Frederick W. Robertson

Sermon 31


Faith of the Centurion

Preached April 6, 1851

  Frederick W. Robertson

“When Jesus heard it, he marvelled, and said to them that followed, Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel.” - Matthew 8:10


That upon which the Son of God fastened as worthy of admiration was not the centurion’s benevolence, nor his perseverance, but his faith. And so speaks the whole New Testament, giving a special dignity to faith. By faith we are justified. By faith man removes mountains of difficulty. The Divinest attribute in heart of God is love, and the mightiest, because the most human, principle in the breast of man is faith. Love is heaven, faith is that which appropriates heaven.

Faith is a theological term rarely used in other matters. Hence its meaning, is obscured. But faith is no strange, new, peculiar power, supernaturally infused by Christianity, but the same principle by which we live from day to day-one of the commonest in our daily life.

We trust our senses, and that though they often deceive us. We trust men; a battle must often be risked on the intelligence of a spy. A merchant commits his ships, with all his fortunes on board, to a hired captain, whose temptations are enormous. Without this principle society could not hold together for a day. It would be a mere sand-heap.

Such, too, is religious faith; we trust on probabilities; and this though probabilities often are against us. We can not prove God’s existence. The balance of probabilities, scientifically speaking, are nearly equal for a living person or a lifeless cause: immortality, etc., in the same way. But faith throws its own convictions into the scale and decides the preponderance.

Faith, then, is that which, when probabilities are equal, ventures on God’s side, and on the side of right, on the guaranty of a something within which makes the thing seem to be true because it is loved.

It is so defined by St. Paul: “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.” The hope is the ground for faith to rest on. We consider,


I. The faith which was commended.

II. The causes of the commendation.


I. The faith which was commended.

First evidence of its existence, his tenderness to his servant.

Of course this good act might have existed separate from religion. Romans were benevolent to their domestics ages before the law had been enacted regulating the relationship between patron and client.

But we are forbidden to view it so, when we remember that he was a proselyte. Morality is not religion but it is ennobled and made more delicate by religion.

How? By instinct you may be kind to dependents. But if it be only by instinct, it is but the same kind of tenderness you show to your hound or horse. Disbelief in God, and right, and immortality, degrades the man you are kind to, to the level of the beast you feel for, both are mortal, and for both your kindness is finite and poor.

But the moment faith comes, dealing as it does with things infinite, it throws something of its own infinitude on the persons loved by the man of faith, upon his affections and his acts: it raises them.

Consequently you find the centurion “building synagogues,” “caring for our (i. e., the Jewish) nation,” as the repository of the truth-tending his servants. And this last, observe, approximated his moral goodness to the Christian standard! for therein does Christianity differ from mere religiousness, that it is not a worship of the high, but a lifting up of the low-not hero-worship, but Divine condescension.

Thus, then, was his kindness an evidence of his faith.

Second proof. His humility: “Lord, I am not worthy that thou, shouldest come under my roof.”

Now Christ does not call this humility, though it was humility. He says, I have not found so great faith. Let us see why. How is humbleness the result of, or rather identical with, faith?

Faith is trust. Trust is dependence on another; the spirit which is opposite to independence or trust in self. Hence where the spirit of proud independence is, faith is not.

Now observe how this differs from our ordinary and modern modes of thinking. The first thing taught a young man is that he must be independent. Quite right, in the Christian sense of the word, to owe no man any thing: to resolve to get his own living, and not be beholden to charity, which fosters idleness: to depend on his own exertions, and not on patronage or connection. But what is commonly meant by independence is to rejoice at being bound by no ties to other human beings-to owe no allegiance to any will except our own-to be isolated and unconnected by any feeling of intercommunion or dependence; a spirit whose very life is jealousy and suspicion: which in politics is revolutionary, and in religion atheism. This is the opposite of Christianity, and the opposite of the Christian freedom whose name it usurps. For true freedom is to be emancipated from all false lords, in order to owe allegiance to all true lords-to be free from the slavery of all lusts, so as voluntarily to serve God and right. Faith alone frees.

And this was the freedom of the centurion: that he chose his master. He was not fawning on the emperor at Rome, nor courting the immoral ruler at Caesarea who had titles and places to give away, but he bent in lowliest homage of heart before the Holy One. His freedom was the freedom of uncoerced and voluntary dependence-the freedom and humility of faith.

3. His belief in an invisible, living Will. “Speak the word only.” Remark how different this is from a reliance on the influence of the senses. He asked not the presence of Christ, but simply an exertion of His will. He looked not like a physician to the operation of unerring laws, or the result of the contact of matter with matter. He believed in Him who is the life indeed. He felt that the Cause of causes is a person. Hence he could trust the Living Will out of sight. This is the highest form of faith.

Here, however, I observe-the centurion learned this through his own profession. “I am a man under authority, having soldiers under me.” The argument ran thus. I by the command of will obtain the obedience of my dependents. Thou by will the obedience of Thine: sickness and health are Thy servants. Evidently he looked upon this universe with a soldier’s eye: he could not look otherwise. To him this world was a mighty camp of living forces in which authority was paramount. Trained in obedience to military law, accustomed to render prompt submission to those above him, and to extract it from those below him, he read law everywhere; and law to him meant nothing, unless it meant the expression of a personal will. It was this training through which faith took its form.

The Apostle Paul tells us that the invisible things of God from the creation of the world are clearly seen; and, we may add, from every part of the creation of the world. “The heavens declare the glory of God;” but so also does the buttercup and the raindrop.

The invisible things of God from life are clearly seen-and, we may add, from every department of life. There is no profession, no trade, no human occupation which does not in its own way educate for God.

The soldier, through law, reads a personal will; and he might from the same profession, in the unity of an army, made a living and organized unity by the variety of its parts, have read the principle of God’s and the Church’s unity, through the opportunities that profession affords for self-control, for generous deeds. When the Gospel was first announced on earth, it was proclaimed to the shepherds and Magians in a manner appropriate to their modes of life.

Shepherds, like sailors, are accustomed to hear a supernatural power in the sounds of the air, in the moaning of the night-winds, in the sighing of the storm; to see a more than mortal life in the clouds that wreathe around the headland. Such men, brought up among the sights and sounds of nature, are proverbially superstitious. No wonder, therefore, that the intimation came to them, as it were, on the winds in the melodies of the air: “a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good-will toward men.”

But the Magians being astrologers, accustomed to read the secrets of life and death in the clear star-lit skies of Persia, are conducted by a meteoric star.

Each in his own way; each in his own profession; each through that little spot of the universe given to him. For not only is God everywhere, but all of God is in every point. Not His wisdom here, and His goodness there: the whole truth may be read, if we had eyes, and heart, and time enough, in the laws of a daisy’s growth. God’s beauty, His love, His unity: nay, if you observe how each atom exists not for itself alone, but for the sake of every other atom in the universe, in that atom or daisy you may read the law of the Cross itself. The crawling of a spider before now has taught perseverance, and led to a crown. The little moss, brought close to a traveller’s eye in an African desert, who had lain down to die, roused him to faith in that love which had so curiously arranged the minute fibres of a thing so small, to be seen once and but once by a human eye, and carried him in the strength of that heavenly repast, like Elijah of old, a journey of forty days and forty nights, to the sources of the Nile; yet who could have suspected divinity in a spider, or theology in a moss ?


II. The causes of Christ’s astonishment.

The reasons why he marvelled may be reduced under two heads.

1. The centurion was a Gentile; therefore unlikely to know revealed truth.

2. A soldier, and therefore exposed to a recklessness, and idleness, and sensuality which are the temptations of that profession. But he turned his loss to glorious gain.

The Saviour’s comment, therefore, contained the advantage of disadvantages and the disadvantage of advantages. The former, “Many shall come from the east and the west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven;” the latter, “The children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

There are spirits which are crushed by difficulties, while others would gain strength from them. The greatest men have been those who have cut their way to success through difficulties. And such have been the greatest triumphs of art and science: such, too, of religion. Moses, Elijah, Abraham, the Baptist, the giants of both Testaments, were not men nurtured in the hot-house of religious advantages. Many a man would have done good if he had not a superabundance of the means of doing it. Many a spiritual giant is buried under mountains of gold.

Understand, therefore, the real amount of advantage which there is in religious privileges. Necessary especially for the feeble, as crutches are necessary; but, like crutches, they often enfeeble the strong. For every advantage which facilitates performance and supersedes toil, a corresponding price is paid in loss. Civilization gives us telescopes and microscopes; but it takes away the unerring acuteness with which the savage reads the track of man and beast upon the ground at his feet: it gives us scientific surgery, and impairs the health which made surgery superfluous.

So, ask you where the place of religious might is? Not the place of religious privileges-not where prayers are daily, and sacraments monthly-not where sermons are so abundant as to pall upon the pampered taste, but on the hillside with the Covenanter; in the wilderness with John the Baptist; in our own dependencies where the liturgy is rarely heard, and Christian friends meet at the end of months:there amidst manifold disadvantages, when the soul is thrown upon itself, a few kindred spirits, and God, grow up those heroes of faith, like the centurion, whose firm conviction wins admiration even from the Son of God Himself.

Lastly, see how this incident testifies to the perfect humanity of Christ. The Saviour “marvelled:”-that wonder was no fictitious semblance of admiration. It was a real genuine wonder. He had not expected to find such faith. The Son of God increased in wisdom as well as stature. He knew more at thirty than at twenty. There were things He knew at twenty which He had not known before. In the last year of His life He went to the fig-tree expecting to find fruit, and was disappointed. In all matters of eternal truth, principles which are not measured by more or less true, His knowledge was absolute; but it would seem that in matters of earthly fact which are modified by time and space, His knowledge was, like ours, more or less dependent upon experience.

Now we forget this; we are shocked at the thought of the partial ignorance of Christ, as if it were irreverence to think it; we shrink from believing that He really felt the force of temptation, or that the forsakenness on the Cross and the momentary doubt have parallels in our human life. In other words, we make that Divine Life a mere mimic representation of griefs that were not real, and surprises that were feigned, and sorrows that were theatrical.

But thus we lose the Saviour. For it is well to know that He was divine; but if we lose that truth, we should still have a God in heaven. But if there has been on this earth no real, perfect human life, no love that never cooled, no faith that never failed, which may shine as a loadstar across the darkness of our experience, a light to light amidst all convictions of our own meanness and all suspicions of others’ littleness, why, we may have a religion, but we have not a Christianity. For if we lose Him as a Brother, we can not feel Him as a Saviour.