Spiritual Hardness and the Dilemma of Unbelief

Dr. Brian Allison

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Resisting, Rejecting, and Rebelling

Rebellion is a hallmark of unbelief. Ancient Israel epitomized rebellion. In Exodus 17, we have the account of Israel camping at Rephidim. Having come out of bondage from Egypt, by way of the exodus, they arrived at the wilderness of Sin; and from there, they camped at Rephidim. They found no water, and hence quarreled with Moses. They grumbled and complained, evidencing an unthankful and rebellious spirit, failing to remember the great works of God in providing for all their needs. Thus, Moses, in exasperation, cried out to God. In response to their grumbling and complaining, God, in His patience, instructed Moses to strike the rock at Horeb in order that water might come forth. Moses did so, and water came forth. That place was called Meribah because the people had quarreled with Moses. It was also called Massah because the people had tested the Lord. They asked, "Is the Lord among us, or not?"

During this time in their history, Israel was characteristically described as a stubborn and stiff-necked people. They were obstinate. God's patience with them finally ran out. While Israel was in the wilderness of Paran, God commanded Moses to send twelve spies into the land of Canaan which God had promised to them through Abraham and their forefathers. It was a land flowing with milk and honey. Accordingly, Moses sent twelve spies – one spy from each of the twelve tribes of Israel. After forty days, these twelve spies returned to the camp and, with the except of Caleb and Joshua, brought back a discouraging report. Ten of the twelve spies complained that the people were too big and strong; and that the cities too were well fortified. They indicated that the land could not be possessed. Thus, they contradicted the word of the Lord. As a result, the people became discouraged. Israel believed the word of these ten spies, rather than the word of the Lord. Israel again rebelled against God; and God became angry with them. Consequently, God swore in His anger that Israel would not enter into the Promised Land and find rest. They were rejected by God because they had rejected His Word.

Thus, the writer to the Hebrews says, "There, just as the Holy Spirit says [referring to Psalm 95, which points back to this incident of rebellion in Exodus 17], 'TODAY IF YOU HEAR HIS VOICE, DO NOT HARDEN YOUR HEARTS AS WHEN THEY PROVOKED ME [because they had rebelled], AS IN THE DAY OF TRIAL [when they were tested to determine whether they would obey the Word] IN THE WILDERNESS, WHERE YOUR FATHERS TRIED Me BY TESTING Me, AND SAW MY WORKS FOR FORTY YEARS. THEREFORE I WAS ANGRY WITH THIS GENERATION, AND SAID, "THEY ALWAYS GO ASTRAY IN THEIR HEART; AND THEY DID NOT KNOW MY WAYS;" AS I SWORE IN MY WRATH, "THEY SHALL NOT ENTER MY REST"'" (Hb. 3:7-11).

Resisting God's speaking

The author of the Hebrew epistle warns these Jewish believers to persevere in the faith. He warns them not to continue to drift away in their spiritual coldness, turning their backs upon the Lord. He warns them to obediently respond to God's Word before it is too late. The above Scripture, which quotes from Psalm 95, has current relevancy for the people of God. The only reason the writer refers to this Old Testament text is because it addressed the condition of these faltering believers who were drifting, who had become cold, who had become dangerously indifferent; and the author says, "'Today', in this period of grace, if you hear His voice, be careful that you do not harden your heart."

Notice, first, that God warns His people not to resist and reject His Word – "TODAY IF YOU HEAR HIS VOICE, DO NOT HARDEN YOUR HEARTS" (3:7b,8a). God is always speaking to His people through His Word, through the Scriptures. God speaks to His people, personally and corporately, through private meditation and through pulpit exposition. And God says to each of us, "'Today', right now, if you hear His voice, do not be stubborn, do not be obstinate." A little while ago, I was delighted to receive a call from a young lady who had read my little booklet, The Higher Life, On Being a Mary. She said, "I just finished reading your booklet, and God spoke to me. I have already made changes in my life because I heard God speaking to me." Is God speaking to you about something that needs to be addressed or changed in your life? Maybe God has been trying to get your attention, but you have been resisting, you have been fighting. You have rejected the light and have dismissed the pressure on your conscience. Maybe God has been speaking to you about a bitter or critical tongue – the fact that you criticize authority or leadership. Maybe God has been speaking to you about gossiping – you have been speaking behind people's backs, engaging in character assassination. Maybe God has been speaking to you about your faithlessness in prayer – you know that you ought to be praying more. Maybe God has been speaking to you about your hypocrisy – you are totally different in public than you are in the home: Dr. Jeckell and Mr. Hyde. Has God been speaking to you, not audibly, but spiritually, through His truth? Has your conscience been pricked, feeling the convicting work of the Spirit; and, as a result, you know that you have done wrong and you need to make things right? – "TODAY IF YOU HEAR HIS VOICE, DO NOT HARDEN YOUR HEARTS."

God warns His people not to resist His Word. God continues to speak; and when He speaks, we are faced with a choice, either to accept and obey, or to reject and disobey. Clearly understand that you can resist God's Word. Let us not deceive ourselves. Let us not rest on the fact that God is sovereign, and thus justify our sin. Let us not take false comfort in the fact that God will complete the sanctifying work in us which He has begun, even when we show a lack of responsibility and willingness. God does not bypass our minds and wills. His sovereignty doesn't exclude or circumvent our responsibility. Be very clear about this: you can resist God's Word. Every day is a day of choice, either to hear His voice and follow, or to hear your own heart and resist. Is God speaking to you?

