Great Faith Doesn't Save
When in anguish about their Christian life, people worry about their sins or their faith. If you're in the latter group, this text might send you into a tailspin. Jesus appears to praise "great" faith here. Where does that leave you? You barely believe your sins are forgiven let alone that God watches over your family, that your marriage is a blessing, or that you need not worry about tomorrow. You're faith isn't so great, is it? Well before you crash and burn because your faith isn't great hear this: great faith doesn't save.
The Jewish leaders sent to Jesus by the centurion had great faith in that man's worthiness, didn't they? Centurions drilled soldiers, inspected arms, food, and clothing. They commanded soldiers in the camp and field. They were the backbone of the Roman Army. An ancient historian describes them as reliable men who were steady in action. Not over anxious to rush into battle, but when hard pressed they were ready to hold their ground and die at their posts. Quite worthy, huh? Even the Scriptures agree. Centurions are always portrayed in a positive light in the Bible. Think of the centurion at the cross, or of Cornelius, the centurion who sent for Peter, or think of Julius the centurion who was kind to Paul the prisoner and even saved his life.
But there's more to the centurion in our text. He was worthy of help according to the Jewish elders because "he loves our nation." Romans normally didn't. The Romans called Jews a "filthy race." They said Judaism was barbarous superstition, that the Jews were haters of mankind, worshiped a donkey's head, and that annually the Jews sacrificed a gentile to their god.
This Roman was different; he loved their nation enough to build them a synagogue. That probably means he paid for it. But don't think they were highlighting the centurion's faith. Just because he built a synagogue didn't mean he had converted to Judaism. Herod the Great built the whole Temple but didn't convert. No, what the Jewish elders are emphasizing is the centurion's work. The Jewish elders have great faith in the centurion's worthiness because his works are worthy. They "pleaded earnestly," says our text, that he was worthy of being helped.
You have great faith in worthiness too, don't you? You think certain people are worthy of the church's services, others are not. If a person is good giver, why of course he or she should be listened to, waited on, catered to. If a person comes to church regularly, he or she is worthy of help. You see? You DO have great faith. You have great faith in worthiness. If you're faithful in coming to church, you feel worthy to ask God for things. If you support His work generously, according to your estimation, you're pretty bold about coming before His throne in prayer. Sure you have great faith, but great faith in worthiness saves no one.
Ah, then the answer must be great faith in unworthiness. That's what the centurion had, right? He had great faith that he was unworthy. He said literally that he was "not sufficient" for Jesus to come under his roof. This wasn't because of poverty or dirtiness. The centurion wasn't "sufficient" because he wasn't a Jew, and he knew pious Jews wouldn't enter the house of a Gentile because the rabbis considered it unclean. But there's more. The centurion not only admits to being insufficient for Jesus to come under his roof, he goes on to say that he isn't worthy (a different Greek word) to come face to face with the Lord. This Greek word for worthy is a comparative. Compared to others he wasn't worthy enough to come before the Lord Jesus. The centurion sees scales in his mind. He's on one side anyone else is on the other. Anyone else is worth more than he is.
The centurion recognizes Jesus is more than a Jewish man. You can see this from the illustration he uses. He says, "I myself am a man under authority." He's been given authority over other men. When he commands soldiers to come and go they do; he, a man, can command a man to do what he wills. If a man can have this sort of power over other men, what power must God have over the things under His authority?
What tremendous faith, what huge faith, what great faith this centurion has in his unworthiness. And many of you think this is the Gospel, this is the answer. But great faith in unworthiness doesn't save anyone. Great faith in your unworthiness makes you miserable. Great faith in your unworthiness will cause you to push the Lord away from you. Adam and Eve had great faith in their unworthiness after the Fall, so they went and hid from the only One with the answers. Peter had great faith in His unworthiness after the huge catch of fish and so told Jesus, "Depart from Me; I'm a sinful man."
You all see that great faith in worthiness is living under the Law; it's works righteousness. So you repent of that by running towards great faith in unworthiness, but that's not the Gospel. It's true; none of us are worthy of any of God's blessing. But our unworthiness is not to be the object of our faith. If it is, we'll be miserable because like Adam, Eve, and Peter, we'll push God away from us. While the centurion confessed he was unworthy, he didn't stop there. He went on to confess Jesus' great power to heal or not to heal, and Jesus' great love to do what's best.
