While our modern world might distance itself from many Christian concepts, faith is not one of them. Our world loves to talk about faith (think Oprah Winfrey), and even sing about faith (think George Michael). As far as our culture is concerned, faith is a feeling—a positive outlook on life. Faith is great.
But what is that rosy view of faith based on? Often it means having faith in yourself. It is about becoming who you’re really meant to be.
That idea does not stand up to scrutiny. Faith becomes just something that you conjure up in yourself. It is something to add to the list of things that we need to do in order to be successful. And it doesn’t work with the reality of what people are like. After all, if true faith is all about looking inward and seeing how great I am, that is not such good news. I’m a mess!
The biblical definition of faith is radically different. It is not about being a positive thinker. Instead we are called to take our trust and place it in something outside ourselves.
Hebrews 11 is sometimes called the Hall of Faith. It takes us through many Old Testament saints and reminds us of what God can accomplish through his people when they trust him. But the key lesson is not “Go out and do great things.” It is not about you or me and what we can achieve if we just have faith. Yes, it is a call to have faith; but it is really about the object of our faith: the person we are trusting in. The main theme of Hebrews 11 is trust in God.
This leads straight into Hebrews 11:1, which gives us a definition of faith.
The Certainty of Faith
“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1)
Faith is not just a feeling. It is not just saying, “I hope it’s true.” It means being certain about something. Notice the two key words in this first verse: “assurance” and “conviction.” Faith is rock-solid trust that when God makes a promise, it is true and right. It is absolute assurance and confidence that God’s word can be relied upon.
In our day, if you claim to be certain that your religious convictions are true, you are likely to be condemned as arrogant. You can see why: if I claim that a religious truth is really true, then that means that I think someone else’s version of religion is not true. And that is not fashionable in our world today. The biblical definition of faith swims right against the tide of our culture.
Of course, a Christian is not always certain about everything. Doubt is a very normal part of the Christian life. But Christians should respond to doubt differently than non-Christians. People in our world today sometimes embrace doubt and uncertainty as things worth striving for in themselves; Christians, by contrast, believe that there are certainties, even though we may find it difficult to hold on to them. So, when we have those struggles with doubt, we fight them. We look for reassurance from God.
The Object of Faith
So, if faith is “assurance” about something, what is it exactly that we have this assurance about? Verse 1 highlights the two types of things that we know by faith. “Things hoped for” are things in the future that have not yet happened. “Things not seen” are things in the past—events that we were not there to see. Or, put simply, our faith is in what God has done and in what God will do.
Belief in what God has done in the past is illustrated in verse 3. “By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.”
You were not there to see God make the world. Nobody was. So how do you know he did it? You have to believe it by faith.
There are many other things in the past that we take on faith because we weren’t there to see them. Were you there to watch Noah build the ark? Were you there to see Moses lead the way through the Red Sea? Were you there to see Jesus die on the cross? These are all events that we embrace as true—by faith.
Is that faith groundless? Absolutely not. We have tremendous historical evidence that confirms what we know by faith. The stories we read about in the Bible are historical, and we can trust the books of the Bible as reliable. When we say we have faith in something we cannot see, we don’t mean that there are no good reasons to believe in it. It just means that we were not there to see it with our eyes.
Yet faith is not just about what God has already done but also about what God will do in the future: “things hoped for.” You cannot know about the future just by empirical evidence. You cannot see it. You have to trust God about what it will be like.
In the context of the book of Hebrews—particularly the later sections of chapter 11—there is no doubt that what our author is alluding to is the second coming of Christ. We look back to creation with faith in what we have not seen; but we also look forward with hope to a new creation, when Jesus will return to set all things right.
We have to trust God with what is coming. We have to believe that Jesus is real and that he is coming back. We also have to trust him with our lives and our own futures. There are probably a lot of things in your life that you are worried about, and it’s easy to wish you could see the future. But that is exactly where faith kicks in. You hope for what you do not see (Romans 8:24-25). Part of faith is trusting that God will provide for you, walk before you, and keep his promises to you as you go.
Faith either looks back at what God has done or looks to the future at what God will do. Either way—and this is key—faith is about trusting God. It is not faith in ourselves. It’s about trusting something outside of ourselves.