The opening words of Hebrews 11, “now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,” sometimes perplexes Bible students who are accustomed to the classical Reformed description of faith as consisting of knowledge, assent, and trust. These biblical words seem to be giving a rather different definition.
What is the explanation? It is a relatively simple one: the author of Hebrews is not analyzing faith into its component parts; rather, he is telling us how faith operates. Faith is the substance, that is, the assurance, the steady confidence of mind, even the “title deed” (as one Greek grammar suggests) of what we hope for.
Here, of course, “hope” (“things hoped for”) is not wishful thinking, but something that is certain but not yet fully realized in our present experience. It is the hope of which Paul speaks in Romans 5:5 where he says that the hope of glory will not let us down because we have already tasted the love of God in our hearts through the Spirit.
But faith is also the evidence, that is, the conviction of the reality of what we do not yet see. It is the characteristic of those who live “as seeing him who is invisible” (Heb. 11:27).
Faith, then, in its present activity, is always looking forward to the future, and exercising it always means that we do not view life and its events through spectacles from the lens-crafters of this world, but through the divine prescription that enables us to have 20/20 spiritual vision in this world because we view it from the perspective of another world.
This sounds so grand, so deeply theological that we are surely entitled to ask the author of Hebrews what this mean (if anything!) in practical terms? For he tells us he is writing a letter of practical encouragement (13:22). Didn’t Luther say, “faith is a busy little thing.” But don’t these eloquent expressions point us instead in the direction of the ethereal, the otherworldly, to — in the often-cited put-down — a life that is “too heavenly-minded to be of any earthly use”?
On the contrary, the rest of Hebrews 11 is taken up with showing us what this kind of faith means in the nitty-gritty of day-to-day living. The author conducts us on a tour through an amazing portrait gallery of men and women of faith. Only when we reach the end do we realize that he has been leading all along to the person of our Lord Jesus — the Originator and Completer of our faith! His faith also, indeed supremely, as Hebrews 12 makes plain, was “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
These heroes of the faith had two things in common. They looked beyond the present (to things hoped for) and beyond the visible (to the invisible). They defied the wisdom of the world that told them to live for today and that what they saw was what was real. Instead they lived in the present in the light of the future, and handled everything that is visible in the light of the invisible.
There are many Old Testament examples of this. (It is worth noting in passing here how the author draws all his illustrations of faith for New Testament believers from the Old Testament. He could hardly make clearer his conviction of the unity of the Bible, of the way of salvation, and of the work of the Spirit.) Hebrews 11, while it takes us through thousands of years of the family of faith, focuses our attention at greater length on two figures — Abraham and Moses. Here were two men who supremely exemplified these twin characteristics of genuine faith.
What was their secret? What explains their wonderful, albeit imperfect, faith? Essentially this: they heard and trusted God’s word, or perhaps even better, they trusted the God who speaks though his word. It is as simple as this: Trust and obey, for there’s no other way, to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.
In other words, to live by faith is not to live by what we can see and feel and touch — on the basis of our sense-experience — but to live on the basis of what God has said and promised. That is faith. It has its epicenter in our Lord Jesus Christ. It takes its practical shape from what God has said and promised in His Word.
Beware strange ideas of what faith is. People look for the extraordinary, the miraculous. But, as our Lord Himself taught (who did of course work miracles), closely followed by Paul (1 Cor. 1:22), to seek this is carnal, not spiritual. Instead, living by faith means doing what the Lord did: living by every word that proceeds from God’s mouth (Matt. 4:4, citing Deut. 8:3) — learning, understanding, embracing, digesting, and applying every last word of Scripture. This is the Bible’s key to the life of faith — to be so deeply fed and nourished by the Word of God that it energizes us to live in faith, trusting God’s Word, living now in the light of God’s certain kingdom. From beginning to end, “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom. 10:17).
This presents an unnerving challenge to us. Know the promises and trust them; know the word and live on its basis, being guided by its wisdom. Sometimes our problem here, at root, is simply that we do not know our Bibles very well. We are not soaked in and therefore cannot be energized by God’s Word. That is a sobering thought for those who would be men and women of faith, is it not?