“LORD, INCREASE OUR FAITH”
A Sermon by B.H. Carroll
TEXT: Lord, increase our faith – LUKE 17:5.
The context embraces the first ten verses of this chapter. And it is well to note that in order of time, between the tenth verse of this chapter and the eleventh verse, there is a wide interval of many days and many wonderful events. There is no connection whatever as to time or thought between the first ten verses and the subsequent part of the chapter. But there is a direct connection between the first five verses and the second five.
This connection, when understood, suggests the occasion of the prayer of the disciples, “Lord, increase our faith.” Hence our first question is, What occasioned that prayer? It is not the first time they offered that prayer, nor will it be the last. It is a common prayer of Christians, “Lord, increase our faith.” But what led to this prayer this time? Evidently what he had just said about offenses, about stumbling. It is impossible but that occasions of stumbling will come. That is to say, as we are constituted, as matters now stand in the world, in view of the depravity of human nature, it is certain, it is unavoidable, that people fall into sin. You may be sure they will.
When the effects of the fall of man in Eden have been swept away and we live in a new earth and under a new heaven, it will not be impossible to live without sin, but it is impossible now. At the same time he says, “Woe unto that man by whom this occasion of stumbling comes. It were better that a millstone should be put about his neck and that he should be cast into the sea.” Then he says, “If these little ones stumble, rebuke them, and on their repentance forgive, seventy times seven.” Let there be no limit. Now, in view of these facts, the apostles say, “Lord, increase our faith.”
If I live in a world like that, where on the right hand and on the left hand people are falling; where every path of life has its obstruction; where in addition to the natural obstacles there is an evil spirit disposed to increase the obstruction; where evil men are tempting God’s people to fall into sin; if my whole pathway of life is beset by snares and traps and pitfalls, then “Lord, increase my faith.”
If I must be circumspect in my own conduct as a preacher; if I must put a restraint upon my liberty; if in some cases I must not contend for my rights; if I must all the time consider other people as well as myself; if when I go to eat meat, knowing, though it has been offered to an idol, that the idol is nothing, and that that meat will not hurt me, yet as I am eating in the sight of some that are weaker, and they see me, and may put a construction upon my action that will cause them to fall into a sin-if I am to live under conditions of such watchfulness and such self-denial as that, “Lord, increase my faith.”
And if an obligation rests upon me whenever I see a brother sin to faithfully rebuke him, to make an honest and faithful effort for his recovery, no mater how repugnant such a duty may be to me, no matter how timid my disposition may be, if the obligation of God is inexorable that I go and convince my brother of his sin and try to lead him back to God, then “O Lord, increase my faith.”
And if, having convinced him one time and a second time, and seven times, and seventy times seven, and he manifests a disposition to stumble again, and the law over me is just as binding as it was at the start – “Go, convince him of his sin; go bring him back, and on his repentance truly forgive him again” – then, “Lord, increase my faith.”
You see the connection, that we cannot hope as Christians to live in the path in which our Saviour commands us to walk, and to half-way discharge our duties here on this earth except by an all-pervasive, conquering principle of faith in God. Have faith in God!
This and the next thought are closely connected. He discerned in his disciples a spirit that needed to be corrected. He does not specify what the spirit is, but he leaves you to inherit from the lesson he teaches. See if you can so infer it, this fault he so kindly and delicately seeks to correct by this teaching: “Who is there of you, having a servant plowing or keeping sheep, that will say to him when he is come in from the field, Go straightway and sit down to meat, and will not rather say, Make ready wherewith I may sup, and gird thyself and serve me until I have eaten and drunken, and afterward thou shalt eat and drink. Would he thank the servant because he did the things that are commanded? Even so ye also when ye shall have done all the things that are commanded” – all the things, when you have been watchful over yourself lest you should lead a weaker brother into sin, when you have rebuked him in case he did sin, when you have convinced him of the sin that he committed and led him to repent of it, when upon his repentance you have forgiven him, when this forgiveness has been exercised seventy times seven, when you have done all. that was commanded you, then say, “We are unprofitable servants. We have done that which it was our duty to do.”
Now there was a fault in his disciples that he designed to correct by this teaching. What was it? And having such a fault, what was its relation to the prayer, “Lord, increase our faith”? It seems easy enough to find out that this fault was a feel of self-complacency, of self-satisfaction, of self-congratulation, when viewing the service we have performed. The temptation is persistent and insidious, and coming in a thousand Protean shapes assails us upon the right hand and on the left hand whenever we do anything that is right; a temptation that restrains our prayers when it makes us say, “See what a good man I am. Behold how excellent a Christian! See how self-denying I am; see how thoughtful about the weaknesses of others; see how I pay tithes of all that I possess! See how closely I follow in the footsteps of my Master! How could the Lord do without me? What would happen to this world if I should die? And oh, what a calamity to this community if I move to another community, and what a blessing upon that community if it shall gain me!” Do you see the spirit?
