As the new year rolls around many of us are beginning to wonder what 2019 has in store for us. Do you fear what’s ahead? If so, let’s step into the new year with a fresh view on the nature of faith.
What is faith and what does it mean to be faithful? Is faith believing in something without evidence or in spite of the evidence? Contrary to what popular skeptics may have you believe, faith, as the Bible defines it, is actually believing in something because of the evidence and not in spite of it. It is an act of volition in something we’ve become confident and assured in because of the evidence. The Greek word for faith in the NT is pistis (which is where we should place our focus since the English word Faith can have a variety of definitions), which is often used as a term for proof or evidence. We may look to Acts 17:31 as an example of how the Biblical authors used pistis and how they viewed the nature of faith.
“Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead (Acts 17:31 bold mine).”
Luke is speaking about the one who will eventually judge the world in righteousness through Jesus Christ. How do we know for sure that Jesus is the Messiah? Luke points towards the evidence of his divinity and vindication (i.e. the resurrection). Throughout the NT we see faith being upheld as the appropriate response to one who has proven themselves to be faithful. The evidence provides the means for faith to grow but faith is not the evidence in and of itself. Faith, as the NT defines it, is more closely related to loyalty and trust than to belief.
We can see this definition used even today. When we see a great act of good we emphatically state that our “faith in humanity is restored!” When we see an act of evil we immediately say we have lost faith in humanity. Our faith in humanity is not blind or kept in the face of the evidence, rather, we say we have faith in humanity because of the evidence. We see an act of good and it leads us to trust our fellow man once more.
Whenever pistis is used as a noun to refer to the Christian faith, it is always used as a term of loyalty by one who is embedded in service to another and not as a belief in the existence of that said person. It’s a relationship that was known in the Biblical world as patronage (More on this in the link below).
What does this mean for us today? If we define faith as a belief it can often lead us to treat belief and unbelief as if they were an emotion. Faith would be synonymous with confidence or bravery and unbelief would be synonymous with fear. But James tells us something different,
“What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, and one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone (James 2:14-17).”
For James, faith was synonymous with action. He didn’t describe it as a feeling of confidence or courage but as an act of service and obedience to the commands of God. An interesting take away from this can be found in the book of Exodus as the Israelites were about to cross the Red Sea. They were full of fear and anger towards Moses because, to them, it looked like they had been led to the desert to die.
And when Pharaoh drew nigh, the children of Israel lifted up their eyes, and, behold, the Egyptians marched after them; and they were sore afraid: and the children of Israel cried out unto the Lord. And they said unto Moses, Because there were no graves in Egypt, hast thou taken us away to die in the wilderness? wherefore hast thou dealt thus with us, to carry us forth out of Egypt? Is not this the word that we did tell thee in Egypt, saying, Let us alone, that we may serve the Egyptians? For it had been better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we should die in the wilderness (Exodus 14:10-12).
To many of us, the Israelites would hardly be the poster children for faith! Yet, when God parted the Red Sea, they walked through it, most likely cowering the entire way. But how does the author of Hebrews see this picture?
“By faith they passed through the Red sea as by dry land: which the Egyptians assaying to do were drowned (Hebrews 11:29).”
If the nature of faith is obedience, unbelief, then, is the refusal to cross the Red Sea at all. It is choosing our own path instead of the one God provides. As we step into the new year let’s take the time to remind ourselves that faith is more than a belief or a philosophy. Faith is a living, active response to the love and grace of God.