Category Archives: Faith

An Empty Faith

by Francois-Andre VincentTo anyone who has ever walked down the streets of a busy metropolis, the situation is probably a familiar one. A poverty-stricken individual approaches you. Before he even speaks, you know what he wants: “a little help,” “just some kindness,” or “only a few pennies.”

What is your reaction? Do you empty your pockets? Do you offer to buy him lunch instead? Or do you ignore him and continue walking? Quite often, we choose Option C and neglect the opportunity to show the love of Christ to a stranger. And while we may be able to rationalize our inaction based upon a myriad of “reasons,” how much different would our response be if the beggar on the street was not a stranger at all?

Pretend, for a moment, that the person asking for help was another believer – a member of your own church. Would you still walk away? Probably not. Hopefully not. But what if you did?

Now, put the shoe on the other foot. What if you were the beggar in the scenario, and the person from whom you were seeking help was a leader in your church? There you are, starving and clothed in rags, and a fellow believer – a friend – simply passes by with a greeting: “I’ll pray for you. God bless!” What would you think of that person? How would you view the testimony of your friend?

It seems like an incomprehensible situation, but it’s lifted directly from the pages of Scripture. In the second chapter of James, the half-brother of Jesus writes: “If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, and one of you say unto them, ‘Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled!’ – notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body – what doth it profit (vs. 15-16)?”

James’ question is not merely a hypothetical situation, however; it is actually a poignant illustration of the point that he is trying to make: What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he have faith, and hath not works (James 2:14)?”

James 2:14 has long been the source of consternation among students of the New Testament. On the surface, it would seem that James is contradicting the doctrine of justification by faith. A cursory reading may suggest good works are somehow necessary for salvation, and that faith alone is not enough. Nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, James is indicating that a faith devoid of godly works is a useless faith, and certainly not of God. In other words, if a man’s works do not show some indication – whether small or great – of a continual transformation into the image of Christ, then the question will inevitably be asked: “Was it ever saving faith to begin with?”

To prove his point, James offers up the illustration of the destitute believer and his heartless brother. In the illustration, the needs of the starving brother are clearly refused. The most shocking part of the story, however, is not the inaction of the fortunate believer; it is his acknowledgment of the destitute brother’s situation. His command to “depart in peace” was both outwardly pious and terribly religious. In essence, the fortunate believer is saying, “Go with God! Trust him to fill all your needs!” While this sounds good, it accomplishes nothing. When the fortunate brother leaves, the destitute brother is still naked and starving. Rather than offering pious idioms, the fortunate brother should have been the answer to the destitute brother’s prayer.

The point that James is trying to convey is that the “faith” of the fortunate brother is useless (unprofitable), and as empty as the poor man’s belly. Just as this “faith” failed to fill the needs of the destitute brother’s body, so it had already failed to meet the needs of the fortunate brother’s soul. This kind of faith – a faith without works (Christ-like behavior) – offers no proof of the spiritual change in a “believer’s” heart, because the heart in question was never actually changed.

Like his response to the situation of a brother in need, the faith of the fortunate brother is merely an acknowledgement. An acknowledgment, however, is merely passive; faith, as it is described in Scripture, is always active. While we are saved by faith alone, it takes a specific kind of faith to convert the soul. The “faith” that functions solely as an acknowledgment of a condition or a creed (James 2:19) is not enough. This kind of faith is incapable of rendering any sort of spiritual change. In a mature believer, true faith is evidenced by active godliness and Christ-like behavior. There is no action – no good deed – that can reconcile a man to God; we are justified and saved by faith alone. It is a man’s actions, however, that give evidence of his salvation.

So, when James asks, “Can faith save him?” in verse 14, what he is really asking is this: “Can this kind of faith – a faith without works – be saving faith?” And the answer to that question is a resounding “No.” True faith – saving faith – will give proof of itself through the transformation of a person’s behavior. Sometimes, it is a subtle transformation (as in the life of a child); other times, it is drastic and impossible to miss. Either way, saving faith will always give evidence of its own existence. Like every aspect of the believer’s life, the purpose of saving faith should be the glory of God, and nothing brings Him more glory than when the life of a sinner is radically changed into a reflection of the Savior.

© 2010 Jeremy Austin Watts


An Intimate Knowledge of God

Have you ever allowed your imagination to just run wild with the notion of God – not with what He has done or with what He has promised to do, but with the essence of His Person? In other words, have you ever really stopped to look past the hand of God so that you might truly behold His face?

