What Is Faith?
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What Is Faith?

Hebrews 11:1  (ID: 1933)

What is faith, and how can we live by it? When they heard the story of God, the heroes of the faith trusted His promise and lived accordingly. Considering their example, Alistair Begg traces the outline of genuine faith, noting that it always involves the believer’s knowledge, assent, and trust. Because of God’s grace and mercy, our eyes can open to the truth of His Son, enabling our faith to remain firm.

Series Containing This Sermon

A Study in Hebrews, Volume 2

Our Great High Priest Hebrews 7:1–11:1 Series ID: 15802

Sermon Transcript: Print

Our God and our Father, we do pray that we might have those kind of hearts, and we know that we can’t, except by faith. We pray that you would help us to understand what true faith is. Speak, then, into our lives now as we open your Word. Do for us what we cannot do for ourselves; make it come alive. Show us ourselves, our need, our Savior, and bring our lives under the truth of your Word and in conformity with its application. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Can I invite you to turn with me once again to the portion of Scripture that we read earlier? And in coming to Hebrews 11:1, which is the verse and section to which we come, it is important that we don’t divorce it from the section that we have just left. The verse must always be understood in the light of the surrounding verses, the chapter must always be understood in light of the surrounding chapters, the chapters must always be understood in the light of the purpose of the book, the book in relationship to the surrounding material, and so on. And that way, the control that Scripture exercises upon the Bible prevents us from simply taking pieces of it and isolating them from the essential purpose of the writer.

And we’ve tried hard to make it clear that this book was written, first of all, to an historic situation, to a particular group of people who were undergoing peculiar circumstances. And the writer has, at the end of chapter 10, issued a solemn warning concerning what happens to an individual who deliberately sins and sins and sins after having professed some measure of faith. He then has issued a reminder in verse 32 of the encouragement that was theirs when, so soon after professing faith in Christ, they had undergone all kinds of struggles and buffetings. And he had concluded chapter 10 with an exhortation, there in verse 35: “Don’t throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to be a persevering individual.”[1]

Now, why does he do this? Well, because some of his readers were growing faint. The circumstances of their lives were so daunting that they were tempted to return to unbelief. He had already warned—indeed, it has been the theme of the whole book—that we ought not to go back to unbelief. Way back in 3:19, he had spoken of those who had been unable to enter the promised land, who had died in the wilderness, and the reason they weren’t able to enter was simple: it was because they were unbelieving. Instead of being men and women of faith—a faith which persevered, continued, despite the difficulties—they actually revealed themselves to be unbelievers. And throughout all of the chapters, he has been concerned that none of his readers should be those who have “a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God,”[2] but rather that they should be people of faith. And the people of faith are those, according to 10:39, “who believe and are saved,” as opposed to those who are without faith, “who shrink back and are destroyed.”

Faith is the indispensable channel of salvation. It is faith that is the corridor down which we walk into the experience of what it means to truly be a Christian.

And then, as a further means of encouragement, he walks his readers through this wonderful portrait gallery. He’s going to, when he gets to chapter 12, make application of all of the discoveries in chapter 11, but for now he says, “I want you to walk through, as it were, and look at the portraits of these individuals—these ancient people who have now long gone. I want you to look, as it were, at Noah and what we’re told of Noah, and let that truth sink in. I want you to consider Abraham and the man that he was and the life that he lived and the decisions that he made, and allow that to register. Think about Barak, and think about Joseph, and think about David and all of these different people,” he says. “And as you go through and view this portrait gallery, may it be a stimulus to you to become individuals of faith.” And he says, “I want you to understand that as you do that, that these individuals”—and we’ll come to them in turn—“continued in their faith despite delay, ridicule, persecution, and great cost.” They were and they are illustrations of 10:38, which is a direct quote from Habakkuk 2:3–4: “My righteous one will live by faith.”

