The Principle of Faith

In the Bible, faith is presented as a principle for living life based on the belief that God exists. It can be thought of as an adventure in life based on the word of God.

In Hebrews chapter 11, faith is described as the assurance of things hoped for, the proof of things not seen. It starts however with the belief that God exists and what He says can be depended upon: he who comes to God must believe that he exists. Faith is living life on the basis that God exists; making choices and taking actions in life based on the conviction that God exists and that he is "God over all". Faith becomes assurance and proof as we depend on God and his Word and his promises become real experiences in our lives.

In this brief overview, we will consider:

  1. Faith as a principle of life and including some objections to faith
  2. Some thoughts on the question does God exist?
  3. Some thoughts on the question does faith work in life? - and by way of example we will briefly consider the faith witnesses that are listed in Hebrews chapter 13.

Faith: an adventure in life based on the word of God

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1. The Principle of Faith

Faith in the Bible: An Adventure based on the Word of God.

Faith in the Bible is a principle for living life. This principle is essentially that God exists, that he is trustworthy and that it is possible to have a personal relationship with God; he is not beyond reach. In fact God has promised that for those who genuinely seek God, God will make himself known. So faith is confidence in God, that he will deliver on his promises, and therefore the visible creation is not all that exists.

Without faith it is impossible to be well pleasing to him, for he who comes to God must believe that he exists, and that he is a rewarder of those who seek him.
Hebrews 11:6

Ask, and it will be given you. Seek, and you will find. Knock, and it will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives. He who seeks finds. To him who knocks it will be opened.
Matthew 7:7,8

Now faith is assurance of things hoped for, proof of things not seen.
Hebrews 11:1

Jesus was the only person that lived this principle of faith perfectly. Every one else in the Bible including Abraham lived only partly according to the principle of faith; there were times when they doubted God.

Looking to Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising its shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
Hebrews 12:2

What then is the opposite to faith? It too must be a principle of living life but one which excludes God. We suggest this might be called sight. This principle is essentially that God does not exist because he cannot be seen (or if he does, he is of no concern) and man is capable of determining complete reality for himself. Faith is confidence in God; sight is confidence in man.

The alternatives to faith which are sometimes proposed are reason and doubt. They seem contrary but these are not the opposites because they affect both faith and sight. Neither faith nor sight excludes reason and both may be compromised by doubts.

The fundamental difference between faith and sight is whether a knowable God actually exists. The Bible never makes this case or attempts at any proof: it is an assumption from the very first verse. Once we are convinced that God does exist and he is who he says he is in the Bible, faith should be the reasoned response.

Of course arguments are made against faith and these may go along the lines of stating that there is insufficient evidence for God therefore his existence is at best questionable and therefore faith is delusional. The Christian may say that the creation is designed for life and this is a proof of God but the atheist may say that such a "proof" still needs faith and looks for a purely natural explanation for things to be the way they are. Many criticisms of faith however come from a misunderstanding of what faith is and the place of reason within faith: God told man (Adam) to investigate and look after the creation and to classify the animal kingdom. The place of faith for Adam was to maintain the relationship with God that man was designed to have.

Richard Dawkins Quotation:
"Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is the belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence."

Richard Dawkins Quotation:
"Faith is belief without evidence and reason; coincidentally that's also the definition of delusion."

Douglas Adams Quotation:
"This is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, 'This is an interesting world I find myself in - an interesting hole I find myself in - fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!' "

Similarly, arguments can be made against sight such as the following:

We shall therefore suggest some comments for consideration on the following questions:

  1. Does the God of the Bible exist? Can God be known by man?
  2. How does faith shape up as a principle of living life: does it work and what is the result?

2. Does the God of the Bible exist? Can God be known by man?

An argument that God exists is evident from creation because there is complexity, order and logic in creation which would not be expected without an intelligent origin. This argument, though valid, is rejected by atheists because of the claim that however unlikely, life exists as it is. Actually the argument in scripture refers not only to creation but history also, indicating that there is logic also in the progression of recorded events, as God works out his purposes in the world over time.

For the invisible things of him since the creation of the world are clearly seen, being perceived through the things that are made, even his everlasting power and divinity, that they may be without excuse.
Romans 1:20

By faith, we understand that the universe has been framed by the word of God, so that what is seen has not been made out of things which are visible.
Hebrews 11:3

The fool has said in his heart, "There is no God."
Psalms 14:1

Whilst we maintain that the argument from creation and history is valid, the greater argument is (i) God's communications and interaction to man and (ii) Man has a natural predisposition to believe there is a God, but not to accept God as he has revealed himself in the Bible and to react against what God says.

