The Christian life is the life of faith. Faith is the issue on which the matter of salvation depends; it is the key that turns the lock on the door to eternal life. Faith is the channel by which Christians receive the benefits of Christ’s saving work; it is the cup into which God pours His saving grace.
The eleventh chapter of Hebrews most clearly deals with the matter of faith, most carefully defines its nature, and most exhaustively describes its working. This chapter is to faith what the thirteen chapter of 1st Corinthians is to love, which is why it is so treasured by God’s people and so frequently studied. Hebrews 11 is the work of a master teacher who is convinced that the fate of his readers hinges on their faith. If they are to enter into eternal life, he knows, it will be through the possession and the exercise of faith, and in that alone. We see his concern in the verses that immediately precedes this chapter, and are intimately connected to its purpose:
Hebrews 10:36-39, “For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised. For, “Yet a little while, and the coming one will come and will not delay; but my righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him.” But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.”
It is through faith by believing that we are saved and through want of faith that we are lost. John Owen tells us why in his commentary on Hebrews:
“It is faith alone which from beginning of the world, in all ages, under all dispensations of grace. Hath been the only principle in which the church of the living unto God, of obtaining the promises, of inheriting life eternal; and doth continue so to be unto the consummation of all things. Spiritual life is by faith; and victory; and perseverance; and salvation: so they were from the beginning.”[i]
In this chapter therefore we will devote ourselves to a thorough study of faith which the Westminster Confession calls “the alone instrument of our justification” (11.2). Hebrews 11 is an enjoyable chapter, presenting a brilliant series of examples and connecting us to some of the greatest episodes of the Old Testament. But it is also a chapter with a purpose. Its aim is that we would emulate the faith of these heroes of Scripture so that the salvation they received would be ours as well.
Hebrews 11:1 is an oft-quoted and oft-memorized definition of faith: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” This is not a comprehensive definition of faith there are important truths about faith that are not mentioned here but it serves as a well crated introduction to all that the writer of Hebrews wants us to consider in this chapter.
Hebrews 11:1 describes the environment in which faith exists and works. Faith takes place when things are hoped for but not yet possessed or manifested. In this respect faith deals with the future. Paul spoke of the expectancy of faith in Romans 8:24-25, “For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” Faith concerns unseen spiritual realities, things as they are in God’s sight. Faith, therefore, relates to the thing we do not yet have, to the things we hope for and do not see, to things that are promised by God but are so far unfulfilled in our actual experience.
Scholars translate Hebrews 11:1 in a variety of ways. The reason is that the key word in the opening clause, hypostasis, carries with it a number of shades of meaning. In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament commonly used by the apostles, hypostasis occurs twenty times to translate twelve different Hebrew words The English Standard Version along with the New American Standard and the New Revised Standard, renders it as “the assurance.” The New International Version translates it as “being sure,” while the King James Version has it as the “substance” of things hoped for. J.B. Phillips calls it “full confidence.”
Philip Hughes’s excellent commentary on Hebrews lists four main ways we may take hypostasis, all of which have something to offer. The first corresponds to the way it is used in Hebrews 1:3. There this same word describes God’s substance of being: Hebrews 1:3, “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.” This is the idea that comes across in the King James Version of 11:1, “Now faith is the substance of things hope for.” The point is as Hughes says, that “faith lays hold of what is promised and therefore hope for, as something real and solid, though as yet unseen.”[ii] By faith, therefore, we possess things that are hoped for; faith is the manner in which we hold them, and by faith they are real in our experience.
This is the idea of faith emphasized in the second half of verse 1 where we read that faith is “the conviction of things not seen.” The key Greek here is elenchus which the New International Version translates as “being certain” and which normally means proof or evidence or attestation of “things that are not yet seen.” These things are not seen, but their proof and our conviction of the mare realized through faith. One of the reasons many favor the translation of hypostasis as “substance” is that they see a parallel between the first and second halves of this verse: faith is the “substance of what we hope for and the evidence of things not seen.”
Clearly, this idea is important to the writer’s thought. He is going to make much of the example of Abraham, who lived as a pilgrim in the land of promise. Although others occupied and controlled that land during his lifetime he nonetheless possessed it by faith. His faith gave evidence to him of what was promised but not yet seen. The same held true with regard to the promise of a son. God changed his name from Abram father of a nation to Abraham father of many nations by virtue of the promise he possessed by faith though he was at that time still childless. This then is how faith functions: it makes real to us and gives us possession of things that are hoped for but are not yet part of our experience.
The second way we may take hypostasis is as a foundation. The construction of the word lends itself to this, combining the prefix “under” with the word for “standing.” A hypostasis is something that stands under something else, as a foundation to a building. This is the way Saint Augustine understood our passage, that faith is the beginning which constrains the certainty of the end. By faith we begin what we will ultimately conclude by possession and seeing.
Third, hypostasis may be taken as confidence or assurance, which is how the majority of translations render it. This definition deals with what faith is, namely a confidence or assurance in things hoped for but not yet seen. This is how it is used in Hebrews 3:14, the other occasion where it appears in this letter: “we share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.” Faith , then, is our attitude toward our circumstances, particularly toward uncertainty and want. Paul wrote in 2nd Corinthians 5:7, “We walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). By faith we live as if things were other than they appear, because of what God has said.
Finally, this word may be rendered as guarantee or attention. Faith, in this sense, is the title deed to things we do not posses but hope for in the Lord. One commentator writes, “Faith is a guarantee of the heavenly realities for which we hope; not only does it render them certain for us, but it envisages them as rightfully belonging to us; it is, in itself, an objective assurance of our definite enjoyment of them. Consequently faith ‘takes possession by anticipation’ of these heavenly blessings and is a genuine commencement of the divine life.”[iii]
Faith is our guarantee that provides a foretaste of the spiritual blessing that ultimately we will know in full. I have said that this word hypostasis can be taken in at least four ways, and so the question may arise as to which one is right. It seems that the writer of Hebrews deliberately chose a word that has a broad and rich array of meanings, all of which are to the point. Faith is the substance of things hope for; it is the foundation upon which they are brought into being; it is the confident attitude toward those things God has promised; and it is the guarantee that gives us a sure possession even now.