What does the word ‘faith’ mean? How is it used in the Bible?
To my mind the questions are in many ways more or less the same; the Bible is not a theological textbook, and just as we use the word faith in a variety of ways in everyday life, so it is used in the Bible. Obviously, for Christian believers, our understanding is substantially formed by Biblical thinking, but this does not or should not produce technical meanings aside from everyday life.
We use the word faith in at least the following ways.
- We talk about the ‘faith of Israel’; Peter tells us to be ‘steadfast in the faith’; in England the Queen is the ‘defender of the faith’; the world speaks of the Catholic ‘faith’ and denominations as different ‘faiths’. Close to this might even be ‘keeping the faith’ in terms of continuing to support your favourite football team and not defecting to the opposition, though of course this does not bring out the meaning of the ‘faith of Israel’ etc., which includes seeing a faith as a fairly objectively defined corpus of belief; ‘the faith once delivered to the saints’. The theologically minded might ask, ‘delivered by whom?’ To this we would presumably have to reply, ‘by God’, in the form of revelation. In this limited way we might say that faith is a gift of God. Where Paul writes, ‘of this he has given us assurance by the resurrection of Jesus Christ’, I understand that in some languages this can be read as ‘he has given us faith by…..’ Faith here is a body of belief which I choose, to which I belong and which results in action; faith without action is nothing, it is something we do.
- In the most everyday sense of the word, faith means that we trust something, usually based on a thorough examination of the evidence. Thus, when I go to a café, I do not usually upturn the chair I plan to sit on to inspect the legs; there is an assumption based on previous experience that the chair will be ok; I have faith in it. In the Christian sense, I start, for example, to examine evidence; I look at the Bible, I look at the crazy world in which we live, I begin to see something in the lives of people who say they follow Jesus, I think about the dreams I have…there is, in this case, a slowly accumulating body of evidence as ‘haply I seek after him’; it is changing the way I think and feel. The evidence is not faith; the thoughts and the feelings are not faith; but as I go on I decide to try an experiment or two and I act on what I am learning. This is faith; and I find that ‘it works’, God answers prayer and my faith grows. I discover that ‘faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God’. Faith is not something that is given me by God, except as it is a natural capacity – no, God gives me his Word, he gives me good people, he sends a brilliant macaw flashing across my path, the most delicious fruit to eat, he gives me dreams……and, on the basis of all he gives, I start to act; this is my faith. Faith is my part in living out God’s provision of salvation. In the world, I have faith in my football coach; what he says, delivers; the more I do what he says, the better we do as a team. I love my coach! The words mean the same in both spheres. (Note – I think this particular analogy of the coach is a very good one, and not one that I have ever seen anywhere else; for someone who has not experienced the attachment that can be felt towards a coach within a team, one can simply say that it a strong feeling of loyalty and admiration that is aptly termed ‘love’.) Faith here is an action; something we do.
- Closely connected with this is the important idea of ‘walking by faith and not by sight’. Faith, here, can mean acting contrary to natural indications. My friends says, ‘come out and get drunk with us’; I say, ‘no, the Bible says…so I can’t and won’t come.’ The doctor says I am sick; the Bible prescription is not the same as the doctor’s – it says that ‘by his stripes I am healed’; I act in accordance with God’s Word and this is faith. There are questions that start to arise here because my ‘faith’ needs to be ‘real faith’, not foolish presumption; ‘heart’ faith and not ‘head’ faith, faith, in fact, in Jesus; this perhaps leads us towards the next usage of faith. First, however, what does this kind of faith mean in the world? It means the evidence starts to stack up that I can be an Olympic swimmer, and I want this, so I defy my feelings at 5.00 am and go training. The word means the same in both spheres. This is part of what James is talking about when he says that faith without works is dead; if I don’t get up at 5 it either means that I don’t really believe or that I am lazy, in which case my belief, my faith, goes nowhere and is dead. If we have faith, there is action; faith is something that we do.
