What is Faith?

Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for. (Hebrews 11:1-2)

All these people [Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah] were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners on earth. (Hebrews 11:13)

Faith. It’s a central element of Christianity. But what is it?

Ask around and so many people say things like: “At least I have faith…” or “I have faith that things will get better…” But what do they mean? What is the substance of their faith?

The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews defines the ancient understanding of faith: “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” Faith is a surety and certitude connected with an enduring hope related to unseen things.

But this is still a slightly broad and abstract definition. I could have a blind and confused certainty about something I cannot see. For example, I could have faith that I will win the lottery. It is a hope. I do not see the reality yet. But I believe! This is the sort of false faith upon which so much of the prosperity religion is founded these days.

But if this is not the faith we are after, what is it? The second reference from Hebrews gives us clarity. Launching out of the stories of Old Testament characters, the writer tells us that they “were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised.” We’ll stop here.

There was a promise given to them. By who? Clearly, the promise was given by God.

They heard the true promise of God and believed it. It was not some pie in the sky idea they had drummed up themselves, but something truly from God and which they knew they could base their lives upon. It became for them the most believable of realities.

They heard it, believed it, and then lived in light of it. The promise that they heard from God and in which they believed as ultimate reality became the center of their lives. If God – the Creator and Sustainer of all things – was the giver of the promise, they knew that their lives should be lived out from the promise given. He would create something new in their lives and He would sustain them in and through it.

Faith is something that marks our response as we hear God’s promise, believe it, and then live in light of it.

5 thoughts on “What is Faith?

  1. Faith = something that marks our response as we hear God’s promise, believe it and then choose to live in the light of it…thanks for the inspiring definition Pastor Matt!

  2. “Faith is something that marks our response as we hear God’s promise, believe it, and then live in light of it.” I agree, but do I detect a redundancy? Something…our response…believe…and live. What distinguishes the “something” that is our response and believing in it?
    God’s promise through His Word is part of our faith, for “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the preaching of Christ” (Rom 10:17). This is the notitia of classical theolgy, the faith _which_ we believe. Faith is also assent, for we must “confess with our mouth” that Jesus is Lord. Finally, faith is personal commitment, for we must “believe in our heart that Jesus was raised from the dead” (Rom 10:9). Assent and personal trust compose the faith _by which_ we know God. The scarry thing about faith is that it is both objective and subjective, unlike any other human capacity. The object of faith–call it God’s promise–is that we will one day know as we are known (1 Cor 13:12). The Psalmist contemplates the knowledge of God who knows what we will say before it is on our lips, and he cries out, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain” (Ps 139:6). Faith is the gift of God’s grace to help us see ourselves and the world as God sees it and not as we see it. “We live by faith and not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7). Calvin’s defintion of faith combines knowledge of God and self. He defines faith as “A firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence towards us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (3.2.7). Certainty of faith, a hallmark of the Reformation, is a gift of God by which we assent to and trust in God’s thoughts toward us as the truth about ouselves and the world in which we live.
    You draw attention to the certainty of faith and the objective promise of God in your meditation on Heb 11. I find the threefold definition of faith–notitia, assensus, fiducia–helpful to avoid falling into a stale intellectualism or a subjective existentialism.

    • Regarding this topic of “faith” defined or or “belief” defined, as well as the comment by Bruce about notitia, assensus, and fiducia (with which I wholeheartedly agree), I also appreciate an additional insight once stated by Elmer Enlow:
      To “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ” involves more than knowledge, assent and trust (reliance). True, one must know about God’s provision, he must assent to the truth of the gospel and he must rely on Christ to save him. But to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ means more than to believe that He is Lord and more than to rely on Him to give eternal life. It also means to receive Christ as one’s own Lord, the ruler of one’s own life.

      This is what I believe underlies the entire chapter of Hebrews 11, and illuminates every example contained therein.

  3. John, thanks for the reference. I am not familiar with Enlow, and I will look him up. But I am confused about the difference between believing and receiving Jesus as Lord. John 1:12 uses these verbs as synonyms. Is Enlow talking about the relationship between faith and works? Or is he interested in the relationship between faith and regeneration? We know that there is bad faith. Paul says we can have faith to move mountains, but it is nothing without love (1 Cor 13:3). We also know that we can have weak or strong faith (Rom 14). It raises the question of what is the opposite of faith? Are doubt and unbelief the same?

  4. As I understand Enlow’s viewpoint, while he appears to hold to an inseparable relationship between faith and works in soteriology, the focus of his contribution was not upon regeneration at all, but rather upon how one appropriates the gift of faith already granted by God. I think of his point this way: “Is the faith of the believer submissive to Christ as Lord, or is it mere notitia, mere assensus, mere fiducia?” The book of Hebrews does make a distinction between living faith and death faith, as well as living works and dead works.

    With regard to your last question (“are doubt and unbelief the same?”), perhaps Enlow holds to a view of self deception, where one can hold to a dead faith, as evidenced in the way one appropriates the knowledge he encounters. That is my personal view, but I’m not sure about Enlow though. Doubts occur among true believer and true unbelievers, and unbelief is a well-known phenomenon among them as well. Perhaps our difficulty lies in discerning spirits – those who are self-decieved and those who are not. Jesus did say: “By their fruits ye shall know them.”

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