What Faith has to do with Righteousness by Faith
by Herb Douglass
I don’t think anyone has difficulty thinking that “righteousness” comes to man in any other way than though our “faith.” We also are agreed, generally, ‘righteousness’ is really the old English word for ‘right-wise-ness,’ — thinking and doing what is right as God has declared it to be. Just as ‘clock-wise’ always means going in the direction of the hands on the clock (right to left to right).
So what is faith? The pity in most English translations of the New Testament is the Greek word pistis is translated most often with the English word, ‘believe.’ The German translations have the built-in problem in that the German word for ‘faith’ is the same word they use for ‘believe’ — ‘Glaube.’ French does not have that problem: faith is ‘foi,’ and to believe is ‘croire.’
The problem is ever present when we don’t (or can’t) distinguish between ‘believing’ a statement to be true and not false and ‘having faith’ in a personal relationship. A person watching Jesus die could ‘believe’ He was dying on the Cross yet may not have ‘faith’ He was man’s Savior. Really makes a world of difference to get the meaning of NT faith right!
I remember teaching a Sabbath School lesson to a group of elderly Germans in North Dakota. We were discussing ‘faith.’ I asked them to tell me in German, “I have faith in Jesus.” Dutifully they said, “Ich Glaube an Jesus.” Then I requested them to say, “I believe you have blue eyes.” They started, “Ich Glaube… ” Pausing, they glanced at each other, tried several ways, and finally one commented, “Either we have no word for ‘believe’ or we have no word for ‘faith.’” And they took several moments to buzz among themselves at the plight they were in.
The problem has been that over the years the German word ‘Glaube’ strongly tends to be associated only with an intellectual process, thus equating ‘faith’ with mental belief, agreement, etc., that man’s primary response to God is ‘to believe.’ But such an unconscious equating of faith with intellectual belief is also part of the English and French mind as well.
When Paul and Silas told the jailer, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved” (Acts 16:31, KJV), the apostles did not mean that merely assenting to the fact that Jesus was God and that He had been crucified, even believing that Jesus had promised to forgive sinners — that, believing all that, was all that was needed for salvation. A more accurate translation would read: “Have faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Paul and Silas most probably went on. They must have painted the marvelous picture that went far beyond believing in a list of facts, more than even mental conviction, more than a passive acceptance of God’s work for us without an active cooperation on man’s part as we fall on our knees in awesome appreciation and trust in our new Savior.
In a nutshell, if God asks for more than mental agreement with the facts, and He calls it “faith.” So, what is “faith?”
How does a correct understanding of ‘faith’ affect our view of righteousness by faith, or justification by faith? Or what John means in Revelation 14:12, in the phrase, “the faith of Jesus.”
In fact, a distortion of the NT sense of faith has led to the distortion of almost every other biblical doctrine. But that is a topic for some other day.
A little caution here. In English history we can see many occasions when we have employed ‘faith’ to depict a person’s relationship to good people as well as to bad. That is, we habitually handle ‘faith’ in a general way without precision of meaning, even as we have misused the word ‘love.’ (Such as, “I love strawberries, I love my children, I love western sunsets, Make love, not war,” etc.).
In general, faith describes a mental process by which we believe something on the basis of evidence or authority — on which we have placed value and act accordingly. However, that evidence or authority may, or may not, be in itself trustworthy, that is, “truly worth our faith.”
Mankind has done many foolish and even horrible deeds, as well as a long list of commendable acts, in the name of sincere faith. But faith as a mental process is never good or bad, right or wrong. It is simply that process by which a person believes what seems to him or her to be believable, and acts accordingly. The value of a person’s faith depends upon what he or she chooses to believe. Its worth depends upon the quality of person or concept that commands or evokes conviction, allegiance, and commitment.
Consequently, error does not become truth merely because a person has faith in it. Faith in error will not produce the fruit of truth no matter how sincere a person may be.
Biblical faith is specific and unique. It describes the person who chooses to believe, trust, and obey God. This principal is vital — the object of one’s faith determines its value. Perhaps the only categorical definition of faith appears in Hebrews 11:1: “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (NIV). Then Paul, knowing a cold definition would never be sufficient, hastens to write a long chapter that has become a classic in world literature. Paul pictures faith in three dimensions, in living color as we remember what faith did for Abel, Noah, Abraham, Moses, etc.
Such men and women were uncommon heroes of their generation. They did not fade into the wallpaper or blend into the spirit of their age. Although it is easy to remember them for their remarkable achievements, we must never forget that it was their faith that made them what we honor them for.
When we review the results of faith that God approves, it is obvious faith consists of something more than mere mental belief, even more than enthusiasm and zeal. Faith for the biblical stalwarts was the way — the only right way — for each of them to relate to God. It involved (1) a correct understanding of God’s plan for them, (2) the will to respond as He wanted and, (3) an abiding trust that He would continue to do His part if human beings would do theirs.
For all the biblical heroes, faith was saying ‘yes’ to God, a willingness to do whatever He commanded. Faith was belief, gratitude, trust, obedience, and deepest conviction all wrapped up in a cheerful companionship with their Lord and Master.
In other words, righteousness by ‘faith’ includes all that!!