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A Patient, Persevering Faith
Summer Quarter: Confident Hope
Unit 3: Faith Gives Us Hope
Sunday school lesson for the week of August 15, 2021
By Dr. Jay Harris
Lesson Scripture: Hebrews 10:23-36
Hope Sustains Our Faith and Growth
In this third unit, we continue to spend time learning not only how faith gives us hope, but also learning what hope does to sustain our faith. How does hope sustain our faith and growth after we say “yes” to the relationship God offers? Before we dig in, let’s review the arc our relationship with Christ takes.
When we say “yes” to Christ, we can look back and see all that led up to our profession of faith. In some ways, it feels like the culmination of a journey. In fact, it represents the culmination of our journey of prevenient grace. “Prevenient grace” is the grace that comes before our salvation – God wooing us into a relationship with himself. Think of prevenient grace as the courtship between God and us.
Taking this analogy further, when we say “yes” to this relationship, it is like a bride and groom saying “I do” at a wedding. A covenant relationship is formed. The same thing happens when we say “yes” to Christ. We repent of our sin and invite Christ to become our Lord and Savior. We believe that God receives this expression of our faith, and through the grace of God, we are justified by God’s grace and made right with God. We call this action of God “justifying grace.” There is a double acceptance: we accept Christ, and Christ accepts us.
Imagine for a moment a wedding without a marriage. It would be the same as thinking our “yes” to Christ is all God ever wanted from us. God wants a “forever relationship” with us. Just as the words “I do” at a wedding mark the beginning of a marriage, saying “yes” to Christ also marks the beginning of our marriage with Christ. The rest of our lives are spent growing in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. So much awaits us. The operation of God’s grace that we associate with this phase of our relationship is called “sanctifying grace.” This is the grace where we are being sanctified through the power of the Holy Spirit. Being sanctified means being set apart, being made more holy, and being conformed more and more into the image of God’s Son. The sanctification phase of our relationship with God is the theological context with which we want to read today’s scripture.
Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
We are told to hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, because it is often our tendency to waver from our confession. When we say “yes” to Christ, we use words like “on fire” to describe how we initially feel. Without some intentionality, however, there is a tendency for our faith to cool off, and before you know it, our faith has become lukewarm or cold.
One source of holding fast and not wavering is the reminder that God is faithful. Our promise-making and promise-keeping God has an awesome track record of faithfulness. God is faithful even when we are unfaithful, which makes God’s faithfulness all the more amazing and trustworthy. We can depend on God’s promises and God’s faithfulness.
Another important thing our scripture shows us is that we are not called to live a life of faithfulness on our own. Notice how the scripture says, “Let US.” Let US hold fast the confession of our hope. Let US consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds. This is why we should not neglect meeting together. One of the great purposes of the church is to meet in order to provoke one another to love and loving actions. We have this awesome opportunity within our local congregations to become laboratories of faith, hope, and love. We’re learning how to encourage one another at an exceptionally high level. We should not settle for less.
Do you hear the sense of urgency when the scripture talks about the Day approaching? It’s talking about that Day in the future when we want to be found by Christ being faithful. We don’t want to be found being unfaithful.
Willful Persistence in Sin
“For if we willfully persist in sin after having received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has violated the law of Moses dies without mercy “on the testimony of two or three witnesses.” How much worse punishment do you think will be deserved by those who have spurned the Son of God, profaned the blood of the covenant by which they were sanctified, and outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know the one who said, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”
We don’t want to be found willfully persisting in sin. We sometimes assume that God in the New Testament age simply decided to become more lenient. Remember, though, that God would be less caring if God simply swept sin under the rug. Sin is too destructive in our lives for God to turn a blind eye to it. God yearns for us to be set free from sin. We need to realize that when we willfully persist in sin we are spurning the sacrifice of the Son of God, profaning the blood of the covenant by which we were sanctified, and outraging the Spirit of grace. Sin, both before and after our justification, is rebellion against God. This is why we must keep a repentant heart. This is why sin should hurt our hearts as much as it hurts God’s heart.
