The Growth of a True Faith

The Growth of a True Faith

(Westminster Shorter Catechism Question 86 Part 3)
by Bob Burridge ©2011

Not everyone who hears the gospel, and discovers what the Bible actually says, believes it. Of those who say they believe it, not everyone really trusts in it sincerely and with confidence. The problem is not found in their lack of intelligence. It cannot be blamed on those who have influenced them or raised them. It has to do with the state of their soul.

In previous studies we have seen how the guilt and effects of Adam’s sin have infected and condemned the whole human race descending naturally from him. They are unable to do what is truly good by God’s definition of it. However, their moral inability to understand and to trust in what God said in his word does not make them excusable for their rejection of what is right and true.

The Parable of the Sower and the Seed in Matthew 13

Jesus had been teaching in Galilee. Crowds followed him wanting to hear more about what he had to say. From a boat along the shore he taught another of his parables about the Kingdom. Most of the teachings of Jesus during his time on earth centered around the Kingdom of God. However, the message was not going to take effect the same way in the lives of everyone who heard is lessons. Interest in the Kingdom of God would fade away in some who seemed interested at first.

In the parable of the sower, there are four kinds of soil that receives the seed. Jesus started the Parable saying, “Behold, a sower went out to sow.”

Matthew 13:4, “… some seed fell by the wayside; and the birds came and devoured them.”

Theses seeds fell in places on the side of the prepared fields. They landed on the path. The narrow foot paths that go through fields dividing the sections were made of packed down dirt from people walking on them. Birds would easily find these exposed seeds and eat them.

Matthew 13:5-6, “Some fell on stony places, where they did not have much earth; and they immediately sprang up because they had no depth of earth. But when the sun was up they were scorched, and because they had no root they withered away.”

These seeds fell in areas where there was a thin layer of soil over an underlying rocky foundation. Seeds planted here would sprout and start to grow but would not be able to put down firm roots. The growth was superficial. Without a root system there was no supply of water and other nourishments. The rock under them would get hot in the sun. The heat from below and above would dry the young plants out, and they would die.

Matthew 13:7, “And some fell among thorns, and the thorns sprang up and choked them.”

This third group of seeds fell in a place where weeds were growing rampantly. These thorns were weeds that took the nourishment away from the planted seeds. They also produced shade on the ground that blocked the sun from the seeds that fell under them. These seeds were choked by the unwanted wild growth around them.

Matthew 13:8-9, “But others fell on good ground and yielded a crop: some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”

These seeds landed in soil which was rich with nutrients, and had the right consistency to support growth. These were the seeds that produced a good, healthy crop.

A few verses later, Jesus himself explained what his parable meant. He made it clear that the seed was the word of the Kingdom of God. The soil represented the hearts of those who hear that word. The growth of the seed depended upon the soil prepared for the seed.

Matthew 13:19, “When anyone hears the word of the kingdom, and does not understand it, then the wicked one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is he who received seed by the wayside.”

Like the seed that landed on the hardened paths, the message about God’s Kingdom sometimes falls upon hardened hearts. The natural heart of every person lacks the ability to understand kingdom truths as they really are. They do not have confidence in the truth of God’s promises. They lack that saving faith which grows only in the hearts of those redeemed by Christ. 1 Corinthians 2:14 says, “But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”

In these hearts, the truth about God’s Kingdom and the ways it teaches us to think and to live are replaced by worldly habits and myths which are preferred by the hardened heart. The truth God reveals is distorted by spiritual blindness and confused understanding. The promises of the Kingdom are snatched away and never really take root.

Matthew 13:20, “But he who received the seed on stony places, this is he who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no root in himself, but endures only for a while. For when tribulation or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he stumbles.”

Someone can appear to be a true child of God for a time, even if it is only superficial. They seem to receive God’s word with joy. They endure for a while but then turn away. They might be discouraged by persecution, trials, and temptations of various kinds. Since there is no real root to what they believe, they abandon their professed convictions. In difficult times a person’s true character is revealed. Some show that their faith was not the kind implanted by grace. It was a trust in their hopes of personal benefits, not a trust in the redeeming work of a Savior who calls us into service with the family of God.

