What is “Faith”?

By Pastor Matt Burden, Second Baptist Church


I recently saw an interview with the eminent cosmologist Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Dr. Tyson, an agnostic, was commenting on religious faith: "If you were certain there's a God, you wouldn't have to call it 'faith.'" Now, it’s not uncommon to hear ‘faith’ described in this way—as the opposite of certainty, an act of belief when there’s a lack of evidence. The only problem is that that’s not actually what Christian doctrine has ever meant by ‘faith.’

In the Bible, "faith" is not a word that connotes a lack of certainty. Unfortunately, American Christianity has too often forgotten this, and has talked about "faith" and "belief" in very same way that Dr. Tyson assumes: "Just believe"..."Take a leap of faith," and so on. There’s a famous verse from Hebrews 11:1 that often gets quoted on this point: “Faith is…the evidence of things not seen.” A lot of people read that and think it means that faith is an unreasoning belief in something that you don’t have any evidence for. But that’s not actually what the verse says. What it says, quite plainly, is that "faith" is itself something substantive, something of clear evidentiary value.

So what is "faith," then? If it's not mere "belief," but something solid, substantial, and evidentiary, then what is it? The biblical usage of the word “faith” has more in common with the old English way of speaking about faith--of its being something substantial, a community to which one belonged.  You could be "in the faith" or “a defender of the faith." Faith wasn't just some airy act which the nonphysical elements of our being performed; it was a thing--a community of belief to which one belonged, a network of allegiance to the Kingdom of God. We still retain this old English sense of the word when we speak about "faithfulness." When I vow to be faithful to my wife, I'm not declaring that I will continue to believe in her existence even in circumstances where rational evidence may fail me. No, I'm saying that I will continue on in this relationship of loyal trust with her. That's much closer to the New Testament idea of faith--it is the covenant loyalty of human beings, responding to the covenant loyalty of the God they know, deeply and intimately.

Thus "faith" becomes far more than a simple act of unreasoning belief--it is a communal relationship of loyal trust to Christ, who was revealed to us as the Son of God by the evidences of history, and it is based on his great act of covenant loyalty to God the Father and to us. If anything, "faith" implies that we do actually know that God exists, because we have seen him revealed in Jesus Christ and have entered into a relationship of loyal trust with him. So if you come to Christ with your mind fully engaged and your reason employed, then he will give you all the evidences of his existence, his love, and his lordship that you could ever ask for. To have faith is not to take a blind, unthinking leap in the dark—no, it’s to encounter the startlingly real presence of the startlingly present God.