What is Faith, Really?

This week, we get to begin our study of Paul’s letter to the Romans. This letter presents us with a holistic view of the Christian faith. It is an umbrella commentary on the Old Testament, observing Christ in light of the Old Testament, a proclamation of the Gospel, and a brief application of that Gospel to life. The book of Romans presents the basic doctrines of true Christianity, though it is not exhaustive. This letter reveals to us what true Christian actions and attitudes are like and from where they come. If any tradition is contrary to the book of Romans, specifically, it probably cannot be considered as genuine Christianity. As we walk through the book of Romans together, I want to ask three questions in each sermon: What does Scripture teach? How does this compare to current major worldviews? How does this truth affect my heart and draw me to loving action? If at any time, you have questions about other worldviews, please feel free to ask. I am here to serve and I do this research so that we can meaningfully profit together in the study of God’s word.

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There are a few definitions of faith in the world today ranging from simple trust to obsequious belief (fawning belief in something without evidence). The word faith is often used in opposition to the word science. Belief systems are referred to as faiths, as are ritual systems within religion. Faith seems to be a very basic component of the human experience, but rarely do we take the time to think about what it actually means for us to have faith. What is faith, really? Where does our faith come from? How does it affect our hearts? What sort of loving action does it draw us to?

Romans 1:13-17

Now I want you to know, brothers, that I often planned to come to you (but was prevented until now) in order that I might have a fruitful ministry among you, just as among the rest of the Gentiles. I am obligated both to Greeks and barbarians, both to the wise and the foolish. So I am eager to preach the good news to you also who are in Rome.

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is God’s power for salvation to everyone who believes, first to the Jew, and also to the Greek. For in it God’s righteousness is revealed from faith to faith, just as it is written: The righteous will live by faith.

Faith in the Bible

In this text, Paul reveals that faith drives all of life. Whatever a person’s faith is in, it draws him or her to live a certain way, to think a certain way, and to view the world in a certain way. We all live by the faith that we have, and those who are righteous, according to Paul, will live by true faith. What is this true faith that Paul describes? We receive some clues in the preceding verses of Chapter 1. In verse 5, Paul describes obedience as being of faith. Obedience is not described as of works or merit or ritual or anything else. It is described as being of faith. So, faith brings about obedience. That is one thing it does, but what is it? In verse 6, Paul states that this obedience of faith is glorifying to Christ, not people, among all people including those who are called by Jesus Christ. Faith is not the glorification of self and cannot, then, be a work of self. However faith is produced, whatever faith is, it cannot be said that any one person will have worked for it or produced it. In fact, Paul also clarifies that there are people who are called by Christ and people who are not and that, through true faith, Christ will receive all glory among both groups. When we get to verse 13, Paul describes that he wanted to go to Rome but was prevented for a time in order that he might have a fruitful ministry among the Romans. This reveals a certain dependence on someone else for all things. In this case, Paul was depending on the leadership of the Holy Spirit. In verse 17, Paul states that the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith.

In this verse, Paul is quoting and commenting on an Old Testament passage, Habakkuk 2:4:

Look, his ego is inflated;

he is without integrity.

But the righteous one will live by his faith.

In the context of Habakkuk 2:4, the prophet was questioning why God would allow wicked people to overcome the righteous. He recognized that God promoted this enemy to come against Israel because of Israel’s sin. God answers Habakkuk. His, the Chaldean enemy, ego is inflated. He seeks glory for himself. He is seeking to leave his mark on the world. He is trying to be his own righteousness. In contrast to this, those who are truly righteous will live by faith. To live by faith is the opposite of living according to or for my ego. God had to correct Habakkuk. Righteousness is not the success of a people given because of their own merit. God can’t be bought. The righteous live by faith, complete dependence on God because to try and earn my own success or buy God with a prayer, a sacrifice, an offering, or with good deeds serves the ego. That is the very definition of unrighteousness in Habakkuk and in Romans.

Paul is using an old testament understanding of what faith is. If we define faith only in the first chapter of Romans, we get this: True faith is a gift from God (not a work of self) that causes God’s people to depend fully on God and reveals the righteousness of God (not people) for the purpose of our humility and God’s glory, bringing about obedience in those who are given faith.

Romans, though, is not the only book that defines faith. We read the same definition no matter where we turn to in scripture:

“At that time the disciples came to Jesus and said, ‘Who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’

Then He called a child to Him and had him stand among them. ‘I assure you,’ He said, ‘unless you are converted and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’” (Matthew 18:1-3, parentheses mine, italics added for emphasis).

