It’s actually quite remarkable when you think about it: one of the most basic of Christian realities, faith, is widely misunderstood and misrepresented. So what is “faith”? Perhaps one way to get to the biblical answer is by identifying several mistaken notions about faith.
So, let me be perfectly clear about what Christian faith is not:
• Faith is not believing in your heart what your mind otherwise tells you isn’t true.
• Faith is not trusting in something for which there are no facts.
• Faith is not an existential blind leap into the dark.
• Faith is not putting your trust in something or someone about whom you know nothing.
• Faith is not the opposite of knowledge.
• Faith is not the enemy of reason.
• Faith is not the antithesis of scientific endeavor.
• Faith is not believing in something that runs counter to obvious and incontrovertible evidence.
• Faith is not superstition.
• Faith is not a positive mental attitude.
• Faith is not wishful thinking.
• Faith is not a creative power that brings into existence things that otherwise wouldn’t exist.
• Faith is not a weapon through which we get God to do things for us that he otherwise wouldn’t do.
Faith is warranted confidence and justified trust. So, yes, faith is a subjective experience of the human soul. It is the human soul trusting and expressing confidence in something or in someone. But this confidence is “warranted”, which is to say there are good grounds for it. To say that we have “warrant” for something we believe or that our trust is “justified” is to say that there are rock solid facts that make our believing a wise and reasonable thing to do.
So faith is not a baseless and blind leap into the darkness of uncertainty. Faith is a well-grounded, warranted, justified confidence and trust in some truth claim or in some person.
When people want a definition or description of faith they often turn to Hebrews 11:1. There we read that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” OK, but what does that mean?
As you know, there are a variety of differing translations of this verse. The old King James Version renders it: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” The NIV says: “Faith is being sure of what we hope for.” According to the Phillips translation, “Faith means putting our full confidence in the things we hope for.” As you can see, the ESV uses the words “assurance” and “conviction”. Believe it or not, I think the KJV rendering is more accurate!
But what could it possibly mean to say that faith is the “substance” and “evidence” of the things for which we hope, the things we have not yet seen? I think it means that genuine faith is more than merely a subjective confidence about what will happen in the future. Make no mistake: it is surely that. Faith is the internal assurance we experience that what is hoped for will in fact come to pass. Faith is our reliance on God to do what he has said he will do even when present circumstances suggest otherwise.
But here I think he’s saying that in a certain sense faith is also what makes it possible for us now, in the present, to actually experience something of the “substance” of what we know will come only in its fullness at some point in the future. This is just another way of talking about the “already” and “not yet” dimensions of Christian experience. There is much that is “not yet” ours. We await it. It will come when Christ returns. But there is also a part of that future inheritance that is “already” ours, and faith is what makes it possible for us to experience and enjoy today what will come in fullness only when Christ returns.
So, it is by “faith” that we apprehend or take hold of the goodness and joy of what God promises will one day be ours in their fullness. There is a sense in which that future promise is already and substantially here when we trust God’s word. Faith gives to our future inheritance a present reality and power, as if it is already possessed. No one has expressed this with greater clarity than John Piper:
“In other words, faith grasps – lays hold of – God’s preciousness so firmly that in the faith itself there is the substance of the goodness and the sweetness promised. Faith doesn’t create what we hope for – that would be a mere mind game. Faith is a spiritual apprehending or perceiving or tasting or sensing of the beauty and sweetness and preciousness and goodness of what God promises – especially his own fellowship, and the enjoyment of his own presence.
Faith does not just feel confident that this is coming some day. Faith has spiritually laid hold of and perceived and tasted that it is real. And this means that faith has the substance or the nature of what is hoped for in it. Faith’s enjoyment of the promise is a kind of substantial down payment of the reality coming” (sermon, What Faith Knows and Hopes For, June 1, 1997; http://www.desiringgod.org).
Thus we see that there is a “now” and a “not yet” to the gospel. Faith enables us to lay hold of it “now”, but the time has “not yet” come when we will experience its fullness. Or, to put it in slightly different terms, faith is that sturdy bridge which provides a link, a bond of union, as it were, between our present experience and the blessings God has stored up for us in the age to come.
There is certainly a lot more that could be said about faith. Although this famous description in Hebrews 11:1 is helpful, it is not exhaustive. But it’s certainly a good place to start!