This article is part of the What Does It Mean? series.
What Is Faith?
What is faith? Depending on who answers the question, we are likely to get different answers. An existentialist might answer the question with a particular focus on the nature of faith, emphasizing the example of one’s sincerity in commitment with little regard to the content of their belief. While a secularist might approach the topic emphasizing the justifiability of one’s faith based on evidence. For them, religious beliefs are nothing more than a blind leap into the unknown, contrary to all discernable evidence. A Christian, on the other hand, will likely point to a passage like Hebrews 11:1, where the author argues that “. . . faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
But what is the author of Hebrews getting at in this verse? I would argue that the author of Hebrews is presenting much more than a definition of what faith is, but also offering a summary of what faith does. To understand this, the reader must frame Hebrews 11:1 within the context of the book as a whole. Before the reader reaches Hebrews 11:1, they must pass through Hebrews 10:19–39 where the saints are warned against shrinking back in the faith. In such cases of apostasy, one will fail to obtain the promises of God. This warning is contrasted in Hebrews 11:1–40 where faith is described as a persevering hope in the promises of God. By way of demonstration, the author offers a sweeping look at the actions of God’s people through redemptive history. There are a couple of notable observations in the text that help us understand faith from the perspective of Hebrews 11:1.
First, there are both subjective and objective aspects of faith. Subjectively, faith is convinced that what God promises will most certainly be fulfilled. Objectively, what is hoped for is grounded in (and guaranteed by) the object of one’s faith, namely, a faithful God. Therefore, faith is looking at God and trusting him for everything, while hope is looking at the future and trusting God for it. We’ve all heard it said, “seeing is believing.” However, for the Old Testament saints who were promised things that they did not see, faith can be defined as believing even when you do not yet fully see. Because they believed the promises of God and acted upon them, they were commended for their faith. For them, the reward of faith was one day seeing what they had always believed. This is important because in many ways, faith is related to the unseen realities of God. Consider how the author uses the words “assurance” and “conviction” in Hebrews 11:1 regarding the promises of God. First, faith is an assurance that what is hoped for will become a reality. Yet, faith is also the conviction that the unseen promises of God will be fulfilled.
Second, the examples of the Old Testament saints demonstrate that faith is much more than the static cognitive ascent to certain doctrines. Indeed, faith is to be lived out in active obedience to God’s word. Not too long ago one of our cars became inoperable. Seeing that I am not mechanically inclined at all, I did what any reasonable person would do in my predicament—I went to a mechanic for help. This particular mechanic has a dependable record and has earned my trust in time. Now, in order for the mechanic to fix my car, I have to hand him my keys.
In many ways, this act of trust is a demonstration of living faith. Without entrusting him with my vehicle, all of my confidence in his competency amounts to nothing. It’s one thing to believe that my mechanic can fix my car; it’s another to actually entrust him with it. The obedient actions of the Old Testament saints are offered as proof of their faith. After all, it is one thing to believe that God will be faithful to his word, it’s another to actually live in accordance with it. The faith of the Old Testament saints is commendable, considering that they experienced only preliminary glimpses of what was promised to them by God and lived their lives anticipating a greater future reality (Heb.11:39–40). Even more, these saints did not only bear witness to God’s word in faith, God’s word bears witness to their faith (Heb. 11:2).
What Faith Does
With the first two observations in mind, one might argue that the subjective nature of one’s faith is dependent on the objective justifiability of that faith. British theologian A. H. Strong would illustrate this point with the analogy of a train coupling. The coupling joins a train of cars to a locomotive. The coupling has no power in itself, it cannot move a single car an inch. All the power is in the locomotive. But the coupling is the link by which the power of the locomotive is transmitted to the cars.
Jesus Christ is the founder and perfecter of our faith, the undeniable evidence of God’s faithfulness to his word.
In a similar way, faith is only as powerful as the object of one’s faith. This is why I argued earlier that Hebrews 11:1 is much more than a definition of faith, but a summary of what faith does. When one examines the lives of the Old Testament saints in Hebrews 11, it is clear that their faith moved them to obedience even though they did not fully receive what was promised.
It is no coincidence then that the author of Hebrews moves from the unfulfilled hopes of the Old Testament saints to Jesus Christ, the one who fulfills all of the hopes and promises of God. In other words, the passage moves towards an exhortation to lay hold of the realities on which our hope is fixed, though not yet fully seen, are already ours in Christ. After all, faith in the promises of God for forgiveness of sin and eternal life beyond the grave are nothing more than baseless optimism apart from the crucified and resurrected Jesus Christ. The Old Testament saints may have given us examples of faith by living in accord with the reality of things hoped for. However, as Christians we understand that Jesus Christ is the founder and perfecter of our faith, the undeniable evidence of God’s faithfulness to his word. While the example of the Old Testament saints reminds us that our faith is bound to the object of our faith, namely our faithful God. The historical person and work of Jesus Christ remind us that our faith is not belief without proof. He is the evidence that our God is faithful to his word. The question is for every Christian is, Does your life demonstrate faith in active obedience like the saints of Hebrews 11?
Matthew Z. Capps is the author of Hebrews: A 12-Week Study.
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