Responding to God's speaking in unbelief

God warns His people not to resist His Word, for resisting His Word is rebellion against, and a testing of, God – "DO NOT HARDEN YOUR HEARTS AS WHEN THEY PROVOKED ME, AS IN THE DAY OF TRIAL IN THE WILDERNESS, WHERE YOUR FATHERS TRIED Me [in their state of rebellion] BY TESTING Me, [even though they] SAW MY WORKS FOR FORTY YEARS" (3:8,9). Because Israel tested God, by resisting and rebelling against Him, they were prevented from entering into the Promised Land. Incredibly, for forty years, Israel continued to resist and rebel. Even this harsh judgement of God was insufficient to blast them out of their disinterest, disobedience, and defiance. For forty years they saw God's miraculous works. At the end of the forty years of wandering in the wilderness, Israel was still designated as a stiff-necked, obstinate people.

God speaks with authority. According to His divine nature and sovereign rule, He necessarily speaks with authority; and our natural response should be submission and obedience. When we resist His Word, we, in effect, are rejecting His Person. To resist God's authoritative Word is to reject who God is. He thus becomes angry. And so, in our rebellion, we are testing God. When we stand up to God, resisting His Word, we are revealing unbelief. We are saying, in a sense, that we disbelieve that God is all that He says He is. We are saying, in effect, that we want Him to prove to us that He really is God; and then maybe we will do what He tells us. However, God will prove Himself to no man. His Word is sufficient because it is an authoritative Word. Are you challenging God? Are you as strong as He?

Personally speaking, a past event continues to haunt me. A few years ago, within a small family gathering, one of my cousins railed vehemently against God. He was very defiant, charging God with unfairness and injustice. He was so brash and bold that he uttered something like this, "I want to speak to God. If I were to see God, I would challenge Him; and I would tell Him what I think, and what He has done wrong." (The language makes me cringe.) That was one of the last utterances he spoke. When my cousin left the gathering, he mounted his bicycle to ride home; he failed to arrive. He fell backward from his bicycle, smashed his head on the pavement, and has been in a coma ever since (It has been nine years now). Put any spiritual interpretation on this that you like; but it still haunts me. Are you prepared to challenge God?

God responds in anger to resistance

God is angry with His people who continually resist His Word – "THEREFORE I WAS ANGRY WITH THIS GENERATION, AND SAID, "THEY ALWAYS GO ASTRAY IN THEIR HEART [now notice it is in the heart]; AND THEY DID NOT KNOW MY WAYS." [As a result,] AS I SWORE IN MY WRATH, 'THEY SHALL NOT ENTER MY REST'" (Hb. 3:10,11). We ought to rejoice in the fact that God is a God of love. Yet, it is heresy to believe that God is not a God of wrath. God does get angry, and my fear is that many Christians do not really believe this. God gets angry with sin, whether the sin is committed by the sinner or the saint. It does not matter who you are or what you profess, His anger burns against sin. Now, thank God that we have an Advocate, Jesus Christ, Who ever lives to make intercession for us; but God's attitude never changes toward sin. His holiness always burns against sin. Do you believe this? Or, are you very glib and cavalier, saying, "It is okay, God will forgive. I am saved by grace." You do not understand grace if that is your attitude. Grace does not give us a license to sin, grace gives us freedom to do what is right; and if we continue in sin, He will judge us. Hebrews 10:26ff. reads, "For if we go on sinning wilfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain terrifying expectation of judgment, and THE FURY OF A FIRE WHICH WILL CONSUME THE ADVERSARIES. [Surely this is addressed to the believer.] Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of Grace? For we know Him who said, 'VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY.' And again, 'THE LORD WILL JUDGE HIS PEOPLE.' It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God." Do you believe this? Our persistent resistance to God's Word, our hardening of heart to His voice evokes His anger and invites His judgment. God came to Israel repeatedly; and they continued to harden their hearts. They did not listen, and God came to the point where He said, "Enough is enough. Time is up. Judgement is set." In 70 AD, God rejected Israel as a covenant nation.

God pities us as a father pities his children. When we fall and stumble, He has compassion; but when we persist in our sin, His pity turns to anger, and His anger is manifested in judgement. Consider your own family situation. You may pity your infant daughter or son when they stumble and fall over the coffee table. Yet, when you continually warn them to behave properly and to stay away from the table, but they respond defiantly and continue to resist your words, how much pity do you have then? Your pity becomes anger; and so it is with God. Have you pleased God this past week by how you have lived and how you have listened to Him, or have you displeased Him? Have you become spiritually hardened? Maybe it is time for self-examination and confession, maybe it is time for repentance and restoration. Do you know that your confession and your repentance can diffuse His anger, and postpone His judgement, because God delights in mercy; and mercy triumphs over judgement.

