Essentially and broadly, we use this word to express a confidence: I have faith in God, I have faith in my wife, and I have faith in the stock market. Same word, but surely it can't mean the same thing in each context. So, how do we differentiate what we should mean when we refer to faith in God from other times when we use the word? Of course, we do this with the Bible.
It's only when we understand what faith is in regards to God that we can unleash its power to work in our lives as God intended. So, let's keep it simple. I'm looking primarily to Hebrews 11. Let's define what faith is, why faith is important, and what faith does for you.
In short, faith is trust. Hebrews 11:1 defines faith for us: "Now faith is the reality of what is hoped for, the proof of what is not seen" (HCSB). Faith itself is the reality (substance, assurance, confidence) of what we hope for in God. Faith is the proof for what we can't see. In other words, real faith is an inward knowing that gives a believer an unshakable certainty in God and His revelation. Faith is not merely a feeling of assurance (although this is true), but it is the source of the confidence and trust believers have in God when they cannot see Him, and all they have to rest on is His word. Faith is not merely feeling good about your odds (like the stock market). Faith within you is the evidence itself that God exists and will do all He promises.
Real faith, according Hebrews, is an absolute trust in God. If you read the entire chapter you see that the writer uses figures from the Old Testament as examples of real faith. What do they all have in common? They all trusted God at His word. In agreement with James, the writer is stressing that their faith produced faith-driven behavior evidenced in their obedience to God.
In Hebrews 11:6 we read, "Now, without faith it is impossible to please God..." (HCSB) This is the real rub. It seems to me that a natural desire in most people is to please God, or at least think that they have the approval and favor of God. I suppose the atheist considers that a waste of his time, but I'm not talking about those who suppress the truth of God. Most people contemplate God. They just do. And within that contemplation seems to be the natural tendency to think of God as the one who rewards and punishes humanity with perfect fairness. In my observation, it seems that most people will admit that they do wrong (sin) and if they believe in God (which most people do), they tend to think that God (being God) is obligated to judge rightly people's sinfulness. I know there are many, many versions of this among people, but I think this has been and remains the essences of the main plot. Of course, different religions have different answers for how this all works out with God. But I find it pretty universal that people seem instinctively to desire to have God's favor. Not only is it natural, it's also the right desire to have.
But we learn that we can't have God's favor apart from faith. Faith is the critical factor. Even though we try to size up our favor with God in terms of our actions - how good or how bad we think we have been - the Bible teaches us that it's about our faith, not our goodness.
So, being a person of faith is not about effort, or sincerity, or being good. Faith is knowing something specific. Faith is knowing particularly that God has provided salvation through His Son, Jesus. Faith is knowing that Jesus is the truth - who He is, what He did, and what it means to me as revealed in Scripture. This specifically and exclusively is faith. Anything else falls short of Christian faith. And to fall short is to have no faith. People may have a counterfeit that they're comfortable with because they have crafted it to their own liking, but it's not the saving, biblical faith that has been revealed.
When we possess real faith in the good news about Jesus, we learn from Hebrews 11 that there are tremendous benefits for dealing with real life. Faith is not a form of escapism from, what some claim, the futility and meaninglessness of life; faith is having proper perspective in living that will always be a mixture of what we perceive to be good and bad. In other words, real faith helps me navigate real life with real joy and real hope.
Biblical faith enables me to look past my problems to God's promises. I can do this when my faith anchors its hope in God's Word. This is what Noah, Abraham and the others mentioned in Hebrews 11 did. And they did not fully receive what God had promised, but they fully believed He would be true to His word. Now, we have received more of the promises of God, namely the cross. But we still wait on other promises still to come, namely the return of Jesus. But just like Abraham, our faith is focused on what God has said He has and will do. And God's promises are awesome! They completely eclipse any hardship, disappointment, suffering or tragedy that I experience in this life.
But we must be clear on what God has promised and what He has not promised. God has never promised you or me a trouble-free life, financial comfort, good health, or every person's favor. Jesus and Paul actually prepared us for the reality of suffering and persecution. The so-called prosperity gospel distorts God's Word into a message of promises about these material and physical aspects of our life. It is a false gospel. Don't be ignorant and be duped by such wolves. Look past the grin and listen to the message. It won't take you long to discern just how empty, foolish and unbiblical it is.
What God has promised to those who have genuine, biblical, saving faith is so much better than the false promises of the prosperity gospel peddlers. To those being saved God has promised, forgiveness of sin, the presence and ministry of the Holy Spirit, that He will work in all circumstances to bring about some good, that He hears your prayers, that nothing will separate you from His love in Christ, that you have eternal life, that He has prepared a place for you to be with Him forever, that Jesus is returning, and that if you die in this life you'll be resurrected.
