Chris Seglenieks writes: The question of what it means to believe is one that has shaped much of my researching New Testament studies. Faith is central to Christianity, but we don’t always stop to reflect on what it involves. When it comes to the gospels, I have found that many people assume the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) all talk about faith in the same way. They apparently copied stories from each other, so it might sound like a reasonable idea. But if we look more closely, they each have their own ways of talking about faith. What I want to do here is explore how Luke talks about faith and faithfulness to see the unique contribution Luke makes to our thinking about what it means to believe.
Faith in Luke 1
We can begin where Luke does, with the stories of the birth of John and Jesus. These two stories are tied together, in many ways similar, but showing Jesus as greater than John. Both stories also include reference to faith—and of course it is not the babies that show faith, but the parents. Truth be told, the first time it is a lack of faith that we see, as the angel Gabriel tells Zechariah that “you have not believed my words” (Luke 1:20). The parallel with Mary is more positive, as we read Elizabeth saying “blessed is she who believes that what was spoken to her from the Lord will happen” (Luke 1:45). Mary is contrasted with Zechariah as she is the one who responds rightly.
For both Zechariah and Mary, believing is a matter of accepting the message the angel brings. Gabriel speaks to each of them, bringing a message from God. Zechariah does not accept the message, but Mary does. But it is also a matter of trusting the messenger. Especially for Zechariah meeting an angel in the Temple, he ought to have seen that this messenger was reliable and trustworthy. The idea of a trustworthy messenger is one that Luke himself picks up on, as he begins his gospel by presenting himself as a trustworthy researcher who has written a reliable account (Luke 1:3–4). Mary’s confident acceptance models the certainty with which the audience is to accept the message of Luke’s gospel itself.
Another dimension to the story can be seen if we read this alongside the end of Luke, with the giving of the Spirit and the commissioning to mission (Luke 24:44–49; compare Acts 1:8). Mary’s belief leads to the desired response of participating in the mission, as she then declares the message about Jesus in the Magnificat (Luke 1:46–55). Her proclamation follows the action of the Spirit in conception (Luke 1:35), just as the disciples begin their proclamation after the action of the Spirit at Pentecost (Luke 2:4). Mary gives a model to follow of faith that includes proclamation.
The story does not stop with the single assessment of Zechariah either. While he failed to believe at first, that is not his whole story. He is overall a positive character, righteous and blameless (1:6), serving loyally in the Temple (1:23), and the Lord’s hand was with him (1:66). The story of Zechariah offers hope for those who are uncertain about Jesus, that they may still accept the message and join in the mission of his disciples. We are not explicitly told that Zechariah comes to believe, but his actions show that he does as he, like Mary, turns to proclamation (Luke 1:67–79). By focusing on Zechariah’s faith in action rather than what he was thinking, Luke points to the idea that when we accept the message, we are to act in accordance with it.
So there are three things we can see about faith from the beginning of Luke. The first is that faith is at least in part about accepting a message alongside personal trust. While some recent scholarship has shown that relational trust is primary in the language of faith in the world around the NT, propositional belief plays a role in biblical texts, including here in Luke. Second, Luke presents faith as a dichotomy—either someone believes, or they don’t—and doesn’t talk about the internal development of faith in the way that Matthew and John do. Third, faith is to lead to joining the mission, participating in proclamation, as faith entails action. We can now turn to the rest of Luke to see if these ideas are sustained throughout the Gospel.
Faith as Propositional Belief or as Relational Trust
The initial attention to faith as the acceptance of a message continues through Luke. Believing is parallel to ‘receiving the word’ (Luke 8:13). The identity of Jesus is the message that the Sanhedrin will not believe (Luke 22:67). Jesus praises the faith of the centurion, a faith demonstrated in the centurion’s understanding of Jesus’ identity (Luke 7:8–9). When Jesus calms the storm, he asks his disciples, “where is your faith?” (Luke 8:25), a question that leads directly to them pondering his identity. Their lack of faith is linked to their lack of understanding of who Jesus is, in contrast to the centurion. These all point to the importance of propositional belief for Luke. However, faith can also be contrasted with fear (Luke 8:50), suggesting trust is more the focus at times. Indeed, it is often difficult to distinguish a focus on either relational trust or propositional belief, for Luke weaves the two together.
We can see this best with the expression that most readily indicates trust in Jesus, “your faith has saved you” (Luke 7:50; 8:48; 17:19; 18:42). While trust is central to these stories, faith is not only about trust. The one time there is a simple call for healing that Jesus meets, that is also when one of the most distinctive titles is given to Jesus, “Son of David” (Luke 18:38–39). That reflects some form of Christological belief alongside trust in Jesus. The other three times the phrase is used, there is more extended interaction with Jesus. Jesus affirms their faith after the one he healed acknowledges Jesus’ action verbally (Luke 8:47; 17:15–16), or after public actions showing love for Jesus (Luke 7:47). Not only does this reinforce the point we saw earlier about faith leading to proclamation, but it reflects that there is a message to be accepted and conveyed, alongside trust in Jesus.