What does it mean to live by faith? “Well,” he says, “let me tell you what it means to live by faith; rather, let me show you what it means to live by faith.” And as he leads in to give to us the record of those who were righteous and declared their righteousness in their faith, he provides us with something of a definition: “Now faith,” he says, “is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” Now, this definition is not comprehensive, but it is useful. And it is a reminder to us this morning that the question of faith is absolutely crucial. Indeed, let me ask a question. Indeed, ask this question of yourself this morning, as we proceed through this study, and it is a simple question: Am I a man or woman of faith? Am I a man or a woman of faith, a boy or a girl, a young person, of faith?

Now, your response will probably be to say, “Well, it depends exactly what you mean by faith.” And that is, of course, an excellent response which I have anticipated and will proceed on the basis of the anticipation. “Without faith,” it says in verse 6, “it is impossible to please God.” So this matter of faith is not a marginal issue. It is not something that we can place far off in a corner somewhere, push it way out in our considerations, but it is of pressing importance in this moment. Am I a man or a woman of faith? Faith is the indispensable channel of salvation. It is faith that is the corridor down which we walk into the experience of what it means to truly be a Christian.

For example, in Ephesians 2:8–9, in those well-worn words, we read this: “For it is by grace you have been saved,” and then comes the phrase, “through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” Where do the works come in? The works come in as an expression of faith, not as a replacement for faith. It is through faith. And even the faith itself is not something self-engendered but is a very gift from the hand of God.

What Is Faith Not?

Now, in seeking to say what faith is, it’s important for us also to make clear what faith is not. In fact, the Puritans did this all the time when they preached. When they were giving a definition of something, they would always spend a long time explaining what it wasn’t, so that in finding out what it wasn’t, you would move closer to what it was. So let me tell you what it isn’t, and I think as I tell you this, you will discover that some of the things that you regard as faith are not really faith at all.

What faith is not. What faith is not. First of all, it is not simply a subjective religious feeling. It is not simply a subjective religious feeling that is divorced from the objective truth that God has made known. That may seem like a bit of a mouthful, and indeed it is, but it is very, very important. Faith is not simply a feeling, vague and internal, that a person engenders and says, “Oh yes, I’m a person of faith.” And you question them as to why or what, and they’ll say, well, they just have a strong feeling inside of them. “If I didn’t have my faith…” they would say.

You say, “Well, what is this faith?”

They say, “Well, I don’t really know what it is, but I know that it is, because it’s inside of me.”

Well, when we look at the Bible, when we look at this definition here in Hebrews 11:1, we have to say that what the writer is referring to is not simply a subjective religious feeling that is divorced from objective truth.

Now, I’m referring for example, to the individual who tells you that they’re a Christian. “Oh yes,” they say, “I’m a Christian. I have a very strong feeling about being a Christian.”

“You do?”


“Well, what do you believe, for example, concerning the deity of Jesus Christ? You believe that Jesus was actually God?”

“Oh, no, no,” they say, “no. No, I don’t believe that. No, I don’t believe that Jesus was God.”

“Uh-huh. Now, what about his death upon the cross? Do you believe that when he died upon the cross, he was bearing the wrath of God, which was meted out against all the wickedness and godlessness of man?”

“Oh, oh no,” says the person, “No. No, no, I do not believe that. I don’t believe in anything about the wrath of God or anything about an atoning death of Jesus or the blood of Jesus. I just have a very strong feeling that I’m a Christian.”

“And what do you believe about the resurrection of Jesus?”

“Well, actually, I don’t believe in a literal bodily resurrection of Jesus. I believe that the resurrection was something that was experienced in the minds of his followers. They were kind of psyched up for it, and so they entered into it.”

“Oh, I see. So you’re not a Christian at all then?”

“Oh yes, I’m a Christian. Yes, I’m a Christian! I have a very strong feeling about being a Christian!”

“Oh, I see. So then, you can simply define what a Christian is on the basis of whatever is going on in your tummy? So that a Christian is whatever we want a Christian to be, depending on the strength of subjective conviction about faith?”

Not at all! Why not at all? Because the Bible says not at all.

