Philippians 1:29&30 “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him, since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.”
If you asked church-goers where did their faith in Jesus Christ come from, most of them would be puzzled at such an elementary question, and they’d reply, “Surely you know the answer to that. From me. I came to a decision about Jesus myself, and I believed. I used my own free will.” Again, if you asked church-goers where suffering came from, most of them would reply immediately, “Suffering comes from the devil.” But when you turn to the New Testament you get a couple of very different answers, for the Word of God sees both saving faith and suffering as equally gifts of God. As our text says, “It has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him.” The church at Philippi had struggles: there was rising opposition from the world to its message; there were also perplexing providences that brought illness, poverty, bereavement and accident into their lives. Their beloved former pastor had had many such experiences in his own life and now he was passing through a similar protracted trial. He languished in a prison cell in Rome. This is what Paul is referring to when he writes: “you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have” (v.30). These disciples were just like their master; they shared in some common struggles. But the apostle is telling them that in order to avoid being overwhelmed by discouragement, “Go back to the first cause of everything that touches your lives. Behind every difficulty you encounter, and every ounce of saving faith you possess there is the living sovereign Lord. He is the source of everything, and the author and finisher of our faith. For of him, and through him, and to him are all things, to whom be glory for ever, Amen.” The problems they experienced, as much as their faith, were gifts of God.
1. FAITH IS A GIFT OF GOD.
By this phrase “faith in Jesus Christ” we are referring to a saving grace, whereby sinners receive and rest upon Christ alone for salvation, as he is offered to us in the gospel, and we are affirming that that faith is a gift of God. We are talking about a wholehearted reliance on and trust in Jesus Christ the inviting and welcoming Saviour. You see me leaning on this pulpit rail, leaning my full weight upon it. Faith is leaning on Christ. It would be a better illustration if I stretched myself out on a flat rock. Fall flat before Christ, cast yourself upon him and rest upon him completely. He can support you for ever. Faith looks to Jesus Christ as he is indeed the Son of God, as he is indeed perfect, sinless, and true man. Faith looks to Christ and focuses upon his work as redeemer. It apprehends his life of perfect obedience and his sacrificial death on Calvary as the spotless Lamb. Faith considers Jesus’ relationship to us as prophet, priest and king. In other words, saving faith lays hold of these things – who Christ is, what he has done, and what he is to us. But it never stops there. My will is active in terms of his relationship to me. As a Prophet I learn from and believe everything he says. As a Priest who has offered a perfect sacrifice to God I depend on him alone for salvation, and as a King I gladly bow in submission to him and give myself in wholehearted obedience to him. That is saving faith in Christ, and I am saying that such faith is granted to us by God – his gift of grace to favoured sinners.
I am sure that we would all agree that if a certain teaching were found in just one single verse in all the Bible then we must properly question whether that can possibly be the meaning of this particular verse. Virtually always we shall conclude that that teaching is not the correct interpretation of that verse. In other words, if my claim that saving faith is a gracious gift of God hangs upon this text alone in the entire Scripture then I have undoubtedly misunderstood this verse. The practice of the Mormons baptising people for dead relatives and claiming one obscure verse in I Corinthians as the grounds for doing that is a good example of an abuse of the New Testament.
But I want to insist that the doctrine that faith is a gift of God certainly does not hang on this verse only. For example, it is also taught emphatically in Ephesians 2:8 “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.” Or consider how Paul and Barnabas completed their first missionary journey and returned to their home base in Antioch to tell the congregation what God had been doing over the past months. Many had become believers and there was much thanksgiving in the Antioch congregation for “all that God had done through them and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles” (Acts 14:27). It was not at all that God was spectating the preaching of the two evangelists until he saw people in the congregations themselves opening their own doors of faith. God opened the door of faith for them. Or consider how Luke describes the work of a preacher called Apollos who went to Achaia to strengthen the Christians there: “On arriving, he was a great help to those who by grace had believed” (Acts 18:27). Luke does not say that he helped those who by their own unaided free wills had believed, but “those who by grace had believed.”
Or consider this fact, that there is another grace which must always accompany saving faith, and that is evangelical repentance. They are the two sides of the one coin of conversion. Where there is saving faith there will be evangelical repentance, and where there is repentance there you will find faith. They’ve got to be both present if there is salvation. By that repentance “a sinner out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, does, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavour after, new obedience” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, 87). It is clearly taught in the Bible that the heart disposition of this repentance is also a gift of God. Listen to these words of Peter: “God exalted [Christ] to his own right hand as Prince and Saviour that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel” (Acts 5:31). And when the Jerusalem church heard how many Gentiles were turning from unbelief and putting their trust in Christ they said, “‘So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life'” (Acts 11:18). God had been so good to these non-Jews in giving them repentance. Again, Paul urged Timothy to gently instruct those who opposed him, “in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 2:25). Repentance is a gift of God as much as saving faith is. Both the positive turning to Christ and the negative turning from sin must be present in the mere Christian. You see this, for example, in I Thessalonians 1:9: “you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God.” The two graces of faith and repentance together constitute real divine conversion.
