What Is Faith?
Updated: Aug 22, 2019
But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. —2 Corinthians 4:7
Hebrews 11:1, 2, 39, 40
When the question is asked about the nature of faith, Hebrews 11:1 is often the “go-to” verse, “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” Since this verse begins what has been designated as a chapter we consider it to be the beginning of a new thought or teaching. But originally the Scriptures had no titles, chapters, verses, or even punctuation. I can’t imagine the difficulty of reading such a document, or how hard it might been back in the day to find what one might be looking for. While I appreciate whoever it was who thought to make life easier for us by coming up with titles, chapters, verses and punctuation, sometimes all that helpfulness causes us to think that what is contained within the limitations of those breaks and numbers is unrelated to what was said before them and what was said after them. Such compartmentalization is easy for all of us to do. We think in blocks, which was why I never stopped to think about that little word “now” with which Hebrews 11 begins. Did you notice it?
Usually a “therefore” will make me look back to see what was said before. It’s a pretty strong clue. It tells us that whatever follows the “therefore” is vitally connected to came before it. But “now” also means that something was said earlier that has a bearing on what the writer is about to say. “Now faith” tells me that this great so-named “faith” chapter has its roots in something that was said earlier.
So I looked back at Hebrews 10. The entire book of Hebrews is all about Jesus. His sovereignty, His superiority, His sacrifice, His salvation is all worked through carefully. By the time we get to Hebrews 10:18, we should have a working understanding of the Gospel, of the significance of the cross, and the importance of what Jesus did for us on that cross. Then comes a “therefore.” Because of what Jesus did the following is true:
"Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great high priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds."
It’s all true, insists the author. You have believed it and have come into the family of God through faith in Jesus Christ. So come into His presence with confidence. Trust Him. And encourage others to trust Him and obey Him as you have trusted and obeyed Him. The writer goes on to remind his audience that they have suffered much for this faith that they have professed. In times of trouble it is easy to give in to the temptation to quit, to walk away, to throw in the proverbial towel. It is also easy to drift away from the true path after the difficult times have passed, this time as a reaction to the weariness of mind and heart that comes from a lengthy period of stress and distress. The author urges his readers to stand firm in the face of this second temptation just as they stood firm in the face of the first temptation.
"Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions. So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised."
The key to perseverance, to not giving up, is faith and the writer will now go on to illustrate the nature of this persevering faith by directing the attention of his audience to some of the people who demonstrated its nature through their life choices, experiences, and the hand of God on their lives through the good, the bad, and the ugly. They were never perfect, nor are we. And that’s the point. Faith can be demonstrated within the cracks and flaws of the vessel in which it is contained.
Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.
The dictionary defines faith as:
1 he justified his boss's faith in him: trust, belief, confidence, conviction; optimism, hopefulness, hope. ANTONYMS mistrust.
2 she gave her life for her faith: religion, church, sect, denomination, (religious) persuasion, (religious) belief, ideology, creed, teaching, doctrine.
Charles Spurgeon, a master preacher of the past century describes faith this way: “What is faith? It is made up of three things—knowledge, belief, and trust. Knowledge comes first. ‘How shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard?’ I want to be informed of a fact before I can possibly believe it. ‘Faith cometh by hearing’; we must first hear, in order that we may know what is to be believed. ‘They that know thy name shall put their trust in thee.’ A measure of knowledge is essential to faith; hence the importance of getting knowledge…Faith begins with knowledge. The mind goes on to believe that these things are true…for the difference between common faith and saving faith lies mainly in the subject upon which it is exercised…only one more ingredient is needed to complete it, which is trust…Faith is not a blind thing, for faith begins with knowledge. It is not a speculative thing; for faith believes facts of which it is sure. It is not an unpractical, dreamy thing; for faith trusts and stakes its destiny upon the truth of revelation…Faith is believing that Christ is what He is said to be, and that He will do what He has promised to do, and then to expect this of Him.”
Many express faith in terms of an ideology, as confidence in a set of instructions and/or beliefs. But the biblical definition of faith is what some would call a living faith because it rests, not on a system, but in a person—Jesus Christ. It is not as some might say, “blind” because it is focused on the God who has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ, the God who can be seen and known.
Paul writes in Romans 15:4: “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” The lives of these “ancients” of Biblical history have lessons to teach us about endurance, encouragement, and hope.
But just as Hebrews 10 ended in a reference to perseverance, so will Hebrews 12 begin with the same theme. This reminds us that faith is always tested and we are particularly conscious of that testing when times are bad. So we are called upon to look at the examples of faith and stand alongside them, measuring ourselves with their weaknesses and with their strengths. What questions will we ask as our faith is tested in the crucible of life?
