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what is a (un)believer?

16-04-2018 - Posted by Andre Piet

In practice the labels ‘believer’ or ‘unbeliever’ have numerous obstacles. Just check: every Muslim, Buddhist, but also churchgoer does call himself ‘believing’. Probably he will be insulted, if he is called ‘unbeliever’. In everyday language usage ‘believing’ is approximately synonym for ‘religious’. But that meaning and how belief is meant in the scripture, don’t match. More than that, in the Scripture (orthodox) religion is called unbelief (Romans 11: 20). Why this confusion?

description of reaction

When we speak of ‘belief’ and ‘disbelief’ we should first ask the question: who believe and what to believe? A concrete example. When Paul started to make the Evangel, that was entrusted to him, well-known to the world, it was easy for him to discern ‘belief’ and ‘unbelief’. For one listener said amen to his words and another one rejected it. ‘Belief’ and ‘unbelief’ are the terms that describe the reaction to the word that he proclaimed.

listen… or not

Faith is out of tidings, we read in Romans 10: 17. That makes sense, because how could you believe a message, a tiding, if you didn’t hear it first. That also applies to unbelief. In order not to believe something, it is necessary to hear the message.

The words for unbelieving (Strong 569), unbelief (Strong 570) and unbeliever (Strong (571) are used 42 times in the New Testament. Every time it’s put forward that the message was rejected, from God. In his home town Nazareth Jesus didn’t do many powerful deeds because of their unbelief (Matthew 13: 58). In the previous verse we read that they were snared in Him. It’s the first time in the New Testament the word for unbelief is used. And that sets the tone. The second time is in Matthew 17: 17. Jesus blames them: “O generation unbelieving and perverse…”. They disregarded his message. In John 20: 27 Jesus speaks to Tomas: “do not become unbelieving but believing”. Tomas’ fellow disciples had proclaimed to him: “we have seen the Lord” (20: 25) and he had doubted openly. That made Tomas unbelieving. And that’s what we can see consequently, in the entire Scripture. Unbelief is not only the absence of belief. In that case also a plant, an animal or a washing machine could be called unbelieving. No, unbelief means consequently that the word is rejected. It is the opposite of belief, that just assumes the word. See also Romans 4: 20; 11: 20; 1 Timothy 1: 13; 2 Timothy 2: 13; Titus 1: 15; Hebrews 3: 12.

unaware or unbelieving?

In 1 Corinthians 14: 23 and 24 Paul writes about two kinds of alternative visitors to where the ecclesia came together: plain persons or unbelievers. The word for “plain persons” (idiotes) point to people without any idea (compare to our word idiot). It’s an unaware person, a layman. It exactly confirms what we determined before. Before people listen to the message they are unaware. Only after listening we can label them as believing or unbelieving. The label ‘unbeliever’ is usually used very carelessly. People who never heard the Evangel are, according to the Bible, not unbelievers. They are unaware.

proclaim to whom?

Several times, Paul declares himself to be ‘herald’ (kerux; 1 Timothy 2: 7; 2 Timothy 1: 11). That is someone who proclaims, promulgates and announces something. To whom else than those who are still unaware? In Romans 10: 14 Paul asks rhetorically:

Yet how should they be believing One of Whom they do not hear? Yet how should they be hearing apart from one heralding?

The proclamation (preaching) is not meant to reach ‘unbelievers’. That’s even absurd. Because unbelievers are just those who heard and subsequently rejected the proclamation. Of course it’s possible that their attitude will change and that they will still become believers. More than that, in the long term even every unbeliever is a not-yet-believer. For the Scripture ensures us that every knee will bow and every tongue will acclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord (Philippians 2: 11).

the litmus test

There is only one way to know: is someone a believer or not? Tell the Evangel and then mark the response. Someone who says ‘amen !!!’ is a believer. That usually starts with interest and curiosity. GOD opens up hearts for that (Acts 16: 14). But, however, if someone becomes angry or he changes the subject quickly, than that is an indication of unbelief. And always it will be clear that ‘belief’ is the opposite of ‘works’. As Paul answers the question why the zealous, religious Israel rejects the Evangel:

Wherefore? Seeing that it is not out of faith, but as out of law works, they stumble on the stumbling stone…
-Romans 9: 32-

People don’t trust the works of GOD, but what they think they should do. I.e. they are hindered by their own (religious!) works and merits. Therewith they stumble on “the stumbling stone”, the resurrected Christ. For in him GOD realizes his plan with this whole world. Without failure. That is the Evangel!

Faithful is the saying and worthy of all welcome,
for this are we toiling and being reproached~), that we rely on the living God,
Who is the Saviour of all mankind, especially of believers.
-1 Timothy 4: 9- 11-