Your faith may not be godly, no matter how sincere you might believe. As Scripture declares:
“For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.” (Rom 12:3)
Self-reflection, as addressed here in God’s word, ought to be tempered with a clear-headed assessment according to our faith. For many, it is assumed that this faith means that the amount of belief in our personal rightness justifies our confidence that what we are doing, how we think of ourselves, and our assurances all the way to heaven are certain, doubtless, and rock-solid all because we have been taught to believe we are good and godly and guaranteed.
But that is not the same God-given faith being spoken of by Paul in this passage. This commonly taught faith is a deceptive faith given by some preachers through theological doctrines that prop up a person’s confidence with human-based philosophical judgment. It is a taught faith, not a living faith. It is a claim of faith in what a person believes, but absent of that part of faith that must be exercised. It is a gnostic error that promotes right knowledge alone as sufficient for salvation–of being in the right denomination, of knowing the right doctrine, of believing one is certain of being saved. As a result, many have been duped into a false faith of confidence that will terminate in weeping and gnashing of their teeth.
Those preachers and believers who claimed personal faith in Jesus as Lord–who did right by preaching, healing the hurting, and missionary work in Jesus name–will be shocked to hear their rejection from salvation with the words “I never knew you, depart from me you who do wicked”. Their Christian faith was certain and assured in Jesus through their belief, their knowledge of the gospel, and through their obedience, but it was not a godly faith. They did what Jesus wanted, as part of the great commission, but apparently not how, when, to whom, or with any reflection of submission to the leading of Jesus. We are not told that they did anything specifically wrong, rather it appears that the Lord reveals this sad reality to confront believers who have incorrect theology regarding the assurance of salvation. If they had been actively seeking his direction in ministry, then Jesus likely would have known them. They had been deceived in thinking they had faith. How much more so for those Christians who believe they are assured salvation, based on their theology, but can’t even claim all the obedient ministry and supernatural activity of the Spirit, like those Jesus referenced as unworthy?
The kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins—being assembled out of believers made pure through their acceptance of Jesus as Lord and Savior, who look and act and believe the same gospel message—but not all will enter eternity. Sadly, many fellow believers will fully expect in faith that the doors of heaven will open for them, but they will hear “I don’t know you”. They had been taught a doctrine of faith, meaning they believe with certainty that they are guaranteed eternal life by accepting Jesus and living for him, which is partly true, but who don’t actually have a godly faith. They were deceived into thinking they had faith, but a confidence-based-faith-in-our-personal-assurance is not the kind of faith that God is looking for. Salvation cannot be earned by our efforts, but without the fruit of godly faith, a virgin will lose everything they thought they had.
Those Christians who have a faith of belief in Jesus, but who “bury their talent”, will have what they had been given by God taken away from them with the divine judgment: “And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” The kind of faith that is often taught in churches, that of believe in Jesus and you will be saved, but which doesn’t accomplish the will of God, nor produces the kind of life that Jesus claims to accept, will turn into an empty claim of deceptive faith.
There are many, many, many more examples in God’s word, like the few above, that clearly warn believers against being deceived by explanations of faith that don’t rightly reflect the truth of God, but history demonstrates that most professing Christians have been taught to get angry at such reminders, to reject such warnings as not applying to them, to continue in their confident faith in being guaranteed heaven without being concerned by what God actually says to those who claim faith in Jesus. Stubborn and hard-hearted, just like the Israelites.
The writer of Hebrews repeats this following quote three times to Christians who think the promise of salvation they heard is guaranteed to them:
“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.”
Do you have ears to hear? Or, if you will allow me to ask, are you like so many others, who think you have faith and don’t need to consider yourself with sober judgment? It is your choice, for the moment, but that door will not always remain open. So consider carefully your standing before God, according to the activity of faith offered you by God.
To those whom the warnings of Scripture resonate, consider this context of “the measure of faith” that is different for “each one of you”, in this biblical instruction.
Paul is teaching believers to reflect on their individual and personal connection to God and his Church in a way that reflects what God wants to do through them, rather than per some generic, one-size-fits-all type of faith. In other words, this faith he is speaking of here, is not specifically the faith expression of belief in Jesus as Lord and Savior. Rather it is something more specific to each person.
This doesn’t mean there are different godly faiths, but rather that this context is focusing in on a more precise detail about faith. Within Scripture, the concept of faith contains several elements. Firstly, it is a reference to acceptance of God through Jesus and in what he did for us on the Cross. Secondly, upon that first expression of surrender and acceptance, a believer must participate in the transforming work of the Holy Spirit which perfects our faith. It is within this second stage of developing our God-given faith, that each person is gifted differently in their calling to live out the life of Christ in their own circumstances and relationships.
