Faith is a term that is constantly thrown about by heirs of the reformation. It is a catch all term. Sola Fides the modern evangelical cries, faith apart from works saves. Yet, what is faith?
One of the primary motivations of the rise of the reformation was the medieval Catholic church's abuse of the practice of indulgences, that is the doling out of merit based upon certain spiritual practices. Though this was certainly a complicated issue that had developed over centuries, it is easy to see why this system could be seen as salvation by works, and it is easy to see why Luther and his reformation counterparts were fervent proponents of salvation by faith alone. Yet, the modern evangelical conception of faith is far from that of Luther and the reformers.
So, what is faith? It is belief, trust. It is the belief in Christ and his work to save humanity. Yet, as viewed by many evangelicals what differentiates faith from a "work"? Is faith not just the one, most important "work" that at person can perform, namely the "work" of believing.
Take, for example, a common situation. An evangelical preacher preaches a sermon, gives a call of response at the end of the service, and some people respond to that call by believing, and perhaps, some others refuse to believe. In the modern evangelical mind, the ones that believed are "saved" and the ones that refused to believe are not "saved." Yet, how is that belief different from a "work"? Is it not a condition to be met for salvation? Is it not an act on the part of the one believing that in a sense "earns" them salvation? Not earn, in the sense of deserving, but merely by assenting to the message, have they not performed a "work" that has now gained them salvation?
Barth destroys even the possibility of viewing faith in this way. That is because, for Barth, there is no human possibility of belief in the Word of God. There is no "point of contact" between humanity and the divine that would make such a belief possible. Rather, the Word of God creates this possibility in humans. Therefore, it cannot be a work at all, for a work implies an act on the part of the human. Yet, this is not even a possibility for Barth, it only becomes a possibility in the event in which the Word of God comes to humans. It is pure gift, pure grace, no possibility from the human side to "believe," only the possibility of faith that Word of God creates as it comes.
Here I leave you with the money quote:
"He [the one who believes] has not created his own faith; the Word has created it. He has not come to faith; faith has come to him through the Word. As a believer he cannot see himself as the acting subject of the work done here." (CD I.1 §6.4 p. 244).Interestingly, Barth is not creating something new here, nor is he just following Calvin, but rather, he is following Luther. In this section, Barth does not quote Calvin once, but quotes Luther time and time again. Barth, is very clearly in line with the reformation of Luther which was only subsequently fleshed out by Calvin.