Prescription for Unbelief

The following article is a guest contribution by Peter Kemeny, pastor of Good News Presbyterian Church, Frederick, Maryland. It first appeared in this month’s edition of the church newsletter and is reprinted here with permission.

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). Your unregenerate heart has rendered you unable to believe. You do not believe because you cannot believe.” This is what the apostle Paul was talking about 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). This is what Jesus was talking about when he said, “unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). To be “born again” is to receive spiritual birth from God.

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.”

But paradoxically, the Bible does not recommend that the non-Christian resign himself to unbelief. Rather, it commands him to pursue Christ. The eighteenth century Scottish pastor Ebenezer Erskine called those who despaired of their unbelief to “attempt the impossible.” Joel Beeke writes that Ebenezer Erskine “used two illustrations to reinforce that advice. As Jesus told the lame man to stretch out his hand and the Lord gave him strength to do so, so sinners must attempt to believe in Jesus, trusting that God will give them the strength to do what is natively impossible for them to do. Likewise, as a child who is too young to read is sent to school with a primer, is asked to read, and does so as he learns how to read, so God commands us to believe, then helps us to do so” (Puritan Reformed Spirituality, p. 280). To this end I recommend two things.

Cry out to 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 (The Life and Letters of Benjamin Morgan Palmer, T.C. Johnson, Banner of Truth).

Friend, if you do not believe in Christ, but in some sense 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 the teaching and preaching of the Bible. Read solid Christian books that explain the Bible. Talk to Christians about 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.” Similarly, Peter told Christians that they “have been born again…through the living and abiding word of God” (I Peter 1:23).

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.