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What Is Faith?

Faith is a remarkably hard concept to define. It is the sort of thing that is easier to illustrate than to explain and therefore most of the classic verses on faith are given at the end of an extended narrative or story. Looking at them as a whole we might choose to define faith in the following way:

Faith is believing God enough to go

Abraham is often referred to as “the father of faith”. His story is the illustration of faith par excellence in the Bible. As the Apostle Paul says:

“Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” (Romans 4:3 ESV)

The story of Abraham is thus our go to resource in attempting to understand this complicated concept. In Genesis 12 we get our first piece of the puzzle. The Bible says:

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” 4 So Abram went, as the LORD had told him (Genesis 12:1–4 ESV)

You have to truly believe in something – or Someone – in order to completely upend your life as Abraham does in this story.

The Epistle to the Hebrews comments on this aspect of Abraham’s faith:

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. 9 By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. (Hebrews 11:8–10 ESV)

A faith that doesn’t move you or change you isn’t real faith. It isn’t the faith of Abraham – that is accounted to us as righteousness.

Faith is trusting God enough to wait

In Genesis 12 God promised that he would make of Abraham a great nation. The problem was that Abraham was already an older man – 75 years old to be exact – and his wife had proven to be barren. Nevertheless Abraham believed in the promises of God and rearranged his entire life in order to receive them. However, for a long time, nothing much of anything seemed to be happening.

By chapter 15 Abraham is 10 years older and his wife is just as barren as before. Abraham, understandingly, is beginning to doubt. God, graciously, shows up to offer encouragement.

“Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” 2 But Abram said, “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” 4 And behold, the word of the LORD came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” 5 And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” 6 And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:1–6 ESV)

Faith in this story, means trusting in God to keep a seemingly forgotten promise. Abraham took God at this word – but in chapter 16 Abraham’s faith had once again begun to falter. He attempts to help God’s plan along through unauthorized and inappropriate action. His wife Sarah suggests that he sleep with her maid Hagar and that they “adopt” the child born of this fleshly compromise as their own. God takes pity on the child – and on his mother Hagar – but insists that this will not be the way that his promise will be realized. God is telling a story about faith and faith inevitably involves waiting.

Thus, when Abraham is 99 years old and his wife long past the normal age of childbearing, God appears and predicts that within the year Sarah will give birth to a child – just as God said:

The LORD said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.” (Genesis 18:10 ESV)

And sure enough – that is exactly what happened!

When Abraham was 100 years old, his wife Sarah gave birth to a son!

The Epistle to the Hebrews rightly acknowledges the faith of Sarah in these events as well and includes the episode as part of the necessary narrative explaining the essence and nature of saving faith:

By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised. 12 Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore. (Hebrews 11:11–12 ESV)

Faith is trusting in God enough to wait on his perfect timing. It is not grasping or reaching or working outside the lines. Faith is trusting that God can do the impossible – and will do the impossible when it suits him and when it most serves the cause of his glory.

Faith is fearing God enough to sacrifice

The climax of Abraham’s life of faith is narrated in Genesis 22. Abraham had stepped out in faith in Genesis 12 and had waited a great many years in order to receive the things that God had promised. When he was 100 years old, he was finally blessed with a son. But then, inexplicably, God made an incredible demand:

He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” (Genesis 22:2 ESV)

Abraham’s response is quite probably the greatest illustration of faith in the entire Bible:

So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac. And he cut the wood for the burnt offering and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. (Genesis 22:3 ESV)

Such a response seems impossible to believe. How could he do such a thing? Why would God ask such a thing? God promised Abraham a son, and now God is demanding the return of that son – how can this be part of the plan?

Abraham does not know – but Abraham has faith in the Lord.

He does what he was told to do.

He takes his son to the top of the mountain, he builds an altar, he laid the wood in order and he bound his son for the slaughter. He lifted the knife and prepared to do the unthinkable and, in that instant, he heard the voice of God:

“Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 12 He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” (Genesis 22:11–12 ESV)

According to this passage, Abraham “feared” God and therefore acted faithfully.

We don’t tend to speak a great deal nowadays about “the fear of the Lord” despite that it is a fairly common concept in Holy Scripture. Douglas Stuart says helpfully:

“In the Pentateuch “fear God” tends to mean “to be honest, faithful, trustworthy, upright, and, above all, religious.”[1]

A healthy fear of God motivates us to do what is right and required without being paralyzed by the potential consequences. We fear God more than the loss of that which is precious.

That is precisely what we see in this story and that is the very point that is remarked upon in the New Testament commentary on this passage in the Epistle to the Hebrews:

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, 18 of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” 19 He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back. (Hebrews 11:17–19 ESV)

Abraham considered God – and did what God required. He gave up that which was precious – and received him back as though from the dead.

That is faith.

Faith is fearing God enough to make impossible sacrifices.

