Message 8, No Place for Truth:
We are facing a culture that does not see truth as absolute, that says all paths lead to God, and that disdains the rigorous intellectual pursuit of the things of the Lord. Such darkened thinking resists the light of God’s Word, and it influences the church in ways that hinder our ability to shine forth the Lord’s truth. Dr. Alistair Begg looks at the threats of anti-intellectualism, relativism, and postmodernism, exhorting us to proclaim Christ as the way, the truth, and the life. Dr. Begg calls us away from a low view of truth to a view that places truth front and center in the Christian mission.
I invite you to turn with me to the Acts of the Apostles, and to chapter 17. And as you turn there, thank you for a very gracious and undeserved welcome. It’s a privilege to be here again and to be in the company of all who have spoken and who are about to speak, and to have the privilege of moving among this vast crowd and meeting folks that I’ve never met, but that I find we have ties with one another that are deeper than could ever have been possible were it not for God’s grace and goodness to us.
I just said to Sinclair just now, after the singing of those two opening hymns, I’m — I’ve had a very wonderful evening and I’d be very glad to go home now. And he said, not so fast boy.
So, let’s read familiar words from Acts chapter 17, and beginning at verse 16. “Now, while Paul was waiting for them at Athens his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. So, he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons and in a marketplace every day with those who happened to be there.
Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him, and some said, ‘What does this babbler wish to say?’ Others said, ‘He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities,’ because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus saying, ‘May we know what this new teaching is that you’re presenting, for you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know, therefore, what these things mean.’
Now, all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new. So, Paul standing in the midst of the Areopagus said, ‘Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious, for as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship I found also an altar with this inscription: “To the unknown god.”
What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you, 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 since he himself gives to all mankind life, and breath, and everything.
And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him.
And he’s actually not far from each one of us, for in Him we live and move and have our being, as even some of your own poets have said. For we are indeed his offspring. Being then God’s offspring we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man.
The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed. And of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.’
Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead some mocked, but others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’ So Paul went out from their midst. But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.” Amen.
Well, a brief prayer, I want to use a prayer of Augustine as we turn to the Scriptures, together. Bow with me as we allow Augustine to lead us. “Oh thou, who art the light of the minds that know thee, the life of the souls that love thee, and the strength of the wills that serve thee, help us to know thee that we may truly love thee, so to love thee that we may serve thee, whom to serve is perfect freedom. For we pray in Christ’s name, amen.”
Well, the brief that has been given me is straightforward. You read it in the book. It’s somewhat daunting. I’m to give a lecture that’s supposed to last about 50 minutes. I’m not sure that I’ve ever really given a lecture, but tonight’s as good a night as any to make a stab at it I suppose.
The way in which we’re going to handle this is to address the question simply, “What is this cultural context in which we find ourselves living?” and then secondly, “How are we going to respond to it?” In the foreword to a book entitled ‘Light of the Word,’ written by Joseph Ratzinger, the former Pope Benedict, George Weigel suggests that we are living in “a world that has lost its story, a world in which the progress promised by the humanities of the past three centuries is now gravely threatened by understandings of the human person that reduce our humanity to a congeries of cosmic chemical accidents: a humanity with no intentional origin, no noble destiny, and thus no path to take through history.”
In a similar but in a lighter vein, Henry Allen who is a journalist, a columnist, a critic, writing in the Wall Street Journal exclaims, “For the first time in my 72 years I have no idea what’s going on. The most important thing in our culture isn’t change, but the fact that reality itself is dwindling, fading like sunstruck wallpaper.
Facebook enshrines banality. We have individualism, but we have no privacy. We are all outsiders with no inside to be outside of. There is no arc, no through-line, no destiny. As the British Tommy sang in the trenches of World War I to the tune of Old Lang Syne, we’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here. Will organized religion die?
I got talking to a girl from an episcopal youth group in Missouri,” he writes. “‘Episcopalianism is great’, she said, ‘You don’t have to believe anything.’ Like most people I used to think the world would go on in the way it was going on with better medicine and the arrival of an occasional iPad or an earthquake, and that was when I knew what was going on. I worry that reality itself is fading like the Cheshire Cat, leaving behind only a smile that grows ever more alarming.”
