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What is "faith" according to the scriptures?

(Garth D. Wiebe, Feb. 2018) - This supersedes my previous article, Faith formulas (March 2015)

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Now here's a word that really needs to be demystified. Demystified because it has become so mystical and religiously loaded.

Let's just Google this word, faith:

Definition #1: Complete trust or confidence in someone or something.
That’s pretty simple.
Definition #2: Strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof.
You see what the problem is? Definition #1 is simple and straightforward. Definition #2 is loaded with problems.

In English, sticking with definition #1, it is very simple. Whenever you go to sit down in a chair, you have faith that it will not collapse out from under you when you sit on it. And you have sat in many chairs in your life that you never sat in before or saw anyone else sit in. You evaluated the object of your faith, then decided to place your faith in it. Or, if you are employed by a reputable employer, you normally get your paycheck at the end of a pay period. So, you work for a period of time in faith that your employer will give you that paycheck at the end of that time.

This is not hard to understand, and it isn't about some kind of wispy, wishful, religious thinking, or at least it shouldn't be.

Next, let's look at the word in the ancient Greek language, since the New Testament was written in Koine Greek, not English.

The root of the word is spelled pi-iota-sigma-tau, π-ι-σ-τ, and then you add inflections to that for the various parts of speech, like nouns, verbs, adjectives, and so on, the various case declensions and verb conjugations, and so on, and then build compounds with other words, and so on, such as LSJ dictionary entry "πίστις".

Those words are much the same as definition #1 in English, having to do with trust, confidence, belief, reliability, assurance, and so on.

Now, let’s get one thing straight. In English we have the words "faith" and "belief," to "have faith" or to "believe." Don’t listen to any sermon about a difference between the two. There is only the one Greek word, and a translator of the Bible will use either the one English word or the other, at his own discretion. If you compare different instances in different English translations, you will see that they aren’t even consistently translated using one or the other.

On one hand, the English word "faith" might be considered better, because it has a stronger sense to it, but then it has the religious connotations attached to it. So, then the English word "belief" might be better, but the connotation often isn’t strong enough, as it might only be construed as mental assent. If you use the word "faith" then there’s the risk that someone might think you are talking about religion. If you use the word "belief" then someone might think you aren’t very committed or that you aren’t speaking with much conviction, such as, "Yeah, I can believe that. So what?"

So, let’s look at how the Bible defines it. Hebrews 11:1 actually explicitly defines it, followed by many practical examples given through the rest of that chapter to illustrate it. Here is the actual text of the verse, and a corresponding transliteration into Roman characters, for those of you unfamiliar with the Greek alphabet, using a capital "O" to distinguish the Greek omega character from the Greek omicron character:

εστιν δε πιστις ελπιζομενων υποστασις πραγματων ελεγχος ου βλεπομενων
estin de pistis elpizomenOn [h]upostasis pragmatOn elegchos ou blepomenOn
So, "pistis" (faith/belief) "estin" ("is" or "is being"):
"[h]upo-stasis": [an] "under-standing" (equivalent to the corresponding compound in English, υπο, like the English prefix "hypo-," means "under" and στασις, like the English word "static," means "standing" or fixed in place, so in a non-physical sense represents something substantial, or foundational)

"elpizomenOn": of-being-expected" (verb participle, passive voice, genitive case, plural)

"elegchos": "conviction/evidence/proof" and note that this is in a formal sense, as if presented in a courtroom or an argument in formal debate

"pragmatOn": "of-practices/matters" (genitive case, we get our English word "pragmatic" from the Greek, as in "practical matters")

"ou": "not"

"blepomenOn": "being-seen/observed" (verb participle, passive voice, genitive case, plural)
Put another way,
"[h]upostasis" - You have a foundational understanding
"elpizomenOn" - which you expect to happen
"elegchos" - You've got conviction/evidence/proof
"pragmatOn" - about practical matters
"ou blepomenOn" - which are not being seen [...yet]
That’s as literal as it gets. You can look that verse up in the various English Bible translations. My best paraphrase is that "Faith is expectation based on understanding, conviction about things in practice that you aren't seeing (yet)," and I added the "yet" because it is always about something to be achieved in the future, or that you don’t have 100% omniscient knowledge about, such as if you confidently decide to sit in a chair, expecting it to hold you up, or work for a paycheck that you don’t yet have in your hands.