Pride dethroned an angel and dragged him down to chains of everlasting darkness. Pride was the condemnation of the devil, and we need continual watchfulness that it be not our condemnation. Now this spirit of pride was in the disciples. He is not here talking to the Pharisees. He is not talking to the unregenerate. He says, “Even so, ye also,” ye disciples, my own people; there is in you, in every one of you, in the best of you, in the highest and noblest and humblest and truest of you, there is a continual danger of leaning to self-righteousness, of feeling as if you had put God under an obligation, of feeling as if you were a very important steward, of feeling that he could not very well do without you.
But let me assure you, brethren, that if every one of us, in one moment, should instantly sink down to the depth of the ocean and leave no memento more lasting than the bursting bubbles that would rise, it would not in any sense interfere with the fulness and sufficiency of God. What can I confer upon him? If he were hungry would he ask me to feed him? From what resources can I gather a present to make unto the Lord? Lord, increase my faith.” In view of this internal enemy, this spirit of pride and self-complacency, that like a fly in the apothecary’s ointment spoils its fragrance, “O Lord, increase my faith.”
It seems incredible – the true things are always much more incredible than the fictitious – it seems incredible that in view of plain New Testament teaching any man ever should have supposed that he had done more than his duty; that having done more than his duty, by the amount of that excess he had created a fund of transferable grace and merit, what is called a work of supererogation, and that having thus in one case done more than he ought, this excess is entered to his credit; there is a surplus; and that now if at some future time he should fall short, he has only to check out of that surplus and balance the books, and if he should keep on adding to that surplus by doing more than he ought to do, and then should die, leaving that surplus to the credit of the church, and if there be a great many other good people like him, and they leave their surplus to the church, then after a while there will be a great fund of supererogation, so that under the direction of the earthly head of the church, if some man of the present day shall fall short, and he will do what the church tells him to do, the church can check on that surplus fund and patch out his work and make good what he had omitted.
But, incredible as this appears, it has been taught by thousands, and millions have believed it. It is taught in the name of Jesus Christ as if it were his doctrine, and how ready is the carnal mind to receive it! Have you heard of the word indulgence”? Have you studied the history of the doctrine of indulgences” and marked its demoralizing influence on human conduct? See the petitioner come to one credited with the deposit of surplus good works. What would he have? An “indulgence.” Indulged in what? To omit right or commit wrong. To be absolved from duty or to obtain immunity
from wrong already done or wrong as yet only purposed. Hear the petitioner: “I want to commit an offense, and before it is committed I want the account balanced by having passed over to my credit the superfluous merit of God’s people that has been gathered up through the ages. For such gracious privilege I am willing to pay somewhat.” Of course, if there be such precious deposit of surplus excellence in the hands of the church, and the church be disposed to sell this valuable property, it will find a ready sale and create a boundless revenue. That was a wonderful scene in Germany when Tetzel stood up and sold “indulgences” – sold privileges not to do right, sold privileges to do wrong, sold them on the ground that the church was the residuary legatee of all the surplus good that had been done, and could check on that accumulated fund of excess of merit and balance accounts that were not even. Whenever you admire the dome of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome, would it not be well to temper your admiration with the question: How much of this magnificence was paid for by Tetzel’s sale of “indulgences”?
Now our Saviour knew human nature. He knew the tendencies of that nature. He anticipated such teaching. He knew the pride of the human heart, and therefore he said to these disciples, “When you have done everything that I command you to do, whatever it is, then speak to your soul and say, ‘Unto God thou art an unprofitable servant.” “Though you work all day in the field plowing, or all day keeping sheep, thy night is God’s as well as the day. When you return from the field work, though you then gird yourself and still serve your Lord through all the night watches until day comes again, even then thou shalt say, “I am an unprofitable servant. I have only done what it was my duty to do. I have simply fulfilled the law of my being. I cannot do more than right. I cannot accumulate a surplus fund of merit, even if I never sin, even if I always do right.”
