Faith Defined

I. Introduction: A vital context

A. Chapter 10 has emphasized that salvation has come through the offering of the body of Christ once for all (10:10). Those for whom he died have been sanctified, set apart to salvation, by Christ’s obedience unto death. This puts an end to all the amoral sacrifices of animals which could never take away sins; it was impossible for them to do so, in fact (10:4). Instead, the true moral excellence of one that delighted to do the will of God has achieved all that God’s law required both by his death and by his unblemished life. This is what God desired, this is what gave God pleasure.

B. From now till the end of the age, those for whom Christ has shed his blood bringing finality to the necessity of forgiveness and righteousness, those in the provisions of the covenant of life, are being called and set apart in each generation. That single historical event gave full satisfaction to the justice of God in the honoring of his law so that, while Christ is seated by the right hand of God and waiting for his enemies to be put under him, the efficacy of his atonement effects the perfection of all those that will be called until he returns (10:12-14).

C. The legal provision having been completed, God establishes a conformity of mind and heart to all that such a provision implies (10:16).This conformity of mind and heart, wrought by an operation of the Holy Spirit, is faith ( as we shall see in the exposition of 11:1-7).

D. The present visible manifestation of the church has, in its New Testament manifestation, only those that profess faith in Christ. Among such professors, however, some have been truly drawn by the Spirit of God and have an undying and unalterable affection for the pleasure of God as demonstrated in the Son’s honoring of his law by his obedience and death. Others have embraced this by profession only, not having that same spiritual quality of unrelenting and exclusive reliance on Christ. They have heard the gospel and assented to it, but their soul has not been wed to the glory and excellence of Christ’s honoring the Father in this redemption (Look at Paul’s explanation in Philippians 3:3, 7-9).

E. The writer warns that those whose connection to Christ is not of this enduring quality (10:36) but only a present convenience that can be thrown away through present difficulty, are in grave danger, their advantage of hearing the gospel possibly bringing on them an aggravated manifestation of wrath (10:26-31).

F. That true believers, those that are now considered righteous through Christ, will live by faith is axiomatically true. Those, however [not “if he shrinks back” but “if any shrinks back”} that fall away from loyalty to Christ give evidence that God takes no pleasure in them for he does not see them as in union with his beloved and well-pleasing Son by faith. Shrinking back is the opposite of faith and the destiny of those within the two options is radically different.

G. Chapter 11, therefore, gives an exposition of the outlook of those who “have faith and preserve their souls (10:39).

II.  Hebrews 11:1 – Why is faith imperturbable and those who have it will not shrink back?

A. Faith is the Assurance of things hoped for.

 1. “Things hoped for” are those true and real things that do not change or pass away (8:1, 2; 9:23, 24; 10:1). This is the confident entrance to the holy places through Christ’s sacrifice and the regenerating work of the Spirit. When our spiritual eyes are opened, we “hope for,” that is we have a confident assurance of the future reality of, unending life with God through Jesus Christ.

2. Assurance – This is an internal persuasion and sensibility in the heart of the truth of divine things. This clear perception of truth comes about from the heat’s cleansing from an evil conscience by the blood of Christ and the transformation of life through the Holy Spirit (10:22). By this work of the Spirit the law is written on the heart and the mind (10:16); recipients of this work indeed “know the Lord: and have in instruction in truth that goes beyond the capabilities of any human instructor (1 John 2:20, 21).

B. Conviction, or evidence, of things not seen

 1. Conviction is the certainty derived from evidence. Faith is not unfounded operation of the imagination, but a sure and solid certainty of the heart based on the internal impression of revealed truth to the soul. The evidence for the truth of Christianity is quite impressive. The exalted nature of the content and the consistency of the subject matter of Scripture, the historical evidence for the existence and the death by crucifixion of Christ, the undeniable power of the evidence for his resurrection, and the commensurate results of the apostolic preaching of the cross and resurrection—all these should be sufficient to convince skeptics that Christianity is true. Only the Holy Spirit, however, can show the soul its dangerous condition as sinful before a holy God and reveal the spiritual power of Christ to the soul in such a way as to enlighten our minds in the knowledge of Christ and subdue the stubborn and corrupt will to trust in his completed work as described in Scripture.

2. Things not seen – The carnal mind does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them, for they are spiritually discerned (1 Corinthians 2:14). But the spiritual person judges all things. He has been brought to see and sense those things to which the merely natural man is blind—the glory of God in all things of creation and providence, the peculiar excellence of the scheme of redemption, the unexplorable wisdom of God in the incarnation, the incomprehensible manner in which the cross is the simultaneous demonstration of consummate love in several spheres and the most startling display of wrath that will ever be set forth, the prospect of true and unalloyed joy in the presence of God for eternity. When these things become embedded in the spiritual conviction of a person, that is faith.

3. Faith, therefore, is such a profound certainty about the rightness and final triumph of biblical propositions and promises as seen in Christ that it overcomes all attempts to overthrow it by the apparent power and allure of temporalia.

III. Hebrews 11:2 –  The “people of old” had faith, of the same kind that is being commended throughout the book of Hebrews; It is particularly an illustration of that mentioned in 10:39

A. This means that they had a revelation that righteousness alone could gain access to the presence and enjoyment of God

B. They knew that this righteousness would be in another, and not in themselves. They looked outside of themselves to one that the Lord himself would provide for their acceptance with God.