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Believing in, But Not Believing

Karol Wojtyla is the first non-Italian pope in four hundred and fifty five years. Wojtyla, better known as John Paul II, is the first Polish pope. When he became pope many Roman Catholic people were unfamiliar with him. Over time, however, they realized, and came to believe, that he is a qualified and commendable pope. He has relentlessly supported the cause of the poor people. He has relentlessly attacked Marxism. He has relentlessly pursued Church renewal, while defending Church tradition. Some of these Roman Catholic supporters, who have believed in John Paul II as a qualified person, disbelieve some of the things that he has said and taught. For instance, John Paul II believes that women are not to be ordained to the pastoral ministry; he believes that the traditional teachings on contraception, abortion, homosexuality, and divorce, as taught by the Church, are to be accepted and maintained. Some Roman Catholic adherents reject these affirmations. So, we have many Roman Catholic people, believing in this man John Paul II, but some of these same people do not believe what he teaches or what he says. This distinction – the distinction between believing in somebody and believing somebody – is of paramount consequence for a Christian believer. In fact, this critical distinction determines the quality, and even the reality, of our relationship with God. Our saving relationship with God hinges on realizing this distinction – believing in God and believing God.

Israel believed in God. Israel, having come out of the land of Egypt, saw the miracles of God. For forty years, they saw the miraculous works of God. They clearly knew that God existed. Although they believed in God, the thundering indictment against Israel was that they did not believe God. Hebrews 3:12ff. reads, "Take care, brethren, lest there should be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart, in falling away from the living God. But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called 'Today,' [the age of grace] lest any one of you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end; while it is said, 'TODAY IF YOU HEAR HIS VOICE, DO NOT HARDEN YOUR HEARTS AS WHEN THEY PROVOKED ME.' For who provoked Him when they had heard? Indeed, did not all those who came out of Egypt led by Moses? And with whom was He angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? And to whom did He swear that they should not enter His rest, but to those who were disobedient? And so we see that they were not able to enter because of unbelief."

In chapter one, we talked about spiritual hardness, that is, resisting God's Word, and thus rejecting God's person. Spiritual hardness is nothing less than spiritual rebellion, turning against God. Israel, having seen the great works of God, and having heard the glorious words of God, hardened their hearts so that they did not follow God. The Hebrew author refers to Psalm 95, which describes this precarious situation in the life of Israel. In speaking about spiritual hardness, he writes, "TODAY IF YOU HEAR HIS VOICE, DO NOT HARDEN YOUR HEARTS" (3:7b,8a). And having introduced this concept of spiritual hardness, the author proceeds to develop this concept, with close application. In developing this concept of spiritual hardness, he centres on the notion of unbelief – "Take care, brethren, lest there should be in any one of you an evil [heart of unbelief – so reads the original], in falling away from the living God" (3:12).

Spiritual hardness and unbelief

Unbelief is the source or the essence of spiritual hardness. The author here gives to us a diagnosis of the spiritual disease of a hard heart – a hard heart is a heart of unbelief. Our spiritual stubbornness, our resistance to God's Word, our rejection of God's principles, commandments, and directives, reveals a lack of faith. Adam and Eve received God's Word in the Garden of Eden, "Do not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; for in the day that you eat you surely shall die." Adam and Eve received God's word, but they resisted that word by believing the devil's word instead. The devil came and said, "Indeed, did God say that you shall not touch any tree in the garden?" Eve qualified that remark; and the devil went on to say, "You shall not die if you eat." At that point, Eve, and subsequently Adam, believed the devil over God. God said, "You will die," and the devil said, "You will not die." At that watershed point in history, Adam and Eve were in a state of unbelief – they had resisted (and rejected) God's word.

Notice that the Hebrew author is addressing professing Christians. He says, "Brethren, be careful, lest there be in one of you a heart of unbelief." I find this fact disturbing. He addresses professing Christians who have apparently embraced Christ, and have identified themselves with the Church. Again, we can believe in Christ, and yet not believe Christ. In Luke 18, we have the account of the rich young ruler who comes to Jesus. Obviously, he has some understanding of who Jesus is; he addresses Him as "Good Teacher." And he comes inquiring about his soul. He is concerned about eternal realities. Luke 18:18 reads, "Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" He comes acknowledging Christ's authority – for Jesus has something to say about eternal life. Jesus proceeds to say that this young ruler knows the commandments. We read, "[The ruler said,] 'All these things I have kept from my youth'. And when Jesus heard this, He said to him, 'One thing you still lack; sell all that you possess, and distribute it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me'" (vv. 21,22). This rich young ruler had difficulty with this demand, for he loved his riches too much. We thus read, "But when he had heard these things, he became very sad; for he was extremely rich" (v. 23). He did not believe what Jesus was saying. Being so much in love with his money, he could not 'hear' what Jesus was saying. He came believing that Jesus was the Good Teacher, but the unfortunate problem was that he could not believe what the Good Teacher had to say. Again, you can believe in Jesus, and still not believe Jesus.

I had a young lady come to see me a little while ago. She wanted me to perform a marriage ceremony. As we were interacting, I tried to determine her spiritual state, for my conscience' sake. She professed to be a Christian; and I pursued the topic. I asked her about her level of obedience and commitment, and whether she was following the ways of Christ. She confessed that she was living a life of disobedience. We subsequently talked about what it means to be a Christian. She came to the realization, there and then, that she really was not a Christian. I asked her, "Do you believe that Jesus came and died for sinners?" She responded, "Yes." I asked, "Do you believe that He was raised from the dead on the third day?" She responded, "Yes." I asked, "Do you believe the recorded facts about Jesus?" Again, she responded, "Yes." I then asked, "Are you following Jesus?" She responded, "No." I asked, "Are you obeying Jesus?" She again responded, "No." I pressed, "Do you accept Him as your Lord?" Again, she responded, "No." I consequently asked, "What do you think that means?" She admitted, "Well, I guess I am not a real Christian." Mere belief in Jesus does not save.

