This one question seems to be close to the heart of the controversy between the so-called “duty faith” and sound biblical doctrine. One group, called Fullerists, claim that it is the duty of all people to believe and be saved. The other group, Primitive Baptists included, believe that it is only the duty of those touched by divine grace to profess a faith in Christ. This debate often leads to the question of whether or not unbelief is a sin. Those advocating duty faith will often maliciously paint this argument in black and white terms. An extreme position from either side could lead to the destruction of biblical principles. In reality, all unbelief is sin. Yet, it is equally true that people are not held accountable to believe that which isn't true concerning themselves. Not sure what I mean? Let's dig deeper.
Are all men called to believe and be born again?
You could say that duty faith ends at the wrong conclusion because is starts at a faulty premise. Christianity is usually grouped into two camps, Arminians and Calvinists. Arminians believe, to some extent, that God both desires and wills the salvation of all people. Calvinism believing that God only desires and wills the salvation of the elect. Even though those terms do not correctly categorize Primitive Baptists or Christendom, that's generally how people think. Respectfully, I have more respect for full Arminianism than I do Fullerism or Neo-Calvinism, because at least Arminianism is consistent theology. We will now deal with two faulty premises that really address both theological viewpoints.
Wrong Premise #1: Man believes to be born again
This first premise is probably the most popular among all denominations. This argument would follow the idea that God holds all men accountable to exercise faith to be born again, and therefore not believing savingly is a sin. There are multiple problems with this view.
First, the idea that faith precedes regeneration is both irrational and unbiblical. It is irrational because it supposes that the qualities and motions of life precede life itself. Like physical life, to which the Bible compares regeneration, the giving of life precedes action. Jesus himself testified that a person cannot even see, seeing being an exercise of life, without first being born again. Also, it is unbiblical because the Bible unequivocally declares that divine quickening precedes faith. See Galatians 5:22, 1 John 5:1, 2 Peter 1:1.
Secondly, building on the former said principle, we understand that regeneration, which gives individuals the capacity to believe, is solely the act of God alone upon the soul. Why is this important? Let me ask you two questions: (1) Does God consider it a sin for a man to not be elected in the covenant of grace? (2) Does God consider the nonelect to have sinned by not being represented by Christ on the cross? Obviously the answers to both questions is no. Both election and substitutionary atonement are the acts of God (Ephesians 1:4, Matthew 1:21). The new birth, and being given the capacity to believe, is equally the act of God (John 6:29). Since regeneration is the responsibility and act of God alone, how can it be considered a sin for a man that is totally depraved to not regenerate himself when he has never been commissioned to do so in the first place?
The proverbial detractor may say, “Man is depraved and cannot help but sin! Understanding your argument, how then can God hold him accountable for sinning?” My answer would be that all people are accountable first because of the sin of Adam. We deserve punishment because we are sinners by nature and at enmity against God. Secondly, we are in fact under God's moral law. Regardless of ability to fulfill its qualification, we are shown to be sinners by practice. The detractor will again say, “See! God does hold men accountable to do that which they cannot perform!” These detractors miss the point in their irrational obstinacy. Humans are punished according to the system of laws they are under. This can be illustrated by a citizen of England breaking a law in England. He will not be shipped to France to be tried and convicted. Why? Because he is under English law and broke the law in England. Humans are certainly under God's moral law, but there is nowhere in the word of God that shows that we are held accountable to fulfill the covenant of grace that was made before the foundation of the world. We weren't there and the covenant wasn't made with us. Was it made for us? Yes! Was it made with us? No. Again, we weren't there. Salvation is all of God, and just as man is not held accountable for election, predestination, atonement, justification, or glorification, he is not held accountable for the new birth. The new birth is necessary for the salvation of the elect, but humans are not responsible for accomplishing this requirement. To quote a minister friend, Elder Ric Stewart, “Whatever God requires of his people, whatever God demands and requires must happen in order for the salvation of his people, he provided it in the person of Jesus Christ and through the work of the Holy Ghost. So God doesn't just require it, he also guarantees it. He doesn't leave it up to us to finish the job.”
Wrong Premise #2: God seeks the salvation of those he did not chose to save
While discussing this premise we will direct our thoughts primarily toward those of the Reformed persuasion. Someone of Arminianistic theology would deny unconditional election. So this premise would not fully concern them, though we will see some arguments that refute universal salvation.
