“A perfect faith is nowhere to be found, so it follows that all of us are partly unbelievers.” – John Calvin
I often think of faith and unbelief as mutually exclusive realities—and that’s because they are. They are not similar or comparable in the slightest. Faith is the opposite of unbelief, and unbelief the opposite of faith. Faith is of the spiritual nature and unbelief of the sinful nature. Faith springs forth from a soft heart of flesh while unbelief finds its root in a heart that opposes God. Faith produces Christ-like attitudes and acts while unbelief produces sinful attitudes and acts. Faith pleases God; unbelief provokes the anger of God.
On and on I could go describing the differences between faith and unbelief. But let’s get to the question at the heart of this blog post: Is it possible these two things can exist simultaneously in one human soul? Can a person—a Christian—experience both faith and unbelief? Can we feel both Christ-like attitudes and sinful attitudes? Can we have desires that are pleasing to God and desires that grieve him? Can we, in faith, obey God one moment and then, in unbelief, disobey him the next?
Yes—yes we can. And we do! The normal Christian experience is a kind of “spiritual schizophrenia.” If you are a believer, you know exactly what I mean by that. There are small bits of time when your heart is super-charged by the Holy Spirit, operating solely in “faith mode” and desiring nothing but to please God. But most of the time your heart feels torn between two strong sets of desires. Part of you (faith) wants to serve and enjoy the good God who loves you, and part of you (unbelief) wants to rebel against God and enjoy all kinds of sinful pleasures.
I think some believers have a less messy expectation for what their walk with Jesus should be like because they’ve been affected by what theologians call the doctrine of “Christian perfection.” This is a false teaching that suggests a born again person can attain perfect holiness and escape all the effects of original sin in this life. People who hold to this belief think the Christian has the capacity to be absolutely perfect right now.
Neither the Bible nor experience teach this. A perfect faith unhindered by any level of unbelief is something no Christian experiences—not even the apostle Paul:
For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. – Romans 7:18-20.
Even if you’re one of those who don’t believe Paul is describing his Christian state in Romans 7 but rather his pre-Christian state, the rest of the New Testament explicitly teaches that Christians living between the Cross and the Second Coming remain plagued by their old, unbelieving nature. We aren’t domineered by it like we were before we entered into a relationship with Jesus, but it’s still there gnawing at us, persuading us toward sin through disbelief in the goodness and promises of God. And it often succeeds—sometimes in very obvious ways and many times in more subtle ways. We may not fulfill our fleshly desire to have sex with 20 random people a week, but we may very well settle into more “tame” sinful attitudes of the heart like bitterness, ingratitude, or envy.
Our unbelieving nature did not disappear at our conversion. It is real and present and wages war against our redeemed souls (1 Peter 2:11), hindering us from walking in perfect faith. Perfect faith won’t exist in our souls until fallen flesh no longer envelops us. As long as we live in these “bodies of death” (Romans 7:24), we will be imperfect.
However, does our guaranteed imperfection mean we give up trying at all times to live obediently to Jesus? Absolutely not! Once again, the words of the apostle Paul:
Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 3:8-14
At the Resurrection, God will give all who trust in Jesus imperishable bodies and minds that will no longer be tainted by sin or hindered by its effects. And until then, we are commanded to strive by the power of the Spirit to live obediently. However, even on our best days we will not be as faithful or obedient as we should be. We will always fall short. And for this reason we must look to Jesus and only Jesus—not to ourselves—for hope and assurance. The object of our imperfect faith is a perfect Redeemer who is totally sufficient to forgive, fulfill, and transform us. Christ alone is our righteousness and sanctification and redemption (1 Corinthians 1:30).