Faith and the closely related concept of faithfulness are central to Biblical thought. They deal with the relationship of God and humanity. They are in some respects correlative, for man’s faith is that which responds to and is sustained by God’s faithfulness. In other respects there can be a progression of thought, for faith on the part of man should lead to his faithfulness. Again, the idea of faith can move from the subjective attitude of trustfulness to “the faith”—that which God has revealed objectively through deed and word and sign in order that it should be trusted.
Associated closely with the two nouns is the adjective faithful and the verb have faith in, trust, or believe. In some parts of the Bible the verb is more prominent than the noun. As always in the Scriptures, the divine initiative is emphasized or assumed, and the fact that the living God is willing to enter into relationship with men and has shown them that He is worthy of their trust is what gives Biblical faith its distinctive character. Faith as it is demonstrated in the Old Testament is a necessary, but incomplete preliminary to its full possibility through Christ in the New Testament.
Etymology of the English term
Faith occurs in the form feyth in Havelok the Dane (13th century); it is akin to fides and this again to the Sanskrit root bhidh, "to unite," "to bind." These terms suggest the spiritual work of faith: it unites man to God for salvation.
Studying the word faith in the light of use and context, we find two different senses of the term used in the Bible. We may distinguish the two senses as the passive and the active.
On the active side are "fidelity," "trustworthiness"; and "faith;" on the passive side is "trust." In
Another line of meaning is traceable in a very few passages, where pistis, "faith," appears in the sense of "creed," the truth, or body of truth, which is trusted, or which justifies trust. The most important of such places is the paragraph
The history of the use of the Greek pistis is instructive. In the Septuagint it normally, if not always, bears the "passive" sense "fidelity," "good faith," while in classical Greek it not rarely bears the active sense, "trust." In the koine, the type of Greek universally common at the Christian era, it seems to have adopted the active meaning as the ruling one only just in time, so to speak, to provide it for the utterance of Him whose supreme message was "reliance," and who passed that message on to His apostles. Through their lips and pens "faith," in that sense, became the supreme watchword of Christianity.
Faith and faithfulness in the Old Testament
In the Old Testament the verb to believe occurs only thirty times, but this comparative infrequency does not adequately reflect the importance of the place of faith in the Old Testament scheme of things. The New Testament draws all its examples of faith from the lives of Old Testament believers (e.g.,
The foundation of Israel’s faith was the Lord’s revelation of himself to the patriarchs and to Moses, the covenant that he sealed at Sinai, and the conviction that God would keep his covenant promises. The observance of law and the life of faith were in no way incompatible because the law rested on the promises of God and obedience was motivated by a believing conviction that he would stand by what he had said. In connection, for example, with the sacrifices that the law commanded, we need to remind ourselves that the Old Testament believer did not offer his sacrifice with any thought in mind of the perfect sacrifice of Christ that was yet to come. He did not (at that point) think of himself as doing something “pro tem” or as doing something that was allowed to be effective because the “real thing” was some day going to be done. He acted in simple faith in the promises of God. If asked how he knew his sins were forgiven, he would no doubt first reply that he was there and had seen the appropriate sacrifice offered. But if the question were pressed, why the sacrifice was effective, he would reply, “Because he said so.” In this way personal faith—in exactly the same terms as Paul later developed in the doctrine of justification by faith—is the presupposition behind the provisions and prescriptions of the old covenant. Obedience to the Lord’s law was the way of life incumbent on those who trusted him. Old Testament faith is never a mere assent to a set of doctrines or the outward acceptance of a legal code, but utter confidence in the faithfulness of God and a consequent loving obedience to his will.
When used with a religious application, faith in the Old Testament is sometimes in a specific word or work of God (
There are three main word groups in the Old Testament, which are used to describe these ideas. There are also a number of other words and ideas which are related to them.
The meaning of this word is “to take refuge” and in the Old Testament it is used predominantly in a religious sense (
There are various other words which are closely associated with the idea of faith and faithfulness in the Old Testament, particularly those which denote hope (חָכָה, H2675, יָחַל, H3498, and קָוָה, H7747). Of even greater importance is the word חֶ֫סֶד, H2876, because it denotes the relationship of God and man and of man and man under the covenant. It was the covenant which formed the heart of Israel’s religion and which gave faithfulness and faith their fullest opportunity for expression.
