What is Biblical Faith?
We are familiar with Paul's eloquent description of Christian love in his letter to the Corinthian church (I Corinthians 13:4-7) in which he lays out the image of Christ fully formed in the character of a mature Christian. Less known and quoted, however, is the conclusion of this section where he sets in order the spiritual steps that both lead and enable the disciple of Christ to reach this spiritual maturity.
But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.
- I Corinthians 13:13
This study explains more fully what the Bible teaches about faith, hope and love so we can learn to abide in these and in doing so reach a greater measure of spiritual maturity so desirable in Christ.
The first step, faith, is both a large and a small subject. Large in the sense that so much has been and can be said about it. Small because each of us has our own individual and intimate sense of what faith is for us. Faith is like the sun: vast and beyond human grasp but still personal as each senses its heat on one's face on a hot summer afternoon.
What Faith is Not
I suppose a good way to begin this subject is by reviewing some misconceptions about faith. In other words, what faith is not.
Throughout the Bible we read about many who claimed to be religious and holy and thus people of faith, but did not know the first thing about faith. These people and their attitudes live on today as examples of what faith is not.
Faith is Not Religious Heritage
The Pharisees (a strict sect of religious lawyers and teachers in Israel at the time of Christ) were indignant with Jesus when He accused them of being sinful. They answered that they were "sons of Abraham" (John 8:39) and this religious and cultural heritage was all that they needed to be justified before God, not repentance, obedience or faith. We take on the same attitude when we rest our confidence in our religious heritage rather than in faith. Some think that being part of a religious group for a long time is good enough. Identification or association with a particular church for several generations is not the same thing as faith.
Faith is Not Indoctrination
The Jews knew the Law, they knew the rules, traditions and arguments. However, Paul says that they did not achieve righteousness ("because they did not pursue it by faith" - Romans 9:32). Memorizing Scripture is helpful to build faith, but it is not the same as having faith; knowing and arguing about different points of doctrine successfully is important but is not a substitute for faith. Indoctrination is a means to acquire faith, but the practice and the expertise of knowing the theory of our religion is not in itself faith.
Faith is Not Comfort
Some people confuse familiarity with faith. The number two stumbling block in bringing people to Christ is their comfort with their religion. The number one impediment is sin and the love of sin (John 3:19). Feeling at home with a certain set of ideas, rituals, traditions, meeting place, or comfort with a certain group of people is not faith. It is emotion, it is familiarity, but it is not faith. The Jews drew great comfort from their traditions and through the excesses of the Pharisees, turned their comfortable traditions into inflexible laws that eventually overshadowed the reason for the traditions which was the honoring of God Himself.
Faith is Not Self Righteousness
The Jews understood that God was real and that there was a link between God and man. With time they came to believe that their own self-righteousness was their link with the Lord, their way to view the invisible God (i.e. I am righteous therefore my vision of God is right as well). Again, Paul explains that their mistake was substituting self-righteousness for faith (Romans 9:30-32). We fall into the same subtle trap when we assume that we can substitute a level of morality or a general niceness about ourselves into faith. Some think that a well kept lawn, a successful marriage, a meaningful career or healthy children are the same thing or as good as faith. It is not that we deny faith, we merely transform faith into a nice lifestyle (the American dream) and for us, living the good life becomes our faith.
What Faith is
Enough about what faith is not, let us look at some concrete things that the Bible identifies as faith. To begin with, faith is a composite of several different factors. It is like a puzzle that you put together one piece at a time in order to reveal the final image. The key pieces are the following:
A. Faith is Specific Knowledge
So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.
- Romans 10:17
When the Bible talks about faith it does so in both objective and subjective terms. When the Bible refers to "The Faith" it is talking about a body of specific religious information formulated and given by Jesus and later disseminated by His Apostles and then recorded in the New Testament. When Paul says, "There is one faith" (Ephesians 4:5) he refers to information. When Jude says, "[...] continue earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints." (Jude 3), he is talking about the knowledge and information concerning Christ given by God once and for all to the church.
In other instances the Bible talks about faith as a subjective experience, something that one possesses or expresses that in certain instances produces results of some kind. We usually refer to this as "belief" or "trust." Paul uses both terms in the same sentence.
22But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith (belief/trust) in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.
23But before faith (the faith - information/knowledge) came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith (information/knowledge) which was later to be revealed.
- Galatians 3:22-23
In this passage Paul is saying that you cannot have faith (belief) until you have the faith (information/knowledge).
So before it becomes or does anything, faith is specific knowledge and information given to us by Christ contained in the Bible.
B. Faith is an Act of the Will
Knowledge by itself is not faith. It must be acted upon in order to become faith. Our will must respond to the knowledge we read about in Scripture in two specific ways for faith (belief) to emerge from the words of Christ:
1. We must accept the information as being true. This is what we refer to as believing.
"[...] he who comes to God must believe that He is."
- Hebrews 11:6
Our will must decide that what we have heard from Christ is true.
