Yesterday I showed how God coming into this world made this the “visited planet,” to quote one of my favorite lines from the late J. B. Phillips. Today I want to explain further what this means for true faith.
I begin by making a statement that I have come to understand over the last decade. Until I understood the incarnation as I now do I would have said what the evangelical Protestant church needs the most is a bigger view of God. I would now disagree with myself and say what we need even more, to the surprise of many who read these words perhaps, is a much bigger view of humankind. We have a radically deficient anthropology because we have a radically deficient view of both creation and incarnation.
So when Jesus says of the Centurion that he had never found such faith as that which he expressed in all of Israel it was more than an exaggerated statement for effect. He was saying that religion can never produce such great faith. Only faith in the person of Jesus – his wisdom, grace and love – can ever amount to anything in the realm of spiritual reality.
Think about this: to become a Christian requires that you begin with faith. You may not even know where or how you began but you must have faith in this person. As the years go by real faith grows, flowers and matures. People ask for proof of faith and I answer, with Jesus I believe, look at how faith in this man changes lives! How can you write off this life-changing faith as mere imagination?
But Phillips suggests that it is here that real trouble often lies. “The uncomfortable fact is that there is no proof without commitment.” You cannot know God and experience the fellowship of Jesus unless and until you commit yourself to that way of living which Jesus taught and lived himself. You cannot remain a cozy and uncommitted believer and be a Christ-follower. If you want to know God, and experience his kingdom, then you have to enter into your own life in Christ experience by believing on him. The story we read yesterday in Matthew underscores this very point.
When you read these words you cannot help but believe that Jesus was surprised by the faith of this Roman centurion. Here is how the story puts it:
8 The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. 9 For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
10 When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.”
Let me try to explain this story simply. This Roman soldier took it quite as a matter of course that since he knew how to give orders and expected others to obey them so Jesus had all authority and could command unseen forces and answers would be forthcoming. It was, on his part, a simple deduction. In a way, this is what faith is – a simple deduction based on divine logic. This logic is rooted in the incarnation.
I cannot help but think that such faith is largely absent today. It is a simple, direct confidence in the power of Jesus. But this is exactly what we see on the pages of the Synoptic Gospels again and again.
Before you assume that it was easy for people who saw Jesus to have such faith think again. The multitudes did not believe on him. Yet some did and this account reminds us of what “great faith” this man had in Jesus.
But this is not all. In the epistles we see how this same faith transformed early Christian believers who trusted Jesus and were baptized in the triune name. God transformed people. It is safe to say that this kind of faith – a faith which reaches out to God in Jesus and depends on him – is essential for those who would be real followers of Jesus. Hebrews says that “without faith it is impossible to please God.” Phillips notes that this is not so much a threat as a plain statement of fact. We do not really begin to live the Christian life until we exercise this faculty which God has planted in the human heart. The New Testament calls this “faith.”
Do we have the courage and determination to believe like the centurion and simply, directly reach out to Jesus and believe on the one whom God sent into the world to save the world? This is great faith. Everything else doesn’t matter, at least in comparison with this. We can, and we do, disagree about a great deal but we cannot disagree about this and remotely think of ourselves as followers of Jesus. This is not a Protestant thing or a Catholic thing. This is not a conservative thing or a liberal thing. This is simple reality. Do you believe on the Son of God?