What Is Faith?

What Is Faith?

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"Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see" (Hebrews 11:1, New International Version).

Do you see much faith in the world around you? Much of society today is secular-oriented and virtually devoid of faith. Since most people don't read the Bible, they don't know much about the true God.

Many are not even sure there is a God. Others, although they believe in Him, don't know what kind of God He is. This situation shouldn't surprise us. After all, it's impossible for people to have living faith in a God they don't know or even know much about.

What about you? Have you thought about—do you know—what God is able and willing to do for you?

The God of the Bible tells us that we can come to know and develop a relationship with Him. We can know what He has planned for us and our families in this life and in the future. We can rest assured that He wants good things for us. His Word tells us that "godliness is profitable for all things, having promise of the life that now is and of that which is to come" (1 Timothy 4:8, emphasis added throughout).

Not only can we come to know God, to believe in God, but—much more—we can learn to believe God.

There is a huge difference. Many people believe in God. They assume He exists, although they probably haven't given His existence much thought. But God is not real enough to them, and this lack of reality affects what they think and do.

To believe God, on the other hand, is to have faith that God can and will do for us whatever He has promised to do. The Bible tells us that the ancient patriarch Abraham "believed God" and explains that "he did not waver at the promise of God through unbelief, but was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully convinced that what He had promised He was also able to [and would] perform" (Romans 4:3-21).

God expects us to act on this trusting belief. He requires that we have living faith in His existence, power and promises.

Faith isn't some magical ingredient. It does, however, lead to a confident attitude toward God. Faith motivates our minds to the assurance of God's power and will to act in our lives. Faith becomes more than a mental conviction as it grows into a commitment—not only to trust God to involve Himself in our lives but, with His help, to do His will. We can rest assured that God's will does not include frivolous or unproductive behavior—only, as we saw above, "godliness [that] is profitable for all things."

God's Word elaborates on living faith. It assures us that "the just shall live by faith" and "we walk by faith, not by sight" when we repent of our sins and begin to live dedicated, godly lives directed by our Savior (Romans 1:17; 2 Corinthians 5:7). People who live by faith as followers of Christ and members of God's Church are "believers" in Him (Acts 5:14; 1 Timothy 4:12).God's Word has a good reason for calling them believers.

In the New Testament the Greek word for faith is, in virtually every instance, the same word for belief (see "The Meaning of the Word 'Faith'"). Although translators choose whether "faith" or "belief" is intended based on their understanding of the context of each passage, the meaning is usually much broader than either word alone.

Defining faith

Even in modern language, to believe in someone, something or some cause is to have faith in or trust that person, thing or movement—to believe it is true, just and worthy of one's support and involvement. In the same way, to have faith as it is defined in the Bible is to fully believe in—to have complete trust in—someone (God), to believe in and act on the truth of His Word (the Bible) and to live for the greatest of causes: salvation for all who believe in the coming Kingdom of God (Mark 1:14-15).

Faith is belief. But let's not make the age-old mistake of thinking that if we believe in God—that is, that He exists—we therefore have faith. Many hold to this mistaken idea. They say they believe in God; therefore, they think, they have faith.

First we must believe God exists. That is, we must accept the existence of the Almighty Creator of the universe as revealed in the Bible. Then we must believe God will ultimately reward those who humbly, obediently seek Him—trusting the promises He makes in the Bible.

To believe in God is only the starting point of faith. But believing in God does not necessarily involve conviction or commitment to Jesus Christ and God the Father. Belief in God is profitable, but incomplete. As the apostle James noted: "You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons [fallen angels] believe—and tremble!" (James 2:19). We obviously must go beyond the level of belief exhibited by demons.

If we want to better our lives, our model for living faith should be Jesus Christ. His life is the perfect model of faith. Throughout His human years Jesus displayed perfect, living faith and motivated others not only to believe in God, but to go beyond that by believing what God says—trusting Him, even to the point of doing as He says.

Indeed, many biblical figures provide wonderful examples of living faith—the kind of belief required for salvation. Living, active faith is confidence that God can and will intervene in our lives to the point of doing whatever He tells us. We can have this kind of faith. We can believe God too! If we do, He will intervene for us as well.

Genuine, active, powerful, living faith in the God of the Bible is hard to imagine in our cynical, secular society. But we can experience it and the other great blessings from God to which it leads.

