This time last year I preached on a topic that was relevant to all of us, because I preached on human nature and what it means to be human. It’s relevant to all of us, because all of us are human and we all want to know what it means to be human. We want to understand ourselves and other people. We want to make sense of our existence.
And, of course, in order to understand what it means to be human, we didn’t turn to the experts — the philosophers; and the psychologists; and the sociologists. Yes, they have thought long and hard about the nature of humanity; and they have their ideas and their theories and their thoughts about humanity. And some of the things the experts have said are helpful. But the best place to turn to in order to understand these things is to the word of God; to the Bible. And the reason we turn to the Bible to learn about these things is because the Lord is the one who made all things and who has determined the way things are; and he’s the one who has determined what it means to be human. And so, not only has he revealed in his word what he himself is, but he’s revealed to us in his word what we are.
And so, we thought about how God made us with a body and a soul. And he made us in his image to reflect his glory on the earth and to do his will. And he made us social creatures, because didn’t he say about Adam that it wasn’t good for him to be on his own? And he made us to be workers, working for six days throughout the week and resting on the seventh day. That’s what we are, because that’s the way God made us.
Of course, because of Adam’s fall into sin, everything was spoiled. So, God made us body and soul, but as a result of Adam’s sin, body and soul are separated by death. God made us in his image to do his will, but as a result of Adam’s sin we continually sin against the Lord. God made us social beings, but as a result of Adam’s sin we no longer love one another the way we should. God made us to be workers, but as a result of Adam’s sin work is now hard and difficult and frustrating and often we try to avoid it.
Everything was spoiled and corrupted because of Adam’s sin. But the good news is that God had a plan to put right what went wrong when Adam and Eve disobeyed him. And as part of his plan he sent his only Son into the world to be the perfect man, who perfectly obeyed God in all things in our place; and who died in our place to pay for our sins and shortcomings; and who was raised to give us life. And through faith in God’s Son, we’re justified by God which means he pardons all our sins and accepts us as righteous in his sight for the sake of Christ our Saviour. And he adopts us into his family; and he fills us with his Spirit who works in us to put right what went wrong when Adam sinned.
And so, the Holy Spirit helps us to be the workers we were created to be. He fills us with zeal for God’s glory so that now when we go out to do our work — and in everything else that we do — we’ll do all things with all our might and for God’s glory.
And he helps us to be the social beings we were created to be and to love our neighbour as ourselves and to be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving one another, just as in Christ God forgave us. And he places us in his church and surrounds us with many new people to love and encourage us.
And he helps us to reflect God’s glory on the earth, because the Holy Spirit works in us to renew us in God’s image so that more and more we’re able to do God’s will and keep his commandments.
And though outwardly we’re wasting away, inwardly we’re being renewed by his Spirit; and though our bodies and souls will be separated by death, we know that the day is coming when Christ the Saviour will come again to raise our dead bodies from their graves and to make them like his glorious body; and we will be with the Lord — in body and in soul — for ever and for ever
So, last year we thought about what the Bible says about what it means to be human. This year I want us to think about something fairly similar. This year I want us to think about what the Bible says about how we humans know God and why so many humans don’t know God. And this too is of relevance to all of us, because if we’re here tonight, it’s because we want to know God; and we’re concerned about those who don’t know God. So, last year it was about human nature; this year it’s about human knowing. And as we’ll see, it’s not only about knowing God; it’s also about knowing ourselves and knowing the world around us.
And the first point to make this evening might seem strange at first, but hopefully you’ll see why I’ve included it. The first point is that God doesn’t need us, but we need him for all things. We must depend on God for all things, including what we know.
Now, the Bible is clear that God does not depend on us; he does not depend on anything outside of himself. In Acts 17, Paul was speaking to the pagans in Athens, where he was surrounded by temples dedicated to idols. And Paul declared about the true God:
The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything….
He does not need anything from us, because he is completely independent. Or in Romans 11, Paul says that from God, and through God and to God are all things. So, everything comes ‘from God’, because he created all things. And everything is ‘to him’ in the sense that everything is for his glory. But also everything is ‘through God’ in the sense that he sustains everything. He doesn’t depend on us.
On the other hand, we depend on him entirely. Again, in Athens, Paul declared that God gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. In him we live and move and have our being. In Colossians 1 he said:
In him [Jesus Christ] all things hold together.