You can see how a sense of true conviction is tied into this, such that you confidently expect something.

Now, this should not be confused with intellectual knowledge of something. That is the Greek noun γνωσις, with its various forms and inflections, having to do with knowledge and information, then its verb form sticks an iota character in there, γιγνωσκω, with its various forms and inflections, having to do with acquiring knowledge or forming a judgment about something. So, that’s a word that would represent knowledge, even sure knowledge of something, without necessarily requiring or implying any kind of commitment to accompany it.

Obviously, scriptures repeatedly make clear that "faith" is an expectation and conviction that will naturally result in corresponding actions and behavior, if it is true that you really "believe" it, as James, for example, and in particular, elaborates on at length.

Now, Martin Luther didn’t quite figure this out, and wanted to kick the book of James out of the Bible, but the concept is very simple. If you compare James 2, which cites Genesis 22, with Romans 4, which cites Genesis 15, it is simply that we are justified in the sight of God, the omniscient creator, by our faith apart from any works, whereas we are justified in the sight of all creation, men, angels, demons, etc., by our visible actions, apart from any mere profession of "faith." See the following article for more detail on this point:

The bottom line is that we can find out what another person truly "believes" by how he correspondingly acts, and by other things he says, as well.

So again, "faith" and "belief" are the same word in the scriptures. Since what you believe results in corresponding actions, it will become apparent what you "believe" by what you do. Obviously, "doing" isn't a part of "believing" and doesn't cause "believing." That would be "works" or "performance," whereas it is "faith" ("believing") that pleases God, according to Heb 11. That said, "believing" does cause "doing" if you really "believe." It is not enough to merely have knowledge of something, even sure knowledge. Again, I resolved the "faith vs. works" dilemma in the above article.

Now, in the Greek New Testament scriptures, if you stick an alpha character in front of a word, which is the same as sticking a Latin "a" character in front of an English word, then that just negates the word, meaning "without." So, α-πιστ___, with some inflection, means without belief, or without faith, so is unbelief or lack of faith.

Jesus uses also uses ολιγο-πιστις or some inflection or variation, where the prefix or preposition ολιγο- means, quantitatively, few, or qualitatively, sparse. So, that would be sparse-faith, meaning that you believe few things. It’s not "little faith." "Small" or "little" would be the Greek prefix μικρο, from which we get the English prefix "micro," so the compound would be μικροπιστις, "small belief" or "little faith," and there is no such word like that. You are either committed to faith in something, or you aren’t so, again, ολιγοπιστις speaks of being committed to, or believing, few things.

I’ve gotten a bit technical with this, but it is really to emphasize the simplicity of it all. Just believe! Like you do with the chair. Like you do with your paycheck (assuming you are working for a reputable, established institution, and not for some deadbeat individual, of course).

Now, let’s dispense with a bunch of these silly things that you may have heard preached about, "faith formulas" so to speak:

"When your faith is greater than your unbelief, then..."

Have you ever heard that? I have. I won’t name names. This uses the same word twice, so it is redundant. Faith is belief, so you could rephrase it "When your unbelief is greater than your belief..." Well, scripture doesn't say that. You either believe or you don't.

"It's okay to ‘doubt,’ as long as you ‘believe.’"

The scriptures explicitly say, such as in James 1:6, Matt 21:21, Mark 11:23, that you should "believe and not doubt." The man who doubts should not expect that he will get anything (James 1:7). "Doubt" just means you are in question about it, that you are double-minded or unsure. If you are unsure, then you are not committed and don’t believe. I wrote an article about doubt, as well, so refer to that for more elaboration.

"We ‘believe,’ but just need help with our ‘unbelief.’"

Right on the face of it, you can see that this is the same word used twice: "πιστ__" and "α-πιστ__" (with and without). So it is a self contradictory statement. Which is it, "with" or "without"?

