Faith The Overcoming Principle
And this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith (1 John 5:4)
In the Greek language there is a word which means “the inhabited earth”; another which means “the age or dispensation”; and yet another which means the “present world system.” And it is the last which is used in the scripture before us. Neither one of the other words involves any moral significance, but this one involves the whole of the moral universe which is opposed to Christ. There is in this world of which John speaks much that is indifferent but it includes within its realm all the organized forces of unbelieving mankind — “force, greed, selfishness, ambition and pleasure.” It covers the uncontrollable universe in its organized sense. It is the empire of evil, the dominion of Satan. It is the sum total of all a Christian must meet when he endeavors to live for God.
This distinction in words makes clear the apparent contradiction between the statement that God loved the world and the prohibition against our loving the world. God so loved the world of lost mankind that He gave His Son to save whosoever believeth in Him. And we should love that same world enough to gladly give ourselves in the task of saving it through the glorious gospel of Christ. But our love for the world of lost mankind is indicated by our separation from the world of organized evil, and that separation must be in spirit as well as in form. “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof; but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever” (1 John 2:15-17).
This use of the word world is not peculiar to John. Paul used it in Romans 12:2, when he exhorted Christians to “be not conformed to this world,” and James used it in James 4:4, “Know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.” This world that our faith is to overcome is, therefore, the sum total of all that opposes God and those who set out to live for God.
John also uses the word faith in a comprehensive sense. The simple idea of faith is just believing God or believing what God has said. This is the meaning of faith when it is set forth as a condition for gaining God’s favor and obtaining His help. “Therefore being justified by faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5: 1). But sometimes the term is used to describe faith as character, rather than just faith as an act. For example, Paul speaks of the “unfeigned faith” which dwelt in Lois, Eunice and Timothy, (2 Timothy 1:5), and again in 1 Timothy 1: 5 he speaks of “faith unfeigned” as one of the essential things in fulfillment of the divine requirements. In such cases the idea is about the same as we would describe as faithful.
But in the opening verses of the fifth chapter of 1 John, leading up to the verse which is before us, John speaks of the things a Christian believes and the things he does — he believes that Jesus is the Christ, and he loves God and keeps His commandments. Also he speaks of what God does for those who are possessors of this faith — he says such are “born of God.” And then he gives a sort of summary in which he identifies those who have faith as the same as those who are born of God, and these in turn are identified as the ones who overcome the world. All this leads to the conclusion that John sets two equally comprehensive terms over against each other, and says in substance, “Whoever has all that is implied in being a Christian is able to triumph over all that opposes him in his endeavor to be a Christian.”
Our Christian faith does not deny the existence of evil. It acknowledges evil in all its crude and subtle forms. It confesses the existence of a personal devil, who, while not omnipresent, is assisted by myriads of fallen angels and wicked abandoned spirits, so that in practical reality evil is everywhere. Our faith takes cognizance of opposition, and defines the Christian way in terms of war and conflict, even to the point of holding that all who will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution. Ours is a militant faith, but it is a victorious faith.
I. Let us think of our Christian faith from the approach of its historic and basic doctrines.
We need not go back to the very beginning. Let us rather just begin with the life and teachings of our Lord. He was miraculously born, His life was spotless. His teachings were peerless. His miracles were marvelous. His death was high priestly and substitutionary. These are the facts concerning Jesus as Christians hold them. But such claims are so high and unusual that there is need of irrefutable evidence of their trustworthiness, and this evidence is furnished by the miracle of all miracles, the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
It is the resurrection of Jesus from the dead that justified all that is claimed for Him during His life, and it is His resurrection from the dead that connects the Jesus of the Gospels with the Christ of the Epistles and of Christian experience.
There is much in the story of the life of Jesus that calls for pity and love, rather than for faith. He was born in a stable. He was cradled in a manger. He was hungry at the fig tree. He was set at nought by the rulers. He was homeless. He held no office in either church or state. He was tried illegally and convicted without dependable evidence. He was worshipped in mockery. He wore a crown of thorns in lieu of a king’s miter. He was nailed to a tree in shame. He was associated with the wicked in His death. He was buried in a borrowed tomb. We recite these things glibly now, but think of them in the light of their day and you will see that a faith founded upon such occurrences might be a faith of passive pity and endurance, but it could not be a faith of triumph.
It is Easter morning that turns tears into triumphs and marks the Christian faith as a victorious religion. This fact was of such immediate importance that those who went out to preach after that Easter morning announced their theme as “Christ and the resurrection.” Before the resurrection Christians worshipped crouching behind closed doors, but after the resurrection they came out to announce the good news to the world. It is said that the early Christians kneeled to worship in all their meetings except those which occurred on Sunday. On that day they stood to pray in honor of the Lord’s resurrection and as a symbol of triumph.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is a fact of history more fully credentialed than any other major occurrence of the past. “The Lord is risen. He is risen indeed.” But out of this fact grow the essential doctrines of the Christian system. He “arose for our justification.” “Because he lives, we shall live also.” Since He arose from the dead, we have an Advocate with the Father in heaven, and we have the promised Spirit on earth. Our Christian creed is a victorious thesis. It does not stop with a diagnosis of men’s ills, it proposes a remedy and a cure.
II. Let us think of our Christian faith as an inner working force in the hearts and lives of those who accept it.
Christ’s contemporaries thought to slander Him by calling Him “the friend of sinners.” But this title so became Him that it has clung to Him throughout the centuries. In Christ there is hope for the hopeless, help for the helpless and salvation for all.
