Now we are in a position to understand that the problem in Judaism was not works, for their were works of righteousness abounding, but that they proceeded from a dead root, and so were mere leaves, giving the appearance of life and sustenance, but only the appearance. If we have works, but no faith, then we will rest in our works and so be dead in our transgressions. If we have faith, then our works will be the grace of God working in us for his glory, and they will indeed be fruitful.
We at last come to the final portion of our passage, Mark 11:22-25. One could be forgiven for thinking that these words came somewhat disconnected to the preceding narrative. So, too, such disregard for context leads the charismatics and the pentecostals astray, into measuring faith by the power of prayer, and so the failure of prayer lies chiefly in the measure of faith. We have seen, though, that the episode of the fig tree is deeply connected to Jesus’ judgment upon Israel, and so is not primarily an example of the power of faith, as if his disciples may likewise curse trees or cast mountains, if but they had enough faith.
No, rather, Jesus responds to Peter’s exclamation with the bare call, “Have faith in God”. If we have read Romans 11 rightly, then faith is exactly the point that Jesus ought to take up here. How shall one avoid the fate of the fig-tree? Faith alone. Jesus’ whole teaching is summarised in this chapter by his words, “Have faith in God”. He then, naturally, moves from faith to faith’s expression, which is prayer. For in prayer the one who trusts in God in all his sovereign goodness and faithful promises, brings such trusting requests before him as he shall be inclined to answer. And yet Jesus’ statements are so wide open, so carte blanche, that they worry the believer and provide cause for scorn from the unbeliever. So too John 15:7 bears an equally confronting breadth of invitation in prayer.
We do well to listen to Calvin on this passage:
This passage shows also that the true test of faith lies in prayer. If it be objected, that those prayers are never heard, that mountains should be thrown into the sea, the answer is easy. Christ does not give a loose rein to the wishes of men, that they should desire any thing at their pleasure, when he places prayer after the rule of faith; for in this way the Spirit must of necessity hold all our affections by the bridle of the word of God, and bring them into obedience. Christ demands a firm and undoubting confidence of obtaining an answer; and whence does the human mind obtain that confidence but from the word of God? We now see then that Christ promises nothing to his disciples, unless they keep themselves within the limits of the good pleasure of God.
- Calvin, Commentary on Matthew, Mark, and Luke, vol 3. commenting on Matthew 21:21f//Mark 11:22ff.
Calvin wisely notes that “way the Spirit must of necessity hold all our affections by the bridle of the word of God, and bring them into obedience.” We do not know what we ought to want, and our desires and affections are wont to run amok, both from our immaturity and our corrupted natures. For as a young child believes that a diet of candy and chocolate will be for their best, yet the parent restrains and directs them to what is the better good, lest the child through ignorance and wilful indulgence bring a certain ruin upon themselves, so too we, desiring so many things that are to our ruin, both through ignorance and sin, must have our affections reined in and bridled, chiefly by the word of God. This too is spoken of in John 15:7, where Christ tells us that we must have his words abide in us. So, our desires and affections must be trained by the Word of God so that our willing and our prayers are more and more conformed to his sovereign good will and pleasure.