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The Major Obstacle to Faith
God is very diligent to make our faith perfect. Paul prays exceedingly, night and day, that he might see the Thessalonians face to face and perfect what was lacking in their faith (1 Thessalonians 3:10).
The major obstacle to faith is sin. Sin brings a barrier between us and God, so that faith cannot operate. Healing can be frustrated by sin. Harmony in the body is health. Disharmony in the body, which is disease, can often be traced to disharmony in the soul caused by refusal to walk in revealed light. “Your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid His face from you, that He will not hear” (Isaiah 59:2). It is rarely open sin that hinders faith; one who is living openly in disobedience to God is not concerned about the exercise of true faith; it is hidden sin that causes the trouble.
Very often the hindrance is an unforgiving spirit (Mark 11:25-26). Even from a physiological point of view, a rankling and an unforgiving spirit causes a fester in the mind that will manifest itself physically in the disease of the body. The very word “dis-ease” means “apart from” or to be “deprived of ease.” Very often the Lord links healing with forgiveness of sin. Remember that He has promised forgiveness only to those who forgive. “But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:15). The Psalmist says, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits: Who forgiveth all thine iniquities; Who healeth all thy diseases” (Psalm 103:2,3). Jesus said first to the sick of the palsy, “Son, thy sins be forgiven thee,” and later, “Arise and take up thy bed” (Mark 2:5,9).
The Perfecting of Character
Understand, however, that there are other reasons for sickness besides sin. The history of Job demonstrates this. God testified that His servant Job was “a perfect and an upright man” (Job 1:8), and despite this, Job suffered from a grievous sickness. It was permitted as chastisement, that Job might be a partaker of God’s holiness. It is a Bible demonstration of the truth that a perfect heart is the only foundation for a perfect character. The first—the perfect heart—is given; the second—the perfect character—has to be forged. But the first is the first, and must come before the second, a simple fact of arithmetic that has not yet been learned by many Christians. “Blessed is the man whom Thou chasteneth, O Lord” (Psalm 94:12); therefore, let no one say in his folly that the Christian who is sick must, of necessity, be guilty of sin. This is very wrong teaching. Epaphroditus [Philippians 2:25-27], Trophimus [2 Timothy 4:20], and Timothy [1 Timothy 5:23] rise up to contradict this. Such teachers “talk to the grief of those whom Thou hast wounded” (Psalm 69:26).
The State of the Heart
This book is not a treatise on sanctification, nor will it be allowed to develop into such. Nevertheless, one cannot deal with the great subject of the perfecting of faith without making mention of the cause of most of our troubles, preventing the exercise of faith, which is our state of heart. The Bible teaching upon the heart makes it the center of both will and emotion. “With the heart man believeth unto righteousness” (Romans 10:10). That is the operation, by grace, of the will. “I sleep, but my heart waketh; it is the voice of my beloved” (Song of Solomon 5:2)—that is the quickening of emotion. Any act is either right or wrong according to the motive in doing it (that is, morally right or wrong, for an act may result in unpleasant consequences without the motive having been evil). What is the underlying state of a responsible human being’s heart? “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) This is the state of a cultured, refined, well-educated, unregenerate person’s heart. It is also the state of an uncultured, unrefined, ill-educated, unregenerate person’s heart—“for there is no difference: for all have sinned” (Romans 3:22-23). It is impossible to discern adequately the intentions of the heart—that inheritance of our Adamic nature. It doubles and turns and twists. The first great necessity is to get one’s motives ordered and right, and most importantly, to see that, whereas no human being can discern the motives of the heart, there is One who can. Let us continue with Jeremiah’s word, “Who can know it? I, the Lord search the heart!” (Jeremiah 17:9-10) So there is One who can plumb the human heart to its deepest depths—“I, the Lord!” In regeneration, that is, the new birth (which is the major work that the Holy Spirit performs in man), God both cleanses and renews. He potentially cleanses the human heart—the fountain of the soul—and at the same instant gives a new heart, which is the heart of the new man in Christ.
Hearts Purified by Faith
This was the experience of Cornelius, recorded in Acts 15. Peter confuted the arguments of the Judaeans (who said that circumcision and the keeping of the law of Moses was also a condition of salvation) by pointing out that uncircumcised Gentiles had had their hearts purified, not by conformity to law, but by their faith. Peter confirmed the word of Jeremiah, as referred to above, by saying, “God which knoweth the heart bare them witness” (v. 8). Because of their honest desire for truth, the Lord had given them grace to believe in Jesus. They exercised the faith granted to them, and He witnessed to their act of faith by giving them the Holy Spirit, who, when He came in, purified their hearts. This is in complete conformity to what Peter had proclaimed to the Jews at Pentecost: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ, for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost” (Acts 2:38). Water baptism is a desirable, outward demonstration of repentance toward Christ by the one believing, but it is not a necessity to that great salvation which, under the New Covenant, includes the gift of the Holy Spirit. This is proven by the fact that the Gentiles, with Cornelius, were baptized after they had received the Holy Spirit in salvation, and not before (Acts 10:47).
