Words mean different things in different contexts. If I tell you that my favorite college basketball player is "on fire," either I'm telling you that he is running up the score or that we should be looking for a fire extinguisher. This isn’t anything specific to the English language. This is a problem we run into in any language. That is why when we engage in biblical exegesis we must pay careful attention to how words are used in their specific contexts and how they are used by different authors. Take the following biblically true, yet possibly confusing statement as an example: You can be saved by faith, be able to explain the faith, and yet be of little faith. Confused? Let's consider the word faith (πιστις), and draw some conclusions about how we do faith-ful exegesis.
One of the principle ways that the word faith (πιστις) is used in Scripture is that which has to do with the saving union that God creates with sinners by his Holy Spirit when he applies to them the atonement accomplished by Jesus. This faith describes what the Christian is enabled to believe about God and is solely a gift of God.
The apostle Paul describes this faith in Ephesians 2:4-9.
God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
The Westminster Confession of Faith also describes this faith in chapter 14,
The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word.
Additionally, the Westminster Shorter Catechism defines saving faith in the following manner:
Q. 86. What is faith in Jesus Christ?
A. Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, as he is offered to us in the gospel.
We must conclude then that the word faith can be--and often is--used biblically to describe our actual salvation, sovereignly accomplished by our merciful God.
But saving faith is not the only way the Bible uses the word faith. In fact if we were to read Jude 3 and import into that text “faith as a saving act of God,” we would miss a key truth that Jude is trying to teach to his audience.
Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.
We have no need to contend for saving faith. God is quite able to do that himself. Since saving faith is a work of God's grace that He does in us it cannot be changed or assailed by the works of men. So what in the world is Jude talking about? What needs protecting?
Jude is telling us that faith can also describe the teaching contained in the Bible, culminating in the person of Jesus. In this way we might use faith and call it Orthodox faith, true faith, or Christian faith. And this type of faith definitely must be guarded and contended for in the world. God has entrusted to Christians the faithful exposition of the faith, contained in the Bible, and described as the whole counsel of God. Paul's use of the word faith in Galatians 3:23 seems to be another example of this usage of the word--in it's redemptive-historical context.
So what then are we to make about Jesus’s comments to his disciples, rebuking them for their doubt in His ability to keep them safe on a stormy sea?
And behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. And they went and woke him, saying, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing.” And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” Then he rose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm. And the men marveled, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?” (Matt 8:24-26)
Are these disciples only semi–saved? Is Jesus saying that they only possess a small amount of orthodox doctrine? Or is Jesus saying something different?
In this passage we find the third use of the word “faith” in the Bible. It can also mean the trust that someone has in God, who he is, and what he can accomplish. And so we learn that true salvation and a correct knowledge of biblical doctrine are no substitutes for a growing and experiential trust in God.
Hopefully at this point you can see how someone can be saved by faith, be able to explain the faith, and yet be of little faith. This short study is just another example of how important biblical hermeneutics are for godly and happy living.
Faith-ful Exegesis Applied
We discover at least four things from this brief word study:
1. We learn that we must do exegesis at the paragraph level. This is such a crucial principle for biblical hermeneutics. Context is king. We cannot assume that the same word means the same thing wherever we find it without paying attention to who the author is and how he’s using the word. We can’t stop at the word or how it’s used in the sentence. We must press on to the paragraph level. But when we do careful exegesis, our souls benefit. Having done this little word study, we now have a greater appreciation for all the kinds of biblical faith.
2. We praise God for our salvation. You have been saved by faith, and not by your own works, it is a gift of God. He wanted to make sure that you would not be able to boast in your own salvation. He is a jealous God, the terminus of all boasting. Do not rob him of the glory due to his name for his salvation of your soul.
3. We praise God for sound doctrine. God has passed down through the centuries not only his written word, but it’s correct interpretation. God’s people have contended, sometimes at the cost of their own lives, to preserve that word, that faith, for the generations that would come after them. Christian, God has ensured that you would have access to the treasures of the gospel delivered to you by those who faithfully preach and teach the faith.
4. We praise God for causing us to grow in daily trusting Him. That stormy sea and near-capsized boat were the ordained means by which Jesus intended to grow the faith of his disciples. God has tailor-made your sufferings and joys to grow your trust--your faith--in him.
Moisés Silva Biblical Words and Their Meaning
D.A. Carson Exegetical Fallacies
Kaiser, Walter C., and Moisés Silva Introduction to Biblical Hermenuetics
Jonanthan Edwards' "What Is Believing In Christ?" (East of Eden podcast)