It’s hard writing words you suspect will be misunderstood. My heart goes out to struggling saints who are prone to find fresh reasons to feel discouraged. I do not wish to harm them.
Jesus doesn’t break bruised reeds, nor quench faintly burning wicks (Matthew 12:19–20). Amen. And I don’t want to, either. My aim is not to take wheelchairs away from those who really need them, but to admonish the idle to stand and become strong in the Lord.
Good analogies go bad when taken in the wrong context. The analogy goes something like this: It doesn’t matter if the Israelite had weak faith: if the blood of the lamb was on the door, he was saved! The application? The issue isn’t how strong your faith is, but how strong the object of your faith is. It’s not about the power of your faith, but about how powerful Jesus is to save sinners.
The points worth championing are clear: Jesus Christ is mighty to save sinners, and his work, not our faith, is the only basis for our acceptance with God. We do not have faith in our faith to be justified. Our faith is in the person and work of King Jesus.
The analogy has done its job if it teaches the truth and beauty of justification by faith alone and lends courage to limping saints who — despite their best efforts and constant pleas for divine help — feel beaten down and bruised.
It reminds them to look outside themselves to Jesus, “the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). It says that despite clinging to him with a wearying grip, he will uphold us with omnipotent strength (Psalm 63:8).
But this analogy betrays us when it’s used to say the strength of one’s faith is always of little consequence — when we move from the realm of justification to sanctification, from God’s sovereign acceptance to our everyday accountability as Christians.
Instead of helping wounded saints find hope that leads to stronger faith, it can be used to protect idlers who are all too comfortable with their weak faith.
These idlers are spiritual layabouts who do not wage war against their doubts — they even go so far as to tell us that harboring some doubt is healthy. It’s encouraged. They seem concerned to keep God’s appointed “means of grace” at arm’s length. They do not lose any (of their many hours of) sleep due to the fact that their doubts dishonor their Master — no, they grumble against God and feel free to keep doing so because, after all, there is blood upon their door.
They live among wounded sheep to escape calls to faith, maturity, and repentance. They are professional bruised reeds that grow by the swamp of spiritual stagnancy.
Such do not need coddling; such need admonishment (1 Thessalonians 5:14). A lifetime of weak and wobbly faith is neither God-honoring nor safe. This “weakness,” unlike Paul’s in 2 Corinthians 12:9–10, is not a strength. It’s not a virtue. It’s not humility. It’s a very serious problem.
To begin with, we cannot create the category of perpetually, enduringly weak faith from the exodus story. Those “saved” from Egypt by and large did not persevere in the wilderness. Both Old and New Testaments depict them as stone-hearted, unbelieving, unregenerate people with whom God was not pleased in the end.
We are explicitly told not to be like them in the faith they modeled after the exodus. They were idolaters (1 Corinthians 10:7). They were sexually immoral (1 Corinthians 10:8). They put God to the test (1 Corinthians 10:9). They incessantly grumbled (1 Corinthians 10:10). They heard the good news and didn’t believe it (Hebrews 4:2). They were baptized through the Red Sea, drank from the spiritual Rock of Christ, saw signs and wonders galore — and yet they rebelled against God, and he killed them in the wilderness (1 Corinthians 10:4–5).
Their original confidence did not endure to the end (Hebrews 3:14). Their weak faith did not grow, but proved to be false faith, a “despising” of the Lord (Numbers 14:11). Although their firstborn were saved that night, more would be required of them than this initial act. Soon their unbelief would provoke God to kill them by plague (1 Corinthians 10:8), kill them by fiery serpents (1 Corinthians 10:9), and kill them by the Destroyer (1 Corinthians 10:10). In the end, they did not enter into God’s rest (Hebrews 3:18–19).
Stammering, stumbling, crawling faith — for one’s entire life — is not the depiction of saving faith in the New Testament.
Faith that saves is characterized as being increasingly stable, steadfast, and unshakable, never shifting from the hope of the gospel (Colossians 1:23). It endures until the end (Hebrews 3:14). It grows strong enough to shield us from Satan’s attacks (Ephesians 6:16; 1 Peter 5:9). It keeps us in the love of God (Jude 20–21). It matures to bear fruit (James 2:18). It gains us victory that overcomes the world (1 John 5:4).
Although different seasons can make us wobblier than others, the swaying legs of spiritual infancy is not to be perpetual (Hebrews 5:11–13). Jesus often rebuked the disciples for their little faith. Doubting God makes us wind-tossed and double-minded (James 1:5–8). “Weak faith” in Romans does not make allowance for doubting God or his gospel, but is about a misinformed conscience on matters of Christian liberty (Romans 14:1).
Stable and steadfast is the standard. The Holy Spirit in us never protects or encourages doubt. Standing firm in the faith is our calling (1 Corinthians 16:13). Imitation of Abraham’s eventual maturity is the goal: “No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised” (Romans 4:20–21).
And where weakness does exist, true faith humbly cries, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24) — not meaning: Sustain my unbelief, or preserve it, or excuse it, or coddle it. Help my unbelief. Diminish it. Overcome it. Turn my unbelief into faith!
Being content with doubt, suspicion, and weak faith is, as Luther says, the highest form of contempt we can muster against God.
There is no way in which we can show greater contempt for a man than to regard him as false and wicked and to be suspicious of him, as we do when we do not trust him. . . . What greater rebellion against God, what greater wickedness, what greater contempt of God is there than not believing his promise? For what is this but to make God a liar or to doubt that he is truthful? — that is, to ascribe truthfulness to one’s self but lying and vanity to God?
It is tragic to return distrust and suspicion to the God of steadfast love and truth. We slander him when we refuse to trust him. The Father of truth is not the father of lies. The God of love is not the God of cruelty. The Son who hung on a cross for sinners is not to be regarded as a deceiver.
All truthfulness, justice, righteousness, and beauty belong to Jesus Christ. He has never lied, and never erred. “He is the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), the radiance of his glory (Hebrews 1:3). He has never once failed any of his children, nor dealt in any inequity with any creature on the planet.
Survey the condemned in the deepest pits of hell, and not one will have any just complaint against him. Ask the martyrs in heaven, and none will think of anything but praise for him.
Who can accuse him of wrong? His disciples couldn’t. His enemies couldn’t. Satan can’t. His Father didn’t. But after all of heaven stands silent, should the groans and complaints of professing Christians stand ready to accuse him?
Heed that bruised reed, William Cowper, as he encourages us all,
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust him for his grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
When doubt comes — and come it will — whispering that God isn’t true, the Bible isn’t reliable, and Jesus’s blood isn’t enough, do not make peace with such lies. Do not embrace them. Do not boast about them. Instead, confess them and cling more tightly to the Savior, crying, “I believe; help my unbelief!”