To Obligate Belief

The classic beginning of Calvin’s Institutes rightly assumes that it is not possible to know God without knowledge of ourselves. Without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God. But it runs the other direction as well. It “not easy to discern” which knowledge precedes and brings forth the other. They are interdependent. “Accordingly, the knowledge of ourselves not only arouses us to seek God, but also, as it were, leads us by the hand to find him” (Institutes 1.1.1).

The same kind of thing is true of other sets of complementary assumptions. I cannot know my Cartesian pinpoint self without assuming something about the authority of logic. I think I think, therefore I think I am, I think. I cannot know the Bible without assuming something about the nature of the world in which I learned to read it, along with the reality of Miss Robinson who taught me how to read in first grade. I cannot know one thing without knowing something about all things.

This, if true, means that the whole world is a package deal. God did not give us the world piecemeal. He places us in an integrated reality, and it is only sin that wants to pretend that we are anywhere else.

That sin wants to say that so long as it is willing to continue the argument, there must be something to the argument. But that is what Hell will be like — endless gnawing, endless rationalizations, endless argument. The worm does not die.

Now Jews and Gentiles are alike bound over by sin, the apostle Paul teaches. God governs the world the way He does so that when the final judgment comes, every mouth will be stopped. This means that every argument will be answered. Every evasion countered. Every smoke screen dissipated. Every lame excuse uncovered.
This means that when the smoke of our evasions is blown away, they will all be seen in that Day to have been smoke the entire time.

And so when we declare the knowledge of God to a world that does not know Him, we must do know with the knowledge that two things are going on, and those two things are in radical tension. First, the unbelieving world does not know God. “For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe” (1 Cor. 1:21).

But note that it does not say that the world does not know God. It says that the world did not know God “by wisdom.” The world does not know God on the world’s terms. The world does not know God “from below.” The world does not know God in accordance with the dithering of our great thinkers. That might be respectable. But to know God through a bleeding Jew on a stake is a bit much.

The world does know God from above — because that is how He reveals Himself — and the world is active in suppressing this knowledge.

“Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them” (Rom. 1:19).

“Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened” (Rom. 1:21).

The knowledge of God is like an over-inflated beach ball that the unbeliever is holding under the water. He knows all about it — it is in his hands. He knows nothing about it — it is under the water. The task of a shrewd evangelist or apologist is to poke the quivering arms, asking — nicely, of course — whatcha got under there?

When Stephen was on trial for blaspheming Moses (Acts 6:11), they all looked at him and saw that his face was like the face of an angel (Acts 6:15). The other person who comes to mind who had this happen to him was . . . Moses. And Moses had established his credentials in the first place by doing miracles. But Steven did miracles too.

In their conflict with Jesus, the Jewish leaders had said, in exasperation, “We know that God spake unto Moses: as for this fellow, we know not from whence he is” (John 9:29). They knew that God had spoken to Moses, did they? Yes, they did, but they knew this on their terms, by their rules, safely wrapped up in the curricula of the rabbinical schools. They did not know God as God reveals Himself — which is to say, everywhere, all the time, in all things. The only place in the cosmos where God is not known is in the heart of the rebel, who is trying desperately to shout everything else down.

So the obligation to believe is already present. The task of the preacher, the evangelist, the apologist, the church planter, is to accentuate that obligation, not to mitigate it. Contrary to the follies of the modernists and postmodernists, proof should be understood as that which obligates belief.

“He that believeth on the Son of God hath the witness in himself: he that believeth not God hath made him a liar; because he believeth not the record that God gave of his Son. And this is the record, that God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.” (1 John 5:10–11).

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