Faith is evidence

Hebrews 11, known as "the faith chapter" of the Bible, defines faith this way: "Now faith is the substance [realization, confident assurance, solid ground] of things hoped for, the evidence [conviction, reality, proof] of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1). Faith is our assurance of things we cannot yet see.

The remainder of Hebrews 11 identifies real people who long ago lived examples of faith. They believed God to the point of obedience even to death, confident that He would deliver them or resurrect them to eternal life in His Kingdom. They trusted God's promises. Faith gave them assurance to carry on.

Such faith is not mere wishful thinking—a pie-in-the-sky feeling that everything will be all right. This faith is a deep conviction that God deeply cares for us and will always act with our best interests at heart.

Each of us can have this kind of faith. In fact, we must have it if we wish to honor and love God. As this same chapter of the Bible states, "Without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him" (Hebrews 11:6).

This verse describes two aspects of necessary faith. First we must believe God exists. That is, we must accept the existence of the Almighty Creator of the universe as revealed in the Bible. Then we must believe God will ultimately reward those who humbly, obediently seek Him—trusting the promises He makes in the Bible.

Right understanding leads to action

It's evident that many people don't have the genuine faith described in the Bible since they do not believe or practice what Jesus said: "If you love Me, keep My commandments" (John 14:15). Most people can't even name more than a few of the Ten Commandments. Some assume Jesus lived the commandments for us so we wouldn't have to. Others believe what we do doesn't matter that much as long as we have feelings of "love" toward everyone.

Indeed, many people cling to misconceptions about Jesus' message, the gospel or good news. Our Savior, who came preaching "the gospel of the kingdom of God," instructs us to "repent, and believe in the gospel" (Mark 1:14-15). Yet many have never understood the true gospel Jesus taught. A flawed understanding produces a faulty faith.

Since faith involves diligently seeking God (Hebrews 11:6), we must base our faith on a correct understanding of His Word. (If you'd like to know more about the truth of the message Jesus taught, be sure to read the the free Bible study guide booklet The Gospel of the Kingdom.)

Changing our lives to stop disobeying God and start obeying Him—what the Bible refers to as repentance—is based on the conviction that He will intervene in our lives and ultimately grant us eternal life. Faith, which includes understanding and action, is required for salvation. After all, God will not give eternal life to someone who does not believe or obey Him. Such a person would bring misery on himself and others for all eternity. Faithlessness is hopelessness.

Faith includes humility

Having faith means understanding that God is great and, by comparison, we are small. Such humility is a rare commodity in our modern, pride-filled world. To come to believe that God is all-powerful and that we desperately need His help is actually comforting.

The ancient Greeks believed—had faith—that the world was supported on the shoulders of Atlas, one of their gods. If we refuse to have living faith in God by not submitting to His will, we attempt to be our own Atlases trying to hold our personal worlds on our own shoulders in an exhausting and fruitless endeavor. That way ultimately leads to frustration and misery because, on our own, we don't know how to live happy, productive lives or find the way to eternal life (Jeremiah 10:23; Proverbs 14:12).

Having faith, on the other hand, is knowing with absolute conviction that the same God who holds our planet in its orbit wants to guide our personal world as well. Such living faith gives us peace of mind, confidence and hope of an eternal, bright future.

Faith, works and grace

Simply saying "I believe" without making accompanying life-altering changes is not sufficient. Acknowledging God's existence does not magically produce a right relationship with Him. As already noted, Jesus commands us to repent (Mark 1:15). (For a better understanding of repentance, read the Bible study guide booklets The Road to Eternal Life and Transforming Your Life: The Process of Conversion.)

Repentance doesn't just happen. It requires effort and commitment. Living faith must be nurtured and spiritually fed and built. Jesus cautions us against the danger of false faith—faith that is immature and incomplete: "Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven" (Matthew 7:21).

But what about Paul's statement in Ephesians 2:8, "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God"? Did Paul preach a faith that did not involve a need for obedience?

Although his fellow apostles told him of meeting the resurrected Jesus face to face, Thomas refused to accept their statements. In spite of the evidence reported to him, he didn’t believe His Master had risen from the grave as He said He would.

Not at all. This passage shows us that God's grace—His undeserved favor toward us—is a gift through faith. It includes unmerited forgiveness of sins through accepting the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, who died in our place. And it leads ultimately to our salvation in God's Kingdom. But it is simply wrong to assume that, since grace is a gift, no actions—good works demonstrating a repentant heart and faith in action—are needed (see James 2:14-26).