And so, in the beginning, it was God who created Adam’s body; and it was God who breathed into him the breathe of life so that he became a living creature; and it was God who planted the garden for Adam and placed him in it so that he had food to eat and work to do; and it was God who gave him Eve to be his helper. God provided Adam with everything; and it’s been the same ever since, because we depend on God to send the sun and rain and to make the crops grow so that we have food to eat. Every good thing we need and enjoy has come to us from him.
And we also depend on God for knowledge. And that leads me to the second point today which is revelation.
How can we know God? Well, we know God through revelation: We depend on God to reveal himself to us.
And he has done this in two ways. He reveals himself through what the theologians call ‘natural revelation’; and he reveals himself through what the theologians call ‘special revelation’ or ‘supernatural revelation’.
In Psalm 19 the psalmist says:
The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork…. Their voice goes out through all the earth and their words to the ends of the world.
This is God’s natural revelation, because the natural world around us speaks to us of the glory of God. Everything we see around us in the world tells us that the one who made all these things is great and glorious and worthy of our praise. In Psalm 97 the psalmist says:
The heavens proclaim his righteousness and all the peoples see his glory.
So, the world around us tells us something of God’s character: that he’s a righteous God who does what is right and good. And sure enough, he’s the one who is kind to all, causing the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the righteous and the unrighteous. So, from what he has made and from the way he orders what he has made, God reveals his goodness. To the people of Lystra in Acts 14, the Apostle Paul referred to the way God gives rains from heaven and fruitful seasons as a witness to himself. They speak to us of his goodness. And in his letter to the Romans, Paul says that God’s invisible attributes — his eternal power and divine nature — are clearly perceived in the things God has made. Everything around us speaks to us about God; and they reveal to us that there is a God in heaven above who deserves our praise and thanks. This is God’s natural revelation to us.
Furthermore, since we humans are made in God’s image, then we too reflect God’s glory on the earth. Without words, we declare the glory of God, because he made us in his image. Furthermore, when God made us, he wrote the work of his law on our hearts. That’s what Paul tells us in Romans 2:15. And that means that our conscience bears witness to us about the law of God: when we have kept it and when we have broken it. Some theologians call this ‘the light of nature’. Indeed, our church’s Confession of Faith teaches us to believe that the light of nature and the works of creation and providence manifest the goodness, wisdom and power of God. This is God’s natural revelation.
But then there’s God’s special revelation or his supernatural revelation. And now we’re thinking about God’s word. Before the fall, God spoke to Adam and Eve and revealed to them his will concerning the Tree of Knowledge. After the fall, God revealed himself through prophets at many times and in many ways in order to declare his word to his people. He has revealed himself most clearly in the person of his Son, whom he sent into the world to be our Great Prophet and to make known to us God’s willingness to pardon our sins. And, of course, now we have the Scriptures, which were written under the inspiration of God the Holy Spirit, and which reveal to us all that God has done to deliver his people from our sin and misery and to give us eternal life in his presence. As one writer puts it, God’s special revelation is the interpretation of redemption: the Scriptures explain to us what God has done to redeem us from our sin.
Our church’s Confession of Faith explains that although the light of nature and the works of creation and providence manifest the goodness, wisdom and power of God, they’re not able to give us that knowledge of God and of his will which is necessary for salvation. So, in order to know God’s will for our salvation, we need the Scriptures. We need God’s special revelation.
Ourselves and the World
Of course, God’s revelation to us — especially his special revelation — tells us not only about God and his will, but it also tells us about ourselves. That’s why last year — when we were thinking about human nature and what it means to be human — we turned to the Bible. After all, God made us; he has determined what it means to be human; and so, we turned to his word to know ourselves.
So, we must depend on God to know him and to know ourselves. But we must also depend on God to know the world around us. We see this in the garden of Eden, which God filled with all kinds of trees and plants and where he also placed the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Well, Adam depended on God to tell him that he was free to eat from any of the trees in the garden apart from one. Adam also depended on God to tell him that if he ate from the Tree of Knowledge he would surely die. How else would Adam know that about the Tree of Knowledge? Without God’s revelation, Adam would assume the Tree of Knowledge was like any of the other trees and was good for food. Without God’s revelation, he would not know that eating from the Tree of Knowledge would lead to death. This is not something he could figure out on his own; he had to depend on God’s revelation.
