The Nature of Christian Faith

By Mark Mayberry

Why do we believe? What is the basis of Christian faith? This is the most fundamental issue I can think of. The Bible says, “Without faith it, is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him ” (Heb. 11:6). Furthermore, 2 Corinthians 5:7 says “we walk by faith” and Hebrews 10:38 says “the just shall live by faith. ” Obviously, it is crucial that we have a proper concept of Christian faith.

Just what is meant, by “faith”? One of the definitions given for “faith” in the Random House Dictionary is “‘confidence or trust in a person or thing.”(1) The same basic definition also applies in the original language. The Greek word pistis, translated “faith,” occurs 244 times in the New Testament. Arndt and Gingrich say the word describes that “trust” and “confidence” we have that is directed toward God and Christ, their revelations, teachings, promises, their power and readiness to aid.(2) It is defined by W.E. Vine as “primarily, firm persuasion, a conviction based upon bearing, and is used in the N.T. always of faith in God or Christ, or things spiritual.”(3) Thayer defines “faith” as .”conviction of the truth of anything, belief . . . in the N.T. of a conviction or belief respecting man’s relationship to God and divine things, generally with the included idea of trust and holy fervor born of faith and conjoined with it . . . a. when it relates to God, pistis is the conviction that God exists and is the creator and ruler of all things, the provider and bestower of eternal salvation through Christ.”(4)

Consider the inspired description of faith that is found in Hebrews 11:1. The King James Version renders this passage, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. “There are a number of different translations of this passage, but perhaps the most accurate is from the American Standard Version: “Now faith is assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things not seen.”

Faith is the confidence or assurance of things hoped for. The Greek word translated “substance” (KJV) or “assurance” (ASV, NASV) refers literally to “something that stands under,” such as the foundation, or substructure of a building.(5) What about the, original word rendered “evidence” (KJV) or “conviction” (ASV, NASVP This term would commonly be used in a court of law. “It refers to an argument of disproof or refutation; it is used of cross-examining someone with a view to establishing evidence. It refers also to the basis on which a person is convicted.”(6) In what sense is faith the conviction of unseen realities? “The thought would seem to be that as, for example, the eyes prove certain acts in the visible world, so faith enables one to Act with a view of facts in the higher, invisible realm. . . Faith is the full assurance and inner conviction that gives men the power to stake their lives on unseen realities.”(7)

Thus faith is the very foundation of Christianity. It is the bedrock of a life of obedience. If faith is absent, spirituality cannot exist, and hope is doomed to crumble. Faith is the fundamental principle of the religion of Christ. Yet, a great many people who consider themselves Christians don’t really understand what faith is, or at least how it comes. What is the source of faith? – There are three distinct approaches to this issue, and each affects our basic concept of religion. Two of these ideas are without any scriptural foundation, and yet their acceptance is widespread. Our faith must be firmly grounded. If our foundation is faulty, it’s unlikely that the structure we build on it will be strong.

A. Is Faith Based On An Emotional Experience?

Many teach that you must have some kind of experience in order to believe. Our Pentecostal friends affirm that faith is based on some kind of physical sensation or feeling, an emotional experience, something that you see or hear. They look for a vision; they listen for a still small voice’ some even claim to have seen Jesus. These experiences constitute the basis of their faith.

Yet when we examine the description of faith, we find that “faith is assurance of things hoped for, and a conviction of things not seen.” The concept that you must have an emotional experience in order to believe is a denial of the basic nature of Christian faith. That’s not faith at all: it is knowledge or experience. If you see Jesus, you have knowledge instead of faith. One day faith will become sight and hope will be realized (1 Cor. 13:13), but for now, “we walk by faith and not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7).

Consider the man who is a charismatic assembly where emotions run high and everybody is praying, singing, chanting and “speaking in tongues.” This man wants to be saved. He’s been told that if he doesn’t have an experience, he will be lost. Getting down on his knees in prayer, he works himself up to a fever pitch. What eventually happens? He sees. The man has an experience that is very real to him. Did God do it? I think not. The highly emotional’setting led to his experience. This demonstrates the extraordinary power of suggestion, not the power of God.

In such cases, the rational process that God has ordained for the production of faith is no longer effective. New Testament faith was based on a careful consideration of the evidence. For example, the disciples at Berea were praised because “they received the word with great eagerness examining the Scriptures to see whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11, NASV). However, you don’t reason with a person who has “seen.” You can talk to him all day long and not get anywhere. Quoting passages to refute his erroneous stance doesn’t faze him. His faith will not be affected by any sort of contrary evidence, no matter how strong. He believes that faith is based on some emotional experience. He’s had that, therefore the reasons don’t matter. He is intransigent and closed-minded. He is going to believe, regardless! This is not Bible faith: this is blind faith!

Ai the heart of the issue is a misconception concerning the nature of faith and how it is attained. The thing to do is to go back and study the New Testament and see how the early Christians came to believe.

B. Is Religion Based On A “Leap of Faith”?

Some of the more liberal denominations say that faith has no rational basis. They reject the inspiration of the Scriptures, the doctrine of miracles, the Genesis account of creation, the deity of Christ, the atoning death of Christ, etc. However, they still claim to believe in God. Some think that logic and reason can be found in one corner, and Christianity stands in another. If a person believes, he does so in spite of the evidence, with no rational basis for his conviction. Supposedly, the stronger your faith is in something that is irrational, the better Christian you are. Despite the fact that this is a commonly accepted view, it has nothing to do with biblical faith.

