What is Faith? (Hebrews 11:1–3)

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Every Sunday morning, immediately preceding our Family Bible Hour ministry, church members gather in a room, break into smaller groups, close eyes and speak to someone invisible. This is repeated several times on any given Sunday.

We gather to sing songs about this invisible person and to celebrate His work that has saved us; a work accomplished that none of us witnessed first hand. We read from a book that was written by this invisible Being, which tells us about things that we have not yet seen but that we assured are real.

As believers, we believe in and talk about a future that none of us has experienced, but of which we are certain we will experience one day for all of eternity. We believe that an innumerable company gathers with the visible church on the Lord’s Day: a multitude of angels and Christians who have died. We do not see them, yet we are told in Hebrews 12 that they are here. And as we worship we spend time listening to the words of this invisible Being and trusting that we will hear Him.

The result of all of this is that we will leave corporate worship with hope, with the solidly grounded assurance that what we have done matters and that, in the end, it will be seen.

What is it that has enables this Lord’s Day experience to be meaningful? Faith! And in the light of all that faith is able to accomplish, we are right to ask, what is faith? Hebrews 11 provides the answer.

The writer’s quotation from Habakkuk 2:4 in 10:38 introduces the importance of faith in the Christian’s perseverance. In chapter 11, he then tells us what this faith is. He is a good teacher. He does not simply shout an exhortation but rather shows his readers precisely what is expected.

The underlying sin about which the writer is concerned is lack of faith. We call this unbelief. We have seen this time and again. In the language of the KJV, this unbelief is “the sin which doth so easily beset us” (12:1).

Apparently amongst the recipients of this epistle were those who were tempted to drift from their initial profession of faith in Christ. Their faith was being tossed to and fro by the storms of persecution and societal pressures. It was for this reason that the writer warned them of the eternal dangers awaiting those who turn from Christ. But it was also for this reason that he reminds them of their past perseverance. He was persuaded that they were the real deal (10:32–35; 6:9). But even so—perhaps especially so—they needed to be further strengthened in their faith.

All along, he has urged them to believe God’s Word about the person and work of Jesus Christ (Prophet, King and High Priest). Having explained the doctrinal basis for this belief, he began in 10:19 to apply it. He calls upon his readers to to believe, to persevere in the faith by faith.

So it is quite logical at this point for the writer to explain what he means by faith. This is precisely what he does in the forty verses of chapter 11.

So, what is faith? The writer here says, “Let me tell you. More to the point, let me show you.”

It is sometimes unhelpful for us to assume that we understand a Christian concept. Perhaps faith is one of these concepts. We just assume its meaning, but perhaps we are wrong. And if we are wrong at the root of our Christianity, then we will probably be wrong in the fruit of our Christianity.

In this study we will begin a several-part exposition of this chapter with the goal that our lives will please God as we run the race before us empowered by faith (v. 6). Today we will examine what faith is under four major headings.

The Context of Faith

First, we want to consider where faith fits.

The Believer’s Walk

I love how the writer begins this chapter: “Now faith is …” In fact, the first word in the original sentence is the verb for “to be,” in this case, “is.” It is as if, after saying, “Live by faith,” the writer immediately explains faith is. He does not wish to leave them for a moment in the dark about what faith is. Lest they think that they cannot persevere by faith, he immediately gives them a whole list of people who did in fact persevere by faith. In other words, “Faith is doable.”

It is important to recognize at the start that the chapter cannot be taken in isolation. Its teaching builds on what has gone before. The artificial chapter division has obscured the fact that this famous chapter must be read as a sequel to the previous verses. It is a vigorous exposition of what it means to have faith and obtain life.1

You will remember that these believers were not only facing present difficult circumstances but were in fact heading for even more difficult times (Matthew 24:1–14; Revelation 2–3). If they would live for the Lord during these times, they would need more than stoic resolve; they would need a faith that was robust because rooted in reality. Hence chapter 11.

