Faith is one of the most pervasive terms in Scripture. From Genesis to Revelation, people are called to have faith, they demonstrate their faith, or they are rebuked because of their lack of faith. In many instances, “faith” is the difference between the children of God and the enemies of God, between the righteous and the wicked. But what did the authors of Scripture mean when they used the term “faith”?
The English term “faith” carries a range of meanings from trust and confidence to adherence to a set of religious principles. But, in Scripture, faith tends toward the former meaning: a strong trust or confidence in someone. In particular, faith is concerned with trusting or having confidence in God.
In verb form, translators often use the English term “believe.” Unfortunately, this term also has a wide range of meanings. Today, the term “believe” is often used to indicate a mental assent or agreement. Again, though, it may be best to think of “believe” as trusting God to do what he says he will do.
In Romans, Paul begins his letter by contrasting the difference between the righteous and the ungodly or unrighteous. But, what makes someone “righteous”? He quotes the prophet Habakkuk in saying that the righteous person is the one who lives his or her life by trusting in God. Notice that the primary verb in this statement is the verb “live.” Paul’s focus is not on a set of beliefs about God or facts about Jesus, but instead he focuses on a person’s life as a demonstration of trusting God. The righteous person is the person who trusts God as he or she lives day by day.
Certainly, the idea of trusting God includes knowing some information about God. It is impossible to trust God without knowing something about him. However, the opposite is not true. It is also possible to know much about God and, yet, not trust him. Throughout the Bible, faith in God is tied to active response to him. For this reason, James is able to state, “Faith without works is dead.” Those works, then, are actions that are taken in response to God; actions that demonstrate that someone trusts God.
In the same way, Paul clearly states that works alone is not enough to save anyone. As he wrote to the Ephesians, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9 ESV) While some have suggested that Paul and James contradict each other, that is not a necessary conclusion. In fact, both James’ statement and Paul’s statement work within the understanding of “faith” as trusting God. Those who are saved trust God, and those who trust God are saved. Similarly, those who trust God will demonstrate that trust by their actions, their works. Someone with this kind of faith will also have works. Someone without works does not have that kind of faith.
The connection between faith and works and the connection between James and Paul is clearer when Ephesians 2:10 is considered along with Ephesians 2:8-9: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:10 ESV)
Jesus used the metaphor of “fruit” to describe these kinds of works – that is, the kinds of righteous deeds that result from living a life of trusting God. He told his disciples, “You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit.” (Matthew 7:16-27 ESV) Just as a fruit tree bears only a certain kind of fruit, so people living by faith in God (or not living by faith in God) will demonstrate a certain kind of “fruit” through the actions in their lives. The “fruit” does not determine the type of tree; the type of tree determines the “fruit.”
The actions in a person’s life, then, demonstrates to the world whether or not that person is trusting God. Certainly, stating creeds or singing praises or other types of speech can be a portion of those fruits. But, in Scripture, the primary “fruit” indicator is the loving action demonstrated toward other people, especially people who (apparently) do not deserve that love.
Or, to put this in James’ words, “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” (James 2:18 ESV)