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What is Faith?

by Dr. Eitan Bar
16 minutes read

Faith is a mental assent. For example, do you believe Elizabeth II was the Queen of the United Kingdom? Does your child believe you are their parent? These are what faith is.

faith is a personal, mental response, apart from our works, whereby we are persuaded that in Jesus Christ, we are guaranteed eternal life through his death and resurrection. If you are convinced that Jesus is the Son of God and what he said is true, then you believe in him. Faith is passive. For a child, believing that their mom and dad are their parents requires no action beyond acknowledging it as true. Likewise, for a Christian, faith is simply taking Jesus at his word – including his promise to give you eternal life. In the New Testament, we see Jesus, time and again, offering forgiveness of sins to people due to their simple faith:

Some men brought to him a paralyzed man, lying on a mat. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the man, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” (Matthew 9:2)

As Fruchtenbaum earlier mentioned, faith should translate to works, as “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). Yet this is not automatic but based on endless daily decisions. If it was an automatic thing, as some believe, we wouldn’t see scriptures obeying us to “walk by the Spirit” as if it’s up to us.

By the way, to the ancient Israelites, disbelief in Yahweh meant not atheism, as that option was not on the table. Instead, disbelief in Yahweh meant trusting other gods to take care of you. And the possibilities were many.

In Hebrew, the words we use for “belief,” “trust,” and “faith” are all the same root word: EMUNAH. So, for us as native Hebrew speakers, ‘belief,’ ‘faith,’ and ‘trust’ are mostly the same. The team’s coach can put his faith or trust in one of his football players, believing he could lead the team as the captain or score the goals.[1] Similarly, in the times of ancient Israel, a disciple may trust his teacher-rabbi to guide him. Yet it doesn’t necessarily have to do with salvation and eternal life. In second-temple Judaism, most Jewish men would choose a teacher-rabbi to follow.[2] Someone they believed and trusted will lead them as a life coach, take them under his wing, and ultimately guide them on how to live life in a way that brings honor and glory to God.

A believer

Belief may be a simple concept, but it is not easy to put into practice. We live in a world where people frequently disappoint us, making it challenging for us to trust others. Belief wasn’t easy for the disciples either. In the beginning, as the disciples of Christ began learning to trust Jesus, it simply meant they were willing to follow him. They didn’t know much, and if Jesus told them right away that he was the Son of God, they would run away thinking he was crazy. So instead, Jesus slowly gained their trust as they saw him perform miracles. Others followed as well, and even some rabbis too (Matthew 8:19).

At first, the disciples did not connect the dots between believing in Jesus and the idea of eternal life and salvation. It was only much later, in the middle of the gospel of Matthew, that we read how Simon Peter finally gets it. He tells Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!” (Matthew 16:16). But up until that point, Simon Peter’s faith and trust in Jesus were limited. Jesus was considered a great rabbi-teacher. So, when we read “believed in Jesus” or “trusted Jesus,” we should take it in the right context.

When eight chapters earlier, we read, “Lord, save us!” Obviously, the disciples were not referring to eternal salvation. “The disciples went and woke him, saying, ‘Lord, save us!'” (Matthew 8:25). The cry “save us!” had to do with Jesus physically saving them from drowning as their boat was about to sink (verse 24). They trusted Jesus’s wisdom and ability to physically protect them from drowning — to physically save their lives. But with time, they have learned to trust that Jesus will keep them safe for eternity as well. Of course, at first, they did not fully comprehend what that meant exactly or the mechanism behind it all. They had a simple child-like faith, the kind that was enough to be saved by:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:8)

People can boast about the achievements they have earned, but you can’t boast about receiving something as a free gift of grace, which means you did nothing to earn it.

By the way, hundreds of years ago, John Calvin read, “It is the gift of God,” and argued the gift is faith. However, most, if not all, modern Greek scholarship shows that salvation is the gift, not faith.[3] If one chooses to believe, he receives salvation as a gift.

If indeed the New Testament teaches the same message of salvation as the Hebrew Scriptures did, then people will spend eternity away from God only due to their conscious decision to reject what Christ did and taught. Only by rejecting the Son of God does someone deny himself eternity with God.[4]

If we agree with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs that safety and security is the most fundamental need every living creature must have to emotionally and mentally flourish, then this should also be applied to our faith. And indeed, Jesus promised absolute safety and security to those who believed in him: “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” (Luke 7:50).

