When endeavoring to define faith in the biblical sense, teachers and preachers hasten to bring their audience to Hebrews 11. This, of course, is the “faith chapter,” or the “hall of faith” (as it’s commonly called), in which we’re made to see this heroic faithfulness as displayed in the lives of many prominent Scriptural figures, such as Noah, Moses, Joseph, among several others. Indeed, the opening verse is often used as the primary definition of faith: “Now faith is the reality of what is hoped for, the proof of what is not seen.” (Heb. 11:1) What’s surprising, though, is that this chapter never really gives you a true definition of faith.
You can search the Scriptures, but you won’t find one. Both Hebrews 11:1 and 11:6 are often used for the purposes of defining what faith is, but those verses hint more at the idea of faith more than an actual exposition of it. They describe what faith looks like but they don’t really define what it is. In fact, if you were to flip through the pages of the Bible, you’ll continually find faith pictured and presumed, but never prescribed. We’re never really told how to get it. We’re just told and shown what results from it.
We understand the concept of faith incorrectly. Consequently, there are a slew of misunderstandings emanating from mankind’s harebrained attempts at defining faith on their terms. Oftentimes, we’re trained to read the Scriptures and memorize the stories and stand mouths agape at the heroic faithfulness of the patriarchs and champions of the Biblical narrative. We’re made to see their success and note God’s blessing, and the natural conclusion from such a reading is that gold-medal faith is the standard. That’s the bar for “victorious Christian living.” But I’d say that nothing could be further from the truth.
What faith is not.
I think to understand what faith is we should briefly speak to what faith is not. First of all, your faith is not perfect. The moment your faith is placed in Jesus, you’re not suddenly transported into a state of perpetual happiness, undying confidence, or unending joy. Faith is not a forcefield against suffering. Faith does not mean you’ll live unphased by life itself. Some people like to think that their faith makes them like superheroes, impervious to adversity and agony. But such postulations are false and ignore the reality of true biblical faith. If you read the Bible and determine that perfect faith is required with God, you’re not reading very closely. Those same “heroes of the faith” that we loft up as examples of faithfulness were actually very often unfaithful and full of failure and frailty. They wavered and waffled and continuously needed God’s gracious hand to lift them up after they’d fallen.
Furthermore, your faith is not blind. Many would have you believe that the more fear involved, the greater your faith will be. The idea being that the less you know, the more you have to have faith. And, therefore, faith of this sort is weightier and holds more spiritual value. Many Jesus-believing people are swiftly ensnared by the notion that biblical faith is some sort of blind leap in the dark. That this is the sincerest form of faith. That this somehow makes them more spiritual. They claim that if you were only to have faith, you’d answer God’s call for evangelism and leave the comforts of your life for the rugged terrain of a new country, a new life, with no real plan but the expectation that God will “come through.” But this isn’t faith.
What faith is.
The idea of “less knowledge equals more faith” sounds good — spiritual, even — but it’s nowhere close to being true biblical faith. The problem with this notion is that it’s completely unfounded when juxtaposed against the truth of God’s Word. The Word of God never encourages its adherents to have faith in what they don’t know. Rather, we’re constantly motivated to rely on what’s known — that is, what’s known about God. Biblical faith is always based upon a knowledge of who God is and what he’s done on our behalf. It’s founded upon the fact that the Heavenly Father and Creator of the universe can be known deeply and intimately by his creatures. It is a relationship of faith which breeds more faith. “Faith never knows where it is being led,” wrote Oswald Chambers, “but it loves and knows the One who is leading.”
As a human being, you never know what the future may hold. You can’t know what tomorrow may have in store, let alone next week or next year. But faith isn’t about knowing the future, it’s about the knowing the One who’s ordained it. It’s about knowing the One who’s already there. (Matt. 6:25, 34) Instead of leaping blindly in the dark and calling that faith, Jesus invites us to seek him and knowledge of his righteousness and God’s abundant provision for you will be known by you. (Matt. 6:33)
Yes, biblical faith may call you to step out into the unseen but never into the truly unknown. You’ll never find a biblical command to trust what may or may not be true. Your faith is not a jump into the abyss of the future with nothing underneath you. Faith is a confident step forward in the knowledge of what’s known about God. We’re always invited to believe what we know — about God, his Word, his Son, his work, his character. Biblical faith doesn’t presume to know the future or what might happen next. But it does presume upon an all-knowing, ever-faithful, always-gracious God who has promised to never let you go or never leave your side.
“If we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself.” (2 Tim. 2:13)
All our false definitions and pictures of faith usually end up putting the onus for faithfulness on us. We end up bearing the brunt of the responsibility of faith, constantly under the pressure of making sure we’re practicing the right kind and measure of faith. However, you can never find true biblical faith in yourself because true biblical faith is a complete abandonment of all faith in yourself. It is always found in Christ’s accomplishments for you! The finished work of Jesus is the foundation of faith itself. Our faith is built upon God’s faithfulness to us.
Faith in faith.
You see, we get faith backwards. We deem this is our part to play at the table of salvation and do our best to live up to the part. We read about faith and faithfulness and the “shield of faith” and determine to prove to the world just how incredibly faithful we are. Which is ironic because that completely misses the point. The life of faith is a humble and joyful seeking after God himself. God is both the giver and gift of faith. He’s both the originator and reward of our faith. God’s not pleased by your faith, rather, he’s pleased by your faith in his faith. The shield of faith isn’t yours, it’s God’s.
“The center of your faith is not anchored in your ability to demonstrate your devotion to Christ . . . The center of your faith is Christ who demonstrated his extravagant love for you on the cross.” (Kathy Strauch)
Biblical faith is the belief that the Savior has made a way for sinners to see the face God, by the shedding of his own blood. And in the end, it’s those who can’t accept this harebrained concept of faith and instead continue in their living-by-winning systems and trusting-by-leaping schemes that will ultimately be those weeping and gnashing their teeth. (Luke 13:28) Faith is the wisdom to believe in the foolishness of the mystery of Christ crucified for you and all creation. It’s the ludicrous notion that no sin goes unpaid for. By that, I mean, that the crimson river of Christ’s blood covers past, present, and future iniquities. Your adoption’s final. All for free.
Faith is not in any way meritorious. It does not earn anything from God, neither does it move God’s favor a smidgen closer towards you. You can never earn God’s favor. Accordingly, biblical faith receives and rests upon the good news of Christ and apprehends the promises of God in all his wondrous ways. It is not the assertion of spiritual competency or ability, rather, it’s the recognition of spiritual bankruptcy. Faith has far more to do with your dependence than your obedience.