Visible Obstacles to the Invisible

We need to remember that the seen was very much a part of the old covenant structure. The sacrifices and the rituals and the temple were shadows of the true. A shadow, of course, is something that can be seen. It is visible. This was a major stumblingblock to many Jews. They were being exhorted to believe in an invisible Saviour who exercises an invisible priesthood. That was a tough sell to many. Andrews notes, “Unlike the old covenant, with its manifest glory and public ceremonies, the new covenant is invisible.”2 But this is precisely where the matter of faith comes in. In the words of Westcott, the writer is saying that “the future and the unseen can be made real by faith.”3 They needed this conviction concerning reality. They were to run the race toward an invisible goal as though “seeing Him who is invisible” (v. 27). And so are we.

The Character of Faith

In v. 1 we are told succinctly how faith works: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (v. 1).

Wonderful Confidence

Perhaps you have heard of “Pascal’s Wager.” The devout French mathematician, philosopher and physicist, Blaise Pascal (1623­–62), posited that

humans all bet with their lives either that God exists or not. Given the possibility that God actually does exist and assuming an infinite gain or loss associated with belief or unbelief in said God (as represented by an eternity in heaven or hell) a rational person should live as though God exists and seek to believe in God. If God does not actually exist, such a person will have only a finite loss (some pleasures, luxury, etc.).

As wonderful a Christian as Pascal was, this apologetic is nonsense. It finds no support in Hebrews 11 or anywhere else in Scripture. If you do not believe in God then you are contradicting all the evidence. If you do believe God then you have submitted to the evidence. There is no wager here. All bets are off.

Christians do not hedge their bets. We, by God’s grace, embrace the facts. There is every reason to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and everyone who refuses to believe on Him takes a leap into existential and eventual eternal darkness.

Faith fits into the Christian’s life at the beginning all the way until the end, when faith will quite literally become sight.

But of course this raises the question, just what is faith? What does believing to the saving of the soul look like? Is it merely a leap in the dark against all odds? Is it merely mental assent—moral and mental resolve to believe in the face of no evidence, or even in the face of contradictory evidence? Is faith merely intellectual assent? Is faith intellectual suicide?

This is neither an objective nor a subjective definition of faith; it is rather a functional definition. In other words, it is a definition that tells us how faith operates; what it does; how it works.

To quote Pascal once again (but this time with approval), “The heart has its reasons which reason does not know.” This statement could be twisted to affirm irrationality; nevertheless, his point is well taken. The author affirms this understanding as he declares that faith is a settled assurance about whatever God has said, in spite of a lack of visible evidence. In fact, this lack of visible evidence is in many ways his main point.

In the examples that are given from v. 4 onwards, the Lord expected these “elders” (v. 2) to believe what He had promised, even though there was little or no evidence for what was promised. Fundamentally, the promise that dominates these verses is that of the promised seed (Genesis 3:15): Messiah. They had no visible evidence, but they had something just as substantial and, in fact, even more certain. They had God’s promise. God’s Word, backed up by God’s character, was enough, it was sufficient for them to expect that one day Messiah would come. It is in this sense that these ancient heroes of faith could slightly tweak Pascal’s statement and say, “Faith has its reasons which reason does not know.”

One Faith, One People, Two Covenants

It will be helpful to note again that the recipients of this letter were historically in a time of tremendous, epochal transition. They were in the early days of the new covenant, and soon the old covenant structures, like Humpty Dumpty, would come tumbling down and no one would ever be able to be put the old covenant back to together again. But as the writer has so painstakingly driven home for nearly ten chapters, there is also a huge continuity between these two covenants and therefore between these two covenant peoples. The major shared characteristic is that of faith; and specifically, faith in Christ.

I am persuaded that this entire section is concerned to show that those who were saved under the old covenant persevered by faith in God’s promise concerning Christ, and this is precisely how those under the new covenant will persevere: by faith. Not by sight, but by faith. Hywel Jones comments that this chapter tells and inspires “the Hebrews (and us) that ‘keeping on believing’ is not impossible” and that the underlying logic of this chapter “is that there is but one people of God, and that the testimony of those who have gone before is relevant to those who succeed them.”4 The just shall live by faith—regardless of the covenant under which they live. In the words of 10:39, “those who believe to the saving of the soul” are like these (11:4–40) because their faith is like this (11:1–3).

