What is faith?
We live in strange and perplexing days, and the way ahead is far from clear. How should we respond to the uncertain times in which we live? The answer in the Bible is “faith” but what exactly is this faith which we are called to by definition? There is only one clear-cut definition in the Bible. “Now faith is firm confidence in things hoped for, conviction regarding things not seen,” says the writer to the Hebrews (Hebrews 11:1). In the words of Lenski (whose translation I have used in the previous sentence) this definition gives us “the essence of true religious faith, the heart of what the Scriptures call saving faith”. 1 So, faith is defined in terms of our response to two kinds of things: “things hoped for” and “things not seen”.
Confidence in things hoped for
“Now faith is firm confidence in things hoped for …” To put this statement in context, we must look back to the verses immediately before (Hebrews 10:35-39). Faith is a sure, solid and firm confidence (hupostasis in Greek) in what awaits us in the future – our reward (v.35), God’s promise (v.36), the second coming of Christ (v.37). God’s promise comprises our resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:20-23), the better and lasting possessions (Hebrews 10:34) of our glorious inheritance (Ephesians 1:14,18), the eternal weight of glory that will be ours (2 Corinthians 4:17), the new heaven and the new earth (Revelation 21:1-22:6) and much more. These are some of the wonderful “things hoped for”. Christian faith produces Christian hope, that is, the confident and joyful expectation of good things to come.
Conviction regarding things not seen
“Now faith is … conviction regarding things not seen.” Our faith is not only about things yet to come but also about things that have already come which we cannot see. The writer to the Hebrews uses the word elegchos for this certainty about “things not seen”. Literally, it means “exposing” in the sense of giving evidence or proof of the existence of the things not seen. “Seeing is believing” goes the common phrase, suggesting that we can only believe what we can see. But Christian faith enables us to believe what we cannot see. In the words of the Apostle Paul, “we live by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). Creation and all the other events of the Old Testament; the birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of the Lord Jesus – these are some of the things in the past which we have not seen with our eyes but are convinced of by faith.
Occasionally, the veil is lifted and we are granted a sight of the invisible. When Elisha’s young servant got up early one morning and discovered that a huge Syrian army had arrived in the night and encamped around the city of Dothan where he and Elisha lived, he cried out to Elisha, “Alas, my master! What shall we do?” Elisha reassured him, “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” But those on the side of Elisha and his servant were invisible. So Elisha prayed, “O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.” And the servant saw that the mountain on which Dothan stood was “full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha”. (2 Kings 6:15-17 ESV)
A true faith
Confidence, conviction and faith are, in themselves, neutral terms. They can be false, as when Eve put her faith in the lies of Satan, which she mistook for truth. Our faith is only Christian faith if it is focused on Christ, who is the Truth. As we sometimes sing,
My faith looks up to Thee,
Thou Lamb of Calvary,
Now hear me while I pray;
Take all my guilt away;
Oh, let me from this day
Be wholly Thine. 2
Our faith does not originate inside ourselves, but rests on something outside of ourselves, or rather on Somebody outside ourselves, that is, on the Lord Jesus Christ. We do not create our faith; we receive it as a gift from God. It is through His Word and by His grace that the things not seen are revealed to us.
A trusting faith
Biblical faith is more than believing what is true. Faith is primarily trusting in a Person, rather than adhering to a correct set of theological principles, important though that is. It is humble child-like dependence on God, which has no place for pride or self-sufficiency. Through faith we trust in Him whom we have not seen and believe in what He has not yet done. This is the faith for which the ancients were commended (Hebrews 11:2).
Faith and righteousness
This trusting faith is the foundation and bedrock of our spiritual lives and is closely linked with righteousness. When Abram believed the Lord it was credited to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6). The Apostle Paul explains how we, like Abraham, can be counted righteous, that is, justified or made just, by faith (Romans 3:21-5:1). Doubt and fear are at heart a form of unrighteousness for the one who doubts or fears is not allowing God to shape their mind and life. “The righteous one [i.e. the one declared righteous by God] shall live as a result of faith,” or, translated literally from the Greek, “The righteous – from faith he shall live” (Hebrews 10:38). The writer to the Hebrews was drawing on Scriptural language from the book of Habakkuk to express his thoughts (Habakkuk 2:3-4). If faith is gone then our spiritual life is gone. Without faith we apostatise. But
if we are living by faith, then though it may be through scourgings and mockings and perils and dangers, we shall arrive, for “the just shall live by faith”. 3
Faith is linked to righteousness. Faith is counted as righteousness. Doubt and fear is unrighteous at its heart. Who does not allow God to shape their mind and life? The writer to the Hebrews also borrows from Habakkuk a phrase about coming without delay, and adapts it for Christ, who is on His way: “… he who is coming will come and will not delay” (Hebrews 10:37). The writer prefaces this with his own introduction to emphasise just how short the time is, literally, “There is a yet a little time, how very, how very (little).” His message is that we only need to hold on for a short time more, we only need to persevere a little longer, and then Christ will come and all the other “things hoped for” will occur.
