What is Faith?


Dr. Don B. Garlington


Christianity is preeminently the religion of faith. We call it “The Christian Faith.” Paul can speak of ‘the faith’ in Galatians 3. He said that before ‘the faith’ came we were under tutors, those who were disciplining us to be able to recognize the Messiah when He actually came. Hebrews 11:6 says, “But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.” We will focus our thoughts upon the Lord’s giving of Himself for us and His rising again.

Now faith, of course, plays a very large part in reformed theology. When I was in seminary they told us that faith consisted of three parts. Of course, going through a reformed seminary we had to know a little bit of Latin, so those three parts were ‘notitia, ascensus and fiducia.’ We were told that if we didn’t know those three words we couldn’t graduate, and so I made sure that I learned them! Notitia is knowledge. Knowledge of an object. Ascensus means that you assent to or consent to the reliability of that object of knowledge. And finally fiducia which means faith, reliance. So faith is knowledge, assent and trust, or reliance.

If you are doing a study of faith in terms of our systematic theology, that is fair enough, but as the Biblical materials present themselves, they actually present it to us from a somewhat different slant and point of view.

Faith is trust

First of all, the Old Testament, in particular tells us that faith is trust. I think it is very significant that the word that is usually translated ‘faith’ comes from a stem which means to lean. To lean upon something. The point being that God is the object of our trust and can support our weight. It is interesting how the idea comes out in popular songs, not theological in any sense, but we all know songs like, “Lean on me when you are not strong”, “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother”, and the Simon and Garfunkel classic “A bridge over troubled waters.” So faith as trust, as reliance means to lean upon an object.

Along with that notion of leaning upon an object, there is an accompanying warning. The prophets often warn the people saying, “Be careful what you lean on”. They say that Egypt, for example, is a broken reed and if you lean upon Egypt, if you place your full weight upon that broken reed, then it will pierce your hand. That really gives us an application immediately, what are you leaning on this evening? What are you placing your weight upon? It has to be something, because you will never make it very far through this life, unless you are leaning upon something. The childhood years are idyllic for many people, but then there comes a turning point when people realize, “Hey, I am not a kid anymore.” I heard a very touching story this afternoon. A man who had roots in Ireland, had a father who was a very unreliable man. He was supposed to be supporting a wife and four children, and yet he spent his money on other things. When his father went away, never to come back again the man, who was then about thirteen or fourteen went running after him, and his father said, “Go back to your mother. Just leave me alone.” The man said, “At that point I realized that I was no longer a child.” There has to be something to rely upon. Faith is reliance. Faith is leaning.

From a Biblical point of view faith is also faithfulness; you never find the one without the other. If we lean upon the Lord God of Israel, then we also are faithful and committed to him.

What does it mean to have faith in Christ?

This is a very basic question, one that is frequently asked. We have to give a clear answer otherwise we leave the impression that faith is simply that proverbial “leap into the dark,” a vague hope that in the end everything is going to turn out all right. You find that understanding of faith among all kinds of people. But that is essentially irrational. There is a useful illustration of that in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Indiana Jones has to cross the chasm to get to where the holy grail is found. There is no bridge. But he is told, in faith he must step out. So he does, he takes a deep breath, steps out, and all of a sudden a bridge appears miraculously. For many, that is what faith is like.

But that is not what faith is like in Scripture. The simple answer to the question is that faith means to trust Christ.

But that raises another question. Trust Christ for what? What are we leaning upon when it comes to the work of Christ? Again the answer to the question is simple, but it has to be answered from the perspective of the last judgment. When we stand before God on the last day, it will be necessary to trust Christ for certain things. That is the point: leaning upon Christ in view of the Great Day.

There are several things that we are trusting Christ for.