Now, I haven’t ferreted around for these things. These are just materials that I’ve picked up through my reading and have them in my files. And I was intrigued, as I think about it now, and many of you will have been to see that one of Gauguin’s paintings, the post-impressionist painter, sold for some $300,000,000, I think was on the ninth of this month. And Gauguin was celebrated for all kinds of reasons, but he himself was a disaster. On his most famous painting he wrote three questions up in the left-hand corner, “D’oų Venons Nous? Que Sommes Nous? Oų Allons Nous?” Where did I come from? Where am I? Where am I going?
And at a very foundational level of our Western society, these questions ring in the lyrics of contemporary songs, in the literature of our day, and certainly in the movies that will be featured in the Oscars on Sunday evening. Well, we can say that we actually do know what is going on, and that’s because the Bible tells us.
We could say with the prophet Isaiah “truth has stumbled in the public square,” or in the authorized version, “has fallen in the street.” With Jeremiah, “falsehood and not truth has grown strong in the land.” And so the prevailing and the oppressive assumption of today is that there is actually no such thing as truth or any real sense of right and wrong, at least in the sense that we can attest to it all of the time, everywhere and for everyone, I.E., as an absolute.
And all of us have grown up with people telling us that the only absolute is that there are no absolutes. And this relativism should be understood biblically. It’s not something that has just come out of nowhere. And behind the relativism and all that is represented in it, is what Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 10, where he writes, “For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but have divine power to destroy strongholds.
We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God.” And the relativism and postmodernism that is represented in the philosophies and experiences of our day should be understood in that way.
This is an argument. This is a lofty opinion, and this is raised against the knowledge of God. It is, if you like, a cosmic issue. We’re dealing with a present darkness, with the spiritual forces of evil, which exist in the heavenly places, and behind these spiritual forces, the devil, of whom Jesus said, “He does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him. He has been a murderer,” He says, “from the beginning, and a liar, and he is the father of all who propound lies.”
Now, when you think about that we can think about it a number of ways. It would be tedious to do too many, but let’s just think in terms first of all about the question of reality. Reality. The fact that we would even have to discuss reality, as if there were no reality, is an indication of the confusion that is present. “Under the postmodern sun,” writes our friend David Wells, “everyone has a right to their own version of reality. And so as a result of that perspective I have my reality, and you have your reality.
My PJ’s are touching your PJ’s says one boy to his brother. My reality might be impinging upon your reality and yours upon mine. And your reality may actually be real in the subjective sense that it’s real for you, but of course my reality, which is real for me may contradict your reality because it’s really real for me.” Isn’t this all beginning to make perfect sense for us? Don’t we find ourselves saying, “Now, that is a wonderful notion”? No, it makes for a completely unsettling and confusing existence.
And once again, one does not have to go looking around for these things. If you take what is currently a huge, multi-billion dollar industry in the realm of virtual reality, avatars, invented coinage, and a whole notion of quasi-reality. In the press in the last two weeks here, there have been articles concerning how many people have embraced an avatar, an invention of themselves, through whom they communicate in this quasi-real world.
And when they invent themselves, the article pointed out, if they’re a little person like me, then their avatar is a big tall person. If you’re a funny looking little character, then you’re a magnificent looking character. And these people are living in this strange world.
And we are going to go and speak to them about reality. Well, they say, “Well no. There’s no reality. Talk to my avatar.”
Now, again this doesn’t spring from anywhere. I’m happy that young man was 16. I used to be 16. Golly, what a long time ago it was. 1968, but right around that time, in fact, when I was 14, Paul Simon, celebrated writer of lyrics in the contemporary world, was pondering reality himself. Remember? “Through the corridors of sleep, past the shadows dark and deep, my mind dances and leaps in confusion. I don’t know what is real.
I can’t touch what I feel, and I hide behind the shield of my illusion. So, I’ll just continue to pretend that my life will never end and the flowers never bend with the rainfall.”
