Three Articles: How to Believe in God in the 2000s by John M. Frame (original source here)
1. Why It Is Hard to Believe in God Today
1 Cor. 1:18-25
Many people are telling us that it’s just too hard for people today to believe in the God of Christianity. We have to face it that the leading opinion makers of our culture– the academics, the media people, the politicians, the scientists– for the most part find Christianity utterly incredible. Not just slightly incredible, but utterly incredible. Not even worth considering. Way out in left field.
Two hundred years ago, there was a period in intellectual history known as the “Enlightenment.” During that period, scholars proudly proclaimed all the wonderful things the human mind could accomplish, if only it could set itself free from bondage to religion. The human mind, they said, should be autonomous (that means “self-legislating”), subject only to its own authority. Intellectual autonomy was the highest principle of the Enlightenment.
The Enlightenment, of course, was not really anything new. The same attitude, the same emphasis on autonomy, was present two thousand years earlier in Greek philosophy, four hundred years earlier among the Renaissance humanists, and has existed whenever and wherever people have tried to carry on the work of the mind without God. From a biblical viewpoint, it is simply the attitude of unbelief. It’s the attitude that says “My mind is my own.”
For people who claim autonomy, the biblical message of salvation is irrelevant. Who needs salvation from sin? For one thing, the would-be autonomous thinker says, we are not sinners; for we decide what sin is, and we’re not guilty of it. And if we have any imperfections, we will either leave them alone or else deal with them the way we deal with everything else: by autonomous thought.
So, during and since the Enlightenment, more and more philosophers, scientists, historians, psychologists, economists, political theorists, even the main body of theologians, denied the authority of the Bible. They scoffed at the idea that God created the heavens and the earth, that man fell into sin through Adam’s disobedience, that God worked miracles on earth, that the Son of God came to earth as a man, that he lived a perfect life, shed his blood for sin, and rose from the dead. How, they asked, can modern people believe in such ancient, barbaric ideas? Humanity has come of age! We cannot any longer believe in angels, devils, miracles, resurrections from the dead, blood atonement, an infallible book?
Fifty years ago, the theologian– theologian, mind you,– Rudolf Bultmann, said that one cannot believe in angels and demons if he uses a telephone and travels in an airplane. I’m not sure what using the telephone and traveling in airplanes has to do with the existence of angels and demons. He never said exactly what the connection was; these people never did. Evidently he thought it was obvious. He kept saying, over and over, that Christianity would have to come to terms with the Enlightenment. Today, Bultmann is gone; he knows better now. But his attitudes are still very much with us.
Now some people will tell you that things have changed today from fifty years ago. Some will say that around the 1960s the intellectual world shifted from “modern” to “postmodern.” While the moderns were very proud of their intellectual powers, the postmoderns recognize that intellect isn’t everything; indeed, they’re even inclined to be skeptical or relativistic. They deny that the human intellect can discover final or absolute truth. And, besides the intellect, postmoderns say, intuition and feeling have their rights, too. While the moderns were skeptical about the supernatural, we’re told, the postmoderns appreciate the supernatural. Along with science, they have come to appreciate the religions of the Far East and of Native Americans. They have come to appreciate meditation, psychic phenomena; even sometimes astrology, channeling, tarot cards and past-life regression as paths to truth.
Does this mean that the postmoderns are more open to the Bible than the moderns were? Are they more favorable to the idea that the Son of God came to earth in human history, that he taught with absolute authority, worked miracles, lived a sinless life and offered his body as a blood atonement? Are they willing to bow the knee before the risen and ascended Jesus Christ as the only Lord and Savior of men?
Certainly not. For under the skin they too are Enlightenment people. They do not intend to bow the knee to anyone; particularly, they do not want to bow the knees of their mind. The difference between modern and postmodern is that while the moderns followed the autonomous secular intellect, the postmoderns add that they have a right also to follow their autonomous intuition and feeling. They will accept, now and then, some strange beliefs; but only on their own inner criteria. What they believe they believe on their own authority. Indeed, that lust for autonomy is more powerful than ever. The postmodernist rejects the idea of absolute truth, so that he can be even more autonomous, so that he can be even freer in choosing his beliefs for himself.
And some postmoderns,– the New Age monists, to use Peter Jones’s terminology– look within themselves to find God: not the God of the Bible, but the God of their own inner selves, the God which is their own inner selves. This is the ultimate autonomy, the self as God, the very worship of self.
So the postmoderns, like the moderns, find Christianity quite incredible. The reason is that the God of Christianity will not bow to the autonomous mind of man. Believing in the biblical God and believing in one’s own autonomy are absolutely contradictory, totally at odds with one another. You cannot do both. The God of the Bible is the sovereign Lord of heaven and earth. He will not permit himself to be found by a human intellect that shakes its fist in pride and says, “I will be the final judge of truth and right.” No two views can be further apart than believing in the biblical God and believing in human autonomy. To one who believes in his own autonomy, Christianity will always seem totally ridiculous, utterly foolish, not worth considering. The believer in human autonomy has already denied the God of the Bible. He cannot even consider the evidence. He cannot even believe in the possibility of the Bible being true.
