My post two weeks ago titled “Faith Alone Does Not Save . . . No Matter How Many Times Protestants Say It Does” drew a strong reaction.
Most of the reaction was positive.
But since the article assailed a fundamental defining and distinguishing doctrine of Protestantism, it also drew some negative responses.
Some of the people who objected insisted that faith alone does save, and quoted various Bible passages in an effort to support their contention. However, none of those Bible passages actually says that faith alone saves.
That’s one of the big problems with the doctrine of salvation by faith alone: the Bible never says it. In fact, the Bible specifically denies it (see James 2:14–26).
There’s another big problem with the doctrine of salvation by faith alone:
Faith alone is not even faith.
What faith isn’t
There are some funny ideas floating around about faith. Here are some of them:
- Faith is believing something we’re not really sure of.
- Faith is believing something without proof.
- Faith is believing something that we don’t understand.
- Faith is believing something that doesn’t make sense because the church says it’s true.
- Faith is believing something with our mind and saying it with our lips.
But none of these are faith.
At least, they’re not what the Bible means by faith.
It helps to look at the words that mean “faith” in the original languages of the Bible.
What faith is: “faith” in the Old Testament
The Old Testament is not big on abstract concepts. The Hebrew of the Old Testament is a very concrete language. And though it does occasionally use a word that means “faith,” more often it uses a form of the word that means “faithfulness.”
In Hebrew, the words for both “faith” and “faithfulness” come from the root verb ’aman. This is the ultimate source of our English word “amen,” which is used in religious speech to affirm the truth and sincerity of what has just been said.
The Hebrew verb ’aman has the basic meaning of supporting or sustaining something. To give you an idea of just how concrete this word is, a related word, ’omenah, means a pillar or column—a physical structure that holds up a building.
The verb ’aman has other related meanings, including to be firmly founded, to be continual and long-lasting, to be faithful, trustworthy, and sure. Based on these meanings, it can also mean to trust in and believe.
In other words, the Hebrew words for “faith” and “faithfulness” are about as far as you can get from believing something because you’re unsure of it, because there’s no proof, because you don’t understand it, and so on. Instead, the original Hebrew word for faith means something solid, substantial, well-supported, and trustworthy.
When we look at how this group of related words is actually used in the Old Testament, we find that it is talking about people (or things) that are honest and reliable, and can be counted on to do what they say they’ll do. For example, Habakkuk 2:4 says, “The righteous will live by their faith.” Faith is not just something that you believe. It is something that you live by.
And then there’s the famous passage about Abraham quoted by both Paul and James in the New Testament: “And he believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). In Romans 4, Paul uses this faith of Abraham as an illustration of how we can be saved without needing to do the works of the law represented by “circumcision”—meaning the ancient Jewish ritual and behavioral code. In James 2:14–26, James refers to the same passage to point out that Abraham’s belief was matched by his actions, which made his faith a real faith, and not a dead faith.
Throughout the Old Testament, faith and faithfulness are not about some abstract head-based belief. Rather, they are the quality of character possessed by people who show over and over again by their actions that they can be trusted to be honest, reliable, and trustworthy in living by the things they believe in, and to keep their word to God and to their fellow human beings.
What faith is: “faith” in the New Testament
Abstract ideas are much more at home in the New Testament than in the Old Testament. That’s probably due largely to the influence of Greek philosophy on the lands of the ancient Roman empire.
The common Greek word for “faith” is pistis. This word has a meaning very similar to our English word “faith”: belief, conviction.
And yet, it is also the word used to translate the Old Testament Hebrew words for “faith” based on ’aman. And it has attached to it the same sense of faithfulness and reliability of character. In the New Testament as in the Old Testament, faithful people are those who can be counted on to actually do what they say they’ll do, and to live by their beliefs.
In other words, “faith” in the New Testament combines the more abstract idea of an inner belief and conviction with a quality of character that lives by the things believed.
For example, Hebrews 11 starts with a definition of faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” It then goes on to offer example after example of well-known figures from the Old Testament who actively lived by that assurance and conviction, showing their faith by their actions.
Yes, the New Testament does focus more than the Old Testament on the inner conviction of faith. Yet there is no support in the New Testament for the idea that faith is some sort of inner belief without outward action. Wherever faith is mentioned in the New Testament, it is talking about the kind of conviction that we live by.
Even Paul, the famous exponent of faith, continually salts his letters with exhortations to live by our faith. For example, Protestants commonly quote these two verses from Ephesians:
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8–9)
But listen to the very next verse:
For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. (Ephesians 2:10, italics added)
When Paul taught that we are saved by faith without the works of the Jewish Torah or Law that requires many external rituals and observances, he was in no way saying that we do not have to do good works in order to be saved. Paul, just like all of the other Bible writers, insisted that real faith is “faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6).
Two simple definitions of faith
With all of this in mind, here are two simple, working definitions of “faith:”
- Faith is believing something because we see and know that it is true.
- Faith is the beliefs that we live by.
Let’s look at them one at a time.