So here are these two essential graces through which the accomplishments of Jesus Christ became ours personally. What happened? Christians began to speak to us, and we heard the gospel, and then we started to examine our life-styles, and values, and morality, and the language we were using, with new light, and increasingly we turned away from all that was mean, tawdry and ungodly. Since then we have come to see that that personal turning was a result of the putting forth of God’s new holy energy into our hearts and lives. It was all by his grace that we changed, and the Bible refers to it as ‘repentance’. We also at the same time entrusted ourselves wholly to the person and the work of the Lord Jesus Christ alone. We came to acknowledge, “I have no confidence in my own righteousness or good works, but in his alone. His death is the divine judgment on me and my sins which he, the blessed Lamb of God, took instead of me. That is my plea before God now and always.” That is saving faith. Both repentance and faith are gifts of God.
But more than that, saving faith must be more than one initial decision to trust in Christ, which some of you once made forty years ago. The true Christian is distinguished by the continual activity of faith and repentance. We have believed upon the Lord Jesus Christ, and also we do continually believe in him. At one definite time we became conscious that we had somewhere along the line come to entrust ourselves into Jesus’ safe keeping, but now we need to go on trusting him every day, even at those times when prayers are unanswered we keep trusting in him, and when our worst fears are realised then still we have to go on believing in God. Think of those great heroes listed in Hebrews 11 who by faith subdued kingdoms, and lived such righteous loving lives, and obtained the promises of God. How were they victorious? By faith in the Lord. They continued actively to trust in him.
So, historic Christianity, that is the faith of the Bible and the great confessions, teaches that both saving faith and evangelical repentance in their definitive and continuous aspects are ‘graces’ not human works, that is, they are both God’s free gifts which he mercifully bestows upon a vast company of people more than can be counted, as numerous as the sands on the shore. So Paul had seen this faith in the members of the Philippian church and he says, “it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ … to believe on him” (v.29).
2. WHY IS IT NECESSARY FOR GOD TO GIVE US FAITH?
Then we must ask the question why is it necessary for God to give the gift of faith. Why doesn’t a person simply exercise his will and believe in Jesus? One answer the Bible gives is that in the heart of every sinner there is an enormous hostility to doing that. Men and women don’t possess the desire or the ability or the capability to work up in their own lives some powerful revulsion for their darling sins that will make them turn decisively from them and hope in Christ’s blood alone. In fact there is the very opposite spirit found there. Such revolutionary graces that will set people off in a radical new direction must be given to them personally by the Lord. We need a new disposition, in fact, we need a new birth.
Consider a hungry lion, and put before him two plates. On one is freshly tossed crisp salad with some Thousand Island Dressing poured over it. On the other is some stinking raw meat. Which one is the lion going to choose? He’s going to go for the flesh. This is because his nature dictates his selection. It is so with men. There is a bias against God. Men love darkness rather than light, Jesus said, because their deeds are evil. Offer one of the drunks on the streets of Aberystwyth a Bible in one hand, and a bottle of whisky in the other. He is free to choose whatever he wants, but the trouble is we know what he wants. You take a drug addict and you offer to take him to a heroin party with free drugs, or to a prayer meeting to meet with God. He is free to do whatever he wants, but the problem is what he wants. You take a glutton and set a box of chocolates by her. She is free to eat them or not to eat them. But is she really free? She is controlled by her appetite. She is the servant of her own emotions, affections, desires and passions. She is bound to them.
Man does not posses a free will. Martin Luther wrote a book entitled The Bondage of the Will. He thought that that was one of his most important treatises. The will is in the chains of an evil human nature. You who extol the free will as a great force are clinging to a root of pride. Man as fallen in sin is utterly helpless and hopeless. The will of man offers no hope. It was the will of our first parents choosing the forbidden fruit that brought us into misery. The powerful grace of God is the only source of deliverance.
To what is the heart of the natural man compared? To a stone. Take an acorn and put it on top of the stone. Fasten it there with tape, and then watch it day after day. Examine it in a month’s time, or a year’s time. Has it put down roots? Will an oak tree grow out of that pebble? No. The pebble has to be miraculously translated into earth and water for the oak tree to grow. What does God promise he will freely give to his people? “I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you” (Ez. 36:26). He works a metamorphosis at the very centre of a sinner’s life. Is a heart which is pure granite going to experience grief over failing to please and honour God? Is that heart going to trust in the merits of the saving work of Christ? That lump of rock? No! The stone must first be changed to flesh. Sooner an oak tree grow out of a pebble than saving faith come out of a heart of stone. The heart of flesh is a gift of God.
