What Is Faith? (And What It’s Not)

“Are you a person of faith?” How you respond to that question will depend on what you think faith actually is. Given all the misconceptions and misappropriations of the word faith in our culture, it’s no surprise that you might hesitate to answer.

But the questions of faith—its meaning, its object, its content, its significance—are not ones we can afford to overlook. Faith is an urgent matter that we must come to terms with immediately, because “without faith it is impossible to please” God (Heb. 11:6). So, as we consider what faith is, continue to ask yourself this question: “Am I a person of faith?”

What Faith Is Not

People talk about faith in all sorts of ways. In an effort to encourage a friend who’s going through tough times, you might hear someone say, “Just have faith!” Or maybe you’ve heard people talking about how they have faith that a political candidate or a scientific breakthrough is finally going to bring the change our society needs.

Given that there are so many ways to talk about faith, we must make clear what true, biblical faith is not. In describing what faith isn’t, we move closer to knowing what it is. We also discover that some of the things that we regard as faith are not really faith at all.

There are three common misconceptions about biblical faith that we need to refute.

1. Faith is not a religious feeling.

Many men and women claim to be people of faith, yet when you ask them why, they say, “Well, I just have a strong feeling inside of me that I’m a Christian.” By this standard, someone may deny the deity of Jesus Christ, repudiate His atoning death, and disbelieve His bodily resurrection and still be regarded as a Christian because they have a strong feeling about it.

Yet Scripture teaches that faith is not a subjective religious feeling divorced from the objective truth that God has made known. It is not a vague, internal experience that has its origin in one’s own self.

Can we call someone a Christian simply on the basis of what is going on in their gut? Is a Christian whatever we want a Christian to be, depending on the strength of a subjective conviction? Not at all! Why not? Because the Bible says so! It repeatedly reminds us about the danger of being misled by our feelings. In Proverbs, Solomon writes, “Whoever trusts in his own mind is a fool, but he who walks in wisdom will be delivered” (28:26). Elsewhere, the prophet Jeremiah takes this truth a step further, declaring that “the heart is deceitful above all things” (17:9).

This is not to say that faith never stirs or excites our hearts. It should! The Gospel is exhilarating news. True faith, however, isn’t only that. The strong feeling it engenders is never divorced from the objective truth that has been made clear to us in the pages of the Scriptures. Whatever that is, it’s not biblical faith.

2. Faith is not accepting something without evidence.

Another prevalent view is that Christian faith requires us to remove our brains and put it under our seats—in short, to stop thinking. Behind this opinion is the assumption that if you were to ever examine the evidence for Christianity, you would discover that it’s flimsy; therefore, the only way to be a Christian is to launch oneself into mindless oblivion. Faith then becomes a leap in the dark, a conviction that if I just believe enough and get pumped up enough, then something which isn’t true can become true.

Again, though, Scripture helps us see the truth more clearly. The apostle John wrote that his testimony was regarding “that … which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life” (1 John 1:1). Later, in 1 Corinthians 15, the apostle Paul described the hundreds of people who were, like John, witnesses to what Jesus did in rising from the dead (vv. 5–8). And faith rests on the evidence not only of the eyes but also of what the Scriptures have long testified. The book of Acts, for example, praises the people of Berea for not simply believing what Paul said but also testing it against the Scriptures (Acts 17:10–12).

Biblical faith, then, doesn’t ask anyone to check their brains at the door. It is not “Believe or else!” but “Believe because…”

3. Faith is not a positive mental attitude.

In The Power of Positive Thinking, Norman Vincent Peale offers the following advice on how he thinks people should start their day: “First thing every morning before you arise say out loud, ‘I believe,’ three times.”1 He doesn’t say in what or in whom to say you believe, because in his view, it doesn’t really matter. The important thing is that you just believe. Actually believing in something—especially something outside yourself—is superfluous.

