Understanding Biblical Faith
What Does it Mean to Have Faith?
In spite of the fairly secular climate of much of American culture, faith is a recurrent theme in pop culture. The idea of faith comes up in movies, TV shows, and books marketed to a wide audience, but there is a significant difference between biblical faith and faith in media. Of course, the topic of faith also surfaces in media marketed specifically to Christians, and these productions aren’t immune to shallow theology. As Christians, we should be able to distinguish the real faith of those who are rooted in Christ from the imitations we see in the world around us.
Faith in Culture
On-screen, faith is often brought up at the height of a crisis. A character is facing something seemingly insurmountable and the solution given is to “have faith.” Unfortunately, this kind of scenario isn’t consigned to fiction. Well-meaning individuals, Christians included, have at times attempted to encourage someone who is going through a hard time by telling them that things will get better and they just need to have faith. However, we know from experience that things don’t always get better.
The cancer isn’t always cured.
The perfect job doesn’t always come.
Those lost aren’t always found.
Those trapped aren’t always rescued.
The “good guy” doesn’t always win.
But we still see this false faith in Hollywood, culture, and even the church that is nothing more than wishful thinking or hoping things will work out in your favor. Just have faith, in spite of the evidence that they won’t. This isn’t real faith, however, and it isn’t biblical faith. It’s more like talking yourself into believing something irrational. It’s false hope.
Faith in Jesus Christ is the bedrock of Christianity, so it would be pretty concerning if we don’t actually understand what faith is or what it looks like. The key is to understand what (or who) we’re having faith in and what we’re having faith for. Then we can ask if the basis of our faith is worthy of that trust and if the thing we’re having faith for is a reasonable expectation.
By looking at the biblical understanding of faith we can learn what faith is and why we can be confident in it.
What Does the Bible Say About Faith?
What does the Bible tell us about faith? You may already know what verse I’m going to refer to, Hebrews 11:1, but I have to confess that this verse remained a bit of a mystery to me for a long time. If someone asked me “what is faith?”I probably could have told them, “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” I could not, however, have told them what that verse actually means. It wasn’t until after I studied the verse in its context during my daily Bible reading, looked at multiple translations, and even the original Greek, that I had that ‘light bulb moment’ and finally began to understand Hebrews 11:1, and biblical faith.
What Does Hebrews 11:1 Mean?
In the NKJV the verse says, “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” This is the version I was familiar with, but never understood. Eventually I read it in the ESV, which says “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Recognizing the difference between these two versions, I decided to dig a little deeper.
I looked up the word translated substance/assurance in the original Greek (I used biblehub.com). I discovered that the word was hypostasis, which can mean support, substance, steadiness, or assurance. The idea is something that stands under something else, giving it support, like how table legs support a table. In the context of Hebrews, when the author is continually writing about the confidence we have in Christ, we can think of hypostasis as assurance.
So to have faith is to have assurance or confidence of our hope in Christ; it’s the evidence of things we haven’t seen. Paul describes our hope to Titus as “eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began,” and “the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ,” (Titus 1:2 and 2:13). So biblical faith is the confidence we have that Christ will return in glory and that we will receive eternal life as promised by God. Faith is the conviction, the evidence we have, that these things which have not yet come to pass (they are not yet seen) will indeed occur.
Biblical Faith Isn’t Blind
Knowing this, we can see that faith as described in the Bible is not wishful thinking or false hope. It is confident, not foolish. It is not a leap in the dark in spite of the evidence (or lack thereof), but standing secure, trusting God. And furthermore, this confidence is evidence-based. We can look to God’s past faithfulness to His people and His promises described throughout the entire Bible and as evidence that He will be faithful to us and keep His promises to us.
This is what Abraham did when God called him to sacrifice Isaac. He had already seen God’s provision in his life many times, so when God told Abraham to sacrifice his only son, he trusted that God would continue to provide. God had promised that Abraham’s offspring would become a great nation; without Isaac, this promise would seem to be in jeopardy. But Isaac’s birth had already been miraculous and Abraham knew that God would be able to raise him from the dead, need be. Theologian Millard Erickson puts it this way, “The faith that Abraham exercised in being willing to sacrifice his son was an extrapolation into the unknown future of his experience of God in the past.” (1)
The cloud of witnesses described throughout Hebrews 11 not only demonstrates that the Old Testament fathers, such as Abaham, lived by faith, but also the faithfulness of God to keep His promises to them—promises they didn’t always see come to completion. Going back to Abraham, he didn’t live to see the great nation his offspring became, but we can look back and see God’s faithfulness to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and many more, so we grow in confidence that God will continue to be faithful and keep His promises to us.
Biblical Faith is Only as Strong as its Object
This biblical understanding of faith is drastically different from the way the world talks about faith. ‘Having faith’ is usually portrayed as a forced confidence with no foundation for it. But, in reality, faith is only as strong as its object. You can have as much faith in something as you want, but our confidence doesn’t come from stronger faith, it comes from God. Timothy Keller put it this way in his book, The Reason for God, “It is not the strength of your faith but the object of your faith that actually saves you. Strong faith in a weak branch is fatally inferior to weak faith in a strong branch.” (2) Our faith is strong and sure because God is strong and sure.
Consider the account of Elijah and the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. There were 450 prophets of Baal who spent the whole morning calling upon the false god to no avail. They took to cutting themselves, the idea being that their blood would attract the deity. Still nothing happened. Their faith was strong, but the object of their faith was not. Jesus talked about the power of faith the size of a little mustard seed; the power doesn’t come from the strength of the faith, but from the strength of God.
Thinking About Faith
This is such good news, because the God we have faith in is the All-Powerful Creator of the universe. Faith in God is immensely stronger than the wishful-thinking-faith of pop culture could ever hope to be!
It’s always good to evaluate the media we consume and think critically about it, asking questions when topics like faith come up. The next time you hear someone in a movie or TV show say “have faith,” take a minute to think about if the faith they are talking about is actually biblical faith.
Have you noticed ‘wishful-thinking faith’ in pop-culture before? Have you ever compared/contrasted it with biblical faith? Let us know in the comments!
- Christian Theology, Millard Erickson, pg 954.
- The Reason for God, Timothy Keller, pg