It is almost reflexive for us to confine any individual to his accomplishments, whether that individual is mortal or Divine. For instance, a championship-winning football coach will forever be linked to his accomplishments in a meaningless game. A great general will always be associated with his most decisive victories on the battlefield. A selfless philanthropist will be recalled for his contributions to society. And although these accomplishments can give us some perspective into the lives of these individuals, they do not allow us to see these people in an intimate way. Looking through the lens of history, how well do we really know Vince Lombardi, Napoleon Bonaparte, or Alfred Nobel? Are we acquainted with the quirks of their personalities, their likes and dislikes, or their strengths and weaknesses?

The simple fact of the matter is that a man’s accomplishments are not an all-encompassing gauge of his person. They are an extension of his person – a partial manifestation of his character – but they are not the sum of his existence. We can see what a man has accomplished, but we can’t intimately understand what drives that man to action unless we know that person as more than a popular acquaintance. The greatest and most intimate human biographer could never aspire to portray his subject perfectly; some aspect of the individual will always be forgotten or misconstrued. When considering the thoughts and intents of an individual’s heart, it becomes apparent that a library of biographies could never sum up the whole of a single individual. If this is true of the finite personality, how much more must it be true of the Only Infinite Personality – God Himself?

In the 103rd Psalm, David writes that God “made known his ways unto Moses, His acts unto the children of Israel (Verse 7).” This is a poignant observation regarding a special relationship that God had with one of His choicest servants. Another way of understanding this verse is to say that God educated Moses in His course of action, and not just in the actions themselves. The children of Israel saw the hand of God moving – both in ways supernatural and providential – but Moses was made privy to something more. He became deeply acquainted with the Personality of God, and in coming to know God intimately, God began to reveal glimpses of His reasoning to Moses.

We often limit our understanding of the Divine Personality to the same parameters used when studying an historical figure. We sometimes act as if God is a long-deceased celebrity, noted for His incredible accomplishments in centuries past. We have a tendency to frame the actions of God within an historical timeline, with His “glory days” (the days of Moses, Elijah, and Christ et alii) having occurred thousands of years before our own existence began. Being so far removed chronologically from the miracles of yesteryear, we live out our days largely as if He was no longer the same omnipotent entity that He was when He spoke the universe into existence. We utter His name with a form of reverence, but often it is a reverence mandated by the greatness of His deeds, rather than by the greatness of His Person. We work out our Christianity by worshiping His memory more than we worship Him. It is impossible to disassociate God from His works, as His works are an extension of His Person. But we must learn to love God for Who He is, beyond loving Him for what He has accomplished.

© 2010 Jeremy Austin Watts

He Went His Way

by J. Austin Watts, from Luke 4:16-37

“And all they in the synagogue, when they heard these things, were filled with wrath, and rose up, and thrust Him out of the city, and led Him unto the brow of the hill whereon their city was built, that they might cast Him down headlong. But He passing through the midst of them went His way… (Luke 4:28-30)”

In this passage, we see Jesus returning to His hometown of Nazareth after having become something of a celebrity in the region of Galilee. It is apparent from the wording in Luke and in other accounts of the Gospel Record that Jesus had performed many miracles and wonders during His absence from the place of His childhood. The Bible tells us in Luke 4:14 that “a fame of Him went out through all the region round about.”

Doubtless, as Jesus returned home, news of His renown had tingled the ears of those in Nazareth. There is no grand reunion recounted for us in the narrative, but there is also no record of immediate animosity among His brethren at His return. However, upon perusing the Scripture and coming to the end of the passage in Luke Chapter Four, we see that the people of Nazareth desired to cast Him headlong off of the hill upon which their city was built. Our attention should be directed to the final phrase that is recorded in the thirtieth verse: “But He passing through the midst of them went His way.”

What was it that would cause the Messiah to “[go] His way,” leaving behind the very village of His earthly childhood? It is clear from further reading of the Gospel Accounts that Jesus never returned to Nazareth after that day. What was it that took Him forever from their presence? The answer can be found in the encounter that takes place in the synagogue between the Nazarenes and their long-awaited Messiah.

