Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation. By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible. – Hebrews 11:1-3 ESV
What exactly is faith? How do you know when you have it? When do you know that you are living by it? The author of Hebrews, like Paul, spent a great deal of time defending the doctrine of faith. They both believed it was essential to salvation and non-negotiable. The author of Hebrews even goes so far as to say, “And without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:6 ESV). Both Paul and the author of Hebrews quote from the passage in the book of Habakuk, “but the righteous shall live by his faith”, to support their position on faith. For both men, faith and righteousness were inseparable. You couldn’t have one without the other. To attempt to achieve the kind of righteousness God demands, apart from faith, would be impossible and illogical. He had given the law to the people of Israel to show them the extent of the righteousness He required and the utter futility of trying to live it out on their own. They couldn’t do it. And because God knew they would not be able to keep the law, He provided them with the sacrificial system to atone for the sins they would inevitably commit. And as the author has already revealed, the law and the sacrificial system were “but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities” (Hebrews 10:1a ESV). The people sinned and the offered sacrifices for those sins, year after year. And the author broke the news to his Jewish audience, “it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near” (Hebrews 10:1b ESV).
The law was intended to reveal God’s righteous standards and expose man’s sin. Paul explained, “For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are” (Romans 3:20 NLT). The sacrifices demonstrated that God’s wrath against sin was real and required the shedding of blood to atone for those sins. “In fact, according to the law of Moses, nearly everything was purified with blood. For without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22 NLT). But while the blood of bulls and goats could provide temporary atonement for sins, God sent His Son to provide a permanent solution to man’s sin problem and a way to escape the sentence of death hanging over his head. But God’s plan of salvation would require faith – “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1 ESV).
Faith is always forward looking. It is based on the yet unseen and the as yet unfulfilled. Peter gives us a wonderful glimpse of what faith should like for us as believers:
So be truly glad. There is wonderful joy ahead, even though you have to endure many trials for a little while. These trials will show that your faith is genuine. It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold—though your faith is far more precious than mere gold. So when your faith remains strong through many trials, it will bring you much praise and glory and honor on the day when Jesus Christ is revealed to the whole world. You love him even though you have never seen him. Though you do not see him now, you trust him; and you rejoice with a glorious, inexpressible joy. The reward for trusting him will be the salvation of your souls. – 1 Peter 1:6-9 NLT
The author of Hebrews has told us, “let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water¸” (Hebrews 10:22 ESV). We are to “hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering” (Hebrews 10:23 ESV). He praised his readers for having “joyfully accepting the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one” (Hebrews 10:34 ESV). In other words, they were willing to put up with loss in this world because of their confidence in the promise of God that assured them of great gain in the world to come. They were “not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls” (Hebrews 10:39 ESV). Their faith was future-oriented. They believed the promises of God. They had an assurance of things hoped for and a conviction of things not seen.
That is exactly what Paul encouraged the believers in Corinth to keep doing: “That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18 NLT). If we remove the hope of God’s future promises, we will find it hard to endure the present trials of this life. If we live as if this is all there is, then we will grow weary, disappointed and disillusioned with our salvation. But God’s salvation includes our future glorification. There is more to our faith than simply the assurance that we have been saved and our sins are forgiven. We will one day be redeemed and given new bodies. We will be freed once and for all from our battle with indwelling sin. Our faith must always have a future focus. The apostle John, like a loving pastor, reminds us, “Dear friends, we are already God’s children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears. But we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is” (1 John 3:2 NLT). That is our hope. That is the basis of our faith. And the author of Hebrews will spend the rest of this chapter demonstrating what this kind of faith looks like in real life, using the Old Testament saints as examples of living, breathing faith lived out in real life.