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Faith – the wrong word?

He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.” (Mark 5:34, NIV)

One of the challenges facing Bible translators is that words change their meaning over time. Take, for example, Paul’s exhortation to the Philippian Christians, Do not be anxious about anything (Phil 4:6). Four hundred years ago, the King James version rendered this Be careful for nothing. “Careful” back then meant “worried.” Now it means “sensible”. Aren’t you glad we have a fresh translation?

Has there also been a shift in the word faith? I was stimulated to think about this recently when I was at a talk Phillip Jensen gave on Bible translations.  It’s an important question, because it’s such an important word, coming over 200 times in our English New Testaments.

In contemporary English, faith has more than one meaning. Here are the two definitions my Apple dictionary gives:

complete trust or confidence in someone or something: this restores one’s faith in politicians.

2 strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof.

The second of those two meanings is what most people are likely to think is meant whenever we read a Bible passage about faith. So when we speak about “justification by faith”, it sounds as if we are saying that what God wants us to do, if He is to accept us, is to take a leap in the dark, to vault beyond the evidence. In a world where wise living and scientific progress are evidence-based, that is a rather unattractive prospect. It lies behind the reply we sometimes hear: “I’m not interested in Christianity: I’m a scientist.”

But is this “leap in the dark” actually what the Bible means by the word that’s often translated faith? The Greek word is pistis. We can find out what that means by seeing how it’s used in context. When we do that, we find that it isn’t about a leap in the dark at all.

Take as an example the healing of the woman who was suffering from bleeding, reported in Mark’s Gospel chapter five. Mark tells us When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, because she thought ‘If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.’  This is the pistis for which Jesus commends her. Note this: it starts with her hearing about Jesus. She is in the very area where He had previously performed many healing miracles. As she pushes forward in the crowd to touch His cloak, she is acting on the basis of evidence. And in what does her pistis consist?  Reliance would be a better word.

As long as we use the word faith without taking account of the way the word is now understood in society, we are in danger of making people think the New Testament is calling us to drop our brains at the church door. Rather, every time we see pistis it’s a call, on the basis of the evidence, to rely on Jesus. So “justification by faith” really means “justification by relying [on Jesus, as opposed to ourselves]”.

That’s a lot more solid, isn’t it?

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