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Spring 2015 · Vol. 44 No. 1 · pp. 72–83 

The Nature of Biblical Faith

Douglas B. Miller

The purpose of this essay is to describe faith as it is presented in the Bible and to notice in what ways it is similar to our everyday experiences with faith. The word faith is one of those religious-sounding terms that most of us partly understand. It has something to do with confidence in, or commitment to, someone or something. But the word can be used with several meanings. Sometimes we use the term in a general way to indicate loyalty, such as, “She maintains her faith in General Motors regardless what others say.” At other times the word is used for belief in something for which there is no proof or in the face of conflicting evidence, such as, “He has faith in his coach despite the team’s poor record in past years.” Sometimes by faith we mean a particular religious system or perspective, like “the Christian faith” or “the Jewish faith.”

We must decide where we will put our ultimate faith. To make that choice wisely means using as much evidence as possible.

Whether or not we use the term faith, we all practice some form of it on a regular basis. That is, we take risks by placing confidence in something or someone even though there is no way we can be completely sure what the result will be. In fact, it is probably impossible to go a single day without exercising faith to some extent. When someone orders an item over the phone or on the Internet, she has faith that the person or company will actually send that item, and has faith in the shipment service that is hired to deliver it. When you lend a friend your car keys, you are exercising faith that the person will treat your car well. Cases such as these demonstrate that faith—taking the risk to rely on a particular person or object—is central to human living. {73}

When we talk about faith in a religious dimension, then, we are not talking about something unique or unusual to the human condition. We are simply discussing how this normal experience applies to something of greatest importance, or “ultimate concern” (theologian Paul Tillich’s term). For Christians, that object of greatest importance is the God described in the Bible as the Creator of the universe. It is also applied to God’s Son, Jesus Christ, the Messiah, who came to earth and called people to join God’s kingdom. As indicated above, the term faith can also refer to a set of beliefs, a “faith system.” But for Christians, this begins with confidence in a God who is a person.


Much of the Bible’s presentation of faith is found in the New Testament, and our study will focus there. One of the complications in reading and understanding what the Bible says on this issue is that the English language uses a variety of terms to express the concept. The Greek language of the New Testament most often uses a set of words that are similar in their Greek spelling: a verb, a noun, and an adjective. In English, these are often translated “to believe,” “faith,” and “faithful” respectively. Notice that there is a Greek verb for faith, but English does not use the term faith as a verb; the closest we come to expressing faith as an action is when we say that someone “has faith” or “believes.” A familiar Bible verse is typically translated this way, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). 1 Instead of the word believes, we could also translate the Greek phrase like this: “whoever exercises faith in him.” The verb (action word) means to do something, in this case, to risk confidence in someone or something in a way that affects one’s life and decisions. In order to pay attention to the verb for faith, we will need to watch for the word believe in our Bibles.

The objects of faith in the New Testament are primarily Jesus Christ and the good news (gospel) associated with him. We are invited to have faith in him, to believe in him. Wholehearted confidence in Jesus is a way of describing the right way to be in relationship with him. It is important, then, to appreciate Jesus’s mission and plan as the context for this faith. Jesus called people to “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matt. 4:17). He described the citizens of the kingdom, taught about the character of the kingdom, and urged people to follow him to become part of the kingdom. Whatever we propose about faith in Jesus must be consistent with his mission to invite people to join this divine community. {74}


From the beginning, Christians have described faith from a variety of angles. For example,

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. (Heb 11:1)

For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law. (Rom 3:28)

You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone. (James 2:24)

Sometimes these statements have seemed in tension with one another. Martin Luther in the sixteenth century was convinced that the Apostle Paul’s understanding of faith as being independent of the law (Rom 3:28 above) was a breakthrough that corrected an Old Testament concept of salvation based on work approved by God. On the other hand, because the book of James says that human activity is important to God, Luther thought this book should be removed from the New Testament.

