Faith in the Gospels (Part 1)

Author's note: In the previous segments, we were looking at Jesus’ saying about His cursing of the fruitless fig tree, and we identified faith’s great enemy as doubt. We want to spend some time on examining this enemy, but before we do here is the first of three segments on Faith in the Gospels. Following these, we will return to doubt and the rest of Jesus’ saying.


Language of Faith
    The language and original words used for faith in Scripture have their background in human relationships. “They denoted originally the faithful relationship of partners in an agreement and the trustworthiness of their promises. In a broader sense, they came to denote the credibility of statements, reports and accounts in general, both sacred and secular.”  This teaches us a fundamental lesson about faith. It is not a unique experience, but an experience common to all of us. We express faith in our daily relationships. We trust, and we distrust. We trust those who have shown themselves faithful and trustworthy, or they present a believable credibility by their persuasion, knowledge, or credentials. From these relationships, we also learn that there is a risk in believing. Some are unscrupulous and untrustworthy; they are persuasive but do not deliver; so, we must be cautious in whom we trust by being judicious and discerning. When Scripture picks up the language of faith it is not something foreign to our minds and experiences but something very familiar.

Faith in the Gospels is used in the form of a verb, “to believe, trust” (pisteuo), as well as a noun, “faith” (pistis) and an adjective, “faithful” (pistos). The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) do not make great use of this faith language in comparison to John’s Gospel or Paul’s letters. For example, Matthew uses the verb only 11 times, Mark 15 times, and Luke just 9 times (but 39 times in Acts), while John uses the verb 100 times in his Gospel. Paul uses the verb 54 times in all of his letters. The noun is the same story but with a twist. Matthew uses it 8 times, Mark just 5 times, and Luke 11 (16 times in Acts). Paul uses the noun 140 times in his letters. The twist is that John does not use the noun at all; he only uses the verb. R. T. France offers a couple of possible reasons for John’s avoidance of the noun. “It has been attributed to an increasing use of pistis to designate the body of Christian doctrine [the content of faith], whereas John’s interest is rather in the relationship expressed by the verbal form or to the use of pistis in context of a Pauline faith/works dichotomy [saved by faith not works] which is ‘not a live controversy for John’ (Painter). At any rate, the verb expresses a vital component in John’s understanding of salvation. It summarizes what God requires of his people: ‘This is the work of God that you should believe in the one whom he has sent’ (6:28-29).”2

 

The Significance of Faith
In a similar vein one wonders why the Synoptic Gospels do not use the language of faith more frequently, or perhaps the question should be, what is the significance of faith in the Synoptic Gospels? When speaking of faith, the most common contexts are Jesus’ miracles. The noun is almost exclusively used for this miracle-faith, the faith. The verb is also used in these miracle contexts, but it is also used as the proper response to the preaching of Jesus (Mk. 1:15; Lk. 8:11-13). It becomes almost synonymous for becoming a disciple of Jesus (e.g. Mt. 18:6; 27:42; Mk. 9:42). So, it is not surprising that the language of faith is used to focus upon the supernatural authority and power of Jesus. In other words, its use is focused upon the revelation that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, ushering in the powers of the coming of the Kingdom of God, and that, this fact must be acknowledged by believing it, by faith.3

Miracle-Working Faith
Often times the one to be healed or exorcized is expected to believe in Jesus’ power to do what was requested of Him. For example, the woman with the issue of blood is commended, Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your ‘disease’ (Mk. 5:34; cf. v. 36; 10:45; 2:5; 9:23-24; Mt. 9:28-29). This has led some to conclude that it is faith, one’s level of confidence in Jesus’ power to heal, that is being demanded and is essential for healing. Some, take it to mean that it is the faith itself which delivers that faith itself is a power, or, at least, it is this faith which is the essential key to obtaining miraculous results.

This idea is further fortified by Jesus’ experience in Nazareth. And he [Jesus] could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them. And he marveled because of their unbelief (Mk. 6:5-6; cf. Mt. 13:58). So, the conclusion is formed that with faith Jesus could heal, while without faith he was handicapped. This could easily lead one to conclude that miracles are entirely dependent upon the faith of the individual.

If these conclusions are not enough, we are faced with Jesus’ saying following His cursing of the fruitless fig tree. His disciples in amazement asked, “How did the fig tree wither at once? Jesus responded, “Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen. And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith” (Mt. 21:20-22; cf. 17:20; Mk. 11:20-24). One is seemingly pressed to the conclusion that the essential key to miracles is a faith that does not doubt.

Responses to Miracle-Working Faith
But there is more to be said about faith than just this emphasis. In response to this miraculous faith, there have been several positions developed through the years. The first response is represented from the second century Montanists to the present-day Word of Faith movement. They find in these texts that a doubtless faith provides a warrant to work miracles and to receive any request prayed for with this kind of faith. They explain any failure to receive your request or failure to work such miracles as simply a lack of faith, doubting. The Word of Faith movement goes so far as to say that faith is an independent power which God uses, and we can use it if we simply will not doubt.

The second response swings the pendulum to the opposite extreme. Their response is called cessationism. They believe that these verses were intended only for the apostolic church of the first century. As the New Testament canon of Scripture was gathered together, and the witness of the Spirit to Gospel was inscripturated, there was no longer a need for miracles to authenticate the preaching of the Gospel.

The third response attempts to receive these verses in the context of all that the New Testament teaches about faith, therefore it does not reject the possibility of miracles as the cessationists do. But neither does it embrace the view that an absolute faith, “faith without doubting,” satisfies all the issues about faith which arise from these texts. This is especially the case as other issues are addressed, and other qualities of faith are considered.

In our next segment, we explore how this third response best explains and instructs us about having the faith of the NT.

 

Endnotes

[1] O. Becker, “Faith, Persuade, Belief, Unbelief,” The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1975), I:587-588.

[2] R. T. France, “Faith,” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 224-225.

[3] Ibid., 223.

Faith in the Gospels (Part 2)
Growing in Faith (Part II)
 

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Friday, 24 November 2017

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