So What is Faith Anyway?

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You no longer have to go to church to hear about faith. We are constantly surrounded with talk of faith and belief. From Hollywood to popular music; professional sports to political campaigns; the language of faith is everywhere. And in each context, it seems to take an a new meaning. The problem, though, is that a word that can mean anything usually ends up meaning nothing. More importantly, when that happens to a word that comes to us from the heart of the gospel, it is of the greatest importance for the church to reclaim her language by recapturing and defining her words. So, in light of the cultural watering-down of the language of faith, I’d like to offer four reflections on the nature of faith: what it is and what it isn’t.

 

1. It’s not a work – We commonly hear talk of faith as something we must do. “All you have to do is believe,” we are told, and the emphasis is on us and what we must do. But when we talk about faith like that, the focus is taken away from the object of faith and put on the quality of faith. But the Scriptures don’t speak of faith like this. In Scripture, the salvation that is all of grace and comes through faith cannot be attained through effort. Paul writes, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works” (Eph 4:8). The salvation that Paul speaks of is the work of God. Faith is not a work that accomplishes or contributes to salvation. Instead, it is the renunciation of works. Faith is the abandonment of self-effort. It is not a work that we do. It is trusting in Christ to do something for us. So, faith is not a work that must be done to accomplish or bring about salvation. No, as the repudiation of effort and work, it is just the opposite.

 

2. It’s not a substance – We also sometimes speak of faith as if it were a substance or a commodity to be collected or amassed. Many of us have been told that things didn’t go our way because we didn’t have enough faith, or that someone didn’t experience God’s blessing because they didn’t believe hard enough. Such talk makes faith into something you amass in order to trade it for benefits. We act like faith grows on trees or as if it can be kept stored away for when it is most needed. But faith isn’t like that. It’s not available to be stockpiled and put to use for our profit. Jesus’ own disciples seemed to think of faith like this when they asked him to increase their faith. And his response about mustard-seed-faith revealed that they were asking the wrong question (Luke 17:5-6). Jesus wanted them to know that faith was not a matter of gaining more. It’s not about how much. The perspective that faith is a substance to be accumulated unhelpfully takes our focus away from the object of faith and puts it on our ability to believe more.

 

3. The object matters – If the important thing about faith is not the quality or the quantity, then what is the vital issue? In Scripture the key issue when it comes to faith is the object of faith, and in Scripture the proper object of faith is always the God who raised Jesus from the dead. Without the right object, faith doesn’t count for much. This idea comes through when Paul tells the Corinthians, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor 15:17). Wow! Faith depends on the one to whom it is directed. If the object of faith is dead, then that faith is useless, wasted, and ineffective. And for Paul, the only worthy object of faith is the God revealed in Jesus Christ, the God who raised him from the dead. This is important for us because culture hits us with more potential objects for our faith that we could possibly imagine. We are told to believe in yourself; believe in this god or that god; believe in a political agenda; believe in your dreams; believe in nothing; just believe. The message of Scripture, that faith in any object other than the resurrected Christ is a waste of time, is deeply counter-cultural.

 

4. Fresh language – If we are going to recapture the language of faith so that it is meaningful, then we need to surround it with fresh language, language that disarms us, language that catches us a little off guard and makes us think. One word that sticks in my mind is “confidence.” Faith is confidence in Christ. This word suggests that faith is more than intellectual assent. The language of confidence draws us toward the object of our confidence, the one alone worthy of our confidence, namely Christ. Let me be clear. I’m not suggesting that we rid ourselves of the language of faith. I am suggesting that we recast it with distinctly biblical concepts in order to recapture the language of faith and to draw our attention to Christ to exalt his person and his work for us.

 

Faith is a matter of confidence. It is the renunciation of work. It is the end of self-effort. It is not measured in terms of quality or quantity. It is confidence in another to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. And that other is none other than Jesus of Nazareth, the resurrected Lord of heaven and earth.

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Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of St. Mark United Methodist Church in Mobile, Alabama, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and an adjunct member of the faculties at Asbury Theological Seminary and Wesley Biblical Seminary. Connect at mattoreilly.net or follow @mporeilly.

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