On one hand, there is no difference between faith and belief. The two terms are often used interchangeably. The Gospel of John was written so that “you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). The Gospel of John does not even use the word faith, although the concept of faith is thoroughly woven into John. Throughout Scripture, there is no distinction between faith and belief.
On the other hand, in popular English usage, the word faith often has a deeper meaning. Belief often refers to an intellectual acceptance of facts. If you ask the average person on the street if he believes in Alexander the Great or Abraham Lincoln, he would probably interpret the question to mean, “Do you believe that such a person existed?” Most, no doubt, would answer in the affirmative. However, faith, in modern usage, has the added idea of trust and commitment.
Many people believe that Alexander the Great existed. When he was alive, many had faith in him as well, trusting him to protect them, lead them into battle, and expand the Greek Empire. However, it would be safe to assume that no one alive today is trusting him to do anything for them. They believe in his existence, but they do not have faith in him.
Most people believe it is important to eat healthy foods and exercise regularly; however, most people do not personally eat healthy food and exercise regularly. They believe that a certain set of facts is true, but they have not committed themselves to the implications of the facts. They have belief but not faith, in the modern sense.
Likewise, many people today believe a certain set of facts about God, and in some cases their facts may be completely orthodox. However, if they have never committed themselves to God, if they have not trusted Him, then they do not have faith or biblical belief in Him. Biblical faith (biblical belief) is never simply giving assent to a certain set of facts. Biblical faith is trust and commitment that result in a change of behavior. James 2:19 puts it this way: “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” The demons believe that God exists, and they may even know more about God than people do, but they do not have faith in Him. Unfortunately, many people have the same kind of belief that the demons have, but that it is not sufficient for their salvation.
This concept can be illustrated another way: three people board a commercial airliner to travel to a distant city. The first is an engineer who designs and builds airplanes. He is also a pilot. He knows how everything works. Furthermore, he is a personal friend of the pilot who will be flying that afternoon, and he knows him to be very competent. He boards the plane with full confidence. The second person is just the average business traveler. He knows a little bit about airplanes but just doesn’t think about it too much. He takes his seat and starts reading a magazine. The third is deathly afraid of flying. He breaks out in a cold sweat. It takes all he can do not to turn and flee down the gangway. With much fear and trembling, he gets on the plane, sits down, and hopes he can fall asleep and not wake up until they land. So the question is, “who has more faith in the plane?” The answer is that they all have the same amount of faith. All of them have boarded the plane and committed their safety to the plane and the crew. They will only arrive at their destination if the plane arrives. If the plane goes down, they will go down, too. All the people who got on the plane were committing themselves to the plane—they believed (or had faith) in the plane. Those who stayed at the airport, even if they had complete confidence that the plane would arrive as scheduled, did not exercise faith in the plane. They did not commit themselves to it.
In summary, faith and belief are used interchangeably. However, the New Testament does recognize that people can have false faith or incomplete belief, which is inadequate. The difference is not between the two words but between the concepts of mental agreement and wholehearted commitment. In modern usage, belief often refers to mental agreement, and faith refers to wholehearted commitment. As long as that distinction is maintained, it doesn’t matter which words are used. However, we need to be careful not to import the modern usage back into specific New Testament passages.