In every major religion that, in some form or fashion, arises out of the middle east, which is to say Islam, Judaism and Christianity (along with all of Christianity’s subsets and cults), throughout all their differences has been one thing in common that each have said is necessary to live out their religions, and that is faith. Faith is the buzz word, it is the ingredient that seems to be the bloodstream or the life of each religion.
Truly the word goes with almost all forms of life, religion, or spirituality. It’s a catchy word that has a mystical and romantic essence to it. To simply say “Christianity” or “The Christian religion” as well as “The Islamic religion” sounds almost too academic, or too static in some sense. To instead say, “The Christian faith” or “The Islamic faith” personalizes them. It makes them sound more than a simple exercise in formal living. The use of the word faith almost takes the object being discussed into a realm of transcendence, beyond the physical into the metaphysical.
There is a reason for this, however, which we will discuss soon. But for now, I wish simply to say that what I will be discussing in this article is the very nature of what faith is and ought to be. What is it truly? Does it have any relationship to reason? Does it go deeper than the simple experiential aspect we are prone to think it is as by today’s culture? I will begin by seeing how the secular world defines religious faith, and contrast that to what the Bible teaches that faith really is.
Faith in the Secular World
If you go on YouTube and listen to all the celebrity scientists such as Neil DeGrasse Tyson, or Richard Dawkins, two men well known for their animosity towards religious faith, you will see how they define what faith means. It is described as a “blind faith”. The secular world sees the word faith as a trust in non-reason, in irrationality.
In their view, faith means that where all reason goes out the window, my feelings and wishful thinking take over to formulate what they describe as faith. On the other hand, they say, they have science, which is truth, which is reason–solid grounding. They don’t need to have “faith” (in their definition) to believe in what they believe, they only need to “know” the truth of scientific discovery.
The Birth of Blind Faith
This narrative is borne out of the Enlightenment era, wherein the rising secularists and philosophers against religion began to push forward the rhetoric of separating faith and science, as it once was in a perfect unity. Notice how I said that it was “rhetoric” that was at the forefront of this. That’s because all it really was, was rhetoric, it was never really attempting to meaningfully engage what the biblical idea of faith was.
Fredrick Nietzsche, for example, along with other well-known atheists like Karl Marx, never attempted to contemplate with any meaningful inquiry (to my knowledge, anyway) the validity of the Christian faith that built the societies they lived in. Instead, they simply assumed it was false, unreliable, and needed to be abandoned. It was superstition by virtue of its own existence, nothing more. Hence it required no real, meaningful contemplation upon. It was simply dismissed as archaic and no longer useful as an answer to society’s problems. The western world was entering a new era, and needed new answers as a result. Science had proven that the god of lightning was simply a phenomenon of weather patterns, and so on. The great question of the philosophers of their day was, “If God does not exist, why are people hopelessly religious?”
The question was not an honest inquiry for truth. It was an assertion–God does not exist, yet people cannot help but need Him to exist. Why is that? That was the essence of the question. Neither Nietzsche nor Marx really attempted to discover the truth of this. Instead, the two used rhetoric, which is the art of using articulation and thoughtful speech to gain an audience, rather than actually debating ideas.
The centuries would prove the use of rhetoric a useful tactic; pragmatic and economic, in some degree, as we see that the rhetoric of Nietzsche’s atheistic existentialism and Marx’s classless society of communism make devastating inroads into western civilization. There was also Immanuel Kant in the nineteenth century Enlightenment, whose work also contributed heavily to the separating of reason and faith that would eventually be the catalyst for what we have in society today, which is a rhetoric that faith and reason are on complete opposite ends of the spectrum.
It is the works of men like these, particularly during the Enlightenment era, that gave rise to secularism’s definition of faith. It was not a matter of, “Are faith and reason compatible? Is there a fundamental and meaningful relationship between the two?” Rather, it was, “Due to the scientific discoveries of our current age, religion is no longer necessary to answer the questions man needs.”
