Why are Christians Sometimes “Fools and Slow of Heart to Believe”?
Then He said unto them, “O fools, and slow of heart to believe
all that the prophets have spoken!” — Luke 24:25
Doubt is the absence of certainty. Doubt is a form of unbelief, not necessarily, however, the unbelief that damns. Damning unbelief is the rejection of the Gospel of justification by grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith (Mark 16:16b; John 8:24; 12:48), ignorance of the Gospel (John 17:3; Romans 10:1-3; Ephesians 4:18), or doubt concerning one’s own salvation by faith in its promises (Mark 16:16b; John 3:18b; etc.). Damning unbelief is the absence of saving or justifying faith, that is, confidence in the mercy of God which remits sins for Christ’s sake totally apart from the works of the Law. General faith, on the other hand, accepts and trusts all the truths revealed in God’s Word; and this faith may be weak at times and fraught with doubts and misgivings (Matthew 14:27-31). It is really a fruit of saving faith; and, like the Christian’s entire life of sanctification, is imperfect because of the Old Adam or sinful flesh which inheres even in believers (Romans 7:18).
Therefore, the presence of doubt in the heart concerning the Lord and His Word does not render a person an unbeliever, provided that the Gospel is not denied. After Jesus told a man who besought His help concerning his son who was possessed with a devil, “If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth,” the man tearfully replied: “Lord, I believe; help Thou mine unbelief” (Mark 9:23–24). This man confessed faith in Jesus as his Lord, and he believed that Christ could help his afflicted son; but he also knew that his trust was not perfect—there was also some doubt, some “unbelief,” in his heart. Nevertheless, in loving compassion for this weak believer, Christ did not reject his plea for help on account of his doubts. In like manner, He will not reject our pleas for help even though our trust in the Lord is never perfect, for He promises: “Him that cometh to Me I will in no wise cast out” (John 6:37).
This does not mean, however, that a Christian should regard the presence of doubts in his heart as a harmless or unimportant matter. Jesus chided His own disciples for their lack of confidence in Him when their ship was tossed in a great tempest and said to them: “Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith?” (Matthew 8:26), “Where is your faith?” (Luke 8:25), and even “How is it that ye have no faith?” (Mark 4:40). Even though being “slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken” does not mean that a person has no saving faith in the Lord, yet such doubts are produced by man’s corrupt flesh, and must be identified as a transgression of the very First Commandment, which Luther explains in his Small Catechism as follows: “We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” The Scriptures command each one of us: “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5); and even a sin of omission in this regard must be humbly and sincerely repented of (James 4:17; Romans 7:19a, 24).
Now a Christian, in an outburst of his arrogant flesh, might say: “Of course I trust in God above all things! I never have any doubts concerning what He tells me in His Word.” Such a declaration is not only a self-deception and in actuality a blatant lie (I John 1:8), but it make a liar out of God Himself, “and His Word is not in us” (v. 10). That latter characterization of the Apostle John is a most earnest warning against such wicked assertions which come from sinful pride; and they must be repented of without delay (Proverbs 4:24; 8:13)! We do not have perfect trust in God’s gracious promises regarding His continuous, never-failing love and care, as His admonition in Matthew 6:24ff. clearly shows. Even Christians chafe under the discomfort and anxiety that stressful situations produce in their lives, complain about “the sufferings of this present time” (Romans 8:18), and worry about what might happen in the future with regard to such matters as food, drink and clothing (Luke 12:28-29). “After all these things do the Gentiles seek,” says Jesus, “for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things” (Matthew 6:32). Rather, as the fruit of our faith in Christ our Savior, we should flee for comfort to such wonderful passages as these: “All things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28); “My times are in Thy hand” (Psalm 31:15); “I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee” (Hebrews 13:5); “Fear thou not; for I am with thee. Be not dismayed; for I am thy God. I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of My righteousness” (Isaiah 41:10). “He that spared not His own Son but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?” (Romans 8:32).
As if we had received the grace of God in vain (II Corinthians 6:1), we are sometimes not comforted much at all by such glorious portions of Scripture. But why not? It is because of sinful doubts that arise in our deceitful and desperately wicked hearts by nature (Jeremiah 17:9) when these are not actively combated and rooted out by the application of God’s Word in our battle with the devil, the world, and our flesh (I Peter 5:9; Psalm 51:10). In our sinful weakness, we foolishly lose sight of and only barely confide (Mark 9:24b) in His promise that “all things,” even our crosses and trials, “work together for good to them that love [Him]” (Romans 8:28) because we are “slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken” (Luke 24:25) in His precious Word (Cf. Proverbs 3:11-12; Isaiah 40:31; 43:1-3a; etc.).