It is not, you see, as though the moderns and postmoderns have studied the evidence objectively and come to a reasoned conclusion that God does not exist. Rather, they reject the biblical God from the outset of their investigation. The unbeliever starts with the idea that Christianity can’t be true. He cannot take the evidence seriously. He knows that if the evidence does prove the Bible, then he will have to bow the knee, including the knee of his mind. And he will not seriously consider that. Oh, he may be polite in a conversation about religion. But in the final analysis, he is not an unbiased party to the discussion. He has already made up his mind. For him, the discussion is over. For he will not, he cannot, seriously question the autonomy of the human mind.
The claim of autonomy; that’s what makes Christianity so hard for people to believe today. That is why Christian views of the family, of sex, of education, of justice, of the sanctity of human life are increasingly marginalized in modern society. Our secularized society looks at us with increasing condescension and pity. They do not listen to our arguments; they don’t take us seriously. Our positions are simply incredible. They violate the main premise of secular thought, the premise of autonomy, man’s right to be the final judge of truth and falsity, right and wrong.
You can argue any crazy idea and get a hearing from Oprah or Phil. But try to get some serious attention for the Lordship of Jesus, or the reality of the Resurrection, or even the Ten Commandments. No, you’ll be told; those are “religious” views. We can’t consider them as part of the public dialogue. You may believe them privately, but don’t promote them on TV; don’t teach them in school; don’t mention them in a political campaign. If you dare to proclaim the relevance of Scripture to society, well, then, you are a fanatic. You are trying to force your religion down people’s throats. (Never mind that Christians can say the same things about secularists with equal plausibility.) Of course, some religious views are o.k.: transcendental meditation is o.k.; native American spirituality is o.k.; Islam and Buddhism should be given a place in any public forum. Only biblical Christianity is excluded.
Talk to a secularized scholar and try to get him to consider the hypothesis that God created the world. You’ll find that his resistance to the idea greatly exceeds the bounds of normal rational discourse. Why? There are two possibilities, aren’t there? Either the world is basically personal or basically impersonal. We know that the world contains impersonal objects and forces: matter, motion, time, space, chance. We also know that it contains persons– beings with minds, with self-consciousness. The two possibilities are: either the impersonal reduces to the personal or the personal reduces to the impersonal. That is, either the persons in the world are nothing more than matter, motion, time, space and chance; or the matter, motion, time, space and chance are the creations of a great person, who uses them for his wise purposes.
If the world is basically impersonal, it is a pretty dark, dreary, and hopeless place. Happiness, justice, love, beauty might spring up for a while, but they are cosmic accidents of no ultimate importance. Finally they will be consumed in various cosmic explosions, and nothing will remain to remember them. Ultimately they are meaningless. If the world is basically personal, the situation is different: personal values like happiness, justice, love, and beauty are wrapped up in the very core of the universe. They are what nature and history is all about. In time, it will be the matter of the world that will be burned up, to be replaced by a new heaven and earth wherein dwells righteousness.
So: is the world basically personal, or basically impersonal? One would think that either hypothesis is at least worth considering at the outset of the discussion. But do the secularists give equal attention to both? Do they consider equally the evidence for both? My sense of it is that they routinely assume that the universe is impersonal, and they do not give any serious consideration to the other possibility. Consider Darwinian evolution, Marxist economics, Freudian psychology. Did Darwin, Marx, or Freud consider the evidence for the existence of God and conclude objectively that God did not exist? Certainly not. They assumed that God did not exist, and they went on from there to develop impersonalist explanations of life, history, economics.
Why? Because impersonalism and autonomy go together. If God exists, then autonomy is at an end; we must bow the knees of the mind. But if God doesn’t exist, then we are on our own, free. We can set our own standards, believe what we want to believe. So to assume autonomy, the secularist also assumes an impersonal universe.
Consider the debates in our time about evolution and abortion. Both of these are real hot-button issues, but there is very little real communication about them. People who believe in evolution and abortion tend to cling to them with an almost fanatical devotion. When the Vista school board, with a Christian majority, considered asking the teachers to mention some of the “weaknesses” in the theory of evolution, they encountered massive resistance. Why? Doesn’t every theory have weaknesses? Of all the theories of human science, is evolution alone infallible?
Same for abortion. Those who favor abortion today are not trying to encourage free debate on the subject. They don’t want schoolchildren to hear the other side. Why is this? because these are, today, test issues in the battle for human autonomy. The battle over evolution is essentially a battle over the autonomy of human science; and the battle over abortion is– well, of course– a battle over “a woman’s right to choose,” even “a woman’s right to choose the life or death of an innocent child.”
