One privilege of teaching at Biola is watching students awaken to the power of loving God with their minds. Because our minds are part of our hearts, full-hearted devotion to Jesus requires that we devote our minds to Jesus (Matthew 22, Mark 12, Luke 10). A prominent roadblock in this process is a misunderstanding of faith. Students often come to Biola unknowingly confused about what faith, especially religious faith, involves. No doubt this is in part because myths abound in our culture about what faith is, and what it requires.

So over my years of teaching Biola students to love God with their minds, and in my own life as well, I’ve found that developing a clear, biblical understanding of faith is life-changing. Five thoughts have proved particularly helpful to them, and to me. These are five of the most important lessons I’ve learned over the years about faith, lessons that consistently help my students “work out their salvation”, at least along a certain dimension, and have certainly helped me work out my own.

Faith is Trust

Faith is a sort of commitment, and the fundamental character of that commitment is best described as trust. Fundamentally, faith is trust.

Corollary: faith comes in degrees. A person can trust more or less. Strong faith is strong trust. Weak faith is weak trust. Weak trust is still trust. So weak faith is still faith.

Faith is Directed

Faith is directed. Faith has an object. One doesn’t just have faith full stop. One has faith in something, and that something must be thought of in a particular way. This is because faith also has content. One doesn’t just have faith in something. One has faith in that something for something.

The fact that faith involves an object and has content explains why faith and belief are difficult to decouple. This shows up even in Bible translation: the Greek word pistis is often translated faith but is also often translated belief. For example, the core passage of my Substack post “Jesus as Educator”, Mark 9, involves cognates of pistis translated as belief in many English versions. But in “By Faith We See In the Dark”, I discussed 2 Corinthians 4-5, in which that same pistis is most often rendered faith. Similarly, John 3:16 says we must pisteuon, believe. But in Romans 5, we are justified ek pisteos, by faith.

Anyway, we can put these two points together: faith is belief in something for something.

Belief in isn’t belief that. Believing that is taking something to be true. It’s thinking the world is or was or will be a particular way. Our beliefs in this sense are an inner, mental representation of ourselves and the world. They make up our mental map, sort of like a map of the roads or of the subway, only mental and more comprehensive. Beliefs that orient and situate us in our environment, tell us where we are and where other things are as well, what we take to have been in the past and what we think will happen in the future.

Belief in is more than belief that, but not less. Some of the things represented on one’s mental map are objects of trust, are things one believes in. Belief in is trusting the roads represented on the map to stay passable, or trusting the trains represented on the map to run on time.

Faith is Ordinary

Faith is not merely religious. One can have faith in all sorts of things for all sorts of ends. One can have faith in a friend to pick you up from the airport, faith in a chair to support your weight when you lean back on just two of its legs, faith in a car to get you from Fullerton, CA to Fort Worth, TX and on to Wheaton, IL and back again. You can have faith in yourself to kick that habit, faith in a dictionary to tell you the meaning of that word, faith in a journalist to tell you the facts without spin. And on it goes.

Faith is faith is faith. Religious and ordinary faith don’t differ as faith. Religious faith is just ordinary faith with non-ordinary objects and non-ordinary ends. Religious faith, at its core, is faith in something supernatural to supply something ultimate. In the Apostles’ Creed, for example, we say we believe in the Triune God, that we believe in Christ to come again with glory to judge the quick and the dead.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of the ordinariness of faith. If faith is faith is faith, then thinking I am irrational for trusting God to keep His promises just because that trust is faith means thinking I am irrational for trusting my couch to not collapse when I sit. But my faith in my couch isn’t irrational, at least not just because it’s faith. Same goes for my faith in God. What would make my faith in God irrational is if I was irrational to believe that God is who He says He is, or if God was not in fact trustworthy. (To read more about this, check out my latest book, especially chapter 5.)

Faith is Friends with Reason

Faith goes beyond reason, but isn’t contrary to reason. Trusting is not mere believing that, but confident belief can boost one’s faith. The more strongly one believes that someone is trustworthy, the more likely one is to actually, like, trust them. Likewise, if your car has given you all the reason in the world to believe that it’s unreliable, you are less likely to trust it to start when you turn the key this time.

Of course, faith can be irrational. Sometimes we really do trust when we shouldn’t. Perhaps we don’t have good reason to trust, or perhaps we’ve been tragically misled about a thing’s trustworthiness. These possibilities don’t mean that all faith is irrational.

But equally, and for analogous reasons, lacking faith can be irrational. Sometimes we don’t trust when we should.

Faith Matters

The content of a person’s religious faith is perhaps the fact about them. What a person places her trust in for ultimate ends will shape and order her life in profound ways.

The centrality of faith for the Christian is stated clearly in the Westminster Confession. Here’s a sort of The Message version of section 2 of chapter 14:

By faith a Christian believes whatever is revealed in the Word, and acts on it. She acts differently depending on what is revealed: she obeys the commands, trembles at the warnings, embraces God’s promises for this life and the next. But the main thing is this: by faith she accepts, receives, and rests upon Christ alone for salvation in all its facets, by the grace of God.

As I pointed out in “By Faith We See In the Dark”, one specific domain where Christian faith matters is in our suffering. This is because faith connects us to hoped-for things, especially the final vindication of the people of God and our presence in our true, heavenly home.

The centrality of faith is, of course, a double-edged sword. Those who place their religious faith rightly—in the Triune God of heaven and earth, in Jesus Christ as the Savior of sinners—are made whole, are put to good use, become robustly, fully, deeply human. Their fate is glory. Those who place their religious faith wrongly—in idols of various kind, most often self or pleasure or some sort of false god—are wretched and becoming all the more so. (Idolatry, like all sin, is not only immoral, it’s tragic.) Their fate is worse than death.

Faith is trust. It’s directed, ordinary, and friends with reason. And faith matters.

"This article originally appeared on Tim's substack, Pancake Victim Speaks."

Dr. Tim Pickavance is Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University and Scholar in Residence at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA, where he also serves as a Ruling Elder. His most recent book is Knowledge for the Love of God: Why Your Heart Needs Your Mind (Eerdmans, 2022). Tim’s current research focuses on the role of affect (emotion, desire, etc.) on knowledge and belief, and on intellectual history from the Scientific Revolution to today, focusing on trends that make up what he calls "The Accidental War on Humanity". You can read about these and other interests by subscribing to Pancake Victim Speaks.