If so, how do we go about searching out the nuances of life’s most vital matters without falling into the sin of unbelief?
God spoke through His prophet Isaiah and gave Israel this invitation:
Come now, let us reason (or dispute) together. –Isaiah 1:18
As we grow in the knowledge of God—His character, how He works, His will for us, etc.—there will be natural theological questions that arise. “Just have faith” will not be a sufficient answer. Hard questions require more than bumper sticker answers. These inquiries are not inherently sinful; they are the result of mortal people attempting to understand the immortal God as He has revealed Himself. The questions surrounding this immortal God of ours get quite complicated.
With that stated, a devious trap must be avoided when wrangling with many deeper theological concepts. Our thoughts can easily lead us beyond simple inquiry to doubt, or even further progress into outright unbelief. We must be careful how we navigate these issues.
The Bible shows us that God is sovereign, independent, self-governing, autonomous. The Bible also reveals that God has chosen to work in concert through real people, accomplishing His grand purposes through—not independent of—His people. On the surface those two sentences seem paradoxical, impossibly inconsistent. How can God be completely in charge and at the same time choose to work—or choose to risk His work—through sinful, stubborn people?
I can ask those questions and attempt to find what God has revealed in His Word. I could also regress, however, into trusting my questions— questions that sow seeds of unbelief—more than God’s revelation. One approach seeks out a matter in order to know God’s answers; the other criticizes revelation on the basis of fallen intellect. Reasonable questions that lead to a greater knowledge of God glorify Him. Unbelief reeks of pride.
In answering the question of how God’s sovereignty is married to His determination to work with fallen people, we admit that much of the answer has yet to be uncovered for us. However, there is a key to reconciling these two truths. God has sovereignly chosen to use particular means of grace to accomplish His greater purpose, and His greater purpose will be accomplished. God hasn’t risked His work at all. He has planned out the details of His intricate plan, not just the result.
In other words, God doesn’t simply choose the end destination for us; He has determined the road we’ll take and the vehicle that gets us there. The two principles of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility do not create a paradox; they work in tandem. God’s plan is so complete that He doesn’t just decide what should happen; He knows how to make it happen in the perfect way.
This is why the God who controls all things, who never has His purposes thwarted, who designed all, sees all, knows all, controls all, and needs nothing from us in order to accomplish His will, looks at us and says “you do not have because you do not ask (James 4:2).” God uses prayer. He has determined to use prayer as a particular means of grace to accomplish His greater purpose.
In the same way, God has determined to use faith. We make a mistake if we talk about God as if He were not able to do something because we don’t exercise enough faith; this tends to miss the point of God’s supernatural ability to do all that He pleases. However, the Scripture is clear that God has determined to work through faith; and God has chosen to limit or cut off what He blesses in the absence of faith. A quick study of Scripture bears this fact out.
Jesus didn’t do many miracles in His hometown because of the unbelief of the people (Matt. 13; Mark 6). The disciples couldn’t cast out demons because of their unbelief (Matt. 17). Israel fell as a nation and were “broken off” because of the people’s unbelief (Romans 11). The original generation of Israelites who left Egypt did not get into the Promised Land because of unbelief (Hebrews 3 and 4). And the admonition to the reader is for us to not make the same foolish mistake that inevitably leads to the same horrible consequences.
The sin of unbelief is more than having doubts, and it is certainly more than posing legitimate questions. Unbelief looks at God’s revelation and says, “I don’t trust You.” It criticizes God’s promises with a skeptical “I hear You; but it’s not enough. Your Word isn’t enough for me.”
Unbelief casts doubts on God’s character—His trustworthiness, His goodness, His honesty. A humble approach will prove God’s character to be all the more dependable. Faith takes God at His word. Faith takes our questions and searches out the mysteries of God’s revelation so we will believe in Him all the more.
In the preface of his spiritual autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, Bunyan, who was born in 1628 in Bedfordshire, England, said, “It is profitable for Christians to often call to mind the very beginnings of grace in their souls.” It is the Giver of that grace whom Bunyan seeks to magnify as he recounts his journey of salvation.
