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The World-Conquering Power of Faith

Herman Bavinck
Herman Bavinck

A Sermon on 1 John 5:4b preached in the Burgwalkerk in Kampen on June 30,1901

This sermon was preached on the occasion of President Kruger with his retinue, being present in the gathering of the congregation during his visit to Kampen, on Sunday 30th June 1901. Many who heard it made known their desire that it should appear in published form. Although I could not literally give the sermon again, I have no objections to complying with this friendly request. The whole is now given concisely, in agreement with the words spoken on that day.
– Herman Bavnick

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And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. – 1 John 5:4b

John is normally, and not without reason, named the apostle of love. But this does not in the least exclude [the fact that] he constantly deals with faith. In the first five verses of our chapter, he bears witness to three glorious things about faith. First he says that faith implants a new principle of living in the person. Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God. Through faith he has gone over from death to life; he does not belong any more to below, but rather to above; he belongs no more to the world but is rather a child of God, a citizen of heaven, an heir of eternal life. Because, as many as have received Jesus as the Christ, he has given the right to be called children of God—namely, those who believe in his name, those born not by blood or the will of the flesh or the will of man, but of God.

Second, John witnesses that faith in Jesus as the Christ is a mighty power toward love and obedience to God’s commandments. Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, has therein experienced the great love that God, in the sending of his Son and making reconciliation through his blood, has revealed to us. And the experience of this matchless love compels him to love the One who gave him birth, with all his soul and mind and powers. Because God is the First: herein is love, not that we had loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Thus, after this we also love him, because he first loved us. And whoever loves God with thankful love in return also loves all those who with him have been born of God and belong to the same Father’s family. Yes, by faith he receives a deep desire to walk in all, and not merely some of Gods commandments uprightly. And these commandments are not heavy. The world’s commandments are heavy; serving the world is hard. But for whoever loves God, his commandments are a pleasure throughout the day. For his disciples, Jesus’ yoke is easy and his burden light.

And third, John assures us then in the fourth and fifth verses of our chapter that faith is a power that even overcomes the world. Everyone who is born of God overcomes the world. He overcomes the world through faith—namely, through faith that Jesus is Gods Son. We will see this world-conquering faith, we hope, when we pay attention to, consecutively,

The opposition that this faith experiences.

The character that this faith bears.

The victory that is promised to this faith.

I.

Everything that stands against faith, all the opposition that it experiences, the whole might of enmity against which it strives, is summed up together by John under the name “the world.” The Greek word translated as “world” actually means “jewel” [or “adornment”] and points out that the people who spoke this language saw the world in its beautiful aspect. Because of the richness of its forms and colors, its harmonious order and regularity, the Greeks marveled at it as a work of art, as a work of beauty.

The Holy Scriptures are also aware of this beauty found in the world. They narrate to us what the Greek philosophers did not suppose regarding the furthest horizon: that the almighty and eternal God, who called things that were not, to be as though they were, created the whole world by his word, and that he, having come to the end of his creative work, saw all that he had made, and saw that it was very good. But also, after the fall, the Scriptures often sing of the beauty of the world in mighty, devotional language. The heavens declare Gods glory and the firmament his handiwork. The voice of God is on the mighty waters. His breath renews the face the earth. His footsteps overflow with abundance. Even the human, made a little lower than the angels, is crowned with honor and glory. The Lord is good to all, his name is glorious over all the earth, his mercies are over all his works.

But nonetheless, the Scriptures do not stop at this aesthetic worldview. They differ indeed massively from the heathen deification of nature, as they [the Scriptures] marvel at God’s work in the vast creation and make famous his virtues. But it is not enough for [the Scriptures] to praise the beauty of the world. They set a different, higher, moral bar against the created, and test everything by the demands of Divine righteousness. And then, building on this standard, they pronounce that this world is not what it should be. It is fallen and has been stripped of its ideal. The creation has become a world that stands against God and has put itself in service of sin. The fallen angels belong to the world in this sense, those who, situated beautifully at the foot of God’s throne, nonetheless did not keep their principle. To this world belong people who have all fallen in their [covenantal] head, and are therefore conceived and born in sin, and daily increase their guilt before God. To this world belongs the human understanding, which is darkened; the will, which is inclined to evil; the heart, from which all evil thoughts come forth; the soul, which has turned away from God and clings to the material; the body, which uses all of its members as weapons for unrighteousness. To it belongs everything set up by men and brought into being by men: the institutions of family and society and state, the works of calling and business, of science and art, of industry and commerce. To it belongs the whole of humanity, from the first man to the last, all born from a single woman; in all its generations and families and languages and peoples; in all of these eras of its history, through all the centuries of its development and expansion; in its struggles and triumphs, in its civilizing and decay, in the states that it founds, in the empires that it establishes. To it belongs even the senseless and lifeless creation—because the earth has been cursed due to the human will, the whole creation sighs and is in labor pains until now. [The creation] is subject to vanity, not willingly, but on the will of the one who has subjected it to vanity.

