The Faithfulness of God
The faithfulness of God means God is unchanging in his nature, true to his Word, has promised salvation to his people, and will keep his promises forever. He is worthy of eternal trust no matter how unlikely his promises seem. Nothing in heaven or on earth can prevent God from accomplishing all that he has promised his people through Jesus Christ. This reliability of God should be a great source of comfort and strength for God’s people as they repeatedly fail and go through trials and suffering.
This essay surveys four major Old Testament terms and one New Testament term that highlight different aspects of God’s faithfulness to his people. It then goes on to point out the major object lessons and images that God uses to emphasize his commitment to his people. The final section encourages the believer in three areas of application that stem directly from a proper view of God’s faithfulness.
Key Words that Highlight God’s Faithfulness
At least four Old Testament Hebrew terms highlight God’s faithfulness: ʼemet (faithfulness), ʼemuna (steadiness, reliability), ḥesed (loyalty), and zacar (remember). Each of these terms speak to different aspects of the concept of faithfulness.
The word ʼemet occurs 127 times and is most frequently translated “faithfulness.” A core idea in this word is truth. God is true to himself and to his words. This word is used in the context of the relationships that God chooses to have with his people.
In Genesis 12 God calls Abram to himself and gives him incredible promises about acquiring land, having innumerable descendants, and blessing the world. One of the principal promises (having a son) was hard to fathom due to Abram’s advanced age and the delay in fulfillment. After twenty-five years, God finally grants his promise to the name-modified Abraham (Gen 21). God was faithful.
After Isaac is born and becomes a full-grown man, the promises are now threatened by his marital status. Abraham sends his servant Eleazar to search for a wife for Isaac. Upon finding Rebekah, Eleazar declares, “Praise be to the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who has not abandoned his kindness and faithfulness to my master” (Gen 24:27).
Jacob, the son of Isaac, prays to the “God of his father Abraham, and God of his father Isaac” and acknowledges his unworthiness and God’s faithfulness toward him as he had grown from having only a walking stick when he went to Laban into a wealthy man as he left him (Gen 32:10ff). Thus, God’s faithfulness passed from Abraham to Isaac and then to Jacob.
God reveals to Moses that he is faithful generation after generation (Exod 34:6). He would continue to show faithfulness to the descendants of Jacob by eventually bringing them out of Egypt into the land he promised Abraham.
When God promises David that he would build his house and give him an everlasting ruler, David declares (2Sam 7:28) that God’s words are true (reliable/faithful).
Nehemiah recounts God’s faithfulness to Israel during the Exodus, in the wilderness, throughout the conquest, in the time of the Judges, through captivity, and all the way to the return to the land despite their unfaithfulness during each period (Neh 9:33). Despite Israel’s perpetual lack of faithfulness, loyalty, and knowledge (Hos 4:1; cf. Zech 7:9), God will accomplish such a salvation in his people that Jerusalem will one day be called “the Faithful City” (Zech 8:3).
ʼemuna occurs 49 times and has the concept of steadiness or reliability at its core. The first occurrence of this word is a great illustration of the main idea communicated by this word. In Exodus 17 the Israelites are battling the Amalekites. When Moses held up his hands the Israelites would prevail, but as soon as they started lowering, the Amalekites would start winning. The solution was to have Moses sit on a stone while Aaron and Hur each held up one of his hands. As a result, “his hands remained steady [faithful] till sunset” (Exod 17:12).
God’s ʼemuna reaches to the skies (Ps 36:5). God is faithful from morning to night (Ps 92:2), and when he comes to judge the earth, it will be in righteousness and faithfulness (Ps 96:13). This connection of righteousness and faithfulness occurs multiple times (cf. Deut 32:4; 1Sam 26:23; Pss 40:11; 119:75, 138; 143:1; Isa 11:5) and emphasizes that part of being truly righteous (measuring up to a standard) means that you do so consistently. Even while enduring just punishment for breaking the covenant, God’s people recognize that his faithfulness is great and continues morning by morning (Lam 3:23). One day God will so transform his people that they will go from being a prostituting wife to a people permanently and faithfully committed to the perfect Groom (Hos 2:20).
