What is faith in the Bible? The Bible teaches us to place our faith in Jesus, which means to believe what Jesus says, trust in Jesus to save you from your sins, and place your allegiance in Jesus as king. Faith is what we give in response to God’s grace. Ephesians 2:8 says, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith.”
Faith has many faces. It is a father saying to his eight-year-old son, “I believe in you.” It is a couple with trembling hands renewing their vows on their fiftieth anniversary. It is a defendant sitting before a judge pleading, “You gotta believe me.” It is a marketing campaign for a vehicle declaring it to be trustworthy.
So before we can ever know what biblical faith is, we have to know where it begins. In the realm of religion, outsiders often see faith as blind belief. For insiders it can be a divine mystery that God somehow embeds in our innermost selves. For fundamentalists it can be a standard set of doctrines to which one adheres. Faith, from different perspectives, can migrate from our heads, to our hearts, to our hands.
With all these options on the table, perhaps it would be best to define faith from the Bible. After all, if God is the one calling us to faith, perhaps it would be responsible to ask, “What does he mean by faith?”
The Meaning of Faith
The Greek word for faith is pistis. It is typically translated as “faith” or “belief” or “faithfulness.” In the time “of the New Testament, it was not a word primarily focused on the interior thoughts and feelings of an individual, but rather on relationships. It was used in relational circles to indicate trust, trustworthiness, faithfulness, and good faith. The word has a range of meaning, including “belief,” “trust,” and “confidence,” along with “allegiance,” “fidelity,” and “faithfulness.” Take a look at a few passages that show the different connotations of this word in a few different contexts.
What is faith in the Bible? “It was not a word primarily focused on the interior thoughts and feelings of an individual, but rather on relationships.”
In the following passage, pistis means “confidence” and “assurance” in God and his promises: “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1). In the next passage, pistis means “faithfulness” to God as a fruit of the Holy Spirit’s work in a person’s life: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness” (Galatians 5:22). And in the next passage, pistis means the content of Christianity, as the Greek puts the word “the” in front of faith.
“Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt compelled to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people.” (Jude v. 3)
What is faith in the Bible? “I felt compelled to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people.”
We spend time in the book Faithful Faith (of which this article is an excerpt) exploring the various nuances of what it means for a person to have faith, with a special focus on what Jesus teaches us in the Gospels. We will see that the words “fidelity” and “allegiance” reflect a crucial way that pistis was used in the New Testament and first century. A disciple is someone who both trusts and follows Jesus and thereby gives their fidelity and allegiance to God through him.
In or Of?
To further illustrate the significance of how we understand “faith,” let’s look at an important debate within New Testament scholarship. There is a phrase used in the New Testament that could mean either our “faith in Christ” or the “faithfulness of Christ.” That’s a pretty big difference, isn’t it? The debate focuses on the little Greek word tou. The phrase pistis tou Christou (“faith of/in Christ”) is ambiguous, and it is the center of the conversation.
Let’s take, for example, Galatians 2:16, which says, “Know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ.” Some theologians translate it “faith in Christ” (along with the ESV and NASB), yet others go with “faithfulness of Christ” (along with the ISV and NET). Prior to Martin Luther’s German translation, translators left the phrase ambiguous. Luther chose the interpretive translation of “faith in Christ” (the German equivalent of this phrase) because he believed that the Christian was responsible, in part, for their own salvation.
Translations have differed over time because a grammatical case can be made for either translation and because theologians differ in their beliefs about a human’s responsibility in salvation. Does our faith in Christ save us, or is it Christ’s fidelity to God that saves us? Is faith given or chosen? Is faith a condition or a response?
What is faith in the Bible? “Does our faith in Christ save us, or is it Christ’s fidelity to God that saves us? Is faith given or chosen?”
These monumental questions can set us up for a continental divide of sorts. A raindrop that lands one inch to the west of the divide ends up in the Pacific Ocean, while one that lands one inch to the east of the divide goes to the Atlantic. The same can be true concerning the interpretation of pistis tou Christou. This little word tou goes in very different directions depending on how we read it.
