[K:NWTS 24/1 (May 2009) 28-33]

So, What is Faith?

Hebrews 11:1, 17-19; Gen. 18:14; 22:1-14

William D. Dennison

What is faith in Jesus Christ? The answer to Question 86 of the Shorter Catechism of the Westminster Standards says: “Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, as he is offered to us in the gospel.” This statement corresponds clearly to a sentence that appears in chapter 14, section 2 of the Westminster Confession of Faith: “But the principle acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace.” Indeed, the Confession does an excellent job in describing the sole object of our faith, Jesus Christ! Our eyes are to be fixed on Christ alone as the one who saves us. Furthermore, the Confession does an excellent job of describing the principle acts of saving faith: accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone to secure all the saving graces that accompany our salvation in Christ. Upon closer analysis, however, may we ask whether the Confession describes every aspect of the “act of faith?” For example, as accurate as the Confession is about the object and definition of faith, nowhere does it mention Hebrews 11:1, which describes the inner dynamic of faith as “the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things not seen!” This omission does not give anyone license to attack the Confession; rather, it points to the fact that the Confession does not provide a comprehensive summary of everything that we believe about a biblical view of faith. We must still continue to affirm that the Holy Scriptures are the comprehensive source for the rich doctrine of faith! 

Oh church of the Lord, Jesus Christ, Hebrews 11 pushes us into the inner dynamic of faith—it pushes us into the inner core and essence of the gift of faith (Eph. 2:8), as it is an expression of our faith-union in Christ! Through the author of Hebrews, the Holy Spirit  challenges us—does the faith described in Hebrews 11:1 define your faith-union with Christ? Does such a view of faith dominate your identity, your walk, your life in Christ? Or is faith in Jesus merely used by you as a “crutch”? Meaning, I simply pull Jesus out of the closet when I need him to help me walk; when I need a friend, when I need a job, when I need him to pull me through a difficult time in life—just to cope. Permit the Holy Spirit, through the text in Hebrews 11:1, to strip you of such a false and evil act of faith—an act that deceives you from embracing the true notion of faith found in the Bible! How? Push yourself, under the submissive power of the Spirit, to apply yourself into the Spirit’s own interpretation of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac in Hebrews 11:17–19, so that you can comprehend and live the inner depth and riches of a holy faith in Christ.

“By faith Abraham, when he was tested” (vs. 17). What was tested? What was the nature of the test? The Greek word here means, “To prove exceedingly.” What is being proven exceedingly in Abraham? Quite simply, it is his faith—“the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things not seen” (vs. 1). In order to comprehend the impact of Abraham’s test in connection with the statement of verse 1, let us highlight certain points in Abraham’s life in respect to his faith.

When God first appears to Abram, he makes a promise that from him the nations will be blessed (Gen. 12:3). When Abram leaves Haran as a seventy-five year old man and sets his sights upon the land that the Lord has promised to him, he is already embracing the promise of God by faith—he trusts the Lord for something that is hoped for, something that he has not yet seen! As Abram comes into the land hoped for and not seen (Gen. 13:14–18), years pass which include such important events as Abram’s defeat of the confederation of kings and the rescue of Lot (Gen. 14:1–17) as well as the appearance of Melchizedek (Gen. 14:18–20). In Genesis 15, God appears to him and renews the promise that his descendents will be as many as the stars in the sky (Gen. 15:5). Keep in mind that Abram is getting older. He has no children; and yet, in response to the revelation of God to Abram, the Scripture says: “he believed in the Lord, and He [God] accounted it to him for righteousness” (Gen.15:6). His faith is still set upon “things hoped for”—“things not seen!”

For eleven more years, Abram’s faith embraced the promise that God made in Genesis 15:5 (Gen. 16:16). At that time, since Sarai bore him no children, she gave him her maid, Hagar, and the two of them had a child, Ishmael. Although the eighty-six year old Abram lived as if God fulfilled his promise with the birth of Ishmael (Gen. 16:16), in reality God’s promise had not been fulfilled. The promise would not be fulfilled with a maid! Rather, it would only be fulfilled with Sarai, his true wife!

Now Abram is challenged once again by the nature of faith! This time it is thirteen years later when Abram is ninety-nine years old (Gen. 17:1) and Sarah his wife is ninety years old and beyond the time she could bear children (Gen. 17:17). Facing this circumstance, is Abraham’s faith now a belief in things hoped for, things not seen? Unlike previous episodes, this time such a faith is not seen in Abraham; this time God’s demand for faith is met by mockery in the form of laughter before the Lord—both by Abraham (Gen. 17:17) and Sarah (Gen. 18:12; she even denies to the Lord that she had laughed, vs.18). As the Lord is mocked by both of them, God adds another component of faith in respect to his person and his promise—for a faith which includes “things hoped for, things not seen” must also incorporate the Lord’s strong admonition of Sarah, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” (Gen. 18:14). In this incident of mockery and weakness on the part of Abraham and Sarah, we are seeing God’s patience in bringing his children on a path from an infant faith to a mature faith! Indeed, Abraham could believe God when he knew that he could have children (Gen. 12); and he could believe in God’s promise when he thought Ishmael was the child of the promise (Gen. 17:18); but now, can he have hope for a child whom he has not seen (Heb. 11:1), especially from a wife who is beyond the years of childbearing?

