Doubt and Faith: Matthew 11:1-6
With this chapter, we enter a new section of this gospel. It is generally agreed that Matthew 11-13 form a unit, and that its basic theme is the rising tide of opposition to the person and ministry of Christ. The opposition would come mainly from the Pharisees and the priests, but perhaps they were emboldened by refusal of Jesus to embrace the popular notions of what the Messiah should be. Jesus did indeed bring blessing, but the people expected him to also bring judgment to their enemies, especially to the Romans. When this was not forthcoming, many became disenchanted with him. It’s interesting that though Jesus began his ministry attracting large crowds, yet by the time he has been crucified, there are only a very few faithful still following him. Even the cities where he performed his greatest miracles rejected him (11:20- 24, cf. 12:38-45). In chapter 12:14, we read for the first time that the Pharisees began to conspire to destroy him. This man, they thought, could not be the Christ, for he was not bringing in the kingdom of God.
Thus we see that the reason why so many became disenchanted with Christ is because he did not agree with their ideas of the kingdom and what the Christ was supposed to be. Jesus answers these wrong ideas with the parables of the kingdom in chapter 13, in which he taught that “the kingdom of God was continuing its advance even though it was often contested and ignored.”1
However, the Pharisees were not the only ones to become disenchanted with Jesus. At the opening of this chapter, we find even John the Baptist himself questioning the credentials of the Christ. On one level it is understandable why John the Baptist began to doubt. In verse 2, we find him in prison. “According to Josephus, Herod imprisoned John the Baptist in the fortress of Machaerus, east of the Dead Sea.”2 No doubt, John had expected Jesus to bring about the kingdom in all its fullness very soon. But now here he is in prison, and the kingdom looks no nearer than when he began. Cast down, he begins to doubt. Perhaps he wondered if this man to whom he pointed so many, whom he identified as the Lamb of God, and whose heavenly coronation he witnessed at the River Jordan, was not the Christ after all. So he sends some of his disciples to ask Jesus: “Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?” (verse 3).
On the other hand, it is almost surprising that John the Baptist could doubt. After all, he had witnessed so many things that identified Jesus as the Son of God and Messiah. Even in his mother’s womb, he rejoiced in the presence of Mary the mother of Jesus. How could it be that this man, whom Jesus identifies as the greatest among men (11:11), how could it be that this man could doubt that Jesus really was the Christ? In fact, this is so surprising that many of the early church Fathers and Reformers were emphatic that the purpose behind John’s delegation was for the benefit of John’s disciples, not because John himself doubted. In other words, John sent these disciples to ask Jesus if he were the Messiah, not because he didn’t believe it, but because he wanted his disciples to see for themselves that Jesus was the Christ.
However, the text is very clear: John was the one who needed to know. He sent his disciples not for their sakes, but for his own. The great spiritual giant, who had experienced so many amazing things, who had seen so many amazing things, had come to the breaking point on account of the discouraging circumstances in which he found himself.
And here we see great spiritual lessons for all of us. First of all, it teaches us that we are never invulnerable. A Christian never gets to the place where he becomes bulletproof. If John the Baptist can succumb to doubt in the face of so many proofs of our Lord’s credentials, then so can we. Second, it teaches us that we should never elevate anyone else too highly. No one is perfect, and we should keep this in mind, especially with respect to our spiritual leaders. Third, this teaches us that struggling with doubt is not necessarily a sign that we do not belong to Christ. I love how that after John’s disciples go away to carry Jesus’ answer to their master, he turns to the crowds and begins to commend John to them in the strongest terms. Even though there is a gentle rebuke in verse 6, our Lord does not cast off his doubting servant. In the same way, he would later confront the doubting of the apostle Thomas with gentleness (Jn. 20:25-29). And in the same way, when we are struggling with doubt, we need to remember that our struggle does not mean that the Lord has or will cast us off. In that let us find great encouragement.
The fact that John the Baptist struggled with doubt means that it should not surprise us when we struggle with doubt. But it also means that we need to prepare ourselves if possible for those times when we do struggle with doubt. What do we do when, like John the Baptist, we find ourselves wrestling with doubts and fears?
First, we need to understand that there are different kinds of doubt, and that we need to deal with each one differently. Sometimes we struggle with doubting ourselves. We ask ourselves questions like this: “Am I really a child of God? Could someone like me really be accepted by Jesus? Will not my sins find me out and cry out against me at the Last Day?” Now sometimes this can be actually good. If we have unconfessed sin that we have not repented of, then it is a good thing if we are questioning ourselves. Someone who is okay in their sin is in far more danger than someone who is asking these questions. In fact, the Scriptures encourage us to do this: we are told to examine ourselves, to see if we are in the faith (2 Cor. 13:5). We are told to make our calling and election sure (2 Pet. 1:10). Sometimes well-meaning people undermine the Christian duty of self-examination because they think it undermines the Biblical doctrine of assurance of salvation. But such people fail to realize that assurance is not something that we give ourselves: it is something that the Holy Spirit gives to us. And when we sin, he takes that away from us in some measure so that we will question ourselves and turn again to Christ and obedience.