You see, it’s not just as simple as we are often led to believe as we sit down in Starbucks with people who live in this unreal, real world. Christians, science is an unreal world as well as it occurs to me, the idea that pain is an illusion. Does — do you believe that?
You know, the doggerel, “There once was a Christian scientist from Theale who said that pain isn’t real. But if you sit on a pin and the point enters in, you’ll dislike what you fancy you feel.” It expresses itself in the realm of morality. O
nce again, from this perspective ethics become simply a matter of personal taste. Each person able to chart their own course, a bit like ordering a pizza with a variety of potential options and toppings, things that you can leave aside if you don’t want to have them, so I’ll manufacture my own little moral world or my own little immoral world. And nobody will be there to tell me anything is wrong or right. The only thing that mustn’t happen is I mustn’t ever be hurting anybody, at least not from my reality at least.
And the same is true in terms of history, in terms of history. Some of you are students of history. It must be quite a hard thing to be a student of history at this point in secular universities. Just yesterday in the Arch Review in the Wall Street there was an article entitled ‘Whose History Is It Anyway?’
And it was addressing the fact that in terms of many of the historical movies that are now before us, there’s a tremendous amount of tampering going on with the actual history. “But,” say the people who know about these things, “we are trying to hold movies to a truth” — interesting word — “to a truth we can’t hold history to, because history is always just someone’s opinion.”
The director of Selma, dismissing concerns about accuracy in that particular movie says, “Everyone sees history through their own lens, and that should be valid.” So, in postmodern style history, accuracy is replaced by advocacy. It is what I want it to be. Now, this is probably a good time for me just to pause and give you a little historical anecdote just to, I could see you’re a little crestfallen with this world in which we’re living. I can sense it coming back to me even at the height of six feet above contradiction here just now.
I was going to tie this to somebody, but I thought I better not. I don’t want to make friends — enemies amongst my colleagues, so I’ll just make it — I’ll do it generically. But it’s American tourists visiting Runnymede down the Thames, and they are being instructed in all of the details of the signing of the Magna Carta.
And a very pucker Englishman is going through his paces and describing what a significant document this has been and has led t o the writings of men — great parts of the Constitution of the United States and so on. And in a moment of great declaration he says, “And so ladies and gentleman, you see, 1215 the signing took place.” And a man turned to his wife and he said, “You know honey, we just missed that by 15 minutes.”
It’s unnecessary for me to continue in this vein. The question is how are we to respond to the challenge. How are we to do that? How are we, if you like, to live christianly in a post-Christian culture? How are we to speak about He who is the way and the truth and the life in a culture that says, “But truth cannot be defined in these objective and substantial terms.” Well, let me suggest to you here that we could take one of three possible approaches. In fact, two, I do not advocate. I think they should be avoided, and one I think we should adopt.
The first one that is possible we might refer to as admonition. Admonition. This is a kind of approach, it’s not unusual, you see it throughout history, it’s alive and well in contemporary America, and that is just to curse the darkness. I’m using the word ‘admonition’ in terms of rebuke or of reproach or of reprimand. In other words, to respond to the cultural milieu in which we find ourselves living in a spirit of condemnation.
I encountered this when I came to America for the first time in 1972. I won’t tell you where the church was, but I went to a church (my hair was rather long), and it didn’t fit the framework — it didn’t fit my mother’s framework either, but that’s another question altogether — and after I’d addressed the church the man said, “There you go folks. Look at that. Even someone who looks like that can be a Christian.” And, I felt immediately drawn to that man. He endeared himself to me.
I felt that deep-seated koinonia that comes only on moments like that. But it was this same man who introduced me to a phrase that I’d never heard, and that was, he said that apparently America was going to hell in a handbasket.
Actually he said, “is going to hell in a handbasket.” And what was most troubling though was that he actually seemed pretty pleased about it. I don’t mean that facetiously.
You see, when Paul addresses Titus in an environment that is amazingly challenging in Crete, he takes time to make sure that Titus understands that those who are going to be living for Jesus in that kind of environment need to make sure that they don’t fall foul of an approach such as this. And so he says to Titus, “Remind them” — that’s your folks — “to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people.”
