A Word for Today – Pistis


During his imprisonment in Tibet by the Chinese communists, the English missionary Geoffrey Bull was subjected to a continuous period of interrogation aimed at breaking his Christian faith. Just before his release from captivity, he examined himself as to his faith in Christ. This is part of what he later wrote, ‘All the waves and billows of the past three years have gone over me. Satan had brought to bear every device upon me. My mind had been so battered and was now so fatigued that I hardly knew how to think. Yet, as in that dark cell my vision cleared, I could not explain it nor did I need to do so. I knew that I believed my Saviour risen from the dead … And there as I sat, from the very springs of my soul surged up the words that God is pleased to honour above all human utterance, “I believe”’.1 What an example of faith to follow, Heb. 13. 7! It is no wonder, then, that his last interrogator said to him, ‘Your faith is different from ours’.2 And it is this sense of difference or otherworldliness, Heb. 11. 1, plus an absolute belief in God and the person of Christ that underpins the usage of the Greek word pistis in the New Testament. As Stephen D. Renn confirms, ‘In most cases, the meanings “belief" and “faith" are interchangeable’.3

In the Septuagint (LXX) the word pistis is used chiefly to translate the Hebrew word. Whilst the language of faith and belief expressed in the Old Testament is not exactly the same as in the New Testament, the principles of trust and confidence in God are effectively the same. So, irrespective of the great time differences between the two Testaments, faith in God’s word and confidence in His promises remained inviolable. In Genesis chapter 5 verse 24 we read that ‘Enoch walked with God’. In Hebrews chapter 11 verse 5 the writer interprets this earlier text by stating that Enoch ‘pleased God’. And this is further expanded by the writer in verse 6 by reference to a general principle that without faith it is impossible to please God. So the assumption must be that Enoch exercised faith in God throughout his lifetime, and, eventually, it was through the exercise of this faith that he was translated into God’s presence, Heb. 11. 5. His translation shows how faith made all the difference.

This can be further illustrated by Abraham’s faith in Genesis chapter 15 verse 6. He had utter belief in God’s promises, despite the empirical evidence that his wife Sarah was barren. Paul reminds us, ‘He did not waver at the promise of God through unbelief, but was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God’, Rom. 4. 20, NKJV. We might contrast Abraham’s certain faith with the ‘double-souled’ person in James chapter 1 verse 8 who is characterized by divided loyalties.

Another example of the word being used in the LXX is found in Deuteronomy chapter 32 verse 4, but on this occasion the word ‘truth’ is used by the translator rather than the word ‘faith’. What is in view is the God-ward aspect of ‘faith’. Because the God we serve is a God of truth, or trustworthiness, He will be faithful to all His promises, cp. Isa. 25. 1.

Moving then into the New Testament, we find that the word pistis, has assumed a much broader canvas. It is not just translated by the word ‘faith’, but has secondary meanings such as ‘belief’, ‘assurance’, ‘conviction’ and, following the usage in non-literary sources, ‘faithfulness’. Essential to salvation is the exercise of ‘faith’ in Christ, which is not simply a matter of mental or intellectual assent, but of belief and trust in the finished work of Christ, Acts 20. 21; Rom. 10. 9, and a personal relationship to Christ, Gal. 2. 20. This is the principle or law of faith, Rom. 3. 27, and, as such, is contrasted with any form of legal obligation or human endeavour, Rom. 3. 31; Eph. 2. 8-9. But just as faith or trust and fear are closely related in the Old Testament, e.g., Psalm 42, so the dynamics of the New Testament require that a believer should continue in faith, Col. 1. 23, and seek to increase the measure of their faith, 2 Cor. 10. 15, so as to avoid similar doubt or fear. For as Paul succinctly reminds us, ‘Whatsoever is not of faith is sin’, Rom. 14. 23.

The word ‘faith’ is often linked with other Christian virtues such as those contained in the fruit of the Spirit, Gal. 5. 22-23, as well as virtues that can enhance faith, 2 Pet. 1. 5-8.

There is also another aspect of pistis, when it is preceded by the definite article, i.e., when it refers to ‘the faith’, as in Jude 3. Rather than being a reference here to active faith or saving faith, the expression refers to the content of what is believed. It is the totality of Christian doctrine that is being emphasized. This formula, ‘the faith’, is commonly used in the Pastoral Epistles, e.g., 1 Tim. 6. 21; 2 Tim. 2. 18, where it has essentially the same meaning. Notice the finality of this message, ‘once and for all’, it cannot be added to or changed – note the similar warning given by Paul in Galatians chapter 1 verse 9 to anyone seeking to make such a change. A salutary warning to us all in these days of relativism.

A definition of faith is given in Hebrews chapter 11 verse 1. One translation states ‘And what is faith? Faith gives substance or assurance to our hopes, and makes us certain of realities we do not see’, NEB. Having that conviction, then, that faith can give us an insight into the order of things that cannot be seen, 2 Cor. 4. 18, let us hold fast to our faith, 1 Tim. 1. 19; Heb. 10. 23, and continue as instructed by the Lord Jesus, ‘Have faith in God’, Mark 11. 22.

For further reading/study


  • Faith in 18 Words – The Most Important Words you will ever know, by J. I. Packer at pp. 125-134


  • The pistis word-group in the Pastoral Epistles (Excursus 4), The Pastoral Epistles (ICC) by I. H. Marshall at pp. 213-216



When Iron Gates Yield (1962), Hodder and Stoughton, London, pp. 241-242


Op cit., pg. 244


Expository Dictionary of Bible Words, (2005), Hendrickson Publishers, Inc, Peabody, Massachusetts, pg. 360.


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