The Sinner’s Responsibility to Believe

This morning I received the following question from a friend who has recently been exposed to the doctrines of God’s sovereignty in the salvation of sinners:

“Could you address what unbelief a non-elect person (from the foundation of the world) is condemned to hell for when Christ did not die for him? He can not be condemned for not believing in the shed blood of the cross (the Gospel) as this in no way applies to him. I see this as problematic in the total acceptance of Calvin’s position.”

I thought it might be helpful to post his question and my answer here for your consideration. His question raises important issues in the debate between Calvinists and Arminians. What are sinners responsible to believe? If the design of Christ’s death was not to redeem all sinners but only those who were given him in God’s decree of election, why are they responsible to believe the gospel? Or, are they responsible to believe the gospel? Is the good news for sinners, “Jesus died for you,” or Jesus died for sinners who will believe the gospel?

The following was my answer to my friend. I hope you will find it thought and discussion provoking.

There are several presuppositions that must be discarded before one can understand the answer to this question.

1. that people only become condemned because a rememedy has been provided for sinners. Ask what would be the situation if God had permitted Adam’s fall into sin and no remedy had been provided. Would those who were fallen in Adam still be condemned? I believe the answer would clearly be Yes.

2. that condemnation results from a person’s refusal to believe that Christ died for him particularly. The warrant of faith is not that a person is chosen by God or that Christ died for a person particularly, but that Christ died for the most ungodly sinner who will repent and believe. Additionally, it is not to a Savior on a cross that the gospel points sinners but to an exalted Savior on a throne. It is the sinner’s responsiblity to bow to his sovereign authority. Sinners are condemned for failure to do so.

3. that it is not for sins but for the lone sin of unbelief that sinners are condemned. In Ephesians 5:3-6, after having listed a series of sins, the apostle says it is because of “these things” God’s wrath comes on the children of disobedience. God’s wrath does not come on sinners because they fail to believe that Jesus died for them. His wrath comes on them because they continue outside the shelter. John says in chapter three of his gospel that sinners “stand condemned” [the tense of the verb indicates that they have been condemned and therefore continue in a state of condemnation], because they have not believed. It is not that their unbelief is the only sin that condemns them, but that since they have not believed they continue under the condemnation of all their other sins.

I think the presupposition we have to begin with, based on the clear teaching of Scripture, is that had God created Adam and permitted him to fall, then had done nothing to remedy the effects of the fall [guilt and depravity] Adam would still have been responsible and guilty. It is not God’s redemptive activity that renders anyone responsible or not responsible, but the sinner’s own rebellion. The clear call of the gospel is that whoever wants to may come. God has no responsibility to cause anyone to want to. If all perished in sin, God would be just.

One additional question I would ask would be, if sinners are only responsible and therefore condemned for not believing in the shed blood of the cross, how and why are sinners condemned who never hear the gospel? Yet, Paul wrote in Romans 1 that from the light of creation people are without excuse because they have not been grateful to and glorifed the God of creation. What God has done or not done beyond that revelation, has nothing to do with whether sinners are responsible or not. The sinner’s refusal to believe the gospel merely aggravates that condemnation (see Matt 11:20-26).

In addition to what I wrote him, if sinners are only responsible for rejecting the news that Jesus died for them, it would be better not to preach the gospel to sinners who have never heard. If they don’t know Jesus died, they can’t be held accountable for not believing in him. I don’t think anyone who has read the New Testament Scriptures could ever believe such a doctrine


5 Responses to “The Sinner’s Responsibility to Believe”

  1. September 11, 2012 at 12:14 pm

    I believe the Bible teaches both God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility, God will have a remnant people even if it means that he must effaciously draw them to the Son in such a manner that when they see the Son, and their own sin before a Holy God, they WILL run to the cross, because it is their highest desire to do so, having been given a new heart (regeneration). I believe the gospel points to both the cross and the throne, My 2 cents again. Time to get off to work.

    • September 11, 2012 at 1:56 pm

      Brother Dan,

      I think you know my position on sovereignty. We have no disagreement there.

      I certainly agree with you that the gospel points to the cross, but my point is that though the basis of the sinner´s forgiveness is the cross, it is not to a Savior on a cross but to a Savior on the throne that we direct them. We must confess that Jesus is LORD. Thanks for commenting.

      By grace alone,

      Sent from my iPad

  2. 5 seventh son
    September 12, 2012 at 9:49 pm

    Thanks for the good points. They help clarify some of the issues I am often faced with from my Arminian friends. I have often thought they are starting at the wrong point. This helps me put it into words.

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