Hebrews 11:1 defines faith as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
As a kid, I remember hearing lots of preachers define faith using that verse. Maybe I was an especially dense child, but I always wanted them to define the definition. What does that even mean?
Is faith a noun or a verb? Is it an object or an action? Is it something we posses or something we do?
“Now faith” (justified by blood)
According to Strong’s Greek/Hebrew Dictionary, the word faith means “persuasion, credence, moral conviction”. It would seem Hebrews 11:1 uses the term to refer to an object. Yet, the remainder of the chapter describes great, faithful acts of men and women throughout Bible history.
We often think of faith as an action, but it begins as an object. Galatians 5:22 calls it a “fruit of the Spirit”. During the new birth, we are given that fruit and it remains with us. It is an object we carry in our hearts that we are to use. When we do, we essentially extend faith beyond a mere object and it becomes action.
It’s important to note that faith is given by the Spirit to a particular people. Namely, those who have been justified by the blood of Christ (Romans 5:8-9). Consider salvation as a 3-part plan: God elects (Ephesians 1:3-6), Christ redeems (Ephesians 2:11-13), and the Spirit brings us to life (Ephesians 2:1-3).
“the substance of things hoped for” (justified by faith)
As God’s people, what exactly do we hope for? I suppose there are many answers to this question. But when it comes right down to it, our ultimate hope is to one day be in heaven with the Lord forever.
Substance means “a setting under, support”. Faith, as an object, is the very foundation of our belief and hope that we are saved and will one day be with the Lord in heaven.
When we are born of the Spirit and given faith, our eyes are opened to a spiritual reality we could have never seen before (John 3:3-5). To be justified by faith means, through that faith, we can know how we have been justified by blood and saved.
“the evidence of things not seen” (justified by works)
Faith is not only the basis of what we believe, but it also provides us the evidence we need to believe it. Specifically, it is evidence of what we cannot see since what we hope for cannot be seen with the natural eye–God, heaven, etc.
Once justified by faith, we have an opportunity to live by that faith. It allows us to learn and follow the instructions of God. As we do, spiritual blessings abound and it becomes clearer that those unseen things we hope for are a reality. That’s justification by works (James 2:20-21).