- A fourth use of ‘faith’ is when biblically we are talking about the ‘gift of faith’ as recorded in 1 Cor 12; this would be a strong inner conviction at a given moment of something rather unusual, and tends to constitute an empowerment to do something out of the ordinary. As is normal, there is a comparable experience in the world – a hunch, an intuition; a football team somehow develops a feeling that they are destined to win the cup, and this faith impels them forward, they begin to feel and become so confident and then behave in a way that means they are in fact invincible. Biblically, the gift of faith clearly is a gift from God. It must be noted, however, that the feeling is not the faith, though it is tricky to divide the two. I have a growing sense of confidence (faith), but I can still decline to act on it; however, if I allow this confidence/faith to take possession of me such that I follow its dictates, it grows and issues into action. Again, faith is something that we do.
- A final usage of the word faith I will mention is when the Bible talks about the ‘faith of God’, where it seems to equate to the faithfulness of God; He doesn’t give up, He is faithful to His covenant, to His promises, to Israel, to the Church and even to me. Perhaps in the end this is the most important meaning because on this hang all the rest. We might also say that all faith, even of the most worldly nature is a derivative, however poor, of this Faith. In the world too we have the idea of faithfulness in numerous contexts, and this fact of faithfulness as a natural human emotion and action suggests to me not that faith or faithfulness is a gift but rather a natural faculty of beings created in the image of God. Once again, faith means action; it is something we do.
Apart from the reference to the spiritual gift of the gift of faith, there is nothing anywhere in the Bible that suggests the word ‘faith’, in the sense of inner conviction and confidence, is used to refer to something God gives. There is of course one mistranslation which might lead in that direction, but when Paul writes that we are ‘saved by grace through faith, and that not of yourselves’, the word ‘that’ cannot grammatically in the Greek refer to faith (it would need to be feminine but in fact is neuter); it refers to the whole package, ‘being saved by grace through faith’. Faith is our part in the process. Faith is what we do.
The Bible is not a theological textbook and normally uses words poetically and allusively; nevertheless it is consistent in its use of faith in two basic meanings. 1. In reference to a corpus of belief. 2. An action on our part – believing, trusting, acting. Thus we are told, instructed, to ‘have faith’; this is just the same as, for example, the children of Israel being told that they must go up to the temple in Jerusalem once a year – so we are instructed to have faith. The idea that faith is a gift from God is far from this, indeed the idea that this faith could be a gift is a complete semantic confusion, they don’t belong in the same sentence; even in the case of the one connection between faith and gift, the particular 1 Cor 12 spiritual gift, ‘the gift of faith’, it is precisely to cause action and there must follow the exercise of faith; if there is no action it is not faith. Faith is an action on our part in response to God’s grace. (If someone really wants to insist that our faith is dependent on God and therefore a gift, well, so be it, but the whole tendency of this line of thinking is to obscure the simple fact that faith is our part and requires our action.)
Amazingly, some people think that if faith is something that we do — and that is what it is from one end of the Bible to the other — then we are saying that we are saved by works, because if we are saved by faith and faith is something we do, then it is a work. The action we give to faith can only possibly be viewed as a work in the sense that any action is a work; thus Jesus, when asked what must be done to work the works of God, replied, in keeping with the question, which is not about earning a reward from God but rather how to act in concert with Him, that the work of God is to believe, an action, ie it is to respond in faith to God ; what is in view here is an action, a ‘work’, but not work in terms of earning a reward. This is the same as Paul’s argument that salvation is by faith and not by works – he too views faith as a response – except that he is explicitly referring to and ruling out work in the sense of work for reward, to gain favour. A man may kiss his spouse in the evening after toiling all day in the garden to produce food; in so far as both toil and kiss are actions they might both be called works, but who in their right mind would call a kiss ‘work’? Neither could faith, in the sense of our response to God, possibly be called a work in this, the normal, sense.
Having said all this, a rider needs to be added. The author of one beautiful book I read recently, In the land of the blue burquas, states many times that faith is God’s gift to us, and she says this as she calls her muslim listeners to deeper faith in God. Many people would say this, and I think we have to accept it! Nevertheless, fundamentally, faith is something we do, and to emphasize that it is a gift can lead to passivity, and is not the biblical emphasis. Perhaps we should say that God gives us the capacity for faith, he gives us reasons for faith and in the end his Holy Spirit is at work in us as we practice faith. We do faith with Him.