Elementary Principles, Part 4
Faith Toward God
After mentioning the doctrine of repentance, the next item in the list contained in Hebrews 6:1-2 is “faith toward God.” We as believers are a people of faith. Our faith is what defines us. In order to apply the previous lesson’s discussion on repentance, we must have faith in God, believing that He exists and rewards those who seek Him.
Generally speaking, faith is not necessarily a purely religious experience. Secular uses of the word may imply a sense of trust based on prior experience, e.g., “I have faith that you will accomplish this task I have given you.” Others may put faith in various political or ethical systems, moral ideals, or deities. In these contexts, faith is a belief and trust in something greater than the individual which in some way or another impacts the way they conduct their lives. Faith according to this definition is something everyone exercises, whether they are aware of it or not. So the question is, what makes our faith different?
Faith, by definition, must be placed upon something. While everyone exercises faith in one way or another, different groups of people put faith in different things. As believers, our faith is established in the Only True God, the one who created all things and who has caused us to know Him through His Only Begotten Son. Rather than putting our faith in a system of lofty ideals or an idol we ourselves have created, our faith is in the God who made us and has revealed Himself to us.
Faith placed in anything but God is insufficient for sustaining life. Political and ethical systems are bound to fail due to the inability and often unwillingness for people to behave morally all of the time. Even those who put their faith in ideals such as compassion and lovingkindness cannot understand these ideals in their fullness until recognizing the source of these ideals, the One who is wholly compassionate and whose lovingkindness is everlasting. Thus secular faith, in ignoring God, fundamentally bases itself in ignorance rather than truth.
Believers may assume that since they believe in God they have automatically removed faith in everything else. This may not be the case, and we must examine ourselves to see where we are really putting our trust in each area of our lives. Do we feel independently capable of providing for ourselves because of what we can accomplish, or do we trust God to provide for our daily needs, recognizing that He is the one who gives us the ability to acquire food and shelter? Have we put our trust in a political leader or system, investing more time and effort into the kingdom of Caesar than the kingdom of God? These are the questions we must ask ourselves free from any presuppositions or assumptions, comparing our lives to the Word of God.
Contrasting secular faith with a believer’s faith can show us what our faith is not, but in order to understand what our faith is we must examine what the Scriptures tell us. There is no shortage of passages which instruct us about faith, and in fact every Scripture in some way teaches us about our faith. Defining faith in its modern English context can be useful, as we have examined above, but what do the languages of Scripture teach us about faith?
Hebrew, as a general rule, tends to put more emphasis on the actions that result from belief than the belief itself. This is noticed in the word we translate as “believe” in our English translations. In Hebrew the word is aman, and its most literal meaning is “to confirm or support.” Believing therefore could be understood as an internal confirmation or support of an idea or conviction. The word translated as “faith” is based in the same root word aman. Specifically, the form used is emunah, which is defined as faithfulness, firmness, or steadfastness.
Based on these definitions alone, we can understand a few things about faith. Faith and belief are both founded on the same principles. They are intrinsically connected and unable to be separated. True belief is an inner confirmation of something revealed or recognized. In the context of our relationship with God, belief could be understood as confirming in our hearts and minds that what God has said is truth.
Belief is associated with firmness, and thus true belief involves holding unswervingly to truth as time moves on. Based on what God has said, we respond with action. We remain firm in our conviction, and this causes us to act according to what God has revealed as truth. Remaining convinced that God’s words are true and continuing to act upon them is what we may call steadfastness or faithfulness.
In this context, then, faith and belief are defined by the action they cause. Belief will cause us to have faith, and faith will usher us into faithfulness. All these ideas are inseparable. We cannot have faith without first believing, and we do not really believe something unless we have known it as truth and responded accordingly.
In Greek, the word for faith is pistis. This word is based off the root word peitho, meaning “to persuade.” Similar to what we saw in Hebrew, the word for “belief” and the word for “faith” are based in the same root word. The fact that the root means “persuasion” is also fairly similar to the Hebrew root which we saw means “confirmation.” In both cases it implies a strong belief or conviction.
