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Is Faith Merely Assurance (Heb 11:1)?
A friend of mine recently pointed out a blog by John Piper on some upcoming changes (more properly, clarifications, precision) to his book, Future Grace, Revised Edition: The Purifying Power of the Promises of God.
One of those clarifications is going to be on the nature of faith in Heb 11:1. As you know, this is one of the more important verses in the Bible as it helps to define what “faith” is. I am always looking for new and clearer ways to define Christian terminology so that people outside the Christian tradition can understand — and for that matter, people within the tradition who tend to repeat words they don’t always understand. That’s what caught my eye.
This passage also points out the challenges of finding just the right English word for a Greek word. Sometimes, there just isn’t a word.
The NIV writes, “Now faith is confidence (ὑπόστασις) in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (also NLT). The problem with “confidence” (other than I always hear Julie Andrews singing when someone says the word) is that it is too weak. I can be confident, and wrong. Other translations speak of “assurance” (ESV, NASB, NRSV). The NET says, “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for.”
The HCSB is getting much closer to what the word means: “Now faith is the reality of what is hoped for.” The NKJV speaks of “substance.” The NJB has, “Only faith can guarantee the blessings that we hope for.” You can see what they are all struggling to say. Faith is the bedrock, complete and total, conviction of what is true, even though the fulfillment lies in the future. This is the context for John Piper’s statement.
John writes, “The closest thing we have to a definition of faith in the New Testament is in Hebrews 11:1, ‘Faith is the assurance (Greek hypostasis) of things hoped for.’ That word ‘assurance’ can mean ‘substance’ or ‘nature’ as in Hebrews 1:3: ‘[Christ] is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature (hypostaseos).’ Therefore, it seems to me, that the point of Hebrews 11:1 is this: When faith pictures the future which God promises, it experiences, as it were, a present ‘substantiation’ of the future. The substance of the future, the nature of it, is, in a way, present in the experience of faith. Faith realizes the future. It has, so to speak, a foretaste of it — as when we are so excited about something and so expectant of it, we say, ‘I can already taste it!’”
I checked with Guthrie’s commentary, and George says much the same thing. “The word hypostasis, translated by the NIV as a participle (‘being sure’), is in fact a noun, which was used variously to communicate the idea of substance, firmness, confidence, a collection of documents establishing ownership, a guarantee, or a proof. It probably should be understood in 11:1, as in 3:14, in the sense of a ‘firm, solid confidence’ or a ‘calm courage’ with reference to things hoped for. Thus, we can translate this part of the verse: ‘Now faith is the resolute confidence….’ The examples that follow demonstrate a posture of firm confidence in the promises of God even though the believers had not yet received the fulfillment of those promises (11:39).”
We know that without faith it is impossible to please God (Heb 11:6). The one indispensable quality of a true followers of Jesus is that he or she is completely and totally convinced that Jesus is who he says he is and will do what he says he will do. We trust not in ourselves but him Jesus and what he did, does, and will do for us. In fact, the purest form of faith sees very little difference between looking forward in the present, and what it will be like to actually experience the future when our hope becomes reality.
Perhaps it is better to say that faith sees the future as our present reality, and we do so with resolute confidence.