Believing God is obeying God

Do you believe Jesus, as well as believe in Jesus? It is possible to believe in Him, and yet still be in a state of unbelief. That was the problem with Israel. They believed in God, but they did not believe God; as a result, they did not enter His rest. God swore in His wrath, that they would not enter. We read, "And to whom did He swear that they should not enter His rest, but to those who were disobedient? And so we see that they were not able to enter because of unbelief" (3:18,19). In the mind of the Hebrew author, to believe God is to obey God; to be in a state of unbelief is to be disobedient to God. Israel's unbelief drove them to rebel against God. Hebrews 4:6,11 reads, "Since therefore it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly had good news preached to them failed to enter because of disobedience...Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall through following the same example of disobedience." Again, for this author, unbelief is synonymous with disobedience (but, of course, true faith is not simply conforming to a set of external rules – it is a heart response, revealed in obedience). Unbelief is not so much a feeling state or mood, as it is a decision and action.

When we ask the question whether we really believe God, we are really asking whether we are sincerely obeying God. To believe God is not simply acknowledging what God says is right. Rather, to believe God is submissively and willingly to do what He says is right. That is the acid test of belief. As you examine your heart, do you believe Jesus, as well as believe in Jesus? For example, God's Word says that we are to forgive one another, even as God in Christ has forgiven us. Are you doing that? If not, you do not believe God/Jesus. Again, God's Word says, "Husbands, love your wives, wives submit to your husbands." Are you doing that? If not, you do not believe God/Jesus. Again, God's Word says, "Pray without ceasing." Are you doing that? If not, you do not believe God/Jesus. Again, God's Word says, "Let us not forsake the assembling of ourselves together as is the manner of some, but to fellowship regularly with other believers." Are you doing that? If not, you do not believe God/Jesus. You may believe in Jesus, but you really do not believe Him. Unless we are clear about this critical distinction with respect to belief, we will have confusion in our Christian lives; but understanding it, and working it out in our lives, we will be dealing with the most weighty and eternal issues possible.

Again, the reality and the quality of our relationship hinges on realizing this distinction. To believe is to obey. Unbelief results in disobedience. Again, faith is not a feeling. We can obey God without feeling warm, positive, and secure; the critical issue is whether our obedience is sincere and flows out of love. Westcott says, "Belief in action is what we mean by obedience." Because belief means obedience, unbelief is naturally associated with an evil heart – "Take care, brethren, lest there should be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart" (3:12a). Unbelief means being opposed to God and His Word. Thus, it is being in a state of unrighteousness, rather than righteousness. He who is in a state of unbelief reveals that he or she has an evil heart. You cannot disbelieve God and still be considered righteous and good.

If we simply believe in God, and fail to believe God, we are in a most perilous and dangerous situation. We are deceived, thinking that things may be quite all right, when really things are desperately wrong. Unbelief leads to the tragic end of apostasy – "Take care, brethren, lest there should be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart, in falling away from the living God" (3:12). Unbelief results in forgetting God, leaving God out of the picture, turning one's back on God, becoming absorbed in personal interests, concerns, and delights. Even professing Christians can become idolaters, putting something above, or ahead of, God. Unfortunately, and tragically, professing Christians may become more excited and enthusiastic about some special event or some sports activity than about God. That is idolatry, that is living in unbelief.

Have you forgotten about God? Have you drifted away from God? I exhort you to examine yourself to determine whether you are in a state of unbelief. Unbelief always leads to drifting away from God; it eventually leads to apostasy. It is possible that some Christians are living in a state of unbelief – believing in Jesus, but not believing Jesus. Maybe your life reveals that; maybe your level of commitment reflects that. As the Hebrew author exhorts, "Take care." This message in the Hebrew epistle is a wake up call for us. It calls us to diligently search our hearts, to ruthlessly examine our situation, and to humbly respond in surrender. Unbelief can only be effectively slain and overcome by honest confession, aggressive repentance, and persevering prayer (which will require resolve and discipline – a faith response!), to which God is pleased to respond in grace and by His Spirit. "TODAY IF YOU HEAR HIS VOICE, DO NOT HARDEN YOUR HEARTS" (3:15).

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The Deceitfulness of Sin

We have been considering the matter of having a spiritually hardened heart, a heart that is resistant to God's Word. Perhaps these words have been hard to read. But it is of the utmost importance to consider this matter. We may be deceived in thinking that we are spiritual, when really we are just religious. The ancient Israelites were religious, and not spiritual. They were morally conscious, but not spiritually alive. They had hardened hearts. When the apostle Paul traveled to Ephesus, on his third missionary journey, he went into a synagogue to minister to the Jews. We read in Acts 19:8,9, "And he [Paul] entered the synagogue and continued speaking out boldly for three months, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God. But when some were becoming hardened and disobedient, speaking evil of the Way before the multitude, he withdrew from them and took away the disciples, reasoning daily in the school of Tyrannus." The Jews resisted the Word of God. They were hardened and disobedient. In fact, the searing indictment against the Jews is that throughout their whole history, they were a people characterized by a hardened heart. In Matthew 19, the Lord interacts with the Jews on the matter of divorce, and He gives some insight into their history and their relationship to God's Word. In Matthew 19:8, our Lord says, "Because of your hardness of heart, Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way." Interestingly, this same indictment of hardness is leveled against the Lord's apostles. In Mark 16:14, recording a post-resurrection appearance of our Lord, we read, "And afterward He appeared to the eleven themselves as they were reclining at the table; and He reproached them for their unbelief and their hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who had seen Him after He had risen." Having a hardened heart may be more common than we think among God's people, even among those who are the leaders of God's people. In chapter two, we began talking about the diagnosis of a hardened heart. The source or essence of a hardened heart is unbelief; and so, it is not surprising that our Lord, in verse 14 above, unites unbelief and hardness of heart. Again, you can believe in God, and yet not believe God. That is a most critical distinction. If we believe in God, but do not believe God, we are in a state of unbelief. True faith reveals itself in sincere obedience