Let me develop that illustration in a familiar way, contrasting a Christmas tree with an apple tree. Christmas tree ornaments are kept in a box in the attic. They come down each December and the family take a happy hour or two attaching these decorations to a tree. The later artificial cherries and apricots have better clips than those ancient ornaments which have been in the box since you were children. The inedible chocolate strawberries, or painted plums, or silver-paper covered oranges do not grow from that tree. They are tied to it with ribbons. There is no living connection at all between the fruits and the branch. They are like aliens. They don’t belong to those branches. They are hung on them for a while, and then they are removed and packed away for another year.
Think of a man who has done a religious course. Five major Christian teachings are taught to him and he gives mental assent to them. He believes in God the Creator, man as a sinner, the Lord Jesus is the Messiah, he rose from the dead, and he is the only way to God. He now has some kind of faith, but those five truths might just as well as have been hung on him by the man who is teaching the course. “Do you believe in the Creator, that man is a sinner, that Jesus is the promised Christ and that he rose from the dead?” Yes, he reckons so. Certainly that is progress. There must be knowledge. How can they believe in what they do not know? But the leader goes too far when he pronounces to the man, “Then you are now a Christian.” Assurance is being handed to him by a mere man like the gold medal winner has the prize hung around his neck by some dignitary.
But there is not even a living link between that man and his faith. There is certainly no repentance. In fact, there is no reason to call it his faith at all. Learned and memorised faith no more belongs to him than the ornament belongs to the tree. After Christmas the tree itself may be taken away and burned. Next year the ornaments will ‘belong’ to another tree, and the following year to still another. It is still ‘faith’, but the devils have that kind of faith, Screwtape gives it to his minions, Beelzebub whips it up amongst his principalities. It is not personal saving faith that reaches out to cling to Jesus Christ alone which is accompanied by evangelical repentance for sin. The devils believe that God exists, and that he is the mighty Creator, and that he is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They are still devils. Judas believed. like that. He was still the great betrayer to whom Jesus the teacher and healer was worth thirty pieces of silver.
Faith is not a pretty ornament that we wear for a time like the enjoyable emotions we got in our early days at contemporary worship meetings. “An issue of ‘Christianity Today’, not long ago, carried an interesting article by a minister who sought to open his church to charismatic and non-charismatic alike. After a period of deep frustration and hurt he wrote to the charismatics and told them that he has been observing that their emotional experiences had not led to holiness of life; they were often as worldly as the non-believer. What I am asserting is that faith is not simply an emotional experience” (Iain Inglis, “Biblical Saving Faith,” Banner of Truth magazine, Issue 163, April 1977, p.10). For a time there are smiles, and arms lifted up, and seraphic dreamy looks, and a swaying to the music, and warm embraces of other people and enthusiasm for Christian things. Such infatuative externalia can never endure. There is a fight to be fought, particularly with remaining sin. There are thorns in the flesh by the decrees of God. Saving faith is not found in emotional experiences which are hung on your life in manipulated and orchestrated gatherings. If that is your basis for believing you are a Christian may God use his word and strip that delusion from your mind.
Real fruit comes from within the tree itself. It come from union with the tree. A good tree produces good fruit. A Cox’s apple tree produces Cox’s Pippins – sweet, hard and juicy apples. A cultivated Cox’s apple tree cannot produce crab apples. So too for ourselves saving faith is to know within our hearts that we have sinned against a holy God, and that we are under his just condemnation, and there is no hope at all of escaping hell but for God the Son’s blameless life and atoning death. To know that for ourselves we need a new believing heart, and a God-given repentant spirit. The saving faith that cries to Jesus, “Wash me Saviour or I die” is a heart-felt cry. The heart must first be changed for the fruit of saving faith and evangelical repentance to appear. But let us go one step further in explaining why faith has to be a gift of God.
3. RESURRECTION IS GOD’S CHARACTERISTIC WORK.
The New Testament describes all mankind as dead in their transgressions and sins (Ephs 2:1). Think of a Bible teacher standing in the middle of a mortuary with fifteen dead bodies on the slabs and he is trying to teach these corpses theology. How successful is this brilliant communicator? Totally unsuccessful, because they are as dead as mutton. If he should invite into the mortuary a group which has terrific singers and the best keyboard players in the nation performing foot-tapping contemporary worship music will that make those corpses still up and listen? No. They are still dead. If he brings on a troupe of dancing girls and mime artists then will their eyes pop out, and will that get them to believe what he teaches or to trust in Jesus? Not at all. A corpse is unable to respond to oratory or emotion or music or even truth for one basic reason, it lacks life. We insist that life must first be given; then there can be some response. That is exactly what does happen in every Christian. Paul reminds the Ephesians of that experience which they shared with him: “God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgression – it is by grace you are saved” (Eph. 2:4&5).
