What is Faith?
I ran across this gem in Sunday’s readings from the Treasury of Daily Prayer from Concordia Publishing House. It is a quote from Martin Luther’s Introduction to the Book of Romans. Here Luther describes in as beautiful and as straightforward a manner what FAITH is. We tend to think of faith simply as belief or intellectual assent to divine truth. It is often described as something within us that is part of our nature, something we inherently possess. And yet that could not be farther from the truth of the matter.
Faith is not the human notion and dream that some people call faith. When they see that no improvement of life and no good works follow—although they can hear and say much about faith—they fall into the error of saying, “Faith is not enough; one must do works in order to be righteous and be saved.” This is due to the fact that when they hear the gospel, they get busy and by their own powers create an idea in their heart which says, “I believe”; they take this then to be a true faith. But, as it is a human figment and idea that never reaches the depths of the heart, nothing comes of it either, and no improvement follows.
Faith, however, is a divine work in us which changes us and makes us to be born anew of God, John 1[:12–13]. It kills the old Adam and makes us altogether different men, in heart and spirit and mind and powers; and it brings with it the Holy Spirit. O it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith. It is impossible for it not to be doing good works incessantly. It does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is asked, it has already done them, and is constantly doing them. Whoever does not do such works, however, is an unbeliever. He gropes and looks around for faith and good works, but knows neither what faith is nor what good works are. Yet he talks and talks, with many words, about faith and good works.
Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that the believer would stake his life on it a thousand times. This knowledge of and confidence in God’s grace makes men glad and bold and happy in dealing with God and with all creatures. And this is the work which the Holy Spirit performs in faith. Because of it, without compulsion, a person is ready and glad to do good to everyone, to serve everyone, to suffer everything, out of love and praise to God who has shown him this grace. Thus it is impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate heat and light from fire. Beware, therefore, of your own false notions and of the idle talkers who imagine themselves wise enough to make decisions about faith and good works, and yet are the greatest fools. Pray God that he may work faith in you. Otherwise you will surely remain forever without faith, regardless of what you may think or do.
Righteousness, then, is such a faith. It is called “the righteousness of God” because God gives it, and counts it as righteousness for the sake of Christ our Mediator, and makes a man to fulfil his obligation to everybody. For through faith a man becomes free from sin20 and comes to take pleasure in God’s commandments, thereby he gives God the honor due him, and pays him what he owes him. Likewise he serves his fellow-men willingly, by whatever means he can, and thus pays his debt to everyone. Nature, free will, and our own powers cannot bring this righteousness into being. For as no one can give himself faith, neither can he take away his own unbelief. How, then, will he take away a single sin, even the very smallest? Therefore all that is done apart from faith, or in unbelief, is false; it is hypocrisy and sin, Romans 14[:23], no matter how good a showing it makes.
Flesh and spirit you must not understand as though flesh is only that which has to do with unchastity and spirit is only that which has to do with what is inwardly in the heart. Rather, like Christ in John 3[:6], Paul calls everything “flesh” that is born of the flesh—the whole man, with body and soul, mind and senses—because everything about him longs for the flesh. Thus you should learn to call him “fleshly” too who thinks, teaches, and talks a great deal about lofty spiritual matters, yet does so without grace. From the “works of the flesh” in Galatians 5[:19–21], you can learn that Paul calls heresy and hatred “works of the flesh.” And in Romans 8[:3] he says that “the law is weakened by the flesh”; yet this is said not of unchastity, but of all sins, and above all of unbelief, which is the most spiritual of all vices.
On the contrary, you should call him “spiritual” who is occupied with the most external kind of works, as Christ was when he washed the disciples’ feet [John 13:1–14], and Peter when he steered his boat and fished. Thus “the flesh” is a man who lives and works, inwardly and outwardly, in the service of the flesh’s gain and of this temporal life. “The spirit” is the man who lives and works, inwardly and outwardly, in the service of the Spirit and of the future life.Luther, M. (1999). Vol. 35: Luther’s Works: Word and Sacrament I, pp. 370-372 (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.) Philadelphia: Fortress Press.
Faith is a gift bestowed on us by God purely out of grace for the sake of Jesus, the Christ. It is given to us because of what the Father’s beloved Son has done in being obedient to the Will of the Father unto death. Christ covers us and presents us to God as one whom He head redeemed. Because of God’s favor to His son, He looks favorably upon us, and we are taken into the fold and given the very inheritance which Christ Himself possesses. We are reborn of God. It is faith that enables us to see this and believe it. It is “divine work which changes us and makes us to be born anew of God,” the work of Christ. I depends not on me or anyone else, but solely on the work of Christ. “Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that the believer would stake his life on it a thousand times.” It is the very righteousness of God given to us — “God gives it, and counts it as righteousness for the sake of Christ our Mediator, and makes a man to fulfil his obligation to everybody.”
Faith is not mine, but Thine. Belief is easy. So is intellectual assent. Being reborn is impossible. Being the righteousness of God even more unlikely. Giving your life for a God and Savior you have never seen sounds foolish. And all of these are true statements if faith is my own, a quality inherent in each of us. If it is a divine act, well, with God, nothing is impossible.