What is Faith?
For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.
– Eph. 2:8-9
Faith is one of those words like love. We all think we know what it means until we try to define it. In fact, a quick look at a Google definition illustrates two different views of faith.
- Complete trust or confidence in someone or something.
- Strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof.
Both are accurate definitions, but both are not equally applicable to Christianity. It is this second definition which people have wrongly associated with the Christian doctrine of salvation, but it is the first definition which rings more true. Because of this, there are at least two misconceptions about Christian faith that I hope to clear up today. Faith is of the utmost importance to understand. For, if we have no reason behind our faith, then our faith is empty (cf. 1 Cor. 15:11-19), but without faith, we are lost, and if we place our faith in the wrong thing, we are equally lost.
Misconception ONE: Isn’t faith supposed to be blind?
Even people who have never opened a Bible can likely quote 2nd Corinthians 5:7, which says, “For we walk by faith, not by sight.” It’s settled then, right? Faith must be blind! After all, the opposite of sight is no sight. One does not have to look very far to find a non-Christian who mocks the apparent stupidity of Christians for believing in God absent of reason or evidence, but based solely on faith.
The problem is, this type of understanding of Christian faith is simply inaccurate. Other world views can certainly disagree with what we in the Christian faith believe is evidence, but if you disagree with Christianity, then I would hope you at least want to properly understand and define our beliefs. Otherwise you are disagreeing with a view that does not exist and committing the straw man fallacy.
What we should notice, then, is that this passage in 2nd Corinthians does not say we walk blindly; it says we walk by faith. Hopefully after reading this, you will know the difference between walking blindly and walking with real Christian faith – faith that saves.
Christian apologist and author Josh McDowell once confronted people with the question “Why do you believe the Bible to be true?” One young man answered him, “Because I believe…Because I have faith.” Any Christian who desires a strong and true faith should reject this type of reasoning (as McDowell did), because it is this type of reasoning that has led opponents of the Christian faith to believe Christians are blind and foolish – and indeed we would be if we accepted this reasoning. McDowell goes on to respond to the young man, “To you, the Bible is true because you believe it. To me, I believe it because it’s true.”
Now wait a minute, if I know it’s true, then isn’t that the same as walking by sight? Certainly that would be. Which is why it is important to note that Christianity does not consider the existence of God or the truth of the Bible as matters of faith. Insert shocked face here, I know. Truth be told, we believe there is evidence for the existence of God and the truth of the Bible. Evidence could range from a myriad of things, e.g. prophecy, the historical person of Christ, personal experience with God, etc. But the existence of God and the truth of the Bible are NOT the objects of saving faith.
What I mean is, a person can go to hell even if they believe God exists and they believe the Bible is true. To get to heaven, faith is certainly needed, but saving faith means far more than believing in the existence of God and the truth of the Bible – those things are a given in the Christian faith. This brings me to misconception two (misconception one will be further explained throughout).
Misconception TWO: Isn’t faith simply believing that God exists?
Nowhere in the Bible does it suggest that a person can be saved if they simply believe God exists. In fact, James 2:19 says, “Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.” Now, if Satan and his demons believe that God exists, then clearly acknowledging the existence of God is not the qualifier for salvation. If it were, then Satan and his demons would be saved, which is obviously not the teaching of scripture (cf. Jude 1:6; 2 Pet. 2:4). The point here is that someone can fully realize and believe in the existence of God, and yet still choose to reject Him – as Satan did (cf. Isa. 14:12).
Romans 1:20 teaches that God can be clearly seen by simply looking at creation. There are other examples, but suffice it to say, the teaching of scripture assumes that God exists. Faith in God, then, means something other than simply acknowledging His existence.
Fortunately, scripture provides us with its own example of faith. In Genesis 15:1-6, God promises Abraham (still Abram at the time) that he will be blessed with descendants as numerous as the stars. Verse 6 is key to understanding faith. It says, “And he [Abram] believed in the Lord and he [God] counted it to him [Abram] for righteousness.”
Now someone is likely to say, “Wait a minute, that verse said ‘believed in’, but you just said that we had to do more than believe in God.” Calm down will you, I’m going to explain it. We should note immediately that of course Abram believed God existed. He was, after all, speaking to God in those six verses (indirectly, through a vision). It’s awfully difficult not to believe in someone you are speaking to. Since Abram was speaking to God, his belief in God should be assumed. As such, what can verse 6 mean? It simply means that Abram trusted in God. Or, more specifically, Abram believed that the promise of God was true.
God had just given Abram a promise of an extraordinary legacy and lineage. Abram then faced a decision; he could believe God’s promise, or he could not. Abram chose to believe that God’s promise was true, and it was “counted…to him for righteousness.” That’s the key! Abram received righteousness by his belief in God’s promise. He received righteousness by his faith in God; not by faith that God existed, but by faith that God’s promise was true.
Just in case you think I am misinterpreting this key passage, please read Romans 4, which perfectly recounts that Abraham’s faith was not merely in the existence of God, but in the promise of God, and that through faith in this promise, Abraham was imputed righteousness.
So what is saving faith then? When a Christian says to have faith, what do they mean?
Christian faith means trusting in the promises of God. When God says He can or will do something, true faith believes Him.
What do we have faith in? The promise of God. What promise? The promise that the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ paid for our sins, and gives us the hope of eternal life. This is the promise we must place our faith in. The work of Jesus Christ on the cross. Scripture claims that Jesus can save us from our sins, and placing your faith in God means that we believe this claim to be true.
Over and over in scripture, it is the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ that determines whether or not a person will inherit eternal life (Eph. 2:8-9; Rom. 10:9, 1 Cor. 15:11-19, 1 John 3:23, 4:2, etc.). Either we believe in it, or we do not. Either we place our faith in Jesus’ ability to save us, or we do not. Let us have none of this talk of faith being blind, or faith as merely believing in the existence of God. My faith in God is no blinder than my faith in the promise of another human. I cannot see the promise of a loved one. If my brother blind folded me and told me to walk across a bridge, it would not be my sight that allowed me to walk, it would be my trust in him. It would be my trust that he loves me and would not want harm to come to me. Faith in him would have nothing to do with his existence, but everything to do with the integrity of his word. I trust my brother, therefore I would walk. Certainly I believe God exists, but it is his promise to save me through the blood of Jesus Christ in which I trust. It is the integrity of His word in which I have faith.
This is why Hebrews 11:1 says, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
Faith applies to the things we hope for, things which we cannot see. This means eternity (2 Cor. 4:18). I place my hope in Jesus Christ because He has promised that if I trust in Him, then I can inherit eternal life.
Can I see that promise? No, I cannot. This is why I must walk by faith, not by sight; but in no way does that imply that I walk blindly.
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 Josh McDowell, The Last Christian Generation, (Holiday: Green Key Books, 2006), 41-42.