Every Person Knows God

One of the most fundamental truths of Christian apologetics is that every person is born with a clear knowledge of God. I don’t mean that every person has knowledge of a God, but that each individual knows the God who created him. This idea seems counter-intuitive, for we all know or know of people who are atheistic, or at least agnostic, and would deny even belief in a God, let alone knowledge of one. Even many religious people would be hesitant to say that they know God. Yet Romans 1:18-21 tells us that God has revealed himself to every person, that such knowledge of God is plain because God has shown it to them, that the divine attributes are clearly perceived, and finally, that people know God, yet suppress that knowledge. We can conclude, therefore, that every person is either in a relationship of wrath with God, or a relationship of grace. Theologians call this knowledge of God the sensus divinitatis, or sense of divinity. This knowledge of God is implanted into every human being and confirmed by creation and providence.

So when we encounter someone who denies belief in God, or rejects knowing him through Christ, we are dealing with a person who is suppressing the truth in unrighteousness. This suppression takes many forms, from outright denial to bitterness against God; from false and pagan notions about God to pious attempts to make God in one’s own image. Yet, every day that clear and distinct knowledge of God bubbles up within the unbeliever, and to make it through the day, he must push down that rising sense of God.

John Calvin described it this way:

There is within the human mind, and indeed by natural instinct, an awareness of divinity. This we take to be beyond controversy. To prevent anyone from taking refuge in the pretense of ignorance, God himself has implanted in all men a certain understanding of his divine majesty. Ever renewing its memory, he repeatedly sheds fresh drops. Since, therefore, men one and all perceive that there is a God and that he is their Maker, they are condemned by their own testimony because they have failed to honor him and to consecrate their lives to his will. (Institutes, 1:3:1)

And later:

[God] not only sowed in men’s minds that seed of religion of which we have spoken, but revealed himself and daily discloses himself in the whole workmanship of the universe.  As a consequence, men cannot open their eyes without being compelled to see him…wherever you cast your eyes, there is no spot in the universe wherein you cannot discern at least some sparks of his glory. (Institutes, 1:5:1)

This truth has profound implications for the gospel. First, I do not need to prove the existence of God when speaking with an unbeliever. What I do need to do is discern ways that he is suppressing the knowledge of God in his life. Most unbelievers absolutely reek with suppression in some form. That is where I begin to shine the truth of the gospel. Second, although I need to understand the unbeliever’s belief system to some degree, ultimately every unbeliever shares some basic similarities regarding their need of the gospel. Third, although I may use different evangelistic and apologetic strategies in presenting the gospel, I can rest assured that the gospel, as simple as it may seem, is universal enough to be the one message that I will ultimately stress with any unbeliever.

I have found this truth to be liberating to my evangelism. I can approach any unbeliever confidently knowing that when I talk about God, I am telling him things that he already intuitively knows, even though he may reject it. Between this implanted knowledge of God and the perceived creation, he is a person in active rebellion against God. By presenting the gospel as revealed in Scripture, I am applying the one cure to his depraved heart. Though he may reject the gospel, I know that he knows it is the truth and that he needs it.

The sensus divinitatis reminds us that we are dwelling in a world of truth suppressors who desperately need the truth to be presented over and over again to them. With this truth firmly embedded in our hearts we can boldly share the gospel with anyone we meet. May God grant us a firm and unbending grasp of this truth!

Preach the Gospel to Yourself, Part 2

Friend,

The best secret I was ever asked to keep happened when I was ten years old, just before Christmas 1970. Mom took me into her confidence about an amazing gift she had purchased for Dad: a Casio handheld calculator. I had never seen anything so amazing as the bright blue glowing digits (and it only cost $85!). Then Mom swore me to secrecy. “I want this to be a surprise, so don’t tell!” I don’t remember if I kept the confidence, but I do remember that those weeks until Christmas seemed like years.

Have you ever noticed in the Gospel accounts how many times Jesus asked His disciples to not tell anyone about His true identity as Messiah? The “messianic secret” is most pronounced in the Gospel of Mark. It seems like after every miraculous event that pointed to His true identity, Jesus admonished the beneficiary of the miracle with a strong warning: “See that you say nothing to anyone” (Mark 1:43). By the time you reach the end, you’re about ready to explode. How can we keep such great good news a secret? The Messiah is here!

Jesus was delaying the announcement of the good news, in part, because people didn’t understand just what kind of Messiah He was (and that included the twelve!). They wanted a king to give the nation a better life on earth. Jesus wanted something much, much better for them: eternal life and a kingdom that meant God’s salvation blessings for every nation. So He enjoined their silence until after He was risen from the dead (see Mark 1:43; 3:12; 5:43; 7:36; 8:26,29; 9:9).

Finally, near the end of Mark’s Gospel, the secrecy is lifted and the women at the empty tomb are encouraged to “go, tell” (16:7). Then we read with incredulity, “. . .and they said nothing to anyone; for they were afraid” (16:8). How ironic! But Mark is trying to prod his readers, both then and now, into an explosion of TELLING.