What about the anti-evolution and anti-abortion positions? Aren’t anti-evolutionists and anti-abortionists equally dogmatic? Sometimes they are, certainly. My gut feeling is that among the anti’s there is more rational thought, more consideration of the other point of view. But that isn’t important. Both sides are fighting over fundamentals, over basic assumptions. They are fighting over the question of whether people should be, or should not be, autonomous. And that issue is fundamental, basic.
So why is it hard to believe in God today? It is hard, because belief in the biblical God goes radically against the whole drift of our culture, against the whole cultural consensus, against human autonomy. For those who uphold their own autonomy, belief in the Christian God is not only difficult, it’s impossible.
And if you believe in God, but are somewhat swayed by our cultural consensus, you will find belief in God a very difficult thing. You will be torn back and forth, tempted to abandon what belief you can muster.
Well, how can we believe in something which so many think is impossible? First, I want you to know that God is very much aware of the situation. Indeed, everything I’ve told you so far comes right out of the Bible. Listen to what God says, in 1 Cor. 1:18-25:
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”
Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.
You see, there’s nothing new about the modern or postmodern cultural consensus. The apostle Paul had to preach into the same kind of intellectual environment 2000 years ago. These people also believed in their own autonomy. And they too believed they had no need of salvation from sin.
Even more important, God designed the Gospel to address precisely such a culture. In that first century environment, the Gospel proved to be the “power of God unto salvation.” Not only wisdom, but power. It cut through the culture like a hot knife through butter. Christians went through suffering and persecution, but the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church, and in three hundred years the Roman Empire was Christian. Are you afraid that the Gospel cannot appeal to people today? Then you don’t know what you’re dealing with. The Gospel is the most powerful force there is. The word of God, energized by the Spirit, cuts into people’s hearts. It destroys the wisdom of the wise and the intelligence of the intelligent. The worldly wise moderns would dismiss Christianity as impossible foolishness; but God’s word turns the tables. It exposes the world’s wisdom as the foolishness that it is.
How does it do that? It does that by setting forth Christ– Jesus Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God. Jesus is the eternal word of God, who was eternally with God and who is God. As such, he shows us a whole new way to think. He offers us a new mind; a mind which Paul in 1 Cor. 2:16 calls “the mind of Christ.”
You see, if you start from human autonomy, you can’t believe in God. If you look for some logical argument that runs from the assumption of human autonomy to the conclusion, “God exists,” you won’t find one. When you start from that premise, you will conclude over and over again that God does not exist. The only way to believe in God is by means of a whole new way of thinking, a new mind, the mind of Christ.
The mind of Christ says, first of all, we are not autonomous. We are creatures of God, under his control and under the authority of his word. Our minds were made to think his thoughts after him, to presuppose his authority, not our own. Once we surrender our own autonomy, we are freed from its terrible bondage, and our very concept of possibility changes. Things which seemed impossible now seem possible. Now we are free to believe that the world is not fundamentally impersonal, but personal– a place of great excitement and drama, a place in which the most important elements are not electrons and quarks, but righteousness, love, beauty, and holiness. We can look at the stars, or the human eye, or the human conscience, or the 66 books of the Bible, and be free to say what is so very obvious after all: these didn’t just happen; they were designed by a great mind, a mind who loves beauty, truth, love, goodness, righteousness.
And the mind of Christ also gives us the freedom to see ourselves as we really are. Once we’re set free from the assumption of autonomy, something else becomes obvious: we are sinners; we have done wrong. No more room for boasting, no more time for minimizing our moral failure, no more assuming that we can solve our own problems. If the world is in the hands of an absolute person who loves righteousness, truth, beauty and holiness, we know we look terrible in his eyes. But take heart. For the mind of Christ also proclaims Christ crucified: Christ who lived a perfect life and died as a blood sacrifice, as a substitute for us, to take away our sin. A barbaric idea? Not once you see your sin and understand how terrible it must be to a holy God. Sin is so bad, so very bad, that only death will deal with it.
So bad it is, that you cannot save yourself. To imagine that you can is to go back to the spirit of autonomy. Salvation, reconciliation with God, is a gift. Your responsibility is simply to receive it in faith. Do you want that gift this morning? Say to God, yes, I know I cannot rule myself. I know that I don’t have the final wisdom. I renounce my autonomy, my self-rule. I seek your wisdom, and I acknowledge your rule, your Lordship over my life and my thoughts. I know that I have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, and I deserve your awful judgment. But I hear your promise in the word of God. And I throw myself upon your mercy, for the sake of Jesus your Son, who loved me and died in my place. If you can say that prayer from the heart, then you have the mind of Christ.
