Faith: Active and Passive

“I don’t need to wear a seatbelt; I trust in God!”

“I trust in God, and I wear a seatbelt.”

At times, it seems believers exist on different wave-lengths when it comes to the meaning of faith.

To some, faith is purely passive in nature — a denial of the impulse to act, so as to place sole confidence in God as provider of your well-being.

To others, faith is more about self-reliance — God will help you when you help yourself.

The former group are inclined to accuse the latter of lacking faith in God altogether; the latter, conversely, are inclined to mock the former, accusing them of lacking intelligence. But while these divergent views seem like polar opposites, they aren’t actually that far apart.

Faith Grounded In the Word of God

The common denominator in both extreme positions tends to be a reliance upon human judgment rather than upon the revealed will of God. This will become evident momentarily.

Meanwhile, let us establish this: Biblical faith is not something which one develops within oneself, by oneself. It is not about following one’s heart. Rather, faith must be founded and fashioned by an external source.

First, we develop an abstract faith when we reflect upon the implications of the natural world, which evidences the existence of an almighty creator (Heb. 11.6; Ps. 19.1; Rm. 1.20). The world around us persuades us to accept the proposition: “God exists.”

This type of faith is rather limited in scope, however. It accepts the reality of the creator; but how does that creator wish us to behave? Nature’s answer to that question is rather sparse.

Second, a concrete faith — whereby one trusts in the character and will of the creator himself — is contingent upon examining his revealed word (cf. 1 Cor. 2.11).

In Romans 10.17, Paul wrote that “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” Grasping this is vital. When the word of God is received by a “good and honest heart” (Lk. 8.15), Biblical faith can then develop. Without the word of God, however, the heart by itself cannot possibly develop this type of faith (cf. Prov. 28.26; Jer. 10.23).

In that light, you may harbor a feeling of trust in God without actually having faith in him, since your trust is rooted more in your idea of God rather than in God in-truth. Likewise, one may feel he is acting for God without actually acting by faith in him (cf. Jn. 16.2).

That said, since faith is grounded in the word of God, and since the word of God urges both action in some areas and non-action in others, faith itself has both an active facet and a passive one, depending upon the matter at hand. Consider a few examples of each.

Faith Is Active

In the first place, faith often demands action (Jn. 6.27-29). Trusting in God means complying with his instructions.

Jesus touched upon this fact when he asked: “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do the things which I say?” (Lk. 6.46). If you truly believe that Jesus is your Lord, then you will not remain inactive, letting him do your work for you; rather, you will “keep his commandments” (Jn. 14.15, 21; 6.27-29; Gal. 5.6; 1 Thess. 1.3).

Take a New Testament example as a case in point.

Before his death, Jesus predicted that the city of Jerusalem and all Judea was going to experience a period of great pressure and hardship, resulting in the destruction of the capitol city itself (cf. Mt. 24.1ff; Lk. 21.20ff). He was describing the Jewish revolt against the Roman empire (cir. 66-73 A.D.), and Rome’s conquest of the region by Vespasian and Titus.

In view of this forthcoming catastrophe, Jesus begged his disciples to be prepared to escape the danger. When the disciples living in Judea saw the conflict coming, the Lord instructed them to “flee to the mountains” (Mt. 24.16).

Now, suppose some first-century Christian looked around at his fellow Christians, who were fleeing for safer regions during that time, and decided to implore his brethren not to give in to fear by fleeing, but to stand their ground and have faith that God would protect them. Would his description of faith be accurate?

It would not. Though he may feel that he is leaning upon God for aid, he is in fact harboring unbelief in his heart. If he truly trusted in Christ, he would comply with Christ’s instructions. He would accept the fact that Christ had already provided the means of his protection — “flee to the mountains” — if only he truly believed that were so.

By the same token, those who believe they can live the way they want to live, without obeying the gospel, and simply have “faith” that God will save them ultimately, are deluding their own hearts (Heb. 5.8-9; 1 Pt. 1.22-23). In ignoring God’s instructions, they are adopting disbelief in God, however much their hearts tell them otherwise (cf. Jn. 3.36, ESV).

In short, one facet of faith is active in nature; it does what God says to do (cf. Heb. 11.4ff).

Faith Is Passive

But faith also demands non-action. It does this in at least two ways.

First, when God instructs us not to do something, faith refrains from that activity. The child of faith will “abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thess. 5.22).

Unfortunately, there are some within Christendom who believe that it is appropriate to engage in sinful activity, provided the circumstances are dire enough. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

For example, those who are living in abject poverty, who can neither acquire a job nor receive enough charity from others to sustain themselves, may be enticed to steal to do so (cf. Prov. 30.7-9). On the brink of starvation, they feel that the only way left to them is to help themselves — depending upon God and others to provide is no longer an option. They must take matters into their own hands.

While such theft invokes a sense of pity from others (Prov. 6.30), Scripture still insists that such action is wrong and merits condemnation (Prov. 6.31; 1 Cor. 6.10; Eph. 4.28). As difficult as it may be, we must never do evil to accomplish good (Rm. 3.8).

Instead, faith will remain dependent upon God’s way at all times, even when the temptation to wrong others for one’s own benefit is most intense (cf. Rm. 13.9-10). God is “against” those who help themselves by sin (cf. Ps. 34.16; 1 Pt. 3.12; Jms. 4.6).

