Exactly, what is “faith”? It’s a word that we often use in a variety of contexts.
Webster’s gives us a few definitions worth considering. From allegiance to belief to strong conviction, it is a word whose meaning fits neatly into the range of human experience, both positive and negative, and gives us many applications. It is essentially the noun-form of the verb believe. But the question, as it relates to many of the posts on this blog, is what is biblical faith?
Biblical faith, as far as a definition goes, is often drawn from one text: Hebrews 11:1,
[Faith] is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. (ESV)
The author of Hebrews says that faith, from the lemma pistis, is two different, yet related things: it is the assurance of things hoped for as well as being the conviction of things not seen. Both of these phrases need to be unpacked in order to make sense of what is being said, but first, I think that it is reasonable to go to a specialized source to get further definitions that are necessary for this conversation.
The source notes three categories: relationship, epistemological, and eschatological.
In regards to relationship,
[In] the Old Testament [faith] is everywhere associated with covenant. Within that theological construct, “faith” has less to do with particular ideas than it does with the integrity of a relationship….’Faith’ concerns attentive engagement in a promissory relationship. Only rarely does the Old Testament suggest that ‘faith’ is a body of teaching that Israel is to ‘believe.’ (Gupta, Nijay K. “Faith.” Ed. John D. Barry et al. The Lexham Bible Dictionary 2016 : n. pag. Print.)
In [the gospel] context, the call to belief [faith] refers less to treating Jesus as God and more to accepting that the long-awaited fulfillment of God’s promise has arrived, whereby He has come to break into the sin-dominated world and restore the covenantally unfaithful people of Israel. (Gupta, Nijay K. “Faith.” Ed. John D. Barry et al. The Lexham Bible Dictionary 2016 : n. pag. Print. (emphasis added))
In regards to the epistemological aspect,
[The] Old Testament contains some examples of epistemological faith. An example is Prov 3:5–7: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil.” Here the sage warns the reader that the sinful mind is distorted, and that only relying on the Lord will lead one on the proper path (Prov 14:12). (Gupta, Nijay K. “Faith.” Ed. John D. Barry et al. The Lexham Bible Dictionary 2016 : n. pag. Print.)
Perhaps the strongest statement emphasizing epistemological faith comes during the risen Jesus’ encounter with the so-called “doubting Thomas,” where Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29 NRSV). While Jesus performed visible signs during His ministry for others to see and believe, such signs could be abused and misunderstood. In John, Jesus praises the kind of unseeing faith that believes Jesus is the crucified and risen Messiah and Lord who alone saves. (Gupta, Nijay K. “Faith.” Ed. John D. Barry et al. The Lexham Bible Dictionary 2016 : n. pag. Print.)
Eschatologically, faith is seen this way, not so much in the Old Testament, but in the gospels, particularly in the Sermon on the Mount,
The beatitudes [especially] present the concept of eschatological faith in teaching that the poor, mourning, meek, hungry and thirsty, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, and persecuted should be considered blessed by God and will be rewarded (Matt 5:3–12; Luke 6:20–23). (Gupta, Nijay K. “Faith.” Ed. John D. Barry et al. The Lexham Bible Dictionary 2016 : n. pag. Print.)
As you can see, biblically speaking, faith is very nuanced term, and we see that in the way that the author of Hebrews uses two definitions to demonstrate what it is.
The aspects of relationship and epistemology are seen in the first example which says that faith is the assurance of things hoped for.
To unpack this particular phrase, we need to understand what assurance and hoped for meant to the original recipients of this message.
One thing that Scripture is clear on is that no one willingly seeks after the truth of God on their own. Oh, they’ll say that they want truth, they”ll even agree to certain true things, but in the end, people only want the comfort of their delusions, the book of Judges gives us a great terminology for this when it says, “Every man did what was right in his own eyes”. Of course the problem with that is that when people actually start doing what is right in their own eyes it causes confusion, distrust, and even destruction. Human beings were meant to live in communion and community with God and one another, but our rebellion drives us away from God, and eventually from his image bearers as well. God, therefore, must reinitiate that contact, and in doing that he brings us first into a right relationship with him, then into a right relationship with one another. Faith, in that context, is God working through his Spirit to regenerate us. The Apostle Paul called this action “the gift of God”. This gift of faith, only made possible in the life and work of Christ, grants us a new and right relationship with the God who made us.
This relationship, of course, comes with requirements. This becomes the epistemological framework. Because God is absolutely good and absolutely loyal, he expects those who bear his image in this relationship to do so consistently in light of the relationship made both possible and actual through Christ. We are to look at the world as he did and to interact with it in relation to the reality of our relationship to God. There are, of course, some false or greatly misunderstood ways of doing this but it is ultimately determined by the determination of the one who initiates and maintains us in the relationship. These two elements becomes foundational which is what the Greek lemma that is translated as assurance means. But what about the part that is hoped for?
The fact that God has chosen to save anyone, something he made clear in the fall, gives us something that we didn’t realize was even possible: an entirely new kind of relationship. Those to whom God gives this faith to are now family, united to Christ as sons and daughters of God. And this reality is present, in the here and now for all who have their trust in Christ. That, therefore, fuels the engine that drives the eschatological aspect found to the second phrase.
The conviction of things not seen, is not merely some distant heavenly hope, but the realization that the one who raises those once dead in sins and trespasses to new life, is the only one who can say anything about the future. Present circumstances often discourage us and can cause us to question, but the ultimate point is not about us. The entire book of Hebrews is a plea for people to not abandon God. To that end, the author gives his readers a litany of examples from the past who, even in failure, kept their allegiance. It is too easy to give up, to drop your weapons and surrender, but the promises of God are greater than a moment of earthly peace or a second of fleshly pleasure. The greater joys and the fulfillment of all good things are found in God’s presence and in the service of Yahweh-who-saves, that is Christ Jesus, which leads to the only logical conclusion that the author of Hebrews could draw,
[Let] us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire. (Hebrews 12:28-29, ESV)
Biblical faith, is the gift of God that enables a right relationship, frames a worldview, and gives us an absolute guarantee for the results of the works done in light of it, made known in the revelation of God.