The development of spiritual hardness

What actually promotes or cultivates a spiritually hardened heart? We know that at the centre of a hard heart is unbelief, but how does this state come about? What is it that causes us to be resistant to God's Word? The simple answer is persistent, habitual sin or wrong doing – "Lest any one of you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin" (Hb. 3:13b). Sin is the 'stuff' that produces hardness of heart, with the end being apostasy. As we continually engage in sin and wrongdoing, we experience an increasing resistance and stubbornness. So that we eventually become insensitive to God and His Word. Through becoming more dull, we also become more defiant. The more we dabble in sin, the more sin will control and overcome us, with end being spiritual darkness.

These Jewish believers, to whom the Hebrew author writes, had come to a knowledge of Jesus Christ as Saviour, and had embraced the faith. However, they began to turn away from God's Word and revert to Judaism. Hence, this author, in recognizing the peril of departing from Jesus Christ, exhorts them to press on. He gives a stern warning that they should not continue in sin. Hebrews 10:26 reads, "For if we go on sinning wilfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins." In the light of that injunction, the author encourages these Christians to lay aside their sin in order that they might press on. Hebrews 12:1,2a reads, "Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance, and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus." Persistent, habitual sin can turn a once tender heart to sheer granite.

Sin is deceitful. Sin may appear quite appealing and attractive. It may offer satisfaction, happiness, and temporal fulfilment, but in the end, it delivers misery, pain, bitterness, and tears. For example, young people in their early teen years become increasingly sexually conscious. There is a growing desire to be sexually active. Sex seems good and natural. It promises happiness and fulfilment. Accordingly, young people may indulge and sin; but the result is guilt, loss of dignity, loss of self-worth – the deceitfulness of sin. I heard a young man recently who shared some aspects of his life before he came to a saving knowledge of Christ. Formerly he was heavily involved in drugs and alcohol. These intoxicants had an appeal and attraction. There was definitely pleasure in taking the drugs and imbibing the alcohol; but he realized that the kiss of sin is the sting of death. The more one indulges, the more one wants; and the more one wants, the more one needs; and the more one needs, the more one drifts away. So, the author warns, "Be careful lest you become hardened by the deceitfulness of sin."

Are you in any way or form engaged in persistent sin? If the truth were known, if the veil could be pulled back, both from your home and from your mind, would a thundering indictment come to your conscience that you are involved in habitual sin? If you are, is it any wonder that you are so insensitive to God? Do you find yourself continually picking up pornographic literature or watching pornographic videos and films? Do you find yourself continually, uncontrollably imbibing alcohol, justifying your actions on the basis of Christian liberty? Do you find that you are constantly manipulating and dominating people because you have an unquenchable thirst for power? Do you anxiously pursue wealth and material goods, justifying such an attitude on the basis that you need to eke out a living, that it is a matter of survival; when deep down in your heart, you know that you are trying to build a financial castle? You do not simply want to survive, you want to survive in style, and housed in your heart is a spirit of covetousness, which is nothing less than a spirit of idolatry. Do you struggle with your thought life? Behind the closed doors of your mind, what is going on? Persistent sin leads to a hardened heart because it deadens and destroys faith. Sin is disobedience, and every act of disobedience is an act of unbelief. The removal of unbelief and the restoration or renewal of faith begins with confession, repentance, and surrender to God.

Countering spiritual hardness

Mutual, corporate encouragement helps counter spiritual hardness – "Take care, brethren, lest there should be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart, in falling away from the living God. But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called 'Today,'" (Hb. 3:12,13a). Mutual, corporate encouragement will help us to press on, and to weed out sin from our lives, so that we might indeed spiritually grow, develop, and mature, with a sense of vibrancy and vitality, knowing God's presence and nearness, and feeling the depth of His power.

Believers are to encourage one another. Encouragement involves urging and spurring another on to greater spiritual heights. It means supporting and strengthening another in order that he or she might persevere through life's difficulties and problems. To encourage means to instill hope and confidence in the heart of another in order that a person might rise to face the formidable challenges that life throws at him or her.