I don’t know about you, but that lands with quite an impact in my heart and mind as I seek to navigate the waters, both as an individual member of society and also as someone who along with my colleagues is responsible for the souls and wellbeing of those under my care. Do you realize how quickly your church, my church, can become just an angry place, where instead of a spirit of mission there is just a prevailing sense of admonition?
There’s a reason, you see, there’s a credibility gap between many of our congregations and our contemporary young people, because although they may be all of these things in relationship to a quasi-reality and an immorality and so on, the one thing they don’t like to be is mean, and to the extent that they think that these Christian people are just mean. Then it works against us.
Some of you have aspirations, I think, to replace Statler and Woldorf. You remember those old boys from the Muppets? Balconeers. They were never down in the action. They just sat up there the whole time, harrumphing and pumphing and moaning and complaining. Oh, it’s a dreadful thing when you have a Statler and a Woldorf in your congregation, male or female. There’s biblical precedent for this kind of approach.
The sons of thunder were right along those lines weren’t they, coming back from the evangelistic venture in Samaria where the response has not been exactly what you would call fantastic? They said to Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” The kind of reverse altar call approach. Jesus said, no, that would be a no.
The second poor alternative is accommodation. In 1952, James S. Stewart had the opportunity to deliver lectures at Yale Divinity School. And on that occasion he warmed the — warned the students of what he referred to as the coming over the horizon of a theologically vague and harmlessly accommodating gospel, which he said is no gospel at all.
And historically, liberal Protestantism has taken this approach, making its appeal to those who are elite in the culture, at least intellectually, not wishing to be regarded as ignorant and unlearned men, and they gave up large swaves of theological orthodoxy in order to accommodate themselves to the culture.
So if there are difficult parts we’ll just get rid of them. The twentieth century was — began really with the Scopes Monkey Trial. We’ve got a problem with creation, we’ll get rid of creation. Now, you simply want Jesus as an example but you don’t like this notion of substitutionary atonement, we can get rid of that as well.
And I know that you would like to think of the resurrection not as a physical reality that impinged upon everything, but just as some kind of spiritual notion, and “We are here to tell you today,” they would say, “that that’s just exactly how we ought to view it.” And that approach continues in certain quarters, and tragically not just now in the quarters of that which we would regard as liberalism, but actually in quarters that would now be within the broader framework of Evangelicalism.
So, if our audience is offended by our theology then we can just switch to psychology. If they don’t like the notion that they are guilty, lost, sinful, responsible and accountable to God, then we can change that a little. After all, we do need a crowd. If propositional truth claims are unwelcome, then we’ll just tell stories. If the Bible’s clarity on the nature of marriage and human sexuality is too clear, then we can just soften the blow. We can blur the lines. But we daren’t do that.
I know that we are very grateful for all the Americans that come to Europe, especially to Scotland and spend money. It means a great deal to us. I speak on behalf of the nation. And, you always come back saying, “What happened to all those churches over there?” Either a lot of them are empty or whatever. And I always say the same thing, “Hang on. You’re about to find out.”
It might not be very nice, but I think it’s fairly accurate. Did you see the piece on the third of January, ‘Europe’s Empty Churches Go on Sale’? Did you read some of this? It is — I don’t know whether to laugh or burst into tears. “In Bristol, England, the former St. Paul’s church has become the circle media — circus training school. Operators say the high ceilings are perfect for aerial equipment like trapezes.” Oh, providence.
In Edinburgh, Scotland a Lutheran church has become a Frankenstein-themed bar, featuring bubbling test tubes, lasers, and a life-size Frankenstein’s monster descending from the ceiling at midnight. Jason McDonald, the supervisor at the pub says he hasn’t heard any complaints about this, he says for one simple reason. There are hundreds and hundreds of old churches and no one goes to them.
Well, you’ve been listening earlier about Ephesus. We can go to Whales. In fact, we can go throughout Western Europe. No, this issue of truth and reality and history is absolutely crucial, and that’s why when we address it in this way we do so purposefully.