The existing order of created beings, in its entirety, the whole orrery that is God’s creation, that fixed whole in all its visible and invisible parts, insofar as it is an instrument of unrighteousness, is summed up by the apostle John under the name “the world.” And he can name it as such, in one name, with one word, because sin has damaged the whole world and makes it (in its entirety) live from one principle, inspired by one spirit, pointed toward one goal: namely, enmity and rebellion against God, its Creator and Lord.

Oh, we say from day to day, and pronounce without thought, that God is love. And he is just that, eternal love and matchless comfort. For God so loved even this guilty and lost world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life. Still, outside of Christ, who dares to boast of God’s love? Does not the whole of nature preach to us, and does not our own heart and mind preach to us, that God’s favor does not rest on his creatures, that he has a dispute with his creation, that all creatures pass away through his wrath and are terrified by his anger?

Is that not an alarming situation? God and the world at odds with each other because of sin! A state of enmity and hatred, of dispute and war between the Creator and his creatures, between the Maker and the made, between the almighty, eternal God and the powerless creature that is nothing but dust and ashes and has no existence in and of itself. This world, in its entirety, rests not on its own foundation, but is rather maintained from moment to moment by the word of God’s power. He gives it all its being and life, all its capacity and strength, all that it is and all that it has. Satan would also have no might were it not given him from above. And yet sin organizes the whole universe with all the creatures and powers therein as an instrument against God and his kingdom. From all this sin makes a world that has the prince of darkness as its commander, that lies in evil, that lives in a state of injustice, that forms a kingdom of sin and unrighteousness, and that seeks to triumph over God by violence and trickery, over his name and his kingdom.

And precisely through this, sin taking all of God’s creations and gifts into its service, the world forms such an almost limitless power. Who is equipped to stand against its domination, to break free from its influence? Could a creature, walled in on every side by the world and bound in its snares, do that? Could a person, who belongs to this world with all his body and soul, with all his thought and desire, do that? After all, this world is not only external to us; it lives within us in the highest place, in our hearts, in our understanding, in our will, and in all our affections. And therefore it has power over us, seducing us by the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eye and the pride of life, none of which come from the Father, but rather are of the world. Everyone who sins is a slave to sin.

No, we do not serve the world willy-nilly. At the core of our being we do not stand against it on Gods side, although we sometimes gladly delude ourselves [in that regard]. We are all by nature children of wrath, without God and without Christ, without hope in the world. We are, as people, the most prominent part of that fallen world. In us it has its strongest proof, its mightiest warriors. We serve it voluntarily and willingly with all the abilities God gives us, with all the powers he loans us. We follow its direction without opposition. We stand guilty, impure, tainted, condemned before Gods countenance, with the whole world. It is in us and around us as an undeniable power; it extends the scepter of its dominion over all creation. Miserable people that we are, who shall then save us from the might of this world? Who will free us from the guilt of sin, from the stain of impurity, from subservience to wickedness, from the violence of the grave? Who can restore to us mastery over the world and crown us as winners over it?

II.

See, beloved, as we people stand desperately and vainly look to creatures for salvation John, the apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ, comes to us and holds Gods word before our eyes: this is the victory that has overcome the world—namely, our faith.

Faith, the victory over the world!