There is power in encouragement. George Washington knew this as he sought to rally the American colonies in their revolt against Britain. In 1775, the American colonies revolted against Britain and eventually George Washington became the commander-in-chief. Two days before the Declaration of Independence, Washington addressed his men and asserted, "Let us therefore animate and encourage each other and show the whole world that a free man, contending for liberty on his own ground, is superior than any slavish mercenary on earth." Washington knew the power of encouragement. When I was six months old, my father left the family. My mother had to work and raise my brother and me. She began to work in an office, doing minor clerical work. One day her boss, feeling pity for her because she was very withdrawn, timid, and unable to communicate, encouraged her to take courses in self-confidence and communication. As a result, that timid, shy, withdrawn individual became the Reformed candidate for the Nipissing riding in Ontario, as well as the President of International Training in Communication. How did she get there? The power of encouragement

Some (dare I say, Many) Christians need a gentle, sometimes firm push, especially those who are struggling with unbelief. They can hear God's Word, they can receive instruction, and they know it is right; but, for some reason, they have difficulty appropriating it. What they need is someone to come along side and give them a little push, or support, or fellowship because they cannot do alone what they can do in company. A young Christian lady said recently, "You know, it was when a Church leader came up to me and asked me if I would teach in the Sunday School, that I was willing to give it a shot; and I am thankful that that Church leader encouraged me."

Notice that giving encouragement is a Christian responsibility – "Encourage one another day after day" (3:13a). There is a misunderstanding that only spiritual leaders, particularly pastors, are to touch base with God's people. Not true. Every believer should be engaged in the ministry of encouragement. When folk have been away from church for a few weeks, do you phone them up to encourage them to return? Or, consider that Christian brother who seems to be getting too involved in worldliness and the pleasures of this world. Have you thought about that person and are you prepared to approach him and urge him on to higher spiritual heights, to exhort him to get right with God? Or, maybe a family in the Church is experiencing inner conflict. Are you just stand back passively believing that it will all work out, almost magically? Or do you feel the need to go and urge that Christian brother or sister to repent and be reconciled? Or, what about that soul who is wrestling in his or her faith concerning assurance? Are you encouraging that brother or sister to look to Christ and to wait upon God? Are you an encourager? Again, this responsibility is not simply a pastoral one. Encouragement can be the deciding factor on whether our Christian brother or sister perseveres in the faith or not – "But encourage one another day after day... For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end" (3:13,14). In encouraging each other, we can participate in each other's salvation. We can help some to completely share the abundant life which is in Christ. Those who feel their spiritual hardness, those who sense the stirring of unbelief, should diligently seek out the company of other believers by whom they may be encouraged and supported – "but encouraging one another; and all the more, as you see the day drawing near" (10:25b). We all need the faith and strength of the members of Christ's body. According to God's inscrutable plan, we are incomplete and deficient without one another. Mature faith grows and thrives in the soil of healthy fellowship and God-honouring worship. Unbelief can be overcome.

~ 4 ~

Discovering Faith

Is there unbelief in your heart? Do you have assurance of salvation? Do you have the certainty that Christ loves you, and that you belong to Him; that He has purchased you with His own blood and has made you a child of the King, and that you are destined for glory? I was speaking to a young man recently, and he said that he was struggling in his faith. He did not have any joy because he was lacking the assurance of salvation, he was lacking the assurance that God really loves him, and would care for him. When we look at this matter of the assurance of salvation, the assurance that God loves us, the assurance that God accepts us, we are really looking at the question of trust. Those who lack assurance in any way really lack trust in God. Is that your situation? Do you find that you struggle with trusting in God? Perhaps you read His Word, you consider the promises of His Word, you see what the Bible has to say about a loving God and His ways; and yet, you still struggle with trust. You are not convinced that God will 'come through' for you. You are not convinced that God cares for you. You are not convinced that God loves you. You battle with doubts and uncertainty, and, consequently, with guilt and fear. You know that you should be trusting in God, you know that He has power, yet in your experience you are not resting, and thus you feel guilty. Perhaps you say, "Lord, I am being honest...I have difficulty resting in You, especially when things seem to be so difficult and so hard in my life; when things seem to be topsy-turvy, and I am not quite sure what the future will hold. I struggle in my trust." Does this describe you?

I remember hearing about a well-known celebrity who had believed in Christ at one time; but when he lost his daughter in a tragic accident, he abandoned his faith because he concluded that God was not worthy of his trust. If God could be so cruel as to take away his daughter, then apparently He wasn't a God deserving of worship and homage. Maybe you have found yourself in a difficult situation, maybe tragedy has come your way, maybe the stresses of life are piling up on you, maybe you have been rejected, maybe you have received some disappointing news – you found out from the doctor last week that the tumor is not benign, but malignant – and you have begun to question God, and to doubt His goodness and love toward you; and you are not quite sure whether or not you can trust Him, or whether He is even worthy to be trusted. The strength of faith, the basis of assurance, the reason for trust, is the faithfulness of God.

God is intrinsically faithful

If we can understand this truth – that God is faithful – we will have a thriving, dynamic faith; we will have a strong trust. 1 Thessalonians 5:24 reads, "Faithful is He who calls you, and He also will bring it to pass." We cannot understand this verse without first understanding the preceding verse to which it is logically connected. Verse 23 emphasizes the sovereignty of God. Generally, God is in control of everything; and specifically, He is in control of our sanctification. We read, "Now may the God of peace Himself [that is the emphasis] sanctify you entirely ['through and through']; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ." God Himself makes His people holy. God is pleased to make His people reflect the very character of Christ, transforming His people into the very likeness of Christ. Yes, we have a responsibility to pursue God, to read His Word, to pray, but it is God Himself Who actually makes us holy; and this is our confidence and our peace. God is mightily at work.

God is not only making us like His Son, but He is also keeping us in His Son until His Son returns. God is engaged in this tremendous, even miraculous, activity of preserving us blameless until we stand before the great white throne of judgement. Now, the apostle proceeds, in verse 24, to provide us with the assurance that God will indeed accomplish this saving work. Having stated that God is the One Who sanctifies us, that God is the One Who preserves us, he says, "Faithful is He who calls you, and He also will bring it to pass."

