In the account of the boy with the unclean spirit (Mark 9:14-29), the boy’s father says to Jesus, “If You can do anything, have compassion on us and help us” (v. 22). Jesus responds, “‘If you can!’ All things are possible for one who believes” (v. 23). Then, immediately following this, the father cries out, “I believe; help my unbelief!”
I don’t think there’s a single interpretation to this passage. There are multiple interpretations we can extrapolate from this event recorded in Jesus’ ministry. The application I want to focus on here is one of repentance.
In the text, the man implied his doubt in Jesus’ ability by saying, “If You can.” Jesus, offended, responds, “If I can!” Jesus is God in the flesh; He can do anything He so chooses! Yet as we read what Jesus says (“All things are possible for one who believes”), we now move into the significance of Jesus’ statement. That is, why is He saying this? And, furthermore, what is the implication—what is He implying not only in His words but also the situation happening in and around His words?
With our knowledge of medicine, we can easily diagnose the son’s illness as being epilepsy since he’s experienced seizures since childhood (v. 21b). In biblical times, when epilepsy became chronic, it was incurable. In the 21st century, we are blessed to have developed medicines and surgical procedures to combat epilepsy. In first century Palestine, however, there was no such hope.
The father of this child had no hope for his son’s recovery, except for Jesus. His hope and faith in Jesus is expressed in bringing his son to Him, but his lingering doubt is revealed when he expresses his ambivalence, “If You can.” So, Jesus confronts his doubt, saying, “All things are possible for one who believes.” Repenting, the man responds, “I believe; help my unbelief!” Jesus then proceeds to heal the boy.
The common misinterpretation I often hear of this account are those who say, “If you just believe or pray hard enough, God will heal you.” Whilst God certainly does miraculously heal those who trust Him—or heals them vicariously through doctors, which can be equally miraculous—this isn’t always the case. God can choose to work in that way, but He never promised to invariably work in that way in all Christians.
The Christian can have her entire trust in God through fervent prayer and unwavering faith, but still never receive relief from her ailment and perhaps dies from it. So, what do we make of this when God doesn’t reward the Christian who fully trusts in Him? That they just didn’t believe hard enough or “name it and claim it” hard enough, like Joel Osteen would say? How do we measure such faith? Who gets to measure how hard one believes? And who gets to say how much prayer is enough? Who gets that authority? Hopefully you can see why this rhetoric is problematic.
The core problem of this interpretation is that it emphasises the self, which is the fault of American Christianity. It’s all about me and what I can do rather than trusting in the will and promise of God. Saying we just need to believe and pray hard enough is focusing on our efforts rather than the sure promise of God—that He has made us sons and daughters through faith in His Son, Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:26; Romans 8:16-17).
Observe the father’s words again: “I believe; help my unbelief!” The father confesses his belief, but he also confesses his struggle to believe. Within this, he implores Jesus to help his unbelief. The father knew he couldn’t just believe hard enough; he admitted he needed Jesus’ help—Jesus’ work—not only to heal his son, but also to give him belief, that is, faith.
Do these words not represent our daily life? How many of us, I wonder, strive to overcome sin through our methods and our planning? It is the natural tendency of man to take control rather than trusting God has control (this is, after all, the root cause of the Fall of Man).
With this in mind, I want to bring our attention back to the word “repent,” specifically the chosen words of the father’s repentance, “Help my unbelief!” The Greek word for the verb “to repent” is μετανοέω (metanoéō), which comes from the noun μετάνοια (metanoia), which means, “change of mind.” To repent, then, is to literally have a change of mind. This word isn’t used in this account, but the actions involved constitute the concept of repentance. What does repentance consist of? As the Lutheran Confessions say:
Repentance consists of two parts: one is contrition or the terrors that strike the conscience when sin is recognized; the other is faith, which is brought to life by the gospel or absolution. This faith believes that sins are forgiven on account of Christ, consoles the conscience, and liberates it from terrors. (AC XII, 5-6)
In other words, repentance consists first of contrition—godly sorrow—for sin, which is the recognition that one has wronged God and/or others; and faith follows contrition in that the Christian trusts in the forgiveness of sins on account of Christ alone, who comforts our conscience, thus freeing us from terror.
In his book, Has American Christianity Failed?, Bryan Wolfmueller notes one of the ways in which American Christianity has failed is that it seeks assurance of the forgiveness of sins in one’s feelings (known as mysticism and enthusiasm). However, God did not promise that we would feel forgiven; He promised that we are forgiven. Our sins are forgiven whether we feel it or not.
Please bear with me as I use a personal example.
For a long time, I’ve been suffering with self-hatred because of some personal sins I’ve committed as well as a vast history of abandonment from friends, family, and two ex-fiancés. For the sins I had committed, I had true contrition—godly sorrow—for my sins because I acknowledged I had wronged and offended God in my sin, as well as those involved in my sins. So, the Spirit brought me to repentance. Yet I had a hard time believing I’m forgiven because I couldn’t feel it.
I believed I was forgiven because that’s what Scripture says when you confess, but at the same time I didn’t believe it was true for me. The Devil was insidious and taught me to believe these lies, “What I did was horrible. How could God possibly forgive me? My sin is too great for God to forgive.” I was stuck in the same paradox as the father in this Markan textThe .
My issue was that I was trying to understand forgiveness rationally and emotionally, but forgiveness isn’t rational and forgiveness is not based on whether you feel it emotionally or not. Our emotions are subjective; we cannot fully trust them. Forgiveness doesn’t make any logical sense.
The “irrationality” of forgiveness is best illustrated, I think, in thinking of the Divine Service as a courtroom case.
If you’re unfamiliar with Lutheran liturgy, we begin the Divine Service with confession and absolution—confessing we have sinned against God and one another in thought, word, and deed, and that we deserve God’s just and eternal punishment. Then we appeal to His mercy in Christ to forgive our sins.
Like a court case, we present the facts (the sins we’ve committed) and we plead guilty, for there is no other way we can plead. In any rational court case, we would be found guilty and sentenced to condemnation. However, at the beginning of the Divine Service, the pastor forgives our sins as if Christ Himself is pronouncing the words of forgiveness. And near the end of the Divine Service, Jesus says, “Come, take My body and drink My blood, which was shed for you for the forgiveness of sins [Matthew 26:28], for I offered Myself as the propitiation to redeem you [Romans 3:23-26; 1 John 2:2].”
At the end of the Divine Service, we are declared forgiven even though we are found guilty of all our sins—of all our defects of character and maladaptations. “There is, therefore, now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).
This is why I found myself, in my evangelical Christianity days, going up to every single altar call at the end of the service. I recognised my despair as a sinner and my need for a Saviour, but the problem with altar calls is that it calls you to trust in your own works and feelings to know you’re forgiven. As Wolfmueller describes it:
For so many American Christians, their certainty is wobbly and their faith is unsure because it is built on the weak foundation of self: on their decision, their works, their experiences, their inner life, their resolve… When Jesus is the one saving and rescuing and delivering, then our salvation and rescue and deliverance are sure (35-36).
The true altar call is Jesus’ invitation to His Table, where He offers His very body and blood, which suffered and died for us, for the forgiveness of sins. Our assurance of forgiveness is found in the objective reality of Christ’s body and blood, not in the whimsical subjectivity of our hearts.
God’s declaration of our justification by faith in Christ is not rational (Romans 5:1); it is mercy—God’s חֶסֶד (chesed—mercy, grace, lovingkindness, covenant faithfulness).
So, where did I find my comfort? Where was the guilt and shame of my conscience consoled? I was searching for it inside myself—for a sure, emotional feeling to know that forgiveness was true. Setting such confidence in the flesh is not only bound to fail, but also oxymoronic. Paul had to admonish the Galatians on this exact issue, “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh” (Galatians 3:3)?
In my repentance, Jesus literally changed my mind—in true repentance, we no longer desire commit the sin. Though we may return to it a few times, Jesus has nevertheless changed our hearts and minds to no longer desire the sin, though our flesh may still struggle with it.
Instead of finding comfort and assurance inside my subjective feelings, I received it from the Gospel. I have heard the words of the forgiveness of sins for me. God declared it, therefore it is. Just as God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light, so when He said, “I forgive you all your sins,” they are all forgiven. And so, when He says, “This is My body and blood given into death for your for the forgiveness of sins,” so He does exactly as He says in, with, and under the bread and wine.
When my lack of certainty rears its ugly head again, I come before the Lord’s Table and cry out, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” And He provides the assurance in the objective reality of His body and blood for me.
As part of my comfort and assurance in the Word, I find myself constantly returning to Paul’s words on Baptism in Romans 6:
We know that our old self was crucified with Him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now, if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with Him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over Him. For the death He died He died to sin, once for all, but the life He lives He lives to God. So, you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:6-11, emphasis added)
These words I have heard from Christ in the Gospel are for you, too. If you are baptised, you can look to the promise given to you in your Baptism to remember that you have died to sin and now live in Christ. When you find yourself in the paradoxical midst of belief and unbelief—believing you’re forgiven but not truly believing you can be forgiven—you can recall the promise in your Baptism and remember this: your old sinful self was killed in the waters, and now you have risen as a new creation in Christ (Romans 6:1-4). In your Baptism, and at the Lord’s Table, God says you are forgiven; therefore, you are, regardless of what your emotions may tell you.
There is nothing you have to do to earn God’s forgiveness, for Christ has already done it for you upon the cross. The Law says “do”; the Gospel says “done.”
Wolfmueller, Bryan. Has American Christianity Failed? St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2016.