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Faith is belief in that which has no tangible proof; trust in God.
Definition of Faith In the OT and NT, “faith” carries several meanings. It may mean simple trust in God or in the Word of God, and at other times faith almost becomes equivalent to active obedience. It may also find expression in the affirmation of a creedal statement. Thus, it also comes to mean the entire body of received Christian teaching or truth—“the truth.” In Colossians 2:7, the term suggests something to be accepted as a whole and embodied in personal life. In 2 Timothy 4:7, Paul witnesses to having “kept the faith.”
Faith in the Old Testament The OT also strongly emphasizes faith as confidence in God’s covenant or in the covenant God made with Abraham and his descendants. The call of Abraham and the promise that his descendants would be used in the history of redemption became the basis of the narratives of the OT, being seen as the working out of that covenant. Once the nation Israel was brought into being, God sustained and protected it. The exodus from Egypt is a prominent indication that God was at work restoring his people to the Promised Land. The obedience of the people of God as the proper expression of faith is seen clearly in the OT. Without seeing God, his people believed and obeyed him. Abraham left his native land to go into unknown territory. The people of Israel left Egypt following the leadership of God to a land they could not see. The promise of God gave them courage to possess the land promised to them. After the exodus, the covenant of Abraham was confirmed with the people of Israel by the sprinkling of blood (Ex 24:6–7). There was to be strict obedience to God’s commands as an expression of faith. This response of human faith to the Lord’s faithfulness was national and collective. There also were commands to, and instances of, personal faith.
Not only the narrative and legal portions of the OT but also the poetic and prophetic writings emphasize faith. The Psalms abound in expressions of personal confidence in the Lord even in dark times. Habakkuk points out that “the righteous shall live by his faith” (Hb 2:4). From such instances it is clear that, as the Lord’s education of Israel proceeded, the matter of faith in God’s faithfulness became more and more a matter of individual and personal response, and it is in the Prophets that several ingredients—such as trust, obedience, fear, and certainty—blend into the understanding of such personal faith.
Faith in the New Testament: As over against the OT, where the accent is on the faithfulness of God, in the NT the emphasis is placed on the active, responding faith of the hearer to the promised, final revelation in the Messiah, Jesus. Both verb and noun regularly describe the adequate response of people to Jesus’ word and to the gospel.
The Synoptic Gospels: The most striking feature of the synoptic Gospels (quoted below from the rsv) is the use of faith without identifying its object: “If you have faith as a grain of mustard seed” (Mt 17:20); “When Jesus saw their faith” (Mk 2:5); “Your faith has saved you” (Lk 7:50). Jesus is portrayed as one who by his work and word opens the door to faith and makes faith possible. The question is not whether the faith is in Jesus or in the Father; the implication is undoubtedly both, but as with every true bearer of the Word of God, the eye of faith is turned to the One who sends.
On more than one occasion, Jesus denies the request for a miracle to substantiate his words (Mt 12:38–39; 16:1–4). Faith is response to the Word alone without any supporting props. No sign is to be given but the sign of Jonah. In the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19–31), Jesus denies the request for the spectacular and insists that the hearer must respond to the word given to him (cf. Jn 20:29). The Word demands self-surrender and commitment. Hence, the very nature of the Word and of faith becomes an obstacle to the proud and the powerful.
Faith is the medium by which the power of God is made visible. It moves mountains, heals the sick, and is the means of entrance into the kingdom. It may be mingled with doubt, as with the father who sought healing for his son (“I believe; help my unbelief!” [Mk 9:24]), or as with John the Baptist in prison, who, even with his doubts, was confirmed by Jesus as the greatest of the offspring of woman (Mt 11:2–15). Peter’s (and the other disciples’) perception was faulty, but Jesus affirms Peter’s confession as the foundation stone of the church. The synoptic Gospels portray the early faith of the disciples in all its limitations and weaknesses, yet it is still faith in that it is their positive response to Jesus’ word and work.
The Fourth Gospel: Faith is an especially significant concept in the Gospel of John (quoted below from the RSV), though the word (in the Greek) occurs only as a verb. Quite often, the reference has to do with the acceptance that something is true, that is, simple credence, or belief: “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father in me” (Jn 14:11); “If you believed Moses, you would believe me” (Jn 5:46).
Even more significant is the special expression “to believe into” in the sense of putting one’s trust into another. The particular form of the expression is without parallel before the fourth Gospel and may well express the strong sense of personal trust in the eternal Word made flesh. In John 3:16, whoever puts trust in him has eternal life. Those who put their trust in him are given power to become sons of God—to be born of God (Jn 1:12). They will never thirst (6:35); they will live, even though they die (11:25).
In other places, John speaks of trust or faith in an absolute sense, that is, without referring to the one in whom trust is placed. In John 11:15 Jesus arrives after the death of Lazarus and is glad “in order that you might believe.” The outcome is going to be faith. Similarly, in the prologue (1:7), John the Baptist bears witness in order that through him all might believe. As Jesus satisfies the doubt of Thomas concerning the resurrection, he says, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (20:29). In these and other passages the fundamental outcome of Jesus’ witness to himself is trust.
Faith and knowledge are closely related. In John 6:69, Peter says, “We have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” In his priestly prayer Jesus says that eternal life is to “know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (Jn 17:3). Also, God is seen through the eyes of faith. No one has ever seen God, but the Only Begotten has revealed him (1:18). He who has seen Jesus has seen the Father (14:9).
