Faith Heroes: Introduction

In an acceptance speech for the 1996 Humanist of the Year award, Richard Dawkins declared faith to be “one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate.”[1] By contrast, John Calvin describes faith as follows: “It is certain that no man will ever know him aright without at the same time receiving the sanctification of the Spirit.”[2] Before we look at the faith of the heroes of Hebrews 11, we must first consider the topic of faith generally. What is faith? And what is it not?

Faith is the instrument by which we have confidence in things we cannot see. That is not to say there’s no good reason to employ this trust. Just as these “worthies” embraced, confessed and were persuaded that these things were true, so the individual believer exercises faith when he receives God’s testimony and thereby “has certified that God is true” (Joh 3:33 NKJV). This is not to reduce faith to a fuzzy word for the mathematics of probability,[3] though it is not less than that. The faith of these Old Testament believers “consisted simply in taking God at his word and directing their lives accordingly.”[4] Our faith is exactly the same.

But does this confidence come only “by hearing” or must the Spirit also create it in our hearts?[5] In Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin presents many corrections, and indeed overcorrections, to the “Papists” and their “scholastic dogma,” as well as the “semi-papists” and their “pestilential philosophy.” It is to them he ascribes a so-called “common faith,” which he describes as “a certain common assent to gospel history.” His rebuttal was that the reprobate can only be “impressed for a time with a fading faith,” what he calls in the same section a “temporary faith” and “an inferior operation of the Spirit,” and even more sharply, “in the elect alone he implants the living root of faith so that they persevere even to the end.” It is this living or “everduring” faith that Calvin believed was originated by the Spirit and gradually increased by Him. In summary, Calvin and many of his followers assert that there are different types of faith: “We are inquiring after a faith which separates the children of God from the reprobate.” It is this special kind of faith which, according to his definition, is “revealed to our minds and sealed on our hearts by the Holy Spirit.”[6] There is a kind of faith that unbelievers are capable of exercising but it is not the same as the faith the Spirit gives you. But is this what the Scriptures teach about faith?

The Bible Says Our Faith Is Ours

Notice the possessive pronouns and adjectives associated with faith. “But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness” (Rom 4:5).[7] We see this distinction throughout the New Testament[8] and perhaps no more clearly than in the synoptic Gospels. In the Gospels we read of “little faith” and “great faith.” Some are said to have no faith, but others asked the Lord to “increase our faith.” In Luke the Lord prays for Peter’s faith to “fail not.” In Romans we read that Abraham was “strong in faith.” Paul reminds the Colossians of the “steadfastness” of their faith and the Thessalonians that their faith “groweth exceedingly.” But none of these inquire after a faith that “separates the children of God from the reprobate.” To tell someone to “believe” is not doublespeak or a euphemism.

Faith in the Hebrews Epistle

Hebrews 11 is not concerned so much with strong or weak faith and certainly makes no mention of an exclusive spiritual faith. The theme is faith as a principle and not faith on a spectrum. There are no adjectives beside faith in this chapter, only prepositions. The author’s intention is not to underline the exceptional faith of these men and women but to put a spotlight on the fact of their faith. It was by, through, and in faith that they lived and died.

We see the theme of faith, or rather the lack of it, beginning in Hebrews 3, that some who came out of Egypt could not enter into rest “because of unbelief” (v19). And again, in chapter 4: “The word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it” (v2).

In Jesus’ day, the reason for the Jews’ unbelief was the attractiveness of their Jewish ceremonies and rituals. The “invisible” aspect of faith cut against their religious instincts, and understandably so, for that was all they knew. The author of Hebrews tackles this issue head on by describing the life of the fathers they revered as one governed by the “evidence of things not seen” (11:1). The very ground upon which Solomon’s temple sat was “not made of things which do appear” (11:3). Noah, who is marked by the tactile activity of preparing an ark, planting a vineyard and building an altar, only picked up his tools because he was “warned of God of things not seen as yet” (11:7). Their greatest patriarch was first “faithful Abraham” (Gal 3:9) before he became “father Abraham” (Joh 8:56), for he went into a land “not knowing whither he went” (Heb 11:8). Those who sat on “Moses’ seat” (Mat 23:2) and were “Moses’ disciples” (Joh 9:28) had overlooked the principle that governed his life – he “endured, as seeing him who is invisible” (Heb 11:27). “For we walk by faith, not by sight” (2Co 5:7). From Genesis to Gideon to Golgotha it has always been by faith.

Faith in the First Family

In Genesis 4, the first brother’s gift was in keeping with his heart of unbelief. It was not that he could not ascertain which offering God desired but that he wanted to approach God on his own Faustian terms. It was not his lack of wisdom but that he was “of that wicked one” (1Jn 3:12). The second brother understood this principle: “Without faith it is impossible to please him” (Heb 11:6).

Abel is distinguished by the quality of his gift; he offered “a more excellent sacrifice than Cain” (v4). The excellence was not due to God’s preference for protein over plants but, as always, it was Abel’s obedience to the divine word that made the difference – “by faith Abel offered” (v4). God’s desire was for the firstling of the flock and the fat thereof, not the fruit of the ground. This is the principle upon which he “obtained witness that he was righteous” (v4) – not the effort and work of raising, slaying and presenting the firstling, but the confidence in God’s word that stimulated his action. That is what made Abel right with God. We know this because “the LORD had respect unto Abel and to his offering” (Gen 4:4). Or as the Hebrews writer put it, God testified “of his gifts” (11:4). God sought a particular offering, a precise gift, and Abel, by faith, provided exactly what He was looking for. We do not know the specific way this instruction was expressed but it is quite reasonable to suppose both brothers knew of the animal that was sacrificed for their parents’ nakedness and thereby understood something of the requirement of a death for acceptance before God.

Though Abel died, his faith still speaks to us. This was no blind faith, not simply intellectual assent or afflatus, nor was it an endowment, but rather it was faith or trust in our trustworthy God.


[1] Richard Dawkins, ”Is Science a Religion?” The Humanist, Vol.57, No.1.

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 3, No.8.

[3] Brian Blais, A Measure of Faith: Probability in Religious Thought (Self Published, 2019), 102.

[4] F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964), 277.

[5] Act 11:18; Rom 12:3; Eph 6:23; Php 1:29; 1Co 12:9; 2Ti 2:24,25. These are common proof texts for this view and each deserves a proper explanation of its immediate context (and the Scriptures as a whole) to understand that they do not teach an external “gift” of faith.

[6] Quotations in this paragraph are from John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 3, Nos.1-38.

[7] The remaining Scripture quotations in this article are from the KJV.

[8] Hab 2:4; Mat 9:2,22,29; 15:28; Mar 2:5; 5:34; 10:52; Luk 7:50; 8:25,48; 17:5,19; 18:42; 22:32; Rom 1:8; 1Co 2:5; 15:14,17; 2Co 10:15; Eph 1:15; Php 2:17; Col 1:4; 2:5; 1Th 1:8; 3:5,6,10; 2Th 1:3; Phm 5-6; Jas 1:3; 2:17; 1Pe 1:7,9,21; 2Pe 1:5; 1Jn 5:4.