We may wonder whether James really disagreed with Paul, reflecting differences among Christians even in the first century, or whether he might be correcting a misunderstanding or distortion of the kind of statements made by Paul. We will return to this issue below. Even today Christians sometimes debate whether “faith alone” is enough for salvation or whether “faith plus works” is what the Bible teaches.


Let’s take a brief tour of three major ways Christians have approached faith. Some of the church fathers (in the early centuries after Christ) taught that faith was a gift of God that illumined the human mind so that people could believe the truth. 2 They receive an ability to see things that enable them to make a good choice. This approach emphasizes the mental content of belief. Similarly, a scholastic approach supposed that true faith is mental agreement concerning the truth of certain statements, e.g., about God, Jesus, and other matters presented in Christian teaching. Together these theories may be called “intellectual” approaches. 3

This concept of faith recognized that there is an important intellectual element to embracing what is true. However, such an approach may be challenged on the grounds that it focuses narrowly on the mind rather than considering the whole person. Also, such views may partner with a nonbiblical dualism between mind and body, celebrating the former as superior and devaluing the latter as somehow evil or inferior. {75}

A second approach is called “fiducial” after the Latin term for faith, fides. The emphasis in this approach is reliance upon God. The intellectual approach focuses on what God has said and done in the past, while the fiducial approach focuses on the future, a trust and hope that God will make all things work out for good. Those who advocate this understanding of faith, such as Martin Luther, tend to focus on the individual and his or her relationship with God. The strength of this theory is the intimacy it promotes between a person and God, and its confidence in the ability of God to deliver the person from their difficulties. It is a reaction against the potential coldness of intellectual theories and against any approach to faith that stresses the necessity of human action as part of salvation.

However, it also fails to embrace the whole person, partly by ignoring the mind but further by discounting actions of obedience. By devaluing the mind, it makes possible a kind of blind emotionalism that is shallow in content. By devaluing obedience, it promotes a fear that concern for faithful action involves an attempt to earn one’s salvation. Dietrich Bonhoeffer accused this approach of promoting “cheap grace” that simply relies on Christ to do everything. It does not explain why Jesus put so much emphasis on discipleship and obedience. This approach also seems at odds with the Old Testament prophets and John the Baptist who called people to repent and to practice a righteous lifestyle. Proponents of this approach often insist that good actions follow genuine faith, but that faith itself does not include actions. 4

Finally, a third approach to faith is the “performative.” This approach does not necessarily reject what is provided by the intellectual and fiducial theories, but it emphasizes that obedient action is a part of faith, not something that may simply follow or be an optional aspect of genuine faith. Advocated by liberation theologians as a corrective to both an emphasis on the mind and an individualistic reliance upon trust, it has the potential to help Christians recognize all the dimensions of faith. The performative approach, however, risks the message that salvation must be earned. Yet, reflecting on all three of these historic approaches—intellectual, fiducial, performative—may help us appreciate a fresh understanding of faith altogether. 5


The three theories described above each offer an aspect of biblical faith that is indispensable. And each approach, if taken in isolation, results in a distortion that has harmful consequences. The following illustration may help. Let’s say that a man is sick and seriously hurting. He wants to get better, and he considers going to a local doctor. If he places his faith in the doctor, this faith will involve three important elements. First, he must be {76} convinced in his mind that this person really is a credible medical doctor and is qualified to treat his illness. For example, he may confirm that his friends have had positive experiences with the doctor, and may investigate to verify that this physician did indeed graduate from a credentialed medical school and has a license to practice in his state. Second, he will need to follow the doctor’s instructions, which usually means doing or not doing something, such as taking a prescription or avoiding certain foods. Finally, he will trust what the doctor has to offer him. This could mean setting aside his own ideas of what it would take to make himself better, and choosing the doctor’s assessment instead of what he might read on the Internet.

