Dec 31, 2023

Faith is a condition for action

Faith is a commonly used word. It is often used loosely to denote something like "your feelings, attitudes, or beliefs towards God."

Having thought about this for some time, I wanted to record and share my thoughts on faith. I want to operationalize faith—that is, to discuss what it practically means to have faith—and relate it to other relevant ideas. So I hope it clears up any confusion that some may have, as I had in my journey to define faith.

Here is the operationalization:

Faith is a condition for action.

I hope to share Biblical evidence and common sense to support it, and how it fits in with the rest of our experiences and Biblical theology.

Table of contents

  1. Defining faith
  2. Faith is a condition for action
  3. Understanding Paul and James
  4. Grace flows through faith
  5. Amounts of faith
  6. Faith as a way to live spiritually
  7. Faith and action in our daily lives
  8. Confessing faith
  9. Faith in action

Defining faith

So, what is faith?

It is convenient that the Bible explicitly defines faith.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. — Hebrews 11:1

Hebrews 11:1 captures the two common uses of the word faith. First, it relates to hope. For example, “I have faith in God” can mean that I am sure that God will provide. And certainly, God's providence is something I hope for. For interpersonal relationships, “I have faith in you” can mean something like “I am sure that you will achieve what you hope for.” The meanings are similar in both cases.

Second, it is the conviction of things unseen. These two definitions are not mutually exclusive; indeed, the second is a generalization of the first. Things hoped for are also unseen; they have not happened yet. We will focus on the second definition first, and our exploration will bring us back to this first definition.

Conviction is an internal state. It happens inside of you. No one can directly observe your conviction. They can only observe your conviction indirectly by talking with you or seeing your actions.

Take, for example, your conviction in the existence of a chair. You can either say that you think the chair exists. Perhaps you are being disingenuous. But if you were to sit on the chair, then your convictions are made clear.

This is a silly example because the consequences of the chair not existing are low. If the chair didn't exist, you would simply fall on the floor. No biggie. But if the consequences of your conviction being wrong were larger, then you would require a greater conviction in the thing you act on.

Faith is a condition for action

With this operationalization of faith, things unseen are also things hoped for. Because if you act on them, you act as if it were true. And if you act on them, the unseen will interact with the seen, and you will eventually find out if you were correct in your convictions. Then, the things unseen become things hoped for.

For we walk by faith, not by sight. — 2 Corinthians 5:7

My example of sitting on a chair is actually not too silly. Because it is by faith that we do anything at all. In 2 Corinthians, Paul states that “we walk by faith, not by sight.” Although the passage is clearly figurative, the literal interpretation is also true: we walk with the conviction that the ground before us will not, say, crumble apart, dropping us into a pit. If we did not have that conviction, we would be tippy-toeing everywhere we go! How ridiculous would you be to walk like that? And figuratively, the steps that we take in life, we take by faith. We do not test everything; we have the conviction that they are true, and we act on those convictions.

Footnote: Indeed, we say that we have conviction only for things that have consequences. We make assumptions about things with negligible consequences.

The Bible describes faith in this exact way: people have faith or conviction, and they act on it.

”By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going.“ — Hebrews 11:8

Hebrews 11 defines faith as conviction, and then the rest of the chapter describes the consequences of people's faith. Of those consequences, many are people's actions in accordance with their convictions. By faith, Abel offered a sacrifice acceptable to God, Noah constructed an arc, Sarah conceived at age 90, and Abraham left his home and offered Isaac to God.

Those individuals had conviction in things unseen and demonstrated their conviction through action. Abraham did not know where he was going but had conviction and hope in God's providence. Thus, Abraham became the model, and father, of our faith.

Understanding Paul and James

For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. — Romans 3:28

So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead… You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. — James 2:17,24

Famously, Paul, in his letter to the Romans, and James, in his letter to the Jews, both talk about faith and its relation to works, or action. And they seem to contradict each other in what they say about faith and works. Paul says that one is justified by faith apart from works, and James says that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. Pastor John Piper has a nice blog explaining Paul's and John's perspectives.

I think this framework of faith as a condition for action very simply reconciles the apparent contradiction. We are justified by faith, but if we have faith, our faith should show through our actions. Thus, if we have no works, then we have a faith that is dead, which is no faith at all.

Grace flows through faith

That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, — Romans 4:16

Through Abraham's faith, God's grace is manifest, both figuratively and literally. Figuratively, faith like Abraham's allows us to trust in God's providence. When we act on that trust, then God can work through us in ways we cannot see and thus cannot expect. God counts Abraham's faith as righteousness (Genesis 15:6), and Jesus Christ, the manifestation of God's grace, is a literal descendent of Abraham.

So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live. — Numbers 21:9

During the Jews' time in the wilderness after Exodus, the Jews often spoke out against God. One of those times, God sent serpents to bite the Jews, and many Jews got bitten and died. But God also sends an easy remedy: God tells Moses to make a serpent and set it on a pole. Moses makes one out of bronze, and whoever looks at it lives.