Indeed, listen to what the Bible says concerning individuals who would talk in that kind of way. First John 2:22: “Who is the liar? It is the man [or the woman] who denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a man is the antichrist—he denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also.” Now, I simply want to point out in this—and I don’t want to delay on it—that New Testament faith is not, then, some strong feeling in my tummy that is divorced from the objective truth which has been made clear to us in the pages of the Scriptures. Whatever that is, it is not biblical faith.

Secondly, biblical faith is not the attitude of people who accept something as true apart from the evidence. There are people—these are the people who think that Christian faith has to do with taking your brain out and putting it underneath the seat. Because you’ve a sneaking suspicion that if you ever examine the evidence, you’re going to find that the evidence isn’t true, and therefore, the only way is to launch into oblivion. And so faith has become a leap into nowhere. It is a leap in the dark. It is the conviction that if I believe enough and get pumped up enough, then I can make something that I know obviously not to be the case to become the case. And this is a very, very prevalent view of faith. When you press people, you say to them, “Well, tell me about faith in your life.” And they will tell you, “Well, I believe that this is the case. And because I believe it, therefore, it is the case.” It’s hogwash—and yet it is very acceptable hogwash.

Like the guy who goes to the psychiatrist, tells the psychiatrist that he’s dead. The psychiatrist said, “But you came up the stairs.”

“Yes,” he said, “I know that I did, but I’m still dead.”

Says the psychiatrist, “We’re having a conversation; doesn’t that mean anything to you at all?”

He said, “Absolutely nothing at all. I’m a dead man.”

Struggling, the psychiatrist finally fastened on this: “Do dead men bleed?”

“No,” said the man, “dead men don’t bleed.” So he took a pin, drove it into the guy’s thumb, pressed the blood out on the end of his thumb, and as he did so, the man said, “Oh dear, dead men bleed after all!”

Now, you see, that is the projection of something that I want to be the case, even though the evidence says it isn’t the case at all. That is not Christian faith. People who say that of us neither understand what they’re saying nor have they ever really considered the New Testament.

Thirdly, Christian faith is not the kind of positive mental attitude which seeks to make the thing believed in happen, the kind of “power of positive thinking.” And this, of course, has been popularized in the book The Power of Positive Thinking. Says Vincent Peale in that book, “According to your faith in yourself, according to your faith in your job, according to your faith in God, this far will you get and no further.”[3] So faith in yourself, faith in God, faith in your job—they’re all kind of the same business.

It is the object of faith, it is the ground of faith, which gives it significance.

Now, it is good to think positively. It’s nice to be around people who are positive rather than people who are negative. But positive thinking is not biblical faith. This is the kind of stuff from What about Bob?, you know. He gets up in the morning, slaps his face: “I feel good, I feel great, I feel wonderful,”[4] and then he “baby steps” it into his life. This is what Norman Vincent Peale says. He says, “Before you get out of your bed in the morning”—in The Power of Positive Thinking, if you’ve read it—he says, “what you ought to do is say out loud in your bedroom, ‘I believe, I believe, I believe.’” Now, he doesn’t say in what or in whom; doesn’t really matter. New Testament: it’s crucial! You see, it is the object of faith, it is the ground of faith, which gives it significance; it is not the immensity of our internal sensations.

So genuine biblical faith is not simply pumping ourselves up to believe that which the evidence precludes. Like the guy who fell out the forty-story window, and as he passed the nineteenth floor, one of the secretaries heard him shouting, “So far, so good!” People are going through their lives just like that: “Well, it hasn’t happened yet, but I have faith. Oh, yes, I do! I have faith.” In what? In whom? Do you have faith in faith? And if you have faith in faith, then what is the faith in which your faith is placed? I mean, where do you go with this?

Real faith, as Hebrews 11 makes clear, is not based on our feelings, which are unstable and which fluctuate. But real faith—biblical faith—is reliable, since it is based on the trustworthiness and the reliability of God. That’s the reason for verse 6: “Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” In other words, we start with God.