Once the heart—from which “evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies” proceed (as Jesus says in Matthew 15:19)—has been purified, the act of faith that procured that pure heart from God must become a state of faith. Allow the Holy Spirit to keep the heart clean, by instantly confessing to God any fault that He reveals. Jesus said to His disciples, “He that is washed needeth not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit” (John 13:10).
O may the least omission pain
My well-instructed soul,
And drive me to the blood again
Which makes the wounded whole!
[in the hymn
I Want A Principle Within]
Naaman’s Cleansing—A Type
The great truth that the Lord will cleanse the hidden man of the heart is beautifully revealed in the history of Naaman. Once more let us turn back to this story and see how, under the Bible figure of deliverance from leprosy, God cleanses the heart. Deliverance from leprosy is not a figure of forgiveness for past acts of sin, but of cleansing from the state of sin. Naaman, the leper, would have taken a very poor view of the teaching of one of our modern, antinomian fundamentalists, who would have assured him that although his state was very shocking, yet his standing was quite all right. Scripture knows nothing of this playing on words. This wrong doctrine has the unhappy result of justifying the sinful condition of many church members who have not been taught the truth that “whosoever abideth in Him sinneth not” and “he that doeth righteousness is righteous” (1 John 3:6-7). Naaman is given, in Scripture, this testimony: “a great man with his master, and honourable…he was also a mighty man in valour, but he was a leper” (2 Kings 5:1). That just about sums up most members of Congress in the United States and members of the Houses of Parliament in Great Britain and some other countries: fine people in every other way, but sinners. There is coming a time when the saints of the Most High (we hope that many of the aforementioned will be amongst them) shall possess the Kingdom (Daniel 7:22)—men and women of perfect heart, who shall rule with perfect justice out of perfect love, in the confidence of perfect faith.
Look again at the Naaman chapter (2 Kings 5), and see what his seven dips were for. They were for:
- Anger—(verses 11,12);
- The ruling “I”—(verse 11);
- Unbelief—his God, not my God—(verse 11);
- Pride—chariots and horses—(verse 9); and—“he will surely come out to me” (verse 11);
- His own way and works—“took with him ten talents of silver” (verse 5);
- Love of this world—Abana and Pharpar better than all the waters of Israel—(verse 12); and, finally,
- Idolatry—(verse 18).
Did Naaman’s cleansing change Naaman in these things? Was it only the flesh that the Lord dealt with? Was He not more concerned about the heart? Look at your Bible again:
- Where has Naaman’s anger gone? For Elisha said, “Go in peace” (verse 19).
- What has happened to that dominant and ruling “I”? For three times now Naaman says “thy servant” (verses 15, 17-18).
- What of his previous unbelief? For after his cleansing he says, “Now I know” (verse 15).
- Where is his pride that made him stand in his chariot before the door of Elisha’s hut? It has gone, and now he returns and stands before Elisha a humble, thankful man. See also how he alighted from that same chariot to serve the servant of Elisha (verse 21).
- What will he now say of cleansing by his own works? His flesh has come again like that of a little child (verse 18), for the attitude of a little child is the Lord’s condition for salvation (Matthew 18:3).
- Will he now love this world? Will Syria be sweeter to him than the land of Jehovah? Not now! He begs for two mules’ burdens of the earth of the land of Israel, so that he might have an altar unto the true God in his own land (2 Kings 5:17 and Exodus 20:24).
- As for idolatry, from henceforth he will “offer neither burnt offering nor sacrifice unto other gods, but only unto the Lord” (2 Kings 5:17).
Naaman came to Elisha with a little faith, a mixed faith; otherwise he would not have come at all. But he went back with a pure faith. The Lord is willing to perfect what is lacking in our faith as well.
Stages of Faith
There are three most important stages in the faith of the believer, and because this is not recognized, many a contest of faith is lost. Faith is a mountain to be climbed.
- The first position up the mountainside is one that all true Christians take. We may phrase it thus: “I believe that God can do the thing that I am asking Him to do.”
- The next plateau to be climbed is that upon which I can stand and declare that God will do this thing.
- The final struggle up the mountain to the peak ends when I announce that the thing is done—God has performed it. I have the assurance that He has heard, and although I see it not, yet I know that I have the petition that I desired of Him (1 John 5:15).