It has been suggested by many that, strictly speaking, this is not a definition but rather a description of faith. There is much truth in that. This is not a detailed anatomical definition of faith. And neither is the emphasis upon these people of faith. Rather the emphasis is upon the nature of faith. So, what is it?

Faith is Substantial

We are told that “faith is the substance of things hoped for.” The word translated “substance” (upostasis) connotes confidence or assurance (cf. Hebrews 3:14). It means, “literally foundation, that which stands under; hence, the ground on which one builds hope.”5

Here it would also include the idea of essence (see Hebrews 1:3). The idea would then be that of an “essential confidence.” Confidence that is well grounded in the essence of fact. Some translate it, “Faith is the title deed of things hoped for yet not seen.” Lane says that “substance” “designates an objective reality that is unquestionable and securely established…. ‘Faith’ is something objective that bestows upon the objects of hope even now a substantial reality, which will unfold in God’s appointed time” (see 10:37–38).6

What we hope for is defined in the epistle as salvation from our sins and the full consummation of what God in Christ accomplished by the new covenant. So what he is saying is that faith is the indisputable essence behind our hope. Faith is both essential for our hope and faith is the essence of what we hope for. In other words, at least for now, faith takes the place of what we are hoping for. We might therefore say that faith functions in this way: “It makes real to us and gives us possession of things that are hoped for but are not yet part of our experience.”7

Contextually, what we are hoping for is the fullness of our salvation and God’s vindication. The writer is saying that whatever God has promised is as good as done. Faith is the assurance of this. In a real sense, he is saying that when you have faith in Christ you have Christ. One day, of course, this will be sight, but for now, though unseen, it is not unreal.

It is important that we keep the context before us. Too often, this verse is used as a pretext to teach all kinds of nonsense. The so-called “word faith movement” is rife with the abuse of this text. That teaching basically promotes faith in faith. But the context here is that of faith rooted in God’s clear redemptive promises. Hebrews is rich with Scripture quotations. It is God’s Word that gives substance to our confidence in the gospel. And as Hughes points out, “The more profound our faith, the more profound our hope. A deeply intense faith spawns a deeply intense hope.”8

Faith is Sensible

Yes, it makes sense. It is rational. It is evidential. As the writer puts it, faith is “the evidence of things not seen.” Bruce helpfully observes, “Physical eyesight produces conviction or evidence of visible things; faith is the organ which enables people to see the invisible order.”9

This word translated “evidence” means “conviction” or “proof,” and can even be translated as “reproof” (2 Timothy 3:16).

As we just saw, though what we hope for is, at least for now, unseen, that does not mean that it is unreal. As Morris says, “There are realities for which we have no material evidence, though they are not the less real for that. Faith enables us to know that they exist.”10

These promises are very real—substantially real—and our faith is the evidence of their reality. What we need to note is that faith is here said to be the evidence for the very thing for which it argues. Does this sound like circular reasoning? Perhaps. But the Bible is full of such reasoning.

For example, consider the opening words of the Bible: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). In the light of this statement, we conclude that there is a God. Have we proved His existence? Yes, because He said so. But is this reasonably fair? Yes, because God exists and says so. God says He exists, therefore He exists. Such presuppositions are wonderfully comforting, though perhaps not intellectually satisfying—at least not to those with an intellectual problem (see Romans 1:19ff).

When you see someone exercising faith in Christ, you are actually seeing that which is otherwise unseen. Saving faith, and its corollary of sanctifying faith, is proof that what is being believed exists.

This verse provides a wonderful description of faith’s character, but actually we have not yet defined faith. Let me attempt to do so and then defend my definition. My definition of faith is simply this: Faith is acting upon God’s Word because of a confidence in His character.