The Gospel is the best secret you never keep. May the Resurrection Sunday we just celebrated motivate us all to be blabbermouths for the Gospel to everyone we meet!

Preach the Gospel to Yourself, Part 1

Friend,

When is the last time you preached the Gospel to yourself? You may think that sounds odd. The Gospel is the good news we share with folks who haven’t yet had the privilege of hearing it, right?

That’s true, of course. But the good news of the Gospel is something that must occupy our thinking as believers every day of our lives. We must continually preach the Gospel to ourselves. But why? If I’m already assured of the forgiveness of my sins through what Jesus accomplished on the cross, why keep repeating what I already know?

Paul may have summarized it best. “. . . And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). That is, the foundation and the focus of Paul’s daily experience was bound up in the truth that Jesus Christ died for him.

Reminding yourself of the simple Gospel truth is what keeps you on track spiritually. Have you failed and sinned? Preach the Gospel to yourself. Only the blood of Christ covers that sin, and it is still sufficient. Are you tempted to be proud of your spiritual achievements? Preach the Gospel to yourself. The only righteousness that matters to God is the righteousness of Jesus Christ which God imputed to you in His mercy. Are you tempted to be self-reliant? Preach the Gospel to yourself. You could not save yourself, and you cannot change yourself apart from His grace and power.

Let’s join Paul in believing that the Gospel must be our daily foundation and focus. “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. . .” (Gal. 6:14).

Are you struggling with obsessive ambition for personal glory? Then look at Jesus on the cross and think about your greatness. We are great sinners. We are great debtors to grace that we could never repay.

If Your Bible Reading Is Not Changing You, You’re Doing It Wrong

Reading the Bible is one of the most important practices of the Christian life. But just because you read your Bible doesn’t make you spiritual, and reading on its own provides no spiritual benefit. The Bible is not a talisman that possesses magical power just for the reading. When Hebrews 4:12 tells us that the Word of God is living and powerful, it is telling us that the Scriptures have supernatural power because they are the very words of God that confront us in judgment and grace. We must read the Bible with the eyes of faith, expecting to encounter a Holy God, and submitting ourselves to the authority of the words and the searching eye of the Holy Spirit.

From the time I was a teenager, I read my Bible regularly. But for most of my high school and college years I read because I knew I should, not necessarily because I wanted to. This was not without benefit, for God used that greatly in my life to bend my heart toward him. In my second year of seminary, however, one particular morning in the Word became an epiphany for me. All the teaching and preaching in seminary on grace finally dawned in my heart, as I realized for the first time that I should read my Bible because I wanted to, not just because I should. That day the truth of grace sank deep into my heart. I wasn’t reading my Bible anymore because I thought I had to in order to remain right with God. I was reading because I understood that I had been made right with God through justification, not my own righteousness. This awoke an intense hunger for the Word I had never felt before. It awoke a desire for godliness and an intimate knowledge of God.

What was the difference? I was not reading the Bible anymore as an important book from which to gain comprehensive knowledge, or for preparation for the next Bible trivia quiz in school. I was reading the Bible to encounter the living God. This is an especially important point for anyone who teaches the Bible, whether in Sunday School, or as a college of seminary professor. The Bible was not given with the intent that we approach it as an object of neutral, objective research to be dissected and examined impartially.

Martin Luther, as scholarly as he was, knew the difference between an intense, experiential knowledge of the Word and a disinterested, academic knowledge:

Such a knowledge, even if it were possible, would only be the dead letter that kills. The Spirit makes alive! We must therefore “feel” the words of Scripture “in the heart.” Experience is necessary for the understanding of the Word. It is not merely to be repeated or known, but to be lived and felt (Timothy George,Theology of the Reformers, Nashville: B&H, 1988, 85).

Luther believed that Scripture is designed to confront the reader with “the existential demand and promise of Scripture which requires a present response” (p. 85). In other words, Scripture makes demands upon the believer while at the same time comforting with promises. No Christian should be able to read the Bible without being moved and transformed by it.

Notice the confrontational nature of his sermon on the phrase, “I will call upon the Lord” from Psalm 118:5:

Call is what you have to learn. You heard it. Don’t just sit there by yourself or off to one side and hang your head, and shake it and gnaw your knuckles and worry and look for a way out, nothing on your mind except how bad you feel, how you hurt, what a poor guy you are. Get up, you lazy scamp! Down on your knees! Up with your hands and eyes toward heaven! Use a psalm or the Lord’s prayer to cry out your distress to the Lord.

Does our Bible reading look like this? It can, if we expect to encounter a holy God every time we open the Word. If we stop approaching the Bible as a duty and an object to be studied for its own sake, we can begin to experience the transforming power of the Word. When we “tremble at the threshold of the biblical text,” as one theologian has written, our Bible reading will take on a whole new meaning. As my mentor, Frank Hamrick always says, when we stop studying the Word of God and start studying the God of the Word, we will be transformed.

Do You have a Village God?

