Weak in Faith? - Romans 14
The late Robert Mounce (theologian and contributor to the New American Commentary) writes concerning Romans 14, "'Paul's letters were not intended as abstract treatises on matters ethical and theological, but pastoral notes addressed to real-life situations in first-century churches."
Likewise John Chrysostom (3rd century Church father) on the same matter, "But (as I am always saying) we must examine the mind with which it is spoken (any text of scripture), and the subject on which it is said and the object he would compass when he says it (or the objective of the writer).""
These two voices spanning almost 2000 years of Church history sing a familiar song the song is called CONTEXT. All too often we read passages of Scripture, assume a 21st-century context, and when we do this sadly, we're off to the races with some man-made doctrine that is at best of no use and at worst dangerous, often causing those who are weak in faith to stumble. So I can't stress enough how important it is to read the scriptures within their context. The reason for this hermeneutic (method of interpretation) is so that any meaning or application we do glean from Scripture is understood or applied in accordance with Scripture.
So over the next few weeks, we're going to look at Romans 14 and 15, seeking to understand not only the issues at hand but the words and phrases that are used. We all know that words have meaning and those meanings change over time, so in order to remain faithful to any Biblical text, we have to in a sense resurrect those original ideas. (E.g. Evil in the KJV)
Although this may take a couple of weeks, when we get through chapters 14 and 15, we will see that what Paul teaches ties in with the ideas we've already learned. Namely, love void of hypocrisy, mutual submission, and unity.
But I also come at this message with a pastoral heart. My goal is to set some people free from some man-made ideas that we've picked up along the way, Man-made ideas about faith. More specifically, what those in Scripture mean when they say that some have "weak" or "little" or "small" faith. So this is my attempt at a course correction from some terrible ideas that people have created, replacing them with what the Bible actually says.
To do this, 1. Define faith. 2. How is faith gauged Biblically? In other words, is faith really seen as a quantity? 3. The pitfalls of distorted views of how faith is gauged. Finally, I'll tie all this in with Romans 14.
1. Defining Faith
Our word faith comes from the Latin term fidè. Think the English word Fidelity. Fidelity is defined as faithfulness or trustworthiness. This is why the term faith, properly understood, means trust. The Greek word for this is Pistis but again means the same thing; trust.
Scripture goes on to show us (Hebrews11:1) a more expanded practical definition. "Now, faith is the substance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things not seen."
As I've taught in the past, this does mean that our faith/trust is predicated on both substance and evidence; even if that substance and evidence is a promise given. This is precisely why I've distinguished between Biblical faith and the world's notion of "blind faith." Although faith is the evidence of "things not seen," it is nonetheless evidenced by something. For example, there is a popular phrase among some in the Church today that say, "jump, and the net will appear." This is foolishness, not faith. You should only jump if God said there was a net. And where do we learn what God says? His word!
But if Hebrews 11:1 is to be fully understood, it's also referring to a life lived in obedience because of mercy. Lives of faith are evidenced and substantiated by actions.
Think about it this way, if we are saved by grace through faith/trust (and we are) that trust/faith is substantiated by the thing we hope for (salvation, the redemption of our bodies, etc.) we see a life of substance that actually believes God's promise to be true. Our lives will exhibit evidence that what we believe is true; our obedience. No doubt this is why the rest of Hebrews 11 highlights the actions of a "great cloud of witnesses." (by faith Abraham...) It's most assuredly why James (2:24) tells us that we are not justified by faith alone but by works. James is not talking about earning anything. Rather genuine faith/trust without the substance and evidence of our actions is not faith/trust at all.
2. How is faith gauged Biblically? Now besides action which we've just shown as THE gauge. In other words, is faith really seen as a quantity?
As we heard at the outset (Romans 14:1), Paul says, "Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgments on his opinions." And what we might not catch in a quick reading of Romans is that Paul contrasts weak faith with a strong faith in Romans 15:1. There he says, "Now we who are strong ought to bear the weaknesses of those without strength and not just please ourselves." But also note 14:23, which says, "whatever is not done from faith is sin." I'll come back to that one at the end.
