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Bible’s great faith chapter opens with challenging definition
Hebrews shows by example what it means to be faithful
Perhaps there is no question that has been debated more in the history of Christianity than that of the relationship between faith and works1 and the role they play in salvation. Different perspectives have sometimes divided Protestantism from Catholicism from Orthodoxy, and the subject has been tackled by countless sermons.
Advocates of various positions often have pitted Paul against James to support their arguments. “A man is not justified by the works of the law but through faith,” wrote Paul2, but James3 argued that “by works a man is justified, and not only by faith.”
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I’ll leave it to others to argue over whether Paul and James really disagreed with each other. What I find at least as interesting is that the views of the writer of Hebrews4 aren’t brought into the debate all that often, even though the writer is the only one in the Bible to directly define what faith is and wrote an extended passage that that shows rather than explains the connection between faith and works.
That passage is found in Hebrews 11, often called the faith chapter, which lists more than a dozen characters by name from the Hebrew Bible5 and alludes to many others. It begins with a definition of faith6 that at first doesn’t seem to add much clarity. Readers may be most familiar with it from the King James Version:
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
Many other translations use “assurance” where the KJV uses “substance.” The current edition of the New Revised Standard Version, for example, reads: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
Unfortunately, none of the translations uses a word that accurately conveys the meaning of the Greek word, hypostasis, translated above as “substance” or “assurance,” probably because there is no such single word. Words or phrases such as “essence” or “underlying reality” come close in describing how the word was used by Greek philosophers, but even those translations aren’t exact.
While not a translation in the usual sense of the word — it’s more of a loose paraphrase — a Bible marketed as The Message may come closest to what is meant here:
The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see.
That’s still a nebulous definition, but the author of Hebrews uses it to show what faith did for characters beginning with Abel and including Noah, patriarchs, the Israelites who crossed the Sea of Reeds, and many others. By faith Noah built an ark, we're told. By faith Sarah was able to become a mother. By faith Moses’s parents protected him as a baby. By faith, the walls of Jericho tumbled down. And while some were tortured and killed because of their faith, by faith they had what the author calls a “better resurrection.”
Faith is more than just believing
In all the examples of faith listed in Hebrews 11, it was the means of an action: By faith we understand God. By faith Abel offered a worthy sacrifice. By faith Abraham obeyed. By faith Jacob blessed his sons. By faith, Rahab welcomed the Israelite spies.
The author gives not a single example of faith as mere belief. Faith in this chapter is something to be used, and in most of the examples the use of faith is tied to an accomplishment of some sort: Noah protected his family from the flood. Abraham became the ancestor of a multitude. Daniel (not mentioned by name) received protection from lions. And even where those with faith suffered or died, they received God’s commendation.
This section of Hebrews doesn’t link grace to faith in the way that Paul did, nor does it decry the kind of “faith” that is dead as James did; instead, it suggests through example after example that faith, if it is truly faith, is always tied to action.
And that action, we’re told, is what allows us to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”7
This commentary on Hebrews is a part of our Bible for Modern-day Saints series, published to roughly coincide with the schedule of the Come, Follow Me curriculum of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Views expressed are solely those of the author. Unless otherwise indicated, Biblical quotations are adapted from the World English Bible, which is in the public domain.
Sometimes called deeds in modern Bible translations.
See Galatians 2:15 and surrounding verses.
See James 2:24 and surrounding verses.
The Epistle to the Hebrews has traditionally been ascribed to Paul, but the book was written anonymously and uses different themes and has a markedly different writing style than are found in the letters known to have been written by Paul. While scholars are nearly unanimous in rejecting direct Pauline authorship, it seems likely that Hebrews was written by someone associated with Paul. Possible authors include Timothy, Barnabas, Apollos, Luke and Priscilla.
Aka the Old Testament.
The Greek word for ”faith,” pistis, is also often translated as “trust.”