Every example given in this chapter proves this definition. In each case, God gave a promise, the person trusted God, and so they acted upon His Word. It is because of the character of God who stands behind His Word that faith is therefore substantial and sensible. As Jones notes, faith “gives an existence to the intangible and an expectation of the invisible—in the heart.”11 All because God said so.

One day, the pastor who eventually succeeded D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones at Westminster chapel asked him for a definition of faith. (The pastor was preparing to preach on Hebrews 11.) The next day, Lloyd-Jones phoned and simply said, “‘Believing God.’ That is faith.”

The Commendation of Faith

Next, we want to consider what faith produces: “For by it the elders obtained a good testimony” (v. 2).

God’s Well Done!

“For” is an important word. It is as if the writer is saying, “The proof of this description is found in the conduct and commendation of ‘the elders.’” By faith, they “obtained a good testimony.”

“The elders” has been translated as “the ancients” in some translations. This might be helpful, because he is not speaking here of those who hold the office of elder, and as you read the chapter he is not speaking exclusively of either men or of patriarchs or of older people. There were women “of old,” as well as non-patriarchs and young adults, who were just in that they lived by faith.

Commendation from God

These ancient people of faith trusted in the same Ancient of Days (Daniel 7:9, 13, 22) that the recipients of this letter were being called to trust. The implication is that the commendation they received is to be the same expectation under the new covenant (12:1–2). Bruce comments,

In Old Testament times, he points out, there were many men and women who had nothing but the promises of God to rest upon, without any visible evidence that these promises would ever be fulfilled; yet so much did these promises mean to them that they regulated the whole course of their lives in their light.12

In other words, these ancient believers ran the race to the end and received the reward; so, too, would these new covenant believers. If they continued to run the race, they too would hear, “Well done!”

The writer, among other things, is saying that faith in Christ is credible because God commended those who believed in Christ long before Christ came to earth! If they believed God’s Word about Christ then, how much more should these who live in the new covenant era? History has verified what the old covenant saints believed apart from sight. And so now that Jesus had ascended and was out of sight, these believers had every reason to believe His promise that He would come in judgement. They must therefore keep faithfully persevering. And what of us?

We too have historical proof that Jesus came to earth, that He died and that He arose from the dead. We also have historical proof that Jesus Christ fulfilled His promise when He came in judgement upon Jerusalem, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in 70 AD. And so, even though He is not visible, nevertheless we are certain that He lives as our Mediator, Advocate and High Priest. We are also confident that He will return to earth one day, just as He said.

Such confident assurance—such faith—pleases God (v. 6). He is pleased with our trust in His Word, and it is for this reason that He commends us. Just as these old covenant saints were commended in a book (Hebrews 11) so is everyone who believes on the Lord Jesus Christ. For our names are written in the Book of Life of the Lamb of God (Revelation 13:8).

Commendation of God

I want for us see that the phrase “obtained a good testimony” contains the implication that their faithful lives were a good testimony to God. That is, their faith in God spoke well of God. We will see more of this when we study v. 6, but for now note that when we believe God’s Word we are honouring Him. Our faith speaks well of our God. It points to the reality that He is faithful.

What a testimony God has! What a testimony we should make sure that He has. But this all depends on whether we believe His testimony. Do we believe Him? We have every reason to do so and not a single reason to ever doubt Him. Believe Him, stay in the race, and so run that the crowds will cheer—not you, but Him.

I well remember being at a road race in which my daughter finished first. After the race, as I was stood by her, someone came up to me and asked, “Are you her coach?” I replied with great pride, “No, I am her dad!” Her finishing, and finishing well, brought me some honour. Though she did the work, I was hoping that I might get the credit! (I know, pray for me!)

When we run the Christian race, we bring honour to our Father for He is the one who ultimately has made our successful perseverance a reality. Our running well is to be a means of others thinking well of our heavenly Father. If I was Aramaic, I might say our heavenly “Abba”—our “Dad.”

The Conviction of Faith

Finally, we consider what faith trusts: “By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible” (v. 3).

