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Faith

Henry Ware, Jr.

Professor of Pulpit Eloquence, and having the Pastoral care in Harvard University 

Published in The Western Messenger (November 1835), pp. 330-338.

“We walk by faith, not by sight.”2 Corinthians 5:7.

 

The distinction here intimated between Faith and Sight, between what we believe and what we know, is a very familiar one, and its nature is sufficiently obvious. It refers not so much to the certainty of an opinion or fact, as to the evidence on which it rests. One may be equally certain of that which he believes as of that which he knows, but he has arrived at his confidence by a different evidence. I am as certain that there is a mosque at Constantinople as that there is a church here, but in the one case it is the certainty of Knowledge, in the other, the certainty of Faith. Knowledge is derived from consciousness, from sensation, from demonstration; Faith springs from testimony, and from analogy. I know, because I am conscious; I see, feel, observe, and follow the reasonings of science. I believe, because I am told by witnesses, and because analogy renders it probable. But I am just as certain in the one case as in the other. My faith that Columbus lived and visited America has no more doubt in it than my consciousness that I live myself. My assurance that the huge bones of the mammoth belonged to a creature having lungs and muscles, and that the splendid ruins of Palmyra were built and once inhabited by men, is as strong from analogy as my confidence in the forty-seventh proposition of Euclid from demonstration. So that when the Christian believer speaks of his “Faith,” he uses a term which expresses not one whit less of confidence than when he speaks of what he “knows.” Indeed, in religious affairs, these are for the most part convertible terms; religious knowledge, with scarcely an exception beyond what relates to a man's private experience, is precisely religious faith—it is a knowledge founded, like men's knowledge of distant countries and past ages, on testimony; and he walks by it just as confidently as if he walked by sight.

 

This being so, it is obvious that the word Faith, as applied to matters of religion, has precisely the same meaning which it has when applied to other subjects or affairs; in other words, it is the same exercise of the mind. The Christian believes by the same constitution and process of mind with which the merchant believes that there are cities which he has never seen, and the scholar credits the tale of an historian who died two thousand years ago. It belongs to the human mind to believe on evidence, and on sufficient evidence, to believe with the confidence of knowledge; and it is all the same, so far, whether the subject be sacred or profane, this world or the next—the state and process of the human mind is in each case the same.

 

Therefore—the New Testament does the most natural thing in the world, the most reasonable, the most unenviable thing, when it builds up the Christian Religion on Faith and declares it essential to salvation. It could not do otherwise. In the nature of things, there can be no religion, excepting through Faith. No man can come to God, except he believe that He is. No doctrine can be received as from God, except the testimony which establishes it be believed. No teacher can be followed, no futurity sought, no retributions expected, except through Faith. The beginning, progress, and end of the soul’s existence on earth is, and must be, a pure process of faith. For it has to do with the past, the absent, the distant, the future, the invisible; and there is no possible way for man to do with either, except through Faith. Try the experiment and determine for yourself. What knowledge have you of things past, distant, absent, future, invisible, excepting what you have derived through Faith? Wherefore Christianity, rightly, necessarily, and reasonably founds itself on Faith—demands Faith of those who receive it—and insists that, without Faith, all is vain. It would be merely preposterous, it would be a bare absurdity, to suppose that one may worship an invisible God, may receive the advantages of Christ's teaching and mediation, may have the influences, consolations, and hopes of a spiritual and everlasting life, without believing in it all. The obligation of Faith is, therefore, absolute and incontestable; and it becomes a matter of unspeakable moment to us to ascertain aright what it is, that we may truly cherish and exercise it.

 

Let us, therefore, cursorily glance at its Nature, Reality, and Power.

 

The Nature of Faith has been in a good degree set forth in the remarks already made. We must add, however, to what has been said that its characteristics vary with the point of view from which it is regarded. The fundamental idea is belief; but other ideas pertain to it, and in order to the full development of the principle, it will be necessary to arrange and classify these ideas. We may thus distribute them into four classes.

