Image via author, White Cloud Peaks, Idaho
The writer of Hebrews stated that “…without faith it is impossible to please God….” But how shall we understand the nature of true faith?
Some argue that faith requires no action, that belief in the facts is sufficient to count as true faith. These will point to Romans 4:1-3 “What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”
If these verses say what some would have them say, then faith would be intellectual assent, a kind of agreement with God as to the facts of the matter. This kind of belief is all one needs to do to be righteous. Is this what these scriptures are teaching about faith?
One of the basic principles of biblical hermeneutics, the science and art of interpreting scriptures, is that one must let scripture interpret scripture. Context is an important part of the process of interpretation. This includes both the immediate context and the context of all of scripture.
In the immediate context of the Romans passage, Paul is making the case to religious thinkers that religious works, rituals, and duties by themselves are not enough for salvation. Paul likely has both the Jewish and Roman religious systems in mind. Both systems held that your behavior earned your status with your God, not your core beliefs or motives. This was based upon the idea that our God is primarily concerned with modifying our behaviors.
Paul’s point is that relying on works for salvation to the exclusion of faith in God results in dead works. In later chapters in Romans Paul explains that true faith produces righteous behaviors. He will point out that behavioral change is not the root of our God’s intent for our relationship with Him, rather it is a fruit of that relationship. Knowing Him intimately and walking daily by His Spirit within us is the point of our faith.
We can see more of the broad biblical context in James 2:14-24. James argues against defining faith as limited to intellectual assent or agreement. For James, his purpose is to clarify the true nature of faith as being a trust that leads to obedience to our God. He is making it clear that faith requires both trust and obedient action.
“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food,and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So, faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. Thus, the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”
Based upon what we have seen so far, the old hymn, “Trust and Obey,” sums up the nature of faith well:
When we walk with the Lord in the light of His word, what a glory he sheds on our way. While we do His good will, He abides with us still, and with all who will trust and obey.
But we never can prove the delights of his love until all on the altar we lay;
for the favor he shows, for the joy he bestows, are for them who will trust and obey.
Then in fellowship sweet we will sit at his feet, or we’ll walk by his side in the way;
what he says we will do, where he sends, we will go; never fear, only trust and obey.
In this hymn we have the key identifiers of true faith – walking with Him daily, abiding in Him, believing and trusting, obeying God’s leading and commands, and full surrender to Him – laying our all on the altar of surrender. Indeed, the belief of Abraham would not have been noteworthy if he did not trust his God enough to obey the command to take Isaac up to the mountain as a sacrifice. Paul and James both appeal to Abraham because his faith led to his absolute surrender to his God. Indeed, Abraham is the perfect expression of the second verse of the old hymn:
“But we never can prove the delights of his love until all on the altar we lay; for the favor he shows, for the joy he bestows, are for them who will trust and obey“.
The measure of Abraham’s faith was that he laid all that was important to him – his son -on the altar. And it is on the altars of our daily living that our faith is measured as well.