When faith fails
So we must not throw away this emboldening assurance, we must not be amongst those who shrink back in fear when things get tough i.e. who give up their faith. The faith of the Israelites in the desert was overwhelmed when they heard from the spies who had visited the promised land about how great the challenge was and how many dangers lay ahead of them. They shrank back and wished that they had never embarked on God’s saving journey out of slavery in Egypt. They even decided to reject Moses, choose another leader and make their way back to Egypt (Numbers 13:26-14:4).
Without faith the Israelites could not see the end. Unlike Joshua and Caleb, the rest had no spiritual vision. They were shaped by the immediate, by what they could see, for example, the “giants” living in the promised land (Numbers 13:33). With a secular and faithless mindset, they were influenced by the visible and the here and now (not by things to come or things unseen). They were controlled by their desire for safety and stability, even if they came at the cost of being re-enslaved.
The heart of the problem was that they were unwilling to face an uncertain future and had no confidence in the God of tomorrow, forgetting how He had led them, fed them and kept them up to that point. Their faith failed, they shrank back in cowardice and gave up, choosing what seemed to them the easier and safer way. They were not in touch with God, as Moses, Joshua and Caleb were. They were ruled by the immediate rather than by things hoped for and things not seen, and the pestilence which killed them became one more factor in the uncertainties that beset the Israelites.
Again we see the contrast between the faith-filled, who react to uncertainty by waiting on God in His holy place, and the faithless, who are controlled by the immediate and the visible. Psalm 91, which talks of future deliverance from pestilence and other forms of violent death, says that these promises are for “he that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High” (Psalm 91:1 KJV).
Heroes of our faith
Habakkuk’s prophecy was written in dark and tragic days. Enemy troops were closing in. There was injustice and corruption, arrogance and idolatry, crop failure and famine. Habakkuk recalled times of pestilence and other natural disasters (Habakkuk 3:5). He did not know what to do but, in that age of uncertainty, the Lord gave him a task: to “write the vision” as everything unfolded around him (Habakkuk 2:2-3).
It is striking how similar this command is to the commissioning of Isaiah at an earlier time of national crisis. Habakkuk obeyed – and one result of this is the teaching that the righteous will live by faith, quoted three times in the New Testament (Habakkuk 2:4; Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11; Hebrews 10:38). In the midst of death, disaster and destruction Habakkuk clung in trusting faith to God and continued to wait patiently for God’s deliverance. He did not shrink back. His faith did not fail. His confidence and certainty came from God.
The Bible is full of examples of trusting faith that does not falter when tested. The rest of chapter 11 of Hebrews is an amazing, humbling, inspiring catalogue of those who lived by faith and not by sight. Noah in faith built a ship on dry land, knowing only that God was going to destroy all the people and the earth; that was surely an uncertain future (Genesis 6:13 ff). Abraham left his home, his extended family and his country to follow God’s call into the unknown (Genesis 12:1). He did not know where he was going, how long his trip would be or what dangers and hardships he might encounter on the way. Everything was uncertain. But he trusted in God and obeyed. Moses’s parents put their baby boy into a basket on the river Nile, not knowing if this would save their son’s life or what would happen (Exodus 1:22-2:4). Rahab sheltered the Israelite spies, explaining to them that the whole population of her country were melting in fear, knowing that the Lord had given their land to the Israelites. How uncertain the future was for her (Joshua 2:8-11). Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refused to worship King Nebuchadnezzar’s huge golden statue, and were thrown into a blazing furnace, knowing that God had the power to rescue them but uncertain whether He would (Daniel 3:12,16-18). We know that God “quenched the fury of the flames” (Hebrews 11:34) and they were to emerge from the furnace completely unharmed (Daniel 3:27), but when they were thrown into it the wonderful ending of their story was uncertain and unknown.
The courageous achievements of this list of but a few heroes of faith, which could be extended a million-fold with the addition of faithful, trusting Christians in the centuries since, all marvellously show what trusting faith in God can achieve, some being miraculously delivered and others gloriously martyred.
See God in Christ, then look at the times
The times in which we live are not only uncertain but for some they are also deeply distressing and dangerous. But we should not fear. There is not much longer to wait and endure, before “the Coming One” (Hebrews 10:37 ESV) will be here. Now is not the time to shrink back but to continue in faith, making sure to “fix our eyes not on what is seen … since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal”. In this way we see our troubles in perspective, as light and momentary in comparison with eternal glory (2 Corinthians 4:17-18).
It is in times of uncertainty that our faith can be most fruitful. It is then, when our faith is truly put to the test, that either we can become unrighteous in our worry which, as we have seen, can even end in apostasy, or we can trust God and put our hand in His.
As Campbell Morgan said, let us “see God in Christ, and then look at the times”. 4
Dr Patrick Sookhdeo
International Director, Barnabas Fund
1 R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of The Epistle to the Hebrews and The Epistle of James, Minneapolis, Augsburg Publishing House, 1966, p.373.
2 Hymn written in 1830 by Ray Palmer, after he received a vision of Christ
3 G. Campbell Morgan, The Triumphs of Faith, London,
Pickering & Inglis Ltd, 1944, p.14.
4 Campbell Morgan, p.128.