The Radical Difference between Believers and Unbelievers

While it’s true that we’re both made in the image of God, and we live in the same world, in everything that truly matters in life—our hope, our trust, our passions, our convictions—believers and unbelievers share nothing in common.

There is nothing more incompatible and mutually exclusive than light and darkness. Where there is the one there is not the other. So how could we expect there to be any fellowship between light and darkness? To think that the children of light might partner together and have spiritual or ministerial fellowship with the children of darkness is as ludicrous and foolish as to expect it to be both light and dark in the same place at the same time.

 

Last week, we took a look at the prohibition Paul issues to the church of God in 2 Corinthians 6:14. He uses the agricultural image of animals being yoked together to pull a plow in order to illustrate the fundamental incompatibility between believers and unbelievers. His point, particularly, is that just as yoking together two fundamentally different kinds of animals will result in incongruity and discord, so also are believers and unbelievers two fundamentally different “breeds.” And any intimate association or spiritual partnership between them will eventually only result in dissonance and difficulty. To partner them together and expect them to plow in the same direction is foolish, and will only end in spiritual disaster.

After laying out this principled prohibition, Paul further illustrates the diametrical opposition and essential incongruity between genuine believers and unbelievers by means of five rhetorical questions—each of which inquire of compatibility between a pair of things that are the absolute antithesis of one another. These questions outline five fundamental differences between believers and unbelievers that illustrate the absurdity of their being yoked together in common spiritual cause.

Governed by Different Rules of Life

First, believers and unbelievers are governed by different rules of life. Paul asks, “What partnership have righteousness and lawlessness?” (2 Cor 6:14). Righteousness speaks of obedience to the law of God, whereas lawlessness speaks of rebellion to the law of God. Paul is asking what partnership obedience and rebellion to the same law could have with one another. They are diametrically opposed.

So too, then, are believers and unbelievers, because the rule of life that governs the unbeliever is the rule of lawlessness—the rule of rebellion to the law of God (1 John 3:4). You may say, “But I know plenty of unbelievers and they don’t seem lawless to me. They actually seem like nice people!” But what is the greatest commandment in the law of God? “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.” Well that is impossible to do apart from saving faith in Jesus Christ, because “Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father” (1 John 2:23) and, “The one who does not believe God has made Him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has given concerning His Son” (1 John 5:10). However outwardly moral and polite they may seem, those who do not trust in Christ alone for salvation do not love God; they show contempt for God every moment of their lives by calling Him a liar concerning the testimony He’s given concerning His Son, and so their lives are characterized by rebellion, governed by lawlessness.

Titus 2:14 says that Christ has redeemed His people “from all lawlessness,” because that is the rule of our lives before we come to salvation. That’s why, at the end of the age, Jesus will call those whom He will send out of His presence into hell forever, “You who practice lawlessness” (Matt 7:23): because apart from saving faith in Him, it is lawlessness that characterizes our lives.

But as believers, we are no longer governed by lawlessness, but by righteousness. Christ has become our righteousness through faith in the Gospel (1 Cor 1:30). By God’s grace of imputation, we have become the righteousness of God in Christ (2 Cor 5:21). And that justifying righteousness issues in progressive, practical righteousness: “For just as you presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness, resulting in further lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification” (Rom 6:19). Those who are genuinely united to Christ in saving faith are governed by righteousness as a rule of life. The true child of God delights in the law of God. We are eager to obey, and to root out all lawlessness from our lives.

How then could there be any partnership—any common spiritual cause—between those who are governed by antithetical rules of life?

Subjects of Different Kingdoms

Paul’s second question is: “What fellowship has light with darkness?” (2 Cor 6:14). And I say that these relate to different kingdoms because of Colossians 1:12–13, which says that God “rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son,” and thus “qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in Light.”

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