What is “Faith”?

Biblically, faith is trust, confidence in, or assurance. However, the biblical definition of faith differs from its modern definition. Before we look at the difference, let’s look at why we say biblical faith is trust, confidence in, or assurance.

The New Testament was written in Greek, not English, and the Greek noun “pistis” is translated “faith” in many translations of the Bible. For example:

  • “…If ye have faith (pistis) as a grain of mustard seed…”
  • “…Have faith (pistis) in God.” (Mark 11:22-KJV)
  • “(For we walk by faith (pistis), not by sight:)” (2 Cor. 5:7-KJV)

That pistis means trust, confidence in, or assurance, can be checked in any good Greek lexicon (“lexicon” is a word scholars use for “dictionary.”). For example, Friberg’s Analytical Greek Lexicon has “confidence, faith, trust, reliance on.” Vine’s lexicon says, “firm persuasion,” and Bullinger’s lexicon says the same thing. Thayer’s lexicon says, “conviction of the truth of anything.”

When the people of the first century got the letters of Paul, for example, they did not say, “What is pistis?”, as if Paul had invented a new word. Pistis was in common use in the Greek language, and had been for centuries. It is in the writings of the Greeks, including Aristotle, Plato, Herodotus, etc. The first definition of pistis in the Liddell and Scott Greek Lexicon, sold in college bookstores to students of ancient Greek, is “trust in others.” That is why we say pistis means “trust.”

When the Greek New Testament was translated into Latin, fides was the natural choice as a translation of pistis, because fides means “trust, confidence, reliance, belief.” The Bible was then read in Latin for hundreds of years. As the English language developed, our English word “faith” came from the Latin word fides. There should be nothing mysterious about pistis, fides, or faith. We know what trust is. Merriam-Webster defines it as “assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something.”

If both pistis and fides mean “trust,” how did “faith” come to be defined in our culture as “firm belief in something for which there is no proof” (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition)? To understand this, we must remember that a dictionary definition is only a record of how people are currently using the word in their speech and writing. This is why dictionary definitions change as time passes.

What happened to change the definition of faith from “trust” to “firm belief in something for which there is no proof” was: (1) people started to use “faith” as “belief in something for which there is no proof,” (2) that usage was put in the dictionary as a definition of faith, (3) people who did not know what faith was looked it up in the dictionary, saw that definition, and used it that way. This process continued over time until now almost everyone thinks “faith” is “belief in something for which there is no proof.” In fact, that definition of faith was used in the popular television medical series, “House,” in April 2006.

Sadly, it is now safe to say that most people do not know that the biblical definition of faith is “trust,” and furthermore that they do not have the knowledge or the tools to research that for themselves. Serious consequences come from believing that the Bible asks us to believe things even though there is no proof for them. Believers become confused about faith, not knowing what it is or how to get it and grow in it. Unbelievers, thinking the Bible asks people to believe things without proof, say it is an unreasonable and illogical book, and reject it—to their own doom.

How did the idea that faith is “belief in something for which there is no proof” enter into the Christian culture in the first place? The actual historical process is long and tedious, but the concept is simple. The Church asked people to trust doctrines that were neither logical nor clearly backed up by Scripture. For example, the doctrine that the “host” (bread) and wine that are used in Roman Catholic Mass become the body and blood of Christ is not logical (for example, it still looks and tastes like bread and wine, not meat and blood), and it is not backed by solid Scriptural exegesis. Priests know this, and so they ask people to “take it by faith.”

Please understand, there is nothing wrong with “take it by faith (trust)” if there is actually something (such as a promise) to trust. When Jesus told the blind man that if he washed in the Pool of Siloam he would be healed, the blind man had faith in, trusted, Jesus and his promise, washed, and given sight by a miracle. However, if there is nothing to trust in and nothing “trustworthy” to believe, then to ask people to “take it by faith” is wrong, and contributes to the misunderstanding of God and the Bible.

No one can force trust. It develops over time. We all know this every time we have a new repairman come to our house to fix something, or have to take our car to a new mechanic. We desperately want to trust the person to be competent and honest, but that comes only in time. If he says, “Trust me,” that often only makes things worse. If, on the other hand, he does the work when he says he will, does a good job, charges what he said he would, and seems to be honest and fair, our faith (trust) in him grows. Biblical faith is the same. It is neither magic, unreasonable, nor illogical, “it is simply trust.”

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4 comments

  1. Praise God. This is so powerful.

  2. very well done– excellent article.
    I would disagree with your sense of scriptural references for the Eucharist and Catholic beliefs that it is the actual body and blood of Christ. Jesus’ words of ‘unless you eat my body and drink my blood…’, His words at the Last Supper– ‘take this and eat, this is My body’ really anchor this concept. Transubstantiation is a very difficult concept that is mocked by many and I recognize as a key doctrinal difference between Catholics and Lutherans.
    Rationally, I can’t explain the nature of the Eurcharist….I take it on faith–I hope in the nature of the ‘pistis’ sense of the word–this was Jesus’ intention. My privilege is to be a Eurcharistic minister at Mass–it’s always a special experience for me to give members of the congregation Communion–I have an intense sense of Jesus welcoming everyone to receive Him–short, tall, thin, fat–doesn’t matter– we all share in His body–

    1. Thank you for your testimony. I was not raised in a Christian home. There was no B9ible in the house and no one went to church. My mother was a Baptist when l was born and they do not believe in infant Baptism. When I was about 8 y/o I told my mother I wanted to go to church and she got herself, myself, and my younger brother, Ed, enrolled in a Protestant church. I need to shorten this so l will jump to when l was 25 y/o and l was befriended by a Catholic Priest. We never talked about religion but after 2 years when I was 27 y/o this Priest told me that he had been asked to give a guest homily at a local Catholic church and he asked if l would accompany him. Leaving out many details I saw him as the most humble man I had ever met. I haed the thought, “If the Catholic Church can produce a man like this, it can’t be all bad.” I saw a red color come out of his mouth when he preached the homily and go minto all of the people. I wasn’t going to take Communion because l knew l wasn’t supposed to as a non Catholic and I didn’t want to offend anyone. As other people were going up to partake of the Eucharist I felt a friendly, masculine, presence and these words came into my mind from outside of it,” Al, would you refuyse me?”. This happened 3 times before I was sure it was Jesus talking to me and l went up to partake of the Euchasrist. Soon after this I was baptised Catholic and entered the Catholic Churcvh.

  3. Thank you for this and the many teachings here. I have found freedom here and I found out who my heavenly Father and my LORD Jesus is. I love and trust them for who they are now. Not because I’m afraid of hell.
    I pretty much spent my life under the “word of faith” teachings and in doing so, have lived a life of oppression and self condemnation. I would fail in”the faith” and felt like I needed a big “L” tattooed on my forehead. Not anymore, I am free!
    My conversations with God has been over the years “God I have faith in you and your word, but I don’t have faith in myself to know if I’m doing it right.” Now that I know what faith is, God has shown me that yes, I had faith in is ability, but not his love and goodness. Also that myself doubt was greater than any so called faith I had in Him. I still have doubts about myself, but my faith/trust in God is greater.
    As of today, thanks to your teachings, I have stepped out of the boat and I am walking on water. I know joy, peace and hope aka expectation like I have never known before.
    Thank you again and God bless. <3 <3 <3

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