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Audio Transcript

Faith and hope — we need them both. But what exactly is the difference between them? It’s a new question today, and it comes from Kelly in Chickamauga, Georgia. “Pastor John, I share your passion for the intentionality of words. I have a question about two words in Scripture — namely, faith and hope. First Peter 1:21 says that Christ’s work was ‘so that your faith and hope are in God.’ My initial understanding was that faith is rooted in past grace — namely, the cross. But hope is rooted in future grace, specifically the revelation of Jesus (1 Peter 1:13). However, Hebrews 11:1 and 1 Peter 1:21 seem to define faith as something rooted in the future, while also distinguishing it from hope. So, Pastor John, can you help me understand the distinction then between faith and hope?”

Well, I’m glad Kelly shares my enthusiasm for the intentionality of words because I really believe words are dumb things until a meaner gives them an intention. So, that’s a good way to ask the question, and there are few things I think about more than the nature of faith and hope and how they relate to each other in the Christian life. So this is right in my present wheelhouse. I love thinking about this.

Here’s my understanding of the similarity and difference between biblical faith and biblical hope — and that’s really important to say biblical because the world has all kinds of meanings that they give to faith and hope. And I just want to ask, “What does the Bible mean by saving faith and hope?”

Hope: Future Confidence

Hope, as it is used in the Bible for the distinctive experience of Christian hope, is always a confidence concerning the future. It’s a confidence, not a finger-crossing wish. So that separates the Christian hope from most other uses of hope in the English language. Romans 5:5 says, “Hope does not put us to shame.” It is rock-solid, sure. You can be confident. That’s Christian hope, and it’s always future-oriented.

A key text would be Romans 8:24–25: “In this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” When we say that hope does not see what it hopes for, the reason it doesn’t see it is because it hasn’t happened yet. It’s future. “We wait for it with patience.” So that’s the distinctive mark of hope: it is always future-oriented and consists in a firm confidence of what we are hoping for — not just a wish.

Faith: Personal, Treasuring Trust

Now faith, on the other hand, is the bigger concept. It includes everything that we say biblically about hope, but it is more. Now that probably is going to surprise a lot of people. It’s a risky statement — that everything we can say about hope is in faith, but that it’s more. But I think that’s a true statement. I think it’s fair to say that biblical hope is biblical faith in the future tense. If you are focusing on faith as a faith that something will happen in the future, it is virtually the same as biblical hope. But faith involves more than confidence that something that God has promised will happen in the future. It is that; that’s why I say hope is in faith — it’s part of what faith is. But it’s more.

“Biblical hope is biblical faith in the future tense.”

The main distinction between Christian faith and Christian hope is that faith is in a substantial way a trusting relationship with a person. Faith says to Christ, “I trust you, not just your promises. You are a reliable person. You are a trustworthy person.” Now, that trust may often be future-oriented. We may mean in that moment, “I trust you to keep your word about this afternoon, taking care of me.” That’s faith, and it’s hope.

But in a specific moment, that trust doesn’t have to mean something future-oriented. It might mean that Christ has just said, “I died for you two thousand years ago. I bore your sins, John Piper, two thousand years ago. I absorbed my Father’s wrath for you two thousand years ago.” And I, listening to that, look him in the eye and say, “I believe you. I believe you. I trust you” — meaning, “What you have just said about the past I believe.” Hope doesn’t say that.

Of course, that has massive implications for future life, right? But faith isn’t only future-oriented; it is person-oriented in a significant way. And the mark of the relationship with the person is trust — a receiving, treasuring trust. But beyond this distinction, the Bible presents hope in God and faith in God in ways that are scarcely distinguishable.

Tasting Coming Joy

For example, when Psalm 42 says, “Hope in God,” I have leaned on this in my discouragement so many times. “Hope in God, John Piper. You shall again praise him, your help and your God.” That act — what the psalm is calling me to do — of hoping in God in the midst of my trouble is hardly distinguishable from trusting God. Hope in that psalm is, I would argue, virtually identical to faith in God as it relates to the future.

Now, Hebrews 11:1 is the place where we see this interweaving of faith and hope as close as they get, perhaps. It says, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for.” And, yes, I do think substance rather than assurance is the most helpful, accurate translation. That would require another podcast to give a reason for why that is and how the word hypostasis is used elsewhere in Hebrews. That’s another issue, but just go with it for now. I think that’s the right translation.

Here’s what I think it means. It speaks “of things hoped for.” In other words, there’s a reality in the future that God has promised and, in some measure, has revealed to us as precious — worth living for, worth dying for. And we are hoping to obtain it. That is, we have strong confidence that God will grant us this great blessing of experiencing fully what we are now hoping for in the future.

“Faith is the experience of the substance of future reality known, believed, tasted, and cherished now.”

Now, Hebrews 11:1 says that the substance of that future thing hoped for — that future reward or blessing — some substantial, essential element of it is experienced now in what he calls faith. Faith is the experience of the substance of that future reality known, believed, tasted, and cherished now.

Let me illustrate that with Hebrews 12:2. The writer says, “Jesus . . . for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame.” So God has assured Jesus that on the other side of the cross, on the other side of suffering and death, there would be a great joy to inherit. He could see it just over the horizon, and he hoped for it. And in that sense, it was one of those things hoped for from Hebrews 11:1.

I would argue that in the garden of Gethsemane, and even on the cross, Jesus was sustained — he endured — by tasting already the substance of that thing hoped for. He tasted something of that future joy that was set before him. And Hebrews 11:1 calls that experience faith. So, I would say in Hebrews 11:1 it is virtually impossible to completely distinguish faith and hope. The one is part of the other.

Faith and Hope Forever

Let’s look at one last text to show how close faith and hope are in the New Testament. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:6–7, “We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight.” So one dimension or element of faith is that it embraces as real things you can’t see — like the risen Lord Jesus. And Paul says, “We are away from the Lord. He’s in heaven; we’re on earth. We can’t see him. But though we can’t see him, we love him. We trust him.” We walk by faith, not sight.

But that does not mean that when we do see him face-to-face at the second coming, we won’t walk by faith anymore. Only one dimension of faith is replaced by sight. Not every dimension of faith is replaced by sight. We will still trust him in heaven. We will still feed on him as the living bread in heaven. And the same can be said of hope. We walked by hope and not by sight. And yet, when sight is finally gained, not all hope will disappear. Heaven will forever be a place of faith and a place of hope because there will always be a future in heaven, a future to hope for, and there will always be Christ to trust. He will always be the feast of our hearts.

In summary, then, hope is faith in the future tense. And everything that can be said about hope biblically can be said of faith. But faith is more than hope because it involves trust in a person, which may have a backward dimension as well as a forward dimension.