What do you suppose is the most important word in the Christian life? There are many good candidates and I’m not sure I’d want to make a dogmatic argument for any single word. But surely “faith” should rank among the most important words in the Christian lexicon.
But “faith” defies easy definition for many people. Some wonder whether they have it. Others mistake faith with presumption. Sometimes people seem to speak of “faith” as an antidote to anxiety. Worried? Have a little faith. Blind leaps, vague hope, and believing against the odds all masquerade as faith. So what is faith? Perhaps the closest thing to a succinct biblical definition of faith occurs in Heb. 11:1, “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”
Two things are obvious from this statement. First, faith involves a sureness about future hope. It orients us with confidence toward what is coming later. Second, the essence of faith is certainty about unseen and invisible realities. Faith is a way of seeing beyond physical sight. The remainder of Hebrews 11 works this definition out in a variety of historical examples. A reading of Hebrews 11 reveals the variegated nature of true biblical faith commendable before God. I count twenty hues or aspects to faith.
1. Faith understands God is Creator.
3 By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.
2. Faith offers to God.
4 By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was commended as a righteous man, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead.
3. Faith pleases God.
5 By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death; he could not be found, because God had taken him away. For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God. 6 And 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.
4. Faith heeds warnings.
7 By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.
5. Faith obeys without knowing everything.
8 By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. 9 By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.
6. Faith trusts God’s promises.
11 By faith Abraham, even though he was past age—and Sarah herself was barren—was enabled to become a father because he considered him faithful who had made the promise. 12 And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.
7. Faith longs for heaven.
13 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. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. 14 People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. 15 If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 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.
8. Faith willingly sacrifices all.
17 By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, 18 even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” 19Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death.
9. Faith blesses the future.
20 By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau in regard to their future.
10. Faith worships to the end.
21 By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of Joseph’s sons, and worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff.
11. Faith plans beyond our lifetime.
22 By faith Joseph, when his end was near, spoke about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and gave instructions about his bones.
12. Faith sees potential and fears no king but God.
23 By faith Moses’ parents hid him for three months after he was born, because they saw he was no ordinary child, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict.
13. Faith chooses suffering over sin and treasures Christ over the world.
24 By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. 25 He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a short time. 26 He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward.
14. Faith perseveres in the hope of salvation.
27 By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible. 28 By faith he kept the Passover and the sprinkling of blood, so that the destroyer of the firstborn would not touch the firstborn of Israel.
15. Faith believes God’s miracles.
29 By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as on dry land; but when the Egyptians tried to do so, they were drowned.
16. Faith does the seemingly ridiculous sometimes.
30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell, after the people had marched around them for seven days.
17. Faith welcomes and sides with God’s people.
31 By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient.
18. Faith accomplishes more than we can imagine in this life.
32 And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets, 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. 35 Women received back their dead, raised to life again. Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection.
19. Faith sustains the suffering.
36 Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. 37 They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— 38 the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.
20. Faith holds together all the people of God.
39 These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. 40 God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.
Such are the saints who are commended by God, of whom the world is not worthy. Oh Lord of glory, I believe; help my unbelief!
To comment on this article visit Thabiti Anyabwile’s blog at The Gospel Coalition.