 

First—Faith is a principle of the Understanding. It is the rational assent to evidence. The understanding listens to testimony, weighs probabilities, compares arguments, and decides to believe or disbelieve according to the result. And it cannot, strictly speaking, decide contrary to the strength of evidence, or rather, to its own apprehension of the strength of evidence. A man cannot refuse to believe what seems to him proved to be true, nor can he hold as true what he thinks proved to be false. Hence it is plain that in Faith, as a principle of the understanding, there is no moral quality. It is neither virtuous nor vicious, neither blamable nor praiseworthy, to assent to what passes before one's eyes and what he cannot disbelieve if he tries, for which reason Historical Faith, as it is called—that is, a mere acknowledgment that the gospel history is true and that Christ is the Savior of the world—is nowhere spoken of as having any value, is not that which the Scriptures applaud. Thomas declared that he would not believe that Jesus had risen from the dead, unless he should see and touch him. He saw and touched, and then was not faithless, but believing. Did his Master praise that Faith? Not at all, but rather the contrary: “Because thou hast seen, therefore thou hast believed! Blessed are they who have not seen, and yet have believed” [John 20:29].

 

In the second place—Faith is a principle of the Affections. The Heart gives itself up to that which the Understanding assents to, takes an interest in it, become attached to it, trusts it. Here Faith becomes a moral quality—since a man is virtuous or vicious according as he devotes his heart to good or evil objects. Thus, in the case of Thomas, though there was no virtue in his believing that Christ was risen, because he saw and touched him, yet, when he gave his heart to him and obediently followed him as his Master and Lord, he exhibited qualities that were praiseworthy. Thus it is one element of a true Faith that it subjects the affections to its sway—so that they love, desire, hate, precisely what religion shows them to be lovely, desirable, hateful; they approve and conform to the proper standard of Christ. Hence the expression of Paul: “With the Heart man believes unto righteousness” [Rom. 10:10].

 

Then, thirdly—Faith is a principle of the Will. One may assent to a truth, may even love it, and yet have no conformity of will to it, may not resolutely choose to devote himself to it and follow it, may retain in his own mind a depraved preference for the opposite, may applaud and love the good, and yet pursue the evil. Now, true Christian Faith takes hold on the Will, causes religion to be its guide, its umpire, its supreme director, so that the man of Faith submits to it his inclinations and preferences and habitually chooses the will of God.

 

And, fourthly—it is a principle of Action. It does not barely gain the consent of the Understanding, kindle the Affections, give direction to the Will. It acts in the life. It is the perpetual impulse and excitement of the conduct—controlling the indulgence of appetite and passion, dictating the favorite pursuit, and enforcing the law of universal uprightness, purity, and charity, so that the man not only has his convictions and preferences, but he carries them out in his life, exhibits them in his conduct—in a word, walks by them. We walk by Faith.

 

All this is comprised.in Faith—the subjection of the Understanding, the Affections, the Will, and the Life, When concerned with the Understanding, it is simple belief; when wrought into the Affections, it takes the name and character of trust; and when, beyond this, it bends the Will and forms the Active character—it shows itself to be no less than the religious principle, the great all-powerful principle, by which man is molded into a conformity with his Creator and made such as Christ came to fashion him. It is the Religious Principle, and for that reason is insisted on, throughout the New Testament, in the most frequent, most various, most authoritative terms, as the source of human strength and the indispensable condition of acceptance and salvation.

 

Such is Christian Faith—and by this we are to walk, says our text. We are to direct by it our path through the world. We are to give it the rule ever our spirits and our lives. It is to be the vigilant overseer, the sovereign dictator, to watch over and controls in our way, with a uniform, uninterrupted, ever wakeful influence. It is to be in our moral system what the eternal principle of gravitation is in the material universe—the law which maintains all in its right place and relative order and leads all to the rightful result. It is to become a sort of instinct within us, conscious of the presence of God, trustful of his providence, satisfied with all that occurs, sensitive to hints of truth, prompt to suggestions of right, and thus imparting to us a spirit of quiet serenity and steadfast rectitude. It is not so much a separate act of the mind, or an insulated grace of the character, one act of a long catalogue of virtues, as it is the origin and mainspring of all the virtues, the spirit that must animate all, the essence that must be infused into all, and without which, none of them have that immortal principle of life which will prolong their existence beyond the present scene.

 

We see, then, what is the nature of Faith. We were next to explain its reality and power. And here the single idea to be enforced is that with which I began, namely, that so far as regards certainty, our Faith should be to us the same thing as Knowledge, and as real a thing as sense.

