Seeking a Practical Definition of Faith

What is faith? How would you define it?

If someone asked you these questions, what would you say?

What if someone asked you for the Biblical definition of faith?

Is there a particular verse that you would turn to?

What Does the Bible Say That Faith Is?

A. W. Tozer took a wise approach to these questions. In chapter seven of the Pursuit of God, He imagined what the Bible would say to someone reading it for the first time, someone he had called, in the previous chapter, “an intelligent plain man, untaught in the truths of Christianity.”

This plain man would begin to notice certain important themes in the Bible. One of them would be faith.

He would have no preconceived notions about what faith is, so he would get his definition solely from the Bible.

As far as what Bible verse to turn to, Tozer highlights Hebrews 11:1 (“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”)

Tozer also sees a restriction in that verse. Hebrews 11:1 not only defines faith, but tells us what kind of definition we can give to faith:

“In the Scriptures there is practically no effort made to define faith. Outside of a brief fourteen-word definition in Hebrews 11:1, I know of no Biblical definition, and even there faith is defined functionally, not philosophically; that is, it is a statement of what faith is in operation, not what it is in essence. It assumes the presence of faith and shows what it results in, rather than what it is. We will be wise to go just that far and attempt to go no further.”

What Did Jesus Say That Faith Is?

Next, Tozer looked at John 3:14-15: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”

Tozer imagined the unbiased reader making a deduction from this passage and from the event that it refers to:

“Our plain man in reading this would make an important discovery. He would notice that “look” and “believe” were synonymous terms. “Looking” on the Old Testament serpent is identical with “believing” on the New Testament Christ. That is, the looking and the believing are the same thing. And he would understand that while Israel looked with their external eyes, believing is done with the heart. I think he would conclude that faith is the gaze of a soul upon a saving God.”

“The Gaze of the Soul” is the title of chapter seven of the Pursuit of God. “Believing,” wrote Tozer, “is directing the heart’s attention to Jesus.”

Labor to Express the Truth, and You Will Greatly Appreciate that Truth

To support his definition, Tozer quoted Nicholas of Cusa, a German philosopher and theologian from the 1400s.

It may seem abrupt to jump from the uninformed “intelligent plain man” to Nicolas of Cusa, whom Tozer admitted was “not much known today anywhere among Christian believers.”

That’s the kind of jump Tozer often made, though. He worked to make the saints of old accessible to the man on the street.

He also critiqued the Christianity of his day. These critiques produced some memorable passages from his writings. For example, here he is lamenting the shallowness of the popular religious books being written in his day:

“Christian literature, to be accepted and approved by the evangelical leaders of our times, must follow very closely the same train of thought, a kind of “party line” from which it is scarcely safe to depart. A half-century of this in America has made us smug and content. We imitate each other with slavish devotion and our most strenuous efforts are put forth to try to say the same thing that everyone around us is saying—and yet to find an excuse for saying it, some little safe variation on the approved theme or, if no more, at least a new illustration.”

What made the situation worse, as far as Tozer was concerned, was the wealth of wisdom being neglected in the old books. He labored to fix that problem, however, and nearly seventy years later, he’s still introducing readers to the old saints.


NEXT: Victorious Spiritual Experience Summed Up in Three Words


This Post is Part of a Chapter-by-Chapter Look at A. W. Tozer’s The Pursuit of God

  1. This Voice from the Past is Still Calling for the Seekers
  2. The Larger the Heart, the Less It Holds
  3. God Tore Down His Veil, We Protect Ours
  4. We Walk by Faith Not by Sight, Not by Imagination
  5. Three Tips for Cultivating Spiritual Receptivity
  6. Has Everybody Heard the Speaking Voice?
  7. Seeking a Practical Definition of Faith
  8. Victorious Spiritual Experience Summed Up in Three Words
  9. Laying Down the Burden of Self
  10. Learning to See All of Life as Worship