What is Faith?
Ask a random person on the street and she will probably answer that the things of faith are those that are outside the realm of the knowable. Science determines knowledge, while faith rests on blind ignorance. Others will say that faith is a private, internal, or supplementary aspect of one’s cognitive life that ought to have no effect on the workplace or the public sphere. Still others will contend that faith is that sentimental feeling of dependence, solace, or comfort that one might get when he or she goes into the churches. The definitions of faith abound in today’s culture, and often times those who are professing Christians have either bought into some of those faulty definitions, or don’t know how to differentiate the Christian notion of faith from the non-Christian ones.
I offer here, then, a jab at expounding what we mean when we say that we have faith in Christ, with a little help from John Calvin.
Calvin defines faith in this way: “a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.”
I think Calvin offers to us a nice little summary of what faith means, biblically speaking. Let’s divide this definition into three parts.
First, faith is a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us. Notice that faith involves, for the Christian, knowledge. Faith is not some vague sentimental sense of dependence we might get when we listen to our favorite soothing tunes on a saturday evening, nor is it a blind vacuous “something” directed at that which we all know isn’t true. Rather, faith requires knowledge. Faith has content. Faith knows the object of itself. Christians who have faith have faith in a particular God with particular attributes. The Christian God is not the god of Islam, nor is he the god of our own makings or desires. He has a specific character, being, will, and purpose, and He has a name unique to Himself. Thus faith, which receives salvation, must, on some level, be that which is capable of being articulated in intelligible propositions. We must confess and believe in our hearts that Christ (and no other) is Lord and that God has risen him from the dead (Rom. 10:4-10). We must grow in our understanding of this God, and we simply have no access to the knowledge of this God were it not for His voluntary condescension as He had revealed himself to us in His holy Word, the Bible.
It isn’t enough, however, to simply know the descriptions of this God in the Bible. For Calvin, and I think, also, for Paul, faith requires a knowledge that God is favorable or benevolent, towards me. In other words, faith grasps the descriptions of God laid out in Scripture, and says confidently, personally, and actively that this God is my God. Faith is assured, firmly and certainly, that the God revealed in Scripture is not just God in Himself but God with Us, Immanuel. Christians are those who are convinced that this God exists, that He has come down, and He has spoken words that address her as an individual. The Christian knows that God is merciful towards him, that God seeks his best interest, which is to glorify Him, and that He has provided a means for her to do so. She does not stand afar from the things disclosed in the Word, but applies herself to that Word. The God of the Bible, the God of mercy and benevolence, is truly the God that she knows she can call Father, and no longer judge.
The second part of the definition provides the foundation, or basis, for the previous part, namely, that this firm and certain knowledge is founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ. The Christian is fully convinced in her mind that God’s word stands true, and that His promises in Christ really will come into fruition. Unless the Christian, for Calvin, has faith on the basis of Christ, She will never have the firm or certain knowledge that his conscience so needs. The Christian cannot even begin to think that his own righteousness is the basis for God’s favor or benevolence towards her. The Christian shudders at the very thought of God’s eyes looking upon her without the garments provided to her by virtue of her union with Christ. She knows that she stands ashamed and naked without Christ. She knows that she must cling to Christ for her conscience to be in peace. She knows that outside of Christ she stands condemned under the law of God. In sum, unless the Christian is convinced that in Christ alone does God become benevolent toward her, the Christian will never have a firm or certain knowledge that God is benevolent toward her. Far be it that we can ever think that we would ever be justified by our own works! Calvin, further comments that:
“In the shade cloisters of the schools anyone can easily and readily prattle about the value of works in justifying men. But when we come before the presence of God we must put away such amusements! For there we deal with a serious matter, and do not engage in frivolous word battles. To this question, I insist, we must apply our mind if we would profitably inquire concerning true righteousness: How shall we reply to the Heavenly Judge when he calls us to account?”
No one can stand before the judgment seat of God. No one is righteous before Him. The Christian knows this full well, and thus denounces all self-righteousness. Thus the Christian knows that the object of her faith is Christ alone. Faith is not faith in faith itself, as if having faith is an end in itself. “So long as he has faith!” or “just have faith!” the secularist or the optimistic humanist might say. The Christian will have none of that. She knows that were she to place her faith in her own works that she would be doomed to disaster, doomed to be condemned. Further, then, she knows that this promise is freely given to her. She has all she has because God has chosen, in grace, to give it to her. God did not look at the sinner’s works, and then in response gives her grace. That would simply be works. God looks at the sinner, sees her in her pitiable state in utter wretchedness, drowning in her own sins and her pitiful attempts at covering her own shame, and makes that sinner come to life, offers Christ to her, promises her life, and applies Christ to her. This is something God does not have to do. Thus faith is a grateful faith. We cannot have true faith, therefore, unless we truly are convinced that we are dependent on this free gift of God, by which we are forgiven of our sins, justified as righteous, all in union with Christ. Anyone who glories in himself, says Calvin, glories against God. We must be assured in our minds that God has adopted us unto Himself as He engrafts us into Christ. Only by this sheer conviction, this theological self-consciousness, may we then begin to desire to do good works. For the Christian, the object of her faith, the Word of God, is more certain, more firm, more foundational, than anything perceivable by our senses, and indeed she will use the Word of God as the norm and standard by which she will come to know anything else.
Finally, faith is that which is both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit. This is crucial. Faith is solely a gift of God, not of our own works, so that no one may boast. The act of faith is, therefore, as supernatural as it gets. Dead men, totally depraved sinners, will not have faith. They will not even lift their arms to receive the gift of God. It would not be enough for God to merely offer the life that is in Christ to us. He must apply Christ himself to us through the Spirit-wrought faith that He causes in us.
This spirit-wrought faith is therefore both cognitive, for it fills the mind with wisdom and knowledge, and emotive and affectionate, for it is sealed upon our hearts that Christ is truly united to us, and that therefore God is now pleased with us as His children. Thus faith is an all-encompassing act of the self. The Christian is always self-consciously aware of God’s covenant with Him, his union with Christ as His head, just as a wife ought to be aware of her covenant with her husband. Faith cannot be merely private, for our whole minds and hearts are devoted to Christ. It displays itself in an unwavering, explicit, conviction that Christ has merited for us life and life to the fullest, namely, resurrection life, which is still to come. She cannot live the same way again. Therefore, far be it from us to think that faith is merely supplementary to our daily lives. Faith involves the primal movements of the heart, and every thought of the mind. It is the manifestation of the very work of God, as He calls his elect ones to Himself.
Thus faith is Trinitarian in nature. It is convinced, again, of the benevolence of God the Father, to whom we have access through the freely given sacrifice of Jesus Christ, as this sacrifice is applied to us by the Spirit. This, and nothing less, is the Christian understanding of the nature of her faith.