What is faith?

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

My apologies for the lapse.  As it turns out, writing a book can be a bit all-consuming at times. I really appreciate your patience.

So, what exactly is faith? This may seem like a really basic question, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently.

Most Christians believe that we are saved by faith. Many make sure to add “but not by works” to the end of that sentence, while others are sure to bring up the fact that “faith without woks is dead.”

For most of my life, I thought that faith was essentially intellectual ascent to a set of propositional truths. In other words, if you believe the right things about God, you went to heaven. If you believed the wrong things about God, you went to hell. A person’s eternal destiny was determined, in large part, to how much he or she knew.

I think that this is the prevailing attitude among Christians, particularly evangelicals, in America today.

This notion became problematic for me when I actually started to think about it. First of all, it meant that the majority of the human population went to hell without ever having the chance to be saved, which seemed remarkably unfair, unjust, and perhaps even evil. Secondly, it meant that faith need not have any effect on a person’s life. It was just a ticket to heaven. The focus was on eternity, not on the here and now, and the point was to simply believe the right thing, not do the right thing or be transformed in any way. And finally, it seemed to me that the Bible itself didn’t really support the definition of faith as intellectual ascent to a set of propositional truths.

Some examples:

  • James writes (in James 2:20-24) that even the demons believe that there is one God. Obviously, believing something to be true doesn’t mean reconciliation or relationship with God.   (James goes on to say that “a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone” – I’ve never completely understood how the sola fide/sola Scriptura camp deals with this one.)
  • The Bible does not stipulate how much a person needs to know about God in order to have a relationship with Him, but simply qualifies that the fruit of saving faith is good works. Paul writes that “it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified.” People who have no knowledge of the Law but who “do instinctively the things of the Law,” will be judged, not on the basis of how much they know, but on the basis of how they respond to their conscience. (Romans 2:9-16) ) Many exclusivists themselves concede that people living before the time of Christ were made righteous by faith without explicit knowledge of Jesus.
  • Although I believe that God revealed Himself uniquely through the person of Christ, (I am a Christian after all!), I cannot believe that God’s grace  is limited to or exhausted by Christ. If we accept the idea of the Trinity, then we believe that God the Father and the Holy Spirit are also at work in the world, and that the breath of God is free to “blow where it wishes.” (John 3:8) Looking at things from this Trinitarian perspective, it is reasonable to assume that one can maintain a saving relationship with God the Father through the Holy Spirit without knowing the name of Jesus Christ.  Just as a right relationship with Jesus results in a right relationship with God, a right relationship with the Father is, in effect, a right relationship with Christ. (John 8:19, 42) This makes me a little more cautious about making sweeping judgments about people of other religions.
  • Jesus says that when it comes time to “judge the nations,” the Good Shepherd will separate the sheep from the goats based on their treatment of “the least of these.” (Matthew 25:31-46) We forget that Jesus Christ is indeed present in every nation, and has been at every point in history. He is present in the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, and the imprisoned. Perhaps many will choose to reject or accept Him in that unlikely incarnation.
  • I think that sometimes people quote verses like Romans 10:9 (“if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved”) and John 14:6 (“I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father but by me”) in isolation. They forget that these conversations were happening among people who had encountered Jesus Christ...people who had the choice to respond in faith to what they had experienced. Just a few verses after Jesus says “no one comes to the Father but through me,” he adds, “If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin, but now they have not excuse for their sin...If I had not done among them the works which no one else did, they would not have sin; but now they have both seen and hated Me and My Father as well.” (John 15:22,24)

- On a side note: As I wrote in a past post, I don’t think that salvation is simply a matter of getting into heaven and out of hell. For me, following the teachings of Jesus Christ saves me from my sin in the here and now. It can save me on a daily basis from selfishness, materialism, passing judgment, hatred, vindictiveness, and fear.

- And to clarify: I also do not think that faith/savlation is a matter of checking off a list of dos and don'ts in an effort to please God. In other words, I also reject the notion that salvaiton comes from works alone. 

So, if faith isn’t simply a matter of believing the right thing, if it’s not about being right, or checking off a list of propositional truths in your head, then what is it? How do we know if we have it?  How do we know if someone else has it? Can we know for sure? 

It seems to me that God reaches out to everyone in love, and that faith has something to do with how a person responds to this. I know that this sounds super-vague, and I am certain that someone will call it “postmodern.” So be it. The truth is, I’m just trying to figure it out myself. 

What do you think? What is faith?

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