The Meaning of Faith

By David M. McNabb

The word faith is very common in modern usage. We are told to "keep the faith," or to "have a little faith." Business is presumably conducted in "good faith." It appears that the use of the term faith is of a religious origin, but what exactly is meant by the word?

In religious circles today, we hear terms like "interfaith" and "faith traditions." From prominent Christian ministers you might hear about "seed faith," and "the word of faith." To be sure, the definition of faith will be different depending with whom you are speaking, and under what circumstances.

Is it accurate to define faith as simply "believing" in something? Is this a fair usage of the word?

For instance, through propaganda and deception on the part of adults, many children start out believing in utter falsehoods including Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy. The child's belief in these myths is as sincere and real as their belief in the Almighty God, the Savior Jesus, or the ability of mom to kiss it and make it better. Does their belief in a lie constitute faith? Even if you say "My kid believes in Santa Claus," could you encourage them to have faith in him?

Regardless of the parents' good intentions, they know that the day will inevitably come when the children realize that they were believing a lie, the holiday icons are not real, and the reason mom was kissing Santa was because Santa was dad.

Faith and belief are not necessarily synonyms. You can believe that it will be sunny today, whether based on the weatherman's best guess or simply on hope. You may be right, you may be wrong. In fact, we should consider what, if anything, differentiates the terms faith, belief, and even hope. For instance, you may not hope it will rain today, but you may believe it will from the available information. That said, one can see how hope and belief are similar. Both terms indicate a degree of expectation, but while you may believe in something regardless of the perceived benefit of the outcome, you reserve hope for that which you feel will have a positive result.

When you are travelling over bridges and through tunnels, you have a reasonable expectation that the man-made structure will not fail. Some might say that they have "faith" in them, or in their engineering, but is a reasonable expectation the same as faith? Again, the case is better described as a belief, or hope, that the work of man's hands will not "let you down."

The word of God tells us, "Hope deferred maketh the heart sick ... " (Pro. 13:11). Hope can be misplaced, or remain unfulfilled. Again, the word of God says that it is possible to believe a lie and be damned (2 Thess. 2:11-12).

The Egyptian belief system called for mummification of the body, and laying up treasures in the mortuary, so that the deceased could be prepared to go into the next life. Except for the mummies exhumed by archaeologists and grave robbers, their belief - their hope - remained unfulfilled, as their bodies remained in the tombs.

"Belief system" is a more appropriate term than "faith" for describing a mode of thought and expectation, whether religious or not. Paul said, "Finally, brethren, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may have free course, and be glorified, even as it is with you: And that we may be delivered from unreasonable and wicked men: for all men have not faith. But the Lord is faithful, who shall stablish you, and keep you from evil." (2 Thess. 3:1-3). In that he describes a threat from these men who "have not faith," Paul in no way implies that they were not religious. On the contrary, the threat came mostly from various religious circles; unrepentant Jews (particularly devout Jews of the sects of the Pharisees and the Sadducees), and pagans from around the Roman empire posed the greatest opposition to the gospel. In today's vernacular, these religious people would be deemed "men of faith," Paul called them men who had not faith.

In Hebrews 6:1-2, Paul lists "faith toward God" as a principle of the Doctrine of Christ. Faith in the God of the holy Scriptures, and in His Son Jesus Christ is not merely based on a "reasonable expectation," but on His unfailing word. Just as it was in the beginning, so also has it been throughout all the ages, God says it - and it is so. God cannot lie (Titus 1:2).

This is why Paul said to the Corinthians, "When I therefore was thus minded, did I use lightness? or the things that I purpose, do I purpose according to the flesh, that with me there should be yea yea, and nay nay? But as God is true, our word toward you was not yea and nay. For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by us, even by me and Silvanus and Timotheus, was not yea and nay, but in him was yea. For all the promises of God in him are yea, and in him Amen, unto the glory of God by us" (2 Cor. 1:17-20). He is simply stating that there is no need to pander to humanity's sensibilities which require us to allow others to have their own beliefs, and therefore refrain from rigid comments which could offend the heathen. It is easy to find yourself saying "I believe" or "my interpretation of the Scriptures has led me to understand" or some other phrase that allows the unbeliever an opportunity to abide in his own opinions. Paul did not come to them with possibilities and maybes, but with the truth, plain and simple, leaving no space for argument or discussion.

There is but one way unto God: through His Son Jesus Christ. Every other way is a dead end.

The false religions of Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Humanism, and many others, have built "high places" (belief systems) and raised up idols (false doctrines). In ancient paganism, it was common to erect actual high places, like manmade hills, as places of worship. Pyramids, ziggurats, pagodas, and other images of paganism displayed in architecture the trust of the heathen, while today, it is the system of beliefs and doctrines themselves that represent the high places of heathen worship. The word of the Lord speaks to this condition, regardless of the shape it takes, "Truly in vain is salvation hoped for from the hills, and from the multitude of mountains: truly in the Lord our God is the salvation of Israel," (Jer. 3:23).

There is but one faith, one true faith, and that is faith in God and in His Son Jesus Christ. The reason that there can exist faith in no other, is because there is no other god which has the primary attribute which justifies faith: faithfulness. As it is written in the epistle to the Hebrews, "Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering; (for He is faithful that promised) ... " (Heb. 10:23).

But what if some do not believe? Shall their unbelief make the faith of God ineffective? Shall the opinion of the majority of mankind trivialize the faith of God? Shall the faith of God be lumped together with other beliefs as merely one of the major world religions? God forbid! Let God be true, but every man a liar! Jehovah is God, and there is none like Him. The Lord is God, and the day will come when all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord, and all men shall see it. In that day, every knee shall bow, and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is King of kings and Lord of lords! Hallelujah!

Today, faith is the key to salvation. Paul said, in Ephesians 2:8, "For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God." Hereby we know that even the faith, by which we believe in the Lord, does not come from within us. We cannot say that we developed within our hearts the faith by which we are saved. That would give credence to the new-age belief that salvation comes from within. No, faith is the gift of God through which we have the hope of salvation.

By this, we can better understand what Paul meant in Hebrews 11:1, "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." Man hopes for many things, but God's gift of faith substantiates the hope of the believer in Jesus Christ.

When the disciples witnessed the power of God to do that which otherwise seemed impossible, Jesus said unto them, "Have faith in God." This is the cry of every messenger of God, since the beginning. All that have put their faith in Him know the truth, "Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths. Be not wise in thine own eyes: fear the Lord, and depart from evil. It shall be health to thy navel, and marrow to thy bones," (Pro. 3:5-8).

Having now determined that true faith rests solely in Jehovah, we will continue our exploration of faith. In the coming installments, we will look at its source, its importance, and its power.

Our prayer continues to be that your faith and hope might be in God; that it might stand in the power of God and not the wisdom of men; that it would grow exceedingly, and, finally, that it would be spoken of throughout the whole world. Amen.

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