What is Faith?
Faith and Belief
- The Bible uses an oxymoron to define faith/belief where it says“… faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1)
- “Hopeful-assurance” and “blind-conviction” are oxymorons that express the absolute certainty of faith.
- Hopeful-assurance goes beyond just hoping that something is true. It is knowing with absolute certainty that it is true.
- “Blind-conviction” or “the conviction of things not seen” is the outcome of God having “opened the eyes of our hearts.”
- Unless we believe with absolute certainty apart from what we see and what is merely hoped for, we cannot know it in faith.
- People can become misdirected as they try to increase their faith by trying harder to believe, by making a diligent effort to focus on what they hope for, or by telling themselves the truth over and over.
- When we know something in faith, it is ONLY because God has granted us this belief experientially. Faith is a gift granted by the Spirit and not something that we muster up within ourselves.
The word often translated for faith in the New Testamnt is the Greek word pistis, which comes from the root word pheitho. For example, John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes (pistis) in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” The Apostle Paul used this same word when he wrote, “For by grace are you saved through faith (pistis) …” (Eph. 2:8). John the Apostle used this term when he wrote, “For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith (pistis)” (1 Jn. 5:4). James the Apostle uses pistis when he compares the belief of the believer to that of demons when he says, “You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder” (Jam. 2:19). Of course, the general rule for understanding the meaning of any word used in the Bible is to translate it within the context in which it is used.
Faith and Oxymorons
The Bible defines faith as “…the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). In this passage the writer of Hebrews defines faith by using a form of speech called an oxymoron. It is employed when two opposite words or ideas are coupled together as a way of making an emphatic statement.
Some common examples of an oxymoron include: clearly confused, original copy, pretty ugly, seriously funny, final draft, virtual reality, objective opinion, turkey bacon, and a short sermon. The writer of Hebrews joins two ideas that seemingly do not go together to describe the absolute certainty of faith. He defines faith as a “hopeful-assurance” and as “blind-conviction.”
Hopeful assurance is the first oxymoron that the writer uses to describe faith. Faith is the assurance of, that is, the guaranteed absolute certainty of, that which is hoped for. It is hope that is based upon absolute assurance, not a hope that is uncertain. Typically the use of the word “hope” suggests some possibility of disappointment. If I say, “I hope that it stops raining,” I am expressing my desire for the sun to shine, but not with any real guarantee.
The writer of Hebrews uses the Greek word hypóstasis here, which is translated “assurance.” It means to stand under a legally bound guaranteed agreement, under which a person has a legitimate claim to what has been agreed upon. In essence, it is a legal and binding contract. The hope that he describes is based upon certainty. There is no room for disappointment. What is hoped for is assured.
For example: I legally own my home. Some years ago I paid the former owner a specified sum of money, he vacated, and I moved in. I have lived in this house for many years now. I personalized it by painting it the colors that I wanted and landscaped it according to my personal preferences. None of those things provide me with assurance of my ownership. The former owner could theoretically come back and say that it was still his and that I was a squatter and even try to run me out. There is only one thing that declares with absolute certainty that the house is mine. Before money exchanged hands, the former owner and I entered into a written agreement and signed a legally binding contract. When I walked out of the lawyer’s office with the signed contract in hand, I held the assurance of a home hoped for. This is hypóstasis. Faith is holding the legal contract of things hoped for.
Hopeful assurance goes beyond just hoping that something is true. It is knowing with absolute certainty that it is true. Hope without assurance is uncertain, insecure, potentially doubtful, and potentially deferred. As the Proverb says, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but desire fulfilled is a tree of life” (Pro. 13:12). Faith that is based upon assured hope is “desire fulfilled” and a “… tree of life!”
I might illustrate it this way. Suppose I am standing at the corner of a street and someone asks me, “What are you doing?” I answer, “I am waiting for my friend to come and pick me up.” The person replies, “I hope he shows up.” The way I respond next shows the difference between faith and hope. If I say, “Yes, me, too; it is a long walk home,” this is not faith. This is hope and desire coupled with uncertainty. If I say, “Oh, I am not worried; he will be here soon. He always arrives on time,” this is faith established in certainty that is grounded in experience. It is the assurance of that which is hoped for. It is not just hope that what we desire might come about. It is also hope based upon the fact that my friend has always shown up. Therefore, an important element is experience. It is experiential.