The truth is that while our salvation comes through God's gift of grace, His grace includes not just pardoning past sins but helping us develop faithful obedience throughout our lives. God does not forgive us of sins just so we can keep on sinning as a way of life. He wants us to change. Thus, we must have living faith that produces good works, not an empty, inactive faith. Again, this is possible only with God's help.

The Bible tells us salvation is by God's grace and is not earned by good works "lest any man should boast" (Ephesians 2:9). No amount of obedience will cancel out our past disobedience. Only the blood of Christ can provide atonement for our sins. Moreover, efforts to persist in obedience on our own would prove futile. God's grace operating through faith is what enables us to walk in good works (Ephesians 2:8-10). (See "Faith Puts the Law on 'Firmer Footing'".)

The danger we face is that our faith will die if we neglect our salvation by not living a life of obedience to God (Hebrews 2:1-3). That is why the apostle Paul wrote, "But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified" (1 Corinthians 9:27).

Of themselves, works will not earn us salvation. But the book of James makes it clear that faith, if unaccompanied by works, is dead—utterly useless (James 2:17-26; see also "The Book of James: An 'Epistle of Straw'?").

As a faithful elder in the Church and the half brother of Jesus Christ, the apostle James wrote: "Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent, and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you. Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says" (James 1:21-22, New International Version). He adds, "The man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—he will be blessed in what he does" (James 1:25, NIV; compare Romans 2:13).

True, living faith requires much more than words. It requires commitment and evidence of that commitment. James asks this rhetorical question, "What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds?" (James 2:14, NIV). He shows that mere words are useless when someone needs food and clothing (James 2:15-17).

James cited the example of faithful Abraham to show that "his faith was made complete by what he did" (James 2:21-22, NIV). Indeed, obedience through faith leads to greater faith and obedience, as we'll see more about later.

Our faith lives when we respond obediently to the love of Christ by keeping His commandments (John 14:12-15). We are not saved by grace through inactive faith.

Living faith among the faithless

After Jesus Christ was resurrected, His disciple Thomas said he wouldn't believe Jesus had come back to life unless he could see the nail marks in His hands and feel the spear wound in His side. He wanted tangible, visible proof that Jesus had been resurrected. Christ reassured Thomas, by providing those tangible proofs, that God and His plan of salvation were real and encouraged him to believe (John 20:24-29).

We know this apostle by what has become his nickname, Doubting Thomas. Although he had seen Christ perform miracles, he still had doubts in the back of his mind. Although his fellow apostles told him of meeting the resurrected Jesus face to face, he refused to accept their statements. In spite of the evidence reported to him, he didn't believe His Master had risen from the grave as He said He would. As it turns out though, other apostles also had doubts even after this (Matthew 28:17).

Will we be like Thomas or these other men trying to come to grips with the supernatural, doubting the testimony of the many credible eyewitnesses to the resurrection and miracles of Jesus Christ—and even what we ourselves may have seen of God in our own lives? Will we believe and have faith in God and His promises? Sadly, living faith often escapes our grasp, and doubting comes all too easily (James 1:6-8).

In many ways, modern society seems set up to undermine proper faith. Educational systems, mass entertainment and news media are overwhelmingly secular and undermine godly principles and the Bible. Over generations we have gravitated toward the material while excluding God. Everything—science, philosophy, history—is reduced to physical phenomena.

The result is predictable and obvious. Few know what God expects of us. Fewer still trust Him to guide or be involved in their lives. Is there no living faith, no spiritual hope for us, our children and grandchildren?

Although the development of living faith in an age of doubt and materialism is difficult, the Bible promises that some will have this precious commodity when Christ returns (Revelation 14:12). We must bear in mind that just because something is difficult to come by doesn't mean it is impossible—especially with God. In fact, living faith is possible and within our grasp. Says Paul, "He who did not spare His own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?" (Romans 8:32, NIV). And the entire process of salvation leading to that end requires faith (see "Many of the Wonderful Things That Happen Through Faith").

God gave us the Bible to provide hope and instruction through the examples of others (Romans 15:4; 1 Corinthians 10:6; 2 Timothy 3:16). By studying their experiences, we can see real-life examples of faith in action, which will help us to build faith as well.

In the next chapter we will consider the lives of men and women who, with God's help and encouragement, developed living faith.