One exercise I’ve had students do in theology class is to read through Hebrews 11 and describe what characterizes the faith described. Try it — here are a couple of samples:

By faith Noah, being warned by God about things not yet seen, in reverence prepared an ark for the salvation of his household, by which he condemned the world, and became an heir of the righteousness which is according to faith. (v. 7)

By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was going.  By faith he lived as an alien in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, fellow heirs of the same promise; for he was looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. (vv. 8-10)

By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden for three months by his parents, because they saw he was a beautiful child; and they were not afraid of the king's edict.  By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter; choosing rather to endure ill-treatment with the people of God, than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin;  considering the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt; for he was looking to the reward. By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king; for he endured, as seeing Him who is unseen. (vv. 23-27)

By faith the walls of Jericho fell down, after they had been encircled for seven days. (v. 30)

By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish along with those who were disobedient, after she had welcomed the spies in peace. (v. 31)

If you were to list some of the qualities of faith from what Hebrews 11 describes, what would be on your list? 

I’m struck by the qualities implicitly and explicitly emphasized: qualities like risk; sacrifice and commitment — to what is not yet seen; courage; trusting and acting on that trust — sometimes against overwhelming odds of what seems empirically to make sense.

I’m also struck by what is not here, what is conspicuously not emphasized. There is precious little mention of anything having to do with “doctrinal correctness,” or “understanding of the atonement.” Now, I know, Romans’ explanations are still in the Bible and are important. But if “understanding the atonement” is so central to what faith is, then why is there nary a mention of such in the chapter in the Bible that gives more attention to what faith is than any other throughout the entire Bible?

The late-16th-century Puritan, Richard Hooker, wrote, “We are justified by Jesus through faith, not by believing in the doctrine of justification by faith.” It’s an important clarification; one that Hebrews 11 reinforces.

If the faith that Jesus and the Bible describes is fuller and richer than affirming Protestant nuances of atonement and justification doctrine, then how does our understanding of the gospel need to likewise be adjusted?  And how does our approach to spreading — and living — the gospel likewise need to be adjusted?

Todd Mangum is the Academic Dean and Professor of Theology at Biblical.  He is ordained by the Southern Baptist Convention.  Todd is the author of The Dispensational-Covenantal Rift, and of several articles seeking to bridge divides among Bible-believing Christians. He is married to Linda and they have three sons.  See also


0 # Robert Martin 2013-05-08 08:13
I keep coming back to this bit of theological teaching I got from you in our apologetics class, Dr. Mangum. It has been, seriously, one of the most helpful things I learned in my years at Biblical. I know of quite a few people, when they really understand this "pistis" definition, finally get it and start looking for what it means to really live a faith-filled life.

If I may be so bold, let me toss up an article I wrote on it and a chapel message I gave on it.

First, the article:

Then the chapel:

Thanks again for an excellent 5 years at Biblical... it was a time of great spiritual formation for me and a launching point for new realms of ministry in God's Kingdom.
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+1 # Rich 2013-05-08 13:20
I appreciate your concern, Dr. Mangum, for emphasizing the importance of distinguishing between theoretical knowledge of the doctrines of faith and the actual exercise of experiential faith towards God. I have always taken it as a point of caution and introspection (in many ways thanks to my time at Biblical) to differentiate between the two lest we miss by a long shot participating in faith towards God.

I thought I would chime in with my own experience regarding the relationship between knowledge of doctrine and the exercise of faith with the hope that it would be helpful.

When I reflect on my earlier years in ministry as a pastor, it was marked by a general deficiency in precisely what you have indicated as being a factor absent in the Hebrews 11 definition of faith: “understanding the atonement”. It did not seem pertinent to a vibrant and fruitful spirituality for me to focus on what seemed to be mere abstractions and quibbles of theology which appeared to generate more division than unity in the church. Therefore, I consigned the particularities of doctrine (regarding the atonement and in general) to the living room shelf in order to focus on what I understood to be the essentials of faith.
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+1 # Rich 2013-05-08 13:22
But while pursuing the qualities of commitment, risk, sacrifice, and other markers of faith for the Lord’s sake, I found myself withering under increasing disillusionment with the church, growing resentment and distrust towards God's will, fading motivation to endure in the life of faith, and budding difficulty in affirming His benevolence in the face of suffering and evil. After years along this path of burgeoning confusion and diminishing faith, due to an opportunity to teach a course on Christian doctrine, I found it necessary to revisit the reasons why I held to my basic convictions especially as it related to the atonement. Through months of personal study of the bible and works of biblical doctrine, years worth of questions, doubts, and frustrations driving my diminishing hope and confidence in God, were bit by bit resolved at least to an extent that the downward spiral of skepticism was reversed into a growing degree of faith and trust in His essential goodness and love.

At least for me, it would not have been possible had I remained in the dark regarding the comprehensive ramifications of the atonement of Christ. Could I have claimed to have the faith of Hebrews 11 in the reverence taking after Noah, the obedience taking after Abraham, the courage and the boldness taking after Moses, without the benefit of a resilient trust in His love and goodness? I think not.

Yet it was that ever growing understanding of Christ’s atonement (in the breadth and width of all that it means for the believer and as the promise in which the old testament saints hoped upon) which substantiated what otherwise would have been dubious: the undiminishing faithfulness, the intrinsic trustworthiness, the tender mercy and grace, and the certain love of God which has enabled the great risks, sacrifices, and commitments characterizing His people of faith.

That is why I am convinced chapters 1 - 10 of Hebrews diligently explains the doctrines of the atonement before outlining the great acts of faith in Hebrews 11. Otherwise, why not truncate Hebrews by making chapter 11 its starting point? I am grateful for the sake of all believers that this is not the case.
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+1 # R. Todd Mangum 2013-05-10 06:24
Rob: I was struck in your sermon with where you started -- that you were raised by a mother who, by all who knew her, was remembered as "a woman of faith." You are a blessed man indeed.

And yes: I was blessed by your message. And I did smile at the correlation between pistis and pisteuo. Bravo to your courage in taking this on with a high school audience -- but, yeah, I (still) think the clarification you asserted there (picked up in our class, I realize) is important.
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0 # R. Todd Mangum 2013-05-10 06:31
@Rich: I would not want to minimize the importance of the atonement. Thank you for clarifying that.

I agree with you regarding the role of Hebrews 11 in the book of Hebrews. In fact, the next couple of verses (in Hebrews 12:1-3) take it even a step further; Abraham, Noah, Rahab, etc. are all [mere] precursors to the "full embodiment of 'the faith': Jesus).

The one point I'm still want to make sure is maintained is actually reflected in your own testimonial. Even in your own case, I'd argue that what reflection on the atonement did (consistent with Hebrews' admonition) was to bolster your faith, manifested in your continued perseverance in obedience to God. I'd still contend that your "faith" (a la Hebrews and consistent with NT teaching) was the continued perseverance in obedience to God prompted by your reflection on God's character as manifest in the atonement (not rumination on the historical or theological facts of the atonement).
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