A. Will our faith help us to endure discipline? Will we stand firm when God must correct us?
Ezekiel 22:13,14, Hebrews 12:7, 10, 11, 12
"I will surely strike my hands together at the unjust gain you have made and at the blood you have shed in your midst. Will your courage endure or your hands be strong in the day I deal with you?"
"Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father?…God disciplines us for our own good…No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful…however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees."
B. Will our faith help us to endure persecution and trouble? The Scripture issues a warning to those who start well but when the going gets difficult face the choice of standing firm or backing away.
Mark 4:17, 2 Thessalonians 1:4
"But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away."
"Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trails you are enduring."
C. Will our faith keep us strong and focused on the spiritual battle we have entered? The key to everything that we do is pleasing Jesus.
2 Timothy 2:3, 4
"Endure hardship with us like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving as a soldier gets involved in civilian affairs—he wants to please his commanding officer."
D. Will our faith keep us going when the ministry we are engaged in gets tough? We have two core values as believers. Our vertical core value is pleasing Jesus, loving Him with everything that we are and have. Our horizontal core value is modeling Him in word and deed before a world whose basic need and only hope is a personal relationship with Christ.
2 Timothy 2:10, 4:5
"Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory."
"But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge the duties of your ministry."
E. Will our faith keep us standing firm even when it hurts? And it will hurt as millions over the centuries can testify to.
1 Peter 2:19
"For it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God."
Those who are mentioned in Hebrews 11 represent those whose endurance was tested. They were not perfect—and the Scripture never covers up the imperfections of its principal characters. We can identify with an Abraham who got tired of waiting for God to do what He said He would do. We can identify with Jephthah of the runaway mouth and rash vow. We can identify with Samson whose appetites overwhelmed his obedience. They failed, but they are also listed as people of faith.
Stories of how God has worked in the lives of those who have gone before us become a source of encouragement as we travel our own journeys. One of the most significant things about the stories of the Old Testament saints is that God does not hide their frailties or their sins. If He had we might have thought it impossible to identify with them as we struggle with our own frailties and sins. The fact that they are like us—they are us—and that God still used them and blessed them and loved them, becomes a constant reminder that He does the same for us.
Our task as believers is to become the living, breathing current saints who share stories of encouragement that built into the lives of others so that they will move forward in their journey of faith and obedience. Hebrews 10, as an introduction to the stories of the Old Testament saints of faith, reminds us of our responsibilities to others who are part of our spiritual family.
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
This verse is not necessarily meant to be used to beat absentee church members over the head with, but rather it is meant to remind ourselves about one of the principal reasons we meet together in the first place—to be encouraged and to encourage others to follow Jesus.
And this brings us back to where we began, to the essence of faith, to the confidence that God is Who He says He is and will do what He says He will do. Hope is the result, the outcome, of genuine faith. And it is this manifestation of faith, this hope, this confidence that shines through the stories of those mentioned in Hebrews 11. Even in those whose decisions in life were not always the best, there were those moments in their journeys when faith reigned and God responded. Hope is not the end in itself. Its strength is in its object.
"But now, Lord, what do I look for? My hope is in you."
"My soul faints with longing for your salvation, but I have put my hope in your word."
"Yet I call this to mind and therefore I have hope. Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, ‘The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.’"
If you read the context of this verse from Lamentations, you discover the depths of despair in which Jeremiah lingered. Everything he knew and loved was being destroyed. The agony of soul he is suffering makes his statement all the more powerful—a man of faith who continues to hope in the Lord despite not seeing anything but blackness surrounding him.
Romans 5:3, 4, 5
"Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us."
Romans 8:24, 25
"For in this hope we are saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently."
"…a faith and knowledge resting on the hope of eternal life, which God, who does not lie, promised before the beginning of time…"
Hebrew 6:18, 19
"God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope offered to us may be greatly encouraged. We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain…"
1 Peter 3:15
"But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have."
1 John 3:3
"Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure."
No doubt we are often surprised by who is included in this great faith chapter in Hebrews 11. We expect a few minor frailties to be observed in the saints who appear in the Scriptures. We expect to see Abraham and Moses appear. Impatience and temper we can relate to. But who would have put Samson on the list? And who on earth is Jephthah? On the other hand, we might wonder why others who demonstrated great faith aren’t named. Why Barak instead of Deborah?
But before we look at the people who are mentioned in our search to discover what faith looks like, we need to take a broader view of the subject.
Hebrews 3:12-14 defines faith.
"See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first."