God is faithful in that God is true to His word; He keeps His promises; He does what He says He will do. So, we read in Hebrews 10:23, "Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful." Consider also Hebrews 11:11 in this connection, "By faith even Sarah herself received ability to conceive, even beyond the proper time of life, since she considered Him faithful who had promised." Sarah was eighty-nine years old – and she was barren – when God came to Abraham and to her. Abraham was ninety-nine years old at the time. God came to them with a word of promise that they would have a baby. Sarah initially laughed; but, as the text says, She "received ability to conceive;" and that was because of her faith. How did the faith come? – "since she considered [God] faithful who had promised." Sarah's faith embraced that promise; and the promise carried weight and force with her because she understood Who it was that was promising. She considered, she took note of, she brought to mind, that God is faithful; and even though the promise seemed ridiculous and absurd, she knew that the promise was certain because the One Who promised cannot lie. Sarah gave birth to Isaac.

Faith embraces the promises of God. Faith rests in the truth of God's Word. Faith acquiesces in the propositions of God's Word. But what sustains faith so that it may rest in the Word of God and embrace the divine promises, so that the believer is convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that these things are true? The faithfulness of God! In considering God to be faithful – that what He says, He will do – we can trust Him. The faithfulness of God is the bedrock, the foundation, for the reality and growth of our faith. If we do not understand and appreciate that God is faithful, our faith will be weak, we will struggle, we may even lose our faith. In mistrusting God, believers interpret life in a self-centred, unbiblical way, drawing the conclusion that God really doesn't care, or really doesn't love them. The result is that doubts and uncertainties arise. The evil one fans the small sparks of doubt and uncertainty into roaring flames, until eventually one is utterly consumed with unbelief. It is not an anomaly, it is not a contradiction, to have a state of affairs in which Christians struggle with unbelief. Is that your struggle?

Faith is rooted in the faithfulness of God

Understanding the faithfulness of God will set us free from unbelief. Again, the power of faith and trust spring from, and blossom out of, the soil of the personal appreciation of the faithfulness of God. We are to remember that God is true. Many Christians are like a yo-yo, continually up and down. There is a lack of stability to their lives. One day they are on fire for the Lord, they are a terror for God; but the next day, they are flat on their faces; and they wonder what in the world happened, what was the license plate number of the truck that hit them. Again, that which will strengthen your trust and deepen your faith is having a correct understanding, a proper view of the character of God.

We should not rely upon our feelings. We should not get caught up in ceaseless self-evaluation and morbid introspection, trying to find this object or thing called faith. Faith is not an object, it is not a thing; that is why if you are on the search for faith, you will never find it. You only have faith in expressing it; and you will only have faith when you behold the object of your faith – God. It is in seeing Him, that you must believe. You cannot help but believe. There are so many misled Christians who are seeking for faith, trying to find faith, saying, "If I find faith, then I will be able to embrace the promises of God; then I will receive the power of God." That kind of search is a cul-de-sac – a dead-end street. Again, you cannot find faith. It is not some object or thing. All you can find is the object of faith; and in seeing God, you have faith.

The reality of faith (and trust) demands that we understand the character of God; and particularly, that God is faithful. God cannot lie (see Hb. 6:17,18). He cannot deny Himself. He cannot go back on His Word. He is duty-bound and nature-bound to remain true and reliable. If at any time, and for any reason, God were to renege on His Word and promises, then that would be the end of God. To lie or deceive would be a denial of His very nature, a betrayal of His very character. God is intrinsically faithful, and cannot be other than faithful. That is what He is.

Faith will not come by pursuing self-help books, nor by running to hear this preacher or that one (although hearing the preached Word is helpful), nor will it necessarily come by fasting and praying for forty days and nights. What will experientially bring faith, and deepen trust, is simply understanding and appreciating that the very character of God is one of faithfulness. This fact was the essence of Hudson Taylor's spiritual secret. Listen to his own words:

I strove for faith, but it would not come. I tried to exercise faith, but in vain. Seeing more and more the wondrous supply of grace laid up in Jesus, the fulness of our precious Saviour, my guilt and helplessness seemed to increase. Sins committed appeared but as trifles compared with the sin of unbelief which was their cause, which could not or would not take God at His word, but rather made Him a liar! Unbelief, I felt, was the damning sin of the world, yet I indulged in it. I prayed for faith, but it came not. What was I to do?

When my agony of soul was at its height, a sentence in a letter from dear McCarthy was used to remove the scales from my eyes, and the Spirit of God revealed to me the truth of our oneness with Jesus as I had never known it before. McCarthy, who had been much exercised by the same sense of failure but saw the light before I did, wrote (I quote from memory): "But how to get faith strengthened? Not by striving after faith, but by resting on the Faithful One."

As I read I saw it all! "If we believe not, He abideth faithful." I looked to Jesus and saw – and when I saw, oh, how joy flowed – that He had said, "I will never leave thee."

Ah, there is rest, I thought. I have striven in vain to rest in Him. I'll strive no more, for has not He promised to abide with me – never to leave me, never to fail me? ("The Exchanged Life," pp. 7,8).

