What Believers Do


Luke 17:11-19

It is sometimes possible to follow Luke’s thinking in the arrangement of his material and perhaps that is possible here. The recognition that it is impossible for us to put God in our debt — the subject of the previous verses — leads naturally to the account of a man who was supremely grateful for what the Lord had done for him.

Text Comment

v.11     The last time we knew for sure where the Lord was, he was in Perea, the area east of the Jordan River. Now he is back on the west side of the river but still moving slowly toward Jerusalem. It does not seem that he was in any rush to reach the city, only needing to be there somewhat before Passover. So it seems he went this way and that, visiting various towns and villages along the way, following no natural north-south route, but not as much in Galilee has he had been before.

v.13     They met him at the entrance to the village because lepers were required by law to keep their distance from the general population. For the same reason they cried out to get the Lord’s attention. They had heard of Jesus, surely most lepers had by this time, and called him by name.

v.14     Enigmatically, he did not tell them that they were cured, or even that they would be; nor did he approach them and touch them, as he did in other cases when he healed lepers. He simply told them to show themselves to the priest, which the Law of Moses required of those who had recovered from skin diseases: they need the permission of the priest to return to society. “The priest served as a kind of health inspector to certify that a cure had in fact taken place (Lev. 14:2ff).” [Morris, 275]

In other words, the Lord put their faith in him to the test by asking them to act on the assumption that obedience to him would lead to a cure. The cure did not come until they had left him and were on their way to see the priest. The Lord’s power is unlimited. He didn’t have to be present to effect the healing, as he had shown in the case of the centurion’s servant in chapter 7.

v.16     So the man did not go on to see the priest until he had first returned to Jesus to offer his thanks. The fact that he praised God, as others who had been healed by Jesus had done before him, indicates that he saw in what Jesus had done for him the power and mercy of God. He had his social confidence as well as his physical health restored as is indicated by the fact that he no longer called to Jesus from a distance but came right up to him before bowing before him. [Bock, ii, 1403]

            The fact that the man was a Samaritan is added as a kind of afterthought. But it was an important detail. Jews and Samaritans did not like one another or associate with one another in those days. For this man to fall down before a Jew was a further mark of his humility and his gratitude. And it was further the demonstration that faith in Christ and nothing else is what matters.

v.18     The suggestion appears to be that the other lepers who had been healed were Jews; and that it was only the Samaritan who was not only happy to be cured but grateful to the one who had cured him, so grateful that he had to express his gratitude immediately.

v.19     As we have pointed out in a previous instance of the Lord’s use of these same words, the two Greek words translated “has made you well” could just as well be translated “has saved you.” It is the ordinary word used for “save” in the sense of salvation from sin and death. Indeed, it is hard not to see here a man who has been saved in the deeper, eternal sense, precisely because he was a man of real faith. And, as always, the Lord’s miracles were intended to be a picture of salvation in that deeper sense, just as the diseases from which he healed so many people were pictures of man’s sickness in sin.

            The fact is that the Lord’s remark clearly suggests that the Samaritan’s faith had obtained for him what the other nine did not obtain. But they were all healed of their leprosy. What the Samaritan got was eternal life!

Dr. J. Oliver Buswell was, if I remember correctly, the youngest chaplain to serve overseas in the United States army in the First World War. He was allowed by the Presbyterian Church to be ordained for the chaplaincy even though he hadn’t finished his seminary studies because of the great need of the hour. But they didn’t relax their ordination standards. He still had to write a Latin essay on a theological theme and still pass all his presbytery examinations. In From Doniphan to Verdun: The Official History of the 140th Infantry, we read this:

“Two Chaplains joined us in the Vosges. Chaplain Oliver P. Buswell, Jr. [sic], a Presbyterian who was assigned to the second Battalion. Chaplain Buswell, a young man of twenty-three, was gifted with a magnificent physique, a splendid musical voice, brains and common sense. He won the hearts of the men at once, and his work was of the greatest value to the regiment. There was no more popular chaplain in the A.E.F. He was wounded in the Argonne, and cited in orders for bravery. He did not know the meaning of fear, and thought only of his men. From the 17th of August, when he joined the regiment, his presence and influence was of the greatest value. His genuine and simple Christian spirit won the respect and admiration of all who knew him. Always cheerful, never discouraging, he deserves with Chaplain Hart the credit for making real religion respected in the regiment.”