The word ḥesed occurs 255 times and is frequently translated as “kindness/lovingkindness” or “mercy.” Even though it is not translated with a form of the word “faithful,” it is often used with some variety of the words for “faithful.” The word is often in the context of highlighting God’s faithfulness to his people because of his covenantal commitment to them. As a result, some modern versions translate this word as “loyalty/covenant loyalty.”
The greatest illustration of this type of faithful loyalty is the story of Ruth. Even though Naomi compelled her daughters-in-law to stay in Moab and let her return to Bethlehem as a destitute and bitter woman, Ruth refused. In the same way she had shown loyalty to her deceased husband (Ruth 1:8), she vowed to cling to her mother-in-law until death (“Where you go I will go. . . . Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die. . . . May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.” Ruth 1:16–17). God rewards Ruth—and Naomi because of Ruth—by showing her his “kindness” in leading her to Boaz (Ruth 2:20). Ruth responds by giving her “kindness” to Boaz in marriage (Ruth 3:10). This kind of loving loyalty is ultimately rewarded in making Ruth part of the genealogy of Christ (Boaz fathered Obed; Obed fathered Jesse; Jesse fathered David, see Ruth 4:21–22).
When God gives his laws to the people of Israel as they are about to ratify the covenant with him, he declares that he shows covenant loyalty to a thousand generations of those who are truly his (Exod 20:6; cf. Deut 7:9). Psalm 136 celebrates God’s loyalty to his people as he brought them out of the land of Egypt, sustained them in the wilderness, brought them into the promised land, and remembered them in their low points as a nation.
Although there are occurrences of ḥesed where the specific covenant in view requires certain conditions be met, other examples of unconditional loyalty occur frequently. When God gives David the promise of an everlasting king, he states (probably in reference to Solomon) that if the king sins, this would not negate God’s loyalty to him as happened to Saul (2Sam 7:15). David declares in Psalm 23:6 that God’s loyalty would “follow” (this word is used of military pursuit) him all the days of his life.
Nehemiah recognized that even though Israel had refused to listen to God and constantly rebelled against him, he was still abounding in loyalty toward them (Neh 9:17). David asks for forgiveness after his adultery with Bathsheba based on God’s loyal love (Ps 51:3). This loyalty that forgives the undeserving is what causes Jonah to flee from God’s command to warn Nineveh (Jon 4:2). Micah, however, celebrated this loyalty that will be shown in the restoration of God’s people and the forgiveness of their sin: “Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea. You will be faithful to Jacob, and show love to Abraham, as you pledged on oath to our ancestors in days long ago” (Mic 7:18–20).
Zacar occurs about 235 times and is usually translated with some form of the verb “remember.” Although the word is often used of people trying to bring back to mind some idea or event, it can also refer to the action that accompanies actively thinking on something. When it is used of God, it does not suggest that he has somehow forgotten something or needs to be reminded of something. It highlights that God is going to act on whatever he is “remembering.” This word is connected to God’s faithfulness in those texts where God remembers his covenant or his people and the promises he gave to them.
The first occurrence of this word is in Genesis 8:1 when God remembers Noah and the animals in the ark after he has destroyed the earth with the flood. The bleak picture given at the end of chapter 7 is met with this dramatic “but God remembered” moment. This could have been the end of humanity, but God is faithful to his Word and ensures that they survive. After Noah and crew disembark, God establishes the rainbow as the sign of his promise never to destroy the earth with a flood again. He states that when he sees the rainbow, he will “remember the everlasting covenant” he made with his creation (Gen 9:16).
One of the main motivations that drove God to deliver his people out of slavery to the Egyptians was remembering “his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob” (Exod 2:24; 6:5). After the golden calf incident when God is threatening to destroy Israel, Moses pleads with God to “remember . . . Abraham, Isaac and Israel” to whom he had promised innumerable descendants and a land (Exod 32:13).
Psalms 105 and 106 recall numerous occasions in Israel’s history when God remembered his covenant promises made to Abraham and his descendants as they came out of Egypt, traveled through the wilderness, came into the promised land, and eventually were taken into captivity (Pss 105:8, 42; 106:45). Since God knew that the nation of Israel would perpetually rebel against him, he established a new, everlasting covenant with his people because he remembered the covenant he had made with them in their “youth” (Ezek 16:60).