 

The great practical difficulty with men in regard to religion is that they fancy they do not know these things to be true; if, they pretend, these truths were as real as this visible world, they should find it easy to do their religious duty. This is the plea with which they quiet themselves in a life of indifference and neglect. Let it be understood, therefore, as the simple fact, that they are in themselves as real as the tangible objects of sense, and as certain to us as if we came to a knowledge of them in the same way. Nay, I may go further and assert that we do actually know them in the same way and by as strong evidence as we know most of those things of sense, on which we stake our happiness with the greatest confidence.

 

This is the great practical remark belonging to our subject; and it needs less an argument to prove it true than an illustration to render it obvious to our apprehension. Let us attempt such an illustration.

 

We may begin it by observing that the disposition in man to trust others, to rely on something exterior to himself, is a native, inherent, instinctive disposition. It is as much a part of the human constitution as the appetite for food. It is almost as early developed as that appetite. The infant leans on its mother, trusts her kindness and protection, feels confidence in her fidelity, love and truth. Ask any mother, and she will tell you that the little one has hardly found its way to the sweet fountain of her bosom, before it makes manifest how happy it feels in trusting itself to her. As months proceed, this is more and more evident. The entire filial relation, the whole connection so beautifully arranged by God between parent and child, the course and process of education in which the inexperienced pupil submits himself to the guidance of his preceptor—what are these but instances of Faith, the instinctive reliance of the weak on the strong, of the young on the old? Follow the child up to manhood; it is still the same. Men are perpetually cast into situations in which they are wholly inadequate to provide for their own well-being, and they are compelled to surrender themselves to the advice and direction of others—and what is this but the exercise of Faith? Indeed, man's condition as a social being depends upon this principle. Without it, society could not exist; even families could not hold together. The bond of union is mutual confidence. So true is this that men are always unhappy when they have none in whom to confide. The most miserable wretch upon earth is he who feels that he can trust no one, and who moves about among men without knowing one on whom he can lean, and in whose friendship he may rely. So essentially does this disposition belong to human nature.

 

Now Religion takes up this native disposition, this instinct of the human soul, and uses it for the purpose of binding men to their highest relation and securing for them their highest good. If the greatest advantages of the present life are to be gained by this natural Faith in the persons around us, and in the constitution of things, in the midst of which we are placed; so, religion asserts, the blessings of man's superior life and perfect happiness are to be secured by a similar confidence in the Lord of all, and the ordinances relating to His eternal Kingdom. The spirit of both worlds is the spirit of absolute unquestioning trust. We trust our sustenance, our comforts, our property, our lives, every day to our fellowmen, just as truly and as fully as we are required in religious matters to give ourselves up by faith to God and Christ. Faith is the spring of all action, and striking examples of “walking by faith” may be found in the conduct of temporal as of spiritual affairs. The examples abound; and from out of the multitude which might be adduced, let us select one—the familiar case of a ship at sea. What is it, but one grand illustration of the reality and power of this native principle? You place yourself as passenger on board a ship, bound to another continent. You have never before been at sea. You know nothing of the principles of navigation. The whole process of managing the vast machine, and of ascertaining the course you are to run, is a mystery to you. You never before have seen the master, or had any acquaintance with the men. Yet you trust yourself—ignorant and a stranger—you trust yourself without hesitation to that tossing barque on the threatening waters; and you eat and sleep as quietly as if you had been familiar with them all your days. Thousands, every year, exercise this amazing faith in man and nautical skill with a quietude of mind that would be thought madness if it were not so common. And this is the state of mind, not of the passengers alone, but of the seamen also. They know nothing of the science by which they are led. They go by Faith in their commander; they believe that he knows, and they trust themselves to his orders. And the Captain himself is but the child of Faith; he is putting reliance in the soundness of his ship, which he did not build, and does not know who did build it, in the accuracy of instruments, which he did not make, and does not know who did make them, and in the exactness of tables which he did not calculate, and does not know who did calculate them. Not one of that large company, thus cut loose from the land and flying prosperously over the heart of the abyss, could be possessed of anything but terror, were it not for this confiding Faith. Take it from them; exchange it for distrust, for skepticism, for doubt—let the commander cease to believe in his tables and his instruments, and the crew and passengers in the fidelity and skill of the commander—and their composure would be turned into horror at once. Alarm and dismay would fill every soul with agony. They know nothing, except that they are beyond the reach of all human aid; and this knowledge is stark despair, when their mutual Faith has departed.