But sometimes believers doubt themselves when they have no reason to do so. Often this is the result of morbid introspection, and taking the duty of self-examination too far so that it eclipses what Jesus has done for us. If all we do is to look inward, we are not going to find very many pleasant things if we are honest with ourselves. That is why, even as we are honest with ourselves, we need to continually look to Jesus.
Another type of doubt is when we doubt God love and care of us. We ask ourselves questions like this: “Will God take care of me? Will he provide? I do believe that he will save sinners, but will he save a sinner like me? Does he really love me?” Often this happens, when, like John the Baptist, we find ourselves in discouraging circumstances. It may be that we have experienced God’s power and faithfulness and love in amazing ways in times past. But now that seems to be eclipsed by the present troubles we are going through. Like Peter, we may have ventured out on the water in faith, but once we see the waves and the wind we begin to doubt and sink. And again like Peter, we hear our Lord’s words to us: “O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?” (Mt. 14:31).
We not only doubt ourselves and God’s love, but we also sometimes doubt God’s word. We wonder if it is really true? Satan has never stopped whispering that dreadful doubt into the ears of believers: “Hath God said?” (cf. Gen. 3:1). We may think that God’s word in under attack in our day in more ways than at other times, but the fact of the matter is that it has always been under attack from the first temptation in the Garden of Eden to this day. In some ways, this is what troubled John the Baptist. He had heard the Father speak: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt. 3:13-17). And yet now he doubted it. Was Jesus really the Son of God, or should he look for someone else?
Now it is important that we squarely face this matter of doubt, no matter what form it takes. And the reason is that facing doubt can either be sanctifying or sinful, depending on how we respond to it. It can be sanctifying. It can make us stronger spiritually. In fact, if we have never faced the specter of doubt, I wonder if we are really spiritually mature.
For one thing, facing doubt can help us correct false ideas about ourselves. It is a good thing when someone who has been hiding his or her sin begins to question their profession of faith. Sin blinds us not only to its own nature, but also blinds us to our own state. But when we begin to question ourselves, especially if it is in the light of God’s word, then we really begin to understand who we are, what our weaknesses are. And it is only then that we are able to change for the better.
Facing doubt can also help us correct false ideas about God and God’s word. This again was the Baptist’s problem. One big reason he was in the state he was in was because he probably had a false understanding of immanency of God’s kingdom. Like most Jews (including our Lord’s own apostles) he thought the kingdom was to be an earthly kingdom that was to immediately appear and would swipe away all their enemies away (cf. Acts 1:6-7). And so he became discouraged when events didn’t play out according to his expectations. If we face such doubts appropriately, these misunderstandings can be corrected and we will of course be stronger for it.
At the end of the day, most of our problems stem from a misunderstanding of God or God’s word, so it is a good thing when doubts arise that cause us to reexamine what we believe about these things. So doubting can strengthen our faith in Christ just as facing any temptation can make us stronger when we respond to it Biblically.
But of course, doubt can also be sinful. If we doubt God’s word because it is getting in the way of our desire to indulge in some lust or to justify our own sin, then it is wicked. There are a lot of people who hide behind skepticism in order to mask their rebellion. They say they have questions that cannot be answered but even if they could be answered they would find another reason to reject Christ. Persistent doubt is sinful. We need to ask ourselves what lies behind persistent doubt. Are our questions unanswered because we don’t want them to be answered? Is there a hardness of heart behind our doubt? If so, then our doubt is sinful.
So then, how do we fight doubt? There is a right way and a wrong way to do this. First of all, let us beware of fighting it in the wrong way. We don’t fight doubt by embracing a “blind faith.” Many people mistakenly take this as the definition of faith. They think that you only have faith when you believe in the face of evidence to the contrary. In fact, this is way many of the current adversaries of Christian theism define faith. But this is not what Paul meant when he said that we “walk by faith and not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). What he meant by this is that there are many things that the Christian believes that he or she cannot see – such as our hope in the resurrection of the body and a new heavens and new earth. But that is not the same thing as saying that there is no evidence for Christian belief. In fact, Paul mentions evidences for faith in the future resurrection in 1 Cor. 15 – evidence from Scripture, and evidence from eye-witnesses (I Cor. 15:1-10). Sometimes people go to the words of Christ to Thomas in John 20:29 to justify this understanding of faith as blind: “Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” And yet such people need to keep reading, for the next two verses make it abundantly clear that John believed in evidence-based faith: “And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book: But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing ye might have life through his name” (20:30-31).
Biblical faith is not jumping blindly into the dark. The word “faith” in the Greek signifies trust and confidence. One who believes in Christ is someone who trusts in him. And they do so precisely on the basis of evidence. Now this evidence comes in different forms to different people. But at the end of the day the Christian believes in Jesus Christ because they believe him to be trustworthy and they have reasons for this trust.