Every week I am privileged to enjoy conversations with the wonderful students here at the seminary, and every week God uses these conversations for spiritual benefit in my life. A recent conversation in my Pastoral Epistles class set me to thinking about my prayer life (did I mention that sometimes these conversations can be downright convicting?).

On this particular day we were discussing Paul’s instructions for prayer in the church from 1 Timothy 2:1-7. To paraphrase, Paul was saying that ALL types of prayer (“supplications, prayers, intercessions, thanksgivings”) should be offered for ALL people (“all people, for kings, and all that are in authority”) because God wants ALL people to be saved (“who desires all people to be saved”) and Christ died for ALL people (“who gave Himself as a ransom for all”). It’s difficult to miss Paul’s emphasis: our prayers should have a focus that is both Gospel and global. We can participate in God’s wonderful work all around the world. Or not.

I shared with the students an anecdote from British Pastor John Stott. Vacationing in a tiny English village, Stott attended the mid-week prayer service of the local church. Every prayer request shared that evening related to financial, physical, or relationship needs of individual members in that congregation. Tragically missing was concern over anything God might be doing in the outside world to bring the lost to Himself. Stott commented upon leaving the service, “These people have a village church, and they serve a village God.”

As I type these words, a CBS news notification pops up on my screen. “Plutonium in soil latest sign of leaky Japanese nuclear reactors.” There are probably millions of hearts in Japan right now more focused on thoughts of approaching eternity than before the tsunami. But only a global God will be big enough to help them. And how often since the tragedy have I really labored in prayers for the precious Japanese people?

Don’t get me wrong. God welcomes us to lift the needs of our village to Him, of course. Without doubt, the Gospel will advance and the Lord will populate His church, unhampered by my myopic prayer life. But what a missed opportunity!

I don’t want to have a village God. By His grace, I want my prayers today and every day to reflect His loving heart for the whole world.

Preaching the Gospel-To Yourself

When is the last time you preached the Gospel to yourself? You may think that sounds odd. The Gospel is the good news we share with folks who haven’t yet had the privilege of hearing it, right?

That’s true, of course. But the good news of the Gospel is something that must occupy our thinking as believers every day of our lives. We must continually preach the Gospel to ourselves. But why? If I’m already assured of the forgiveness of my sins through what Jesus accomplished on the cross, why keep repeating what I already know?

Paul may have summarized it best. “. . . And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). That is, the foundation and the focus of Paul’s daily experience was bound up in the truth that Jesus Christ died for him.

Reminding yourself of the simple Gospel truth is what keeps you on track spiritually. Have you failed and sinned? Preach the Gospel to yourself. Only the blood of Christ covers that sin, and it is still sufficient. Are you tempted to be proud of your spiritual achievements? Preach the Gospel to yourself. The only righteousness that matters to God is the righteousness of Jesus Christ which God imputed to you in His mercy. Are you tempted to be self-reliant? Preach the Gospel to yourself. You could not save yourself, and you cannot change yourself apart from His grace and power.

Let’s join Paul in believing that the Gospel must be our daily foundation and focus. “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. . .” (Gal. 6:14).

Are you struggling with obsessive ambition for personal glory? Then look at Jesus on the cross and think about your greatness. We are great sinners. We are great debtors to grace that we could never repay.

Glory Dreams

Children’s author and educator Paul Mullen was promoting his recent book as part of his “Every Child Has a Dream” campaign. Mullen asked some of the children in attendance to stand up and share their special dream in front of the group. Most of the children spoke of sports. One first-grade girl transparently admitted, “Someday I want to be able to boss around my Mommy and Daddy.”

Do you remember your favorite childhood daydream? Mine always involved Indiana basketball. Maybe yours involved a walk-off home run in the World Series? Did you dream of being a princess. . .or a soldier. . .or the president of the United States?

It seems to me that dreams of greatness are universal across every human culture. The settings may differ, but these dreams are always variations on a theme: your success in the chosen activity is your ticket to personal glory and greatness. Every head will turn, and you will be the center of attention. You will be noticed. You will be the envy of every person who isn’t fortunate enough to be . . . you. We all want to be large and in charge.

Recently in chapel, I challenged our resident students and faculty with the thought that while dreams of personal glory may be human, they can be spiritually lethal for the followers of Jesus Christ – and especially disciples who want to be vocational ministers.

The story we studied together is found in Mark 10:32-45, where Jesus patiently confronts His followers about their lust for rank and power (following the glory-grabbing request by James and John to have seats of honor in the coming kingdom). Jesus explains that true greatness, which He modeled, is making yourself low and least and last because of the truth of the Gospel (v. 45).

Are you struggling with obsessive ambition for personal glory? Then look at Jesus on the cross and think about your greatness. We are great sinners. We are great debtors to grace that we could never repay.

If you want to dream of true greatness today, then dream of ways to make yourself low and least and last as a servant to others. God has put people around you today who need you to be a servant like Jesus – how are you planning to serve them?

%d bloggers like this: