In the Bible, faith is trust in all of the promises of God. Faith is not biblical when it emphasizes only a “subset” of biblical promises that match our personal interests, circumstances, or understanding. In the time of Jesus, some Jews emphasized God’s promises of national deliverance.[i] Today, evangelists often single out one promise of God—e.g., “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus?”[ii]—and portray it as the sole test of faith. Others build ministries focused on healing or prosperity. Still others write books that list each of the promises of God under alphabetized headings for easy reference, so readers can locate the specific promises that meet their need at that moment.[iii] In each case, God becomes reduced to a single promise, or to the sum of the promises that we want to see fulfilled.
But all of God’s promises are interwoven, interdependent, and inseparable. No promise of God stands alone. Each promise of God is fulfilled in interaction with all the other promises of God. Each fulfilled promise confounds, not confirms, human expectation.[iv] Each promise broadens, or even completely changes, our understanding of who God is. God’s promises are not like a series of individual snapshots in a photo album. Instead, God’s promises are like threads that are woven together into a vast but single tapestry. As each thread is added, the appearance of the whole tapestry is transformed. The God revealed by the whole tapestry is different than the God revealed by a single thread. The God of the whole tapestry is the Christian God, the god of the single thread is a human idol. When Satan tempts Jesus in the wilderness, he extracts a single thread of promise from the tapestry: God’s promise of angelic protection in Psalm 91.[v] Jesus shows Satan—and us—that faith is not biblical unless it trusts in the God of the whole tapestry, i.e., “every word that comes from the mouth of God.”[vi]
Faith in a subset of promises ultimately leads to the rejection of the God of all promise, as shown in the rejection of Jesus at the hands of his contemporaries.[vii] Throughout Christian history, as the church has had to deal with various doctrinal disputes, it has always ultimately determined that faith in subsets of God’s promises (rather than on the totality of the promises of God) is heresy. The church has also insisted that all of the promises of God in the Old Testament remain a part of God’s tapestry; the promises of God in the New Testament are woven into the promises of God in the Old Testament. Likewise, the church has insisted that the people of God in the Old Testament are continuous with the people of God in the New Testament: Just as God does not replace one set of promises with another, God does not replace Israel with the church. Instead, there is one people of faith in the world: those who put their trust in all of the promises of God and the God of all promises.[viii]
[i] Acts 1:6 shows that these promises are still the ones predominantly on the minds of Jesus’ closest disciples, even at the moment of his ascension.
[ii] Cf. e.g. Jeremiah 31:34 for one of the ways in which God makes this promise of personal relationship.
[iii] Cf. the many editions and versions of Jack Countryman’s gift book, God’s Promises for Your Every Need.
[iv] The fulfillment of one promise can even seem to prevent the fulfillment of another promise, at least according to human understanding. Consider the promise of God to David that one of his descendants would always sit on the throne, a promise seemingly contradicted by the violent end of the kingly lineage of David at the time of exile. The coming of Christ, born of a virgin, of the lineage of David, shows both promises to be true, though in a way that human understanding could never have predicted.
[v] Cf. Matthew 4:6.
[vi] Cf. Matthew 4:4.
[vii] Cf. John 5:39.
[viii] For Luther’s development of this idea, see J.S. Preus, 1969. One of Martin Luther’s Reformation breakthroughs was to locate the origin of the church with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, gathered together to hear the Word of God.