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In the OT, the word ‘faith’ is found twice only in av (Dt. 32:20; Hab. 2:4), but RSV has it eighteen times. Twelve times it is used of breaking faith (e.g., Lv. 5:15; Dt. 32:51) or acting in good faith (Jdg. 9:15f.), while the other six passages speak rather of trust. We should not, however, conclude from the rarity of the word that faith is unimportant in the OT, for the idea, if not the word, is frequent. It is usually expressed by verbs such as ‘believe,’ ‘trust’ or ‘hope,’ and such abound.
We may begin with such a passage as Ps. 26:1, ‘Vindicate me, O Lord, for I have walked in my integrity, and I have trusted in the Lord without wavering.’ It is often said that the OT looks for men to be saved on the basis of their deeds, but this passage puts the matter in its right perspective. The Psalmist does indeed appeal to his ‘integrity,’ but this does not mean that he trusts in himself or his deeds. His trust is in God, and his ‘integrity’ is the evidence of that trust. The OT is a long book, and the truths about salvation are stated in various ways. The writers do not always make the distinctions that we, with the NT in our hands, might wish. But close examination will reveal that in the OT, as in the NT, the basic demand is for a right attitude to God, i.e., for faith. Cf. Ps. 37:3ff., ‘Trust in the Lord, and do good … Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act.’ Here there is no question but that the Psalmist is looking for an upright life. But there is no question, either, that basically he is advocating an attitude. He calls on men to put their trust in the Lord, which is only another way of telling them to live by faith. Sometimes men are urged to trust the Word of God (Ps. 119:42), but more usually it is faith in God himself that is sought. ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart; and do not rely on your own insight’ (Pr. 3:5).
The latter part of this verse frowns upon trust in one’s own powers, and this thought is frequent. ‘He who trusts in his own mind is a fool’ (Pr. 28:26). A man may not trust to his own righteousness (Ezk. 33:13). Ephraim is castigated for trusting ‘in your chariots (Heb. ‘way’) and in the multitude of your warriors’ (Ho. 10:13). Trust in idols is often denounced (Is. 42:17; Hab. 2:18). Jeremiah warns against confidence in anything human, ‘Cursed is the man who trusts in man, and makes flesh his arm, and whose heart turns away from the Lord’ (Je. 17:5). The list of things not to be trusted in might be multiplied, and it is the more impressive alongside the even more lengthy list of passages urging trust in the Lord. It is clear that the men of the OT thought of the Lord as the one worthy object of trust. They put not their trust in anything they did, or that other men did, or that the gods did. Their trust was in the Lord alone. Sometimes this is picturesquely expressed. Thus he is ‘my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.’ (Ps. 18:2) Faith may be confidently rested in a God like that.
Special mention must be made of Abraham. His whole life gives evidence of a spirit of trustfulness, of a deep faith. Of him it is recorded that ‘he believed the Lord; and he reckoned it to him as righteousness’ (Gn. 15:6). This text is taken up by NT writers, and the fundamental truth it expresses developed more fully.
In the NT, faith is exceedingly prominent. The Gk. noun pistis and the verb pisteuō both occur more than 240 times, while the adjective pistos is found 67 times. This stress on faith is to be seen against the background of the saving work of God in Christ. Central to the NT is the thought that God sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. Christ accomplished man’s salvation by dying an atoning death on Calvary’s cross. Faith is the attitude whereby a man abandons all reliance in his own efforts to obtain salvation, be they deeds of piety, of ethical goodness or anything else. It is the attitude of complete trust in Christ, of reliance on him alone for all that salvation means. When the Philippian jailer asked, ‘Men, what must I do to be saved?’, Paul and Silas answered without hesitation, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved’ (Acts 16:30f.). It is ‘whoever believes in him’ that does not perish, but has everlasting life (Jn. 3:16). Faith is the one way by which men receive salvation.
The verb pisteuō is often followed by ‘that’, indicating that faith is concerned with facts, though there is more to it than that. James tells us that the devils believe ‘that God is one.’ but this faith does not profit them (Jas. 2:19). pisteuō may be followed by the simple dative, when the meaning is that of giving credence to, of accepting as true, what someone says. Thus Jesus reminds the Jews that ‘John came … in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him’ (Mt. 21:32). There is no question here of faith in the sense of trust. The Jews simply did not believe what John said. This may be so also with respect to Jesus, as in Jn. 8:45, ‘you do not believe me’, or the next verse, ‘if I tell the truth, why do you not believe me?’ Yet it must not be forgotten that there is an intellectual content to faith. Consequently this construction is sometimes used where saving faith is in mind, as in Jn. 5:24, ‘he who hears my word and believes him who sent me, has eternal life’. The man who really believes God will, of course, act on that belief. In other words, a genuine belief that what God has revealed is true will issue in a true faith.
