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Running the Race of Faith - Defining Faith and its Actions

Hebrews 11:1 "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen."

Running. Running. Running.

       I started running in 2014. Every year there was a 5K (3.1 mile) foot race at a church camp to which my children and I attended. In a hasty moment (the night before the race!), I decided to enter. No, I had never trained! Nevertheless, what could possibly go wrong? I had an old pair of sneakers, an extra pair of jeans and an old t-shirt to run the course. As we all lined-up at the starting line, the air-horn blasted and we were off. I won't relay my time - however - when I crossed the finish line, I laid on the ground just as long. I swore I would never run ever again. I had attempted to do the race by my own effort - without any input. I realized that doing it every day was beyond my abilities. 

       Months later a friend of ours was planning to start a new evangelistic outreach ministry. In order to launch the effort, it was decided to have a 5k race fundraiser. Debi suggested I try it. At first I hesitated. It was apparent - I needed outside help. I got advise from those who knew running and trained, per their counsel, for 4 weeks. Once that race was done, even though I broke no records, I was bit by the "running-bug". Due to input from other people, I had the desire to run every day. To grow as a runner, there are two requirements: first, you need to get input from another (whether a coach, a book or online source) and second, you need to then run, run, run. 

Running the race of faith

Whenever we approach Hebrews 11-12, we come to a foot race that is beyond our natural capabilities. Hebrews 12:1-2 gives us the "finish-line" of the race - 

"Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God."

      The one concept that defines the beginning, middle and end of this race is "faith". In a bit we will define what we mean by "faith". As I've ran over the years, I've discovered that I run best with other people. As we are urged to "run the race set before us", we have placed before us what the writer of Hebrews describes as a "great cloud of witnesses".

Jesus, not ourselves, is the focus of the race of faith

Whenever we read these words, we most likely think of the "great cloud of witnesses" as spectators and we as the participants or focal point of the race. However, whenever we consider the notables in this "cloud" from the seventeen names depicted in Hebrews 11, we come to a different conclusion. New Testament scholar F.F. Bruce comments:

It is not so much they who look at us as we who look at them - for encouragement. They have borne witness to the faithfulness of God; they were, in a manner of speaking, witnesses to Christ before His incarnation, for they lived in the good of that promise which has been realized in Him."

 Another notable author, R.C.H. Lenski, observes:

"The Scriptures teach that they behold the heavenly glories and say nothing about their beholding and watching earthly events. These saints are not 'witnesses' that see our faith and testify about us. They are witnesses whose life, works, sufferings, death attest their own faith, testify to us through the pages of holy Writ and in other history that they were true men of faith indeed."

These remarks aim us to see the true focal point of the "race of faith" as not having to do with ourselves as with the Author and Finisher of faith - the Lord Jesus Christ.

Defining what faith is not

As we behold the finish line and focus of the race of faith in Hebrews 12:1-2, we discover that the finish line is also the starting line we read of in Hebrews 11:1. I like races which have the start and finish lines in the same place, since I can say once I start the race: "I now know what the finish line already looks like".

      To understand what faith is, we must first grasp what it isn't. Most popular cynics today define faith as: "believing in something that makes no sense". This popular understanding is not referring to faith but rather what pyschologists call a "delusion". A delusion, according to Christian philosopher William Lane Craig, is a "firm, fixed, false belief". Delusions are spotted by their refusal to give up their claims despite the preponderance of contrary evidence and reason. Christian faith, on the other-hand, includes appeals to history, experience and reason, as seen in the remainder of Hebrews 11 (see also Isaiah 1:18 and Romans 12:1-2).

       Others have alleged that "faith is a leap in the dark". However, as one reads the Biblical actions of faith in Hebrews 11, the men and women of faith acted not in ignorance. Instead, they expressed what they understood from God's interractions with them. Faith is not so much defined in a textbook way as it is in action.

Defining what faith is

       So then, in seeing what faith "is not", what then is faith? Hebrews 11:1 is the closest we come to in all the scripture to a formal definition of faith. The New American Standard Bible gives us the translations of "assurance of things hoped for" and "the certainty of things not yet seen". "Assurance" and "certainty" are consequences of faith. To have assurances means I've arrived at a point where I'm confident in God, His words and work. Certainty, in the words of theologian Herman Bavinck, refers to a settled state of the soul brought about by the object of its focus. Both the Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament words for "faith" speak of "firm persuasion" or simple "trust". 

      To flesh out further this base definition of "firm persuasion" or "trust", we can consider attempted definitions. J. Robertson McQuilkin defines faith as: "a choice to commit all of oneself unconditionally to the person of God, who is revealed in the Bible and witnessed to by the Holy Spirit." The Baptist Faith and Message 2000 logically credits the regenerating work of the Spirit as moving a sinner to see the need to trust in Christ. We read in its article on "Salvation":

"Regeneration, or the new birth, is a work of God's grace whereby believers become new creatures in Christ Jesus. It is a change of heart wrought by the Holy Spirit through conviction of sin, to which the sinner responds in repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ."

God the Holy Spirit works the work of regeneration, which branches in repentance and faith through the will of the sinner. The Baptist Faith and Message 2000 continues....

