What Is Faith?

Since the wages of sin is death, it is very important to know how to receive the free gift which is eternal life. Paul begins Romans with this great statement of his theme: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16, ESV). The gospel is clearly offered to all, but faith is a condition for receiving the gift. If the gospel was not offered to all, Paul could not claim, “For God shows no partiality” (Romans 2:11, ESV).

So what is faith? In English, we speak of belief, faith, and trust. Greek had one word group that covered that range of meaning. Belief or faith includes intellectual assent. Intellectual assent can especially be seen in phrases like “believe that”.

And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. Hebrews 11:6, ESV

You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe- and shudder! James 2:19, ESV

The last quote clearly indicates that intellectual assent is not enough. The Bible also speaks of faith in the sense of trust. This can be seen in phrases that say believing in or on someone (e.g., “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” Romans 3:22, ESV).

Paul is also clear about how we acquire faith. “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ (Romans 10:17, ESV). Faith is a response to testimony (see also John 20:30-31). Those who would argue from Ephesians 2:8 that faith is a gift have missed the point. The “this” in the passage points back to the whole process of salvation by grace conditioned by faith as clearly seen in the Greek grammar of the passage.

In Romans, Paul contrasts faith/trust with works/merit. We are either going to earn salvation by perfect law keeping, or we are going to have to trust in the saving work done for us by Christ. But perfect law keeping is only hypothetically possible since we can’t live it perfectly. “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20, ESV). We must trust what Jesus has done for us.

As Paul explains this faith/trust, it does not exclude but includes repentance (Romans 2:4). It does not exclude but includes baptism (Romans 6:3). It does not exclude but includes confession (Romans 10:9). Given the argument of the letter, these things that Paul includes cannot be meritorious works but must be expressions of trust/faith. Finally, also note that for Paul faith/trust leads to obedience (Romans 1:5, 6:17, 16:26). Obedience is produced by faith. The person who trusts God will want to obey God.

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