If I have only the faith of stage one, then it will not operate that of stage two; or if I have the faith of stage two, then it will not bring the triumph of the mountain peak where, like our God, we call “those things which be not as though they were” (Romans 4:17), and prove ourselves true sons of faithful Abraham.
Faith, Hope, and Love: The Bethany Family
Faith cannot exist separately from Hope and Love. Although the Holy Spirit may, at present, be concentrating in your life upon faith, in order to prepare you for the fight against the unbelieving forces of this age, He is by no means neglectful of hope and love. All three are most necessary bastions of the Kingdom of God, and He is perfecting the saint by perfecting these in him. This is what the Lord was doing when He raised Lazarus from the dead. To rightly understand this miracle, we have to see who the characters mentioned in John 11 represent. God’s unit throughout all of His creation is the family; this must be so, for His most wonderful and worthy name is “Father”—a special revelation to the heirs of the New Covenant. Whether it is the inconceivably small atom, with its electrons around the nucleus, or the awe-inspiring immensity of a galaxy, which is a vast assembly of stars with their solar systems, each has been created upon the family principle. Man has been honored in a way that angels have never been, by being permitted upon earth to form a family of his own—something that certain angels envied and sinned in copying (we shall refer to this later)—for in the other world there is neither marrying nor giving in marriage, as the Lord Jesus revealed (Matthew 22:30). Jesus loves the family and seeks to heal it; the evil one hates it and ever seeks to destroy it. Hence the divorces and broken homes of these degenerate days.
There was trouble in the Bethany family where Jesus loved to be. There were rest and sympathy and love for Him in the home of Martha, Lazarus and Mary, but sickness had come in, and Lazarus was very ill and lay dying. The Lord Jesus is perfect in everything: “As for God, His way is perfect…and…He maketh my way perfect” (Psalm 18:30,32). This sickness had not come without His design and permission. He had planned to perfect Martha, Lazarus and Mary. Now these three are God’s demonstration, in human form, of His great qualities of Faith and Hope and Love. Martha represents faith; Lazarus is hope; and Mary is love.
Faith brings rest and peace; hope produces courage and patience; love gives joy. Hope always looks to the future and believes in it; that is why the blessed hope of the Church is the future coming of the Lord Jesus Christ and the resurrection of the holy dead. Since Lazarus is hope, he must inevitably rise from the dead. Martha, being God’s picture of faith, must always be active, doing something. Faith always works. If it is not working, it is dead. Paul says, “Remembering without ceasing your work of faith” (1 Thessalonians 1:3), and again he speaks of being offered “upon the sacrifice and service of your faith” (Philippians 2:17). Poor Martha, like real faith itself, is so greatly misunderstood. How many preachers have you heard depreciating Martha in order to magnify Mary? It is like depreciating faith in order to enhance love. Let both stand! Of course Martha is always working! What else should faith be doing?
All the Marys in the Gospels reveal love. Mary the Mother of Jesus is suffering love; Mary Magdalene is repentant love; and Mary of Bethany is adoring love. Hope, however, is sick; there is no confidence in the future; he sinks, and the home is filled with gloomy forebodings. He dies, and the light fades; night has come to the home where it seemed that once the sun was always shining. If you look at this chapter, you will find that the order of their names has gone wrong. There is always a right order for things. God’s order is Faith, Hope, Love, as Paul makes clear in his first letter to the saints at Corinth: “Now there abideth faith, hope and love” (1 Corinthians 13:13). But look at the order in the chapter that we are considering (John 11). It is wrong in verse one, because the order is hope (Lazarus), love (Mary), faith (Martha); and in verse 5, it is faith, love, hope. This is indicative of sickness somewhere; hope has gone wrong, and it has spread to faith and love.
Now, Jesus is revealed as perfect faith and hope and love in this chapter. See His perfection of faith when He says to the Father, “I thank Thee that Thou hast heard Me. And I knew that Thou hearest Me always” (verses 41-42). He is perfect hope: He has perfect confidence for the future—all will take place according to His will, even though at present all seems contrary. So when He heard that Lazarus was sick, “He abode two days still in the same place where He was” (verse 6) and let Lazarus die! What of His love? Was there ever love like His? He had gone away from Judea into the place beyond Jordan where once John had baptized, because the Jews had sought to stone Him, but He had escaped out of their hands (John 10:31,39-40). Nevertheless, He had not ceased to love these Jews; so, from afar, He permitted Lazarus to be sick and die, that He might do a double deed: perfect the family at Bethany, and by showing the antagonistic Jews a mighty miracle, prove to them that His claims were just. Did He not say, “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby” (verse 4)? After His mighty miracle of raising a dead, decayed, and corrupt body into immediate radiant health, “many of the Jews which came to Mary, and had seen the things that Jesus did, believed on Him” (verse 45).