1 John 2:19 makes it clear that this happens, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us.”

In Revelation 2:9 the Bible shows us where these false believers have their real church membership, “… I know the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.”

Matthew 13:22, “Now he who received seed among the thorns is he who hears the word, and the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and he becomes unfruitful.”

The thorns are the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of material riches. A heart set upon self-satisfaction is not dedicated to the service of Christ as Lord of his life. A person like that is shallow, and lacks evidence of a true Saving Faith. The person who receives the word among thorns lets his personal goals and comforts crowd out his service for God’s Kingdom. With no sound foundation, the truth is choked out in his life, and becomes unimportant to him.

This is the tragedy of many who put other values above the supreme value of trusting and honoring the Creator. There are many important responsibilities God gives us, and many wonderful blessings he bestows upon his children. They all must be handled with the right outlook. Our jobs are important to provide what we and our families need, but we should be careful to keep God’s priorities as we set up our budget and advance in our careers. Our families are important too, but we do the family no good if we elevate family fun or prosperity over helping one another grow into mature Kingdom workers in all we do, declaring God’s glory and living with a true trust in all he said is right and good. When our jobs or families are valued above God’s Kingdom Principles, they become a form of idolatry and a great evil. The same is true of education, social status, sports, hobbies .. all the good things God lets us enjoy in this life.

If the Principles of God’s Kingdom become secondary, then the weeds of this world are choking it out and the person is unfruitful. The word is choked out by foolish distractions, and their lives become spiritually unfruitful. In those who live this way, there is no evidence of a true saving faith.

It’s ironic that one of the greatest reasons given for people skipping worship and church involvement is family activities. As a Pastor I’ve seen some families stop attending worship, or avoid involvement in other activities of the congregation. I’ve seen some of those families break up horribly, or pay the sad price of children who have no interest in living for the glory of God. I remember one family where members became involved in illegal activities and were arrested shortly after a pastoral visit in their homes where they said they needed Sundays for family time, so they decided they were not going to continue to come to Sunday worship. We do our family no good, if we teach them that our own enjoyment is more important than obeying the ways our Loving Lord teaches us to live as his children. If our faith is not a firm confidence that God’s ways are the best ways for us, then we do not have the kind of faith that evidences the work of grace.

Finally, Jesus explained the seed that fell on good ground.

Matthew 13:23, “But he who received seed on the good ground is he who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and produces: some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.”

What made this soil good and productive? The soil was prepared for the seed. The good news of God’s Kingdom only takes root in hearts God has prepared to receive it. Only those transformed by his grace and given the quality of a true faith in God’s word, are made able to understand it, and to bear fruit in their lives to the glory of their Creator.

As we tell people the good news about being made right with the King of kings by grace, we have to remember that we cannot change the soil the seeds fall upon. We cannot prepare the hearts of those who need the gospel. That is God’s work. Our duty is to receive the word of God ourselves, and to sow the seed prayerfully where we can.

We are to live by what God says in his written word, and by putting those principles to practice in our lives above everything else. Not to do so is not just a poor choice — it’s tragic!

Knowing that success is all a matter of God’s grace, that we are not the ones who make it effective, does not mean we give up our efforts to proclaim the good news diligently. Just the opposite. Grace at work produces fruit in us. It makes us trust what God has promised, and it stirs in us a concern for the proclaiming of the Gospel of the Kingdom in Christ. Our concern should be a reason to rejoice over the evidence in us that we are prepared soil.

If we are prayerfully trying to live as God says we should, then we see evidence that a true saving faith is at work in us, growing in us, and that we can know that we are the objects of his grace.

In Philippians 1:6 Paul wrote, “being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ;”

A true faith is a growing faith. Our confidence matures as we are made to conform more and more into the image of Christ. More and more we humbly realize that left to our own ways we will fail. As we strive to do what is right, it is by resting in what God has done, not by hoping in our own efforts.

