Essential to all true Christianity is an understanding of the word faith. We use the word all the time but rarely do we stop to consider, “What is faith?” The dictionary will tell you that faith is “strong belief or trust in someone or something” but that does not do much to help you as a Christian. When the word faith is used in a religious context the dictionary adds that faith is the “belief in the existence of God (or) strong religious feelings or beliefs.” The problem with this kind of definition is that the New Testament never uses the word translated faith in your English Bible in this way. The fact is that “faith” has several meanings in the New Testament.
Trust in a Person
In its most basic and primary way faith is trust in a person. We are all familiar with this kind of usage in everyday relationships. You trust your parents, your spouse, your best friend. This is a kind of faith. When I go to O’Hare Airport to fly out of Chicago I have faith in my pilot and his plane. When I’ve gone under an anesthetic for surgery I have faith in the several doctors involved in treating me. So too, in the New Testament faith is primarily trust in a person–in the Living God who is revealed in Jesus Christ.
Even before his death and resurrection Jesus was trusted by others. We see this in many of the familiar gospel stories that we all know if we’ve read the Scriptures for long. John 1:12 reports: “Yet some people accepted him and put their faith in him. So he gave them the right to be the children of God.” Another good example is seen in Mark 2:5 where we read: “When Jesus saw how much faith they had, he said to the crippled man, “My friend, your sins are forgiven.” And the story in Mark 5:34 adds another good example of the same point: “Jesus said to the woman, ‘You are now well because of your faith. May God give you peace! You are healed, and you will no longer be in pain.’”
It was after his sacrifice and victory that full faith, trust in depth with a full foundation for understanding, became possible. In Paul’s epistles faith becomes our trustful response to, and complete reliance upon, the unmerited love of God in Jesus Christ.
Trust As Loyalty and Faithfulness
Faith also means loyalty and faithfulness. You can only trust another person if you know that person to be completely trustworthy. This is why you cannot make yourself trust another person unless you know the other to be truly trustworthy. We trust God because he has shown himself to be trustworthy. He reveals this to us not through logic but faith. We get a “glimpse” of Jesus’ mercy and grace, by the Spirit, and we “know” he loves us and can be trusted. We “see” that he is faithful and totally reliable as we read the Holy Scripture and the Spirit instructs us in faith. So faith is this trust in the God who is loyal and true.
Although faith is primarily used to describe God’s steadfastness and trustworthiness it is also used to demonstrate our faithfulness and trust in God. Here is how Paul expresses this faith:
God’s Spirit makes us loving, happy, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, 23 gentle, and self-controlled. There is no law against behaving in any of these ways. 24 And because we belong to Christ Jesus, we have killed our selfish feelings and desires. 25 God’s Spirit has given us life, and so we should follow the Spirit. 26 But don’t be conceited or make others jealous by claiming to be better than they are (Galatians 5:22–26, CEV).
So it is, that in knowing God’s faithfulness, we are filled with his Spirit and become “faithful” people who are led by our faith in God. We trust a faithful God, who is himself the definition of true faithfulness. Again, as we saw last week when we talked about the truth and the life as two sides of the same coin, we see the unity of belief and conduct. In the opening lines of Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians (1:1) we read: “To God’s people who live in Ephesus and are faithful followers of Christ Jesus” (CEV).
True faith and trust can never be separated from God’s faithfulness but those who know the faithful God by the Spirit are faithful followers of the Lord Jesus Christ. In some ways this is a perfect description of what a true Christian is–a faithful follower of the Lord Jesus Christ!
The Assurance of the Future (Future Grace)
Most Christians soon learn that Hebrews 11 is the “faith chapter” in the Bible. Here we read the stories of many men and women of great faith. In Hebrews 11:1 the writer says, “Faith makes us sure of what we hope for and gives us proof of what we cannot see” (CEV). Faith is conviction issuing in action. The heroes we read about in Hebrews 11 did not sit around talking about faith or dreaming about doing great things for God.
Their faith helped them conquer kingdoms, and because they did right, God made promises to them. They closed the jaws of lions 34 and put out raging fires and escaped from the swords of their enemies. Although they were weak, they were given the strength and power to chase foreign armies away (Hebrews 11:33-34, CEV).
Faith has hands and legs; it gets things done. It is never passive if it is real faith. Convinced of the unseen the person of faith risks things because of the reality of God’s faithfulness. This is why too sharp a contrast between faith and works/obedience is not helpful. I understand why they are contrasted, especially given our propensity to trust in ourselves and our own religious contributions. But real, living faith is active and always works and obeys. This is why my friend Scott Hafemann has referred to the New Testament’s emphasis as one of “trust-obey.” He does not want to put faith and obedience in contrast so much that they appear as opposites. In Martin Luther’s attempt to challenge religious practice we inherited a tendency to contrast works and faith so sharply that we sometimes think works are the optional result of faith. But biblically it would be much more accurate to say that our works are the consequential and necessary evidence of our faith. This seems to be exactly what Hebrews 11 is saying.
Real faith works. Genuine conversion is active. Gospel assurance issues in ventures of trust that will reveal that our faith is living and active. Once again, believing and doing, the truth and the life, are but two aspects of one reality, or two sides of the same coin.
Obedient to the Faith
In the Acts of the Apostles we read: “So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7, NIV). Here faith is preceded by the definite article–the faith! This is equivalent to what some would call the Christian religion. It is really not hard to see how “faith” expands into “the faith” and vice versa. If faith is primarily trust in the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ, then our response is true religion.
The Epistle of James speaks of “true religion” in just this way when the writer says, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (1:27, NIV). It is, quite honestly, tragic that the word religion has lost this positive meaning. Sadly, some Christians only have a negative sense of the word. The Bible will not support such a conclusion at all.
If faith is trusting the trustworthy God, then who is this Jesus that we trust? He is the One through whom we know and trust God. But who is he?
13 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
15 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah (Matthew 18:13–20, NIV).
Peter confesses, by the Spirit of God, that Jesus is the long expected Messiah, the Son of the living (loving) God. This was not understood by Peter because he was smart or uniquely insightful but rather because the “Father in heaven” gave it to him by revelation. When we confess Christ to be the Son of the living God we are trusting in more than a mere man. Our simple trust must be turned into “the pattern of sound words,” which is to say basic Christian doctrine, true religion. We trust not in a mere man, but in the One whom the apostles, and other eyewitnesses, made certain affirmations about that provide the foundation for our common faith. The proclamation of this faith is the kerygma, or the faith.
The New Testament word used for preaching (cf Luke 4:18-19, Romans 10:14, Matthew 3:1) is kerygma. It is related to the Greek verb kērússō, which means to cry or proclaim as a herald, to make announcement. True Christian preaching is always an announcement of “the faith” which is faith in the trustworthy God who is revealed in Jesus alone.