This is the context of Roman’s chapter 12: considering ourselves in how we connect to God and others, especially fellow believers. This is why the writer expands on this instruction by using the analogy of a human body with many parts (like hands, feet, head, skin, heart, bones, etc). So it is with how the Church is being developed by God: through the work of the Spirit, he has placed each person uniquely in his Church.
He has called each person, not only to believe in Jesus, but to serve in some specific and limited way. He has given different gifts to people, and in so doing, no single person can claim to be better than another. Nor can any believer claim to be more important to the Church, nor more useful to God, nor better than another believer—no matter how talented they are, no matter how much they may think they are more educated, no matter how much their role appears to be popular or impactful.
Don’t think of yourselves as more significant than another believer. Don’t think of yourself as more guaranteed or certain of salvation than is beyond dependence upon faith. Like Jews who thought they were guaranteed the promised salvation as descendants of Abraham, they heard the gospel, but “didn’t combine it with faith”. In other words, your self-view must reflect a leading by and reliance upon faith rather than upon a doctrine of assurance that doesn’t continuously rely on trust.
Again, this faith here is not talking about faith of assurance, or faith in Jesus as Lord. Rather, upon that initial, more general faith of belief, is this more specific emphasis within that faith of a moment-by-moment dependence on what God provides for that personal task or responsibility. It requires a faith that God will provide, guide and complete what is not certain, where the evidence of facts and knowledge are not obvious, and where we can still turn back to our old ways and “fall from your secure position”. This is to fulfill the declaration:
“The righteous will live by faith” (Hab 2:4)
Without faith, it is impossible to honor God, so no human can ever be called righteous, without first having faith, so a careful student will reflect on the detail of this above revelation. The righteous will first have a faith in God through Christ, and upon that foundation they are expected to then “live by faith”.
Again, a believer is considered righteous because of who Jesus is, not because of who they are. This is why Jesus is both Author and Perfecter of faith. The first role as Author is to grant faith to a sinful person in himself as Savior. Upon that basis of surrendering to and identifying with Jesus, a follower is declared righteous before God. Thereafter, God commands that believers live out their faith in a maturing manner that produces the fruit of a living and personal faith.
It is within that second stage of faith, that Paul writes to believers, who have already expressed a faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior, to temper their view of self-importance in line with the developing expression of making decisions and acting on a basis of truth-without-sight: a living by faith.
This distinction is very important to recognize, if you want to avoid the common deception of thinking you are saved because of your faith, and doing things that can only be done by the Spirit, when you are still not right with Jesus—when you are living because you have faith (the initial part), but not living by reliance upon faithful directing (the second part).
Remember the explanation of faith in Hebrews that says: a believer must not only believe that God exists (the initial part), but they must also believe that he rewards those who live out their lives in submissive obedience (the second part). The Bible commands both parts.
To live by faith is to approach individual choices and opportunities in a way that depends upon the constant direction of God in order to do your job, to serve, to participate in Church according to his will, rather than according to your preferences, your skills, your education, or according to your ministers expectations, the guilt-trips of others, or the philosophies of success and church-growth.
It would be an error to interpret the phrase “in accordance with the measure of faith” as a statement about a person’s amount of belief. That is very commonly taught, but this section is not focusing on the first part of “having faith”. It is teaching specifically on “how to operate by faith”. The instruction is about approaching our life, our responsibilities, our sense of calling, and service with a constant surrender to what the Holy Spirit wants at each moment. It is about stepping forward according to our personal recognition of the will of God as it fits with our personal grasp of scriptural guidelines. It is about preaching, teaching, serving, healing, praying, showing hospitality, giving, and every activity of service (especially within the Church), with complete restraint and expression that only acts in line with our personal sense of God’s will.
Remember, the immediately preceding context (v.2) expressly states that a believer must resist the patterns of thought common to society and to human reasoning, so that they can test and discover the will of God in the details they are facing. That is the reference to faith being highlighted here. This detail cannot be taught in church, other than in general terms, because it is specific and unique to each individual. It must be discovered in relationship with Jesus through his Spirit, by adjusting our choices and actions to increasingly come in line with what we are sensing of God’s specific will at that moment. This is why Jesus speaks against it with the phrase “I don’t know you”, because it is a relational-developed part of faith, not simply a profession of belief in him.
