Though faith is spoken of throughout the scriptures, it is defined in only one place—Hebrews 11.
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen . . . And without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would approach him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.Hebrews 11:1, 6 (NRSV)
For believers, the issue of faith is foundational to everything. So, at regular intervals, I set aside time to revisit the components of belief, and the nature of faith.
Polyvalence of πίστις | pistis
The English translation for the Greek word πίστις “pistis” is both “belief” and “faith.” In fact, the Greek word pistis is referred to as polyvalent, meaning there are several meanings, genuinely different from each other, that are all embedded in the one word—poly, several, valent, values or meanings. Here is just a sampling taken from the Greek dictionary:
- Persuasion of a thing, confidence, assurance.
- In a subjective sense, good faith, trustworthiness, honesty
- In terms of a thing, credence, credit, bona fide.
- In a commercial sense, position of trust or trusteeship.
- That which gives confidence, assurance, pledge of good faith, guarantee.
Faith is a confidence so secure it is a guarantee.
The kind of faith the Bible talks about is also a living faith.
Faith is an action word. It goes beyond simply intellectual acknowledgement of God, believing in God. Faith is an active trust in God that is lived out in real and practical ways.
Faith, then, does not reduce God to a religious concept, or a catechism, or a set of doctrines. Faith does not content itself with traditions and rites. Faith is not a sentiment that can be set aside.
Faith is a lived reality.
You and I can know what we truly believe by how we live our lives.
We will know our priorities, what has meaning for us and value, what our goals in life are, as we watch what we do, listen to what we say, and observe what decisions we make, throughout our every days. When the chips are down, all facades and niceties stripped away, whatever is left—those motivations, those aims—represent what we actually believe, not just what we reassure ourselves (and others) we believe.
The reason has to do with the nature of faith itself.
Background of Belief
At the very beginning of this series on Hebrews, I introduced the five aspects of belief (if you follow that link, it will take you to the longer article) found in “Love God With All Your Mind,” written by J.P. Moreland. Briefly,
Construction: A belief is formed when you and I are willing to open our minds to the possibilities, when we approach a subject as a student willing to have our minds changed, should we accept the evidence provided.
Content: Faith in anything begins with something: a set of facts, data, or tenets. Belief is always in something.
Credibility: But, there will be things we find hard to believe, no matter how much we might want to, because they are considered implausible by our culture, or by those instrumental in raising us and influencing us. There will be other things we find easy to believe for the same reason.
Command: And how strongly we might believe something plays a key role in how it will affect our lives. Belief follows a sliding scale. Some things we believe just about a hundred percent. Other things we may believe only slightly more than we do not believe them. We might remain skeptical for a while, as we continue to weigh the evidence, experiment with the information, study what impact it seems to have on the rest of our belief system.
Centrality: Quite different to, though working in conjunction with the strength of a belief, is its centrality to a person’s world view. When a belief is central, it affects how we interpret the world around us, it is one of our “lenses.” When a central belief is questioned, often the whole structure collapses.
It can be an ideal that shatters, or an event that calls into question the truth of something important to us. Such experiences are sometimes referred to as a “crisis of faith,” or a period of deconstruction.
Factors of Faith
Content: Faith begins with belief, literally, what is believed. For Christians, that content is the scriptures, and particularly, the gospels, and perhaps even more pointedly, Jesus Himself.
Consent: The second element of faith has to do with a certain warming of the heart, a personal, loving response to God, Who is a Person and who first loved us. Embedded in the concept of consent is the idea of consensus, in which we agree the facts in the content of our belief are indeed true.
Perhaps we might say this becomes the action of our belief growing in credibility, command, and centrality, so that we embrace it wholeheartedly.
Commitment: But living faith, saving faith, is made full and complete only when you and I surrender our lives to the Lord Jesus Christ.
The writer of Hebrews knew that many people can make it through the first two steps, then balk at the third, because it means giving up control of our lives and acknowledging the lordship of Jesus over our thoughts and actions. There can come a point when the cost seems too great, the benefit to small, and the prospect of belonging to Jesus too daunting.
[Jesus] said to them all, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.Jesus on discipleship, Luke 9:23 (NRSV)
Many in the writer’s audience had apparently thought so, for they had fallen away from the community of faith. So the writer pulled from the Hebrew scriptures to list men and women who were willing to stake their lives on the Gospel, the authentic stamp of saving faith, though the fulfillment of their hopes and dreams in the Lord lay far in their future.
Sometimes people mistake spiritual experiences, or religious practices for faith.
In fact, that is one of the ways in which religious freedom is being encroached upon in our culture today (in the United States). In our Bill of Rights, the First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
But the language surrounding the exercise of religion has been changing in recent years. Listen for politicians saying people can “practice their faith” in private, just so long as it does not interfere with politics or public living.
That is a wrong understanding of faith! Faith is a mindset, a world view, a way of being that affects every aspect of life.
True faith involves not only that you believe but what and how you believe.
A life of faith is living with a confident, expectant hope for the future that is based upon the solid evidence of God’s goodness, power, love, and reliability as established in the past. Even though you and I cannot see God right now, and cannot always understand what God is doing, we know God’s character, and God’s track record.
Faith means putting our trust in that, and continuing forward with God, even through the hard times.