The main Greek word used for God’s faithfulness in the New Testament is pistos. It occurs 67 times in 63 verses. Pistos is used to describe people (often stewards or servants), statements, and God. Jesus referred to faithful (often indicating someone who is dependable) and unfaithful servants when he taught through parables in order to encourage genuine faith and perseverance among those who heard his teachings (Matt 24:45ff; 25:21ff; Luke 12:42; 16:10ff).
Several passages use pistos to refer to servants of Christ who persevere in the ministry as dependable servants (1Cor 4:2, 17; Eph 6:21; Col 4:7, 9; 1Tim 1:12; 2Tim 2:2; 1Pet 5:12). The positional standing of all believers is highlighted by using pistos to identify them (Acts 10:45; 16:1; 2Cor 6:15; Gal 3:9; Eph 1:1; Col 1:2; 1Tim 4:10; 5:16; 6:2).
Pistos is also used to describe statements that are reliable because of their truthfulness (1Tim 1:15; 3:1; 4:9; 2Tim 2:11; Titus 1:9; 3:8; Rev 21:5; 22:6). In the same way that people who stay true to their job or ministry are dependable and trustworthy, so God is a person upon whom his people can depend (like Sarah in Genesis who believed she would have the promised child because God is faithful, see Heb 11:11).
God’s faithfulness is most clearly revealed through Jesus Christ, whose character of ultimate reliability personifies what it means to be faithful—even to the point of “faithful” becoming one of his names or titles. He is the faithful witness (Rev 1:5), the faithful one (Rev 2:13), the faithful and true witness (Rev 3:14), and the one called Faithful and True (Rev 19:11).
Because of the reliability of the work of Christ for his people, all the promises of God to his children find their “yes” in him (2Cor 1:20). God’s faithfulness can help a believer overcome temptation (1Cor 1:9) and suffering (1Pet 4:19). When God’s people are unfaithful, he remains faithful. No matter what people do, God’s faithfulness is unchangeable for he cannot deny himself (i.e., who he is, 2Tim 2:13).
Key Images that Highlight God’s Faithfulness
The Old Testament uses poignant illustrations found in everyday life to highlight God’s faithfulness toward his people.
The Natural Order of the Universe
After God destroyed the earth with the flood and Noah and crew exited the ark, he promised that he would never do this again (Gen 8:21). The perpetual evidence (in addition to the rainbow) that he would keep this promise is found in the relentless, unceasing recurrence of summer and winter, cold and heat, and day and night (Gen 8:22). This illustration is used again as proof not only of God’s sustaining of the physical world but ultimately of his faithfulness to the New Covenant.
Jeremiah 31:35 states that God has appointed the sun to shine during the daytime and the moon and stars by night. He has also appointed the sea to perpetually produce waves. The constancy of these natural phenomena are visible reminders of God’s unbreakable promises in salvation (Jer 31:36). Jeremiah 33:20–26 uses this same covenant with day and night as the guarantee of the fulfillment of the Davidic Covenant. For the believer, the blazing of the sun, the glowing of the moon, the crashing of the waves, and the changing of the seasons should all serve as reminders of God’s faithfulness to his people through Christ.
The Immensity of Creation
The vastness of the creation points to the vastness of God’s faithfulness to his people in salvation. Psalm 36:5 states that God’s faithfulness reaches to the skies; in other words, it goes on and on into infinity. In speaking of God’s faithfulness to his covenant, Psalm 103:11 states that God’s faithfulness is comparable in greatness to the distance of the heavens from the earth. This extends to the magnitude of his forgiveness in this covenant; it is as far as the east is from the west (infinite; Ps 103:13). The immensity of the universe becomes a tangible guarantee that God will keep his salvation promises.
Jeremiah 31:37 declares that only if humans can measure the heavens or explore the foundations of the earth will he break his salvation promises of the New Covenant. Whenever a Christian looks up into the night sky or peers through a telescope at some distant planet, he or she can be reminded and assured of God’s faithfulness in salvation.
The Parent/Child Relationship
Psalm 103 details multiple ways in which the Lord shows his faithfulness (covenant loyalty) toward his people. One of the images used to illustrate God’s faithfulness is found in Psalm 103:13. The verse states that God has compassion on his people (those who fear him) in the same way a father has compassion on his children. Parents naturally have feelings of love, attachment, care, and commitment toward each of their children. This general disposition does not change regardless of how many times the child disobeys or disappoints.
