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What is Faith?

By September 29, 2016April 24th, 2022Theology6 min read

An important term for the Christian is “faith.” But what are we talking about when we speak of faith? So often our thinking gets cloudy as we focus on faith.

While faith may be directed toward man, or things, or ideas, in this writing, we are looking at a biblical faith that is directed towards God.

God requires faith for a relationship with Himself. “But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him” (Hebrews 11:6). So, we need to understand faith.

What Faith Is Not

Let’s start by looking at some of the false concepts of faith.

Faith is not an Aladdin’s Lamp: An old legend tells how a young man got hold of a magic lantern, one of those looking like a gravy boat. Out of smoke coming from the oil wick appeared a genie who said, “Your wish is my command.” Some say that since we are the King’s kids, we should get whatever we want. But with God, the requests granted are those conforming to God’s will, not our will.

Faith is not hoping really hard: Sometimes Christians feel that by exuding hope vibes from deep within them that God will tune in to fulfill their human desires. You may have the fans of two football teams sitting on the opposite side of the stadium, each hoping and praying that their team will win. Does God give victory to the fans who pray and hope the hardest?

Faith is not positive thinking: Sometimes positive thinking substitutes for faith. While a positive, mental attitude certainly beats a negative, mental attitude, we can’t name it faith. Positive thinking ultimately depends on man with his self-effort bringing glory to himself. Faith centers in God, depends upon Him and brings glory to Him.

Faith is not intellectual assent: Mental assent may begin faith, but it does not go far enough. While we may agree that something is true, we find that faith involves response as well as mental agreement.

We have two basic translations of the Greek word pistis into English. One group comes from the Old French – faith. The other comes from the Anglo-Saxon/Old English – belief. Since both words translate the same Greek word, they must mean exactly the same thing. The verb form of belief is “believe.” Believe requires a “whom” or “what” after it. It necessitates a response.

That brings us to the other side to faith to complete our definition.

What Faith Is

So then, what is a biblical, God-focused faith?

Try this definition on for size:

Faith is hearing God speak and responding to Him with attitudes of dependence upon Him and actions of obedience to Him.

In this definition we find two sides – God’s side and man’s side. God initiates and then man responds.

F.F. Bruce put it well, “Faith consists simply in taking God at His Word and directing life accordingly.”

Faith’s origin: Faith begins with a God who speaks. “So then faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God” (Romans 10:17). Faith does not originate in our feelings or desires, but rather in what God has to say.

Paul speaks of the “hearing of faith” (Galatians 3:2, 5). Faith fails when God is silent.

Faith’s receiver: The heart responds to the voice of God. The heart of man does not function as the seat of feelings, but rather, it is the control center of the inner man connecting with the mind and the will. “For with the heart one believes to righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made to salvation” (Romans 10:10).

Now we see two ways in which a response activates the message given by God. If the hearer stops in this place, he has given mental assent, which doesn’t count as real faith. Faith obeys what God has directed and trusts Him for the ability to do it.

Faith’s dependence: One way is to depend totally on God for what He promises or asks us to do. God-dependence begins when self-dependence ends. Sometimes self-dependence comes when we suffer and see the effects of this fallen world crushing our human resources.

Faith’s obedience: The essential response of faith is to do what God tells us to do. Sometimes that is simply to believe Him. We find ourselves in difficult circumstances, and what He wants is to trust Him totally. But at other times He gives us a task or manifests an attitude that could even be difficult from the human perspective.

Faith Illustrated

Faith is illustrated in the great faith chapter in Hebrews 11. Here we have those who pleased God by walking in faith. In each case we find an individual who heard God speak and responded with attitudes of dependence on Him and actions of obedience to Him.

It is insightful to look at each of the characters and ask four questions. It might take a little imagination to do so.

• What did God say?
• How might the person have prayed?
• What attitudes toward God did the person have?
• What did the person do?

We note that faith is not something that was accomplished overnight but took time to come to fruition. Faith and patience function as power twins. “Imitate those who through faith and patience inherit the promises” (Hebrews 6:12). “For you have need of endurance, so that after you have done the will of God, you may receive the promise” (Hebrews 10:36).

We wait on the Lord like a servant with an ear tuned towards the master’s desire, however it is expressed.

The Greek word pistis most frequently is translated as “faith” or “belief.” But it is also translated in another way depending on the context. We can in places translate it “faithful.” And who is the one who is faithful? The faithful person is the one who hears God’s voice and responds obediently depending on the Lord to do the work.

Carl Westerlund has been on the pastoral staff at Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa since 1987, following 19 years of pastoral ministry in three other churches.