Published: 11 October 2017

What does it really mean to have faith?

To a lot of people, having faith in God means nothing more than to believe that He exists. Obviously believing in God is a big part of having faith in Him, but that’s not all faith is.

How does the Bible define faith?

The words our Bibles translate into English as “believe”, “faith”, “faithful”, “faithfulness”, etc. are from the Greek words “pistis” (πίστις, G4102, noun) and “pisteuo” (πιστεύω G4100, verb). These words link to three related ideas: belief, trust and faithfulness. In English, we don’t have just one word to convey all three of these concepts together. The Bible translators had to select the “most correct” English word to fit the context in our English Bibles. Let’s look at some passages which demonstrate that the word faith includes all three of these concepts.

Belief in God

You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe [pistis] that — and shudder. (Jas. 2:19 NIV)

One can clearly see from this verse that “pistis” carries with it the idea of believing in the existence of God. In this case we can see that the demons believe in the existence of God, but they are not acceptable to God. Mere belief is not enough to reconcile anyone to God. There is more to faith than just believing in His existence, if this were not so even the demons would be pleasing to Him.


Abraham was the common ancestor of the Jewish people. He and his wife Sarah were unable to conceive children, but in spite of this God promised them that they would have a child. Even though they were very old and had every natural reason to doubt, they trusted God to do as He’d promised.

18 Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed [pisteuo] and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” 19 Without weakening in his faith [pistis], he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead– since he was about a hundred years old– and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. 20 Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith [pistis] and gave glory to God, 21 being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. (Rom. 4:18-21 NIV)

Undoubtedly, this passage is expressing the great trust Abraham had in God. Also notice how the NIV translates this next verse:

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust [pisteou] in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.  (Rom. 15:13 NIV)


“Faithfulness” is a fruit of the Spirit.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness [pistis], (Gal. 5:22 NIV)

It is also considered one of the “weightier matters” of the law.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You pay a tenth of mint, dill, and cumin, and yet you have neglected the more important matters of the law– justice, mercy, and faithfulness [pistis]. These things should have been done without neglecting the others. (Matt. 23:23 CSB17)

A person who has faithfulness is steady in allegiance or affection, loyal, reliable, etc. For example, a husband who has faithfulness is fully devoted to his spouse and will not waver in his loyalty to his wife. That faithfulness is a component of faith can be further demonstrated from the writings of Josephus, a 1st century A.D. Jewish historian. He tells a story about a Jewish rebel…

I was not ignorant of the plot which he had contrived against me … ; I would, nevertheless, condone his actions if he would show repentance and prove his loyalty [pistis] to me.

The New Testament scholar, N.T. Wright, notes that the word translated “loyalty” from Josephus’ story is the Greek word “pistis”. Wright claims an equally valid translation would be ‘if he would repent and believe in me.’ This is extra-biblical evidence that people of Jesus’ day understood “pistis” to include the trait of loyalty. 

Saving faith

So we see that there is much more to faith than mere belief. The faith that God desires includes trusting Him and being loyally committed to Him. This is a commitment that leads to obedience and making Jesus the king of our lives. We call faith that includes all three components (belief, trust, loyalty) “saving faith.”

It has already been noted that while demons believe, they lack trust and loyal commitment to God. They do not have saving faith. There was another group of people in Jesus’ day who believed, but would not trust Him with their lives by committing to Him:

42 Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they would not openly acknowledge their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue; 43 for they loved human praise more than praise from God. (Jn. 12:42-43 NIV)

These also did not have saving faith. Their lack of trust in Jesus allowed their fear of the social consequences of loyalty to Him to override their belief.

Faith has three meanings

All three elements of faith are present when we first become Christians:

  1. We believe that Jesus is Lord, the Son of God and the Messiah.
  2. We trust that God’s promises to all who commit themselves to Jesus are true.
  3. We commit our loyalty to Jesus. We obey, serve and submit to Him, living in a manner that brings honor to Him.

When the scriptures say that everyone with “faith” will be saved, the promise is to those who incorporate all three elements of faith into their lives.