What is faith? In a Sunday school lesson a few weeks ago, I asked, what is faith? The response was the common response – faith is believing. After hearing that response, I responded with another question: what is believing?
What is Faith?
Our common answer about what faith is comes from what is written in Hebrews 11:1 which tells us that faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Our takeaway from that verse is that faith is the obvious — faith is what you believe and trust in your heart. Yet, what I will say about this definition of faith is that it is a summed up definition for faith; there is a lot more depth to faith than just this summed up definition.
I say that there is a lot more depth to faith than our summed up definition for it because what we believe in our hearts is what guides us in life; it sets our morals and all of our values. Faith is actually very personal as it solely relies on what you believe in your heart. So, in many ways, faith is a great deal deeper than “having religion” because faith rests on one’s trust in something. For we who have faith in God, our faith rests in our trust and in our personal fellowship with the Lord.
The reason I want to start off with the topic of faith versus religion in this week’s study is because there is a lot of confusion when it comes to faith and religion. Some of us would consider them one in the same, but neither I nor scripture nor the Lord considers faith and religion to be one in the same. So, I want to break down the difference in this week’s study so that we can have a better understanding of what genuine and true faith is.
What is Religion?
Religion is a belief built off a system or code and actions are taken in order to appease, or meet, the standards set in place by the system or code. Let’s use vegetarians and vegans just as a simple example here – not saying that either is a religion.
In order for one to consider themselves a vegan or a vegetarian, there is a certain diet that they have to religiously follow. If they are not strict in following the guidelines for either system then, they do not appease, or meet the set standards, to be considered a vegetarian or vegan. A religion can be thought of in that manner, as people will move religiously to meet a set standard.
So, with religion, things end up being done mechanically – this is the act of doing things just to do them because of the rules and regulations. Religion does not rely on trust and the depth of a personal relationship or fellowship is involved. Religion is based solely on one’s devotion to fulfill the standards set by the religion.
Now, some will ask, aren’t you a Christian? They will ask, isn’t Christianity a religion? Yes, there are standards and guidelines that have been set in place in Christianity. In fact, Christianity is filled with several denominations with each denomination having its own standards which are man made standards by the way. By these standards I am Christian of the Baptist denomination because I believe in water baptism by total immersion.
However, I would tell you that I define myself as one of genuine faith in the Lord. I am of the congregation of the children of God – the Church – which are all of those that genuinely believe in God the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit. I do not live my life to meet the standards set by Christianity – the rules of man – but rather I live my life for the Lord; I live my life to please God. Do you notice the difference?
God Not Pleased With Religion
Let’s try to understand that one can have religion and even practice religion but do so without having any genuine faith. The children of Israel were given the Mosaic Law – the Ten Commandments, several instructions, and statutes to follow. The idea behind the law was that the children of Israel were to genuinely abide by the law because they made a covenant with the Lord; they had expressed a desire to obediently keep the Lord’s word (Ex. 19:1-8).
Living by the law would have led to the children of Israel being a kingdom of priests and a holy nation; they would serve other nations as the example one should follow in order to be righteous and holy. However, we know that it did not take long for the children of Israel to break their covenant with the Lord when they sinned the great sin of worshiping the calf of gold at Mount Sinai (Ex. 32:1-8).
Even after God’s show of mercy, the children of Israel fell further into the practices of other nations that lived in the land and they sinned against the Lord. By the divided kingdom years, Israel and Judah were practicing religion to God rather than faith in the Lord. Their form of religion was done through their offerings; they did things because the law said they were required to do so and not because they desired to do so by choice.
God, we have to understand, is not pleased with religion as He desires for faith in Him to be genuine (true), not mechanical. In the book of Isaiah (Is. 1:10-20), we see confirmation of the fact that God is not pleased with religion.
10 Hear the word of the Lord,
You rulers of Sodom;
Give ear to the law of our God,
You people of Gomorrah:
11 “To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices to Me?”
Says the Lord.
“I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
And the fat of fed cattle.
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
Or of lambs or goats.
12 “When you come to appear before Me,Isaiah 1:10-13 NKJV
Who has required this from your hand,
To trample My courts?
13 Bring no more futile sacrifices;
Incense is an abomination to Me.
The New Moons, the Sabbaths, and the calling of assemblies—
I cannot endure iniquity and the sacred meeting.
