Battling Unbelief at Bethlehem

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By John Piper About Sanctification & Growth
Part of the series Battling Unbelief

Romans 4:20-21
No distrust made Abraham waver concerning the promises of God, but he grew strong in his faith giving glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.

What I want to do today is lay the foundation for a series of messages called Battling Unbelief. I hope to clarify in these messages why we exist as a church and what it means at the most practical level to live by faith in the promises of God.

All Sins Come from Unbelief in God's Promises

The conviction behind this series is that all sins come from unbelief in the promises of God. All the sinful states of our hearts are owing to unbelief in God's super-abounding willingness and ability to work for us in every situation of life so that everything turns out for our good. Anxiety, misplaced shame, indifference, regret, covetousness, envy, lust, bitterness, impatience, despondency, pride—these are all sprouts from the root of unbelief in the promises of God. Let me illustrate from a familiar text that tends to puzzle us.

The Love of Money

When Paul said in 1 Timothy 6:10, "The love of money is the root of all evils," what did he mean? He didn't mean that there's a connection between every sinful attitude and money—that money is always in your mind when you sin. I think he meant that all the evils in the world come from a certain kind of heart, namely, the kind of heart that loves money.

Now what does it mean to love money? It doesn't mean to admire the green paper or the brown coins. To know what it means to love money you have to ask, What is money? I would answer that question like this: Money is simply a symbol that stands for human resources. Money stands for what you can get from man (not from God! "Ho everyone who thirsts, come to the waters. He who has NO MONEY come buy and eat!" Isaiah 55:1). Money is the currency of human resources.

So the heart that loves money is a heart that pins its hopes, and pursues its pleasures, and puts its trust in what human resources can offer. So the love of money is virtually the same as faith in money—belief (trust, confidence, assurance) that money will meet your needs and make you happy.

Unbelief in the Promises of God

Therefore the love of money, or belief in money, is the flip side of UNBELIEF in the promises of God. Just like Jesus said in Matthew 6:24—you cannot serve God and money. You can't trust or believe in God and money. Belief in one is unbelief in the other. A heart that loves money—banks on money for happiness, believes in money—is at the same time not banking on the promises of God for happiness.

So when Paul says that the love of money is the root of all evils, he implies that unbelief in the promises of God is the taproot of every sinful attitude in our heart.

The Aim of This Series

Every message this fall will aim to illustrate this truth and confirm it and provide practical help for battling the root of unbelief that threatens to grow in our hearts again and again every day. In a sense the main point of every message will be the same: Fight against sin by fighting against unbelief in the promises of God. Or to put it positively: Fight for righteousness and love in your life by fighting to maintain faith in the promises of God.

That's the gist of the series. But what I said I wanted to do today is lay a foundation for these messages and show you how it relates to why we exist as a church. So let me try to do that in the minutes we have left.

Why We Exist

Bethlehem Baptist Church exists for the glory of God. He created us for his glory (Isaiah 43:7). He predestined us to be his children for his glory (Ephesians 1:6). He appointed us to live for his glory (Ephesians 1:12). Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).

Whether we speak of Bethlehem worshiping, Bethlehem building up the body, Bethlehem evangelizing unbelievers, the final goal is the same at every point—that God be glorified. Bethlehem is a vision of a great, holy, free, and graciously sovereign God—a vision of GOD to be savored in worship, a vision of GOD to be strengthened in nurture, and a vision of GOD to be spread in evangelism and missions. "From him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory for ever. Amen" (Romans 11:36).

How We Accomplish Our Reason for Existence

Now to the text of the morning! Romans 4. If the goal of all we do is to glorify God—to magnify his worth, clarify his beauty, exalt his excellence, portray his perfections—if that is our goal, then Romans 4:19–21 gives us a very crucial insight into how we go about it.

Abraham's Faith in God's Promise

Abraham got the promise of God that he would have a son when he was 100 years old and Sarah was old and barren. His response, Paul says, glorified God.

He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead because he was about a hundred years old, or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah's womb. No distrust [or: unbelief] made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith giving glory to God, and being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.

Martin Luther's Insight

I hope you agree that one thing this text teaches is that we glorify God by believing his promises. Listen to Martin Luther, who got a hold on this truth so firmly.

Faith . . . honors him whom it trusts with the most reverent and highest regard since it considers him truthful and trustworthy. There is no other honor equal to the estimate of truthfulness and righteousness with which we honor him whom we trust . . . On the other hand, there is no way in which we can show greater contempt for a man than to regard him as false and wicked and to be suspicious of him, as we do when we do not trust him. (Selections, p. 59)

Trusting God's promises is the most fundamental way that you can consciously glorify God. When you believe a promise of God, you honor God's ability to do what he promised and his willingness to do what he promised and his wisdom to know how to do it.

An Illustration of Battling Unbelief

Last night I had to battle the unbelief anxiety that this sermon would not take shape in time for this morning's service, because I got such a late start. The way I battled against this anxiety was to believe the promise of 2 Corinthians 12:8 ("My grace is sufficient for you. My power is made perfect in weakness."). And when I believed that promise, God's ability to help me, his wisdom to help me and his willingness to help me were glorified. When you trust somebody, you honor them at the deepest level.

Therefore if the goal of our church is to glorify God in all that we do, we must make it our aim in all that we do to battle unbelief. Because nothing dishonors God more than not to believe what he says. Or to put it positively, if our goal is to glorify God in all that we do, then we must make it our aim in all that we do to believe the promises of God. Because it was when Abraham believed the promise of God that God was glorified.