  1. God has spoken to man throughout history
  2. God has supernaturally intervened in historical events
  3. God has come down to earth and spoken to man in the person of Jesus
  4. God has sent his Holy Spirit
  5. God has recorded his dealings with man in the Bible: which as a ancient document is totally unique and is evidence itself
  6. The wisdom, consistency, logic and high ideals presented in the Bible cannot really be ascribed to the abilities of its human authors
  7. That God exists is evident in the (sometimes dramatic) changes which occur in the lives of Christians
  8. God still speaks to every Christian: prayer is answered and genuine searching for spiritual understanding is always rewarded
  9. Bible history records that even when people unmistakably heard the voice of God, most rejected it. This was of course most evident in the life of Jesus but it can be seen in the Old Testament as well.
  10. Many Christians were previously atheists
  11. Many if not all Christians when they look back over life can conclude that God worked everything for their good: "life" was not against them.

3. How does faith shape up as a principle of living life: does it work and what is the result?

To consider this subject we will briefly review the examples of those witnesses mentioned in Hebrews Chapter 11. This sequence will be seen as God intervening with man over time to reveal his plan of salvation. But firstly we remind ourselves of two verses which present a connection: that righteousness and faith are pleasing to God.

But the righteous will live by faith.
Hebrews 10:38a
Without faith it is impossible to be well pleasing to God.
Hebrews 11:6a

4. Abel

By faith, Abel offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, through which he had testimony given to him that he was righteous, God testifying with respect to his gifts; and through it he, being dead, still speaks. Hebrews 11:4

The difference between Abel and Cain was not just the nature of the sacrifice offered but rather that the different sacrifices reveal the different nature of the men. Abel worshipped by the sacrifice of a lamb: this means he understood the nature of sin, that it brought death because God is perfectly holy but also that there is a possibility of mercy through the shedding of the blood of a substitute. He worshipped in penitence recognising he needed to confess sin and seeking atonement through mediation. Cain brought a sacrifice of fruit and however attractive this may have looked it reveals that he had no understanding of sin and did not consider himself in need of forgiveness. Despite Cain being in no doubt about the existence of God he refused to believe and in his anger killed his brother Abel. The blood of Abel speaks of tragedy and separation whereas the blood of Jesus speaks of salvation and reconciliation. Yet through his sacrifice and through his faith, Abel also speaks to us of worship and mercy as he believed in the promise that one day there would be a man who could bring man back to God.

The faith of Abel shows:

5. Enoch - Genesis 5:21-24

By faith, Enoch was taken away, so that he wouldn't see death, and he was not found, because God translated him. For he has had testimony given to him that before his translation he had been well pleasing to God. Hebrews 11:5

We read that Enoch was well pleasing to God after the birth of his son when he was 65 years old. He lived for a further 300 years and then we read he was translated to be with God. For all the generations before him covering some 1500 years the writer of Genesis had recorded the ages of each patriarch and then that they died. But with Enoch there was no body found - he had simply gone and the inspired writer tells us that he was taken by God and did not pass through death. The significance of Enoch's life was that by faith he walked with God. This means a life of closeness and trust, everything he did was under the direction of God and in obedience to God's instruction. It must also mean that Enoch lived in hostility to sin in every form and in cooperation with God's plan of redemption. That this is possible indicates God's care and purpose for the creation and that man can have the fullest relationship with God.

It appears significant that the first person of faith the writer of Hebrews chose to mention was one who worshipped through sacrifice and the second was one who was spared death. Enoch's case is unique in one sense but in another it is the experience of every Christian for it is what Jesus said when he said "Whoever lives and believes in me will never die" John 11:26.

The faith of Enoch is seen in the description of his life:

6. Noah - Genesis 6-9

By faith, Noah, being warned about things not yet seen, moved with godly fear, prepared a ship for the saving of his house, through which he condemned the world, and became heir of the righteousness which is according to faith. Hebrews 11:7

Noah was the great grandson of Enoch. Of all the people in the Bible these are the only two men of whom it is said that they "walked with God". So distinctive were these two men; they moved in unison with God, they kept beside him, because they did this they saw the corruption of the world and knowing that God was holy and righteous knew that there had to be Divine judgement. At the time of Noah mankind had sunk to an all-time low: evil was everywhere. Noah was "moved with godly fear" (in other words, in awe before the majesty of God, passionately desiring to obey and honour God) and God warned him to prepare an ark for the saving of his family. In faith Noah obeyed. There was no realistic possibility of a destructive world wide flood - the only indication was what God had told him. To everyone else the very idea was laughable. By faith Noah believed that God would judge sin and however much he was ridiculed for his belief, he prepared for such a consequence.