C. Their having faith meant also that their disposition toward God had been wrought by the Spirit; that they did not live in the era of the New Covenant did not mean that their personal manifestation of faith, and their perseverance in it, could arise solely on the basis of the flesh. The point of this chapter is to show that the law was written on the heart of these Old Testament saints, that they were also indwelt by the Spirit, and this alone explains what made them prefer Christ over the world. These spiritual graces, regeneration and indwelling, are absolutely essential for the coming of faith and its maintenance in the sinner. The New Covenant is manifest, not in the existence of these (for they have always existed in the true elect remnant), but in the new way of identifying and giving corporate visibility to the people of God by them. No longer will the covenantal people of God be identified by circumcision and the practice of ceremonial sacrifice, but they will be brought together on the basis of an evidencing of spiritual life through holy desires and trust in the completed work of Christ (See Philippians 3:3)

D. Their “commendation” was their acceptance before God as justified people. This was on the basis of faith. See also 11:39, “though they were commended through their faith, they did not receive what was promised”—that is, they received justification even though the historic action by which faith’s object would be made perfect had not yet occurred.

IV. The writer now shows how every part of the Scripture witness shows the centrality of faith as the avenue through which we find commendation before God. This first part of the demonstration goes from creation through the flood (3-7)

A. Because faith naturally submits itself to the revelation of God, faith comprehends that the world was created by God.

1. The Old Testament states clearly, In the beginning God created.”

2. All things came into being by the world of God or his personal creative act.. His “Let there be” was the instantiation of an eternal idea. He did not operate upon an existing parallel reality, but brought into being from his own will and power the entire universe to be the stage for the manifestation of his glory and wisdom, especially redemption, to other beings that he would make. Faith accepts creation as his work.

B. Abel offered his sacrifice by faith. He understood the importance of sacrifice and “did well,” so his sacrifice was accepted.

1. Cain was told, “If you do well, will you not be accepted. If you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door.” Cain did not understand, did not have a heart perception of the evil of sin and  thus substituted his own contrived act of worship for the required blood sacrifice, and therefore, did not do well.

2. Abel, however, in faith, that is, with clear and sincere heart-knowledge of his sin and with submission to the need for sacrifice, offered his lamb from the flock by which he was commended as righteous. He learned from Adam of God’s provision and consented to the reality of his sinfulness and his need for forgiveness and righteousness.

3. This moment of justification by faith still speaks. Cain obeyed the gospel, and showed that he had hope of acceptance through the mercy of God, but knew that it would only be in a way consistent with justice, since the wages of sin was death. That a son of Adam was received by God through a rightly offered sacrifice gives continual testimony to justification by faith.

C.  By Faith Enoch was taken up.

1. The word about Enoch is given in Genesis 5:22-24. He was the father of Methuselah. Jude attributes a word of prophecy to Enoch about the ungodliness of his generation and their bold and blasphemous way of speaking about the one true God (Jude 14, 15). In opposition to all the cultural pressure of the times that would being about the destruction of the whole world a generation later, Enoch walked with God, “pleased God” says our writer. He did not see death but was taken immediately into the presence of God.

2. The writer of Hebrews extrapolates from the brief story that Enoch pleased God by faith, for “without faith it is impossible to please him.” The earnest pursuit of God involves two fundamental convictions.

One must believe that God is. He must see in the world the clear manifestation of personal power, intelligence, purpose, and beauty. He must conclude that God himself is a personal of infinite excellence for the world contains abundant evidence of all these attributes which invite us to know him and love him. Any person that loves the song of a bird, the color and fragrance of a rose, the marvel of the stars, the endless surprises of variety in land, air, and water must know that it is right to love God and to seek to know him. They should see from storms, and famine, and sickness, and human vice that something has gone awry that is contrary to the witness of goodness that we see in the form and order and adaptedness of all things.

He rewards those who seek him. To counter the evil that so obviously is present, one must know that the effort to know God, to worship him, and to find him is good, and that since all things in their unimpaired state invite us toward the creator, it is his intention to reward those that diligently seek him. Without these two grounding convictions none would give earnest and continued attention to the pursuit of God but would pursue ungodliness.

Since al do, in fact, pursue ungodliness, wickedness, and selfishness when left in their state of moral depravity, these convictions show the calling operations of the Spirit of God.

D. Noah lived and acted in faith

1. Again we se the emphasis on faith as a believing response to a revealed truth. He was warned by God, instructed by God.

2. The warning concerned something unseen and perhaps several decades in the future. (Genesis 5:32 and 7:6). God’s verdict on the earth, however, Noah accepted, and that the only safe haven would be the ark.

3. While the ark was being built, Noah preached to his generation concerning the righteousness of God (2 Peter 2:5), showing that he had grasped from the heart the reality that only by righteousness could one stand before God. This righteousness was not one’s own, but must be provided by God since “every intention of the thoughts of his heart were only evil continually.” Noah knew that he was a child of grace, and not of merit (Genesis 6:5, 8)

4. In spite of the opposition of the whole world, therefore, Noah believed God and became “an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.”

V. Some Conclusions

A. True saving faith is assurance and conviction that only comes through a special operation of the Holy Spirit. It is the law written on the heart and the mind.

B. True faith always points to the revealed truth of God as that which forms the content of the object of faith.

C. True faith sees the truth of God as more certain and the beauty of God as more compelling, and the love of Christ as more to be desired than all that the world can offer and as a stronger motive to loyalty that any threat the world can set forth.

D. True faith obtains the righteousness that gives the sinner, condemned in himself, a pure conscience and a confidence to stand before God in the love of Christ.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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