From Faith to Reason
The great sadness in all of this is how the church responded. Rather than meaningfully confronting this rhetoric with the truth of Scripture, the church attempted to adopt the trending philosophies of “rationalism” of the day to try and make a synthesis with Scripture. The result was to allow an epistemology that is fundamentally at odds with the Christian worldview into the church and begin to infect it from within. The key error in this (which the church still utilizes to this day) is to attempt to sell Christianity to the culture, rather than expose them to the God of the Scriptures.
The emphasis was on trying to preserve the church, rather than God’s word, a fundamental error that has led to the Roman Church, and the LDS Church, which are focused primarily on the foundation and structure of their institutions over God’s revealed word. It’s a common confusion of God and His church, one that is easy to fall into, but is nevertheless costly. If we don’t distinguish between God in the revealed Scriptures and the church He has made in Christ on the authority of Scripture, the result is the tendency to defend the church at the cost of God’s revealed truth. This confusion has and continues to lead to a de-emphasis on Scripture, and eventually an abandonment of it as theopneustos (God-breathed) and to instead defend an institution that is nothing more than an empty shell without God’s word to give it life.
In response to the works of Kant and Nietzsche, Hume and others, Soren Kierkegaard developed his philosophy of Christian existentialism, wherein instead of attempting to combat the rationalistic arguments of the Enlightenment thinkers, Kierkegaard capitulated and codified the idea that faith was a blind leap into the dark of irrationality, separated from reason. Few true endeavors were made by Christian thinkers to combat the presuppositions of the titans of the Enlightenment.
Yes, even our soteriology was compromised–the great slogan of the Reformation, that salvation was a work of God the Holy Spirit by a supernatural rebirth of the soul was replaced with believing that the human mind had the ability, in and of itself, to rationally connect the dots and come to a saving knowledge of Christ. Salvation, then, was wrought by “reason” and not God’s sovereign grace. Once this fundamental truth was compromised, it was only a matter of time before the corrosive effects of secular, post-Enlightenment thought would break away at the foundations of the church from within.
Faith in Scripture
Having understood, in a brief sense, what the secular world, out of the Enlightenment, saw faith as, we will begin to contrast that with what the Bible says faith is. As stated before, today’s secular people see faith as a kind of blind, senseless, irrational leap into the dark. And the church’s capitulation to this rhetoric, rather than to confront it head on, only allowed it to persist, and to eventually make inroads into the church itself that has led to all the problems we have today.
Remember as before, the Enlightenment thinkers never really attempted to interact with the Bible’s concept of faith. It was simply dismissed. This is important because if we are going to honestly speak truth, we have to honestly investigate propositions and worldviews. A worldview rises or falls on its presuppositions. Hence to discover this, one must investigate the worldview in question. Simply to dismiss it is to at the same time dismiss one’s own credibility on the subject. You don’t go for a medical checkup with someone who hasn’t honestly understood the medical field and who is not a licensed doctor for the checkup. Why, in the same way, would we rely upon people who are openly, willingly ignorant of biblical theology, for understanding what the terms related to biblical words are?
It is therefore necessary that if we are going to have a proper understanding of what the Bible describes as faith, we must go to the Bible’s understanding. It is a bad form of argumentation to impose upon the Bible a foreign concept of faith and use that as its definition. In the Greek, the word for faith is pronounced “pistis” which means to trust, to believe, to be convinced of something or someone. That is the simple meaning of faith.
Based upon this, can we already declare that the secular idea of “faith” is the same as the Bible’s? No. For the secularist, faith is a blind, irrational and unsupported belief in something that’s not real. Biblical faith is to trust in something. Whether that something is worth trusting in is not even relevant to the subject. But for the secularist, this narrative has to fit, otherwise their argument collapses. We can talk about whether what we have faith in is a reasonable thing to have faith in, but it is simply false to demand that faith means not only trust in something, but trust in something inherently foolish.
Real faith, then, is to trust, to be convinced in the mind of something, or of the words of someone. What then does the Christian–the true Christian, have faith in? Romans 3 and 4 give an in-depth discussion on the nature of faith, and how we are justified by faith, or through faith, apart from the law (Romans 3:28, 4:1-5). Clearly there is something about the nature of “faith” that makes it powerful to save. Exploring Scripture helps us to see what that is.