Should we be surprised that the God who wired and shaped our mental and emotional needs also cared for our critical longing for eternal security? Isn’t this what the hope of the gospel is all about – that no matter what, we can rest assured in our eternal salvation? If God wanted us to live in anxiety about our salvation, then the word ‘Father’ wouldn’t be used in the Bible to describe Him. ‘Employer’ would.

Faith, as tiny as a mustard seed or childlike, is a good enough excuse for God to save. Childlike faith is not only pure and fundamental, but children also trust that their parents will never forsake them, even when they experience a tantrum in the middle of the supermarket. Similarly, our Father will not forsake us when we experience a “tantrum” (or a thousand of them). The belief that you can lose your salvation does not fully grasp what it means to be a child of a loving Father.

A disciple

A disciple of Christ is a believer who takes the next step forward. But wait a minute! Doesn’t being a “real” believer in Christ mean being a disciple of Christ? Well, not in the biblical sense. To be a disciple meant to become the following student of someone. In ancient Israel, a rabbi (teacher) had disciples (followers/students) who followed him around and learned from him. Nowadays, you are not limited to only one rabbi. You can have your “rabbi” of psychology be someone like Jordan Peterson. In philosophy, your “rabbi” can be someone like William Lane Craig, and in faith, it should be Rabbi Yeshua. Back then, however, you would follow one rabbi. Some would follow for the right reasons (they trusted and had faith in the rabbi). Others followed out of wrong motives (social status, free food, good company, forced by their parents, etc.). Sometimes, one would start as a faithless disciple and only later develop faith and trust in the rabbi. Their faith only caught up with them later. So, a disciple is a follower, and not all disciples are believers. For example, in John 6:66, the word “disciples” describe non-believers who were temporarily following Jesus (out of self-interest or curiosity): “From that time many of His disciples went away and walked with Him no more.” Jesus told these disciples just beforehand, “But there are some of you [disciples] who do not believe.” (John 6:64). These were disciples (followers/students) who were not believers.

Likewise, today someone may regularly attend Bible classes or studies (in a church or college) purely out of intellectual interest. Perhaps they are curious about Christianity or joined a friend. In that case, they are not believers but are students (disciples). In some cases, they might even be very knowledgeable, earn degrees, and become teachers themselves. However, this still does not guarantee that they are believers. Metaphorically, we can say that being a believer is a matter of the heart, while being a disciple/student/follower is a matter of the brain. The whole idea is to have both working together in synergy.

This also works the other way around. Say someone heard the gospel and believes Christ died for them, but they are unwilling or unable to study God’s word or attend faith-based meetings. In that case, that person is a believer (or a “baby believer,” if you like) but not a disciple. Being a believer doesn’t take much, and you may receive the gift of salvation, but you won’t necessarily enjoy the “benefits” of being a believing disciple.

Being a believing disciple means you believe in your heart and learn with your brain. However, knowledge needs to be applied. For example, suppose that as a believer, I know I need to love, forgive, and be generous. In that case, it doesn’t necessarily mean I will do it. In fact, I often fail.

A Christian believer who learns (disciple) and applies it is called “a good and faithful servant.” But this means you must painfully and sacrificially live out your faith. If it’s easy or doesn’t hurt you, you’re probably not doing it right. Self-sacrifice is perhaps the most challenging part of Christianity, and because Jesus sacrificed everything, our standard is very high to begin with.

So, it’s easy and simple to be born again as a believer. But to become a disciple, you will need to invest time and energy. If you want to be a good and faithful servant, you must also live out what you learn sacrificially. This type of disciple is painfully forged, and such Christians are few and far between. Honestly, you are less likely to see them on YouTube, and they probably don’t have a wealthy ministry behind them. Instead, they are usually very busy serving in orphanages and among the poor and needy. They are the ones who really deserve our “likes” and “hearts.”

I have met only a few of these faithful servants, and they, too, dealt with things in their own life and gladly admitted being far from achieving perfection or a sinless life. In fact, if anyone could achieve perfection, then the ideal would be achievable in this world. But then, this would nullify the need for a future world where we receive new and better bodies (Philippians 3:21) and live in a new heaven and earth (Revelation 21:4). 