And that’s a crucial point for us. As God’s creatures, we depend on him for everything: for life and breathe and health and strength, for every good thing which we need; and for knowledge. We wouldn’t have a true knowledge of God without his revelation. We wouldn’t have a true knowledge of ourselves without his revelation. And we wouldn’t have a true knowledge of the world without God’s revelation. Adam and Eve needed the Lord to tell them the truth about the Tree of Knowledge.
But here’s the thing. Instead of depending on God, Eve depended on herself. Instead of relying on what God said about the Tree of Knowledge, Eve relied on herself and her own thoughts. The serpent came along and questioned and contradicted what God had said to them about the Tree. So, he put doubts in her mind. And then, when she looked at the Tree and its fruit, she made up her own mind about it, instead of relying on what God had said about it. God had said that eating it would lead to death; but Eve looked at it and thought to herself that it was good for food and it was a delight to her eyes and it was able to make her wise. And so, instead of relying on God’s revelation, she relied on herself; and she made up her own mind; and she took the forbidden fruit and ate it.
And it’s been the same ever since. Instead of relying on God and his revelation to us for true knowledge of God and of ourselves and of the world, unbelieving men and women and boys and girls have relied on ourselves to make sense of things. Or as Paul says in Romans 1, we have suppressed the truth. Isn’t that interesting? He says that we all possess the truth about God. We all possess the truth about God’s eternal power and divine nature, because what he is like is clearly perceived in what he has made. What can be known about God is plain to us, Paul says. It’s plain to us. It can be clearly perceived. It’s crystal clear. According to God’s word, we all — even atheists — possess the truth about God. But unbelievers suppress it, Paul says. They suppress it by their unrighteousness, which means they suppress the truth about God because they’re sinners. Eve knew the truth about the Tree of Knowledge, because God revealed it to her. But she suppressed it. She pushed it out of her mind and she shoved it out of her thoughts and she relied instead on herself. She made up her own mind.
So, what does that look like now? Well, in a book I have at home, the author has written an imaginary conversation between a believer and an unbeliever. In this imaginary conversation, the unbeliever challenged the believer to prove to him the existence of God. So, the believer asked the unbeliever:
What would it take to prove to you the existence of God?
The unbeliever replied:
It would help if he showed himself to me.
Well, we’ve all heard people say something like that:
If only God showed himself to me, then I’d believe.
Well, in this imaginary conversation, the believer replied:
But God is invisible.
Well, that’s one of the first things our church’s Catechism says about God: he’s a Spirit. He’s a Spirit without a body. And so, how can the one, true and living God show himself to an unbeliever when the one, true and living God is invisible?
Fair enough, but then the unbeliever went on to say:
Hadn’t God revealed himself in visible form to people in the Bible?
Well, that’s true, but the believer added that often when God revealed himself in visible form it was quite unimpressive. When God the Son came into the world, he looked just like any other baby. There was nothing striking about his appearance. So, if God appeared to an unbeliever in that way, the unbeliever would not be convinced.
And so, the unbeliever suggested that he might believe in God if God appeared to him with a bright light and surrounded by angels. But would he then believe? Well, the author of the book makes clear that the unbeliever would be unlikely to believe even then, because if God appeared to him in a bright light, surrounded by angels, the unbeliever would dismiss it as a dream or a hallucination. Isn’t that what people do whenever they hear about some strange event? Someone claims to have had a near-death experience when they saw a bright light at the end of a tunnel. Or someone claims to have seen a UFO or the Loch Ness monster. If we don’t believe in such things, we write off what they saw as a dream or a hallucination. And so, if God appeared to someone who didn’t believe in God, that person would write it off as a dream or hallucination. When they’re confronted with the truth about God, unbelievers are sinfully inclined to suppress the truth and to disregard it, precisely because they don’t believe. They will find some explanation for why what they saw can’t be true. They will do what they can to suppress the truth. We know that’s the case, because this is what God’s word tells us about unbelievers: the truth is plain to them, but they suppress it because they’re sinners.
And so, when you’re defending the faith, or when you’re trying to explain the faith to an unbelieving friend, you’ll find that whatever you say, they will come up with some reason or explanation for why it can’t be true and why they won’t accept it. It’s not because God’s word is false; it’s not because God’s word is not true; it’s because unbelievers are sinfully inclined to suppress the truth. Instead of relying on God’s word and on what he has revealed to us, instead of accepting God’s word as true, they will disregard God’s word and make up their own mind, because they’re sinners.
