What Is Faith?

For the last several weeks, we have been working our way through the stories of Daniel and his friends. Along the way, we have been driven by a very simple question: What does it look like to be faithful when no one else is? As our culture continues to change such that followers of Jesus are increasingly feeling lonelier than we ever have been, the examples those stories have offered have been a great help. Yet for all our talk of being faithful, we have left out an important and logically prior question: What is faith in the first place? In this bonus episode of the series, we are going to tackle that together. Come with me today on a journey of discovering what faith is and what that means for our lives.

What Is Faith?

The word “faith” is a little bit like a blank canvas. It means different things to different people in different circumstances. Now, this is not at all to say it has no fixed meaning—I think it does—but the way the word is used today would not do a very good job of giving much confidence of that fixed meaning to someone learning of the concept for the first time. Indeed, the way faith is often presented in a variety of places in today’s pop culture would suggest that it is not a very substantive thing in the first place. I mean, think about the last movie or television series you watched when one character or another was waiting on something good happening in the future whose prospects didn’t look very good. What was that character told to do by a well-meaning counselor? He was told to “have faith.” When we are anticipating a particular outcome of a series of events we are told we just have to have faith that it will play out the way we want. 

Yet what is faith when we talk about it in these kinds of terms? It is often hardly distinguishable from hope. For all the ways those two ideas are treated as synonyms today, they are not the same thing. While they may accompany and support one another, they are not interchangeable concepts. In fact, when we conflate these two ideas, we usually wind up diminishing the real weight of both of them. The way faith and hope are often presented to us today, they are little more than positive wishful thinking. But what does that get us? Most of the time, nothing. The universe is inanimate. It doesn’t care what you want. Neither can it provide anything for you. It’s no wonder, then, that skeptics hear religious people talking about faith, draw on pop culture illustrations of it, and conclude it is an irrational waste of time. Having faith in some preferred outcome of a particular situation when you don’t have any meaningful basis for such a thing and aren’t doing anything (or can’t) constructive or concrete to make that outcome more likely than not isn’t noble or praiseworthy or even especially spiritual. It’s irrational. It’s silly. It’s a waste of brain power. So again, it’s no wonder skeptics who have been schooled in a very worldly understanding of faith look at followers of Jesus and think we’re nuts. 

Perhaps the best illustration of this as far as I’m concerned is the scene near the end of “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” when the hero is trying to navigate the last obstacle on his quest to obtain the Holy Grail (the mythical cup Jesus used at the Last Supper). The final challenge to overcome is a giant gap between where he is and where he needs to be with a bottomless abyss waiting for those who can’t figure out what it means to make a “leap from the lion’s head.” In a moment of realization, Indiana figures out it means he needs to take a leap of faith. So, he closes his eyes, sticks out his foot, and falls toward the abyss, “having faith” that somehow he won’t fall to his death. Of course, his “faith” is rewarded and a previously invisible bridge magically appears for him to cross from one side to the other. It’s a great bit of filmmaking and a terrifically fun scene in the context of the movie, but in terms of portraying anything like a sort of faith that could be positively recommended to anyone, let alone a sort of faith that is at all consonant with anything found in the pages of the Scriptures, it’s an absolute joke. Sticking your foot out to fall toward a yawning abyss because you have faith that a bridge is going to magically appear isn’t courageous; it’s stupid. 

So, why are we talking about faith this morning? Well, let me give you a bit of a glance behind the curtain. I tend to plan out my preaching over the summer for the entire next year. Since I started preaching I have kept a preaching calendar that runs from September through August. Each June and July, I set aside some time to at least sketch out what the preaching series will be for the next year. Some of those 52 holes are fairly easy to fill. Christmas and Easter will generally focus on…Christmas and Easter. There are a few special Sundays we have during the year to fill out a few more slots. I generally try to do one or two series that run parallel to one of our Sunday school series so we can really dive deeply into a particular topic together for a few weeks. After that, it’s a matter of prayerfully deciding what passages of Scripture, whole books, or topics really need to be addressed over the next year, with the understanding that there are some things that are worth talking about every year. The remaining few holes are days when I’m on vacation or days that are left intentionally unplanned because you just never know what might happen. 

This is one of those unplanned Sundays. 