As God declares to Sarah a further element of faith (that “nothing is too hard for the Lord”), we find exposed in Abraham and Sarah the immaturity of faith. And yet, in this situation, we also find that the Lord will not forsake his covenant oath! He will not forsake his faithfulness to Abraham and Sarah. The Scripture is clear—the Lord himself must act sovereignly by his own power in this situation in an act of pure grace! Notice God’s activity recorded in Genesis 21:1 (birth of Isaac): “And the Lord visited Sarah as He had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as He had spoken.” There is nothing here about Abraham going unto Sarah and she conceived; rather, in the context of the lack of faith, God is bringing his sovereign will to fulfillment (although the birth of Isaac is not a virgin birth, the language of the text gives the appearance of a virgin birth, foreshadowing the virgin birth of the true seed of Abraham, Jesus Christ). Indeed, the Lord assures Abraham and Sarah that “nothing is too hard for the Lord” in the birth of Isaac. They will have to come to embrace this component of faith as their faith matures.

The question now is: “Is the faith of Abraham maturing?” In order to see if Abraham’s faith is maturing, God puts him to the test (Gen. 22:1; Heb. 11:17). This test is going to be the most incredible proof of faith—it is “an exceeding proof.” Keep in mind the new component here: nothing “too hard” for the Lord is wed to “things hoped for”, “things not seen”! Here the most mature faith is exposed—we are looking into the very depths of the inner core or essence of faith. God has already led the way; he has already given a glimpse of that in which the inner core of faith must consist. God has brought forth the child of promise from a woman who had been barren all her life and who had also passed the time to bear children. God had brought forth life from a woman whose ability to have children was dead! God brought life from death!

Thus, here is the question that lies behind Abraham’s test in Genesis 22: Do you, Abraham, really believe that God can bring life from death (remember we are moving into the inner essence of faith)? Behold Abraham, you have witnessed the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen—Isaac, the promised child has arrived by the sovereign power of God! But now that Isaac has arrived, will you sacrifice your one and only son, the long awaited child of the promise? Will you, Abraham, kill your only begotten son? Now in this situation, what is the substance of things hoped for? Now in this situation, what is the evidence of things not seen? How deep is your faith now, Abraham? Abraham has walked with the Lord for some thirty years, and now the Lord is asking him to kill the promise—in effect, the Lord is asking Abraham to forfeit his thirty-year walk with him. In light of this command, bizarre to the human mind, has Abraham learned that nothing is too hard for the Lord (Gen. 18:14)?

Oh reader, the Hebrews passage takes us deep into the essence of faith. Do you not see it? Will you not participate in God’s challenge of Abraham so that you will also act with a living faith? Why does Abraham willingly offer up his only begotten son, Isaac? Because Abraham already concluded that God was able to raise Isaac from the dead (Heb. 11:19; Gen. 22:8). Simply put, Abraham had concluded that God would raise Isaac from the dead even if he executed him! Indeed, Abraham had come to believe that nothing is too hard for the Lord—this is faith in that which seems to be empirically impossible. It is one thing to have Isaac born from a woman who is beyond the years of childbearing, but at least, Sarah is alive. She was a living person upon whom the Lord could perform his sovereign activity. But to slaughter one in death, and then, to revive someone who is actually dead and bring that one to life, what is that? When has that ever happened? How is that possible? Indeed, nothing—no, nothing is too hard for the Lord! The substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen was embraced by the faith of resurrection in Abraham’s heart!

Are you participating in Abraham’s faith? Indeed, the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen is truly culminated in a faith that believes in resurrection! But as in Abraham’s situation, the object of a “resurrection faith” directed and placed upon Isaac fails—this child was born in sin like all of us! The promised child of the covenant is not Abraham’s “seed,” Isaac; rather, the promised child, Isaac, is pointing beyond himself to the eschatological promised child of the covenant in Abraham’s “seed,” Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:16, “seed” singular)! For God’s challenge to Abraham with respect to fulfilling a commitment to covenantal redemption is the same challenge that the Lord God of heaven and earth issues upon himself. God has placed before his people their hope for that which has not been seen: your Redeemer, your Savior, the true child of the promise has arrived in the person and work of Jesus Christ! Behold, your hope has come; the evidence has been seen as Christ comes in the fullness of time in flesh of our flesh! But this time, unlike Isaac, God the Father’s providential hand permits his only begotten Son to be slaughtered as an atoning sacrifice for the wretchedness of our sin. And as this perfect sacrifice, without blemish, lay dead in the grave as bearer of our sin and our unrighteousness, God’s sovereign activity enters the tomb and makes a boisterous  declaration: nothing is too hard for the Lord! He resurrects his Son who is branded with our sin in order to give us life! Life, free from the slavery of our wretched internal natures—free to breathe the breath of eternal life, as we embrace the resurrected Christ by faith! 

Do you not accept, receive, and rest upon Jesus Christ alone for your salvation? Do you not see that as you embrace the object of your holy faith, Jesus Christ, that the essence of that faith—a truly mature faith is that which embraces a resurrected Redeemer and Savior who has rescued you from the pit of Hell?  The substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen for Abraham has now come for you! Your hope—the glory of the Son is clearly evident before you. Will you not live in faith-union with the exalted and resurrected Christ, your only comfort in life and in death!