I mean, of course, faith in a trustworthy God, not just faith as a quality in itself.
1. On the one hand, we have Romans 4:2-8.
For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS CREDITED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS.” Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: “BLESSED ARE THOSE WHOSE LAWLESS DEEDS HAVE BEEN FORGIVEN, AND WHOSE SINS HAVE BEEN COVERED. BLESSED IS THE MAN WHOSE SIN THE LORD WILL NOT TAKE INTO ACCOUNT.” (Rom 4:2-8)
Paul’s point is that if Abraham had been made right with God by his good works, it would have been something that was due him as a reward for having done the good works. Since it was by faith, which is not something we can gain any credit for, his being made right with God was simply favor, or a gift.
What keeps faith from being a work, in other words, is that it is not something we would expect any reward for.
2. On the other hand, we have Hebrews 11, in which faith is treated as a virtue that God rewards. It starts out by saying:
And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him. (Heb 11:6)
Here, faith is rewarded by God because He is pleased by it. The chapter continues with description after glowing description of the wonderful way in which various men and women in the Old Testament had faith in God.
All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own … Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them. (Heb 11:13-16)
Here, God is not ashamed to be called their God because, apparently, they deserve it. They’ve proven their worth by their faith. At the end of the chapter, we see this:
And what more shall I say? For time will fail me if I tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets, who by faith conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions,quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection; and others were tortured, not accepting their release, so that they might obtain a better resurrection; and others experienced mockings and scourgings, yes, also chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (men of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the groun And all these, having gained approval through their faith …
Again, Hebrews 11 seems to portray God’s approval of believers as a reward for the worthiness of their faith.
Note that in this chapter, faith seems to be something akin to courage; it seems to mean standing by what you believe to be true and acting consistently with it even when the circumstances or popular opinion make it more convenient to doubt it.
Now, you may say that Romans 4 and Hebrews 11 simply disagree, in that they mean different things by faith, or are making different points in different contexts to different audiences. If so, we still have to decide what we should mean by faith as Christians when we speak of it in general. Is there a way to synthesize the two passages? Practically speaking, should I think of faith as a Christian virtue that God approves of, or as a way of approaching God without relying on any virtue of my own? Should I distinguish two different kinds of faith, the Romans kind and the Hebrews kind?
The other odd thing about all this is that so far I can’t get anyone to understand the question. I’ve asked my wife, had this discussion (I think) with a couple of friends, and raised it in my Sunday school class. Rather than answering me or correcting me or wondering aloud with me, people just looked baffled and said, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” The puzzle seems really clear to me. I can’t figure out why no one else gets it. Hopefully writing it up will clarify it.