Charles Simeon Commentary - Luke 17:5 - 17:6

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Charles Simeon Commentary - Luke 17:5 - 17:6

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Luk_17:5-6. And the Apostles said unto the Lord, Increase our faith. And the Lord said, If ye had faith as a grain of mustard-seed, ye might say unto this sycamine-tree, Be thou plucked up by the root, and be thou planted in the sea: and it should obey you.

THE Gospel is truly “a doctrine according to godliness:” its precepts are as much superior to heathen morals, as its doctrines are to the heathen mythology. The forgiveness of injuries is required of the followers of Christ, to an extent that unassisted reason would have deemed neither practicable nor desirable. Our Lord told his Disciples, that they must not only forgive any occasional offence, but forgive it, however often it might be committed; provided the offender acknowledged his fault, and professed a determination to amend it. This seemed to them “an hard saying,” and a requisition which far exceeded the powers of human nature to comply with: they therefore entreated him to “increase their faith.” Now such a petition, so introduced, appears absurd: but it was, in reality, most judicious. In proof of this we shall shew,

I.       The reason of it—

At first sight we are ready to think that they should have prayed for an increase of patience or of love; since those graces appear far more intimately connected with the forgiveness of injuries than faith: but they were correct in their judgment, and right in their petition: for, respecting faith, it must be said,

1.       It is the root of all acceptable obedience—

[We may perform works that shall appear good, though we have no faith; but none that are really good: for, in order to be good and acceptable to God, they must flow from a principle of love to God; they must also be performed with a readiness of mind, as to the Lord: and with an unfeigned desire that he may be glorified by them. But whence can we obtain this principle? or how can we act in such a manner, or for such an end, if we have not been led by faith into a view of his glorious character, and to the knowledge of the obligations we owe him in Christ Jesus? We might as well expect to find fruit on a tree that has no root, as such actions without an humble and lively faith. Our Lord himself tells us, that “without him,” that is, without an union with him by faith, “we can do nothing:” and St. Paul tells us, that “without faith it is impossible to please God.” The Thirteenth Article of our Church also confirms the same in the most express terms. Indeed all holy actions and affections are called, “the fruits of the Spirit:” but it is by faith only that we obtain the Spirit: consequently, they must all be traced to faith, as the proper root from whence they spring.]

2.       It is particularly influential in the production of a forgiving spirit—

[Till we know what we ourselves merit before God, and what mercy is offered to us in the Gospel of his Son, we shall be disposed to resent an injury that is done to us: at least, if we abstain from any vindictive acts, we shall feel an inward corroding of spirit, when the remembrance of the injury occurs to our minds. But let a person have a just view of redeeming love, and it will soon calm all his angry passions: when pained with the recollection of the evil treatment he has received, he will call to mind his own conduct towards God: when disposed to complain of others, he will think what reason he has given to God to complain of him: and when called upon to exercise forgiveness, he will bear in mind what mercy he himself has exercised at the hands of God. This, I say, is the necessary fruit of faith: for, “having been forgiven ten thousand talents, can he take a fellow-creature by the throat for a few pence [Note: Mat_18:32-33.]?” No: “having been forgiven much, he will love much.”]

Having on these grounds presented to their Lord a petition for an increase of faith, he approved of their petition, and proceeded instantly to mark,

II.      The importance of it—

Two things he intimates to them;

1.       That faith was an irresistible principle—

[What could convey an idea of difficulty more than the plucking up of a sycamore-tree by the roots, and planting it steadfastly in the tempestuous ocean? yet our Lord told them, that faith would be able to effect even that; and, consequently, it could pluck up by the roots their most inveterate resentments, and establish their minds even in the midst of the most tumultuous scenes. Accordingly we find that faith has done all these things [Note: Hebrews 11. throughout.]: and what it has done for others, it can, and shall, do for us. Indeed, it brings, if we may so express ourselves, a kind of omnipotence into the soul, inasmuch as it interests Omnipotence in our behalf: and God himself says concerning it, “All things are possible to him that believeth.” Nor is this true only of faith in its most enlarged measure, and its strongest exercises: if it exist only in a small measure, it shall operate nevertheless to the production of the greatest good. Doubtless its effects will be proportioned to the measure of its existence in the soul: but still its operation will be exceeding powerful, even though it be small “as a grain of mustard-seed;” for the weakest faith, if genuine, unites us to Christ, and makes us partakers of all his fulness, even as the branch of a vine participates all the virtue of the stock and root. Moreover the smallest faith brings the Holy Spirit into the soul, and secures to us his almighty operations as far as they shall be necessary for our welfare. It also interests us in all the promises; every one of which shall be fulfilled to us in their season. Though therefore strong faith will bring more glory to God, the weakest faith shall ultimately prevail to the saving of our souls.]