Faith is desiring God enough to pursue

Faith is looking to God to provide that which no one else can. There must be some component of seeking and yearning. We see that illustrated in many stories throughout the Bible. One of the most memorable of those is recounted in Matthew 15. In my Bible the story is given the heading: “The Faith Of A Canaanite Woman”.

At the time, Jesus was on a spiritual retreat with his inner circle of disciples. They needed rest and they needed training and preparation for the challenge and the trauma that lay ahead. While he was working with them, he was accosted by a bold and importunate woman. Matthew recalls it this way:

And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” (Matthew 15:22 ESV)

The woman needed something that only Jesus could provide. Jesus, however, did not at first appear accommodating.

“he did not answer her a word.” (Matthew 15:23 ESV)

He was, after all, on a very important retreat with his disciples. Time was short. Their ignorance considerable. Their mission impossible. And thus, Jesus was focused on their instruction.

But the woman would not be deterred.

She came and knelt before him saying:

“Lord, help me.” (Matthew 15:25 ESV)

The response of Jesus is perhaps the most surprising thing recorded in the Bible. He said:

“It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly. (Matthew 15:26–28 ESV)

One suspects that Jesus’ shocking initial rebuff was all a bit of dramatic play. He knew that she would persist, and he wanted her to persist because persisting is essential to authentic faith. The doors of the kingdom do not open to people who only knock once.

“the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force.” (Matthew 11:12 NKJV)

Matthew Henry says here:

The violent take it by force. They who will have an interest in the great salvation are carried out towards it with a strong desire, will have it upon any terms, and not think them hard, nor quit their hold without a blessing”[2]

Jesus spoke this way on multiple occasions. He said:

“Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.” (Luke 13:24 ESV)

There is nothing weak about saving faith.

It is no mere wanting or asking. It is striving, fighting, pressing and pursuing. It is taking hold of God – and not letting go without a blessing.

That is saving faith – Old Testament and New.

Faith is loving God enough to endure

Faith is ultimately about loving God and choosing him above all other earthly allegiances. Making such a choice often exposes a person to ridicule and persecution. In Hebrews 11, the “Faith Hall Of Fame”, this aspect of Moses’ faith is given particular attention.

By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, 25 choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. 26 He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward. 27 By faith he left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king, for he endured as seeing him who is invisible. (Hebrews 11:24–27 ESV)

Moses left his adopted mother and abandoned all privilege and position in order to identify with the people and the promises of God – that is faith!

This is not just something required of famous or wealthy people, such as Moses, but according to Hebrews is something that is the common lot of all truly faithful people. Hebrews 11:35-38 puts it this way:

Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. 36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated— 38 of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. (Hebrews 11:35–38 ESV)

Faith endures it all in order to possess that which is loved above all.

That point was made earlier in the Epistle to the Hebrews in at the end of chapter 3:

For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. (Hebrews 3:14 ESV)

Faith holds on to that which is most precious – and let’s go, if necessary, of everything else.

There is no version of faith in the Bible – no saving version of faith – that does not include endurance. Jesus himself made that very clear, saying:

You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. (Matthew 10:22 ESV)

Endurance is definitional to saving faith.

Faith is like a daisy

As these stories clearly illustrate, faith is like a daisy. It is one thing and many things combined. It is a stem and it is a variety of overlapping petals. All of them must be present and visible for the daisy to be seen and appreciated for what it is.

Pluck a petal and it begins to die.

The Apostle James was very eager to make that point. He said:

Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. (James 2:17 ESV)

Faith is not merely belief and that is a challenge for us in the English language because we do not have a word that matches up perfectly with the Hebrew and Greek words that are used in the Bible for faith. The English word “faith” cannot function as a verb and thus whenever the verb form is used in these stories it must be rendered “believe” despite that the Bible is at great odds to demonstrate that “faith” is more than “belief”. James goes so far as to say:

You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! (James 2:19 ESV)

A faith that is only belief in a set of facts about God and his redeeming work is the faith of demons. If what you believe about God does not make you move and cannot make you wait and does not cause you to give and does not make you pursue and is not strong enough to cause you to endure then it is not saving faith.

It is dead.

It is false.

It is a lie.

Real faith is a complicated and glorious thing.

It is a gift.

It is a decision.

It is a life.

It is the means by which we take hold of, and identify with the promises, grace and person of the Lord.

Thanks be to God!

Pastor Paul Carter

To listen to the most recent episodes of Pastor Paul’s Into The Word devotional podcast on the TGC Canada website see here. You can also find it on iTunes. To access the entire library of available episodes see here.

[1] Douglas Stuart, Exodus in The New American Commentary, (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2006), 79.

[2] Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible (Unabridged), Accordance electronic ed. (Altamonte Springs: OakTree Software, 2004), paragraph 29228