J. D. Unwin, a historian who has studied extensively in human culture, studied 86 different societies spanning 5,000 years. And he found an unexpected and direct correlation between sexual continence and the ability of a society to grow and remain healthy. “In human records,” he said, “there is no instance of a society retaining its energy after a complete new generation has inherited a tradition which does not insist on prenuptial and postnuptial continence.”
Toynbee, said “Of the 22 civilizations that have appeared in history, 19 of them collapsed when they reached the moral state that the United States is in tonight.” So what are we to do? We say no to admonition, we say no to accommodation, and we say yes to proclamation, to proclamation.
The weapons of our warfare are strong for tearing down strongholds and those notions that set themselves against the knowledge of God. God has entrusted to us not only the armor that protects us as we go into battle, but He has also provided us with the weapon of our warfare, and you would not be here tonight, I imagine, were it not for the fact that you believe that too.
Now, I chose to read from Acts, chapter 17, and I’m not planning now at this late stage in the evening to begin an exposition of it, but I want to say sufficient about it in order to, I hope, re-wet your appetite and send you back to do your homework again.
Paul is there as we are told, waiting in Athens. Luke tells us what he saw. He tells us what he felt, and then he tells us what he did or what he said. In a sophisticated environment, in a magnificent place he was aware of the fact that it was just completely full of idols.
Now, think about it, for Saul of Tarsus growing up in the framework of Judaism, awaking to a new day and going to bed at night with the Shema in his ears, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind. And these things are to be upon your hearts, and you shall teach them to your children when you walk along the road and when you lie down and when you get up.”
And in this amazing and dramatic encounter with God incarnate in Jesus that turns his life upside down and inside out, he now is filled with the nature and notion of what it means that this God is one, that there is only this one God. And he then, when he writes to the Corinthians makes that perfectly clear. He says, “We know that an idol is nothing at all in all the world, and there is no god but one.” So for him to stand and look at all of that moved him.
And the language is that of a movement that would be in the very core of His being. And what stirred him more than anything else was what Carson refers to as the de-Goding of God, that God was being robbed of His glory, that in the folly and in the confusion that was represented as it related to the reality of man and the moral interactions of men and women, and the whole unfolding of the drama of history, he stands there and he looks at it, but the thing that moves him most is a concern for the glory of God.
Can I just say tangentially that it will not do for us to be concerned about these issues in our culture for a lesser motive than the glory of God and the praising of His name? It is insufficient to say, “I am concerned about this because of what it will mean for my grandchildren.
I am concerned about this because of what it means for our nation being destabilized and politically compromised and internationally abused.” You can be concerned about that until you die, but that’s not the motivation for the proclamation of the good news of the gospel, not to fix our nations.
God has promised His Son the nations as His inheritance. He is putting together a company that no one can number, from every tribe and nation and language and people under the sun, and He will accomplish what He has set out to do. He has ordained men and women to salvation, and He has ordained the means whereby they will come to salvation through the proclaiming of the Word of Truth, even in an environment that says, “We think you’re wrong and we think you’re crazy.”
P. T. Forsyth, in an earlier day says, “The main spring of mission is not pity, but faith, not so much pity for perishing sinners, as faith and zeal for the church rights of Christ.” So, in being invited to address the thinkers, he goes at it very interestingly, doesn’t he? I had the privilege in the last 12 months of being with someone I never met before, a professor from Dallas, a Darrell Block. I’m sure many of you will know him either personally or by his writings. But he gave an address on that particular day that I found very, very challenging and very helpful.
And he pointed out that Paul in addressing the Christian constituency in Rome, he made absolutely clear the universal fallenness of man and the implications of this, that you have turned your backs on God, you’ve exchanged the glory of God, and there are ramifications from that. And he does that very, very clearly and absolutely unequivocally. And now he stands, as it were, confronting that very culture, that kind of culture, and without compromising the truth in any way at all he identifies with them, he builds bridges to them, he engages them.
He doesn’t cease the opportunity In the Areopagus by beginning, ‘The wrath of God has been revealed from heaven against clowns like you, people who sit around here just talking nonsense morning, noon and night. Full — your heads are full of wood and the stuffing of a teddy bear,” something like that. Something very endearing and engaging, you know. No, he doesn’t do that at all. But if he did he’d go soft.
