What Is Faith Really?

Conversations About God 3:3

Perhaps the famous verse in Hebrews 11:1 will help us. First, the familiar wording of the King James (KJV): “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Does it help to know that faith is a substance? Or that faith is the evidence of things not seen? That would suggest that if you have faith in something, that’s evidence that it is really so. But if you have faith that there’s a man in the moon does that prove there must be one? That doesn’t make sense! But do we sometimes use faith this way? Does Hebrews 11 encourage us to do so? Let’s look at those two words, translated “substance” and “evidence.”

Let’s take the word for “evidence” first: the Greek word is elengchos. It’s a noun that comes from a verb used for the work of the Holy Spirit. When the Spirit comes, He will convince you. He will convict you. He will settle you into the truth. A better translation than “evidence” would be “conviction.” Faith is conviction.

Now let’s look at the other word, “substance.” The Greek word it is based on is hupostasis. We get the English word hypostasis from that, although most of us rarely use it. It doesn’t help much to know that faith is a hypostasis, does it? But does it help to think of faith as a substance either? Actually, the Greek word hupostasis means “that which stands under,” and that’s where the “sub” and the “stance” came from. The English “substance” is from the Latin equivalent of hupostasis. That may be very good Latin, but in this case it’s not very good English.

Not until the turn of the century did scholars discover what this word really means. As archeologists were digging in the sands of Egypt, looking for manuscripts primarily, they found some that were title deeds to property, business agreements, covenants; and the title on each of these documents was this very word: hupostasis. And it dawned on them that in Hebrews 11 the apostle was saying that faith is an agreement, a covenant. Covenants are all about relationship, what people need to do if they are to trust each other in business. God offers us many things, but first He presents Himself. If we decide that we can trust Him, that we would like to “do business” with Him, that trusting relationship is faith.

So how should we translate this word hupostasis? Let’s look at three different translations: “Now faith is the title-deed of things hoped for” (Montgomery). “Now faith means that we are confident of what we hope for, convinced of what we do not see” (Moffatt). “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (NIV). Can you see the idea of conviction or certainty coming through? That’s the meaning of faith. This is further clarified by the previous context of Hebrews 11:1, which you find in 10:35-39 (remembering that there were no chapter divisions in the early days):

Don’t throw away your trust now—it carries with it a rich reward. Patient endurance is what you need if, after doing God’s will, you are to receive what he has promised. For yet a little while, He that cometh shall come, and shall not tarry. But my righteous one shall live by faith; and if he shrink back, my soul hath no pleasure in him. Surely we are not going to be men who cower back and are lost, but men who maintain their faith for the salvation of their souls (Phillips)!

Faith is our conviction. It’s being certain about things that at the moment we cannot see. There is a background to that verse in Hebrews, Habakkuk chapters one and two. There Habakkuk says to God, “Why don’t you do something” (Hab 1:2-4)? And God says, “I am. But you wouldn’t believe it if I told you” (Hab 1:5). And Habakkuk says, “I’m going to wait and see” (Hab 2:1). And God says, “If what I have predicted seems slow, wait for it; it will come. My righteous One will live in trust” (Hab 2:3-4). That famous verse, “the just shall live by faith (Hab 2:4),” is not discussing forgiveness or justification. The verse is saying that the one who is right with God will trust Him and be willing to wait. That’s the kind of trust and right relationship with God that really counts. And when we come to Paul’s use of the same phrase in Romans 1, (chapters 8 and 16 of this book), we’ll want to remember that Habakkuk is the background for it.

The angels had such trust, at least the loyal ones did. They also had questions! But they said to God, “We trust you enough that we’re willing to wait,” and they waited all the way to Calvary for some of the answers to their questions. They heard the promise to Adam and Eve that God was going to do something, and they were willing to wait because they trusted God. This certainly helps us to understand “salvation by faith” and “righteousness by faith.” Faith is trust in the way God chose to save us. We’re not saved by faith. Faith does not save us, God saves us. But God can only save those who trust Him.

Like a physician, God stands ready to heal all the damage done. But He cannot force us to be well. If we don’t trust Him enough to listen, to cooperate, and to let Him heal the damage done, there’s no way He can heal us. Physicians cannot heal rebellious patients who stay away because they think the doctor is a quack. Only when there is trust in the physician can healing really take place.

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