Many people use the word faith. People claim to have faith or not to have faith in lots of things from baseball teams to governments, marriage and religion. When someone uses the word faith, a variety of things come to mind.
In one popular dictionary, there are at least nine shades of meaning in the current English usage of the word faith. For example, it can be defined as a personal opinion, a religious system, a sacred promise, or even as an attitude of perseverance (as in “Keep the faith.”). We English speakers have a genius for taking a word and using it creatively. In many ways, that is what makes our language so rich and adaptable.
However, there are times when we must be very clear about what we mean. For example, when Christians use the word in a gospel sense, much hinges on the correct understanding of the term. The gospel of Jesus Christ promises forgiveness, new birth, peace of mind, life-purpose, eternal life and much more. In essence, the gospel is this: If we will turn from our destructive patterns of doing things (sin) and put our faith in Jesus Christ, we will be saved. But what exactly does it mean to put faith in Jesus Christ? The New Testament idea of faith comes from the Greek word pistis, meaning trust, reliance, conviction–faith. As the New Testament uses the word there are several facets to the meaning of pistis:
First, it is a firm conviction that Jesus is who he claimed to be in the gospel accounts and that his death on the cross paid the penalty for human sin against God. It is an acceptance of what the gospels and the rest of the New Testament say about him. In other words, it is a belief that the information given to us in the Bible is accurate.
Of course, there are many people who simply don’t believe these assertions are true. They deny that Jesus was deity in any sense, or that his death had any significance other than as a tragic example of injustice. Some even deny his existence. Other people do believe in Jesus as he is portrayed in the New Testament. They have come to the conviction that Jesus was unique in his dual nature as human and divine; that his death achieved atonement for sin; that he is lord over all and that to know him in a faith-sense is to be granted eternal life. This is the factual basis for faith. It is the mental response to the gospel message.
But faith moves on from a willing acknowlegement of certain biblical and theological truths to a personal choice to surrender one’s life with its willful independence, destructive behavior and violation of moral principles and to rely on God to remake us from the inside out. In other words, it is entirely possible to know the facts about Jesus and assent to their validity, but to miss eternal life. What is lacking is a profound response to these truths. This works out as a definite choice to receive Jesus’ forgiveness and allow his benevolent ownership of our lives.
This is why a main feature of evangelistic events is to bring truth to bear on the conscience so that people come to a point of decision. Without a definite positive response to Jesus Christ, there can be no salvation. This is salvation-faith. It what God asks of us in response to what he has done in Christ. It is both emotional and volitional. That is, it is a choosing to act on what the mind accepts.
But there is still another aspect to the New Testament usage of the word faith. Faith always results in actions and conduct consistent with the assent of the mind and the response of the will and emotions. The book of James reminds us that faith without works (actions) is dead. This is stating the rather obvious truth that we understand pretty well in other aspects of life. In a romantic relationship, if the feelings, commitments and words don’t show themselves in any sort of tangible action, the beloved would clearly have the right to question the reality of what he or she has been told. To say we believe in Jesus and never act in a way which confirms that claim, rightfully causes people around us to be highly skeptical of the validity of our faith.
In other words, faith in Jesus shows itself in visible ways. Certain things we were in the habit of doing which are offensive to God and other people now bother us. We notice and feel uncomfortable about how we use our mouths, how we treat people, how we regard ourselves and about our attitude of flippancy toward God. There is a new desire to please God along with the beginning steps of tangible actions showing that desire. We are pleased to see the basic shape of faith appear in our lives as we act on what we have come to believe.
OK: enough explanation. Now let’s get practical: does this describe you? Perhaps you don’t know enough yet to have a well-rounded theological faith, but at least you believe that Jesus is the Son of God and that he died for you, rising again from the grave. You have moved on from what you know about Jesus to a response of gratitude and a willing reception of what he has done. Your life is now showing the beginnings of real change on a number of levels. This is biblical faith, saving faith. There is nothing on earth like it. I highly recommend it!
Knowing that various Christian traditions understand the interaction of sin and grace in a believer from different perspectives, here is how I piece together the biblical evidence (by the way that’s what theology is: a piecing together, weighing and organizing of what the Bible teaches):
Our Natural State: Total Depravity. As we are naturally born, our human nature is thoroughly infected with sin (Psalm 139, Jeremiah 17:9, etc). This does not mean that we are born totally evil. Obviously unbelievers are capable of doing good things. It does mean, however, that we are affected by sin in every component of who we are (body, emotions, mind, will, etc). The collective term in the scriptures for these components affected by sin is flesh. This concept that our flesh is thoroughly corrupted by sin is described theologically as total depravity.
Therefore, our natural situation is somewhat like having a virus living in our entire body, but which especially attacks certain parts (such as a sinus cold or the intestinal flu). The symptoms manifest themselves most strongly in places of special weakness. In a similar way sin, which affects every part of us, may manifest itself in a particular besetting sin, such as gossip, lust, theft, indifference to people’s needs, refusal to believe what God has said, etc. The manifestations of sin will vary from person to person in terms of where it is most evident and how intense it is (Romans 7:5).
The New Nature: Child of God. When a person puts faith in Christ, they are born of the spirit (John 3:4-6). At the moment of regeneration, something comes into existence which had not been there before. That is, a component of the human makeup (the spirit), which was previously dead, is now brought to life. This spirit is born of God and, therefore, is not affected by sin. This is the part of our makeup that loves the Lord, responds to his word and wants to please him.
Sin and the Believer: a Constant Struggle. So why may believers still sin? The answer is simple: because the flesh is not yet dead. In fact, it has not changed in the slightest. It is entirely possible, if they choose, for believers to commit sins that would be typical of the most unrestrained unbelievers, because the dynamic of the flesh is unchanged. That is, the tendencies of the flesh still pull in the same directions they always did (Romans 7:14-18).
That is why the scriptures admonish us to mortify (or kill) the flesh by walking in the spirit (Galatians 5:16, Romans 8:1-4). In other words, moment by moment we choose which nature we will live under. Unbelievers have no choice but to live in the flesh because it is the only nature they have to work with. At times it operates out of the remnants of God’s image and good training, in which case the person may do kind things, good things, noble things, etc. At other times, the flesh may be in a more actively rebellious mode, in which case it may do desperately wicked things. Either way, it can never truly please God because it has no desire or ability to do so (Romans 8:7).
Believers, however, have a choice. Since we now have a new, godly nature within us, we do not have to live in the flesh. As we choose to live under the new nature (walk in the power and wisdom of God’s Spirit) a pattern of godly living is formed in us that grows deeper day by day. The Christian life is one that necessarily involves struggle, and yet it is also one of eventual victory because it depends on God, not primarily on us.
Grace: the Key. One final thing to keep in mind is that the key idea in the gospel is grace. While we grow in faith and godliness, God understands our situation and is patient with our failings. Of course, some people could take this as an excuse for disobedience and immaturity, and so we must guard against this. But it is also reassuring because all of us fail and feel like losers at times. When we do, we simply confess sin, deal with it, and begin to walk in the spirit again in the faith that, as we persevere, God will transform us into the image of Christ.