Jesus alludes to this positive disposition when he teaches that even “evil” parents give good gifts (bread and fish) to their children when they ask (Matt 7:9–11). This relationship is not based on merit, and it cannot be broken. In this relationship the parent is the one in the position to provide for, protect, nurture, and guide the child. In the same way God’s faithfulness to his people includes this tender, unbreakable, and compassionate care for them.
Isaiah 49:15–16 adds a powerful comparison and even contrast to this parent/child image. Verse 14 describes how some among God’s people were claiming that God had abandoned and “forgotten” them (i.e., they allege God has done the opposite of remembering [zacar], and therefore, is unfaithful to the covenant). In verse 15 God mentions a mother’s relationship with her nursing child. It is unlikely that she would forget to care for her newborn (the mother’s body reminds her to nurse her child and the child’s cries remind her of her child’s needs). The degree of attachment and care that a mother feels for a nursing child is one of the most powerful portraits of intimacy, tenderness, and connectedness possible for a human being. God states that even if a mother would somehow manage to forget her child, he never will forget his people. He has inscribed them into the palm of his hand (Isa 49:16). God’s faithfulness to his people surpasses the strongest commitment possible between any human beings.
The husband/wife relationship is used in both the Old and the New Testament to illustrate various aspects of God’s relationship with his people. The concept of faithfulness is implied in most contexts, but it is explicitly detailed in the symbolic marriage of the prophet Hosea. God commands him to marry a woman who would prove to be unfaithful in the worst possible way (she is called a “woman of prostitution” in Hos 1:2).
God explains that his people have committed excessive spiritual prostitution (the Hebrew construction is emphatic here) by following after other gods and living immorally. In most human marriages adultery results in divorce. One would imagine that if a wife were to become a prostitute her husband would never give her a chance of restoring the marriage. God’s faithfulness to his unfaithful people unfathomably leads him not only to stay faithfully committed to them but also to so transform them so that they become permanently faithful to him: “I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion. I will betroth you in faithfulness, and you will acknowledge the LORD” (Hos 2:19-20). Paul specifies that this redemptive cleansing of the bride is accomplished by the sacrificial, substitutionary work of Christ (Eph 5:25–27).
God’s Faithfulness Motivates Christian Faithfulness
The faithfulness of God to his people should be the primary motivator for our faithfulness to him. Hebrews 10:23 exhorts believers to hold unwaveringly to the hope of the effective priestly work of Christ on their behalf because the one who promised is faithful. This faithfulness manifests itself in the Christian practice of spurring each other to love and good deeds and habitually gathering with other believers for worship (Heb 10:24–25).
Inevitably believers will prove to be unfaithful as they seek to live-out the gospel. Thankfully we are encouraged that even if we are unfaithful, God remains faithful because he cannot deny himself (2Tim 2:13). Because of God’s faithfulness to us in Christ, we confess our sins (1Jn 1:9). No matter how often we may fail and sin, God is unchanging in his response to the repentant confessor.
Ultimately God’s faithfulness motivates our faithful living as we longingly anticipate the return of Christ. One day the Faithful One will appear in the clouds and accomplish the final sanctification and purification of his people (1Th 5:24).
- John Piper, “Sustained by the Faithfulness of God”
- Brandon D. Smith, “We Are Gomer”
- Ligonier, “The Faithfulness of God”
- Jason Helopoulos, “Rehearsing His Faithfulness”
- Ligonier, “Faithful Through the Ages”
- Ligonier, “Our Faithful God”
- John Piper, “God’s Covenant With David”
- “Faith, Faithfulness” – Stephen. S. Taylor in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology
- “Faith” – Leon Morris in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters
- “God” – Donald Guthrie and Ralph P. Martin in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters
- “Faithful, Faithfulness” – C. W. Hodge in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
- “Faith, Faithfulness” R. E. Nixon, in The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible
- Raymond C. Ortlund Jr., God’s Unfaithful Wife
- O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants
- Christopher J. H. Wright,The Old Testament in Seven Sentences
- Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine, 195–97.
- Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 291–92.
- Mary Willson, “A Faithful God and His Unfaithful People”
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