We must be prepared to contend for God as our Creator and all that it entails. We are not cosmic accidents that must build our own meaning in life; we are fearfully and wonderfully made. We are wonderfully made because of the special attention that the Creator placed in making humanity. We are fearfully made because of the responsibility and accountability that He has also placed upon us. Neither are we the products of an impersonal god. Our greatest hope is not to align ourselves more fully with the universe but to know our Creator and be known by Him. Such a task is rightly both wonderful and fearful.
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation. By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.
Hebrews 11:1-3 ESV
Albert Einstein once wrote:
I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the type of which we are conscious in ourselves. An individual who should survive his physical death is also beyond my comprehension, nor do I wish it otherwise; such notions are for the fears or absurd egoism of feeble souls. In their struggle for the ethical good, teachers of religion must have the stature to give up the doctrine of a personal God, that is, give up that source of fear and hope which in the past places such vast power in the hands of priests… The further the spiritual evolution of mankind advances, the more certain it seems to me that the path to genuine religiosity does not lie through the fear of life, and the fear of death, and blind faith, but through striving after rational knowledge.
Although Einstein conceded the probable existence of an impersonal, transcendent deity, his emphasis upon striving only toward rational knowledge rather than “blind faith” is the materialistic philosophy that has governed modern thinking since the Enlightenment. Interestingly, Einstein did admit that not everything could be rationalized; indeed, he “considered the comprehensibility of the world to be a miracle, an eternal mystery, which atheist have no hope of explaining.” Of course, if the world did come into existence purely by chance, then we have no reason whatsoever to expect it to be comprehensible and to adhere to laws of reason. Yet here it is. Somehow. Making every discovery, as Einstein says, a miracle.
Recognizing many of the inconsistencies of the materialistic worldview, it is increasingly popular to openly profess faith in the kind of impersonal deity that Einstein somewhat believed in. Taking a cue from Hinduism and Buddhism, that deity is often simply called the universe or perhaps Mother Earth, as environmentalism increasingly reveals its own religiosity. And its popularity can be seen in current trends such as the resurgence of manifesting on TikTok, which was an idea that became popular in the 2000s through The Secret. Sadly, the word of faith movement baptized manifesting and called it Christian.
Despite what some claim, there is no lack of faith today; rather, there is a great deal of it. of course, the real question is what kind of faith, and, more importantly, faith in what?
As we begin Hebrew’s magisterial chapter on faith, let us pray for the Spirit’s enlightenment to behold true faith, that by it we may behold our God.
What Is Faith? // Verse 1
So far in the sermon-letter called Hebrews, we have concluded the very great explanation at the heart of the epistle on the superior priesthood of Jesus. From that extended and essential teaching, the author gave us three commands: draw near to God, hold fast our confession, and stir up one another to love and good works. He then proceeded to stir us up first with a stern and sober warning followed by a rousing word of comfort and encouragement. In that word, the author sought to strengthen his readers for endurance in the faith by setting their eyes backward onto their previous faithfulness under affliction and forward onto the blessed hope of Christ’s return to “save those who eagerly wait for him” (9:28). Our previous text concluded with a citation from Habakkuk 2:3-4, which spoke of God’s righteous ones who live by faith and also those who shrink back in fear and are destroyed. The final verse rings like a coach’s speech before a big game: “But we are not those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls” (10:39).
That great rallying cry flows directly into chapter 11, which is one of the most beloved passages of Scripture. Often called the Hall of Faith, the author will take us through several examples of Old Testament saints who did not shrink back from the task that God set before them; rather, they had faith and preserved their souls. They each held fast to God’s great promise, even they did not receive those promises in their lifetimes. They drew near to God by faith and walked in obedience to Him, despite the unbelief of the world around them. Yet these great examples of persevering faith properly begin in verse 4. Here in these first three verses, the author establishes for us what faith is (v. 1), why it is vital (v. 2), and where it must begin (v. 3).
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
This first verse is often set forth as the biblical definition of faith, and it certainly is. However, we should take care to note that this is not an exhaustive definition of faith. The author is not giving us a dictionary definition; he is giving us a definition in motion with the flow of his argument. A more exhaustive definition of faith might be what we read in Question 21 of the Heidelberg Catechism:
Q. What is true faith?
A. It is not only a certain knowledge, whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in His Word; but also an hearty trust, which the Holy Spirit works in me by the gospel, that not only to others, but to me also, forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness, and salvation, are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.
The verse before certainly matches that definition, yet notice that the author of Hebrews clearly desires to emphasize that faith is what is not yet present or visible. Indeed, there are two clauses in this verse that both flow from the opening words ‘Now faith is…” Thus, we are meant to understand this verse as saying to us: “now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, and faith is the conviction of things not seen.” The first is temporal faith, and the second is spatial faith.
The author has repeatedly emphasized the unseen reality of Christ’s present rule over all creation at the right hand of the Father until His enemies are made a footstool for His feet. Although Stephen and John were privileged to be given a supernatural vision of the reigning Christ, they are as exceptional as Enoch was with death, and none of us should expect to receive such a sight. Instead, it is a present reality that is as invisible to us as the angels that are undoubtedly worshiping alongside us this morning.
As the Heidelberg noted, the forgiveness of our sins must also be received by faith. Although there are outward fruits of having such a faith and baptism is a visible symbol of our forgiveness in Christ, our salvation fundamentally comes through hearing the word of the gospel and trusting truly in Christ’s once for all sacrifice to pay the debt of our sins. The gospel must be heard, not seen.
As we noted last week, the return of Christ is the most essential thing for which we hope. Faith is required to place our assurance in that glorious Day that will arrive at a time known only to God. Yet upon that Day, we also have a multitude of hopes attached. We have hope in the resurrection of our physical bodies yet in a glorified state that will be incapable of sinning any longer. We have hope in God’s judgment of the wicked, of His execution of vengeance upon all who continued in their rebellion against Him. We have hope in the creation of a new heavens and a new earth, in which God Himself will dwell forevermore in visible midst of His people. Indeed, we have hope in the beatific vision, that we will see our Lord face to face, and, in that sight, all sad things will come untrue.
Both future promises and present invisibilities require faith since they lie beyond the material realm. However, notice that the author’s point is most certainly not that faith is a blind leap into the dark. As Hughes writes, “True faith is neither brainless nor a sentimental feeling. It is a solid conviction resting on God’s words that makes the future present and the invisible seen.” Indeed, faith is the instrument by which we latch ourselves onto truths that are larger than our own empirical experience. As Dennis Johnson notes:
Most translations present this verse as describing the subjective experience of faith as “assurance” and “conviction.” The Greek terms chosen by our author focus instead on the objective reality of faith and could perhaps be translated, “Faith is the reality [substance] of things hoped for, the evidence that proves things unseen” (cff. KJV, NKJV)… Here he has chosen “reality/substance” and paired it with a term that refers to a legal argument substantiated by evidence (elenchos; Job 13:6; 16:21; 23:7 LXX). Faith goes beyond our internal attitudes to put us in touch with realities that are “not seen” (because they are still future; 11:7; cf. Rom. 8:24).