GraceLife Church of Pineville

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Live by Faith: Strengthen Faith (Part 3)

Table of Contents

Scripture Focus: Various passages

Behold, for a moment the wonder that is this tree:

Japanese maple in Portland Japanese Garden (Portland, OR). Photo by David Wirzba on Unsplash.

There’s a lifetime of sermons in an object of wonder such as this. It would not be a waste of time if, for a half hour, you did nothing but listen to some contemplative worship music as you consider that tree. It would be an exercise in understanding God: 

For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. (Romans 1:20)

That is not my plan—to simply urge you to contemplate this tree—but I want to tell you a few details about this tree and why it came to mind as I contemplated how to help us better understand (or continue to understand) how the Scriptures encourage us to strengthen faith.

This particular tree is located in Portland Japanese Garden. It is a Japanese maple tree, and it’s probably about 70 or 80 years old. An award-winning photograph by Peter Lik (which you can view here) made it popular about 15 years ago; he called it “Tree of Life.”1Here are some other shots of the same tree, taken at different times and in different seasons: also by Peter Lik: “Inner Peace”, “Enchanted Heart”“Autumn Spirit”; taken by Bryce Mironuck: “Fanning the Flames.”

Let’s continue our study on strengthening faith and keep this tree in mind as an example. Remember, when we talk about strengthening faith, we’re not talking about strength in the sense of brute force. It’s not an idea of, “I have strong faith. I believe everything.” Rather, by strong faith, we’re referring to strength that correlates to the nature and purpose of a thing. Strength can speak to effectiveness, vitality, zeal, fervency, thoroughness, unyieldingness, richness, stability, endurance, support, or purity.

By strong faith, we’re referring to strength that correlates to the nature and purpose of a thing.

We’ve said that the call for strengthening faith is a call to:

  • Strengthen our resolve to exercise faith in situations in which faith is called for
  • Exercise faith especially in situations when the temptation is great to abandon trust
  • Be sanctified as a people who consistently live by faith

To put it even more simply, the call to strengthen faith is a call to:

  • Faith that lives
  • Faith that lasts
  • Faith that becomes legacy

Of course, the third point follows from the first two: Faith that lives and lasts over time builds a faith that becomes legacy.

What are some ways the tree in those photos is strong? You could say it’s strong in its appeal, its beauty, its majesty. It’s also strong in color, structure, and reach. Consider, too, how it holds in balance both a wildness and an orderliness; it’s firm and delicate, resolute and soft.

What contributes to this tree’s life? Water and soil may come to mind first. And these are, of course, important, positive additions needed for strengthening the tree’s life and vitality. But they’re not the only things that make for strength. There are things Japanese maple trees can’t tolerate—known susceptibilities. For example, Japanese maples can’t tolerate overbearing afternoon sun. Neither can they tolerate sustained winds, or their leaves will dry up and shrivel. If these things aren’t guarded against, the character of this beautiful tree will quickly shift, and its appearance will be all the sadder in consideration of its lost potential.

In the previous sermon, I spoke of positive additions that strengthen faith: items for growth that are as expected as water and soil for a plant. Those items are prayer and the word of God, both of which strengthen faith.

But there are also things that we must guard against if we are to remain strong in faith. There are things that will scorch us and cause us to shrivel—things that will lead us to exude the character of death instead of life. We must guard against these things.

There are things that will scorch us and cause us to shrivel—things that will lead us to exude the character of death instead of life. We must guard against these things.

As a part of the current subseries on living by faith, I already gave a sermon on fleeing certain things. This sermon is about guarding against certain things. There’s a subtle difference:

  • I explained fleeing in contrast to that which you should be pursuing. There are some things that you should run after, and some things that you shouldn’t run after (i.e., things
    you should flee).
  • Guarding is acting against things that might come against you.

The difference between fleeing and guarding depends on levels of exposure, levels of responsibility, levels of maturity. There are some things that all of us should, given our common humanity, be on guard against. But there are also some things, given your particular station, that you should take extra care against.

Sometimes the differences in exposure might be cause for one person to receive the instruction “guard” and another person to receive the instruction to “flee.” Maybe you weren’t pursuing a wrong thing, but in your failure to guard against it, it took up residence in your life, and before you realized what was happening, you were in regular pursuit of that thing. 

