Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
Hebrews 11: 1.
Before we can define “faith”, we must first define “hope”, as the Bible says that “faith is the substance of things hoped for”. Too often, parts of Bible verses and even single words are taken out of context from the Bible, and treated in isolation, as though they have meaning independent of the totality of God’s word. This is especially true of words such as “faith” and “hope”. According to the dictionary, “hope” is a desire or expectation that something will happen. This is all well and true. However, when one reads the Bible, it is clear that hope is not tied to just anything: Our hope is in salvation through Jesus Christ.
Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
Hebrews 10: 19-25.
The Bible does not say that our hope is that we will get a new car, a new job, or even that our bills will be paid from month to month—while these are all things we might hope for and even pray for, they are not at all what the Bible means by “hope” in Hebrews. The only true hope in Hebrews is for that eternal kingdom—a kingdom we can see from afar, but have not yet entered into:
All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.
Hebrews 11: 13-16.
This is the “hope” that Hebrews refers to. Everything else, though important to us in our temporal existence, is nearly superfluous.
If there is only one true hope, then, there must also be only one true faith:
There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
Ephesians 4: 4-6.
We do not have faith in things: We have faith in Him, and nothing else. This was and is my main complaint against the so-called Faith Movement. It teaches people to believe in cars, finances, and temporary needs, but not in Jesus Christ. Since our only hope is in Jesus Christ, then he—as the author and finisher of our faith—is also the only true focus of our faith. Any faith not in Jesus Christ is not true faith in the biblical sense of the word. Thus, the Faith Movement does not teach faith at all, but something empty and lifeless—mind tricks in the vain hope of getting one’s wishes met, without any regard for the eternal. What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his own soul? (Mark 8: 36). People are led astray and taught to focus on the gifts, and not the giver, all so that they can attain things which they cannot keep and which will someday turn to dust.
Though the leaders of the Faith Movement are by and large earnest men, the teachings of the Faith Movement are quite pernicious, as the Movement preys on people who often have great personal needs in the realm of finances or health. While God does indeed care about our finances and our health, and while He does indeed answer prayer, by shifting the focus of faith from Jesus to the world around us, the Faith message becomes every much a false Gospel. People do not get what they desire, because their desires were not in God’s will or because they would consume what they received on selfish pleasure. (James 4: 3). The Cross and the basic truth that God disciplines His children because he loves them is missing entirely from the Faith message.
Meanwhile, many adherents of the Faith Movement are so distracted by the world around them that they have never come to the knowledge of Christ to begin with. They thus become twice losers—not only do their prayers go unanswered, but they lose any chance of eternal life. “Everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” (Luke 19: 26). The US is full of people who have become embittered towards Christianity because they believed in the Faith Movement, but had their hopes dashed and sometimes even suffered great personal loss because of it.
Returning to Hebrews 11: 1, if faith is the substance of things hoped for, what is that substance? This has caused great confusion among many people, as the word “substance” in the Greek cannot be easily understood if the verse is taken in isolation—which is exactly how the verse is nearly always used. However, when we read the rest of Hebrews 11, the true meaning of substance is easily understood: “Substance” is the actions taken by those of faith in the pursuit of that eternal hope. To put it another way, if your hope is in Christ, you will act in obedience to that hope. This then, is faith. Hebrews 11 gives a long list of people of faith, and the common denominator is that they did not regard their lives on this Earth as important, but that they took action which showed that their eternal hope was real to them. In essence, they put feet to their faith. They went and did because they had hope, and this was the essence of their faith.
People have been taught that faith is merely a mental or emotion condition, when in fact it is an act of the will. Early Church teachings were clearer on this matter:
The early church Fathers and Reformers recognized three aspects or types of faith. In Latin they call it notitia (knowledge) assensus (assent) fiducia (trust), which simply means that there is a knowledge element, an assent to the truth that you know. But it can’t stop there. There also has to be trust. All three are necessary for saving faith.
My distinction is between belief vs. faith. In other words, it’s possible to believe in something but not exercise faith in it. This is a critical distinction in what we’re talking about. You can talk about belief in marriage all day long, but you never exercise faith in marriage until you walk down the aisle and say “I do.” You can watch a guy push a wheelbarrow across a tightrope across Niagra Falls a hundred times. You have knowledge that he’s capable of doing it. You assent to the fact that he can do that. But you don’t exercise faith in his capability until you get into the wheelbarrow.
This trust (fiducia) is not merely–or even mostly–an emotional thing: The man stepping into the wheelbarrow may be scared to death, and may even be fairly certain on an emotional level that he will die. Yet, he does it anyways, not because he feels confident, but because he has decided—as an act of his will—to behave in an expression of trust.
One of the clearest examples of this difference between feelings of confidence and acts of trust can be found in Ezra. Ezra was a Jewish priest in exile in Babylon who received permission to return to Jerusalem to teach the remnant of Jews remaining there. Just after starting out on his journey and while still in Babylon, his party camped by a canal for three days:
There, by the Ahava Canal, I proclaimed a fast, so that we might humble ourselves before our God and ask him for a safe journey for us and our children, with all our possessions. I was ashamed to ask the king for soldiers and horsemen to protect us from enemies on the road, because we had told the king, “The gracious hand of our God is on everyone who looks to him, but his great anger is against all who forsake him.” So we fasted and petitioned our God about this, and he answered our prayer.
Ezra 7: 21-23.
By the standards that many people use today, Ezra did not have faith, because he was terrified. Yet, in reality he was a champion of faith, because he had made the decision to go on in obedience to God—in obedience to that eternal hope inside him–despite being terrified. He did not have confidence even that God would protect him or that he would be successful at his task—his confidence was purely in God. If God did not choose him to be an instrument in fulfilling His will, and therefore Ezra died by the roadside while on the way to Jerusalem, then so be it—he was still going to act in obedience to the truth inside him, and God’s will would still be done.
This is faith.
It is the nature of faith that it always perseveres, even when things go awry. Our emotions and our minds, on the other hand, can be fickle. Will we still believe in God if our prayers are not answered, or answered later than we wish and in a way that we do not like? If not, then we did not have faith to begin with. If our faith in God is tested, and we are led not to success and prosperity, but to suffering, martyrdom, and death, will we throw in the towel and deny what we purport to believe, or will we hold true to the end?
We cannot separate faith from obedience and lordship to Christ, as so many are wont to do. It is all in the same package. You believe, so you walk in that faith. You might not feel like it, you might complain, and you might be frustrated, but you press on. Failure and ultimately death await you—none of the great heroes of faith ever received what they were striving for, at least not in their lifetimes. Yet, none of this–no doubts, no fears, no worries, no unanswered prayers–negates your faith in God. Rather, that you have continued on even when you were weak and frail proves your faith in God.