The people’s hearts were no longer for the Lord but were for their idolatrous practices; God was at the back of their minds as they would eventually get back around to Him to offer up sacrifices. Israel and Judah were essentially trying to serve two masters – idols and the Lord. To his point, Jesus said, it is impossible to serve two masters because you will love one and hate the other (Matt. 6:24).
What we see in this scripture from Isaiah is that God was not pleased with their futile sacrifices (meaningless sacrifices) – their religion. This was an important statement by the Lord and the people as well because sacrifices, we have to remember, were a form of communing and worshiping the Lord. The Israelites’ sacrifice was meaningless because their sacrifices did not come by choice – free will – but rather they came from a place of regulation and requirement – religion.
Even more to this point about God being displeased with the practice of religion is that Israel tried to continue to hold the holy feast. We will see through the prophet Isaiah, that the Lord said, “Your New Moons and your appointed feasts My soul hates; They are a trouble to Me, I am weary of bearing them (Is. 1:14).” God was not pleased with their religion because both the sacrifices, and especially feasts, were to be honored to remember the Lord and all He had done for Israel (Lev. 23).
So, here is the main point when it comes to the difference between faith and religion: religion is not genuine whereas true faith is genuine and by one’s free will. Faith is freely choosing to trust, hope, and believe because one desires to do so. What the Lord desires from us, mankind, is to freely choose Him; this is why the Lord does not force someone to choose to believe in Him. As I said in a recent sermon – The Onus Is on Us – God did make us to be mindless zombies.
The Great Depth of Faith
I love what Paul said on this thought when he addressed the Areopagus about the Lord and mankind choosing to believe in Him. Paul said that the Lord made from one blood every nation so that man should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him (Acts 17:26-27). Grope: to blindly feel for. The idea here is that the one groping for the Lord is one that is seeking for Him. Again, I want to reiterate that this is being done by choice.
Begins with a choice
The Lord desires for us, mankind, to choose Him and makes Himself available to be found. As Paul said to the Areopagus council, the Lord is not far from each one of us. This was not a doctrine that Paul was creating and making up Himself.
Jesus shared this very same message in His teachings. In a familiar verse, you will recall that Jesus taught us to “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened (Matt. 7:7-8).”
So faith boils down to the choice that everyone has to make – to believe or not to believe? Regardless of what you are putting your faith in, you have to make a choice for yourself by your own free will. There is a belief that faith can be influenced to which I would agree but only to a certain degree. For example, I have been preaching for over a decade now and as badly as I wish for people to believe, I cannot make anyone believe, right? I can only persuade and encourage others to have faith.
Grandma, granddad, mom, dad, and your friends can pray for you all they want and they can even get you to go to church, but none of these actions will mean a thing if you don’t make a choice. You see, faith can be encouraged but faith cannot be forced. Faith in the Lord, again, is a choice that one must make in their heart – in their soul. So, we see again, faith is the opposite of religion because faith relies on what genuinely lies in your heart.
Faith is action
Again, when we define faith, we will say that faith is simply what we believe in our hearts. However, as I have expressed before, faith is more than that. Faith is also action; it does not sit still. You see, what lies within your heart eventually comes out and is put into your actions.
If you notice through our study, there have been a couple of repeating phrases mentioned: choice and actions. Earlier, I said that faith is what guides us in our life — this is to say that faith guides us in our walk of life and in every action that we take.
Now, here is where the different kinds of faiths (not religions) will step in and can differentiate one faith from another – this is significant for us to know. For those of the Lord, there are essentially two types of faiths that are in the world: those that genuinely have faith in the Lord and those that genuinely have faith that the Lord is not true; they walk in faith in another way rather than God’s way.
Whether you, or even others realize this or not, everybody has faith in something. Like I just mentioned moments ago, there is a choice that every single person has to make and that choice is what they will choose to live their life having faith in. What one chooses to truly have faith in, in their hearts, will eventually come to light through their actions.
Faith in action is a very deep thought that we often gloss over and can also tie back into the topic of religion. After all, people will do things out of religion, but again, I want to point out to you that it is possible for one to have religion without faith. A prime example of having religion without faith is shown through the religious leaders of Jesus’ day.
Sadly, the religious leaders, believing they were living lives of faith, were living more so by the tradition of the law; they lived by religion. In Matthew 23, Jesus told the people to do and observe whatever the religious leaders would tell them to do and observe, however, Jesus warned the people to not do according to the works of the religious leaders. Why? Because the religious preached one thing but did not do (Matt. 23:3).