People favor the “faithfulness of Christ” interpretation for compelling reasons; for example, such a translation might help avoid some potential repetitiveness in the text (as we see in Galatians 2:16, which says, “We, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ”). “Faithfulness of Christ” is also attractive in that it places the emphasis less on our response and more on Christ himself. The logical result is for us to respond by living out the same type of faithfulness that Jesus demonstrated.
“Christ’s faithfulness” is grammatically possible, and Christ indeed showed us the epitome of faithfulness (Hebrews 3:6). Yet I personally find “faith in Christ” to be the better translation. The translation “faithfulness of Christ” isn’t found in the works of the earliest commentators, who would have been more familiar with Paul’s Greek than we are today. Faith in Galatians is illustrated by the story of Abraham, who “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness” (Galatians 3:6). If the focus were on “Christ’s faithfulness,” that might work against Paul’s usage of Abraham as an example of faith in Galatians. Likewise, our faith in God makes us Abraham’s descendants (Galatians 3:9) and allows us to receive the Holy Spirit (Galatians 3:14).
What is faith in the Bible? “The word typically translated “faith” is a multifaceted word that can leave even trustworthy New Testament scholars debating among themselves.”
However we interpret the phrase, let’s not miss the point: The word typically translated “faith” is a multifaceted word that can leave even trustworthy New Testament scholars debating among themselves. And while we’re at it, let’s remind ourselves of an even more important point: Regardless of how a particular phrase in Galatians, Romans, etc., is translated, the New Testament perpetually calls us deeper into faith in Jesus. The persistence and magnitude of this call to faith underscore the importance of putting in the work to understand what we are being called to. In our pursuit of faith, let’s look in the next section at how the definition of faith has changed since New Testament times.
The Evolution of “Faith”
The definition of faith evolved, in part, to the rise of science and modernity. Consider some of the changes Europe underwent since the late Middle Ages. In the thirteenth century, the works of Plato, Aristotle, and Ptolemy were brought back to Europe by Crusaders. Cathedral schools began to be replaced by universities. The Holy Roman Empire was declining and would eventually be replaced by nation-states. Then came the French Revolution in the late 1700s. The result of this revolution was the emergence of a secular state governed by the will of its citizens and based on rationalism. In this environment, religion lost its place in the public square. The rise of rationalism and science led to the questioning of everything, including the Bible.
What is faith in culture? “One reaction by Christians to the increasing dominance of secular philosophy was to recast faith as something more emotional than rational.”
One reaction by Christians to the increasing dominance of secular philosophy was to recast faith as something more emotional than rational. Søren Kierkegaard was a Danish philosopher considered to be the first existentialist. He was also a theologian and a poet. He couldn’t ignore the march of science, but neither could he ignore his experiential faith. So to answer both, he tried to bridge science and religion. The result was that faith came to be characterized as a leap in the dark. As culture became increasingly secular, trust in the Bible continued down the path of being more emotive than intellectual.
To illustrate the consequence of this modern definition of faith, allow me to share a story. I once broached the topic of faith with my brother, who is proud to be called pagan. I was arguing for the historical veracity of the bodily resurrection of Jesus. He completely subverted the entire conversation, even though I explained why I believe what I believe. The apologetics, history, and documents didn’t matter to him. He said, “It’s good for you that you believe that; I just don’t believe that.” He treated faith simply as a feeling. His viewpoint was this: “You feel it, so it’s totally real and legitimate for you. I don’t feel it, so it’s totally illegitimate for me.”
What is faith in culture? “Fundamentalist Christians have moved the center of faith twelve inches north from the heart to the head.”
