What is faith?
A definition is in order. What is faith? If faith means to believe something without proof, as many claim, then how is it different from blind faith? What I find funny is that those who dislike faith because it believes without proof, believe in this definition of faith – without proof!
The word faith appears many times in the Bible in the New Testament, which was written in Greek. If we turn to a Greek scholar’s work, Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words and look up faith, we find it is the word pistis, which means “primarily, firm persuasion (akin to peitho, to persuade), a conviction based upon hearing, is used in the N.T. always of faith in God or Christ, or things spiritual.”
To have faith means to have a firm conviction about something. How one comes to faith is not in the meaning of the word. One may have faith based on a wide variety of evidence, or not; the proof is not part of the semantic meaning of the word. The meaning of faith is centered on the persuasion you have, not on how you arrived by that persuasion, or even what you believe in.
Those who say that (true) faith is blind or that it means to believe something against all reason are wrong. Religious faith is based on a Greek word with a real definition found in a Greek dictionary which derives its meaning from the N.T. context in which it appears. Faith means to be persuaded of something. (The only biblically sound reason for faith to mean something different is when it’s said to be “the faith,” in which case it is talking about the Christian life and doctrine in general.)
If you strongly insist (have a firm conviction, have faith) that faith means to believe something in spite of the facts, then your personal faith is real, but based on false information.
A wrong meaning of faith will result in wrong practices and a wrong understanding of the Scriptures in which the word appears.
But I’m not satisfied to just give a mere definition of faith. We should not be satisfied with a mere intellectual knowledge of religious truths. Understanding the meaning of the word does not leave us with the substance of the word. Knowing what peace means does not mean that we have the peace itself. So let’s dig a lot deeper to grasp this faith.
Faith is proof that you “got it”
“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. For by it the elders obtained a good testimony”
What is this faith that gives a good testimony? How is faith a substance? [Does this sentence even make sense if we replace “faith” with “to believe without proof”?] Suppose two men listen to a rousing, inspirational speaker. One leaves with excitement, saying, “That’s inspiring! I know that this will change my life. I know exactly what I need to do and will get to it right away!” The second man leaves with little thought for what he has heard, and is quickly distracted by other things in his life. Which one had a firm conviction? Which one had evidence in his heart that he saw something in the future (hope) that hadn’t happened yet? Which one obtained a testimony that he got the message? The first man left the meeting with faith, fully persuaded, brimming with hope and success for what he was thrilled to do. This is the faith God wants to impart to us.
This is the faith that moved the men and women of God throughout Hebrews 11. They were so convinced of what God said and what He promised to do, that they backed Him one hundred per cent. They were not sidetracked by their weaknesses or disheartened by the obstacles. So Noah built the ark. Abraham journeyed, not knowing where he was going. Moses chose to suffer with the people of God through the wilderness, knowing that greater riches than Egypt could offer would come.
This is the faith we can all have. How important is it to possess this kind of faith? “But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently pursue Him” (Hebrew 11:6). It’s so important because there’s no other way to please God. We won’t please God by more Bible knowledge, but by staking our lives on what it says and living for it. We won’t please God by merely memorizing Bible verses, but by believing God for the lessons they contain and adjusting our lives to run true to them. With this faith comes the conviction that God will reward us when we hear His voice and respond.
For this faith comes from being persuaded that God Himself has spoken to us: “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17). We were saved because we responded to the promise of salvation through faith in Jesus – through someone speaking to us or by reading something. We were convinced that we could not be saved unless we trusted in Jesus Himself to save us. We were so convinced that we turned from trusting in our good deeds and other things we were trusting in, threw out our idols, and turned to God alone.
That conviction was not to stop at the beginning of our Christian life. Through men and women and through the Word, God still speaks. He still utters promises to our hearts to stir us; His Word was written that “those who read it may run” (Habbakuk 2:2), and not meander aimlessly. The Word persuades us that God is able; God loves us; God is for us; that God will strengthen us. In other words, we have every reason to have a firm belief in Him when God speaks.
Some of us want a lot more evidence before we can act. They scorn their brethren who simply take God at His Word, who say, “the Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.” Thomas doubted the resurrection of Jesus, wanting the physical evidence, though all the disciples testified to him. But Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29b). So lean not on your own understanding, but trust God with what little He has given you.
The simple ones of faith please God; those who simply take God at His Word and run with it are far ahead of those who are the “giant intellects” who are still searching for enough evidences to believe. It is not blind faith to simply trust God, for God has already abundantly proven His integrity. His record is unassailable; He will not be judged by man. Of course, the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus from the dead has also given us solid, irrefutable evidence of God’s love.
The men in Hebrews chapter 11 were privileged, but not special. Some of their stories revealed very human flaws. Moses saw the burning bush that wasn’t consumed and protested that he couldn’t speak well, so God gave his brother Aaron to be his partner. Abraham was afraid of for his wife’s safety, so he deceived the Pharaoh, even though God had promised him a good future. In this chapter we read of extraordinary, super-human acts from very ordinary and very human individuals. These men had one thing in common: they believed God and they acted based on what God could do.
Faith is not passive, but prompts us to act. For instance, we come home daily to a mountain of work that needs to be done, with little strength to do it. Then we hear God tell us, “My strength is made perfect in weakness,” and receive strength to move the mountain of chores with purpose and power. We are convinced that God spoke to us personally and meant it.