Jesus said this about the religious leaders and their “faith”:
25 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence.Matthew 23:25 NKJV
The religious leader’s true faith was to extortion and to self-indulgence; they could hide this from some but they could not hide this from Jesus. In this passage of scripture from Matthew 23, Jesus said of the religious leaders that they placed heavy burdens, hard to bear, on the shoulders while they did not bother to lift a finger to help with the burdens they had placed (Matt. 23:4). The religious leaders would demand for others to be faithful to the law yet the manner in which they lived could not uphold the law.
The religious leaders, in their “faith”, devoured widows’ houses, and for a pretense made long prayers (Matt. 23:14). Rather than being helpful to the widow, one who was in need, the religious leaders moved in a manner that took advantage of them and stole from them! Imagine saying that you are of faith, but then you move in a way that does not help the one who you should certainly be helping!
The religious leaders, Jesus said, moved in a manner to be seen by the public (Matt. 23:5). This entire chapter of Matthew’s gospel is dedicated to a recording of where Jesus called the religious leaders out for being hypocrites. Of their faith, Jesus said that they would give a tenth for their tithe, but then they would completely ignore the “weightier matters” of the law; they ignored justice, mercy, and faith (Matt. 23:23).
The religious leaders moved this way because there was nothing true about their “faith” – they had religion but no faith. Faith is action, just as James said, and the actions that spoke for the religious leaders was that their faith was in something else and not to God. When it came to having faith in the Lord, their actions showed that their faith in God was dead.
Faith moves righteously
The action of genuine faith in the Lord moves with righteousness to the uplifting (benefit) of others. In James’ letter, James touched on how genuine faith in the Lord moves in comparison to that of religion.
By their actions, it is very clear that the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, while ‘religious’ were not practicing what James called pure and undefiled religion. The pure and undefiled religion that James spoke of was, again, the genuine act of faith in worshiping the Lord with no thoughts geared towards wickedness. What we should understand is that genuine faith and worship of the Lord is pure and still moves in the same way today in comparison to religion without faith.
James was not making this statement based on something that he had made up himself, but was founded on doctrine that Christ taught. In the gospels, there is recorded scripture with Jesus speaking of pure faith that moves righteously for the uplifting for others. In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus spoke to how He would judge the nations by their actions as to whether their actions were pure and righteous or not.
Jesus would essentially judge based on whether or not we helped to care for and to uplift those in need. Did you feed the hungry in their time of need? Did you give something to drink to those when they were thirsty? Did you take in the stranger when they had no roof over their head? When one was without clothes on their back, did you give them some clothes? When one was in prison did you go and visit them?
Now, do not consider this as some sort of checklist for you to go down that you need to complete in order to be judged righteously; that would be the religious thing to do. We should understand right away that there are even more ways than these that we can take in helping to uplift those that are around us.
Faith is love
Genuine faith that is pure and undefiled has no limits as to how it will move. There are no limits to how genuine faith will move because faith is also unconditional love. Ultimately, this is what Jesus is looking for in our faith – He is looking for that unconditional love as it is the biggest difference between faith and religion.
Jesus’ frustration with the religious leaders was not only in the fact that they were not truly living by the law but because their actions were not actions of unconditional love. The children of Israel were brought out of Egypt because of God’s love for them. Repeatedly throughout scripture, the Lord would remind the children of Israel that He was the one that brought them out of Israel. The law was given to the children of Israel, again, because of God’s love for them as He desired for them to be holy.
Let us remember, God is love and our faith is in Him. Therefore, our faith is founded on love and our actions of faith are to be driven by that very same love – the love of God. Let us take a look at what Paul wrote to the Corinthians for our reminder of what our faith in action should look like.
4 Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; 5 does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; 6 does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; 7 bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.1 Corinthians 13:4-7 NKJV
What should really stand out for us with Paul speaking about love here is the humility that love moves with. You will recall from Matthew 23 that the religious leaders did things in order to be seen. The love of God, however, is not puffed up nor does it boast; it does not do anything to be seen or to be praised. Unconditional love moves for the sole purpose of helping and uplifting others.
The most powerful thing that can be said about this kind of faith is what Paul concluded with when he said, “love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away (1 Cor. 13:8).” Religion, I want you to understand, will one day vanish away. What will be left? Faith — the unconditional love and trust of God. This is the great depth of faith that religion will never have.
Alright, we are going to end our study there for this week and we will pick up next week further discussing faith. We are going to dive into what we believe in our hearts. Next week, we will see that faith is submission. If you are interested in that study, I hope that you will come back for next week’s study.