The idea of a faithful God and men who are called to faith in Him is absolutely fundamental to Old Testament religion. It will be possible here only to outline some areas in which this is represented, even where none of the “faith words” actually appear.
Creation and providence
The faithfulness of God who has made the world and all that is in it, who orders it regularly and provides for His creatures is abundantly illustrated in a nature psalm such as
Promises and signs
In the Old Testament God is not represented simply as doing things in history. He also is shown to promise them by word and by symbolic deed. The most important instance of God’s promises in the Old Testament is found in the story of Abraham. From
The other particular instance where the faithful fulfillment of God’s promises is noted, is in the establishment of the Davidic house (
In addition to the faithfulness of God shown in words which came true, there were signs as visible words. Notable signs were performed before the Exodus so that people might believe that God was in action redeeming His people (
The focus of God’s faithful dealing with His people and their response to Him is in the covenant relationship which He established with them. A covenant was a binding obligation between two parties, and in the case of a covenant in which Yahweh was involved, it was always He who took the initiative and who was the dominant partner in the relationship. The basic terms of a covenant were, “I will be your God and you shall be my people”—it was a corporate relationship to Him out of which various obligations sprang. The covenant with Noah included promises of blessing to his descendants and to all flesh (
The fact that Yahweh had entered into covenant with His people in these different ways was the basis for much exhortation to the people to be true to Him. The book of Deuteronomy constantly dwells upon His faithfulness and the obligations of the covenant nation. The penalties of unfaithfulness also are brought home. Most of the prophets seem to have had the idea of the covenant somewhere in their thought, but in Hosea the theme of God’s loyalty and man’s disloyalty is absolutely basic to the whole book. The northern kingdom went into captivity because of its failure to observe the covenant (
The religion of the Old Testament was dominated by the law. No Israelite could conceivably be ignorant of the fact that he was under obligation to be faithful to God. Yet at its best, Israel saw that law was not legalism and that the claims of God for their complete loyalty were based upon His prior action in loyalty to His obligations freely entered into by the divine promise (
The main thrust of the Old Testament is concerned with God and His people as a whole, but it would be wrong to infer from that, that there was no such thing as individual, personal faith. That is abundantly illustrated at all periods of Israel’s history. The personal faith of Abraham, Moses, David, or Elijah is something real and important as well as the national faith. The Psalms afford abundant examples of trust in Yahweh through thick and thin. They often are couched in tones of deep personal devotion. God’s faithfulness is the one thing which can be relied upon, and it is under the shadow of His wings that the children of men take their refuge (
So we see faith and faithfulness in the Old Testament. The God who acts gives signs and promises, and enters into relationship with His people. Man is utterly dependent upon Him and is called upon to acknowledge that dependence and to obey His will. The covenant is the undergirding of the nation’s life and in his personal life “the righteous will live by his faith” (or faithfulness) (
Faith and faithfulness in Judaism
The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha
While these writings drew freely upon their Old Testament heritage, there can be seen an increasing institutionalization of the idea of faith and faithfulness. In particular, the observance of the law was closely involved with it (
Philo’s understanding of the Old Testament was influenced greatly by his knowledge of Greek philosophy, in particular that of Plato. As a Jew he believed in the greatness of the one God, but rather than seeing Him as active in history he sought Him through withdrawing from the world. The phenomenal world was essentially insubstantial, and true security could be found only in a mystical relationship with the ultimate reality in God. To him we owe the description of faith as “queen of virtues.”
There is considerable emphasis in the Qumran documents upon the faithfulness of God. The community, inevitably as a group within a larger whole, thought of itself as a faithful remnant. As with many other groups in later Judaism, their stress was not so much upon an active personal trust in God as in a loyal obedience to His commandments. The Habakkuk commentary emphasizes both faith in the Teacher of Righteousness (especially in the truth of His teachings) and in God’s vindication of them.
What was true of the Apocalypse and Pseudepigrapha as far as the institutionalizing of faith was concerned, was even more marked in the case of much of the rabbinic literature faith is connected closely with obedience, and faith easily becomes faith in the tradition of the elders and obedience a legalistic keeping of the law and its many subtle interpretations. There were among the rabbis men of personal trust in the living God, but it became fatally easy for this to be obscured by an over emphasis upon the Torah.