Once again, God’s Word paints a different picture. In New Testament faith, what we believe is crucial! It is faith’s object that gives faith itself any sort of significance. Biblical faith is not a positive mental attitude that seeks to bring into existence the things that are believed in. It is good to think positively. It is even right to desire to be around positive people rather than negative people. Yet positive thinking in and of itself is not biblical faith.

The author of Hebrews writes, “Without faith it is impossible to please [God], for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (11:6). Real faith is reliable because its object is God, who is completely trustworthy.

What Faith Is

If faith is not a strong feeling, wishful thinking, or a positive mental attitude, then what is it? The author of Hebrews provides us with a sure, clear answer: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (11:1). Faith, in other words—true, biblical faith—produces a certainty regarding the unseen things that we, as followers of Jesus Christ, are to hope for. But that’s not all. The apostle Paul offers this helpful reminder: “By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8, emphasis added).

Do you ever wonder why it is, believer, that you believe what you believe? When you get down on your knees and pray all alone in your room, how can you trust that God hears all of your prayers? Where does this assurance come from? Only as the result of God graciously opening your eyes to the truth of who He is. Such faith creates conviction. Such faith is a gift from God—a gift that He wants us to receive and enjoy.

What Faith Involves

Biblical faith involves three key features:

1. Knowledge

Faith is dependent upon what can be known about God. In fact, the New Testament says that faith involves us coming to know God Himself. In John 17:3, Jesus says, “This is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

How can you know God? In the person of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ! Speaking of Jesus, John 1:18 says, “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” That’s why it is so important to consider the claims that Jesus made: it is in knowing Him that we know God. And it is this knowledge of God that gives us the basis for our faith.

2. Assent

In biblical faith, our knowledge of God must then be followed by assent. Once we’ve recognized that certain things are true and are to be believed, we must actually believe them! Biblical faith is certainly more than giving assent—but it is never less.

As we read the Bible and consider the claims of Jesus Christ, we discover in Christ someone who compels people’s belief—sometimes even against their will. We might say to ourselves, “I don’t want to believe in Jesus. I don’t want my life taken over. I don’t want somebody in charge of me.” Yet when we lay our lives open before Christ, when we see Him on the cross, and when we understand that He bore all of our sin and rebellion, He compels our belief. When we see Christ in this way, knowledge will be followed by assent.

3. Trust

Lastly, genuine faith involves trust. Knowledge and assent alone do not make genuine faith. James 2:19 says that “even the demons believe.” Demons are not atheists. They even have an orthodox view of God. If faith, then, is simply about understanding God correctly, we must logically conclude that the demons have saving faith. Yet we know that this isn’t the case.

A simple awareness of facts is not faith. There must be a movement from knowledge to assent that then culminates in trust.

A summons to trust in Christ—actively, not passively—is included in all of His invitations. In Matthew 11, for example, He says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (vv. 28–29). Notice the verbs: “come,” “take,” “learn,” “find rest.” These are all action words. They involve doing. You see, faith is not passive resignation. New Testament faith begins in knowledge, leads to assent, and ends in trust on the basis of the knowledge to which we have assented.

A Picture of Faith

A helpful illustration of biblical faith is marriage. Like faith, marriage involves multiple stages. First, you must get to know the individual: you go out for dinner, you walk in the park, you listen to them talk, and you observe them with their family and friends. As you gain knowledge, you begin to ask yourself, “Could I spend my life with this person? Am I willing to commit myself to them?” Then, once you have satisfactory answers to these questions, you begin to tell yourself, “On the basis of the knowledge that I’ve gained, I am prepared to make a commitment. I want to move beyond mere knowledge and assent to trust. I want to give myself to them. I want to know them at the deepest possible level.”

This is the experience of all who place their faith in Jesus. Is it your experience? Are you a person of faith?

Adapted from the sermon “What Is Faith?” by Alistair Begg

Fix Our Eyes on Jesus

1 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 4.1.5.

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