What is faith? The author of Hebrews could have given an abstract answer, but in Hebrews 11 he recounts a number of brief stories about Old Testament saints, whom he calls “the ancients,” showing how each of them walked by faith. Faith is not just a feeling, not just an intellectual exercise, not a simple act of the will, but a way of life. As he introduces the material, the first three verses of the chapter give you an idea of what he means by faith.
Be sure of what you hope for. Your hope is not seen. Hebrews 11 is an expansion of Hebrews 10:38,39. The examples given are practical ones. They were apt to be effective to readers with a Jewish background, and effective against those holding the works-salvation error of the Judiazers. The problem is that the heavenly realities are not visible. You cannot see: Christ’s exalted place, Hebrews 1:3, 4; Christ’s completed work, Hebrews 9:11–14; Christ’s heavenly intercession, Hebrews 7:24–27; yourself as Christ’s house, Hebrews 3:6. The invisibility of these realities was a problem for the original readers—and sometimes for us. You pray for healing from illness—and you don’t see medical improvement. You intercede for loved ones, and they continue to walk in darkness.
“Promised to us is eternal life, but it is promised to the dead; we are assured of a happy resurrection, but we are as yet involved in corruption; we are pronounced just, as yet sin dwells in us; we hear that we are happy, but we are as yet in the midst of many miseries; an abundance of all good things is promised to us, but still we often hunger and thirst; God proclaims that he will come quickly, but he seems deaf when we cry to him. What would become of us were we not supported by hope, and did not our minds emerge out of the midst of darkness above the world through the light of God’s word and of his Spirit? Faith, then, is rightly said to be the subsistence or substance of things which are as yet the objects of hope and the evidence of things not seen.”John Calvin on Hebrews 11:1
Yet, your hope is certain. Faith involves certainty in God and his Word. Paul speaks of hope as focusing on what is not seen, Romans 8:24, 25. Faith affirms what reality seems to deny. Faith is not simply a false hope—a student who failed to study “hoping” that he’ll ace the exam. Faith is a living trust in Christ: your only comfort in life and in death is that you belong to your faithful Savior. Faith is important for Hebrews, not so much in itself, but because it is by faith that you are united to Christ. Faith is trust in God, not merely depending on him for certain things. It means being grafted into Christ and accepting all his benefits, not merely being convinced that certain theological statements are true and that certain historical events happened (as important as both are). The ancients were commended for their faith, verse 2. When you think it’s hard to have faith, look at the Old Testament examples of those who exercised faith. The patriarchs walked by faith–not merit. Even Rahab is included among those who walked by faith! The faith of these saints did bring a good report. Hebrews is counteracting a possible tendency to seek salvation by keeping the ceremonial law. Through faith there is salvation, Habakkuk 2:4; Hebrews 10:38. Essential to the Protestant Reformation was the rediscovery of the the biblical doctrine that your salvation is by faith, not by an infused righteousness. That gave hope and confidence to God’s people.
“There is such a thing as a hope of the imagination, which is merely externalistic. But there is also a hope closely joined to faith, which goes straight to the root of things, to the promises of God.”Geerhardus Vos, The Teaching of the Epistle to the Hebrews, p. 22
By faith you understand creation. The universe was formed at God’s command. Faith has to have content, as Lord’s Day 7 of the Heidelberg Catechism points out. It is not just a feeling. At the heart of faith, or even more basic, at the heart of true religion, is the distinction between the Creator and the creature. Hebrews connects faith with knowing God and knowing him as Creator. Faith starts with God and his revelation. To come to God, you must know that he is, verse 6. “Worlds” or “universe” is the same term used in Hebrews 1:2. God spoke, and the universe was formed. Creation is beyond our experience and understanding. The existence of creation is an indication of the power and reliability of God’s Word. Creation was ex nihilo. The visible universe was made, bu not out of visible materials. Thus, faith is the knowledge that God will make visible the presently hidden realities. Notice how Hebrews keeps pointing you forward to the new creation, to the heavenly Jerusalem, to the ultimate reality. This is what the original creation could have been, had not the fall intervened.
You understand this by faith. You cannot “prove” creation. Creation is not repeatable, though science certainly cannot disprove it. Physicists using the Hadron Collider are trying to reproduce events very shortly after the beginning of the universe. But we cannot duplicate what God did in the beginning. Without the doctrine of creation, we have what is ultimately a chance universe. You must believe in God as the Creator in order to understand properly all reality. The widespread denial of creation today is an indication of apostasy and ethical rebellion. But Hebrews was dealing with people who believed God’s revelation. You must accept this by faith. This faith is worked in you by the Holy Spirit. The question is, who’s authority is final: yours, or God’s? Hebrews doesn’t stop with faith as a means of salvation, but goes on to describe a life of faith.
“It is not faith that saves, but faith in Jesus Christ.: faith in any other saviour, or in this or that philosophy or human conceit (Col. ii. 16, 18, I Tim. iv. 1), or in any other gospel than that of Jesus Christ and Him as crucified (Gal. i. 8, 9), brings not salvation, but a curse. It is not, strictly speaking, even faith in Christ that saves, but Christ that saves through faith..”B. B. Warfield, “Faith” in Biblical and theological Studies, p. 425
Faith involves believing certain things. Faith means that you are entrusting yourself to Christ. It means that you are united to him. And if you are in Christ, if God has given you his Son, you can trust him for each of those difficult things that seem to be unreal and beyond your grasp.
Faith is the assurance that the God who framed the universe will make the unseen reality of your salvation and his glorious new creation visible in his good time. In the meantime, walk by faith!