One of the major obstacles to Christianity is that many mistake the concept of "faith" for taking a blind leap in the absence of evidence. That's a valid concern, but it is a false caricature of biblical faith - a caricature I held to be true prior to following Jesus. Biblical faith is not a blind commitment or mere emotional wishful thinking. That is not faith, that is foolishness. I will deal specifically with the plausibility of biblical faith in a future post. But, first we must address what faith is and how it is formed. In this post we will discuss the elements of biblical faith. Traditionally, biblical faith is understood as having three components: knowledge (notitia), assent (assensus), and trust (fiducia). Understanding the anatomy of biblical faith is of crucial importance, both for followers of Jesus and those who are not, as it is faith that leads to salvation and ongoing sanctification (i.e. transformation).
The first component of biblical faith is knowledge of certain fundamental facts. In other words, there is content to faith. It is not faith in faith. There are things to be known which the Bible claims to be true: God exists, Jesus is God, we are sinners in need of a savior, Jesus died on the cross to forgive our sins, Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, and more. This component strictly deals with the claims (truths, facts, etc) of Christianity. Non-Christians can know things about Jesus without believing them to be true, so knowledge alone (strictly speaking) is not saving faith.
The second component of biblical faith is assent. It's not just that we cognitively know certain things, we must also assent to their truthfulness. We must assent to, or agree with, the truthfulness of what we have come to know. When we assent, we are saying "Yes, I believe this is true. This explains the world and this explains me. I not only understand that Jesus claimed to be God, but I assent to the fact that he is God. I agree. I not only know these intellectually, I believe they are true."
Now, we often stop here and call this "faith". But, James tells us that even demons know things about God and assent to their truthfulness, "You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe - and shudder!" (James 2:18) In other words, even the demonic hoard know who God is and believe it to be true, yet are not saved. So, clearly we need something more than knowledge of certain facts about God and assent to their truthfulness.
The last component of saving faith is "trust", "reliance", or "abiding". In other words, the faith that saves and sanctifies is a faith that trusts. The Devil has knowledge and assents (to a degree) but he does not trust and rely on Jesus. God's people, in Jesus, know the truth, assent to it and then rely on it, saying "This is my only hope, my treasure - without this I am lost." This isn't an optional component of faith but the necessary outcome if we are to be saved (ultimately) and changed (in the meantime). The Apostle Paul provides an example of this in his letter to the Romans, "If you confess with your mouth (assent) that Jesus is Lord (knowledge) and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead (trust), you will be saved." (Rom 10:9)
This is also why the bible places such a high priority on obedience. Our actions always reveal what we most trust and obedience is a tangible demonstration, and the inevitable outcome, of relying on Jesus. We are not saved by our obedience, but our obedience displays what we are ultimately trusting in. The Apostle John says it like this, "Whoever says 'I know [Jesus]' but does not keep his commandments is a liar..." (1 Jn 2:4) Here John is referring to knowing about Jesus, even assenting to him, yet not ultimately trusting him. If we trusted him, per John, we would keep his commandments. It is this type of faith (knowledge + assent + trust) that Jesus calls us to for salvation and ongoing sanctification.
In the next post we will look at how faith is formed. We tend to think that our beliefs are based on purely intellectual grounds, but the reality is that there are a variety of sources that give shape to what we believe.