What is Faith?

This question may seem trivial, but I can assure you it is not. Conflicting answers have divided churches, torn families, and wrenched the hearts of many Christians. The particulars of faith, grace, and salvation often spark tense discussions. Why? Because their definitions either make or break biblical Christianity.

So what is it? What is faith?

Johnny Beiler presented us with quite the dilemma a couple months back. Man, dead in sin, hopelessly destitute and depraved. Timothy Reitz gave us a solution a month later, the glorious God-man, Jesus Christ, our perfect sacrifice. We must now deal with the means of this solution. How does this process transpire? What means has God ordained to apply this salvation to the heart of man? That means is faith.

But faith in what? We can have faith in God as arbitrarily benevolent and gracious, too “good” and “loving” to ever condemn someone to hell. We can trust in our own good intentions, upstanding morals, or airtight theology. We sometimes will even trust our own faithfulness to God in things like daily devotional time or acts of Christian love and service. And though these things are not wrong, are they faith?

This may pop a couple bubbles and step on some toes, but none of the things we do day to day ever gain us any merit before God. “By the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight” (Rom. 3:20).1 Our morality? Worthless. Our righteousness? Filthy rags. Our devotion? Nothing apart from the grace of Christ. This is the thrust of the very first sentence of Article 6 of the Mennonite Confession of Faith of 1963. “Men are saved, not by character, law, good works, or ceremonies, but by the grace of God.”2

There we have the substance of faith. Our faith must be in the saving grace of God. And that faith, the one that saves, is essentially an appeal to the goodness of God. Faith says, “I give up.” “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8). Saving faith realizes that we have no appeal apart from an appeal to grace. We are not saved by our goodness but by God’s. Faith in anything else is not only a compromise, it is entirely inadequate. Our faith must be solely in God’s grace.

Grace.

Just grace. God’s grace. His unmerited favor. Unmerited. Not grace given because of our works, our goodness, or anything within us. Simply God’s pleasure to redeem us because of his own goodness. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). We were rebels, and yet God still granted us his love and grace. He is not drawn by our attractiveness, but rather draws near to us because of his own goodness and love.

We began by sketching grace and faith because we must understand their substance before we can properly understand how they are applied to our lives. You see, the gospel of grace was and is never about us; it is about God glorifying himself by loving unworthy sinners. Our faith cannot be in anything we ourselves bring, for “in [us] (that is, in [our] flesh) nothing good dwells” (Rom. 7:18). We bring nothing to the table but an appeal to God to look on us in grace. Our faith cannot even be in our own faith, but solely in God’s promise to redeem those who appeal to him.

Here things get especially delicate. The confession states that “Saving faith involves the giving of the self to Christ, a full surrender of the will, a confident trust in Him, a joyful obedience to His Word as a faithful disciple, and an attitude of love to all men.” Whether or not the writers intended to emphasize anything beyond faith in Christ alone, I’m not sure. But the matter deserves clarification at this point. Yes, all the things in this list are necessary, but necessary only as indicators of faith, not as the faith itself. The moment our faith is in our obedience to Christ rather than Christ’s atonement itself we have lost our grip on true faith. Now, if these indicators are absent, we are not truly saved. Faith requires obedience (1 John 2:4). But obedience is not faith itself, it is a result of faith.

What, then, initiates faith? If salvation is based entirely on the work of Christ, not anything in us, how can it be applied to our lives by anything but the grace of God? (I realize I am treading on sensitive territory, but this issue deserves discussion. My aim here is not controversy, but faithfulness to Scripture.) We have to remember two things here. First, all who truly confess Christ as Savior can and will be saved (John 3:16, Rom. 10:9, John 5:24). Second, none can be saved without a divine work of grace (John 15:16, John 6:44, Eph. 2:1-10). The moment we lose either of those we have erred. We must not distort truth to fit it into our neat little definitions. God’s ways are higher than ours, who are we to claim to understand his ways? But we do know that both of these truths must be true based on what the Bible teaches. And we must not minimize either of these glorious truths.

I do believe, however, that this article’s definition of election is one of its greatest weaknesses. The authors mistakenly minimize the glorious work of God in salvation when they overemphasize individual responsibility. The language Scripture uses is strong; we were slaves to sin (Rom. 6:20), sold under sin (Rom. 7:14), and dead (Eph. 2:1-5). This last word is the most vivid, and most applicable. A dead man has no way to resurrect himself. He, like Lazarus, can only be brought to faith by the word of the Life-giver. God must work, or no salvation is possible. We must not redefine election to comply with our understanding of salvation lest we minimize the majesty of God’s redeeming work.

Before this detonates, I’d like to remind you of the two truths I gave earlier. All who call on the name of Christ will be saved. The spiritual deadness of all does not restrict universality of the free gift. But divine involvement is required; no redemption can happen apart from it.

Unshakable Assurance

Recognizing the divine element of salvation brings glorious assurance. God is faithful to finish his good work in us (Phil. 1:6). The One who gave us his grace in Christ will confirm us until the end (1 Cor. 1:4-9), and he will keep us from falling (Jude 24). Just as he was faithful in salvation, so also will he be faithful to complete his work. If we weaken his involvement in the initial work of salvation we also diminish our confidence in his ability to preserve us to the end. True assurance only comes when we acknowledge God’s sovereign hand in the entire process.

