Faith: What Does This Word Mean in Hebrews 11?

faith in Hebrews 11

This is a guest post about faith by Andrew B. Perrin. assistant professor of religious studies and co-director of the Dead Sea Scrolls Institute at Trinity Western University. 

A few years ago I googled “faith” and discovered that the top two hits were a George Michael video on YouTube, which made me chuckle, and a Wikipedia entry, which reads, “The precise understanding of the term ‘faith’ differs among the various Christian traditions.”

How can Christians differ on their view of faith? Isn’t faith a belief in Jesus’ death, resurrection and our subsequent salvation? Or does faith entail more than this, as Hebrews 11:1, the only place a definition of “faith” is provided in the New Testament, seems to indicate? For the author of Hebrews, “faith” is not just about a distant reality but about how our actions connect to that reality.

Unpacking the contextual definition of Hebrews 11:1

Hebrews 11:1 defines pistis (πίστις) as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” We can unpack this definition by investigating how the words “assurance” and “conviction” are used in the book.

The definition of pistis (πίστις) in Hebrews 11:1 is part of a wider theme in Hebrews: The things we see in the world correspond to better things in the heavenly realm (see Heb 11:3). We first encounter this idea in Heb 1:3, which says that Jesus is the exact imprint of God’s “nature” (hupostasis, ὑπόστασις). The word hupostasis (ὑπόστασις) is also translated as “confidence” in Heb 3:14. The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament suggests that “faith” is identified with the heavenly realm—the reality of believers’ hope. Pistis (πίστις) is both the proof that what we believe is real, as well as the certainty that our hopes will become actualized in heaven.

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Walking through the Old Testament ‘Hall of Faith’

Hebrews 11:1 is linked to the rest of the chapter with the repetitive phrase “by faith” (pistei, πίστει), which describes the actions and attitudes of Israel’s ancestors. We will focus on the author’s examples of Abraham and Moses to understand exemplary faith.

Abraham obediently left his home, not knowing his destination, to live nomadically in the “Promised Land.” “In faith” he sought a permanent residence in a city “whose designer and builder is God” (Heb 11:8–10). His journey to Canaan exemplifies faith in his earthly life and shows his desire for “a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Heb 11:16).

Moses suffered with his fellow Israelites knowing that in the end it would be worth it (Heb 11:25–26). Unafraid of Pharaoh’s fury, Moses left Egypt and “endured as seeing [God] who is invisible” (Heb 11:27). His actions demonstrated that trials serve a greater purpose and that he was confident in a God that could not be seen.

These two examples (and many more in Heb 11!) show that pistis (πίστις) for the author of Hebrews is about understanding the big picture. Firm “faith” enabled Israel’s forefathers to follow after after promises whose fulfillment were on a distant horizon.

Applying the message of ‘faith’ in Hebrews 11

How was the author’s angle on pistis (πίστις) relevant for the original audience and the church today? Before Heb 11 the author implores Christians to persevere in the face of adversity and, have confidence in God, assuring them that His promises will be fulfilled (Heb 10:19–38). After Heb 11, the author revisits this theme, expressing the need to persevere and look to Jesus, “the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Heb 12:2). This wider scope shows us that “faith” is about holding fast to Jesus—no matter what. Even though God’s promises at times seem far off, we can be certain that their fulfillment awaits us at the end of life, despite difficult patches.

Hebrews 11 teaches us that pistis (πίστις) is about more than belief—“faith” is a present affirmation of God’s existence, confidence in his ability to enact change in the world, and certainty that his promises will be fulfilled.

All Scripture quotations are from the esv.


A version of this article originally appeared with the title “Gotta Have Faith: Faith in Hebrews 11”  in the July–August 2009 issue of Bible Study Magazine. Learn more about subscribing to Bible Study Magazine.

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Written by
Tyler Smith
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  • Faith is from GOD…. It is a Gift (1Cor 12) and a Fruit (Gal 5:22-23) of The Holy Spirit.
    Faith is The CONNECTION GOD Gives and Grows within believers.
    — Faith is a Present (gift) in the Believer’s heart and it moves one to act in the present (NOW) –based upon the Growing Substance GOD has placed within us.
    — Faith is usually followed by Confession (Rom 10:9-10) and Works (James.)
    — Faith is the Connection (like an Power Cord) between GOD’s Input and our action….
    —- Faith is not something we build through self will – Faith must come from GOD then we act upon it by being faithful.

