The Apostle’s Creed starts with the words “I believe in God.” This is probably the boldest statement one can make, with the greatest consequence. It sets believers aside from non-believers, and distinguishes between those who live with God and hope, and those “without hope and without God in this world” (Ephesians 2:12). This statement makes all the difference – in this life and the next.
In the New Testament the church is called a “household of faith” (Galatians 6:1) comprised of “believers” (Acts 5:14) or more specifically “believers in God” (1 Peter 1:21), those who have been “justified by faith” (Romans 3:28). The writing of the apostles urge the church to “walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7), to “live by faith” (Habakkuk 2:4, quoted 5x in New Testament), to “have faith in God” (Mark 11:22), to “believe in God” (John 14:1) or “trust in the Lord” (Philippians 2:24, 8x in Psalms). Throughout the New Testament, we read the many promises of faith including “all things are possible to him who believes” (Mark 9:23) and also that every faith-filled decree will be accomplished and every faith-filled prayer will be answered (Mark 11:23-24).
The Gospel writers record a few unsuspecting individuals whom Jesus commended for having “great faith”: the Canaanite woman whose daughter were possessed (Matthew 15:28), the men who lowered their paralytic friend to Jesus through the roof (Matthew 9:2) as well as the Roman Centurion whose servant was ill (Matthew 8:10).
In contrast, the Gospels writers frequently emphasized the failures of the disciples due to their “little faith” (which became their nick-name of sorts). For instance, related to their fear of poverty (Matthew 6:30), when Jesus calmed the storm (Matthew 8:26), when the disciples could not drive out a demon from a young boy (Matthew 17:20), and when Peter started drowning after initially walking on water (Matthew 14:31).
What does it mean to “have faith in God”?
In our secular world, the word “faith” is used frequently in songs, writings and conversation, but it rarely has any reference to God. This creates confusion regarding the Biblical use of the term faith. So what is Biblical faith? And what is it not?
Faith is not mental ascent, or mere human knowledge. James challenged the church that mere agreement with the truth of is God is insufficient for saving faith – “even the demons believe that, and they shudder!” (James 2:19) That faith does not save, as it is merely mental ascent, just cognitive in nature (James 2:14). Similarly, to merely agree with the historical truth that Jesus lived, was crucified, died, resurrected and ascended to heaven is not salvific in nature either. The fact that you “know” and “agree” with truth does not save you, just like agreeing a parachute will save you from a certain death in a falling aircraft – you have to put it on yourself.
For faith to be saving faith, one needs to believe that Christ’s life, death and resurrection was a substitution for ours (or a “propitiation”, Romans 3:25, Hebrews 2:17, 1 John 1:2, 4:10). Saving faith requires you to trust that Christ became “sin for [me] so that [I] might become the righteousness for God in Christ Jesus” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Saving faith is personal. One receives the gift of salvation “by grace” (Ephesians 2:8-9) through personal trust in Christ – that his life, death and resurrection was enough for me. One trusts him so much that – if you are wrong or if he is not enough – you will perish without him. It means you bank on Christ only; there is nothing you can add or take away from the completed work of Christ. Your human effort is useless in this regard. Christ is your only hope (Colossians 1:27; cf Ephesians 2:12).
A good example of saving faith
On June 30 1859 Charles Blondin (born Jean François Gravelet) became the first person to cross over the Niagara Falls on a tightrope. The 340m walk was witnessed by 25’000 awestruck (paying) spectators. The stunt took 42 minutes, elevating him 49m above the raging waters where about 1million m3 rushed by every second.
To understand the risk he took, watch this short video of Nik Wallanda who crossed over the same falls in June 2012.
Over the next few months Blondin repeated the stunt several times with variation: he crossed over the rope (8cm in diameter) on stilts; he did it blindfolded; he did it in a sack; he pushed a wheelbarrow over; he carried a chair, stopping half-way to stand with one leg of the chair balancing on the rope. Once he even sat down in the middle and cooked an omelet, enjoyed his breakfast, and only then walked on!
One of his most memorable moments was when, after another crossing on September 15 1860, he asked the crowd whether they believed he could cross the falls again. “Yes!” was the confident cheer. “Do you believe I could cross the falls carrying a man on my back?” After witnessing his previous stunts, they cheered expectantly “Yes!” Blondin leaned in, asking “Who will volunteer?” Silence. After a moment Blondin pointed to an onlooker “Will you trust me?” “No! I can’t risk my life like that!” No one would volunteered, so Blondin turned to his manager Harry Colcord. “Harry, do you believe I can carry you across?” “Yes”, said Harry, “I know you can.” “Then climb on!” And Harry became the only man who was ever carried across the raging Niagara falls by his friend since he was the only man with real faith in Blondin.