Lack of faith is unbelief, sin. It turns us away from God to put our confidence elsewhere. We need each other to remain strong in our faith. When our journey falters, the strength in another’s journey encourages us to persevere. The reverse is also true. These verses connect perfectly with what we read in Hebrews 10:24, 25. The author’s emphasis is on community and on the need to point others toward faith, toward the confidence in God that keeps us strong and moving forward in trust and obedience.
We are to encourage others daily. To encourage another implies that we believe what we are encouraging them to believe. To do otherwise would be hypocritical.
We are to hold firmly to that hope that we started out with when we began our spiritual journey. Perseverance is mentioned a number of times in Scripture. We are to “hold firm” until the end.
Encouragement is a daily need because while we have a present opportunity to respond to God’s word (“as long as it is called ‘Today’”), we must do so with enduring faith.
We are not to turn away from God.
Hebrews 11:6: “Without faith is it impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” comes after the author’s remarks about Enoch. But it is a general statement not limited to Enoch. When we lack faith we convey, like it or not, what we believe about God.
"We “…must believe that he exists.” Step number one on the journey of faith is believing that there really is a God even when we cannot see Him or do not understand what He is doing. This belief, this faith, is demonstrated in how we relate to Him in our daily lives. Lack of faith, even when we might say we believe, but in our actions and attitudes demonstrate that we do not, is a denial of God’s existence. We may not say that we have ceased to believe but have in some way declared that He is irrelevant in our lives and therefore might as well not exist. We live this way every time we deny Him by taking control out of His hands and trying to do for ourselves what only He can do, by putting other priorities ahead of seeking Him and His glory as the first priority in our lives. To say “of course God exists” but to sideline Him at any level is to deny Him, to disbelieve. We cannot “see” Him doing what we want Him to do, or responding as quickly as we would like Him to respond, therefore we move ahead of Him or without Him as though He doesn’t exist for us in this circumstance. Faithlessness becomes the outworking of a lack of faith.
Lack of faith affects our relationship with God.
To say that He is displeased with us because of our lack of faith and how that might affect our relationship with Him may not be the right direction from which to look at this issue. Is He displeased with us because of our faithlessness that is the natural outworking of our lack of faith? The statement “…without faith it is impossible to please God” causes us to think about everything we do from a faith perspective. If anything I do is done without faith, then that act doesn’t build on my relationship with Him—and building that relationship is the whole purpose of my existence. Paul insists that every detail of life is faith-based. We are told to “…do it all for the glory of God.”It insists that God is in every part of our lives, that He is relevant to every aspect of that life. Faith is believing that every action of life ultimately contributes to damaging that relationship or building upon it. The “reward” promised is more than that which was promised to Abraham because neither he, nor any of the others, experienced in this life what only the next could give them—the pleasure that faith brings to God and the result of that pleasure in a relationship perfected in glory. Our reward is more of Him. As Jeremiah says: “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”
The Object of our Faith
Hebrews 11 begins and ends with key statements about faith. You have probably often heard people say something like, “If only I had more faith…” or “I should have had more faith” or “I need to exercise more faith”as though some magic power resided in faith itself. Oftentimes we have more faith in our faith than we do in the giver of the faith.
Matthew 17:14-21 tells the story of a father who brought his epileptic son to the disciples for healing. They couldn’t heal him, though we know from Matthew 10 that Jesus had given them His authority to do miracles. When Jesus appeared He rebuked them when they asked why they had been unsuccessful: “He replied, ‘Because you have so little faith. I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, Move from here to there and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.’” The King James Version uses a stronger word for “so little faith” calling it “unbelief.” Not only did the disciples have small faith, they might not have been exercising any faith at all—except perhaps in themselves—“little” faith may be faith placed in the wrong person. From passages like this it might be easy to get the impression that the size or amount of our faith tips the balance when it comes to whether or not God works in our lives. But the story simply tells us that none of ushave perfect faith (far from it!) including those listed in Hebrews 11.
Benson’s commentary expresses what happened this way:
Because in this particular you had not faith. You doubted whether I could or would enable you to cast out this evil spirit, and I permitted him to resist your efforts, to reprove the weakness of your faith.
No matter how hard we work at it we can never “work up” even a mustard seed amount of faith. If we could gain a mustard seed of faith, we could do the impossible. Faith is not a job we do for the Lord, and then, depending on how well we do it, we will be rewarded accordingly. This was probably what stymied the disciples—they functioned as though their “authority” or faith was enough. Their faith was in their faith.
