What Is Biblical Faith: A Study in Hebrews 11

This post will be taking a look at biblical faith, primarily from Hebrews 11. The Greek word pitis, usually translated as faith, is one of the most common words used in the New Testament; found 243 times. It is also a word, and concept, that is central to Christianity and our salvation. Faith is the human response to God’s grace that leads to salvation.

But it seems like too often we have a poor understanding of just what this word means. All too often it seems to be thought of as either an intellectual acknowledgement of something; or hoping for something without any evidence, AKA blind faith. And while both of these understandings of faith touch on what it is, neither of them fully expresses the truth of biblical faith.

While biblical faith does include intellectual acknowledgement, it is more than that. Faith acts on what is believed. Without that action faith is dead and useless. And, while faith involves believing and acting on things that are not fully known or seen, it is not blind. Biblical faith involves reason and evidence.

Biblical Faith

This chapter starts right off with a definition of faith, saying that “faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” At least this is how the NIV translates it; other translations will have some variation from this. But according to all translations faith has two components: confidence in what we hope for; and assurance about what we do not see.

Confidence translates the Greek word hypostasis. According to Mounce this word means “a standing under; a taking of a thing upon one’s self.” It is used 5 times in the New Testament; 4 of them translated as something like confidence or assurance; and the other time as essence, with Jesus being the essence of God (Heb. 1:3). Faith is taking hold of that for which one hopes and making it a part of who you are. For the Christian that hope would be salvation / eternal life. And faith is living with that future as a current reality in your life.

Assurance translates the Greek word elenchos meaning “a trial in order to proof, a proof.” This is the only time this word is used in the Bible so there is nothing to compare it to. But it seems to have the connotation that faith is the proof of what we don’t see. Or at least faith gives me full confidence that what I do not see is indeed real.

Faith Further Defined

I believe that Hebrews 11:6 gives further insight into what the author of Hebrews means with his definition in the first verse of this chapter. Here he says that “without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.

It seems to me that “must believe that he exists” points to “assurance about what we do not see.” What I do not see is God. And it is by faith that I can have confidence that he does exist. But this is not just a blind faith that God exists. The existence of God is rational, and supported by evidence if one is willing to see it. But nonetheless, in the end, we do not see God, and have to ultimately trust that he does exist.

And the expression, “he rewards those who earnestly seek him“, would seem to point back to “confidence in what we hope for“. Our hope is for salvation / eternal life, and all who earnestly seek after God will be rewarded with it. While the first verse of this chapter gives a generic definition of faith, verse 6 roots it in Christian, or biblical, faith.

Hall of Faith

The bulk of Hebrews 11 is a recitation of Old Testament characters who exhibited faith in their lives. The author mentions about 19 people or groups by name and a larger number in passing; it’s somewhat of a who’s who of the Old Testament. But what each of them had in common was faith. Over and over the author uses the expression “by faith”. They acted in faith, and God worked through that faith. I am going to look at just a couple of examples from this chapter, but it is well worth reading the whole chapter to get a better feel of how faith works in actual practice.

Abraham

Three times Abraham is said to have acted by faith. When called to a place he would inherit, he went. He made his home in the promised land, living as a stranger in tents. And when called to sacrifice Issac his son, he went. You could specify many more times in Abraham’s life when he acted by faith, but these three were significant for the author of Hebrews. Let’s camp out on the third one here for a moment.

Abraham is 75 years old when he moved into Canaan and 100 when Issac is born. Some time later God calls on Abraham to take Issac to the region of Moriah and sacrifice Issac; to kill the promised heir. The author here points out two responses that Abraham made to God’s call.

First, he reasoned that God would be able to raise Isaac from the dead. He invested some thought in what he was being called to do. And he determined that God would still be able to fulfill his promise to Abraham, even if the one through whom that promise was to be fulfilled were to die.

The other thing Abraham did was to take Issac to Moriah, build an altar, put Issac on it, and prepare to kill him. God stopped him before the sacrifice was made, but Abraham passed the test. He was faithful, trusting God even when everything in him probably cried out against it.

Moses

Moses is also mentioned as acting by faith three times. He refused to identify as Egyptian royalty, opting instead to cast his lot with God’s people. He left Egypt, not fearing the king’s wrath. And he kept the Passover. The first and third of these events are clear from the Biblical account. But the second can be one of two events.

Moses left Egypt twice. The first time after killing an Egyptian and fleeing for his life. The second time was at the head of the multitude of Jacob’s descendants who were leaving Egypt. The second of these seems more natural for the Hebrews reference because it was in fear of his own life that he fled from Egypt the first time.

Moses left Egypt, not fearing the king’s wrath and “persevered because he saw him who is invisible.” Moses had not literally seen the invisible God. But he had encountered God in a way that convinced him of God’s reality and his concern for the Jews. Moses acted in faith, not blindly, but because of his experience and trust in the reality of what God was doing.

