“WHAT IS FAITH?”
Turn to Romans 5.1, and stand for the reading of God’s Word:
1 Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ:
2 By whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.
Our church once supported a missionary that I liked very much. He seemed to love the Lord with great passion and was determined and energetic in the ministry. Then he and I engaged in a pretty straightforward conversation about this thing called faith. I recall offhandedly mentioning in our casual conversation that faith is based upon facts, and that faith has to have as its basis some appreciation of Biblical truths. That statement got him very agitated, and he responded by telling me that if what I said was true then none of the people he had led to Christ and baptized were truly saved because when they got saved they knew nothing, and he stressed nothing, from the Bible. I pointed out to him that for faith to exist, real faith, it was absolutely necessary for a person to be exposed to and to accept Bible facts. He so strongly resisted my line of reasoning that we changed the subject rather than argue in front of our wives. Time passed. The missionary moved on to speak at other churches during his furlough. However, that discussion would not leave my mind. Mind you, we did not differ on such doctrines as baptism or the church, communion or church discipline. We differed on so fundamental a concept as faith.
Lest you think faith is not a ground level, foundational matter for Christians to agree on, keep in mind that our text shows us that faith is the means by which a sinner comes to be justified in the sight of God. Faith is the instrumental means by which we establish peace with God, have access to God’s grace for daily living, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. In short, faith is profoundly important. Its importance simply cannot be overestimated. No wonder not only theological wars, but also guns and cannons wars have been fought over this important thing called faith, and precisely what faith is.
Eighty-two years ago a towering figure in Christianity, a seminary professor named J. Gresham Machen spoke at a Christian college in Grove City, Pennsylvania, the Grove City Bible School. The topic he chose for his series of lectures revolved around the question, “What Is Faith?”
What was tragic in Machen’s day, and what my own discussion with a missionary surprisingly illustrated to me in our day, is that there are people to be found in the Christian community who use words to which they connect no useful meaning. To quote Machen’s additional thoughts on the subject, “Thinking cannot be carried on without the materials of thought; and the materials of thought are facts, or else assertions that are presented as facts . . . it is impossible to think with an empty mind.” He goes on to write, “The preacher says: ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.’ But how can a man possibly act on that suggestion, unless he knows what it is to believe? . . . If the way of salvation is faith, it does seem to be highly important to tell people who want to be saved, just what faith means. If a preacher cannot do that, he can hardly be a true evangelist.”
How can anyone argue with such logic as that? How can anyone object to clarifying and focusing the meaning of so important a Bible concept as faith? In addition, how can anyone rationally and reasonably insist that faith, real faith, Bible faith, is without factual content? I mean, how can it be argued that a sinner can have faith that has no truth associated with it? Thus, with sadness, I felt compelled to end our church’s association with that missionary. Unity is supposed to be based upon truth, and few truths are as important as the nature and meaning of faith.
This morning, because it is a subject that deserves to be visited in one way or another again and again, I am asking the question, “What Is Faith?” You need not fear that I will attempt to preach Machen’s book to you. Rather, I seek to answer the title of his book, “What Is Faith?” with basic Bible answers.
What Is Faith? First, FAITH IS SUBSTANCE
The most familiar faith passage in the entire Bible is certainly Hebrews chapter 11, frequently referred to as “Faith’s Hall of Fame.” If you will make your way to Hebrews 11.1, you will find a verse that, while not precisely defining what faith is, does provide helpful information about faith: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for . . . .” This first phrase does not tell us all of what faith is. In other words, the writer to the Hebrews does not circumscribe faith with this comment; he does not wrap his arms entirely around this thing called faith. However, he does show us an important aspect of faith. If you liken faith to a multifaceted diamond, this first phrase is a good look at one of the diamond’s many facets. Faith is substance. However, what substance? Substance translates a Greek word that is defined as “‘essence,’ ‘substance’ or ‘foundation,” or ‘confident assurance’ or ‘guarantee,’ ‘attestation,’ i.e., documents which attest or provide evidence of ownership.” A much simpler way to grasp the meaning of the Greek word that this word substance translates is the idea of a pink slip. Just as a pink slip is legal proof that you own the car that is identified on that pink slip, whatever else faith is, it is a spiritual document that establishes proof of ownership of something.