The second oxymoron used in this passage is the phrase, “blind conviction” or “the conviction of things not seen.” The word “conviction” used here is a very strong word. In the Greek it is elégxō—to convince with solid compelling evidence. When God persuades me of the truth I will be convinced of it. Elégxō describes compelling evidence that will bring a certain conviction when presented. It is the “smoking gun” that convinces the jury without any shadow of doubt about the guilt of the one being charged of the crime.
I recently read a story that illustrates this. There was a bank robber who was arrested and convicted based upon the evidence that he had left at the crime scene. Apparently he had used the backside of one of his own deposit slips to write his demand note to the teller. Not too smart, but somewhat smarter than another robbery I read about. Two men broke into a store and wrapped a chain around the store’s very large and heavy automated teller machine (ATM) and dragged it behind their truck all the way to their house. The police simply followed the gouged out trail in the street that the massive ATM left behind. It led directly to the robbers’ house, and inside they were found counting the money. It was an easy case to solve, and brought the not-so-smart thieves to justice. This is an example of rock solid evidence: elégxō! When I know the truth with conviction “elégxo” in my heart, it is my faith.
Seeing is believing
You have heard it said, “Seeing is believing.” This is true because seeing something with our own eyes is experiential: an eye-witnessed experience. It is not hearsay, but rather a personal experience. A God-granted faith goes even beyond seeing with our physical eyes. He desires to “open the eyes of our hearts” so that we might believe in our inner-most being. Faith is the conviction (elégxō) of things not seen with the physical eye, but known with the heart. This is the oxymoron: blind conviction, or having a solid conviction that goes even beyond an eyewitness testimony.
How can we believe without seeing it with our own eyes? We cannot unless God grants this measure of faith. “Doubting” Thomas was in this place when he declared, “Unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe” (John 20:25). Thomas was right, because he did not possess faith. Not yet believing, and yet wanting to believe, he asked for experience, knowing that that would produce belief. He wanted to believe, and said he would believe, but he needed to see it and touch it first. Unless we believe with absolute certainty apart from what we see and what is merely hoped for, we cannot know it in faith. Faith is not something that we produce by sight, touch or other physical evidence. Biblical faith is granted supernaturally by God. When God grants us faith it is always experiential. It is an encounter with God.
I can read the Bible and believe with my mind that Jesus died on the cross for my sins, but unless I believe this same truth in my heart, I cannot know it—nor will I experience salvation. The Apostle Paul described this experiential knowing when he wrote, “[God]…has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).
There is an earthly faith that is similar to a God-granted faith, though it falls short in many ways. Understanding this “earthly faith” might shed some additional light on a heavenly one. It might be illustrated in the following way.
While I am standing on the corner waiting for my friend to pick me up, if I do not possess faith in his dependability, I may be easily swayed in my belief and begin to doubt. Because I don’t see his car, I think, “Maybe he is not coming, maybe he forgot, maybe I am not important enough for him to pick me up.” Now I am doubting my situation and hoping that I get home.
Faith does not waiver because of what occurs around me. Because I know experientially that my ride is coming, I do not doubt. Doubt is not something that we can try to overcome by trying harder to believe. Doubt is the outcome outcome of believing something that is contrary to the truth. The reason I doubt that my friend may be coming to pick me up is because I believe that he may let me down. It is this contrary belief that creates a problem in my faith. This is the main focus of TPM: Identifying the contrary beliefs that contaminate our faith so that God might replace this impure faith with a refined faith.
Here is where many people become misdirected. They try to increase their faith by trying harder to believe, by making a diligent effort to focus on what they hope for, or by telling themselves the truth over and over. “I believe that my ride is coming. I know he is coming. I trust him. He won’t let me down. It won’t be long now. I believe, I believe! Oh, My! Where is he?!” Although these efforts in positive thinking are an attempt to distract me from what I actually believe (that my ride is not coming), they do not produce lasting benefits.
Faith is an expected outcome of knowing the truth with “conviction and assurance.” Until we have assurance and conviction we cannot know something in faith. The reason that we lack these things is because of contrary belief. We believe something else—lies—with “assurance and conviction” that impedes us from believing the truth. When this occurs, we are double minded. We can tell ourselves over and again what the Bible says, but we will still not have faith. Until the contrary belief is replaced with the Lord’s truth, we will limp along, “hoping for something” but without certainty of ever getting it.
When we know something in faith, it is ONLY because God has granted us this belief. Only the Spirit can persuade us of the truth within our hearts. Faith is a gift granted by the Spirit and not something we muster up within ourselves. God desires to grant us faith and is willing and ready when we are in a position to receive it.