Dr. Charles Hodge in his commentary on the Book of Romans calls it a “lamentable mistake” that we should ever assume that God loves us for our goodness. Nothing contradicts the gospel more than for us to make God’s blessing into something we earn. Hodge explains that this unbiblical idea leads us to believe that it is up to us to cling to God, and to maintain his love by our own efforts. We do not make ourselves worthy. The soil which represents our hearts produces fruit because it is prepared by our Redeemer.

When we see a concern in our hearts, when we sincerely desire to put God first, and when we strive to tear out the choking weeds, we have evidence from God’s own word that he loves us deeply, and has caused that concern and trust. It shows that the message of God’s Kingdom has fallen on prepared soil. It should humble us and make us all the more grateful for his undeserved love.

Rather than worrying over what kind of soil your heart is made of, focus upon getting your priorities right and getting busy doing what you say you believe is right. Put the principles of God’s Kingdom in first place, and fit the rest of your life around them. Then you will be demonstrating that you received the seed on good soil, and that God is busy at work in your heart.

When you bring the word of Christ’s Kingdom to others, when you challenge them to live as God commands, when you encourage them to put their eternal trust in the finished work of Christ on the Cross, be patient for this good work of God to do the convincing and convicting.

Good seed grows when it falls upon good ground with all the right conditions. The sower does not have to make it grow. He makes sure he has the right seed, then simply casts in on the good soil. Since this is not just literal seed, and God calls us to be part of his work in prayer, we also beg him to make our hearts and those we evangelize to be good soil.

Faith always has an object. A true saving trust rests in the promises of God, and shows that it is genuine by acting confidently and boldly upon what is claimed to be believed. This is what evidences a true saving faith.

(The Bible quotations in this lesson are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)

Index of Lessons in the Westminster Shorter Catechism

The Rising Sun of Righteousness

The Rising Sun of Righteousness

Reflections upon Malachi 4:1-3
by Bob Burridge ©2010

I sometimes enjoy getting up early enough to see the sun rise. There’s something different about it’s coming up than the reverse where it’s going down. Probably played in reverse on a video recording we might not be able to tell the difference. Both are astoundingly beautiful and declare God’s glory with profound eloquence. What’s different about the sunrise is that when the sun is just coming up it sets the stage for the work day ahead. The darkness we slept in evaporates away.

The day doesn’t come all at once. It stretches out from the darkness slowly showing us its power to erase the night. The shadows that hid things we might trip over slowly shrink until by noon time they’re next to nothing at all. As the morning turns bright we can see to get on with our work. There’s a freshness in our hearts as the new day starts. There are all sorts of possibilities ahead.

The Prophet Malachi uses this as an analogy to encourage God’s people in Malachi 4:1-3 (That’s 3:19-21 in the Hebrew text); He had just warned the unrighteous who were oppressing God’s people.
Then he said,

“For behold, the day is coming,  Burning like an oven, And all the proud, yes, all who do wickedly will be stubble. And the day which is coming shall burn them up, Says the Lord of hosts, ‘That will leave them neither root nor branch. But to you who fear My name The Sun of Righteousness shall arise With healing in His wings; And you shall go out And grow fat like stall-fed calves. You shall trample the wicked, For they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet On the day that I do this,’ Says the Lord of hosts.”

The wings of the sun are its rays as they reach out to touch the darkness. God’s power to purify and to conquer evil will heal the victims of God’s enemies. It will make his people grow strong and become victors over their enemies.

This verse had a special application in the life of the great Presbyterian leader Archibald Alexander. He was born in 1772 in a cabin made of square logs in South River, Virginia, not far from Lexington. Three years later his family moved to the Forks to be closer to the Lexington area because his father had a mercantile business. When the Revolutionary War came in 1776, all mercantile businesses were suspended. His father became a deputy sheriff working with his own father in the new county that formed.

Though he lived in the rough lands just being settled Archibald had a good upbringing. When he was seven he had memorized the entire shorter catechism. He had already started studies in Latin and had become an expert swimmer and horseman. On his eleventh birthday his father gave him his own rifle. He would spend days on his own out in the mountains gathering up stray cattle for his father.

