These are the notes for a recent Alpha Course session, based on the corresponding chapter from Nicky Gumbel's study book "Questions For Life" but adapted for the more open theological context of a typical parish church. The session lasted just over an hour and a half including time for prayer at the beginning and end.
I value Alpha, but feel that the material as it stands is too heavily oriented to the needs of middle class urban Evangelical churches (not unlike HTB itself). I personally think that the following approach offers enquirers and new believers a more accessible and encouraging action plan than sticking closely to the original.
Setting the Scene
Think of a one-word synonym – a different word as close as possible in meaning – for faith.
Come back here at the end of the study, and see if you have changed your mind.
· Silent reflection
Let me stress right away that there’s no right or wrong answer to this next question, but here goes: Can you say that there was a certain moment in your life when you started to be a Christian? You may not be able to remember the specific date and time, but was there some moment in the past before which you didn't see yourself as a Christian, and after which you did?
Of course, you may be one of those people who can’t remember a time in their life when they weren’t Christian. Or perhaps you know for sure that you are not a Christian. Then again, you may be one of the countless people who are unsure whether the word Christian applies to them or not.
Either way, think about your answer and in particular think how you feel about it. As I said before, there’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer, but is your answer reassuring to you personally, or does it cause you some kind of discomfort. Don’t be afraid to discuss your thoughts with someone trustworthy.
Puzzled With Faith (a personal testimony)
What I’m going to say may sound strange, because we encounter so many church-people who are assertive about their beliefs to the point where they can make us feel uncomfortable. But I think one of the biggest problems facing the Church is that it is crammed with people who are uncertain as to whether they’re really Christians at all.
Let me introduce you to Gladys (an imaginary person). She goes to church regularly. She reads the Bible. She prays. And she has a desperate urge to belong. But then every Sunday she looks around St. Ethelburga’s or wherever it is she goes, and she sees others who are so much more involved than she is, so much more on fire with their faith, seemingly so confident and assured and at peace. And every week she thinks, “Am I really a Christian? Am I really saved? Do I really believe enough of the right stuff? Am I doing enough of the right stuff?” The problem is, Gladys has never heard anyone else express the same doubts and questions that go through her mind, and as long as she thinks she’s the odd one out she’s never going to step out in faith.
This was very much my own early experience of faith. There was definitely a time before which I wasn’t a Christian at all, at least not what I now think of as a Christian. But even after my conversion experience, I simply didn’t feel as if I had any real faith. I wanted to believe all the supernatural stuff. Sometimes I almost convinced myself that I did; more often I didn’t. But I never let on because no one around me seemed to share my doubts or questions.
· Can you identify with that feeling? Or can you remember being made to feel that way in the past?
The question for this study is, “How Can I Have Faith?” And that’s a critically important question, because the church is crammed with people struggling to feel as if they really belong. And being assured that we belong to God and one another is the birthright of every Christian.
· Read 1 John 5:13 – then see if you can state John’s reason for writing this letter in everyday English.
We should aim to go away from this discussion with a clearer idea of what real faith looks like and feels like. Then we should be able to recognise and give thanks for the faith we already have, and also have a clearer idea of what to aim for in the months and years ahead. We need to have some idea of the strategies for growing our faith. And our starting point has to be thinking about what faith really is. That’s the cue for a thinking question:
· The great religious reformer Martin Luther intensely disliked one particular book of the Bible: the Letter of James (to be found near the end of the New Testament). Indeed, he went so far as to question whether it should ever have been included in the Bible. And most of his dislike came down to one particular verse.
By way of explanation, Luther had single-handedly rediscovered the great doctrine that salvation is based on faith rather than on being a good person. He’d taken massive personal risks to spread his teaching. The political repercussions of his work were so devastating, there were calls for him to be put to death on sight. He could not afford for his protectors and patrons to waver in their support for him. And yet there in the Bible was a passage that seemed to directly contradict his teaching.
