Reading: Luke 8:9-
The Consequences of Unbelief
Words like faith and trusting and believing are part of my religious vocabulary. But just because I use them in a religious context doesn't mean that I only understand them in such a context. Nor does it mean that their meaning is somehow different in a religious context from their meaning in any other context. Indeed these are words which are used by people in their own everyday language. They are words that are regularly used to describe one person's relationship with another. When I looked up the phrase "I believe in you" on the internet this week the first page of answers didn't contain one link to a religious site – all I got were links to Kylie Minogue, Bob Dylan, Don Williams and one foreign language site I couldn't understand.
I took a look at the lyrics of some of the songs and they weren't talking about matters of mental assent, they were concerned rather to speak of having confidence or trust in a person. When a mother says to her child "I believe in you" at a difficult moment in the child's life she is not primarily declaring a fact but her love for her child. A lover will use these same words in a similar way to express the loving confidence they are prepared to place in their loved one. We know what this sort of language is all about – belief can refer to just a head knowledge of facts but more readily applies to matters of confidence in our interpersonal relationships.
The Head and the Heart
Both types of belief are to be found in the Bible.
Sometimes only the mere intellectual assent to a truth is in view: that is the case when we read about what knowledge the demons have:
Jas 2:19 "You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!"
The head knowledge that these demons possess does not bear any beneficial fruit in their lives – all they do with their accurate knowledge is shudder. They are not brought near to God and experience no salvation – we can say that their belief is effectively sterile as it produces nothing good for them.
But more usually when the Bible dwells on belief some notion of a warm commitment that goes beyond mere head knowledge is included. This is where belief passes into action. Facts are known and understood but that is not the end of the matter but rather the beginning. This type of belief not only recognises and accepts facts but personally embraces them and uses them as a springboard as it were for determining how life will be lived out in the light of this knowledge.
When Jesus was asked:
Jn.6:28 "What must we do, to be doing the works of God?"
Jn.6:29 "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent."
God is not primarily concerned that our heads are filled with right thoughts – if that were the case he should have been pleased with the fact that the demons knowledge was true knowledge. But no, God is much more concerned that having come to know the truth our hearts might be moved to embrace that truth and that they be filled with right attitudes. God wants us to believe in his Son: that is, he wants us to come to know and love and trust his Son; he wants us to enter into a genuine faith relationship with his Son; he wants us to love the Son and so to receive the love of God who gave him to us.
What kind of belief do you have? Is your belief a sterile, non-
Such faith, belief and trust must be at the heart of our response to all that God has done for us in Jesus Christ. Faith, belief and trust are not optional extras in Christianity they are of its very essence. If you would be a Christian, a real Christian, then your life must be characterised in some measure by the response of faith, of belief and of trust. If you do not have faith, if you do not believe, if you do not trust then whatever else you might have or do you are not a Christian.
Belief is, to put it simply, the difference between life and death.
When Jesus issued his Great Commission, before returning to heaven, he said:
Mk.16:16 "Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned."
This was just what he had said to Nicodemus during that famous night-
Jn.3:18 "Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God."
This kind of faith and believing is not a mere agreeing with a few doctrinal statements it is rather the wholehearted movement of leaning heavily and trustingly upon the person of the Saviour. You may find it helpful to think not so much as "believing in" Jesus but rather as "believing into" Jesus because there is this element of movement that is involved in true faith.
Salvation becomes ours as we give up on trying to please God by our efforts, take him at his word and believe. Paul and Barnabas once didn't have much time to sum up the gospel message. The man before them was about to commit suicide and the matter was urgent. This is what they said:
Acts 16:3 "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household."
This kind of belief response then is absolutely critical – without it we remain outside of Christ, we remain strangers to his grace and we simply do not enjoy any of the benefits of the forgiveness he offers sinners who will put their trust in him.
The first and major consequence of such unbelief is to go on being lost and lost forever. That is why the first recorded message that Jesus preached focused on the need to repent and believe in the gospel (Mk.1:15).
When we do exercise faith and believing trust in Jesus we become Christians and that awful consequence of unbelief has gone and gone for ever.
