What is Faith?

[Photo by Diana Vargas on Unsplash]

One of the clearest descriptions of what faith is is found in the eleventh chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews. From this verse I want to propose three elements of faith as it is seen in Scripture:

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

(Heb 11:1 NASB)

The first is that faith includes trust. The writer to the Hebrews demonstrates how Old Testament (OT) believers were approved by this kind of faith, by giving many examples (Heb 11:3-38). In a concluding remark the author states that although they were approved through their faith, they had yet to receive what was promised by God (Heb 11:39; 13). So, we see that the things hoped for fashion a sure expectation that rests on the promises of God. The assurance of these things, as is so aptly demonstrated by the “Hall of Faith” in Hebrews 11, is closely related to trusting in the promises of God, even if those promises are not fulfilled during our lifetimes. If faith can be envisioned as a triangle, one of its sides can be labelled “trust”.

Secondly, faith is the conviction of things not seen. As the NET words it, “being convinced of what we do not see“. True faith patiently awaits the day that the promise will give way to fulfilment, when faith will give way to sight. Faith then is its own proof (Heb 11:1 CSB). This, though, is not a blind faith, or a faith-in-faith, but an informed faith, as these OT saints in Hebrews 11 once again demonstrate. It is a faith that is informed by God’s word, a faith that is tested through trials and a faith that is informed through God’s acts in salvation history. So a second side of the faith triangle can be labelled “conviction”.

Third, faith includes the idea of allegiance. We learn from James that faith without works is a dead faith that cannot save (Jas 2:14, 18-20). Again, we see this demonstrated in Hebrews 11, specifically in the life of Abraham. Abraham obeyed God by travelling to a land even though he did not know where he was going (Heb 11:8) and Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac in obedience to God’s command (Heb 11:17). The obedience of faith can be viewed as a pledge of unwavering allegiance to the God who keeps His promises. This pledge of allegiance is also consistent with the numerous exhortations in Hebrews to persevere in the faith (Heb 2:1, 3:6, 6:11-12, 10:23-24, 12:1-2). So, the third side of the “faith” triangle can thus be labelled allegiance.

In summary, faith should be defined beyond just an intellectual assent to the facts of Christian doctrine, though assenting to fundamental Christian doctrine is a boundary marker of who can be classified as a Christian. Rather, faith goes beyond intellectual assent and includes elements of trust, conviction and allegiance. The Heidelberg Catechism captures this well when it answers the question: “What is true faith?”

True faith is not only a certain knowledge whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in His Word; but also a hearty trust, which the Holy Spirit works in me by the Gospel, that not only to others, but to me also, forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness and salvation are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.

(Heidelberg Catechism: Answer 21)

Faith understood this way includes knowledge and affection, as both known and felt.

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