What is faith?, part 1

We often use words without knowing precisely what they mean. Oddly, this is true of some of the most important words in our vocabulary.

To be “in love” is an obvious example. Most of us have had the experience, and we all agree that the experience is profoundly meaningful, but it’s a notoriously difficult concept to define.

“Democracy” is another example. We had a good dialogue about what is essential to democracy here, without reaching agreement.

In this post, I want to focus attention on the word “faith”. Note that I’m going to discuss faith from a narrowly Christian perspective:  What does it mean to have faith in Jesus?

“Faith” is fundamental to Christianity. For example, Jesus once said to a notorious sinner, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace”. Similarly, Paul writes:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
(Ephesians 2:8-9, English Standard Version)

Evangelicals regard that text as a succinct summary of the Gospel:  we are saved by having faith in Jesus, not by performing good works. Thus evangelicals use the word “faith” all the time; they regard it as the pivot point of salvation.

But what is faith, precisely? Does it necessarily entail agreement with the Chalcedonian creed, for example?

… our Lord Jesus Christ … perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable soul and body; consubstantial with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; … to be acknowledged in two natures; inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son.

I must confess a personal bias. I reject the idea that God requires agreement with any formula that goes beyond the language used in the Bible itself.

Paul does not say we are saved by having right doctrine, about the Trinity or anything else. Does he?

(Maybe he does. What does “faith” mean, precisely?)

Here’s another of my personal biases. I think faith should be defined as inclusively as possible. Some people approach things exactly the other way ’round:  they think we should exclude as many people from the Church as possible by defining faith very narrowly.

(Jesus said, “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” Is this what he meant — that “faith” must be defined narrowly so as to exclude many? Perhaps, in context, he was referring to something else altogether.)

“Baptists look a lot more like fellow Christians when you live next door to a Hindu,” one of my Bible college professors once said to me. This is one of the lessons Christians ought to learn from globalization, I would argue. Christians who actually practise their faith appear to be a small minority of the population in the West.

Let’s be inclusive in our definition of faith and stand shoulder to shoulder with folks of other denominations. This is important:  after all, Jesus also said, “if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.”

What, then, is faith? How shall we define it?

(The conclusion will follow, tomorrow.)


6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. faithwalk
    Dec 28, 2006 @ 12:44:14

    Why, it is the substance of theings hoped for, the evidence of things not seen!
    When we smuggled bibles behind the Iron curtain in the 80’s we discovered that persecution had broken down many of the walls that divided the Body of Christ. The more severe the persecution, the less it mattered what “denomination” one had previously been associated with. Either you were a believer or you weren’t; you were willing to die for your faith in Jesus Christ or you weren’t.
    For what it’s worth, I think the Lord looks down and sees the heart of every one who truly loves Jesus, regardless of what the name is over the door of where they worship, and THAT is the church, The Body of Christ.


  2. tikkiro
    Dec 28, 2006 @ 14:43:52

    Just picking up on the end part of your post where you’re asking about whether faith means believing in the Trinity etc, – I (incredibly) only came to the realisation this year that Protestant Christianity has made being ‘saved’ into a whole religion on its own – I used to wonder why there was no mention of all the hoops we make people go through to be saved e.g. pray this prayer, say these things, do this or don’t do that etc… but only realised this year that while we make it quite tough for people to even *think* about salvation (because of said hoops), scripture makes it SO ridiculously simple that in some respects – the entire world should have long been saved by now!! ALL scripture demands is that a person “repents, and believes on the Lord Jesus Christ” – Paul sometimes doesn’t even elaborate on that statement – no “if you believe he died and was resurrected” or other such doctrinal statement that we often hear bandied about now to those who’ve heard His call on their life. I have an ex-Catholic friend who told me that she considers evangelical Protestantism to be a much more works led belief than Catholicism ever could be, and that we require a lot more from people than they do – a rather surprising view, but the more I think about it, the more I have to agree with her. Faith that Jesus is the singular and only sacrifice for sin, required by a Holy and Just God is surely ALL we should require? TKR.


  3. Ched
    Dec 28, 2006 @ 16:00:36



  4. Stephen
    Dec 29, 2006 @ 13:11:22

    • Faithwalk:
    I certainly affirm the definition of faith that you site from Hebrews 11:1 (faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen). But it doesn’t speak to the question I’m asking. (E.g., whether faith is directed toward a particular formulation of the Trinity.)

    But from there you go in exactly the direction I took in my follow-up post. “you were willing to die for your faith in Jesus Christ or you weren’t”. That’s a measure of allegiance, which puts us on the same page with respect to how we define faith.

    • Tikkiro:
    You write, “Faith that Jesus is the singular and only sacrifice for sin, required by a Holy and Just God is surely ALL we should require.” That’s a thoughtful formulation you’ve offered, but simple and inclusive as well. Well said!

    • Ched:


  5. addofio
    Jan 03, 2007 @ 02:32:59

    Perhaps I shouldn’t chime in, since I’m not a Christian–but I’m struck by Tikkiro’s formulation that “. . . is surely ALL we should require.” Surely the question ought to be what God requires, not what we require? And yet somehow, it does all seem to come down in the end to what WE require. Interesting, isn’t it? Why do you think that happens?


  6. Stephen
    Jan 04, 2007 @ 11:08:15

    • Addofio:
    Both are significant.

    What God requires ultimately matters more, if some are destined for bliss and others for misery.

    But what we require matters a great deal: (a) for the misery it can cause people here and now if they are ostracized; (b) for the way the Church’s energy is dissipated by internal squabbling over who’s in and who’s out; and (c) for the way God is shamed by arguments over such trivia.

    In general, I just like to encourage Christians to bring something positive into the public square, instead of negativity.


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