What is faith?
Faith is widely used word, and most people use it without even thinking. But it’s a very important word, so how should we define it? More importantly, what does it mean as it is used in the Bible? And why is this important to our relationship with God? Surprisingly, the biblical meaning is no different than how we most use it in everyday life.
In a recent survey of people on the street, a woman was asked, “Is faith in God important to you?” Her answer was “No, I can’t believe in something without any evidence.” But this definition suggests that faith is illogical.
One definition from the dictionary is “a belief in the doctrines or teachings of a religion.” Even though this is used frequently in the English language, it’s not the meaning used in the Bible. In the Bible, faith in God isn’t just believing a list of facts and teachings.
I also read an article recently wherein the author defined it as: “doubtless belief in something without the need for physical evidence.” This is close to the biblical definition, but not identical. So, how does the Bible define faith?
How is faith defined in the Bible?
A very simple definition of faith is found in the book of Hebrews:
“Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” (Hebrews 11:1)
From this passage we learn that it is defined simply as:
- Believing in something that you can’t see.
- Confidence in something we want but hasn’t happened yet.
How this applies to God is obvious. Being the transcendent Creator of all things, God can’t be directly seen or observed. And he has made many promises to us that are yet to be fulfilled. So, faith is essential when relating to God.
Evidence is not mentioned in this definition, but it’s not excluded. Just because we can’t see something doesn’t mean there’s no evidence for its existence. There are many things we can’t see but we know exist on the basis of evidence, for example radio waves. On a human level we experience love and common emotions of joy and sadness. We can’t see them, but we see their effects. Likewise, in everything that God created there are evidences for his existence that help us believe.
Faith in the unseen God
In Hebrews we find this intriguing history:
By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death: “He could not be found, because God had taken him away.” For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God. And 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. (Hebrews 11:5-6)
Although he couldn’t see God, this ancient man Enoch walked and communed with him as a friend. He was convinced of God’s existence and his goodness. Enoch confidently acted on what evidence he had, and God rewarded him for seeking him and blessed him for his faith.
By this we learn that faith pleases God. In his teaching on prayer, Jesus told his disciples:
But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (Matthew 6:6)
So, faith is believing in the unseen God. We pray to him and meet with him because we believe he exists and will reward our prayers and our search for him. And this pleases God.
The reliability of God’s word
In everyday life, when someone offers to help us, they often confirm their intent by a promise. When we accept their offer, we believe them and their word, and a trust relationship is formed. In the same way, faith in God is a positive response to something he has revealed or promised, either spoken or written. God elicited faith from Abram through his promises:
He took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:5-6)
Jesus also elicited faith from those he ministered to. As he said to Martha:
I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this? (John 11:25-26)
When we believe something we hear, we are trusting the reliability of the source. In the same way, when we hear God’s Word and believe it, we’re acknowledging the reliability of the One who first spoke it.
… faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ. (Romans 10:17)
The simplicity of faith
So, in its simplest form, faith means trust—trust in someone or something other than yourself. It’s resting and trusting in someone else’s ability or their word. If we already trust someone, we’ll believe them when they tell us something.
What takes some theologians volumes and hundreds of pages to explain, Jesus showed in one simple lesson. He illustrated it by taking a child and placing him before the disciples.
Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it. (Mark 10:15)
What childlike trait was Jesus referring to? Trust, which is the same as faith. Children depend on and trust their parents. In the same manner, we need to trust God like a child to enter his kingdom.
Faith is not a power
Another definition of faith is “a strongly held belief.” In this view, people see it as a fervent belief in something that they really want to happen, like a positive force they can exert at will. They applied for a job, and so they think if they believe hard enough, they will get that job. Or they are in love with a certain person, and if they strongly believe they will get married, it will happen.
But biblical faith is not a “power” that we possess and use at our will. Believing in something doesn’t make it true. And believing that something will happen doesn’t make it happen. What’s important is what or whom we put our faith in, and the truthfulness of what we believe.
We see the tragic effect of when people believe something that isn’t true, and depend on it for their safety, health, happiness. Many religious people have believed the false teaching that God promises all believers complete health and wealth, later to see their hopes collapse.
In 1997, 39 members of Heaven’s Gate, an American religious cult led by Marshall Applewhite, conducted a mass suicide in San Diego, California. These people believed that suicide would take them to a higher level and prepare them for uniting with a spacecraft that was following the Comet Hale-Bopp. These people certainly had faith. But it was in an untrustworthy leader and in a promise that was completely false.
What matters is the trustworthiness of the person we are trusting.
Thomas wouldn’t believe the other disciple’s reports of Christ’s resurrection. That’s why we call him “doubting Thomas.”
“Unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.” (John 20: 25)
But to be fair, why should he have believed the other disciples? He refused to believe something just because someone else said it. But then Jesus appeared to him personally:
Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:27-29)
Thomas needed more evidence than others. But in the end, he had faith in Jesus as his Lord, God, and Savior, which is what counts. People today don’t have the evidence for Christ’s lordship that Thomas had. Yet Jesus said they are blessed, as long as they trust him as their Lord and Savior.
Salvation: by grace through faith
We need to acknowledge we can’t save ourselves. Faith in Christ means trusting him to do something we are incapable of doing. We are trusting in Christ and his sacrificial death to save us, to forgive us, to redeem us. And when we trust in Christ, we are relying on the power and ability of God. Faith is the link that ties us to the Savior who saves.