When we first hear this, we could feel the thought arising within us that John is mocking our misery, has no idea of the world’s might, and has an insufficiently scientific view of faith. Faith, so it is said anyway, may be something more than an opinion, but it is still far less than knowledge and never leads to more than a certain degree of probability. And such faith, which is nothing more than an uncertain, unsteady opinion, should be the victory over the world, not over a single thought or desire, but over the whole world and all its power, with which it masters us from within and without. Is it not more sensible to act like Naaman the Syrian, who, when commanded by Elisha to wash himself seven times in the Jordan in order to be healed, became furious, saying: “Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the rivers in Israel? Can I not wash myself in them and be clean?” We run this risk when we learn that John gives us no weapon in this fight but faith, and we walk away saying: “Are states and kingdoms, the arts and sciences, the discoveries and inventions brought about by men, not better weapons than the simple faith that John commends to us in this war?” Why, if he wants to equip us for this battle against the world, does he not name science, which man masters over all the works of Gods hands? Why does he not name art, a mighty skill and the highest and most beautiful thought of men embodied in the stubborn material world? Why does he not name states, which bridle the humans inner wild animal and coerce him to walk in the path of righteousness? Why does he not name empires, which bind their peoples to the victory train of tyrants and tie all lands together in one area? Why does he name nothing about the glory and greatness of men and speak only of faith shared by a few?

Still, before anger leads us to give up on Johns word, let us carefully weigh up what he means by this faith and why he attributes such a world-conquering power to it. Earnest, impartial research forbids us from being deceived by the appearance of things. If we only imagine the fight found here, the issue at hand changes in character. This is a world of sin and unrighteousness, of destruction and death, and it must be overcome. And whatever laurels science may have gained in its sphere, it has never freed a single soul from guilt and made it appear without fear before God’s face. However art has made things more pleasant in human life, it has never provided a single creature with the only comfort by which you may live and die. And whatever conquests states and empires have won over men and peoples, they have never changed the heart and in free obedience submitted themselves to the will of the King of kings. All of these weapons, used by men, have been borrowed from this world, are taken out of this world, and also pass away with this world. Conceived and born in sin, they are all often in service of the world and have furthered its power and extended its dominance.

But the faith that John speaks of tells of other victories. It has an entire history behind it, a history that begins with a lost paradise and that continues from generation to generation. Let just a few of the heroes of the faith pass by your spirit for but a moment! By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith. By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaohs daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward. By faith the people crossed the Red Sea as on dry land, but the Egyptians, when they attempted to do the same, were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Paul entered the heathen world and planted the banner of the gospel of the cross at the center point of civilization. By faith the church of Christ withstood the Roman Empire in the first centuries, and led the peoples of Europe to obey Christ. By faith Luther lifted up his voice against the degeneration of Rome’s church and set the pure light of the gospel to shine anew. By faith, our forefathers fought for eighty years against Roman idolatry and Spanish tyranny, and won the victory of freedom against both. By faith, the heroes of South Africa bound the weapons of all-powerful England for freedom and justice, and to the amazement of the watching world have remained standing to the present day. By faith—whom else should I name from all of those thousands, the thousands upon thousands, who in the passage of time have conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight?

Recognize history, then, as a witness to the world-conquering power of faith! But such a witness does not set aside the [particular] history of each [kind of] faith, [it does not deal] with faith simply as a psychological phenomenon, regardless of its object, origin, and essence. Because there are many sorts of faith. There is a faith that comes from within a person, that belongs to the world, that bows before idols, that is simply a form of unbelief or superstition, that does not fight against and conquer the world, but rather that supports and establishes it. John, the apostle of the Lord, ascribes world-conquering power only to the faith shared with his brothers and sisters, to the belief that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Only this certain, defined faith is equipped for victory, because that faith maintains that Jesus the Son of God is the Christ. Jesus, which is to say, that historic person, that person born of a woman, who nineteen centuries ago lived in Palestine, who was like us in every way, but without sin, who went throughout the land preaching and doing good works and healing every sickness among the people, who lay down his life on the scornful and scandalous cross. It maintains that this Jesus, who, when he came into our midst, would not have been seen by anyone as more than a man, that this Jesus, not being beautiful in form or having any glory that we should desire him, that he, notwithstanding all this, is God’s Son, the Only Begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth, of the patriarchs according to the flesh, but also truly God over all, blessed forever. It maintains that this Jesus is the Christ, and not our virtues or good works, not the art of science, not the state or power, not a single creature on heaven or on earth, but rather that he alone is the Christ, the Servant of the Lord, the Anointed One of God, the one who makes atonement for sins, the Savior of the world, our highest Prophet, our only High Priest, our eternal King.