Recall how our text opened. Jesus had just finished the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew tells us the Jews went away marveling at the authority of Jesus' words. The centurion, however, sent for that authority saying Jesus could with one Word heal his slave. He didn't think Jesus had to be present physically; he didn't think Jesus had to touch the slave or pray over him. Jesus could say just one single Word and heal his slave.
But the centurion also knows that Jesus' authority is similar to his own. He can say to this soldier "come" or to that one "go" without explaining to anyone, so Jesus with no explaining can say a Word and sickness will go from the slave or He can say "come" and the sickness will stay. But the centurion doesn't leave the matter in the unrevealed counsels of God. He doesn't dig around in what God hasn't revealed. The centurion prays based on God's revealed will that His love and mercy for sinners endures forever.
When the Jewish elders asked Jesus to help, they asked not for the slave's sake but for the centurion's. But when the centurion asked through friends, he makes it clear that he asked Jesus to help for the sake of literally "my boy." The Jewish elders thought Jesus needed a reason to help. In their mind there was no reason to help a slave, so they talked about the worthy centurion. However, the centurion knows a merciful God in Jesus; he knows if a "worthless" slave can be a "precious boy" to a sinful man like himself than he must be even more precious to a merciful God.
Friends, great faith in your worthiness doesn't save. Great faith in your unworthiness doesn't save either. No type of great faith saves, only a great Jesus does. In fact, the phrase "great faith" isn't even in the text. Jesus didn't say, "I have not found such great faith even in Israel," as the bulletin has it. No, He said, "I have not found such faith even in Israel." Jesus didn't refer to the amount or size of the centurion's faith but to the type. He didn't highlight the centurion who believed but what the centurion believed.
Aren't you glad? Your worthiness or unworthiness isn't the determining factor in your life and neither is your little or great faith. No, a great Jesus is. He has the power to help whatever your need might be. He says to sickness "go" and it does. He says to fear "be gone," and it runs away whimpering. He says to marriages "do this," and they do it. If wind and waves were under His authority when He walked this earth, do you think they aren't now that He rules over all the universe from heaven? If He muzzled demons with a word from His lips, do you think He can't muzzle them now with a word from His throne?
Your Jesus has greater power to help than you can ever imagine. The very best you think Jesus can do for your problem is very far below what He is able to do. Your faith, my faith, our faith is just too small to appreciate what great things Jesus can do for us, but that doesn't mean the power of Jesus is too small to do it. Caesar Augustus once gave a huge gift to a man who replied, "This gift is too big for me to believe you're really giving it to me." Caesar replied, "But it's not too big for me to really give it." A great Jesus has the power to give greater gifts than we can believe or imagine.
A great Jesus has the power to save; a great Jesus has the love to save. The Jewish elders cared nothing about a slave, and so they believed Jesus didn't either. The centurion believed if he a sinful man could care about a slave how much more did the holy God. And we know the whole story. Jesus cared so much that He carried away not only the sins of the centurion and the slave's but yours, mine, and the sins of that person you're praying for. You may indeed love them, but Jesus loved them enough to die for them. Your heart may indeed break for them but His heart bled for them.
Realize that Jesus bled and died for you too. Don't play the unworthiness game with Jesus. He hates that. He isn't pleased when people think, "I'm not worthy to ask God for anything." Who ever said you were? God never told you to call upon Him in your name but in the perfect name of Jesus. He never said you could approach His throne in your merits but He did say you could come covered by the merits of Jesus. He never said your suffering was worth His help but He did say the sufferings of Christ were.
The centurion confessed his unworthiness, but he also confessed the great love Jesus had for unworthy sinners and came to Him based on that great love. Friend, if Jesus listened to the prayers of that unbaptized centurion who had never partaken of His body and His blood, don't you think He'll gladly listen to you who have been washed in His font and fed at His table? If Jesus has great enough love to hear the prayers of a soldier from an occupying army, surely He has great enough love to hear the prayers coming from the ranks of His own army. Your faith may not be great but your Jesus surely is. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Pentecost II (6-13-04), Luke 7: 1-10