“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. By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks. By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death, and he was not found, because God had taken him. Now before he was taken he was commended as having pleased God. And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.”
As Christians, we know that faith is important. We are saved by God’s grace through faith. We repeat the slogan of the Reformation: Grace alone, Faith alone, Scripture alone. We understand that we cannot please God without faith. Through faith, we are right with God and our entire lives are pleasing to him. But, using the word “faith” so often, we sometimes forget to stop and define the word “faith,” to understand what we mean when we use the word “faith.”
Searching the Scriptures for a definition of faith, some Christians have settled upon Hebrews 11:1—“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the convictions of things not seen.” This verse is a good description of faith, but a good description is not a definition. For example, I could describe a golf ball as small, round, and with a hard surface. I could also describe a chicken egg as small, round, and with a hard surface. Those descriptions are accurate, but we had better not treat a golf ball like a chicken egg, or treat a chicken egg like a golf ball. In the same way, hoping for things and being convinced of unseen things describes faith, but not all hope and conviction is saving Christian faith.
To some people, it does not matter what you believe, so long as you believe something. To those people, all religions are the same. Jews and Christians and Muslims all believe in a God, so they must all believe in the same God. Hindus and Buddhists also have faith, so their faith must be just as good. In fact, if someone chooses to believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, that faith is equally valid as any other religion. Most people who begin with that vague description of faith end up believing in themselves. They trust their own minds to tell them what is true. They trust their own hearts to tell them what is important. They trust their own actions to earn rewards for them on earth and in heaven. This faith, they think, is good enough. As long as they have faith, they have everything they need.
The same writer who told us that faith is assurance of things hoped for and conviction of things not seen proceeds to give us examples of faith. All these examples come from the Old Testament. The list of examples might remind us of Sunday School or Vacation Bible school, where we first learned about Noah and Abraham and other heroes who trusted God and served God and were pictures of how we should trust and serve God today. Looking at these heroes, we gain more understanding of faith. We gain more understanding of what it means to be saved by God’s grace alone through faith alone.
But even these pictures can be misunderstood if we study them only for conviction and hope. We try to understand faith by seeing the faith of these heroes from ancient times. We try to understand faith by looking at Christians today. We try to understand faith by looking at ourselves and asking if we have faith. We might see faith and hear faith and feel faith. We see faith in the faithful things done by believers. Noah built an ark. Abraham traveled to Canaan and waited for his promised son to be born. We hear faith in the words people speak. When we study the creeds of the Church, we hear words of hope and conviction being spoken. We might find faith shaping our feelings, as we feel hope and conviction in our minds and in our hearts. But actions and words and feelings might still confuse us. We might continue to struggle, trying to identify genuine faith, trying to separate it from faith in the wrong god or faith in one’s own self.
To define faith, instead of merely describing faith, we must remember that faith is a relationship between ourselves and God. Those who have faith trust God. We trust God’s promises. We trust that those promises have been fulfilled by Jesus Christ, God’s Son. We do not begin this relationship. God began this relationship in us. He sent his Spirit to us, so we would know and confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. God grants us faith so we can be his people, his saints. He grants us faith so we can do the things that saints do as the people belonging to God.
Consider the example of Abel. He was the son of Adam and Eve, but he had an older brother named Cain. We read in Genesis that Cain and Abel both offered sacrifices to God. God accepted the sacrifice of Abel but rejected the sacrifice of Cain. Genesis does not give us information about why God preferred Abel’s sacrifice. Many writers and preachers have said that Abel gave God the best of what he had, but Cain offered only a portion of what he had, not his best. This sounds sensible, but that answer is not complete. From the letter to the Hebrews, we learn that Abel’s sacrifice was acceptable to God because Abel offered his sacrifice through faith. His sacrifice, given through faith, made him righteous in the sight of God. Cain went through the proper motions, giving a sacrifice to God, but going through the motions is not good enough. Cain did not have faith, even though he was offering a sacrifice to God. His focus was not on the promises of God, the hope offered by God’s promises. His focus was on himself, on the actions he was performing. For that reason, his sacrifice was not accepted.
From Genesis, we know the earthly results of that difference. Cain struck out in anger against his brother Abel and murdered Abel. This was the first murder in history and the first physical death of a human being. When God questioned Cain about Abel, Cain tried to hide his sin. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” he asked God. Of course, we are all responsible for the welfare of our brothers and sisters and neighbors. We should love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Cain deserved judgment for his sin, but God marked Cain so that Cain would not be punished by the rest of his family. Abel, meanwhile, was dead. His body was left behind on earth; his soul waits in Paradise for the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting in a new and sinless world. Because Abel had faith, we have confidence of his citizenship in that new world.
