FAITH HAS MANY FACETS. Some of them emerge in Hebrews 11—and also what faith isn’t.
(1) Not once does “faith” take on the modern sense of “religious preference” or “belief without grounding in fact or truth.” So much has scientism brainwashed our world in this respect that we easily think of “faith” in this purely subjective sense. If you tell others what you believe, they do not ask you what your reasons are to determine whether or not your belief is well grounded. It is automatically assumed that such faith cannot be more than religious preference, for which there are, by definition, no useful criteria.
(2) By contrast, faith in this chapter is a faculty to perceive what is objectively true. The author is not calling in doubt the proposition that “the universe was formed at God’s command” (Heb. 11:3). Rather, he implies that we have no ready way to demonstrate it; we can acknowledge the truthfulness of this proposition only if the one Person who was there discloses what happened—and we believe him. Similarly, the author entertains no doubt that the Christian consummation, “what we hope for” (Heb. 11:1), is coming. But we cannot measure it or bottle it or prove it. For very good reasons, we believe the promises of God regarding what is to come. Our “faith” is thus a glorious God-given facility that enables us to be “sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Heb. 11:1).
(3) In certain respects, then, this faith is like the faith of “the ancients” (Heb. 11:2). For many of them were promised things that they did not see in their lifetimes. Because they believed the promises of God and acted upon them, they were commended for their faith. Thus Abraham acted on the promise that his descendants would multiply abundantly and inherit the land of Canaan. He did not live to see it, but he acted on it. The twelve patriarchs believed the promise, Joseph so strongly that he gave instructions to the Israelites about taking his body with them when they left Egypt, though that departure was centuries away. Many of those promises have already come to pass; by analogy, ought we not to await with glad faith the fulfillment of the promises of God yet outstanding?
(4) Such faith works out not only in those readily seen as victors (e.g., Heb. 11:32–35a) but in those seen as victims (Heb. 11:35b–38). Whether we belong to those called to conquer kingdoms, administer justice, escape the edge of the sword, and receive the dead back to life, or to those who are tortured, who face jeers and floggings, imprisonment, destitution, and ignominious death, is entirely secondary. The critical question is whether or not we take God at his word.