May 25, 2013

What Faith Is and Is Not

5 Min Read

"I believe; I believe. It's silly, but I believe." These are the well-known words spoken by young Susan Walker in the popular Christmas movie Miracle on 34th Street (1947). They provide just one example of how faith is commonly portrayed in our culture as a blind leap in the dark—believing for no reason at all.

Such a view of faith, however, is completely out of step with what the Bible teaches. Faith, according to the Bible, is not irrational or "silly." It is not a blind commitment or an arbitrary feeling of closeness to God. These things are not faith, any more than it is faith for a man to pick a person out of a crowd, sight unseen, and ask that person to perform open-heart surgery on him. That is not faith by any standard; it is silliness, plain and simple.

What, then, is faith? Historically, orthodox Christianity has answered that question by distinguishing three main elements that together comprise saving faith. Generally speaking, three Latin words have been used to identify these three elements: notitia, or "knowledge"; assensus, or "assent"; and fiducia, or "trust."


The first element of saving faith is notitia, or knowledge, which points to the fact that genuine faith must believe something. In other words, it must have an intellectual content. It cannot be empty or blind but must be based upon the knowledge of certain fundamental truths. We see this throughout the Bible in passages that are distinguished by the phrase "believe that," followed by a doctrinal proposition of some kind. Good examples include Romans 10:9, which states that "if you . . . believe . . . that God raised [Jesus] from the dead, you will be saved," and John 20:31, which reads, "these [things] are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name." In each case, we see that there is a doctrinal content to faith. Faith means believing certain propositions; in the examples cited above, the propositions are "that God raised Jesus from the dead" and "that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God."


The second element of saving faith is assensus, or assent. This refers to the intellectual conviction that the knowledge one possesses is factually true and personally beneficial. It is not enough simply to know certain things. We must also believe that those things are true and actually meet our needs. We see this element of faith portrayed in Scripture passages such as John 5:46–47; 8:31–38, 45–46; 10:37–38; 14:11.


The third element of saving faith is fiducia, or trust. It is by far the most important of the three elements we have mentioned. Without this element, faith is merely an intellectual enterprise—much like the "faith" of demons, who know the truth about Jesus but refuse to trust Him because they hate what they know to be true (James 2:19; Matt. 8:29). This element consists in a personal trust in Christ as He is offered in the gospel and a complete reliance upon Him for salvation. It is seen in passages that talk about believing "in," "upon," or "into" Jesus (for example, John 3:15–16; Rom. 9:33; 10:11) and in passages that speak of "leaning" or "resting" upon Jesus (Ps. 71:5–6; Prov. 3:5–6), "looking" to Him (John 6:40; Heb. 12:1–2), and "committing" oneself to Him (2 Tim. 1:12; Matt. 11:28; Ps. 37:5).


Consider the following illustration. Imagine that three people are dropped without food or water into the middle of a very large field full of land mines. Suppose that one of the individuals blindly chooses a pathway through the field and then heads off in that direction without another thought. This is not an example of faith but is more like the silliness we alluded to earlier. Genuine faith is not blind; it is based upon knowledge.

But suppose that a helicopter appears above the remaining two men and, from the helicopter, an interested party announces the way through the minefield. One of the men takes this interested party at his word and sets off at once through the field. Even this is not an example of faith. Yes, the man's actions are based on knowledge (the interested party's testimony) and assent (the man regards the testimony as true and beneficial in meeting his needs). But his action still is blind because it is based on insufficient knowledge (that is, the uncertain testimony of a complete stranger). It also lacks the most important element of faith, personal trust in the one speaking.

Suppose, however, that the remaining two men ask the interested party certain questions in order to discern how he came to know the way through the field, why he wants to help them, and how positive he is that he can safely guide them through the land mines. Suppose they also ask for references from the interested party to see whether he knows anyone they know or are related to. Suppose they even try to test his instructions by throwing objects in the direction he suggests to see if it appears to be free of mines. In doing these things, the two remaining men are gathering enough knowledge to decide whether they can trust the individual in the helicopter. This trust (fiducia), which is built upon both knowledge (notitia) and assent to that knowledge (assensus), is what genuine faith is all about. Such faith is not at all "silly" but wholly reasonable.


When all three elements of faith are present, they will necessarily manifest themselves in good works. If we consider the above illustration, we can see that the remaining two men demonstrate the genuineness of their faith (or the lack thereof) by what they do. If they choose to stay where they are and refuse to follow the instructions of the man in the helicopter, or if they set off in their own direction, they will show that they do not really believe. But if they genuinely trust the man in the helicopter, they will set off in the direction that he advocates. They will follow his instructions (à la John 14:15). Their actions will demonstrate the genuineness of their faith.

When notitia, assensus, and fiducia are present together, true faith exists. And when true faith exists, good works will necessarily follow. The good works are not part of faith; they flow from faith. It is faith alone that receives God's gift of justification, but the faith that justifies will never be alone; it will always manifest itself in good works.