Article 6: Unbelief Man's Responsibility
However, that many who have been called through the gospel do not repent or believe in Christ but perish in unbelief is not because the sacrifice of Christ offered on the cross is deficient or insufficient, but because they themselves are at fault.
At this point, the authors of the Canons must respond to the perennial and nagging question raised by the biblical teaching about the death of Christ, and why it is that not all are saved, if Christ died for all. This is especially the case in light of the Reformed distinctive that Christ’s death was designed to save God’s elect, not merely to make all people "saveable."
You have undoubtedly heard questions like this one commonly raised by various Arminians. “If the preaching of Christ crucified is the power of God unto salvation, why do all not believe the gospel when it is preached to them?” Where does the fault truly lie when someone does not believe the message of Christ crucified, and then perishes eternally?
Since the Reformed Christian contends that God alone must save, and since not all are saved, the Arminian will object that the Reformed understanding of the atonement makes God to blame when someone is lost, because God supposedly did nothing to save them–the death of Christ being “limited” to the elect. On the Reformed understanding, is not God himself to blame because he is not being fair in not choosing everyone to be saved? Does this mean that God somehow prevents certain individuals from believing and coming to faith in Christ when he chooses others to be saved, as is so often charged?
Here we should go back to the categories set out under the first head of doctrine to get needed perspective. As I mentioned when treating the various articles under that first head, if we approach the difficult questions related to sin and grace with the optimistic presuppositions about human nature such as those of American democracy, then, of course, this becomes a real moral issue. If you believe that everyone is equally entitled to a chance at heaven, and that people can only exclude themselves from heaven by not believing, then the Reformed view will immediately seem unfair and contrary to reason.
But, as we have seen during our discussion of the first head of doctrine, this is the wrong starting point. Unlike the democratic culture of modern America, the Scriptures do not start with the optimistic presuppositions about human nature which contend that everyone is entitled to an equal chance at heaven. On the contrary, the Scriptures teach that every one is equal—equally worthy of God’s judgment and damnation, since we all fell in Adam and are guilty for his act of sin as well as all our own acts of rebellion.
According to the apostle Paul in Romans 3:9-20, there is no one righteous, no not even one. There is no one who seeks God, no, not even one. All have turned away and together we all became worthless. There is no part of human nature that is not tainted and stained with the influence of sin.
And that is the whole point. In his great love and boundless mercy, God elects some of Adam’s fallen race to be saved from his own wrath. He sends Jesus Christ to die for them. And then, through the message of the gospel, the Holy Spirit calls these people to faith. This is why the Reformed speak of redemption decreed, accomplished and applied.
This, then, must be kept in view when we set out to answer the question why some do not believe the gospel when it is preached to them. The answer is simple when considered from the perspective of the Scriptures, but certainly not popular when considered from the perspective of the culture. God leaves these fallen sinners where they are—sinful by nature and by choice and under his just condemnation.
Since people in such a sinful condition are enslaved to their sinful natures—their wills included—they do not want to believe the gospel and trust in Jesus Christ alone for salvation when Christ crucified is preached to them.
As the fallen children of Adam, if left on our own and not inclined by God to believe, we too would prefer to go to hell for all eternity rather than bow the knee but one time and confess in faith that “Jesus Christ is Lord.” This is why we must always be skeptical of any rosy view of human nature and why our confidence must always reside in the gospel, which is as the Scriptures declare, the power of God for the salvation of all who believe.
This is why the Reformed place no confidence in the flesh, and in the ability of fallen sinners to believe the gospel and come to faith in Christ. Left to ourselves, we do not want to trust the savior. We do not want to believe the gospel.
Therefore let us be perfectly clear, the Scriptures always give all of the credit for the salvation of sinners to God, and always assign the blame when sinners perish to the sinners themselves. As the authors of the Canons put it—they themselves who do not believe the gospel when it is preached are at fault.