There were three great lessons that the people of Nazareth failed to learn when confronted with the Person of Christ. These same three lessons are often truths that we as Christians forget as well. All three were emphasized by Jesus that day in the synagogue, but the brethren of Christ failed to understand their importance. It was a complete failure to learn these lessons that resulted in the removal of the Savior’s presence from among them, and it is our failure to learn these truths that will result in the removal of His presence from our daily lives, as well.

Lesson 1: The Word of God is Sufficient
When Jesus entered the synagogue that fateful day, the first thing that He did was to take the Scripture and read from it to the congregation that was assembled there. As was the custom, Jesus stood to read. He opened the scroll to the sixty-first chapter of Isaiah, reading the first verse and part of the second. (Note: There were, of course, no chapter and verse divisions in the first century; the wording here is used for the reference of a modern audience.) The Gospel account renders Christ’s masterful handling of the Scriptures, as He discontinues His reading with the phrase “to preach the acceptable year of our LORD (Isaiah 61:2a).” His break is perfectly matched with the prophetic timeline, as the following phrase in the verse (“… and the day of vengeance of our God…”) refers not to His First Advent, but His Second.

After Jesus read the small portion of Scripture, Luke records that Christ stopped speaking and sat down. In Jewish teaching custom, this would indicate that He had nothing more to say regarding the matter. Christ offered up no additional commentary. In other words, Jesus considered the words of God to be sufficient. They stood upon their own merit, needing no defense or explanation. We see this same mindset to be the case earlier in the fourth chapter, when Jesus encountered the temptation of Satan in the wilderness. After each temptation, Christ answered with the Word of God alone.

In reading the narrative, one is given the impression that Jesus would not have commented on the Scripture reading at all had the people not stared at Him in silence, apparently wondering why He would choose to read that particular Messianic prophecy. It is assured that these people had heard of Christ’s deeds in other neighboring regions. It is easy for a modern reader of the passage in Luke to ask, “Was not the correlation simple enough to grasp?” Jesus was reading the prophecy in Isaiah as a reference to Himself. Here, standing before them, was the Subject of the prophecy with which every person in the synagogue that day was already so well acquainted.

David teaches us in Psalm 138 that God exalts His Word above even His own name. If Jesus Christ holds the Scriptures in such high regard, should we not also make God’s Word the centerpiece of our faith and practice? Christ’s meticulous handling of the Old Testament prophecies should encourage us to be just as careful in our own dealings with the Bible, whether reading for our own development or in teaching Its truth to others. Just as Christ was mindful of the context and of the Author’s intent, we too must study diligently so as to present God’s Word accurately.

Lesson 2: The Testimony of God is Sure
After Christ had read the prophecy, the Bible tells us that the eyes of every person in the synagogue were fastened upon Christ. Holding the attention of every person in the place, Christ again began to speak. His message was concise and to the point: “This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears.” He clearly laid out for them what they should have had enough discernment to understand for themselves.

Notice that Christ does not make an argument for His case, but rather a simple declaration. He does not list points to defend his thesis, nor does He outline the reasons why the words that He spoke were truth. He simply presents, in crystallized form, that He is the Messiah for Whom all of Israel had been waiting for hundreds of years.

The reason that Christ did not defend His statement is directly related to His location when these words were spoken. He is in Nazareth, the town of His rearing. If there was anyone in Israel who should have trusted His Word, it was these people. They were His family, His friends, and His neighbors. Most of these people had known Jesus for His entire life on earth. Never once in their presence had He sinned. His testimony among them was that of the God-Man. If anyone should have believed His claim, it was the people of Nazareth. The character that He had displayed among them should have been enough to lend credence to the veracity of His claim.

But the fact of the matter remains – that the people of Nazareth did not believe Him – and it is evidenced by His next statements. Reading their hearts, Christ spoke the Roman proverb“Physician, heal thyself.” He knew that their hearts were so hardened to His words that they would not believe Him without a visible sign. They desired a miracle – such as Jesus had performed in Galilee – so that they would have the proof that Jesus was exactly Whom He claimed to be.

But, in essence, Christ’s message to the people of Nazareth was this: “You have had the Word of God here in the synagogue for your entire lives. It has been preached to you, explained to you, and read to you Sabbath after Sabbath. As a nation, you have been given more light than any other people at any other time in any other place in the history of the world. My Word alone is sufficient enough for you to believe! But, as if that was not enough, you have had My Presence here among you continually for more than twenty-five years. You have seen My testimony before you. I have walked before you in favor with God and man. Even if you did not understand My words, certainly My testimony should speak for me. You do not need to see a miracle to believe that I am Who I say that I am, or that I will do what God has anointed me to do. My Word is sufficient for you, and my past testimony should be enough to validate My words.”

