Hebrews 11 is a well known chapter, and beloved by many Christians. It depicts the “heroes” of the faith. It begins with what characterizes faith (11:1-3), examples of faith from Abel and Noah (11:4-7), of Abraham and his descendants (11:8-22), of Moses (11:23-28), and of other OT saints (11:29-40). The dominant theme throughout Hebrews is the superiority of Jesus to various aspects of Judaism. This theme has not been abandoned, for the faith of these saints was in the promises of God which have been brought about by Christ (cf. 11:13-16, 39-40). We have a tendency to think that all these people had supernatural faith, but really it was not the quantity of their faith but its quality. Lets look more closely at what is said about faith in the first verse. The issue involves two key words: “assurance/confidence” and “conviction/assurance” (ESV/NIV). The root words are hypostasis and elenchos. Some may remember that hypostasis is a key word used by the early church fathers in settling debates on the Trinity and the Incarnation (recall the hypostatic union – two natures in one person). This word appears in Heb. 1:3 as nature(“he is the exact imprint of his hypostasis”), and in 3:14 as confidence (“if indeed we hold our original hypostasis”). So, is the old KJV right in stressing the objective nature of faith and rendering it “substance” (hypostasis) and “evidence” (elenchos)? Or are modern translations correct in stressing the subjective nature of faith and rendering it “assurance” and “conviction?” The problem here is when people tend to see this verse as a definition of faith. This is troublesome because it does not clearly state what the object of our faith is – Jesus Christ (cf. 12:2) – so people tend to describe faith as something to maintain in the absence of evidence. The overall context ought to be our guide in clarifying the sense of a word. Therefore, I think Ellingworth is correct when he states: “It is more natural, in the light of the chapter as a whole, to think of v. 1 as a summary of what faith does: faith binds the believer securely to the reality of what he does not (yet) see, but for which he hopes,” (Ellingworth, 566.) This combines the objective and subjective elements of faith. Hence both translations are correct, which the overall context ought to make clear.
Abel as the first example of righteousness by faith
It is worth making a brief comment about Abel (Gen. 4:1-10; cf. Matt. 23:35; 1 Jn. 3:12). Why was Abel’s sacrifice better than Cain’s? Some have speculated it was because of the type of offering that was given. Others have argued it was because Abel offered “firstfruits” and not leftovers. Neither is satisfactory because the crucial idea is that righteousness and faith cannot be separated. The sacrifices God approves of are not determined by the content of the offerings, but by the content of one’s heart. Biblically, it is clear that the righteous will live by faith. Because God says Abel was righteous it must be true that he obeyed out of faith. Not because he thought he was worthy, but because he knew God was worthy.
1 Paul Ellingworth, The Epistle to the Hebrews: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 1993), 566.