What a great thing to be said about an army chaplain! As a Christian, Buswell was a man of action! A few years later Buswell became the youngest college president in the country when he became president of Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois in 1926 at 31 years of age. Over the next decade he put Wheaton on the map, seeing the college through accreditation, building up its faculty with real scholars, adding substantially to its offerings in the sciences, and so on. Years later, as some of you know, he became the first professor of theology at our Covenant Theological Seminary, where he taught until his retirement. As a boy, I grew up around Dr. Buswell. His home was only a hop, skip and a jump from ours. He was a revered figure in our circles, and, as you can understand, deservedly so.

Dr. Buswell was a churchman and a pastor, but also, even as a young man, a scholar. Everyone who goes to seminary eventually becomes familiar with Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, and Danker’s A Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. BAGD, as it is usually referred to, is the standard dictionary of New Testament Greek, used by all scholars and hosts of pastors. Expensive as it is, you can find it on virtually any studious pastor’s bookshelf. What word is more important in a dictionary of NT Greek than πίστις, the Greek word for “faith,” the word we find here in v. 19: “rise and go your way; your faith has saved you.”

In the long article on πίστις and its use in the NT in BADG you find a bibliography at the bottom. In that bibliography, that list of books and articles chosen for their value in illuminating the meaning of the word πίστις as it is used in the NT you find this: “J.O. Buswell, ‘The Ethics of “Believe” in the Fourth Gospel,’” an article that a young Mr. Buswell published in 1923 when he was 28 years old and no one had yet heard of him in the scholarly world. He wouldn’t be a “doctor” for some years afterward. Do you have any idea how many articles might have been listed in that bibliography, how many articles and books have been devoted through the years to the subject of faith in the New Testament. But among that select few you find Dr. Buswell’s article. You find the same article referenced in some other important books of 20th century New Testament scholarship including the famous Kittel, or, more accurately, the immense, ten volumes of The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, and Rudolf Bultmann’s sadly influential Theology of the New Testament, translated from its German original.

What the young scholar demonstrated so effectively in that article was just this: in the Gospel of John, as elsewhere in the NT, the words “to believe” and “faith” — for while in English the verb and the noun do not belong to the same word group, in Greek the two words “to believe” and “faith” are variations of one another — have a strongly ethical character. For the Jews and the Greeks of the day, to believe was one thing, to “do” was another. Their ethics were little related to their beliefs. The Greeks, for example, had a set of religious beliefs, but their ethics, what they thought right to do, were largely unrelated to those beliefs. Their ethics came from their philosophers and had nothing to do with what they believed about the gods or how they worshipped and served their gods. In a similar way, the Jews of Jesus day had a religious mind, a theology based upon the Old Testament, but their ethics had developed in a way largely unrelated to that grand story of redemption. An advanced form of genuine legalism, which you cannot find in the OT, had replaced the theological ethics of the Old Testament. The ethics of the Jews had nothing to do with the grand story of Israel’s redemption, with her sacrificial worship, with her trust in the mercy of God. They were simply patched on to a religion with which they were really incompatible. This disconnection between theology and ethics is, in fact, virtually universal among human beings. You find it, for example, in Islam and you find the same thing in secular humanism of the modern stripe. Whatever people believe about God, about time, about the future, about the meaning of life, has comparatively little to nothing to do with what they think they ought to do and how they ought to behave.