God’s Word

The matter addressed here is one of great importance. That is, what is matter? Is it autonomous or created? The issue of creation is hugely germane to the matter before us. If there is no Creator, there is no new creation. If we go wrong here, we will probably go wrong everywhere. Evolution and biblical salvation are not compatible.

This verse probably more logically fits with the following passage. Having described the character and consequence of faith, the writer now begins to enumerate several examples of these well-commended elders. Yet there is a slight difference with v. 3 in that no specific individual is mentioned. Rather, he mentions the general conviction that we believe God created the world with His Word. Further, our conviction concerning the existence of the Creator by the evidence of that which He has created ties in with what has been stated in v. 1. And so this verse does fit nicely with this opening section.

Regardless, the point of the verse is that the reason faith is a matter of conviction is because of God’s Word. “Faith feeds upon God’s self-revelation in the Bible.”13 I so appreciate how Richard Phillips summarises this: “By faith we live as if things were other than they appear, because of what God has said.”14

The writer, having said that faith enables one to be confident about things not seen, now drives this home by the first possible example in the Bible: the account of creation in Genesis 1.

In the Beginning there is Faith

It has been suggested that he makes this creation reference because in fact he has Genesis open before him. After all, the remainder of the chapter is a chronological enumeration of those who stood out for their faith, beginning with Abel in Genesis 4.

I think that this chronological argument makes good sense. Yet there may be another reason for its insertion here. It is the supreme example of the priority of the unseen over that which is seen. Let me put it this way: The only reason there is anything that is seen is because of that which is unseen: God. Further, we are told that we “understand that the worlds were framed [furnished completely] by the word of God.” But on what basis do we “understand” that the “worlds” were created by God’s Word? On the basis of the Word of God!

The writer says that we understand that there is a Creator by faith. Augustine insightfully said, “Understanding is the reward of faith. Therefore seek not to understand that thou mayest believe, but believe that thou mayest understand.” This is why so many do not understand the simple truth of creation. They do not believe.

The unseen God has given us His Word, which points us to a time that we did not see in which He created all things. If we can believe this, then why not believe in an as yet unseen world? Hywel Jones writes,

For them, God’s Word was the more than sufficient explanation of the world that is. It was intellectually adequate and spiritually satisfying. It was the stuff of faith. Believing that, why should they have any difficulty, given God’s Word, about believing in the existence and glory of an unseen world, a heavenly country and an eternal city which God has planned and made—a heavenly Jerusalem and a heavenly High Priest.15

Before looking at this from another angle, let’s pause here to glean a helpful principle and application.

The entire issue of our faith in God is tied to His Word. We believe God precisely because God is believable. We believe God’s Word because His character stands behind His Word. And so, as we have seen, the reason why we believe God created everything that we see is first and foremost because God says so!

Everyone enters this world with enough spiritual light to know that there is a God, and they know this by His creation and by their God-given conscience (Romans 1:18–20; 2:13–15). But God’s Word confirms this suspicion. To live by faith is tantamount to living by God’s Word.

Keep Believing

In the immediate context, of course, this applies to believing the gospel—and then continuing to believe the gospel. God’s final Word is that His Son (1:1–2). Believe God’s Word. Believe God’s Word about God’s Son. Believe God’s Son. And then keep believing.

Again, God in Christ had given His Word that Jesus was coming in judgement, followed by a great dissemination of the gospel and the expanse of the kingdom (see Matthew 24). Jesus prophesied through parables that the kingdom would advance like leaven and the mustard seed. Just as leaven is imperceptible and yet manifests a powerful presence, so will the gospel in the world. The early church was facing difficult times, but they had God’s Word, which promised them a better day. They were to believe this. And even if they did not see all that they would hope to see in their lifetime, nevertheless they had God’s Word promising them glory upon death and full and comprehensive glory upon Christ’s glorious final return to earth. They were to believe the unseen because of God’s Word about it.

Application

We can learn from this our need to believe God’s Word, to act upon it because of a sure confidence that what He has promised will come to pass. This will help us as we engage in the Great Commission. This will help us as we face increasing difficulties as we serve Christ. And though this is not the immediate context of this epistle, nevertheless we can apply this principle more broadly.