Lesson 3: The Miracles of God are Secondary
The people of Galilee had not spent the past two decades in the presence of the Messiah. They had not lived with Him, worked with Him, or seen Him day-to-day. They had the Word of God, but they had not seen the daily testimony of this Man called Jesus. It would take something extraordinary to grab their attention. So God gave them miracles.

The people of Nazareth, however, were an altogether different story. They had Christ’s testimony. They had His Word. There was no need in this village for the miracles of healing. The miracles in Galilee facilitated the faith of the Galileans, but the greater witness of Christ’s testimony was meant to be the catalyst in Nazareth.

To illustrate the people’s lack of faith, Christ cited two very unpopular stories among the Jews. He spoke of two Gentiles – a widow and a leper – whom God had visited with special miracles during time of intense judgment in Israel’s history. His message was both clear and scathing: the people of Israel, in times past, had forsaken the Word of God and forgotten His testimony, resulting judgment. And although there were many in Israel that were in need, God did not visit any of them with His miraculous deliverance. Instead, He took His light to the Gentiles and worked His mighty works among them because of their faith. Those who had not had the benefit of God’s Word or of His national testimony chose to obey the light that they were given (the widow of Zarapheth tended to the needs of God’s prophet, and the Syrian general Naaman obeyed the words of Elisha). And they were blessed mightily for it.

In other words, Christ scolds the people of Nazareth by presenting a glaring contrast: the Old Testament Israelites had been given everything and chose to forsake God, so God removed His hand of blessing from their nation. The Gentiles had not been a part of the light that had been bestowed upon Israel, so God chose to work in an outwardly miraculous way to gain their attention and to exercise their faith in Him.

This was the message to Nazareth: “I have already given you the greatest of miracles. I have given you My Word and I have dwelt among you in the flesh. Anything more that you desire so that I may prove Myself to you is foolish unbelief. If you will not believe Me for what I have said and for Who I have always been before you, then you will not believe Me for the miracles either.”

So many times, we are presented with something in our Christian lives that tries our faith. An obstacle presents itself and we desire for God to make Himself real to us in the midst of our trouble. We cry out for the miracle, expecting God to answer with the extraordinary. But our cry for the extraordinary is not always a cry borne of faith; it is a cry of unbelief that seeks for God to prove that He is Who He has promised to be. But God’s answer to us is the same as His answer to the people of Nazareth: “I have given you My Word and it is sufficient for all of your needs. You have seen the testimony of my power in your life and it is sure. I have never failed you and I never will. Trust Me. Have faith.”

All too often, we beg God to remove us from the hardships of life, forgetting that every heartache and every trial is by His grand design. We do not know the purpose of the valleys, but we can rest assured that He brings us through them for a purpose. And sometimes that purpose is nothing more than a reminder that He walks with us through the shadows. Rather than praying for deliverance from adversity, we must learn to thank Him for loving us enough to allow it into our lives. Complacency does not grow great Christians; it is faith in the hardest times that conforms us into the image of God’s Son. Our faith in God must be of such that we are trusting His ability to do the miraculous, but thanking Him for His presence and praising Him for His wisdom in delivering us into pain.

The people of Nazareth clamored in their hearts for a miracle so that they would believe. They would never have really believed. Their hearts were already so filled with unbelief. When Jesus confronted them with their sin, they were filled with wrath. In their anger, they led Him to a hill where they sought to cast Him headlong to His death. It was there, in His mercy, that Christ gave them a miracle: in the midst of that angry mob, He supernaturally passed among them and escaped. The people of Nazareth received the miracle that they sought, but it took the Son of God forever from their presence.

We seek a miracle, but God is seeking faith. He has already given us the greatest of miracles. They are laid out for us in His Word and they have been witnessed in each of our lives. It is the greatest of miracles that God would send His Only Begotten Son to take our place on Calvary’s tree. It is the greatest of miracles that we can live daily in the Presence of God because of the shed blood of Calvary and the Intercession of the King. But it is also a miracle that Christ, in His mercy, can remove Himself from our presence when we forsake His Word and forget His testimony. May it never be said of us that “He passing through the midst of them went His way.”

© 2006, 2009 Jeremy Austin Watts