What is Faith?

Many of the readers of GOSPEL TIDINGS will have heard of the celebrated and devoted missionary to the New Hebrides—Dr. John G. Paton. He was a Scotsman, who, when he was a young man, visited those lonely and cannibal islands in the Pacific Ocean, spent long years preaching the Gospel, translating the Scriptures, and doing truly apostolic work among the fierce islanders of the Pacific.

Dr. Paton, at an advanced age, has recently been called to his rest by His Lord and Master. But “he being dead yet speaketh,” for his life is one of the finest Christian Apologetics one can read. It stands in vivid contrast to all the enervating luxury of this luxurious age. To read it is a spiritual tonic.

For a long time when translating the Scriptures into the language of those islanders he could find no equivalent for the word faith. His work of Bible translation was paralysed for the want of so fundamental and oft-recurring a term.

The natives apparently regarded the verb “hear” as equivalent to “believe.” Dr. Paton would ask a native if he believed a certain statement. If he did, he would reply, “Yes, I HEARD it,” meaning that he believed the statement. If he disbelieved it he would reply, “No, I did not HEAR it,” meaning not that his ears had failed to catch the words, but that he did not regard them as true.

This definition of belief or faith was obviously insufficient. Many passages, such as “faith cometh by hearing,” would be impossible of translation through so meagre a channel. Dr. Paton and his helpers prayed continually that God would supply the lack. He spared no efforts in interrogating the most intelligent of the natives, but all in vain. Not one caught the meaning of the word faith.

Dr. Paton writes: “One day I was in my room anxiously pondering. I sat on an ordinary kitchen chair, my feet resting on the floor. Just then an intelligent native woman entered the room, and the thought flashed through my mind to ask this all-absorbing question yet once again, if possible in a new light.

“Was I not resting on the chair? Would that attitude lend itself to the discovery?

“I said, ‘What am I doing now?’

“Koikae ana, misi’ (you’re sitting down, master), the native replied.

“Then I drew up my feet, and placed them upon the bar of the chair just above the floor, and, leaning back in an attitude of complete repose, asked, ‘What am I doing now?’

“‘Fakarougrongo, misi’ (you are leaning wholly, master; or, you have lifted yourself from every other support).

“‘That’s it!’ I shouted, with an exultant cry, and a sense of holy joy awed me, as I realised that my prayer had been so fully answered.

“To lean on Jesus wholly and only is surely the true meaning of appropriating or saving faith. And now ‘Fakarougrongo Jesu ea anea mouri’ (that is, leaning on Jesus unto eternal life, or for all the things of eternal life) is the happy experience of those Christian islanders, as it is of all, who thus cast themselves unreservedly on the Saviour of the world for salvation.”

How the writer longs that every reader of this little paper might share the happy experience of these Christian islanders! How many, alas! mistake a mental assent to the great facts of the Gospel for saving, appropriating belief—mistake credence for faith, a terrible mistake indeed.

It were well, indeed, to have no house at all than to have it built on sand. Mental assent, credence, is but a sandy foundation. When the hurricane of death comes to mere professors, when the rain descends, the floods come, the winds blow and beat upon their house, how terrible will be the uplifting of the veil of their self-deception when their house falls, too late ever to be rebuilt upon the Rock.

Say, reader, would such a terrible experience be yours, if death came this hour?

But, on the other hand, can you say that you have discovered your lost and sinful condition, and that in true and simple faith you have cast yourself entirely on the Saviour for salvation, and learned that His precious blood has cleansed you from all sin, that He is mighty and able to save, and that forgiveness, salvation, eternal life are yours through faith in Christ Jesus? Happy indeed if you can!

If you cannot, do not rest till you can.

Gospel Tidings Annual 1911, p. 111