In that journey, we find Bunyan no stranger to unbelief but rather one who wrestled extensively with heavy doubts, guilt, and condemnation, often arguing that God could not save him.
Sin and corruption would as naturally bubble out of my heart as water would bubble out of a fountain. I thought now that everyone had a better heart than I had; I could have changed hearts with anybody. I thought none but the devil himself could equalize me for inward wickedness and pollution of mind. I fell at the sight of my own vileness into deep despair, for I concluded that this condition that I was in could not stand with a state of grace. Sure, I thought, I am forsaken of God; sure I am given up to the devil and to a reprobate mind. And thus I continued a long while, even for several years.
In full disclosure I admit that as I read Bunyan’s story, I found myself getting so impatient (and sometimes frustrated) with the length of his conviction period that I would catch myself subconsciously praying that God would save him and relieve him from the weight of his doubts and paralyzing unbelief. Then I saw myself in his place. Praise for a God who is patient and forbearing with the frailty of our flesh. What a Savior.
During his years of battling for belief, the already vulnerable Bunyan was constantly plagued with the Accuser’s taunting, torments, and distortion of the truth. As you read the following excerpts, perhaps you will see, as I did, that the enemy of our souls has no new material but continues only to repackage the same lies he’s used for centuries. “Same cake, different party,” as my dad says.
However, because he still remained in the flesh the battle with unbelief never ended but victory was gained.
I leave you with two final quotes from the book. These were penned while Bunyan was in prison for not conforming to the Church of England. All glory to our Conquering King.
I have never in all my life had so great an inlet into the Word of God as now. The Scriptures that I saw nothing in before are made to shine on me in this place and state.
I never knew what it was like to have God stand by me at every turn and every offer of Satan to afflict me as I have found Him since I came here. For as fears have presented themselves, so have support and encouragement.
There was something specific He led me to pursue, something big and crazy that only He could bring about. Although it thrust me into waters deeper than I felt equipped to navigate, after much prayer and seeking wise counsel, I plunged forward.
For several months, the path was remarkably straight and smooth. I prayed that if this particular path was not going to lead to His best for me, that He would stop me and show another direction to go, but step after step propelled me forward and everything was falling into place. I prayed all year that I would want Him more than I wanted this dream, even as I prayed that He would indeed bring this dream to fruition. As pieces continued fitting smoothly into the puzzle, I grew more and more excited, and it seemed like this extremely unlikely dream was really going to come true. Until the day when He clearly said, “This far, no further. This journey has come to a stop.”
It was rather sudden, and it was through an abrupt message delivered by someone who showed absolutely no compassion whatsoever for the fact that she had just crushed my dream. I was devastated. I was angry. I was sad. But most of all, I was confused. Had I totally misinterpreted what God was leading me to do? Hadn’t He led me down this road from the beginning? And, whispering around my heart in my darkest moments was the question that came from the raw, aching, most vulnerable part of my soul: Isn’t He good?
Those places that believe we could have orchestrated things better for ourselves. Just like the luminol used by forensic investigators to find hidden traces of blood at a crime scene, suffering shines its light on our heart until the hidden traces of unbelief show up. Traces of blood at a crime scene emit a strange glow under the spotlight of the luminol, which is eerie because that blood is obviously out of place and it means that something very wrong has happened there. Similarly, when suffering illuminates hidden places of unbelief in our hearts, it is jarring. That unbelief is obviously out of place in the heart of a child of God, and it means that something is very wrong there.
Many of us are drawn like magnets to stories of saints who have suffered well. Their stories intrigue us, inspire us, and at the same time, they bewilder us. How can one endure such great magnitudes of suffering and still have peace, still trust God, still shine?