The point of this story is not that a person who goes to a doctor should accept everything the doctor says or never get a second opinion. This tale is designed to illustrate faith. To the extent that the man in the story has faith in the doctor, he will engage all three elements: thinking, doing, and trusting. If all three elements are not involved, there is a distortion of faith, or a weak or even a false faith. For example, if the man had no reason to believe the doctor was qualified to practice medicine, but mindlessly trusted and took the prescriptions anyway, we might call him gullible. If the man bought the medicine but never took it, we would also question whether he really had confidence in the doctor’s plan to help him get well.

Finally, if the man knew the doctor was qualified, and took the prescribed medicine, and yet kept searching medical journals and Internet sites, kept making appointments with additional doctors for their advice, we would think the man mistrusted either the doctor’s competence or good intentions (Could the doctor be making money from prescription sales?). We could also wonder about the man’s motives for taking the medicine (Was it to get his wife to stop nagging?).

Simply stated, true faith in the doctor means (1) knowing why the doctor should be trusted, (2) doing what the doctor says, and (3) trusting the doctor’s competence and good intentions.


We may now consider how the Bible addresses each of the faith elements. 6 First, there is an important intellectual dimension to faith:

Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.” (Mark 8:27–29) {77}

Jesus said to [Martha], “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.” (John 11:25–27)

But these [stories of Jesus’s miracles] are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:31)

Christianity makes certain historical, moral, and cognitive claims and proposes them to people as a way of making sense of their lives. A life of faith involves being convinced that what the Bible teaches, especially about Jesus Christ, is true.

To avoid scholasticism, an illuminist approach to this aspect of faith is important. Such an approach is consistent with the recognition that salvation is always a gift of God’s grace. As Thomas Groome puts it, “[Faith] arises from an inner illumination which disposes a person to believe.” That is why we often hear people of faith say something like, “Once I was blind, but now I can see.” The person is able to recognize that certain things are true and to believe those things. So note that this belief is based upon evidence, just as your willingness to have faith in a doctor is based on certain kinds of evidence. Yet Groome cautions, “Christian faith is at least belief, but it must also be more than belief if it is to be a lived reality.” 7

Second, faith involves performance or doing. The will of God must be done by loving God and loving one’s neighbor as oneself (Matt 22:37–38). God is in the process of creating new people who can live this way. The verse that follows Ephesians 2:8–9 (quoted below) about being saved by grace reads:

For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Eph 2:10)

The apostle Paul understood that faith acts itself out. That is why his great letter to the Roman Christians—in which faith and God’s grace is so strongly emphasized—begins and concludes with references to the “obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5; 16:26 ESV; see also 15:18). In Groome’s words, the faith is in the doing, not somehow separate from it. This is why Jesus insisted, {78}

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. (Matt 7:21).


For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (Matt 6:14–15)

The call of God on our lives means to engage lovingly with the world, for the sake of the world, so that God’s will might be done there.

Finally, Christian faith has an important trust dimension. Trust concerns the motive for what a person does. For Christianity, this dimension takes the form of a relationship of trust and confidence in a personal God who saves through Jesus Christ. Believers express their trust by means of loyalty, love, and attachment to this God. Because God is faithful, we confidently reject other forms of security, such as other saviors and even our own work. It is the redemptive work of Christ that saves us:

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. (Eph 2:8–9)

Realization of God’s power, our dependence on that power, and God’s faithfulness to us can lead to trust, awe, wonder, reverence, adoration, gratitude, and petition on our part. Our confidence and trust in God leads us to realize and remember that the kingdom is a blessing, and it has already come in Jesus Christ. Salvation has been won for us.