He loved to tell about his childhood in those early days of Virginia. He often told the story about how the boys then all grew their hair long. The style was to wear it tied in a long dangling queue down their back, but Archibald’s hair was very thin so it made a very skinny little queue of hair. The boys sometimes laughed at him and teased him about it. One day they started calling him “My Lord Pigtail”. But Alexander was more concerned about the “Lord” part than the “Pigtail” part. He complained to the head master at school that he believed the boys were breaching the third Commandment about using the Lord’s name in vain. That, he admits, drew even more ridicule than his skinny little tail of hair.

As a teen he struggled to understand God’s grace better. He read sermons and tells of taking his Bible out into the wilderness to read and pray. He got to a point of deep despair when he simply cried out to God for help and to save him. He said that at that moment God worked on his heart opening the wonders of salvation to him. He wrote of it saying, “The whole pan of grace appeared as clear as day.”

Soon after that he made a public announcement of his faith in Christ alone, at age seventeen. Even after this he still struggled with uncertainty fearing that he was worthy. As he came to the Lord’s table he feared that he would eat and drink damnation to himself.

Then he heard a sermon that changed his outlook. It was delivered by the old Presbyterian Scholar and Pastor, William Graham (not to be confused with the more recent evangelist “Billy Graham”).

The sermon was from this text in Malachi 4:2

But to you who fear My name, The Sun of Righteousness shall arise With healing in His wings; And you shall go out And grow fat like stall-fed calves.

He later wrote of it this way,

“The preacher compared the beginnings of true religion in the soul to the rising of the sun; sometimes with a sudden and immediate clearness, sometimes under clouds, which are afterwards dispersed. As he went on, it occurred to me with great distinctness, that the Sun of Righteousness began to rise on me, though under a cloud. When conversing with Mr. Mitchell in Bedford, I was relieved from despair by the persuasion that Christ was able to save even me. This shows how seldom believers can designate with exactness the time of their renewal. Now, at the age of seventy-seven, I am of opinion that my regeneration took place … in the year 1788.”

After surviving a serious illness in 1790, he began to spread God’s word whenever he could. He took on a pastorate in 1794 of the “Cub Creek Church” in Virginia. He was pleased that in his congregation there were 70 blacks at the Lord’s Table. His reputation for sound reasoning, excellent scholarship, and passion for Christ spread. In 1797 he became president of Hampden Sydney College, mainly set up to train ministers.

He struggled for a while with the issue of infant baptism. He read a book by the reformed Baptist, John Gill and refused to baptize babies. But though the arguments were well presented he saw some serious inconsistencies. He spent a long while researching one line of argument after another, primarily carefully examining all the Bible texts used by the Baptists. He later realized that Gill worked from some unsupportable assumptions. Archibald returned to his more reformed view of Baptism and never wavered.

In 1807 he pastored a church in Philadelphia. While there he helped found the Philadelphia Bible Society. It was in 1812 that the General Assembly called him to become the first professor of a new seminary they wanted to start up in Princeton, New Jersey. He was the only professor then. There were only 3 students who met in his home.
The next year there were 9 students and Princeton Seminary grew from there. It’s tragic that in later years liberalism crept in slowly until it took over that Seminary. Other schools were started about that time. One was called Harvard.

Archibald Alexander left us with a mass of great works and teachings which have been foundational still in a sound Bible education. We who continue in his heritage are the more conservative of the present Presbyterians.

His simple comments on Malachi 4:2 have always impressed me. Often when God’s righteousness comes to our hearts with victory it takes some time for the wings of the sun to stretch out and bring light to all of the soul. Patience with ourselves, with God, and with others is important.

What gets us through is the infallible promise that in Christ we are fully redeemed even though we may have a lot of growing to do, and that even when the battles seem harsh against us victory is as certain as noon day itself. God will cause his sun of Righteousness to dispel all the shadows, to destroy all the enemies, and to make his people grow stronger and stronger.

If you doubt that call out to God in simple undone humility. Cry out for help. It will come.

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