What is Faith?

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16                  Luke 12:32-40

What is “faith”?

Well, it is partly about what we hold to be true.

The definition in Hebrews 11:1 is famous: “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen.”  Which may well be a description of what faith feels like when you are living it.  But it is not so helpful in explaining faith, and rather plays into the hands of those who think religious people are simple-minded.  I would love to believe in fairies at the bottom of the garden.  It would be lovely if it were true; but the fact that I’ve never seen a fairy is not a reason I need to have faith in them!

So we need to take care where we place our faith.  In choosing what we have faith in, we exercise our reason, and we are guided by the tradition of the church.

For instance, I consider that to believe in God is more reasonable for a rational person than the alternative.  The universe is orderly, and it is hard to see how this orderliness is maintained unless there is a guiding creator.  Therefore, believing that all is random is irrational.  Or rather, it relies on the idea that all conceivable universes would be orderly, which seems to me a much bigger and less motivated leap of faith than to believe in a Creator.  Or, as another example, we all experience that life is a moral battle – we all recognise that human beings who stop seeing life as full of moral challenge are terribly diminished by that loss – so in my view, the idea that good and evil are entirely relative, and not rooted in any foundation, is irrational.

But: we can’t reason ourselves all the way to Christianity.  We also rely on revelation, in that the character of God is revealed to us in Scripture and ultimately in the person of Christ.  But, that said, we still have to test purported revelations: many people who believe God speaks to them are, I’m afraid, actually hearing from bits of their own mind with which they are not well-acquainted. 

And then, we rely on tradition.  The gospel is not brand-new – we do not claim that we’ve just heard it from God – but we pass on the message of Christ as it has changed lives over 20 centuries.  Our proclamation is more trustworthy, because it is not ours alone, but the proclamation of the Church.

So, faith is partly about assurance and conviction, which is based on evidence and rational thought.  If someone says to you, “I wish I had faith”, part of the answer must be: have you taken the time to sit down and consider the evidence?

But this concept of “faith” as being about the contents of our minds – a psychological state, or about which statements you hold to be true – is not mainly what the Bible means by faith.  Consider how the Hebrews passage continues:

  • V.3 has “faith” as a matter of mental assent or psychological state; but
    • V 8: by faith, obedience.  When told by God to do something, He did it.
    • V.9: by faith, perseverance even though fulfilment of the promise appeared rather unlikely.

Faith is also partly about what you do.  It’s tied up with exercising your faculty of choice and will, about how you shape and curate your life over time.  It’s not just in your head, it’s in your life.

Part of our confusion about this topic arises from the Reformation.  Luther was extremely keen to re-assert the central NT doctrine that we are reconciled to God (“justified”) through the actions of God-in-Christ, rather than because we’ve earned it.  But this drifted, through Reformation polemic, into saying that justification had nothing to do with your actions. 

The latest scholarship would actually suggest that Luther in fact failed to understand the Greek properly.  A key text for Luther was Galatians 2:16, so I will use that as an example.  In the NRSV (from which our lectionary readings are usually taken) this passage is translated:

“Yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.”

The key phrase is “through faith in Jesus Christ”, from the Greek διὰ πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ.  Luther translated that word πίστεως into German as Glaube, which is definitely a word about opinions, about what you hold to be true.  However, modern scholarship has distinctly revised that.

First, the meaning of the Greek word πίστις was not, when Paul wrote, mainly about what opinions you hold.  Rather, it meant fidelity, allegiance, loyalty – about where you placing your trust.  And it can also mean “being deserving of fidelity or loyalty” – what in English we might describe as “faithfulness”.

Second, it may not be about what you do at all.  In this phrase that has been translated as faith in Jesus, πίστις Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, the Greek doesn’t say “in”.  Rather, it uses the genitive case in Greek – whose base meaning is “of” so “the [whatever πίστις means] of Jesus Christ” – and this is ambiguous in Greek just as it is in English.  Consider two phrases: “the reign of Queen Elizabeth” and “the coronation of Queen Elizabeth”.  From context, we know that in the first, the Queen is clearly the active party, but in the second she is clearly passive.  But in the Galatians phrase, the context does not give us a clue.  So in this phrase πίστις Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ – is the active person me, having faith in Jesus?  That is the traditional view; but many now consider that the active person is Jesus, showing faithfulness.  So Bishop Tom Wright’s translation of this verse is “a person is not declared righteous by the works of the Jewish law, but through the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah”. 

On this view, St Paul is not saying we are saved through our assenting to the proposition that Jesus is Lord.  We are not saved through our doing anything at all.  It is through Jesus’ faithfulness – His choice to assume human flesh, to live out a human life to the end, to continue in obedience to the Father through the bitterness of crucifixion.  And we gain the benefit of Christ’s faithfulness by giving our allegiance and loyalty to Him, rather than allowing anyone else to rule in our lives.

As I said, faith is not only about your head, but about your life.  The path of reconciliation with God lies open to men and women – this is now an objective fact of the moral universe.  It doesn’t depend on us believing it.  But whether we walk down that path is a choice for us.  A biblical concept of “faith” is about whether we respond by giving our allegiance and fidelity to the one who has earned it, whose it is by right.

And therefore, faith is about how we organise our lives.  About whether we manage our affairs in light of the future we expect.  That is to say, whether we believe that the Son of Man will come as a judge.  Whether we regard ourselves, in the meantime, as on active service.  Whether we seek to please God by serving others, or are content to displease Him by being selfish or lazy.  Faith is about our choices regarding money and time, about keeping promises, about speaking truth and avoiding unkindness.

Let me close by saying a word about doubt.  The idea that our salvation depends on holding correct opinions about Jesus is terrifying, in part because we cannot control our opinions.  Many Christian lives have been shipwrecked by an awfully mistaken teaching that doubts necessarily undermine your ability to follow Christ.  This is wrong, wrong, wrong.

The opposite of faith is not doubt.  Actually, the opposite of faith is certainty; which – at least in spiritual matters – is an awful thing.  Where we are certain, there is nothing of ourselves at stake, and there is no call for us to take any risk through a choice of fidelity and allegiance.  Certainty takes away our freedom.  Certainty about spiritual matters is an iron cage which leaves no room for personal growth; people who spend many years in such a cage end up terribly warped in their growth.

Faith is ultimately a decision to act as if it were true.  This is not only true in the field of religion, of course.  When we decide to place our faith in a person and marry them, it is not because we know for sure how things will work out.  We have some inklings, and a lot of hope, but usually also some doubts.  But we decide to put our chips on the table and spin the wheel; we take a decision that we will act as if a lifetime of love were possible.

So it is with Christ.  When a person decides to put their faith in Jesus, they are deciding to act and live as if Jesus’ claims about Himself were true.  As if Christ were indeed the creator and Lord of creation.  As if He were indeed able to keep us safe through the storms of life, and the mystery of death.  As if giving your life away were the only way to save it.  As if we will grow and flourish more through unselfishness than through looking after ourselves. And the wonderful thing is that, the more one lives it, the more evidently true it becomes.  This is the remedy for doubt.  If you have doubts, I recommend that you do something as extravagantly loving and generous towards Jesus as you can conceive and manage.  Give Him your best; and you will know His presence with you, and His power to save.