Faith to Salvation
There are many places to start, but I think one of the best is to begin with what I believe is the citadel passage on the nature of faith as the instrument of salvation, and that is in Romans 4. Of course, in reality, it begins back in Romans 3; in Romans 3:1-20, Paul is laying down humanity’s greatest problem, that we are desperately wicked before a holy God, completely and utterly exposed to His righteous wrath against sin. Our very existence is an abomination in His sight.
It is only after this, beginning in verse 21-26, that Paul finally shows us the Light and that is Christ. Our hope comes apart from the Law, meaning that our hope does not come from obeying God’s commandments, but from beholding the One who has obeyed the commandments. Hence, as verse 21 says, this salvation is “apart from” the Law, but the Law “witnesses” it. This righteousness is the account of Christ, and it is acquired not by the exertion of the human will, which Paul just condemned as utterly unreliable.
It is acquired “through faith”. When rendered from the Greek, it literally reads: righteousness now God dia–through or by; because of–faith-in Jesus Christ. The word for righteousness in verse 22 in the Greek means primarily that this “righteousness” (dikaiosyne) is authored, or brought about by God. It’s not a righteousness that God presents and says that this is the kind of righteousness we need to build to get into heaven. It is a righteousness that He Himself has revealed and brought about in Christ that is acquired by faith.
In Romans 4, Paul explains this doctrine more clearly, using Abraham as his example. The point once again is to show that Abraham was ultimately made righteous before God by a righteousness that God was the author of, not Abraham. Abraham simply believed God’s promise in Genesis 15, and it was counted as righteousness to him (Romans 4:3). It was when Abraham believed God, which is to say when he was convinced by God, that he was declared righteous, or justified before God. It wasn’t his willingness to work for God that did. That very idea Paul rebukes in the following verses.
Faith then is the instrument of salvation, it is through faith that God saves by the righteousness of Jesus Christ. But we are not done yet by any stretch. Faith indeed is the instrument whereby we are saved, but so many Christians don’t go any farther than this. In point of fact, the Bible has much more to say about faith. We must go deeper.
Faith to Repentance
From that point, we move on to our next. We could easily combine this section with Faith to Action, but I want to take time here to focus exclusively on repentance. What is repentance? Repentance is often gravely misunderstood by the cults, and by Christians themselves, and no less by unbelievers. Repentance is often viewed as a form of working, of building oneself up. I know that I personally struggled with this confusion for a while, and primarily because as someone who held so strongly by conviction (to this day) in the doctrine of sola fide (faith alone), why was repentance so important, then? Not that it wasn’t, but if my repentance doesn’t earn me anything, why is it nevertheless necessary?
The problem of course was with what I was assuming, and that was that repentance was a form of making oneself worthy before God. It was because I confused repentance with this that I struggled with understanding how it fit into the whole issue.
The word “repentance” in the Greek (metanoias) means to have a change in mind; to turn from one state of mind to another. In this case, to turn from the love and desire of sin to the love and desire of God. You may ask again, how is this not working our way to heaven? It seems that way if you understand, again, repentance to be earning you something. But it’s not.
Remember that in justification, I’m made righteous by a righteousness outside of me, authored and perfected by God. My turning away from sin, therefore, does not merit me anything. It’s not something I do to be righteous, because I already am by legal declaration. It’s something I do firstly out of love for what God has done for me, and because it cleanses me. It doesn’t make me more valuable, more noble, it cleans me from sinful thoughts and desires.
Paul in Romans 6 demonstrates to us that saving faith (which he has already explained) leads to repentance. He asks the rhetorical question that anticipates the objection that if I’ve been completely justified, why repent? This question may find legitimacy if we misunderstand how man’s will operates in this scheme. As long as we view man’s will as autonomous, free of any and all creaturely inclinations, this excuse will always invade evangelicalism. However, if we understand man’s will as subservient to his natural desires, Paul’s rhetorical question and answer makes perfect sense.
Paul’s retort is that the one who has been justified truly, cannot possibly live in sin, or in other words, without repentance coming out of that justification by faith. Jesus declares throughout the gospels that repentance is synonymous or an essential part of believing in the gospel. Repentance, then, is something that comes out of saving faith.