Primitive Baptists and true historic Calvinists alike would affirm that God the Father chose a specific people and Christ died only for those chosen by the Father. With that said, it would be completely irrational to tell an unregenerate, non-elect to believe and be saved. Why, you may ask? Because that would be equivalent to telling someone to believe something that is not true concerning himself. In short, it would be commanding someone to believe a lie. Why then would God condemn lying, condone lying by commanding his ministry to lie, and then condemn men for not believing the preacher's lie? This is irrational, contradictory, and even insulting to God.
Someone may say that God does desire the non-elect to be saved though he doesn't will their salvation. To quote Hermon Hosema in The Clark-Van Til Controversy, “Contradictions are propositions that mutually exclude each other, so that the one denies the truth of the other. The principles of contradictions are: 1. That a thing cannot at the same time be and not be. 2. That a thing must either be or not be. 3. That the same property cannot be affirmed and denied at the same time of the same subject. A is A. A is not Not-A. Everything is either A or Not-A. I challenge anyone to point out that there are propositions in the Bible that violate these fundamental principles of logic. I challenge anyone to prove that it is possible for the believer to accept such contradictions, or that it is Christian humility to claim such faith.” End Quote.
The above quote was in reference to God's sovereignty in salvation and a well meaning offer of salvation to the non-elect. The entire book is written as a defense of Dr. Gordon Clark and a refutation of a well meaning offer of the gospel. It is an excellent book that I highly recommend to other who would like to study the irrationalism of Fullerism.
In short, something cannot be both up and down. God cannot both desire the salvation of all people yet not elect them, give his Son to die for them, and send the Holy Spirit to quicken them.
To quote theologian John Owen, “The Father imposed His wrath due unto, and the Son underwent punishment for, either:
"1. All the sins of all men,
2. All the sins of some men,
3. Some sins of all men.
In which case it may be said:
If the Last be true, -- Christ died for some sins of all men, then,
all men have some sins to answer for, and so shall no one be saved.
If the Second be true, that is Christ died for all the sins of some men, then,
Christ in their stead suffered for all the sins of all the elect in the whole world (and this is the truth).
But if the First be the case, why then, are not all freed from the punishment of all their sins?
You will say, “Because of their unbelief; they will not believe.”
But I ask, this unbelief, is it a sin, or not?
If not, why should they be punished for it? If it be, then Christ underwent the punishment due to it, or not.
If so, then why must that hinder them more than their other sins for which he died from partaking of the fruit of his death?
If he did not, then did he not die for all their sins. Let them choose which part they will.” End Quote.
If God only died for the sins of his elect then it would be considered a lie to say otherwise, and it would be completely ludicrous to suppose that preachers are to command wicked men to believe a lie.
So how can unbelief be sin?
If men aren't held accountable to believe and be saved, then how can God hold them accountable for any unbelief? We must remember that all unbelief is a rejection of divine revelation. Honestly, all sin is a rejection of divine revelation and really based on a rejection of God himself. This can be seen in Romans 1:18-32. Society rejects God. How do they do this? By holding down, or suppressing, the truth of God. Paul showed in Romans 1 that they ignored nature. Nature by itself testifies of God as creator and lawgiver. Even without the written word, depraved people were held accountable for their rejection of divine revelation.
So how about the Bible? All the words contained in the Bible are directly inspired by God and therefore divine revelation. Whether it is the doctrine of a three-in-one God or the Biblical truth of God ordained marriage, it is God's revelation to humans. Though no person is held accountable to do only that which God is commissioned to do such as regeneration, all humans everywhere are held accountable for their rejection of divine revelation. This is what is considered the rejection of historic or intellectual faith. I do not personally use the term faith in that regard, but it is true that this rejection of revelation is only in an intellectual or historic sense.
So was the unbelief and rejection of Jesus by the wicked Jews during the time of Christ a sin? Yes. Is the unbelief and rejection of Christ by the entire unregenerate world a sin? Yes. Both the unbelief and rejection of Christ from the first century Jews and the entire unregenerate world is a sin because it is a rejection of divine revelation. The rejection of Jesus as the Messiah (or the Christ) was in direct opposition to God and his revealed word. God certainly does not hold those groups accountable to believe that they were elected or redeemed. God does not hold them accountable to believe that they will one day be glorified. Why? Because none of those things are true concerning themselves. They are not elected. They are not redeemed. They will not one day be glorified. Furthermore, God never asks unregenerate people (or anyone for that matter) to believe in order to be born again. First, as we have already seen, God alone acts in regeneration and this divine act precedes faith. But even more so, God would not failingly "offer" salvation to a person to whom he did not also will to save. That would be 1) commanding a person to do that which is alone the act of God, 2) commanding a person to believe a lie, and 3) making the absurd claim that God somehow desires the salvation of those he hates and doesn't actually will to save. That again is irrational and unbiblical on so many grounds. This would be why Jesus commanded his disciples to not throw their pearls to swine (Matthew 7:6).
