Salvation 2.0: Part 5.4: The definition of “faith” — OT background

grace5We’ve already shown how pistis in the Greek picks up the meanings of faith and faithfulness. This is especially evident in Romans and Galatians, but not just there.

When we reflect on the beginning of faith, God’s covenant with Abraham, we have to add another nuance to pistis

(Gen 15:4-6 ESV)  4 And behold, the word of the LORD came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.”  5 And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”  6 And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.

“Believed the LORD” means that he believed that God would keep his promise. It wasn’t about believing God to exist. Abram had believed in the existence of God since he left Ur and traveled to Canaan at God’s instruction. Nor was it about being obedient. In fact, Abraham had been doubting God’s word up to this point. Rather, Abram made a decision to trust God’s promises and to live in reliance  on those promises — trust producing faithfulness. This is the meaning of “believed” in Gen 15.

In short, pistis has three elements —

* To believe that something is true. We might call this intellectual acceptance. Abram believes that God exists from the very beginning of the story.

* To be faithful, especially in the Bible, to be faithful to a covenant. Abraham reveals his faithfulness initially when he leaves Ur and travels to Canaan. Later on, when  he offers to sacrifice Isaac on Mt. Moriah, Abraham takes the ultimate step of faithfulness.

* To trust in promises made, especially covenant promises, enough to live in reliance on them. After all, if you won’t build your life on the promises, you don’t really trust them.

In short form —

* Belief

* Repentance

* Trust

Surprised? After all, we normally treat “repent” as a separate step from faith, but that’s because Walter Scott (who invented the earliest form of the Five Step Plan) took “repent” from Acts 2:38 and “believe” from Rom 10:9. But in Acts 2:38, Peter called on his audience to repent of their unbelief, that is, their failure to believe that Jesus is the Messiah.

In fact, in Paul’s use of pistis, “faith” includes repentance (a word he rarely uses) because “faithfulness” and “repentance” are essentially synonyms.

And for those of us raised in the Churches of Christ, “trust” is troubling because, well, it sounds so Baptist. But the Baptists are quite right to find trust in “faith,” although “faith” includes much more than trust, as we’ll see.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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5 Responses to Salvation 2.0: Part 5.4: The definition of “faith” — OT background

  1. Profile photo of Kevin Kevin says:

    I like the inclusion of “faithfulness” as opposed to “obedience.” The latter is certainly inherent in the former, but I think the idea of faithfulness, to include its object, is a more accurate representation of the term. Having grown up in legalistic Churches of Christ, our definition for faith would have been “belief and obedience”…”The faith that saves is the faith that obeys (perfectly).” Of course the last word is unspoken; but we all understood that you have to get all the rules correct. We definitely would not have included “trust” for exactly the reason you mentioned.

  2. Dwight says:

    I think sometimes we like to isolate things beyond the person, which is where really where it is grown and cultivated. We want to make faith based on acts and not based on the person who acts. Now admittedly the acts show the faith, but they aren’t the faith. A person can be faithful to God, even when not acting out in faith in a certain way at a certain time or the way we perceive they should act. Faith should drive perfection, but it won’t make a person perfect. There is this thing called will, which man has, that has to be bent and lowered and aimed towards God in such a way as to be doing God’s will.
    We must trust God and then we will have faith in God, but they are seamless in their nature in the progression from one to the other.

  3. Randall says:

    Charles Hodge, in his systematic theology makes a distinction between faith and repentance. He does understand faith to include knowledge, assent and trust. He also writes that it is difficult to impossible to talk about faith without discussing repentance as true faith results in true repentance immediately. So although they are two separate things that go together hand in glove.


  4. Monty says:

    We sing Trust and Obey, meaning believe in God(Jesus died for your sins) and do the 5 acts of worship perfectly as taught in scripture( I mean deduced in scripture). But we hardly trust in our relationship with the Living God and HIs promises as Abraham did. We trust in accuracy when it comes to doing the right things(baptizing for remission of sins in order to be saved and taking communion every Sunday). But those things are so hollow when we get the word we have cancer or some other terminal illness, and it also gives us no confidence at all or little because of our moral defects. If perfection is what I’m to be judged by(meaning my own) then we either pretend we’re good enough or we realize in those desperate times that we are without hope. We(ministers and elders) often hear, “Did I do enough to be saved,” or some other equivalent. The answer of course is “No you did not”, (which may not be the answer some want to hear), however Jesus did. And that is the best news of all when we believe it and walk with God in relationship as Abraham did.

  5. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:


    The better view is to recognize that “believe” and “repent” are overlapping terms — not two distinct steps —

    In his early ministry, Jesus’ own message was expressed in similar ways. Like the Baptizer, he proclaimed, “Repent, for the kingdom … is near” (Matt 4:17). His mission focused on calling “sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32). What that meant is clarified in Mark 1:15: “Repent and believe the good news.” Any conception of repenting (metanoeō) not wedded to faith in the gospel falls short of the full biblical message.
    On the other hand, the proclamation of Jesus (Jeremias 1971: 152–58) and his apostles sometimes utilized the idea of metanoia to include faith (Mark 6:12). In a real sense, “Repentance and faith are two sides of the same coin” (IDB 4:34). The issue could be sharpened to “repent” or “perish” (Luke 13:3, 5), “repent” or go to “hell” and “torment” after death (Luke 16:23, 28, 30). For those sinners who do repent, however, there is “joy in heaven” (Luke 15:7, 10). Thus, it can be concluded that, in the gospels, metanoia stands for the entire response bringing about eternal life, including faith when it is not stated. Accordingly, the Great Commission statement which concludes Luke’s gospel reads, “Repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations” (24:47).
    At the human level, sincere repentance (metanoeō) for interpersonal sin demands forgiveness, according to Christ (Luke 17:3–4). Surprisingly, John’s gospel contains no reference to repentance in either dimension, the idea apparently being included in John’s concept of faith (IDB 4: 34).
    The three uses of metamelomai in the gospels are instructive. In Matt 21:29, 32, it is similar, but not equivalent, to metanoeō. In Matt 27:3 the “remorse” of Judas does not have “the power to overcome the destructive operation of sin” (TDNT 4:628). This example “makes it clear that metamelomai and metanoeō do not have identical meanings in the NT” (NIDNTT 1: 356).
    Virtually echoing John the Baptist, Peter’s sermon at Pentecost in Acts urged, “Repent and be baptized … so that your sins may be forgiven” (Acts 2:38). Further usage links repentance not only with forgiveness (5:31) but also with “faith in our Lord Jesus” (20:21) and with “life,” as a result of repentance (11:18). In Acts 17:30–31 Paul on the Areopagus states God’s command for “all people everywhere to repent” or be justly judged. Parallel to the phenomena in the gospels (NIDNTT 1: 359), repentance in Acts may be complementary to faith (20:21) or include faith (17:30) and leads to forgiveness of sins (2:38; 5:31) and eternal life (11:18).