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How to Believe in God in the 2000s
2. Why It Is Easy to Believe in God Today
Prov. 1:7, 1 Cor. 1:26-31, Rom. 1:18-25
Last week I tried to explain to you why it is so hard to believe in God today. It is hard, because the whole mood of our culture is focused on autonomy. Autonomy is self-law, seeking to live and think according to our own standards, rather than looking beyond ourselves to God. People who try to live autonomously will never find God, because autonomy excludes God. We can escape from autonomy only if God reaches down in his mercy and gives us a new mind, by his grace.
But in another sense it isn’t so hard at all, and that is the perspective I’d like to bring you this morning. Last week, we looked at the problem from the human side, thinking of the development of human culture following our fall into sin. This week, I’d like to look at it from God’s side. If we want to turn away from autonomy, it is important for us to learn to see things from God’s point of view. Of course, we are not God; so we cannot entirely see things from his point of view. But he has revealed himself to us in Scripture, so we do have a reliable account of how he looks at things.
So let’s look at belief in God from God’s side. It ought to be easy, shouldn’t it? Let’s assume that God exists and that he wants to reveal himself to us. Do you think it would be hard for him to do it? No; God can do it just like that. If he can make the whole heavens and earth in six days, if he can rule the whole course of nature and history, then certainly he can make himself known to his creatures. He can adjust everything in the world and in us so that revelation can get through.
Can God communicate clearly to us? Of course. Revelation without clarity is not revelation at all. An unclear revelation is, to some extent, a revelation which has failed. The more clarity, the better the communication. Now if the majestic, sovereign, all-powerful God of the Bible wants to communicate with us, do you have any doubt that he could communicate clearly?
Sure he can. Sometimes people talk as if you have to be very smart and very well educated to believe in God. There are big, fat books filled with complicated arguments for God’s existence. Most of these arguments have been debated for centuries. Some people think they’re pretty good; others think they’re full of holes. Most people don’t understand these arguments at all; it’s all very dense and opaque. I don’t think these arguments are all bad. At least they sometimes manage to gain the attention of people who like to think they belong to the intellectual class.
But that’s all rather beside the point, isn’t it? If God wanted to make himself known to us, would he have revealed himself only to very smart and very well-educated people? Is God, after all, an elitist? Does he want to deal only with people who are very, very bright? I don’t think so. Remember, we are talking about the God of the Bible. And that God is not an elitist, not a respecter of persons. He does not marvel at the intelligence of intelligent people, or at the extent to which they educate themselves. Imagine God looking down and saying, “Oh, look at Joe; what a wonderful mind he has!” or, “Oh, look at Susie; what a great education she has.” The very thought is rather funny. God made Joe’s mind, and he provided Susie’s education. But to God, neither one of them is terribly impressive.
And consider our need. We are fallen, sinful. What we need is salvation from sin, divine forgiveness. In revelation, God wants to tell us how our sins can be forgiven. Do you think he would tell that only to the smart people, to the well-educated? If anything, it is very nearly the reverse. In 1 Cor. 1, Paul reminds the Corinthians, who thought they were very smart, that not many of them were actually very wise by worldly standards. This passage, verses 26-29, follows the one I quoted last week:
Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of the world and the despised things– to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.
So if you believe in God this morning, it’s not because you are especially smart, or well-educated. More likely it is because you are dumber than most. Of course, that is only a generalization. I say that because I don’t want my colleagues at the seminary to get upset. And I hope you saw the point of that passage. God doesn’t want people boasting about how they discovered him by their own wisdom. Rather, he wants all the all the credit, all the glory, for himself.
So: when God reveals himself, he doesn’t reveal himself obscurely, so that only very bright, or very well-educated, or very sensitive, or very well-disciplined people can find him. He hasn’t revealed himself only to some great Guru and his disciples. He reveals himself clearly. He reveals himself so that it is easy to believe. Psm. 19 says that
The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the works of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the end of the world.
The Apostle Paul says that God is clearly revealed, even to the most wicked of human beings:
What may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities– his eternal power and divine nature– have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse (Rom. 1:19-20).
God not only can reveal himself clearly; he has done so.
God reveals himself in everything he makes, including us. Just as there is a label on most of our household items telling where it comes from, “Made in Taiwan, Made in Japan,” so there is a seal on the whole world, including us, that says, “made by God.” The greatness of creation reveals something of God’s power. Its design reveals something of God’s intelligence. We ourselves are God’s image, God’s reflection. A reflection in the mirror is different from the real thing. But the reflection images everything in its own dimension. If you are rational, reasonable, God is far more. If you are a loving person, God is far more. What of sin? Sin defaces the image, mars the image. But in an odd way, even sin reflects God. For in sin, man is trying to play God. That is what sin is: trying to be your own God, trying to be autonomous.