But that is not true in Christianity, uniquely so. For Jesus to believe was to do, to believe, really to believe, inevitably and necessarily led to a certain kind of behavior. This is why humility before God and man, a life demonstrating gratitude to God, joy in salvation, and obedience to God’s commandments loom so large in Christian ethics. When salvation is understood to be God’s free gift to the radically undeserving, when salvation is understood to have been purchased at terrible cost for us by our Savior on the cross, it is only to be expected that Christians should want to know what God wants them to do so that they can please him, thank him, and honor him with their lives. Since imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it is only to be expected that Christians, delivered from death by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, should want to become more like him. That is our theology and our ethics flow naturally from it. If there were no commandments in the Word of God, the Christian life would look largely the same, so profoundly do our beliefs about man, about God, and about salvation shape the way we live and know we ought to live.

In the teaching of the Lord Jesus and the whole Bible to believe in God, to believe in Jesus means to live in a very specific way. In John’s Gospel, for example, as Dr. Buswell demonstrated long ago, to believe in Jesus always means to follow him, to serve him, to put him and his kingdom first in our heart, speech, and behavior. You couldn’t believe in Jesus and not love him and your neighbor in his name. So Paul can say, as he does at the end of his first letter to the Corinthians, “a curse on all those who do not love our Lord Jesus Christ.” It doesn’t make that much difference whether one says “those who do not believe in Jesus” or “those who do not love Jesus” because, in actual fact and in real life, it amounts to the same thing.

In the same way, over and over again in the New Testament we hear something like what we read in Hebrews 5:9, that Jesus became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him. We expect to read that he became the source of eternal salvation to all who believe in him, which of course would be absolutely true, but instead we read of those who obey him. Why? Because faith carries obedience within it, leads to obedience and must lead to it. Indeed, as Paul says in several places, faith itself is obedience of a kind. No wonder James can challenge us by saying, “Show me your faith by your works,” which is the same thing as saying, “Show me your faith by your obedience to God’s commandments.”

Now we can certainly distinguish faith from obedience. We understand what faith is — trust and confidence placed in the word and the work of another — and what obedience is — doing what we are told — but in the Bible, while faith and obedience can be distinguished from one another, they can never be separated, and in life they are not separated. We believe by obeying and we obey because we believe. So the Samaritan leper here. He believed in the Lord’s power to heal him sufficiently that, when commanded to do so, he set off to show himself to the priest although he was still very much a leper. His skin hadn’t changed. He had felt no healing in his body. He had seen no evidence of healing on the bodies of the other nine with him. But he went nevertheless because Jesus told him to. His going was an act of faith, confidence in Christ’s power to heal, but it was also, at the same time, an act of obedience. Because he believed he did what the Lord told him to do. His believing was doing and doing a very specific thing: the thing the Lord told him to do.

Now it is not at all difficult to understand why the Lord would ring the changes on the ethical nature of faith, how it leads and must lead to a certain kind of behavior, all the more as his ministry drew to its close and he knew he would soon face the crisis for which he had come into the world. He did everything he could in the later stages of his ministry to make clear to people the difference between genuine faith, the faith that saves you as he puts it here in v. 19, and its imitations, of which there were and have always been many. The Jews, and the Samaritans for that matter, all thought that they believed in God and that God would accept them as believers. They knew it was important to believe, but they did not imagine that they might not be among the believers. They were sure they were. They were sons of Abraham after all and prided themselves on the fact. But whatever it was they believed and however it was that they believed their faith had not led them to do what true faith does and so it had not saved them!

And so again and again the Lord rang the changes on the ethical nature of faith, on the doing that stems from true faith. The difference between true and spurious faith has been a subject of the Gospel all along. What real faith does was the subject of the previous short paragraphs. It was the theme of the three great parables of chapter 15, as well as everything in chapter 16. Indeed, apart from his own impending death and resurrection, the emphasis of the Lord’s later ministry fell primarily on the ethical nature of true, living, and saving faith. What real faith does is what this Samaritan leper did: he called out to Jesus for salvation, he confessed Jesus as his master, he obeyed the Lord’s instructions, he rejoiced in God’s mercy, he gave thanks to the Lord for his mercy to him, and he humbled himself in the dust before his feet. He did, in other words, all the things that most of the Jews would not do because they did not have real faith in God and certainly had none in Jesus. Faith in God does not lead a man to invest his confidence in salvation in any of the things the Jews were confident of; it leads rather to confessing Jesus as Lord, rejoicing in the salvation only he can give, and doing what he commands.

