As flagged last week, the Bible often sees the Christian life as a matter of “faith, love and hope”. “These three”, as Paul describes them 1 Corinthians 13, seem to capture the essence of our response to the gospel and growth as a Christian. I made the point last time that we don’t tend to use this triad of virtues so much these days in talking about Christian living and maturity, and wondered what we were missing or neglecting by not doing so.
Over the next few posts, I’m planning to answer that question by exploring faith and love and hope as the basic virtues of the Christian life—starting this week with faith.
Words, like middle-aged men, tend to sag and expand with time.
Perhaps that’s one reason ‘faith’, ‘love’ and ‘hope’ have fallen a little out of favour in recent times as descriptions of the Christian life. All three of these words have put on quite a bit of weight and are barely recognizable in comparison to what they looked like in their New Testament youth.
We’ve no doubt all heard sermons that have pointed this out, especially about ‘faith’: faith does not mean a blind leap in the dark; faith is not a mystical substance that some people have or don’t have (“I wish I had your faith”); faith is not a sentimental willingness to overlook the claims of evidence and reason, and so on.
All the same, ‘faith’ does retain an air of mystery to many people, and its nature continues to be debated, not just in conversation with the world, but within the Christian academy.
Matthew Bates, for example, has recently written a book called Salvation by Allegiance Alone, in which he contends that the traditional definitions of faith (which revolve around conviction or trust in something being true and reliable) are inadequate. He says ‘allegiance’ or ‘embodied loyalty’ is a much bigger and better way of translating the Greek words we normally translate as ‘faith’ or ‘faithful’ or ‘to believe’—and moreover that this important discovery will allow us to solve all those pesky debates between Protestants and Catholics about justification by faith alone, to secure the place of good works in the Christian life, and generally to save the church from various catastrophes.
I’m not going to waste too much time engaging with Mr Bates’s proposal, having a high degree of faith in Will Timmins’s polite scholarly demolition of the whole idea.1 My favourite line in Will’s essay: “When taken together, along with the other problems noted above, it becomes apparent that Bates’s lexical argument… consists of little more than a pastiche of citation, inference, and assertion” (p. 609). That’s about as brutal as genteel academic talk gets.
I mention Will’s essay because in it he highlights the importance of Romans 4 for understanding what sort of faith the NT is talking about. Along with Hebrews 10-11, and parts of Galatians, Romans (and in particular chapter 4) is one of the key sections of the NT to apprentice ourselves to if we are going to understand what sort of faith the Bible speaks of.
I say “what sort of faith” because the word ‘faith’ itself is not at all mysterious or difficult to understand. The noun ‘faith’ (according to the standard BDAG Greek lexicon) means three things: “that which evokes trust and faith (faithfulness, reliability)”; “the state of believing on the basis of the reliability of the one trusted (trust, confidence)”; “that which is believed (body of faith/belief/teaching)”.
‘Faith’ envisages the possibility that there is an object or statement or person that can be regarded as true or reliable. One becomes convinced that this is indeed the case. One trusts or relies on or has confidence in this person and their word. The Reformation had three Latin words for this: notitia (the matter or person worthy of trust); assensus (the mental conviction or belief that it or he is true); fiducia (the personal reliance or trust that follows from that conviction).
In a sense, all faith is like this. It’s what the word means.
But what sort faith is the NT talking about? Trust or reliance in whom or in what? And with what consequences?
Here (as Will Timmins points out) is where Romans 4 is so important, and so emblematic of what the NT repeatedly says. Paul holds Abraham up as the classic exemplar and father of the faith that all of us now have—both believing Jews and Gentiles:
In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be”. He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. (Romans 4:18-21)
As Timmins says:
… the phrase ‘hope against hope’, and the depiction of Abraham’s full conviction concerning God’s ability, implicitly reference the incapacity and the inability of Abraham as one whose body is dead (vv. 18–19), and, therefore, as one who contributes the grand total of nothing to God’s promised salvation… The believing Abraham brings nothing to God; he receives everything. (p. 613)
This is the extraordinary character of NT faith. Being in an utterly hopeless position through our own sin and rebellion—without capacity, without goodness, without life, without true knowledge of ourselves or God or the world, we hear a word. A promise comes to us from the true and living God. He promises that in his crucified and risen Son we will find forgiveness, redemption, righteousness and a new risen life.
Whatever else might flow out of faith or be connected with it (and allegiance and loyalty to Jesus Christ would be one), the essence of Christian faith is a convictional trust and reliance in this promise of God that is proclaimed in the gospel.
But we trust in that word because we trust in the one who speaks it—the living, true and faithful God. To rely upon the gospel promise is to be fully convinced, like Abraham, that God is able to do what he has promised, and will do it. And because the promise itself is about the willingness and ability of the crucified and risen Jesus Christ to be our mediator, redeemer and Lord, then faith in the message is also faith in him—in the risen Jesus as the one who will save us, rule us and judge us.
