What is faith?
The writer of the letter to the Hebrews has been imploring his readers to keep their faith alive and not give up. Faith is all-important, because “the righteous person will live by his faith.” (Habakkuk 2:4, quoted in Hebrews 10:38) But what exactly is faith?
To the average modern man, faith is a subjective belief without evidence to support it – or even belief in the face of contrary evidence! But in the Bible, faith is the faculty of perceiving what is genuinely, objectively true because God has revealed it to us. “Faith demonstrates to the eye of the mind the reality of those things that cannot be discerned by the eye of the body.” (Matthew Henry) It enables us to look beyond our immediate situation and take account of eternal realities. And then it translates these invisible, intangible realities into concrete, observable actions. Nobody can measure or prove the future life that Christians hope for – but if we believe God’s promise of what is to come, we will not live solely for the present moment.
“Faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” (Hebrews 11:1) Yet it is more than commitment on the basis of probability. Because its object is God, faith itself is part of the eternal reality that we do not yet see! When we live and act in faith, we find it to be a firm foundation; by living as if God’s promises are true, we discover in our own experience that they are true.
And so the writer, rather than trying to explain what faith is, shows us what it does – by inviting us to look at the lives of people who lived by faith in the past. Just like us, the Old Covenant believers were promised things that they did not necessarily receive in their own lifetimes. But they believed the promises of God, and acted upon them – which is what it means to ‘live by faith’.
Faith in who?
But before we can start walking through this ‘hall of fame’, we must answer two fundamental questions. Firstly, what kind of God are we being invited to trust in? And secondly, what is the relationship between the visible reality that we all perceive and the invisible realm in which faith operates?
“By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what is visible.” (Hebrews 11:3) There is no argument that the universe exists; we are part of it, and we all perceive it with our five senses. Scientific observation and experiment have given us an enormous amount of information, not only about how it works but also about the process by which it arrived at its present state. But its actual origin was unseen; we can only observe the consequences. And so science cannot tell us whether or not it was brought into being by God’s Word – this is a matter of faith.
For Christians, the ultimate reality is the word of God. This was what brought both space and time into existence: God uttered a decree, and a dark and anarchic waste – a literal ‘nothingness’ – was transformed into the beautiful and orderly universe that we know. And it is because of this that we believe God has the absolute power to fulfil what He promises to do. “Sovereign LORD, You have made the heavens and the earth by Your great power and Your outstretched arm. Nothing is too hard for You.” (Jeremiah 32:17) That belief causes us to live in accordance with God’s word, rather than trusting in the flimsy promises and facile assurances of the visible world. “Faith is not belief without proof, but trust without reservations – a trust in a God who has shown Himself worthy of that trust.” (A McGrath: Doubt)