Thinking and Acting

It should be clear by a careful reading of this chapter that the experience of Abraham and Moses was not unique to them. Faith almost always involved action. It was by faith that Noah built an ark, that Moses parents hid him, that Israel crossed the sea and that they marched around Jericho. Faith was not just an intellectual exercise; a belief that did not result in action.

But there was also a mental component for many of these people. Sarah considered God faithful. Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead. And Moses choose to be mistreated. These people did not just act. They thought about their actions first and then acted. Their actions were in response to careful consideration. Faith is not just blindly acting. Faith considers carefully and then acts.

Looking Ahead

An inherent element in biblical faith is looking forward to some unseen end. Interspersed with a listing of the “hero’s of the faith” is a description of what these people were looking forward to. In verse 10 Abraham, although living in a tent, was said to be “looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” And later the author says:

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.

Hebrews 11:13-16 NIV

Beyond the Grave

I think it is significant that all of the people mentioned in Hebrews 11 died without receiving what had been promised to them. They died with the hope of their faith still unrealized. Nevertheless they continued in their faith up until the end. They saw their hope as a distant vision, calling to them; and they pursued it to the end. That tells us something important about biblical faith. It is pointing to something that lies beyond this life; it lies beyond the grave.

Because the object and hope of their faith was not in this world, the Hebrews 11 saints, probably unconsciously, acknowledged that they were not a part of this world. But by their faith they identified themselves as foreigners and strangers on earth.

Not Ashamed

These faithful ones did not have to live by faith, turning away from this world and looking ahead to another. But they did. Their hope was set on something better than what was around them. Instead of being content with the country they were in, they were looking forward to another one; to the Kingdom of God.

And because they were willing to turn away from this world, God was pleased with them. He was not ashamed to be called their God. If you have raised children you will have some idea of what this says. There were times when my children would do something that would frustrate, or even embarrass me; when it was tempting to tell others I didn’t know whose kid was acting that way. But there were other times when I would proudly point and tell those around me “that’s my kid.” And that’s how God reacts to those who follow him in faith: “that’s my kid!”

The Source of Biblical Faith

One of the things that Christians are divided over is the source of this faith that is described here. Is it something that is already in me, potentially enabled by the Holy Spirit? Or is faith a gift from God; a gift he gives only to his elect? Hebrews does not explicitly answer this question; nor does any other Scripture that I am aware of. But I do believe that it does provide some implicit guidance in helping to answer the question.

Hebrews 11:6 starts off saying that “without faith it is impossible to please God.” Those who exercise faith can please God. Those who do not, cannot please him. Faith is the key on the human side of the relationship; it is essential. And that seems to be the aim of this whole chapter. Those who demonstrate faith are pleasing to him. And this makes sense if faith is something that is in us; something that we may or may not exercise. But does it make sense if faith is something that God is pleased to give only to some people? In that case why would my faith please him? Any more than my son would please me by possessing a book that I had given to him.

Faith Is of Human Origin

But if faith is something that I have, and the exercise of the faith pleases God, then is not faith a work on my part; contrary to salvation being completely a work of God’s grace? I do not believe so. Faith starts by trusting in God, and then proceeds by living for him. No one questions the follow-on aspect of faith; living for God. It is in the initial phase of trusting God that is challenged. But is it a “work” on my part to receive the gift of salvation that God freely offers me? No; I do not believe it is.

All people are called to repent (Acts 17:30) and respond to God in faith. That only makes sense if all people are capable of repenting and responding in faith. It seems clear to me that faith is not something given just to a few. Instead the potential to respond in faith is enabled within every person.

Summary

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith (Eph. 2:8a).” No matter how you understand faith, it is clear that it is instrumental in our salvation; we will not be saved without it. But what is this faith that plays a part in our salvation? Hebrews 11 tells us that there are two aspect to faith. It is believing in something. And it is acting on that belief.

Scripture tells us that the something we need to believe in is God (Heb. 11:6), more specifically in the crucified Jesus (Rom. 3:22, 25). We need to believe that God exists, that Jesus is God incarnate, and that redemption comes through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

We also need to believe that he rewards those who seek him. And that implies a life lived looking forward to full participation in the kingdom he has prepared for us. Turning our backs on this world, and fixing our eyes on what lies ahead. John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is a wonderful allegory of what it means to walk by faith, looking forward to the coming kingdom.

The views expressed here are solely mine and do not necessarily reflect those of any other person, group, or organization. While I believe they reflect the teachings of the Bible, I am a fallible human and subject to misunderstanding. Please feel free to leave any comments or questions about this post in the comments section below. I am always interested in your feedback.

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