We have to know when to guard and when to flee.

Guard Your Heart, the Seat of Faith

When it comes to strengthening faith, we are all called to guard our hearts. The heart is the seat of faith, an idea found in (among other places in Scripture) Romans 10:10: “For with the heart a person believes.” 

When the Bible uses the word “heart,” it’s referring to “the center and source of the whole inner life, with its thinking, feeling, and volition.”2Καρδία is the Greek word. Definition from Federick William Danker and Walter Bauer, Eds., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 508. The word can be synonymous with “mind.” Sometimes we might use one word over the other to emphasize either logic or passion more. But both the heart and the mind, Scripturally speaking, have to do with the inner life as compared to what we say or do.

Because the heart is the seat of faith, we need to guard it—to be a guardian to the gate of our heart. Doing so is both an act of faith itself and an act that further strengthens faith through continued protection. Let me explain further what I mean.

Both the heart and the mind, Scripturally speaking, have to do with the inner life. … Because the heart is the seat of faith, we need to guard it.

Ephesians 6:16 says, “In addition to all, taking up the shield of faith with which you will be able to extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.” Some translations say “Above all” instead of “In addition to all” at the beginning of that verse; the admonition is to pay attention, to make sure you do this. The enemy is going to take shots—shots at your heart. When he does, we’re called to lift the shield of faith to extinguish his flaming arrows.

The enemy is going to take shots—shots at your heart. When he does, we’re called to lift the shield of faith to extinguish his flaming arrows.

We previously discussed the need to individually and collectively strengthen our faith. Every time you lift your shield, there’s an individual strengthening that happens, but there’s a collective strengthening as well. The shields of the apostle Paul’s day were large and heavy, covering the whole body. The warriors of that time would have been expected to line up together and protect the whole unit. As their shields of faith were lined up one by another, both an individual strengthening and a collective strengthening occurred. The author of Hebrews introduced that idea:

Take care, brothers and sisters, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God. (Hebrews 3:12)

The verse offers a warning to believers to take care of their hearts. For it’s with the heart (the seat of faith) that a person believes or doesn’t believe. From this inner life, we can fall away from the living God. If that’s the case, then the Old Testament proverb is worth repeating:

Guard your heart with all vigilance,3Or “diligence.”
For from it are the sources of life. (Proverbs 4:23)

Things to Guard Against So Faith Is Strengthened

The Scriptures warn us about things we should guard against so that our hearts (and thus our faith) are protected and strengthened. Let’s go over some of those things now.

#1 Guard Against the Religious Charlatan

The guarding against that we’re talking about here has a lot to do with recognizing truth and guarding against error. In our series on living by faith (and in other sermons), as a reminder, we’ve talked about three categories of faith. 

  • Category 1 faith—leads to justification and eternal life
  • Category 2 faith—leads to anything else
  • Category 3 faith—refers to faith as a system, an idea, a doctrine (something we can believe and hold fast to)

Categorization is helpful for making necessary distinctions, but lived out, these faith categories are all interconnected. If you fail to guard your mind against error, it results in a failure in category 3 faith; however, that failure will affect the other categories of faith as well. If your mind buys error, category 2 faith will weaken, and you’ll live a life of inconsistency (a life that is inconsistent with what you claim to believe). In addition, failing to hold fast to the truth will cause you to doubt the initial faith that you had in your Savior for eternal life (category 1 faith). Your doubts could get so bad that you might even deny that initial faith. We have to guard against such things.

Look at Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians:

I wish that you would bear with me in a little foolishness; but indeed you are bearing with me. For I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy; for I betrothed you to one husband, so that to Christ I might present you as a pure virgin. But I am afraid that, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, your minds will be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ. For if one comes and preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, or you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted, you bear this beautifully. (2 Corinthians 11:1–4)

This passage can be hard to understand if you don’t pick up on Paul’s sarcasm (yes, Scripture uses sarcasm!). He warns his readers ahead of time, saying, in effect, Hey, I’m going to talk foolishly now (v. 1). In the middle of the passage, we find the religious charlatan: “as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, your minds will be led astray” (vv. 3–4). Then, at the very end, comes the sarcasm: “You bear this beautifully.” That comment might have gotten lost in translation. What Paul is saying is this: These charlatans come around, and you sure do put up with them well. They speak the name of Jesus, and their talk sounds religious, sounds close to what the apostles and I are saying. But these charlatans are speaking non-truths. And you guys just tolerate it.