The characteristic construction for saving faith is that wherein the verb pisteuō is followed by the preposition eis. Literally this means to believe ‘into’. It denotes a faith which, so to speak, takes a man out of himself, and puts him into Christ (cf. the NT expression frequently used of Christians, being ‘in Christ’). This experience may also be referred to with the term ‘faith-union with Christ’. It denotes not simply a belief that carries an intellectual assent, but one wherein the believer cleaves to his Saviour with all his heart. The man who believes in this sense abides in Christ and Christ in him (Jn. 15:4). Faith is not accepting certain things as true, but trusting a Person, and that Person Christ.
Sometimes pisteuō is followed by epi, ‘upon.’ Faith has a firm basis. We see this construction in Acts 9:42, where, when the raising of Tabitha was known, ‘many believed in the Lord.’ The people had seen what Christ could do, and they rested their faith ‘on’ him. Sometimes faith rests on the Father, as when Paul speaks of believing ‘in him that raised from the dead Jesus our Lord.’ (Rom. 4:24).
Very characteristic of the NT is the absolute use of the verb. When Jesus stayed with the Samaritans many of them ‘believed because of his word’ (Jn. 4:41). There is no need to add what they believed or in whom they believed. Faith is so central to Christianity that one may speak of ‘believing’ without the necessity for further clarification. Christians are simply ‘believers.’ This use extends throughout the NT, and is not confined to any particular writer. We may fairly conclude that faith is fundamental.
The tenses of the verb pisteuō are also instructive. The aorist tense points to a single act in past time and indicates the determinative character of faith. When a man comes to believe he commits himself decisively to Christ. The present tense has the idea of continuity. Faith is not a passing phase. It is a continuing attitude. The perfect tense combines both ideas. It speaks of a present faith which is continuous with a past act of belief. The man who believes enters a permanent state. Perhaps we should notice here that the noun ‘faith’ sometimes has the article ‘the faith’, i.e. the whole body of Christian teaching, as when Paul speaks of the Colossians as being ‘established in the faith’, adding ‘just as you were taught’ (Col. 2:7).
Particular Uses of the Word
(i) In the Synoptic Gospels, faith is often connected with healing, as when Jesus said to the woman who touched his garment in the crowd, ‘Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well’ (Mt. 9:22). But these Gospels are also concerned with faith in a wider sense. Mark, for example, records the words of the Lord Jesus, ‘All things are possible to him who believes’ (Mk. 9:23). Similarly, the Lord speaks of the great results of having ‘faith as a grain of mustard seed’ (Mt. 17:20; Lk. 17:6). It is clear that our Lord called for faith in himself personally. The characteristic Christian demand for faith in Christ rests ultimately on Christ’s own requirement.
(ii) In the Fourth Gospel, faith occupies a very prominent place, the verb pisteuō being found 98 times. Curiously the noun pistis, ‘faith’, is never employed. This is possibly due to its use in circles of a Gnostic type. There are indications that John had such opponents in mind, and it may be that he wanted to avoid using a term of which they were very fond. Or he may have preferred the more dynamic meaning conveyed by the verb. Whatever his reason, he uses the verb pisteuō more often than any other writer in the NT, three times as often, in fact, as the first three Gospels put together. His characteristic construction is that with the preposition eis, ‘to believe into’, ‘to believe on’. The important thing is the connection between the believer and the Christ. Accordingly, John speaks again and again of believing in him or of believing ‘in the name’ of Christ (e.g., Jn. 3:18). The ‘name’, for men of antiquity, was a way of summing up the whole personality. It stood for all that the man was. Believing on the name of Christ, then, means believing in all that he is essentially in himself. Jn. 3:18 also says, ‘He who believes in him is not condemned: but he who does not believe is condemned already.’ It is characteristic of Johannine teaching that eternal issues are decided here and now. Faith does not simply give men assurance of everlasting life at some unspecified time in the future. It gives them everlasting life here and now. He that believes on the Son ‘has’ everlasting life (3:36; cf. 5:24, etc.).
(iii) In Acts, with its story of vigorous missionary advance, it is not surprising that the characteristic expression is the use of the aorist tense, to indicate the act of decision. Luke records many occasions wherein people came to put their trust in Christ. Other constructions are found, and both the continuing state and the permanent results of belief find mention. But decision is the characteristic thing.
(iv) For Paul, faith is the typical Christian attitude. He does not share John’s antipathy to the noun, but uses it more than twice as often as he uses the verb. It occurs in connection with some of his leading ideas. Thus in Rom. 1:16, he speaks of the gospel as ‘the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith.’ It means a great deal to Paul that Christianity is more than a system of good advice. It not only tells men what they ought to do, but gives them power to do it. Again and again Paul contrasts mere words with power, always with a view to emphasizing that the power of the Holy Spirit of God is seen in the lives of Christians. This power becomes available to a man only when he believes. There is no substitute for faith.