What is God showing that he wants of us right now, at this time, when facing this challenge or relationship? How do I live and act by his specific direction, rather than by leading with my taught ideas? Am I constantly adjusting my approach to reflect what I am striving to sense of his will, as it fits within what I am regularly comparing to his recorded words in Scripture? That constant adjustment of my life to reflect his leading when I can’t see everything clearly, when there may have been a past approach or even command of God in a similar situation, is what Paul is speaking about in this command.
This is living by faith as an individual—“to every one of you”—You Christians, who have become believers by faith in Jesus, must now live out that claim of faith, by living and acting with decisions and choices that develop out of a leading of faith. It takes the general theology of faith, granted by God, and then strives to apply it, with a new and detailed direction of the Spirit, in our personal and unique circumstances.
The details matter to God: You personally, as an individual, matter to God. He wants to interact daily with you on how to take his general truths and put them into living application in unique ways that are private and special between you and him. That doesn’t mean isolated, however, God wants to use you for a specific role and use in his Church that no one else has been called or gifted in the same way. God can use anyone, even unbelievers and deceived believers to accomplish his work, but only believers who surrender to his regular leading by faith in their personal interactions will be granted that incredible declaration of “well done”.
Remember, Moses had faith, and he also had a history of God’s commands, so when he faced a similar situation, he struck the rock. He didn’t deny his overall, general faith in God. Rather he was judged as unfit for the Promised Land, because he didn’t adjust himself to approach his next encounter with a constant sense of expecting the leading of God. As Scripture records, God gave a slight adjustment to what he wanted of Moses, and even though it seemed very similar to a past circumstance, Moses took the approach of his doctrinal belief, his position as leader, his knowledge of God’s past activity, rather than remaining sensitive to the “measure of faith God has given you” at that moment. He thought of himself and his rightness with God and his service to the body of Christ more highly than he should have. His self-view didn’t stay submissive to his head and he allowed his theology to cloud his decision on how to best deal with the situation he was facing. He didn’t act with the faith given him; he acted with his faith of belief. He was wrong, and he was rejected from the Promised Land.
When a believer is in a position of responsibility—a pastor, a parent, a parishioner—they must make decisions that strive to adjust the details of their choices without having all the information. That is why it is called living by faith. This is not specifically about living by our profession of faith, but a living by choices that come out of an active faith that God has inclined us to do, think, and act in a special and personal way.
Those who preach based primarily on their training will fail! Those who encourage the hurting based on their ideas of what might help that other person will fail! Those who pray blessings on everyone without adjusting themselves and restraining their desires to reflect the biblical revelation that at times God commands against prayer for others, will fail! Those who serve based on their own strength, skill, and history, will fail! Those who give typically out of their calculation of finances, will fail! Those who teach Scripture based on their denominational history, will fail! Those who raise children based on popular philosophy, worldly expectations, and personal preference, will fail! Those who obey scriptural commands based on how others approach circumstances, will fail!
It is not those who depend upon a profession of faith that will be saved, but those who “do the will of my Father in heaven”. What is often considered Orthodox Christian theology rejects this; this truth is not accepted by the majority. You need to hear this clearly. Most believe that living life under their profession of faith is all God wants, but that is the very reason that so many will be shocked to hear “I never knew you”. They claimed faith, and lived an active life that looked obedient, but they did not submit their personal life to act and do the specific will of God. They lived based on general theology, and not based on individual adjustment to the constant leading of the Spirit. Personal works were denounced by their theology, and so their idea of faith had nothing to do with submission to the leading of God in their private choices and actions.
As one conservative pastor taught about those who are baptized believers, but keep sinning without genuine repentance: “Your continued life of sin may send a confusing message to unbelievers, but that’s all. You will still be saved”. Such Christians have been taught a doctrine of assurance in their salvation that deceives them from being concerned about living contrary to biblical faith. They have been blinded by theological knowledge to embrace a claim-of-faith, in defiance of living by faith.
Faith must be lived by individual submission, not just doctrinal profession. Those believers who follow Jesus based on their claim of faith, but without actions that demonstrate a constant living by faith, will fail:
“They claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him. They are detestable, disobedient and unfit for doing anything good.” (Tit 1:16)
This is the context of the instruction to not think of yourself more highly than you should. It is about a faith-led self-reflection, and a basis for acting in the capacity into which God has called, gifted, and placed you. There is also a larger context to this, within the letter of Romans as a whole, but as far as the detail of this specific admonition, it is fitting to reflect on why believers are cautioned to not allow their faith-of-belief to distract them from recognizing the godly expectation of living-by-choices that come from a faith that God is providing directions to each person constantly.