There must first be the life, or the circumstances which will give rise to life. Without that, death reigns. So Paul says that he and the whole Ephesian church were once dead in trespasses and sins. Nothing short of resurrection power could change them. God had to raise them to life. In fact he exercised the identical power in their case that he had put forth in Christ’s case. He made them alive together with Christ. The Lord Jesus was dead, and they were dead. But God loved the Lord Jesus and he loved them. With what result? Christ is alive and they are alive. He raised them as he raised Christ. He gave them life. So what does our text say? “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ . . . to believe on him,” (v.29). This is what God has done for you on behalf of Christ. God loves you in Christ. He sees you helpless, dead in sin, unable to do the one thing you have to do to be saved, namely, to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. So he has joined you and all his people to Christ and when he raised his Son from the dead he raised you from the dead to. He gave you his life. He granted you his faith. You have the very same trust in God that the Son has. That good life which he has placed inside you produces the good fruit of saving faith. God has done that to you on behalf of Christ, because he loves Christ so much he blesses you for Christ’s sake. He gives you saving faith on behalf of Christ.
What a wonderful thing salvation is. Our eyes are being opened to the greatness of the power of God that brought us to Christ. We were dead and unbelieving. We were insensible to God. “Believe!” said the Word. “Believe? How can I believe. My heart is dead. Just as well tell the leopard to change its spots or the Ethiopian to change the colour of his skin. Who can bring blood out of a stone?” But God in his great love for Jesus Christ brought him out of the tomb, and he also brings out of the grave of helplessness each one of us, even when we were dead in our sins. The Spirit of Jesus Christ comes into our lives and we are convicted of sin, unrighteousness and judgment. We believe on the Lord Jesus Christ as the Lamb of God and we bid farewell to our sins. That is how saving faith is given to us.
Tom Wells makes this additional point: “Resurrection is God’s characteristic work. It is the work he is known by. We know Bill here as a bricklayer. Mary there is known as a seamstress. They are known by what they do. It is not that they never do anything else. Of course they do. But these are their characteristic works. These are the works they are known by. So God also has his characteristic work. No doubt because he is God, he may be characterized by many things. He can do (and does) millions of things by which he might be known if we had eyes to see. That is important to know. We do not want to lose that truth. But along with it we see something else. To judge by the Scriptures, God likes to be known as the one who gives life. The one who raises the dead . . . they are there in the Bible to tell us what kind of God we have right now” (Tom Wells, “Faith: The Gift of God,” Banner of Truth, 1993, p.70). Don’t deprive God of his glory as the life-giver by your free-will theology.
So the dead sinner lives as God makes him alive, and then the sinner is able to obey the word that tells him to come and believe and follow Christ. John Reisinger says that he sometimes tries to picture the scene in John 11. He sees the stone rolled away from the grave of Lazarus and three men approaching the sepulchre where the man’s body lies. The first one is looking into the dark tomb and emotionally pleading with dead Lazarus inside. “Lazarus, if you will only give God a chance, he will give you life. If you only take the first step, then the Holy Spirit will make you come alive. God honestly wants to make you live, but it is all up to you. Lazarus, this is a great deal that God is offering, but your ‘free will’ must decide to take advantage of it. You must get up and take that first step in faith.” That maybe a just a bit of caricature, but not much. That is exactly the way some free-will preachers talk.
The second man is the Hyper-Calvinist and he is sitting down and writing a treatise on the futility of preaching to dead sinners. He will never tell sinners to believe or to repent or to come to Christ, and he condemns those who do. Since Lazarus is dead this preacher concludes that it gives the wrong impression to everyone to address a corpse in such a way. It might suggest that the corpse has some life of its own.
The third man is a preacher of the Biblical gospel. While the second man sneers and the first man gasps for breath, the third man cries out, “Sinner, believe! Lazarus, come forth!” and Lazarus walks out of the tomb. If we interviewed the third man then the questions might go like this: “Were you aware that Lazarus was totally dead in that tomb?” “Of course I was. Isn’t that what Jesus said?” “Did you think that Lazarus had the ability to hear and respond to your message?” “Not for a moment. How can a dead man respond to my voice?” “Why did you command him to believe when you knew he was unable to comply because he was dead?” The man would smile and say, “Friend, my confidence was neither in my ability to preach or invite, nor was it in any imagined power of Lazarus’ ‘free will.’ My whole confidence was in the command God has given us to preach the gospel to all men, and in the power of the words that God has given us to speak to sinners. I declared the words of Christ believing that Christ himself has the power to awaken the dead and give them faith.”