“For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift — not from works, so that no one can boast (We are not saved by faith, but by grace through faith). For we are His creation, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time so that we should walk in them (faith, which is a gift to those who are a new creation in Christ, draws us to good works or obedience)” (Ephesians 2:8-10, parentheses mine, italics added for emphasis).

“Therefore, brothers, since we have boldness to enter the sanctuary through the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way He has opened for us through the curtain (that is, His flesh), and since we have a great high priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed in pure water. Let us hold on to the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. And let us be concerned about one another in order to promote love and good works, not staying away from our worship meetings, as some habitually do, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day drawing near…

Now faith is the reality of what is hoped for, the proof of what is not seen. For our ancestors won God’s approval by it (not by works or merit, but by the blood of Christ because Christ has opened the door).

By faith we understand that the universe was created by God’s command, so that what is seen has been made from things that are not visible.

By faith Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was approved as a righteous man, because God approved his gifts (he was considered righteous by faith, not by works, and that is why God accepted his offering), and even though he is dead, he still speaks through his faith.

By faith Enoch was taken away so he did not experience death, and he was not to be found because God took him away. For prior to his removal he was approved, since he had pleased God (he was approved because of faith, not works). Now without faith it is impossible to please God, for the one who draws near to Him must believe that He exists and rewards those who seek Him (who seek Him, not their own glory or what they might gain from claiming a relationship with God)” (Hebrews 10:18-34, 11:1-6, parentheses mine, italics added for emphasis).

“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can his faith save him?

If a brother or sister is without clothes and lacks daily food and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’ but you don’t give them what the body needs, what good is it? In the same way faith, if it doesn’t have works, is dead by itself (faith precedes works and brings about good works or obedience)” (James 2:14-17, parentheses mine, italics added for emphasis).

“…know that no one is justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ. And we have believed in Christ Jesus so that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no human being will be justified” (Galatians 2:16).

While there are many more places in Scripture to find faith described in some manner, these references begin to help us realize what true, Godly faith is. It is precisely what we have discovered in Romans 1. True faith is a gift from God (not a work of self) that causes God’s people to depend fully on God and reveals the righteousness of God (not people) for the purpose of our humility and God’s glory, bringing about obedience in those who are given faith.

True faith is a gift.

Faith in the world

In this world, in all of its brokenness, there are quite a few worldviews (including religious belief systems) in which faith is seen as something different. I want to consider some definitions of faith that are different from the biblical definition. I have italicized the points that make the definition contrary to what we actually see in Scripture.

The Roman Catholic definition of faith, here adapted from the Catechism available through the Vatican, combines works with grace instead of making God’s grace alone the determining factor:

“Faith is a gift of God, a supernatural virtue infused by him… Believing is possible only by grace and the interior helps of the Holy Spirit. But it is no less true that believing is an authentically human act… Faith is an entirely free gift that God makes to man. We can lose this priceless gift… To live, grow and persevere in the faith until the end we must nourish it with the word of God; we must beg the Lord to increase our faith; it must be “working through charity,” abounding in hope, and rooted in the faith of the Church.

Many protestant Christians will describe faith similarly, claiming that we must work to remain in God’s grace after becoming a Christian. They equate being a member of a church (of the Church) with being saved.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses have not really clearly defined what they think faith is, only what they think faith accomplishes. Based on their website, they believe that faith and works are essentially connected and that a person’s faith is expressed by his or her works. The goal of faith for the Jehovah’s witness can be summarized thusly:

The more you learn about God, the closer you will feel to him and the happier you will be.

According to their dictionary, Mormons have defined faith in this way:

“Faith is to hope for things which are not seen, but which are true and must be centered in Jesus Christ in order to produce salvationstrong faith is developed by obedience to the gospel of Jesus Christ; in other words, faith comes by righteousness… Faith is a principle of action and of power…”

According to what is written in the Quran, Muslims who abide by the Quran believe that faith is belief in God’s salvation, which is given only by His act of mercy. They believe that all of our free decisions were recorded even before creation, this includes the decision to submit to God or not. Those who submit to God are considered to be righteous. God’s choosing is based on the ‘goodness’ of each one’s soul and the goodness of each one’s soul is determined by God’s foreknowledge of his or her submission to him.

Many protestant Christians will define faith in a Muslim way as well, saying that God’s election is based upon His foreknowledge of our surrendering to Him. We have to add words to Scripture in order to draw that conclusion and I am not willing to do that.

Hindus believe that the creator god is unknowable and unsearchable, but that this creator God has subject to him many demigods. If they have faith in a demigod, which is a representation of the creator god, worshipping that demigod, attains all his desired objects from that deity. Those who perform virtuous deeds are purified from all sin and freed from the illusion of duality so that they can worship the creator god with firm resolve. Those who practice vice are forced to be born again into the abode of suffering (this is the idea of karma).