That’s where Genesis 1:1 starts, is it not? “In the beginning God…” It doesn’t start with an argument for scientific creationism. It doesn’t start with an argument concerning the existence of God. It says, “In the beginning, God.” And every individual who’s been created has been stamped with the very handiwork of God; he has been made in the image of God. It is “the fool” who “says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’”[5] It is the ultimate expression of moral waywardness to be an unbeliever—that there is enough of God made known in the creation, as we saw last time, in general revelation, to inculcate within us the fact of an awareness of God. So that even in the entry to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, chap after chap after chap stood up and said they actually thanked God. Crosby, Stills, and Nash—every one of them thanked God. And Nash was blasphemous enough to say, “I thank God—and I think she’s doing a very good job.” He got a cheap laugh from the crowd. I want to say, “Hey, Graham. Who is this God you’re thanking?” See, he’s a god of our ideas. It’s a god with a small g. “I believe in him; therefore, he exists. And because he exists and I have a subjective feeling, therefore, I can call upon him.” You might as well go around the mall and rub the tummies of all of those little green genies that you find and wish for another fifty thousand a year in your salary as continue down that path. It is futility.

What Faith Is

So, back in Hebrews 11:1, the writer isn’t talking about a wistful longing for something that may or not happen. He’s not talking about believing in the improbable against chance. He is talking about a belief in what God says as opposed to what man suggests. This faith, he says, creates surety of what we hope for and certainty of what we do not see.

Do you ever wonder why it is, believer, that you believe what you believe? Do you ever think about that when you get down on your knees and you pray? And you get down on your knees and you pray, and there’s no one in the room. And you can’t see anyone, and you can’t hear anything. And you say, “O God, I know that you hear my prayers.” How do I know that? How am I so certain of that? “O God, and I know that you know my circumstances, and that you mark my steps,[6] and that every day of my life was written in your book before one of them came to be.”[7] Where did that come from? “O God, I know that when I die, I’ll go to heaven, but I’ve never seen heaven. I’ve only got these descriptions which are dramatic at the end of the Bible and in various other places.” Where does all this come from? It is a result of God’s grace and mercy to us in opening our eyes to the truth of who he is, and such faith creates certainty.

“Noah! You’re gonna build an ark, Noah.” I don’t want to anticipate the chapter, but I’ve started now, so I’ll continue: “Noah, I want you to build an ark.”

“What do I need an ark for?” No, he actually didn’t say that. He said, “Fine. You want an ark, you’ve got an ark.”

“It’s gonna rain.”

“Rain? What’s rain?” It had never rained!

“Tell the people that they’re going to have to get into the ark.”

“Okay. Hey folks! It’s gonna start raining here real soon, and the Lord sent me to tell you, you’d better get into the ark.”

“Hahaha! Noah… are we crazy, man? This is Phoenix, Arizona. It doesn’t rain here. This is gorgeous! Look at this. It’s never rained. It won’t rain.”

Now, what made Noah stand up and say, “It’s gonna rain; it’s gonna flood”? How did he get so certain about something he’d never, ever seen? How did he have such an assurance of what he was hoping for? The answer is, because of faith. That believing faith is not the fluctuating notions of a some kind of subjective dimension within the spirit of a man or a woman, but it is that which is engendered in us as a result of a consideration of what is before us and saying, “I’m going to examine it and look at this. And I am concluding that it takes more faith to believe in nothing than it takes to believe in a creator God.”

But you see, in our foolishness, and in our rebellion, and in our disinterest, and in our selfishness, and in our unwillingness to allow anyone else to take charge of my life, we do not choose to believe in such a God, because such a God will have every right to make demands upon me. Such a God will have every right to call me into conformity with his commands. And so, rather than have to face that I have broken his commands, and that I must say sorry for that, and that I must accept his forgiveness for that, I am not coming to say sorry! I would rather go on my own way. And when people ask me about faith, I’ll say, “Yes, I have faith. I have optimism. I have credulity.” But it’s not biblical faith.

Now, the best illustration I have found of this little twofold phrase here, this parallelism—“being sure of what we hope for … certain of what we do not see”—it just kinda sounds like he’s saying the same thing twice, doesn’t it? Because he really is. What’s the best way to describe this? The best thing I’ve found—and it’s not brilliant—is to think of faith in this way as a title deed to a piece of property. A title deed to piece of property.

