Now faith is the substance of things hoped for,  the evidence of things not seen.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

Faith. It is one of the big three mentioned by the Apostle Paul in the famous text on love. Beyond that, faith becomes the focal point of many of Paul’s epistles. In his letter to the Galatians, he implores them not to abandon the way of faith they started in:

You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. 2 I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard?… …Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham.8 Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” 9 So those who rely on faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.

In Ephesians, Paul commends the church in Ephesus for their faith:

For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all God’s people,16 I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers.

And again in Ephesians:

For by grace are you saved through faith, and that not of yourselves….

But perhaps the most iconic passage in scripture regarding faith would be Hebrews 11, sometimes called the “hall of faith.” The first three verses are below:

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2For by it the men of old gained approval.

3By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which are visible.

Just as 1 Corinthians 13 may be regarded as the most complete definition of “love” in the Bible, Hebrews 11 would be the single greatest passage devoted solely to “faith.” For that reason, any discussion of faith inevitably brings in Hebrews 11. This, of course, pushes the focus to the first verse of Hebrews, where faith is “defined,” so to speak. And here we must delve into the text if we are to gain a good understanding of faith.

A Common Misunderstanding of Faith

The first thing I will point out is that I am not a fan of the way the NIV and some other versions translate Hebrews 11:1. Their translation is, in fact, more of an interpretation:

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

Unfortunately, this translation makes faith subjective. That is to say, the focal point becomes what we, personally, have confidence in, and what we, personally, are assured about. Though this would be a possible interpretation of the text, it is certainly not the only interpretation, and not even the most reasonable one. This is why many other versions use words similar to the NASB (quoted in the section above).

Yet this interpretation prevails over all others in the American church, and much also of the European church. In the traditions of most denominations, faith has indeed been reduced to intellectual assent. In other words, as long as you say that you believe Jesus saves you, you have faith. You can live the rest of your life however you want. You’re ‘in’.

Now here’s the thing. If you stopped at Hebrews 11:1, you could come to that conclusion just as reasonably as any other. But the author doesn’t stop there. He goes on to give examples of how the people of old were “justified by faith.” In each and every one of these examples faith shows through action. Abraham left his hometown. He prepared to offer his only son as a sacrifice on the altar. Noah built an ark. In each example given in Hebrews, faith shows in action. It is more than just an abstract.

What About James?

Before we go any further, we would be remiss to have a conversation of faith without mentioning James, the brother of Jesus. James writes the following in his epistle to the Jews:

What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? 17 Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

This seems to contradict Paul’s epistles, where he so frequently talks about the importance of faith and the impossibility of receiving salvation by works. And indeed many call it a contradiction. But the first presupposition that we must make, if we are to take the Bible as God’s word and truth, is that God’s instructions and doctrine do not contradict themselves. Therefore, this passage, taken with Hebrews 11 and the writings of Paul, especially Romans, should lead us to delve into the concept of faith. If we come to an understanding of faith that makes these passages contradict each other, how can we accept the Bible as God’s revealed, true, and Holy word?

A Contradiction Resolved: The Relationship Between Faith and Works

In fact, the key to resolving the contradiction between the passages is found in James. James further explains that faith works together with works in salvation. In fact, no less than 3 times in vs. 14-26 of James 2, James tells us that faith without works is dead. To illustrate his point, he says that when Abraham offered Isaac his son on the altar, the “Scripture was fulfilled which says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him as righteousness.'”

So what do we make of this? Well, another way of putting this would be that if faith isn’t accompanied by action, there’s no life to it. It can’t do anything. In the same way that a squirrel squashed on the road can’t get up and run around, dead faith does nothing for us. Furthermore, it does nothing for the body of Christ. And in the end, according to James, such faith does not save a person.

Now we come back to Hebrews 11:1. If we accept the definition that faith resides merely in the realm of the intellectual, and exists apart from works, then James becomes again in conflict with many of Paul’s writings. However, if we take the more difficult definition, that faith somehow exists in substance greater than a simple intellectual assent, then every one of Paul’s writings comes into harmony with James. And even the apostle John, who writes that the “victory which overcomes the world” is “our faith” agrees. How can faith unconnected with works “overcome” anything? So faith cannot exist apart from works, because faith begets works.

A Life Defined by Faith

Having come to a clear understanding of faith, we must now take a moment to point out that having faith doesn’t mean that there is never a moment in your life where you do not act from faith. For example, look at Hebrews. He says that by faith “Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out.” He also says by faith Abraham “offered up Isaac.” But he never says by faith Abraham declined to reveal to Abimelech that Sarai was his wife. He doesn’t say by faith Abraham had relations with Hagar at the urging of Sarai. So though Abraham was justified by faith, not every choice that Abraham made kept with his faith.

Of Jacob, it says by faith he “blessed each of the sons of Joseph and worshiped,” but it never says that by faith he sought to appease Esau and then went in the opposite direction of him. It doesn’t say by faith Moses struck the rock when he was instructed to speak to it. In fact, we see the actions that were by faith, but God also made sure to record for us the actions that were not in keeping with faith.

So what can we take from that? Two things. First, if you do happen to run across the sect which claims that perfection is achievable in this life for the Christian, look to the gospels and the Bible to refute this. Nobody can live a life such that every action is in keeping with faith. Anybody who claims that they can is, in the words of the apostle John, “a liar, and the truth is not in him.”

But also we must consider the contrary point, that if faith exists in a person, there will be evidence of it in his life. He will stand by God and His word rather than running after all the things of the world. In other words, if I have saving faith, then my overall life, despite my mistakes, sin, and bad choices, will be defined by steps taken that show I believe God and His word. In this way, we can see that James, Paul, and the author of Hebrews reflect the words of Jesus Himself who says, “by their fruits you shall know them.”

In light of this, we must all the more heed Paul’s urging to Timothy to “keep the faith.” Through prayer, immersion in the word of God, and constant practice, we must make every effort to submit to the leading of the word, that our faith may become not only our guiding light but also a light to others.

And perhaps we might ask ourselves, if the author of Hebrews were to look at our lives, what might he say we did “by faith”? And more importantly, when we see Jesus one day, will we hear the words “well done, my good and faithful servant?”