1. Faith is believing something because we see and know that it is true
Hebrews 11:1 reads:
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
John 20:29 reads:
Jesus said to him (Thomas), “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Based on these and some other similar passages, many Christians have gotten the idea that faith is believing something we don’t see or understand.
But as the story of Jesus and Thomas in John 20:24–29 makes clear, in these passages the Bible is talking about not seeing with our physical eyes. And these days, if we require physical evidence for God and spirit, we will never believe.
However, physical evidence is not the only way we can learn things that are true.
In fact, the greatest truths are about things that are not physical at all.
Jesus said that the two greatest commandments are to love God above all, and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:34–40). Yet love is a non-physical reality. We can’t see it with our eyes or touch it with our fingers. But as anyone who has either found or lost love knows, love is the most powerful reality of human life.
When we talk about faith, even though we’re talking about things that we can’t see with our physical eyes, we’re also talking about things that we can see very clearly with our mind’s eye, otherwise known as our spiritual eyes.
When we see clearly in our mind and spirit that something is true, and accept it simply because it’s true, that is faith.
There are many reasons we could believe something other than because it is true:
- We could believe something because it is financially advantageous to us. For example, we could believe that global warming is a myth because we work in the public relations department of a major oil company, and our salary depends on that belief.
- We could believe something because it gives us pleasure. For example, we could convince ourselves that there’s nothing wrong with telling ethnic jokes because we think they’re hilariously funny.
- We could believe something because it gives us power. For example, we could believe that we are better and smarter than others because in our mind that means we can impose our own will on them—even by force, if necessary.
There are many reasons to believe this or that idea. But if our belief is based on gaining some benefit for ourselves, that is not faith.
Instead, faith is believing something simply because we see and know that it is true, regardless of whether it benefits us. When we are dedicated to the truth itself, then we have faith.
That’s because truth comes from God, and is God.
When we believe in the truth for its own sake, we are believing in God. And believing in God wherever and however God appears is the truest meaning of faith.
2. Faith is the beliefs that we live by
It’s easiest to see by example that our faith is the beliefs we live by:
- If we say that we believe in honesty, but we’re always lying to people, what do we really believe in, honesty or dishonesty?
- If we say that we believe in being faithful to our partner, but we sleep around whenever we get the chance, what do we really believe in, faithfulness or adultery?
- If we say that we believe in eating healthfully, but we regularly pig out on junk food, what do we really believe in, eating healthfully or eating unhealthfully?
- And finally, if we say that we believe in Jesus, but we do not live the way Jesus taught us to live, but instead lie, cheat, steal, commit adultery, and generally mistreat our neighbor instead of loving our neighbor, who do we really believe in, Jesus or the Devil?
In every case, what we really believe in is what we live by.
Faith is not merely thinking or saying that we believe something. Faith is being so convinced of something in our mind and heart that we live by it.
That’s why James said:
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. (James 2:14–17)
That’s why Paul is always exhorting the faithful to live good, honest, industrious, and holy lives—because, as he says, “the righteous will live by faith” (Romans 1:17, italics added).
And that’s why Jesus said:
Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:20)
The scribes and Pharisees believed that because they kept the external and ritual laws of Moses, they were more righteous than everyone else. But Jesus taught us to live by the deeper law of love to God and love to our neighbor. When we live by that law, our righteousness does exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees because the law of the Lord is written on our hearts and expressed by our hands in acts of love and service to our fellow human beings.
Once again, Jesus said:
Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?” Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.” (Matthew 7:21–23)
No matter how much of a show of piety and righteousness we may make through attention-getting “good deeds” when we are out in public, the true test of our faith in the Lord is whether we do good (or evil) both in public and in private to the people in our household, to the people at work, to the people we meet on the street, to everyone we see each day—whether or not anyone else is watching.
Only when our faith in Jesus is matched by our continual faithfulness to the commandments of Jesus do we truly have faith. That’s because our faith is the beliefs that we live by.
Faith alone is not faith
All of this is the exact opposite of faith alone.
Faith alone is defined as faith without anything else.
- Faith alone is faith without works.
- Faith alone is faith without love.
- Faith alone is faith without action.
- Faith alone is faith without mercy.
- Faith alone is faith without compassion.
- Faith alone is faith without good deeds.
- Faith alone is faith without loving our neighbor.
- Faith alone is faith without loving God.
Faith alone is merely thinking and saying something, without any need to do anything based on what we think and say.
This means that faith alone is not faith!
In reality, “faith alone” is a contradiction in terms. By adding the word “alone” to “faith,” we make it not to be faith, because faith is the beliefs that we live by.
Faith without works is not only dead, but nonexistent.
That’s because faith is an inner devotion to the truth that changes us from the inside out.
When we have faith, we can’t help living by it.
When we have faith, it shows every day in our love for God, in our love of following God’s commandments, and in our love and service to our fellow human beings.
For further reading:
- Faith Alone Does Not Save . . . No Matter How Many Times Protestants Say It Does
- God is Love . . . And That Makes All the Difference in the World
- What does Jesus Mean when He Says we Must be Born Again?
- Did Jesus Really Die to Pay the Penalty for our Sins?!?
- Heaven, Regeneration, and the Meaning of Life on Earth