Consider another view of the case. It always made the apostle Paul ashamed to refer to what he had done, and he calls himself a fool every time he does it. He says, “Let me be a fool for your sake, when I recount what I have done and what I have suffered. Let me be a fool to talk about it. I have suffered a great deal. I have been whipped and stoned and imprisoned and left for dead. I have labored with these hands to support my necessities. I have labored more than all the other apostles. I have, night and day and with tears, devoted myself to the cause of Christ, here, there, every. where; but who made me different from another? God. By his grace l am what l am, and not by my own merit. I was a sinner, a blasphemer, a persecutor without merit and without hope in the world, and God, out of infinite mercy, saved me and conferred a favor on me in letting me be his servant; so that I have nothing of which to boast, nothing. And so I take up my crown, bright as it may be, and sparkling with stars as his grace may allow, and I lay it at the feet of my Redeemer and I say, Not unto me, not unto me, O Lord, but unto thy name, be honor and glory and power forever. I am only a sinner saved by grace.” That is the true thought of the gospel.
Now in view of this natural disposition, this prevalent state of mind and heart to glory in one’s self, this proneness to imagine a big balance in our favor, ought not every Christian to pray, “Lord, increase my faith – let me always have that kind of trust in God. Oh, keep back thy servant from presumptuous sins. Let them not have dominion over me. Let not the spirit of pride and self-complacency ever enter into my heart, and Lord, when I look up to heaven, let Jesus fill my vision and God be my only satisfying portion.”
I put this question to my Bible class this morning as I put it to you. After reading, “Who is there of you, having a servant plowing or keeping sheep, that will say unto him when he is come in from the field, ‘Come straightway and sit down to meat,’ and will not rather say unto him, ‘Make ready where with I may sup, and gird thyself and serve me until I have eaten and drunken, and afterward thou shalt eat and drink,'” the question was this: Is that part of the parable designed to teach God’s treatment of his obedient servants? It seems to make on the mind a harsh impression concerning God. Is that part of the parable designed to teach God’s attitude toward his faithful people? It is very clear that the parable is designed to teach what shall be our attitude of mind toward God; that we should say, “unprofitable servants”; that we should be willing to serve in the night though we had served in the day; that is clear. But is that part of it designed to represent God? And I answer, no, not at all. He would have a right to say that to us, but he does not say that.
In another connection we find his attitude. I read from the same Gospel of Luke, where the divine side of the thought is brought out, the twelfth chapter of Luke: “Let your loins be girded about and your lamps burning, and be ye yourselves like unto men looking for their lord when he shall return from the marriage feast, that when he cometh and knocketh they may straightway open unto him. Blessed are those servants whom the Lord when he cometh shall find watching. Verily I say unto you that he shall gird himself and make them sit down to meat and shall come and serve them.” There is the divine side of it.
Now I cannot, on account of any Christian duty that I have performed, say to my Lord, “Inasmuch as I work hard for you all day you must come and wait on me at night.” I cannot say that. I must say, *”My night is thine as well as my day and I have no claim on thee. I brought nothing in my hands when I came to thee.” But the Lord will say to me, “Sit thou down and I will gird myself, come and serve thee and wait upon thee.”
It is well to notice the limitation of each parable and not to try to prove everything from one view of a subject. The plowing servant represents what our reverent and submissive thought Godward should ever be. The passage from Luke, the twelfth chapter, reveals God’s gracious attitude toward us. will give you an object lesson on that. When the time came for our Lord to eat the last Passover, he sent two of his disciples to a certain place to make ready. Before going to eat the Passover, every Jew performed bodily ablutions, a complete bathing, but from that place of bathing to the house where they were to eat the Passover was an intervening distance, and in going over that, the feet would become dusty, having sandals only that did not cover the top of the feet, and hence when they got to the feast, he that was washed is clean already, needing only to wash his feet, but he did need to wash his feet. Now when they got to that upper chamber, somebody must make ready for performing the only ablution now necessary – the feet washing. But there is no servant here to do this, and the disciples had a dispute about it, those who esteemed themselves greatest being least willing to do a menial service. We can imagine how they discussed it. Peter, James, and John perhaps say, “It is evident from the fact that we have been singled out several times by our Lord that we are higher than the rest of you, and we cannot perform this menial service, and rather than to stoop we will sit down here and eat the Passover without having our feet washed.” And so they did, and our Lord saw it, and he saw that spirit of pride, that devilish spirit of self-complacency, of self-exaltation, and without saying a word he got up and girded himself and took a basin and a towel and went around and commenced to wash their feet. “If I, your Lord and Master!” Oh, what a lesson it was! How it showed the incredible spirit of pride that there is in the human heart! How often the lesson of humility must be repeated! How often we need to pray, “Lord, increase my faith.”
There remains for consideration one other thought: “If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed ye may say unto this sycamine tree, be thou rooted up and be thou planted in the sea, and it will obey.” As there was never an instance in the life of our Lord where on man’s order a tree standing on the shore in an instant transferred itself to the bottom of the sea, and as there is no instance where our Lord or any of his disciples commanded a mountain to be moved over into the sea, and as these literal things are found only in the Arabian Nights, what did our Lord mean? What did he mean to teach? What was harder to do than to move a tree from land to sea? What was harder to do than by speaking a word to move a mountain into the ocean? There were obstacles in the way of right doing, obstacles that to unassisted human nature were as insuperable as the moving of a mountain by a simple dictum.