This is important because the Christian life will wither on the vine if the Christian’s faith is blind. We persevere because we believe the promises of God, but you cannot rely on the promises of someone who you cannot trust, and you cannot trust in someone without reason to trust in them.
Rather, the primary strategy by which we face and fight doubt is by immersing ourselves in God’s Word. If you would conquer doubts and fears, let God speak to you through his word. For us that means the Bible. It does not matter in which form the doubt comes, whether we are doubting ourselves, God’s goodness, or God’s word. In each case, we combat doubt by hearing God in his word.
The reason why this works is because the Bible is not just another book. God still speaks through the Bible. And the Holy Spirit witnesses to its truth in the hearts of God’s people. This is what is sometimes called the self-authenticating nature of the Scriptures. It’s what the authors of our confession of faith were referring to when they said that “our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth [of the Scriptures], and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.”3
This is what the apostle John was referring to when he explained that what kept the believers from being deceived by the antichrists that had infiltrated the church was the work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness to the truth: “But ye have an unction from the Holy One, and ye know all things. . . . But the anointing which ye have received of him abideth in you, and ye need not that any man teach you: but as the same anointing teacheth you of all things, and is truth, and is no lie, and even as it hath taught you, ye shall abide in him” (1 Jn. 2:20,27).
At the end of the day, the only way all doubts can be silenced is through the word of God. A finite being by itself can never be completely sure they have arrived at infallible truth. The only way we can be sure is if we can be certain it is God who is speaking. This is why William Lane Craig differentiates between knowing the truth and showing the truth. We can show the truth through the arguments of apologetics and reason. And this can certainly play a part in our knowing the truth, but the only way we can really be sure that what we believe is true is through the witness of the Spirit in our hearts to God’s truth in Scripture. Assurance is obtained when we really meet God in the pages of the Bible.
Let us see how this works out in particular cases. First of all, how do we face doubt when we are doubting our relationship to Christ? To begin with, you don’t just listen to your feelings. Rather, you listen to God’s word. What does it say to you? If you are doubting your relationship with God because you feel the weight of sin upon your mind and heart, then you need to hear God’s word inviting you to confess and repent of your sin and to be cleansed afresh by the blood of Christ: “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin” (1 Jn. 1:7).
You don’t need to fixate on your past, you need to look to Christ, for this is exactly what God’s word tells us to do. You shouldn’t remain in your sin, you need to follow Christ, for this is what God’s word tells us to do. And it tells us that when we do so, we will experience anew the fellowship of the Holy Trinity.
What if we are doubting God’s provision and care for us? Again, we need to listen carefully to the promises of God on our behalf. We don’t let our circumstances drown out the sweetness of God’s sure word. Here Abraham is an example to all of us: “Who against hope believed in hope, that he might become the father of many nations; according to that which was spoken, So shall thy seed be. And being not weak in faith, he considered not his own body now dead, when he was about an hundred years old, neither yet the deadness of Sarah’s womb: He staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God; and being fully persuaded that, what he had promised, he was able also to perform” (Rom. 4:18-21).
What if we are doubting the very truthfulness of God’s word? Again, we need to listen to the word of God. G. Campbell Morgan, the predecessor to Martyn Lloyd-Jones at Westminster Chapel, early in his ministry faced a growing uncertainty in Scripture as he was confronted with the arguments of skeptics. The questions became greater and more unanswerable until he finally reached a crisis.
At last the crisis came when he admitted to himself his total lack of assurance that the Bible was the authoritative Word of God to man. He immediately cancelled all preaching engagements. Then, taking all his books, both those attacking and those defending the Bible, he put them all in a corner cupboard. Relating this afterwards, as he did many times in preaching, he told of turning the key in the lock of the door. “I can hear the click of that lock now,” he used to say. He went out of the house, and down the street to a bookshop. He bought a new Bible and, returning to his room with it, he said to himself: “I am no longer sure that this is what my father claims it to be— the Word of God. But of this I am sure. If it be the Word of God, and if I come to it with an unprejudiced and open mind, it will bring assurance to my soul of itself.”4
That is exactly what happened. “That Bible found me,” he said, and from that point on  he remained committed to the truthfulness of God’s word. Jonathan Edwards once said, “The gospel of the blessed God does not go abroad a begging for its evidence, so much as some think; it has its highest and most proper evidence in itself.”5
That doesn’t mean we should be afraid to examine the evidence for God’s word. After all, Jesus pointed John the Baptist to the evidence for God’s Word in verses 4 and 5. Many people over the centuries have actually come to faith in Christ while trying to undermine the truthfulness of God’s word (an example is Sir William Ramsay). Nor should we be afraid to reexamine our understanding of God’s word. We could, like John the Baptist, be in doubt not because God’s word is untrue, but because we have misinterpreted God’s word.