THE WORST SIN IN THE WORLD
36 While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.”
When Jesus had said these things, he departed and hid himself from them. 37 Though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him, 38 so that the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
“Lord, who has believed what he heard from us, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” 39 Therefore they could not believe. For again Isaiah said, 40 “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they see with their eyes, and understand with their heart, and turn, and I would heal them.”
41 Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him. 42 Nevertheless, many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue; 43 for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God.
44 And Jesus cried out and said, “Whoever believes in me, believes not in me but in him who sent me. 45 And whoever sees me sees him who sent me. 46 I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness. 47 If anyone hears my words and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. 48 The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day. 49 For I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment—what to say and what to speak. 50 And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I say, therefore, I say as the Father has told me.”
— John 12:36-50, ESV
John’s Gospel is full of light, but shadows linger. For every disciple there are more Pharisees. For every miracle, there are multitudes who remain unmoved. For every offer of free grace, there is an unyielding majority who remain steadfastly in slavery to sin. It is sad but true; the most common response to the gospel of belief, is unbelief.
Unbelief is the world’s worst sin. The kingdom of God is full of adulterers, murderers, liars, and thieves who repented and believed. But there will not be one unrepentant nor unbelieving person found in Heaven. Unbelief is so dangerous and damning that it needs to be identified, understood, and avoided at all costs. Therefore, John closes the public ministry of Jesus with words of warning as he exposes the many ugly faces of unbelief.
After three years of public ministry, full of miracles and parables and other revelations of the gospel, here is what can be said of the average Joe: “They still did not believe in Him.” This was the common, ordinary response to Jesus then, and now.
The theological term for ordinary unbelief is total depravity. It is passed to us at conception and indicative of all human beings, since none of us are seeking to believe (ref. Romans 3:10ff) because all of us are spiritually dead (ref. Ephesians 2:1ff). This does not mean we are all bad all the time, for we also bear the image of God and have the capacity for love, kindness, honesty, even sacrifice. But none of those attributes will be a substitute for belief when we come face to face with God, “For without faith it is impossible to please Him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe” (ref. Hebrews 11:6).
But this is the problem, John explains with the help of Isaiah, “they did not believe” because “they could not believe.” The latter phrase literally means they lacked the power to believe. There is nothing in the ordinary man to empower or enable him to repent of his sin and believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ. He is absolutely unable, totally depraved, and soon becomes reprobate. Every time an ordinary unbeliever rejects a miracle of Jesus, rejects the word of God, rejects the gospel of Christ, Jesus hides and the heart becomes harder.
The only remedy for ordinary unbelief is the great miracle of saving grace, which produces the gift of faith, which comes through the light of the word of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ. Which is why Jesus’ last words include, “While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.” Or else, you will find yourself among them from whom “He departed and hid Himself from them.” Ordinary unbelievers can beg for grace and cry out for mercy. God is sovereign; but, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (ref. Romans 10:13).
Unbelief has yet another sordid side, a face that masks belief but in reality is every bit as unbelieving as the ordinary. This is cowardly unbelief. It is a mind convinced that the facts of the gospel of Jesus Christ are true. It is a heart conflicted over the presence of pride and the desperate need for grace. But, it lacks the will to take a stand for the Lord Jesus Christ and truly follow Him.
Remember, of the hundred times John uses “believe” in his Gospel, sometimes the context is false, superficial faith. Millions and millions through the years have been like “the authorities” mentioned here who were convinced of the facts but were too fearful to follow through.
How many of us in our youth, wanting to profess faith in God, have been too fearful of missing out on sex or popularity or otherwise seeking glory for ourselves, so we failed to give glory to God by forsaking all to follow Jesus Christ? How many of us in our adulthood, wanting to make God a priority in our lives, did so, only He became the last priority behind career and money and the pursuit of pleasure? How many of us throughout life have been faced with the choice to trust and obey the Lord Jesus Christ, only to believe in ourselves instead, in whatever makes us happy, glibly choosing self over the Savior? This is not belief, but cowardly unbelief, and again there is no remedy except God’s grace.
Jesus appealed even to the cowards. “While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.” Or else, you will find yourself among them from whom “He departed and hid Himself from them.” Cowards can beg for grace and cry out for mercy and gain courage and faith. God is sovereign; but, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (ref. Romans 10:13).
The last paragraph of Jesus’ farewell address (vs. 44-50) is harder to interpret than the first (vs. 36-43). The context and the crowd must be our guide. Jesus is preaching about unbelief. Jesus is preaching to a crowd under the control of Pharisees, who believed in God but did not believe in Jesus Christ. So here, ironically, the Lord calls out what I call godly unbelief.
You are guilty of godly unbelief if you believe in God (like 80-90% of people in the world), but do not trust and obey the Lord Jesus Christ (like less than 10% of the people in the world). The Pharisees and their followers were guilty of godly unbelief. Adherents of religions other than Christianity, and Christians in name only are guilty of godly unbelief. Yet it is not godly, it is only unbelief.
Jesus makes the argument once again that He and the Heavenly Father are one, and you cannot have one without the other. Any so-called faith without Christ at the center, without allegiance to the commandments of Christ, without affection for the church of Christ, without total faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, is no faith at all. It is not godly at all. It is only unbelief.
Yet the wonderful, matchless grace of Jesus reaches out even to those caught in ungodly, godly unbelief. “While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.” Or else, you will find yourself among them from whom “He departed and hid Himself from them.” Do not be too religious to beg for grace and cry out for mercy. God is sovereign; but, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord [Jesus Christ]will be saved” (ref. Romans 10:13).
There are many ills in our present world. Covid-19 plagues the planet. Crime rates are have hit record levels in many American cities. We cannot even seem to pull off an uncontroversial election. But there is a much bigger problem in the world, with much more serious and lasting effects. It is the worst sin in the world, unbelief. It is everywhere and comes in various the styles of the ordinary, cowardly, even godly. No vaccine can cure it, no policeman can stop it, no politician can promise it away. The only cure is grace, alone, through faith, alone, in the Lord Jesus Christ, alone.