For these reasons we can live our lives with joy, peace, and happiness. Jesus came that we might have life and have it to the full (John 10:10). He came that his joy might be ours and our joy might be complete (John 15:11). 8


When we recognize the importance of all three faith elements, it is not surprising that when one or more are devalued, problems arise. Examples of such “faith distortions” are found in the chart below. Each of these five possibilities is addressed several times in the Bible as the references indicate. {79}

  1. Mostly Intellect or Trust, lacking (godly) Action


We lack a sense of accountability to God and also miss the transformation of our character God is trying to do in us. Matt 23:2–3; Rom 12:1–2; James 2:19

  1. Mostly Intellect, lacking Trust and/or Action


We play an academic, often prideful and contentious intellectual game. 1 Cor 3:18–21; 8:1; 1 Tim 6:20–21; 2 Tim 2:23–26; 1 John 3:18

  1. Mostly Action, lacking Intellect


We become addicted to work and don’t know why we are doing it. Disorientation. Eccl 4:7–8; Matt 11:28; Mark 6:31

  1. Mostly Action, lacking Trust


We fail to recognize the extent of our sinfulness and attempt to earn our salvation by the things we do. Fear, manipulation, pride. Rom 3:21–31; Eph 2:8–10; Heb 9:14

  1. Mostly Trust, lacking Intellect


We operate primarily on feelings and are vulnerable to any new idea that comes around. Eph 4:14; 1 John 2:22–23 {80}

Perhaps it is now evident how Paul and James can seem to be at odds with each other about faith when they actually embrace the same understanding: they are speaking to groups in danger of different faith distortions. Paul is speaking to people who need reminding that salvation is a gift and that their faith must be in God’s Messiah. Therefore he emphasizes trust—justification by faith in Jesus rather than by works of the law (Rom 3:28). Likewise, his complex teaching about the identity of Jesus and many other topics demonstrates that Paul addressed people’s minds as well. And, as noted above, his mission is to accomplish the “obedience of faith,” so action is also included (Rom 1:5; 16:26).

James, on the other hand, spoke to people who needed reminding that faith involves action. So he emphasizes the action aspect of faith in his writing:

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (James 1:27)

And yet it is also clear that James understands salvation to be a gift:

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of first fruits of all he created. (James 1:17–18, emphases added)

Paul expresses this somewhat paradoxical reality of God’s involvement with human beings this way:

For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him. (Phil 2:13 NLT)

The good news of the gospel is that God is transforming us so we can live out the vision God had for us when the human race was first created.


We have been considering how faith in God as discussed in the Bible is similar to other experiences we have of faith. When we place our faith in a doctor, in a friend, or in a company, we normally employ all three of the indispensable elements: belief, trust, and action. We do not make the choice of faith without evidence. But on the other hand, neither do we have definitive proof about whether a doctor will diagnose correctly, or our {81} friend will treat our car with respect. The three elements are not so much something we must try to “balance.” Rather, whenever one seems to be weak, it indicates that our faith is weak.

And when we consider faith in the God of the Bible, the implications of these factors become much greater. Christianity claims that we must commit ourselves to the One who created us, who is our ultimate Judge, and who died for us, showing how much we are loved. If Christianity is correct, our eternal destiny is determined by whether or not we make this commitment.

But we may sometimes wonder whether Christianity actually is correct. If faith means taking a risk, it is not surprising that we sometimes wonder whether faith in God is really justified. How do we know God can be trusted? How do we even know God exists? Can we be sure that we should risk our entire life to follow Jesus Christ?

Doubts like these are not only normal, they are important to face and to think about. Such questions do not necessarily mean a lack of faith. In fact, they may indicate that we are open to faith, or that our faith is trying to hang on and grow in maturity. Anyone who wishes to be a follower of Jesus with integrity is bound to face challenges in his or her spiritual walk, and being sure we have placed our faith in the right object is one of them.

In this regard, several points are important to consider. First, as we have noted, faith in God as the Bible presents it is not committing to something without evidence. When lamenting a person’s or community’s lack of faith, God often mentions how they turned away despite all the evidence given (Isa 5:1–4; Jer 7:25–26; cf. Matt 11:20–24). God did not expect them to act in faith without reasons.

Second, Jesus gives us a clue why people can fail in the midst of adequate evidence. In one of his parables, he spoke about the seed of God’s Word being scattered. When it landed on good soil, it took root and produced a good harvest (Mark 4:1–20). This suggests that the receptivity of the person makes a difference. Faith, in other words, has a moral dimension. A person must be willing to believe the good news. As Jesus said, “Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own” (John 7:17).

