This week I’m talking about how faith is trust, but in a way more than what we typically think of trust, and what this means on a daily basis. This is part of a series of “foundational doctrines” where I am looking at the six foundational doctrines from Hebrews 6. Last week, I talked about how faith has to be more than just intellectual assent. Ascribing to a set of doctrines won’t get you saved, we saw last week, because the demons have impeccable theology. So it must be something else.
Faith as Trust
If you’ve been involved in a church for more than a few months, you have likely heard this at some point. If you grew up in the church, and especially church youth groups, you likely heard it a lot. Faith is trust. In the same way I have faith in the chair that is holding me up that it can continue to hold me up (and so relax upon it), so we trust in God. This certainly seems to be moving in the right direction. After all, the key distinction between us and the demons is that the demons refuse to rely upon God, believing they are self-sufficient somehow. They lack the basic element of trust.
Yet, it seems, that the kind of trust we usually talk about is pretty mild stuff. We usually end up couching it in terms of (again) belief. Trust is believing God can help me, we say. Trust is believing that God is for me. Trust is accepting my status as elect (ok just the Calvinists on that one). But by phrasing it in these terms we are just again putting it in terms of belief, intellectual assent. Faith has to be more than a mental state, though. If it were only about saving our minds, why would Christ need to take one flesh? No faith must be transformative of our whole being, not just our minds.
Plato’s to blame
For a long time we seem to have accepted the idea that faith is simply intellectual assent in the church. If we get our doctrines in a row, we’re good. This, it seems, was the position of Augustine. It was all about believing in the right God and believing in the right sort of things. (Except when you read the conversion story in his Confessions it seems like a lot more was involved). Similarly Luther, following Augustine, in his emphasis on justification by faith alone (a correct one I would say) disdained books like James because, as he saw it, they weren’t doing justice to faith. But his mistake was, again, conflating belief and faith.
I think we have Plato to blame for that. Plato argued that our mind was all that really mattered. He introduced a sort of dualism into our consciousness that devalued the body and elevated an ephemeral spirit that was were our identity supposedly lay. For Plato, also, knowing something, that is believing something that was also true, was as good as doing it. So if he just could make himself genuinely know the right things, his actions would follow. If his actions didn’t follow, he reasoned, he didn’t really know it because, at the moment of his wrong actions, he had managed to convince himself otherwise and thus didn’t believe it. Thus, subtly over the years, Platonism entered the Christian consciousness. And the focus was upon the immaterial and belief (which is also descriptive of Western culture on the whole).
The problem is, that’s not the message of the bible. The bible declares that the physical “stuff” of the universe is, fundamentally good (see Genesis 1). God came to redeem that world, to purify and refine it. Jesus was raised bodily because the body matters. What is more, believing something intellectually was not the same as having actions in line with it. The prophets of Israel were effective (sometimes) precisely because the people did believe, they just didn’t trust.
My “faith” in the chair is useless if I don’t go and sit in it. I don’t really have faith in it to hold me up if I stand the entire time. Faith requires a genuine acquaintance. A close relationship. A fully giving of our full selves. James is concerned with actions as evidence of faith because the two are no divorced. Faith as trust is relying upon God and following him. To follow him is no simple task, either. Jesus continually talks about “counting the cost” before following him. He talks about taking up your cross to follow him. In the context of trust that makes sense. We trust God because when he calls us to follow and we follow, knowing he has our best at heart, even when it is a road marked by suffering and death. As Deitrich Bonhoeffer put it “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” That’s trust. Trust of your whole being. Trust with your life. That’s what it means to confess that Jesus is Lord. To trust him completely.
Fundamentally, though, faith is about grace. Apart from grace we have no basis for trust because we know that our actions deserve the same fate as the demons. It is only because of grace that our trust is possible and ends in hope. Next week I’ll talk about the relationship between faith and grace, which is important for beginning to grasp what faith is.