Much of Paul’s controversial writing centers round the dispute with the Judaizers. These men insisted that it was not enough for Christians to be baptized. They must also be circumcised, and, being thus admitted to Judaism, endeavor to keep the whole of the Mosaic law. They made obedience to the law a necessary pre-condition of salvation, at least in the fullest sense of that term. Paul will have none of this. He insists that men can do nothing, nothing at all, to bring about their salvation. All has been done by Christ, and no man can add anything to the perfection of Christ’s finished work. So it is that Paul insists that men are justified ‘by faith’ (Rom. 5:1). The doctrine of *justification by faith lies at the very heart of Paul’s message. Whether with this terminology or not, he is always putting the idea forward. He vigorously combats any idea of the efficacy of good deeds. ‘A man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ,’ he writes to the Galatians and proceeds, ‘even we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the law.’ He adds resoundingly ‘because by works of the law shall no one be justified’ (Gal. 2:16). Clearly, for Paul, faith means the abandonment of all reliance on one’s ability to merit salvation. It is a trustful acceptance of God’s gift in Christ, a reliance on Christ, Christ alone, for all that salvation means.
Another outstanding feature of Pauline theology is the very large place the apostle gives to the work of the Holy Spirit. He thinks of all Christians as indwelt by the Spirit (Rom. 8:9, 14), and he connects this too with faith. Thus he writes to the Ephesians concerning Christ, ‘you also, who have believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, which is the guarantee of our inheritance’ (Eph. 1:13f.). Sealing represented the mark of ownership, a metaphor readily understood in an age when many could not read. The Spirit within believers is God’s mark of ownership, and this mark is put on men only as they believe. The apostle goes on to speak of the Spirit as ‘the guarantee (Gk. arrabōn) of our inheritance’. Paul employs here a word which in the 1st century meant a down-payment, i.e. a payment which at one and the same time was part of the agreed price and the guarantee that the remainder would be forthcoming. Thus when a man believes he receives the Holy Spirit as part of the life in the age to come, and as an assurance that the remainder will infallibly follow. (*Earnest.)
(v) The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews sees that faith has always been a characteristic of the people of God. In his great portrait gallery in Heb. 11 he reviews the worthies of the past, showing how one by one they illustrate the great theme that ‘without faith it is impossible to please’ God (Heb. 11:6). He is particularly interested in the opposition of faith to sight. Faith is ‘the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen’ (Heb. 11:1). He emphasizes the point that men who had nothing in the way of outward evidence to support them nevertheless retained a firm hold on the promises of God. In other words, they walked by faith, not by sight.
(vi) Of the other writers in the NT we must notice James, for he has often been held to be in opposition to Paul in this matter. Where Paul insists that a man is justified by faith and not by works James maintains ‘that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone’ (Jas. 2:24). There is no more than a verbal contradiction, however. The kind of ‘faith’ that James is opposing is not that warm personal trust in a living Savior of which Paul speaks. It is a faith that James himself describes: ‘You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder’ (Jas. 2:19). He has in mind an intellectual assent to certain truths, an assent which is not backed up by a life lived in accordance with those truths (Jas. 2:15f.). So far is James from opposing faith in the full sense that he everywhere presupposes it. Right at the beginning of his Epistle he speaks naturally of ‘the testing of your faith’ (Jas. 1:3), and he exhorts his readers, ‘show no partiality as you hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.’ (Jas. 2:1) He criticizes a wrong faith but assumes that everyone will recognize the need for a right faith. Moreover, by ‘works’ James does not mean what Paul means by that term. Paul thinks of obedience to the commands of the law regarded as a system whereby a man may merit salvation. For James, the law is ‘the law of liberty.’ (Jas. 2:12) His ‘works’ look uncommonly like ‘the fruit of the Spirit’ of which Paul speaks. They are warm deeds of love springing from a right attitude to God. They are the fruits of faith. What James objects to is the claim that faith is there when there is no fruit to attest it.
Faith is clearly one of the most important concepts in the whole NT. Everywhere it is required and its importance insisted upon. Faith means abandoning all trust in one’s own resources. Faith means casting oneself unreservedly on the mercy of God. Faith means laying hold on the promises of God in Christ, relying entirely on the finished work of Christ for salvation, and on the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit of God for daily strength. Faith implies complete reliance on God and full obedience to God.
By L. L. Morris
Bibliography. D. M. Baillie, Faith in God, 1964; B. B. Warfield in HDB; J. G. Machen, What Is Faith?, 1925; G. C. Berkouwer, Faith and Justification2, 1954; J. Hick, Faith and Knowledge2, 1966; O. Becker, O. Michel, NIDNTT 1, pp. 587–606; R. Bultmann, TDNT 6, pp. 1–11; A. Weiser et al., TDNT 6, pp. 174–228. New Bible Dictionary (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996)