In faith, Noah:

7. Abraham - Genesis 12-23

By faith, Abraham, when he was called, obeyed to go out to the place which he was to receive for an inheritance. He went out, not knowing where he went. By faith, he lived as an alien in the land of promise, as in a land not his own, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise. By faith, Abraham, being tested, offered up Isaac. Hebrews 11:8,9,17a

Abraham is sometimes described as the father of the faithful. This exact expression does not occur in the Bible but Abraham is generally revered as such in Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Of Abraham the Bible does uniquely name him as "the friend of God". The account of Abraham occupies most of verses 8 to 19 in Hebrews chapter 11 and the writer selects three occasions in the life of Abraham to specifically mention. These were his first calling; his life as a foreigner in the promised land and the offering to God of Isaac. The whole life of Abraham was of course a journey of faith but even for Abraham there were deviations from faith when he took matters into his own action and did not wait for God.

Whilst living in Haran and at the age of 75 Abraham received the message from God telling him to leave his life there and go to a different country. God promised Abraham that his descendants would become a great nation and that all people on earth would be blessed through him. Abraham obeyed immediately.

Secondly, by faith Abraham became a dweller in the land of promise; not a landowner but a lodger and this for about one hundred years. By faith he was content to wait, the only portion of land was a burial plot which he bought. His faith manifested itself in the attitude of a traveller seeking a heavenly city whose maker and builder is God.

Thirdly, Abraham was tested by God to offer to God his son, Isaac, the heir of the promise. Isaac had been born supernaturally to parents past child-bearing age and now he was a young unmarried man. To all appearances, God was taking back the one in whom the promise would continue. But in faith Abraham did not reckon things according to appearances and was confident that God's promise would be fulfilled even if Isaac was offerred to God, believing that if necessary God would raise Isaac up.

By faith Abraham:

8. Isaac - Genesis 27

By faith, Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau, even concerning things to come. Hebrews 11:20

In the case of Isaac, Jacob and Joseph the writer to the Hebrews selects not a notable event in their lives to illustrate their faith but instead what they said when they were near to death at the end of their lives. In all three cases the things that are said concern the handing on of the promise and that reveals their faith in God to fulfil all that he had said.

Isaac who was the son of Abraham had two sons Esau and Jacob. We read that he favoured Esau for a rather selfish reason because he liked eating the game that Esau would catch and cook. Yet he had been told by God that it would be through Jacob's line that the promise would be fulfilled. (Genesis 25:23). On his death bed Isaac tried to change the course of the promise by pronouncing God's blessing upon Esau rather than Jacob. This was not of faith. But due to Jacob's deception the blessing was actually given to Jacob as God had intended. Isaac's faith is revealed by the blessing he spoke and also when the deceit was found out he then accepted God's choice of Jacob. Isaac's action revealed faith in God's promise and plan but failure to accept God's choice in whom that plan would be accomplished. However after his foolish attempt to change God's appointed man was foiled we then see him accepting that the blessing of promise cannot be given to Esau. Even despite his attempt to deflect the Divine purpose, scripture records that the deeper principle of Isaac's life was faith and he is included in Hebrews as an example of a man having great faith.

The faith of Isaac shows:

9. Jacob - Genesis 48

By faith, Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, and worshipped, leaning on the top of his staff. Hebrews 11:21

As with Isaac, in the case of Jacob the illustration of his faith is taken from the time when he is near to death. The scene we are told is that of Jacob blessing his grandsons Ephraim and Manasseh who are the sons of Joseph.

Jacob lived by faith, trusting in the promise of God, but he often tried to take things into his own hands - attempting to help God by making his own arrangements. During his life it is recorded that God appeared 5 times to Jacob and each time it was for correction.

At the end of Jacob's life, Joseph brings his sons to Jacob. Joseph seeks the primary blessing for his older son Manasseh but Jacob bestows that to the younger, Ephraim - we are not told how that was revealed to Jacob. As with Isaac, Jacob places his confidence in the promise of God. Due to famine they are not living in the promised land but in Egypt yet Jacob, in faith, looks forward to a time when his descendents will return. In his last words Jacob testified to the truth that in his life God had delivered him from all evil and disaster and ruin. There had been times when Jacob had perhaps lost sight of that assessment (Genesis 44: 27-31) but now at the end he reviews all his pilgrimage and concludes God had most certainly been faithful and honoured his own faith even through its imperfections.