So, deeds were and still are essential. However, works never had anything to do with someone’s salvation but with the quality of their life in this world and their reward in the afterlife. Furthermore, we confirmed that our deeds, while also projecting our rewards in heaven, will not affect our salvation, which is a gift received by faith alone. The only difference is that under the New Covenant, the object of faith is more specific than just Yahweh. Now it’s Yeshua, King Messiah who came to die for us and was resurrected so we can one day be as well.

If salvation involved works, the gospel wouldn’t be called “good news.” Yet, for some reason, there are Christians who don’t like the idea that many will be saved. Perhaps they fear heaven will be too crowded, so they prefer it small and intimate. They preach that obtaining salvation is difficult because God is furious, angry, and hates people. But I think they have the wrong god in mind. For my God, space is not an issue as there is plenty of room to be filled within His huge loving heart.

Children of God

If I were to be convicted for breaking the law, it would be because I’ve “sinned” by the laws of my country. In Israel, it could be anything between a fine and life in prison. But even if I had to pay a fine of ten million dollars and spend a lifetime in prison, I would not lose my Israeli citizenship (unless, of course, I chose to revoke my citizenship). Likewise, while there is no doubt in my mind that our sin condemns, convicts, and accuses us (Romans 6:23), still, at the end of the day, people will spend eternity away from God not because they sin but because they chose to deny the heavenly citizenship that was offered to them (by rejecting Christ, see Acts 16:31). We often like to say we are the children of God, and indeed God is our loving Father. And yet, some of his children still think they need to earn or prove themselves worthy of their Father’s love.

Which parent is godlier, the one who tells his little children he’ll kill or disown them if they misbehave for too long, or the one that educates and disciplines them yet assures them he will always love, protect, and remain their parent no matter what? In other words, what is a better, healthier motivation for life: constant fear or assurance? In life, a child wants to be like his father if he loves and adores him, not because he’s afraid of him. If that is true in real life, why would it be any different for us, God’s children?

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. (1st John 4:18)

The gods used fear to make people tremble before them. Our God, however, uses love to make us want to worship Him. The gods use fear to force new clients in. Our God doesn’t force his will. Fear is the tactic of the devil who is trying to deceive. God does not use our sin to make us fear losing our salvation. A servant who loves his lord and feels secure will serve him much more effectively than a servant who fears his master and fears for his life.

It would be a conflict with God’s character to think that He would throw you into eternal destruction forever because you were jealous, lusted, or shoplifted. Think about it, would you kill (or even disown or banish) your child if you found out they bought candy at the store without your permission, with money they stole from your wallet, and then lied to you about it? If we love our children, then when they sin, we don’t cast them away. We don’t tell them, “Go to hell! I am no longer your parent!” On the contrary, we draw near to them to teach, explain, educate, and discipline them as needed.

If that is how a good and loving parent should act, how much more would God, who is the perfect Father? A good and loving parent, either on earth or in the heavens, would do anything to preserve an intimate relationship with their loved ones, especially when they fall and sin, even if they don’t show remorse.

When your child sins against you, it no doubt damages the quality of your relationship (at least temporarily). If they repent, your relationship will heal faster. But if they don’t repent, will they cease being your child? Will you forever stop communicating with them? Of course not. You will seek to restore and mend what was broken. But wait, what if they repeatedly continue to sin and never seem to change their ways? Let’s say they are a university student and keep getting drunk and sleeping with boys. Will you ever think, “That’s it! There’s no repentance nor fruit in their life. I must kill them!” Or perhaps you would think, “Look at their behavior! This is not how I raised them! This proves they never were my child to begin with!”. Of course not! You might be disappointed with them, but of course, these thoughts would never cross your mind! And yet, this is precisely how many Christians believe their Father in heaven views them.

Like it or not, the children of God sin just as much as any other child in the world, and God put the Corinthians in the canon of the Bible, twice, to prove just that. Paul called the members of the Corinthian church “sanctified” (1st Corinthians 1:2) while simultaneously accusing and convicting them of their sins, demanding them to stop (1st Corinthians 15:34). They were both “sinners” and “sanctified” at the same time. Their sins caused them a handful of problems. Yet, Paul’s motivation for them to get their act together was the fact that God was their Father, not the fear or threat of losing their status as children of God.

When we humans bear children, we choose to sacrifice for them for the rest of our lives. This is one reason why God calls us his “children” (John 1:12). When we marry, we decide to make sacrifices for one person for the rest of our lives. This is what marriage is all about, and one reason why the Bible describes the church as Christ’s wife. God promises never to forsake us.

