Faith is a response of trust birthed by our meeting Christ “in person.” Knowing him produces a life-changing entrustment as we recognize and receive his love. Recently we wrote of grace as a “who”—the Spirit revealing his love in our hearts. His relational grace produces a relational faith working through love, as Paul taught in Galatians 5:6.
But not everyone will see it that way. Some treat faith as a commodity, for instance, as in “I need more faith.” Others use it as a label for their creedal commitment as in, “my Baptist faith.”
There is, of course, a biblical basis for seeing faith as objective. Jesus seems to have made the size of faith a critical feature in the disciples’ inability to heal a demonized boy. When they asked Jesus why their efforts failed, “He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.” [Matt. 17:20 ESV]
Similarly, in Romans 14 Paul set out a “weak faith” scenario that seemed to suggest a human capacity to supply faith within a spectrum of weak to strong faith. And even Abraham, the Old Testament exemplar of faith, showed serious faults in the quality of his faith in the days after “he believed God” in Genesis 15.
There is also the sense that “the faith”—as in “affirming the faith”—that treats faith as a collection of truths handed down from one generation of Christians to another. Paul offered this to Timothy in 2 Timothy 3 & 4 where he called Timothy to follow “my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith” (3:10); and “I have kept the faith” (4:7).
But all of these actually fit within a relational context that starts with “knowing” God in Christ. Faith engages us in Christ’s eternal life and Jesus summarized the entry point in his prayer of John 17: “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
My suggestion is that we turn back to Genesis 2-3 where we see how faith was first disrupted when Adam & Eve died spiritually. I’m presuming that before the Fall the first couple were living by faith and that faith was disrupted by the serpent.
The issue there had everything to do with whose word was to be trusted about whether or not to eat from a given tree: God’s word—“you shall surely die” (2:17)—was dismissed by the serpent—“You will not surely die” (3:4). The serpent’s implicit charge was that God selfishly withheld good—“wisdom” in knowing good and evil—from the couple. So that was the question before Adam: should he trust the serpent or God? Adam chose to trust the serpent and all hell broke loose in his life as a result. He died to God and now lived to himself—while still unwittingly under the serpent’s direction.
What, then, is faith? It represents our return to God as he taps us on our hearts. And then we tell him, in one way or another, “Adam was wrong, and I’ve been wrong to follow him until now. I now return to you as my trustworthy Lord and lover and receive your words as true and faithful.” Our hearts become realigned with his heart.
Can we do that by our own efforts? No. Adam grieved and dismissed the Spirit that day in the Garden—something Jesus alluded to in confronting Nicodemus in John 3 and by viewing all humanity as dead rather than alive. But God is also persistent in calling the world by his love and will draw in some but not all.
So what about the commodity and content features of faith? They’re all fine as long as we don’t confuse our experience of trust with the Person of our trust. The creeds, if sound, simply describe truths about Christ and his rule; and the mustard seed merely tells us of how a small bit of creation can prosper as it plays the role for which God created it.
We, too, are his created ones, made for good works and, like Abraham, we may be slow in getting there. But we only get there by embracing the one who made us and loves us.