Some thoughts on faith

People often use the word “faith” in a way that convinces me they don’t have a clear conception of its meaning, but think of it as a vague hope that things will get better on their own, or turn out the way they wish. Thus, the admonition to “have faith” is often little more than an encouragement to think positively.

Some people have said that we should “believe in the power of faith” or even “have faith in faith.” They seem to think that if we only believe something strongly enough, it will come to pass. The impression is given that the object and content of faith alike are immaterial. But this is quite a different understanding of faith than what we find in Scripture.

A Biblical Definition
The closest thing we find in Scripture to a definition of faith is found in Hebrews 11:1.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

The first thing to note here is that even though this verse is written in prose, it contains an instance of a prominent feature of Hebrew poetry called synonymous parallelism.[1]  This is a literary device involving the repetition of an idea in different words in two or more successive lines. There are many examples of this in Scripture, but here’s one from the 8th Psalm:

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
      the moon and the stars, which you have set in place…

One can easily see that the first half of each line corresponds to the other. The “your heavens” of the first line corresponds to “the moon and the stars” in the second. Likewise, the second half of each line corresponds to the other. The poetic portions of the Old Testament are filled with this sort of thing, and it often carries over into prose in both the Old and New Testaments.

An extended synonymous parallelism occurs in Luke 6:27, where Jesus says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Lk. 6:27).  Here we find the parallelism continuing through four lines. If we arrange the lines like this, we can get a clear view of their parallel structure:

your enemies
do good
to those who hate you
those who curse you
for those who abuse you

The four imperatives on the left are more or less synonymous with each other, as are the objects on the right.

The parallelism of Hebrews 11:1 can be illustrated like this:

Now faith is
the assurance of
things hoped for,
the conviction of
things not seen.

These two statements affirm essentially the same thing about the nature of faith, but they do so in different words.  What exactly do they affirm?  I think the key to grasping it lies in understanding what is meant by “things hoped for.”  And here it’s important to understand that in the Bible hope is not a mere ungrounded wish, as in, “I hope I win the lottery,” or “I hope my team wins the championship,” or “I hope tomorrow is a bright and sunny day.”

In Scripture, hope is tied to a promise of God.  Put another way, it’s an anticipation of receiving what God has promised.  Whereas a mere wish is grounded in nothing but one’s own desire, hope is grounded in the word of God. 

Faith, then, is tied to the hope inspired by the promise of God. The writer of Hebrews explains the tie this way, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for.”  That is, faith is a settled confidence that God will prove true to his word and do what he has promised.  This point is amplified in the second line, that faith is “the conviction [i.e., the certainty] of things not seen.”  What things?  The things hoped for through God’s promise but which have not yet been received. “Hope that is seen is not hope,” Paul says.  He means the thing hoped for from God is no longer hoped for if it has already been received. “For who hopes for what he sees [what he already has]?” (Rom. 8:24) 

There is always a lapse of time between promise and fulfillment.  For Abraham it was 25 years between the promise of a son and the time of Isaac’s birth.  It was four generations between the promise of land and the time Abraham’s descendants took possession of Canaan.  The promises concerning the coming of the Messiah were given over thousands of years before they were fulfilled. 

It is because of this lapse of time between promise and fulfillment that the writer of Hebrews encourages us to be “imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises” (Heb. 6:12).  Faith lays hold of the promise of God, being firmly convinced that he is both willing and able to do what he has said. 

The promises God has made to us encompass not only spiritual things pertaining to our eternal salvation—including some things already received (e.g., the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Spirit), and others yet to come (e.g., our resurrection on the last day)—but also things that pertain to life here and now.  Regardless of what God has promised, however, the one who believes feels an assurance within himself that he will receive it; he is convinced, even before he sees the promise fulfilled. This is why Jesus teaches us to pray with great confidence:  “I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will by yours” (Mk. 11:24).

You will sometimes hear people say, “I relied on my faith to get me through” or “I believe in the power of faith.”  And how often do we hear the moniker, “People of faith,” with the object and content of faith left unexpressed, as if these were irrelevant so long as one believes…something.

Biblical faith, however, has God as its object, his word and character as its content. Scripture presents faith as a personal trust in the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, who faithfully keeps his word.

[1] There are other kinds of parallelism; for instance, antithetical (which sets forth a contrast, e.g. Ps. 1:6) and synthetic (in which the second line builds upon the first, e.g. Ps. 103:13)


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