Texts such as Hebrews 11 nudge us towards becoming more biblical in how we view faith. That we need the nudge is surprising.
For decades a popular campus movement has illustrated the difference between faith and belief with the story of a wheel barrow and Niagara Falls. Whether fictitious or not, they tell of a man, who pushed his wheel barrow across a tightrope over Niagara Falls and returned.
Upon asking the cheering crowds if they believed he could do it with a person in his wheel barrow, they roared, “We believe. We believe you can do it.”
To such an enthusiastic response, the man said, “May I have a volunteer.” The crowd fell silent. No one was willing to trust in him. While they fully believed he could do it, none would put their faith in him. To have faith in the tightrope walker required climbing into his wheel barrow.
Similarly, opportunities abound in every day life revealing that faith, in some circumstances, must break through the ceiling of mere but genuine belief. Consider the licensed teen holding out his or her hands. Until we are willing to drop the car keys, we have not put our faith in our teen, regardless of what we might believe about his or her driving ability and maturity.
Actually, there are two English words which are used to translate the idea of pistis in the Greek New Testament. They are faith and trust. To trust often requires going beyond simply believing to also incorporating suitably acting.
We should not be surprised then that Hebrews 11, along with a host of other biblical texts challenge the simplistic identification of faith with genuine but mere belief. In this faith hall of fame, many heroes obtained faith because they engaged in an appropriate and necessary action.
“By faith Abel offered …
by faith Noah … built …
by faith Abraham … obeyed and went …” (Hebrews 11:4,7,8)
Given all of the available evidence, why do people interpret faith as “just believe,” when seeing it in the Bible? The answer lies in how people have been trained to think about faith, in spite of the evidence.
It is well past time for students of the Bible to read scripture with a healthier understanding of faith. Context determines what is required to possess faith. Unconditional promises only require belief (e.g. Romans 4:3), while other situations demand the obedience of faith through action (e.g. Galatians 3:26-27; Romans 1:5; 16:26; James 2:17-18).
To read the word “faith” within scripture and assume that only genuine belief is being referenced involves reading into the text our presuppositions, not listening to its message. Context is necessary for an accurate understanding.