“the elementary doctrine…a foundation…faith toward God,” (Heb. 6:1)
Before examining the foundational doctrine of “faith toward God” in Heb. 6:1, I think it’s helpful to step back and consider the entirety of the book of Hebrews.
The problem addressed in this book was that Christians were starting to think they needed to revert back to Judaism and Jewish rituals that Christ has fulfilled. These rituals were no longer needed, and, in fact, would make them forfeit their trust in Christ and His sacrifice alone had they placed some trust in the rituals (see the stern warning in Heb. 6:4-8, for instance).
With the background of Hebrews in mind, now consider the warning in Heb. 6:1-2. Namely, the writer is telling his readers to MOVE BEYOND these foundations. Why? Because these 6 elements could equally be claimed by Jews who reject Christ and His sacrifice. All 6 of these doctrines would be agreed upon by Jews and Christians. Thus, if you don’t go beyond it, you aren’t standing on Christ’s sacrifice for salvation alone for your faith (and thus in jeopardy of eternal damnation).
Here are those 6 foundations, shared by Jews and Christians:
- Repentance from dead works – Jews and Christians affirm the need to repent (e.g. Matt. 12:41)
- Faith toward God – this is the one discussed in this article. Notice it doesn’t say, “Faith toward Christ”. This is because the writer is keeping the language generic enough that Jews and Christians can both affirm this. So, of course, Jews and Christians both see the importance in faith toward God (e.g. Romans 1:17; Habakkuk 2:4)
- Instruction about washings – this is a fun one! As I recall, F.F. Bruce explains in his Hebrews commentary that the Greek word used for “washings” is actually a new word created from merging the Jewish word for “ritual washings” with the New Testament word for “baptisms”. So, essentially, they are talking about washings-baptisms. Of course, washings is a fundamental Jewish practice (Heb. 9:10) while baptism is foundational Christian practice (Matt. 28:19)
- Laying on of hands – in Judaism, this practice happened whenever an animal was sacrificed. Of course, for Christians, Christ was the ultimate sacrifice and we should never seek any other sacrifice for sin (Heb. 6:6). However, the practice of laying hands for prayer and commissioning is a foundational Christian practice (see Laying Hands)
- Resurrection of the dead – both Jews and Christians affirm the general belief that the dead will later bodily resurrect (Dan 12:2; John 5:28-29)
- Eternal judgment – likewise, both Jews and Christians believe in a judgment that follows our death (Luke 16:19-31)
Repentance and Faith
In various places, including Hebrews 6:1, repentance and faith are seen together.
For instance, Jesus’ first commands in Mark are: “Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15).
I think of repentance and faith as the 2 empty hands we offer God to receive his free gift of salvation.
- Repentance = submitting your will to Jesus as Lord.
- Faith = trusting Jesus (and his work) for your salvation.
Prodigal Son: Repentance and Faith
A picture of repentance and faith can be seen in the Prodigal Son story of Luke 15:11-31.
This parable is set alongside 2 others, and all expressly point toward a sinner repenting unto salvation (see Luke 15:7, 10).
- changed his will (and an action followed) = repentance
- received the garments, feast, and generosity of the Father = faith
Day of Atonement: Repentance and Faith
Another beautiful picture of us repenting and believing the gospel unto salvation is seen in the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16).
If you read that chapter, you’ll see that this was a festival celebrated 1 day out of the year to cover people’s sins (“atonement” means “covering”), and get them right with God.
But there is really only 1 person who is working the whole time (and he is very busy!). That is, the high priest. He is slaughtering the animals, offering the blood, putting on all the garments the right way, and risking his life–all on behalf of the people. The high priest does all the work, and if God receives his sacrifice, he comes back alive and shows himself to the people. Sound familiar?
Indeed, in Hebrews we read about Jesus being our High Priest. His blood is the sacrifice, He takes it to heaven (the ultimate “holy of holies”), and then came back alive! He did all that work so our sins could be covered/atoned, and we could be reconciled with God.
Meanwhile, the people only had to do 2 things to receive this amazing forgiveness (see Lev. 16:29-31):
- Afflict their souls
Afflicting their souls is clearly akin to repentance, in that we are convicted that we fall short of God’s glory and must surrender contritely to Him.
Meanwhile, resting–you guessed it–speaks to faith. In fact, Hebrews 3-4 diagrams precisely how faith in God’s finished work is our ultimate Sabbath-rest. “So we see that they were not able to enter [God’s sabbath-rest], because of their unbelief…anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works,” (Heb. 3:19-4:10).
The sabbath was instituted after God had worked 6 days. Then man and woman were created after all that, and their first full day was a day of rest. Our sabbath is resting in God’s finished work on the cross. When we place faith/trust completely in Christ’s work as atoning our sins (and place ZERO confidence in our own works), we are atoned. In fact, there is a stern warning that anyone who does any work on that Day of Atonement will be destroyed (Lev. 23:30). A similar warning is in Galatians, for Christians: if you preach a different gospel that places trust in your own works unto salvation, you will be eternally condemned (see Gal. 1:6-10).
Thus, as Israel afflicted their souls and rested to receive the atoning work of the High Priest (Lev. 16), so we repent and believe to receive the atoning work of Christ, our High Priest!
Hebrews 11:1 says, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Notice here that it is an “assurance” and “conviction” of something unseen.
And as we saw earlier, faith is compared elsewhere in Hebrews to resting. Namely, resting in God’s works not your own.
Further, linguist and Bible translator, Peter Williams, has said that Biblical faith probably most closely aligns with our English word, “trust.”
Putting this all together, we see that faith is a confidence/trust/resting in something we don’t see visibly.
