test and their challenge to the religious establishment was this: in our hope of salvation—is a Christian relying on faith or on works? The Reformers reasoned from the Scriptures that the Christian approach to God rightly lived is to be bounded by and contained in faith. Although their emphasis and focus was revolutionary at that time, they humbly reasoned that this was not a new idea, but merely good Bible reading. Luther and Calvin and their Protestant colleagues saw the Bible’s emphasis on faith as a decisive and fundamental shift of one’s focus to an outside influence. In the life of faith we look for help and we look for life’s core meaning from the outside. In Christianity, we look to the holy God whose Son is Jesus Christ.
Having now defined faith and having argued that faith is really at the center of Biblical Christianity as both a subjective, internal reality and grounded upon an external reality, we need to ask once again: why does Peter turns the phrase the way he does and why does he ask us to ‘add’ all these things to faith?
Faith here is like a hinge that moves us very quickly from the external to what we believe and what we should in light of our faith. He has grounded our thoughts on the reality of God’s love and the provision of God’s endowment to us, but now he wants us to understand the need for faith in operation and action, for effort, the need for us to appropriate God’s endowment. Faith works; faith expends effort.
It is important to understand also that faith is the beginning of a total work that God is doing in the life of the believer with a very certain end and goal toward which that faith is directed. Wanting to spur on his readers to growth in Christ, Peter is attempting to build in his readers a conception of what Christian growth is in total. He wants not only to see where faith is taking us but also the balanced life that God is callling us to get there. He also wants us to see we are not talking something that operates as a human undertaking. We need to understand Christian growth a thing of providential provision by God achieved through human effort. We need to see things both from the God side and from the human side of the equation and how those two things work together.