And, of course, we see the same thing when people are thinking about what it means to be human. God has made it clear in his word what it means to be human; what male and female is; what marriage is; what’s right and what’s wrong; what’s true and what’s false. God has revealed these things to us; and he’s revealed it to us plainly. But instead of accepting what God has said, instead of relying on God’s revelation, unbelievers have rejected the word of God and made up their own mind about these things.
But as Paul says in Romans 1, they have become futile in their thinking. Their foolish hearts — and remember the fool say in his heart there is no God — their foolish hearts have been darkened. Or in the book of Ephesians, Paul refers to how unbelievers walk in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding. They are alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, which is due to the hardness of their heart. Their understanding has been darkened because they have rejected God’s revelation. Or in Colossians, Paul says that all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Christ. So, in knowing Christ, we have true knowledge. That doesn’t mean that believers know everything; but it means that the knowledge we have of God and of ourselves and of the world is true. But then Paul warns the believers about being deluded by plausible arguments which their unbelieving neighbours will present to them. And he refers to the philosophy and empty deceit of unbelievers which is in accordance with human traditions and to the elemental spirit of the world, and not according to Christ. And you see that’s the proper distinction: believers rely on what is in accord with Christ and his word, whereas unbelievers rely on what is in accord with human traditions, human thought, worldly wisdom. Paul makes that same distinction in 1 Corinthians between the wisdom of the world and God’s wisdom. And the wisdom of the world is foolishness.
Unbelievers suppress the truth about God and about ourselves. And they suppress the truth about the world around us. So, instead of believing what God has plainly revealed, unbelievers will look at the world and they will examine it and they will interpret what they discover as if God did not exist. It’s not that God’s revelation is not plain, but they are sinfully inclined to suppress the truth. And so, the farmer — who relies on the weather for his crops — does not acknowledge that the sun and rain comes from God. The scientist who checks the validity of her results by repeating her experiment, does not acknowledge that the order in the world which she relies on to repeat her experiments is from God. The student who does his sums and learns that 2 plus 2 equals 4 does not acknowledge that the reason 2 + 2 = 4 is always true is because God has decreed it. Unbelievers know so much about the world around us. They really do. Where would we be without scientists and engineers and doctors and all those other experts? But the knowledge they have of the world is not a true knowledge of the world, because they will not acknowledge what is plain: that everything in the world speaks to us of God and his glory.
However, when God comes into our lives by his Spirit, he makes us new. He gives us the mind of Christ and he renews us in knowledge after the image of our Creator. He transforms us by the renewing of our mind so that we’re no longer conformed to this unbelieving world. And he enables to take every thought — every thought — captive to the obedience of Christ. And so, he enables us to see God through his creation and through his word, so that we learn to glorify the Lord in all we do and say and in all we think.
From his word, we receive a true knowledge of God: that he is the only, true and living God, who is Three Persons and yet one. From his word, we receive a true knowledge of ourselves: that we are made in his image and he made us to glorify and enjoy him. From his word, we receive a true knowledge of the world: that he made it and sustains it and rules over it. And so, instead of depending on ourselves, we’re to depend on God for all things, including what we know.
And when we’re called on to defend the faith, what should we do? Well, we should do as Paul did in Athens when he was faced with unbelievers, including the Epicureans who — like so many modern unbelievers — only believed in this world and in all we can see around us; and they did not believe in the afterlife. But when Paul spoke to them he exposed their ignorance, because they’d suppressed the truth about God. And he went on — with the authority which comes from the word of God — to declare to them the truth about God, who made all things and who sustains all things. And he declared to them the truth about Christ and his resurrection from the dead. And he declared to them the coming judgment and how they needed to repent. And so, when we’re defending the faith, we should show unbelievers their ignorance, because they’ve suppressed the truth about God and have relied on themselves instead of on God who made and who sustains all things. And because of their sinful rebellion and unbelief, they must repent and believe in Christ who died for sinners and who was raised to give us life. And if they repent and believe, then when Christ comes again, they’ll receive from him eternal life and not everlasting condemnation.
And as we declare these things to them, we must depend on God once again, because we must depend on God the Holy Spirit to convince and convert the unbeliever, because he’s the only one who is able to take away their blindness so that they will see.