First: we are trusting that His life was good enough

If indeed, as the apostle affirms, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, then someone must have lived a life of perfect righteousness so that that righteousness can become ours. Now the New Testament reports that such a life in fact, was lived. It was lived by a man from Nazareth. The man that they finally crucified as being a criminal, ironically enough, and yet the New Testament reports that He is the perfect righteousness of God. In Him is embodied everything that God requires for you and for me to stand before Him in that Day.

Now the older view of this, going back at least as far as Anselm of Canterbury in the 11th century, was that Christ obtained merit for Himself and enough merit for the whole of the world, so that when we trust Him, His merit, as it were, is transferred to us. The problem is that in Scripture righteousness never means merit. It is in our hymnology, it is in our prayers, it is in our theology, but strictly speaking, merit is not the issue.

Righteousness in Scripture is always loyalty to a covenant relationship. And the covenant relationship is described everywhere as being a family bond. The two great metaphors used are a husband and wife, and parent and child. Every household, of course, has its rules and those rules are to be lived by; those who live according to those rules and commit themselves to those rules, they are righteous. It is not just rule keeping, but rather it is commitment to the other members of the household which is expressed by means of keeping the rules. And so God made a covenant with Israel, a bond. He laid down some very stringent house rules, but in and through and behind it all was a relationship. Israel was to love the Lord her God, with all of her heart, mind, soul and strength.

In New Testament terms, righteousness means something like this. Jesus says that He always does what is pleasing to the Father. He says, “I seek not to please Myself, but Him who sent Me.” And then later on in John’s Gospel He says, “I always do what pleases Him.” To please God means to obey Him, it means to persevere. This is what the word righteousness means in Scripture. This is what the word righteousness means in Jewish tradition. To be obedient is to persevere within the faith.

And Paul portrays Christ in just such terms in Romans 5. On the one hand there was the disobedient Adam, the first Adam, the one who fell out of the way, the one who apostatized, but on the other hand is the obedient second Adam, Christ the one who was faithful to God His Father in every regard. No wonder Peter can say that He committed no sin and no deceit was found in His mouth. Even the language of deceit goes back to the very garden of Eden itself. The first words of deceit coming out of the mouth of a human being were from Adam. Later on the Book of Proverbs speaks of the one who is not to cover his sin, but rather confess. Covering sin and speaking deceit are one in the same thing. So here is the one of whom it can be said, an Israelite in whom there is no guile.

This means that on the day of judgment, I am leaning on the fact that Christ’s life was good enough for me to become God’s righteousness in Him. So that when God looks at me and sees me in union with Jesus Christ, He cannot distinguish, as it were, between Christ and me. Said without any arrogance whatsoever, it is simply a fact that because of union with Him I am as good as Jesus Christ is. He is the Source, He is the Fountain. So if we ask, “Trust in Christ for what?” then the answer is we are trusting Him for the life which you and I could not lead. It is His righteousness which becomes our possession.

Second: We are trusting that His sacrifice was acceptable to the Father

Now to you and me, that may seem like a commonplace. Of course, His sacrifice was acceptable to the Father. But the world is filled with people who are not quite sure at all. Christ’s contemporaries did not view His death in terms of sacrificial atonement, rather they saw Him as getting precisely what He deserved. In Deuteronomy 21 you have the reprobate Son, the one who would not obey His parents, who had renounced the covenant and the God of the covenant, the one who was declared to be a glutton and a drunkard. Those words precisely are hurled into the teeth of Jesus of Nazareth. And as Deuteronomy 21 said, “They were to remove the evil from their midst,” so they administer rough justice. But in the case of Jesus of Nazareth, here is one who is hung on a tree, not after being stoned to death, but while still alive. He died upon the cross with all of the shame and all of the agony and all of the excruciating experience that the cross was. And so as far as His contemporaries were concerned He got precisely what He deserved. And on that final day there are going to be millions who will have to say that they had no confidence that Christ’s sacrifice was acceptable to the Father, or that He was a propitiation for sins, the turning away of God’s wrath. He was the mercy seat, to use Paul’s imagery, upon which the blood of the covenant sacrifice was sprinkled, inside the holy of holies. Sacrifice means to give one life for another, but more than that, it means that there has to be the violent extraction of blood so that one life can be given for another.