So is faith/trust a measurement?
There are several passages with words like "little faith" or "weak Faith" or "Littlest of Faith" or "small faith." Jesus himself uses these terms when he is talking to Peter, to his disciples, or even to the generation at large. But in each of these passages, the question we have to ask is, is Jesus referring to a quantity of faith, or is he showing that people lack faith/trust entirely?
Dr. John Lennox, a professor, theologian, and mathematician, wrote in his book "Determined to Believe?" (A book about Divine sovereignty and human freedom) That, "the crucial thing about faith is its location, not its quantity. In whom do we place our faith, not how much faith do we have." And although I agree, what matters is, does the Bible say the same thing? The answer is yes! Let me show you.
In Matthew 17:14-23, a man comes to Jesus falling on his knees and asking for healing for his son. The father then describes his son's behavior and tells Jesus that he brought his son to the disciples, but that they could not cure him. Jesus then in verse 17, reprimands his guys pretty harshly. He says, "You unbelieving and perverted generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I put up with you?" Jesus then asks for the boy and heals him. Now keep this correction in mind.
The disciples then come to Jesus in private, asking the question, "why could we not drive out this demon?" And Jesus says, "because of the littleness of your faith. For truly I say to you if you have faith the size of a mustard seed you will say to this mountain move from here to there and it will move and nothing will be impossible for you."
Now just looking at that on the surface it would seem like the problem is littleness of faith meaning a measure. But what did verse 17 say? That they were "unbelieving." Jesus didn't say that they just didn't believe enough. It also doesn't make sense with Jesus' words that all they need is the faith of a mustard seed, which means small anyway.
Next, we have one of the most famous passages where little faith is called out; Peter walking on water. (Matthew 14:22-33) Jesus' disciples had set out in their boat when a contrary wind began to stir up the water and batter the ship. Jesus coming out to them, walking on the sea startles the disciples. They claim that it's a ghost and Jesus calms them by identifying Himself and telling them to take courage. Peter then says to Jesus, "Lord if it is you command me to come to you on the water."
I don't know about you, but that's a fascinating thing to think up in the heat of the moment. Peter wasn't watching any movies in his day. But Jesus doesn't disappoint; He says to Peter come on. The Scripture says he got out of the boat and walked on water and came toward Jesus. "Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But seeing the wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, 'Lord save me!'"
Verse 31 tells us, "Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand and took hold of Peter and said to him you of little faith, why did you doubt?" A fun question to ask here is what did he doubt? Notice he doesn't doubt who can save him. He calls on Jesus to do that. What he doubted was that Jesus could enable him to continue walking on water. Peters "little faith" was not that somehow, his faith-o-meter had reached the point where the fuel light came on.
If this is our problem, then what level of faith does one need to stay afloat? You see we can't answer this question because that's not what the problem is. Peter believed he could walk to His Lord. Peter doubted or disbelieved when he saw the wind in the waves. His faith was ON one moment, and it turned OFF the next. Yet again, we are not talking about a quantity of faith we are talking about trust or doubt.
The list goes on and on, and in every case, we see the same thing.
In Matthew 6:30, Jesus instructs us not to worry about the things we need in this life because God will provide. He only calls out "little faith" in the text when they are not trusting God about tomorrow.
In Matthew 16:8 Jesus calls out his disciples for being men of "little faith" because they discussed among themselves that they had no bread when Jesus was referring to the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. He goes on to reassure them that they are worried about things that they ought not to worry about. Do you not remember the loaves and fishes...? What's the point of this? Their "little faith" was not trusting God at all for either what he would provide or proper understanding. We get ourselves in this mess all the time...
This idea throughout Scripture is clearly understood (by the context) that little faith, weak faith, or small faith has nothing to do with faith landing on a scale. Instead, like many other words or phrases is an idiomatic phrase that means "you don't trust God at all..."
