As we begin this series of word-studies, let me remind you of the perspective from which all this work is undertaken. My serious study of the New Testament was motivated by having been invited to “come and see” a supremely attractive way of life, introduced, advocated, and empowered by the Lord Jesus Christ. The invitation to participate in the Kingdom that he described and demonstrated was irresistible — and the more I learned, the more I wanted to be a part of it. My search has been two-fold: (1) for instructions in experiencing that Life, and (2) for folks with whom to share it.
Consequently, I have resonated with the intensely practical tone of the New Testament. I see the Lord Jesus and his followers outlining and modeling the way people were originally created (and are presently being re-created) to relate and interact. Neither they nor I place any value on high-flown speculation or complicated theories. The “demonstration project” in which (Ephesians 3:10) whatever “rulers and powers” may exist in heaven or on earth, are enabled to see the wisdom and love of God, is not an intricately argued philosophical or theological system, but the manifestation among us of his gracious gift of Resurrection Life!
Therefore, a good place to start seems to be with the concept of “faith”/faithfulness, since one’s understanding of “pistis” and its related words will color his perspective on virtually everything else. Understanding the meaning of this concept must include the noun, verb, and adjectival forms: pistis, pisteuo, and pistos.
First, look up “faith” in Young’s concordance. Scan quickly down the column of references, and notice that not one makes any reference to an “intellectual assent to a list of statements or propositions” about the nature, history, or purposes of God. Historically and linguistically, pistis has nothing theoretical about it at all. The classical writers used it to describe trust or trustworthiness, loyalty, confidence and honesty. It was also a term used in politics, of a treaty, an exchange of assurances, of political protection or safety granted in exchange for submission. In economics, it referred to good credit, a guarantee, pledge, or security deposit!
This fits well with the definition provided in Hebrews 11:1, which speaks of “substance” and “evidence”, both courtroom terms. If a case lacks “substance” it is thrown out of court. “Evidence” is confined to information actually seen or experienced by a witness, or it is not accepted.
The writer then turns to a list of individuals, in each case citing the demonstration of their faithfulness to the call of God. Abraham, for example, did not deliver a sermon about the nature of God — he simply followed instructions. God said “Go” and he went, without having the slightest idea of where he was going (Heb.11:8). Proceeding down the list, notice that the pattern of following instructions is common to all.
Not a word is said about what they “thought” or “believed” about what was going on. They simply followed orders. Careful note is taken that it did not “all turn out ok” for everyone. Commendable faithfulness does not guarantee one’s safety or prosperity!
Another interesting cluster of references centers around the many healings that took place during Jesus’ ministry. Notice that it was often not the patient, but the person who brought someone to Jesus whose “pistis” is commended: the friends who lowered a paralyzed man through the roof, Jairus who sought help for his daughter, the centurion who advocated for his servant/child, among others. And when the disciples failed to heal the boy while Jesus was on the Mount of Transfiguration, it was their “pistis”, not the child’s or his father’s, that was critiqued. In John’s account of the man at the pool (chapter 5), the healed man did not even know who had restored him, nor did the blind beggar at the temple gate (chapter 9). And in no case was anyone urged to “believe” that a healing had taken place in the absence of empirical evidence. On the occasions when Jesus did make the usually quoted statement “Your faith(fulness) has saved/rescued you,” it is after some action by the person that demonstrated his/her commitment to/trust in Jesus.
The verb form, pisteuo, usually translated “believe”, historically was used in the sense of trusting or relying on someone. Where an object of that trust is expressed, it is usually the person of Jesus, or something he had done. Out of 233 occurrences, the reference is to a future event only 4 times, and to some fact about 5-10 times (depending on how you classify them.) Those facts include (1)Jesus’ resurrection, (2) his “I AM” statements, (3)something he had said. In no case is there a detailed list.
Clearly, there had already been efforts to reduce faithfulness to such a list by the time James wrote his letter. It is still just as true, as he notes in 2:19, that if one wants a “list” (a “creed”), the devil himself could acknowledge everything on anyone’s list as “true.” It is one’s commitment to the person of Jesus that sets his people apart — and strangely, that appears on no “lists.”
An additional clue to the active nature of both the noun and verb forms is found in the grammatical structure. Frequently, translations render the object of “faith” or “believing” as “in Christ.” This phrase is one of Paul’s favorites, but he uses it to describe the context, the very atmosphere, in which our resurrection life exists. The choice to use, or not to use, a preposition is of the utmost importance in understanding. “In” can be expressed by two different prepositions: en, and eis. En may only be used with the dative case, which implies a static situation: the location or environment in which something takes place. This is used when speaking of the condition of those who have been called out of their former life into a new one. Eis, on the other hand, is used only with the accusative case, which is much more active, more dynamic. And it is eis that is used with pisteuo — it implies motion, direction, or purpose. I have usually rendered it “become faithful toward”, or something similar, to convey the active sense of the case.
There is yet another construction that has been erroneously translated “in Christ”, which uses no preposition at all. That is where the text employs a genitive case — most commonly indicating possession, but also frequently the source of the object. Here, adherence to the text requires “of” and not “in” for accuracy. Thus, Gal.2:20, Eph.3:12, and others are pointing to our dependence on his faithfulness (Jesus!), not our own.
The adjectival form, pistos, has suffered less abuse, being frequently translated “faithful.” Other historical uses included such ideas as “genuine, loyal, credible.”
It is for these reasons that I have usually chosen to render pistis as “faithfulness” or “loyalty”, and pisteuo as “to be or to become faithful” or “to trust.”
It should be noted also that with the more active understanding of the words, as in James 1, the age-old Reformation argument about “faith” vs. “works” simply disappears. As James points out very well, behavior is the only way that “faith” can be demonstrated. These are two sides of the same coin, not conflicting principles.
May we all constantly increase in faithfulness, by means of the perfect faithfulness of the Lord Jesus!