The faith of the centurion

The story of the healing of the centurion’s servant in Luke 7 ends with a remarkable statement by Jesus: “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.”

What was so great about the centurion’s faith?   I think the answer lies in the contrast between the statement of the Jewish elders (vv. 4-5) and that of the centurion himself (vv. 6-8).

This centurion, evidently a generous man and a good citizen, was able to convince some Jewish elders to speak to Jesus on his behalf.  So, as Luke records it.

When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, “This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.”

The Jewish elders were impressed by him.  “Jesus, he is worthy of your attention.  He deserves to have you help him.  He is a good man. He loves God’s people. He gives back to the community. He helped build the synagogue!”  Even in those days I guess making a contribution to a building fund was a good way to win friends and influence people.

Notice that Jesus doesn’t say anything, but he does go with them.

And now the story takes a twist.  Jesus never makes it to the centurion’s house; he is stopped in the street.  And there a new set of messengers approach him – friends of the man.  They deliver a message from the centurion, and it is quite different from the message the centurion himself sent.

“Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you.”

There’s quite a difference between  “Lord, this man deserves to have you do this…”  and “Lord…I do not deserve to have you come under my roof.”  The elders were praising his worth, and he is denying it.  He continues,

“But say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me.  I tell this one, ‘Go’, and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes.  I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

The centurion, by implication, has just made a very strong confession of faith in Christ. When he says, “But say the word, and my servant will be healed,”  He recognizes that Jesus’ word is as good as his deed; more than that, he knows that Jesus can accomplish whatever he pleases, just by saying the word. The centurion is saying that whatever Jesus says, will come to pass.  Who has that kind of power?  There is only One.

Whenever I read this story and hear the confession of the centurion, I think of Isaiah 55:10-11 –

As the rain and the snow
   come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
   without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
   so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
   It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
   and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. 

“But say the word, and my servant will be healed.”  This is a confession of the divinity of Jesus Christ.  Only God could provide what the centurion was asking for.

What’s interesting about this story is that the centurion says this at a time when the disciples still don’t understand who Jesus is.  They weren’t quite sure what to make of him at this point.  They knew he was special – obviously, they were following him around – but they didn’t realize he was divine.  It is not until two chapters later that Peter declares Jesus to be the Messiah of God.

It is truly amazing that this Roman officer – a pagan – has a better sense of who Jesus is than the religious people.  The Jewish elders haven’t figured it out.  The Pharisees and teachers of the law haven’t figured it out.   It’s this foreigner who has to teach them a lesson in faith.

And so it is very fitting then that Jesus says at this point, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.”  He has been spending all his time with the people of God, and yet none of them have recognized him as the Son of God.  They question him, they argue with him, they reject him…but this non-religious soldier recognizes him and shows great faith in him.

And the greatness of his faith is found precisely in the fact that he trusts not in his own worth, but in the power of God’s Word.

The elders say, “he deserves it”; the man says, “I don’t deserve it, but say the word”;  And Jesus says, “now that’s faith!”

John Wesley and the Mission of God, part 3: A Therapeutic Understanding of Salvation

John Wesley’s theology of salvation is sometimes said to combine the best of both the Western and Eastern traditions, meaning he combines a forensic understanding of salvation with a therapeutic understanding of salvation.    Western Christianity has tended to focus on sin as a guilt problem, and therefore preached salvation primarily in terms of forgiveness (forensic/legal language).    The Eastern tradition has tended to focus on sin as a sickness problem, and therefore preached salvation primarily in terms of healing (therapeutic language).

Wesley was able to draw on both of these traditions by integrating the Western concern with guilt into an Eastern-influenced therapeutic understanding of salvation.   This meant that, overall, Wesley saw salvation as a dynamic, relational process of healing from all the sickness of sin, but included the classic protestant understanding of justification as an important aspect of this process.

Consider the following two quotes, illustrating these two aspects of salvation.

Forensic: Sermon 43, “The Scripture Way of Salvation,” §I.3

Justification is another word for pardon. It is the forgiveness of all our sins; and , what is necessarily implied therein, our acceptance with God. The price whereby this hath been procured for us (commonly termed “the meritorious cause of our justification”), is the blood and righteousness of Christ; or, to express it a little more clearly, all that Christ hath done and suffered for us, till He “poured out His soul for the transgressors.” The immediate effects of justification are, the peace of God, a “peace that passeth all understanding,” and a “rejoicing in hope of the glory of God” “with joy unspeakable and full of glory.”

Therapeutic: Sermon 57, “On the Fall of Man,” §II.8

Hath he not then, seeing he alone is able, provided a remedy for all these evils? Yea, verily he hath! And a sufficient remedy; every way adequate to the disease… Here is a remedy provided for all our guilt: He “bore all our sins in his body on the tree.” And “if any one have sinned, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” And here is a remedy for all our disease, all the corruption of our nature. For God hath also, through the intercession of his Son, given us his Holy Spirit, to renew us both “in knowledge,” in his natural image; — opening the eyes of our understanding, and enlightening us with all such knowledge as is requisite to our pleasing God; — and also in his moral image, namely, “righteousness and true holiness.”

The point of what I’m trying to say is that salvation, for Wesley, is  not found simply in being “declared” righteous (justification), but in being healed of all the corruption of sin, and conformed to the likeness of Christ.   Therefore, the salvation that God has prepared for us is something which begins now, but extends to the resurrection.  People sometimes speak of receiving forgiveness of sin as “being saved,” but this is not the whole story. Justification is one aspect of salvation, but properly speaking, salvation includes regeneration, justification, sanctification, and glorification.  These terms are ways of describing the initial, ongoing, and final deliverance from sin.

This has important implications for our understanding of the mission of God.  Mission is not simply about gaining “converts,” but also about cooperating with the Spirit’s healing work in people’s lives.   This also means that God’s mission is not only for those outside the church but for believers as well, who are currently experiencing the ongoing healing work of God in their lives.

In other words, mission is not only “outreach” but also includes the corporate life of the church.  Cultivating holiness, spurring one another on in our response to God’s ongoing work in our lives, teaching, catechizing, discipling – all these things which help to form people as disciples are part of the church’s mission

Wesley’s therapeutic understanding of salvation could be extended to other areas of “healing” (social, psychological, environmental), but I will leave that for another post.