For the Christian, faith has several aspects, none of which are the blind adherence to a system of belief despite, or even in opposition to, the evidence; a distortion on which atheists insist because, apparently, it suits them to build and then knock down a straw man.
There is the “Christian Faith”, which refers to the dogma, doctrine and teachings of historic Christendom. This is simply a synonym for “religion”, and it’s also used of other religious systems. It is a general use of the term which has no relevance to the Christian virtue of faith. We shall not consider it further in this context.
Properly, from a Biblical perspective, the virtue of faith is expressed by Hebrews 11:1 and it’s subject made clear in verse 6:
1 Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. … 6 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.
This aspect of faith is indeed a non-empirical, spiritual virtue by which the believer maintains trust in the person of God despite current, temporary circumstances. It is intimately tied with hope, by which we have confidence in the coming Kingdom of Christ. Without this kind of faith, one cannot please God for one does not even acknowledge God’s existence. I experienced this in the form of a divine encounter whereby I was literally in the presence of God – I can’t explain it, I can’t prove it, I can’t reproduce it on cue, but I am utterly, to the very core of my being, convinced beyond any reasonable doubt that God is real. I am also convinced it only comes to a person when they reach a point of putting their pride aside and conceding that if the Christian God exists then he must be worthy of their total surrender. This is an inner certainty, private to the individual.
Then too, there is the aspect of faith which is built up over time of living the Christian life; that born of seeing the Lord work, of experiencing his presence, counsel and hearing his voice; born of seeing that the Christian worldview is consistent with reality and with our rational experience; born of inner contemplation, reflection and rationalizing about the world in which we live. It comes from reading and understanding scripture and seeing how it reveals God and truth. This is the ongoing evidentiary base which reinforces the faith by which we come to salvation (that is, the faith which leads us to salvation). It is more of an intellectual assent and pursuit. It happens as we learn and understand more about God and his character; as we grow in the realization that as a person God is worthy of our trust – he is trustworthy.
It is in the light of this latter aspect that we see that the teachings of Christianity make sense; creation, the fall, the plight of mankind, the necessity of the incarnation, death and resurrection for our salvation, the call to holiness and the life of the Spirit, and, ultimately, our eternity with Christ. It is why we old-creationists strive to find harmony between the facts of nature and the revelations of scripture – because, being called to worship God with our whole beings, including our minds, we are convinced that there can be no conflict between what God has revealed in creation and what he has revealed in scripture.
The Christian experience of faith, then, is both the inner certainty and the intellectual assent and trust. I think that as Christians it is hard to see where the one ends and the other begins, which is why we (a) react so strongly to the limited and derogatory atheist definition, and (b) have so much trouble articulating what we mean by “faith”.
Jesus taught us that “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:44). In every one’s life there comes a time when God draws them to Jesus through some kind of inner, private encounter. I experienced that drawing by having my eyes opened to the truth of what I was singing in a church one day and experiencing several minutes in the presence of God; I left the church not with the latter faith, but with the former – I was utterly convinced of God’s reality and thought to myself quite matter-of-factly as I crossed the threshold into daylight, “Well, I guess that settles it, God is real.” But it was some months before I realized what God required of me, my total surrender, following which intellectual realization I came to the point of salvation.
What about you? Have you experienced God drawing you? If so, what was your response? If not, do you think you will be humble enough to respond when he does?