Let’s imagine that you and I bought an island on the west coast of Scotland, sight unseen. And that we did the transaction in a lawyer’s office somewhere on East Ninth Street. And we sat down with the seller and with a lawyer and ourselves, and we drew up the contract for sale, and we determined how large it was, and what it had on it, and what it would be, and when we could take ownership of it, and so on. And then we signed up, and Chicago Title or Realty—although I wouldn’t imagine they’d stretch that far—but some title company said, “Okay, now we’ll put this all down, and we’ll give it to you with a big stamp on the front, and we’ll notarize it, and you can carry it around in your pocket,” and when you’re going up East Ninth Street and somebody says to you, “Hey, what’s been happening to you recently?” you say, “Hey, I own an island in Scotland!”

“Oh, yeah? You been there?”


“What’s it like?”

“Well, I haven’t actually seen it.”

“Well, how do you know you’ve got it?”

“Oh, I’ve got it.”

“Well, tell me why.”

“Well, here. Here’s my title deed. Says here’s my island and here’s my thing.”

“Well, you’re pretty confident, aren’t you?”


“On what are you basing your confidence?”

“That there’s actually an island there, and the guy who sold it to me is trustworthy.” We understand that.

Say, “I’m going to go to heaven.”

“You are? You ever seen it?”


“What’s it like?”

“I don’t really know.”

“You’re sure it’s there?”


“How can you be certain?”

“I’ve got a title deed. I’ve got it in my pocket. I carry it with me. In fact, I carry half of it with me all of the time, my inside pocket. I can’t carry the whole thing in my pocket, but sometimes I carry the whole th—”

Say, “You got to be pretty confident that the guy was telling the truth.”

“You know what? I’m absolutely certain he was telling the truth.”

Said, “Where’d you get that from? Did you pump yourself up?”

“No, I can’t explain it. I can’t even explain how certain I am. I cannot explain it. It’s not credulity, it’s not wishful thinking.”

“Well, then, what is it?”

“Well, the one who signed the title deed is infallible; therefore, he can be trusted completely. He’s absolutely faithful; he never quits on his promises. He’s all powerful, and so nothing can frustrate the purposes.”

And when we go through Hebrews 11, as we will, we’ll discover that in the eleventh chapter, all of these lives lived in faith went like this: they heard the Word of God, they heard the story of God, they trusted the promise of God, and then they lived in the light of the promise. They heard the story, trusted the promise, and then lived their lives.

Here’s the story: “I’m gonna flood the world.”


“Here’s the promise: as you build an ark and the people run into it, they’ll be safe.”


“Okay, build the ark.”

See, some of us have okayed the first two, but we never build the ark. Some of us have said, “Yeah, I understand the story, and I actually heard the promise, and I think I believe it.” But we never took the final step. And that’s why, when we ask the question, “Are you a man or a woman of faith?” the answer has to be, “No, I’m not. I’m sorry, I’m not.” And what I want to say to you this morning is, you don’t have to walk out this building in that same position. Today, Mother’s Day ’97, you can in a decisive act make certain that you are a man or a woman of faith.

What’s Involved in Faith?

Now, what’s involved in that faith? Let me tell you.

Faith is dependent upon what can be known about God.

First of all, knowledge. Knowledge. Faith is dependent upon what can be known about God. In point of fact, the New Testament says that faith involves us in coming to know God himself. In John chapter 17, Jesus, as he is about to pray to his Father, says in John 17:3, “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.”

How can you know God? Well, we’re told how we can know God, in the prologue to John’s Gospel. John 1:18: “No one has ever seen God.” That’s what people say: “If you show me God, then I might be prepared to listen. But you can’t show me God.”

I’ll say, “Well, God has shown himself.”


“Well, he’s shown himself in creation, he’s shown himself in the Bible, and he’s shown himself in Jesus.”

Verse 18: “No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only”—that is, the Son—“who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.”

So the wee boy is painting—I use this illustration all the time—he’s painting on the floor. All the kids are painting on their canvas on the floor, on their sheet of paper on the floor. The teacher comes round, says, “What’s that, Mary?”