With that said, God still holds unregenerate men accountable for their denial of these historical truths. Why? Because the denial of these truths is a denial of divine revelation. And all denial of God's revelation is ultimately a denial of God, and therefore sin.
Contradictory verse #1: John 8:24
John 8:24 I said therefore unto you, that ye shall die in your sins: for if ye believe not that I am he, ye shall die in your sins.
This verse is often used to show that men should believe in order to be saved. The objection usually states that men are punished for their unwillingness to be saved. What then is the proper interpretation of this verse? We do not even have to leave the chapter to get an answer. Consider John 8:46-47, “Which of you convinceth me of sin? And if I say the truth, why do ye not believe me? He that is of God heareth God's words: ye therefore hear them not, because ye are not of God.” Why is it that these men completely rejected the Savior and his words? Because they could not hear his speech. They were of their father the devil. Christ's words were then an at the moment observation. Unless Christ changed their hearts and opened their ears, they would continue in this sad obstinate state that would eventually lead to their condemnation. The phrase "if ye believe not" would then be an evidence of condemnation and not the cause.
Contradictory verse #2: John 10:34-38
John 10:34-38 Jesus answered them, Is it not written in your law, I said, Ye are gods? If he called them gods, unto whom the word of God came, and the scripture cannot be broken; Say ye of him, whom the Father hath sanctified, and sent into the world, Thou blasphemest; because I said, I am the Son of God? If I do not the works of my Father, believe me not. But if I do, though ye believe not me, believe the works: that ye may know, and believe, that the Father is in me, and I in him.
These verses have been shown as a plea of Christ to those blaspheming his name. A plea to accept him and be saved. Is this the proper interpretation? Again, we do not have to leave the chapter to find our answer. Consider John 10:25-30, “Jesus answered them, I told you, and ye believed not: the works that I do in my Father's name, they bear witness of me. But ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep, as I said unto you. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father's hand. I and my Father are one.” Before the original verses under discussion, Christ proclaimed that the reason they did not believe was because they were not his sheep. So the interpretation of the above verses should also be considered evidentiary and not causative. What Christ is saying is that even with empirical evidence, these unregenerate men will not and cannot believe.
Both of these so-called contradictory sections of verses are what I would call "at the moment observations." These verses are a lot like those in Matthew 12:31, Mark 3:29, and Luke 12:10 concerning those that blasphemed the Holy Ghost. They spoke out of the abundance of their heart. Their words showed an inward principle of the heart. In like manner, the unbelief of those in John chapter 8 manifested an at the moment observation concerning the vital position of those unbelievers. Likewise, John 10 describes the goats (those who are not his sheep) in terms of complete obstinate unbelief even in the presence of empirical evidence. Christ's words are not meant to be understood as alter calls and well meant offerings, but are meant to give assurance to the believer and condemn the wicked. Other portions of scripture, such as John 3:16-21, should be viewed in this light.
Before moving on to the conclusion I would like to say that the above verses cited show statements made by Christ. The reason I point this out is because only Christ could make those statements. It is true that the gospel only affords assurance to believers, and we have no biblical right to give assurance to unbelievers. Yet, only Christ can make such absolute statements because only he can see a person's heart. Only Christ can say with certainty that people are not his sheep. Only Christ can say with sureness that individuals will die in their sins. Only Christ sees the heart.
In conclusion, no person whether elect or wicked is held accountable to believe and be born again. Regeneration is the work of God alone. A person cannot believe without God's intervening grace, and the wicked are never commanded to believe that which is not true concerning themselves. Yet understanding that the wicked are held accountable for their rejection of divine revelation should bring us great sobriety. If the wicked are punished for rejection of divine revelation, how serious should believers in Christ take the word of God. May we no longer ignore or discount the truth of God's word in our Laodicean age of lukewarmness and unbelief.
Hebrews 2:1 Therefore we ought to give the more earnest heed to the things which we have heard, lest at any time we should let them slip.