The faith of Jacob shows:

10. Joseph - Genesis 50

By faith, Joseph, when his end was near, made mention of the departure of the children of Israel, and gave instructions concerning his bones. Hebrews 11:22

Again with Joseph the illustration of faith is taken from his words when near to death. And again Joseph's expresses confidence in the promise of God that was made to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. Joseph is certain that his people will return to the land of Canaan and so much so that he makes the dying request that they take his bodily remains with them for reburial in the promised land.

The land of Canaan had not been kind to Joseph whereas in Egypt God had made him a ruler and blessed him and made him a blessing both to his family and all Egypt. They had all they wanted in Egypt; there was no reason at that time to want leave. Yet by faith Joseph both believed and sought God's promise and foresaw a future time when they would leave. That time did not come for 144 years.

We see Joseph's faith on many other occasions in his life when he recognized God's hand in the circumstances of his life. He even said of the evil act of his brothers in selling him and telling their father that he was dead that "God meant it for good".

The faith of Joseph shows us:

11. Amram and Jochebed - Exodus 2:1-10

Amram and Jochebed
By faith, Moses, when he was born, was hidden for three months by his parents, because they saw that he was a beautiful child, and they were not afraid of the king's commandment. Hebrews 11:23

Although this verse begins "By faith Moses..." it refers to the faith of his parents Amram and Jochebed. In Exodus we read how Moses parents put the child into a floating cradle on the Nile and we might conclude this was the action of love only. But in Hebrews we learn that this was the action of faith and for it's inclusion in this chapter we assume the faith was considerable. Not all the details are available to us. We do know that Amram and Jochebeb were under the burden of brutal slavery by the Egyptians and the Pharaoh had implemented a law which said that all male babies must be killed and they were thrown into the Nile and we also know that his parents believed in God. When their baby boy was born something about their faith, his appearance or the circumstances of his birth or answers to prayer, perhaps a conviction that the boy was special made them risk disobeying the law. They hid the child for three months and then rather than throwing the child in the Nile, no doubt after prayer, placed him in the Nile in an ark to see what God would do. In a way they had complied with the law; the child had been put in the Nile but they had also given opportunity to faith. They also made arrangements to watch over the situation because the sister stayed close by and was the person that fetched Moses mother when Pharaoh's daughter agreed for a nurse to be brought.

So what was the nature of their faith. Firstly they hoped, secondly they took courage, thirdly they acted rationally and fourthly they cooperated with God - though they themselves were unaware of the circumstances.

12. Moses

By faith, Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter. By faith, he left Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king; for he endured, as seeing him who is invisible. By faith, he kept the Passover, and the sprinkling of the blood, that the destroyer of the firstborn should not touch them. Hebrews 11:24,27,28

In the case of Moses the writer to the Hebrews selects two crisis periods in Moses' life to describe his faith. Moses' life was a life of faith but the illustrative points that are chosen concern departures from Egypt: firstly on his own and then secondly with the nation.

As we consider the first departure we may reverse the sequence describing his faith as follows:

The second departure of Moses was some 40 years later after a long period of training and preparation whilst looking after sheep in the wilderness. This was the departure of the Nation and occurred after the final plague which fell on Egypt - the killing of the firstborn. The other plagues had not fallen on the Hebrews but to escape this last plague God gave special instructions. Here was an act of obedient faith: Moses kept or in this case instituted for a memorial the Passover. The Passover was the symbol of redemption and release from bondage. Moses trusted God who said that the blood of a lamb would keep them safe. The command was given to Moses and Moses had to give it to the people. There was no opportunity for hesitation and everything had to be done exactly as instructed. The nature of this faith was:

13. Israel - Exodus 14; Joshua 6

By faith, they passed through the Red Sea as on dry land. When the Egyptians tried to do so, they were swallowed up. By faith, the walls of Jericho fell down, after they had been encircled for seven days. Hebrews 11:29,30

