What Faith Does
I grew up learning Hebrews 11:1 from the American Standard Version:
"Now faith is assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things not seen."
One way to study this is: This is a statement of what faith does. When you learn what something does, that helps you understand what it is. What does faith do? It assures us of those things we hope for, and convinces us of things we have never seen. Think of this as a statement of what faith does, therefore helpful in understanding what faith is.
Beginning at the end of the verse, think about faith in relation to things not seen. Faith convinces us of things not seen. As you think about this, make a mental list of things you believe, but have not seen: We have not seen God through direct, visual contact; we did not witness creation; we did not observe the sin of Adam and Eve; we have no visual knowledge of the exodus of Israel, or their entrance into the promised land; we did not witness the birth of Christ, we were not with Him on the roads of Galilee; we did not see Him die on the cross, nor witness His resurrection. These are things we believe, but have not seen. When we believe and affirm as truth that which we haven't seen - that's faith. When we know something is true or something happened - on the strength of evidence we have been exposed to - that's faith. Faith convinces us of things not seen. One translation says: "makes us certain of realities we do not see." (See also 2 Cor. 5:7).
Now consider the first phrase of the verse, and focus on - things hoped for. Now we consider faith in relation to the future; that is, things hoped for. This phrase, "things hoped for" does not mean - just anything we want to happen in the future! Perhaps you want a promotion to advance your career; a substantial financial inheritance; the strong desire for some problem in your life to suddenly and forever disappear. These common desires are understandable, but not involved in the specific phrase in Hebrews eleven. "Things hoped for" cannot be applied to just anything we want to happen.
In this regard, one of the modern English translations misses the text completely. The Living Bible has: "What is faith? It is the confident assurance that something we want is going to happen... ." That's not even a good paraphrase. The phrase "things hoped for" in Heb. 11:1 is not about the personal wishes of people - it is about the divine promises of God. The earlier context is definitive: "the hope set before us... this hope... the bringing in of a better hope... God providing something better for us," (Heb. 6:17-20; 7:18,19; 11:40). "Things hoped for" in the Hebrew context is not about my carnal wishes; it is about what God has promised to the just, who live by faith. For examples - we look forward to the second coming of Christ, the resurrection and heaven. Faith assures us of those things!
Those things God has promised through the gospel are substantiated in my heart by faith (exposure to evidence resulting in belief, see Jno. 20:30,31; Luke 1:1-4; Rom. 10:17). When we believe God - when we accept His promises as true, and we live by that hope - faith is assuring us of things we hope for.
So, we learn what faith is by considering what faith does: Faith convinces us of things we have never seen; and faith assures us of things we hope for. Do you have the faith described in Hebrews 11:1? Have you acted on that faith? Do you walk by faith? Remember, faith discovers its existence in obedience!
By Warren E. Berkley
From Expository Files 8.11; November 2001