What Is Faith
This week, we will begin studying Hebrews 11 in our community groups. This is a chapter that is all about faith, which is literally at the center of all we do and think as Christians. As we read in verse 6, “Without faith it is impossible to please God.” And yet, many Christians are in the dark about what faith actually is. I would like to offer the following brief comments to put us on the right track, elaborating a bit on some of the things Ryan mentioned in his message this Sunday on Hebrews 11:1–3. After all, it would be quite regrettable if, after ten weeks spent in the “Great Hall of Faith,” our understanding of this important topic remains in error.
Many people today would define faith as belief in something for which there is no evidence. This would include beliefs about God, a supernatural reality, or even the spiritual nature of humanity (like souls or an afterlife). Whatever these beliefs may be, they are beyond our powers of observation and reason and cannot be proved one way or another, so they must be accepted on faith. Under this definition, faith is a belief-producing mechanism—it enables you to believe something. Faith kicks in when you have no other reason to believe. Faith and reason, then, are mutually exclusive; the more reasons you have for believing something, the less faith you need. If you have evidence for a particular belief, then you do not need faith. And if you have faith, you do not need evidence. All faith is blind faith. As Mark Twain erroneously scoffed, “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”
Unfortunately, many Christians have adopted this definition of faith without realizing that it is nothing more than a product of our culture. In some circles, faith without reason has become a virtue, whereas those who pursue evidence for their beliefs are sometimes viewed, almost by definition, as less spiritual. We must be on guard against this, lest our very conception of faith be shaped, ironically, by the unbelieving world.
Consider the examples given in Hebrews 11. For some, we know so little about them that we can’t say anything about why they believed. Such is the case, for example, with the first two—Abel and Enoch. Others, however, clearly do not fit the definition of faith as belief without evidence. Noah and Abraham received direct, verbal revelation from God. In Noah’s case, this was discernable enough to allow him to follow specific instructions regarding the size of the ark, why he needed to build it, and the number of animals to be taken aboard. For Abraham, it directed him to the land of promise. God appeared to Moses in a burning bush, did many powerful signs by his hand, and manifested himself visibly atop Mount Sinai, as the Hebrew people, encamped at the foot of the mountain, looked on in fear and trembling. The next generation marched "by faith" around Jericho for seven days, but only after God stopped the waters of the Jordan river. God spoke audibly to Samuel so clearly that Samuel initially mistook it for the voice of the high priest. Gideon received the sign of the fleece. Samson was endowed with supernatural strength. At the very least, we must admit that it is hard to square the testimonies of these men with the common modern (mis)understanding of faith.
The dissonance is even greater when we consider the twelve apostles. These men walked with Jesus for at least three years of his earthly ministry and witnessed signs and wonders that we can only long to see—water turned into wine, lepers cleansed, the lame made to walk, the blind given sight, and even the dead revived. Peter walked on water! To top everything, Jesus was with them for forty days after he had been raised from the dead. This is part of what it meant to an apostle—they were men who “witnessed” Jesus’ resurrection (Acts 2:22; 10:41; 13:31; 1 Cor 9:1). Moreover, Jesus seems to have been particularly concerned to provide them with evidence that he had been physically raised to life by the Father (Acts 1:3; Luke 24:38; John 20:19–29). Paul, when confronting the Corinthian skepticism towards the resurrection, appealed to the fact that Jesus had appeared to over 500 eyewitnesses (1 Cor 15:6).
Now, I think we can all agree that the apostles were men of faith. After all, faith in Jesus is the response to the gospel message that results in us being saved from our sin. If that is true, then the modern definition of faith cannot be what the Bible means when it speaks of faith, because if faith is, by definition, belief without evidence, then the apostles had less faith than anyone. No one has more evidence for the truth of the gospel than they had!
In order to grasp the biblical definition of faith, it is helpful to note that our English Bibles render the same Greek word (pistis) as either “trust,” “belief,” or “faith.” While this makes for more readable Bibles, it leads to some confusion for us English readers, who have preconceived notions already in mind when we read the word faith. Interestingly, when we consult the standard lexicon of New Testament Greek (which tells us how the word was actually used in the first century), we see that anything approaching “belief without evidence” is conspicuously absent. Rather, we find the following definitions: The noun, pistis, means “state of believing on the basis of the reliability of the one trusted, trust, confidence, faith.” So, “faith in Jesus” means “trust” or “confidence” in Jesus. Likewise, the common verb, pisteuō has four relevant definitions: (1) “to consider something to be true and therefore worthy of one’s trust, believe”; “to entrust oneself to an entity in complete confidence, believe (in), trust”; (2) “entrust”; (3) “be confident about”; (4) “think/consider possible.” Again, “to believe in Jesus” means “to trust in Jesus.”
So, whenever we read about faith in our Bibles (and Hebrews 11 is one such place), we should understand that the idea being conveyed is that of trust. Or, to take Hebrews 11:1 as our cue, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Faith is assurance; it is not the way you arrive at assurance. Faith is conviction; it’s not what you must possess in order to acquire that conviction. One person may be able to articulate good reasons for believing the truth of the gospel; another might not have the foggiest idea of what those reasons are, but believes simply because it seems right to him or her. In both cases, the intellectual steps they took (or bypassed) got them to the same place: Trust in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins and reconciliation to God. Faith may be blind, but it is not necessarily, by definition, blind. It has nothing to do with abandoning reason, or evidence, or even a scientific method. It has to do with believing something to be true, and giving yourself to that belief, regardless of how you arrived at that faith in the first place.
On a practical level, this truer, biblical definition of faith as trust is quite helpful, because it steers us away from the venomous belief that faith is simply thinking that something is true. This deficient conception of faith is what is opposed famously by James (Jas 2:14–26), and by virtually all other biblical writers as well. The question is not whether we agree with the proposition that Jesus died for our sins and was raised on the third day. “Even the demons believe—and shudder”! Rather, we must ask whether we have personally trusted in Jesus’ finished work on the cross and in the power of his resurrection.
Mark Twain, Following the Equator, Complete,Chapter XII.
Technically, there is an entire word group formed off of the same stem. In the New Testament, there is a noun (pistis), two adjectives (pistikos,pistos), two verbs (pisteuō, pistoō ), and an adverb (pistōs).
W.Bauer, W. F. Arndt, F. W. Gingrich, and F. W. Danker. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 818. This is the second of three definitions. The other two are not directly relevant to the issue at hand. The first definition is “that which evokes trust and faith . . . faithfulness, reliability, fidelity, commitment” and the third is “that which is believed, body of faith/belief/teaching” (as in “the Christian faith”).