I recently became aware of a doctrine on the nature of faith that is apparently widely held by Christian teachers. One of them wrote this: “An unregenerate person can believe the truth of the law of gravity . . . Likewise, an unregenerate person can believe the truth of Christ’s gospel . . . Since faith is only the instrument, the response of faith in the gospel is not a special kind of faith. Faith is simply faith. It is the object of faith, the gospel of Jesus Christ, that is special and brings salvation.”
This leading teacher in the so-called “free grace” movement was countering the truth of the necessity of being born again by God’s sovereign will and power, so that genuine faith becomes possible. He makes it very clear by the comparison he uses (above) that they believe faith to be just a natural thing, no different from believing I will fall into the water should I step off a bridge, and that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow. He completely discounts the need for any supernatural or spiritual essence to faith when he declares that what is required to believe the gospel is not a “special kind of faith”.
Believing this proposition to be far off the mark from a Scriptural understanding of faith, I felt compelled to write a few words for the benefit of those who may not understand the nature of the faith that justifies the sinner and saves the soul. Hebrews 11 is known by most Christians as the “faith chapter”, and those listed in it are universally believed to now be in heaven with their God, having “died in faith”. Verse 1 of that chapter describes for us the activity of genuine faith: “Now faith is the substantiating of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Faith gives substance to or makes real what God has promised and “prepared for them that love Him”.¹
No natural, unregenerate mind will ever be able, by natural means of perception (eyes and ears), to perceive, understand, or substantiate what God has done and will yet do in the world and in the heavens through His Son Jesus Christ. The Scripture is clear: IF the princes of this world could have understood God’s secret, this “mystery” that Christians have long “hoped for” and “seen”, then they by all means would have sought to preserve the life of the Lord of glory. But it is precisely because the natural man cannot receive nor know the things of the Spirit of God¹ (since they are spiritually discerned), that we can say with confidence that this “hidden wisdom” requires absolutely “a special kind of faith”. It is faith given by the Spirit of God, who uses the Word of God to quicken the soul of a man. Only then can he “see the kingdom of God” with the eyes of faith.² (I have written more on the subject of new birth at this link.)
I recently enjoyed a few verses in Matthew 17 regarding faith. The Lord takes care to qualify the faith that is required to move mountains (both physical and figurative). It’s exactly the same kind of faith possessed by those saints referred to in Hebrews 11:33-35a, who accomplished seemingly impossible things because their faith was of a special variety. It had the character of a “mustard seed”. Now some have made much of the minuscule size of the mustard seed, and have felt that the Lord was simply emphasizing the fact that a little faith is enough to accomplish impossible things when the object of that faith is Christ. I will not dispute the truth of that point of view, except to say that there is more in this passage than the effectiveness of a small amount of faith. After all, why did the Lord chide Peter and others for having but “little faith”, seemingly relegating that poverty of faith to a place not much better than being “faithless”?³
It is instructive that the Lord Jesus did not speak of faith using any of the small and lifeless objects He references in other contexts. Faith cannot be likened to a mote or a mite or a hair. Real faith, saving and justifying faith, is living and potent in its primordial state as a seed, when its potential is least obvious to natural perception. There is no doubt that the object of faith, the Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, is of supreme importance; but it takes a supernatural work of the Spirit of God in the individual soul (II Thessalonians 2:13) to impart the quality of faith that is pleasing to God, and that lays hold of His infinite provision for our eternal blessing in Christ.
¹ I Corinthians 2:6-14 ² Ephesians 2:8; John 3:3 ³ Compare Matthew 14:31 and 16:8 with 17:17-20.
4 thoughts on “Mustard Seed Faith”
Great article… and an important subject. John 2:23-25 is an example of what you are bringing out. It says “many believed on his name, beholding his signs which he wrought.” But these people were impressed by what was outward. There was no inward work of faith in their souls. It shows that there is a difference between human belief and real faith. E.g I read in the news that the Patriots have won the superbowl… and I give mental assent. That is different than spiritual faith, a gift of God, that receives His testimony (John 3:3). The “darkness” can receive something about the superbowl, but it cannot receive the things of God. It goes on to say “Jesus himself did not trust him-self to them, because he knew all men… he knew what was in man.” The problem with those who falsely teach that humans are born with enough faith to believe the gospel, is that the don’t “know what is in man”. These three vs. give the introduction to Nicodemus, and the Lord’s teaching, not that Nicodemus should “do” something, but that he should realize that man is SO bad that he needs to be born again before he can even perceive the kingdom of God.
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Thank you for adding your comments to the subject, Josh. The end of John 2 is as instructive as the beginning of John 3 when it comes to what is in man, but that is often overlooked.
It says “many believed on his name, beholding his signs which he wrought.”
The point is that they placed their confidence (belief) in Christ due to the evidence the signs revealed about Jesus that they had witnessed. There is nothing in the passage which suggests that they needed to receive the gift of faith from God in order to believe. The text states they had believed all on their own. The fact that Jesus did not entrust Himself to these new believers was not that they had not really believed due to no inward work of faith in their souls. It was that, like the rulers who had believed in Jesus too (John 12;42), they were unwilling to confess their faith in him due to fear of religious reprisals from Jewish leaders. So, Jesus was unwilling to entrust more truth to them.
Peter said: “For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty. For when He received honor and glory from God the Father, such an utterance as this was made to Him by the Majestic Glory, “This is My beloved Son with whom I am well-pleased”— and we ourselves heard this utterance made from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain (2 Peter 1:16-18).
Peter told us that his faith is not without evidence, “we did not follow cleverly devised tales.” Nor did Peter’s faith create the evidence. The evidence was “we were eyewitnesses of His majesty”, just like the believers who witnessed Jesus signs in John 2. Peters faith was based in the evidence “we ourselves heard this utterance made from heaven.” So for Peter, faith in Christ meant a rational decision he made to trust or place his confidence in the objectively verifiable evidence he and they had observed in the real world. Not that God had supplied faith to him to believe.
Jerry, thank you for your response. If John 2:23-25 were given to us in a vacuum and without context, I might agree with you. It is regrettable that the uninspired chapter divisions obscure the fact that this passage connects with Nicodemus’ visit to Jesus, in which he gives the miracles/signs as the reason so many believed Jesus was a teacher from God. Jesus immediately disavows the Jews’ penchant for allowing signs to guide or form their beliefs, by giving the prerequisite for even seeing by faith the moral (and the future manifestation of, I believe) kingdom of God. Jesus alludes to Ezekiel 36, of course, in which the mass of Israel not killed in the tribulation are sovereignly washed, quickened, born again (all the same operation of the Spirit, different aspects). Where is mentioned at all the faith required for new birth? Faith is not mentioned until after the Lord transitions the subject and speaks of eternal life later in the conversation. New birth and eternal life cannot be the exact same thing, because Jesus contrasts them as earthly and heavenly things, and furthermore, He chides Nicodemus for not knowing about new birth, when “eternal life” was never revealed until Jesus revealed it, as the Son sent from the Father.
How do you explain John 3:8, 10, and 12?
I understand that the dynamic here is that you are committed to a faith that is not of supernatural origin, as much as I am committed to a faith that is implanted in the soul sovereignly by the Word of God, and ne’er the twain shall meet. But I have no doubt that John 3:1-12 is misunderstood by most Christian teachers as Christ presenting Nicodemus with the gospel, which it is not. Jesus was laying down the prerequisite for true faith and spiritual vision.