What Is the Difference Between Faith and Hope?

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This is an excerpt from Martin Luther’s Commentary on Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians (1535), written by Martin Luther and translated by Haroldo Camacho (1517 Publishing, 2018).

This excerpt is from lecture notes transcribed by Martin Luther’s students on Galatians 5:5.

At this point, the question arises, what is the difference between faith and hope? The papal academicians and scholars have struggled at length with this topic but have never said anything with any certainty. Yes, it’s even difficult for us who diligently study the Scriptures, as well as with greater fullness and power of the Spirit (I say this without any boasting), to find any difference. There’s great affinity between faith and hope. One cannot separate one from the other. However, there’s a difference between them, which is due to their differing functions, different ways through which they operate, and their purposes.

First, they differ with respect to the subject—that is, the foundation on which one each rests. Faith rests on the understanding and hope on the will. But they can never be separated one from the other, since the two cherubim on the mercy seat could not be separated.

Second, they differ with regards to their function—that is, in how they operate. Faith communicates the tasks ahead: it teaches, prescribes, and directs; it is something made known. Hope is an exhortation that provokes the mind to find strength, to be inspired with boldness and courage. It strengthens it to suffer and persevere in adversity and in that state of mind to wait for better things to come.

Third, they differ regarding their object—that is, that special object on which they fix their gaze. Faith has truth as its object, teaching us to cling to it, having its gaze fixed on the pledged word and the promise. Hope has as its object God’s kindness and looks on all things that have been promised in the word—that is, on those things that faith teaches we are to wait for.

Fourth, they differ in their order. Faith is the beginning of life at the outset of all tribulation (Hebrews 11). However, hope follows and proceeds from the tribulation (Romans 5:3, 4).

Fifth, they contrast each other. Faith is our teacher and judge; it fights against errors and heresies and judges spirits and doctrines. But hope is, as it were, the commanding general in the battle field, struggling against tribulations, the cross, impatience, despair, weaknesses, hopelessness, and blasphemy and yet anticipating better things, even when surrounded by all evil.

Therefore, when faith instructs me through God’s word, I grasp on to Christ, believing in Him from the bottom of my heart (but this doesn’t happen without the will), then I am righteous through this knowledge. When I am justified by this faith or by this knowledge, the devil immediately appears. He is the father of deceit and attempts to extinguish my faith through trickery and subtleties—that is, through lies, errors, and heresies. Further, since he is a murderer, he goes around to violently oppress our faith. Here, hope comes out fighting; it grasps onto that which faith has prescribed and defeats the devil, who wars against the faith. After this victory, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit follows. Thus in reality faith and hope are barely discernible one from the other, yet there is a certain difference between them. To have a better understanding of this matter, I will try to explain it with an example.

Thus in reality faith and hope are barely discernible one from the other, yet there is a certain difference between them.

In the civil government, restraint and a firm hand differ. Yet these two virtues are so close they cannot be pulled apart. Firmness is an unyielding will, which is not set back in adversity; instead, it perseveres courageously and hopes for better things. But if firmness rejects the good advice of restraint, it is nothing more than recklessness and foolhardiness. On the one hand, if firmness were not to join with restraint, such restraint would be in vain and totally worthless. In the same way as in government, restraint is empty without a firm hand, so in theology faith without hope would be nothing. However, if hope perseveres and is constant in adversity, at the end it will conquer all evil. On the other hand, just as firmness without restraint is nothing but recklessness, so also hope without faith is nothing but presumption of spirit; it is tempting God. That is because it does not know Christ and the truth taught by faith; thus it is only blind recklessness and arrogance. That is how every faithful person should see to it that his understanding is taught by faith. In this way, his mind will be guided in trials so that he can hope for those better things that faith has revealed and taught.

Faith is the dialectic that conceives the idea regarding the object of its belief. Hope is the rhetoric that magnifies, urges, persuades, and beckons to persevere so that faith will not fail in the hour of temptation but should keep a firm grip on the word and not let it go. Dialectic and rhetoric are different skills that nonetheless are so closely related as to be inseparable. Without dialectical arguments, the orator has nothing to teach with any conviction. Without the skills of a public speaker, the debater does not move his audience. However, those who put them together teach and persuade. In the same way, faith and hope are different states of mind, for faith is not hope, nor is hope faith, but due to their great affinity, they are inseparable. Thus just as dialect and rhetoric go hand in hand joined in purpose, so faith and hope are similarly understood. Therefore, there is the same difference between faith and hope in theology as between understanding and volition in philosophy, restraint and firmness in government, and dialectic and rhetoric in oratory. (1)

In summary, faith is conceived through teaching, for instruction brings the truth into the mind. Hope is conceived through exhortation, for exhortation revives hopefulness in the middle of affliction. Hope confirms those who have been justified by faith; this confirmation strengthens them to resist adversity in the face of defeat. Nonetheless, if the spark of faith were not to illumine the will, it would not be persuaded to cling onto hope. We who have faith then, by which we understand its teaching, are given understanding into heavenly wisdom, grasp on to Christ, and persevere in grace, for as soon as we grasp Christ through faith, we confess Him. Immediately, our enemies, the world, the flesh, and the devil conspire against us, hating and persecuting us most cruelly, in the body as well as in the spirit. Thus we, believing and justified by faith, in spirit await the hope of our righteousness. We wait patiently, for all we see and feel is totally to the contrary, for the world, together with its prince the devil, is a powerful prowler, hunting us down from within and from without. Further, sin remains within us and it pushes us into hopelessness. However, even facing these threats, we will not surrender. Instead, through faith, we will gather strength and lift our minds, for faith teaches, guides, and lights our way. That is how we persevere, firm and without wavering, defeating all adversities through Him who loved us until our righteousness is revealed, in which we have believed and awaited.

This is an excerpt from Martin Luther’s Commentary on Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians (1535), translated by Haroldo Camacho (1517 Publishing, 2018),422-425, Used by permission.

(1) This entire paragraph reminds us that Luther was lecturing a group of well-schooled seminarians trained in the skills he mentions. Here, I have left intact the academic register of the language. This way, the reader gets a glimpse of the academic level of both students and lecturer. However, the academic register of this paragraph is not descriptive of Luther’s style throughout the lectures. Luther’s style, although in Latin, was not classical or even academic Latin. Only rarely (as in this example) did he surprise his students with academic rhetoric.