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“Why do you believe in Jesus?” Have you ever been asked that question? Maybe there have been times when you’ve asked yourself that question. As you encounter Muslims, Hindus or outright atheists who show little or no interest in this Jesus to whom you’ve entrusted your soul – do you at times wonder why it is that you believe in him, while so many others don’t? How would you answer that question? Would your answer be rooted in history? Archaeology? Theology? Personal experience or emotions? It’s funny how easily we leave God out of the equation when we reflect on the cause of our belief in Christ. Perhaps funny is not the right word. Shocking may be a more appropriate word. Especially considering the consistency and clarity with which the Bible speaks on this subject. Allow me to just point out a few texts that may be helpful to you.

Notice the following response that Jesus gives when the unbelieving Jews challenge him to declare identify himself plainly as the Messiah. Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep.” (John 10:25-26) That word “because” is crucial. Why do the Jews not believe in Jesus? Not because of a lack of teaching or miraculous works, but because they are not among his sheep. If they were sheep, they would believe. As Jesus goes on to say: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). Sheep believe and follow Jesus, non-sheep (or goats) don’t.

Another example of this in the gospels is found in Matthew 11:25-27: “At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” Jesus said this after his pronouncement of judgment on those cities in which he had done “most of his mighty works” (Matthew 11:20) – cities whose inhabitants, despite all they had seen, still refused to repent and believe in Jesus.

Notice that both the revealing and concealing of saving knowledge is the prerogative of the Father. He hides “these things” from the wise and understanding and reveals them to little children, and all this according to “his gracious will”. It’s the gracious will of the Father that savingly reveals gospel truth. Likewise, the Son chooses to reveal the Father to whomsoever he pleases. Did you notice that in the text?

Interestingly, Jesus sees no contradiction between this doctrine of sovereign grace and the responsibility of those who refuse to believe in him. He denounced those cities that witnessed his miracles “because they did not repent” (Matthew 11:20).

We find another example of this reality in the book of Acts. As the gospel goes out and sinners are converted – notice the reason Luke gives for their belief in Jesus. When Paul preaches the gospel in Pisidian Antioch, we are told that: “when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48). The Greek word (tasso) translated “appointed” in the ESV is a strong one. It means to assign or even ordain (see KJV). Once again faith in Christ is traced back to a divine choice – the ordination or appointment of God. A few chapters later a Philippian purple merchant named Lydia will also respond to Paul’s gospel message in faith. She listens to Paul’s message, we are told, because the Lord opened her heart (Acts 16:14). Again, the Lord is the cause (or origin) of saving faith.

We see the same thing in Paul’s epistles. Ephesians 2:8 is an obvious example of this: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God”. According to Paul, our salvation is a result of God’s grace, received by faith. But this faith, says Paul, is not our own doing, but the gift of God. It is something God gives or grants to believers. Paul says the same thing in Philippians 1:29: “For it has been granted[1] to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.” We believe in Christ, says Paul, because it has been granted to us to believe.

There are other passages that teach this truth, but I think you get the point. According to Scripture, the natural man cannot receive the things of the Spirit of God, nor can he understand them, for they are spiritually discerned (1 Corinthians 2:14). It is only the Spirit of God that can reveal the things of God, and since man is by nature devoid of God’s Spirit, it is impossible for him to come to God in his unconverted state. This is why Jesus tells Nicodemus that entrance into the Kingdom of God is impossible unless one is born again (John 3). But we are born again, says Jesus, through the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit, who works where and when he wishes (John 3:8). This is why Reformed theologians speak of regeneration preceding faith. We who are dead in our trespasses and sins by nature, must be born again from above, through the operation of the Spirit, or we will never believe.

Many Christians find this very difficult to believe. Often the problem lies in an overestimation of our human reason. We can’t reconcile divine sovereignty and human responsibility, and instead of humbly acknowledging that these are mysteries too great for our finite minds, we choose to reject the plain teaching of Scripture. Much ink has been spilt over this issue over the centuries. Some have sought to downplay the extent to which the fall has affected us. They[2] argued that Adam’s sin didn’t affect anyone but himself. Others, while acknowledging our complete moral inability to come to God or to please him, have nevertheless favoured the idea of prevenient grace[3] over the Reformed idea of irresistible grace.[4] Prevenient grace, it is argued, frees the wills of those who hear the gospel preached, so that even in his fallen state, man may either choose or reject God. But, as we’ve already seen, these ideas are irreconcilable with the teaching of God’s word. They are attempts at elevating human reason over the authority of the Bible.

Luther and Erasmus famously debated the extent to which fallen man is free to choose God. Erasmus accused Luther of being irrational for arguing that God could hold man accountable for something that by nature he could not do[5]. But Luther’s response was apt, I think. He told Erasmus: “Your thoughts about God are too human.” Luther understood that these are mysteries far beyond our comprehension.  They were too great even for the Apostle Paul, who ended his lengthy treatment of this subject as follows: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Rom. 11:33-36). May we have the same humility as we respond to the inscrutable ways of the most high God.

[1] Greek – graciously given

[2] Pelagius and his followers.

[3] Or perhaps more accurately, pre-regenerating grace.

[4] The doctrine closely related to the effectual calling of the elect, whereby God unfailingly will draw the elect to himself and save them.

[5] Choose to come to God on his own and be saved.