In Buddhism, faith is a trust or belief in one’s self and in Dharma (the interconnectivity of all things).

The Dalai Lama stated this in comparison to the Bible’s teaching that Jesus must give light and that Jesus must be the one to save the world. It is so interesting that this figure of faith in the world today then stated that what Jesus said was like his belief that people must believe in the interconnectivity of the world, taking their rightful place in that interconnectivity. One teaches that salvation is the work of Christ on behalf of people. One teaches that a salvation of sorts is the work of people realizing their interconnectivity through meditation. These are two entirely different and incompatible worldviews.

The naturalist’s (including the atheist) definition of faith is the same as the Buddhists, only using different terms. Faith for the naturalist and many scientific atheists is trust in the human condition as people assume their logical place in the world (interconnectivity of all things) and one’s self.

To have a true belief, it must be coherent (non-contradictory with other beliefs) and it must be correspondent (represent external objective features of the cosmos). It was Carl Sagan who said, “The suppression of uncomfortable ideas may be common in religion or politics, but it is not a path to knowledge.”

In Romans, we find an idea that is uncomfortable for most people in every religious and irreligious context: As fallen people, we are always trying to change the natural order of things. The examples that Paul gives here in Romans 1-2 are exactly the kinds of things we have witnessed for many years:

    1. We have taken faith and tried to turn it into this thing that we can produce in ourselves either by believing the correct thing, doing good things, practicing the rituals of religion, or being righteous of our own willpower.
    2. In Romans 1:23, we read that people have exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.
    3. In Romans 1:25, we read that people exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the creator.
    4. In Romans 1:26-27, we read that people exchanged natural sexual relations according to God’s created order for unnatural ones.
    5. In Romans 1:29-31, we read of other ways that people have tried to change the natural order of things.
    6. In Romans 1:32, we read of how people encouraged other people to also try to rearrange God’s order of all things even though He is the creator and they are not.
    7. In Romans 2:1, we even read that people have taken it upon themselves to be the righteous judge, even though God is the only right judge.

Most people, when they think about faith or try to define it, have done so in a way that is contrary to the natural order and contradictory. We want so badly to in some way earn what can only be given as a gift. This is heartbreaking because it means that most people who refer to themselves as “Christian” believe, and most ‘christian’ traditions teach, that they somehow have something to offer the sovereign Lord of the universe by their own merit, that faith somehow depends on them at least in part. Even if we say it is a gift, we often try and add clarification to make it seem as though we get to do something to gain our own faith. The only thing we accomplish is creating contradiction by trying to rearrange God’s design regarding this thing called faith. This is like an extreme form of works-based righteousness in which we have tried to become the creators of our own world rather than the cultivators of the order that God has formed. This is what most religion, including many traditions that refer to themselves as “Christian” try to accomplish. This is actually impossible to do. It is a philosophy that does not correspond to objective reality. When we say things like, “Faith is a gift, yet I must earn it by my merit,” we contradict ourselves and our beliefs are not coherent, meaning that at least some of them are false. This is what we do in religion when we want to say that God is sovereign but still want to make faith a work of our own. If God is sovereign, all glory belongs to Him. If all glory belongs to God, there is no merit of mine by which I can come to Christ or stay with Christ. God must save me and keep me. Faith, then, is complete dependence on God.

We self-identify by the things we do and the things we like. God identifies us according to who He is. He is the measure of all things. When I strive to be righteous on my own, I live as though I am the measure of all things. That’s blasphemy. What I am not saying is that people are incapable of moral good. We can do some good things. If I am relying on those good things as a measure of righteousness before God, I will always fall short. Thus, the ways of most religion will actually get us nowhere with God. They provide a corrupted sort of faith that isn’t real faith at all.

Faith is complete dependence on God.

Faith in action

How does the idea of faith affect my heart and inform my action? If faith is not earned in any way or given according to merit, then my love for God and for people is not something that depends on me. This is a good thing! If faith is complete dependence on God, then God is the one drawing me to action; I’m not forced to, in my own strength or with my might, try to please God. God gives faith by grace alone. Faith causes us to depend on God as a child depends on his or her parents. Faith draws us into deeper obedience, not by my willpower but by God’s grace. Through faith, which is a gift that depends only on God, I am saved.

That is where this relationship starts for us: not my producing of faith or even my coming by my own willpower to faith, but the receiving of faith from God as a gift.

Faith leads us to love more deeply and serve more genuinely.


True faith is a gift.

Faith is complete dependence on God.

Faith leads us to love more deeply and serve more genuinely.

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