One of the common word-concepts of the Bible is faith. It has been fundamental to man's relationship with God from the beginning. It is fundamental to the Christian's salvation and to continuing relationship with God in Christ. The word translated as faith or believe occurs about 550 times in the New Testament text. It is found in every book of the New Testament except the books of 2 and 3 John. It possibly constitutes the most frequent instruction-command found in the New Testament.
It would seem probable from such textual emphasis that faith would be one of the best understood Christian concepts. If any word readily could be defined and explained, faith would seem to be that word. However, such is not true.
If any typical, congregational Bible class were asked, "What is faith?" one or more of the following answers would be a predictable response. (1) Invariably, the first response would be the "round-robin" answer, "Faith is belief." When asked what belief is, the response would be, "Belief is faith." Since neither word is understood, the result is a non-definition. (2) Someone with more insight, more knowledge of the text would quote Hebrews 11:1. Faith would be acknowledged to be an assurance of things hoped for and a conviction of things not seen. However, that answer produces little personal insight or comprehension. Most still find faith an abstract, vague concept. (3) Someone would observe that faith expresses itself through works as he professed, "inactive faith is dead, lifeless, and powerless." James 2 correctly would be cited as evidence. While the truth that living faith expresses itself in appropriate actions must be understood, faith itself is still undefined. (4) Frequently, classes pursue a discussion of what faith is not and what faith of itself cannot do. That still does not define what faith is and does.
None of those responses would produce a working, easily grasped meaning for faith. The truths affirmed about faith's significance and its limitations have not specified what it is. Class members are left without a working definition of faith and without the knowledge of how faith is operative in the life of a person. The fact that works exist does not prove faith exists. Living faith does express itself in appropriate works, but one can do appropriate works without having faith. It is essential for Christians to have a clear understanding of faith.
The Greek word which is translated faith or believe is pistis (noun) or pisteuo (verb). It is translated "faith" about 250 times and "believe" over 200 times. It is defined as religious belief in God (and Christ) with emphasis on trust in His power and His nearness to help, in addition to believing that He exists and that His revelations and disclosures are true.<1> The best English synonym for pistis/pisteuo is "trust."
The word is also used in the New Testament to mean confidence in one's conviction.<2> On several occasions Jesus declared to those who asked a miracle of Him, "May it be done according to your faith." That is what He said to the centurion who asked Jesus to heal his servant (Matt. 8:13) and to the two blind men who cried for His mercy (Matt. 9:29). That is the force of what Jesus said to the woman healed of her bleeding (Matt. 9:22); to the ruler of the synagogue whose daughter had just died (Mark 5:36); and to the father of the demon possessed child (Mark 9:23, 24).
In each instance these individuals trusted Jesus and His power to help them. That trust was genuine enough and deep enough to bring them to action: they approached Jesus convinced that He could help them. Jesus then asked them how much confidence they placed in their trust in Him. Trust exists on many levels. The degree of confidence produced by a person's trust is a measurement of the quality of his trust. Trust exists both in fact and in degree.
An African man was on a journey with a goat, a cow, and his wife when he came to an abandoned wooden bridge crossing a deep gorge. The man declared emphatically that he trusted the bridge. The question was, "How much confidence did he have in his trust?" Did he have enough confidence to let his goat cross it first? or his cow? or his wife? Did he have enough confidence to cross it first himself? Did he have enough confidence to lead them across it as a group, or to follow them across it as a group?
Faith encompasses these concepts: (1) confidence in the existence of God (and Christ): (2) confidence in the truth of His Word; (3) trust in His power to aid and benefit our lives; and (4) trust in His ability to help us because of His nearness.
Those understandings do not resolve the struggle of understanding faith. Because a person has a working definition of what faith is does not resolve the problem of knowing when he possesses faith. When can a person know he is believing? When can he place confidence in the faith which he has? What level of trust is acceptable to God? What is the quality of trust to which God will respond: At what point does faith secure a person's relationship with God?