Faith in action
Our faith here on earth is not only effective to secure our eternal salvation, although that conversion is primary (John 11:26). The eleventh chapter of Hebrew recalls a few momentous instances of faith in Jewish history, and therein we learn of what faith can do on earth: it leads to our obedience by which we can escape dangers on earth (v7) or secure an inheritance (v8-9). Through faith we receive power to do the impossible (v10), we speak powerful blessings (v21) and future prophesies (v22). Faith prevents us from giving in to fear (v23) or temptation (v24), and gives protection from death and destruction (v28,31). Through faith we can to do the impossible (v29-30), “conquer kingdoms, enforce justice, obtain promises, stop the mouths of lions, quench the power of fire, escape the edge of the sword, [be] made strong out of weakness, [become] mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight… receive [children] back their dead by resurrection…” (v33-35). This list is a recording of what believers had accomplished in faith in the past – you can do the same, and more. Indeed, Jesus promised that “those who believe in [him] will do greater works” than what he had done (John 14:12).
How do we put our faith to work?
Firstly, our faith is in God, not in our faith. God is the object of our faith; we trust in him to do that which we cannot do. He has the Divine power to do what we cannot do, and the Fatherly goodness and generosity to do it for us. Thus our trust in not in our powerful faith or skillful prayer to conjure up appropriate faith for the need. No, the burden is off our shoulders – we trust in God, not our ability. When we say we “believe in God”, we mean to say that we trust God’s power to do what we cannot do, we trust in God’s person (his benevolent, faithful character) to help us in our weakness, and we trust in God’s promises (the reliability of his word – both written and spoken to us) to be true and certain. That is the faith that Abraham had (Romans 4:18-22).
Secondly, faith in action requires a goal, or in the definition of the author of Hebrews “faith is the subject of things hoped for” (Hebrews 11:1). Elsewhere Paul writes that “our faith rests in the hope of eternal life…” (Titus 1:2). In other words, hope is the subject of our faith. Faith follows the hope we have, as Abraham’s tangible promise of “offspring as many as the stars in the sky and grains of sand beneath your feet” illustrate (see Genesis 15:5). For you to wield your faith, there must be some hope, some definable, clear, certain outcome. Something you can work towards and can hold onto. This can be a promise of God, a dream, a goal. And the more certain and more defined your hope, the stronger the faith which you work to make this hope a reality.
Thirdly, our faith is from the heart, through the mouth. Luke records how Jesus’ disciples woke him in the night, afraid to drown in the stormy sea. “[Jesus] awoke and rebuked the wind and the raging waves, and they ceased, and there was a calm. He said to them, ‘Where is your faith?’” (Luke 8:22-25). By implication Jesus said “My faith has effect when I speak it – why did you not do it?” In another instance he taught the same principle, after cursing the fig tree (Mark 11:14). When Peter was amazed the following day by the effect of Jesus’ words, the Master replied “Have faith in God. Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” (Mark 11:23-24). The principle is clear: for faith to have effect, it has to be spoken. For the impossible obstacles (“mountains”) to be removed, or the unwanted things to die in our hearts and lives (“fig tree”) the words of faith must be decreed, or the prayer by faith must be prayed “not doubting” (James 1:6-8). After all, “The power of life and death in in the tongue” and those who live by it will profit from it (Proverbs 18:20-21).
Lastly, our faith require action, or obedience. If hope is the house-plan we desire, faith is the progressive activities to realize that plan. Therefore James wrote “faith without works is dead” (James 2:26). Noah’s hope was being preserved from the flood, so in faith he chopped the wood, assembled the ark and loaded his family and animals and all the while warned the people of the coming flood. Joseph’s hope was the preservation from the great famine, so in faith he constructed silos to store the coming abundance. Moses’ hope was the deliverance of God’s people from slavery and secure in their Promised Land; his faith was standing before mighty Pharaoh saying “Let God’s people go!” and announcing the ten plagues, and later leading the people Home. David’s hope was deliverance from the Philistine oppression, specifically Goliath; his faith was picking up five stones and standing before the giant, announcing his immanent death and scattering of the Philistine army. Hope is the goal; faith is the (inadequate) effort we take while expecting God’s miraculous intervention.
We are believers, called to be a household of faith, those who live by faith and are called to walk by faith. We have Jesus’ promises that “nothing is impossible for those who believe”. So what do you believe? How do you exercise your faith? Write your hope today. Speak it today. Take certain steps towards it today – while you trust in God today.