And as I was praying through what the Spirit was leading me to share with you this morning, a lightbulb clicked on in my brain. For the last several weeks, we have been working our way through the stories of Daniel and his friends through the lens of a simple, but important question: How can we be faithful when no one else is? Just last week, Nate walked us through putting the finishing touches on the journey with a passage that was actually the first passage I was ever assigned to preach on in seminary. As we had all of these conversations about how to be faithful as followers of Jesus in a world that largely doesn’t join us in our devotion, there is something even more fundamental to this task to which we didn’t give any of our attention along the way. Namely, what is faith in the first place? Being faithful assumes a baseline of faith is in place, but if we don’t really understand what faith is, the likelihood that we’ll find success in our efforts to be faithful goes way down. 

Put all of that right to the side for just a second and come with me over here. One of the things I regularly encourage you to be doing in your own life is to engage with the Scriptures on a regular, consistent basis. The thing I say about this is that you will not grow as a healthy follower of Jesus unless and until you are engaging with the Scriptures on a regular and consistent basis. We took a whole sermon series to talk about that just a few months ago. I wouldn’t give that much time and attention to this particular subject unless I thought it was important. But, telling you to do that and then not doing it myself simply wouldn’t do. What I want you to know is that as much as I tell you it is important to be in the Scriptures every day, I make a point of being in the Scriptures every day in my own life. And this is not simply the time I spend reading in preparation for writing a sermon or a Bible study. This is time I spend studying something totally different from what we are talking about together so that I am growing in my own relationship with Jesus. Now, because I’m a writer, I write my thoughts out from these times, and this becomes my blog three out of the five days it runs during most weeks, but I’d be writing out my thoughts on what I’ve been reading anyway as I have been doing since I was about fourteen, so the writing would be happening whether or not the blog existed. The point is, I’m doing in my life exactly what I tell you you should be doing in your own life. 

Usually, these two things—my personal devotions and what we happen to be working through together on Sunday mornings—run on separate tracks. But occasionally, they happen to dovetail. And when they happen to dovetail such that the passage I have been meditating on for a couple of weeks, but which I started writing on just this week is exactly the right passage to serve as a sort of bonus episode of our most recent teaching series, and this all happens to fall into place on a Sunday for which I didn’t already have a preaching topic selected months ago, I tend to take notice. 

For the last several weeks we have been talking about being faithful, but haven’t stopped to address the matter of faith itself. For the last several months, I have been working my way through the New Testament letter of Hebrews. Hebrews is the longest letter not written by Paul in the New Testament (we don’t actually know who wrote it) and is relentlessly focused on explaining why Jesus and the new covenant are greater than the old covenant. Well, just this week I have come to Hebrews 11, which is often called the Hall of Faith, where the author features a number of different faith heroes from the Old Testament to encourage his audience to remain committed to their own faith in Christ. Before he gets into all of his examples, though, he starts by giving us a definition of faith that is the simplest and clearest such definition there is in all of the Scriptures. What I want to do with you for the next few minutes is to explore this definition together to see if we can get our hearts and minds wrapped around it. What I want for you out of this morning is to have you walking out of here in a few minutes able to say, “This is what faith is,” with greater certainty and confidence than you’ve perhaps ever had before. I want you to leave here with the concept of faith no longer ill-defined and generally unhelpful in terms of how you live out your relationship with Jesus on a daily basis, but rather something absolutely vital to your spiritual life. 

If you have a copy of the Scriptures handy, find your way to the New Testament letter of Hebrews with me. Flip over to chapter 11, let’s see how the author defines faith here, and then we’ll talk about it for a few minutes. In Hebrews 11:1, the author says this: “Now faith is the reality of what is hoped for, the proof of what is not seen.” Then he adds one more thing to that: “For by it [faith] our ancestors won God’s approval.” So, what’s going on here? 