When you face economic uncertainty, you have God’s promise that He will meet your need (Philippians 4:19).

When your heart is broken, by friend or foe, you have God’s promise that you can cast all your care upon the Lord for He cares for you (1 Peter 5:7).

When your believing loved one dies, you have the promise that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:7–8) and the assurance that the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first….. And thus we shall always be with the Lord (1 Thessalonians 4:16–17).

When you sin and are tempted to despair because you think you will never be forgiven or freed from it, you have His promise, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

When you go to the mission field or into the ministry and find yourself hard-pressed on every side, and even perhaps fearing for your safety if not for your “success,” you have the promise, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

When you are overwhelmed with trouble upon trouble, when you have reached the end of your tether and feel completely powerless in your weakness, then cling to the promise, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Do you get the point?

There are plenty of things that occur in our lives that require faith concerning the unseen hand of God. But we have every reason to believe God’s Word that it is so.

Faith and Providence

Finally, perhaps a final reason for the author’s reference to creation is because this is foundational to our view of history. Faith is grounded in real historical events. We live in a world that is shaped by God, not merely cosmologically but also providentially. One writer notes, “Before exhibiting how faith is the principle that rules the life of men in relation to God, down through all history, as it is transacted on the stage of the world, the author shows how this stage itself is brought into connection with God by an act of faith.”16

Nothing happens apart from God. Donald Guthrie notes that “God’s interest in the faith of individuals is conditioned by his purpose in creation.”17 That is, God created us to walk with Him by faith, and by faith He expects us to believe Him about the starting point: creation.

We can learn from this that even when we see the calamity in this world, we also need to believe that God is the cause (Isaiah 45:7). By faith we believe in God’s character and therefore we can trust His conduct.

Faith and Redemption

This world was created as the centrepiece for God’s glorious work of redemption. It was framed by his Word and is maintained by His Word (Hebrews 1:3). But the work of redemption is also the result of God’s Word. We are to believe God’s Word concerning creation and we are to believe God’s Word concerning the new creation in Christ. When we see someone’s life transformed by the gospel then we need to believe that God has done it.

Church, the gospel remains the power of God for salvation to everyone who believed. We need to believe this if we will do what is necessary so that others can hear it and then believe it. Let us truly be faithful with the gospel.

So, in conclusion, let me simply encourage you to be faithful—literally. Believe God’s Word and join the ranks of those commended by God for following God. And, in the end, the conviction with which we live in this world will bring God glory as we declare and demonstrate His complete trustworthiness.

Let us enter and live each week in such a way that if someone asks us, “What is faith?” we will be able to reply, “Let me tell you, and let me show you.”

Show 17 footnotes

  1. Raymond Brown, The Message of Hebrews: The Bible Speaks Today (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2000), 196.
  2. Edgar Andrews, A Glorious High Throne: Hebrews Simply Explained (Darlington: Evangelical Press, 2003), 340.
  3. The Epistle to the Hebrews: The Greek Text with Notes and Essays (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), 351.
  4. Hywel R. Jones, Let’s Study Hebrews (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2002), 119.
  5. Marcus Dods, The Expositor’s Greek Testament, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 4:352.
  6. William L. Lane, Hebrews: Word Biblical Commentary, 2 vols. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1991), 2:328.
  7. Richard D. Phillips, Hebrews: Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2006), 393.
  8. R. Kent Hughes, Hebrews: An Anchor for the Soul, 2 vols. (Wheaton: Crossway, 1993), 60.
  9. F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews: The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 279.
  10. Leon Morris, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 12:113.
  11. Jones, Let’s Study Hebrews, 122.
  12. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, 277.
  13. Andrews, A Glorious High Throne, 347.
  14. Phillips, Hebrews, 393.
  15. Jones, Let’s Study Hebrews, 126.
  16. Dods, The Expositor’s Greek Testament, 4:353.
  17. Donald Guthrie, Hebrews: Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 1983), 229.