In this way, several believers may recognize the calling of God to preach, but they will never be gifted the same. As such, each one must strive to adjust their approach to preaching to reflect what God is providing to them, which often will be in direct conflict with personal talent, training, and desire. Degrees, eloquence, popularity, positions-of-influence, and knowledge are often human replacements for being full of the Spirit and preaching under the incidental leading of faith.
To one, this may be pulpit preaching. To another it may require restraint from the pulpit and focus on youth preaching, or street preaching, or internet writing. To another it may be like a pressure boiler, that builds and builds, without relief, until the timing of God is revealed, perhaps many decades after the gift of preaching had been given. To another it may be a message of truth that causes them to mourn for those deceived in the Church and in society, expressed only through prayer, like incense before God, but with little or no identifiable outlet. To another it may find its right outlet through song, but not in direct communication.
To another it may require preaching the biblical gospel, but with a life’s emphasis on part of the message, like focusing on repentance, or judgment, or obedience. Such a right focus will never distort the overall truth, but it will always remain limited in being able to preach everything needed. In this way, no preacher can ever rightly claim to be God’s complete gift to the Church, without acknowledging their need for other preachers to do their God-given-faith part. In fact a preacher may be given the task and calling to preach and teach and promote the truth, but that doesn’t mean they have the authority to define truth ahead of other members in the Body who serve the same Lord in other roles.
God gave Jeremiah a specific message. He hated being viewed as the bad-guy, and often lamented even being born, but that is what the Lord laid upon him and he was expected to preach through faith in that specific calling. So is the case today. Nobody is the entire Body of Christ. Each one is gifted by grace for a subset of the whole, and that truth should be reflected in how each person views themselves and in how each person humbles themselves before the whole. God doesn’t show favoritism. Ministers and Priests are not better than believers without ordination. Each has his place, and each must do God’s will.
God gives a general grace of faith, but he also gives a specific grace of gifts differently to individuals in the body of his Church. Believers who understand this will strive to hear their Lord, to accept the responsibility to apply their personally-gifted grace and “use it in proportion to his faith” (Rom 12:6).
Again, this proportion is not as much about amount or profession–which might lead a person to compare their strength of belief to others, or to claim greater knowledge than another–but more about reliance upon. We are to put the specific gifts of God into personal practice, according to how we sense it would most honor God every day and in every decision, even when others don’t act in the same way.
As the footnote in the NIV also words this, a faith “in accordance with” faith. In other words, this is about expressions by faith, based on our profession of faith. The two are part of a unified whole, but they are not identified in Scripture as the same thing. The first is our claim of belief. The second is our development of the likeness of Christ. In reality, the two cannot be separated, because they both are designed to reflect trust in God.
This detail is so significant, that God pronounces that “whatever is not of faith, is sin”. This again is speaking of specific, individual actions that ought to come from a sense of what we personally think would honor God, rather than a general and common profession of having faith which doesn’t reflect anything unique between the parts in the Body.
That sense is never in defiance of the profession of faith, never in defiance of scriptural commands. This is not about a personal religion, nor about justifying the rightness of each person’s ideas of God. Personal adjustment in doing our individual part within the Body of Christ will always remain within the biblical boundaries of the Christian gospel. The distinction, however, will be in how to apply general biblical principles to our personal circumstances at that moment.
It is about how to focus the truth of God, that in terms of the overall gospel message remains exactly as true to every other believer, into our roles and responsibilities in a manner that shows our desire to adjust our freedoms of expression to select those approaches that would be more mature, more honorable, more reflective of trusting God—to live by faith.
To those who strive to live their faith by faith, God will likely grant greater opportunities to serve him and bless his Body of believers. As it was with Paul, expect that such growth will require even greater gifts of grace that are “sufficient for you”, even though the thorns are more than we want or can deal with on our own abilities. That will require responses of even more active living by faith, which God will give to the measure necessary to do his will.
If you wish to meditate on this distinction further, 2 Cor 4-6 is a powerful discourse on living by faith and not by sight in how to deal with painful, personal circumstances common to Christians. The kind of faith that God desires will reflect both a foundational belief as well as a life-long responsiveness to dealing with individual choices: “With that same spirit of faith, we also believe and therefore speak”.
By the grace of God’s Spirit, keep the Faith, and therefore live through faith.