Well, as I have told you many, many times, no passage comes without a context. These couple of verses are no exception to that. Hebrews 11—believe it or not—follows on the heels of Hebrews 10. And Hebrews 10 begins with the author talking about something very much other than faith. At the beginning of Hebrews 10 he is talking about how Jesus’ sacrifice of Himself on the cross was a better sacrifice than anything offered under the old covenant’s sacrificial system. He goes on to describe how this was always the plan of God to grant a permanent access to a relationship with Him through Jesus’ sacrifice as a superior replacement for the old covenant system of law. From there, he calls his audience to take God’s offer of relationship and embrace it. He basically says, “Since you have this incredible access to God…use it to gain—and keep—an incredible access to God.” This is followed immediately by the single most disturbing warning against merely flirting with the truth rather than buying into it completely, but he offers his audience the encouragement that he thinks they’re on the right track. He closes, then, with an admonition for them to persevere in their faith in Jesus no matter how hard it gets along the way. 

As he gets into the body of chapter 11, the author offers one example after another of what this looks like so he doesn’t leave his audience thinking, “That’s nice, but what does this look like?” In doing this, it’s almost like he has opened up his memory of the old covenant narrative and is walking through it, story by story, highlighting how faith played a role in each person’s story. In fact, that’s exactly what he’s doing. Starting with creation, he runs through pretty much every major name you come across in the old covenant Scriptures and, finally realizing he’s getting long-winded, stops and drops several more names with hints at even more stories. The point that begins to take shape here is that faith is what animated the life of anyone who was used by God to accomplish any significant advancements for His kingdom. If you are going to accomplish anything significant to advance God’s kingdom in your own situation, faith is what is going to be animating your life as well. That, of course, just brings us back around to the nagging question that prompted this whole conversation today: What is faith? 

The author of Hebrews already answered that question for us. Look again at what he said: “Now faith is the reality of what is hoped for, the proof of what is not seen.” Clear as can be? I suspect not. It wasn’t for me at first either. I’m still working to get my head completely wrapped around this. But let me share with you what I do think I’m starting to understand. Then we can talk together about what it means for our lives. 

The author here says two things that I think help us start to get at the heart of what faith is from the standpoint of the Scriptures as a whole. We’ll take these in reverse. He calls faith the reality of what is hoped for. Another way to put this is that faith is the substance of hope. That just begs another question: What is hope? I’ll just tell you that. Hope is a positive expectation about a future reality. When you hope for something, you are anticipating its coming under the assumption that its coming will be a net positive for you. If you didn’t believe that, you wouldn’t have hope, you would have dread. Dread is the definitional opposite of hope. 

Okay, so if that’s what hope is and faith is hope’s substance, what does that mean? Well, what would it look like to give hope (which can easily become little more than the very kind of wishful thinking that is rightly lampooned by skeptics) substance; to make it more than mere wishful thinking? Well, what if we started living today in a way that reflected our confidence in this future reality? What if we started living today in such a way that made that future reality more likely than it would be otherwise? Okay, but what might that look like? Let’s say you have a test coming up. You naturally hope you do well on it. In order to give substance to that hope, though, you have to do more than simply wish you will do well. You have to study and review and prepare as thoroughly as you possibly can. Now your hope has substance. That substance, the author of Hebrews says, is faith. 

This brings us to the second thing not to miss in this definition. The author calls faith the reality of what is hoped for. Now, that’s an interesting word that gets translated in a lot of different ways depending on exactly which translation of the Scriptures you are using. You almost get the sense they all choose different words just so they don’t use the same word the other translations do. Thankfully there are a whole bunch of different words that cover roughly the same range of meaning so they all work. For all the variation in English translations, though, there’s just one idea being expressed. The Greek word being translated is hypostatis, which refers to the foundation of a building or else something that is exceedingly, foundationally real. It is something that is strong enough to be able to give support to the reality of other things. Perhaps to put that another way, something that has hypostatis has the quality of being so real that it can lend its reality to other things or ideas to make them real too; to give them substance, a foundation to rest on. And the author of Hebrews says that faith does this for hope. Whereas hope is necessarily oriented toward the future, faith takes what would otherwise be mere wishful thinking and creates a foundation for it to rest on securely such that it becomes less a desire for what could be and instead an anticipation for what will be. 

All of this, though, leaves us with the nagging question remaining of why we would do this. Why would we adjust the way we live now in such a way that makes some vision of the future more likely than not? Or maybe a better way to ask this is what vision of the future could be so compelling that we would make changes to our lifestyle to live in the direction of something we might never actually lay eyes on ourselves? In order to understand this, we have to take the future and present aspects of faith, set them to the side for just a minute, and focus on the past. 