You are commanded as a Christian, every day of your life, to do things that are impossible. You are commanded to do things that no fallen human nature can do. Let us look at some of them. First, never so use your liberty so as to put an occasion of stumbling in the path of a weak brother; never fail to rebuke a brother when he sins; never fail to convince him that he has sinned and lead him back to penitence; never fail to forgive him fully and freely as God forgives, when he does repent; never permit the spirit of self-complacency and pride to rise up in your heart when you look back over your work or look at your sacrifices.
I tell you that I would sooner undertake the tunneling of Mount Cenis, and I would expect with more certainty, by a single word of mine, when Vesuvius and Aetna and Hecla and Popocatepetl are in full eruption – I would sooner expect to put out their fire by a word than to speak to my own proud heart with expectation of obedience: “Never be proud. Never lay flattering unction to yourself. Always do right.” Give me the mountain.
And now, because these things are so hard to do, because, humanly speaking, they are impossible, because Omnipotence alone can do them, how can I make that Omnipotence mine? How can I use Omnipotence to put out volcanoes, to move mountains? How can I do it? By faith. God’s power becomes my power. His omnific energy is laid under tribute, if only renouncing self, if only relying on Jesus, if only by faith I can look up to him and lean on him, by faith I can do all things. Then, “Lord, increase our faith.”
Let us make an application of this. Our Saviour looked right into the eyes of eleven undowered, unlearned fishermen. They had none of the graces of cultivated society; they had no wealth; they had no army of friends. There was not a material resource upon the face of the earth upon which they could count. They had the dialect of the Galileans, so that their speech betrayed them. They had no trick of elocution or rhetoric. And he said to these men, “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. Go disciple all nations,” “Lord, we cannot do it.” “All power in heaven and on earth is given unto me; therefore, go, and I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Therefore, go.” “How shall I know thou art. with me? How shall I be conscious of thy presence? How shall I touch that power? How shall I do these impossible things?” By faith.” Then, “Lord, increase my faith.”
And it is just that way in the performance of the simplest Christian duty, whatever it is. It is true that as you cultivate this faith, it, like a grain of mustard seed, begins to grow, until it is the greatest of all herbs, the consciousness of the divine presence increases, the sense of the undergirding of the divine arm all the time becomes stronger with you, and more and more you begin to feel that there is nothing too hard for God. The Spirit of the Lord is not straitened. God’s ear is not deaf that he cannot hear. God can do anything whatsoever. Then, “Lord, increase my faith.”
Oh, put me in touch with this divine power, and having faith in God, I will refrain from the exercise of my liberty if it makes my weak brother stumble. Having faith in God, if he does stumble, I will go to him and bring him back. Having faith in God, I will forgive him when he repents. Having faith in God, I will tear from my head all the fading laurels of earthly glory and I will put myself at the feet of my Redeemer, as a sinner, saved by his grace. Having faith in God, I will preach his simple gospel. Trusting in the Word of the Lord, “thus saith the Lord,” eschewing all human means of gathering and holding men, turning away from them as from the plague, all cunning speech, all devices and tricks of elocution, and relying solely and wholly upon the simple gospel of Jesus Christ, I will go out preaching, and I will go out believing that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation of both Greeks and Jews.
I do not expect you to see what I show you now. I do not expect you to see it today. But you will see it. I say to you that under proper conditions of obedience to Jesus Christ, and under the prevalence of the gospel of Jesus Christ, which is just as certain to come here on this earth as the sun to shine, that this earth can produce and nurture two hundred and fifty billions of inhabitants. No plagues, no famines, no pestilences, no devils, no overshadowing by the woman in scarlet, false prophets dead and Babylon the great cast down, and the devil bound, and wars ended; no armies to take life; a world so thickly peopled and civilization advancing so fast that two hundred and fifty billions, instead of one billion, can occupy his planet, and there will be a thousand years of that kind – a thousand years of that peace. And in that thousand years there will be so many more people saved by the power of the gospel than have already existed on this earth, that the company of the lost, as compared with the company of the saved, “will not be more than the criminals in our jails and penitentiaries when compared to the citizens that are law abiding in this country.” It is possible with God. It is coming. The Jews will be converted. The Romanist power will be put down. The devil will be bound. A nation will be born to God in a day and the knowledge of the Lord will cover this earth as the waters cover the great deep. “Have faith in God.” “Lord, increase our faith.”