What is Faith?

It seems to me that if one is going to attempt to think through a good theory of faith development, then the necessary starting place is answering the question, “What is faith?” I mean, it does seem prudent to determine exactly what it is that’s developing if we’re going to talk about how it develops, right? So, What is faith?

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Hebrews 11:1 (ESV)

Done. See you for the blogpost next week, right? Maybe not exactly.

Faith, as it happens, is a central tenet of Scripture. In fact, a scan reveals that pisteuo (the Greek word for faith) and its cognates (variations of the word in various forms like verbs, nouns, adjectives, etc…) appear in 612 places in the New Testament. In other words, it seems to be an important concept that God wants us to get. It is noteworthy that ‘faith’ is not the only translation of pisteuo. In some places, pisteuo is translated ‘believe’. If it’s the noun form, pistis, it is translated as ‘faith’ or ‘belief” depending on the context. So for example, when we read James 2:19, “Even the demons believe and shudder,” (emphasis added) that is alternatively, “Even the demons faith and shudder.”

More than that, Scripture gives us clues as to just how important faith should be to us. According to God’s Word:

  • We are justified by faith. (Romans 5:1)
  • Faith’s goal is salvation of souls. (1 Peter 1:9)
  • Faith is an absolute must have to be pleasing to God. (Hebrews 11:6)
  • Jesus begins and completes it in us. (Hebrews 12:2)
  • Faith comes only as God’s gift to humanity. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
  • There is an expectation that it leads to action. (James 2; Ephesians 2:10)
  • But a foundational understanding that actions don’t save. Only faith does. (Romans 3-4).

And, as if that wasn’t enough, Hebrews 11 provides example after example demonstrating the tie between faith and action.

Time and time again, we are shown the paramount importance of faith. Faith is a necessity. Beyond that, Scripture makes clear that we are to live out our faith. In other words, if we possess faith that is truly faith, then our belief will be indicated in our actions. Bystanders should be able to see our faith. One place this is very clear is in Christ’s words in John 3:36.

Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him. John 3:36 (ESV)

Interestingly, different versions of the Bible deal with the word “obey” in different ways. NIV uses “reject,”  but KJV and HCSB use “believe”. It’s as though Jesus is indicating, “Look, belief is all it takes. If you believe in Me, you have eternal life; but you need to understand that true belief will be measured in obedience. If you aren’t concerned with obeying me, then you clearly don’t know me, and if you don’t know me, then we can’t really call what you’re doing ‘belief’ now can we?” In short, the biblical idea of faith indicates trust, and trust is built in the context of relationship.

In other words, Faith must be characterized by heartfelt belief and exemplified in Christ centered action. There must be a congruency between beliefs and lifestyle, which should naturally flow from a vibrant and growing relationship with Christ. The question we turn to next must be, “Ok, if that’s faith, then what does Scripture say about how faith grows?