I’ve recently been walking through the gospel of Matthew. My intention has been to simply note the actions of Christ because, well, how can we model actions we don’t know? I’ve known for a while that a struggle of mine has long been unbelief. But I’ve never noticed the frequency and the importance of the topic of faith in the ministry of Christ, particularly in the book of Matthew. I found myself continually noting references to Jesus’ actions and the faith of his followers. Jesus heals a Canaanite woman on the basis of her faith (Matthew 15:28) but when he is rejected at Nazareth, Matthew says, “he did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief” (Matthew 13:58). My question in the midst of this reoccurring theme is this, did the faith of the people that Jesus encountered result in the action of God through the person of Christ? And does the degree of our faith, or lack of, presently determine the actions of God?
Let me just say, I know the answer is complicated. Much of it is beyond my understanding. Scripture tells us to have faith (Mark 11:22, Galatians 6:16). Scripture also tells us that God is sovereign over all creation (Psalm 135:5-7). Neither of these truths can be compromised; there is need and necessity for both. But do they affect one another, and to what degree? Can our faith affect God’s actions? If not, are we ok with that?
Let me put life to this question. I have deep desires and longings (that are good and I believe God-given) that God has not yet fulfilled. I’m sure you do too. I often find myself thinking that my unbelief, my lack of faith and trust in God, keeps me from the fulfillment of these earthly desires.
This is tremendously flawed thinking, in more ways than one. First of all, my greatest desires are but a glimpse of what God has in store for me (namely more of Himself), so to these I must constantly hold loosely. John Piper puts it this way and of this I am so guilty; we too often nibble at the pleasures of the world and find our souls stuffed with the small things with no room for the great. But I also know that if I am reliant on the measure of my faith… in order that my desires be fulfilled… in order that I might have joy… I am definitely not reliant on Christ and satisfied in him alone. Yet my flesh often reverts back to this works-based acquisition of the worldly, simply with God as the gatekeeper.
The actions of Christ and the faith of those that follow Him.
Faith is defined as trust in or reliance on God, who is trustworthy (Harper’s Bible Dictionary). It might be further pointed out that faith is an act of will in addition to understanding and that, “faith in Christ secures for the believer… a participation in the life that is in Christ, the divine life” (John 14:19, Rom. 6:4-10, Eph. 4:19) (Easton’s Bible Dictionary). As I read Matthew, it was obvious that those who had faith in Christ participated in this life.
The first example I found in the gospel of Matthew is the story of the centurion. Jesus has just finished the Sermon on the Mount and upon descending the mountain, he heals a leper and instructs him to speak of it to no one. When he enters Capernaum, a centurion speaks to him of his servant, who is paralyzed and suffering. Jesus affirms his need and offers to come and to heal. However, the centurion replies, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed.” The centurion believes in the authority of Christ and the power of his words to bring results, to heal. Jesus immediately recognizes his faith, “Go; let it be done for you as you have believed.” Jesus had every intention of healing the servant before the centurion’s extraordinary faith was made evident. However, Jesus references his belief as a pivotal component of the healing his servant received.
A few verses later, Jesus is on a boat with his disciples when a great storm arises. The disciples wake him from sleep, crying out for him to save them. Jesus’ response? “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” So Jesus recognizes their lack of faith… yet he still calms the storm surrounding them.
In Matthew 9, two consecutive examples of faith and healing present themselves. Jesus heals a woman who has suffered from a discharge of blood for twelve years. The woman follows behind Jesus and reaches out to touch his robe, believing in faith that she will be made well. Jesus’ response is this, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” Immediately after, two blind men follow Jesus, crying out for mercy. Jesus asks them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” After their affirmative reply, Jesus says, “According to your faith be it done to you.”
Among other examples is the Parable of the Talents. The faithfulness of two servants caused their master to entrust them with more, and in fact, it allowed them to enter into the joy of their master.
Needless to say, in the ministry of Christ, people believed and he acted. He acted, and people believed.
After all these examples of Christ responding to faith, then came the cross. Which, fortunately for us, changes everything. On the cross, Christ gives us access to God the Father, paying the penalty for our sin. He took on the wrath we deserve. And through this work, his righteousness is imputed in us (2 Corinthians 5:21). Which, according to scripture, is sufficient for us to meet God in his holiness. To give us access to God, his power and his action. He becomes for us, not against us.
In salvation, we assume our rightful place before God. We give up control and put our faith in something other than ourselves. And the power of God, the action of God, is ushered in through Christ. And faith is the vehicle to this grace that saves (Ephesians 2:8). Easton’s Bible Dictionary puts it this way, “Faith is necessary to our salvation (Mark 16:16), not because there is any merit in it, but simply because it is the sinner’s taking the place assigned him by God, his falling in with what God is doing.” When we are justified by Christ, our faith is completed in Him (Hebrews 10:14, Hebrews 12:1-2, 2 Corinthians 12:9-10). The holes in our faith are filled by the blood of Christ.
“Once you trust in Christ alone, you're declared righteous by God. You'll never be more or less righteous, regardless of performance.” -Jerry Bridges
But not only is faith the vehicle to salvation, it is the vehicle to sanctification. Romans 5:2 says, “Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” And herein lies freedom. As believers, God’s actions have already been affected on our behalf, through Christ crucified. And we get grace when our faith in the everyday doesn’t quite measure up. And we rejoice, not in the pleasures of this world, but in the hope that God will be glorified.
For some, this may beg the question, why have faith apart from saving faith in Christ? With a realization of the weight of sin and salvation comes a deep desire to know and to live for the God who has rescued you. If we believe him for salvation, our greatest and deepest need, why would we not believe him for all else?
But does this belief change anything?
Faith affects us.
Given God’s sovereignty, I believe our faith is largely for us. It does not change the character of God, including his sovereignty. Our faith activates God’s power in our lives, though his power is present and unchanging, despite our faith. Our faith is a result of God’s action, past, present and future. And our faith deepens with the desire to intimately know and be tuned into our Creator.
Find rest and comfort in knowing that God is big. God is beyond all we can see, think or imagine (Isaiah 55:8-9). That’s not an out to stop seeking him, but a motivator to seek more of him, of which there is always more to be sought and more to be found (Luke 11:9). If he were comprehendible, would we be prone to worship, to adore and to serve him?
Our faith is intricately woven into his sovereignty and his will. He has designed it to infect us toward sanctification, to reveal more of himself to us that we might be more like Christ, ever pleasing and glorifying the Father. The question we must continually ask ourselves is, do we trust that he is working all things together for our good (Romans 8:28)? And do have faith because we desire an act of God to result in an earthly end or do we have faith because God has already acted, in the work of Christ on the cross, and he is worth of our faith, regardless of the outcome this side of heaven?
When the disciples failed to cast out a demon, Jesus said, “Because of your little faith. For truly I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17:20). When Peter failed to walk on water, Jesus reaches out to him and says, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:31). God will act on our behalf, but maybe the better question is, “Will we step out in faith?” Will we trust God’s power and ability in us?
My faith is ever failing.
One of my favorite verses in Scripture is 2 Timothy 2:13, “If we are faithless, He remains faithful.”
And so when my faith is weak, I rest (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). With some of my deepest desires for earthly things, unfulfilled. But with my greatest need and longing satisfied in the sacrifice of Christ. My faith is propelled by that sacrifice. And within me lies a deep desire to know God, who loves me and rescued me. With the cross as my focus, Jesus is the author and perfecter of my faith (Hebrews 12:2). I ask him to deepen and increase my faith (Luke 17:5), to help my unbelief (Mark 9:24). And then I seek him with all that I am.