What is Christian hope? What is it that we hope for? And what is the basis for such hope?
While commenting on Galatians, Martin Luther says this:
“Faith and hope are different affections, for faith is not hope nor hope faith; and yet, because of the great affinity that exists between them, it is impossible to separate them… By faith we began [our spiritual life], by hope we continue it… Hope is nothing else than spiritual courage…”
A friend of mine once told me of an experience he had while walking down the road from his Bible college. It was nighttime, and he saw a great and bright light shining all of a sudden. The thought that came rushing to his mind was, “Oh, no…”
Why? He believed he was witnessing the return of Christ and, in his estimation, he was not yet ready. “I haven’t done enough yet,” I remember him saying…
We are given warnings in Scripture to be ready for the return of Christ, but we are told that no one knows the day or the hour, not even Christ himself (Matthew 24:36). My friend did not anticipate Jesus’ return. It was a surprise to him—almost an unwelcome one. Isn’t it interesting that the prospect of Christ’s imminent return brought him not to a joyful place, of confident expectations finally realized, but rather to “Oh, no…” It wasn’t what he was expecting, what he was hoping for. Some opposites of hope, according to the thesaurus, include distrust, doubt, and despair. Did my friend have true Christian hope? Or was it distrust, doubt, despair?
Christian hope is inseparably connected to right faith. To paraphrase Luther in the Large Catechism: right faith is the heart clinging to and trusting in Jesus Christ as God, looking to him for all good, and calling out to him in every time of need. Christian hope is characterized by right faith because the object of our hope is the same: Jesus Christ. Right faith looks backward, while Christian hope looks forward; both look to the fulfillment of God’s promises through Christ. Christian hope is sure because, in Christ, through God’s Word, we have already seen God’s grace and faithfulness, and have been convinced by the truth through the cross of Jesus Christ. This happened through hearing the Word, the gospel (Romans 10), where right faith was kindled in our formerly dead hearts. This faith is properly understood as trust.
Right faith = right trust.
Who do you trust? An important question, because the answer reveals what you hope for.
In the first Garden, we chose to trust another word—that of the serpent, not that of God. So in the gospel, God speaks, revealing himself in Christ and winning back the trust and hope of his prodigal creation. To trust something or someone necessitates being convinced, that is, assured and certain of it or them. Hence the book of Hebrews teaches us that “faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (11:1).
Right faith, as Hebrews says, is confidence—based on God’s Word fulfilled in Christ. It is assurance of things hoped for.
So what are you hoping for? Where does your confident expectation lie? In Christ?
What was it about Christ’s return that caused my friend such dismay? Perhaps he was aware of Matthew 25, where the Lord returns to separate the sheep from the goats. The basis for whether one qualifies as sheep or goat seems to be one’s works. So perhaps my friend hoped that he would have more time to prove himself a sheep, or that Christ was not returning for that purpose. Perhaps the assurance my friend had was not in Christ at all, but rather in himself. Maybe what he confidently expected was the inevitable punishment for his wickedness, the wages of his sin. Maybe what he hoped for, then, was for something to change the outcome.
Are we any different? What hope would you have? That God would be merciful? On account of who? Of what? You…?
My friend reacted precisely how many of us would react, how I would, and how you would, because we, in our sinfulness, don’t want to trust Christ, or place our hope, our confident expectations, in and upon him!
This is the natural state of our hearts. Outside of Christ, we never could, and never would trust him. Therefore we never could or would have true Christian hope, which longs for his return. But thanks be to God! We are no longer certain only of God’s wrath upon sinners. Now we are certain of God’s mercy upon those who are in Christ!
We hope for his return because we know what to expect—that which God has already given us at the cross: mercy and grace.
So what do you hope for?
God’s Word teaches us that all “who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death… [And] if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:3,5).
We are no longer enslaved to sin. Death no longer has the last word. There is hope: Resurrection and everlasting life with Jesus, without sin and without death, because of his mercy and grace.
Like my friend, I have often longed for an existence outside the realities of sin and death. I have wept thinking about what it might be like to no longer live in sin or the consequences of my wickedness. God has not given us another chance, nor given us more time. He has instead given us the gift of right faith in him alone, and therefore the assurance that, in his time, for his glory, God indeed “will wipe every tear from [our] eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain…” (Revelation 21:4).
My friend on the road—and you and I—no longer need to worry about not having done enough before Jesus returns. We no longer need to hope for more time, or another chance to prove ourselves a sheep. We know with certainty that Jesus Christ the Son of God has already done it all, and extended it all to us.
So, this is what we hope for: that Christ would return, and quickly. Because when he returns, the remnant of defeated sin and death will be swept away, and we who are in Christ will spend an unimaginably glorious eternity with our God. We do not know the day or hour, but we do know he is coming and that we will be united with him forever when he does. May we spread this good news in the meantime, and may we rejoice! By faith we began, and by hope we continue… “Not in works, not in any other things, but purely in hope the heart of man rejoices.” (—Martin Luther)
Nick Joyal serves as pastor of Living Hope Lutheran Brethren Church in Beaumont, Alberta.