What Is Faith?
"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? We live in a secular-oriented society that is virtually devoid of faith. Since most people don't read the Bible, they don't know much about 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 do not know.
What about you? Have you thought about—do you know—what God can and will 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 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 will do for us whatever He has promised to do. He expects us to act on that 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 to do His will. We can rest assured that God's will does not include frivolous or unproductive behavior—only "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 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.
Even in modern language, to believe in someone, something or some cause is to have faith in 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 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 ages-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.
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 must go beyond the level of the faith 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 a step beyond by believing what He says.
When Jesus learned that Lazarus had died, He told Lazarus's sister, Martha, "Your brother will rise again" (John 11:23). She acknowledged that, yes, he would "rise again in the resurrection at the last day" (verse 24).
Martha's response showed she not only believed in Jesus, but she believed what He said. Her faith was much more than an academic acceptance of God's existence. She believed God's promise to resurrect the dead.
Jesus replied to her: "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?" (verses 25-26). After Martha again affirmed her faith, Jesus responded by calling out to her brother, "Lazarus, come forth!"—and he walked out of the tomb, brought back to life (verses 27-44).
Martha's life is a wonderful example of living faith—the kind of belief required for salvation. Living, active faith is confidence that God can and will intervene in our lives. 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 it can and does happen. That faith, along with the blessings God brings us when we apply it, is available to those who really believe Him.
Faith is evidence
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 the existence of things we cannot see.
The remainder of Hebrews 11 identifies real people who long ago lived examples of faith. They believed God, even to the point of death, confident God would deliver them or resurrect them to eternal life in His Kingdom. They believed. Faith gave them assurance to carry on.
But faith is not wishful thinking, a pie-in-the-sky feeling that everything will be all right. 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 because "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" (verse 6).
The preceding passage describes two aspects of faith. First we must believe God exists. He is the one and only all-righteous, all-powerful Being—something we can comprehend through the magnificence of the physical creation we see around us (Romans 1:20). Then we must believe God will ultimately reward those who humbly, obediently seek Him.
Why many lack faith
Many people don't have the faith described in the Bible because 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 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.
Many people cling to misconceptions about Jesus' message, the gospel. Our Savior, who came preaching "the gospel of the kingdom of God," instructs us to "repent, and believe 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 God's Word. (If you would like to know more about the truth of the message Jesus taught, be sure to request your free copy of the booklet The Gospel of the Kingdom.)
Changing our lives to submit to God—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. This is a kind of humility that 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, be sure to request your free copy of The Road to Eternal Life.)
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, "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God"? (Ephesians 2:8). Did Paul preach a faith that did not involve a need for obedience?
Not at all. This passage shows us that God's grace—His undeserved favor toward us—is a gift. 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 (James 2:14-26). The truth is that our salvation comes through God's gift of grace and faith, which God helps us develop throughout our lives. We must have living faith, not an empty, inactive faith.
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). But we are saved by grace through faith (verse 8). 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, ". . . 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, 20, 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, he 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" (verse 25, NIV).
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 (verses 15-17). James cited the example of faithful Abraham to show that "his faith was made complete by what he did" (verses 21-22, NIV).
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 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. Will we be like Thomas, doubting the testimony of the many credible eyewitnesses to the resurrection and miracles of Jesus Christ? 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).
The world we live in seems designed to undermine faith. Educational systems and the 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). Because something is difficult to come by doesn't mean it is impossible, especially with God. 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).
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.
In the next chapter we will consider the lives of men and women who, with God's help and encouragement, developed living faith.
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