We can be assured that God has worked salvation when we see him also working sanctification. Sanctification comes as the Holy Spirit teaches us the gospel and continually applies it to our lives. The confession reminds us; “As long as the believer lives, he stands in need of the forgiveness, cleansing, and grace of Christ.” Many mistakenly reduce the gospel to a single act, but biblically, Christ’s work extends to every area of our lives. We continually relate to him, not based on our recent faithfulness (or sinfulness), but exclusively through the merit of Christ. Our goodness makes us no more worthy before God, and our brokenness no less. Christians only ever relate with God based on the righteousness of Christ. Faith in Christ’s sufficient sacrifice is not only necessary for salvation but is vital for our entire lives.

So what is faith? Faith is an appeal to the grace and mercy of God. Faith is surrender to the Life-giver. Faith is assurance that he who has begun a good work in us will continually complete it until the day of Christ. But most of all, faith is unwavering confidence in Christ as our only hope. Faith releases all else and moors itself securely to Christ. Faith loses all but Christ, but in him it finds everything.

Julian Julian Stoltzfus currently resides in Elnora, IN and is taking part in a pastoral apprenticeship program under Truth and Grace Mennonite Church. He had the privilege of attending several semesters at Elnora Bible Institute since 2014. When not working at K&K Industries, he enjoys diving into a good read, exploring the diverse beauties of music, or fortifying relationships with family and friends. The 5th of 6, he has greatly benefited from the wisdom and influence of his parents and siblings. He longs to see authentic Christianity thrive as God transforms hearts through the Gospel.

Bibliography

  1. The Holy Bible: NKJV, New King James Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2016. Print.
  2. Mennonite Confession of Faith, 1963. GAMEO. Web. 1 August 2016.

10 thoughts on “What is Faith?

  1. Excellent thoughts on faith. I would like to suggest that, while the most important part of faith is salvation, there is much more to faith. Faith may be the state of believing but it may also be the action associated with that belief. This is seen in words like faithful and faithfulness. Though our salvation is not contingent on our faithfulness, can one have faith without being faithful? What do you think?

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  2. This continued promotion of Calvinism is so wrong. Calvinism is by its nature self-negating. If faith is the divine infusion of grace without acceptance required of the recipient, than what is the point? It doesn’t matter, since we are leaves swept before the undiscernible wind of the Almighty. The only claim the argument has to relevance would be the glorification of this undiscernible God through the wider knowledge of His whimsical works among the reprobates. This of course, requires the assent of the unbeliever in accepting this truth and its proclamation, which throws you back on the rocks of Calvinism which claim that man has nothing to do with this. What utter foolishness.
    The only logical benefit of this foray into Calvinism, and to the wrong side at that, is the destruction of men’s good works.

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    1. In answer to your question…
      Faith occurs when the will of man is joined to the Word of God. The decision of the will in acceptance is not a work.

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  3. Let me suggest a definition. Faith is when God says “Believe Me / trust Me / follow Me” we respond with “yes”. It appears simple, yet the implications and applications are endless.

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  4. Hopefully I can add some more to my comment, and generate some more conversation, without causing the discussion to degenerate like a previous thread. As was mentioned in the article, I believe this subject is foundational to our theology and crucial to our Christian lives. I think there are some pretty deep ditches on each side of the road. I also think we make the subject more complicated than it needs to be.
    As Romans 3 says, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” We will not find God, or even desire to, on our own.
    But God reaches out to each of us. He has in the past, and continues to reveal truth to us. He has done so in creation, through the prophets of the Old Testament, through the Person of His Son Jesus Christ, through the New Testament writers, and through the testimony of believers. And as He reveals truth to us, He also gives us the opportunity and responsibility to respond to that truth. He has not made us robots to simply perform His will automatically. He wants us to respond with “yes” not only in word, but in action.
    Which brings up another point. We work so hard to separate faith and works. I think we should be working harder to put them together. Real faith has real results. But James makes the point better than I can.
    And that brings us back to the beginning point of our insufficiency. Our works cannot be done satisfactorily in our own strength. It will only happen as we look to God for strength, and ask Him to work through us, and change us. That is a process I am still learning.
    So what is faith? It is not faith in ourselves, our works, our faith, but in God Himself, saying and doing “yes” with each new truth and commandment He shows us.

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  5. If you’ll kindly notice, I didn’t actually mention Calvinism in this article. The goal here is biblicism. Please don’t assume I’ve said something I haven’t by slapping a label on my theology.

    Also notice that I never ruled out human responsibility. We are responsible. We have a choice. And yet in that, God is sovereign.

    I do agree with you in that God is not working whimsically. He is intentional and purposeful. But I also refuse to pitch my wisdom against God’s or put my own opinion above Scripture. As I study Scripture I cannot but allow my perception of God and his ways to be shaped by what He has revealed about himself.

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    1. Dear Julian,
      I intended no unkindness. You are obviously an intellectual person, and I honored you by not playing games. I wish you nothing but the best, and may truth be exalted. God knows the Anabaptist people are in enough trouble without us tearing each other apart.

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  6. Although this doesn’t have anything to do with the above comments, I have a question. Jesus talked about having faith like a mustard seed, which some people say then means you can have a little faith, so pray for more faith, need to grow in faith, etc, thus implying faith can be measured. Other people argue you either have faith or you don’t, hebrews hall of faith only talking about them having faith, not how much they had. Just for discussion, what is your opinion?

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    1. I believe we can have various measures of faith in the day to day (whether or not we choose to trust God in a specific circumstance or if we humbly ask for his sovereign involvement in our lives). The faith detailed in this article is “saving faith.” That you either have or you don’t. You are either redeemed or pagan; no middle ground exists. And yet as Christians mature they will become increasingly confident in the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice on their behalf, therefore growing in faith.

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