You can imagine a little Hebrew lad or lass who has a pet lamb, a cute little lamb without blemish. They love the lamb, they have named it, and they feed and care for it. One day the father comes and says, “We have to take your lamb to the high priest.” “Why Daddy?” “Because the priest must take a knife and cut its throat and then burn it.” Not a very pretty sight, is it? Just the smell of all of that burning flesh was not pleasant. This was not a barbecue! “Why does this have to happen, Daddy?” “It is because our sins have to be dealt with.” In that light, John the Baptist points to Jesus one day and says, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” But again, many in his day were not so sure. Many continue not to be sure, but it is a blunt fact that without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.

Christ’s sacrifice was acceptable precisely because His life was good enough. You see how the two go together? His life was good enough, making Him the spotless Lamb of God without blemish. Therefore His sacrifice is good enough, and it is acceptable.

That is what I am leaning on, that in the last day, with all of my blots, all of my imperfections, all of my sins, no-one can lift a voice against me, and say that he is to be condemned. You know why? Because the sacrifice of Christ was good enough and it is acceptable to the Father and I am leaning upon that! For this reason Peter can say, 1 Peter 2:24, “Who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed.” This alludes to Isaiah 53. I am leaning on the fact that His life was good enough, leaning upon the fact that His sacrifice was acceptable to the Father.

Third: He was raised from the dead in order to live on our behalf

His work is incomplete without the resurrection and the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. But as far as Christ’s work is concerned we trust that He was raised from the dead in order to live on our behalf. Here the writer of Hebrews ties into the other side of the priesthood of Christ, the intercessory aspect of that priesthood. Every priest does at least two things. One is to offer the sacrifice, the other is to intercede on behalf of the people. And a wayward people the children of Israel are, a stiff-necked people they were! A people laden with sins and iniquities and problems. They had come out of Egypt, where even though it was slavery there were still three square meals a day. They come into the desert and they are given this stuff to eat. They say, “What is it?” That of course is the word manna, “What is it?” They grumble and they groan and they complain and they murmur. If they could get their hands on God they would be glad to do so. But since they can’t, they go after Moses and the others. And so the priest in that context is making intercession, praying for a very wayward people, a people inclined to go back to the fleshpots of Egypt. But so are you and I, we are no different.

The great struggle of the Christian life is to keep from recapitulating back into idolatry. At the end of John’s first letter he says, “Little children, keep yourself from idols.” No doubt he is addressing some very mature saints in the faith. But he is more mature and he says, “My little children, there are idolatrous influences in the world and they are seeking to draw you back into the bondage that you left when you went upon your own exodus of salvation. Keep yourself from them.” And so the priest prays.

In Romans Paul makes the point that Christ now lives and that His present life is going to ensure our final salvation. At the end of chapter 4 he speaks of the way that righteousness is reckoned to those who believe that Christ is raised from the dead. Romans 4:25: “Who was delivered up because of our offenses, and was raised because of our justification.” Now both exegetically and theologically there is dispute as to what that verse means. But it seems to me that in light of chapter 5:9-10, where he goes on to speak of the life of Christ, that the justification of which he is speaking is not that which has occurred in our past, but that which is going to occur in our future. Look at Romans 5:9-10. “Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him. For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.” The argument is from the lesser to the greater. This is not to say that past justification and reconciliation are not great works, they are! But there is the sense in which there is an even greater thing which is to be accomplished. This is precisely the logic. If justified and reconciled now, then saved in the last day, saved by His life. And that life is none other than the resurrection life, granted to Him by the Holy Spirit when He got up out of the grave. He is saying that there will be no final salvation apart from the life of the One who now intercedes on our behalf.

