What is Faith?
How Can We Trust in an Unseen God?
Published on 17 August 2021
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Faith is an integral part of the Christian life.
The Greek word for faith, pistis (πίστις), is used 244 times in the New Testament and is a focal point of both Jesus and Paul’s teachings. Faith is commonly linked with the theology of salvation and is a vital part of the new covenant, yet the concept can often be misunderstood or difficult to grasp for both Christians and non-Christians alike. So what is faith? Does it simply mean believing in things that are unintelligent or unreasonable, as some critics of Christianity would suggest? And does having faith negate the need to outwork a righteous and holy life?
Faith, as the Bible describes it, is not antithetical to reason, in fact, the two often work harmoniously together. Furthermore, the Bible encourages those who follow its teachings to practically demonstrate their faith by outworking it in obedience to God.
A True Definition of Faith
As part of my passion for apologetics, I came across a book by atheist, Richard Dawkins, called The God Delusion. In this book, one of the reasons Dawkins gives for not believing in God is that it requires a “blind faith.” As Dawkins presents it, this means believing there is a God, in spite of the reason and logic that (apparently) proves He does not exist. In short, faith is believing in God even though it is knowingly unintelligent to do so. But is this really consistent with a biblical definition of faith? Not at all.
Faith is Getting Out of the Boat
Reading the heading above, you may think I am going to talk about Peter getting out of the boat to walk on the water with Jesus. That is a great story of faith (you can read about it in Matthew 14:22-36), but first, I have my own boat story that illustrates what faith truly is.
I once took a ferry from Tasmania to Melbourne. When it arrived in Melbourne, those of us who had taken our cars on board went down to where they were parked and waited for our turn to get off the boat. A single crew member guided each driver— one by one — to do a U-turn in a crowded parking lot so that we could exit the boat. Myself and a lady who was parked next to me were nearly the last to get off. We watched the crew member successfully guide everyone before us off the boat before it was her turn. The crew member told her to reverse and keep reversing. Looking through the small rear-view mirror however, it looked to her like she was about to hit a wall. The crew member reassured her that she had plenty of room, having a much better view and perspective of the back of her car than she did from the driver’s seat. However, it wasn’t his car on the, but hers, and from her view, it looked as if she was about to crash. Scared of crashing and trusting in what she could see over the instruction of the crew member, she chose to drive forward instead. Immediately, she became jammed diagonally between two cars and I can still remember the look of frustration and disappointment on the crew member’s face. Fortunately, she learned from her mistake and allowed the crew member to guide her out safely.
This is a near-perfect picture of what faith is. Was it illogical to trust in the crew member? Not at all. On the contrary, he was experienced, had successfully maneuvered many other cars off the boat and had a much better perspective on the situation. But despite all the evidence that he was trustworthy, in the limited perspective of the rear-view mirror, it looked as though she was going to crash. In that moment, trusting a person with a more complete vision took faith. Faith goes beyond merely believing. It is trusting and walking out your conviction.
What Does it Mean to Have Faith in Jesus?
So why does faith have such an important place in Christianity? Well, faith sits at the very heart of the gospel and the story of our salvation in Christ. Many world religions are works-based, that is, salvation comes by doing the right thing and avoiding doing the wrong thing. Christianity is unique in this respect in that salvation is not based on works.
Quoting the Psalms, Paul says in Romans 3 that “there is no one righteousness, not even one.” (Romans 3:11, NIV) The Bible tells us that sin entered the world through Adam and Eve and that ever since, all of humanity has fallen short of God’s perfect standard of righteousness. We are unable to work our way out of our predicament in the same way we are unable to be excused of a speeding fine by driving slowly the rest of the week. The only One who was righteous enough to redeem humanity is God Himself! This is why it says in John 3:16 that “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16, NIV) We are unable to redeem ourselves, so God Himself came in the flesh to die in our place on the cross, making the necessary payment to redeem us. This is why faith is so important in Christianity: we cannot free ourselves from sin through works, but rather, we are made righteous by trusting (having faith) in the payment made by God Himself!This is why Paul says, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9, NIV)
Faith and Works
We just read a quotation from Paul that salvation is the result of faith and that, “it is the gift of God— not by works.” (Ephesians 2:9, NIV) Paul speaks in a similar way throughout his letters— particularly in Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians— saying that faith, not works, is the currency of salvation. This seems simple, but once again we realise a subtlety when we read other parts of the New Testament. Perhaps the most startling one of these is James 2:24, which reads, “You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.” (NIV) Like the Scriptures about faith and reason that we explored at the start of this post, at first glance, it seems as if these two passages contradict each other. Once again, however, on closer inspection we can see the subtleties in James’ writing.
When James says that works are important, he means they are important because they are often the very process of outworking faith. This is why he goes on to say in James 2:26 that, “faith without works is dead.” Perhaps there is even more clarity in verse 18, where he says,“Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.” (NIV) James is not saying works are more important than faith, but that works are important because they demonstrate faith. Think of my boat example. I not only trusted the crew member with my car, but I outworked that trust with my actions: I turned my engine on, put it into reverse, went when I was told to go and turned when I was instructed to turn. My actions demonstrated my faith in that crew member.
When it comes down to it, a good Christian understanding of the relationship between faith and works is essential. As we discussed above, we cannot work our way to salvation and for this reason, good works are ineffective if they precede faith. When we activate our faith, however, good works naturally follow. Good works are not the reason we are saved, but instead, the fruit of our salvation that can only come by faith!
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