Why you don’t believe

Peter Barnes Rev Dr Peter Barnes is a Presbyterian pastor who lives in Sydney, Australia. He has served on the mission field in Vanuatu, ministered on the Nambucca River in northern NSW, and is currently pastor at
01 December, 2008 3 min read

Why you don’t believe

A famous preacher called Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones once lamented that present-day preaching is so innocuous that it doesn’t even annoy people. That could not have been said of Jesus Christ. No one could be more compassionate than Jesus but no one is more direct in pointing out that behind unbelief is sin.

With the coming of Christ, ‘light came into the world’ (John 3:19). As ‘the light of men’, Jesus ‘shines in the darkness’ and affects everyone in the world (John 1:4-5, 9).

For example, his light shines on the human conscience. God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. As the light of the world Christ has come to reveal God’s holiness and our moral darkness (John 8:12). But Christ has also brought the light of the gospel (Ephesians 5:8-14). His message reveals not only how we should live but how we can live – how we may be forgiven and receive new life and strength from God’s Holy Spirit.

Surely people must welcome such a message? Yet they do not.


Jesus tells us why – ‘people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil’. Hence they hate the light and will not come to it (John 3:19-20). Unless the Holy Spirit changes us, we shall never be willing to give up our sins.

As Paul says, we ‘suppress the truth in unrighteousness’ (Romans 1:18-19). The problem is not man’s ignorance but his hostility towards God.

We are not neutral people who will impartially evaluate the truth of the gospel. We are rather rebels who reject God’s demand that we humble ourselves before him. As William Cowper puts it in The progress of error:

Faults in the life breed errors in the brain,

And these reciprocally those again.

The mind and conduct mutually imprint

And stamp their image in each other’s mint.

That’s how sin works in us. Unbelief comes from a sinful heart, and then exhibits itself in rebellion against God – what we might call ‘rationalised misbehaviour’.

For example, Bertrand Russell was probably not opposed to Christianity because he was a great mathematician and philosopher but because he was a serial adulterer. We either justify ourselves or we accept God’s justification of sinners who repent and trust in Christ.

The gospel exposes evil

When the apostle Paul confronted the Roman Governor Felix with a message of ‘righteousness, self-control, and the judgement to come’, Felix became evasive (Acts 24:24-25). That shouldn’t surprise us – the pagan historian Tacitus writes of Felix’s ‘savagery and lust’. Paul’s message was exactly what he needed but didn’t want to hear.

Consider also the corrupt response of the Pharisees and Sadducees after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead (John 11:46-53; 12:9-11). Were they convinced by such a notable miracle? Not at all.

They plotted to kill Jesus because he threatened their own religious authority. The miracle didn’t matter; their position in society did. Sadly, rather than bring out the good in us the gospel exposes the evil.

What do we fear most?

On another occasion, Jesus told the Jews why they could not believe in him – because they preferred to receive praise from one another rather than from God (John 5:44; 12:42-43). That touches a raw nerve in most of us.

What is your greatest fear about professing faith in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God? Is it not the fear of becoming isolated? Of being out of the ‘in’ crowd, losing your friends and status among your peers, or being thought intellectually naive?

Certainly, we should respect the feelings of others. But if our priority is pleasing men, we cannot be servants of Christ (Galatians 1:10). Anyone who prefers the praise of men has corrupt motives and cannot believe in Christ.

Paul describes a truly spiritual person as one whose praise comes not from man but from God (Romans 2:29). How is it with you? If you are not a Christian, it is not because the evidence for Christ is weak, or that God’s revelation is unclear. It is because you have a sinful heart that needs to be humbled and reconciled to God.

The unbeliever’s problem is not that he has too little light, but that he has too much darkness. That’s why we must repent before we can believe.

Peter Barnes

Rev Dr Peter Barnes is a Presbyterian pastor who lives in Sydney, Australia. He has served on the mission field in Vanuatu, ministered on the Nambucca River in northern NSW, and is currently pastor at
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