A believer’s trust in the Bible can indeed be worn down by the devil, the world, and the sinful flesh. Due to the temptations of these spiritual enemies, Christians may at times be swayed by so-called “experts” in secular wisdom — in science and technology, in medicine and in the law, for example — and allow their “educated” opinions and analyses to carry greater weight in their minds than the Word of the Lord. The world would have us establish as our first priority to become “scientific” and “logical” in our thinking, in our reasoning, and in our “world view.” What passage of God’s Word enjoins that upon us? There is, of course, no comparison between the wisdom of this world (which is foolishness with God, I Corinthians 3:19) and the spiritual wisdom imparted to us by the Scriptures. Objective scientists can gather, test and even develop reliable information and convey to others various facts that may be useful in this life — provided that their use does not conflict with the Word and will of God. But all ideas, theories and operations of man that conflict with the Bible — whether they are represented to us as being “scientific” or not — pose a danger to a Christian’s faith and ultimately to his salvation! “Science [knowledge] falsely so called” (I Timothy 6:20) is not true knowledge at all! Concerning the worldly wise who reject what nature itself reveals about God (Romans 1:20), St. Paul writes: “Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools” (Romans 1:22). Likewise, regarding atheists, who deny the existence of God altogether, the Psalmist writes: “The fool hath said in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Psalm 14:1; 53:1).
Of course, we Christians know from the Scriptures (even without doing any investigations or experiments of our own) that if the scientists advance any ideas that conflict with the Scriptures, then the scientists are wrong because God cannot be wrong. “What if some did not believe? Shall their unbelief make the faith [i.e., faithfulness] of God without effect? God forbid! Yea, let God be true, but every man a liar” (Romans 3:3–4). “The wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. The Lord knoweth the thoughts of the wise, that they are vain” (I Corinthians 3:19–20). What could be more foolish than to believe a fallible man more than the infallible God? Due to man’s imperfect knowledge in the secular world, “new” discoveries are made every day, and “new” technology is “developed” at an astounding pace. On almost a weekly basis there are new findings in medicine and science that show previously held beliefs to be outdated. And yet, for all the advances of science and technology arising out of human “research and development,” none of them are worthy to be compared to the infallible Word of our faithful God. The knowledge of God, as revealed to us in His Word, does not change. Christian doctrine is not “developed.” “I am the Lord; I change not,” He says (Malachi 3:6), and “the Word of our God shall stand forever” (Isaiah 40:8). When it comes to a choice, “It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in man” (Psalm 118:8).
Christians let their trust in God’s Word weaken and slip away when they pursue acceptance and approval from worldly individuals. It is very troubling for a true believer to learn that all of his coworkers and acquaintances outside of his church (even those who claim to be Christians) dismiss the authority of the Scriptures and laugh at the idea of taking the Bible literally (especially in such matters as God’s creation of all things in six 24-hour days, the virgin birth of Christ, the existence of hell, and the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in His Supper). And Satan tries to use the opinions of worldly “friends” to make Christians feel awkward about believing what the Bible explicitly states — as if only “religious nuts” and fanatics trust without question what is written in the Bible. Christian children, for example, may feel compelled by social pressure at school to adopt the beliefs of their classmates and teachers who say that the Bible should not be regarded as authoritative in the areas of history and science. Instead of feeling ashamed or foolish for believing the Scriptures, the Christian should be so very thankful that the Holy Ghost has brought him to the knowledge of the truth (I Timothy 2:4) through the Gospel (II Thessalonians 2:14) and given him wisdom unto salvation through the Scriptures (II Timothy 3:15a) and the truth concerning everything he needs for his faith and life (II Timothy 3:16-17; John 8:31-32); and He has created in his heart the faith to trust and believe it (I Thessalonians 2:13). Though the world despises God’s Word and ridicules our confidence in it, we should gratefully declare to the Lord with the Psalmist: “Thou through Thy Commandments hast made me wiser than mine enemies; for they are ever with me. I have more understanding than all my teachers; for Thy Testimonies are my meditation” (Psalm 119:98–99).
Another trick that the devil uses to erode a Christian’s confidence in the Scriptures is pessimism disguised as “realism” that leads a person to think that the promises of the Lord are “too good to be true,” unrealistically positive, naively optimistic, wonderful in theory but not to be expected “in the real world.” People who permit the devil thus to “deceive [them] and seduce [them] into misbelief, despair, and other great shame and vice” (Luther), reveal their unbelief in such statements as these: “I know the Bible says, ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things [food, drink and clothing] shall be added unto you;’ but if I don’t miss church to take the overtime that my boss is offering me, my family is going to starve!” “I know the Bible says that ‘all things work together for good to them that love God,’ but nothing good can come from this situation!” “I’m not being pessimistic; I’m being realistic!” Such statements are sinful; they are the murmuring and complaining of which God convicted the children of Israel (I Corinthians 10:10); and when words to this effect are expressed by us, or such thoughts reside silently within our hearts, then we certainly need to hear and to heed the same stern reprimand that Jesus addressed to His doubting disciples: “O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” and we need sincerely and humbly to repent of despising His grace and of reticence to believe His promises.
