The Nature of Faith
Formulating a full-bodied explanation of the nature of faith can be a daunting task. However, when we turn to the Bible, the language used to describe faith is surprisingly straightforward. For instance, in Genesis 15:6 Abraham “believed in the Lord; and He [the Lord] reckoned it to him as righteousness” (emphasis added). Here, the Old Testament term for “believed” describes Abraham’s confidence in the promise and the promise Giver. Similarly, Proverbs 3:5 commands us to “trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding” (emphasis added). The Old Testament term for “trust” highlights the contrast between reliance on self and reliance on the Lord.
The New Testament uses similar terms to describe faith: the Greek words pístis and peíthō. The pístis word group is the most significant New Testament term for faith. In its passive uses pístis signifies that which is believed (i.e., “the faith”) or that which evokes trust. Thus, in Galatians 1:23 Paul speaks of “preaching the faith which he once tried to destroy” (emphasis added). In this verse, “the faith” is the objective body of truth which elicits the trust of God’s people. In its active sense, pístis signifies active believing, trusting, relying upon, or depending upon someone or something. Romans 3:26 illustrates the active use of pístis: “for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (emphasis added). The one who has faith is the one who actively and dependently looks to Christ.
Turning to peíthō, this term signifies a firm persuasion, a certainty, or an assurance about its object. Paul uses this term in Romans 8:38–39 when he says, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (emphasis added). Paul’s assurance was rooted in his persuasion of the certainty of God’s love. This kind of persuasion is the essence of faith.
In addition to the language of faith found in the Bible, Hebrews 11:1 provides a biblical baseline for our understanding of the nature of faith. In the previous chapter, the author of Hebrews presents Christ as the only sufficient source of true life, and thus faith in Christ as the only hope of “preserving ... the soul” (Heb 10:39). Hebrews 11 proceeds to describe what this soul-preserving faith looks like in the context of real-life situations. A host of saints lines the pages of this chapter as a great cloud of witnesses, testifying to the vitality of their faith and to the trustworthiness of God in every conceivable situation. Each example of faith set forth in this chapter can be described as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1). This brings us back to the essence of faith. You can say more about faith than what is found in this verse, but you can’t say anything less. Faith grounds our hope in the promises of God (Heb 10:1–18) and guides our lives according to the instruction of God (Heb 10:19– 39), even when we cannot see any external evidence to substantiate the trustworthiness of God. Faith, without seeing, finds resolute assurance in the hope of the gospel and is firmly convinced of the worthiness of Christ.
Admittedly, the Bible’s teaching on faith could never be reduced to a few brief word studies or a couple cross-references. However, we’ve seen that even a cursory look at the Bible’s vocabulary for faith reveals its nature. The language of the biblical authors across the sweep of redemptive history includes the concepts of humble recognition, dependent response, and committed reliance upon the gracious revelation of God. Faith humbly embraces God as He has graciously revealed Himself. In other words, faith, when biblically understood, is a holistic commitment to the truthfulness, authority, and graciousness of God. In the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith:
By this faith, a Christian believes to be true whatsoever is revealed in the Word, for the authority of God himself speaking therein; and acts differently upon that which each particular passage thereof contains; yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life, and that which is to come. But the principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life...(14.2).
Or, to put it more succinctly, “Saving faith ... is the whole of my being embracing all of Christ” (John MacArthur).
This article was adapted from the book, Free to Be Holy: Conference Edition, by Jerry Wragg and Paul Shirley. Jerry Wragg serves as the president of The Expositors Seminary and the pastor of Grace Immanuel Bible Church in Jupiter, FL. Paul Shirley is a graduate of TES and has served as the pastor of Grace Community Church in Wilmington, Delaware since 2011.