What does “faith” mean, exactly?
It is tempting to jump in too quickly, to simply answer with the clear definition provided in the first verse of Hebrews 11: “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” But when the letter to the Hebrews was written, the term “faith” had already acquired a somewhat special, technical status.
So if you want to answer the question properly, it’s worth taking a little time to compare and contrast the input of some of the other New Testament writers.
First, Paul had taught with a powerful simplicity (mostly in Galatians and Romans) of faith as trust in Christ as the absolute condition and instrument of salvation. Faith, in those terms, was the total opposite of works.
Some time later, there was an interesting aside in 2 Peter 3: 15-16 when the writer noted: “Our dear brother Paul also wrote to you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort…”
It seems that the meaning of faith was one of the areas of doctrine that had become distorted. We know this, because James worked hard to correct a wrong application of the word. It’s easy -he taught- to push the teaching of faith to the point where moral living itself is subverted. Now clearly, Paul had no intention of saying that ongoing morality was unnecessary, but both James and also Hebrews were written to meet the danger of this kind of misunderstanding.
So James represents faith as the fountain of all active goodness. “Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’ Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.” (James 2: 15-16)
James was coming against the earliest phases of what became called “Antinomianism.” He reconciled faith and morality, and stressed that the highest morality springs out of faith.
By contrast, the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews had a different target. He was coming against a form of legalism, a proud, self-satisfied, cynical spirit, which is another twisting of the doctrine of salvation through faith.
This derives from a hyper-individualism. If, as sometimes happens, a preacher is tempted into over-emphasising salvation as merely your personal ticket to heaven, (and that this salvation is made sure once for all by a moment’s trust in Christ), then the whole business of subsequent moral living has been sidelined, if not dropped!
When this happens, it’s possible to end up in a kind of moral stupor. This isn’t to say that the person is a Really Terrible Person. It’s just that they may become somewhat morally deadened, insulated by a cloak of Religious Decorum; and internally proud and self-absorbed.
These are the people of Hebrews 6:1, who are those described as having repented and believed, after a fashion, but have failed to move forward from that position. So, the writer says, “Let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God… “ This is where you start, he says, and not where you end up!
And that’s the target of the writer to the Hebrews. His audience faced the danger of dead-end, worldly “Christianity.” It’s a totally different condition to that of the Gentile heathen, like the jailer at Philippi, whom Paul called to trust himself into the hands of the Lord Jesus Christ, that he might be saved.
But Hebrews insists on faith too. The writer is not preaching something different from Paul, but unfolding the same idea of faith, as the central principle of the Gospel, but to a different target audience.
And we’re not talking theology here but life. Whatever else faith includes, confidence in reference to the objects of our hope must find a place in it. Faith bridges over the chasm between hope and the things hoped for. It saves us from building castles in the air or living in a fool’s paradise. Worldliness and phoney religion must not deceive us.
The writer uses three different words to open out the different sides of that confident faith.
- One refers to the freedom and boldness with which the confidence felt manifests its presence in words and action [parrêsia].
- Another signifies the fulness of conviction with which the mind when confident is saturated [plêrophoria].
- The third word, which we have here in Hebrews 11:1, describes confidence as a reality, resting on an unshaken foundation, and contrasted with illusions [hypostasis].
Earlier in the letter, he has urged Christians to boldness of action and fulness of conviction. And now he adds that faith is that boldness and that wealth of assurance in so far as they rest upon reality and truth.
And now we can come to the verse itself and get a sense of the value of the writer’s description of faith as “an assurance concerning things hoped for,” and apply it to give force to the exhortations contained in the whole letter.
In short, the writer now tells his readers that the true source of Christian constancy and boldness is the realisation of the unseen world.
But faith is this assurance concerning things hoped for because it is a proof [elenchos] of their existence, and of the existence of the unseen. The latter part of the verse is the broad foundation on which faith rests in all the rich variety of its meanings and practical applications.
And here it is that Paul, James, and the writer to the Hebrews are in complete agreement. Whether people trust unto salvation, or develop their inner spiritual life, or enter into communion with God and lift the weapon of unflinching boldness in the Christian warfare, trust, character, confidence, all three derive their being and vitality from faith, as it demonstrates the existence of the unseen.
This is the faith of which the writer speaks.It is faith for life. It is confidence for the journey. But rather than provide a theoretical analysis, he now brings us a parade of people who have walked the walk and found that faith works.