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General Session 3 - Mark Dever

Perhaps one of the most amusing aspect of this conference is the regular “pastor rushes.” Every time a session begins, a crowd gathers around each of the ten or twelve doors to the worship center. At the moment the doors open, a crowd of pastors rush to the front, seeking to nab the premier spots. They will, quite literally, sprint to the front, sometimes even pushing and shoving a little bit to get there. It makes for sick comedy and generates a lot of comments and giggles from bystanders. Tomorrow I may try to snap a picture of this in action!

This morning we will be treated to a session led by Mark Dever of Capitol Hill Baptist Church who will speak on unbelief.

He began by reflecting for a short time on the message John MacArthur brought us last night. He asked, if this message we bring is so wonderful, why would anyone ever not believe it? Why didn’t the younger brother, the older brother and the pharisees we learned about last night believe? Why don’t our friends and relatives believe? This is a question that haunts believers and unbelievers alike and was the topic of Jesus in John 12, beginning at verse 37 and continuing to the end of the chapter.

The Unbelievers

Though Jesus had done so many miraculous signs, the people still did not believe in Him. This passage concludes the series of signs that define the first part of the gospel. The tragic story of the first 12 chapters is summarized in the first verses: “His own did not receive Him.” This was the grim reality that the recipients of this letter would have labored under.

Why did so many reject Jesus? Those who minister today labor in their churches as they do because of their answer to that question. Will they believe if we change our music? Will they believe if we lower the lights?

The nature of unbelief: John, following in the footsteps of Jesus, turns to the Scripture to answer this question. He turns to a quotation from Isaiah 53 and by examining this passage we can understand what John sought to call to mind. The people’s rejection of the Messiah was part of the Messiah’s substitutionary atonement for us. Isaiah shows us a comprehensive unbelief. Belief, and therefore unbelief, never involve the mind alone.

The core of unbelief: The core of unbelief is a lack of acceptance of Jesus’ words. Rejecting His words is rejecting Him - His person. This is a pattern we see throughout Scripture. God’s word in the Garden of Eden was clear, but Adam and Eve rejected this word and thus, they rejected God. In Adam we have all sinned and have all rejected the word. The Bible continues with the story of what it means like to reject God. Central to Jesus’ message is that He has not rejected God and is in intimate communion with Him. This has great ramifications for anyone who would seek to love or worship a Jesus who is different than what we read in Scripture. This is a live issue in the church today where the substitutionary atonement is under constant attack. It may involve the academic hubris of recasting the words of Christ or involve subverting the rest of the New Testament in an apparent effort to make the rest of the Bible better “fit” Jesus’ words. If we are would believe, we cannot change or disbelieve the words of Christ.

Reasons for unbelief: Verse forty says that they would not believe “so they would turn and be healed.” The purpose is that they will not turn and be healed. It is not that these people are unwilling to turn, but are unable to turn. It is impossible for them to turn as they did not have the power. These people we love and pray for and preach to - they do not have the power to turn. Now, of course, formally they do have some power, but not the power as in the virtue, strength or disposition. They have no such power to believe.

At the end of his life Moses summoned the people and reminded them of all they had seen God do. But to that day the Lord had not given them the ability to see, hear and understand. The same is true with Isaiah and thus with John. God had not given a mind to understand, eyes to see or ears to hear. Did God to this merely by not extending grace? And certainly there is a self-hardening aspect of sin and thus we are all culpable for our own unbelief. But do note that God is also said to be active in causing hardening in unbelief as a just punishment for those who have deliberately chosen to be what they are. It is a judicial hardening.

Pastor Dever shared that he has taught this today to protect pastors from those within the Christian world who seek to sell a product or program in order to prey upon the conscience of the pastor. There are so many who seek to tell us that the reason people do not believe is that we have not bought into their program or product.

In Isaiah 6 God tells the prophet to preach to the people and Isaiah asks how long. How long are we to bring this message? In Romans 11 Paul answers “until the fullness of the Gentiles is complete.”

There are five applications to this:

God’s activity is never pitted against human responsibility: “You do not have to cut out Romans 9 to have Romans 10.” The doctrines of election or reprobation, like in Paul’s ministry, ought to bring greater emphasis to evangelism. We are to preach to everyone, not attempting to discern who is elect and who is not. We bring the message in faithfulness and let God do His work. God loves us and wants us to be in on this. He is glorified by our recounting of the gospel. He uses us because He loves us.

God’s sovereignty is also a ground of hope: Our only hope is that God is sovereign. A pastor will not keep preaching without an understanding of God’s sovereignty. The problems of another person may look insurmountable, but do you not remember what you were like before you were saved? We must never look down on another person and assume that he will never be saved. The only reason anyone is ever saved is because of God’s sovereignty.

Unbelief is somehow part of God’s larger plan of redemption: “I don’t really know much more about it than that.”

Note the hardening effect of the Word: In the ministries of Moses and Isaiah, the ministries of people in church history and especially the ministry of Jesus we see that the preaching of the word has a hardening effect. Sometimes we see people becoming harder through our ministries because we are doing something right.

Be willing to serve even when a ministry seems unfruitful: God, in His sovereignty, calls us to be faithful ministers and see no results. Jesus preached to Judas all the time, even though He knew what was in Judas. Somehow the glorious grace of God was displayed and portrayed when the Lord preached to Judas.

There will be times, of course, where a pastor has done a poor job and has not been faithful. But there are times where a pastor has been faithful. In these times we are following in the feet of Jesus who was rejected. Pastors are not called to generate results, but to be faithful.

It is clear that the general hardening of people did not preclude the salvation of all people.

Real belief:

Real belief centers on Jesus: This was true even for Isaiah. He saw Jesus’ glory and spoke of Him. Christ is known by the prophets through the Holy Spirit. Again, hearing Jesus is hearing God. Seeing Jesus is seeing God. Faith in Jesus involves the mind, the ears, the eyes and is an acknowledgment that we are seeing God.

Believing in Jesus brings benefits: Believing in Jesus leads to, and actually is, eternal life.

Three Applications:

  • The objective component: You need to have a clarity on the gospel which is composed of particular words. Holy, perfect, image, unwilling, choice. But God, who would have been just to consign us to hell, has run out to us by taking on flesh and becoming incarnate. We are called to repent and trust and so be saved. A pastor must continually drill his congregation on the gospel! If our members do not know the gospel, there is great responsibility for this upon the pastor.

  • The subjective component: The subjective component is the fulness of belief. There must be a subjective appropriation of the gospel. There must be more than mere mental assent.

  • Real faith is tied to the word: We cannot separate truth from the word of God.

Any real faith must be built upon the real word and must be centered on Jesus.