What Is Faith? Next, FAITH IS EVIDENCE
We are still in Hebrews 11.1, but now we are looking at the final phrase: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Time limitations prohibit us from discussing what things are hoped for and what things are not seen, so let me confine my remarks to that which bears directly on what faith is, or at least some aspect of faith. It is already established that faith is substance, which is to say that faith can be likened to a pink slip, proving ownership of something. However, what does this word evidence refer to? Evidence translates a word that refers to “evidence, proof. The word was used in papyri of legal proofs of an accusation.” In other words, faith is something that can be used in a court of law to establish ownership of something. That means faith is a way to really verify authenticity.
What Is Faith? Third, FAITH IS KNOWING
Look down to Hebrews 11.3, where we read, “Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear.” This verse clearly shows that not only does faith establish ownership of something, and not only is faith real evidence that is admissible in a court of law, but faith is also knowledge. The Greek word is a verb that means to grasp or comprehend something. Do you now see why I had such concern for that missionary’s understanding of faith? He was convinced faith involved no knowing, no understanding, while I was convinced there can be no real faith in Christ apart from knowing something of Who He is and what He has done, as well as what He will do for the sinner who has faith in Him. Can you really have faith in Christ without knowing that He will save the sinner who comes to Him, the sinner who believes in Him? According to Hebrews 11.3, faith clearly involves knowing certain things to be true that you cannot prove, but that faith nevertheless knows to be true, “that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear.” Can I prove God created the universe and all that herein is? No, I cannot. However, do I know that God created the universe and all that herein is? Yes, by means of my faith, which is knowing certain things that are unprovable by scientific means, meaning only that science falls short of usefulness when dealing with issues that are most important. Therefore, faith establishes title and is admissible as evidence. Faith also establishes as fact that which cannot be observed or otherwise verified, giving us knowledge. Are you beginning to grasp the marvelous usefulness of faith? Think of it. Faith is vastly more beneficial about things that really matter than science or philosophy, because faith addresses spiritual issues, which simply cannot be dealt with through the five senses.
What Is Faith? Fourth, FAITH IS NECESSARY
Dropping down to Hebrews 11.6, we read “But without faith it is impossible to please him. . . .” In other words, you have no possible likelihood of pleasing God without this thing called faith. Now, I know that some of you many be thinking, “So what? Who cares if I cannot please God?” The only way a person can nonchalantly discount the importance of pleasing God is by concluding that he has nothing to do with God now, and that he will have nothing to do with God in the future. However, such conclusions are terribly wrong. If you turn back a couple of pages to Hebrews 4.13, you will find these words: “Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in his sight: but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do.” This establishes that you do have to do with God now, and in the future. Unless you can establish that the Word of God is incorrect (and you cannot because it is not), you must face up to the fact that you have to do business with God, either now or later. Further, if you attempt to deal with God now without faith, He will not be pleased. If you attempt to deal with God later, such as in the next life, it will then be too late. Thus, faith really is necessary. You simply cannot deal with God and have any hope of success without this thing called faith. So important is this thing called faith that Habakkuk 2.4 establishes a principle of such importance that it is repeated three times in the New Testament: “the just shall live by his faith.” Without faith, there is no life. Without faith, there is no living. Back to our text, Romans 5.1: “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Since the life referred to here is eternal life instead of physical life, you should recognize that faith is more necessary than food, more necessary than water, and more necessary than air to breathe.
What is faith? Fifth, FAITH IS PRESENT
Still in Hebrews 11.6, “for he that cometh to God must believe that he is. . . .” I have noticed in my dealings with people that oftentimes a person claiming to be a Christian has what he calls faith that looks only to the past. To be sure, faith does involve the past actions of God. However, we see in this phrase that faith must also have a present component. “. . . he that cometh to God must believe that he is. . . .” That is, you must believe that God is, as well as believing that God was and that God will be. In Malachi 3.6, we read, “For I am the LORD, I change not.” However, how can a sinner come to God, when Jesus declared, “no man cometh to the Father but by me,” in John 14.6? Hebrews 7.25, speaking of the Lord Jesus Christ, tells us: “Wherefore he (Jesus) is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him. . . .” Therefore, you see, while faith does look to the past, it is also present, right now. What do you know to now be true? What do you understand about God presently, about Jesus presently? Faith is present.
