And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.1
To become a Christian, according to evangelicals, a person must acknowledge their sinfulness, believe that Christ died for their sins, and receive Christ as personal Lord and Savior. However, Hebrews 11:6 suggests that the constituents of faith, by which we are justified, are rather more limited in scope. This verse states that all we must do is believe that God exists and that He rewards those who seek Him. The eleventh chapter then goes on to highlight the faith of a number of well-known Bible personalities (and more than a few unknowns!).
Framed in the context of Hebrews 11, making the claim that Hebrews 11:6 explains all that a person must do to be saved causes most evangelicals to get their hackles up. Had I not noticed that the faith of the people referenced in the rest of the chapter led to obedience? Noah obeyed and built an ark. Abraham obeyed and set off for a faraway land. The typical commitment to legalism draws a direct line from faith to obedience. “If you believe, you will obey.” However, I will show that, for the people referenced in Hebrews 11, while still holding an association with faith, obedience came about as a result of a far loftier and motivating idea than just “faith.”
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I cannot argue with the proposition that, by faith, Abraham obeyed. After all, that is exactly what the Scriptures say: “By faith, Abraham, when he was called, obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was going.”2 I also cannot argue that faith and obedience (works) have no relationship one to another: “But someone may well say, ‘You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.’”3
What is it that is ultimately driving the obedience, though? The evangelical answer is that faith leads to obedience.
But what is faith?
In answering this question, I have no intention of writing a formal treatise on the meaning and significance of faith for Christians. Rather, my intention is to simply make some general observations that will allow us to draw conclusions about the object of faith.
Faith has been equated with trust, but faith involves more than trust. Trust is certainly an important component of faith, but if I trust God, then the question logically follows: trust Him for what or in what way? Faith involves a belief or a set of beliefs, but the relationship is not straightforward. “You believe that God is one; You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder.”4 An angel and a demon, both holding to the same belief, that God is one, end up in entirely different places, philosophically and literally.
What we believe, or put our faith in, is crucially important. We ought, therefore, to apply our faith correctly. What better place to determine where our faith ought to be fixed than Hebrews 11, where the word faith is used 26 times and is clearly the singular subject of interest? What the writer of Hebrews chooses to include and exclude about faith in chapter 11 must be supremely important, since this is the chapter in the New Testament that deals with this subject.
What did the men and women cited in Hebrews 11, believe? Did they acknowledge their sinfulness, believe that Christ died for their sins, and receive him as personal Lord and Savior? Were they pre-millenialists or neo-Calvinists? Did they believe that going to church was key to the Christian life? Did they put off the old man and put on the new? Did they do Bible study and attend church? These are clearly absurd questions. All of the people cited by the writer of Hebrews lived in the pre-Christian era and he chose them, specifically, to make an essential point about faith. This he did, not to explain that their faith was different from ours, but to show the continuity of faith over the millenia. And what is that common thread?
For those who [confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth] make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own. And indeed if they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them. (Heb 11:14-16)
The people recounted by the writer of Hebrews did not do the things they did out of obedience, as if they were fulfilling a religious obligation or meeting the demands of a law. Jacob did not bless his sons in order to keep with tradition. Rahab did not conspire to help the enemy because it seemed like the morally right thing to do at the time. The motivation to forsake worldliness, to become “strangers and exiles on the earth,” and to experience “mockings and scourgings, yes, also chains and imprisonment”5 did not come from an idle religious interest. “They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (men of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground.”6 The life experiences of these people were not trivial. Psychologically speaking, sufficient rationale must exist for a sane person to willingly and gladly give away everything, even life itself. The required rationale must go far beyond simply believing a doctrine. The Psalmist wrote, “O taste and see that the LORD is good.”7 Hebrews 11 describes those who had tasted and seen. What they saw captivated their imaginations to such an extent that this world lost all of its attraction.
The writer of Hebrews weaves a wonderful argument for the benefit of Jewish Christians, so that they could appreciate how much they had in common with their faith-full ancestors, all the way back to Abraham. However, the apostle Paul, commissioned as the apostle to the gentiles, made it clear that the gentiles, too, look forward to the exact same future:
I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ… that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory. (Phil 3:8;10-11;20-21)
This passage from Philippians reveals that Paul shared much in common with those who are remembered in Hebrews 11. Just as with those “men of old,” sharing in Christ’s kingdom formed the sole driving force for Paul as he sacrificed his body to deliver the gospel to as many people as possible. By using the phrase “our citizenship is in heaven,” he signified to the gentile Philippians that their future, as well, would be lived out in Christ’s kingdom.
Every one of these people had a vision of the future that was so vivid and so exhilarating that it drove everything they did. They believed that there was a heavenly “city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God” that was like nothing they had ever seen on earth.8 Nothing else mattered. Nothing.
What drives you? Is it a command to obey? a doctrine? or is it a city and a king, like no other?
Perhaps it is time to consider the words of Christ: “Rethink your life in light of the fact that the kingdom of the heavens is now open to all.”9
1 Heb 11:6
2 Heb 11:8, my emphasis
3 James 2:18, my emphasis
4 James 2:19
5 Heb 11:36
6 Heb 11:37-38
7 Ps 34:8
8 Heb 11:10
9 Matt 4:17, as paraphrased by Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, HarperOne, 1997, p 274.