The New Living Translation, in this case, phrases it well:

You happily put up with whatever anyone tells you, even if they preach a different Jesus than the one we preach, or a different kind of spirit than the one you received, or a different kind of gospel than the one you believed. (2 Corinthians 11:4)4Holy Bible: New Living Translation (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2015).

You happily put up with whatever anyone tells you. What seems to be the case here is a cult of personality. But Paul gets down to business in the next verses, and he doesn’t hold back:

For I consider myself not in the least inferior to the most eminent apostles.5Paul is essentially saying, “I’m not inferior to these so-called super apostles with whom you’ve become enamored.” But even if I am unskilled in speech,6Paul is acknowledging, “I may not be as flashy as those preachers.” yet I am not so in knowledge; in fact, in every way we have made this evident to you in all things.

Or did I commit a sin in humbling myself so that you might be exalted, because I preached the gospel of God to you without charge?7Apparently, the Corinthians not only put up with these charlatans but were giving money to them too. I robbed other churches by taking wages from them to serve you; and when I was present with you and was in need, I was not a burden to anyone; for when the brethren came from Macedonia they fully supplied my need, and in everything I kept myself from being a burden to you, and will continue to do so. As the truth of Christ is in me, this boasting of mine will not be stopped in the regions of Achaia. Why? Because I do not love you? God knows I do!

But what I am doing I will continue to do, so that I may cut off opportunity from those who desire an opportunity to be regarded just as we are in the matter about which they are boasting. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. No wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. Therefore it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness, whose end will be according to their deeds. (2 Corinthians 11:5–15)

This play, this tactic, has been the same from the beginning—there’s not a new playbook for the religious charlatan:

  • Hey, these people aren’t that bad. I mean, they’re in a church after all. (This reasoning isn’t dissimilar to saying, of the serpent in the Garden of Eden, Hey, this snake can’t be that bad. He’s in God’s garden, after all.)
  • Look at all those followers! Look at all the people who listen to that teacher. That person must be doing something right. Yet, do you know that Satan deceives the whole world and a whole host of angels (Revelation 12:9)? From that standpoint, a few thousand followers in an assembly called a church are certainly not going to be beyond his reach.

The Scripture is clear. It’s not the overtly vile that will catch us and trip us up. Paul calls them for what they are, revealing their true identity: servants of Satan peddling the doctrines of demons. But make no mistake, the doctrines of demons are taught by humans! But it won’t be so obvious that they’re taught by humans with horns protruding from their heads. They will masquerade as messengers of light. And so those deadly arrows, the flaming arrows that are shot our way, will be quick, elusive, and mistaken for drops of honey from the lips of liars.

It’s not the overtly vile that will … trip us up. … They will masquerade as messengers of light. … [Their] deadly arrows will be quick, elusive, and mistaken for drops of honey from the lips of liars. 

You need to guard your heart against the one who offers up false words, because, according to the Scriptures, “the devil comes and takes away the [true] word from hearts, so that people will not believe and be saved” (Luke 8:12). That’s the game of the devil. He shoots the flaming arrows of false words, while he comes and gathers up the true words. He is a thief. But he’s not a petty thief. That which he steals is the word of God, so that people will not believe and be saved.

[The devil] is a thief. But he’s not a petty thief. That which he steals is the word of God, so that people will not believe and be saved.

Now, if you’re thinking, “I’m good here; I’m not easily taken in by the religious charlatan,” know that the enemy has a different appeal for you. Some might be taken in by people—by their charisma and personalities—while others are taken in by information; this leads to the second thing to guard against.

#2 Guard Against What Appears to Be Great Knowledge

In another letter, the apostle Paul writes, “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8). This verse could almost be considered the opposite theme verse of our larger series on the elementary principles (or oracles) of God, because Paul speaks of the “elementary principles of the world.” His urge, “Don’t be taken captive by,” could also be translated “Guard against.”