And through this, through its content and object, is faith precisely a world-conquering power. It is no mere work of the lips or a rational assent to a historical truth. But it is firm certainty, unshakeable conviction, ineradicable confidence, not of blood or of the will of the flesh, not of the will of a man, but coming from God and worked in the heart by his Spirit. It is the bond that the soul binds to the Mediator and holds fast to him as seeing the Unseen. It is the power that transfers the person from darkness to the Kingdom of the Son of God’s love and gives him a point of support and rest in the world of immovable realities. It is the firm ground for the things that he hopes and the irrefutable proof for the things that he does not see. It is the courage by which he faces up to the whole world and rejoices: If God is for us, who can be against us? It is the comfort that makes him sing psalms by night and also causes the song to rise up during the most frightful oppression:

The Lord is my strength and my song;

he has become my salvation.

Glad songs of salvation

are in the tents of the righteous:

“The right hand of the Lord does valiantly,

the right hand of the Lord exalts,

the right hand of the Lord does valiantly!”

III.

Because it is in that faith—namely, faith in Jesus as the Christ— that victory over the world is thus promised and assured. In its principle and essence, it is already victory over the world. It defeats the world not only in its consequences and fruit, but is from its first beginning onward already victory over the world. Believing that Jesus is the Christ is the simplest thing that can be thought, the only fresh and living way for a guilty child of man to participate in heavenly blessedness, eternal life, and peace with God by mere grace.

But this does not deny that there is so much needed to receive and practice that faith that no man can give himself or acquire it.

To believe in truth that Jesus is the Christ requires that we deny ourselves, that we crucify our flesh with its desires, capture our understanding with all its thoughts and lead it to obedience, consider all our righteousness as throwaway rags, accuse ourselves of trespassing all the commandments, give up on our hope in each created thing, fully recognize God’s justice, and plead on his grace alone! How much arises to oppose such believing! Everything sets itself against this, everything in us and outside of us. Our understanding and our heart, our will and affections, our flesh and blood, our name and our standing, our money and our goods, our location and society, the whole world in us and outside of us, and then above all Satan, who is the master of this world, the god of this century, who dazzles the senses. In order to believe, we must be crucified to the world and the world must be crucified to us.

But therefore [faith] is victory over the world, also in its origin and essence. Whoever believes has received a new life. He has become a new creation; he is called from darkness to God’s wonderful light; he is no longer a citizen, a subject of the world, but rather he is born of God, of his Spirit, from above. His citizenship is in heaven. His unrighteousness is forgiven; his infirmity is healed; his life is saved from damnation; he is crowned with goodness and mercy. Who shall bring accusations against the elect of God? God is the one who makes righteous. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? But in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

By faith the believer first separates himself from the violence of the world, but in addition to this he has mastery over that world with a prophetic and priestly and kingly power. The belief that Jesus is the Christ is, after all, no rigid rest; it does not withdraw into the stillness of isolation, but rather it is living and power and breaks into the world, full of valor. It does not only enjoy; it works: it says something and it does something. It witnesses and it saves. It speaks and it acts. It attacks with the power of the word; it stands up in a demonstration of the spirit and of power. Who believes cannot remain silent. In the midst of the world they let the witness go out that Jesus is the Christ. They declare no wisdom of their own, but preach wisdom that is from above, even though that may appear as foolishness in the eyes of the world. They bear witness that Jesus is the Christ, nothing else, nothing less, nothing more. Jesus the Christ, and not gold or power, not violence and coercion, not fame and virtue, not science and art, but Jesus alone is the Savior of the world, the only, the perfect, the wholly sufficient Savior, and no one or nothing next to him or beneath him or alongside him.

And through that witness is faith once again a world-conquering power, because the world has nothing to which it can bear witness. It does not believe and therefore cannot bear witness. It does not know the power of the word. As soon as the church carries its confession into the world, [the world] grasps for the weapons of degradation and coercion, of abuse and oppression. These are the weapons the world has in its war against the church of Christ. But faith is strong by its witness alone. It does not call names, it does not rage, and it does not pursue. It only bears witness, fast, certain, unshakeable, unremitting, until its last hour, until sent to the burning stake. It is like a rock standing in the midst of the waves. Let the world come at it with all the clatter of its weapons and show of force! No violence or coercion, no frame for a funeral pyre, can stand against rock-solid faith. It glories in oppression. It triumphs in its defeat. It rises again from death. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.

But faith does not only bear witness; it also works and acts. It works through love. Love is the fruit: the ripe, glorious, precious fruit of faith. Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ has experienced Gods love and therefore loves the One who gave him birth; because whoever does not have love has not known God, because God is love. Whoever believes has only love for those who with him have been born of God and believe in Jesus’ name, because we know that we have gone over from death to life because we love our brothers. Whoever does not love his brother remains in death. Whoever believes loves God’s commandments, because this is love for God: that we obey his commandments; and his commandments are not heavy, they arc all fulfilled by love.