So in the NT, the object of faith is the gospel promise, the God who promises, and Jesus himself, who is the content of the promise.
There is much, much more to say here. I would love, for example, to look further at the two classic OT verses about faith that the NT authors often refer to:
“the righteous (one) shall live by his faith” (Hab 2:4; quoted in Rom 1:17; Gal 3:11; Heb 10:38); and
“[Abraham] believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Gen 15:6; quoted in Rom 4:3,9,22; Gal 3:6; James 2:23).
And it would be good to spend some time exploring how trust in the gospel message relates to reasons and evidence—and particularly how important the apostles were as ‘witnesses’ of the resurrection, testifying to what they had seen and heard (cf. 1 Cor 15:1-11; Acts 2:32).
But our purpose here is to think about faith as one of the foundational virtues or attributes of the Christian life, and of Christian growth and maturity. Here are four important implications for the Christian life that flow out of the understanding of faith outlined above.
1. Faith is the character of the Christian life from start to finish because the Christian live is given to us from God, as a gift. It comes from outside, not from within. As Will Timmins says, “The believing Abraham brings nothing to God; he receives everything”. We hear the gospel promise and we trust it and cling onto it, because it is our only hope. Like a drowning man we desperately grasp the lifesaver’s outstretched hand, and gratefully receive the salvation he offers. This is why Luther spoke of an “alien righteousness”—a forgiveness and redemption and new life in God that comes from outside, from God, to people who are otherwise spiritually senseless and dead; a righteousness that can only be received in trust, never earned. This is what “faith alone”means, as one of the Reformation slogans.
And this never stops being the case. To be a Christian is to put our whole trust and conviction in an alien life—a life that comes to us from beyond ourselves and our sinful world. Our whole Christian lives are lived trusting in the promise of God in Jesus Christ, and in him alone—that in him our old selves have already died, that we are raised up with him, and that we now live a completely new life as citizens of his kingdom, looking forward to the inheritance that is to come.
2. Faith in Christ, then, is the energizing heart of Christian living. By trusting in the gospel of Christ, we are committing ourselves to a whole new existence as subjects of a new king and citizens of a new kingdom. As Paul puts it so beautifully:
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)
Every day is a new day to believe the gospel all over again, to realize afresh that my old life is dead and gone, and to commit myself afresh to the new godly life I now live in Christ.
3. However, faith in Christ also opens up for us a new vision of living in God’s world, while we await the inheritance to come. When we cease our rebellion and start trusting in Christ, we see everything with new eyes (2 Cor 5:14-17). We are placed ‘right-side up’ (to use the title of Paul Grimmond’s excellent book on the Christian life). We are given a new understanding not only of God in Christ, but of ourselves and of our world. We understand at last what we are for and what the world is for. We understand what it means to be and to live as a human, as one of God’s creatures, because we have come to see and know and trust that Jesus Christ is the exact image of God, the human who shows what it means to be human.
However, again, it is through faith, and faith alone, that we can arrive at this new knowledge of what is real and true and good. Even though it’s a knowledge of ourselves and of this good created world, it’s an ‘alien knowledge’—we were powerless to know it until God came to us in his Son and showed us the truth that makes sense of everything.
4. The final point to make is that if all I’ve been saying is true, then growth in faith comes through hearing God’s word of promise again and again, understanding it more deeply, and grasping hold of it ever tighter. “Faith comes from hearing and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17).
We therefore need to keep hearing the word of the gospel preached and taught. And we need to keep exhorting and reminding each other day by day to keep trusting the promise and the God who made it, and not to be deceived and hardened by the deceitfulness of sin (Heb 3:12-13).
In other words, if faith is the wellspring and energizer of love (and every other Christian virtue that can be summarized by ‘love’), then to see Christian maturity flourish, we need to see faith grow firmer, stronger and deeper. This happens as we speak the word of God—in multiple different ways—and pray that God by his Spirit would awaken and grow faith in our hearts to respond to it.
Perhaps Paul’s prayer for these things is the right way to finish:
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:14-19)
Bryson Smith’s little book Faith is about the only recent, popular-level treatment of this subject that I can think of (which is a bit extraordinary in itself). It’s well worth reading and passing around.
This is a free public edition of The Payneful Truth. Feel very free to pass it around! And if you’d like to get every edition, every week, plus some regular bonus material, here’s a free trial to become a partner (or subscriber) to the regular weekly edition.
Will N. Timmins, ‘A Faith Unlike Abraham’s: Matthew Bates on Salvation by Allegiance Alone’, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 61.3 (2018): 595–615.