4. GOD ALONE REGENERATES: WE ALONE BELIEVE.
So we need to believe in Christ to be saved, but only by God’s wonderful favour through Jesus Christ is anyone able to believe. But now I want to say something that might seem at first to contradict everything I have been saying so far. If giving a new heart and a new nature is an act of God alone then believing is not the act of God. John Murray said that, “it is not God who believes in Christ for salvation, it is the sinner. It is by God’s grace that a person is able to believe, but faith is an activity on the part of the person and of him alone. In faith we receive and rest upon Christ alone for salvation. It might be said: this is a strange mixture. God alone regenerates. We alone believe. And we believe in Christ alone for salvation. But this is precisely the way it is . . . It is our responsibility to be what regeneration effects. It is our responsibility to be holy . . . And we are never relieved of the obligation to believe in Christ to the saving of our souls. The fact that regeneration is the prerequisite of faith in no way relieves us of the responsibility to believe nor does it eliminate the priceless privilege that is ours as Christ and his claims are pressed upon us . . . Our inability is no excuse for our unbelief nor does it provide us with any reason for not believing” (John Murray, “Redemption Accomplished and Applied,” Banner of Truth, 1961, pp. 106, 112).
In other words, faith does not believe for me, just as repentance does not repent for me. They are not entities in themselves, any more than my heart has any existence apart from being a part of my living body. It is always ‘my faith’ and ‘my repentance.’ Repentance is something I must do, as I am also commanded to exercise faith. The jailor at Philippi said to Paul and Silas, “What must I do to be saved?” and the immediate answer he received was this, “Believe – you yourself have to believe – on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved,” and so he did. But how did the jailor exercise that faith? Think of those times in Philippi: God had homed in upon that city, and then upon the jailor in his prison, and he led that man in a new direction. He gave him his first Christian friends, two men who had made Philippi buzz with their preaching. They had sung God’s praises in his hearing and then they spoke the truth to him; God brought him to Christian preaching and knowledge. More! Throughout this time God was giving him a new heart, and he was taking away the jailor’s heart of stone. God was actively involved in all of that. The sheer vertical sovereign grace of God was accomplishing it in him. The jailor was by nature helpless and indifferent and cynical about resurrection and redemption, but God had mercifully done that sovereign preparatory work in his heart. It was beyond his conscious experience, but it was a real work of God nonetheless. So when the command came to him to believe, God having worked in his life, the jailer freely chose to believe and be baptized. He had no excuse for not doing so. He had the ability to believe given him by God. He had a Saviour offered to him worthy of his trust, and he himself believed. There was immediate new concern. Was there anything that he could now do for Christ and his people and his cause? God had made him willing freely and personally to exercise his will and trust in Jesus Christ. I am saying that though saving faith is a gift of God it is we who exercise that gift and choose to believe in the Lord and to repent.
How otherwise could any person personally make so life-changing an action of such eternal consequences in his life? The decision to believe and repent must be your own. It is often hard-fought and agonized over with many a struggle and doubt before in the loneliness and isolation of personal commitment sins are abandoned and Christ is taken. You yourself must take that decision. No parent can force the will of a child to become a Christian. No preacher can force the will of a single person in his congregation. No husband can force the will of his wife to believe. I could open the baptistry and fill it with water and point a gun at someone’s head and say, “You are being baptised or I’ll shoot you dead.” But that threat still could not force his will. He would still have to come to a decision. He would start thinking about certain things, and his emotions and affections and love of life and family would all come into play as he agonised over this question: “Am I prepared to be shot rather than be baptized?” All those thoughts would run through his mind, and then that man would have to come to his own personal decision . . . and he’d probably get baptized. But it was his own will that would cause him to make that choice, freely weighing up all the facts. So it is with the exercise of my faith and my will in trusting in Christ. God gives me a new heart, and opens my blind eyes for the first time and so I can see the beauties of Jesus Christ and I can appreciate the greatness of his redemption and I can glimpse the glories of heaven. Then with all those thoughts running through my mind, when I have weighed everything up, I myself truly choose to believe in Christ. I do it then, but it is only because God has brought me to the light, and delivered me from my prejudices. He has enabled me to freely choose for myself Christ as my Lord and Saviour. I choose. I believe. I repent. I follow. But he has made me willing to make those choices by working in my heart. He is the true source of my faith in him.
Let me illustrate it in this way: consider a mother’s love. Give her a butcher’s knife and tell her to stab her child. She says, “I cannot.” We say, “Of course you can. You have muscles and strength and a razor-sharp knife and your child cannot defend herself. You don’t mean ‘cannot’, but you mean ‘will not.’ You are strong enough to do it and have the tools for the job. You just don’t want to.” She would reply, “In this case ‘cannot’ and ‘will not’ mean exactly the same thing. I cannot want to kill my child because I love her.” Before she could ever kill her child, her nature would have to change. So it is with the new heart and the new spirit that God gives to a favoured person. When such a person hears the gospel invitation he comes to Christ and trusts in him. He does so absolutely freely, because his nature makes him long to do it. He then keeps following and trusting Christ, and he cannot blaspheme or deny him because his new heart won’t let him because he loves the Saviour. So for all those reasons saving faith is a gift of God. It is a blood-receiving grace. William Cowper put it like that in one of his Olney Hymns:
“Of all the gifts Thine hand bestows,
Thou Giver of all good!