2.       That they had done well in asking it at his hands—

[Our Lord did not decline the honour which they offered him. On many occasions they had asked of him what none but God could bestow: and, had he not been God, as well as man, he would have rectified their error, and taught them to pray only and exclusively to his heavenly Father. When John mistook an angel for the Deity, and “fell at his feet to worship him, the angel forbad him, saying, See thou do it not: I am thy fellow-servant: worship God [Note: Rev_19:10.].” So our Lord himself, when a certain lawyer, who conceived of him only as a man, gave him a title due only to God, reproved him, saying, “Why callest thou me good? there is none good but One, that is God.” But here he so commended the subject of their petition as manifestly to intimate his approbation of the petition itself. In like manner, when Paul, some years afterwards, prayed to him for the removal of the thorn in his flesh, Jesus answered him, “My grace is sufficient for thee [Note: 2Co_12:8-10.]: thereby leaving no room for doubt but that we may address our prayers to him, and that “he will fulfil all our petitions.” “Do we then need faith; or, possessing it already in a small degree, do we need to have it strengthened and increased?” let us remember, that “whatsoever we shall ask of him, or of the Father in his name, that will He do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son [Note: Joh_14:13.].” He has “all fulness treasured up in him;” yea, “in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily.” and “out of his fulness shall we all receive, even grace for grace.” As repentance is his gift [Note: Act_5:31.], so is faith also his gift [Note: Act_18:27. Eph_2:8. Php_1:27.]: wherever it exists, it is He who has wrought it in the heart [Note: Col_2:12.]; for he is both “the Author and the Finisher of it [Note: Heb_12:2.].” Let us then from day to day present to him the petition in our text, “Lord, increase our faith.”]

Now from this subject we may clearly learn,

1.       The true order of Christian duties—

[The Apostles asked for faith in order to produce in them a suitable practice: and this is what we also must do: we must not set ourselves, as many ignorantly do, first to perform good works, in order that they may serve as a warrant for believing in Christ: but we must believe in him, in order that we may be enabled to perform good words to his honour and glory. This may appear an unnecessary distinction; but it is of infinite importance: it lies at the very foundation of all our hopes, and of all our comforts. If we attempt to reverse this order, we shall be like persons who should prepare a superstructure without laying a foundation, or expect fruit from a tree that had no root. The Scripture is very express on this subject: we must lay hold on the promises first, and then make use of them for the purifying of our souls [Note: 2Co_7:1.]: we must first behold the glory of the Lord in the Gospel, and then by virtue of that sight be changed into his image [Note: 2Co_3:18.].]

2.       The proper tendency of faith—

[Why did the Apostles ask for faith? Was it to set aside the duties that had been just inculcated? No: it was, that they might be able to practise them. Perverse people will, though instructed to the contrary ten thousand times, represent the duty of faith as having a licentious tendency: but look into the Scriptures, and see how it wrought on the saints of old: or look to the fruits that are uniformly ascribed to it in the Scriptures: Is it not “by faith that we overcome the world?” Is it not also represented as “working by love” and “purifying the heart?” Perhaps it may be thought to bring us to duties in the first instance, and to set us above them afterwards. But behold its operation in its more advanced state; and hear what St. Paul says of the Thessalonian Church; “We are bound to thank God always for you, brethren, as it is meet, because that your faith groweth exceedingly, and (what? you are therefore above attending to good works? No: but) the charity of every one of you all towards each other aboundeth [Note: 2Th_1:3.].” Know then, that the prejudice which so generally obtains both against the grace and the doctrine of faith, is without any just foundation: and that, though a counterfeit grace will produce only a semblance of fruit, a living faith will uniformly operate to the production of good works.]

3.       The folly of calling ourselves believers, whilst we exercise an unforgiving spirit—

[It must be confessed, that many will pretend to faith, who yet indulge very unhallowed dispositions: they are proud, and wrathful, and vindictive; if not to the same extent as others, yet sufficiently to shew, that they are yet unsanctified and unrenewed. And what shall we say to such persons? Shall we encourage them to think that these tempers are to be regarded only as the infirmities of saints? No, in truth: “they are not the spots of God’s children,” but the proper character of the devil’s. The criterion given of his people is universal and infallible; “By their fruits ye shall know them: a corrupt tree cannot bring forth good fruit, nor a good tree bad fruit:” therefore our Lord repeats the admonition, “By their fruits ye shall know them [Note: Mat_7:16-20.].” Excuse not then yourselves, ye morose, quarrelsome, fretful, unforgiving people; for ye are trees that shall be “cut down and cast into the fire [Note: Mat_7:16-20.]:” ye are “trees, whose fruit withereth, without fruit, twice dead, plucked up by the roots; for whom is reserved the blackness of darkness for ever [Note: Jude, ver. 12, 13.].” Talk not of grace: for grace, that is not effectual, is no grace; and faith, that produces not holy tempers, is no better than the faith of devils [Note: Jam_2:19-20. with 1Co_13:2.]. If you complain, that you cannot overcome your tempers; I would say, Set about it in the right way. You make resolutions perhaps; and break them as soon as made: but go rather and exercise faith on God, and on his great and precious promises: go and contemplate the incomprehensible love of Christ in dying for you: go and sprinkle his blood upon your conscience, and get a sense of his pardoning love upon your soul: Go, I say, and get your faith increased, and exercised; and you shall no longer have to complain of want of power to do the will of God: let him “perfect that which is lacking in your faith;” and you will then be enabled to perfect that which is lacking in your practice: “through him strengthening you, you will be able to do all things [Note: Tit_3:8.].”]