And through this love faith is also a power that conquers the world; because the world does not know the secret of love, it hates both Jesus and his Father, and it hates all those to whom Christ has given his Father’s word, because they are not of this world. But the church of Christ is mighty when it loves its enemies by the command and requirement of its Master; blessing those who curse it, doing good to those who hate it, and praying for those who violently persecute it. Love is stronger than death, it drives away all of these fears, it covers over and believes and hopes and bears all things, and it never passes away.

All of this world-conquering faith, however, derives faith not from itself but from Christ alone. Therefore, it is finally the perfect victory over the world, because it is faith in Christ, the Father’s Anointed One. Everything points to him. Everything depends on him; he is the content and the object, he is also the giver and sustained the author and perfecter of the faith. In faith, we confess simply that he and he alone conquers the world. He has conquered. Even before his death, he called to his disciples: “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” He has overcome it through the suffering of his death; in dying he triumphed over it; he triumphed over governments and powers through the cross. And he goes forth triumphant, in order that he might triumph. Now he fights from heaven at his Fathers right hand against the world through the faith of his church, which is his army, and which is prepared by him from above with gifts and powers, with the belt of truth, with the breastplate of righteousness, with the shield of faith, with the helmet of salvation, with the sword of the Spirit. And he shall be victorious at the end of days, because he must rule as King, until all his enemies are set under his feet. Then, at the end of the ages when he shall find almost no faith on the earth, he himself shall come to strike the final blow and subdue all his enemies. In that hour every knee shall bow before him and every tongue confess that he is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

*

Brothers and sisters, do you have that faith? Do you know that faith in its wondrous, world-conquering power? You bear the name of believers, but are you indeed what you are called? Paul encourages the church in Corinth: “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves! Or do you not realize that Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test.” And a failure, worthy to be disowned, is everyone who lives at peace with the world and has not yet joined the fight against it. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world. Whoever is a friend of the world is called an enemy of God.

The fight against the world is indeed frightening and hard. It is a fight against flesh and blood, against thoughts and temptations. But it is a good and noble fight. Many wars are waged on this earth, between peoples and nations. And some of them, though far from all, not even the majority, but still some, in spite of all their miseries and regrets, are to be seen as noble and great. Noble and great is the fight on behalf of women and children, for home and hearth, forking and country, for freedom and for justice. Our fathers’ fight was noble and great. The fights of both South African Republics were noble and great; may God bless their weapons and quickly lead them to a complete triumph! But however noble and great some wars might have been, they were nonetheless waged only for one justice or another, a holy justice quite certainly, but still for a limited part of justice and freedom.

But here is a fight for nothing less than justice, for Gods justice, for righteousness itself in its principle and essence, for perfect freedom, for the highest and holiest good that could ever befall a person. It is the noblest, the most beautiful, the most glorious battle in which a human can fight. It is a fight against the world and against everything that is of the world, against ourselves, against our money and our possessions, against all the lust of the flesh and lust of the eyes and the pride of life.

But it is also a fight for our own salvation, for the salvation of our souls, for a heavenly inheritance, for the crown of righteousness, which the Righteous Judge will give to all who have fought the good fight and completed the race. It is a fight for justice, for the truth, for freedom, for Christ and his kingdom, for the glory of God’s name and the glory of all his virtues.

May we receive this fight and set about it, and persevere in it to the end, in the power of the Lord, in the power of faith. No other weapon strengthens and trains us for this faith than faith alone that Jesus is the Christ. There is no strength in us, or in any creature in heaven and on the earth. But Jesus, the Son of Mary, the Only Begotten of the Father, he is the hero from Judah’s line, who conquered the world through his cross! We enter into his work, we rest on his victory, we receive his merits!

Then the victory is ours, because this is the victory that conquers the world—namely, our faith. Many wars have been waged on this earth that, although rightly carried out for freedom and justice, nonetheless ended in defeat and subjection. But here is a fight in which the victory is assured. Christ, elevated to his Father’s right hand, is the guarantee of this. He has been anointed King over Zion, Gods holy mountain. The nations have been given to him as his inheritance, and the ends of the earth as his possession. Later he will come again in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus, but also to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed. Come, then, Lord Jesus, yes, come quickly!

Amen.