We know less about Enoch than we know about Abel. His name appears in that line of ancestors that runs from Adam to Abraham and from Abraham down to Christ. We also know that unlike Abel, unlike most people, Enoch did not die. He walked with God, the book of Genesis reports, and then he was not. He left this world without dying, ascending into heaven as Elijah later ascended into heaven. Jesus also ascended into heaven, but only after dying and then rising again on the third day. Those three men had their bodies taken into heaven, while the rest of us leave our bodies buried on earth when our souls depart and go to Paradise. But we know the reason Enoch had this special blessing from God: Enoch had faith in God. Through faith, Enoch was found pleasing to God. The book of Hebrews reminds us that without faith, it is impossible to please God. We can do many good works, but if we do them while measuring ourselves for our own goodness, those good works do not count in God’s records. We see the good works of the saints and know that they have faith; God sees the faith in the hearts of his saints and calls them righteous. Therefore, because of their faith, he rewards their good works. Some people keep score. They want to tell God how many good deeds they have done for them. To those people, on Judgment Day, Jesus will say, “Go away; I never knew you.” But when he welcomes believers into his new creation, he will mention their good works, and those believers will say, “When did we do those good things?” They were not keeping score, because their faith was focused on Jesus and not on themselves. Their hope was in Jesus, not in themselves. Their conviction was in the promises of Jesus and the things Jesus did; their conviction was not about their own actions or words or feelings. We know the saints by their good works, but we know our place among the saints by our confidence in Jesus—not by the things we do for Jesus.
Noah is famous for the things he did. Following the instructions of God, he built an ark. He began building that ark long before the first raindrops fell. He had a warning from God, and Noah also had the conviction that God’s warning was true, not an empty threat. He followed God’s instructions, building the ark, condemning the sinfulness of the world in which he lived, and providing a way to save the lives of those who believed in God. Only eight people were saved on that ark—Noah, his wife, their three sons, and the wives of those sons. God also sent to Noah representatives of all the animals of the earth so they could survive the flood and fill the earth. For a year, these eight people and all these animals lived on the ark. The earth was covered with water. Sinners drowned, and the results of their sinful lives were washed off the surface of the earth. Noah and his family landed in a new world, ready to start a new life. This new world was not without sin; Noah himself sinned in the new world. But the promises of God remained true. Noah, in his obedience, preserved life in the world and carried that life into a new world. Noah, by his faith, was considered worthy by God, worthy to survive the washing of the world and to begin again in the new world. We also, like Noah, will enter a new world, purified by fire rather than by water. We will enter that new world because, by faith, we have been found worthy. By faith, we have become heirs of righteousness. By faith, we have been claimed by God and promised eternal life in his new creation.
By building the ark, Noah became a savior. He was a picture of Jesus Christ, the true Savior. Noah’s wooden ark saved lives and carried them into a new world. The wooden cross on which Jesus suffered and died saves our lives and carries us into a new world. Noah lived in a sinful world, but he saw that world washed clean of sin by the water of the flood. We also live in a sinful world, but our sins are washed away by the water of Holy Baptism. Through the gift of Baptism, we are guaranteed forgiveness and eternal life. We pass through the water of Baptism into a new world, being granted new life in Christ. Our faith is not in the water; water does not save us. Our faith is in the promises of Jesus and in the work Jesus did to keep those promises. Because we have faith in Jesus, we are saved through Baptism and made heirs of eternal life in a new world.
Enoch walked with God. He pleased God by his life, but that holy life was only acceptable to God through faith. We also walk with God through faith. We confess our sins to God, knowing by faith that those sins are forgiven by the sacrifice of Jesus. Enoch left the world in a special way, not passing through death and the grave. But our Savior, Jesus Christ, passed through death and the grave, making that path through the valley of the shadow of death a highway we may travel. Walking with Jesus, we survive this sinful world. Walking with Jesus, we cross the valley of death and find our home with God in a new world. We will live with him forever in that new creation, being raised by Jesus so we can be his people forever.
We walk with Jesus on earth. When we die, we will be like Abel, leaving our bodies behind on earth but waiting in Paradise for the resurrection to eternal life. Abel, the first murder victim, was not silent even on earth after he had been killed. God told Cain that his brother’s blood was crying out for justice. But Abel, having faith in God, became a picture of our Savior even as Noah in his obedience was a picture of our Savior. Jesus also was a victim of sin and evil. The blood of Jesus also cries to his Father. But while Abel’s blood cried out for justice, the blood of Jesus cries out for mercy. The blood of Jesus cries out for our forgiveness. The blood of Jesus marks us, not as murderers, but as saints. Washed clean in the blood of the Lamb, we are called righteous by God, made heirs of eternal life.
Abel offered a sacrifice that was pleasing to God because he offered his sacrifice in faith. His sacrifice was a picture of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, the sacrifice that removes all our sins and makes us acceptable in the sight of God. We identify true faith, saving faith, when we see that it focuses on the sacrifice of Jesus and not on the things we do. Being cleansed by God’s grace through faith, we strive to imitate Jesus. Being made acceptable to God through the sacrifice of Jesus, we make every effort to live as God’s people. But our faith, our hope, our conviction, focuses always on Jesus and not on ourselves.
By God’s grace, we are saved through faith. This faith brings us conviction that God’s promises are true and hope that we belong to God forever. This hope will not fail us, because God always keeps his promises. To our Savior Jesus Christ be thanks and praise and glory and honor, now and forever.