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Ask a Pastor: Were all the first generation of Israelites in the wilderness unbelievers?

Question:

Were all the first generation of Israelites in the wilderness unbelievers at the time of the spies except Joshua, Caleb, and Moses? Yes, they didn’t believe that God could get them into Canaan, but did all of the 600,000+ really not have true saving faith at that time? If we understand Caleb’s different spirit in Numbers 14:24 as the Holy Spirit or the spirit of saving faith, then this is the conclusion that we come to. That is really hard to believe considering that they were God’s favoured covenant people, and had put blood on their doorposts earlier; surely some of them had true saving faith. Or is it better to interpret his different spirit to be a spirit of strong faith or of persevering faith? After all, believers also still struggle with unbelief and disobedience like they did. Or is it better to interpret his spirit as different than just the ten bad spies? I’m looking forward to your response.


Answer:

Thank-you for this question and sharing how you are grappling with it. You are grappling with a question filled with the weight of the eternal state of a great number of people. You are right that salvation is personal. God does not deal with people “en mass” in salvation or damnation.


At the same time, his temporal judgments may come on his covenant people in general, whether individuals are believers or unbelievers. When enemies invaded, plagues struck, or droughts had their casualties among God’s covenant people, we have no reason to believe that only the ungodly were affected by them. This principle applies to those in the wilderness as well. Moses, Aaron, and Miriam also died in the wilderness because of their sin, even though we they had true saving faith. We sing of them, “He forgave their sins although they felt his chast’ning rod” (Psalter 266; Psalm 99:8). The flip-side is also true: many who were spared death in the wilderness and entered Canaan were still unconverted. The proof someone perished was not that he died in the wilderness. This judgment came on all Israel because Israel as a whole had shown unbelief; it was not God’s declaration concerning the spiritual state of every individual.


Furthermore, even if everyone except for Caleb, Joshua, and Moses, were unbelieving at that moment, God still gave them 38 years of the means of grace to bring them to repentance before they came to die. They turned back from the border with God’s display of his grace and judgment in the spies. God slew the 10 spies to show the people if they lived in unbelief, they would die (Num. 14:22). God spared Joshua and Caleb as his servants with “another spirit,” so that the people would pray, “The grace thou showest to thy saints, that grace reveal to me” (Psalter 290:4; Ps. 106). During those 38 years, every day the sacrifices were offered, God’s law and gospel were taught, and God’s merciful provisions showered upon them. God was calling them to repentance and showing He was slow to anger and ready to forgive, even a rebellious, unbelieving people (Num. 14:20). Who can tell how the Lord used those means to save individual Israelites before they died?


The most important thing to ask is what is God’s message to us in this judgment? If you study Psalm 95, 1 Corinthians 10, and Hebrews 3-4, you see it is a great warning to us about the terribleness of unbelief and disobedience. The wilderness shows us that many within the church can be unconverted. If we live that way, we will perish, even if everyone around us is saved. In contrast, if we have “another spirit” (a new heart and spirit by the grace of the Holy Spirit), we will be saved, no matter how many perish around us.


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