Modern conceptions of the term “belief” tend to portray it as potentially weak or transient. Beliefs are often placed in distinction against facts or knowledge. A belief may be seen as something we are emotionally inclined to hold as true but are willing to reconsider. Scripture, on the other hand, seems to describe belief of a different kind. It is not mentally accepting something as truth because of ignorance or self-deceit, but is rather being persuaded based on the knowledge of God. Rather than holding to any idea that sounds good to the ears, on the contrary it is trusting in the words of God to be true despite what we may experience.
Perhaps the most well-known passage in the Old Testament which speaks of belief is Genesis 15:6, which says, “Then he [i.e., Abram] believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.” This verse formed a critical piece of Paul’s theology of salvation through faith in Yeshua. For now we want to examine it in its immediate context to see what this verse tells us about Abram’s belief.
Preceding this chapter, we see Abram has a very close relationship with God. Shortly after our first introduction to Abram, we see in Genesis 12 that he hears God’s voice and responds accordingly, implying that Abram already believes in God and is walking in that belief with faithfulness. Before we arrive at Genesis 15:6, God has already been present in his life in a powerful way. Abram’s belief in the context of this particular verse is not about belief in God’s existence, as that has already been established. Exactly what was it that Abram believed? “And He took him outside and said, ‘Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ And He said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be’” (Genesis 15:5).
Abram’s belief was in God’s ability to fulfill His promise that Abram would become the father of a great multitude. Even though there was no evidence in favor of what God was telling him, for he had no children and his wife had been barren, Abram yet believed. He affirmed in his heart that God’s promise would truly come to pass. This is the type of belief that God accounts as righteousness. His desire is for us to know Him and rely upon Him alone.
Righteousness is usually defined as living according to a certain standard of behavior which is considered good or moral, but belief generally does not play a role in this definition. In the context of our relationship with God, we understand righteousness as living according to God’s will, not our own. When we submit our will to God’s commands, we are trusting that He has given us these commandments in order to know Him more. Our standard of righteousness, therefore, is not a list of boxes to be checked off, but is a relationship with God and a knowledge of Him. Righteousness is to love God, and that requires trust and obedience. This is why belief in God’s promises can be considered righteousness, because it is the foundation of everything we do, evidence that we do know Him and love Him.
The aspect of faith being emphasized in this verse, then, is not belief in the existence of God. Although it operates on this essential first principle, it goes deeper into an actual relationship with Him. Once we believe that God exists, we come to know His voice. We read His words and we learn of the promises He has made, and this inspires us to believe that these words are true and have importance for us both individually and corporately as God’s people. In this sense, faith is a sustained response to revelation.
Not only is this evident in Genesis, but Hebrews gives the following definition of faith: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). What is this hope, these things unseen? First of all, it is the many and varied promises of God as the remainder of Hebrews 11 goes on to explain. In particular, however, our hope is in Yeshua: that He has come so that we might have eternal life:
And though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory obtaining as the outcome of your faith the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 1:8-9)
The object of our faith, Yeshua, is not tangible or seen. He is not someone we can physically look at to know that He indeed is here with us and will fulfill His promises to us. Testifying to the truth, however, are the words of God and the comfort of the Holy Spirit. Although we do not see Him in the flesh, we know Him and are therefore convinced that just as every promise pertaining to the Messiah and the redemption He would bring to all mankind was fulfilled, so too will every remaining promise be fulfilled in Him. Fully persuaded that He has purchased our salvation, we rest assured that if we hold fast in our faith we will be raised with Him into the resurrection of life.
God showed His love toward us in that while we were still sinners, Messiah died for us (Romans 5:8). Everything else that we may ask or wait upon God for pales in comparison to that act of love. We can have the assurance that God hears our prayers and that He can be trusted to answer us (1 John 5:14-15). Our faith rests now on God—not just that He exists, but that He loved us first and so we can trust Him because He loved us. He made the way for us and we don’t need to make a way for ourselves.
