What Does Faith Mean?

If you have faith, what does that mean? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

Faith is one of those words that is often tossed around without considering what it means. If you listen to the new atheists, you will be repeatedly told that faith is believing in something without evidence. Fundy atheists will often say that we are people of faith in that we simply believe and the evidence doesn’t matter.

Christians often don’t do much better sadly. We have the idea that faith refers to belief in that if we believe in God enough, then X will happen. Our modern terminology does help us with this. Our faith system is said to be our belief system. We then can read passages such as those talking about having a mustard seed of faith and think that we just have to work up enough belief and everything will work out.

No. This is also incorrect.

Now the natural place people go to to look at what faith is is Hebrews 11:1. Who can blame them? This is the great faith chapter. However, let’s look at the surrounding context and see what’s going on in Hebrews 11:1. Keep in mind when the epistle was originally written, chapter and verse numbers were not there.

We’ll start with the end of Hebrews 10. Most of us know about the great warning towards the end of that chapter. What is going on in the whole of Hebrews to explain this? Hebrews is written to Jews in the Alexandrian area who are considering abandoning the new system of Christianity and returning to the old covenant. The writer is showing them that they are to remain faithful to YHWH in the new covenant and that it is superior and has in fact replaced the old. Hence, the constant warnings against apostasy. It would be easier for the people to go back to Judaism where they had social class and did not face shame in the public square, but is that what is most important?

After giving the warning, the writer says:

32 Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you endured in a great conflict full of suffering. 33 Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. 34 You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions. 35 So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded.”

The writer starts reminding them that they have faced hard times already. As far as we know, there has been no death among the Christians due to persecution yet, but they are still suffering. It would be a natural temptation to want to return to a way that has been seen as tried and true and was the way of their ancestors. The writer encourages them to not do so.

36 You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. 37 For,

“In just a little while,
    he who is coming will come
    and will not delay.”[f]

38 And,

“But my righteous[g] one will live by faith.
    And I take no pleasure
    in the one who shrinks back.”[h]

39 But we do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved.”

The writer tells them that God will indeed honor His promise to them. What is His promise? It has never been material possessions or even their health and life. The apostles regularly went without and the early church did have deaths take place due to persecution. His promise has been their salvation. They will see God.

He also gives encouragement. He expects them to be better. They will not fall back and be destroyed. They have faith and are saved.

Okay. So what is faith?

“Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.”

Ah! Now we know what faith is!

Or do we?

The writer goes on to say that

“This is what the ancients were commended for.”

At this point, he will give us a long list of what the ancients were commended for. Let’s look at the list.

Abel was commended for offering up a better sacrifice. Enoch is said to have avoided death by faith. Abraham left his home country to go to another land and he even offered up his son as a sacrifice (nearly). Isaac blessed Esau and Jacob by faith. Jacob worshiped as he blessed his sons. Joseph by faith gave instructions about his burial. The parents of Moses by faith hid their baby. Moses refused to be known as Pharaoh’s daughter. The Israelites crossed the Red Sea. The walls of Jericho fell. Rahab and her family were spared.

Something interesting about some of these. Some of them had nothing to do with belief. The Israelites did not cause the Red Sea to part by believing. There is no recipe that if you believe you will avoid death like Enoch. Moses did not say “I will just believe I am of Hebrew origin” and receive commendation for that.

Many of these are in relation to the future. It was in the belief that God had said He would do X and they would live accordingly. God had said to walk around Jericho in this manner. Even though the Israelites did not know what would happen, they did it because God had instructed them to do so.

Note that you can as an atheist say these people did not hear from God. Okay. I get that. The problem is that even if they didn’t, the people reading the epistle believed that they had and saw that as an example. It does not mean that they themselves individually heard from God, but it does mean they believed God had acted in history and people had responded.

So let’s go back to Hebrews 11:1. What does faith mean here?

Trust.

It means that the fathers of the Hebrews believed that God would act according to the covenant in the future. They did not see the results, but they trusted God would bring them about. That is what is not seen! The future! Trust is the confidence that God will enact in the future what He has promised based on His actions in the past!

The writer also notes that some people suffered still, but they suffered believing that they would receive a better resurrection. I think what he’s saying is that they believed they would benefit more in the next life for what they suffered in this life. Trust does not mean that one will not suffer.

Trust also was rooted in evidence. That evidence was the action of God in the past. It was not to be seen as blind belief. Thus, both sides have it wrong. Faith does not refer to belief and it does not refer to blind belief in any way. Faith is still rooted in evidence, but it is not about what you do with your head alone, but where your loyalty lies to. Would the Hebrews be faithful to YHWH? In other words, would they be loyal to the covenant?

Today, we are told to have faith. Indeed, we should, but biblical faith. We are not just to believe. Even the demons believe and tremble! The problem is most of us don’t even tremble! We are to be loyal, something the demons will never be!

Today, be faithful. Be loyal.

In Christ,

Nick Peters

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7 Responses to “What Does Faith Mean?”

  1. Duncan Vann Says:

    Since I joined Facebook and started looking at apologetics sites, I’ve noticed that too. Quite a few people seem to think that just because faith doesn’t depend on scientific evidence, it’s a sort of magic answer that cannot be proved or tested.

    I like your emphasis on trusting, because you don’t need to be a believer to understand idea of trusting friends or loved ones. Sometimes people forget all that when they start looking at Christianity and imagine it has to be proved as if it was only a theoretical philosophy or a natural scientific concept.

    Mind you, I’ve done that thing where you work yourself up in ‘faith’ in the hope of seeing something happen. Hebrews 11 is a bit of an encouragement though, if you remember the way in which Moses left Egypt and then look how Hebrews 11 portrays it. (Hmm I hadn’t planned to linked back to your post on bullying there.)

  2. Faith Like Paul | Deeper Waters Says:

    […] Faith is one of the most misused words today. I have written about a true understanding of faith here. Faith biblically is trust in that which has been shown to be reliable. It does not mean belief in […]

  3. Being Informed | Deeper Waters Says:

    […] And yes, I referred to my own blog post on Hebrews 11 that can be found here. […]

  4. Book Plunge: A Manual For Creating Atheists | Deeper Waters Says:

    […] My look at Hebrews 11:1 […]

  5. The Apostle’s Creed: I Believe | Deeper Waters Says:

    […] is pistis. I have written previously on how that word is used in Hebrews 11:1 and that can be found here. What Boghossian and Dawkins and others never ask is “Did the ancient writer mean by pistis […]

  6. On Interacting With Street Epistemologists | Deeper Waters Says:

    […] In all of the writings I’ve read by the new atheists speaking this way about faith, not one of them has ever consulted a Greek or NT Lexicon in order to make their case. They have just said that this is what the word means. Oh they’ll sometimes quote Hebrews 11:1, but a text without a context is a pretext for a prooftext. I have also given my own exegesis of what the passage means here. […]

  7. Faith Is Not A Virtue | Deeper Waters Says:

    […] I do not think that it is noble at all. Most people think of faith as just believing in something. As I have argued, faith is really more akin to an active trust in […]

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