Legalism

Paul spent many pages rebuking the Corinthians for their sins, yet he always reassured them of their salvation: “Knowing that He who raised up the Lord Jesus will also raise us up with Jesus…Therefore, we do not lose heart.” (2 Corinthians 4:14, 16). For Paul, the Corinthians’ sins did not change the fact they are the children of God, yet their behavior was clearly important enough for Paul to spendmuch ink on.

Actions are of utmost importance – both for the quality of our lives and those of others. They are also essential for the Christian’s rewards and roles in the afterlife. As a Jew, Paul knew exactly where the line between faith and works was drawn, a line that later became blurry. Paul himself acknowledged the importance of his works as he knew the rewards he may or may not receive in the afterlife were in accordance with how he lived his life in the present world (1 Corinthians 9:27). Rewards are something you earn and can lose, but your salvation is not.

Contrary to the Paul of the New Testament, Pastor Paul Washer preached a sermon that went viral: “Shocking Youth Message Stuns Hearers.” Washer, a popular Reformed Baptist preacher, challenges his Christian teen audience to “test themselves” to see if they really are saved. If the boys laugh at the same jokes the world does, or if the girls’ sleeves do not cover all the way down their elbows, this might be because they never really got saved to begin with.

Legalism is a slippery game where you never know for sure. Legalism is, “What do I need to do to prove myself in the spiritual world.” But grace is believing “what God did for me that proves I am indeed his child.” The legalistic view of salvation that Divine Abuse preaches is based on a verse taken out of context: “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves.” (2 Corinthians 13:5). But here, Paul is not speaking about salvation and is not asking them to test if they are saved or not, he’s actually assuming they are saved (see 6:14, 8:9), and asks them to test if they are standing in their faith. Meaning, do they practically live by what they believe, or did they fall asleep? If you are a cobbler and your shoes are never fixed, it doesn’t mean you are not a cobbler. It means your feet will hurt.

Two verses earlier, Paul quotes the Corinthians, who challenged his teaching: “you are demanding proof that Christ is speaking through me.” They did not doubt Paul was saved. They questioned his teaching and authority, challenging it was not based on truth but on his ideas. Paul responds by asking that they will test and see if and how their faith is being reflected in their teaching and lives. Their argument was not about salvation. It was about the authority of Paul’s teaching versus that of their own.[5]

Joseph was not a legalist

Speaking of legalism, I cannot but think of Joseph. The story of Joseph and Mary, parents of Jesus, reveals a profound gospel message that goes beyond mere acts of kindness. It speaks to the very heart of who God is and what He came to do for us.

Although Joseph initially believed that Mary had committed adultery, he made the decision to cover her alleged sin and spare her from disgrace by sending her away in secret. As Jews, according to the Law, adultery is punishable by death through stoning by all your friends. Yet, Joseph, still believing that Mary had become pregnant by another man, did not expose her to punishment, guilt, and shame. This is the same Joseph whom the Gospels describe as “righteous” (Matthew 1:19). Just imagine Mary would be put to death – by religious legalistic men – with the Son of God inside of her womb. In a sense, Jospeh saved Jesus’ life (only for Jesus to later save his again).

Joseph’s actions point to the very nature of God’s love and mercy towards sinners. God does not demand that we earn His forgiveness, salvation and favor through good deeds or perfect behavior. Instead, God offers us free gifts of grace through faith in Christ. And when we do fall, God does not want to expose us to punishment, guilt, and shame, but rather covers our sin and offers us hope and the promise of eternal life. To cover for the sins of others, is something Jesus learned from both His earthly and heavenly fathers. As an adult, Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross serves as the ultimate act of covering over sins. That, while being murdered by the wicked man-made system that punishes the Righteous while setting the criminals free. God didn’t kill the Righteous one, we did.

True righteousness, then, as demonstrated by Joseph, is not about self-righteousness and demanding justice for wrongs done to me. It’s about following in the footsteps of Jesus, who showed us how to love others by freely and even sacrificially cover for their sins, even if they are enemies. Through this kind of forgiving love, we can truly reflect the nature of God and live out the gospel message with those around us through our actions.

Before we preach with words, we need to preach with our lives. Our actions should be a reflection of God’s love and mercy, and the words we preach should be backed up by our deeds.