We are surrounded by his revelation on every side. It is outside us, inside us, pervasive. “Underneath me, all around me, is the current of thy love.” It is inescapable. It is not something we have to search for with great efforts. The Bible commands of us no pilgrimages, no hard mental exercises, no scrunching of the nose or squinting of the eyes.
God’s revelation is everywhere, just as God himself is everywhere. In Psm. 139, the Psalmist asks
Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.
And, of course: we cannot escape from God, for we can never escape from ourselves.
Further: God has made the world so that you can’t really make sense of it without taking him into account. Proverbs 1:7 says that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” Without God, human knowledge falls apart; it collapses. It turns into foolishness. Psm. 14:1: “The fool has said in his heart, there is no God.” Last week we saw in 1 Corinthians: “Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” Try to understand the world without God, and you will end up saying very foolish things.
Let me give some examples. As we saw last week, many postmodern intellectuals say that there is no absolute truth, but at the same time, they deny that Christianity can be true. But if all truth is relative, if nobody knows anything for sure, how can they be so sure that Christianity is not true? That is contradictory. As Van Til said, that is being rationalistic and irrationalistic at the same time. As the Bible says, that is being foolish.
Listen to the debates on the TV news. You’ll hear a lot of talk about ethics: abortion, poverty, use of military force, the death penalty, sex, the family, censorship and tolerance, “rights” to various things, equality of gender, sexual orientation, and so on. Many people are very insistent about their values, whether those values be liberal or conservative. But what basis do they have for believing that this is right and that is wrong? What basis do they have for saying that I have a right to this or that, and you have an obligation to provide me that right? Often no basis at all. For these people who are so sure of their moral values are also mired in a relativism that says nothing is absolutely right or wrong. Again, they are caught up in contradiction: dogmatic and relativistic at the same time.
Try to make sense of the universe without God. Without God, the universe is ultimately irrational, the result of chance. When you try to develop a scientific or philosophical account of the world without God, you are trying to come up with a rational account of an irrational world. This can be gussied up with a lot of sophistication, so that it looks impressive. But in the end the attempt is foolishness. I’m not saying that non-Christian scientists don’t discover truth. They cannot help discovering truth, because they are surrounded by God’s revelation. But when they use their scientific knowledge to deny God, they lapse into foolishness.
So you see that the Christian worldview is not just slightly better than all the others; it is the only one which does not collapse into foolishness. If we don’t believe, it’s not for lack of evidence. The evidence is clear; God’s revelation is clear enough that believing in him should be easy.
Ah, but you say, it isn’t easy! Sure, I understand. But that takes us back to last week, doesn’t it? If God’s revelation of himself is clear, and yet believing in him isn’t easy, then there must be some problem with us. The problem is not in God’s revelation; it’s in our hearts.
A while ago, we looked at the first chapter of Romans, where Paul tells us that God is clearly revealed in the world, even to the wicked. Let us listen to a few more verses, talking about how sinful people respond to that revelation:
For although they knew God (N.B.), they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator– who is forever praised. Amen. (verses 21-25)
The problem is in our hearts. Sin darkens the heart. When you reject some of God’s revelation, it becomes harder to see. When we claim autonomy (this is hard to say)– God gives us up. We become hardened, habituated to a sinful way of thinking and living, so that it isn’t easy to believe any more. We choose this path; we exchange the truth of God for a lie; and we must take the responsibility for it.
When we try to rule ourselves, even to rule our own thinking, we become fools. The trouble is that it’s hard for fools to abandon their foolishness. To abandon our foolishness, we must abandon our autonomy, that so-called freedom of thought that only enslaves the mind. The fool prizes his freedom of thought above everything else. He insists on the right to be God’s judge, no matter how foolish that idea is. He would rather be rational and irrational at the same time than to submit to God’s standards for reason and morality. He would rather try to find a rational structure in an irrational universe than to acknowledge the creation as a work of God. The hardest thing in the world is admitting that you have been a fool. To admit that brings shame; it means admitting that we are not so smart after all, that we are among the foolish, weak, and lowly things that God seeks to save. The smartest people find it hardest to admit that they’ve been foolish. Humanly speaking, that’s why there aren’t that many smart people in the church– except of course on the faculty of Westminster.
But there are people for whom belief in God is easy. The most fortunate among us were raised in Christian homes, where Christ was head of the home. They heard Bible stories from their youth, memorized Bible passages, learned the catechism. They received discipline– sometimes spankings– when they did wrong. They either went to Christian schools or home schools, or else they went to public schools, but came home to parents who could and would take the trouble to unteach all the false values they were hearing in the public schools. Those parents prayed with and for their kids. They protected their children from music, movies, friendships, that would lead them away from God, training them gradually to become salt and light in the world, to lead others to Jesus. For children like that, God is in everything. They could not go anywhere or do anything without thinking of God. God was not only in church, but at breakfast, lunch and dinner, in their daily chores, in their studies, in their growing participation in the affairs of the world.