"Repentance and faith are inseparable experiences of grace. Repentance is a genuine turning from sin toward God. Faith is the acceptance of Jesus Christ and commitment of the entire personality to Him as Lord and Saviour."

Ephesians 2:8-9 rightly informs us that -

"For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 not as a result of works, so that no one may boast."

Such saving faith is wonderfully summarized by theologian Herman Bavinck: "Saving faith is a sure knowledge that produces assurance and certainty".

Actions which follow from faith

      Faith is the root of life implanted at the moment of salvation by the Spirit which is accompanied by a free response of the sinner (James 1:18). Faith grows and matures. It is not based on any work of man while leading to a new way of life that issues forth in new works. Throughout the Christian life, we find that God uses a combination of spiritual disciplines (such a prayer, Bible reading, fellowship with other believers) and trials to mould our faith (James 1:3-4; 1 Peter 1:6-7). Faith defined is even better understood by the sort of actions that accompany it, since it manifests itself by fruits or spiritual affects of obedience to God (James 2:14-26). 

      The remainder of Hebrews 11 is devoted to unpacking what faith looks-like as it "walks on all fours". Hebrews 11:1-7 describes the actions of faith. Note the words in bold-print in the following excerpts from Hebrews 11:1-7 -

*"By faith we understand" - 11:3

     Biblical faith delivers to us genuine knowledge about God, the meaning of life and the destiny of our soul. The 11th century theologian Anselm describes how faith is a form of understanding in chapter 1 of his classic work "The Proslogion" - 

"Teach me to seek you, and reveal yourself to me, when I seek you, for I cannot seek you, except you teach me, nor find you, except you reveal yourself. Let me seek you in longing, let me long for you in seeking; let me find you in love, and love you in finding."

Anselm then closes out his chapter with a statement that has historically expressed how faith functions as described in Hebrews 11:3 - 

"For I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, --that unless I believed, I should not understand."

*"By faith Abel offered to God" - 11:4

      Abel, whose name signifed the brevity of his life, led a life of faith that testified of God's working in his life. Jesus references Abel as a bookend in his summary of the Old Testament in terms of the righteousness of God expressed through faith (Matthew 23:35; Luke 11:51). Abel's martyrdom at the hand of Cain testifies to believers of every generation of what it means to lean on Jesus by faith alone. 

*"By faith Enoch was taken up so that he would not see death" - 11:5

      Enoch was the first recorded man in redemptive history to have had “walked with God” in his generation. It is likely that Enoch’s naming of his son Methusaleh (whose name meant “in the year it was sent”) was due to his foreseeing God’s judgment on the world by the world-wide flood. We can surmise this point by noting that in the chronology of the pre-flood patriarchs, Methusaleh died in the very year the flood came on the earth. This may explain why Jude in Jude 1:14-16 evoked Enoch as an example of a godly man who was himself “fighting the good fight of faith”. 

*"And without faith it is impossible to please Him" - 11:6

     Sometimes the best way to understand a subject is by observing what happens whenever that element is missing. The writer of Hebrews utlizes this approach by showing how impossible it is to enjoy the pleasure of relationship and fellowship with God apart from faith. 

*"By faith reverence prepared an ark..." - 11:7

     Hebrews 11:7 tells us that Noah is the first recorded person in redemptive history to have the notoriety of being an "heir of righteousness, according to faith". Such a title for Noah connects us to one other man ten generations removed from Noah - Abraham. As Noah walked with God in faith, 1 Peter 3:20 tells us that God's attribute of forebearance or "delaying of judgment" was refracted through Noah's life. Whenever we give our lives in preparation for God's service, we too can function as prisms by which God's character is seen more clearly by others. Hence, "reverence in preparation" is that action of faith that speaks of our heart motives lin living daily for Jesus.

From the five phrases above we can list five main actions of faith.

1. Primary way of understanding.

2. Prioritizing God before ourselves.

3. Passively yielding to God's will.

4. Pleasure in God.

5. Preparing to obey.

Illustrating the actions of faith       

      Imagine claiming to be a runner while ignoring the actions of obtaining proper footwear, training, coaching and nutrition. Such actions demonstrate whether or not we have it "in-us" to take running seriously. As I have discovered, people needed to input into me before I responded and began to pay attention to what was needed if I wanted to run. The Spirit of God is required for there to be a response of faith (John 16:8-12). Once He does His work of opening my heart (Acts 16:14) to see God's word addressing me as really being God's Word (1 Thessalonians 2:13), only then will I run the race of faith. Every single one of the people we read about in Hebrews 11 began their race of faith with an experience of a birth from above (the Old Testament term was called "circumcision of the heart" (Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6; Jeremiah 4:4; Romans 2:29).  The faith that saved these pre-flood patriarchs was the same faith which sustained them. 

Closing thoughts

By God's marvelous grace, all of the seventeen individuals in Hebrews 11 ran the race of faith and crossed the finished line where Jesus is. May anyone reading this post, who is a follower of Jesus, so run their race. May we have those actions which accompany faith to urge us on to fix our eyes on Jesus, the Author and Perfector of faith.