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Defining Faith: Confusion and Clarification

Faith, belief, believe: Almost certainly, this word is used more than any other by scholars, theologians, philosophers, and congregants in such a vague, ethereal way, as to be virtually useless to communicate the concept of faith. I was so taken with these foggy notions that I researched it for myself and wrote a book on the subject, Without Faith It Is Impossible to Please God.

Now, the importance of faith to the Christian is apparent. The above title is from Hebrews 11:6. Our salvation depends upon faith: “If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:17). If we have a certain kind of faith, we can move mountains (Matthew 17:20). Jesus often said of His healings, “Go your way. Your faith has made you whole.”

I could fill this page with such quotes and references. Faith is central to being a Christian.

Another example is from R. C. Sproul’s book, Now That's a Good Question (1966). He says

It's an intellectual awareness. You can't have faith in nothing; there has to be content to the faith. You have to believe something or trust someone…. (There) are three distinctive aspects of biblical faith. The first is the Latin term notitia: believing in the data or the information.… assensus, or intellectual assent…. I must be persuaded of the truthfulness of the content…. The final term is fiducia, referring to a fiduciary commitment by which I put my life in the lap of Jesus…. I trust him and him alone for my salvation. That is the crucial element, and it includes the intellectual and the mental…. But it [personal trust] goes beyond it ["the intellectual and the mental"] to the heart and to the will so that the whole person is caught up in this experience we call faith.  (This extract is only a portion of his discussion! Louis Berkhof in his Systematic Theology, uses the same three Latin words in his discussion of faith.)

I defy any layman to understand and explain in simple words what Dr. Sproul meant! The three Latin terms are common to definitions and discussions of faith. Louis Berkhof in his Systematic Theology, for example, uses these. Now, the theologian and scholar may be able to understand (or think that they do). But, they have to fit in “the lap of Jesus,” “the intellectual and the mental to the heart and to the will,” and “the whole person.”

The hymnist said it better and more simply, “Trust and obey.” That is faith, “trust and obey the instructions of God.” Or, more simply, faith is action based upon knowledge. Saving faith is action that is based upon the Word of God (knowledge).

The concept of faith and saving faith is one of the confusions. Theologians try to define saving faith in a way that makes it more complicated than it is. Perhaps, if they tried to define faith apart from salvation, they might see the issue more simply. I set my alarm clock on the basis that it keeps accurate time, that the alarm will go off at the time that I set it, that the world does not come to an end before it goes off, that I will not die in my sleep, that the house will not burn down, etc. etc. I act (make a decision) based upon knowledge.

Another example is one of planning a trip. I “believe” that I know where I am going, that the car will not break down on the way, that I will not have an accident, that the maps that I will follow are accurate, that I will not be prevented by an emergency in going, etc. etc.

Just planning a day involves tens, if not hundreds, of possible interference, accidents, breakdowns, and unexpected interruptions. But, we plan and act based upon knowledge.

Saving faith, then, is simply acting on the Biblical knowledge of God and His plan of salvation. The difference between the Christian and the non-Christian is the difference in the knowledge that each chooses to act upon. The non-Christian acts upon whatever knowledge that he trusts is reliable. The Christian acts upon the infallible Word of God. Both believe. Only the knowledge is different.

We have made the act of believing too complex. We have made the definition of belief and faith too complex. And, this complexity obscures the issue of unbelief. If I do not act, I do not believe. Disobedience to an understanding of what one ought to do, is unbelief. Among Christians, we hear often, “I know that I should _____ (read my Bible more, help a particular person, pray more, be a better husband, etc.), but I do not.” That statement is a wrong use of the word, “believe.” Belief is action. Failure to act is unbelief.

Consider the use of “faith” in “Christian faith” or “the faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude, verse 3). “Faith” is the knowledge that we are to act upon for now and into heaven.

One of the difficulties with “faith” is that in the English language, there is no verb form of “faith.” There is “belief” and believe. There is “faith,” but no “faitheve.” So, of the 300+ times that “faith” (NKJV) is used in the New Testament, there is no ready link of faith to “belief“ and “believe,” because they are spelled differently. Thus, there is a tendency of the mind to dissociate “belief” and “believe” from faith. We need consciously to be aware that they are synonyms, even deriving from the same Greek words, pistein (verb) and pistis (noun).

There are nuances of faith that I have not discussed here. Faith is a gift. The consequences of faith are determined by Reality (God in His decretive and preceptive will). Faith can result in miracles of healing and moving mountains into the sea. saving faith can be false. Even the devils have faith (James 2:19), but they are not saved. And more, much more. See URL for my book above.

Salvation. This word is another that is used incompletely. When you ask someone, “Are you saved?,” what is the question? The question is essentially, “Are you going to heaven.” Almost every tract, sermon, and evangelistic presentation concerns one’s destination in eternity. And, I would agree that this focus is the most important.

But, salvation is much more than that. The ordo salutis (order of salvation) lists effectual calling, regeneration, conversion and repentance, faith, justification, adoption, sanctification, and glorification. These are parts of salvation. These are glorious parts of salvation. These are different parts of salvation. Thus, what does the question, “Are you saved?” or “I am saved” mean relative to the ordo salutis? I will give only this directive here, “We have been saved, we are being saved, and we will be saved.”

Other words. Hope, love, peace, mercy, grace, and death are a few of the other Biblical words that are poorly or incompletely understood. With the availability of online commentaries, Christians can easily do their own Biblical research. See what you can find on these and other words. You can also visit my Glossary at another website.

 


 

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