This actually comes from a quote from the father of the demon-possessed boy whom the disciples couldn't heal: "I am believing; Lord, help my unbelief." (Mark 9:24). This is a statement coming out of the mouth of a desperate and distraught father of an afflicted child, not Jesus. The father's words are not authoritative. They aren’t even instructive. They don't even have to make sense. They are just a record of what he said. All he was focused on was getting his son healed. First he was asking the disciples to do it, then when they couldn't, he brought the boy to Jesus. He said to Jesus, "But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us." Does this sound like a statement of faith? Jesus rebukes him, saying, "If you can? Everything is possible for him who believes." To which the father of the boy responds, "I am believing; Lord, help my unbelief." Then Jesus, not the father, kicked the demon out of the boy. Later, the disciples asked Jesus why they couldn't do it, and Jesus said "Because of your unbelief" (Matt 17:20). So, it is back to whether you "believe."

"You have the faith 'of God'"

The theory here is that Jesus has perfect faith, Jesus is God, so if we are in Christ we have the "faith of God," building a doctrine out of a micro-verse. But just think about this. You have to believe that, and believe and apply it in each situation that you encounter. If you have to "believe" that you have the "faith" of God, then we are back to, well, just "believe." God doesn’t actually have "faith" for anything because, as has already been defined, faith has to do with what you don’t see (yet), and God is all-knowing, seeing everything. So, he doesn’t need "faith" for anything. In the Greek language, the word God here is just in the genitive case, which we translate into an English prepositional phrase, but there is no preposition in the original text, so it just refers to our faith ultimately originating from God as an ultimate source, as opposed to our faith being, say, "of the devil," or "of the world."

"It's not about 'having faith' but about our authority and identity."

Yes, authority and identity in Christ are very key principles we emphasize and keep at the forefront of our understanding. That is very, very important, for sure. However, you have to believe that you have the authority and identity in Christ in each situation that you encounter, and that it applies to any particular situation in question. So we are back to "having faith."

"All we need is faith as ‘as small as a mustard seed’"

First of all, Jesus says, "faith like a mustard seed," not "faith as small as a mustard seed." And I’ve actually seen translations insert the word "small" into the phrase, when the word "small" is not there. Mustard seeds have everything they need to grow and do big things out of an exceptionally tiny seed. The seed is "small" (about 1 mm in diameter), and in one place Jesus says it is the smallest of seeds (Mark 4:31) but the seed's "faith," so to speak, is not small. If anything, you could say it has great faith because, by "just believing," so to speak, it grows into a huge, tree-sized plant that birds can nest on. The different "mustard seed" illustrations are in Matt 13:31, 17:20, Mark 4:31, Luke 13:19, and 17:6. He also uses the word "if." He says, "If you have faith like…, then you can…" So, we are back to your simple choice to believe. Do you believe like a "mustard seed"?

"Jesus’ apostles asked him to increase their faith."

That’s in Luke 17:5, and that’s a really stupid question for them to ask. Like, aren’t they the ones that are being asked to believe? How is Jesus supposed to do that job for them? Jesus rebukes them with the "if you have been having faith as a mustard seed, then…" illustration, followed by the parable of the unprofitable slave. Most people miss the significance of the parable of the unprofitable slave, and how it relates back to the apostle’s question. I wrote an article on this point, so refer to that for more detail:

"Faith cometh by hearing"

This is from Rom 10:17, quoted out of context, and I wrote an article examining the translation, because the word "cometh" is not even in the original text; in fact, there is no verb at all. It does not say that you "get faith" by "hearing," even though professional pulpit preachers would obviously like you to believe that. The context is about "the beautiful feet of those bringing the good news" (verse 15), and it asks how anybody could believe if the gospel isn't proclaimed. The verse 17 "...hearing through the declaration of God" just means that you need somebody to proclaim it if anyone is going to hear it. So, it is talking about the people proclaiming, not the people listening, except to point out that not everyone believes the message proclaimed (verse 16, 18-21). Verse 16 quotes Isaiah 53:1 "Lord, who believes the message?" So, we are back to the simple choice to "believe." I wrote an article on Rom 10:17, so see my article for more detail on that:

"Each of us has been given 'the measure of faith'"