This is so baffling because so many of us do not suffer well. When afflictions come our way, we far too often fall immediately into anguish, distrust, murmuring, and discontent. As Puritan pastor Jeremiah Burroughs stated in his book, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, “We are usually apt to think that any condition is better than that condition in which God has placed us.” When afflictions come, we start thinking of all the ways God could and should have done better by us. This is the unbelief shining its ugly light in the corners of our hearts.
Do you really believe that God is good? Do you really believe that He is sovereignly working all things in your life for your good, to conform you to the image of His Son? Then you must rest in Him during times of affliction in quiet trust that He is good and does all things well. A murmuring, discontented heart—no matter how great the affliction—is evidence of unbelief.
Remember the Israelites in the desert. After the Lord’s judgment for the rebellion of Korah, the people complained.
But on the next day all the congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and against Aaron, saying, “You have killed the people of the LORD.” –Numbers 16:41
Now, grumbling doesn’t seem like it would be a huge issue, as sins go. However, just a few verses later, we see the Lord saying, “Get away from the midst of this congregation, that I may consume them in a moment.” The plague had begun and before Moses could make proper atonement for this grievous sin of grumbling among the people, 14,700 of them were killed by God. Grumbling is indeed a very big deal. In fact, in Numbers 17:10, God calls them rebels.
Put back the staff of Aaron before the testimony, to be kept as a sign for the rebels, that you may make an end of their grumblings against Me, lest they die.
This is sobering indeed. A heart of discontent is a heart refusing to submit to God. A murmuring, complaining heart is one that does not believe the promises of God. When all is well, we are quick to claim God’s promises and even to encourage others to claim them when they are suffering. But are we as quick to claim them when suffering comes to us? Whether your affliction is small or great, life-changing or merely a bump in the road, will you meet it with a quiet, steadfast heart that clings to belief in the God who promises to never forsake you?
This succinctly summarizes the root of all sin. At the bottom of the sewer pit of sin we find the culprit of unbelief and its composition is a lie about God and self. All unbelief in the human heart believes two lies: God is not as good as He says, and I’m better than I am. Almost 2,000 years ago, the Apostle Paul said that mankind’s depravity owes itself to the fact that humanity has “exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen” (Romans 1:25).
To believe a lie about God is also believing a lie about one’s self. This is Paul’s assertion. The moment you stop believing something that is true about the Creator, you start believing something that is false about the creation. To worship the creature is to believe that the creation is worthy of such, and that assumes God alone is not worthy. And whatever you worship you will serve.
This gets to the heart of all temptation—unbelief. When you pay close attention to Satan’s strategy in the temptation of Eve, you will note the same strategy used against us all. His plan rested on one thing—getting Eve to stop believing the truth about God and believe a lie about her Maker.
Some have conjectured that the devil misquoted God to register in Eve’s mind doubt that God had given a prohibition of eating from the tree of good and evil. But that is not the strategy of the enemy. The Lord told Adam that he could eat from every tree in the garden, except one.
And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” -Genesis 2:16-17
Satan’s question turns the positive permission of God to eat of every tree into a negative. He insinuates that God is a restrictive killjoy not allowing the first couple to enjoy the excellent fruit of every tree.
Has God indeed said, “You shall not eat of every tree of the garden?” -Genesis 3:1
Secondly, the devil lies and contradicts God’s word, “Then the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not surely die’” (Genesis 3:4). Again, he strikes the same note that God cannot be trusted. He then opens Eve’s mind to the possibility that she is suffering the loss of something good because God is unkind, and wants everything for Himself. He lies again, “For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5). The whole lie spins around the assertion that God is not good. He doesn’t want you to determine good and evil for yourself because then you will not be dependent upon Him. You will be your own god; you will be like Him.
This is the exchange of the truth of God for the lie. What is the result? The worship and service of self rather than the Lord God.
Thus, it is now evident why idolatry is the constant nemesis of man and God. Wherever unbelief exists, idolatry lives. It is not coincidental that the first two of the 10 Commandments deal with the sin of idolatry. It was the continual sin of Israel that led to its judgment. In the New Testament, the warning against idolatry is repeatedly trumpeted.
Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites. -1 Corinthians 6:9
And do not become idolaters as were some of them. As it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.” -1 Corinthians 10:7
Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. -1 Corinthians 10:14
Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. -Colossians 3:5
Little children, keep yourselves from idols. Amen. -1 John 5:21
The Apostle Paul knew well that if a person ceases to believe the truth about God, he or she is ruled by one or more idols. This is why he said that men “worshiped and served the creature.” Idolatry is more than the bowing down before a crafted statute representing a deity. It is the belief that something or someone can care, help, or provide for you better than the Lord Jesus Christ. That is the fuel of every sin and the lie about God that becomes the foundation of unbelief.
This is manifested not only in the ruthless and horrid crimes plastered on the front pages of newspapers but also in the niceties of religion publicized in the same newspapers and in our own churches.
So much of evangelical Christianity is our idolatrous attempt to serve man-made gods promising a better experience. God is no longer believed to give us what we need. He is no longer worthy of waiting upon until He acts. Instead man acts, man works, man does so that man is praised. Therein, is the idolatry—man demands the glory.
He is the Gospel, the good news, of His Father. There is no Gospel apart from the Lord Jesus, He is the sum of all God has done to redeem sinners. But mankind with supernatural help has reduced the Gospel to a few simple facts about Jesus and mental assent to those facts. I say supernatural because I believe the enemy of our souls, Apollyon, the devil, has his malevolent hand in the corruption of men’s understanding of the Gospel.
The Gospel is larger than the doctrine of justification by faith or how to gain eternal life when you die. It is about possessing eternal life now; it is about entrance into a kingdom, the kingdom of God’s dear Son. When Jesus came on the scene preaching, His message was not a Reader’s Digest condensed version about the forgiveness of sins. It included that but was much more. The Scripture says of our Lord’s first preaching, “Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel’” (Mark 1:14-15).
The hors d’oeuvres may be wonderful but they are designed to increase the longing and desire for the meal to come. You don’t make a meal out of spinach dip and crackers. Yet many pastors proclaim a gospel that focuses on what I call the fringe benefits of the Gospel. They are as follows: cancelling our sin debt and getting heaven when we die. Like the appetizers, the benefits of this Gospel are superb, but there is something even better than these. At the heart and soul of the Gospel is reconciliation with God Himself; being united in communion with the Lord Jesus.
Jesus did not think in narrow terms of salvation as we do; He saw the good news encompassing a great deal more. It was the announcement of a kingdom come, “Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people” (Matthew 9:35). The Lord said the end would not come until “this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14).
They said their preaching was about God’s kingdom. In Acts 8:12 it said of the ministry of Philip, “But when they believed Philip as he preached the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, both men and women were baptized.” Luke describes the preaching of the Apostle Paul as, “reasoning and persuading concerning the things of the kingdom of God” (Acts 19:8).
The evangel of our preaching is not only the assurance of the kingdom of God when you die but entrance into the kingdom when you believe upon God’s only begotten Son. The Gospel is not about preparing people to die as much as it is preparing them to live, and live now.
The genre of the New Testament doctrine of salvation is entrance into a kingdom now but not yet. In other words, the kingdom of God is current and it is here. It is a spiritual realm we enter presently by faith, but the kingdom it is not yet a physical reality. One day it will manifest itself in the material realm. The good news that Christ and His apostles gladly proclaimed was that the poor and broken could enter into that kingdom now before it has materialized on the earth. This is why Jesus began His great Sermon on the Mount (a sermon about how the subjects of the kingdom live), “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). It is theirs now; they have entered it, that is, if they believe that Christ has opened the kingdom to them by His redemptive life and death.
Jesus was not preaching that if Nicodemus would believe and be born again that when he died he would see and enter the kingdom. No, Jesus was explaining that it is by the new birth that a man can see and enter now.
Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God . . . unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” -John 3:3,5
For more on this ministry transition, click here.
For more on this ministry transition, click here.