As a whole, the nation of Israel tends to be more remembered for their murmuring against God than their faithfulness. The wandering in the desert for 40 years was the result of lack of faith. Jesus laments of the nation in his time "Faithless and perverse generation! How long will I be with you? How long will I bear with you?" (Matthew 17:17). See also Luke 13:2-9 and Mark 11:19-22 where the fig tree is a symbol of the nation which has no faith and therefore the tree bears no fruit. However there were times when this was not the case and the nation was united in faith. The writer to the Hebrews selects two events and they are the crossing of the Red Sea and the taking of Jericho. In the case of the crossing of the Red Sea we may go back to the occasion when Moses at 80 years old went to the elders of the Nation to tell them that he had been appointed by God to lead them out of Egypt. We read in Exodus 4:31 that the elders bowed and worshipped. Later during their flight from Egypt they are pursued by the Egyptian army and find themselves hemmed in by rock, marsh and sea at Pihahiroth. It is true that they were afraid and grumbled (Exodus 14:11,12 and Psalms 106:7); and even Moses was unsure for he said "stand still" when God had said "march". But then they stepped forward in faith towards the sea it became as dry land. In faith they walked through a corridor with walls of water each side. Perhaps it is not clear exactly what is meant by Psalm 74:13 ("You divided the sea by your strength. You broke the heads of the sea monsters in the waters.") but whether literal or figurative it seems as if the destructive powers of hell were assembled on each side to crush faith and bring fear and death. Yet they continued with every step taken in faith and Exodus 14:31 tells us that they came through and believed in the Lord.

The second occasion selected by the writer to the Hebrews to show the faith of the nation was the defeat of Jericho. This was under the leadership of Joshua and the Lord gave instruction to walk around the city with the Ark once each day for 6 days and then 7 times on the seventh day. Jericho was the first city they met in the promised land. What they thought as they marched who can say? But at the last the city walls fell down - Jericho had 6 days warning but they did not repent.

Both these events speak of faith which:

14. Rahab - Joshua 2 and 6

By faith, Rahab the prostitute didn't perish with those who were disobedient, having received the spies in peace. Hebrews 11:31

Rahab lived in Jericho and came into contact with two spies that Joshua sent in to view the land. When she was challenged by the King she said she they were gone but actually she had hidden them and then helped them to escape. Rahab is described as a prostitute but she lived in a pagan culture where this was most probably part of the religious practices. What we do know of her is that she had heard about the God of Israel and what he had done for Israel and very likely she believed this God was more powerful than any pagan god. She said to the spies: "I know that the LORD has given you the land, and that the fear of you has fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt away before you. For we have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea before you, when you came out of Egypt; and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites, who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and to Og, whom you utterly destroyed. As soon as we had heard it, our hearts melted, and there wasn't any more spirit in any man, because of you: for the LORD your God, he is God in heaven above, and on earth beneath. Now therefore, please swear to me by the LORD, since I have dealt kindly with you, that you also will deal kindly with my father's house, and give me a true sign; and that you will save alive my father, my mother, my brothers, and my sisters, and all that they have, and will deliver our lives from death." (Joshua 2:9-13)

As a result of her faith, Rahab and all her family were saved. We can see the following stages in her faith:

15. Others - Hebrews 11:32-40

What more shall I say? For the time would fail me if I told of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets. Of whom the world was not worthy-wandering in deserts, mountains, caves, and the holes of the earth. These all, having had testimony given to them through their faith, didn't receive the promise.
Hebrews 11:32,38,39

All the Old Testament characters mentioned are but some of the examples of faith. Of the many others the writer mentions a few by name: judges, kings and prophets. The lives of all these, and others un-named, are illustrative examples of faith. The writer tells us that these faithful characters kept their faith in the midst of adversity and of them the world was not worthy. It did not value them yet was in their debt. In Noah's case the world considered him stupid yet without his faith no-one would have been saved and humanity would be totally destroyed. The world did not care that the faithful were mistreated and abused. The world considers faith and the faithful valueless but to God they are what is valuable.

All these looked forward to the promise yet never saw it. That promise was the promised land but it did not really mean just a land for them and their descendents to possess - it's deeper significance was to be a land where God was king - a land for God. In that sense, New Testament Christians and those of all ages are still looking for the same promise. A city whose maker is God and over which God is the king. It is the city foreseen in Revelation chapter 21. Its king is Jesus who came to earth to establish his kingdom. Our faith is to continue that sure hope that one day God will finally and fully establish that kingdom. Like Joseph wanted his remains in the promised land we also want our remains carried into that new kingdom.

16. Jesus

Jesus answered them, "Have faith in God."
Mark 11:22

"Don't let your heart be troubled. Believe in God. Believe also in me."
John 14:1

In the consideration of all the witnesses they are really only inspirational and we are to look to Jesus as our real teaching example - he must take precedence over all. With Jesus there is not the slightest hint of weakness or failure or error or faltering; his faith is perfect.

From Jesus we learn: