In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I. Justifying Faith
1. In response to the surprising persistence of the Canaanite woman, our Lord says, “O woman, great is your faith!” (Matthew 15:28). It’s not often that our Lord praises someone’s faith. And yet, in three simple petitions, this Canaanite woman demonstrates for us what is justifying faith. To use the categories of the seventeenth century German Lutheran theologian Dr. Johann Gerhard, Justifying faith includes knowledge, assent, and trust. Knowledge and assent relate primarily to the intellect and are grounded on each and every Word of God as revealed to us in the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures. Trust, on the other hand, relates to the heart or will and is grounded on the Gospel promises about Christ. In her three simple petitions, the Canaanite woman demonstrates knowledge, assent, and trust—her great faith is, indeed, justifying faith.
II. Faith is Knowledge
2. Now, faith, by its nature, cannot be completely blind. It cannot be completely alone. Faith must have an object—something in which it believes. This can be demonstrated by considering the etymology of the word “faith” in the Greek of the Scriptures. The word “faith” in Greek is πίστις (pistis). This word comes from the verb which means “to teach and persuade.” Faith, then, is related to the act of teaching and persuasion. We read in the Acts of the Apostles that while in Ephesus, Saint Paul “for three months spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God” (Acts 19:8). Just as Saint Paul persuaded his hearers with an action of teaching, so also “faith” has to do with the effects of this teaching. When one learns the truth of the Gospel, a kind of knowledge and persuasion arises in the mind through the Holy Spirit from the teaching. In no way can we be persuaded about unclear things that are not understood. Therefore it is required that the light of knowledge first be kindled in the mind before faith can arise.
3. Such was the case for the Canaanite woman. She demonstrates a critical knowledge of who the Lord Jesus is. Just like the blind man of Jericho in Luke 18, this woman petitions the Lord: “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon” (Matthew 15:22). This Gentile woman is living in one of the most pagan places around ancient Israel. The Phoenicians were known as travelers, so it’s likely that these polytheists were well acquainted with the religious writings of many nations, including Israel. She therefore knew the prophecies concerning Israel’s Messiah—how He would be the Son of David and would come to right the wrongs of this world. And so, the Canaanite woman demonstrates a right knowledge of Jesus—He is the Son of David, the Lord’s Messiah.
III. Faith is Assent
3. Faith, however, does not consist merely of knowledge. Faith also includes assent. To “assent” is to “agree to or approve of something” (Webster’s Dictionary). Faith is not simply knowledge. That knowledge must be made one’s own. It is not enough for faith to know heavenly doctrine, but it must give its assent. Knowledge must be accompanied by assent, that is, by consent and judgment, which approves the things set forth. In Hebrews 4:2, the writer describes this assent beautifully, calling it the union of faith and the Word. Faith involves not only an object of belief, but also the action of making that knowledge one’s own. Faith includes assent.
4. The Canaanite woman demonstrates such assent in her second petition to our Lord. She says: “Lord, help me” (Matthew 15:25). Without this petition, her initial request for mercy could have been dismissed as desperation without true faith. But her persistence in requesting help clearly demonstrates that she has, indeed, assented to the fact which she already articulated concerning our Lord. She knew that He was the “Son of David”, Israel’s Messiah. But she also knew that this Messiah was for her. She had assented in faith. She not only had knowledge, she assented and made her own the confession that Jesus is the Christ.
IV. Faith is Trust
5. Faith, however, is more than an act of the intellect. It includes trust in addition to knowledge and assent. The object of faith—namely, the Word of God—contains the Gospel promise of God’s free mercy and the remission of sins on account of Christ. Since true faith assents to the whole Word of God, making it one’s own, how can faith not be a trusting understanding of Christ’s mercy offered in the Gospel? Justifying faith grasps the evangelical promise of Christ and applies it to oneself. Bare knowledge does not grasp the promise. Therefore justifying faith is not bare knowledge. Thus Saint Paul says in Romans: “That is why [the promise] depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all [Abraham’s] offspring” (Romans 4:16). Therefore faith must include trust in addition to knowledge and assent.
6. The Canaanite woman demonstrates not only knowledge and assent, but also great trust in our Lord. Our Lord says to her: “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire” (Matthew 15:28). In the Canaanite woman we see a very serious wrestling of faith being described. The woman had every reason to give up and walk away in utter humiliation. But she overcame the temptations concerning her unworthiness and small standing. She humbly says to the Lord: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” (Matthew 15:27). So our Lord calls her faith great. It is trust with which this woman clings to His Word and overcomes temptations, not with bare knowledge or assent.
V. The Word Ground Us
7. And so it must be for you and me. If our faith is to be a justifying faith, we must nurture each of these three aspects. Knowledge and assent relate primarily to the intellect. And so, we must nurture these aspects of our faith by nurturing our intellect. The apostle Paul writes: “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). In as much as faith is knowledge, the Word of God is the proper object of our faith. Our faith is grounded and sustained by the Word of God, not by humanly devised ideas. Therefore the apostle Peter tells us: “We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ . . . we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place” (2 Peter 1:16, 18-19). It is the Word of God which grounds our faith in right knowledge even as the Holy Spirit works through that Word to apply it to our being in the assent of faith.
8. But trust is a necessary aspect of faith as well. Trust is primarily related to the heart and will. By nature, trust involves our emotions, which are positive one moment and the complete opposite the next. Our emotions are fickle and ever-changing. This is why you will always find trust to be the most difficult aspect of faith. There is no magic-bullet to take away this human struggle with trusting God. And so, the experience of the Canaanite woman is, in many regards, ours. We live in a pagan land, surrounded by very few people who hold our ideals. We know the truth of who Jesus is, we believe it, and so we come to Him for help. “Lord, cure my friend. Lord, relieve this stress. Lord, help me.” Yet so often we feel as if He answers us not a word. What do we do then? How do we cling to faith when our trust is shaking? There is only one thing that we can do—cling to God’s Word. We need to learn to believe that when the Lord says, “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Corinthians 12:9), it is true. The bread crumbs which fall from the masters’ table feed the dogs, yet our Lord has invited you to come to His table, to receive the bread which is His Body, not simply the crumbs. The Lord who abounds in steadfast love meets you with grace upon grace at the altar so that you may be sustained in body and soul as you learn to lean on your knowledge of His grace, even when your trust falters.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.
The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.