This was not the message the Lord’s countrymen thought important — what living faith consists of and what it does — but it was what the Lord thought it vitally important to teach them: that his countrymen would know what real faith is by learning what it does. We can’t see the heart; we can’t even see our own hearts most of the time; we can only see the actions. Actions of a certain kind make faith visible.

If you consult the standard systematic theologies and their treatment of faith, as faith is taught in the Bible, you will find that Christian theologians for a thousand years have discussed the several distinct kinds or types of faith that one finds in the Bible. These distinctions are made necessary by the fact that the Bible speaks of people believing who clearly do not have saving faith. That is, they believe in a certain sense, but not in the way that matters. Jesus would never have said to them that their faith had saved them, even though they were believers of a kind. There is, for example, our theologians tell us, what they call, historical faith, by which is meant a purely intellectual apprehension of the truth, but devoid of any commitment of the heart. People may believe, for example, as the Pharisees did, that the events reported in the Bible actually occurred as the Scripture relates them: that God gave the law to Moses on Mount Sinai, that he parted the waters of the Sea of Reeds before the Israelites, that he spoke through the prophets, and so on. A person might accept the truth of those narratives as one might accept the truth of any historical record. But the implications of that history are not understood, are not embraced, and are not practiced in one’s life. Geza Vermes, an important NT scholar, a Jewish scholar, wrote a major work on the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. After surveying the historical evidence, he came to the conclusion that it seems almost certain that Jesus of Nazareth actually rose from the dead. But he says, while that may make him the Savior of Gentiles, it doesn’t make him the Savior of Jews. It doesn’t make him his Savior. Jesus may have risen from the dead, but that fact didn’t make Vermes a follower of Jesus. That is only historical faith.

Our theologians also speak of miraculous faith, by which they mean the very sort of faith displayed by these lepers here in Luke 17 and by literally hundreds of others whom the Lord encountered during his ministry. These lepers all went to show themselves to the priest when Jesus told them to do so. They didn’t complain, they didn’t quibble, as Naaman had done when told by Elisha to go wash in the Jordan river if he wished to be cured of his leprosy. They took the Lord at his word. They had heard too many accounts of people being healed. At least they thought doing what he told them to do worth the venture. They all exercised real confidence in the power of the Lord Jesus to heal them of their disease. They were all healed, as a matter of fact. But their faith stopped short of saving faith except in the case of the one Samaritan leper who came back to give thanks and surrender his life to Jesus Christ.

What these various kinds of faith prove is that there are many kinds of faith that fall short of the real thing, the faith that saves. The Jews had faith of a kind, but it did not save them as this leper’s faith saved him. People today, in Christian churches and outside of them, have faith in God of a kind, most Americans do, but it is not that living, acting, faith in Jesus, that ethical faith in Jesus that saves from sin and death.

What Jesus showed these men and us by the instructions he gave, by his healing these lepers in this somewhat unusual way, was that one can test the reality of saving faith by love and by gratitude expressing itself in action. In the one case they believed that Jesus could heal them. In fact, after a constant succession of miraculous healings over several years, without one failure, it is hardly strange that these lepers cried out to Jesus in hopes of being healed. It would have been strange had they not done so. But to believe that he could heal them — which power multitudes had witnessed with their own eyes and which these ten men must have heard of repeatedly — was not the same thing as turning back and falling at Jesus’ feet, giving praise to God. That made a man a disciple of Jesus, not simply one of many whom he had helped.