She says, “It’s a house.”

“What’s that?”

“Oh, it’s my family at a picnic.”

“What is this?” she says to little Edward.

Edward says, “It is a picture of God.”

“Come now?” says the teacher. “We do not know what God looks like.”

To which Edward replies, “Come back when I’ve finished; you’ll have a better idea.”

Now, the actual fact of the matter is that Jesus is the exegesis of God. That’s the word that is actually used here. When somebody says, “Well, how can I know God? How would God make himself known so that I could know him?” the answer is, in the person of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. That’s why it is so important to consider the claims that Jesus made. Because it is in knowing him that we know God. And it is this knowledge of God which gives the basis for our certainty.

When you travel as you do now—and some of you do this multiple times a week, so that you know this stuff off by heart—“Good morning, Mr. Begg. Do you have a form of identification?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Have your bags been in your possession at all times?”

“Yes, they have.”

“Did anyone ask you to carry anything for them?”

“No, they flat-out did not, and if they had, I would have said no, because I don’t even want to carry my own bags,” and so on it goes.

But the issue is, did anybody that you don’t know get access to your stuff? Because you don’t want untrustworthy people getting ahold of things. You’re not simply gonna entrust into the care of another that which is precious and important to you. Absolutely right, you’re not! So you’re not about to entrust your life into the care of someone who is untrustworthy, right? So you’re gonna have to use your mind as you read God’s Word to ask the question, “Is what God has made known of himself—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—such that I may with confidence, on the knowledge that I have, move forward from here?”

You see, all of us trust people all the time, every day. You get on a bus, it says on the front that it’s going to wherever it’s going, and you get on in confidence that the fellow who’s driving it is actually planning on taking it where it says on the sign. But there is, of course, a possibility that he’d been out on a bender the night before and he hadn’t a clue where he was when he pulled the bus up to your stop. He didn’t know what the sign said, and he was heading for anywhere south of Mansfield. And all you wanted to do was go up Euclid Avenue. That’d be a problem. Why? Well, you could sit on the bus and say, “I feel very strongly that I’m going up Euclid Avenue. Boy, do I have confidence that I’m going up Euclid Avenue!”—as the guy drives you as far from Euclid Avenue as is humanly possible. What good was your faith? Your faith was absolutely useless! Because it wasn’t grounded in the knowledge, in the certainty, and the conviction of the rightness of who it was.

You sit down on the hairdresser’s chair, and you had the magazine, and you looked at it, and you looked at the magazine, you looked at yourself, you looked again at the magazine, you looked at the hairdresser and said, “Now, do you think you can make me look like that?” The person says, “Oh yes, I can do that!” You’ve been there! Then, and when it’s all finished, and they finally spin you around—I’m sure they try and make you dizzy at that point—they spin you all around, and you look back at the thing, you look at her, you look at this, you go, “Okay, nice try. Let’s go.”

You go in the bank, you give ’em money, they say, “I’ll put it in here. It’ll go to your account.” You get your account, you assume it’ll be in your account. If it’s not in your account, why not? ’Cause the person isn’t trustworthy—but most of the time they are.

And John says in 1 John 5, if we’re prepared to accept human testimony, God’s own testimony concerning his own Son is surely, infinitely more valuable.[8] In other words, if we are prepared to trust relatively untrustworthy people at significant points in our lives—at the bank, on the bus, crossing a bridge, undergoing heart surgery—wouldn’t we trust God? What kind of proud arrogance is this, that I would trust my bank manager and I wouldn’t trust God who has revealed himself in the person of his Son? That I would trust the bus driver on Euclid Avenue, but I would refuse to trust Jesus Christ? It’s like the two medical students who dissected a dead body, looking for life, and found that it wasn’t there. Don’t be silly.

Now, the second aspect—and I’ll move to this very quickly—is that knowledge has to be followed by assent. That is a noun: a-s-s-e-n-t. I don’t want some schoolboy writing down, “You can get faith for a cent.” And stranger things have happened.