The facts do not mean much to this individual because he did not arrive at faith on the basis of the evidence. He was taught that in order to believe, he must ignore the evidence. He feels virtuous in believing the unbelievable. You come with facts to alter his position and he has no problem at all in disregarding them. He thinks that is what faith is all about.

H.L. Mencken (1880-1956), the famous American writer, editor and critic, said, “Faith may be defined briefly as an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable.”(8) This is not an adequate definition for New Testament faith, but it accurately describes the “faith” of those who have lost faith. This kind of faith could be defined as “willful belief.” It involves making a decision to believe without compelling reasons for doing so. The reasons for believing often have nothing to do with the logic of the matter; it may be comforting, socially advantageous, or simply easier to accept some position than to think and reason. The person who is a member of some political party simply because his family has always been a member of the party demonstrates this kind of faith. The person who is a member of the church simply because his family was “Church of Christ” demonstrates this kind of faith.

The dictionary definition of prejudice comes very close to this concept. To be prejudiced is to accept a conclusion without the evidence, or before you hear the evidence. Intellectual dishonesty is holding to a position in spite of contradictory evidence. I don’t believe that we walk by prejudice as children of God. Unfortunately it is a pretty good description of the conviction of some people.

C. Is Faith Based on Weighing the Evidence?

As we look to the NT, we clearly see the biblical concept of faith. John states, “Many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book: But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing ye might have life through his name” (Jn. 20:30,31). Paul also wrote, “So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom. 10:17).

For faith to be of any value, it must be based on evidence. This, in fact, is the nature of biblical faith. It is rational and reasonable. In considering an issue, we should give a fair-minded and objective evaluation of all sides. After a forthright assessment, we should go with whichever side has the most evidence. This attitude reflects a love for truth. It demonstrates a respect for the facts above whatever prejudices we may hold.

This kind of faith could be described as “an hypothesis based upon evidence.” Here there is evidence. There may not be enough evidence to prove the matter beyond any shadow of a doubt. However, the evidence is still powerful and compelling. For the sake of illustration, this is how we believe that there was a man named Napoleon. Look at the testimony of historians. View the paintings by those who saw him. Consider his impact upon history. When the evidence is weighed, we conclude that it is more reasonable to believe than to disbelieve. It would be foolish not to believe in Napoleon because the evidence is overwhelming!

What about our view of man’s origin? First, we must recognize that neither evolution nor creation can be scientifically proven. The scientific method is based on observation, testing and repeatability, and neither of these philosophies can be so examined. Evolution and creationism are both theories, or more specifically hypotheses, since neither can be reproduced in a laboratory. An hypothesis is “a proposition, or set of propositions, set forth as an explanation for the occurrence of some specified group of phenomena, either asserted merely as a provisional conjecture to guide investigation (working hypothesis) or accepted as highly probably in the light of established facts.”(9) Since neither explanation can be proven, both are accepted by faith. However, the important question is this: which hypothesis fits the facts better with fewer secondary assumptions? A rational and unbiased examination of all the evidence (biblical, scientific and moral) points to Divine Creation as the best explanation of man’s origin.

God has not left himself without witness! New Testament faith has a rational foundation. It is based upon the testimony of the creation (Psa. 19:1; Rom. 1:20; Acts 14:17), upon the unity and consistency of the Bible, upon the purity of its ethics, upon its relevance to human needs, upon the historical trustworthiness of the Bible, upon the scientific accuracy of the Bible, upon the evidence of fulfilled prophecy (2 Pet. 1:19), upon the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, upon the signs and wonders that confirmed the word (Heb. 2:3-4), upon the eye-witness testimony of the apostles (Acts 2:32).(10)

Belief in the existence of God cannot be absolutely proved. No man has seen God. He cannot be put in the test-tube and examined. Yet, the evidence is compelling! An open minded consideration of the issue can lead to only one conclusion. Faith! It is demanded by the evidence. It is more reasonable to believe than to disbelieve.


What kind of problems do we see in the body of Christ today? Do you know Christians who sit around and do nothing? Who will not teach? Who are weak and feeble? Who are not right with God and you can’t do anything about it? Who don’t have the courage to stand for the Lord? A lack of faith, or at least a misconception of its basic nature, is at the root of those problems.

We need to apply what the inspired writer was talking about in Hebrews 5:12. He said, “For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God, and are become such as have need of milk, and not ofstrong meat. ” This normally brings to mind repentance and baptism, but the first “first principle” is faith. We need to go back and build our faith in the right way. We need to know what we believe and why. We need to be able to give a defense of our faith. If we would do this, we would be amazed at the changes in the church of Christ. We would see a situation much more like New Testament times where disciples went everywhere preaching the Word. Such persons will strive to be right with God. They will stand in time of trial, even in the face of death. However, the key is to have a love for the truth, to examine the evidence with honesty and integrity, to have a respect for the facts, and to be willing to follow the truth wherever it leads.


1. The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, 2nd Ed. Unabridged, s.v., “Faith.”

2. Arndt and Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, s.v. “pistis.”

3. W.E. Vine, An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, s.v. “Faith.”

4. Joseph Henry Thayer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, s.v. “Pistis, ” #4102.

5. Neil Lightfoot, Jesus Christ Today: A Commentary on the Book of Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1976), p. 204.

6. Lightfoot, p. 206.

7. Lightfoot, p. 206.

8. James Randi, The Faith Healers (New York: Prometheus Books, 1987), p. 6.

9. Random House Dictionary of the English Language, 2nd Ed. Unabridged, s.v., “Hypothesis.”

10. For more information on this subject, see Homer Hailey’s Internal Evidences of Christianity.

Guardian of Truth XXXIII: 11, pp. 332-333, 339
June 1, 1989