There are other people who did not grow up this way, but who, by God’s grace, came to see the foolishness of unbelief, and repented of their intellectual and moral willfulness. Many of them will tell you that the difficulty of believing in God is not intellectual, but moral. The problem is not finding the evidence, but bending the knee.
And that is why Jesus Christ, who is our savior from sin, is also our savior from foolishness. Foolishness and sin are opposite sides of the same coin. Foolishness is sin, and sin is foolishness. Who, after all, in his right mind, would rebel against the all-powerful Lord of heaven and earth? Who in his right mind would despise infinite love?
Following the passage I quoted earlier in 1 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul says,
It is because of God that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God– that is, our righteousness, holiness, and redemption. Therefore, as it is written, let him who boasts boast in the Lord.
See that connection? Christ is divine wisdom, and his wisdom is righteousness, holiness, redemption. Wisdom is an ethical matter. Foolishness is sin; wisdom is righteousness. When Jesus died for sinners, he died for fools.
So, if there are fools here this morning, and if by God’s grace you are willing to admit that you are fools, I invite you to come to Jesus for wisdom. When you see the world from God’s point of view, it really opens up. It’s not a chaos, not an irrational world of chance; it really is the most wonderful order. When you bow the knee before Jesus, he will show you a world brimming with righteousness and holiness and redemption, with truth, goodness and beauty. There’s only one disadvantage: when you study the world with Jesus, you will not be able to boast, except in him.
Confess now that you have sinned– in thought, as well as word and deed– and trust in the wisdom of Jesus, his sacrifice of his life on the cross, as your only hope for eternal life, and as the beginning of wisdom. With Jesus as the foundation of your life, no area of your life will be without God. You won’t be able to think of anything without relating it to him. There may be temptations and failures; but in essence, believing in God will be the easiest thing in the world, for it will be the foundation for everything else.
453 O, the Deep, Deep Love
Vast the Immensity
How to Believe in God in the 2000s
3. Believing in God Through the Bible
Two weeks ago, I spoke about why it was so difficult to believe in God today, because of the persistent unbelief of our culture. It seems as if, to participate in the intellectual, social, moral and political life of our time, you almost have to believe in human autonomy, the idea that we are responsible only to ourselves. Last week, I argued that, nevertheless, God has revealed himself, and revealed himself clearly. The problem with believing in God is not a lack of evidence, but our autonomous rejection of the evidence, our persistent desire to be our own bosses in intellectual matters and in all of life.
The two previous sermons focused mostly on what theologians call “natural revelation–” revelation in the creation, and particularly in ourselves as God’s image. This morning I am going to focus on “special revelation,” God’s revelation to us through prophets and apostles, and especially through Scripture.
As we saw in the first chapter of Romans, natural revelation tells us that God exists, and it tells us of his “eternal power and divine nature.” That is, it tells us what kind of God he is. It also tells us God’s standards of right and wrong, imprinting them on the human conscience.
But there is something else we need to know from God. We have sinned and fallen far short of his glory. Do we have any hope of God’s forgiveness? Or can we look forward only to his terrible wrath? Nature does not show us the way to forgiveness. We cannot find that out from exploring the fields and oceans, or by looking inside ourselves. So where shall we look?
There is another revelation, a “special revelation.” How very special it is, because it presents us the good news of Jesus. It tells us that we may indeed find God’s forgiveness, and more we can positively become righteous through Christ. So we can live through all eternity in the joy of knowing that God loves us.
That revelation came to us in three stages. In the first stage, God spoke to some people directly. We read that God spoke directly to Adam and Eve, to Cain, to Noah, to Abraham, to Moses, to Isaiah, to many others. When the Lord Jesus lived on the earth, many people heard God speaking to them through his lips.
After God brought his people out of the land of Egypt, they camped around Mount Sinai, and there they heard the voice of God directly. This was the only time in history that the whole people of God had been gathered together to hear God’s voice directly. What do you suppose it was like? A happy time, a joyous festival? Not really. It was fearsome, terrible. God met them in thunder, lightning, in a thick cloud over the mountain, with a loud trumpet blast. The mountain was covered with smoke; God descended in fire. The people were told not to come near, lest they die. They must not be allowed to see the Lord. And then they heard the voice of God. Not reassurances or comforts, at least not obviously so. He gave them the Ten Commandments.
The people didn’t want this to go on. You know, there are people today who will say, “I don’t want to read the Bible to learn about God. I want God to speak to me directly.” When people say that, they don’t know what they are asking. When God spoke to Israel, the people were scared out of their wits, utterly devastated. They didn’t want to listen any more. They knew they were sinners, and they feared God’s terrible judgment. So they turned to Moses, their leader, and said, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.” (Ex. 20:19). Moses agreed, and God agreed, and from then on Moses went up into the mountain to talk to God, and he came back down to tell the people what God said.
