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The World is Built on Faith
Believing that God really exists

Copyright © 2004

Defining “faith” is sometimes made too complicated. The theologian, Louis Berkhof, for example, distinguishes “faith in general” from “faith in the religious sense and particularly saving faith.”

Berkhof’s core definition of saving faith is not so bad. He says that it is “a certain conviction, wrought in the heart by the Holy Spirit, as to the truth of the Gospel, and a hearty reliance (trust) on the promises of God in Christ.” Now, that is a worthwhile definition except that it is buried in a paragraph that makes it hard to know what faith really is:

True saving faith is a faith that has its seat in the heart and is rooted in the regenerate life. A distinction is often made between the habitus and the actus of faith. Back of both of these, however, lies the semen fidei. This faith is not first of all an activity of man, but a potentiality wrought by God in the heart of the sinner. The seed of faith is implanted in man in regeneration. Some theologians speak of this as the habitus of faith, but others more correctly call it the semen fidei. It is only after God has implanted the seed of faith in the heart that man can exercise faith…

I don’t find that very helpful. I don’t see how anyone could know how to believe the Gospel on these terms. How can anyone know if the “seed of faith” has been implanted in him or not? Whether or not one has true faith seems to depend on invisible phenomena that may or may not have taken place.

On the other hand, Berkhof writes in his introduction of “faith in general” that “The word ‘faith’ is not exclusively a religious and theological term. It is often used in a general and non-religious sense…”:

In common parlance the word ‘faith’ is often used to denote the conviction that the testimony of another is true, and that what he promises will be done; a conviction based only on his recognized veracity and fidelity. It is really a believing acceptance of what another says on the basis of the confidence which he inspires. And this faith, this conviction based on confidence, often leads to further confidence: trust in a friend in time of need, in the ability of a doctor to give aid in times of sickness, and in that of a pilot to guide the vessel into the harbor, and so on. In this case faith is more than a mere matter of the intellect. The will is brought into play, and the element of trust comes to the foreground.

That is a clear explanation of what faith is. For example, it is exactly what we read about in Luke’s gospel. When Jesus is said to have seen the faith of the friends bringing their paralyzed friend to him, even to the point of digging through the roof, what does that mean? It means he saw that they came to him because they were confident he could heal him. And when Jesus commends the centurion’s faith for telling Jesus not to come to his house but merely speak the word so that his servant would be healed, what does “faith” mean? It means that the centurion trusted Jesus to save his friend. When he tells the women healed of her hemorrhage that her faith has saved her, what does he mean? He means that her confidence that touching him would result in her healing was a well placed confidence. When he tells the sinful woman who dared to go where she was not invited and anoint him with perfume and her tears, “Your faith has saved you, go in peace,” what does he mean? That because she has come to him he has forgiven her all her sins.

In every case in Luke, whether the issue is physical healing or the forgiveness of sins, what Berkhof calls the “general and non-religious sense” of the word fits perfectly with the way the word is used. “Common parlance” is perfectly sufficient.

One of my favorite theologians wrote this about the Church:

We have made the Church strange and alien to the world, as if she were of a completely different order than the institutions of common social and political life. Paradoxically, the result of this estrangement has been to reshape the Church into the image of the world… Only by insisting on the Church’s ordinariness can we simultaneously grasp her strangeness… The Church can cut across the grain of existing human social and cultural life only if she bears some likeness to existing societies. If she is a completely different sort of thing, then societies and nations and empires can go on their merry way ignoring the Church, or, equally deadly, find some murky alleyway to push her into… But if the Church is God’s society among human societies, a heavenly city invading the earthly city, then territorial conflict is inevitable.

What this theologian says about the Church, I want to also say about faith:

We have made the faith strange and alien to the world, as if it were of a completely different order than the way faith operates in common social and political life. Paradoxically, the result of this estrangement has been to reshape our faith into the image of the world. Only by insisting on the faith’s ordinariness can we simultaneously grasp her strangeness. Faith can cut across the grain of existing human ways of trusting only if it bears some likeness to existing ways people show their trust. If it is a completely different sort of thing, then societies and nations and empires can go on their merry way demanding and expecting idolatrous faith. But if the Church’s faith is like other ways people have faith, then territorial conflict is inevitable.

What does it mean when we teach our children to pray? What does it mean when we refuse to pass on a report about something bad someone did? What does it mean when we read our Bibles or go to church? It means we believe God’s promises. It means we trust Christ. It means we have faith. Nothing more and nothing less. Our confidence is in him.

Consider Hebrews 11.30: “By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given a friendly welcome to the spies.” That was Rahab’s faith. Her confession of faith made before the two spies is recorded for us in Joshua chapter 2 and it boils down to this:

I know that God is backing you and that we are all as good as dead just the Egyptians and the two Amorite kingdoms that you destroyed. So, I’ve helped you now so that you will give me and my family amnesty.

Was Rahab showing faith in the “religious sense,” or is that a more “general” example of faith? Obviously, that question has no meaning. Rahab believed that the God of the Hebrews was going give his people conquest and possession of the land. So because she had that confidence she acted upon it in her time of need. Because she had that faith we will see her glorified at the resurrection.

You see, if we make faith too “religious” we end up making room for us to serve both God and money, or God and America, or God and our carreers. There is never any conflict between our faith and the world because our faith is so otherworldly that it leaves the world untouched. If our faith gets buried deep in our hearts then we are free to outwardly live as those who have faith in other gods and gospels, other powers and promises.

God wants you to trust him the way politicians ask you to trust them. Jesus wants you to trust him the way you trust your doctor. Trusting God is not a qualitatively different act from accepting payment by means of a check. This should be the faith our children see in us. It should be the faith the world sees in us. No other faith declares that God exists.

For the world is built on faith. Cultures are formed around trust in something or someone. “The American Dream,” Democracy, Motor cycle culture, Sports. Our trust in Christ should be just as concrete and it should forge us into a unique community. It should create a different world.

Copyright © 2004

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