And this man was a Samaritan! That only further indicates the true nature of the difference between real faith and all of its substitutes. The other nine lepers were Jews, but the whole matter of their relationship to God was a foregone conclusion to them, as it is to vast multitudes today. Their hearts were impervious to the wonder of the divine grace and power that had been demonstrated in this most remarkable way. They had no thought of the divine glory of Jesus himself. Wonderful as their healing was, it was possible for them to go on with their fundamental view themselves and of God and life unchanged. of life unchanged. What a perfect description of so many people is Bernard of Clairvaux’ description of these nine lepers: “demanding to receive, restless till they receive, ungrateful when they have received.” Or, as Calvin described them: “…want and hunger give birth to faith, which fullness kills.” They had what they wanted; they went on. Only the Samaritan saw in his healing the meaning of his life and the place that Jesus must now occupy in it.

I read the other day a tribute to Joan McNutt, whom some of you may have met in years past. Joan was a member of Ian Hamilton’s and then David Randall’s congregation in Newmilns, Scotland, the congregation that has so often hosted our Covenant High School students on their trip to Great Britain. Ian wrote this tribute for the Banner of Truth magazine.

“In the late summer of 1979, I was installed as the minister of Loudoun Church of Scotland, Newmilns, Ayrshire. As a young man I was daunted by the prospect of ministering the saving gospel of God’s grace in a community known for its indifference to the gospel. Within a few weeks of beginning my ministry, a young married woman asked if she could become a church member. I didn’t recollect seeing her before, but I encouraged her to come to an enquirer’s class that was soon to begin. Joan came and listened intently. After, I think it was the third meeting, she said to me, ‘Mr. Hamilton, I don’t understand a word you are saying.’ Joan was an intelligent young woman, a graduate of Glasgow University. It wasn’t that I was speaking Latin! It was that Joan was spiritually deaf and blind. The gospel was an enigma to her. I remember saying to her, ‘Well Joan, just keep coming and we will see what happens.’ Two weeks later, I was out visiting in the town and I saw Joan walking towards me. When she was about five or so paces from me I knew exactly what she was going to say to me. Her face was alight with joy. ‘I see it all. I understand. The gospel is wonderful.’ So began a life of joyful, trustful obedience in the Lord Jesus Christ that only ended in late November 2012 when it pleased the Lord to bring Joan into his nearer presence.

Ian goes on to say something more about Joan’s new life in Christ.

She once asked him, “Who is this John Owen you are always quoting; could I read him?’ With a little trepidation I gave her Owen’s work on Mortification (not the edited version!). A week or so later I visited her and found her doing household ironing, iron in one hand and Owen volume six in the other…” ‘This man is wonderful,’ she said. ‘He isn’t difficult to read at all’ (well, she was a graduate of Glasgow University). [If you haven’t guessed by now, Ian is a graduate of Glasgow University!] Joan had a spiritual appetite. She had tasted the saving goodness of God and wanted to taste more…

Ian goes on to describe how Joan’s great interest upon becoming a Christian herself was the salvation of her husband John who showed no interest in Christ. For years thereafter he never darkened the door of the church. But then, twelve years after Joan’s coming to faith in Christ, John suddenly showed up in church and in a few weeks was a Christian himself. Ian explains: “…it was the relentless, unfailing, believing prayers of his wife that God was pleased to honour. Joan never let God go in prayer. She believed that God heard and answered prayer, so she prayed and prayed and prayed. In due time, the Lord was pleased wonderfully to answer her prayers for John — and for their two sons and grandchildren.” [“Joan McNutt: A Life Well Lived,” BOT 593 (Feb 2013) 6-7]

There you have it again: the difference that genuine faith, the faith that saves you, makes in a life; the things one begins to do because one believes. Never content yourself — this is the great lesson of this incident in the life and work of our Lord Jesus, why he sent them off as he did, what he said to the one who returned — never content yourself with a faith that does not do, and does not do for Jesus’ sake.