Actually, liberal scholarship actually tries to claim that Paul never actually said the speech in the Areopagus, that that was invented later on. It had to be invented because he said Paul would never have done that. Well, that’s just their reality.
It’s — no, he says, I want — I’m glad of this opportunity, he says, and I invite you to think. And then he simply goes down the line with them. He says you need to know that God is the creator and the sustainer of everyone and everything. It’s interesting, where do you start in talking to our culture that’s got very little idea of Christianity at all, that is interested in all kinds of notions and concepts religiously and philosophically?
He says let’s start at the very beginning. It’s a very good place to start.
God is the creator and sustainer of everyone and everything. You need to know, he says, that He’s in charge of history and He’s in charge of geography. He is transcendent, He doesn’t live in a temple. You can’t enshrine Him in that way, and you shouldn’t ever think of Him as a figment of your imagination, as a cosmic principle, as your own creation. You should not think of Him in terms of objects that are made by — of gold and silver.
You should also know, he says, that He seeks a relationship with His creatures, that He is not only transcendent, but he’s imminent, He’s not far, He’s not far from every one of us.
He’s merciful, He’s righteous, He commands repentance. He will judge the world, and He’s given proof of this by raising Jesus from the dead. Now, without using that simply as a template that we trot out, I think it is one of the most helpful places that we find in Acts for us to use as a kind of foundational framework, helping us to engage the world in which we live in today. The idea of a final judgement is unpalatable to modern man. He simply rejects it. It’s not part of his reality.
Paul recognizes that what he’s up against, but he makes it very, very clear that they were created by God, that they were accountable to God and that they are going to face God. Do you see, if we are going to take on the challenge of the day we need to take on the challenge of the day, and we need to be prepared to say what the Bible says.
It doesn’t mean that we’re rude, we’re bombastic, we’re unkind, we make enemies all the time. We’re still able to love and to connect with a society that lives in rebellion because we too ourselves lived in rebellion. That’s Paul’s point again in encouraging Titus in Titus 3. “After all,” he says, “remember, remind them that they too were a complete mess were it not for the grace of God.”
So we need to be clear that although truth has stumbled in the public square and the substitute gods that are offered in our day are worthless, in engaging with our culture it’s not difficult for us to get agreement on one thing: our world is broken. It’s broken. Take the world section of the New York Times today and just go through the regions of the world. The attempt of man to bring reconciliation, confronted at every turn with the virtual impossibility of it all.
Husbands and wives, parents and children, why is this? Well, the answer is because we’re alienated from the God who made us, and that that alienation lies at the root of all of these circumstances. So we can get agreement on his brokenness and we have an opportunity to say, “Do you know that in the story of the Bible, it is this amazing story of how God is remaking His broken world?
And do you know that God has done this and God has said that,” and so on. And many of our friends have never been engaged by that kind of thing. They’ve determined that if there is a way to remake the world it will probably have something to do with them, and particularly if they come from an intelligent context, if they come from an environment in which they are influential in the world.
For example, in 1946 the president of Dartmouth, John Sloan Dickey, said to the graduating class, “There is nothing wrong with the world that better human beings cannot fix.” In 2010 president Kim Jong Kim said to the graduating class of Dartmouth, rehearsing this statement from 1946, “You are the better human beings that we’ve all been waiting for.” Really? Have you seen some of these people?
Do you realize the extent to which the philosophies and religious frameworks of whether it’s Kabbalah and the mixture of Judaism and so on or New Age theories, the Oprahfying of an entire generation, owes itself to so much that comes from the East? I was recently in India and I was scribbling and making notes as I went around. I was in a Hindu temple and I wrote down one of the inscriptions on the wall. This is what it said, “The self is the friend of the self, and the self is also the enemy of the self. None but the self can save the self.” Have a good day.
