That little word is at the heart of Christian teaching.
"By grace you have been saved through faith" (Eph 2:8).
"If you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move" (Matt 17:20).
"I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (Gal 2:20).
"For we walk by faith, not by sight" (2 Cor 5:7).
"The righteous shall live be faith" (Hab 2:4/Rom 1:17).
It's everywhere—in our memory verses and our favorite songs, hanging on our walls at home, and even in a lot of our weddings ("Now faith, hope, and love abide, these three...").
But what does this important little word really mean?
In English, "faith" and "belief" are two different words. There's a verb, too: "believe." But in Greek, the language of the New Testament, there's just one word, pistis, which is translated in our Bibles, sometimes as "faith," sometimes as "belief" or (when it's used as a verb) "believe." Jesus talked about pistis like a mustard seed; we walk by pistis, not by sight. And in John 3:16 you also get a form of pistis: whosoever believes in him will not perish. That's the same word. So when we talk about "faith," a lot of times we're talking about belief. And "belief" usually has an intellectual sense: it's something that happens in your head, or maybe in your heart.
But we use faith in other ways, too. Sometimes when we talk about "faith," we mean something like 'trusting Jesus to save you'. It's not just a teaching that you mentally accept, like believing that Jesus was born of a virgin, but it's an active trust.
Then there are passages of scripture that make you wonder if faith is more than just belief, if it isn't really an interior thing at all. "Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead... You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe [pistis again]—and shudder" (Jas 2:17, 19). "The only thing that counts is faith working through love" (Gal 5:6).
Well, George MacDonald was convinced that that's right, that faith is about more than just believing something.
A few weeks back in my daily reader based on MacDonald's writings, Consuming Fire: The Inexorable Power of God's Love, he posed the question: What is faith in Christ?
I answer, the leaving of your way, your objects, your self, and the taking of his and of him; the leaving of your trust in men, in money, in opinion, in character, in atonement itself, and doing as he tells you. I can find no words strong enough to serve for the weight of this necessity—this obedience. It is the one terrible heresy of the church, that it has always been presenting something other than obedience as faith in Christ. (July 28th)He refuses to separate "faith" from following Jesus. He says, a little further on, that there's only one plan of salvation available to us, "to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ; that is, to take him for what he is—our master; and his words as if he meant them, which assuredly he did" (July 30th). The only way to take his words as if he meant them is to obey them, and the only way to take him as your master is to follow him.
George MacDonald was concerned that Christians send more time arguing over theology and questions of how someone can be saved than they spend taking up their crosses and following Christ. That can happen when you think faith is about having the right beliefs. And so MacDonald points us back to obedience, to faithfully following Jesus.
It reminds me of the end of Jesus' sermon on the plain in the gospel of Luke. After calling his followers to turn the other cheek, to give to anyone who begs from you, to love their enemies, and to quit judging and groping for the speck in their brothers' eyes, Jesus simply asks: "Why do you call me 'Lord, Lord,' and do not do what I tell you?" (Luke 6:46)