Everyone has faith. Atheists have faith. They construct their morality and frame their life purposes and even stake their eternity on their faith that there is no God, that this life is all there is. The reason that everyone can be said to have faith is that no one can see, hear or touch everything that ever is, was or will be. Not everything is tangible and empirical, not everything is experiential. The things (or lack of things) that fall outside of the tangible and visible have to be apprehended by faith, either denying or affirming their existence. Faith is not blind, there is always some evidential basis, whether that evidence is strong or weak. I believe there is a place called Zambia, even though I have never been there and probably won’t ever visit it. But I believe it exists because I can read about it in books and on the internet, meet people from Zambia, send money to sponsor a child in Zambia, see it on a map and book a flight there. I believe those resources because I trust them, that there is no world-wide deception or conspiracy to make me believe that Zambia exists when it really doesn’t.
I believe in God, even though I can’t see him, because I trust the sources that testify to him; general revelation, the argument from design, the Bible, his work in history and in his church and in the lives of people, including myself. Does any of this constitute absolute “proof,” in the way God actually appearing to me in a blaze of light and performing an undeniable miracle would? No, any more than the evidence for the existence of a place called Zambia “proves” it is any more real than Narnia — from my insular perspective. But faith that God or Zambia exist is not blind faith, even if we might argue about the relative validity of the evidence for each. It’s different from believing in something that is purely a figment of my imagination, like sentient puddings or edible sounds; that is just imagination, not faith.
The Bible defines faith as “the substance of things hoped for, the proof (conviction) of matters (things) not seen” (Heb 11:1). In other words, faith is what fills the gap that exists because we don’t see everything. The thing about faith is, it effects the way we think and speak and act. It impacts our lives, in a way that purely imaginary things don’t. If I weigh the evidence and decide that I do not believe there is a God, that is an act of faith, and it means I will live my life differently than I would as a believer in God. As an atheist, I would not need to frame my morals and conduct by a higher authority, I could use my best judgement and act autonomously toward whatever ends I desire in this life, confident that I will not be called to account in the hereafter. However, if I believe that I am a creation of God, then he has authority over me and I will try to live my life according to his design, knowing that I will answer to him. In either case, I stake everything present and future on my faith that God does or doesn’t exist.
The power and validity of faith does not lie in how firmly you believe in something, or how adamant or inflexible you are in that belief. The power and validity of faith depends on whom or what you believe in. If I firmly and immovably believe in, say, a used car salesman who turns out to be a shyster, the problem is not that I didn’t believe resolutely enough, the problem is that I chose a poor object for my faith, and I will be let down. If our faith is in our own goodness or strength, we will let ourselves down. We need to put our trust in Someone who can deliver, and when we do, that faith is a great source of comfort and encouragement.
Hebrews 11 goes on to explain what should be obvious, that faith in God is fundamental to actually drawing near to him; for how could we have a relationship with someone whom we don’t believe exists? But there’s more to it than that: “without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Heb 11:6). The existence of God is not a matter of indifference. It affects our lives one way or the other, because it’s not just an intellectual assent to the existence of a supernatural entity, but an acknowledgement that God rewards those who seek him, and he will judge all humankind for their response to him. The issue is not “belief” as an abstract entity, such as whether llamas have colour vision (important as that may be to the llama). It is the basis of our whole worldview and conduct. Because the important thing about faith, that makes it commendable or foolish, is the object of our faith.
If I say, “I believe the Queen,” that implies that she has said something which I have reason to accept as truthful. But if I say, “I believe in the Queen,” that is a statement about how I value her as a person, and the monarchy as an institution. It implies that I consider her to have personal integrity and worth and that I would support her in some observable way. (Ranging from buying a tea towel with her image to dying for her). Likewise, to believe in God is not just an intellectual acknowledgement of the probability of a higher Being, but implies that that Being can impact my life, that there is some incentive for me to draw near to him. For the Christian, it also means a belief in what God has revealed about himself in his word the Bible and through his Son Jesus Christ.
Furthermore, when the Bible talks about faith and believing with respect to God, Jesus and Scripture, it goes way beyond assent to true or false propositions, or buying souvenirs. Biblical faith demands that we put our money where our mouth is. Biblical faith shapes the worldview and life of the believer, because of Whom it is that we believe in. Hebrews 11 provides a catalogue of faithful people to drive this message home. In each case, the person acted because they believed in something that they couldn’t see, because they had faith in the God who gave them the instruction or promise. Noah saw no rain clouds or rising torrent, heard no thunder when he began to build the ark. Abram had much less “evidence” for the existence of the Promised Land than I do for the existence of Zambia, but he believed God and set out for it. This is why James insists that faith without works is dead. Real faith goes beyond an academic understanding, for even the demons believe in God (James 2:19). Real faith in God affects our lives and shapes our thinking. It causes us to act in ways we would not otherwise act, just like the people in Hebrews 11. “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:18). To claim to have faith in God but to act as if he does not exist is to have dead faith, to actually not believe in him, really.
