By Ken Yates
Recently, I had lunch with some friends at a restaurant. It was a Sunday afternoon and we had just left church, so we were in the mood to discuss a little theology. One of them asked me a question about faith. He asked, “Is it a quantity or a state?”
I think it took all of us at the table a couple of seconds to realize what he was asking. That was certainly the case with me. But I quickly realized that I had been involved in this discussion before, just worded differently. After giving it some thought, I see that my friend’s idea is a clever way of phrasing the concept.
Quantity, of course, refers to the amount of something. We might say that I have twelve ounces of water in a cup. After drinking some of it, I might say that I now have eight ounces. In this example, I am talking about the quantity of water in the cup. The quantity changes. I can have more or less of something, in this case water. When I have twelve ounces in a cup, I can say I have a greater quantity of water than when I have eight ounces.
The state of something is different. It is what it is. Water is water. In this illustration, whether I have twelve ounces or eight ounces, I still say that I have water in my cup.
WHICH ONE DESCRIBES FAITH?
When it comes to faith, many people say we should see it as a quantity. We hear many phrases that express this idea. Some of these include: “You don’t have enough faith”; “You need to grow in your faith”; “Do you really believe that?”; or “Your faith is weak.”
All of these sentiments are saying that faith—believing something—is on a spectrum. The issue is how much, or the quantity of, faith. The person in question has faith, but they need more of it.
One of the most obvious ways we encounter this occurs when people pray. A Christian might pray for something. If the prayer is not answered in the expected way, someone will say, “Well, you didn’t have enough faith.” It is like saying you have eight ounces of faith, but you need twelve ounces. This is a common refrain with so-called faith healers. They deceive people with their supposed ability to heal the sick. When their methods don’t work, they simply point out that the person was not healed because of their quantity of faith. If they had had more faith, the healer’s method would have been successful.
But faith is not a quantity. It is a state. We could say it is the state of being convinced that something is true. When it comes to believing something, you are either convinced it is true or you are not. If I am not convinced that something is true, it is not because I have weak faith that needs to grow. I do not have faith at all.
For example, I believe that George Washington was our first president. I cannot grow in that faith. If I study history more, I will not have a stronger faith. I believe it. It is what it is. In the case of a person who believes that they will be healed by a faith healer, they have faith. Their faith was wrong, but it was faith. It is improper to say they didn’t have enough faith.
But there are some places in the NT that seem to describe faith as a quantity. There are two examples in Matthew of people who have “great” faith. This seems to support the idea that one can have a greater amount of faith. A closer look at these two people will show that this is not the case. After studying them, we can draw some conclusions.
A ROMAN CENTURION (MATT 8:10)
One day, a Roman centurion comes to Jesus because he has a problem. He has a dear friend who works for him and who is deathly ill. The centurion has heard that Jesus is able to heal the sick. Perhaps he has even seen Jesus perform some of these miracles. In any event, it is clear from the account that he believes that Jesus has this power. He is convinced it is true. For this reason, he comes to the Lord and asks him to heal his friend.
The Lord agrees to do so, and tells the centurion that He will go to his house and heal the man (8:7). But the centurion does not want the Lord to come to his home. He feels he is unworthy of having Someone with this power to enter his home. The centurion says he is not worthy of such an honor. He says that if Jesus simply says the word, he knows that his friend will be well.
When Jesus hears this, he comments that this centurion has “great” faith. In fact, He has not seen such great faith anywhere in Israel. Many take this to mean that the man had a large quantity of faith. He really believed that Jesus could heal. His cup of faith was overflowing.
But that is not what is happening. Many people in Israel believed that Jesus could heal the sick. In that regard, the centurion had a faith that many others possessed. What was different about him? He believed something more.
For the first time in Matthew, a person believes that Jesus can heal over a distance. This centurion believed that Jesus’ power was so great that He only had to say the word. Jesus did not have to come to his home and touch his friend. Jesus had never seen anybody who believed that.
The faith of this man was not “great” because he believed more than others in the fact that Jesus could heal. He believed something nobody else believed. He believed more things about the Lord than others. But whether we talk about this man’s faith in Jesus’ power to heal, or about his faith that the Lord could heal over a distance, in each case he was convinced it was true. Faith is faith.
ANOTHER PERSON WITH GREAT FAITH (MATT 15:28)
In Matt 15:28, Jesus refers to another Gentile as having great faith. She is like the centurion in that she, too, wants Jesus to heal somebody. In her case, it is her daughter, who is possessed by a demon. She clearly believes—is convinced it is true—that He can do it. She comes to the Lord and repeatedly asks Him to heal the girl.
Jesus responds to her request by telling her that He has come to minister to the Jews, especially His disciples. They are His children. They take priority over the Gentiles, just as the children in a home take priority over the needs of a family pet. Therefore, He will devote His time and healing ministry to the Jews.
The woman gives an amazing response. She acknowledges that she is the family pet in the Lord’s illustration. However, she points out that the pet in that family receives the crumbs that fall from the children’s table. What she is saying is that His food—His power—is so great that even those who are not His priority can benefit from it. He is so majestic that He is able to feed His disciples and her daughter at the same time. She can be healed without His taking any time away from the disciples. Even Gentiles can be healed by His word while He is feeding His children.
The Lord is impressed with this woman’s faith. He calls it “great.” Was it great because she believed Jesus could heal more than other people believed He could heal? No. She believed that. But she believed something else. She believed that even though He was the Jewish Messiah, His mercy and power were so great that they were available to all, not just the Jews. Gentiles could be blessed by the crumbs that fell from His table. Others did not believe that. She did.
Faith is not a quantity. It is a state. You are either convinced that something is true, or you are not. If you are convinced it is true, it is improper to then say you need to grow in that faith.
“Great faith” means you believe more things. In the case of the centurion, he believed that Jesus could heal. His faith was “great” because he also believed He could heal over a distance. In the case of the Gentile woman, she, too, believed Jesus could heal. Her faith was “great” because she also believed that His power was available to all, including Gentiles.
For the unbeliever, the Bible invites you to have faith. You are called to be convinced that Jesus promises to give you eternal life when you simply believe in Him for that promise. When you are convinced that is true, you have believed. That is faith.
After we have believed, the Scriptures tell us to believe many other things. For example, they speak of rewards, of suffering for Christ, and of the need to serve others, to name a few. The more things we believe, the greater our faith. But faith in whatever we believe is still simply faith.
Ken Yates is a retired Army chaplain (Lt. Col). He has many theological degrees, including a Ph.D. from D.T.S. in New Testament. He leads the GES international ministry, cohosts the daily podcast, and assists Bob in all aspects of the GES ministry. His new book, Elisabeth, is a powerful testimony to the power of God manifested in a Christ-centered family. He and his wife, Pam, live in Columbia, SC.