The Many Faces of Unbelief

23 May

From a Wednesday night lesson I taught a while back:


The Many Faces of Unbelief


We are asked every Sunday morning, Christian, what do you believe [our church then recites the Apostles Creed]?  Tonight, I want to ask another question.  Christian, do you believe it?  Do you really believe it?  If you do, if you really do, then battling unbelief in your own life and in the lives of others will occupy a great amount of your attention, particularly in your prayer life.  It’s not that hard to be a Christian in this world if your message is mainly that Christianity is helpful, that it works, that it produces a better society, that it heals broken marriages, that it reduces crime, that it gives people a sense of purpose or identity, that it brings relief to the poor, that it promotes human dignity.  But what is hard and becoming harder for people to believe and for Christians to openly profess and especially privately believe is the gospel of Jesus Christ; that man’s central problem is his war against his Holy Creator; that men, all men, every man, deserves eternal punishment, that men must believe upon Christ alone for the forgiveness of their sins, that there is no other name in heaven or earth whereby we must be saved, that there is a heaven to be gained and a hell to be feared, and that God has made provision, one provision, for our redemption in the sacrificial work of His Son.  These beliefs are what we profess, but do we really believe that the state of every man is truly desperate, condemned, and are we truly doing battle with this kind of unbelief?

“without faith it is impossible to please God, and he that comes to God must believe that He is, and that He rewards those who diligently seek Him.”  (Heb. 11:16)

Classifying unbelief – all unbelievers have one thing in common, they are at war with God (Rom. 8:7), whether they acknowledge it or not, and they are idolaters, exalting themselves or something else over and above their Creator, the one with whom they have to deal.  But Jesus warns them that they will be humbled.  But how unbelief expresses itself is quite diverse, and the feeders of unbelief are also quite diverse, even though the essence of unbelief remains at the core, a heart problem (we must “believe in our heart that God raised Jesus from the dead,” Rom. 10:9).

·         Philosophical unbelief – those who have constructed or embraced intellectual arguments from human reason against the God of the Bible.  For the believer, the beginning of wisdom is the fear of God, but for this type of unbeliever, futile speculations, the wisdom of this age, what seems right to a man, the natural mind, all help him suppress the truth about God in unrighteousness, so that he refuses to acknowledge God and worship/submit to Him.  Their posture is usually one of defiance and intellectual superiority.  They need to see the futility of their thinking, the irrationality of their thought, the impossibility of ethics, science, logic, indeed any kind of genuine knowledge without the existence of the personal absolute God of scripture; we must expose the shaky ground upon which they stand, taking every one of their thoughts captive to the word of Christ, casting down every thought that sets itself up against knowledge of God; we must answer them, fools such as they are, according to their folly, and yet conversely, we must show them the Rock which we stand, the way that Christianity satisfies, explains all of life as we experience it, the fact of the resurrection, the coherence of the biblical story.  In short, their philosophical system of unbelief needs to be exposed for and reduced to the foolishness that it is, for the fool has said in his heart, ‘there is no God.’  And however recalcitrant or entrenched the fool may be, we worship a God who turns hearts of stone into hearts of flesh by supernatural power.

·         Bitter unbelief – these are unbelievers who disbelieve because they blame God, if He exists, for serious painful natural or moral evil in their lives.  It could be the death of a child, divorced parents, serious illness, or natural disaster.  Extreme care must be taken with so delicate an unbeliever.  They need to know the deep peace of God that surpasses all understanding, how the true believer is comforted even in painful distress by basking in the mystery of God’s providence, the secret things that belong to the Lord our God, the assurance that He is working all things together for His glory and our good, and that He will surely bring us through after we have suffered for a little while.  We must win the unbeliever with compassion, as good Samaritans, so that they see our good works and glorify our father in heaven.

·         False unbelief – these are unbelievers who have embraced an alternate worldview or religion.  They need to see that only Jesus truly satisfies, only the truth of the Bible can explain their sinful broken condition, that they can never reconcile themselves to God by their own works, that God has come near, he is the Word, he became flesh, and he dwelt among us, and nothing they find in man-made religion can offer the hope that they will find when they meet Jesus as he is presented to us in the gospel.

·         Pious unbelief – these are unbelievers who are zealous in religion, take great pride in their own righteousness, do many good and holy things, refrain from many sinful vices, but are trusting in their acts of righteousness to save them on that day.  They are quick to tell you how good they are and how awful are others.  But pious conduct is no substitute for genuine repentance and faith.  They need to hear the gospel of grace, that Christ came to save sinners, that their most righteous acts are as filthy rags, that Jesus did not come save the righteous but sinners, that all have sinned and fallen short, that many on that day will call Him Lord, Lord look at all I’ve done for you and in your name, but that he will say depart from me I never knew you.

·         Guilty unbelief – these are unbelievers who fear God’s wrath, judgment, but think that their sins are simply to great too severe and God too Holy and strict, for them to ever receive forgiveness.  If you only knew what I’ve done.  They need to know the longsuffering kindness of God, the grace and mercy of God, that His grace is unmerited, His yoke is easy, His burden is lite, He bids them only come, drink, and live; we must show them that there is room at the cross even for them.

