What Is Biblical Faith?
By: Steve Shirley
When I started out to answer this question, I thought, "Oh, this should only take a few days. I know how to define faith." A month later, after numerous rewrites, I am now done with this study. I am still not sure I have a perfect definition of "faith," even after reading dozens upon dozens of different studies, and studying verse upon verse about "faith" in the Bible. But, here is what I have come up with.
The Bible uses the word "faith" 247 times, with 245 of these being in the New Testament. The Greek word "pistis" is used for faith, and depending on the concordance or lexicon you use, it can mean "persuasion" "trust" "confidence" "assurance" "belief." There is one place in the Bible that gives a definition of faith: (Heb 11:1) "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." However, most scholars agree that this is not a "complete" definition of faith, but rather, one aspect of it.
Now, here is an important thing to understand! (We
are going to have a short English lesson here .)
The word "faith" is a NOUN. I think that many people inaccurately see "faith" as
more of a verb instead. However, the word "believe" IS a verb. As we said above,
the Greek word for "faith is "pistis." The Greek word for "believe" is "pisteuo,"
and it comes from the word pistis." My teacher wife told me a little
ditty that she teaches her children:
A noun is the name of a person, place, thing, or idea. Whatever exists, we assume, can be named, and that name is a noun.
A verb is a word, it's an action word. If you can do it, then you do it, if you do it: it's a verb.
So, "faith" as a noun would be a thing, not something we do. Here is a way to think of it that makes sense to me. We can say, "I believe in Jesus," but we wouldn't say, "I faith in Jesus." That makes no sense, right? So, what does make sense? "I HAVE faith in Jesus." "Believing" is something we "do," "faith" is something we "have."
Of the words used to define "faith," I see the word "trust" as the best fit. In addition, "trust" also seems to be the best fit for defining "believe." We will discuss how this works below.
I actually see "faith" as working together with "believing" and something called "intellectual assent." "Intellectual assent" precedes faith and believing. "Intellectual assent" means that before we can believe or have faith in ANYTHING, we must have some kind of proof and evidence that points to its existence or reality. How many of you have heard the term "blind faith?" One of the definitions for "faith" in Webster's Dictionary is a: "firm belief in something for which there is no proof." There are many who teach and believe this. However, I don't believe the Bible teaches this.
A part of Biblical "faith" is a "firm belief in something for which there IS proof." We have "evidence of things not seen" (Heb 11:1). Our unseen God has given us this evidence and proof. Acknowledging this evidence and proof is what makes up "intellectual assent." Let me share an illustration I like regarding this.
Two men were sitting in a tent in the desert having a discussion. All of a sudden, something ran quickly past the entrance and neither saw what it was. As they went to see what it was, they could see nothing in any direction. The 1st man said to the other, "It must have been a camel." The second man replied, "No, it was a man." "How do you know that" the 1st man replied? And the 2nd man replied, "Because of the footprints he has left behind for me to see."
What are some of these "footprints" (evidences) that point to God? We have evidence that God's Word is divinely inspired (see some here). We have evidence that the world was created by God (see some here). We have the visible proof of millions of lives being changed by God. (This was a key to my salvation: see "My Testimony.") All of creation points to God (Rom 1:18-20)(Ps 19:1-2). God has even placed in each man's heart and conscience the knowledge of His existence (Rom 2:12-16). Jesus also draws ALL men to Himself (Jn 12:32). (We can reject this drawing: Jn 5:40, Mt 23:37, Lk 13:34).
So, our faith is not "blind!" NO ONE is going to "believe" in something, or place their "faith" in something for which there is no evidence or proof! Once we have "intellectual assent," "believing" and "faith" can follow. Now, rightly or wrongly, here is how I see "believing" and "faith" working together.
I am not real big on using secular movie illustrations to make a point, but I am going to use a scene from the movie Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade that pretty clearly shows how I see it.
In the movie, Indiana Jones has been following a map in an ancient book to find the Holy Grail (the cup Jesus used at the Last Supper). He comes to the edge of a cliff at a chasm so deep that it has no visible bottom. He must get across the chasm to the other side. His map tells him that he can do so, but there is no visible proof that he can. In the background, his injured dad is yelling, "You must believe boy, you must believe." Indie then says, "It's a leap of faith." He steps out into thin air over the chasm and his foot lands on an invisible bridge which connects the two sides, and he crosses over.
So, in this illustration, he first has "intellectual assent" (evidence with the map). Then he "believes" (he can get across even though he can't see a way). Finally, he combines his "intellectual assent" with "believing" and "steps out in faith" (or makes a "leap of faith").
"Stepping out in faith" is a term I think most of us have heard, and I believe it works well to describe "faith." When we "step out in faith" we "HAVE" faith (noun). But, it seems to me that "actions" precede faith over and over in the Bible, and "believing" is that "action" (remember that believing is "a verb is a word, it's an action word").