So I said I'd get back to Romans 14:23, "whatever is not from faith is sin." Notice Paul doesn't even mention a level of faith here? Why? Because this is not a problem. The issue is faith or no faith, not weak vs. strong faith; which BTW we will come to see next week as an issue of maturity/understanding.
3. The pitfalls of a distorted view of how faith is gauged. The problem with the faith-o-meter idea.
When we believe that faith is some spiritual force that we need to work up (think Star Wars) or a spiritual substance that can register on a faith-o-meter of some kind, we are using ideas utterly foreign to Scripture. Quite honestly we're dabbling in Pagan/heretical/gnostic nonsense. This misrepresentation of faith has led to issues in many "streams" of the Church. On the one hand, there are people that say, "the reason you're not healed is that you need "more faith" (by this they mean that one must somehow register higher on their faith-o-meter). On the other hand, some have concluded that faith is, therefore, a work (a spiritual force from within) that merits salvation, and thus they conclude it must be given by God. Or that regeneration must precede faith (So as to not give any credit to man of course.) Make no mistake both of these ideas stem from this distorted view of faith.
Faith is trust; that is all!
As we've seen, Jesus does use the words "little faith," but if this is a quantity, then Jesus is inconsistent with Himself. Jesus also says if you have the "faith of a mustard seed, you can move mountains." Just think about it for a second. Can you get smaller than a mustard seed? Although unrelated to the subject to Faith when Jesus is speaking of the Kingdom of God in Matthew 13:31-32, Jesus declares the mustard seed to be the smallest of all other seeds. Let's combine the ideas now in our understanding. Someone has "little faith," but all they need is the smallest faith? Does this make any sense? It doesn't because it is not what Jesus is ever saying!
In Luke 17:5-6, the disciples are given a warning as well as an instruction. The warning is against those who would cause a little one to stumble in their faith (to not to trust Jesus). They're also commanded to forgive their brother as many times a day as he sins and asks for forgiveness. Their response to this warning and instruction makes perfect sense to me. They respond to Jesus by saying increase our faith.
Since we know faith is not gauged on a scale, what are they asking for? How does Jesus respond? According to the Scripture, he doesn't answer the question he gives them a truth statement. He says "if you had faith Like a mustard seed, you could move mountains." In other words, He's telling them quantity has nothing to do with it. They can either trust His words alone and thus never cause someone to stumble, or they can refuse to trust and make up their own man-made doctrines. They can either trust that God is judge and that He will deal with those who sin against us, or they can refuse to trust and walk in unforgiveness. (and forfeit the Kingdom of God.)
This is where an accurate understanding of faith matters greatly. Faith, according to the Scripture, is binary. It's a one, or a zero. It's on, or it's off. We either trust God in an area, or we do not.
Again remember John Lennox's words, "it is in whom do we place our faith, not how much faith do we have."
Another problem with this view that faith is a quantity is that it leads Christians on a wild goose chase for a goose that isn't there. God's word doesn't give us a plan for increasing our faith-o-meter, you cannot find it anywhere in Scripture. This too leads to man-made philosophies, making people slaves to something that doesn't exist. All this has ever done is lead people in a lifetime pursuit of the spiritual equivalent of Bigfoot. They never find what they're looking for!
Lastly, proponents of this view should heed Jesus' warning in Luke 17:5-6. This view that all one needs is "more" faith to accomplish the will of God has caused many immature Christians to stumble.
Listen, if tragedy strikes in a persons life and as a fellow Christian, you tell them that they need to "have faith," simply meaning that they need to trust God, then you're well within the Biblical parameters. I would even go so far as to say that it's OK to use Jesus' own words (ye of little faith) in correcting a fellow Christian as long as what we mean by this is that the person we are correcting needs to actually trust Jesus in said area. But if what we're doing is presenting a non-scriptural idea that God will or will not move in their situation based on the level displayed on their faith-o-meter, then you are causing people to stumble, stop!
4. So what does this have to do with Romans chapter 14?
You'll just have to wait til next week. :) No really, this is a bit of ground work so that we can understand terms and context better.