Not heaven itself a richer knows
Than my Redeemer’s blood.
Faith too, the blood-receiving grace,
From the same hand we gain;
Else, sweetly as it suits our case,
The gift had been in vain.”
So I say to you, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ! Turn from you sins!”, and you do. You come to Christ just as you are without one plea. Then I say to you that God has opened your heart and given you faith to trust in the Saviour. But if you cry to me, “I can’t believe!” Then I tell you that you should cry to God to give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you, and that you do not cease to cry like that until you know he has answered you. He will not keep you waiting long. He is not a tantalising Lord.
5. SUFFERING IS A GIFT FROM GOD.
“It has been granted to you on behalf of Christ . . . to suffer for him” (v. 29). We might be persuaded from the Scriptures that faith in Christ is God’s doing and his gift to us and in us, but . . . suffering? Maybe we can see it as a gift when we are healthy and happy. Then we can consider pain with some measure of detachment. But when it comes as a crushing burden and a terrible blow, it is not so easy to see it as a gift from God to ourselves. But this is precisely what Paul is saying. The Lord has graciously given you Christians this gift, on behalf of Christ, to suffer for him. Paul is not talking about the sufferings that come to us from indulgence, or excess, or from wrong doing. There are plenty of sufferings that come to us from our impatience, and our meddling in other people’s affairs, and our hurting other folks. That is not “to suffer for him” as he writes here, but to suffer for our follies. But there is suffering that comes from living a righteous life. The narrow way can be the way of loneliness and difficulty, where we meet one problem after another. On that road you meet the enmity of the world. It is the path that the Lord himself took: he was despised and rejected of men. But there are ways to avoid unpopularity. Simply don’t let your witness impinge upon men. As long as the word you speak doesn’t stir and trouble the world’s conscience then the world will be quite prepared to receive and welcome you. But when the church becomes the true bride of Christ, reflecting her Lord’s own beauty of holiness, then she can expect opposition “for him.”
i] Pain does not come by chance but through a Sovereign Giver. The thorn in the flesh was a messenger of Satan, but it was a gift of God. A gift is very different from the payment of wages, or a salary, or even a reward. If a man receives a payment, then he receives something to which he is entitled. He has done his week’s work and he expects to be rewarded in accordance with what he has done. The employer who pays his wages is not, in a sense, in control of those wages. He is compelled to pay them because the workman has earned the money which is being handed over. But a gift is something very different. If you give someone something then that gift is within your control, and you can present it or you can withhold it. The quality of the gift is within your control.
God’s gifts to us are those of the Sovereign. He has absolute control over all his gifts, and this applies to the gift of suffering. Suffering does not come from a cruel fate, or mindless chance. It does not mean that God has stepped off the throne of the universe for a moment and the devil is now in charge of our lives. The Lord is bestows upon his people this gift as, and when, and how he pleases. That will mean that Christians will be called to different experiences of suffering. God doesn’t deal with all his children in precisely the same way. There are many different paths of discipleship along which we must go. God grants the gift. The vocation to suffer a while is his, and the intensity and duration and nature of the trials are also in his hand. It varies from age to age, and especially in this 21st century, from land to land. Some believers are called to suffer physically and others know mental and psychological suffering. There is loneliness and rejection which many Christians are given, and yet we are called upon to acknowledge that this is from our Father, according to his own will and gracious purposes.
That means, of course, that we can never take credit for enduring suffering. After all, if someone gives you a gift, and especially if it is someone right outside, and the gift is totally gratuitous, then obviously you cannot take any credit for it. You say, “How thoughtful of that person.” When God bestows his gifts upon us, we don’t preen ourselves as if we were specially favoured of the Lord, but we say, “How gracious of the Lord. How good he is. I glory in my infirmities. I take pleasure in such necessities and distresses.” So that if a Christian is challenged to go through a time of suffering he doesn’t become proud and think he is a special kind of Christian. He says, “God has chosen to deal with me in this way, and to him be the praise.”