*** Note: I feel that (Rom 3:22) is a good verse pointing to this: (NASB)
"even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who
(This is the only verse in the Bible that uses "faith" [pistis] and "believe" [pisteuo] in the same sentence, thereby showing a distinction.)
Let's look at some examples with Jesus. They obviously had the first step of "intellectual assent" as Jesus was right there with them. They could see Him, and had heard about the things He had said and done all through the land. When this was combined with "believing" and "faith," amazing things happened!
(Mt 9:20-22) The "woman with the issue of blood" saw Jesus and "believed" she
could be healed if she could only touch Him. She had faith, "stepped out in
faith," and "touched the hem of His garment." Jesus then told her, "thy faith
has made thee whole (healed)."
*** Note: Thus, as I see it, it was not "believing" alone that healed her, but also having "faith" and stepping out in faith. If she had not stepped out in "faith," would she have been healed? (You can also see how "trust" is working in both "believing" and "faith.")
(Mt 8:5-13) The centurion had a servant who was paralyzed, and he "believed" Jesus could heal him. When Jesus told the centurion he would go with him and heal him, the centurion told Jesus he wasn't worthy to have him under his roof, and had "faith," asking Jesus simply to "speak a word, and my servant will be healed." Jesus "marveled" his "faith" and said, "Go, it shall be done for you as you have "believed.""
(Lk 5:17-26) The friends of a paralytic man "believed" Jesus could heal their friend, but they could not get to Jesus. So, they had "faith," and "stepping out in faith" climbed to the roof of the house where He was staying, took off the tiles, and lowered the friend on his bed to Jesus. Jesus, "Seeing their faith" (Lk 5:20), said to the paralytic "Friend, your sins are forgiven you," and He healed him.
We can also see examples with the "Heroes Of The Faith" in Hebrews 11. They also had the first step of "intellectual assent" because God had clearly spoken to each man in these examples. They combined this with "believing" and "faith."
God warned Noah about an impending worldwide flood which would destroy the
world, and told him to build an Ark (Gen 6:13-22). Noah ("believed") God's
warning, and responded by ("faith") (stepped out in "faith")(Heb 11:7-8).
***Note: If Noah didn't first "believe" what God had said, would he have "had faith" and "stepped out in faith" to built the Ark?
God told Abraham to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice (Gen 22:1-19). Earlier, God had made a covenant with Abraham, promising him that he would be "a father of many nations" (Gen 17), and that this covenant would be established with Isaac (Gen 17:19). Abraham ("believed") this promise, and trusted that God would either decide not to make him carry out the sacrifice (Gen 22:5 - "the lad and I will come back") or that God would "raise him (Isaac) up from the dead" (Heb 11:19). Abraham ("had faith") in God and obeyed (stepped out in "faith.") (See Heb 11:17-19). God stopped him from sacrificing Isaac!
God told Joshua to have the Israelites march around the city of Jericho for 7 days, and on the 7th day the walls protecting the city would fall down. Joshua and the Israelites ("believed") what God said and ("had faith") (stepped out in "faith.") (Josh 6)(Heb 11:30) The walls came down!
There are many other examples of this same pattern as well. I also see this applying to saving "faith" in Jesus Christ which leads to salvation.
For example, there are many who acknowledge the existence of, or evidence for Jesus ("intellectual assent"), even though they have never seen Him. However, as we said above, this is only a first step. "Intellectual assent" can, but often does not, lead to saving "faith." Nor does "intellectual assent" combined with simply "believing" in Jesus. For example, there are many world "religions" that "believe" in a man named Jesus. Islam says He was a "prophet." Jehovah Witnesses say He was "an angel who became a man. Mormons say He was "one of many gods." Buddhists say He was "an enlightened man." Hindus say He was a "teacher." Some just say He was a "historical figure." This is why it is wrong to say that just "believing" in Jesus alone will save.
Biblical "believing" in Jesus, which leads to salvation
entails more than just acknowledging the reality of Jesus. We must "believe"
what the Bible says about who Jesus is, and what we need to do to be saved. We
Confess that we are a sinner (Rom 3:10,23)(Eccl 7:20)(Prov 20:9)
Be willing to repent of our sins (Acts 3:19)(2 Cor 7:10)(Lk 13:3,5)
Believe Jesus died on the cross for our sins (1 Pet 2:24), and through His shed blood we can be forgiven of our sins (Col 1:14)(Eph 1:7)(Heb 10:16-19)
Understand that we are saved by God's grace ALONE, and not by any works (Eph 2:8-9)
Confess that Jesus IS LORD (see: Jesus "IS" God), and believe that He was raised from the dead (Rom 10:9-10)
Call upon His name in prayer (Rom 10:13)
*** Note: Paul said if we do not believe in the resurrection, our "faith is vain" (1 Cor 15:14) and "worthless" (1 Cor 15:17).