Once we’ve recognized that certain things are true and are to be believed, then it involves our giving mental assent to them. Biblical faith is more than simply giving assent, but it is never less than giving assent.

You see, we talk about individuals who inspire or command confidence—someone who is so trustworthy that we’d be compelled to trust them even against our will. You sometimes listen to people… My grandfather used to tell me stories about the First World War, and he used to talk about being on the front line of the trenches in France. And he used to talk about all kinds of stories till he wouldn’t talk anymore, till he began to weep and couldn’t see anymore. But I would ask him, “Grandpa, why would you run over there like that?” And he’d say, “Well, we had a captain. We had a captain. I’d trust him anywhere. He said, ‘We’re going,’ we’re going. Everything inside of me said, ‘I’m not going,’ but he compelled my belief. He compelled confidence in me.”

Men and women this morning, if you will read the Bible and consider the claims of Jesus Christ, you will discover in Christ someone who compels belief—even against your will. Everything inside of you is saying, “I don’t want to believe this stuff. I don’t want my life taken over. I don’t want somebody in charge of me.” I understand that. But when you come and lay your life open before Christ, and when you see him on the cross, and you understand that there he bore your sin and all your rebellion and all of your emptiness and lostness and brokenness, he will compel belief in you. And knowledge will be followed by assent. You see, true faith takes its character and its quality from its object and not from itself.

And the last thing I want you to know is that genuine faith—the faith that is “sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see”—involves not only knowledge and not only assent, but it involves trust. Trust. You see, simply intellectual assent cannot be equated with genuine faith. James makes that clear in James 2:19, where he lets us know that the devil and the demons are not atheists; they have an orthodox view of God. So if an orthodox view of who God is and who Jesus is is equal to saving faith, to biblical faith, then we must logically conclude that the devil and the demons have saving faith. We know that isn’t true. Why is it not? Because the simple intellectual awareness of facts does not equate with faith. There has to be the transfer from the knowledge to the assent to the trust.

You see, the summons to trust Christ is there in all of his invitations. He says, “Come to me all you who are heavy laden, and I’ll give you rest.” Your life’s all messed up; you’re carrying around shopping bags full of disgruntlement and disenchantment and all kind of things in your life. He says, “Come to me, and I’ll take those shopping bags for you. I’ll take all that rubbish.” He says, “If you would take my yoke upon you—in other words, if you would bow down underneath my commands and you would let me run your life—if you would take my yoke upon you and you would learn from me all the things I’ve told you in here, then you would find rest for your souls. And you would discover that I’m lowly, and I’m gentle, I’m humble in heart, and I’ll take care of your life.”[9]

New Testament faith is knowledge, assent to the knowledge, and trust on the basis of the knowledge to which I have given assent.

What does that sound like? It sounds like action, doesn’t it? It sounds like action: “come,” “take,” “learn,” “rest.” They are all verbs; they are action words. We know that from English at school. You see, faith is not some passive resignation. It’s not some little compartment in my life whereby I say, “Oh yes, I have faith. I keep it in a jar on my dresser. I bring it out when I need it.” No, no, no, no. New Testament faith is knowledge, assent to the knowledge, and trust on the basis of the knowledge to which I have given assent.

Let me finish with an illustration I use all the time: getting married. Getting married. There are a number of stages in getting married, if you do it properly.

Stage one involves putting together knowledge—knowledge of the individual. You go out for dinner, you go in the park, you listen to them talk, you observe them with their children—hopefully, not with their children, but with their brothers and their sisters and so on, although there would be circumstances in which that would be the case. And in the gaining of knowledge, you’re asking yourself the question: “Is this an individual with whom I could spend my life? Could I make a commitment to this individual? Would they commit to me?” That’s stage one.