Usually we think in terms of the faith that we exercise in sustaining our relationship with God. Our faith, however, would be wasted if God was not also faithful, and indeed He is exceedingly more faithful than we could hope to be. When we have faith in God, it is because we trust Him to be reliable, a sure foundation. We trust Him to be faithful according to all that He has done and said He will do.
The Holy Spirit revealed this to the Psalmist, who writes much about God’s faithfulness despite our own shortcomings: “If they violate My statutes and do not keep My commandments, then I will punish their transgression with the rod and their iniquity with stripes. But I will not break off My lovingkindness from him, nor deal falsely in My faithfulness” (Psalm 89:31-33). He also speaks of God’s faithfulness in sustaining creation: “Your faithfulness continues throughout all generations; You established the earth, and it stands” (Psalm 119:90).
As God is faithful to sustain all of those who rely on Him, so too we ought to be faithful to God in doing all of those things He has told us are good. His faithfulness never fails or falters, and therefore we also should do our best to please Him and imitate His faithfulness. Being faithful to God includes being faithful to our neighbors. Just as God is faithful to uphold nature despite the wickedness of man, so too we ought to do acts of kindness and love for our enemies and those who are wicked, praying that they will repent and be blessed (Matthew 5:44-48).
Faith in the Didache
As we would expect, we find that faith is an important part of the Didache. There are no explicit commandments in the Didache to put faith in Yeshua, because if one was following the Didache and preparing for baptism it is obvious that they would have a belief in Him. Such teaching would be better suited for instruction that was more theologically focused. The Didache is centered more around practicing faith, seeking to answer the question, “After coming to belief in Yeshua and putting faith in Him, how do I then live out that faith?”
In this sense, the entirety of the Didache could be categorized as teaching about faith, that is, how we as believers are to walk out our faith. Behaving righteously is not an end in itself. Those who obey God and walk in His ways do so because they know what God has said concerning those who love and obey Him. God’s word tells us that He rewards obedience and punishes disobedience. If we believe this and put our faith in God that His word is accurate, then we will gladly obey God knowing that this is His will for our lives and that He will bless us.
One practical example of exercising this kind of faith is found in the teaching that God is the ultimate judge. Even though injustice may happen in this world, God will call everything into account. Because of this fact, we are to be patient and long-suffering, which brings glory to God.
Restrain yourself from natural and physical inclinations: if someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other to him, and you will be complete. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two. If someone takes away your cloak, give him your tunic also. If someone takes away what is yours, do not demand it back, for you are not even able to get it back. (Didache 1.4)
These words should be familiar, for they are almost identical to what Yeshua teaches on this matter (Matthew 5:38-42). How could this be considered a teaching about faith? It is our natural instinct to seek immediate justice for wrongdoing. Our physical inclination is to avenge wrongs that have been done against us. In waiving our right to seek revenge, we admit that we do not look to justify ourselves, but that God is the one who justifies us. There are very few good excuses according to our physical, natural reasoning to submit ourselves to the persecution of others. Faith in God changes our outlook, causing us to acknowledge that if we have been treated unjustly, it is God who will defend us (Romans 12:19).
Another teaching that is related to faith, although it may not generally be recognized as such, is that of giving. The type of giving that God desires is that which is from the heart. It involves self-sacrifice and a truly heartfelt motivation to see the sustenance which God has provided to us be used in meeting the needs of others.
Taking from our own possessions and giving to others indicates that we have faith in God to take care of us. Nothing we have acquired unto ourselves is truly owned by us (Psalm 24:1, Job 41:11). Even our own lives are not within our power. Recognizing this, we are called to distribute to others from what God has abundantly given to us. Scripture is full of examples of the mighty provision of God for those who put their faith not in what money or sustenance they are able to supply for themselves, but in His power (1 Kings 17:2-6, Matthew 6:31-33, Mark 12:43-44).
