Sin, Faith, Duty

“I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have the power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”

  Paul, Ephesians 3:17-19

Since all our love for God is ultimately a response to His love for us, we can never love him in the same way He loves us, namely, gratuitously.  Since we are fundamentally dependent on God and in His debt for our creation and redemption, our love is always owed to Him, a response to His love.  But we can love our neighbor gratuitously – not because of anything the neighbor has done for us or because of anything that we owe him, but simply because love has been freely given to us.

 Ralph Martin, The Fulfillment of All Desire

The Encounter

 1Jesus said to his disciples: “Things that cause people to sin are bound to come, but woe to that person through whom they come. 2It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin. 3So watch yourselves.
      “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. 4If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.” 

 5The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 

 6He replied, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you. 

 7“Suppose one of you had a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Would he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? 8Would he not rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? 9Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? 10So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’ ” 

Luke 17:1-10

Some Observations

Jesus captures four ideas as he teaches his disciples about sin, forgiveness, faith and service.  He begins by taking sin one level removed – not the person committing the sin, but the person who has played a role in causing the person to sin.  Jesus has been quite clear thus far on our need to repent of sin and follow him, but here he issues a very stern warning against a person who is part of the cause of another’s sin (“. . . better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin.”).

What are examples of this?  Certainly we can finger some easy targets if we consider societal issues, e.g., those who profit by luring others into destructive lives, say the machine behind the global drug trade or the many tentacles of the exploitative sex industry.  Yet we must consider our own daily lives.  What about angering a spouse or friend to the degree that, in their anger, they sin?  Or asserting our self-interest in a certain situation to the extent the other party is left with an ethical quandary?  Or our outright temptation, perhaps unwittingly, of someone in an area they struggle?

Ultimately, we are each responsible for our own actions, yet we must be aware of how our actions are influencing others.  At the crux of this is Jesus’ continued admonition that we love our neighbor as we love ourselves.  This means putting their interest on par with our own (though we are admonished by Paul to consider others better than ourselves).  In living this way, we certainly reduce the possibility of leading another into sin.

Jesus next turns to the person against whom sin has been committed.  Here he states that if we are sinned against by a brother, we are to rebuke him . .  . not ignore, not to retaliate, but rebuke.  To be clear, a rebuke is not judgment or self-righteous condemnation, but rather presenting the perceived wrong to the person with the intention of reconciliation rather than festering resentment.

Jesus next says that when such a brother asks forgiveness, we are to do so without reservation.  To underscore this point, he says that if a brother sins against us seven times in a day and repents each time, we are to forgive him seven times.  We forgive as we have been forgiven.  Seven times a day for 365 days equal 2,555 offenses in a year and I think Jesus is expecting the disciples to do the math.  Their response is priceless: “Increase our faith!”  In other words, “You’ve GOT to be joking . . . “

Jesus then ups the ante.  He does not respond to the apostles’ emphatic demand that he increase their faith, but makes the very visual claim that if they have faith as small as a mustard seed, they can order a mulberry tree to be uprooted and planted in the sea.  Hyperbole to underscore our need to pray with confident faith (a perpetual theme of Scripture) or a literal claim that earnest and intense faith in intercessory prayer moves God to response (and, by implication, prayers not accompanied by strong faith should not expect a response)?  

Finally, Jesus uses a rhetorical question to illustrate our attitude as we obey his teaching to humbly serve others.  We must be on guard against ego or pride, even – or especially – as we engage in sacrificial deeds, relationships and ministry.   As we forgive our brother seven times a day, seven days a week for seventy years (that’d be 178,850 incidents) if required to exhibit a drop of mercy as compared to the ocean of which we have been granted by God, we must be on vigilant guard to remember that no amount of virtuous service can pay back such favor and grace.  We obey our Master in response to his graciousness and faithfulness to us.  While he calls us sons and daughters and we are indeed heirs to his kingdom, we must never lose sight of the great debt we have to our loving Father.  Our service in obedience to God creates no entitlement; our attitude should be that we are merely doing our duty as humble and unworthy servants to a merciful King who has liberated us from the condemnation we are due in our sin.


“A man’s wisdom gives him patience; it is his glory to overlook an offense.”

  Proverbs 19:11

A Prayer

“Teach me your way, O Lord, and I will walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name.  I will praise you, O Lord my God, with all my heart; I will glorify your name forever.  For great is your love for me; you have delivered me from the depths of the grave.

You, O Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.”

  Psalm 86:11-13, 15