    • I see and agree with what you’re trying to say here but I think what you’re not seeing is that the article was specifically addressing/unraveling the meaning of the word “Faith” as used in Hebrews 11.

      What you’ve done is done shown how various uses of the word throughout the NT and developed a running definition.

      Just my two cents.

  • I read your article with interest. I have some thoughts that I would appreciate your comments on.
    I don’t see Heb 11:1 as a definition of faith. It describes how faith works, but does not define faith. One could say that ‘water is the basis or foundation of all life and is the primary evidence that the hoped for life that is hitherto undetected may exist’ Such a statement does not define water, but comments on it as a primary basis or foundation for something and that where water exists there is evidence that there may be life.
    Vines expository dictionary of new testament words provides a sound definition of faith and notes the three components of faith that make it what it is. Full persuasion (belief), surrender or yielding to the belief, and behaviour or conduct that is inspired by the surrender. Satan believes and trembles so it is clear that faith is not belief. It goes further. For faith to be faith it must include all three aspects. A person can be fully persuaded and surrender by acknowledging Christ but continue to live in sin. This is not faith. Satan is in rebellion that is why his full persuasion is not faith.
    Heb 11:1 can be paraphrased as: “Now being fully persuaded in the truth of the gospel along with yielding to it and having a behaviour that is inspired by surrender it, is the basis or foundation of the things not seen, reserved in heaven for you, that you confidently expect, (hope for), and your faith, (full persuasion, surrender and behaviour), is evidence, to others, of the things that are not seen, which are reserved in heaven for you.”
    Paul gives a succinct definition of faith in 2 Cor 11:3 when he stated to the church in Corinth: “But I am afraid that, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, your minds will be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ.” (Anon, 1995. New American Standard Bible: 1995 update, LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation.) Here faith is defined as the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ. Such definition includes the notion of full persuasion, a choice to yield to that which we are fully persuaded of and behaviour that is consistent with the surrender or our heart.
    We see all three components of faith working in Romans 10:9-10 and in other places. Faith always demonstrates full persuasion (belief in the heart), surrender or yielding (choice by exercising the will) and behaviour that is consistent with the surrender (confession that Jesus is Lord).
    Wherever the word faith appears in Hebrews one can make either substitution: ‘devotion to Christ’ or ‘full persuasion, surrender and behaviour consistent with surrender’. Both substitutions greatly amplify the text. They are especially pertinent at the end of chapter 11 of those wandering around in deserts and so forth.

  • You’ve stressed more the subjective aspect of faith here: personally possessing a sense of assurance, conviction, or certainty about the spiritual realm. But isn’t the author moving beyond subjective assurance that the spiritual realm exists to objectively transporting those spiritual realities into our world? Faith doesn’t just believe Heaven exists: it is a vehicle God used to cause a barren woman to conceive, to cause the Red Sea to split, for the walls of Jericho to fall, etc. It makes our hopes “substantive” by means of making them come true, and it serves as “evidence” for the spiritual realm because by means of faith we actually do see and experience it here in this life. We don’t have to wait until eternity to experience the realities of the spiritual realm. Am I off base here, or would you agree with this greater emphasis upon the objective accomplishments of faith over the subjective feeling of assurance?

  • With GOD involved in Faith, believers are brought to good works. as James insists in Chapter 2.
    With GOD involved in Faith, HE moves natural things – including believers – which is what we see in Hebrews Chapter 11.

    Thus Faith starts with The Holy Spirit moving in Gifting and Fruitfulness. Then we act in that by Trusting GOD.
    WITH GOD, Faith brings Conviction, Assurance and Action.

    WITHOUT GOD, faith is presumptuous, selfish, and obnoxious.

  • I agree with David, Peter and Dr. Ken, however, seeing that we live in the natural and have to experience life in both the spiritual and natural realities-our flesh or mental, cognitive process is not always connected with our spiritual relationship with God because that is one place that most people do not allow God or the Holy Spirit to work; therefore faith does not take root and sprout, they only have an knowledge of God-bare facts without experience or proof. One can know something but until they experience and receive the basic understanding of trusting/allowing God to really come in and work in ones life everything can be explained away as natural occurrences. Heb. 11 wants us to realize that as believers we have divine provisions made for us and we are not alone and we cannot/should not trust our flesh alone, because our feelings will lead us astray. The question remains “how does one move beyond subjective to substantive especially if they will not allow faith to grow (Gal 5:22-23).

Written by Tyler Smith