In the Old Testament, God speaks through His prophet Ezekiel and says that in the new covenant that is to come, He will “sprinkle clean water on you” to clean us from all uncleanliness and all our filthy idols. And He further says that He will put His Spirit within us, removing our hearts of stone and giving us a heart of flesh which will cause us to obey His statutes (Ezekiel 36:25-27). This will connect with Faith as a Gift later, but for our current subject, the point here is that genuine faith leads to, or causes repentance, to turn from sin and to obey the Lord.
Faith to Action
As I said above, repentance and this section may almost be one, but I wanted to dedicate some time on repentance in particular. Now I want to move on to faith that leads to action. What does saving faith cause one to do? As we have seen, it causes one to repent. It also causes one to grow in the light of that repentance. John the Baptist says in Matthew 3:8 to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance”. Meaning that we must repent not merely for the sake of ceasing to do bad things, but repent in order that we, in being cleansed, will in turn grow in faith towards God, and that growth leads to action for Him.
The important thing once again to notice is that faith and repentance is not earning us anything; it is a response on our behalf to what has been done to us. Remember in Ezekiel 36 the ordo salutis (order of salvation): God’s action comes first, and we merely respond. This is absolutely key to understanding the gospel. The gospel is not, nor has it ever been what you can do for God. It is what God has done for you, and you holding onto that with all your heart. It is in the light of this, and understanding this order, that we are disposed to action.
James 2 is often used so poorly as a proof-text for works-based salvation, and that is a terrible tragedy, because we miss what James was talking about. The proof text is often verse 24, where James says that we are not justified by faith alone, but by our works. The problem first is that this interpretation puts James in clear contradiction with Paul who specifically says in Romans 3:28 that we are justified by faith apart from works of the law. So either the Bible contradicts and hence is not God’s word, or there is a proper harmony that makes both speak true to each other.
The reality is that if you read James 2 in its context, James is telling us that faith alone saves, but a mere profession of faith that is not backed up by works is a worthless, false faith. It is not saying that the works are giving life to the faith, anymore than fruit gives life to the tree.
Notice James’ example for a working faith. It is Abraham, just like Paul when Paul is explaining justification by faith alone. So once again, it seems as though the two are using the same character, speaking about the same subject, but yet come to two different conclusions. Not so fast.
Notice that while they use the same patriarch, they use two different events in his life. For Paul, he is going to where Abraham was justified before God, when Abraham believed God (Genesis 15). James uses the event in Abraham’s life when he offered up Isaac on the altar (Genesis 22). This was after Abraham was counted as righteous. What’s the point? The point is that in the former, Abraham was saved, in the ladder, Abraham demonstrated that he was a saved man, under God’s grace by his willingness to sacrifice his beloved son that was promised. Why? Because that’s what faith does! It causes action!
In Hebrews 11, the author is preaching, going through the entire history of the biblical patriarchs and shows that they all were not motivated by any need to make themselves right before God, but that they believed God’s promise to deliver them Himself. It was God they were trusting in, not their performances, not their abilities to do things. They were weak men, who did extraordinary things because they were relying on God and His promises. They were moved to action by faith.
Faith as a Gift
Our next section covers what is often controversial, but absolutely necessary to the subject of faith. We are attempting to present the utmost biblical nature of faith here, and that means we must talk about some things we may otherwise find uncomfortable. Faith, as we have seen, is more than just blind, irrational and empty hope in foolishness. It is an instrumental cause of justification before God.
Now we must recognize faith as going even farther. As we will discuss, faith is a matter of persuasion, but it goes even deeper than this. Remember in Romans 3:20-26, Paul is explaining how we are saved, and he makes these claims in the backdrop of what he said previously, that mankind in his corrupt, fallen state, is utterly hopeless in himself to do anything pleasing to God that would save his soul. No one seeks for God (Romans 3:11). That is, no one in their unsaved state seeks for God.