When we do "believe" these things, I see this as demonstrating saving "faith." We HAVE "faith."
When we have this "faith" in Jesus Christ, the Bible says we: have salvation (1 Pet 1:9)(2 Tim 3:15), are children of God (Gal 3:26), are justified (Rom 3:27-28)(Rom 5:1)(Gal 2:16)(Gal 3:24), are made righteous (Rom 4:5,13)(Rom 9:30), have Christ living in our hearts (Eph 3:17), can have boldness and confident access to God (Eph 3:12)(Rom 5:2).
While all of the false religions listed above "believe" in Jesus, they do not "believe" in the Jesus of the Bible. And, while they may have some kind of "faith" in a god, they "have faith" in a god that does not exist (much like the "faith" people placed in idols in the Bible). The Bible says in (Rom 10:17) that "faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God." (Also see: Jude 1:20) The "Word of God" tells us about the God, and Jesus, we are to "have faith" in. "Faith" in any other god is useless!
So, as I see it, there are two kinds of "faith" that we need to have. The first is "saving faith" or "faith" that leads to salvation through Jesus Christ. Once we have taken this step, there is a second kind of "faith," and that is the "faith" that comes with living out the Christian life. There are all kinds of verses in the Bible that talk about this. Let's look at a few.
This kind of "faith" continues to grow throughout our lives (2 Cor 10:15)(Lk 17:5).
Our "faith" can grow through hearing and reading the Word of God (Rom 10:17)(Jude 1:20), and through the testing of our faith (1 Pet 1:7)(James 1:3).
Is is possible to lose our faith (Lk 22:32), or to have too little faith (different Greek word: "oligopistos") (Mt 6:30)(Mt 8:26)(Mt 16:8)(Peter is an example: Mt 14:31).
We must ask God for things "in faith without any doubting" (James 1:6).
We are told to "take up the shield of faith" (Eph 6:16) and "put on the breastplate of faith" (1 Th 5:8).
We (the righteous) are told to "live by faith" (Rom 1:17)(Gal 3:11)(Hab 2:4).
If we have "faith" without works, our faith is dead (James 2:17,26).
Faith brings joy (Phil 1:25) and peace (Rom 5:1).
I should also add that there is a spiritual gift of "faith" that some receive (1 Cor 12:9). This is separate from "saving faith" or "faith in living out the Christian life."
Ultimately, having "faith" can be a little scary at times. We are placing our "faith" in a being we cannot see (even though we do have much evidence for His existence). We "walk by faith, not by sight" (2 Cor 5:7)(Also see: Heb 11:1, Rom 8:24). And, not only that, but we are trusting this God we cannot see to direct us to a perfect future we cannot see. However, this is what the Bible says we must do. "Without faith, it is impossible to please Him (God)" (Heb 11:6).
We need to have "faith" EVERY single day. We must have "faith" that God will work in EVERY areas of our lives (i.e. our marriages, children, jobs, finances, etc...). We must have "faith" in God to fulfill the NUMEROUS promises He has made to us in the Bible. Promises: to meet our needs (Phil 4:19)(Mt 6:25-34)(Ps 37:25), to work all things for our good (Rom 8:28), to bless us when we give (Mal 3:8-10)(Lk 6:38)(2 Cor 9:6-11), to give us strength when we are weak (Ps 27:14)(Isa 40:29)(Josh 1:9), that He is totally in control of our lives (Ps 37:23)(Prov 20:24), that He will never leave nor forsake us (Heb 13:5), and SO much more!
Do you have this kind of "faith?" Do you need this kind of "faith?" Do as the apostles did, and ask Jesus to "increase your faith" (Lk 17:5). Read God's Word (Rom 10:17)(Jude 1:20). "Step out in faith!" Amazing things will happen when you do! And, as you see God working, your faith will grow!
P.S. Here are a few good Christian quotes I like on faith:
Faith enables the believing soul to treat the future as present and the invisible as seen. - Oswald Sanders
Faith is deliberate confidence in the character of God whose ways you may not understand at the time. - Oswald Chambers
Walking by faith means being prepared to trust where we are not permitted to see. - John Blanchard
Worry and anxiety are sand in the machinery of life; faith is the oil. - E. Stanley Jones
Faith sees the invisible, believes the unbelievable, and receives the impossible. - Corrie Ten Boom
Faith never knows where it is being led, but it loves and knows the One who is leading. - Oswald Chambers
Faith is believing that God is present when all we hear is silence. - Daily Bread
Faith tells me that no matter what lies ahead of me, God is already there. - Author Unknown
F.A.I.T.H. = Forsaking All I Trust Him