Most of us are familiar with how 2 Cor 5:7 reads in the KJV, “For we walk by faith, not by sight.” If you do a Google search on this verse, you will find explanations of what this means, such as, “the Bible challenges us to ‘walk by faith, not by sight,'” or you are to “walk by faith, not by sight,'” or you ought to “walk by faith, not by sight.'” You have probably heard the same kind of thing in sermons. Just to clarify, the word walk in this verse is, of course, used in the metaphorical sense of “live”; so the NIV, “For we live by faith, not by sight.” Thus, Paul’s words are taken to be an exhortation or command to “live by faith.” According to this view, we are challenged to rise above our normal Christian experience, and rather than operating from a worldly perspective (“living by sight”), we should conduct our lives and make our decisions based upon our faith and trust in the God and his Word. There is nothing wrong with this idea in and of itself. It is theologically accurate to say and to insist that the Christian must always seek to live by faith and trust in God and his promises, and not be motivated by only what he or she can see and hear in their present circumstances.
The problem is: this is not what the text says, nor what it means. Paul is not commanding the Corinthians to “live by faith”; he is making a statement: the Corinthians are living by faith.
Our text is also popular in the Word of Faith movement, which I won’t take time to describe at this point, but which has recently been in the news because of James MacDonald’s invitation of T. D. Jakes to the Elephant Room. Another popular TV preacher in that movement, Frederick Price, closes every sermon by citing 2 Cor 5:7.
But in all these instances, this text has been stripped of its context and a new meaning assigned to it. Paul is not saying that we “should live by faith” or that we “ought to live by faith.” No, he directly and unequivocally says that we, all believers, do, in fact, live by faith. But why does Paul make this statement?
Verse 7 is rightly understood to be a parenthesis in the thought of vv. 6-8.
(6) Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. (7) For we live by faith, not by sight. (8) We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.
Let us go back for a moment to the beginning of chapter 5 in order to get the broader context. Paul begins in v. 1 by explaining what happens to a believer who dies, “if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed.” Fortunately, Paul says, we can look forward to a resurrection body, “a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.” But until then “we groan” (v. 2), knowing that our present bodies are subject to ailments, injury, and disability. And since we know that “as long as we are at home in the body we are away [in a spatial sense] from the Lord” (v. 6), we “would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (v. 8). All believers here on earth are presently “away from the Lord” in the sense Paul means in v. 6.
But Paul’s reasoning in vv. 6 and 8 could leave the wrong impression. That’s why he interrupts v. 6 with 7 before he completes his thought in v. 8. The “for” that begins v. 7 is what the standard Greek dictionary (BDAG) calls a “marker of clarification.” One could easily take Paul’s statement in v. 6 to mean that since believers are presently “away from the Lord,” they enjoy no fellowship with him at all. But, of course, that is absolutely false, for, you see, Paul says (v. 7), “we presently live in the realm of faith [“by faith”], not in the realm of sight.” Paul is contrasting actually seeing the Lord (“at home with the Lord”) with our present experience of believing in the Lord without seeing him (“away from the Lord”). For now believers “live in the realm of faith,” trusting in the Lord whom they have not seen, but one day they will “live in the realm of sight.” This is same sort of contrast we see in John 20:29 and 1 Pet 1:8.
So although we are presently “away from the Lord,” this does not mean that we are cutoff from fellowship with the Lord. But for now we live “in the realm of faith,” which is no hindrance to communion with our Savior, though truly we look forward to the day when we will live “by sight.” Then, as the hymn writer puts it, our “faith shall be sight.”