Third, sometimes situations arise that do not make sense. The Bible tells a number of stories of people facing bewildering circumstances. Typically they try to remain faithful but are driven to cry out to God in anger or frustration (e.g., Hab 1:2–4). It is significant that God does not harshly judge such people (e.g., Num 11:10–17; Job 42:7–8; Jer 12). The difficulty of their situation is acknowledged, and they are encouraged to continue to trust God on the basis of their previous experience of God’s dependability.

Fourth, often the most significant evidence that God provides comes {82} through the testimony of those who speak from their own experience. The Bible itself is full of such testimony (e.g., John 20:30–31; 21:24). The person confronted with this evidence must then decide whether the testimony and the witness have integrity. And an important part of such deliberation is being honest about one’s own openness to whatever the truth may be.

Finally, the decision to make a commitment regarding that which is of greatest importance or ultimate concern has been helpfully described in a kind of weather parable. William James (drawing from Fitz James Stephen) likens the situation to a person stuck in a blinding snowstorm. It is simply not an option to stand there and do nothing; the person would soon freeze to death. Rather, one must risk choosing one possible path or another in hope of finding shelter. 9

As human beings in the midst of life’s storms, we likewise do not have the luxury of doing nothing. We must decide where we will put our ultimate faith. To make that choice wisely means using as much evidence as possible. Fortunately, we have testimony from those able to point us to the right path. We thus have good reason to take the necessary risk to find the shelter we so desperately need.


Faith in Jesus Christ means repenting—turning away from sinful behavior and other objects of faith—and turning to him. It means knowing who Jesus is, entrusting ourselves into his care, and doing what he says. Such repentance involves having our sins forgiven, joining his people, and learning to be better followers of Jesus as we start a new life.

Just how faith in Jesus begins for a person—this commitment to him as Lord—is something of a mystery. It is quite personal and a bit different for each person, as is reflected in believers’ testimonies. For those committed to faith in Christ, it is beneficial to recognize its three essential elements, and to make sure that they are alive and healthy. Groome summarizes:

Lived Christian faith has at least three essential activities: believing, trusting, and doing. While they can be distinguished for the sake of clarity, they cannot be separated in the life of the Christian community as if any one of them could exist alone or have priority over the others. Undoubtedly, there are times and circumstances when one dimension will receive more apparent emphasis than the others. And there are individual Christians who by disposition tend to take their life stance more within one dimension or another (for instance, the professional theologian, the contemplative, the social activist). But as a lived reality, the faith life of the community, and to some extent the faith life of every Christian, must include all three activities. 10 {83}

Typically when people first come to faith, they understand only the basics. And as a starting point, that’s enough. As Augustine famously said in a reflection on John 7:17, “Understanding is the reward of faith. Therefore do not seek to understand in order to believe, but believe that you may understand.” 11 Faith in God begins with a willingness to believe. Growth in Christian faith involves growth in its understanding dimension, as with the other dimensions as well. As we realize how far we have to go, we should plead, like the father whose son was ill, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).


  1. Except where otherwise indicated, Bible translations are from the 2011 New International Version.
  2. Also later, John Calvin. See his Institutes of the Christian Religion, I, v, 14.
  3. Avery Dulles, “The Meaning of Faith Considered in Relationship to Justice,” in John C. Haughey, ed., The Faith That Does Justice: Examining the Christian Sources for Social Change (New York: Paulist, 1977), 14–22.
  4. Ibid., 22–31.
  5. Ibid., 32–44.
  6. This section owes much to Thomas Groome, Christian Religious Education: Sharing Our Story and Vision (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1980), 56–69.
  7. Ibid., 61.
  8. Ibid., 61–62.
  9. William James, The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (New York: Dover, 1956), 31.
  10. Groome, 65–66.
  11. Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John, 29.
Douglas B. Miller is Professor of Biblical and Religious Studies at Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kansas.

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