Later, in Romans 8:5-8, Paul makes the strong statement that those in the flesh cannot please God. They have no capacity to do so. In Ephesians 2:1-3, the same apostle describes our state outside salvation as being “dead in trespasses and sins”, meaning that our state was so desperate, that like zombies that feel no pain when being struck, so to we feel no pain for having violated God’s law. There was no care in us at all–no life anywhere to be found. In verse 4, Paul provides the great words “but God” which indicates that the decisive factor of how such desperately wicked people could believe was because of an act of God.
That’s where in Ephesians 2:8-9, Paul tells us that faith is a gift. If indeed the human mind and spirit is so depraved, dead in sins and trespasses, then how can it even ascend to saving faith? It cannot. Therefore the faith that saves is a faith granted by what? It is by grace (Ephesians 2:8-9). Grace is an activity performed by God unto a sinner that blesses them. It’s done all in grace, meaning it has absolutely nothing to do with the sinner.
In John 6:39-44, Jesus specifically says that it cannot be that anyone comes to him unless it is granted to him by the Father. In other words, anyone you see coming to Jesus comes because God has given them the gift that grants them to do it, and what is this gift? It is the gift of faith, and that faith is far more than an intellectual exercise. It is a faith that causes one to change, to move, to repent and grow more in their trust in God.
The thing that separates the believer and the unbeliever is an act of grace on the part of God to grant that believer faith. And it is because it is a gift from God that it cannot fail.
Blind Faith in Nature
There is an irony in this discussion. Remember how our secular friends identify faith as a blind, irrational leap into the dark. But once again, how does the Greek define faith? It defines it as to be convinced, or to believe someone. Who in our society is immune to this? No one is. We all, even the most anti-religious, take someone on their word for what they say. Hence, they too have great faith in the people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye, or Christopher Hitchens.
But who are these men trusting in? Whose word are they taking on face value? We all adhere in some sense to an appeal to authority. For example, biology, and the nature of the universe. We take that verbatim as being reliable on its face. That is to say, we may be having faith in the laws of nature. But the real problem here for our secular friends is that while both of us may have faith in the laws of nature to be as they are, as a Christian, who believes the essential predication for faith in the laws and uniformity of nature is a God who is Himself eternal, self-existence, absolute and unchanging, I have a strong ground for believing in the laws of nature.
For the secularist, what does he ground his faith in the laws of nature in? The answer must be nothing. He has no reason to believe the laws of nature are of absolute uniformity, and hence, what assurance has he that he will be a coherent chunk of functioning matter today, and tomorrow explode? He has none. He must take the claims of his mere human observance at its word (despite it not being the absolute arbiter one needs to confidently rest that faith in it). We may put this in another way, that the secular atheist, when truly examining his worldview, has to conclude that the definition of “blind faith” that he wishes to ascribe to the Christian is actually true for himself.
As we have explored, the nature of faith in the Bible is far more in depth than our secular friends try to make it appear as. Sadly, it is also far more in depth than many evangelicals see it as. Faith is the instrument that saves us, it is to be convinced in the mind of God’s truth and His promises. Faith is a gift that God grants to His elect that they may be able to hold onto His promises. Faith grants the power to repent. Faith causes one to act.
Earlier in the article we looked at the rising tension between faith and reason in the Enlightenment era, and how eventually these two were on a collision course. But it is not the case that the two are at odds. Faith renews the mind (Romans 12:2), and purifies us more and more. It disposes us more and more to the God of the universe, and in understanding Him more, brings us into greater harmony with His creation. That is to say that true faith does not cancel out reason, but it promotes true, rational, and meaningful inquiry into reality. This is why Christianity can be so exclusive and hold to absolute truths over and against subjective experiences.
Ask an LDS how they know the Book of Mormon is true and they must fundamentally rely on a feeling they get. But God’s world and hence His truth does not operate on this kind of thinking. My thoughts and feelings don’t give rise to reality; God does, and hence the discovery of truth in the world is to, in faith towards God, be subject more and more to a renewing of my mind that allows me to grasp hold of truth more and more.
This is why Christianity is behind the greatest scientific findings in all of history, and it is only when the Creator is taken out of the picture does chaos ensue and mankind deteriorates, and drifts farther into the outer darkness.