Therefore the Didache says:
Do not hesitate to give, and do not complain when giving, for you will find out who is the good payer of wages. Do not turn away someone who is in need; rather, share all things in common with your brother. Do not claim ownership, for if you are common partners in what is immortal, how much more so in what is mortal! (Didache 4.7-8)
Giving is to be done with the assurance that even if we were to give away all of our possessions to the poor in accordance with God’s will, He would provide for us, because He is “the good payer of wages” (cf., Proverbs 19:17, Luke 6:38). We may not all be called to physically renounce the entirety of our worldly possessions, but we ought to be willing to provide for the poor, the widow, and the orphan even when it causes us temporary discomfort, having faith in God that He will provide for our own needs as we seek to love those around us.
In the same spirit of this command, we see the Apostolic Constitutions state the following about giving to those who are in prison because of their testimony of Messiah:
For this cause, all ye of the faithful, by your Bishop, minister to the saints from your substance and from your labor. But if any one hath not, let him fast a day, and set apart what is thus saved, and order it for the saints. If, however, any one hath abundance, let him minister more to them, according to the proportion of his ability. But, if he can possibly sell all his livelihood, and redeem them out of prison, he will be blessed, and a friend of Christ. (Apos. Con. V, 1)
In another place, speaking of fasting in general, it says again, “What is saved by your fasting bestow upon the needy” (Apos. Con. V, 10). While there doesn’t seem to be a precedent for this in Scripture, the motivation seems to be in line with the heart of God’s commandments to love our neighbor and put their needs above our own (2 Corinthians 8:1-3, Philippians 2:3-4). If we believe that God sustains us and that He rewards those who prioritize the poor and needy, then it is natural to conclude that fasting would provide an excellent opportunity to do good for others rather than being a practice of individual devotion alone.
One last section of the Didache which we will look at explicitly mentions faithfulness and our relationship with it.
Gather together often, seeking what is appropriate for your lives, because your entire time of faithfulness will be of no benefit to you if you will not have been made complete at the end of time. For in the end of days, false prophets and those who cause corruption will increase in number, and the sheep will be changed into wolves, and love will be changed into hate… Those who endure in their faithfulness will be saved by the very one who is cursed [i.e., Yeshua, see Galatians 3:13] (Didache 16.2-3, 5)
Towards the end of the Didache, after explaining how a believer is to conduct themselves in faith, the teaching comes to a close by exhorting the new believer to remain steadfast while awaiting the Day of the Lord which will come like a thief in the night.
Concluding the discussion of how to demonstrate faith through daily living, the final lesson is to continue to grow in faith, remembering that this world and the impurities it contains will pass away. Therefore we ought to forsake the world and be faithful in all that God has called us to do as we await the return of our Messiah Yeshua.
Finishing up a catechism with a description of the afterlife or an end-times scenario is present in other Jewish literature, both early and late. One example of this is seen in the description of initiating a convert according to the Talmud. After the convert-to-be is instructed about various commandments and the legal responsibility he will be under after conversion, he is told:
Be aware that the World-to-Come is made only for the righteous, and if you observe the mitzvot [commandments] you will merit it, and be aware that the Jewish people, at the present time, are unable to receive their full reward in this world; they are not able to receive either an abundance of good nor an abundance of calamities, since the primary place for reward and punishment is in the World-to-Come. (b.Yevamot 47a-b)
The Didache, following this traditional pattern, concludes its catechism with a description of the events that will take place before the return of the Son of Man. It makes sense to arrange the teachings this way, as it leaves the learner with a purpose for continuing in faithfulness and remaining persistent in allowing God to work in them toward holiness and purification. Instead of seeing conversion as the last step one must take, this pattern instead presents it as the first step in a process that will culminate either in the end of the individual’s life or the end of the age.
Yeshua similarly warns and encourages His disciples about those days: “Because lawlessness is increased, most people’s love will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved” (Matthew 24:12-13). Despite the fading conditions of the world around us, if we remain steadfast in our faith and our faithfulness we can be assured of our salvation. Readiness and preparedness for Yeshua’s return is a frequently reiterated lesson (Mark 13:33-37, Luke 12:35-40, Hebrews 10:36-39). The importance of remaining faithful despite outside forces as we await our Master’s return can not be overemphasized.
