The Substance of Faith
What is the nature of faith? Is faith simply a prescribed rational content? Or is faith an irrational leap into the dark? So often individual understanding of the nature of faith swings widely between these two extremes; either faith is solely an assent to certain beliefs, or it is ultimately devoid of intellectual content and consists exclusively of feelings of total dependence.
The author of the epistle to the Hebrews presents another view grounding faith in the “assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen.”(1) But what does this mean? How does one have assurance without the end result, or conviction without evidence?
The audience who first received this epistle was Christian believers undergoing tremendous suffering and persecution, and the author reminds them that faith is assurance even in the midst of their trouble. The “assurance of things hoped for” is not merely wishful thinking about a yet to be determined future. It is not the reticence of “I hope it happens, but I doubt it will.” Rather, it is a description of what faith already has: the possession in the present of what is promised for the future. It is a substance that they author of Hebrews locates in the trustworthiness of God.
Faith in the midst of present circumstance grows as it is remembers God’s saving work done in the past. Anchored on the past witness of all those who saw God at work, hopeful assurance rests on the promise that as God acted in the past, God will act in the future. To illustrate this point, the author of Hebrews recounts those who by faith believed God in the past in order to encourage the beleaguered recipients of this letter. Just like those who walked in faith before, not every promise is seen in its telos or completion. The content of faith is in remembering God’s faithfulness in the past, building trust in the future that is yet to come.
The writer of Hebrews even chose a particular word to illustrate this point. The Greek word that is used for “assurance” is hypostasis. This is the same word that is used to describe how Christ is the hypostasis, “the very being” of God. In the same way, faith is the “very being” of things hoped for. While it is often much easier to focus on the bad things that are happening around us, faith opens eyes to see God’s work going forward in the world.
Ultimately, Christians affirm that the “assurance of things hoped for” is not simply found in rational content, but in a person—Jesus Christ. For in Jesus, we see the promise fulfilled and the very substance of faith. It is to Jesus Christ and to him alone that the writer of Hebrews directs those who would look for the content of faith. We have faith because we look to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of faith. We look to Jesus, who endured in faith on our behalf, so that we might not grow fainthearted in times of hardship and struggle.
Assurance doesn’t come in well-ordered circumstances or trouble-free living. Nor is assurance found in having a rational answer for every question. Assurance comes in relationship with a trustworthy God who fulfilled promises in the past and who will fulfill them in the future. Faith is grounded on God’s work accomplished in Jesus Christ: Jesus is its substance and its hope.
(1) Hebrews 11:1.