Stage two comes somewhere on a nice evening somewhere, wherein that you’re at the Cleveland Indians game, and all of a sudden it flashes up on the scoreboard: “Karen, will you marry me? Fred.” And you say to yourself, “Who is it I’m with tonight? Oh, Fred! Fred!” And out of his pocket he produces a ring, and he says, “You know what? On the basis of the knowledge that I’ve gained of you, I am prepared to make a commitment on the strength of that knowledge. I have made an assent to it. I concur with everything that I know, and so much so that on such and such a day, in such and such a place, at such and such a time in the afternoon, I want to move beyond mere knowledge and assent to trust. I want to trust you. I want to entrust my life to you. I want to give myself to you. I want to know you at the most deep level possible.”

How do you come to faith in Jesus Christ? Well, stage one: knowledge. Who is this Jesus? What did he do? When did he come? How did he live? Is he alive? See, it involves your mind. It involves thinking. Some of us haven’t come to faith ’cause we don’t think. We want an experience to reach down and grab us and whick us off our feet and take us somewhere. That’s why these people are wandering round all these crazy meetings that you see on religious TV. They’re waiting for something to happen to them. When will it happen? It’s not like that. Saul of Tarsus, remember? Hated Christians, didn’t believe that Jesus was alive. Had a conversation with Jesus. That created knowledge, knowledge created assent, assent gave way to trust, and he was changed.

Well, let me ask you the question with which I began: Are you a man or a woman of faith? There’s a difference between mathematical knowledge (half base times height, which is what? the area of a triangle), experimental knowledge (dropping apples from the tree long enough, said, “Hey, that looks to me like the law of gravity right there”), and experiential knowledge. The New Testament biblical faith has every dimension to it.

In a Communist textbook, under the word “kiss,” they defined it as follows: “The approach of two pairs of lips with reciprocal transmission of microbes and carbon dioxide.” Sounds like it was written by a Communist, doesn’t it? Sounds like it was written by someone who never kissed.

Have you ever kissed the Lord Jesus? Have you ever come and laid hold of him? Said,

Lord Jesus, I love you, I know you are mine;
For you all the follies of sin I resign;
My gracious Redeemer, my Savior art thou;
If ever I loved you, my Jesus, it’s now.[10]

That is the faith which allowed Moses to get his butt kicked every which way from Sunday and stay true. Not foolish optimism, not credulity, not pumping himself up. He saw Jesus’ day, and he regarded affliction with the people of God a more significant option than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season.[11] That’s biblical faith. Are you a man, a woman, of faith?

Let us pray:

I believe there are some this morning who are here in church, and you’re orthodox in what you believe. You have a knowledge of God—you do not deny his existence—and you have a knowledge of Jesus. At Christmastime, you acknowledge that he came to be the Savior. But you don’t have an assurance of what you hope for. You’re not certain of what you don’t see. I want to tell you why not: because although your knowledge has given way to assent, your assent has never given way to personal trust in what Christ has done upon the cross.

And this morning, before you leave here, in your own words and from your own heart, speaking, as it were, to God in the silence of your own being, you can tell him that you do know that you are a sinner. That you do understand Christ to be the Savior that you just acknowledged you need. That you do recognize that faith is action; it’s life changing—you’ll never be the same again. But that you do want to be laid hold of by his embrace—gathered up, caught into him, as it were—so that you might be not simply an observer in the hall of faith, but that however small your portrait, however short the years on the nameplate, that your name might appear there.

But remember this: faith is both a decisive act and a sustained attitude. God grant us faith.

And may grace and mercy and peace from Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—the triune God—rest upon and remain with each one who believes, today and forevermore. Amen.

[1] Hebrews 10:35–36 (paraphrased).

[2] Hebrews 3:12 (NIV 1984).

[3] Norman Vincent Peale, The Power of Positive Thinking (Prentice-Hall, 1952; repr., New York: Fireside, 2003), 93.

[4] What About Bob?, directed by Frank Oz, written by Tom Schulman (Buena Vista Pictures, 1991).

[5] Psalm 14:1; 53:1 (NIV 1984).

[6] See Psalm 37:23.

[7] See Psalm 139:16.

[8] See 1 John 5:9.

[9] Matthew 11:28–29 (paraphrased).

[10] William R. Featherstone, “My Jesus, I Love Thee” (1864). Lyrics lightly altered.

[11] See Hebrews 11:25.

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.