Another response which is ruled out by the concept of suffering as a divine donation is self-pity. We might be going through a particularly perplexing period, and then we start to feel sorry for ourselves, and we know how destructive a force that is in our lives. So we have to say that suffering in its nature, intensity and duration is God’s gift to us, and with it he always makes a way of escape that we can bear it. We must say to ourselves, “There is no reason at all why I should not bear this suffering. This is part of my stewardship as a believer. This is part of the proof of my sonship, because whom the Lord loves he chastens. Suffering is not a proof that he has forgotten all about me but that he loves me particularly strongly.” In other words, your birth from above is genuine and legitimate. You are a true child of God. He himself lovingly puts this bitter cup in your hand just as a Father gives a cup of apple juice to his thirsty child, and this is all “for Christ.”
The suffering that God brings into the lives of each one of his children is a very fruitful and profitable gift. When you are choosing a gift for someone, especially for someone of whom you are very fond, you want the gift to bring pleasure to them and also that it be a useful present. God’s gifts of suffering brings both pleasure and profit. It is not something that we should try to run away from and avoid. We initially tend to feel sorry for ourselves at the beginnings of sufferings, but then we say, “It is the Lord. He is entrusting me with this gift. By his grace I will receive it from his hand, even if it is a chastening hand and the severity seems too much for me to bear. I will gladly submit because the King loves his child and delights to impart all that will be for his ultimate good.”
That requires great faith. Some would complain that it is mockery being told that there is pleasure in suffering. Yet the Bible will say precisely that. Always consider the great Giver. Focus on him if you are going to learn contentment. Herbert Carson was helpful in an article on ‘Suffering’ which he wrote in an old copy of the ‘Gospel Magazine’ which he once edited. He points out that we have to begin where the Bible begins – with God himself. The Christian has come to know God Almighty as his heavenly Father and this affects his whole attitude. When a small child loves his parents and knows he is loved by them he will trust them. There are some things they do which he cannot understand, there are rules they lay down which are hard to accept – why should he be forbidden to take a lift in a stranger’s car, and why will they not allow him to take sweets from a friendly man just because they don’t know him? It is hard for the small child to understand and very difficult for a parent to explain. But where there is trust the child is happy to obey, knowing that in due time he will be given an explanation. So we have this assurance that our Father does love us and that all he does is for our good – though we may be perplexed at his ways we can trust him.
To know that we are in God’s hands is to know that we are part of a great and heavenly plan and that this suffering is one small part of it. The Lord of Creation is working towards the climax of his work of redemption. Throughout, he is displaying his glory, not only to those men with eyes to see but also to the watching angels. For the child of God there is no greater privilege than to be part of that plan. God’s gifts may involve pain or loss, sickness or bereavement, but it is with a great aim in view – that God should be glorified in us. Paul puts it like this as he describes his expectation and hope, it is “that Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether it be by life or by death” (v.20).
ii] The Gifts have a Sovereign Purpose. What makes suffering so hard to bear is the Satanic suggestion as to its apparent meaninglessness. To see a promising life blighted by a serious accident is to face an apparent waste. But then we go back to Hebrews 12 and we learn that those whom the Lord loves he chastens and scourges every son whom he receives. Because God is more concerned with our character than our comfort, he will often permit great trials in order to fit us more perfectly to fulfill his purposes. A parent would rather see his son ill than becoming a thief or a murderer and he would accept the crushing burden of his daughter’s death rather than see her drift into prostitution. But to our God all sin is defiling and utterly displeasing to him. So then he will purge us at times by the gift of suffering to protect us from what in his pure eyes would be a much worse condition. For some of us God’s chastening is a protective fence checking us from the consequences of our sin. No chastening for the present seems to be joyous, but grievous (Hebrews 12:11). This in itself is a comforting statement. We are not called upon to try and persuade ourselves that pain isn’t pain or that sorrow isn’t sorrow. Suffering is indeed grievous. “Nevertheless afterwards it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby”. For the child of God who, instead of lapsing into bitterness, rebellion or self-pity, accepts the gift with quiet submission, there will be fruitfulness. Like a well-pruned tree which bears a heavy crop of fruit, the Christian discovers that the sharp cutting edges of trial and suffering prove to be the divine pruning knife preparing for refinement of character and fruitful and holy living.
iii] Then again the gift of suffering reveals our essential weakness, and casts us upon God. When a man is healthy and strong, with his family intact and his business secure, it is fatally easy for him to feel that he has life under control. But when he is reduced to a wheel chair, when death enters the home or when his business crashes in ruins, he discovers how frail he really is and how fragile is the whole structure of human life. But it is also in the hour of weakness that the Christian discovers how much he is cast upon God’s mercy. It was in his desperate struggle with his thorn in the flesh that Paul learnt the priceless lesson, “My grace is sufficient for thee.” It has often been in the furnace of affliction that some of God’s finest instruments have been tempered.