This is from Rom 12:3, taken out of context. Even if you believe God has supposedly given you "the measure of faith," then you still have to believe that, right? Put another way, you have to believe that you have the "measure of belief." So we are back to, well, "Just believe." However, the word before "measure of faith" is, more literally, "parts" (i.e. divides or apportions into "parts") not "imparts," and is used in the context of the next verse and discussion about "one body, many members, different parts (i.e. functions)" (Rom 12:4-8). And another thing: There is no definite article, "the," before it. The Greek phrase is "emerisen metron pisteos" ("parts measure of-faith"). If, after your mother bakes a pumpkin pie, she cuts it up into slices, then she has emerisen metron pumpkin pie. Various translations use the word "has dealt" or "has distributed" or "has divided" or "has allotted." If you own stocks in a company, the company has divided up its ownership into many shares of stocks. The company has emerisen metron the shares of stock. So, you see that the context is about the different things we do as "part" of the body of Christ. The "measure of faith" is the collective whole in the body of Christ. Anyway, I covered this in more detail if you scroll about halfway down in my article on predestination vs. free will, cited/embedded below. This verse is sometimes used in the "Faith is a gift" notion. Let’s look at that next.

"Faith is a gift."

This is often used in hyper-grace circles, such that you just focus on the grace of God and omit any personal responsibility, but it is, in its extreme, most formal sense, fundamental to Calvinism. The Calvinist "TULIP" principle of the "doctrines of grace" is that we are T-Totally depraved, U-Unconditionally elected, the atonement is L-Limited to the elect, the elect saints are compelled by I-Irresistible grace, and therefore there is nothing stopping the saints from P-Persevering to the end. "Faith" does not fit into this formula, because if it did, it would imply we have a personal part in affecting and effecting an outcome, which they suppose would threaten "God's sovereign will," so it is claimed that faith must be a "gift" from God. The theology gets really complicated and convoluted, way too much to deal with here. What a mess! I posted a very detailed scriptural analysis about predestination and Calvinist proof-texting to unravel that.

So, with all the extraneous definitions out of the way, we are left with "just believe." To believe, to have faith, is your responsibility, not God’s, and not something magically or mystically imparted by something or somebody, even if he puts his hands on you and declares grandiose things over you. It is your free-will choice, your decision, your commitment to believe.

Again, this is not fundamentally a "religious" concept. For example, an evolutionist has faith that we evolved from apes, that life evolved ultimately from some single-cell organism millions or billions of years ago, which evolved from nonliving chemicals, that by chance happened together, and that everything we see is a result of some "big-bang" explosion in the cosmos, even though no evolutionist personally observed any of these things happen. Evolution is pseudoscience, a fairy tale. The point is that they have faith in evolution, and we have faith in the Creator. Their faith is blind, unscientific, and unwarranted, wishful thinking, whereas our faith is solidly rooted, rational, completely consistent with scientific inquiry, and well established. I wrote an article on that and posted it over twenty years ago in 1997:

We have faith that Jesus rose from the dead. That is not some wispy or mythical thing. The historical record, as well as logic and reason, considering all the alternatives, bears that out.

Do you have faith to perform a miracle in the name of Jesus? It is just a question of your confidence, what you expect to happen. If it is just hopeful thinking, you can bluff others, and even yourself for a while, with your declarations and positive confessions, but you can’t bluff God. And the more you try to analyze and theorize about "getting faith," the more you show that you aren’t there yet. How can one agonize over believing if one truly believes?

So then, don’t make this religious, mystical, or complicated. Don’t even think too much about it. John G. Lake once said, "It is a law of the human mind that it is faster to act yourself into believing than to believe yourself into acting." Just decide what you are going to do about a situation and act accordingly. It means commitment. In many cases, radical, bold commitment. Last of all, don’t have faith in your faith. If you do, then you will run down like an attempt at a perpetual motion machine. Have faith in God, the creator of the universe, the object of our faith, who has shown us his favor through what the Lord Jesus did for us and is available to do through us.

No copyrightI grant this work to the public domain.

Attribution required: Matt Malone for church audience photograph in video (copyright)