Have a look at the two short passages from the NT attached as an appendix (one from Ephesians which sums up Luther’s view, and one from James) and see if you think there is really a contradiction.
What is ‘Faith’ really about?
In the Alpha course book, “Questions of Life”, Nicky Gumbel takes care to explain that being assured in our faith is like a tripod – a tripod whose three legs are the three members of the Trinity: God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.
Firstly, the work of God the Father.
Nicky explains that if you were to ask him for evidence that he’s married, he would show you the documentation, i.e. his marriage certificate. And if you asked him for evidence that he was a Christian, he would similarly reach for documentary evidence – in this case the Bible. He goes on to remind us that our knowledge of God is based not on feelings but on facts. And the key facts are God’s promises scattered throughout Scripture. Our feelings are deceptive, treacherous even; they go up and down according to our moods and all the things going on in our lives. In contrast, the promises of God are unchanging from day to day and from age to age. We can spend a lifetime exploring and claiming God’s promises in the Bible, but Nicky points to one famous quotation as really summing up what they are all about.
· Read Revelation 3:20 – what is being promised here?
Once you know you’ve said Yes to God, you can be sure that you’ve have inherited all God’s promises regardless of whether your feelings back you up.
Secondly, the work of Jesus, God the Son.
What is Jesus’ role in giving us faith and assurance? Going back to the marriage illustration, Nicky says that if his marriage certificate wasn’t good enough for you, he’d refer you to the historical events of his wedding day. In my case that would be the 25th May 1991, when several dozen people witnessed Kate and me saying ‘I Will’. Several of those people recorded the event in photos, videos and written messages at the time. And most of them are still around to act as witnesses to what actually happened.
Similarly, our faith is based on actual events that took place in the past. Like our wedding, those events were witnessed by real people, some of whom were still around decades later to answer questions and correct any misunderstandings. Christianity is an historical faith, based on historical facts. And one verse above all sums up what was going on.
· Read John 3:16 – what is being stated here?
What it boils down to is that God offers peace and belonging as a free gift to anyone who will accept it. The central truth about Jesus is that in Him, God himself was coming down to experience human life and absorb the consequences of human rebellion. Faith properly understood is not struggling to believe unbelievable stories as a way of trying to earn a place in Heaven. Rather, faith begins when we accept that Christ has already done everything necessary and we choose to live our lives in a fitting way.
That’s the importance of what James writes in the Bible. Just believing something doesn’t necessarily change our behaviour or our relationships or our status in God’s eyes. One of the Bible authors points out that demons have no trouble believing the truth about God, but it doesn’t do anything for them – it simply makes them shudder.
Yes, believing the claims Jesus made for himself is important. But learning to believe is part of our journey of faith. And getting us demoralised over the parts we can’t believe at this point in time… that’s one of the ways in which the Devil tries hardest to undermine our faith. The confusion that so many people experience is due on a mis-understanding of what the Bible authors meant by belief, and we’ll come onto it in a minute.
Thirdly and finally, the work of God the Holy Spirit. In talking about the evidence that he’s married, Nicky Gumbel referred firstly to the documentation and then to the historic events of his wedding day. And finally, for anyone demanding yet further evidence, he talks about his experience of being married, of living with his wife and being in a special relationship with her. And the final pillar of faith and assurance is similar: the experience shared by countless Christians of knowing God personally through the Holy Spirit living inside us.
In simple terms, from the moment we say Yes to Jesus, we carry a spark of the divine right within us. And according to St. Paul we can be certain that we have that seal placed upon us because no one can say yes to Jesus without the Spirit’s prompting.
The Holy Spirit makes his presence felt in two particularly important ways:
1. He transforms us from the inside, making us grow more and more like Jesus.
o Read Galatians 5:22-23 and think about this: Why are these ‘fruits of the Spirit’ such reliable evidence of faith?
