The Nature of Faith

Peter Jensen

New Horizons: February 2003

My Faith Looks up to Thee

Also in this issue

The Assurance of Faith

The Life of Faith

To the question "Why study faith?" there are three answers. First, such study is important because of the significance of faith in the Bible. A basic word study shows the vast number of instances of the word faith and its cognates. For example: "Your faith has healed you" (Mark 5:34). "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved" (Acts 16:31). "I live by faith" (Gal. 2:20). "Without faith it is impossible to please God" (Heb. 11:6). "This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith" (1 John 5:4).

It is not only the words for faith which show the importance of this matter. In many passages, the word itself is missing, but the theme is there. In passage after passage, the idea of faith and the challenge to faith are present.

Ultimately, a Christian is known as a believer, and those who do not belong to Christ, whatever faith they may profess, are called unbelievers. Clearly, the bottom line is faith in Christ.

Secondly, clear thinking about faith is essential, for if we are clear on this subject, it will help us who are ministers of the gospel to get our priorities right. After all, ministers of the gospel are always having to choose between what is urgent and what is necessary. Our main priority as preachers and teachers of the gospel is to proclaim the Word which will create, encourage, and strengthen faith. Thus, knowledge of what faith is will help us to shape our preaching. We need to have a thorough grasp of how people come to faith, and what sort of faith pleases God. We need to know what faith is if we are going to instruct and help our people.

Thirdly, clear thinking about faith will help sort out our theological confusion. The evangelical movement worldwide is becoming more and more confused about God, the gospel, the Scriptures, and human obedience. It is frightening to see how quickly the evangelical movement has reverted to self and the experiences of self as the source of theology. Scott Hafemann, an American scholar, in commenting on this phenomenon, has said that among evangelicals "the Bible viewed as distinct from the believer is now suspect.... 'I know that Christ lives in my heart' is equated with 'I know about Christ and God by looking into my heart' " ("Seminary, Subjectivity, and the Centrality of Scripture," in Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 31 [1988]: 136). This is a massive shift in theological understanding.

Defining Faith

One dictionary defines faith as "confidence or trust in a person or thing." Immediately, you will see that faith is entirely unremarkable. Faith is a universal human experience. Indeed, it is not possible to exist in this world as a human being without faith, confidence, or trust. We exercise faith continually, and at several different levels simultaneously. Faith is always relational. If this is what the author of Hebrews meant by "faith" when he wrote, "Without faith it is not possible to please God," then we would need have no fear, for humans are full of faith. No matter how skeptical or cynical they are, their cynicism and skepticism are far outweighed by the faith which they constantly exercise in all sorts of things and persons.

For after all, it is not faith that matters; it is faith in what or whom. We don't pride ourselves on having faith, so unremarkable and constant is it. Therefore, when people say to you, as they sometimes do, "I cannot find faith" or "I admire you because you have faith" or something similar, they don't actually mean that they cannot exercise faith, for indeed they exercise it constantly and simultaneously at various levels. To them, the meaning of faith is determined by the object of faith. It is this that makes faith useful or dangerous, saving or not. There are two points about saving faith that I wish to make at this stage.

Firstly, saving faith comes from the gospel and focuses on Christ. Faith is spoken of in the New Testament overwhelmingly as faith in Jesus Christ. Although there are times when it speaks about faith in God, again and again the central business of the New Testament is faith in Jesus Christ. Christian faith is unambiguously, unremittingly, Christ-centered. It is when Christ is preached that faith comes into existence. The gospel is not about faith. The gospel is about Jesus Christ. Faith springs into existence as people learn to trust him and to give their lives to him. Christian faith is nothing else than faith in Jesus Christ as he is presented to us in the Word of God.

If you wish to sum up in two or three words the whole message of the Word of God, it is this: Jesus Christ is Lord. Therefore, when the message of Jesus Christ the Lord is preached, men and women exercise a repentant faith. The first and most wonderful fruit of faith is always repentance, as men and women turn from the idols in which they trusted and commit themselves into the hands of the Lord Jesus Christ. Faith and repentance are really two aspects of the same thing, for Christian faith is trust in the Lord Jesus Christ as he is presented to us in the Scriptures. The gospel also persuades us of the truth about Jesus, and faith responds to the gospel with both the assent of the mind and the trust of the heart. The Bible speaks of its great heroes as "full of faith," but the point is not that they are full of faith, but that they are full of faith in the Savior. Faith take its strength and its shape and its purpose from the gospel of the Lord Jesus.

Secondly, saving faith is the gift of God's Spirit. Sinful and rebellious people are utterly incapable of responding to God. Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:3-4 indicates this incapacity:

And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.

In those few pithy words, Paul sets out the terrible plight of the human race, unable to respond to the gospel. The evil one has blinded the minds of unbelievers so they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ. Paul goes right back to the tremendous work of God in creation, when God told light to shine in the darkness, in order to illustrate the illumination God gives to blinded sinners. The gospel can be accepted only when God illuminates the minds of unbelievers by his Holy Spirit.

In 1 Corinthians 2:4-5, Paul writes, "My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, so that your faith might not rest on men's wisdom, but on God's power." In 1 Thessalonians 1:5, Paul speaks of the power of the Spirit of God. In 1 Thessalonians 2:13, he speaks of the power of the Word of God. Word and Spirit belong together; they must never be separated. It is by the power of the Spirit of God taking the Word of God and illuminating our hearts that we come to know God. When we are asked where saving faith comes from, the answer is that it comes through the preaching of the gospel blessed by the Spirit of God.

It is by the power of the Spirit of God taking the Word of God and illuminating our hearts that we come to know God. When we are asked where saving faith comes from, the answer is that it comes through the preaching of the gospel, blessed by the Spirit of God.