Now see how this spiritual sickness has also infected Jesus’ disciples. Jesus loves them, and us, too, and longs to perfect all faith and hope and love, for nothing less than our perfection will ever please Him. Also, He will only tolerate His own divine order. How did you come into the new birth? Did not grace first give you faith, so that down the channel of faith God might send His Holy Spirit in order that you should be born from above? What did faith do then? It birthed in you “a lively [living] hope” (1 Peter 1:3), and finally, “hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us” (Romans 5:5). The disciples’ faith is lacking. Jesus said, “I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, to the intent ye may believe” (John 11:15). Hope is lacking, too. Listen to cheerful Thomas! “Let us also go, that we may die with Him” (verse 16). As for their love, we are filled with shame for them (and conviction too). How often had thirteen hungry men descended upon Lazarus for a meal and a night’s lodging! Now, when Jesus decides to return to Bethany in response to the request of Martha and Mary, the disciples remember the attempted stoning and say, “Master, the Jews of late sought to stone Thee; and goest Thou thither again?” (verse 8). It seems that in view of a possible shower of stones, they would prefer that Mary and Martha look after their own troubles.
But see the complete absence of faith, hope, and love in the kingdom of Satan, and observe the opposite qualities ruling in their stead. The chief priests and Pharisees were of their father, the devil, said Jesus (John 8:44). There is no faith, but antagonistic doubt: “If we let Him thus alone, all men will believe on Him” (John 11:48). There is no hope, but despair: “The Romans shall come and take away both our place and nation” (verse 48). There is no love, but hate: “They took counsel together for to put Him to death” (verse 53).
Now Jesus comes, and as ever, faith is always first. “Then Martha, as soon as she heard that Jesus was coming, went and met Him” (verse 20). See the wonder of her faith! Wounded it is, but still vigorous. Hope is dead, but it will revive if only faith lives. Hear this beautiful character, Martha! Her brother Lazarus is dead, but she still proclaims her faith in the Christ. She says, “Lord, if Thou hadst been here, my brother had not died. But I know that even now, whatsoever Thou wilt ask of God, God will give it Thee” (verse 22). Is not that one of the most wonderful declarations of faith in the whole Bible? But she has not finished; listen to her again! “I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day” (verse 24). That is good, but it is not perfect, for she does not say “now,” but “in the last day.” That kind of faith is like the plateau just short of the mountain peak that we mentioned previously. It says, “I know that the Lord will”; but it cannot raise Lazarus from the dead. Jesus says to her, “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live… believest thou…?” (verses 25-26) Faith then climbs to the mountain peak. She says, “Yea, Lord: I believe that Thou art the Christ, the Son of God” (verse 27). After that, Jesus could go on to raise Lazarus from the dead because, believing that He is the Christ and the Resurrection, Martha has come to the great epitome of faith: “I believe that He does do it,” and in vision, she could see her brother coming out of the tomb.
Mary, wounded love, “sat still in the house” (verse 20), but hearing that Jesus was calling for her, “she arose quickly” (verse 29) and came to Jesus. Faith will walk, but love must run! It was Mary’s love that moved Jesus’s compassion and brought down His tears. Lazarus now is raised from the dead and all is well. We will leave the restored family. The Gospel makes it clear that all is now in the right order (John 12:2-3). It is Martha, Lazarus, and Mary—that is, Faith, Hope and Love—all abiding in the home with Jesus. “There they made Him a supper and Martha served”—as ever, standing, as faith always does, waiting on work and service. “Lazarus was one of them that sat at the table with Him.” That is perfect and right; hope sits restful and in peace, communing with Jesus and waiting in patience. “Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus” (verse 3). This is the place of love—at His feet, in adoring union with Him. So there “abideth faith, hope, charity [love], these three; but the greatest of these is charity [love]. ollow after love” (1 Corinthians 13:13–14:1); or, as Jesus says, “Mary has chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:42).
In the past, too unbelieving
’Midst the tempest I have been,
And my heart has slowly trusted
What my eyes have never seen.
Blessèd Jesus, teach me on Thine arm to lean.
O for trust that brings me triumph
When defeat seems strangely near!
O for faith that changes fighting
Into Vict’ry’s ringing cheer!
Faith triumphant! Knowing not defeat or fear.
[from the hymn
Blessèd Lord, In Thee Is Refuge]
- Copyright held by Finest of the Wheat Teaching Fellowship, Inc. Edited and annotated by Jim Kerwin. Co-edited by Denise Kerwin. ↩
- Chapter-title image by Jim Kerwin, using the boy-at-the-stairs photo by Mikito Tateisi on Unsplash https://unsplash.com/@tateisimikito. ↩