No worries, I hate that philosophy stuff, you might be thinking. But beware, because philosophies come in all sorts. Whether they have the formal air of academic rigor or the ease of armchair assumptions, we all adopt (and live by) philosophies. The key is to not be taken captive by bad ones.

We all adopt (and live by) philosophies. The key is to not be taken captive by bad ones.

While Colossians 2:8 offers a warning to guard our inner life against bad philosophies, the previous verses show that there is instead a possibility for strength:

For I want you to know how great a struggle I have on your behalf and for those who are at Laodicea, and for all those who have not personally seen my face, that their hearts may be encouraged,8Or “strengthened.” having been knit together in love, and attaining to all the wealth that comes from the full assurance of understanding, resulting in a true knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ Himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. I say this so that no one will delude you with persuasive argument. For even though I am absent in body, nevertheless I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good discipline and the stability of your faith in Christ.

Therefore as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, having been firmly rooted and now being built up in Him and established in your faith, just as you were instructed, and overflowing with gratitude. (Colossians 2:1–7)

Did you notice the elements of the inner life present in these verses? We see encouraged hearts (vv. 2–3), full assurance of understanding (v. 2), and wisdom and knowledge (v. 3). And we see what it is that Paul is looking for: “stability of … faith” (v. 5). He wants to see stable faith. Strong faith is stable; it’s faith that lives, lasts, and builds a legacy.  

Strong faith is stable faith.

Paul even gives an agricultural analogy—dare we say, a comparison to something like a tree: “having been firmly rooted” (v. 7). Remember, from past sermons, Paul’s appeal to Timothy, “O Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you, avoiding worldly and empty chatter and the opposing arguments of what is falsely called ‘knowledge’—which some have professed and thus gone astray from the faith” (1 Timothy 6:20–21, emphasis added).

#3 Guard Against the False View that Strong Faith Is Found Only in the Phenomenal

A third thing we need to guard against is the false view that strong faith is found only in the phenomenal. You might be thinking, Yeah, but you showcased this phenomenal tree and its autumnal radiance and verdant splendor and glory. True, I did. But consider two other photographs of Japanese maples.

Here’s one that’s a little more normal looking. The tree is about seven or eight feet tall. It may be less majestic, but it does have a certain appeal, certain qualities—a beauty, color, and shape—that cause it to stand out from the other trees.

And consider this photo of a little burgundy blob, right in the middle of the edge of the path:  

Image of maple tree along path
The Strolling Pond Garden and Tea Garden during the 1960s. Photo by William “Robbie” Robinson.9Source: Portland Japanese Garden, “A Reminder of Peace and Reconciliation” (blog), April 3, 2017,

That burgundy blob is a Japanese maple as well. In fact, all of the photos I’ve shown you and linked to above are of the very same tree! The photograph immediately above shows what the tree looked like in 1968 when it was planted—probably 20 years old then. The beginning of its life is mysterious. We don’t know who planted it. Its planter is unseen. Its true majesty is still mostly unknown to the average passerby. But one day, a photographer, curious about the inner life of the tree, crawled under its canopy, considered life from the inside out for just a moment, and saw, in that moment—in a season—the true soul of this creation.

You see, this tree of 70–80 years doesn’t always look like this. Indeed, the majority of the time, the tree doesn’t look like that. And even when it does take on its autumnal splendor, it takes those with eyes to see exactly where and why the otherwise ordinary maple is internally impressive.

Friends, we too have about that long (on average) to become something:

  •  70 or 80 years to grow steadily stronger through the years, to guard ourselves against the wind and the sun that scorches our leaves and drives up our lives
  • 70 or 80 years to shine in a season 
  • 70 or 80 years to reach—not many, but to significantly reach some
  • 70 or 80 years to be known and nourished in all seasons by the unseen Gardener and to guard our inner life for faith in Him

Will you use your years well and wisely? Will you fix your hope on Your Maker, guarding your heart, strengthening faith, and purifying your life just as He is pure? He has bestowed great love on us and deeply desires for us to do so.