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What does “faith” actually mean? (January 7, 2024)

"The author of Hebrews is not interested in an extended theological discussion of faith but would rather show examples of precisely what that means to build up the church and its faithfulness," writes Tara Bulger.

Outlook Standard Lesson for January 7, 2023
Scripture passage and lesson focus: Luke 1:1-25, 39-45, 56-60

There are words we use often but may have a hard time defining. We may know how to use the word in a sentence, and when reading or hearing it, we can discern its meaning, but in defining it, we often find ourselves at a loss for words. Think of the word “cool” as in, “She is so cool!” We know what that means, but the definition of that can be challenging to nail down.

A word that can similarly be difficult for us as followers of Christ is faith. We use the word often, but defining exactly what it means to be a person of faith or to be faithful is often contextual and fluid. Not so for the author of Hebrews. Here, we find a clear definition of faith, but more importantly, we see concrete examples of what faith is. The author of Hebrews is not interested in an extended theological discussion of faith but would rather show examples of precisely what that means to build up the church and its faithfulness.

In the eleventh chapter of Hebrews, faith is defined at the outset as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (11:1). From this definition, we learn that the role of faith is related to the idea of what is seen and unseen. To be sure, to trust what is seen is one element of faith, but to trust even though things are unseen is more remarkable. The list of the faithful included in chapter 11 is a list of those who trusted what was unseen, and they, in turn, make faith “seen” or visible by the faithful actions they undertake. The author of Hebrews wants the faithful to trust the promises of God in Christ and to make that faith visible in their own faithful actions.

And so the Hall of Fame begins with Abel, who offered a more acceptable sacrifice to God, presumably because of his faith. Noah, who was warned of what was to come and though he could not see it beforehand, believed and carried out his faithful act of building the ark.

Faith looks like Abraham, who set out for Canaan just because God commanded him to. He trusted in what was unseen in Isaac’s sacrifice- a resolution that would mean an Isaac who lived. Faith looks like Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph–all who were faithful without having a visible assurance of all that was told to them. Faith looks like Moses, who would live out God’s commands. Faith looks like Sarah and Rahab and all the great matriarchs of our faith too.

All these are the great forerunners of the faith, and all lived out God’s call upon their lives with little information and little assurance. They were convicted of doing these things by God alone, not by evidence, empirical data, or even reason. They were obedient to God’s will, which is the basis for all acts of faith.

We then read of judges, prophets, and a king whose accomplishments and endurance in suffering were all possible because of their faith. Not only are they faithful, but they are imperfect. Gideon’s doubt, Barack’s diffidence in the face of war, Samson’s weakness in strength, Jephthah’s rashness, and even David’s sin did not preclude them from being faithful.

All of these examples of faith are from people, some more imperfect than others, who trusted in the unseen God and lived out their faith. They are people who did not live to see God’s most significant promise, that of the messiah coming into the world. If those who were before Christ can be faithful, how much more faithful we should be! We know God’s greatest promise realized; we have Christ, the assurance of all we have hoped for. Our faithful actions should always flow from this good news.

I imagine we all could construct our own “Hall of Faith” with the people who have shown us what faithfulness looks like. Maybe a deeply theological definition of faith is still sometimes difficult, but we can name the people who have shown us what faith looks like. For me, it’s my grandfather, Arvil Webster. He was the first person to tell me the gospel and then live it out before my eyes. There are many other names: Marie, Brian, David, Dee Dee, Glenn, and so many more. They all found assurance in things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen; they were all faithful to God in their own ways. I may struggle with naming what faith is, but I can always point to them and their witness. God willing, I hope others can do the same with me.

Questions for reflection

  1. If someone were to ask you what faith means, how would you answer in your own words?
  2. Which of the people listed in this passage resonates the most with you? Do you have a favorite?
  3. Who would you include in your own “Hall of Faith?” Why are they included?

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