Unfortunately, we think we first need to be special to have this kind of faith. We need to be better people. If we could just get our lives right enough with God, then we could really do something for Him. If we had enough money, or were rich and famous, or had the right connections, or had a brilliant plan to save the world, then God might use us. Fortunately, “To every man has been given a measure of faith” (Romans 12:3).
But God uses the weak to bewilder the strong and the simple to confound the wise. It isn’t about numbers or ability with God, but believing His word with a willing heart to go where it takes. His eyes go to and fro throughout the world looking for a heart that will be loyal to Him (2 Chronicles 16:9). Will you surrender to Him? That will be special enough for God.
Enemies of faith
Jesus told Nicodemas, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’” (John 3:6-7). We are led by the flesh or the spirit, so the first order of the day in the Spirit’s leading is to expose the work of the flesh in you and lead you to put it to death. The flesh cannot please God (Romans 8:7-9). The Spirit leads us to the uncomfortable thought that we are our own worst enemies.
Therefore it is written, “For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God” (Romans 8:13-14). God gives us new definitions of life and death: to live according to our fleshly desires is death, and to be responsive to God is life.
As long as we live according to the flesh, we are enemies of faith and enemies of God. (We can see a partial listing of the flesh in Galatians 5:19-21 and their chilling consequence. We can see an exposition on life in Matthew chapters 5-7.)
We show our opposition to faith in different ways. We first want more understanding of the path God wants us to travel before we take the first step. In sinful presumption, we are not convinced that God would really use our flawed lives. We love our sin more than God’s will. We want to stay in our comfort zone. We’re afraid of what others will think.
We’re afraid God will send us something hard or disagreeable to do, like go live among headhunters in Africa. Some of us have orderly lives and don’t want God messing up our schedules. Others are “free spirits” and don’t really want God telling them what to do. (These free spirits don’t understand that to be free indeed is to obey God wholeheartedly.) We think religion should be fun, cultural, ritual, or intellectual, so we don’t take God seriously.
Many of us have other priorities that keep us from responding to God. Riches and a comfortable lifestyle wick away any heat we have for the Lord. A successful career beckons us to put religious notions on hold. A spirit drained by life’s tragic circumstances leave us with no energy to consider God – or even like Him.
Examples of the leading
To those of you who have read this far and want a powerful faith: Confess all known sin and turn from them; make things right with those you’ve wronged. If you don’t know why you should do these things, then go back over the gospel of Jesus Christ. If you don’t know the gospel, then read this one, believe, and repent.
“Faith comes by hearing.” Our Christian life was not meant to be started by faith, then be continued in human strength: “Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh?” (Galatians 3:3b). Faith comes by hearing God. Be in a position of listening to Him. Still yourself to hear His voice no matter where you are. There is no substitute for paying attention. Jesus told His disciples that they were privileged to hear the things they did while the rest of the nation was “hard of hearing” and unresponsive (Matthew 13:15). Knowing God’s leading is your birthright too. To hear and respond is a privilege is available to all but rejected by most.
Since the Spirit wants us to deal with the flesh, we must let God show us what to cut out. In the end, the goal is allowing God to lead us where He wants us to go. Whatever prevents this must be cut. Even “good” activities will need to be sacrificed for this.
In the book of Acts we see that the Spirit led the people in various ways. Phillip was in a busy city and was led out to the desert to speak to one man. People were in a prayer group when the Spirit spoke. God directed a change of heart to Peter about what was clean and unclean when the Spirit wanted him to go to a Gentile gathering. Paul was stopped by the Spirit from entering a territory or two, then got clear direction through a dream.
Nor is God is limiting this work to certain people. The Spirit shall be poured out on all flesh: “Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions, your old men shall dream dreams” (Acts 2:17). Young and old, men and women – the Spirit will not discriminate by age or sex. Whoever is in position to hear and respond, that’s who God will empower: “And on My menservants and on My maidservants I will pour out My Spirit in those days” (Acts 2:18).
So God will not lead us only in prayer or Bible-reading times. We cannot predict how or where He will lead. And when He led in the book of Acts, He was very specific about what He wanted the people to do.
So to see this fruit in our lives, we do not force God to speak or lead in a certain way or at certain times, but merely be attentive to Him. Jesus actually defined born again in the context of the Spirit’s leading when He told Nicodemas, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).
We have often defined the born-again state as believing in Jesus at a gospel presentation and getting a new, inner nature. Jesus points out that born again is the ongoing life of letting the Spirit lead wherever He wishes. Because He leads according to His will and timing, we literally don’t know where we’re going! Born again isn’t a door we pass through; it is the new life where we are not led by the flesh any more.
Faith and the Spirit
We started this article with a definition of faith, that it is having a firm conviction; we ended with the leading of the Spirit. We did not go off track. The enemy of faith is the flesh and the work of the Spirit leads us to put the fleshly deeds to death – so that we may live an ongoing life of faith. We can have a firm conviction of God’s leading for our life. But how is that possible when that leading conflicts with a fleshly goal? Then we are disturbed, torn between two directions, and we question God’s will for us.
Abraham was fully convinced of God’s leading, and left, not knowing where he was going. Noah was persuaded enough to spend a hundred years building the ark. The leading of God in the Old Testament continues into our day, with the added advantages of the infilling of the Spirit to subdue the flesh and the anointing of the Spirit to empower our obedience. The faith of our fathers continues today; we can have firm conviction of God’s will for our lives. Even now we labor through birth pains as the Spirit brings us through difficult and painful trials. But the result – born of the Spirit – is a person who hears and responds to God with conviction. Are you up for the adventure?