The dark ivory tower of legalism

In legalism, we find ourselves receiving pleasure in learning about the fall of others. This might be hard to admit, but it is only the logical mechanism behind the idea that there’s a link between our salvation and our works. It is because we must compare our performance with that of others. You see, if salvation is all about sin and works, then we have no choice but to compare ourselves to others. Otherwise, how else can I know for sure I am saved if not by comparing the number of sins I am committing with the sins committed by others around me? If God sees our worth as the sum of our mistakes, then the Bible failed to supply us with a scale by which we know if we are saved or not at any given time. So, when others around us sin, their behavior functions as the scale. Therefore, we compare to see if perhaps they are more sinful than we are, which means that compared to them, we’re probably “good enough” and more likely to be saved. In the Science of People’s article, “Why People Hate: The Science Behind Why We Love to Hate,” the author explains:

Hatred also surfaces when people are highly insecure. Often, they’ll compare themselves to other people, and when they come to the conclusion that the other person may be better than them or possesses traits that they don’t want to acknowledge that they also share, people may speak out against that person to project their anxiety onto them.[i]

This is why people often experience mixed feelings of sadness, grief, and relief, and satisfaction at the same time when learning of others who have sinned terribly. Deep down, they realize, “we are not as bad as they are.” Misery loves company, after all. This is also why we love hearing and sharing gossip so much. It not only makes others seem smaller, but it also makes us feel much bigger and better about ourselves. Up on top of the ivory tower, the air feels cleaner as you don’t have to share it with other sinners. Plus, up there, it feels closer to the heavens. I’ve once been there myself, so I know how it feels.

When someone else falls, we imagine that we are higher and better. If enough people around me sin badly, then that probably means I am still in the clear. There is no way around this delusion. If salvation involves works in one way or another, something needs to be set as the bar. Since a clear scale or standard is missing, we are left to compare ourselves with others. This is the legalistic version of survival of the fittest. However, as long as Christians are busy judging, comparing, and blaming others from up high, they will not be free to help and support those who are down. Unfortunately, legalism causes many people to leave not just the church but also the faith. In this regard, how can we expect to convince the world that the God whom they cannot see loves them if the church that they can see dislikes and judges everyone?

When we compare ourselves to others, there are only two outcomes: we either feel superior to others or inferior to them. Both are toxic, and both are the result of connecting our salvation with our works.

Repentance

When you go through a difficult day, you might have a loved one whom you trust as a safe space to unload your burdens. But imagine one day you have a fight with that person, and now your relationship is flawed. That friend probably doesn’t feel like the safest place for you anymore, at least until your relationship is mended. You will seek their forgiveness not because you’re afraid they will kill you if you don’t (unless, of course, they’re a criminal), but to restore your relationship and trust with them to its previous condition so you can enjoy their company once again.

Likewise, with God, when you sin against him, you might not feel that you have a safe space with God. Repentance of sin is important not because God will doom you to eternal fire if you don’t repent. What kind of sick parent would kill their child if they don’t repent? In fact, repentance is not made for us to relax God of his anger but for us to come back and be able to enjoy his blessings again. Repentance is for humans to feel wholeness, reconciliation, and oneness with our creator.

This article is based on my new book, ‘The “Gospel” of Divine Abuse,’ available on this Amazon page.
free sample is available here.


[1] I’m Israeli. Here and in Europe, “football” is what Americans will call soccer. The game you actually do use your foot…

[2] “Acquire a teacher-rabbi for yourself”, commanded the sage Rabbi Yehoshua on all Jews (Pirkei Avot 1:6).

[3] In the past, some have objected to this argument, contending that the Greek noun for “salvation” is also feminine, thus, it cannot be the antecedent of “gift.” While it is true that the Greek noun, “salvation,” is a feminine form, the verbal construction found here used in connection with a neuter pronoun (“this”) requires that the antecedent must also be neuter, thus, “salvation” [understood], not “faith” (Lockhart, 86; Cottrell, 200).

[4] 2nd Thessalonians 1:8-9

[5] For an in-depth exposition of this verse see: https://faithalone.org/grace-in-focus-articles/examine-yourselves-2-corinthians-135


[i] https://www.scienceofpeople.com/hate

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Dr. Eitan Bar
Author, Theologian, Activist