Faith in the Gospels (Part 2)

    Author's note: Picking up from our last segment on Faith in the Gospels, we were responding to how we should understand the indications of the New Testament (NT) that miracles are possible and dependent upon a faith which does not doubt. With such a faith, some teach, anyone can perform miracles.

 

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.

Why Not “Faith without Doubting”?
Following the lines of this last response, we can begin by asking, why should we question the “faith without doubting” understanding? There are two main lines of evidence for doing so. The first is the evidence from the Gospels themselves, and the second is from the rest of the New Testament.

Considerations from the Gospels:
Miracles without Faith
The Gospels have a number of different issues which speak against the “faith without doubting” understanding. First, we find a number of healings, exorcisms, and nature miracles which have no specific demand for faith. For example, sometimes healings apparently were in response to faith as we have seen, but at other times, they were not because of an individual’s faith but rather to instill faith (e.g. Mk. 1:30-31; 3:1-6; Lk. 7:11-17; 11:14; 22:47-51; Jn. 4:53-54; 5:1-9). These miracles demonstrated Jesus’ compassion, and they pointed to the simple but profound fact that healings and all the responses of God to His creatures, whether ordinary or extraordinary, are based upon His grace not our merit, not even the merit of faith.

Miracles Instill Faith
Primarily we find that miracles were to instill saving faith not necessarily miraculous faith. The first half of John’s Gospel is built around seven signs (miracles) which culminate in the resurrection of Lazarus (Jn. 11:1-44). John makes the point of explaining the reason for these signs. Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (20:30-31). We need to note that clearly one might have the gift of miracles without being saved (Mt. 7:21-23). The miracles recorded in John were to be evidence to call forth saving faith.

The Issue: Rejection of Jesus not Miracle-Working Faith
Further, we noted how Jesus healed only a few in Nazareth and marveled at their unbelief (Mk. 6:5-6). We might at first think that their unbelief was the lack of a “faith without doubting,” but the unbelief of Nazareth was clearly their rejection of Jesus and their hometown failure to honor their prophet, even their Messiah (vv. 1-4; Lk. 4:16-30). Jesus denounced other cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent (Mt. 11:20). Saving faith, not miracle-working faith, was what Jesus sought to call forth by His miracles. Craig Blomberg points this out, “…miracles may be designed to produce faith where there is none; once that faith has developed, healings may be less necessary….1 Jesus demonstrated a less than affirming attitude toward those who always looked for signs (Jn. 4:46-48; Mt. 16:1, 4, 6, 11-12; 1 Cor. 1:21-25). Faith is not to be built upon miracles, but rather it must be built upon a person knowledge and trust in who Jesus is, the Christ, the Messiah, and Son of the living God (Mt. 16:15-16). This was the faith that the signs were intended to lead us to.

Varied Reasons for Miracles
The miracles that Jesus worked were about more than a miracle-working faith. Some miracles He simply did out of compassion (Mk. 1:40-41; Lk. 7:13). Some He worked to expose the faithlessness of Israel (e.g. Mk. 3:1-6; Lk. 13:10-17; 14:1-6). Some He worked to instruct His disciples about sin and the ways of God (e.g. Jn. 5:14; 9:1-7; 11:1, 40). Some He did to dismantle the work and the kingdom of Satan (e.g. Mt. 12:22-29; Mk. 1:21-27; 5:6-13; Lk. 10:17-20; 13:11-12). All of His miracles were to demonstrate that the Age to Come had arrived; the Kingdom of God had come in the arrival of Israel’s Messiah (e.g. Mt. 11:1-6; 12:28; Lk. 4:16-21). The point being that Jesus did not solely work miracles only to teach or only because recipients had miracle-working faith, therefore we must be cautious in forming general conclusions from specific verses without consulting the rest of what Scripture teaches about that subject.

Faith comes from God
There is another important insight we need to underline from the Gospels with regard to their teaching about faith. Saving faith is not the simple result of the reasoning mind, but it is the gift of God. When Peter confessed that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, Jesus explained that this was a miracle. It was not the fruit of Peter’s reasoning and deductions, but it was the gift of God. Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven (Mt. 16:17). When Jesus explained the meaning of parables to the disciples, His point was the same. The disciples asked why Jesus spoke in parables to the multitudes to which Jesus responded, To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. …But blessed are your eyes, for they see and your ears, for they hear (Mt. 13:11, 16; cf. 11:27). This declaration of the giftedness of such faith is doubly emphasized by Jesus stating that his disciples had been blessed by God. John’s Gospel especially emphasizes this important character of faith, its giftedness (e.g. 3:3-8; 6:44-46, 63-65).

This being the case; we find in the rest of the NT further reinforcement of these truths about faith. Paul instructs the Romans that they must think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. …members do not all have the same function…. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them…in proportion to our faith… (12:3-4, 6). Paul teaches that gifts vary and faith is measured to us by God. Thus, miracle-working faith is not simply something which we muster up (though this does not excuse us from striving to reach our potential of faith). In fact, one who has the gift of miracle-working faith seems to have the ability to see with his faith what God is going to do (e.g. Mt. 9:2; Jn. 5:14; 9:1-7; 11:1, 40; Acts 3:4-7; 14:9). This ability is a gift.

Considerations from the Rest of the NT:
Miracle-Working Faith is a Spiritual Gift
Not only is faith a gift, and not only is it measured to us by God, but we find that saving faith is distinguished from miracle-working faith. Miracle-working faith is designated as a specific spiritual gift or gifts (specifically: faith, healings, and miracles, 1 Cor. 12:9-10; 13:2). Gifts are not designated by aptitude, volition, or personal initiative, but Paul emphatically states they are sovereignly given and designated by God; and this designation is specifically the propriety of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:6-8, 11, 18, 24; 14:12, 18; cf. Heb. 2:4).

The point of underlining these features of faith, which are clearly taught in the rest of the NT, is to recognize that all of these features must be referenced to understand rightly the meaning of Jesus’ words. One saying of Jesus will not contradict His other sayings, nor will they contradict or be contradicted by other teachings of the NT when rightly interpreted. This is a basic tenet of the inspiration of Scripture whose ultimate author is the Holy Spirit. Therefore, when we read and interpret one verse of Scripture we should not understand it as though it were written without any reference to or anticipation of the rest of Scripture. This is why Paul exhorted Timothy, Do you best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15). To rightly handle the word of truth we must balance it with the rest of the NT teachings, so we do not minimize or exaggerate or misconstrue the teaching of any one verse or section.

We will continue our study in the next segment of Faith in the Gospels (Part 3).

 

 

Endnotes

[1] C. L. Blomberg, “Healing,” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 300-301.

Faith in the Gospels (Part 3)
Faith in the Gospels (Part 1)
 

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Wednesday, 13 December 2017

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