We should start seeing some of the fruits of the Spirit as soon as we place trust in Jesus. It doesn’t mean that we immediately stop doing wrong, but as time goes on we experience a growing appetite to learn more about God and get more involved in his work. And in a similar way the Spirit will prompt us to take more interest in other people for their own sake; to seek peace, to relieve suffering and challenge oppression and injustice. If you see any of this happening to you, even in a modest way like coming along to a study group, you can be sure that it’s the Holy Spirit working in your life.
2. The Holy Spirit brings us an inner experience of God. He allows us to directly experience his presence, and gives us fresh insights into areas that would once have been closed to us. Sometimes he endows us with gifts and skills that we were never aware of having in the past.
To give a personal example, I was a Christian for decades before I had the slightest inkling that I could stand up and speak in front of an audience. I was too self-conscious, too tongue-tied to even consider it. Then, just as Kate and I were settling down together and looking for a new direction in our lives, I was sent on a long management course at the end of which we would each have to give a forty minute presentation judged by a director of the company. I was anxious for weeks leading up to the big event, but on the day I just found myself in the zone, and nobody was more surprised than I was when mine emerged as one of the slickest performances of the whole two-day event.
This wasn’t just a new skill; it was part of a conversation in which God answered my questions as to what I should be doing with my life. I began exploring Christian vocations, and that process has eventually led both Kate and me to where we are now. Most importantly of all, it was the point at which I finally accepted that God really did have a purpose for my life. That was assurance. That was faith. But by that time the most important question was no longer “Does God really exist?” but “What does He want me to do?”
Is Faith the Same as Belief?
Nicky Gumbel is very keen to drive home one particular point: There is nothing arrogant about being sure that we belong to God and his church. Assurance is no more than a humble recognition of what God has promised, what Jesus died to achieve, and what the Spirit is doing in our lives.
But in spite of all these sources of assurance, we can still get hung up on that issue I mentioned earlier. If salvation is for those who believe, what does it mean to believe. I’ve known people certain that there’s a God but tormented with the fear that they don’t believe firmly enough to be saved. In contrast, I’ve known people desperate to follow Jesus, who despaired of ever being able to accept the reality of anything invisible or supernatural, much less a God or an afterlife.
And the problem people face is precisely this: The 19th and 20th centuries have conditioned us to use the word belief in a sense that would have been unfamiliar to the Bible writers and the great Christian thinkers of history. To the modern scientific mindset, we can only know something if we have physical evidence for it. And in the absence of physical evidence there is no such thing as half-knowledge, no such thing as a safe assumption. Faith and belief are increasingly dismissed by our society as primitive, immature, even irrational, even to some people (e.g. Richard Dawkins) actually immoral.
But the Bible writers rarely if ever stopped to ask, “Is this true? If so, what’s the evidence for it?” Of course they experienced times of questioning and doubt – the Psalms are full of it. But when the Bible authors talk about believing in Jesus, when they call on people to have faith, they’re addressing a completely different issue: not one of evidence but one of commitment and trust. Not “How can you eliminate doubts and questions?” but rather this: “How do you show your commitment to the truths you have decided to live by?” or this: “What does trusting that Jesus has done everything necessary mean for the way you should live your life?”
Do you see how this take on belief and faith is profoundly challenging but at the same time profoundly reassuring?
It’s challenging because it doesn’t leave us free to sit on our backsides ignoring the needs of others while we take refuge in our so-called religious beliefs. As the epistle of James so shrewdly puts it, it calls us to action.
But at the same time it’s reassuring, because it doesn’t require that we sit agonising over which bits of theology we accept as factually true – the very issue that’s the biggest stumbling block for most modern people. It simply says, accept that you’re a Christian and get on with acting like one. And the beautiful thing is that the more you act like a Christian, the more you get involved in his work, the more you step out in trust that God has a purpose for your life, the more you find yourself believing.
· Imagine someone who is in the position I was a few years ago: wanting to be a Christian in the fullest sense of the word, but struggling to believe all the details in order to feel certain of being saved. Come up with three practical suggestions that will help their faith to grow.
APPENDIX: MARTIN LUTHER AND THE LETTER OF JAMES
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.”
“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.