The authority of the disciples that permitted them to do miracles did not come from the quantity or even the quality of their faith, but flowed from the Person in whom that faith was placed. If that is true then quality and quantity come from the strength of the relationship with the source of that faith and grows in proportion to that relationship. Faith is placed in a Person. When we are given authority to act in someone’s name, in Christ’s name, we don’t act in our own name or with our own resources. We are resourced by the One who has given us the authority.
But the ἀπιστίαwith which Jesus now charges them is to be understood in a relative sense, while the πίστις, of which it is the negation, means simply faith in Jesus Christ, the depositary of supernatural power, so that, in virtue of their fellowship with His life, the disciples, as His servants and the organs of His power, were enabled to operate with greater effect in proportion to the depth and energy of the faith with which they could confide in Him.
Thus the secret of faith is not in its quantity or quality, though that will strengthen with exercise, but in how deep its roots go and grow into an intimate relationship with the One into Whom we pour that faith. Faith is the outcome of a relationship. And faith is perfected as the relationship is perfected.
James gives us another clue about faith in James 1:5 to 8. “If any of you lack wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be give to him. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.”
The person who lacks the faith to believe that God will give him the wisdom he asks for will never be sure if the decision he made was Spirit-inspired or self-driven and will doubt his decision. Note that this particular promise is specific to gaining wisdom during the trials of life that are necessary to our development as believers. God brings these trials into our lives as a means of working toward that very improvement in the relationship with God that strengthens faith both in quantity and quality.
So if we don’t put our faith in the right place or if, when we do place our faith in the right place, but then doubt that this person can give us what we need, we will be unsuccessful at exercising the faith that pleases God. We need to believe that He is the One who is “relevant” in our lives and He is the One who will reward us when we express our confidence in Him by our faith.
But placing our faith in a person rather than in ourselves means that we are at the mercy of, and subject to the will of, the person in whom we have placed that faith.
According to Hebrews 11:39, none of the people listed in this great faith chapter “received what had been promised.”They had faith, but they never saw the final result of that faith. That could make us a bit discouraged since we want to believe that the exercise of our faith will end with the result that we anticipate.
As we go through the list of people mentioned in Hebrews 11 we will discover that some of these people were not terribly faithful to God, nor did they always trust God. On the other hand, some were tremendous examples of faith. It appears that what they did or did not do was not what made them men and women of faith. The results of the faith they exercised did not depend on them, which would have meant that they had faith in themselves. The results did not depend on how big or small their faith was, or how consistent. And whether or not the results were “positive” or “negative” from our finite viewpoint, the quality of their faith was not at issue. Regardless of what they did and the quantity of their faith, it was WHO they had faith in and WHETHER OR NOT they doubted the capability of One in whom they placed that faith, that made the difference.
Why would the Scriptures say that these ancients didn’t get what they wanted? After all, Abraham got a son, Moses crossed the Red Sea, Gideon won a battle. But was a son, a sea, a success, what being a person of faith was all about? If it was, then what about the poor people who got sawn in half, imprisoned, left homeless and in poverty?
The prosperity gospel and those who teach the “word of faith” theology, “name it and claim it,” “confess it and possess it” will tell you that obedience, giving, and faith are the means by which we can get what we want from God. While it is not our intent to discuss the faulty interpretation and application of Scripture that has given rise to this movement, it is sufficient to say that none of those mentioned as having faith in Hebrews 11 got what had been promised to them—not even those who crossed the sea, got the son and won the battle.
The verse upon which we need to “hang our hats”when God doesn’t meet our expectations is Hebrews 11:40: “God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.”
What is it that we, and the host of believers that came before us and will come after us, share that makes, or will make us, “perfect?”
God’s promises are not given to make us healthy or wealthy but to make us good, with the ultimate goal of making us perfect on that day we arrive in His presence. Our faith in Him is directly related to the accomplishing of that purpose.
Two Inescapable Truths
There are two truths that must be remembered as we look at the “ancients” of whom it is said that they had faith:
1.The definition of faith “…faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Hebrew 1:1)
2.The reward of faith “…without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”
CONVERSATIONS AND CONSIDERATIONS
1. On a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 being “poor” and 10 being “almost perfect,” where would you put yourself on your journey of faith?
2. What are your greatest struggles when it comes to believing that what God says is true?
3. If faith is the outcome of a relationship with God, what steps do you believe you need to take to strengthen that relationship?
4. What plan will you put in place to strengthen your relationship with God? When will you begin?
5. At the end of each chapter, report how you are doing in strengthening your relationship with God as a vital part of your faith journey.
Hebrews 11:1, 2
All of Grace, Charles Spurgeon, 1915
Hebrews 10:24, 25
Zondervan NIV Study Bible, D.A. Carson, General Editor, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2015, pg. 2499.
1 Corinthians 10:31