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The Duty of Faith
By R. B. C. Howell
Nashville, Tennessee
The Baptist Newspaper, 1844
      It is the duty of all men to believe the Gospel. "Have faith in God."

      Few questions have been more agitated in modern times than this. Some maintain that it is the duty of all men, unconverted sinners no less than others, to believe, and some contend for the opposite doctrine. It is, to say the least, exceedingly desirable that this question should be settled, that no doubt may hang over the duty of any class of men.

      It is to me a matter of surprise that any man should ever entertain a doubt on this subject. Is the Gospel true? If it is not, there is an end to all religion. If it is true, it is the duty of every man, as much of the unconverted sinner as of any other, to believe it. Our horror is always excited when we hear a man say that he is an infidel - that he does not believe the Gospel. An assent to the Gospel is required by the public mind. Upon what principle then do we hear the opinion advocated that a man can no more believe to the saving of his soul, than he can arise from the dead? This sentiment has its origin, I apprehend, in a complication of errors, respecting the extent of human obligation, the nature of inability, the properties of divine grace, the work of the Holy Spirit, and the nature of faith itself.

      The word of God, in both the Old Testament, and the New, expressly commands all men to believe in Christ and be saved. Look first at the Old Testament. Jehovah in Isaiah 45:22. - thus issues his law. - "Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is none else." To look to Christ is to believe on him; and so to believe on him as to be saved. This command being addressed to all the ends of the earth, is commensurate in its obligations with every creature. In another place - Isaiah 55:3 - sinners are thus addressed: - "Let the wicked forsake his way. - "Incline your ear, and come unto me; hear, and your soul shall live; and I will make an everlasting covenant with you, even the sure mercies of David." In proof that this is a Gospel call we have Apostolic certification. Paul in the Synagogue of Antioch in Pisidia, said - Acts 13:3-4 - in explanation: - "And as concerning that he raised him from the dead, now no more to return to corruption, he said on this wise - I will give you the sure mercies of David." In this passage we have a call to the wicked - "Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts." It is a call to repentance and faith, as is clearly imported in the words - "incline your ear &c., hear." The promise annexed to obedience is - "your soul shall live - I will abundantly pardon."

      In the New Testament the truth of our proposition stands forth with increased lustre. John the Baptist said to the multitudes who followed him - Acts 19:4 - "That they should believe on him who should come after him, that is on Christ Jesus." Some of the people he thus addressed were "vipers" most wicked men. When he told them to believe on Christ, he must have thought it their duty, and therefore within their ability, to do so. Nor could he have meant that they should exercise any other but a saving faith in Christ.

      The Messiah himself taught the people in this language - Mark 1:15 - "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent ye, and believe the Gospel." The persons thus addressed by Christ were mostly, if not all, unconverted sinners. He "came, not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." He therefore, calls sinners to saving faith. Many similar instances of instruction are found in the word of God. Is it not our duty to comply?

      With John the Baptist, and Jesus Christ, the Apostles most fully concur. God, says Paul, "now, commandeth all men everywhere to repent." And all the Apostles, we are assured - Acts 20:21 - "Testified to all men repentance towards God, and faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ." "It is the commandment of God - says John. 1 John 3:23 - that they should believe on the name of his Son, Jesus Christ."

      All these facts and passages taken together, clearly demonstrate that God calls all men, however wicked and sinful, to hear the Gospel, and to believe in Christ, to the saving of their souls. If, therefore, these calls and commands are of divine authority; if men are under obligation to obey God at all; if it is right to do so, and wrong to do otherwise; it plainly follows that it is the duty of all men who have the Gospel to believe it, unto salvation.

      A second proof that it is the duty of all men to believe is predicated upon the fact that unbelief is always held in the scriptures to be a sin against God of the most heinous and revolting character.

      Of the sinfulness of unbelief it is a part of the work of the Holy Spirit to convince men of all classes. "And when he is come - says our Lord, John 16:8-9 - he shall convince the world of sin - because they believe not on me." Of the unbelieving Jews he said - John 15:22, &c . - "If I had not come and spoken unto them they had not had sin, but now they have no cloak for their sin" - "If I had not, " he adds, "done among them the works that no other man did, they would not have had sin, but now they have both seen and hated both me and my Father." In his instructions and works he had given them undeniable proof of his Messiahship, but their wicked hearts prompted them to reject it, and they refused to believe. Christ, therefore, left them in unbelief, but without excuse, which would not have been the case, if they could not have believed, and if it had not been their duty to do so. To this conclusion John bears testimony when he says - I John 5:1 - "He that believeth not God hath made him a liar, because he believeth not the record that God gave of his Son." A man commits no sin in not doing that which he cannot do; unbelief is the darkest of all crimes; and shall it be said that we cannot believe!