Second, faith will also refrain from activity which God has reserved either for himself or for others. Consider a few examples of this:

(1) The male Israelites were instructed to leave their homes three times a year to celebrate various festivals (Ex. 34.22-23). Naturally, this left their homes vulnerable to attack. However, God promised:

For I will cast out the nations before you and enlarge your borders; neither will any man covet your land when you go up to appear before the Lord your God three times in the year” (Ex. 34.24).

It would have been an expression of disbelief to suggest that, since God helps those who help themselves, the men should stay home to protect their homeland from invasion. Rather, faith trusts that when God promises to act, he will surely fulfill his promise, without needing man to intervene on his behalf (Tit. 1.2; Num. 23.19).

(2) The case of David and Saul reminds us of the fact that the man of faith will not step beyond his God-given purview to achieve a desired end.

Though it was God’s will for King Saul to be removed from office (1 Sam. 15.26), never had God given David the assignment of deposing him, even though the boy from Bethlehem would eventually take his place (1 Sam. 16.1ff). And in spite of the fact that the Lord, on two separate occasions, had tested David’s faith by giving him easy access to Saul (1 Sam. 24, 26), David knew it would have been wrong for him to be the king’s executioner. Consider his reasoning:

"But David said to Abishai, 'Do not destroy him; for who can stretch out his hand against the Lord’s anointed, and be guiltless?' David said furthermore, 'As the Lord lives, the Lord shall strike him, or his day shall come to die, or he shall go out to battle and perish. The Lord forbid that I should stretch out my hand against the Lord’s anointed'" (1 Sam. 26.9-11).

Instead of helping himself to the throne, David faithfully left the dethronement of the wicked king in the hands of God. He may not have known how God would bring about Saul’s demise, but David knew that he would not be the one to achieve it.

Hence, there are responsibilities which God has reserved for himself, requiring the man of faith to “wait” on him for action (Ps. 27.14; 25.3; Prov. 20.22).

(3) It is certainly an expression of one’s faith in God to “work with your own hands” (1 Thess. 4.11; Acts 20.35; Eph. 4.28) — for self-providence is a divine duty.

However, it is faithless to presume that you alone are responsible for your own economic and personal well-being. The fortunes of one day may be swept away the next, no matter how hard you have worked to provide for yourself (cf. 1 Tim. 6.17). Life is much bigger than one individual can control.

The child of faith will therefore recognize the limited power he possesses to manage his own well-being. He commits everything he can control, and everything he can’t control, into the care and keeping of the providential “will” of “the Lord” (Jms. 4.13-16).

Thus, faith remains dependent upon God’s operations through thick and thin, for a man can do nothing without God making it possible for us (Jn. 1.3; Col. 1.16).

(4) In a modern context, I once visited a congregation in which the song leader began a song in one key and tempo, while another member, believing the key to be too low and the tempo too slow, began to lead half of the congregation in a second key and tempo! The entire song was sung in that grating fashion, with neither side giving in to the other. The rebel singer had not acted by faith — but had usurped the responsibility of the song-leader, creating confusion and disorder in the service (cf. 1 Cor. 14.26-40).

In short, faith does not take over the responsibilities and roles which have been assigned to others by the word of God. It will stay within its own “proper domain” (Jude 6) and trust others to do the work.

Discretion And Faith

Finally, there are some areas in life in which God has given man discretion to act or not. It is in this area where most of the confusion exists. Should one wait for divine providence? Or, should one act to self-provide? The seat-belt paradigm is just one example of this dilemma.

Of course, since God expects us to comply with the laws of human government “for the Lord’s sake” (1 Pt. 2.13ff), the disciple who has faith will dutifully submit to seat-belt laws, barring extenuating circumstances.

That said, obviously there are no explicit guidelines in the word of God concerning automobile safety. However, personal discretion is very much a Biblically-prized characteristic (Mk. 12.34; Eph. 5.15; Col. 4.5; cf. Prov. 2.11; 27.12).

Thus, when both God and government gives each individual the discretion to decide, faith will be deferential to each individual’s decision to wear a seat-belt or not: “let each be fully convinced in his own mind” (cf. Rm. 14.5b).

In such cases, the one who does not wear a seat-belt has faith in God’s providence in the realm of events — that is, whatever happens (car-wreck or not, injury or not), God will work everything out ultimately for our good (Rm. 8.28).

Meanwhile, the one who wears a seat-belt has faith in God’s providence in the realm of things — that is, God has provided, through the invention of the safety-belt, a device to make travel potentially safer (though such is never guaranteed), and the means by which to provide security for myself.

In either case, faith will not engage in “disputes over doubtful things” (Rm. 14.1), nor will either side “despise” or “judge” the other (Rm. 14.3). Both express their faith in God in their own respective ways.

In matters of indifference, then, let there be liberty.

Conclusion

Faith has both an active and a passive component. It acts when God urges action, and abstains when God urges passivity.

In matters wherein God has given man discretion to choose to act or not, faith will not malign those who may adopt an alternate choice. Instead, it acts with respect toward all, knowing that God may provide in more ways than the one you have pursued (cf. Rm. 11.33ff).

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