The Biblical focus of faith is always God himself, but a persistent human error is to shift that focus from God to self. Instead of God being in sovereign control, individuals see themselves as controlling the course of their lives either  positively, by their goodness and faith, or  negatively, by their sin and failure of faith. I am using the word ‘faithism’ to describe this common misconception, because here faith focuses on itself.
Like legalism, faithism sees merit in human endeavour. In legalism my performance, that is, my righteousness, is seen as either obtaining or maintaining my salvation. In faithism, which is a form of legalism, my performance, that is the quality and quantity of my faith – my act of believing, is seen to determine if and how God will respond to my prayers and either give or withhold ‘blessing’.
How can we recognize if we are trapped in legalistic faithism?
The expressions of faithism are many, ranging from the comparatively harmless to the outright blasphemous; they all, however, distort our perception of how God rules the world, and erode the joy and peace that Christ died to gain for us. The following are expressions of faithism in its simple legalistic expression:
I’m so sincere in what I believe …
I’ve served God faithfully all my life, so he ought to ...
I believe in God, what have I done to deserve this ...?
God is not answering my prayers so maybe I don’t have enough faith.
There must be hidden sin in my life stopping God from granting my prayer!
God won’t (and/or can’t) act unless I pray.
The size of God’s answer is relative to the size of my faith.
God won’t and/or can’t bless me while there’s sin in my life.
I’m a Christian, so I expect God to bless me with health and wealth.
My sickness is because of some hidden sin.
These all express a focus on my faith or my faith response [the presence of absence of sin]. We see in them the concept of my faith determining what will happen in my life. The ‘god’ about whom this ‘faith’ speaks is not the God of the Bible. The concepts of ‘faith’ and ‘sin’ differ from the Biblical concepts. Importantly, further thought reveals that each of these perceptions ignores, or fails to understand, the salvation which Jesus Christ gained for us through his sacrificial, substitutionary death.
What does the Bible teach in contrast to faithism?
God is the object and focus of our faith. True faith is always in him. It is never faith in faith. The value of faith is in its object, not in itself.
Sincerity alone never validates faith. There are millions all around the world who have sincere faith in some ‘god’ or some cause, but, in Biblical terms, it is ultimately valueless because it is placed in the wrong object (Isaiah 44:6-20; Jeremiah 2:11-13).
The New Testament constantly calls us to faith in Christ, in whom alone the true God is revealed and known, and apart from whom the true God cannot be known. It is faith in Christ that has value in God’s sight, simply because it is faith in Christ. The God in whom the Bible requires us to place our faith is co-identical with Jesus Christ. Faith in Jesus Christ is faith in God (Romans 9:5; John 5:23; 10:30; 12:44-45; 14:6-11; 1 John 5:20).
True faith reunites the individual to God on the basis of two things: (a) knowing God by knowing Jesus Christ, and (b) having sin forgiven (so that it is no longer taken into account) through the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ (John 1:12; 3:16; 5:24; Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 2:13-14).
Our faith is not an instrument with which to obtain the earthly ‘blessings’ we desire, but rather faith unites us to Jesus Christ in whom all the spiritual blessings heaven has to offer are already ours (Ephesians 1:3).
Our access to the presence of God in prayer is never dependent on the quantity or quality of our faith or the sinlessness of our lives but on the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross, through which we have boldness to enter God’s presence (Hebrews 10:19-23). Our access is always dependent on Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, forever, and never on ourselves. To propose that our sin comes in between and bars our access to God in prayer is to ignore or reduce the significance of the cross. To propose that some quality or quantity of our faith determines whether or not God grants our requests loses touch with the Biblical teaching that we relate to God in terms of Christ’s righteousness, not our own (1 Corinthians 1:30; Philippians 3:4b-9). Only the one who approaches God destitute of his/her own merit, depending totally on God’s mercy, gains access into his presence (Luke 18:9-14).
God’s response to our prayers, and God’s ordering of the amount of ‘blessing’ or suffering in our lives, is the result of his sovereign decision. It is not determined by the amount or power of our faith, nor by the sinlessness or otherwise of our lives. We do not control or limit God and God’s decisions by our faith or our sin. As it says in Psalm 115:3: ‘Our God is in heaven, he does whatever pleases him.’
This is why the Lord’s Prayer instructs us to pray ‘your will be done’ (Matthew 6:10). True faith leaves the outcome in God’s hands. It does not, it dare not, demand a specific outcome from him who is the Sovereign Lord of all, who sees and knows all things. This is why Jesus himself allowed his Father the right to refuse his request: ‘if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will’ (Matthew 26:39b).
Next week's article will look at faithism's degeneration into paganism.