We are told that God gives faith:
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of GodEphesians 2:8
Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.Romans 12:3
And we see that He gives it through the His word. That is, as God’s word is presented to people, it is like a seed. Those who receive it in their heart, have the beginning of biblical faith:
faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of ChristRomans 10:17
He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.James 1:18
As such, in the famous episode of Peter walking on the water in faith, he begins by saying:
“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”Matt. 14:28
In other words, he needed to hear Jesus’ word, and then he could exercise his faith to walk.
Hear, Believe, See
Along these lines, we see that the Biblical order of event is:
- Hear God’s word
- Receive it as truth (i.e. trust/believe it)
- See it transpire in reality
- Gen. 1:3ff; Gen. 45:27-28; Prov. 20:12; Luke 24:13-32; John 21:4-12; Rev. 1:10-12
- God first revealed Himself through O.T. Scriptures, then by coming in the flesh
- Nature: a child in the womb hears first, sees blurry later, then sees fully
And, as said above, Peter:
- Heard Christ’s word say “Come”
- Believed it
- Exercised this faith by walking on the water (Matt. 14:22-33)
“But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, ‘Lord, save me!'” (Matt. 14:30). Thus, when he trusted in sight, his experience followed.
You’ll notice this is the opposite of the world’s teaching to “believe it AFTER you see it.” Biblical faith hears, then believes, and afterwards sees it.
I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living!Psalm 27:13
Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”John 11:40
I’m reminded of the story of Brother Yun miraculously having his legs healed and restored in prison. He was in prison for a while on account of the gospel. His legs had been so bashed in that he couldn’t even walk on his own strength, but had to be carried everywhere. Then the Lord spoke to Him to walk out of the maximum security where he was held. He struggled with doubts and responded to the Lord saying something like, “My legs can’t stand; there are guards all around; the doors are locked. How can I walk out of here?” And the Lord said something to the effect of, “these things are facts, but I am Truth. The facts will bow to truth. Hear and obey.” And sure enough he got up, and started walking, and as he went his legs were restored and miraculously walked right out of that prison.
Or, in the Normal Christian Life, Watchman Nee tells the experience of teaching someone that he had been crucified with Christ. The person protests that his experience makes him distrust that he’s truly been crucified with Christ. So Nee responds by asking, “Did you see Jesus crucified? Did you see the 2 thieves on the cross crucified? No, yet you believe it’s so because the Bible says it. So why do you demand extra proof when God says you, too, have been crucified. If you would first trust this word, then you would see it begin to come to pass.” (my paraphrase)
I would add that, according to 1 Cor. 2, God-honoring faith rests on God and His power AND NOT the wisdom and cleverness of man (1 Cor. 2:1-5). I believe restless faith comes when people keep reverting to trusting in their own wisdom or the wisdom of others, and then it gets jostled by someone else’s “counter claims” and “wisdom” that teaches the opposite.
Instead, Biblical faith comes from revelation and, “rests…on God’s power,” (1 Cor. 2:5).
Quality Over Quantity
It should be stressed before we talk about growing our faith that God honors small, quality faith over large-but-insincere faith:
if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for youMatt 17:20
He [Jesus] replied, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.Luke 17:6
But saying that, God also exhorts us to grow our faith, and shows ways to do this.
Obedience Grows Faith
Immediately after the disciples ask for more faith in Luke 17 (in response to Jesus’ lofty command to forgive generously), Jesus tells them:
- Small faith can still be powerful (Luke 17:6)
- Obey what God says (Luke 17:7-10)
Then Luke tells the story of 10 lepers being healed. Notice that He speaks a healing word over them, but then gives them a command, “Go, show yourselves to the priests,” (17:14). And only after they obey this do they experience the healing. Then, 1 returns to Jesus to praise God. And it is this one where Jesus says, “your faith has made you well,” (Luke 17:19).
In all of this, we observe that, in some measure, obeying the Lord with the little faith you do have can lead to greater faith.
A similar thing, I think, happens in John 21 when they are fishing and Jesus is resurrected. Initially, they only hear a voice from an unrecognized man say, “try the other side.” And then, only after they obey this voice, do they see the miracle. And after this, the apostles recognize that, “It is the Lord!” (21:7). Notice that obedience even before they were 100% sure it was Jesus gave them fuller faith and conviction that it was indeed Jesus.
Prayer Grows Faith
According to Jude 1:20 and 1 Cor. 14:4, praying in the Spirit (and Spirit-led prayer) is part of how God has established our faith to grow.
God’s Church Grows Faith
Similarly, there is a Spiritual gift of faith (1 Cor. 12) that comes to some, while Spirit-led church meetings can serve to generally grow our faith (see 1 Cor. 14).
Scripture Grows Faith
Additionally, we saw earlier that faith comes from Scripture itself, and thus a devotion to Scripture will further grow our faith (Rom. 10:17)
The last thing to consider here, is that Hebrews 6:1 does not speak of, “faith,” alone. It is faith toward God.
As said earlier, faith is a conviction/trust/resting in someone or something. Thus, the faith that God is looking for is a faith that trusts and rests entirely on God:
Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to Him must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him.Hebrews 11:6
Here we see that biblical faith includes 2 components:
- Trusting that the God of the Bible exists as He claims He does.
- Trusting that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him.
These 2 components see their ultimate and full expression in faith toward Christ and the gospel:
- That you believe Jesus is God: “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent,” “if you do not believe that I am He [God], you will indeed die in your sins.” (John 6:29; 8:24)
- That you believe Jesus’ life, death, and bodily resurrection fully atoned your sins: “By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you…you have believed…Christ died for our sins according to the Scripture, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared…this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.” (1 Cor. 15:2-11)