The real meaning of faith


In Romans 4, Paul gives a powerful exposition of the faith of Abraham. Abraham is the father of faith for all of us who believe in Christ (verse 16), and so what was true of Abraham’s faith should be true also of ours.

The most basic thing that can be said about Abraham was that he believed God. Of all the things Abraham did, this was the most important and fundamental. So what is Biblical faith? Abraham’s faith was not just intellectual belief or emotional assurance. The passage Paul refers to here is from Genesis 17, where Abraham’s first response to God was a form of bitter sarcasm: he laughed at God! I doubt his emotional or mental state was any better the day he walked up Mount Moriah with Isaac at his side and a knife in his hand. The strength and power of Abraham’s faith did not depend on his emotions or his mind. It came from a much deeper place in his spirit, and gave him power to obey no matter what his emotions and his mind told him. Biblical faith operates at a much deeper and more supernatural level. Biblical faith is a conviction birthed in our spirit in an encounter between our spirit and the Holy Spirit, in which we choose in our spirit to respond to God speaking to us. This response comes in the form of our choosing to believe that God is who he says in his Word. That was Abraham’s basis of assurance.

This faith, this deep conviction of the Spirit in the truthfulness of God, is a powerful thing. It is what motivated and empowered the heroes of faith of Hebrews 11, even to the giving of their lives. It is what compelled the great Biblical figures of faith to take their lives in their hands, to disregard all human considerations and consequences, in order to do what they believed God had told them to do. It impelled Moses into the presence of Pharaoh, it sent Elijah to the top of Mount Carmel, it put Jeremiah at the bottom of a muddy well, it caused Isaiah and Ezekiel to engage in acts of personal humiliation because it was the only way of making God’s point. It sent Stephen to his stoning, Paul to his prison, John to his exile on Patmos, and Jesus to his cross. Faith is the lifeblood of the church, and where it grows weak, and men and women are more interested in self-preservation than in obeying the word of the Lord, the church will die.

Over a period of thirteen years, from Genesis 12 to Genesis 17, God spoke five times to Abraham, yet nothing happened. Just more promises! Yet God was teaching him to rely on his Word and not human circumstances, no matter how daunting or even devastating those circumstances appeared to be. Abraham’s response to such a hopeless situation was this: “Against all hope, in hope he believed” (verse 18). Abraham had been hoping for a very long time that God would fulfill his promise, yet it had not happened. That is why his believing was “against hope” – human hope, that is. Human hope will achieve only human results, and that is what the church often settles for – what we can accomplish without God. That is a sometimes comfortable, but wrong, place to be. From time to time it will take us quite a way, and we may look successful – until we hit a roadblock we cannot remove. Everyone comes to the end of their ability, but God never comes to the end of his. But Abraham chose to place his hope somewhere else – in what God had said. To achieve eternal results, our trust must be in the ability of the eternal God.

Genuine faith always brings results, and these results are expressed here: “so that he became the father of many nations, according to what had been spoken, ‘So shall your descendants be’” (verse 18). Abraham’s faith was an act of defiance in the face of everything that was around him. Every time we obey the word of God we are defying the logic and opinions of people and the force of circumstances around us. If we ever lose our capacity to do that, we have lost our power to be part of advancing the kingdom. Abraham was desperate. ‘Desperate’ literally means running out of hope. But when his human hope ran out, instead of giving up, he chose to step out in faith and trust God for a hope he did not have and could not create. When the power went out, he turned on a generator on, and discovered there was more power in the generator than there is in Niagara Falls.

It’s not bad to be desperate – think of Moses with the Egyptian army at his heels, think of Gideon with his three hundred men, think of David eyeballing Goliath, think of Jonathan and his armour bearer climbing up the cliff to confront the entire Philistine army. Think of Elijah against the four hundred prophets of Baal, think of Hezekiah with the massed armies of the greatest nation of earth outside his city walls. It’s not bad to be desperate – but it’s what you do when you’re desperate that matters. God often puts us into desperate positions because it’s only when we are up against impossible situations that we stop relying our limited resources and start to access his infinite resources instead.