Without question the foundational statement regarding faith is found in Hebrews 11:1 “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen (NASB).”
If you discuss this verse with an average group of people it’s almost inevitable that people will speak of “faith” as though it’s a verb. Intending a meaning of faithful and not faith. However, the word pistis is a noun and we do well to remember that. The focus of what the writer of Hebrews expresses is faith as a position – if I may, it is the essence of our inner being. It is an expression of reliance on God. It is personal first and foremost, collective when spoken of regarding a group such as Israel in her early years. The impetus of the word is powerful at its base. It is an abiding conviction that leads to action. In other words, the out working of faith is NOT faith it is a response to faith.
When looking at Hebrews 11 it cannot escape even the most casual reader that with virtually each mention of the great characters of faith there is an action that accompanies it; Abel “offered”, Noah “prepared”, Abraham “obeyed by going” etc. It is this distinction of faith that is often forgotten or, at the very least, set aside until the issue of “faith and works” is discussed. To a great extent, that neuters the aspect of faith the writer of Hebrews is talking about. It is one’s faith, dependence, reliance on God, that finds its expression in simple yet profound obedience. As noted in Vine’s Dictionary of the NT, “The object of Abraham’s faith was not God’s promise (that was the occasion of its exercise); his faith rested on God himself.”
When discussing faith and works, the book of James is offered as the other side of the coin. The emphasis appears to be weighted toward works and not faith. However, when we read the book of James, it seems evident that he approaches the word “faith” differently than the writer of Hebrews. In James the word “faith” takes on a creedal sense. When we miss that we run into a sharp controversy regarding faith and works. If, however, we understand that then the tension between faith and works carries its own weight. Having a creed is one thing. Expressing that creed by the way one lives is the true essence of holding a faith. That makes a difference. As James points out, “…show me your faith without your works and I will show you my faith by my works (2:18).” That, in large part, is how James ends the first chapter of his letter: Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world (1:27).
In an average group of believers, when one brings up faith and works things can get heated in a hurry. The “faith alone” side of the group speaks with undeniable certainty that faith alone is the essence of salvation. The faith plus works group requires a more nuanced argument in order for it to make sense. It is not equating faith with salvation, it treats faith for what it is – faith. To carry it one more step, “without faith it is impossible to please God (Heb. 11:6)” and those of faith “performed acts of righteousness (Heb 11:33).” From the writer of Hebrews perspective it seems obvious that faith leads to action. From James perspective faith is action.
What is faith? It is total reliance on and trust in God. But reliance and trust mean nothing without bringing the kinetic aspect to the table. Faith is what generates our ability to be salt and light. Faith gives us the power to move mountains. Faith compels us to love, to share, to feed, to clothe, to comfort. Without those types of expression of our faith, I contend we have no faith.