To believe is also expressed in the verb “receive.” Those who receive Christ are given power to become the sons of God (Jn 1:12). Trust is that form of knowing or seeing by which the glory of God (1:14; 17:4) is made present.
Paul’s Writings: In Paul’s letters (quoted below from the RSV), he writes about faith from a number of angles. He sets faith over against “works of the law” as the only and true basis for righteousness (Rom 1–4; Gal 1–4) and appeals to Abraham to prove his point: “Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him for righteousness” (Gn 15:6; cf. Rom 4:5; Gal 3:6). This is entirely apart from the law (Rom 3:21); righteousness is the gift of God through faith in Christ, specifically in his atoning work. Behind Paul’s conviction lies his awareness of the radical and pervasive sinfulness of humans that renders each one helpless. Humanity is dead in sin but is made alive by faith in the word and work of Jesus mediated through the gospel.
Faith, then, is faith in Jesus Christ. The number of metaphors Paul employs to describe the consequences of faith is staggering. It is by faith that believers are justified (Rom 5:1), reconciled (2 Cor 5:18), redeemed (Eph 1:7), made alive (2:5), adopted into the family of God (Rom 8:15–16), re-created (2 Cor 5:17), transported into a new kingdom (Col 1:13), and set free (Gal 5:1). Faith is, for Paul, the sine qua non of every aspect of salvation, from the grace that convicts to the receiving of the full inheritance at the coming of the Lord.
In Paul’s letters, faith is bound up with love so that the great exponent of justification by faith becomes also the articulate exponent of distinctive Christian love. To say that faith is indispensable to salvation is only part of the truth, for faith expresses itself through love: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love” (Gal 5:6); “If I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Cor 13:2). Love is both the genesis and the ultimate expression of faith. Hence, even for Paul there can be no total separation between faith and works. This love of which Paul speaks is the essential fruit of the Spirit through whom the life of faith is lived. Only by virtue of the indwelling Spirit does faith find expression in love.
General Epistles: James speaks of faith as being completed by works (Jas 2:22). He opposed that concept of faith that thinks primarily of creedal assent, of believing that something is true without acting upon it. James, like Paul, assumes the primacy of faith, but he is warning against those who would draw wrong conclusions. Faith apart from works is not faith; it is barren (v 20). The practical dimension of faith is the burden of much of this epistle.
The writer of Hebrews recognizes that faith has always been characteristic of the people of God and their specially called leaders. Faith makes substantial what is otherwise nebulous and uncertain; it makes evidential what is not visible. By faith the people of God have a more certain ground for their lives and their actions than the world is able to discern (Heb 11:1). The great cloud of witnesses (12:1) bear testimony by their faith to the faithfulness of God.
Faith is opened up by the Word of God, finds expression through the Holy Spirit who is given, and bears witness to the lordship of Jesus Christ.
FAITHFULNESS: Maintaining faith or allegiance; showing a strong sense of duty or conscientiousness. In biblical Hebrew, “faith” and “faithfulness” are grammatically related. Although both concepts are important in the OT, there is no English word exactly equivalent to the Hebrew terms. The most relevant Hebrew verbal root (related to our word “amen”) carries such meanings as “strengthen,” “support,” or “hold up.” In a physical sense it is used of pillars that provide support for doors (2 Kgs 18:16). Moses used the word when he disclaimed any role as supporter of the Israelites (Nm 11:12). God, however, is an eternally firm support for his people (Dt 7:9; Is 49:7).
With that notion of firm support as the bedrock for faith, words such as “firmness,” “constancy,” or “trustworthiness” best convey the related concept of faithfulness. Trustworthiness, or steadfastness of character, is ascribed to the object of one’s trust. To be unfaithful is to be unworthy of confidence or belief. In the OT a synonym for “faithfulness” is “truth.” Since God is consistently true, he is the logical object of human trust (Ps 71:22; Is 61:8). When used of God in the OT, the word “faithfulness” frequently refers to his unwavering commitment to his promises.
God’s Faithfulness: In spite of Israel’s faithlessness (Dt 32:20; cf. Rom 3:3), God showed himself to be absolutely reliable. His faithfulness is great (Lam 3:23). He is loyal to his covenant and will always manifest his steadfast love to his people (Ps 136).
The pinnacle of faithfulness in the Bible is seen in the work of Jesus Christ, who showed himself faithful to his Father (Heb 3:2) and in his witness (Rv 1:5). God calls men and women to be faithful by following Christ, relying on him for all things (Hb 2:4; cf. Rom 1:17).
Human Faithfulness: Faith and faithfulness are logically and linguistically united in the OT and NT. That is, the major words for faith in both Testaments also connote the concept of faithfulness. This indicates that faith is more than momentary assent to the truth of God. It is commitment to that truth, and it manifests itself in continued obedience. Abraham’s life in this regard is instructive. He assented to, relied upon, and acted in conformity to the revealed word of God. He received God’s revelation as true (i.e., demonstrating faith), and his subsequent actions proved his faithfulness. He left home and country, settled in a strange land, and offered up his son Isaac as God commanded. His willingness to sacrifice his only son is an unparalleled expression of faithfulness in the OT. It is no surprise, therefore, that Abraham is commended for his steadfastness and is set forth in the NT as one whose behavior should be imitated by Christians (Gal 3:6–9; Heb 11:8–10). Faithfulness, then, must not be viewed as an isolated act. Rather, it is an attitude that should characterize the entire life of those who say they have faith in God.
By Walter A. Elwell and Philip Wesley Comfort
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