Remember that being sanctified means being set apart, being made more holy, and being conformed more and more into the image of God’s Son. God did not credit to us the righteousness of Christ on the cross so that we could continue in sin. God wants us to experience the fruits of righteousness in our lives. God is merciful precisely because God does not want us to endure the habits, hurts, and hang-ups of our former life before Christ. Righteous living rescues us from a life full of heartache. It is difficult for us to contemplate God’s wrath as it is described in our scripture, but not when we know this God desires to be on our side in our spiritual warfare against sin.
Preserving the Momentum of our Salvation
I was taught in my Wesleyan tradition that one could say, “I am saved,” “I am being saved,” and “I will be saved,” and all three statements could be true at the same time. When people say, “I am saved,” they are often talking about how they have been justified by God’s grace and made right with God. They have obtained the gift of salvation, not by their own merits but by the merits of Jesus Christ and his atoning sacrifice on the cross. When people say, “I am being saved,” they understand that God is not through with them yet. They are referring to the process of sanctification. When people say, “I will be saved,” they understand that the process of sanctification will result one day, perhaps it will be through death and resurrection, in the sinless state we will enjoy in eternity. In this understanding, salvation and its power are ongoing. We should not think that the power of our salvation was given all at once back in time, only to wane in time. This is why it is important to be able to understand our salvation beyond the emotional experience that may have been connected to it in the beginning. It is good, however, to remember experiences of when our faith was confirmed.
But recall those earlier days when, after you had been enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to abuse and persecution, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion for those who were in prison, and you cheerfully accepted the plundering of your possessions, knowing that you yourselves possessed something better and more lasting. Do not, therefore, abandon that confidence of yours; it brings a great reward. For you need endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised.
Think about those for whom the Letter to the Hebrews was originally written. Apparently, they needed to hear this word of admonition not to let their faith and hope waver. Listen though to how the writer challenged them to remember earlier days after they had been enlightened. They could recall that it was not easy for them. They endured struggle. Either they had endured public abuse and persecution personally, or they had partnered with those who had been treated this way. They had visited their friends in prison who were put there because of their faith. They had cheerfully accepted the plundering of their possessions because they knew they possessed something better and more lasting. Their faith had not been just a flash in the pan. Their faith had not been just an emotional experience they had one time in their lives. Their faith had been tested and confirmed. Their faith had withstood the hard times.
It is to people like these that these words were written: “Do not, therefore, abandon that confidence of yours; it brings great reward.” During the time of testing, they had developed confidence in their faith. Think of a time when you came up against circumstances, your faith kicked in, you learned more about your resilience, and you developed confidence. Not only should you not abandon this confidence, you should cultivate it. Our own stories of resilience are as powerful as they are hard won. They are precious. Write these stories down somewhere. Tell people about them. Reflect on them from time to time.
If our faith can remain steadfast and even grow in the hard times, is it also true that good times or easier times in life can breed complacency? As the scripture says, we need endurance so that when we have done the will of God, we may receive what was promised. We need our faith for the long haul – good times and bad times alike. We need to pay as much attention to our faith in the good times as we do in the hard times. One way to do this is to take these good times and plan a season of intentional growth. Begin a long-term in-depth Bible study. Volunteer for a ministry. Get more involved in your community of faith. Get more regular in your devotional life with the goal of developing more intimacy with God.
Two good spiritual practices are called Examination of Conscience and Examination of Consciousness. They are, of course, interrelated. Your conscience has to do with your awareness of right and wrong, and consciousness has to do with your mindful contact with God. These can be done simply by asking two questions: 1) “When today have I felt most distant from God?” and 2) “When today have I felt closest to God?”
Examining your conscience often begins the process. Where have you sinned by the things you did that you ought not to have done, and when did you neglect to do those things that you should have done?
When you examine your consciousness of God, you will also want to examine how you used the means of grace available to you. These means of grace help us develop and sustain intimacy with God. The following list is not exhaustive, but it can get you started: simple prayer, reading of scripture, praying through scripture, devotional reading, public worship, Holy Communion, intercessory prayer, contemplative prayer, unceasing prayer, and participating in a small group devoted to any of these devotional practices. A small group of believers is the ideal setting for considering how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.
A good prayer for this lesson is the third verse of Robert Robinson’s hymn, Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing. He addresses the Lord in this way:
O to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be!
Let thy goodness, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above. Amen.
Dr. Jay Harris serves as the Assistant to the Bishop for Ministerial Services for the South Georgia Conference. Email him at email@example.com.