 

Now I say, brethren, such examples prove to us that Faith is an original instinct of the human mind, certain as knowledge, real as sense, and the constant guide of men in their ordinary affairs. Why not, then, in their spiritual affairs? Christianity demands nothing more implicit, more absolute, more extraordinary, than is demanded in the case just described. The Christian's reliance on the Savior is not more implicit than that of the passenger on the governor of the ship, the subjection to his will and commandment in matters of uncertainty and peril not more absolute, and the confidence in his promise that all shall come right at last, and the soul reach its immortal haven in peace, not a whit more extraordinary than your astonishing reliance on the seaman's promise on the ocean. In neither case do you know anything, or lean upon yourself; each is alike a matter of Faith. You have given up yourself without reserve to the control of another, you guide yourself by his directions, you walk by faith in him, and not by the sight of your own eyes, or the counsel of your own mind.

 

In each case, too, there is the same ground of confidence, namely, the experience and testimony of other men. It is what you have learned from those who have tried the skill of the master and the safety of the sea, not your own acquaintance with them, which induces the confidence you repose in them. And you have equally strong and decisive testimony, from those who have tried it, of the excellent power of religious truth, and the security and peace of those who follow Jesus. The testimony comes to you from a cloud of witnesses, of every age and station, of every character and fortune—thousands and tens of thousands—who have given themselves up during this perilous voyage of their being to the absolute guidance of the great Captain of their salvation, and have found safety, joy, and peace.

 

Therefore, brethren, the grand plea for hesitancy and irreligion, which was mentioned, is taken away. Men have no right to say that they do not know these things to be true, and do not see that they are real. This is nothing to the purpose. They have evidence of things not seen; they have grounds of Faith, as sure as Knowledge, such as they act upon in all other affairs—and such as they neglect in these at their peril.

 

The uses to be made of the great doctrine thus expounded are too numerous to be now adverted to. I pass them all by, to notice one only—that which the apostle himself suggests in the passage from which the text is taken: the application of the doctrine to man as mortal and accountable. He has been speaking of the certainty of death, and explains how serenely and exultingly the believer rises above its fear; through the operation of his Faith, he is “confident and willing rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord" [2 Cor. 5:9], and not only so, but to labor in the way of duty, so as to be accepted of him and be prepared for the judgment seat. This is the application of the doctrine of faith with which the text stands connected—always a seasonable one, always pertinent. For death is always near us; judgment is ever at hand. Not a day, not an hour, but shows to us our exposure to peril and warns us by the uncertainties of earth to secure the substantial treasures of Heaven. It is well, when everything about us is uncertain, to feel that there is one thing certain, when all here is mortal, to believe that there is a world immortal. When trials, disappointment, and fears would alarm and agitate us, it is well to have that confidence in a Supreme Disposer and the glorious truths of his revelation, which shall impart composure to our spirits and keep them in peace amid the storm. When death approaches—with slow menaces perhaps—and shuts up the sufferer in his lonely chamber, with no prospect before him but the dark and straight path to the tomb, it is well for him, if he believe in immortality, if he have trust in the doctrines of Jesus Christ, if he can forget the present in the future, and be willing to quit the body that he may be present with the Lord.

 

Brethren, all these trials, and various others, in some form and at some time, await us. How shall we be prepared for them? Not by our success in the world, not by the comforts and luxuries of our homes, not by our learning, or wealth, or honor, or friends, alone. Miserable comforters are they all, in the hour of extremity. Faith it is which gives power, Faith only, to meet, to bear, to conquer the diversified calamities of our lot. Everything that earth has, we know, will be torn from us. Faith bestows on us more than a compensation for them all. Life is short; Faith makes it everlasting. Death is certain; Faith changes it to immortality. For, as Jesus died and rose again, even so them also that sleep in Jesus, will God bring with him. Therefore, let us walk, not by Sight, but by Faith—looking not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen, “for the things which are seen, are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal” [2 Cor. 4:18].

 

 


© 2005 American Unitarian Conference