For some time Hudson Taylor struggled. He loved the Lord, he wanted to serve the Lord, he wanted to be faithful to God, but he struggled with respect to the reality and the strength of his faith. He was weak; and became frustrated and anxious. Then he discovered something about the intrinsic character of God. Hudson Taylor's spiritual struggle came to an end, and he finally entered into the rest of the Lord, in understanding that God's nature and character do not change. Do you understand this truth? Or are you still trying to find faith? Do you appreciate this simple truth? You know whether you do appreciate it, if you have entered into the rest of the Lord.

God's faithfulness and His calling

God is faithful, but He is faithful particularly in reference to our sanctification, in making us holy and in preserving us – "Faithful is He who calls you." God is faithful with respect to our salvation, even though we seem to stumble and fall at times. 2 Timothy 2:13 reads, "If we are faithless, He remains faithful; for He cannot deny Himself." Do you see that there is a vital intricate link between God's sanctifying, preserving work, on the one hand, and His calling on the other? Having made reference to the sanctifying, preserving work of God (v. 23), Paul then makes reference to the calling of God (v. 24). It is through God's calling, and on the basis of that calling, that He does sanctify, and will preserve, us. God's calling guarantees the realization of the end of that calling; and the sanctifying, preserving work of God is the means by which that calling is fully realized. Because God has called, believers will, and must, be sanctified and preserved. The sanctifying and preserving work of God is necessarily entailed and rooted in the calling. If God has called you, He will make you like the Son; He will preserve you blameless at the coming of the Lord Jesus. You cannot have one without the other. The calling of God is the basis of His sanctifying, preserving work. I like the way the New King James version renders Jude 1, "To those who are called, sanctified by the Father, preserved in Jesus Christ."

To what are we called? 1 Thessalonians 2:12 reads, "So that you may walk in a manner worthy of the God who calls you into His own kingdom and glory." 1 Timothy 6:12 says, "Fight the good fight of faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called, and you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses." 1 Peter 5:10 says, "And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you." What a glorious end! And the means by which the end of that calling is reached is God's mighty and gracious work.

This calling of God is an inward, spiritual, effectual call. There is a general call that goes out to all listeners or readers. In fact, as I write these words, there is a general call that is going out as the Gospel is being presented, and as the claims of Christ are stated; and as unbelievers read the words, they are receiving the general call of God to turn to Him. As I invite unbelievers to embrace Christ and believe in Christ, they are receiving the general call of God. But in the general call, God may give a specific, spiritual call. Christ speaks and His sheep hear His voice, and they follow (see John 10:27).

God's calling involves holiness

Those who have responded to God's calling must remember that it is a holy calling. It is a calling that involves living separate and pure lives unto God. 2 Timothy 1:9 reads, "Who has saved us, and called us with a holy calling." Why is it a holy calling? It is a holy calling because we are called into communion with God. We are called to enjoy God and to fellowship with God; and God is holy. 1 Peter 1:15 reads, "But like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behaviour, because it is written, 'YOU SHALL BE HOLY [there is no option here, you shall be holy], FOR I AM HOLY.'" Similarly, we read in 1 Thessalonians 4:7, "For God has not called us for the purpose of impurity, but in sanctification." Holiness is the sphere, the context, in which God calls His people. If you are called into the fellowship, if you have been called into salvation, then you have been called into holiness. That means that you have to despise sin; you have to reject sin. You have to be bent on purity, on living clean lives – not having dirty thoughts or dirty desires. You are called to confess, and even repent from, your sin daily. You can make no claim on the calling of God, apart from the proof that you are hungering and thirsting, not only after righteousness, but after holiness. It is a holy calling.

Notice the emphasis on the present tense of the verb in our text – "Faithful is He who calls you [not called you]." God is not only pleased to call sinners unto Himself and into the fellowship of His Son; but He is always calling His people to eternal glory and to the eternal kingdom. God is continually calling; and He is calling now. He is calling us to Himself, He is calling us to rest, He is calling us to be more like His Son, He is calling us to embrace eternal life which He offers us in Christ. God's calling is not a one time thing. It is not something you did 5 or 10 or 15 years ago when you gave your life to Christ. No, the call of God, the call of the Spirit, comes every day to our hearts when we awake; and we should feel the pressure on our spirits – the conviction of heart – to seek the Lord.

God will be faithful, as we respond to that call, to bring us to the end for which He has called us – "And He also will bring it to pass." Yes, we have the responsibility to respond to the call, but here is our assurance: God will most definitely and perfectly make us like His Son and ensure us a place in heaven (and I hope God gives you the grace to 'hear' this and to lay hold on this truth because it will set you free). You know that what you have been trying to do in your own strength does not work. Only God's work is successful. God's grace is our confidence. God will accomplish His eternal purpose of salvation in our lives. He is not only the Caller, but He is the Doer; and everything He does is successful and perfect.

Are you going to allow God to work His grace in you? Will you fully surrender to Him? To surrender means to live a life of faith and to rest in Christ, being dependent upon Him for everything. Why will God bring this sanctifying and preserving work to pass? Again, He is faithful, and He cannot help but be faithful. That is why you should have assurance; that is why you should never doubt; that is why you should never be plagued with uncertainty. If He has indeed called you, it is a fait accompli – an irreversible 'done deal'. That is why you should trust God. Trust Him to work in your life, trust Him to complete that which He has begun. Trust Him for absolutely everything, for He is supremely worthy to be trusted. Praise His holy name!