What Exactly is Faith?

Romans 4

What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due.And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works:

“Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven,
    and whose sins are covered;
blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”

Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. 10 How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. 11 He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, 12 and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.

13 For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith.14 For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15 For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression.

16 That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, 17 as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. 18 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.” 19 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. 20 No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, 21 fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. 22 That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.” 23 But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, 24 but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, 25 who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.

Ok, that’s a lot. Let’s just quickly recap what has happened thus far in Romans.

This book is a letter or what we sometimes call an epistle written to Christian believers, both Jews and non-jews or “gentiles” living in Rome. Romans 1 coverd Paul’s introduction as well as building a case against the entire world that we were all guilty before God. The reason for writing this letter was to share the gospel and teach that our righteousness comes by faith in Jesus Christ apart from what we can do to earn it.

Romans 2 was all about admonish the Jews that living by the law and circumcision did not make them righteous in God’s eyes. This perhaps came as quite a shock, but Paul stressed that living by rules and regulations only brings about judgment and condemnation. Paul concluded that a true Jew was one that has experienced circumcision of the heart by the Spirit of God.

Romans 3 completed the accusation that both the Jews and the Gentiles, all people, are guilty before God. Paul then switched gears by explaining that the righteousness that the law was powerless to give us, God gave through sending Jesus. And it is through his that we are “justified” or made righteous before God. He maintained that this righteousness comes by faith to all who believe in Christ Jesus apart from obeying the law.

Romans 4, which we just read, is proof that faith has always been the means for justification. Paul reflects back to the Old Testament patriarch, Abraham, who was justified by faith, not works, to illustrate his point. Paul used that illustration to prove that Gentiles were part of this promise given to Abraham. The whole world was to be blessed through him because he believed God rather than his circumstances and, because of that, his faith was credited to him as righteousness. Paul ultimately says that nothing has really changed, we will have righteousness counted to us, even though we are not righteous, through faith in Jesus Christ.

So, here’s what I want us to zero in on today: what exactly is faith? I know this might seem like Christianity 101, but the reality is that this is something that Biblical scholars even today argue about. And, if what Paul is saying is true, then faith is a critical component of our justification, but yet somehow that is something different than a good work or deed. It’s not just something we do to be reconciled to God.

So, here is what Paul has said about faith thus far in Romans:

Romans 1:

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations…

Romans 1:17

17For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

Romans 3:21-22

21But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.

Now, let’s actually go to another book in the New Testament, and to what is sometimes called the Faith chapter. Hebrews 11. Turn there and just keep your Bible open. Here’s probably the most famous verse on faith in the entire Bible, and when I asked the question “what is faith?,” for some of you, it is where your mind went.

Hebrews 11:1

1Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

Now, as we’ve said, the new testament was written in Greek, and if you know anything about translating languages, its that it can be difficult while you might be able to find a similar word in the language that you are translating into, the harder task is to adequately translate ideas. There are two operative words here: assurance and conviction.

In the Greek, here’s what that looks like –

Faith is the upostasis of things hoped for, the elengkos of things not seen.

  1. Now faith is the assurance/confidence of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. (ESV, NIV, NAS)

So, what does that mean to you? Faith is an internal state of mind that I get myself into regarding things that I can’t see but I hope for. These words communicate that this is all in here; it’s like a mental choice. But, there is another common translation for this verse.

  1. Faith is the substance/reality of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. (KJV, CEV)

So, according to this, faith is not just a mental state, but instead faith is an experience. And, I’m of the opinion that option two more adequately conveys what faith actually is. So, a popular notion is that, well, “I can’t see God or hear God audibly and I don’t really like know that God is there, but I hope he’s there, so I’m going to have faith. It’s like what we sometimes call blind faith, and that is actually not Biblical faith. Faith is not based on random outlandish claims. (STOOL ILLUSTRATION) And, this is the point of Hebrews 11, where the writer also talks about Abraham. Look at verse 8:

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise.

Then Abraham’s wife Sarah in verse 11 –

11 By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised.

Then verse 17 –

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son

So, faith is not just blind mental conjecture, faith is a response of obedience based on evidence.

And, if we left it there, it could easily seem like, “well, if I want to be justified before God then I have to do all of these things. I have to adequately read the evidence and make a wise choice and then be obedient.” But, Paul, says, no that’s not exactly right either. Because if that were the case, then you would have reason to boast. I was smart enough to see the evidence and make the correct choice to be obedient to Christ. And, his point is that Abraham wasn’t credited as being righteous just because he was a smart guy. Look back at Romans 4:

For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due.And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.

Now, that’s sort of confusing, but here is Paul’s point. Abraham was not made righteous simply because he made good choices or did good things. Remember, Paul has spent all of this time reminding us that we stink at making good choices. If we said that God made Abraham righteous because he made good choices, then it would be like God repaying Abraham for his good deeds. The reality, and we don’t have time to get into all of this today, but we will as we continue in Romans, is that God does a work in us through his Spirit of drawing us to himself. So, God is working outside of us to illumine our hearts.

2 Corinthians 4:6 – For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

Now, what is he awakening our hearts to? Don’t forget this key passage, Romans 3:23-25:

23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.

So, if faith is not just a mental conviction or a simple good choice, but, instead, it is based on evidence, then what is our evidence? Well, there are potentially lots of answers to that question. Paul has already suggested that we can look at the created world and see evidence that God is real. But, the primary evidence that God is real and good and righteous is Christ. It is the fact that he gave us his only son as a gift, so that through his atoning blood we might be saved. And, we come across that evidence in two primary ways. First is the written word. And two is the lived experience of people of faith. So, we have the Bible, but notice that today both Paul and the writer of Hebrews were reminding us of the lived experience of people of faith. He was reminding us of all the evidence of why their faith was valid. Now, I might not be able to see that perfectly, but the evidence of Scripture and the experience of lives of faith can point the way. (STOOL ILLUSTRATION)

So, this is actually a huge part of the mission of the church, and as a result the mission that God has placed on your life. Remember, Paul said in Romans 1:

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations…

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