So I hope you can see why I think this series of messages is so important for us. Unless we can learn to live by faith in the promises of God, we will fail in our goal as a church. Unless we can learn how to battle the ever-attacking unbelief of our hearts, we will constantly fall short of glorifying God. And our reason for being would be gone.

Three Things About the Faith Which Glorifies God

Now to set the stage for the rest of the messages, let me say three things about this belief that glorifies God. If this seems too brief, please know that each of these three things will be addressed in every sermon this fall. All I want to do now is introduce them and begin to shape the mindset of our church in a certain biblical direction. And hopefully, in doing so, stir you up to trust God in new ways.

1. It Is Future Oriented

The first thing I want to say about this belief is this: Belief that honors God means banking our hope for happiness on the promises of God.

In other words belief is future oriented. It trusts God for something in the future, whether in eight hours or in 8,000 years. The function of past events (for example, the death and resurrection of Christ for our sins) is to support faith in the promises, which have to do with our future. Believing that Christ died for our sins once for all in the past and that he rose again is utterly crucial for salvation. But the reason it's crucial is because the death and resurrection of Christ are the guarantee of God's promises. People who say, "I believe that Christ died for my sins, and that he rose again from the dead," but then don't bank their hope on his promises day by day—those people don't have faith that honors the God who justifies sinners.

You can see this in our text. Right after extolling Abraham for believing the promises of God in verses 19–21, Paul says, "That is why his faith was reckoned to him as righteousness." So how did Abraham get justified in God's sight? Why did God look at this imperfect man and count him as righteous in his sight? Answer: because he believed the promises of God. It was future oriented faith that justified.

Now read on in the application to us. Verses 23–24,

But the words, "it was reckoned to him," were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him that raised from the dead Jesus our Lord.

Notice! It does not say, "It will be reckoned to us who believe the past historical fact that God raised Jesus from the dead." As utterly crucial as that is! It says, we will be reckoned righteous if we believe in God! Like Abraham believed in God! And this God is the kind of God who raised Jesus from the dead so that you can trust him! So that you will know that his Son ever lives to make intercession for you! So that you will know that he reigns in victory over all your enemies. So that you will know, as verse 17 says, that he gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. He can do anything! Nothing is impossible for God. Therefore he is absolutely trustworthy.

You don't get justified by believing that Jesus died for sinners and rose again. You get justified by banking your hope on the promises that God secured and guaranteed for you through the death and resurrection of his Son. The faith by which God justifies us, forgives all our sins, reckons us righteous, is the experience of being satisfied that God will come through for you according to all his promises.

That's the first thing I wanted to say about belief: it is future oriented; it means banking our hope for happiness on the promises of God secured by the death and resurrection of Jesus.

2. It Produces Fruit

The second thing I want to say about belief in the promises of God is that it produces what Paul calls the "work of faith." Two times, once in 1 Thessalonians 1:3 and once in 2 Thessalonians 1:11 Paul refers to the "work of faith." What he means is that there is a dynamic to this kind of faith that always changes the heart (Acts 15:9) and produces the works of love.

The clearest statement of this is Galatians 5:6,

In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love.

Faith is a power. It never leaves the life unchanged. It can't, because what you bank your hope on always governs your life. If you bank your hope on money, if your bank your hope on prestige, if you bank your hope on leisure and comfort, if you bank your hope on power or success, it governs the choices you make and the attitudes you develop. And so does banking your hope on the promises of God day by day. Belief in the promises of God is the taproot of all righteousness and love.

Earlier in Galatians 2:20 Paul said,

I am crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.

Paul lived his life every day by faith. Jesus had loved him enough to die for him, and now Paul knew he could trust him, believe him, to take care of him and meet all his needs (Philippians 1:19). When you bank your hope on the promises of God and on the presence of Jesus, you live differently. You bear the fruit of righteousness (Philippians 1:11).

Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD,
whose trust is in the LORD.
He is like a tree planted by water,
that sends out its roots by the stream,
and does not fear when heat comes,
for its leaves remain green,
and is not anxious in the year of drought,
for it does not cease to bear fruit.

That's the second thing to say about belief: it produces fruit in our lives. Belief in the promises of God is not a dead and fruitless thing. What you bank on for happiness controls your life.

3. We Must Battle Unbelief Every Day

The last thing to say is just a sentence for now. In order to keep on believing in the promises of God and bearing the fruit of faith, we have to battle unbelief every day. Becoming a Christian is the beginning of the battle not the end. Paul said to Timothy in 1 Timothy 6:12, "Fight the good fight of faith; take hold on eternal life to which you were called."

In order to persevere to eternal life, we must fight the good fight of faith (1 Corinthians 15:2; Colossians 1:23; Hebrews 3:14). That's the battle we are going to study for the next 14 weeks.

And I believe that God has appointed this study for us because he loves us and because he aims to bring some great victories to our lives and to our church. The reason I believe this is because of the promise of 1 John 5:4, "This is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith."

Let's bow for prayer. Every one of us in this room struggles with some sin. It may be a new thought to us that this sin is rooted in unbelief. But it is. And what I want us to do is pray silently that God would help you see the connection and then dedicate yourself to join me in the next 14 weeks in learning how to battle that unbelief and conquering sin.

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