What Is Faith? Sixth, FAITH IS PROSPECTIVE
Hebrews 11.6 ends with these words: “and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” Notice that, among other things, this aspect of faith has to do with what is anticipated in the future. Machen mentions in his book that “the Bible certainly tells us that faith involves a person as its object.” A few sentences later he writes, “it is impossible to have faith in a person without having knowledge of the person.” This portion of Hebrews 11.6 does not in the least disagree with what Machen wrote, but shows that the knowledge of God not only embraces what the Bible declares to have happened in connection with God, and what presently is true of God, but faith also anticipates what God will bring to pass. In this respect, then, faith is prospective. That is, faith anticipates, linking it to hope. Therefore, you see, this substance, this evidence, this knowing, this necessity, this right now, this looking toward to future thing called faith, is something that is practical, beneficial, important, and encompassing. What part of life does it not affect? In view of the fact that faith pleases God, and we do deal with God presently and in the future, how can a rational person conceive of doing without this thing called faith?
What Is Faith? Seventh, FAITH IS RECEIVED
To be sure, there are many in this world who pooh-poohs the idea of faith. But these same people will sit in chairs they have not personally tested, expect light switches to function properly when they want the lights on, and demonstrate amazing confidence that those who sell food in packaging really do place in the containers what they say they have placed in the containers. Are those not examples of faith? Therefore, you see, life simply cannot be lived without some measure of faith. The only question concerning faith is its relationship with God and things of the spiritual domain, which some people choose to utterly disregard. But for those who are not complete fools, who are not so blinded to reality that they do not discount the benefits of pleasing God, the question to address is how does a person get faith, or at least how does a person get the right kind of faith? Romans 10.17 provides insight into that question: “So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” Thus, by means of teaching and preaching truth to people from the Bible, scriptural facts are acquired upon which faith can properly be based. However, this verse tells us more than that. This verse suggests that not only does teaching and preaching convey facts needed for faith, but that teaching and preaching is the means by which God works to provide the proper use of those truths to bring about faith. Ephesians 2.8 helps us even more: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God.” Though there is a great deal of disagreement among Bible teachers concerning what Paul specifically refers to as being the gift of God in this verse, I agree with Charles Hodge’s assessment that Paul is here indicating that even faith is a gift from God. Thus, saving faith is given to the lost by God, and that faith comes through the means of hearing the Word of God. Faith, then, is received. It is something the sinner gets from God, rather than being something worked up in the sinner’s heart or mind.
What Is Faith? Finally, FAITH IS RECEPTIVE
Turn to John 1.12, where we find the verb form of the word faith translated believe, and the activity produced by faith: “But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name.” Do you see here that active faith is actually passive reception? At the end of the verse, we see the activity of faith, which is believing on His name, believing on Jesus’ name. However, what that activity truly is, with a salvation that is a gift from God by means of a faith that is also a gift from God, is to passively receive from God what He has to offer . . . His Son.
You may have noticed, this morning, that I have done a great deal of beating around the bush, with the bush being this idea of faith. I have pointed out a number of the characteristics of the Biblical concept of faith and its features, without providing for you a definition. Faith is substance. That is, faith is in the spiritual realm what a pink slip is when it comes to owning an automobile. It is the title deed that is given at the time ownership is conveyed. More on this at another time. Next, faith is evidence. Admissible to establish proof in a court of law. Not a court of law in this country, to be sure. But in God’s courtroom, faith carries a great deal of weight. Third, faith knows. There are things you understand by faith that you will never understand by science. Some things cannot be investigated. Some things you simply have to be told and you have to believe the one who tells you. So it is with faith. Fourth, faith is necessary. Do without it if you want to (though faith will always play some part in your life if you eat food, if you ever sit in a chair, or if you ever turn on the lights), but without faith you will never please God. In addition, there will come a day when you will sure wish that you could please Him. Then, faith encompasses the past, the present, and is prospective, in that it anticipates the future. Are you beginning to recognize the amazing utility of this thing called faith? You simply cannot live without it.
So, how do you get faith? It is received by means of Bible preaching and teaching. That is the way God gives you faith. It is not something you work up in yourself. Now do you see why coming to church is so extremely important? Preaching is a means of grace to obtain faith and to strengthen the faith you have. Moreover, when you really have faith, which is to say saving faith, you actively believe on Jesus to receive Him as your personal Savior.
Why not do that now? Take the step of faith. Believe on Jesus and thereby receive Him as your Savior.
 J. Gresham Machen, What Is Faith?, (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1991), page 14.
 Ibid., page 20.
 Ibid., page 43.
 Fritz Rienecker & Cleon Rogers, Linguistic Key To The Greek New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Regency Reference Library, 1980), page 706.
 Bauer, Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, (
 Machen, page 46.
 Cited by F. F. Bruce in The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1984), page 289.