What was required of the Jews was nothing difficult; they just had to look at the bronze snake. Logistically, looking at the snake may have required just turning their head toward the snake or perhaps coming out of their tent and walking a bit. Whatever the effort may have been, it was negligible and also odd, to have to look at a bronze snake to be cured. By minimizing human effort and how our actions lead to the goal, God makes it clear that God was curing them through faith and nothing else, especially not our actions though actions were required through faith.

Footnote: In a technical sense with causality lingo, looking at the bronze snake was an instrumental variable by which the Jews were cured through faith.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. — John 3:16

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. — Ephesians 2:8-9

Theologically, it is well-known that the bronze serpent foreshadows Jesus Christ. As the poisoned Jews had to just look at the bronze snake to live, we only need to believe in Jesus Christ to live. All we need to do is believe, and we have eternal life. And God made it such that it is clear that God is saving us and that we are not saving ourselves by our means. Grace flows through faith.

Amounts of faith

He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.” — Matthew 17:20

One corollary of our operationalization is this: Your observed faith can only be as large as the consequences of the counterfactual of an action taken with the faith.

What does this mean? It means that your faith is only as big as what's at stake when you act. So in the chair example, if you sit on the chair, your faith is seen to be only as large as the consequence of the chair not being there and you falling on the ground.

All of the examples of faith in the Bible show people with different amounts of faith.

Jesus Christ and his disciples demonstrate this corollary to the fullest in their deaths. Though Jesus Christ is fully God, he is also fully human. We often think of the crucifixion as only pre-ordained, but since Jesus Christ is fully human, the crucifixion is also the ultimate act of faith in God's providence. The consequence of the counterfactual of the belief in resurrection—that God will not raise Jesus Christ from death—is monumental, and it thus requires monumental faith.

It is hard to understand this dual nature of Jesus Christ, so we'll leave it at that. But the disciples demonstrate this more simply; most of them all died gruesome deaths in faith. That is to say that their faith was hope and conviction that God would save them after their deaths. What was at stake were their lives and unnecessary, gruesome pain, and their faith needed to be big enough to overcome what was at stake.

The same goes for Abraham's faith. The counterfactual of Abraham's conviction was that God would not raise Isaac, his only son, from the dead. Abraham's faith mirrored God's perspective in the resurrection of His only son, Jesus Christ.

Faith as a way to live spiritually

Faith is nothing; yet, it is everything.

Faith is nothing in the sense that it is unobservable. It has no direct influence on anything. It has no direct cost. You could believe that the bronze snake healed you, and it didn't cost you a dime. You can believe that Jesus Christ is your Lord and Savior, and it still doesn't cost you a dime. And once you do, your physical appearance doesn't change, and neither does your wealth or strength.

And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” — Acts 16:31

But faith is everything in that it is through faith that your hope in God becomes real in the world. If you believed in the bronze snake, you would look at the bronze snake, and you would be healed and live, fulfilling God's promise of salvation. If you believe in the Lord Jesus, you will be saved. If your faith is alive, according to James, your faith will be shown through your works. If you live out your faith, then you are compelled to completely change the way you live and act. So while faith is nothing, it is everything.

Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. — Colossians 3:2

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. — Ephesians 6:12

Just as faith is unseen, the object of our faith is also unseen. What is unseen is in the spirit. So by faith, we are living as spiritual beings.

So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. — 1 Corinthians 13

Faith & action in our daily lives

In a sermon, Pastor John Piper uses the concept that faith is what makes you act to explain that pornography, or any vice, is not an addiction; you simply do not believe in the consequences of sin.

Whatever we do every day, or don't do, we are doing in faith. Whether we speak falsely or help a neighbor in need, whether we commit sexual immorality or pray fervently, all of our actions belie our beliefs. Are we setting our eyes on heaven or earth?

Confessing faith

One interesting aspect of Christian faith is the confessing of our faith with our mouths. I don't think this was really an issue of consideration until Jordan Peterson, when asked whether he believed in God, responds with "I try to act as if God exists."

Again, our operationalization provides a clean interpretation of what he means: that he tries to have faith that is alive and not dead, faith that begets action and not an empty confession. He also says that asking someone whether they believe in God is the most personal question, and thus, he avoids answering the question.

But the Bible says that “with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.”

8 But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); 9 because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. 11 For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” — Romans 10:8-11

I don't know what the exact difference is between the two. I don't have an answer, but to me, it is an open and interesting question why the Bible requires confession of our faith and not simply "I try to act as if God exists."" Does confession relate to the social aspect of faith, for us to come together as the body of Christ? How does confession relate to the other aspects of our spiritual lives?

Faith in action

13 “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is eas that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. 14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. — Matthew 7:13-14

And now I have told you before it takes place, so that when it does take place you may believe. — John 14:29

No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. — 1 Corinthians 10:13

Faith is hard. It's a narrow road. Yet Jesus wants us to believe. We are not given tests that we are destined to fail. We can overcome every test, and it is ultimately a matter of faith whether we do, whether we have our heart set on heaven or the immediate earthly consequences.