Our visions of the future as a people tend to not be very good. This hasn’t universally been the case. There was a period of about 200 years or so in the 18th and 19th centuries when technology and our understanding of the world were advancing at such a rapid pace, along with the relative absence of war, that we figured we were just going to keep making the world a better place until Jesus came back to complete the project. Then World Wars I and II happened and we were fairly well disabused of that notion. 9/11 and its aftermath further sent us down that spiral. Today, pretty much every vision of the future is of the world’s being a lot worse than it is now. “Dystopian future” is a pretty common setting in a whole lot of our storytelling. It’s hard to imagine the kinds of dark and depressing visions of the future we have today could inspire someone to make positive changes to their life now. That’s why we have to look further back into the past; a past that has been preserved for us into the present. 

What I’m talking about is God’s promise to restore creation to its original glory at some point in the future. One day, all the brokenness of this world—brokenness like terrorists who fly planes into buildings taking the lives of thousands at once and hundreds more in the two decades since—will be repaired and restored. This promise was given almost while the dust of sin was still settling in the aftermath of the Fall. His promise was then reaffirmed over and over again across the centuries of human history recorded for us in the Scriptures. The way He presented it to us grew and changed a bit over the years as He gradually revealed more and more of His character to us so that we could better understand the full and incredible scope of His promise. And it was ultimately cemented into our memory with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Through the ministry of God the Son, God the Father assured us that His kingdom was coming to this world. And in that kingdom, all things would be made new. We can be a part of that kingdom if we will live life now as if this kingdom were already here. In other words: if we will have faith. 

This, my friends, is what faith is. Being faithful, as we have been talking about for the last eight weeks, is simply our putting it into action. Faith is a present lifestyle undergirding a future hope based on a past promise. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring. We don’t know what five minutes from now could unleash. But we have this incredible promise that whatever tomorrow might entail, there is a day coming when all things will be made right once again. Faith is living now as if that promise was a guarantee because of our confidence in the character of the one who made it. 

In this way, faith is really about just how much we trust in the character of God. To bring that one step closer to home, it is about how much we trust in Jesus. Because if we trust Him, we’ll do what He said. We’ll do what He said not necessarily because the things He said are so good for us (although they indisputably are), but because we are so confident in His promise of this coming kingdom that we are willing to start living now as if it were already here. And we are so confident in His promise because we trust in His character. It all comes back to that. In this way, faith is living out a belief in something we can’t see based on the word of someone we trust. Listen to that again because I want you to write this down and remember it: Faith is living out a belief in something we can’t see based on the word of someone we trust. That’s not just a good definition of biblical faith, that’s a good definition of faith period. Faith is living out a belief in something we can’t see based on the word of someone we trust. 

So then, the thing that you need to do with this is to answer a very simple question: Do you trust in Jesus? That’s it. That question is the key to whether or not you have a faith that is going to accomplish anything meaningful in your life. If you do, you will. If you don’t, you won’t. Sin and a failure to obey God’s commands generally always stem from a deficit of trust. That’s not particularly easy to hear, but it’s no less true for that. We can save an evaluation of how strong your trust is for another time. The only thing I want you to do in light of what we have been talking about this morning is to answer that one question: Do you trust in Jesus? Faith is living out a belief in something we can’t see based on the word of someone we trust. 

If you do trust in Jesus, great. Lean into that trust…that is, have faith. The more you do, the more you will experience the sweet fruits of life in God’s kingdom while you wait for its final arrival when Christ returns. If you don’t, I would like to invite you to consider it. I would like to invite you to consider placing your trust in Jesus. The fact that He predicted and pulled off His own death and resurrection alone proves that He is who He says He is. The countless millions of testimonies of people whose lives have been irrevocably changed for the better offer about as good a recommendation as you’re going to find anywhere. His promise to not only make your life better, but to make you better at life than you are right now should be all the encouragement you need to take the plunge. If you haven’t yet placed your trust in Jesus, today is a great day for doing that. Step into a faith that will radically transform your life and make the lives of everyone around you better than they are right now. Faith is living out a belief in something we can’t see based on the word of someone we trust. If you will make Jesus that person today, I guarantee you will be glad you did. 

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