Yet surprisingly, Luke does not give much attention to exactly what is to be believed. Aside from in Luke 1 where it is about believing the message of the angel, the only time Luke specifies what is believed comes in Luke 24:25, where it is about believing all that is written in the prophets. This points to a broader focus for Luke, that faith is the appropriate response to any message from God. So while there is a message to be believed, Luke doesn’t focus on summaries of Jesus’ identity (such as we find in John 20:31) but emphasises an attitude of acceptance. This attitude is one that the audience is to have towards the Gospel overall, which is presented as an account that ought to lead to certainty (Luke 1:1–4).
Faith as Objectified and Dichotomous
The second characteristic of Lukan faith that was identified in Luke 1 is a dichotomous picture of faith. This continues as the characters within the narrative either have faith or lack it—those who are healed have faith (Luke 7:50; 8:48; 17:19; 18:42), whereas other times Jesus questions the absence of faith (Luke 8:25; 18:8), and there is no ambiguous middle. Luke refers to people having faith (Luke 17:6), seeing faith (Luke 5:20), or finding faith (Luke 7:9; 18:8), suggesting that faith is something that can be possessed or observed. An objectified faith contributes to the dichotomy, as a person either has faith or does not.
This pattern is supported by the sorts of words used by Luke to talk of faith. Luke prefers the noun “faith/belief” over the verb “to believe/to have faith” when compared with the other Gospels. (See for example Luke 5:20; 7:9, 50; 8:25, 48; 17:5, 6, 19; 18:8, 42; 22:32. The noun appears in Matthew 8x; Mark 5x; Luke 11x; and John 0x. The verb appears in Matthew 11x; Mark 10x; Luke 8x; and John 98x.) The noun more readily depicts faith as something either present or absent, where the verb may point to an ongoing response. Indeed, at times Luke deliberately omits the verb when compared with Matthew and Mark (Luke 7:1–10 compared to Matt 8:13; Mark 9:42/Matt 18:6 vs Luke 17:2; Mark 13:21/Matt 24:23 vs Luke 21:8). So too, if we compare in Luke 9:37–42 with the parallel in Mark 9:14–29 we see that Luke omits where Mark draws attention to developing faith, the cry “I believe! Help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). While Matthew also leaves out this part, he includes reference to the disciples’ “small faith”, indicating that their faith needs to grow. These comparisons show that Luke uses “faith” in a way that refers to people having faith or not, while avoiding drawing attention to either an ongoing aspect or development within belief.
The third feature identified in the faith of Luke 1 is action, and our focus here is on the adjective “faithful”. To be faithful is primarily a matter of outward actions that align with what one ought to do and appears in three of Luke’s parables (Luke 12:35–48; 16:1–13; 19:11–27). These three parables depict faithfulness as the practical outworking of faith. So too the only time Luke speaks of “small faith”, the focus turns immediately to practical action (Luke 12:32–34). This is part of a Lukan pattern where the disciples are assumed to have faith, but they need to exercise it (Luke 8:25, 17:6–10). Thus, rather than Luke being unconcerned with ongoing faith, his focus is upon ongoing faithful actions. The concern for faithful action also appears at other points, such as the woman whose practical demonstration of love is seen as the outworking of faith (Luke 7:47–50), or in the parable of the sower where those who do not go on believing are those who do not bear fruit (Luke 8:13–15; cf. 8:21).
Luke has an evident concern in moving his audience towards active faith. In this context we can see the purpose of presenting a dichotomy of faith or unbelief. It helps to ensure that actions are shown as integral to what faith is. If faith is presented as developing, then faithful actions could be assigned to a later stage in faith, a goal but not a necessity. However, for Luke there is only faith or no faith, and faith includes action. Luke doesn’t just call his audience to greater intellectual certainty, but to certainty that leads to action. The other gospels are similar; Matthew calls out the disciples’ “small faith” when they fail to express their faith (Matt 6:30, 8:26; 14:31; 16:8), while John connects abiding to bearing fruit (John 15:1–8, 16), where fruit is a visible result in the life of a believer. Luke’s presentation adds urgency, for there is only faith or unbelief and having faith means being faithful.
In the opening chapter of his gospel, Luke depicts a paradigm of faith that continues throughout the narrative. For Luke, faith is both propositional belief and relational trust. The propositional dimension is primarily about an attitude to a message with a divine origin. The audience are encouraged to receive Luke’s written gospel itself as such a message to believe. The dimension of trust is especially found in trusting an authoritative messenger, like the gospel author as well as the gospel subject, Jesus. Faith, for Luke, is an either/or proposition, and he does not give attention to the internal dynamics of faith. This allows him to present faithful action both as an integral part of faith, and as the ongoing dimension of faith. Luke calls his audience to a faith which involves a confident acceptance of God’s message alongside trust in Jesus—a faith that is known and expressed in action.
This exploration is based on: Christopher Seglenieks, “Faith and Faithfulness in Luke,” Australian Biblical Review 70 (2022), 48–64, which can be accessed here.