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Barriers to belief

1 July 2011 | by Peter Jeffery

Barriers to belief

What prevents a person from coming to faith in Christ? The prime reason given in Scripture is that ‘the god of this age’, that is Satan, has blinded people’s minds so that they cannot believe (2 Cor. 4:4). We can react to this truth in several ways. We can throw up our hands in despair and say there is nothing we can do; or (citing the sovereignty of God) we can argue that God alone can save and that He will save in His time, so there is nothing we need to do. Both of these reactions leave us sitting in our evangelical armchairs feeling snug and comfortable. Meanwhile, millions go to hell without hearing the gospel because of our lack of urgency. What we often fail to grasp is that the devil attacks the minds of Christians as well as those of unbelievers. However, a proper understanding of the sovereignty of God will drive us to action.

The barrier in the sinner’s nature

In this article we shall look at the barrier in the sinner’s mind: his fallen nature, how he thinks and what he believes. Who are these people we want to win for Christ? What do we know about their souls that need saving? The Bible describes them very clearly: they are spiritually dead. The opening verses of Ephesians 2 describe for us the nature of man in sin, but this is not a popular viewpoint today. If we were to ask the average person, ‘What is man?’, we would probably get one of two answers. They might say that man is an evolving creature and getting progressively better, so there is no real problem. Give him a couple of million years or so and everything will be fine. Or else we might be told that man is essentially good and only needs a little help and guidance.

Neither of these views needs God or the gospel. But man is neither an evolving creature nor essentially good. He is as described in Ephesians 2:1-3 as dead in sins, under Satan’s control, living out the sinful desires of the flesh and of the mind, and subject to the wrath of God. This description is the only one that squares with the facts of history and experience. Man’s history is full of wars, killings, disputes, corruption, greed, idolatry and the like, and the twenty-first century is no better. If anything it is worse than the previous centuries, not least because mankind has greater power to do evil than ever before. The ‘evolving creature’ and ‘essentially good’ scenarios cannot explain this. But the Bible’s analysis does.

Man today is conditioned by the whole social and educational system to reject the biblical view of man and accept these other theories. It becomes inevitable, then, that if people think about salvation at all, they only think in terms of morality or religious observance. In other words, they turn to good works. This seems so reasonable and plausible. A man may see he has a problem with sin (or whatever else he may call it) and feel he must do something about it. He must change his ways, turn over a new leaf, pull himself together. This is the religion of the natural man, but it completely ignores the force and truth of Ephesians 2:1-3. Paul counters this whole outlook by declaring that salvation is not by works but by grace. But as long as man believes the optimistic theories of his own goodness he will never take grace seriously and will cling to good works as a means of salvation. It is an easier way than repentance, and makes the sinner feel good.

The sinner has a false view of himself but he also has a false view of God. We are told that over eighty per cent of our nation believe in God. But just what do they believe? To them God is little more than a religious Santa Claus who comes around now and again to hand out goodies. He has nothing to do with normal life. Therefore He is not taken seriously, and men lapse into a false optimism about the future. Because God is a harmless do-gooder, we shall all go to heaven. There is no judgement and no hell. So there is nothing to worry about.

The barrier in the sinner’s mind

The unbeliever says, ‘I will never become a Christian’ because, for instance, all Christians are hypocrites; to do so would be to commit intellectual suicide; Christianity is just a crutch for those who cannot face up to reality; there is nothing special about Christianity, etc.

I am not going to deal with these, or other, objections here; the rest of the magazine will attempt to do so. However, we need to bear in mind two things about them. Sometimes they are mindless excuses, only half thought out, but sometimes they are very real problems in a person’s mind. Either way, they are not difficult to deal with if people are genuinely looking for answers. If they are not, and only want an argument, then you face the problem of casting ‘pearls before swine’. Sinclair Ferguson com­ments on this phrase in Matthew 7:6:

One of the lessons we need to learn, therefore, is to live with the cost of our message being rejected. While that is heart-breaking, we are taught in Scripture that it will happen. Fore-warned is fore-armed. We are not taken by surprise by rejecters of the gospel. We do not mindlessly continue to offer Christ to people irrespective of their response.

That may not be easy to accept but clearly Jesus is preparing us for this possibility in Matthew 7:6 and also in other passages where He tells the disciples to shake from their feet the dust of a city which rejects the gospel. This does not encourage a complacent, ‘I’ve told them the gospel, so it is up to them.’ But it does protect us from self-recrimination and from depression that might deter us from further evangelism.

Understanding the unbeliever’s mind

We were all unbelievers once, but we quickly forget what that was like. Add to that the fact that things have changed drastically in attitudes to Christianity over the past twenty years. We have moved from a general indifference to open hostility to the gospel. It has always been true that the devil blinds people’s minds to the gospel, but the unbelievers of today are not those of twenty or thirty years ago. There is a difference. Then it was fairly normal to go to church; now it is not. We have seen that it can involve culture-shock for unbelievers to enter a church. They feel out of place, uncomfortable and awkward.

We have to remember also that modern man’s mind is largely conditioned by the media, with very negative attitudes to the church. Silly vicars in TV plays or outrageous public statements from bishops do not give Christianity a good press. Coupled with this is the unscriptural, sentimental, almost humanistic trash that is frequently promulgated in the name of Christianity in religious broadcasts. All this is enough to put anyone off the gospel. Add to this Religious Education in schools, often taught by unbelievers and based on the premise that all religions are equally valid, and we see that the mind of modern man is conditioned to reject biblical Christianity.

The basic problem is that people do not take God seriously. Therefore they do not take sin seriously. In the end, therefore, we must remember that it is only God who can and does save sinners.

Peter Jeffery, based in Wales, has an itinerant ministry of preaching and evangelism.