·         Nice unbelief – these are the unbelievers who don’t disbelieve in the existence of God, but are quite sure that whatever God is like and whatever form of religion we take, in the end, what matters is that we are good and decent people.  Surely, they say, if there’s a God he’s concerned more with how we live and treat one another than how we address Him or what we believe about Him.  Would God judge people who are good and decent?  But we must show them that they are deceiving themselves, that God will not be mocked, that His righteous standards can not be met by even the scribes and the Pharisees, that how we treat and think of God is the most important thing about us, that a god of our own making (Santa) is the most disgusting form of idolatry, that God is his own interpreter, that loving God with all your heart is the greatest commandment,  not being neighborly, and that man’s most basic problem is not mistreatment of others but enmity with God.

·         Immoral unbelief – these unbelievers are victims of a besetting sin; a sin that they know is wrong, they initially feel guilty about it, they get away with it for months, years, they begin to wonder where is God, will he not judge?  They do not see any serious problems associated with indulging the sin over time and begin to believe that things will pretty much go on as normal, eating, drinking, going to the market, the doom-sayers at church or doom-saying in their heads are delusional.  But they are fools and in danger of being handed over to their sinful desires, losing any sense of urgency to gain victory over the sinful habit, losing any sense of guilt graciously extended to them by God’s common grace, warning them to turn, repent, fight, and mortify the particular sin in their lives before it mortifies them and relegates them to the pit of hell, cutting off hands or gauging out eyes if needs be.  If they are professing Christians, perhaps they were truly grieved about it once, even prayed about it often with genuine sincerity, but when victory didn’t come quickly or easily, what faith they had begun to dry up and their walk with God became a lonely one, at best going through religious motions before they cease bothering with it or before their sin is exposed and they “come out” as it were as an unbeliever.

·         Worldly unbelief – these are unbelievers, often found in the church as well as outside, who love the gifts of God but have little concern for the God of the gifts.  They may very well be professing Christians, and many are professing Christians, who revel in the benefits of Christianity.  They enjoy the friendships they get through church activity; friendships with good and decent, patriotic even, and perhaps conservative, people.  They enjoy the culture that Christianity, church, Christian schools, provide their families, reducing the likelihood that their children will become entrapped by a radically loosey goosy anything goes culture.  They enjoy being defined, having a clearly laid out identity, tribe, way of life, set of attitudes.  It’s not that they are not religious.  They pray.  They pray that life will continue to go well, not only for themselves but also their children and friends.  They pray that the nation will prosper, their own health will remain strong.  I mean, why not pray for these things, it can’t hurt if there really is a God.  They believe in God and really want him to alleviate pain and promote pleasure for them in this life.  Their prayers are consumed entirely with concerns for the here and now, a better car, job, spouse, friend, child, home, nation, body, mind.  Their lives and prayers show them to be so earthly minded they are of no heavenly good.  Seldom to they pray, if at all about authentically spiritual matters.  They do not obsess over personal holiness, they do not weep over their own sin.  The unbelief of others doesn’t bother them too much.  They feel no strong sense of urgency to pray and seek God for the salvation of lost coworkers, family members, or even children.  They assume that all that stuff will get worked out in the end with no hard feelings or painful regrets.  Christianity, for them, is great, as far as it goes in making their lives better on earth.  They even believe in heaven and fully expect to go there since, after all, they believe in God and Jesus and all that.  Just ask them, they will tell you.  They know about God, the Bible, Jesus and heaven.  But do they want I want to know Christ–yes, to know the power of his resurrection and fellowship in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death?  Is it that personal to them, a child-like faith towards a parent; or is it merely circumstantial, expedient, beneficial, useful.  But these unbelievers have built houses on the sand, and when the wind and waves smash against it, it crumbles.  They will not endure the test, take up their cross, and follow Christ down the difficult narrow road.  When asked to give up the most important treasures, gifts, idols they have, even to gain heaven should there be one, they turn their head like the rich young ruler and walk away.  They will lose or lessen or greatly modify their “faith” when calamity strikes, when a child comes out as homosexual or an atheist, when they find themselves attracted to a coworker, but certainly don’t won’t to lose out if heaven turns up real.  But they must examine themselves to see if it is God and His Christ that consumes their love, loyalty, and affection rather than the trappings, byproducts, of Christianity that keeps them “believing.”  Their unbelief can be exposed by taking an inventory of their prayer life.  What occupies most of their prayers, items that would make their lives easier now or items that are focused on the Kingdom of God such as personal holiness and the salvation of the lost.


While the root of unbelief is the same (indwelling sin), unbelief varies in intensity and strength (just as it is with faith).  Thus, while the remedy to unbelief is the same (the gospel), the evangelist must be sensitive to the context, understanding the type of unbelief at work.  And most importantly, the evangelist must locate his utter dependence upon God throughout the process.  This is done primarily through personal trust (God knows who are His and He will call them in His time).  But this dependence, this trust, is expressed through prayer.  And it is prayer that God uses to change hearts.  Now praying for a particularly obstinate unbeliever, wholly given to a particular form of unbelief, may require greater intensity.  Unbelief of this sort can truly be described as a kind of demonic possession.  And Jesus exhorted His disciples that certain types of demonic activity, in this case rigid unbelief, requires especially intense forms of spiritual activity, such as fervent prayer, even fasting, and strong faith.  When the disciples failed to drive out a demon from a boy, they asked Jesus why.  Jesus replied, “Because of the littleness of your faith; for truly I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to a mountain, ‘Move form here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you.  But this kind [of demonic activity] does not go out except by prayer and fasting.”  Let us not consider anyone beyond the reach of God’s grace, no matter how resistant they may seem to the gospel.  But we show that we believe that not only through gospel communication, but fervent prayer. 


%d bloggers like this: