Prescription for Unbelief
It’s not uncommon for an unbeliever to say, “I would like to believe that Christianity is true, but I’m not there yet.” What counsel can we offer?
The first thing I would say to my unbelieving friend is this: “Your unbelief is not merely a product of your upbringing or of the secular culture in which we live. The root cause of your unbelief is the fact that you are spiritually dead (Ephesians 2:1). You do not believe because you cannot believe.” This is what the apostle Paul meant when he wrote, "The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned" (I Corinthians 2:14). The only way someone can move from unbelief to belief is if God breathes spiritual life into him (Ephesians 2:4-5).
After pointing out to my unbelieving friend that he is spiritually dead and that only God can grant him belief, my friend may well throw up his hands and say, “Well, if I’m spiritually dead and if faith is a gift from God, then there’s nothing I can do.”
Oh yes there is. Paradoxically, the Bible still commands the unbeliever to pursue Christ. The eighteenth century Scottish pastor Ebenezer Erskine called those who despaired of their unbelief to “attempt the impossible.” He said that just as Jesus commanded the lame man to stretch out his hand and then enabled him to do so, so the unbeliever should strive to believe in Jesus, trusting that God will grant him faith. To this end I recommend two things.
Ask God for faith and repentance. Because faith and repentance are gifts that God in his good pleasure grants (Ephesians 2:8; Acts 11:18), the unbeliever should ask God to enable him rest on Christ and to turn from his sin.
Benjamin Morgan Palmer was the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Savannah, 1841-1843. During a period of revival in Savannah he was visited by a friend who was a skeptic of Christianity. This friend complained to Palmer that preachers were most contrary of men, for on the one hand, he said, they tell people that if they do not repent and come to Christ they will surely perish. On the other hand, he said, they tell people that they are unable to come to Christ on their own.
Palmer replied to his friend, “Well, there’s no sense in us arguing about it. If you think you can repent on your own, then go ahead and do it.” After a pause the man cried out in despair, “That is just the problem. I have been trying my best for three whole days and I cannot.”
Palmer said, “Well, that’s a different matter. Let us then pray to God who can do for you what you cannot do for yourself.” Within a few days God was pleased to grant him faith and repentance. Friend, if you do not believe in Christ, but would like to, then ask God to do for you what you cannot do for yourself. Ask God to enable you to believe and repent.
Use God’s appointed means for imparting faith and repentance: Scripture. Read the Bible. Sit under faithful teaching and preaching of the Bible. Scripture is the ordinary means that our sovereign God uses to open our eyes to recognize his glory. Paul wrote, “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:17).
So when it comes to moving from unbelief to belief, we see in Scripture a paradox. On the one hand we read of God’s sovereignty in granting salvation. Jesus said, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:3). On the other hand, we read of our responsibility to come to Christ. “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). Our job is not to unravel the paradox, but pursue faith in Christ.
Peter Kemeny, Pastor
Good News Presbyterian Church
P.O. Box 1051, Frederick, MD 21702