2. We must act upon or respond to the information given. Faith is born when we believe as true and respond to the words of Jesus as He instructs us to do so.
In Acts 8:26-38 Luke tells the story of Philip and the Eunuch. (The Eunuch, a convert to Judaism was reading Scripture while traveling in his carriage. He invites Philip to join and teach him regarding the passage he was reading in Isaiah referring to the coming Messiah.) The Eunuch had information but did not understand it.
30Philip ran up and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and said, "Do you understand what you are reading?" 31And he said, "Well, how could I, unless someone guides me?" And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. 32Now the passage of Scripture which he was reading was this:
"He was led as a sheep to slaughter;
And as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
So He does not open His mouth.
33"In humiliation His judgment was taken away;
Who will relate His generation?
For His life is removed from the earth."
34The eunuch answered Philip and said, "Please tell me, of whom does the prophet say this? Of himself or of someone else?"
- Acts 8:30-34
Philip provides him with specific information relating to Christ (the link/the window) that clarifies this knowledge.
Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning from this Scripture he preached Jesus to him.
- Acts 8:35
At this point the only thing that the Eunuch has is specific information, he must accept it as true (his confession) and act or respond to it (his baptism) in order for the information to become faith.
36As they went along the road they came to some water; and the eunuch said, "Look! Water! What prevents me from being baptized?" 37[And Philip said, "If you believe with all your heart, you may." And he answered and said, "I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God."] 38And he ordered the chariot to stop; and they both went down into the water, Philip as well as the eunuch, and he baptized him.
- Acts 8:36-38
In the book of Acts we read that on the day of Pentecost Peter preached the specific information regarding Christ's death and resurrection to a large crowd gathered at the temple for this feast. The people who heard his sermon then asked Peter what they had to do. This was an acknowledgement that they believed and accepted as true what he had told them (that Jesus was the Messiah, etc.). Now they wanted to know how they were to respond to this information that they believed (how were they to express their faith?). Peter answers that they should repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins and the reception of the Holy Spirit.
37Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, "Brethren, what shall we do?" 38Peter said to them, "Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
The confusion in much of the religious world stems from the idea that man is not able to make a proper act of will. According to most popular Christian teaching on this matter God offers salvation without an act of will on the part of man. God simply chooses different ones for salvation and they accept His choice by understanding and repeating certain words, "I accept Jesus as my personal savior" etc. or the parents substitute their faith on behalf of their infant child so that the baby becomes a candidate for baptism.
We need to realize that God has provided "specific information" as to how people are to express their belief in response to His Word (the faith), and that is through repentance and baptism.
Faith, therefore, is produced when we exercise our will (not in any old way), but when we exercise our will through belief and obedience in accordance with the words of Christ. One clear example of this is found in the gospel of Mark:
He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned.
- Mark 16:16
He who has believed = Accepted as true
and has been baptized = An act of the will to express belief
Belief + Baptism = Salvation
C. Faith is Feeling
I know that we do not like this idea because we would prefer to keep our religion neatly stored in our minds and not let it get to our hearts. But faith produces feelings about what we have decided and done regarding the knowledge given to us by Christ.
1. We Feel Assurance
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
- Hebrews 11:1
Assurance is a feeling. The author says that faith produces a feeling of security and assurance about things we do not see but are convinced that we will receive. I have acted upon the words of Christ and the result in my life is that I feel confident (confidence is a feeling is it not?) about the future and the unseen promises of God.
2. We Feel Determination
13Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, 14I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
- Philippians 3:13-14
In opposition to the evidence to the contrary (sin, death, sorrow, disbelief) I am determined to press on to eternal life. The reasons to persevere may be kept in one's mind, but the experience of persevering is felt through determination. Faith creates a determination in me that moves me to persevere, to press on despite the opposition I may encounter in this largely unbelieving world.
3. We Feel Joy
From beginning to end, the revelation of the Word (the good news, the gospel) has created faith, and that faith has produced joy, and joy is a feeling is it not?
But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people;
- Luke 2:10
Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all for your progress and joy in the faith,
- Philippians 1:25
So faith begins as information processed by our wills into belief and action, and is then experienced as confidence, perseverance and joy.
You will note that I have not talked about what faith motivates us to do, how long we must be faithful, how to renew our faith or share it with others. What I have tried to do is to eliminate some false ideas about faith:
- It is not my father's religion or traditions.
- It is not simply doctrine or information.
- It is not religious habit.
- It is not personal goodness.
Faith has these elements but it is not these things. In the place of these we have learned that biblical faith:
- Begins with the words and teachings of Jesus.
- Comes to life when an individual believes these words as true and responds to them.
- Is continually experienced because it produces confidence, perseverance and a joyful heart and, as we will see in the next few chapters, also produces hope and love.
I pray that if your notion of faith was incorrect, you will discard it today and respond to the faith given to us by Jesus in the Bible: that you will believe, that you will obey in repentance and baptism, that you will continue in this belief in order to experience the assurance, strength and joy that only comes with true biblical faith.