As we saw above, the Didache says, “Your entire time of faithfulness will be of no benefit to you if you will not have been made complete at the end of time.” Being made complete likely refers to coming to the end of the journey on the path of life. If the believer remains faithful to God by following the way of life, then their faith will have been made complete. On the contrary, if one who formerly believed falls away by denying Messiah or behaving in a way that implicitly denies Him, their initial belief will not be of any use in the end (2 Timothy 2:11-13, Hebrews 10:23-27, Revelation 14:9-13).
This lesson is what the writer of Hebrews was attempting to teach in chapters 5-6 as we saw in our first lesson. Faithfulness requires us to lay aside earthly pursuits and the passions of the flesh in order to serve God and neighbor. If we are truly in Him and He in us, then we ought to walk according to His ways without growing weary of doing good. Then we will bear fruit in accordance with His will as He tends to our hearts, molding us into His own image.
While it is true we are to always be prepared for Messiah’s return, we are not to be overly concerned with times or dates. In the teachings of Yeshua and the apostles, the focus is always on how we are to guard our behavior in preparation for the end times rather than trying to figure out when He is going to return. The verse we looked at in the Didache above is also stated in the Apostolic Constitutions, but altered to reflect that it is not only the end times which may cause our journey to end:
Watch, therefore, and pray, that ye do not sleep unto death. For your former good deeds will not profit you, if at the last part of your life ye go astray from the true faith. (Apos. Con. VII, 31)
Focusing on being prepared for the end of days is not meant to be a morbid enthrallment with gloom and death. On the contrary, it is meant to inspire us to walk with a renewed urgency to do all we can to be faithful all of the time, for any moment could be the last opportunity you have to do good in this life. “Therefore be careful how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of your time, because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:15-16).
As believers, we are defined by what, or perhaps more accurately, who we believe in. People have been designed in such a way that our beliefs on important day-to-day issues directly influence where we put our trust. If we believe that money is a reliable source of safety, then we will put our faith in whatever system or behavior allows us to acquire more of it. If we believe that the answer to humanity’s problems will be answered by adhering to a particular political or ethical framework, then we will have faith in that framework and devote our lives to increasing its acceptance by the majority. Our faith or trust in these things is the direct cause of certain actions we then take because of our trust in these areas.
In English, the word faith is for the most part synonymous with trust. In the Scriptures, it takes on additional meaning. Faith in the context of our relationship with God is intrinsically connected with the actions it results in. In fact, these actions are what distinguish true from false faith. If we believe that God exists and that He loves us beyond measure, what other response can we have but to love Him wholeheartedly in return and give ourselves to Him unquestioningly?
Our faith is a result of God’s faithfulness. He has spoken, and He will perform. We have put our faith in Yeshua for the forgiveness of our sins, and if we remain steadfast in our hope and belief, then He will usher us into His Kingdom. While we wait for our Messiah to return, He has taught us to seek first His Kingdom as we leave behind our trust in comfort, prestige, and the fulfillment of our daily needs in order to bring glory to His name. Putting faith in God over every area of our lives in fact only requires us to let go of the illusion of control.
Faith and works are connected in such a way that they cannot be separated. This being said, faith must come first and continue to be the common thread connecting all the actions we find ourselves doing, for “whatever is not from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). It is easy to make an outward show of faith while remaining unchanged in the heart, but these actions are not truly a result of faith.
Scriptures are full of examples of men and women whose faith propelled them to obey God’s voice both in their day-to-day lives and in exceptional circumstances. It may be God’s will for us to be a great leader who inspires faith in many crowds, or it may be His will for us to go about our business obeying His commands and sharing His love with all we encounter. Whatever the case may be, let the motive force of every thought and deed be faith.
Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Yeshua, the author and perfecter of faith. (Hebrews 12:1-2)