iv] Suffering prepares us to minister to others. The Christian can never be content with a consideration of his own needs, or even of his own growth in grace, important though these are. He has been set by God in a world of men and he is there to minister to others. But here again the gift of suffering can be a preparation for such a ministry. Paul’s prayer for the Corinthians is a timely reminder of where our ambitions should point. He speaks of God’s comfort. He is “the God of all comfort who comforts us in all our tribulation that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble by the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted of God” (2 Corinthians 1: 4). We live in a suffering world, and in order to qualify us to minister in such a world the Lord at times enrolls his promising pupils in an academy of pain. It has often been those who have graduated in suffering, and perhaps have continued postgraduate studies in pain and sorrow, who have proved to be most gifted teachers in helping others in their hour of deep need.
v] The Giver of pain also gives the joys of heaven. We have a further need as Christians. It is to realise that “here we have no continuing city” (Hebrews 13 :14). Yet for very many Christians that realisation is a very theoretical affair. We claim to be looking forward to heaven, but if we were really honest with ourselves we would have to admit that most of us are very earth-bound. Our homes, our careers, our hobbies, our gardens, our friends, our possessions – all these are potent factors to root us firmly in the soil of this world. But the heavenly Gardener is going to transplant us all to another and fresher soil. The full flowering of our lives will not be seen in this weed-infested ground but in the paradise of God. So God prepares us for the day of our transplanting. Like a careful gardener loosening the soil around the roots, he prises us free from the things which would cling to us, and to which we would cling. It is suffering which is often his trowel, it is sorrow which at times is his fork, as he reminds us that attractive though earth may be, heaven is our true home. We must live to God’s glory here; we must live responsibly here, as godly men and women. but all the time with our eyes towards heaven.
It is the hope of heaven which in fact becomes the great solace to the sorely tried Christian. Heaven after all is no mere shadowy survival, for it means the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. To one who has struggled through life with a cruel physical handicap, to one who has never seen a blue sky nor heard a bird sing, to one who has been reduced by illness to a poor shadow of a former health – to all such, heaven offers the prospect of a resurrection body. To envisage a condition in which defect and handicap, impairment and paralysis give way to a bodily state in which every power functions with a perfect coherence, this is a vision which can lift a man’s heart when his physical state might well overwhelm him in despair.
vi] The Father gave his own Son a cup of suffering to drink. But heaven means even more than the resurrection of the body. It means the presence of Christ himself. But who is this heavenly Christ? It is the One who was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. It is the One who in the agony of Gethsemane sweated drops of blood. It is the One who was scourged and crucified and who in the midst of his own agony saw his mother’s tears as she stood by the Cross. Above all it is the One who in the shattering desolation of Golgotha endured a pain so deep as to be beyond our imagining. So the One who awaits us in heaven is not some impassive spectator of our struggles. He has suffered and so he is able to help those who are tempted and tried. This is the message of Hebrews 4, and it reaches its zenith in the call of Hebrews 12, “Let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith”. He has run the race and won the crown. He has drunk the dregs of the cup of suffering, and now he awaits the arrival of each of his saints as they press on towards the goal. It is this realisation of the continuing sympathy of a merciful Saviour which has been, and continues to be, the great comfort for those to whom even the warmest human sympathy is still inadequate.
The Lord leads us through times of suffering that he may bring us into a closer communion with the Lord Jesus Christ. You cannot walk in company with one who was despised and rejected of men if all the time you are living in the warm glow of the popular esteem of men. You can’t walk in close company with the Crucified if you don’t know anything of the anguish of soul through which he went. The Lord brings us very low, humbling and breaking us that we might be brought into a new dimension of fellowship with the one who was at Gethsemane and drank that cup for us, and who on Calvary tasted death for us. It is through the valley of affliction that God’s people have so often found themselves in a new intimate companionship with Jesus Christ himself. It is he who enables us to sing, “Thy way, not mine O Lord:”
“Take Thou my cup and it
With joy or sorrow fill
As best to Thee may seem
Choose Thou my good or ill.” (Horatius Bonar 1808 – 1889)
One of the outstanding sufferers of Scripture is Job. Remember how he struggled with the problem of the sufferings God had given to him. Recall his friends’ misguided attempts to help him. What was God’s answer? It was not to supply a cut-and-dried solution to all the problems. He simply took Job out to view creation. Could Job understand the complexity of the world around him? Of course he could not! Yet this is only the creation and not the Creator. How much less, then, can he comprehend God’s ways. He must learn to submit to him when suffering comes. It is his gift!
Paul had learnt that lesson and so he wrote that inspired paean of praise in Romans 11: 33, “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out.” We bow in worship before our God, we adore his wisdom in whatever he gives to us, we rest in confidence in his love, and we look forward to that day when “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain; for the former things are passed away” (Rev. 21 : 4). He who gave us saving faith when he joined us to him, and gave us sweet suffering on the journey did also ensure our happy arrival in that place.
18th August 2002 GEOFF THOMAS