What is Faith?

I had a very frustrating discussion with someone recently about faith.

What is Faith?

This word is being mangled beyond recognition such that, when people hear it, something comes to mind which never would have occurred to anyone using the word at any other time in history.

If you are a Christian, you need to be aware of what non-Christians think now when they hear this word, and if you are not a Christian, you need to be aware of what Christians mean when they use this word. So, let’s clarify what faith is by looking at what it isn’t.

Faith isn’t anti-intellectual

A master stroke of the so-called New Atheists has been to redefine faith so that it means “belief without evidence”. They put evidence, proof, reason and knowledge on one side, and on the opposite side they put faith, so that if you have evidence, proof, reason and knowledge then you don’t need faith.

Richard Dawkins said, “Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence.”

Christopher Hitchens put it like this: “Faith is the surrender of the mind; it’s the surrender of reason, it’s the surrender of the only thing that makes us different from other animals.”

The problem is, these men have just invented that definition. By no stretch of the imagination is it an accurate representation of what the Bible means when it talks about faith. When we consult lexicons that tell us about the meaning of the Hebrew and Greek words that are translated as “faith” in the Bible, not one of them says, “belief in spite of the lack of evidence” or anything similar. In fact, over and over again the writers of scripture present evidence when they call on people to have faith (e.g. John 20:30-31; Acts 10:36-43; 1 Corinthians 15:1-8).

The problem with today’s redefinition of faith is that it separates faith in a “religious” context from faith in an everyday context, and this shouldn’t be done.

The writers of scripture did not speak about faith because it was a foreign concept shrouded in mystery. They used it because it was a term everyone understood and a faculty everyone used, and it is still the same today – when people aren’t thinking about “religious” issues, they have no problem talking about evidence-based faith. For example, when Richard Dawkins was debating John Lennox, he said, “We only need to use the word ‘faith’ when there isn’t any evidence.” Lennox responded by saying, “I presume you’ve got faith in your wife; is there any evidence for that?” Dawkins’ immediate response was, “Yes, plenty of evidence.” He didn’t say, “No, I don’t have faith.” He recognised that evidence wasn’t in opposition to faith, it supported it.

If you were in need of life-saving surgery you would want to find out something about the surgeon. If you discovered that she had graduated top of her class, was a world expert in the particular issue, had performed the operation dozens of times with 100% success rate, and had the best team helping her, would your faith in her be stronger or weaker? Stronger obviously! Contrary to what atheists say, evidence doesn’t diminish faith, it strengthens it. Faith grows as evidence increases.

When Paul commenced his letter to the Romans detailing the message of the Christian gospel, he established solid ground for our faith to rest on. He spoke about fulfilled prophecy (1:2), the resurrection, (1:4), the transformation in the lives of the Romans (1:8), creation and design (1:20-23), and the subject of objective morality (1:32). In light of these areas of evidence, no one can say that Christian faith is anti-intellectual.

Faith isn’t only intellectual

It is equally important to grasp that faith isn’t only intellectual – it is not merely believing facts. Faith is entrusting yourself to something or someone; it is active trust – I depend on something or someone to do something for me. That’s why the gospel doesn’t just call on us to “believe that...”; it calls on us to “believe in…” or “believe on…”

In the Bible, faith is not put in contrast to reason or evidence, faith is put in contrast to works (e.g. Romans 3:28; 4:4-5; Ephesians 2:8-9). In a works-based religion, I have to earn God’s favour and merit His acceptance. The gospel says I can’t earn God’s favour, I can never merit His acceptance. I’m helpless to save myself, and so I need to trust someone else to rescue me from the danger I am in, and bring me into a right relationship with God.

I need to trust someone else, but not just anyone else – there is only one with the necessary resources to save me, and that is Jesus Christ. Because of who He is and what He has done, He is uniquely qualified to be the Saviour. The Bible points us away from ourselves and away from our efforts, and points us to Him – we have to put our trust in Him.

What matters then, isn’t the strength of our faith, but the strength of the one we put our faith in.

Think again of the patient needing life-saving surgery. He could be incredibly nervous or as cool as a cucumber, but what matters is not how strong his faith is, but whether he has put his faith in the right person. If he has committed his case to a capable surgeon, then he’ll be fine, no matter how fearful he might be.

The Lord Jesus is offering to take your case – to save you from your sins. He has loads of experience in this. He is trustworthy, so trust Him. He is dependable, so depend on Him. He is reliable, so rely on Him. He is faithful, so put your faith in Him.