On January 14, 1855, Spurgeon preached on the text 2 Kings 7:19 “Behold, thou shalt see it with thine eyes but shalt not eat thereof.” His theme was the certain judgment that comes from the sin of unbelief. Such was the case with the king of Samaria. Some elements of Spurgeon’s argument in this sermon resonate with a sermon by Stephen Charnock, “A Discourse of Unbelief, Proving it is the Greatest Sin.” [Charnock, Works 4:220-295.]
Unbelief has many shades of dark and darker hues; it appears in the regenerate under a variety of circumstances, but increasingly engulfs the unregenerate. It is forgiven and diminishes in the regenerate but damns and hardens the unregenerate. It yields only the hammer that breaks the rock by effectual operation.
If a person does not believe with his whole being the promises of God based on the certainty of his redemptive work, then he calls into question God’s immutability, his omnipotence, or the continued wise providential arrangement of his decrees. Atheism is a peculiar sort of unbelief because it is aggravated by ontological irrationality arising from moral and ethical issues; “Without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:6). An atheist chooses the indefensibility of nothingness over the self-evident truth that moral uprightness finally is a matter of seeking true knowledge of God. The real target in this message, however, is the specific theology of hyper-Calvinism. – “I am astonished, and I am sure you will be,” he announced, “when I tell you that there are some strange people in the world who do not believe that unbelief is a sin. Strange people I must call them, because they are sound in their faith in every other respect, only, to make the articles of their creed consistent, as they imagine, they deny that unbelief is sinful.” Spurgeon found something comprehensive in Jesus’ words concerning the convicting operations of the Holy Spirit beginning with “of sin because they believe not on me” (John 16:9, the text for Charnock’s sermon). At the root of all violations of divine law and the piling up of wrath from actual transgressions is this, “They believe not on me.” Fore and aft, sin amounts to a rejection of the Lordship of Christ: fore in disobedience to his law, both that written on the heart and that revealed through the written code; aft, for refusing to receive the person of Christ in his completed work of redemption.
Hyper-Calvinism, however, isolates faith to the category of pure soteriological sovereignty. Because evangelical faith comes only through an effectual work of the Holy Spirit, and the consequent right relationship with God comes by grace alone, it was not a part of the requirements given to Adam in the unfallen state. Right relationship with God in that state depended on absolute obedience to law. He never contemplated nor was aught revealed of a right relationship through forgiveness and its concomitants. Faith generated by the Holy Spirit, faith in a Redeemer, was not required from man in the unfallen state. It would be unjust of God, therefore, to require now what was not revealed then and was in the nature of things impossible then. Therefore, though faith is a blessed gift granted to the elect, lack of it is not a sin in the non-elect. We cannot on that account call persons to believe and indicate that judgment is increased by their not believing. Spurgeon was alarmed and aghast. “I thought that, however far they might wish to push their sentiments, they would not tell a lie to uphold the truth, and in my opinion, this is what such men are really doing.”
The sermon, therefore, is an extended assault on unbelief as the seedbed of all sin from the fall of the innocents to the condemnation of the finally and aggressively impenitent. “Oh! sirs believe me,” he pled with the crowd at New Park Street, “could you roll all sins into one mass—could you take murder, and blasphemy, and lust, adultery, and fornication, and everything that is vile, and unite them all into one vast globe of black corruption, they would not equal even then the sin of unbelief. This is the monarch sin, the quintessence of guilt, the mixture of the venom of all crimes, the dregs of the wine of Gomorrah, it is the A-1 sin, the masterpiece of Satan, the chief work of the devil.” After a long list of events and persons in the Scripture who experienced devastation loss, or death, or eternal judgments because of lack of faith Spurgeon said, “Unbelief, you see, has the Cain-mark upon its forehead. God hates it, God has dealt hard blows upon it, and God will ultimately crush it. Unbelief dishonors God. Every other crime touches God’s territory, but unbelief aims a blow at His divinity, impeaches His veracity, denies His goodness, blasphemes His attributes, maligns His character, therefore, God, of all things, hates first and chiefly, unbelief, wherever it is.” Spurgeon surveyed the Old Testament and traced every sin, every calamity of judgment to unbelief. He went through Hebrews 11 and showed that faith was the moral basis of every manifestation of trust, obedience, or self-effacing action for God’s glory. If faith is not a requirement for all persons in whatever condition, and if lack of faith is not a sin, then the whole Bible is a massive irrelevancy for proclamation in a rebellious, distrustful world Did Spurgeon’s adoption of Andrew Fuller’s view of faith as a moral duty diminish his commitment to faith as a gift of sovereign grace? By no means. They are perfectly consonant with each other. Hear him
as he described the response of those who attended his sermons. “There is someone in the front there, who gets converted, and someone down below, who is called by sovereign grace, some poor sinner is weeping under a sense of his blood-guiltiness, another is crying for mercy to God, and another is saying, ‘Have mercy upon me, a sinner.’” Then he applied the phenomenon to apparently disinterested attenders, combining their responsibility with their utter dependence on the call of grace. “A great work is going on in this chapel, but some of you do not know anything about it. You have no work going on in your hearts, and why? Because you think it is impossible. You think God is not at work. He has not promised to work for you who do not honor Him. Unbelief makes you sit here in times of revival and of the outpouring of God’s grace, unmoved, uncalled, unsaved.” Does Spurgeon then, in spite of the ridicule, suspicions, and opposition of James Wells and his hyper-calvinist compatriots urge the entire crowd to close with Christ through faith? Listen! “I beseech you, my hearers, by the death of Christ—by His agony and bloody sweat—by His cross and passion—by all that is holy—by all that is sacred in heaven and earth—by all that is solemn in time or eternity—by all that is horrible in hell or glorious in heaven—by that awful thought, “for ever”—I beseech you lay these things to heart, and remember that if you are damned, it will be unbelief that damns you. If you are lost, it will be because you believed not on Christ, and if you perish, this shall be the bitterest drop of gall—that you did not trust in the Savior.”
Dr. Tom Nettles is widely regarded as one of the foremost Baptist historians in America. He joined the faculty of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary after teaching at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was professor of Church History and chairman of that department. Previously, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. He received a B.A. from Mississippi College and an M.Div. and Ph.D. from Southwestern. In addition to writing numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles has authored or edited nine books including By His Grace and For His Glory, Baptists and the Bible, and Why I Am a Baptist.
Courses taught: Historical Theology of the Baptists, Historical Theology Overview, Jonathan Edwards & Andrew Fuller.