And so we come to the second stage of God’s special revelation. In the second stage, God spoke to certain people, like Moses, and told them to pass his word on to the rest of us. Those people are called prophets and apostles. A prophet is somebody who speaks for God, who has God’s words in his mouth. In the eighteenth chapter of Deuteronomy, God said to Moses,
I will raise up for them (the people of Israel) a prophet like you from among their brothers; I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command them. If anyone does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name, I myself will call him to account. But a prophet who presumes to speak in my name anything that I have not commanded him to say, or a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, must be put to death.
Now that passage, and there are a number of similar ones, is important. You might think that God’s own words, spoken directly, would carry more authority than those of a mere prophet. You might think that the prophet’s words are only a pale reflection of God’s words. You might think that although you can’t argue with God, you can argue with a human prophet. You might think that the word of God loses some of its authority when it passes from God’s lips to the lips of a mere man.
But from the passage I read, you can see that that isn’t so. The prophet has God’s own words in his mouth. “I will put my words in his mouth,” says the Lord. When somebody disobeys those words, he is disobeyingGod’s words. Listen, “If anyone does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name, I myself will call him to account.” If you were an Israelite in those days, and Moses came up to you and said “Thus says the Lord,” you had better listen. Those words aren’t just Moses’s words; they are God’s own. They have the same authority as God’s own direct speech. Same for Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, any true prophet of God.
Jesus said the same thing to his apostles: He said he would send the Spirit to “guide you into all truth,” John 16:13. The Apostle Paul, too, who was a latecomer to the group of apostles, said of the gospel he preached that it “is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation of Jesus Christ,” Gal. 1:12. Paul’s words, too, were nothing less than God’s.
But there is still a third stage in God’s special revelation. God said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain and stay here, and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and commands I have written for their instruction,” Ex. 24:12. In Ex. 31:18, we read that “When the Lord finished speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of the testimony, the tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God.” In the next chapter, Moses takes these writings down the mountain, and again it says, “The tablets were the work of God; the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets,” Ex. 32:16.
That’s the third stage: special revelation committed to writing. The writing was the writing of God, written by God’s own finger. What’s going on here? I guess the best way to describe this for people in the 1990s is to say that God gave Israel a written constitution. God did speak directly to people sometimes, but that was not to be the normal, regular style of divine government. Nor did God promise that a prophet would always be readily available, although from time to time he provided those. As God ruled the people as king, he wanted them above all to turn to his written words.
In the ancient world, a great king would often make a “covenant,” a “treaty,” with a people. The king would author the treaty; he would have it written down. The treaty or covenant would be written down, so that everybody knew their obligations. It would be put in their religious sanctuaries, and there would be a public reading of it every so often. To obey the treaty document is to obey the king; to disobey it is to disobey the king. That is what the Ten Commandments are: God’s treaty, his covenant with Israel, written by God’s finger on tablets of stone. Notice that God is the author: he speaks in the first person: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other Gods before me,” and so on.
But read on through the Old Testament, and you’ll see that Israel’s written constitution goes beyond just the Ten Commandments. The Book of Deuteronomy says over and over again that the people are to keep all the statutes, commandments, decrees, laws, testimonies, words of God. These are not just the Ten Commandments, but all the words of Deutreronomy, the whole law. In the New Testament, Jesus said the same thing of the whole Old Testament:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 5:17-19)
The Apostle Paul said of the Old Testament, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work,” 2 Tim. 3:16-17.
The Old Testament, then, is the written constitution of the Christian church. What of the New Testament? Well, the New Testament is written by the apostles and by others who knew the apostles’ doctrine. We have seen already that the apostles’ message came from God. Surely that is also true of their writings. Peter says that ignorant people distort Paul’s writings, “as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction,” 2 Pet. 3:16. You see that Peter regards Paul’s writings as Scripture, like the Scriptures of the Old Testament.
In the apostles’ writings we hear the same note of authority that runs through the Old Testament. In 1 Cor. 14:37-8, Paul says “If anybody thinks he is a prophet or spiritually gifted, let him acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command. If he ignores this, he himself will be ignored.” Get that? Everybody’s ideas are to be tested by Paul’s letters, by his written words. If anybody dares to disagree with Paul’s words, the church is to ignore him. Paul’s letters, together with the Old Testament, are the written constitution of the people of God.
Some people have said that a written word always has less authority than the living voice of a prophet. But that’s not the way God thinks about it. The statutes, commandments, ordinances, testimonies, words of God, written on tablets of stone or on papyrus, or on modern paper, have the very same authority as God’s direct speech. Scripture is “God-breathed,” words spoken by God. When we hear the words of Scripture, we are hearing the words of God. It’s just like hearing God directly, although not nearly as scary. But maybe we should be a little scared; for hearing God’s words puts a solemn responsibility upon us. Do we want to be called least in the kingdom of heaven? That is the consequence for disobeying God’s words in Scripture.