Fundamentalist Christians, on the other hand, have moved the center of faith twelve inches north from the heart to the head. This sort of rationalistic thinking replaces biblical faith with nothing more than cognitive volition. Paul G. Heibert notes in his book Transforming Worldviews that our Western tendency to separate reality into spiritual and physical means that our spiritual beliefs are likely to remain disconnected from real life. This tendency, he says:
“Has left many Western Christians with a spiritual schizophrenia. They believe in God and the cosmic history of creation, fall, redemption, final judgment, and new creation. This provides them with ultimate meaning and purpose in life. Yet they live in an ordinary world that they explain in naturalistic terms—one in which there is little room for God. They drive cars, use electricity, and ingest medicines—all products of scientific understandings that reinforce a scientific way of thinking.”
But mere cognitive volition is not what Jesus is after. As James pointed out, even the demons believe and shudder (James 2:19).
In our current climate, we need to move out of the siloed realms of emotion alone and intellect alone in order to be able to view and practice faith biblically. Faith is found not only in our hearts and heads but also in our hands. James says this much: “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17, ESV). The only true way to know if someone believes is by the way they live.
What is faith in the Bible? “Faith is found not only in our hearts and heads but also in our hands.”
Head, Heart, and Hands
I once knew a young Bible college student who was very proud of his faith in Jesus. Any time he entered a room, he would greet others enthusiastically by exclaiming, “Man of God! Man of God!” as he patted the shoulders of his friends and shook their hands. At face value, he appeared to be a great example of faith. Unfortunately, he was also known for cheating on his assignments, sexual immorality, frequent drunkenness, drug use, and hateful bigotry toward those who disagreed with him on social issues. Despite these serious character flaws, he was 100 percent confident that his “faith” in Jesus made him righteous.
This is a sad example of how faith has been hijacked in our culture. The young man lived this way because he assumed this kind of “faith” was acceptable. His “faith” was missing a key component of biblical faith. That component is fidelity.
What is faith in the Bible? “Faith is a responsibility, and perhaps the most fitting metaphor to use when describing faith is a marriage relationship.”
Faith is a responsibility, and perhaps the most fitting metaphor to use when describing faith is a marriage relationship. A marriage relationship starts when you meet someone, fall in love with them, commit to them, and by your actions demonstrate the commitment that is in your heart. Even non-believers recognize authenticity by action. You can talk the talk, but if you don’t walk the walk, you’re a fraud. As the saying goes, “Actions speak louder than words.”
James addresses this issue directly. In James 2:14–17, he references one who talks to a person in need, instead of actually helping them. This kind of behavior is evidence of a dead faith. An interesting parallel is found in 1 John. Speaking of love, John mirrors James’s words about faith in action. We learn in 1 John 3:14 that those who do not love abide in death. What does it mean to love? According to John, to love means to act in deed and truth, not just word or talk (1 John 3:16–18). According to James, to have faith means to perform good deeds, not just bless people with our mouths.
Action is the authentic expression of love and faith. Our actions demonstrate that we actually do love others and that we actually do have faith. John asks an important question in 1 John 3:16–17: Does God’s love even abide in someone who does not perform acts of love? The same question must be asked of faith: Does faith even abide in someone who does not perform good deeds?
What is faith in the Bible? “Does faith even abide in someone who does not perform good deeds?”
Our understanding of faith must be deepened. It’s not just a cognitive decision, even though our heads do play a part. It’s not just an emotional leap in the dark, although sometimes it does feel that way. Fidelity to our core convictions and commitments—to God himself—comes from our hearts and heads, but it is expressed through our hands. Authentic fidelity to Christ calls for nothing less.
 Teresa Morgan, Roman Faith and Christian Faith: Pistis and Fides in the Early Roman Empire and Early Churches (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).
 No translation has been found to contain “the faithfulness of Christ” before the eighteenth century. See George Brunk III, “Faith of Jesus Christ (in Galatians),” Anabaptistwiki, last modified April 3, 2017, https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=Faith_of_Jesus_Christ_(in_Galatians).
 Paul G. Hiebert, Transforming Worldviews (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 142.
 Hiebert, 154.”
Excerpted from Mark E. Moore, Faithful Faith: Reclaiming Faith from Culture and Tradition (Renew.org, 2021).