Faith and faithfulness in Greek thought
There is a clear interrelation between the ideas of faith and faithfulness in the usage of words of the πίστις, G4411, group in classical Greek. Both the adjective pistós and the noun pístis can be used in an active or a passive sense—they can refer either to trusting or to being worth trusting. The verb πιστεύω, G4409, could express trust in persons or things. There was nothing necessarily religious about these terms, although they could be used in the area of religion. But none of the words standing by themselves would immediately suggest a religious significance.
It was in this period that pisteúō became one of the words which could be used regularly to denote belief that there were gods. At the same time pistis began to acquire a flavor of piety, for the belief in the existence of gods naturally extended to a recognition that they had some claims upon human allegiance. Likewise there followed the belief in certain theological propositions, with particular reference to the invisible world and man’s relationship to it. The word group really came into its own when there was competition between various religions and each proclaimed the necessity of faith in the truth for which it claimed to stand. The concept might vary in its intellectual or moral content, but in the mystery religions it was seen as the way of illumination and salvation. While there are clear differences in the object and nature of faith between Hebrew and Greek writings, pistis and its cognates were ready-made for the LXX translation when they wished to render ē’mūn and its cognates into Greek.
Faith and faithfulness in the New Testament
In contrast with the extreme rarity with which the terms “faith” and “believe” are used in the Old Testament, they occur with great frequency in the New Testament—almost five hundred times. A principal reason for this is that the New Testament makes the claim that the promised Messiah had finally come, and, to the bewilderment of many, the form of the fulfillment did not obviously correspond to the Messianic promise. It required a real act of faith to believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the promised Messiah. It was not long before “to believe” meant to become a Christian. In the New Testament, faith therefore becomes the supreme human act and experience.
In his miracles and teaching, Jesus aimed at creating in his disciples a complete trust in himself as the Messiah and Savior of men. Everywhere he offered himself as the object of faith and made it plain that faith in him is necessary for eternal life, that it is what God required of Old Testament men, and that refusal to accept his claims will bring eternal ruin. His primary concern with his own disciples was to build up their faith in him.
The record in Acts shows that the first Christians called themselves “the believers” (
It is in Paul’s letters that the meaning of faith is most clearly and fully set forth. Faith is trust in the person of Jesus, the truth of his teaching, and the redemptive work he accomplished at Calvary, and, as a result, a total submission to him and his message, which are accepted as from God. Faith in his person is faith in him as the eternal , the God-man, the second man Adam, who died in man’s stead, making possible justification with God, adoption into his family, sanctification, and, ultimately, glorification. His death brings redemption from sin in all its aspects. The truth of his claims is attested by God’s raising him from the dead. Some day he will judge the living and the dead. Faith is not to be confused with a mere intellectual assent to the doctrinal teachings of Christianity, though that is obviously necessary. It includes a radical and total commitment to Christ as the Lord of one’s life.
Unbelief, or lack of faith in the Christian gospel, appears everywhere in the New Testament as the supreme evil. Not to make a decisive response to God’s offer in Christ means that the individual remains in sin and is eternally lost. Faith alone can save him.
There is no need to emphasize the centrality of the concept of faith in the New Testament. The words that are used to express it are almost always those of the pistis group. Despite the usage of the LXX in rendering ’emeth and ’emūnāh by alētheia, that word and its cognates almost always denotes in the New Testament truth, reality, and genuiness. There is an association with the concept of faithfulness quite frequently because what is true is also trustworthy. By and large the field has been left entirely to pístis and the words related to it.
The adjective pistós also may be used both technically and nontechnically, and in both active and passive senses. It is commonly used of the reliability of servants or stewards (
There are a number of privative formations of words in the pístis group which may be found in the New Testament. Apistéō means to disbelieve in a general sense (
The usage of the New Testament writers
The synoptic gospels
God is portrayed in the first three gospels mainly under two figures—as King and as Father. Each of these concepts is associated in some way with the idea of His faithfulness. The kingdom of God comes not out of the blue, but because the time is fulfilled (
When God is spoken of as Father, there is conveyed the idea of His faithfulness in loving and providing for His children. This theme is particularly brought out in the (with parallels in Luke). It is the Father who in His faithful providence “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (
The response of men to the arrival of the reign of God in their midst in the Person of
The miracles of Jesus were signs of the coming of the kingdom of God. In some cases faith was a necessary prerequisite for their performance by Jesus (
The unexpected faith of some which Jesus commended warmly (
An interesting and significant feature of the gospels is the portrayal of the faith which Jesus had in God. This is illustrated well by the way in which He addressed God as His Father. He could use the intimate word Abba and show complete dependence upon Him and His will (
There is not revealed in the synoptic gospels the fullness of Christian faith, for that was essentially something which came after the Resurrection and Pentecost. The faithfulness of God revealed in the Old Testament is given a new dimension with the coming of Jesus Christ and the practice of a new intimacy with Him is inaugurated through the life of His Son.
