What is faith?
Any good Protestant will tell you that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone. That is a powerful truth that frees us from the futile cycle of spiritual perfectionism, which is a fruitless attempt to earn our way into God’s favor. We are not saved by the good things we do. We are saved by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ. But here’s the question you have to ask yourself: Do I know what faith is? When the New Testament authors used the Greek word pistis to write about faith, are you thinking of faith the same way that they were thinking of pistis? Because if the only thing by which we are saved is faith, then we ought to know exactly what it is. There’s a lot riding on this.
If the only thing by which we are saved is faith, then we ought to know exactly what it is.
You might be thinking to yourself, “The Bible tells us plainly what faith is: it’s the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things unseen.” Yes, that’s true. The author of Hebrews talks about faith in these terms. But this is not a definition of the word faith as much as it is a description of faith in a believer’s life. Faith is experienced as the present reality of a hoped-for future based on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Faith is a life lived in resurrection hope, and in this way, the life of faith is its own proof for the existence – and especially the death, resurrection, and ascension – of Jesus. But you can see that this is a description of Christian faith, not a definition of the apostolic usage of the Greek word pistis.
Faith & Belief
Let’s be honest. Most of us think that faith and belief are the same thing. We have it in our heads that if we believe – by which we mean give intellectual assent to the following statements – that God created us, that we sinned, and that he sent his son Jesus to die for us, then we will be given something called salvation. We acknowledge certain doctrinal statements to be true, and therefore God rewards us by saving us from hell. This salvation may or may not look something like an eternal church service in the sky, but at least it’s better than the eternal fire and torment of hell.
But if faith is just intellectual assent, or believing a set of doctrinal statements, then heaven is going to be populated with some pretty rough characters. James, the brother of Jesus, famously wrote in his letter, “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” If your definition of faith puts you in the same eternal reality as demons, you might want to rethink some things. As strange as this may sound, because of their position in the heavenly realms and the things they’ve seen and heard, demons most likely have far better doctrine than you or me. They know more about God than we do. They have experienced God in ways that transcend the ways we typically experience God in this life. In this sense, their faith is a lot more faithful than ours. So whatever pistis, what we translate as faith, means, it has to mean more than mere belief.
Faith & Allegiance
In his remarkable book, Salvation by Allegiance Alone, Matthew Bates notes the linguistic range of the Greek word pistis: “This range includes ideas…such as reliability, confidence, assurance, fidelity, faithfulness, commitment, and pledged loyalty.” (Bates, 3) While pistis does include the idea of assenting to a truth or believing in the reality of something, it clearly has a broader range of meaning. The New Testament authors do not have something less than belief in mind when they use pistis, but because of what James says about demons (who stand condemned by God), we know that they must mean something more. It’s not enough to merely acknowledge the truthfulness of doctrinal statements; something more must be required of us for salvation.
Bates argues, “with regard to eternal salvation, rather than speaking of belief, trust, or faith in Jesus, we should speak instead of fidelity to Jesus as cosmic Lord or allegiance to Jesus the King.” (Bates, 5) He lands on the term allegiance because it “is the best macro-term available to us that can describe what God requires from us for eternal salvation.” (Bates, 5) Now, for all you good Protestants, this definition of faith might ring some alarms. Doesn’t this open the door to works-based righteousness, and people fruitlessly trying to earn their salvation?
Works-based righteousness is always the product of misunderstanding what God wants from us and offers to us. Salvation is not a reward for a life well-lived or doctrines rightly-believed. Instead, it’s an offer to live eternally with God. The offer of salvation, which God has made to all humanity through the work of Jesus Christ and the proclamation of his gospel, is an invitation to full participation in God’s kingdom, which will one day be revealed in his new creation, born through the victory of Jesus over all the forces of evil. God wants us to be there, with him, in all of his unfiltered glory. He wants us to rule by his side over the entire cosmos. Salvation doesn’t mean you go to heaven when you die; it means that you’re present with Jesus when he remakes the heavens and the earth.
The offer of salvation is an invitation to full participation in God’s kingdom, which will one day be revealed in his new creation, born through the victory of Jesus over all the forces of evil.
The only way that you get to be with Jesus then (the substance of things hoped for) is to be with him today (the evidence of things unseen). Faith is so much more than a doctrinal checklist. It is sworn allegiance, covenant loyalty – love! – to the One who has forgiven sin, conquered death, and sits enthroned at the right hand of God the Father. You can screw up in a million ways and commit all kinds of terrible sins and God will still forgive you. But you can’t forsake Jesus. You can’t worship other gods. You are saved by faith, and faith is allegiance.
No Other Allegiance
Israel’s problem wasn’t sin, at least not as we understand it. Israel’s problem was idolatry. They forsook Yahweh. They worshipped other gods. God’s prophets called their idolatry adultery, and God’s not going to let you live with him and make a cuckold out of him at the same time. This is why Christian’s don’t get to give their allegiance to anyone or anything else besides Jesus.
I once interviewed to be the senior pastor of a great congregation. I was very excited about this opportunity, but it didn’t take long for me to notice a common theme in my interviews: my politics. After the third or fourth interview in which this happened, I blurted out in exasperation, “Listen, I’ve never voted for a Democrat in a major election, but if you want a Republican in your pulpit, you need to look for someone else. I don’t even pledge allegiance to the flag. I can’t in good conscience share my allegiance to Jesus with anyone or anything, including this country.” I didn’t get the job.
I know. This just got serious. But look at what Jesus says in Luke 14:26. “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters–yes, even their own life–such a person cannot be my disciple.” If he included your wife and kids in that list, then by inference, he is definitely talking about your nation, too. “If anyone comes to me and does not hate [America], such a person cannot be my disciple.” This is offensive. I get that. But what Jesus is saying is this: No loyalties above me. Not family. Not job. Not country. Not politics.
You probably don’t have the same conviction that I do, and that’s okay. I don’t expect most American Christians to even give a second thought to pledging allegiance to the flag. But maybe we should. Because if we’re saved by faith, and faith is allegiance, then we need to think long and hard about our allegiances. If your love for your country supersedes, or interferes with, or even replaces your love for Jesus, then it’s time to hate your country. The same goes for politics, family, home – anything! This is the radical, hard teaching of Jesus. He won’t be made a cuckold to your flag or family.
What you need to know about faith is this: Jesus demands your allegiance. He demands your covenant loyalty – your love – not your perfect behavior or perfect doctrine. Is your life characterized by your allegiance to Jesus, or to something else – a political party, sports team, or even something “good” like your family or nation? Because when Jesus returns, he’s going to know who his people are. Will you be one of them?