The writer of Hebrews can say in 7:25 that He always lives to make intercession for them. No intercession, no salvation.

What does intercession mean?

As we have already said intercession means prayer to the Father. In some mysterious way that we can’t begin to comprehend at the moment, Jesus is praying to the Father and He is praying for His people because they are no better than the Israelites in the desert. They are no better in heart than the Jews who were ultimately taken off into Babylonian captivity because they refused to worship the God who had brought them out of their original bondage. John Newton put it like this in one of his great hymns: “Ere you called me, well you knew, what a heart like mine would do.” How I would stray, how I would be prone to wander, to give up and to go back into the world. And on those occasions where I am especially tempted to do so, do you know what Christ is doing? He is praying, praying to the Father, beseeching the Father. And the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father and the Son, comes and keeps me in the way. You see no intercession, no final salvation. And this is the very thing that I am leaning upon in the last day.

Intercession is also what I should call government. The word government and the word governor comes from the Latin word gubanator. You might imagine that must be some high political term that gives us the word government and governor. But no the gubanator was the rudder of a boat, relatively small compared to the whole boat, but indispensable to keeping it on a straight course. So the gubanator, the governor is the one who guides and directs. At the very outset of this letter to the Hebrews in 1:3, we are told that Christ upholds all things by the word of His power. All things comprehensively, whereas Paul can say “All things hold together and consist in Him,” (Col 1:7) all things without exception. From the giant gaseous planets of our solar system and possibly other solar systems, the largest star, the most powerful pulsar and the deepest black hole all the way down to the most minute particle He is guiding it all to its predestined end. He is the governor of the universe. And because He is the governor of the universe He directs my every step so that I am going to make it to the last day. In that capacity of intercession I lean upon Him.

We have all had remarkable experiences of providence both before and after we were Christians. If you think my driving is bad now, you should have seen me when I was about seventeen! I look back on some of those experiences and literally shudder and shake. I used to have an old Chevy station wagon, or my Dad did. I was doing 130 (miles per hour, not kilometres!) one night and for some reason decided it was time to slow down. Shortly afterwards I had a blow out on one of the front tires. Now you can imagine the effect of a blowout on a front tire doing 130 miles per hour! But the governor of the universe was in control! “Ere He called me, well He knew, what a heart like mine would do.” Nonetheless, He guided all things to the end that I would come to know Him and stand before Him flawless before the throne. I am leaning on that fact.


The sum of the matter is this: according to Romans 10:11 as the apostle quotes Isaiah 28, “Whoever believes in Him will not be put to shame.” In Scripture shame is judgment and judgment is shame. The prophets used some very graphic, even embarrassing language to speak of the shame of judgment. They speak of the way that God is going to lift the skirts of Israel over her head so that her lovers may see her nakedness. And yet they come for judgment. Jesus is the One who is literally found naked upon the cross, because He was bearing judgment. Adam and Eve were judged in the garden and immediately they became aware of their nakedness and of their shame.

I ask you again, what are you leaning on? Are you leaning on Christ’s life which is good enough, His death which was acceptable and His intercession that now goes on or are you leaning on other things? Maybe you are leaning upon religious tradition. Maybe your fidelity is to a tradition, to a belief system. Maybe you are leaning upon your belief that there is no God. At the end of Dostoyevsky’s novel, “The Brothers Karamazov” one of the brothers says, “If there is no God then all is permitted.” Many are leaning upon the belief that there is no God so that all may be permitted. What are you leaning on? Hopefully not on belief systems that are unbiblical. Hopefully not upon fantasies that there is no Creator. Hopefully not on yourself. Hopefully not on any other human saviours, but leaning upon the One whose life was good enough, whose death was acceptable and who now intercedes on high for all of those who lean upon Him. Thanks be to God for such a salvation, for such an inexpressible gift.


This is a sermon preached to Jarvis Street Baptist Church by Dr. Don Garlington.