I know I need to live by faith. It goes with being saved by faith.
And the size of my faith may play a role in my being saved, given what Jesus said about having faith the size of a mustard seed. I know, too, that I need to grow in faith. That’s because some people have strong faith and others have weak faith. I hope, eventually, to be buff in my faith.
Some people believe that we can lose our faith—and, with that, our salvation—and others insist that real faith can never be lost. Which, by the way, creates some serious insecurity if I’m not sure who is right. I’ve also heard that faith comes by hearing the Word. Which makes me feel guilty because I hardly ever listen to radio or downloaded sermons, let alone Bible CDs. So that makes me sort of a once-a-week listener. More flabby than buff.
Another way to think about faith is to treat it like a thermometer just outside a window: it has a freezing mark, and sometimes the ‘red’ temperature stuff is above that line, and sometimes below it. So if that’s how faith works in salvation, sometimes I’m in the ‘saved’ zone and at other times I’m below the line. So, using this analogy, I need to know how I can raise the temperature high enough to keep my faith above the freezing mark.
I hope you get the point by now, that we need to ask a bottom line question: what is faith?
I’m serious about the question. Faith is a favorite jargon term among Christians because it serves as the keystone in the chief arch of our pantheon of Christian ideas. Paul, for instance, tied faith to salvation in Ephesians 2:8—“For by grace you have been saved through faith.” Yet from that quote we find another word—grace—is tied to faith. But let’s not lose our focus on faith. If grace sets up faith, how much grace is needed to get faith right? And who supplies the grace?
From many conversations and much reading—which set up my litany of loose thoughts cited above—I’m convinced that for most people the real meaning of faith is about as sure a thing as our grasp of what a duodenum is and how it works. Aren’t these things we just need to take by faith?
And that apparent throw-away thought—‘to take it by faith’—is more important than it might seem at a glance. In the middle ages most scholars assumed that faith is a realm of “non” or “super-rational” realities, while reason deals with our tangible realities. That notion grew from Bible texts such as Paul’s claim that “we walk by faith, not by sight” [2 Corinthians 5:7] and the descriptive summary in Hebrews 11:1 that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” This set up a stubborn divide in Western culture, active even today, that faith is simply a matter of the heart—a subjective realm—and reason is the reliable realm where meaningful—“objective”—conversations occur. And never the two shall meet! Yet there are those among us—believing philosophers—who are trying to bridge that gap by proving that faith can be aligned with reason if we work at it long enough! But I’m increasingly convinced they’re chasing an empty goal because they’ve embraced a medieval miscue. It is useless to treat faith and reason as separate spheres of knowledge: both are rooted in Christ as a reality for our subjective devotion to embrace.
So how can we answer our question? What does “faith” and its identical twin, “believe”, mean?
The answer is, “ask Jesus”! It was his ambition that we believe and thus find salvation—the fourth gospel says as much as it summarized his ministry: “these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” [John 20:31]
A crucial story in Christ’s ministry related to faith is found in John 3, just prior to the well-known verse 16. There, in verses 14-15, Jesus alluded to the events of Numbers 21 when Moses had a bronze serpent built. People, bitten by venomous snakes in the wilderness, needed an immediate antidote. Moses gave them the model with a simple promise: look at the bronze serpent on its pole and be healed. Jesus offered this as the model of faith. It explained his own ministry. A day would come when he would be lifted up on the cross. And there he would cure death.
The point Jesus was making is that faith is simply a gaze in response to his invitation. Dead hearts are healed by looking to Jesus on the cross in the same way a struggling, snake-bitten Israelite in the Sinai wilderness who looked at the bronze model was healed. Is the gaze something purely inward and subjective? For the dying Israelite a look at the bronze model was an objective reality! And faith was a supernatural link to God’s promise—God had promised, “look and live” . So, in that sense, Jesus offered a very tangible and objective basis for salvation: “look and live.” His promise is the basis for our looking, and he is the one who brings new life into being—in our being “born again” [and “from above”]. All of this is addressed in John 3.
It’s not as if this insight was lost on the disciples of Jesus. Paul, for instance, was confident that those he was writing to had faith, but he also promised them that “I do not cease to give thanks for you . . . . [or to pray that] the eyes of your hearts may be enlightened . . .” [Ephesians 1:15 & 18] They could “see” already, but there was still more to see. Faith is ultimately a focus on one who is, for now, “not seen”—namely Jesus who awaits us beyond the cross, in heaven. Listen to the writer of Hebrews who wrote of faith as our vision of Christ in chapter 12:
. . . let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
To place this in the broadest context possible, think of faith as the antidote to what happened in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve both trusted God as their Lord and delight. At least they trusted him until the serpent invited them to trust another source of “truth” in Genesis 3—namely himself! The serpent, while God was away from the Garden, challenged both God’s character [“did God really say . . . ?”] and God’s word [“you will not surely die”]. After a brief time Adam and Eve both entrusted themselves to the serpent’s leadership, based on his words. And, with that, they no longer trusted God. They were no longer people “of faith” and their bond with God was broken. They believed a lie from the Liar rather than the truth of the Truth.
So, with a delightfully ironic plan, God is now in the process of winning people back from the Lie and into the Truth by offering the promise: “For God so loved the world that he sent his one and only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Here is the cure to the problem of Sin. Jesus became Sin for us. So that we look to Jesus who—in God’s transferring my sin to Jesus by my union with him—became an accursed model of the serpent himself. And by entering into the realm of death he broke its power over all who look to him.
Faith is that simple. It’s not a “power within” us. It’s not an energy that I can cause to grow and develop by my own efforts. It’s all about the Person who invites my gaze, my confidence and my love. I respond more and more and my faith becomes that much stronger. The more I love, the more I trust. So faith is working through love. And it started when I was still dead in my sins. That’s why faith is all about him, and not about us. We’re just watching him while he changes us. Yet we soon discover that we have never been busier, now caring for others as we enjoy all of what we see in Christ.
Dr. Ron Frost
Ron helped to launch Cor Deo UK in 2011, and retired from the ministry at the end of 2015. He continues to blog at his “A Spreading Goodness“. His doctoral thesis on Richard Sibbes is still available from Cor Deo and is well worth reading. For more information on Cor Deo, including the weekly theological blog, please visit www.cordeo.org.uk. Ron is now a pastoral care consultant with Barnabas International. In this role he provides care, coaching, encouragement, and educational services to those in overseas cross-cultural ministries. Go to Barnabas International for more information about this unique ministry and for a link that offers support options.