The direct word of God, the word of the prophet, the written word of God: all are the same in power and authority. No hierarchy, no decreasing scale. They are all the same. So God speaks to his people through this holy book.
Is it possible for people living in the 1990s to believe that God speaks through a holy book? Depends, again, on where you start. If you start with your own autonomy, that is, believing that you have the final say about truth and falsity, right and wrong; if you start with the assumption that you have the right to accept or reject every book you read according to your own likes and dislikes, then you’ve rejected Scripture already. No; for such people it is not possible to believe that God speaks in a holy book. Many people assume that today; it is the normal assumption in most cultural circles. But that assumption at least begs the question; and is it even plausible, once you start thinking about it? How can we be the ultimate judges of truth and falsity, right and wrong?
The idea of the holy book is also impossible if you think that the God of the Bible does not exist. If you think that the impersonal forces of this universe are more fundamental than the personal ones. If you think that chance is more fundamental than personality, molecules more fundamental than goodness or beauty, then our doctrine of the Bible will seem pretty incredible.
But if you’re willing to set intellectual fashion aside, and to consider the possibility that the God of the Bible might really exist, then it’s different. For this God is a person, and persons tend to want to communicate with other persons. And this God is sovereign Lord of the universe. If he desires to communicate with his creatures through a holy book, who on earth is going to stop him?
Why this holy book and not some other? Well, the only other slightly plausible candidate is the Koran; but the author of the Koran thought that in writing the Koran he was teaching biblical doctrine. In my opinion, he didn’t teach it very well, but that’s the direction the argument would have to take. Even Mohammed, however, recognized the Bible as God’s holy book, as did Mary Baker Eddy, Joseph Smith and other authors of rival holy books. The very idea of the holy book is a biblical idea. No other tradition has it– not the Confucian, nor the Buddhist, nor the Hindu. Only religions based on the Bible even talk about holy books. Which pretty well narrows the candidates down to the Bible itself.
But the best proof of the Bible is what happens when you read it. For when you read Scripture, with trust and faith, something wonderful happens. God himself draws near. Imagine! He condescends to speak to us within the covers of a book. Quite amazing, really. And it’s not as if he gives us the book and then goes away. No: when you read this book in faith, you enter into a very personal relationship with God. In 1 Thess. 1:5, Paul says that the gospel came to the Thessalonians “not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction.” The Gospel is words, but it is never just words. When you hear this message in faith, something very wonderful, very supernatural is taking place. When the words go into your mind, the Holy Spirit speaks them to the heart. When the risen Christ opened the Scriptures to the disciples after his Resurrection, they marvelled how their hearts burned within them as Jesus taught them the Scriptures. The Bible is not only the place where God has spoken; it is the place where he still speaks– with power and assurance, causing our hearts to burn with in us because of how wonderful it is.
So much here to be thankful for! And the greatest thing to be thankful for is the Gospel itself– the message of the book. As with the divine voice at Mount Sinai, there is much here to make us tremble; but there is also much to fill us with joy. The law of God, the Ten Commandments and the others, show us our guilt. They show us that we are under God’s wrath. But Scripture also shows us Christ; indeed, Christ is their main theme. Christ the divine Son of God, who came to earth to live our life and to die the death we deserve on account of sin. Through him, Scripture offers us eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life,” John 3:16. Whoever believes in him… Do you believe in him this morning? If so, I hope your heart is burning with the wonder of God’s mercy, his grace, and his love.
And if you know Him that way, as your own Lord and Savior from sin, you will want to know more of his words in Scripture. These are the words that nurture you, that enable you better to worship Jesus and obey him. As you grow in the knowledge of your sins, the greatness of Jesus, and the greatness of salvation in him, you’ll find these words more and more precious. Moses said in the wilderness, and Jesus repeated it in his wilderness temptation, that “man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God,” (Deut. 8:3, Matt. 4:4). As you grow, you’ll want to know more and more of God’s words. Don’t remain a child in your study of Scripture, as so many Christians do today. Press on to a really mature and thorough knowledge of Scripture, and apply it to your life. You’ll never regret it.
We began our series asking how modern and postmodern people could believe in the existence of God. We’ve now moved far beyond that question. Believing in the biblical God involves far more than believing in the bare existence of a supernatural figure. The Biblical God is Lord over all, and he wants to rule every aspect of our lives. The Bible shows us what he expects of his servants, and what he promises to those who trust his Son. Belief in the biblical God, then, is incomparably rich. It is a whole new way of life. If you want to experience this new life, then pray with me:
Thy Word Is a Lamp