God is entirely sovereign, both in accomplishing and applying redemption. Although there is the human effort of preaching the gospel, and although it is perfectly true that faith is a human activity, in the final analysis no one ever comes to faith in Christ except by the powerful work of the Spirit of God in drawing and bringing that person. Preachers do not have to find faith lurking in the hearts of their listeners. Preachers do not have to engender faith. Their business is the ministry of the Word of God and prayer. The Word of God itself will draw forth faith when blessed by the Spirit of God. Saving faith is created by the Word and the Spirit. God has used human individuals to bring most of his people to faith in him, yet the work that ministers of the gospel do is nothing, for it is God's work that brings faith.

John Calvin's definition of faith can hardly be surpassed as a summary teaching on New Testament faith: "a firm and certain knowledge of God's benevolence of us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed on our hearts through the Holy Spirit" (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.2.7). That is faith.

Faith and Superstition

My dictionary, however, gave a second definition of faith: it is "belief which is not based on truth." Some people put their faith in a rabbit's foot or a St. Christopher medal. How do you tell the difference between faith in a rabbit's foot and faith in Jesus Christ? As remarked on already, it is not the faith itself, but the object of faith, that gives it its shape and purpose and strength. It's best then to us the word superstition for faith in a wrong object. Superstition is faith gone wrong. It is faith, but faith in an error. Superstition can be tremendously strong: you can have an extraordinarily strong faith in your lucky number. In fact, sometimes some people's superstitious faith is so strong it can almost seem to create its own success. But full faith in a lie is much worse than little faith in the truth. In the end, it matters very little whether we have small faith or struggling faith or inadequate faith, as long as it is faith in the truth, for by attaching ourselves to the truth, the power of faith comes true.

Superstition was a great Reformation category. The Reformers, in their day, had to break their way through a thicket of superstition that had gripped the church. We have forgotten many of the great truths of the Reformation and, as a result, superstition is creeping back into the churches with no one to say it nay.

It is interesting to note that today the Reformers are often regarded as fools and bigots by the world and in the church. But they were prepared to be negative, to label error as error. They were prepared to change the church furniture and to change the architecture to make it reflect the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Since the middle of the nineteenth century, many churches have been changing the furniture back to reflect superstition. Reformers were burnt in the sixteenth century; in the twentieth century, their reputations have been scorched too, because people are unprepared to see that faith depends upon truth and that we must stand for the truth.

For we have faith in the faith. The Bible not only speaks of faith (meaning our inward attitude to Christ), but also speaks of the faith, and that quite frequently. For example, in Jude 3, Christians are called upon to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints. The faith is encapsulated in the Word of God, the Scriptures, and we are told by Jesus that man does not live by bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God (Matt. 4:4). Therefore, when you trust in the gospel of the Lord Jesus, you inevitably trust in the Scriptures which incorporate that gospel.

There are great dangers to the faith these days, and hence great dangers to Christian obedience. When the Word of God is subverted, when the truth is undermined, faith will necessarily suffer and so will worship and all Christian obedience—for our faith is based upon the truth. The key point of the assault against Christianity will always be the assault upon the Word of God. Skepticism comes with all the regalia of academic success. Many are unprepared to say that the Scriptures are the Word of God, and they accuse those who do of bibliolatry.

Many churches today teach that God speaks in other ways apart from his Word. Listening to God involves interpreting dreams, visions, experiences, and prophecies. All sorts of things are coming in as a word of God, and we are being asked to trust in them rather than the Scriptures. Those who follow this teaching are mingling faith with superstition.

The evangelical faith is often criticized for being very cerebral. But believing in the gospel is the most blessed and wonderful experience. There is no experience like the experience of being found by God, of having his light illuminate our minds, so that we may see the glory of God in the face of our wonderful and blessed Savior, Jesus Christ. What experience compares to that? Is it against the truth? No, it is the truth. Does it bypass the mind? No, it captures the mind.

Of course, there are other experiences of God. We are aware of the beauty of nature, and we stand in awe of God's marvelous and wonderful creative power. We sometimes wonder at answers to our prayers or are astonished by what God does. There are times when our hearts burst with love in the presence of God. Sometimes experiences confirm and strengthen the faith of those who already believe.

Sometimes, however, our experiences contradict faith. What happens when what we have been praying for does not happen? Many, who continually refer to their experiences, only talk about positive experiences. But Christian experience is far wider than that. Our prayers may not be answered as we want; we can fall into danger and despair; our spiritual life may be narrowed. In such times, we have to walk by faith. It is not faith in experiences that is needed, but faith in Jesus.

If faith is as I have described it, then the continuous exposition of the Scriptures is the chief function of ministers of the gospel, and the proclamation of the Scriptures and their application is their chief business in every situation. If faith is as I have described it, then the groups that are associated with our churches will not be counseling groups or therapy groups. Instead, faithful, obedient people will make up Bible study groups and groups meeting for prayer. The Christian life is founded on the truth of God's revealed Word. If we falter here, we will produce religious people, but not Christians.

Dr. Peter Jensen is the author of At the Heart of the Universe (Crossway), a handbook of Christian belief. He was the principal of Moore Theological College in Sydney, Australia, until recently, when he became the archbishop of Sydney of the Anglican Church of Australia. This article and the subsequent two articles are reprinted (with slight editing) from the book Preaching the Living Word: Addresses from the Evangelical Ministry Assembly, edited by David Jackman. We thank Christian Focus Publications for their kind permission to use these articles. For more information, see christianfocus.com. Reprinted from New Horizons, February 2003.

New Horizons: February 2003

My Faith Looks up to Thee

Also in this issue

The Assurance of Faith

The Life of Faith

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