But we must listen attentively. His Word also promises us that in this world we will have some trouble, that some people in this world will hate us because of Christ, and that there is a cost for following Jesus. So, real faith doesn't deny or not deal with real problems or pain. But real faith puts all that stuff into it's proper perspective and continues to trust God. In the same way, faith enables me to look beyond the temporal to the eternal. Hebrews 11:10 tells us that Abraham set his vision on a city whose architect and builder is God. The believer lives constantly with a view toward heaven, which is the ultimate reality. A follower of Jesus, who keeps his or her faith as the lens through which they see all life, will always feel a little out of place in this world. And that's not a bad thing. The reality of heaven and eternity that is confirmed in our hearts by faith is the greatest cure for the doses of discouragement and pain that this life sometimes serves up to us.
So, why does it seem that so many people's faith crumbles in adversity. You see some appear to give up faith, quit the church, forget about God, or even get angry and bitter with God. I've seen it happen, and I'm guessing you have too. The reason this happens is simple: those who react to life's hard stuff this way never had the right object for their faith, therefore, not truly in possession of real faith. Their counterfeit faith had no power of perseverance. It was flawed and doomed from the outset. All it took was the right circumstances to make it completely crumble. I'm not talking about a bad day, which we all have. I'm referring to a walking away, a 180 degree forsaking.
In my experience, here are some common objects of misplaced faith even in our churches where we talk about Jesus alone all the time. People sometimes equate personal faith with their religious tradition. They consider themselves people of faith by default simply because they grew up in a tradition, probably going through certain religious observance because that was just what you do. Faith is no more than mere sentimentality and connection to family and community history.
Sometimes a positive self-assessment is confused with biblical, saving faith. This is the error of thinking that my good out weighs my bad and I believe in God, which proves I'm a person of faith. The problem of making yourself as the object of your faith is that God has revealed the fact that your aren't good enough, that your heart is sick with sin, and God is holy. You can't just be good enough by your own standards, all your sin has to be forgiven. The person who makes his own "goodness" the object of his faith lives in a denial of what the Bible says about the seriousness and devastation of his sin.
Lastly, I observe some people who's object of their faith is a God who doesn't judge. God is the patient, benevolent, indulging grandpa. In this distorted view God is loving and forgiving above all else. This view tends to go hand in hand with putting your faith in yourself to be good enough. God will be able to tolerate and look the other way at your "smaller" sins. This view of God is shallow, insufficient and completely misses the point of God's holiness. God's holiness demands perfect justice for sin. This is why Christ is necessary and my perception of a personal goodness that finds favor with God is delusional.
At the end of the day we can't be banking our hope for forgiveness of sin and eternal life on anything other that Jesus alone. We can't simply believe in what Jesus did and add the above objects of faith along side of Him. For us to have real faith that enables us to transcend the pain of this life and live in the here-and-now a God-glorifying life, we must have our trust only in the person and work of Jesus. He is absolutely sufficient and their is nothing I can contribute other than my genuine trust. Jesus alone is the fulfillment of God's promise for salvation. Jesus alone made atonement for sin. Jesus alone can be our righteousness. Jesus alone is Lord.
So, the last relevant question about faith is this: How do I know for sure the object of my faith is Jesus alone? The New Testament is clear on this. A person of real faith bears spiritual fruit. A professing Christian who does not bear spiritual fruit is a contradiction. This metaphor is one Jesus used often. Basically the truth is that true God-honoring behavior only comes from a legit source. This is why I call it evidence. Jesus made this clear in John 15 when he spoke of Himself as the vine and believers as branches that abide in the vine. If this abiding (relationship) is genuine, then the branches will bear fruit and glorify God. Not that they should bear fruit, but they will bear fruit.
But we have to ask, what this fruit bearing looks like in a true believer's life. We have to be careful not to demand perfection, where perfection is not possible. But we should expect a walking in the Spirit if indeed a person has been made alive by the Spirit (Gal 5). Here is what I think constitutes a fair description of real faith in Jesus alone. Your heart's desire is for God; therefore, He weighs foremost in all your decisions. You thirst for knowing God; therefore, you consistently take in the Bible. You want to please God; therefore, you strive to live in Him and die to this world. You value His church; therefore, you participate and serve Him through it.
Christian faith is a narrow notion. It refers to a narrow path of trust in Jesus alone for forgiveness of sin and eternal life. It refers to an understanding that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone and not be any self effort or attachment to religious tradition. It refers to a life that can be measured in terms of obedience and faithfulness to God. It refers to commitment that perseveres under trail and fixes the heart on the promise of eternity. This is what real faith is. So, when we do church and talk about faith, let's be clear, specific and complete in our message. Not just any so-called faith will do. Let us call people to real faith so that in the end if makes a real difference in life and forever.