What do people believe if they believe anything? They believe that if there is a God and if he’s good, then He will reward nice people if they just try their best. They also tend to believe that if they are prepared to admit to a problem, the problem is outside of them and they’ll get the answer by looking inside of them. So all other spiritualties as well says that are from below, all enshrined divinity within the framework of the natural order. And so, if you want to find God you look inside yourself. If you want to find an answer you look inside yourself.
The gospel says, no, the actual reversal of that. Doesn’t it? The problem is inside, and the answer is outside. The answer is actually outside a city wall where the dear Lord was crucified, who died to save us all. And that was written by an Irish lady for boys and girls that they might get some understanding of the wonder of God’s dealings in the cross.
Let me finish just with two apparently unrelated observations. One, in relationship to tone and our approach to those who clearly are opposed to what we believe and say. Nobody, nobody was a more articulate proponent of new atheism than Christopher Hitchens, not Docken, Christopher.
And he said really hard things, but if you listen to him there was something about this man that cried out in the night. For example, in his book on mortality he says, “Everybody told me that I would confront my mortality on the day my father died.” He said, “Funnily enough, that didn’t happen. I found that I was confronted by that on the day my son was born.” And then he quotes Ressini I think it is, I just have to check. Rossetti, I should’ve said. Listen, this, here you get the sensitivity of this guy.
Here’s the quote from the poem. “What man has bent o’er his son’s sleep, to brood how that face shall watch his when cold it lies? Or thought, as his own mother kiss’d his eyes, of what her kiss was when his father woo’d?” He said that in the dying embers of his life the biggest thing for him, the thing that mattered most to him was to remember friendship.
Quote again, “For me, to remember friendship is to recall those conversations that it seemed a sin to break off: the ones that made the sacrifice of the following day a trivial one. That was the way that Callimachus chose to remember his beloved Heraclitus [as adapted into English by William Cory],” and then again he quotes the poets. “They told me, Heraclitus; they told me you were dead. They brought me bitter news to hear, and bitter tears to shed. I wept when I remembered how often you and I, had tired the sun with talking, and sent him down the sky.”
I wanted to say to Hitchens, I want to say, “Do you know that Jesus is a friend like no other friend in the world, that He is a friend who loves you, who dies for you, who calls out to you, who embraces you, who explains you, who saves you?” No, don’t.
And the last thought: bravery. This is no time for wimpy Christians. This is no time for moaning, groaning Christians either. This is time for the man who emerges in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, out of the verse we began with from Jeremiah 9, where Jeremiah says that there is no valiant truth, no place for valiant truth.
And you remember when you read Pilgrim’s Progress, who do we meet? Who does Great-Heart meet? He meets Mr. Valiant for Truth. What a nice fellow. “I am one’s”, he says, “whose name is Valiant for Truth. I am a pilgrim and going to the Celestial City.”
He gets in a royal battle with three characters, interestingly called Wild-Head, Inconsiderate and Pragmatic, and he gives them a good doing.
Great-Heart says to him, “That’s quite a sword you have there. It’s a right Jerusalem Blade.” “It is so,” said Valiant. “Let a man have one of these blades, with a hand to wield it and skill to use it. Its edges will never blunt. It will cut flesh and bones and soul and spirit and all.”
It’s time for soldiers of Christ to arise. At the end of the nineteenth century into the twentieth, they asked William Booth of the Salvation Army — admittedly not a solid member of the reformed community — but a believing Christian.
They said to him, “Booth, what do you think are the chief dangers confronting the church going into the twentieth century?” and here’s his answer. “In answering your inquiry I consider that the chief dangers which confront the coming century will be religion without the Holy Ghost, Christianity without Christ, forgiveness without repentance, salvation without regeneration, politics without God, and heaven without hell.”
Well, we pray together. Lord, look upon us in your mercy, we pray. Grant that the words of our mouths, our lips, the meditation of our hearts may be acceptable in your sight, may be filled with grace, filled with Jesus.
Help us, Lord, in the battle of our day to somehow another get this right so that we might live in such a way that people would have occasion to say, “Tell me about the reason for the hope you have,” and then grant that we may have the courage to say what the word says so that we might see many turning in repentance and in faith to the Lord Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray, amen.