The apostle Paul taught that salvation is given by God as a gift and is received through faith in the One who is giving it:
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
When we receive a gift from anyone, it usually means that our relationship with the giver is on good terms, and we trust them. In contrast, rejecting a gift is also rejecting the giver. The gift God gives through Christ is salvation, and when we receive this gift, we receive him.
Our faith is ours alone
Reformist John Calvin and theologians who follow him interpret the Ephesians 2 passage to mean that the gift God gives is faith, not salvation. To them, God grants faith as a gift to a select group of people he chooses to save. But this view turns the meaning of faith on its head. ¹
Faith is not a “thing” that can be traded, sold, purchased, inherited, or given from one person to another. The faith we have is ours in whoever or whatever we are trusting. Only we can trust someone else for ourselves. Faith is the sole possession of the person who has it.
In the gospels, when ministering to people, Jesus always referred to “your faith” or “their faith.” And he was always pleased when people believed that God’s power through him could heal them or help them.
Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment. (Matthew 15:28)
“Go,” said Jesus, “your faith has healed you.” Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road. (Mark 10:52)
Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace. (Luke 8:48)
So, God doesn’t give faith to us so we can trust him. It’s our response to him, his gift, and his promise. God enables us by providing the revelation, the opportunities, and even a nudging to believe, but the faith is ours.
To establish a relationship with God, the faith must be ours alone. God doesn’t make us trust him—he desires our own free-will response. And we can’t trust God for someone else. My trust in God can’t be transferred to another person or be a proxy for someone else’s lack of it. Parents can’t believe for their adult children. Wives can’t believe for their husbands. Each person is responsible for their own relationship with God apart from what anyone else believes.
Faith is trust, not action or work
Although faith results in action, in itself it’s not an action—it’s the opposite of action. And it’s not work—it’s the opposite of work. After a crowd of people followed Jesus because of his miracles, they asked him:
“What must we do to do the works God requires?” Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” (John 6:28-29)
Jesus’ reply was opposite of what they expected. He told them not to work at all, but to trust in him, the One God sent. Humans tend to want to do something. But our part is not to work—it’s to rely on Christ’s work.
How is faith expressed? One way is verbally:
If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. (Romans 10:9-10)
When we believe something to be true, we first believe it with our heart, then express it with our mouth.
Expressed through action
We also express faith through action. What you believe determines what you do and how you live. If we truly believe something, we will act on it and live by it. Consider Matthew’s story of the paralyzed man:
Some men brought to him a paralyzed man, lying on a mat. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the man, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” (Matthew 9:2)
The paralyzed man expressed his faith by asking his friends to bring him to Jesus on his mat. His friends expressed theirs by carrying out the plan. They all believed that Jesus could heal. Astonishingly, Jesus said that this man was forgiven through his faith in him. And to prove it, he healed the man in front of all the people.
True faith will always affect our actions. As James famously wrote:
In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. (James 2:17)
Our actions show where we put our trust. I will only sit down on a chair if I believe that it will hold me up. Trusting a chair is easy, but trusting an unseen God takes more faith. But the better we know God, the more we learn that he’s trustworthy, and so our faith grows.
There are many examples in the Bible of people who trusted in the power and promises of our great God:
- Abraham was enabled to become a father in his old age after decades of his wife’s barrenness.
- Moses endured disgrace and mistreatment in Egypt by identifying with God and his people instead of Pharaoh’s household.
- Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego endured a fiery furnace instead of bowing down to a foreign idol and they came out unscathed.
- Daniel survived a den of hungry lions for worshipping the true God.
Since Christ’s coming and resurrection, many believers have through their faith endured great persecution and martyrdom:
- First century Christians were fed to the lions or slaughtered by gladiators in the colosseum to entertain high class Roman society.
- Christians in the Middle Ages such as the Waldensians were persecuted or murdered after refusing to submit to the edicts of corrupt church leaders.
- Countless believers today have faced persecution and even death in countries like North Korea, Iran, Nigeria, Sudan, and China.
Believing in God’s power and promises
Hebrews explains how these people could accomplish such great things and endure such difficulty:
All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth…. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them. (Hebrews 11:13, 16)
They all lived by faith while they were in the world, trusting in the power of God and believing his promises would one day be fulfilled. They knew their true home was in heaven with God.
Where do you put your faith?
We all have faith in something whether we realize it or not. Everyone has it—it’s what we rely on, believe in, and live for. Who you believe determines what kind of person you become. Trusting in false beliefs and misguided leaders will lead you astray. So, what are you putting your faith in, and whom are you trusting? Who you trust is up to you and you alone.
Trusting Jesus, the trustworthy Savior will lead you into a great future and inheritance that will never fade. So, put your trust in Christ. His words are true and reliable, and his promises are unfailing. Call on him today and he will bring you into a secure relationship with God. God desires this for you above all else, and he’s only waiting for your response—your faith.
¹ Some will point to Romans 12:3-6 where Paul refers to “the measure of faith God has given you” to argue that faith is a gift from God. But in this passage, the topic is spiritual gifts, and Paul used “measure of faith” as a term for a spiritual gift. He was not addressing faith for salvation.
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