    A. Boyd Jr. Luter, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, 1992, 5, 673.

    In evangelical preaching (not just in the CoC), “repent” is used to mean “give up your sinful lifestyle,” which certainly any convert ought to do, but as shown above, in the NT use, “repent” includes “believe that Jesus is the Messiah” and so become faithful to him. It’s not just repent from sin but repent from sin and turn to God, recognizing Jesus as his enthroned Messiah. Something like that. The exact meaning varies with context, with the “faith” part being more prominent than in others.

    That is, one must repent from whatever separates one from God. That may be sin. It may be unbelief. It may be some of both. For a Gentile to “repent,” he likely had to do both because his pagan lifestyle had to be given up but he also had to accept Jesus as Lord. A faithful Jew might have very few sins to repent of but desperately need to come to faith in Jesus.

    NT Wright explains,

    Josephus is describing an incident which took place in Galilee in around AD 66—that is, roughly when some of the synoptic traditions may have been achieving a settled shape. Josephus has gone to Galilee to sort out the turbulent factionalism there. A brigand chief called Jesus (there are twenty-one people by that name in the index to Josephus’ works; originality in naming children was evidently not prized highly among first-century Jews) makes a plot against Josephus’ life. Josephus manages to foil it. Then, he tells us, he called Jesus aside and told him

    that I was not ignorant of the plot which he had contrived against me …; I would, nevertheless, condone his actions if he would show repentance and prove his loyalty to me. All this he promised …

    ‘If he would show repentance and prove his loyalty to me.’ The translation is accurate enough, but could just as well have been rendered ‘if he would repent and believe in me’. Josephus is requiring of this Jesus that he give up his brigandage, and trust him (Josephus) for a better way forward. ‘Repentance’, in this sense of abandoning revolutionary inclinations, is found elsewhere in the same narrative; so, for that matter, is ‘belief’, in the sense of trust in and loyalty to a leader. I find it somewhat remarkable that, in all the literature I have read about Jesus of Nazareth, only one writer even mentions the incident involving Josephus and the brigand Jesus, and even he makes no comment about the meaning of ‘repentance’ and ‘belief’ in the light of it. It is, I suggest, of considerable significance. This is what those words meant in Galilee in the 60s; by what logic do we insist that they meant something rather different, something perhaps more ‘personal’, ‘inward’ or ‘religious’, in Galilee in the 20s and 30s? Why should we use that ‘religious’ sense as the criterion for assessing whether Jesus of Nazareth could have said such a thing? He may well have meant more than Josephus; that must be seen by further historical investigation. He is highly unlikely to have meant less.

    The most plausible historical reconstruction of Jesus’ call to repent brings together, I suggest, the two emphases we have now sketched (returning to YHWH so that the exile may come to an end; renunciation of nationalist violence). It was an eschatological call, not the summons of a moralistic reformer. And it was a political call, summoning Israel as a nation to abandon one set of agendas and embrace another. ‘Repentance’ in Jesus’ first-century context is not to be conceived simply as one feature within the timeless landscape of a non-historical religion. That is the mistake of many Christian writers, who, ignoring the perfectly clear place of that sort of repentance within day-to-day Jewish life and teaching, have imagined that Jesus invented the idea and so became unpopular. But it would be equally wrong to imagine that Jesus—still understood as a preacher of timeless truths—did not make repentance thematic, because, as a preacher of ‘timeless truths’, he had no need to. Rather, precisely as a would-be prophet, and a prophet of the eschaton at that, he summoned Israel to a once-for-all national repentance, such as would be necessary for the exile to end at last. This was not simply the ‘repentance’ that any human being, any Jew, might use if, aware of sin, they decided to say sorry and make amends. It is the single great repentance which would characterize the true people of YHWH at the moment when their god became king. What is more, this repentance seems to have little to do with the official structures of the Jewish system. True repentance, it seems, consisted rather in adherence and allegiance to Jesus himself.

    N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1996), 250–252.

    The beauty of this interpretation is that it not only fits the biblical text better, but it connects Paul and the Gospels. When Jesus or John the Baptist cry, “Repent!” in the synoptic Gospels, and Jesus cries “Believe in me!” in John’s Gospel, and Paul urges his readers to have “faith,” they are all saying the same thing. To follow Jesus, to be a disciple, to repent, to have faith ALL require BOTH what we’ve traditionally called “faith” and “repentance.” They are not two distinct things. Rather, they are two ways of saying the same thing — all focused on Jesus.

    Hence, Christianity is no longer mainly about moral reform (although we should all reform morally) but much more about following Jesus (which requires moral reform but so very much more).

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