It is to the glory of Christ that those who come voluntarily to Him to eat and walk and talk with Him do not remain sinners. Their change is not simply improvement, or reformation, or the revolution of the iconoclast. It is the inner change of will and affections as well as the outward change of conduct and conversation.
The gospel of Christ enjoins the highest ethical practices, but this is not its glory. It includes the most beautiful sacraments, but neither is this its praise. Its glory is in its power to transform and make new the hearts and lives of those who receive it. “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ,” cried Paul, “for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.” This inner transforming and sustaining power is the heart and soul and glory of the gospel. In the gospel economy every command is a promise. The will to obey is the condition for power to obey. The ten lepers started toward the priest’s house to tell him they were clean, at the Master’s word, when as yet their uncleanness clave to their flesh. But “as they went they were cleansed.” The gospel brings into the believer’s being life and light and purity from above. And there is “expulsive power” in this new grace from God to drive away guilt, to cleanse away pollution and to dismiss weakness in time of temptation and trial. The Christian life is a victorious life. In Christ even the weakest is made to be “more than conqueror.” Within the sphere of the personal Christian life, “This is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith.”
III. Let us think of the Christian faith as offering an explanation of life to those who believe it.
All intelligent men are philosophers. They cannot avoid asking “What is man?” “What is life?” “What is the ultimate end and purpose of all that is?” Those who do not ask these questions are not intelligent. Those who do not earnestly seek the answer to such questions are dead while they yet live. Those who decide there are no answers to these questions are themselves without hope. Those who are content with answers stated in terms of earthly values are content with inadequate explanations, and must be classed as practical fatalists and logical pessimists. There is no justification of the pain and struggle of living if in this life only there is hope. The fleeting pleasures of time are deceptive and bear the curse of mockery, if death ends all.
But according to the Christian faith man is an immortal soul. The present life is a probation — a test period, a dressing room for eternity. Life serves its end by furnishing us with time and opportunity to prepare for heaven. Success is not measured in terms of what we gather and hold here, but in terms of what we are when we leave this world. The purpose and end of the myriads of forces and functions which we have to do is to transform us into the moral and spiritual likeness of our holy Maker, and prepare us for happy fellowship with Him forever.
“Old age is a calamity,” observes the man of the world. “The hoary head is a crown of glory, if it be found in the way of righteousness,” replies the Christian. “He dies in his youth, his life was lost,” reports the man without faith. “He will grow faster in heaven than he could ever have done on earth,” consoles the Christian. “The body is temporal, and already there are signs of irreparable deterioration, What’s the use?” inquires the unbeliever, “We know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens,” testifies the Christian. “The world is full of toil and pain and trouble, and life ends in death,” remarks the doubter. “I reckon that the sufferings of the present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us,” says the man of faith and hope and assurance.
Sometimes men chafe that we must now walk by faith, and cannot see clearly as yet. But there are tokens of immortality that keep the Christian’s courage up. A man passed a boy who stood patiently holding a string. “What are you doing?” inquired the man. “I am flying my kite,” answered the boy. Looking up toward the hazy sky, the man remarked, “I do not see any kite.” But the boy replied, “I cannot see it either, but I know it’s up there, I can feel the pull.” The Christian knows heaven is up there; for even though he cannot see its jasper walls, he can feel the pull of its holy gravity, and this answers all the questions, the puzzling questions, about life and its purpose, as no others on earth can get them answered.
IV. Let us think of the Christian faith as it relates to the material, moral and spiritual universe.
The poet was wrong when he reported that “only man is vile”; for moral evil cannot exist apart from personalities. It is not important that we should be versed in demonology, but there is no escape from the conclusion that there are other intelligences besides men who have lifted up the banner of revolt against a holy God, and in the starry heavens above us are indications of “something wrong.” In the earth and atmosphere of our own earth are aberrations in the way of storms and lightnings, weeds and brambles, ferocious beasts, burning deserts, frigid polar blocks, and conflict between sea and land. Men speculate as to the end of it all, but their speculations all lead to deterioration and final defeat. Some say the moon will slow the rotations of the earth until disaster comes that way. Some prophesy that the world will finally burn up with fire. Some say it will become too cold for life to exist upon its surface. Some think it will finally fall back into the sun. Some believe it will break into bits and disappear as “star dust.”
And as to the race of mankind: What shall be its end? Endless coming and going of generations, say some. Final disappearance of man by reason of his own follies or by reason of climatic changes upon the surface of the earth. Wide indeed are the margins of speculation, but they all agree in one thing — the end is either useless or calamitous.
But what is the Christian faith? It is a victorious vision, even though the details are not clear. The Christian cannot bind himself to the limitation of time, for he knows that “one day with the Lord is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” — time is no factor with God. But according to the Christian’s faith, the end will be triumph for God and righteousness. In the end the incorrigible will be shut up in the prison house of the universe, and heaven will be a land without a tear or sigh. Earth itself will be reclaimed for the empire of God. Even man’s body will be resurrected from the dust to become forever deathless. The lion and the wolf will lose their ferocious disposition, and “nothing shall hurt or destroy in all God’s holy mountain.”
Even when applied to the cosmos — the universe — the Christian’s faith is not a cringing, faltering, pitiable thing. Rather it is stalwart, upstanding and victorious. This is the faith that meets the whole organized empire of evil and overcomes it. This faith acknowledges a mighty devil, but it brings against him an Almighty Christ. It does not minify sin, but it does magnify salvation through Jesus Christ. It does not deny evil in any of its forms, but it finds in Christ a remedy and a cure for all that is wrong with men individually, collectively, presently and eternally. It finds in Christ the means for salvaging man’s world, and all worlds, and of bringing into glory all who put their trust in Him. “Whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith. Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God.”