The context of Luke 24:25 shows that these disciples had been seriously shaken in their faith due to the capture, torture, and crucifixion of Jesus. They confessed that prior to these events they “trusted that it had been He which should have redeemed Israel” (v. 21); but since Christ was killed, and they still believed Him to be dead, their faith in Him had all but disappeared. In their words to the presumed Stranger, they acknowledged having heard a report from the women who had gone to the sepulcher, found it empty, were told by the angels of His resurrection (v. 23), and had “seen Him after He was risen” (Mark 16:14; cf. Matthew 28:9-10). However, they did not consider this report to be valid (Luke 24:11 – “idle tales”), and were, therefore, not comforted at all by it. They certainly wished that it were true, but were unable to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead—having been deceived by the devil and their flesh to regard it as too good to be true. Simply wanting to believe something is true cannot make a person actually believe it to be true. Saving faith in Christ and the resulting confidence in the other teachings of Scripture are not produced by human effort and willpower (John 1:12-13; Philippians 2:13). Interestingly enough, as wonderful and as powerful as the Gospel is (Romans 1:16), and though an unbeliever might say, “I wish that I could believe it,” yet, according to Holy Scripture, man in his natural state of unbelief does not even really want to believe the Gospel, but has the opinion that it is pure foolishness. “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness unto him; neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (I Corinthians 2:14). Consider also the hostility that man by nature has against the Lord since his “carnal mind is enmity against God” (Romans 8:7), and the fact that this results in a repudiation of His Word (Proverbs 1:24–25; John 8:47; Luke 10:16).
Again, the doubting disciples had heard the glad tidings of Jesus’ resurrection from the women who went to the tomb; but they rejected it out-of-hand and did not allow this message to gladden their hearts. No wonder the two on the way to Emmaus were so “sad” (Luke 24:17)! So also it can be with us Christians, that it is not necessarily a matter of us lacking the knowledge of what the Scriptures say concerning a specific issue (we may even be able to recite the appropriate passages verbatim), yet we may still be dismissive of the knowledge and “slow of heart to believe” what those passages state. And this is, indeed, a most sinful and shameful thing! The faithful Word of our faithful God dare never be doubted! Does not God mean what He tells us in His Word (Numbers 23:19a)? Does He not know how to speak accurately and exactly (Psalm 119:105; 130)? Is He not able to keep every one of His promises (II Peter 3:9; Numbers 23:19b)? Absolutely!
As was mentioned earlier, if we really had a perfect trust in the wonderful promises of Scripture concerning the love, care, guidance, and protection of the Lord, if we ever attained perfect sanctification in our confidence of His Word and had no sinful flesh to lust against our New Man of faith (Galatians 5:17), then there would be nothing in this life that could cause us to experience any fear, worry, stress, or anxiety and we would be able perfectly to fulfill the Savior’s exhortation in Matthew 6:34, for example. The fact that we do experience these things is evidence of the sinful doubts that frequently arise out of our fleshly hearts (Matthew 15:19). But what can we do to combat such doubts? We find the only effective remedy for doubt in the Word of our God, where He tells us: “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart, and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct thy paths” (Proverbs 3:5-6). “Blessed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the Law of the Lord. Blessed are they that keep His testimonies, and that seek Him with the whole heart!” (Psalm 119:1-2).
Note again how Jesus responded to those doubting disciples: “Then He said unto them, ‘O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Ought not Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into His glory?’ And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, He expounded unto them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself” (Luke 24:25–27). So the antidote for doubting the Scriptures is found in Holy Scripture itself—particularly in the Gospel. Whenever the devil, the world, and our flesh tempt us to doubt, we need to remember and truly to appreciate what great things the Lord our God has done for us in saving our souls from eternal destruction in hell by the perfect life, suffering, and death of Jesus Christ. Through that Gospel the Holy Ghost works to increase the love of Christ in our hearts and to produce a firmer confidence in the Lord’s Word. Jesus says: “If a man love Me, he will keep My words” (John 14:23). The word here translated as “keep” means “guard” and “hold firmly” according to the original Greek (Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament). St. Paul writes in Philippians 2, verse 13: “It is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure.” And Dr. Luther reminds us of that in his explanation of the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer, when he says that God’s good and gracious will is done when He “strengthens and preserves us steadfast in His Word and faith unto our end” (Third Petition), “so that the devil, the world, and our flesh may not deceive us nor seduce us into misbelief, despair, and other great shame and vice; and though we be assailed by them, that still we may finally overcome and obtain the victory” (Sixth Petition). No matter how our spiritual enemies try to shake our faith, let us by His grace remain completely confident of everything recorded in Holy Scripture, as confident of every word “as [Christ] is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true!”
Who trusts in God, a strong abode
in heaven and earth possesses;
who looks in love to Christ above,
no fear his heart oppresses.
In Thee alone, dear Lord, we own
sweet hope and consolation,
our Shield from foes, our Balm for woes,
our great and sure Salvation.
(TLH 437, 1)
— P. E. B.