This is the key to understanding what has been alleged to be a tension between faith and works, an artificial tension that pits Paul against James and can lead to a works-based view of salvation. The Bible is clear that we are saved by God’s grace, his totally undeserved favour toward sinners, grace we apprehend by faith in his Son Jesus (Acts 15:11; Rom 3:22–24; 4:5, 16; 5:1–2, 17; 11;6; Eph 2:8–9; Phil 3:9). This is not something that comes from us, it is not a question of our merit in any way or to any extent. It is not a matter of, “See how good/godly/deserving I am, because I have so much faith!” This is the error of those who lose faith and may even reject God because he did not answer a prayer, or who are told they weren’t healed or blessed because they lacked “sufficient” faith. Faith is not like physical strength or financial security, that we might boast in and go around proving how strong or rich we are. Faith is actually born of weakness, emptiness, spiritual bankruptcy. Faith is an empty cup which we hold out to be filled by God’s grace. Paul learnt that lesson. He who had gifts of healing prayed for the Lord to remove his thorn in the flesh but Jesus said, “my grace is sufficient for you.” Paul’s lack of physical healing did not arise from a lack of faith. On the contrary, his strength to bear this affliction came from his faith in the one who answered his prayer in the negative (2 Cor 12:7–9).
Faith is not a meritorious work, because the power of faith lies not in the one who has faith, but in the One who is the Object of faith. We are not to trust in our fellow humans, for not even the greatest by human standards is worthy of life-governing faith. To trust in anyone or anything less than God is not real faith, it is foolishness. The atheist has faith, but in what? In nothing greater than him or herself, ultimately. “Let him not trust in emptiness, deceiving himself, for emptiness will be his payment” (Job 15:31). “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation” (Psa 146:3). “Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help and rely on horses, who trust in chariots because they are many and in horsemen because they are very strong, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel or consult the LORD!” (Isa 31:1).
Read through Hebrews 11 and see that the power of these saints’ faith was in God, who was able to do all those unimaginably great things, things that were not yet evident. Because God is trustworthy, faith in him was sufficient basis for life-changing and even life-risking and life-sacrificing actions, “because he is faithful who has promised” (Heb 11:11). Abraham believed God and by faith he went and lived in the land of promise. These saints “all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar” (Heb 11:13) because they trusted in the character and power and faithfulness of Almighty God who had promised; the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
Jesus said, “Believe in God; believe also in me,” a tremendous claim, a claim to divinity! Jesus is as much the worthy object of our faith as is his Father (John 14:1). John’s purpose in writing his gospel, in which faith and belief is a dominant theme, is “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). John was at pains to insist not only that we must believe Jesus’ words and the things written about Jesus, but believe in Jesus. “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (John 6:29). “I am the resurrection and the life,” was Jesus’ awesome, divine claim; “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25–26).
So, faith is not a work, not something meritorious we can present to God. The faith for which we are commended is, on the contrary, a complete focus on God, acknowledging that we are nothing and he is everything. We believe God and furthermore, we believe in him, which means we will commit our whole selves to his Lordship, trusting that by his grace (not our works) we are saved, because he is trustworthy and all powerful and will do what he has promised.
So when Christadelphians claim they believe in justification by faith, not works, and yet insist that the Gospel alone cannot save, without obedience to Christ’s commandments, they betray not only a contradiction but a misunderstanding. Abraham’s “faith counted as righteousness” is traditionally presented by Christadelphians as all about what Abraham did; wasn’t he a good example? In fact from Sunday school upward, the “faithful saints of old” are held up as meritorious examples to be emulated because of their “great faith” and “mighty works.” This is to misrepresent the Bible’s portrayal of every one of these Old and New Testament characters as weak, wretched sinners who were saved by God’s grace and knew it. They had faith in God and his promises, not in themselves; that was their only true power. That way we don’t have to make excuses for or try to justify the sins of someone like Samson, because he’s in Hebrews 11 despite of, not because of, his petulance and womanising. Correct apprehension of this does not discount obedience, for by it we demonstrate that the God in whom we believe has impacted our lives, working within us both to will and to work for his good pleasure, enabling us to overcome because we trust him that there is something better prepared for us, undeserving though we are. In the end, even our works may be burned up, but we shall be saved by his grace (1 Cor 3;11–15).
Salvation is wholly of God, not of ourselves. We do not commend ourselves for “having faith,” we hold out empty hands to the One who alone is deserving of faith. The Author and Completer (Origin and Finisher!) of our faith, Jesus Christ, calls us to trust in him, for “everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die…
…Do you believe this?”