Unbelief remains a threat
When we believe savingly into Jesus Christ exercising saving faith we must not imagine that we have somehow arrived and that we will never ever be troubled further by unbelief. Believing in Christ salvation is granted to us but we are by no means yet perfect and we may well be tempted to respond with unbelief in different situations.
Unbelief is logically incompatible with faith but since none of us are yet perfect in our walk with the Lord unbelief can still trouble us.
Such unbelief will always have a negative impact upon our lives as Christians and our enjoyment as Christians. Unbelief (or even a lack of faith) will have consequences.
We must not imagine that there is simply nothing we can do about this. We must not give in and imagine ourselves to be at the mercy of our emotions and so have no ability to determine what we will or will not believe. In reality, what we believe now that we are Christians is in large part down to our wills and not to our feelings: – we do not believe because we will not believe:
Lk.22:67 "If you are the Christ, tell us." But (Jesus) said to them, "If I tell you, you will not believe".
Here are some of the ways in which unbelief may have a negative impact on your life as a Christian.
will hinder prayer:
Mk.9:24 "Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, "I believe; help my unbelief!"
Mk.11:24 "Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours."
may hinder Jesus work:
Mt.13:58 "And he did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief."
will lead to foolish misinterpretation of the facts that we encounter
Lk.24:11 "but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them."
Lk.24:25 "And he said to them, "O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!"
will cause sadness – Jesus had tried to prepare his disciples for what lay ahead but they wouldn't take it properly onboard and as a result they didn't understand what was taking place and so sadness would be part of their experience:
Jn.16:20 "Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy."
will produce fear but belief is the antidote to fear:
Mk.5:36 (cf. Lk.8:50) "Do not fear, only believe."
Here are some more examples of how unbelief affected some of the disciples causing them to act in most inappropriate ways as they failed to interpret what was really happening to them.
Peter refused to listen to what the Lord said to him, he simply didn't believe that he could sink to the levels that Jesus warned him of. But it wasn't Peter who was proved right!
Having failed to listen, Peter was exposed – when the situation seemed to be getting out of control Peter tried to take matters into his own hands. He took up his sword and cut off of poor Malchus' ear. It might have looked like bravery but it was a false enthusiasm that issued from his fundamental failure to believe Jesus and his word. When Jesus intervened Peter was stunned – he just didn't understand what was going on – his best efforts had come to nothing and all that he could now think of was running away! (Mark's account which has Peter as its major source doesn't hide the fact that this most important apostle left Jesus and fled Mk.14:50) Not that Peter was alone in this act of cowardice – none of the others showed any more spirit – they all fled. None could set a different example because none had believed.
Peter did recover some courage and followed the now arrested Jesus to the High Priest's residence – a brave act and yet Peter was following only at a distance and he was still in danger because he had not believed what Jesus had told him just an hour or so earlier.
Not taking the Lord's words seriously Peter was ready for another consequence of his unbelief – he would see any last drop of courage ebb away as a servant girl questioned him about his allegiance to Jesus. Unbelief had no brought Peter to his shameful threefold renunciation of the best man he had ever known!
Reeling after the events that had taken place in the garden – the betrayal, the arrest and then their own flight followed by the mistreatment of the Master which ended in his death on the cross – the disciples hid themselves away in Jerusalem. They hadn't believed what Jesus had told them and they could only interpret all the events in a sad light – they locked themselves away for fear of the Jews!
Lest you think I'm singling Peter out unfairly just think about another of the disciples – Thomas. We can leave aside Thomas' innate pessimism and concentrate upon his own words following the resurrection of Jesus. The other disciples had all seen the risen Jesus and shared their testimonies with Thomas who now had heard multiple testimony not to mention the teaching that Jesus had shared before the event. But how did Thomas react?
Jn.20:25 "So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe."
What a week he must have spent – he didn't believe, he wouldn't believe – the others were full of joy and amazement and Thomas? He was just left with his unbelief and pessimism. Then eight days later:
v.27 "Then (Jesus) said to Thomas, "Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.""
What can we do to avoid slipping into unbelief?
To close this evening here are three simple things we can do:
Keep short accounts with God:
Keep in contact with God's people:
Keep on reading and listening to the Word of God:
Rom.10:17 "So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ."