What Is Faith?
We are often prone to use words without contemplating their meaning. Think of the word grace. We all speak of grace, declare that we are saved by grace, and say that our hope is in grace. But do we ever think about what grace means?
I recognized this problem again when I was visiting an aged parishioner in a nursing home. I noticed that in her little room, so much smaller than her former home, she had only one thing hanging on the wall at the side of her bed—a three-by-five index card. My curiosity was aroused, and I said, “What do you have on that card?” She invited me to come around the bed and see.
“What I have on that card is my life,” she said. She had written the word grace vertically as an acrostic, and it looked like this:
I am sure that this well-known saying is not the full meaning of grace, but it is a good part of its meaning, and it offers us a refreshing new glimpse of the depths of that glorious word grace.
Another word we often use without thinking much about its meaning is faith. We know that without faith it is impossible to please God. We know that faith is the core and foundation of daily Christian living. But what is faith?
In 1974 I began my seminary training. One of my teachers wanted to gauge my theological level of knowledge and my writing ability, so he said, “Let me give you an assignment right at the start. You can do it in two pages, perhaps five, no more than ten: What is faith?”
My first thought was that perhaps I should go to the original languages and work on the words used in the Old Testament. The three major Old Testament words for faith mostly mean “to lean on” or “to rest in.” Then I could turn to the New Testament word pistis, used over five hundred times for the faith of the Christian, and describe what it means to trust in the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Or perhaps I could base my work on the definition of faith in the Westminster Shorter Catechism: “Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, as he is offered to us in the gospel.” What a wonderful framework that would be for a definition of faith!
Knowledge, Assent, Trust
Or maybe I could use the classic Reformed definition of faith, which speaks of its exercise in saving knowledge, saving assent, and saving trust. Saving knowledge would be a wonderful doctrine to develop. I could explain that you do not just believe with your mind but with all your heart. By faith you taste the goodness of God in Christ (Ps. 34:8), you receive it, and you digest it. It is like the illustration given by Herman Hoeksema of two men contemplating a slice of pizza. One man could not eat it because he had stomach cancer, but he knew all about it. He was a nutritionist and was aware of all the nutrients in it. The other man knew very little about the nutritional aspects of pizza. He could see it had cheese and pepperoni on it, so he took a bite, chewed it, and digested it. “Which man really enjoyed the pizza?” asked Hoeksema. Of course—the man who ate it. Saving knowledge works similarly.
Then comes saving assent, or our agreement with God about what He is in all His wondrous majesty as He is revealed in Christ and through the Word of God. I could glorify the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. I could say with Samuel Rutherford, “I know not which divine person I love the most, but this I know, I love each of them and need them all.” Saving faith also agrees with what I am: a bankrupt sinner, poor and needy, who lives by Jesus Christ out of a triune God—the heavenly Father, the redeeming Son, and the sanctifying Spirit.
And then there is saving trust, the very heart of faith. That means putting all my confidence in God and trusting in Christ alone for salvation. That would be a wonderful way to describe faith.
True and False Faith
But, I thought, there must be more. Maybe I should look at faith from the Reformed perspective, discerning true faith from false faith by considering the four types of faith. First is historical faith, or believing with the mind. It is outward belief in the Word of God. Second is miraculous faith, which believes that something special is going to be done to me, upon me, or by me. Third is temporary faith, which rejoices in God for a season but is not deeply rooted in Christ and in the Word of God and eventually turns back to the world in the day of persecution. Fourth is saving faith, which is strengthened under trial and endures to the end.
The Inadequacy of Definitions
As I tried these ways of describing faith, I began to realize that faith is something far richer than all my theological language. It is as all-embracing as life itself, for faith is the heart of our relationship to God. It is the central characteristic of the regenerate person. We live by faith, says the apostle Paul, and that faith flows from the heart. It is the focal point of our spiritual existence, the root from which springs all the God-glorifying activity of the believer’s entire being.
No theological language can grasp the depth and breadth and height of this glorious thing we call faith. Faith is the activity of the entire heart expressed throughout life. It is as broad as it is deep; it embraces the weighty matters of personal salvation and the commonplace details of daily living. Without faith, I cannot eat or drink or do what I do to the glory of God. Without faith, I am always sinning, for “without faith it is impossible to please [God]” (Heb. 11:6).
Faith is inseparable from Christian liberty. It is inseparable from prayer, from peace, from hope, from love, from repentance, and from self-denial. Faith must address the hard questions of life: questions about affliction, loneliness and despair, cross providences, and numbing trials.
Faith is the heartbeat of evangelism. It is the presupposition to my world-and-life view. Faith encompasses all that I am. Faith leads me to that grand, glorious vision of the glory of God: “For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever” (Rom. 11:36). As a Christian, you must begin by faith, continue in faith, and end with faith. Faith is the heart of your relationship to God. It is the heart of life itself. It is the heart of all theology, especially soteriology.
You cannot have repentance without faith. You cannot believe without repenting. In every act of faith we believingly repent and we penitently believe. Faith and repentance are like two sides of one coin; they belong together. Without faith I cannot break with sin in my heart or understand the law and its demands and its spirituality. I cannot delight to walk in the ways of God. I cannot understand the gospel and justification without faith. I receive these things only by faith.
I cannot be sanctified without faith either. Nothing will work for good in my heart if I do not truly believe in God. And without faith I cannot rejoice in the indwelling Spirit; I cannot feel the seal of that Spirit in my heart for, Paul says, “after that ye believed, ye were sealed with that Holy Spirit of promise” (Eph. 1:13). And faith is the principle involved in all my truly good works.
Faith works through love (Gal. 5:6) and is inseparable from the efficacy of grace. Grace is never effective apart from faith, yet faith is never in competition with grace. Sola fide and sola gratia walk hand in hand through the pastures of God’s Word, enabling us to worship, adore, and glorify God. Faith is worked in us by the Holy Spirit through the preaching of the Word and through celebrating the sacraments. The whole field of systematic theology is a field of faith.
Portraits of Faith: What Five Biblical Characters Teach Us about Our Life with God
Joel R. Beeke