What do people mean by ‘faith’?
The word ‘faith’ is used in a bewildering variety of ways at the present day:-
- The sceptical view is that it is ‘blind trust’. According to Dawkins, ‘faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence…Faith is not allowed to justify itself by argument.’
- The popular view is that it is ‘a certain obstinate optimism’ (Packer, God’s Words, p129). In the movie Miracle on 34th Street, Santa Claus says: “Faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to.”
- The sociological view is that it describes the beliefs and practices of some religious group (‘the Muslim faith’) or of religious people generally (‘people of faith’).
- The mystical view is that it is an irrational intuition into the spiritual world. ‘Wilfrid Cantwell Smith distinguishes between belief and faith, arguing that the former is “nonscriptural.” By “belief” Smith refers to faith that has a specific object. He delights in those passages of Scripture where pistis (“faith”) has no specified object, e.g. Heb 11:6, or the repeated Synoptic “Your faith has made you whole.” Where “to believe” or “faith” has apersonal object (e.g. God or Christ), trust is at stake; where it has a propositional object (e.g. “if you do not believe that I am,” Jn 8:24), what is at stake is recognition and acknowledgement of something, not “belief” in any modern sense. The purpose of this exercise is to drive to the conclusion that the many “faith” passages without an expressed object are open-ended, and must not be loaded with propositional or doctrinal content. Thus “faith” beocmes the nonintellectual, transcendent form that achieves concrete expression in various intellectual forms that are necessarily tied to specific cultures.’ But ‘it is a commonplace of Greek syntax that direct objects (and other parts of speech) are often omitted when they are to be inferred from the context. More importantly, for all that Smith warns against reading later credal utterances back into the faith-passages of the New Testament, he should take more pains to avoid reading a twentieth-century warmed-over Buddhist notion of faith back into the New Testament.’ (Carson, The Gagging of God, 174)
- The Roman Catholic view is that it is credence, involving explicit or implicit acceptance of the church’s teaching.
Given these various understandings (and misunderstandings) it is not surprising the Paul had to contend for a right understanding of faith when he wrote to the Romans and to the Galatians. And the Protestant Reformers felt compelled to assert the priority of faith: ‘Sola fide’ (by faith alone) was their watchword.
What does the New Testament teach?
In the NT generally, the word ‘faith’ means ‘trust’. It involves both credence and commitment. According to Packer (God’s Words, p131), the only exceptions are: (a) ‘the faith’ as referring to the body of truths believed (esp. in the Pastoral Epistles); (b) ‘faith’ as the exercise of trust that works miracles (Mt 17:20f; 1 Cor 13:2); (c) ‘faith’ as bare intellectual assent to truth (only in James 2:14-26).
‘In the New Testament, faith (believing trust, or trustful belief, based on testimony received as from God) is crucially important, for it is the means or instrumental cause of salvation. It is by faith that Christians are justified before God, (Rom 3:26; 4:1-5; Gal 2:16) live their lives (literally “walk,” 2 Cor 5:7), and sustain their hope. (Heb 10:35-12:3)
Faith cannot be defined in subjective terms, as a confident and optimistic mind-set, or in passive terms, as acquiescent orthodoxy or confidence in God without commitment to God. Faith is an object-oriented response, shaped by that which is trusted, namely God himself, God’s promises, and Jesus Christ, all as set forth in the Scriptures. And faith is a whole-souled response, involving mind, heart, will, and affections. Older Reformed theology analyzed faith as notitia (“knowledge,” i.e., acquaintance with the content of the gospel), plus assensus (“agreement,” i.e., recognition that the gospel is true), plus fiducia (“trust and reliance,” i.e., personal dependence on the grace of Father, Son, and Spirit for salvation, with thankful cessation of all attempts to save oneself by establishing one’s own righteousness: Rom 4:5 10:3). Without fiducia there is no faith, but without notitia and assensus there can be no fiducia.’ (Rom 10:14) (J.I Packer, Concise Theology)
‘Faith is to believe what we do not see, and the reward of this faith is to see what we believe.’ (Augustine)
In the Bible, faith involves both credence and confidence.
What is the source of faith?
The certainty of faith is grounded, not primarily on argument, nor experiemntal proof, nor the teaching of the church, nor on mystical experience, nor on private revelation, but on the word of a God ‘who cannot lie’ (Titus 1:2). The word of the gospel is God’s word, 1 Jn 5:10; 1 Thess 2:13.
Saving faith is God’s gift, Eph 2:8, overcoming our blindness and obstinacy.
Why faith alone?
We insist on salvation by faith alone:-
Firstly, in order to safeguard the glory of Christ as Saviour. Faith unites us to Christ, and to his finished work. Faith is absolutely sufficient because Christ is absolutely sufficient;
Secondly, in order to safeguard the genuineness of faith itself. Faith is whole-hearted trust, and springs from self-despair. To add anything to faith – one’s own works, for example, is to admit that one’s faith is not whole-hearted, is not genuine. ‘Christ will either be a whole Saviour or none at all’ (Berridge).
What is the relation between faith and works?
That champion of ‘sola fide’, Martin Luther said: ‘Faith is a lively thing, mighty in working, valiant and strong, ever doing, ever fruitful; so that it is impossible that he who is endued therewith should not work always good works without ceasing…for such is his nature.’ Faith always works ‘through love’ (Gal 5:6). Christian doctrine is grace; Christian conduct is obedience.
The life of faith
Faith is linked with justification at the beginning of our new life in Christ; but faith is also the controlling principle for the whole of life.
In Hebrews, where the emphasis is on the object, not the strength, of faith, Heb 11:1:-
- faith takes God at his word, Heb 11:3,6,11,13-16;
- faith approaches God boldly through Christ, Heb 4:16; 10:19ff;
- faith interprets trouble as God’s benevolent discipline, Heb 12:5ff;
- faith takes courage from the example of others, Heb 12;
- faith produces faithfulness, Heb 6:11f; 10:36; 12:1.
How may faith be strengthened?
Faith is not strengthened by introspection, any more than growth in a plant is promoted by pulling it up and inspecting its roots. Faith is strengthened by focussing on the objects of faith: 2 Cor 4:16,18. Faith may also be nurtured by recalling former times, Heb 10:32; Psa 77:2,11; Psa 42:6.
The above notes rely heavily on the relevant chapter in J.I. Packer, God’s Words.