      The sinfulness of unbelief is expressed in other forms. It is called - Hebrews 3:12 - "an evil heart." It is - Matthew 13:19 - ascribed to ignorance; and yet it is not simple ignorance - that is, want of capacity, or of information, in either of which cases the sin of it would be greatly lessened - but such ignorance as is superinduced by submitting ourselves to the agency of the God of this world, who blinds the minds of them that believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel should shine unto them. It is willful ignorance, occasioned by their loving darkness rather than light. They have, says the Redeemer - Matthew 13:15 - closed their eyes, lest they should see. It arises from the aversion of their hearts to God; and is attributed by inspiration - John 5:44 - to pride, and the love of this present world. How infinitely sinful is all this! It charges falsehood on God, and scorns his amazing love and grace, as revealed in the Gospel.

      From these premises the argument is plain. If unbelief is a sin, seated, as we have seen it is in depravity of heart, it follows that faith is a duty. As the opposite of every duty is sin, and of every sin duty, so if believing were not a duty, unbelief would be no sin, because sin is to transgress the rule of duty, or is a want of conformity to that rule. If men cannot believe it is not their duly. To maintain this is to contend, that men cannot help their unbelief, and that, therefore, it is not their sin! The truth is, all the inability in the case arises from disinclination, and this being the essence of depravity, but aggravates our criminality.

      Another proof that it is our duty to believe is derived from the fact that faith is itself frequently spoken of as obedience.

      "A great number of the Priests, says Luke, Acts 6:7 - were obedient unto the faith" - they believed the Gospel. The unbelief of the Jews is called - Romans 10:16 - not obeying the Gospel - "But they have not obeyed the Gospel, for Esaias says - Who hath believed our report?" When the Galatians were subverted from the belief of free justification without works, they are said not to obey the truth - Galatians 3:1. "O foolish Galatians who hath bewitched you that ye should not obey the truth?" "The Gospel, says Paul Romans 16:26 - is, according to the commandment of the everlasting God, made known unto all nations, for the obedience of faith" - that men might believe it. We conclude, therefore, that faith is obedience, properly considered, because it is a duty commanded, and to believe is to obey his command. The same remarks are true of repentance and love. To believe is to obey God, and this is but to do what is our duty. Duty and obedience is the same thing, they cannot be different.

      I ask to be indulged in but one more thought in regard to the duty of faith.

      God has promised salvation to him that believes, and denounced damnation against him that believes not. Both of these facts are clearly expressed in the commission of Christ to the Apostles - "He that believeth and is baptised shall be saved, and he that believeth not shall be damned." The same declaration is frequently repeated in other places - "God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life - And this is the condemnation, that light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil - He that believeth on the son hath everlasting life; and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth on him." In these, and numerous other passages, freedom from condemnation, and the possession of eternal life and rest, are promised to him that believes; and on the other hand, the wrath of God, and everlasting destruction, are threatened against those who believe not. Do not these facts demonstrate in the most striking manner, that believing is to obey and please God, while unbelief is an offence against him; consequently that the former is a duty, and that the latter is a sin.

      If it be objected that such passages as we have quoted, mention believing, and not believing, not as being a duty or a sin, but only as descriptive of the character of those who will be saved or lost; and that as faith is not the procuring cause of salvation, so neither, is unbelief of damnation; I reply that, although faith is not the meritorious or procuring cause of salvation - that being the grace of God in Christ Jesus, - and although it is true even of faith that it is his gift; yet it is not the less a duty. No one, surely, will maintain that nothing can he duty except that which merits salvation. If so, and it be true, then believers themselves can perform no duty, for they cannot merit salvation by anything they can do, if nothing is duty that God works in us to perform by his word and spirit, then it is not the duty of believers to work out their own salvation with fear and trembling, because it is God that worketh in us both to will and to do whatsoever is pleasing in his sight. The truth is,faith is not merely descriptive of the character of those who shall be saved. We ought, it is our duty, to understand correctly what God teaches us, and to believe what he says in his word. We honor God by believing, we dishonor him by refusing to believe his testimony.

      We have now, I trust, made it perfectly clear that the supposition that it is not the duty of man to believe [what] is unreasonable, and that it is his duty is proved by the fact that the word of God commands all men to believe; that unbelief is a sin, and nothing is a sin which we fail for want of power to do; that to believe is but to obey the command which requires it; and that God has promised his favour to those who believe, and threatened destruction to those who refuse. It is the duty of all men, therefore, to believe the Gospel.


[This is a portion of a sermon preached by R. B. C. Howell at First Baptist Church, Nashville, TN, entitled "Have Faith in God," and published in The Baptist, September 7, 1844, pp. 38-40. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

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