John’s gospel and epistles
The gospel and epistles are treated together without any judgment being passed about their common authorship. It is clear that they belong to the same school of thought and the concept of faith in them is similar.
The only use of a word from the pístis group ascribed to God is in
The nature of faith
There are numerous other words which are used alongside pisteúō in the gospel which help us to a clearer understanding of its meaning. The noun pístis is not found in the gospel at all and occurs only once in the Johannine epistles. The victory which overcomes the world is described as “our faith” (
There are some metaphorical expressions which seem to be illustrative of faith. Believing is said to be the same as “receiving” Christ (
The object of faith
The basis of faith
As such tremendous importance is attached to faith in John’s gospel, the evangelist emphasizes the solid foundation which any faith in Jesus will have. The concept of evidence (marturía) is referred to frequently as something which leads the way to faith. John the Baptist came for the purpose of bearing “witness to the light, that all might believe through him” (
In John, faith is related to both seeing and hearing. Seeing the Son is the natural preliminary to believing as far as His contemporaries are concerned (
On four occasions in John the preposition diá, “on account of,” is used to describe the immediate cause of belief. The purpose of John’s coming as a witness was, “that all might believe through him” (
Some of the works were described as “signs.” They were not only miracles on the physical level but also dramatic illustrations of the spiritual life which Jesus brought. They were therefore meant to bring men to believe in Jesus (
The result of faith
The development of faith
While the pístis words are used almost entirely in the sense of putting one’s trust in Jesus or God, if the correct reading of
The Acts of the Apostles
None of the words of the pístis group is used to describe human faithfulness, but this idea is found in relation to God when the verb prosménō (“to remain”) is used (
The Pauline epistles
Neither Paul the man nor his writings can possibly be understood unless we grasp the meaning of faith to him. Ever since his encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus the whole of his thinking and his life were dominated by the ideas of the faithfulness of God and the need for a responsive faith in man. If there is a systematic treatment of these themes only in Romans, their living reality bursts forth spontaneously again and again in the varied pastoral situations which he deals with in all the epistles. His entire doctrine of salvation, his entire theology, could be summed up under the heading of faith, but we shall have to concentrate on the passages where the pístis words or closely associated ideas are present.
Another important subject illustrating the faithfulness of God is that of His promises. This is dealt with especially in
Faith and the Gospel
Faith and justification
This then is the heart of the Gospel which had such power in the life of Paul and others (
Faith and relationship
The Life of faith
The Epistle to the Hebrews
Again he urges the readers “to draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith” and to hold fast the confession of their hope without wavering (
The Epistle of James
There is a fair amount of reference in this epistle to the faithfulness of God. It is He who gives wisdom to all those who ask Him (
Human faith or faithfulness must be tested to produce steadfastness (
The Epistles of Peter and Jude
In 2 Peter and Jude pistós and pisteúō are not used positively. Faith is said to be “in the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ” (
Faith and faithfulness in New Testament theology
The New Testament sees God’s faithfulness in a new way, for many of the promises made in the Old Testament have been fulfilled, and God has so acted that there is little doubt that the others will be fulfilled also in due course. While the idea of God’s faithfulness in creation and providence is given a new depth through the life and ministry of Christ, it is essentially His faithfulness in redemption which is central to New Testament thought. What the Old Testament could only look forward to, the New Testament could look back upon. Things had come to their culmination in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Christ and in the gift of the Holy Spirit. The new covenant of forgiveness and the personal knowledge of God had come into its own. The faithful God had acted decisively for the redemption of the world.
The Gospel was therefore good news, to be believed and acted upon by all men. The kerygma recited the mighty acts of God and called men to repentance and faith on the basis of the divine initiative. So men of every nation, believing the facts of redemption on divine testimony, abandoned themselves completely to the love and mercy of God. In the face of opposition and persecution, they had hope; they stood fast by the unshakable realities of the Gospel and proved in the depths of human experience that God keeps faith.