Please understand that these are not questions for the sinner outside of Christ. These are the questions to be answered by the baptized believer who is in Christ. All Christians are plagued by periods of doubt. Most Christians readily admit they do not have enough faith. Many are fearful that they do not possess proper faith. Troubled Christians frequently conclude that the source of their trouble is a lack of faith. Every conscientious Christian would welcome more faith.
The struggle is intensified by the fact that American Christians tend to be quite uncomfortable placing the confidence of their salvation in their ability to believe. The American culture and its free enterprise system is powerfully oriented to the "deed-reward" concept. Americans are trained to trust the work ethic and to put their trust in their ability to earn. The ultimate work ethic of society is that a person should be rewarded properly for his labors. If someone tells a successful person, "You surely have been blessed," he likely will say (or think), "No one gave it to me." Because of these cultural influences and social philosophies, the American Christian tends to be comfortable with a religious concept which places trust in rewards to be received because of pleasing acts or deeds performed. That is also the Achilles heel of those Christians' hope: no matter how much they do for God, they know without being told it is never enough.
The inability of any Christian to earn his salvation creates an acute sense of discomfort in many. The fact that no one can deserve the death of Jesus and the forgiveness of sin creates a profound sense of uneasiness in them. The realization that no human act in response to God, not even a martyr's death, can place God in a person's debt is distressing. Most Christians intensely dislike having to be at the "mercy" of grace. Dependence on the unmerited goodness of another is deemed a most undesirable position. Collective experiences in the American society do not vindicate that kind of dependence on others.
If the achievable level of trust could be absolute, that would resolve the problem. If a person could have "complete" faith in God every day of his life, he could relax by placing his confidence in his perfect faith. If he could live without doubts, if he easily could conquer every temptation, if he could be untouched and unmoved by trials, if he could be unwavering in hard decisions, and if he could make all sacrifices without hesitation, he could feel good about his salvation. He would not feel good because he trusted God's grace; he would feel good because he had attained the "perfect" faith. "Perfect" faith would be deserving of salvation.
The problem exists because absolute faith is not within human grasp. He cannot find the comforting reassurance he seeks in the unquestionable adequacy of his own spiritual achievements. There are occasions of challenging doubts. At times temptation wins. Trials do touch and move him, even to the point of despair. Some hard decisions twist him like a cornstalk in the wind. Some sacrifices are made in agony. Though Christians search for a means to place their trust in personal spirituality rather than in God, they cannot find it. Ungodly attitudes, self-serving motives, unethical decisions, and immoral deeds continuously remind them of their human vulnerability and spiritual inadequacy,
In the face of all of this, the common question Christians ask is not, "Do I believe?" It is, "Do I believe enough?" This brings one to the heart of the issue concerning the state of spiritual security produced through the proper trust of God. Is acceptable faith to be determined by the amount of faith one has, or by the kind of faith one has, or by both?
Only the most mature Christians have experienced the peace produced by knowing that salvation is secure because one has the proper kind of trust in God. The mature Christian who has learned what it means to be righteous through faith will be spiritually diligent, a conscientious steward of God, a hard-working servant in the kingdom, and unselfish servant of others. Yet, in his commendable commitment and service he seeks to earn nothing. He is attempting to prove nothing about his own worthiness. He merely is expressing appreciation for what he has already received in Christ.
Chapter One Questions
What are some common answers to the question, "What is faith?"
Discuss why such answers are ineffective definitions.
What four concepts are encompassed in the word "faith"? Explain what each concept means.
What is the basic struggle involved in understanding faith?
Why do American Christians tend to be uncomfortable in placing their confidence of salvation in their ability to believe?
Why do some think that "perfect" faith would be the ideal means of being saved? What is meant by "perfect" faith?
Is it possible to have absolute faith? Why?
What common question do Christians ask concerning faith? Why do you think Christians ask that question?
Have class members collect as many definitions of faith as possible. Collect them by asking others for their personal definitions or from written sources. Share the answers in class.
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