Christ asks how we can believe in God when we’re more concerned about Man’s approval than God’s? (Jn 5:44) The implication is we can’t: before we can believe in God we must be seeking God’s kingdom and pleasure first and foremost as a manner of life. (He 11:6) If we’re out to please others we aren’t servants of Christ (Ga 1:10); and if we aren’t obeying Christ we aren’t seeking Him – we’re His enemies, headed for destruction. (Php 3:18-19)
This follows from the fact that esteeming Man’s approval above God’s is to trust unfaithful sinners more than the Holy One; it’s believing in Man rather than God, disvaluing God by serving the creature more than the Creator. (Ro 1:25) So, preferring the praise of men is unbelief in God by definition.
This begs the question: what other conditions preclude us from having saving faith? Any disposition to sin intentionally, on purpose, means we don’t fear God (Ro 3:18): we don’t revere Him as our King. This also is to mistrust Him, to reject Him, to disbelieve in Him. Salvation is far from such a heart. (Ps 119:155)
Is believing in and trusting God even something we can decide to do? Is this subject to the power of our will at all? (Ro 9:16) Believing God exists is certainly a necessary first step, but that’s not the same as believing in Him, trusting Him, receiving Him as He has revealed Himself to be. (Jn 1:12-13)
Suppose a man stretches a tightrope across Niagara Falls and balances a wheelbarrow across the raging torrents. To cheering spectators he yells, “Do you believe I can push a man across in this wheelbarrow?”
How do you respond? Can you make yourself believe? Is this an act of your will, like scratching your nose? Maybe you figure he can, so you nod in subtle agreement, but then, pointing directly at you he commands: “Get in!”
Ah! Now we’ll see if you believe! Perhaps you’d be willing to risk your life, but if you’re shaking like a leaf … if you have any doubt at all (Mk 11:23), any hesitation at all (Ja 1:6), any fear at all, this isn’t trust, belief – faith: Faith is knowing you’re safer in that wheelbarrow than anywhere else in the universe – perfectly secure, chill enough to fall asleep. That isn’t something you can just will yourself into knowing. Faith in God is a miracle: it’s supernatural assurance. (He 10:22)
Consider, if placing saving faith in God is an act of our will then it’s a work; for if an act of the will isn’t a work, then nothing is a work. Acts of our will are works by definition.
However, believing on God saves us from sin (Ge 15:6), yet no work can save anyone from sin. (Tit 3:5) Since no work can save anyone from sin, experiencing saving faith in God can’t be our work; so faith can’t be an act of our will; this must be the work of God. (Jn 6:29)
Yet God commands us to repent and believe on Christ (Ac 17:30), so how can this not be an act of our will?
Well, God requires us to be perfect (Mt 5:48); this isn’t an action, but a state of being from which our actions originate, and one clearly beyond our reach. (Pr 30:29) God’s command doesn’t imply our ability; it’s righteous for God to demand perfection of us: He can’t rightly accept anything less. (Eze 18:20)
The reality is that faith and repentance aren’t things we do, or actions we take, but characteristics of our state of being as we’re transformed by God; they’re two sides of the same coin (Ac 20:21) – both are gifts of right beliefs, affections and desires, a new heart, a Godward disposition. We don’t do faith, we have faith … to trust and obey God when our blind heart is healed to see and know Him more as He truly is.
And to repent, to stop believing lies, to have faith and start believing truth, God must intervene: He must give us repentance and faith so we can identify and dismiss the lies as we acknowledge the truth. (2Ti 2:25) So, while God may command us to be a certain way (1Pe 1:15-16), this doesn’t imply that we’re actually able to obey; our will is broken and corrupt. (Je 13:23)
Faith is rooted in the divine nature from which godly action springs (Ja 2:18): what we need in order to believe in God is a new nature (Ga 6:15), and we just can’t decide to have one.
Our inability to align with holiness lies in our being in a state of unbelief and enmity against God (Ro 8:7); in this state we deliberately choose patterns of disobedience which further enslave our will. We are, in our broken state, eating the fruit of our own way and being filled with our own devices. (Pr 1:31) Engaging sin leads to deeper bondage, the continual weakening of our ability to resist sin and choose good. God isn’t responsible for this condition, for our inability to choose good: we are.
Alienation from God is the result of our own ignorance and blindness (Ep 4:18), which comes upon us as we reject the light (Jn 3:36) and respond inappropriately to God. (Ro 1:21) In blindness we make more choices which alienate us even farther from God (Ps 73:27), leading to ever deeper sin and bondage (Ro 1:24), such that we’re continually becoming more irrational, confused, deceived, believing more and more lies about God, others and ourselves. (2Ti 3:13)
We can no more escape this spiraling descent into bondage and corruption through the effort of our own will than a rotting corpse can raise itself up from the grave (Ep 5:14), or the non-existent can conceive and birth themselves (Jn 3:7), or the wicked can give themselves new hearts (Ez 18:31) – yet God requires this of us.
God isn’t cruel to command the impossible – He does this in mercy, as a promise: if we hear His command, humble ourselves and seek life from Him (Ps 119:107), trusting He’s faithful (1Co 1:9), He quickens us (Col 2:13), conceives us with the truth by an act of His own will (Ja 1:18), and gives us new spirits and hearts (Ez 36:26) which delight in His Law. (Ro 7:22)