Get Them to Jesus

Hand_in_handWhat is the goal of evangelism and apologetics? It is not to argue endlessly, or to merely agree to disagree. The goal is very simple—get them to Jesus. In other words, the goal is to dismantle the unbeliever’s worldview so effectively, and present Jesus so compellingly, that his heart is led to repentance and faith in Christ. This truth should guide everything we do when in conversation with non-Christians.

As you ask and answer questions, clear away intellectual obstacles, and present the Christian alternative, the primary goal is to get them to consider the claims and work of Christ on the cross. This only makes sense. If what saves a person is trust in who Jesus is and what he said and did in his incarnation, then you want to try to talk about those topics as soon as the unbeliever is ready to listen and consider them. As soon as some of his objections are answered, you want to begin to introduce the gospel truths about Jesus—his divinity, his incarnation, his humanity, his life and death, and his resurrection. What a person does with Jesus determines his eternal state, so nothing else is as important.

This is the primary reason we don’t get involved in arguments about issues that don’t really matter. Paul warned Timothy to rebuke those in the church who spent time in pointless questions and speculations about matters of minor importance (1 Tim. 1:3-7). It is too easy to get off track in discussions about the age of the earth, the details of the end times, or a person’s views on cultural issues. While these may be important in other contexts, they have nothing to do with a person’s salvation. You want to focus on the central claims of Jesus to be God in the flesh, the only way to restoration with God, and the risen Savior.

Therefore, when engaging with unbelievers, focus on clearing away objections so that they can hear and consider the claims of Jesus in Scripture. What are the key claims of Jesus of which people are often unaware?

  1. Jesus claimed to be God

Many people have never considered what a radical claim this is. Jesus claimed to be God in human form. This means that Jesus could not have been simply a good teacher or a wise, wandering sage, as many people believe. C. S. Lewis addresses this dilemma in his famous “trilemma” discussion:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.” That is the one thing we must not say. A man who said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic–on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg–or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. (Mere Christianity, 55)

In other words, what people often believe about Jesus, that he was a good, moral teacher, cannot be true because of the claims he made to be God in the flesh. A good, moral person does not claim to be God. But Jesus did, in fact, claim to be God.

Sometimes critics argue this point by pointing out that Jesus never said the particular phrase, “I am God.” This is a false test of the deity of Christ, however, because the truth of a statement does not depend on particular wording if there are other ways to describe the truth. I don’t have to say, “I am a father” to establish that truth. I can talk about my children, and in doing so I state indirectly the obvious—that I am a father. In the same way, there are many different ways Jesus makes it clear that he is claiming to be God. In addition, the reactions of others when he used these various ways to state his deity demonstrate that those who heard him understood him to be claiming to be God.

  1. In John 3:13-15 Jesus claims to have come from heaven and to be the Son of Man. The term “Son of Man” does not speak primarily of Jesus’ humanity, but rather his deity. It is an allusion to Daniel 7:13-14 where the Son of Man is equated with God himself. This term is used more than 80 times in the New Testament, many of them by Jesus referring to himself.
  2. In John 5:18-26 the Jewish leaders wanted to kill Jesus because he was making himself equal to God. How was he doing that? He was comparing his miraculous works with God’s work (v. 17). This alone in the minds of the Jews was a claim to be God.
  3. In John 8:58 Jesus used the words of God in the Old Testament to describe himself. As God told Moses, “I AM who I AM,” Jesus claimed the same status for himself by saying that, “Before Abraham was, I AM.” The very next verse shows that the Jews interpreted this as another claim to deity, because they picked up stones in order to stone him for his blasphemy.
  4. In John 10:30-33 Jesus says, “I and the Father are one.” Again, the Jews pick up stones to stone Jesus. He asks them why they wanted to kill him, and their response shows that they interpreted his words as a claim to deity.
  5. Additional claims to deity can be found in the following passages: Mark 14:61-62; Mark 2:1-12; Matthew 26:63-65; Luke 22:67-70; John 16:28.

In the next post we will examine more claims of Jesus to fill out the picture of the biblical Jesus.

Planting and Watering the Seeds of the Gospel

seed plantingAt the same time you are challenging the unbeliever’s worldview, you want to begin sharing the good news of Jesus. Many Christians are not aware of the powerful claims Jesus made while on earth. Many are also unaware that compared to every other religion and belief system, only the Christian faith has the ability to explain the human condition and answer the deepest questions of the human heart. This lesson focuses on some of Christianity’s strongest arguments and equips students to know the strength of the claims for the truth of Christianity.

Planting and Watering

One of the reasons we hesitate to begin a gospel conversation with unbelievers is that we don’t know where to go with it. Or even if we do know how to lead someone to Christ, we may hesitate if we don’t think that person would become a Christian on the spot. Some people feel that if sharing the gospel doesn’t result in conversion right then and there, the whole effort is a failure.

One liberating truth of evangelism and apologetics is that God has not called us to convert people to the gospel, but simply to share, in a persuasive fashion, the good news of the gospel. Any progress that is made in sharing the truth of the gospel is a success. If the Holy Spirit is the one who convinces and convicts, then any progress made in talking about the unbeliever’s worldview and beliefs, or about Jesus and the Christian faith is a successful encounter.

The Apostle Paul used the image of planting and watering seeds when he spoke of the contributions that he and Apollos made in sharing the gospel and planting churches (1 Cor. 3:5-9). He acknowledges that we are not the difference makers in someone’s salvation, God is. We do, however, have an important part to play in the process of someone coming to faith in Christ. God often works through secondary means to accomplish his work. When a Christian shares the gospel, destroys intellectual strongholds, or challenges unbelief, he is planting and watering seeds in the heart and mind of unbelievers.

This truth should relieve the pressure from us when we think about sharing our faith. God the Holy Spirit is the one doing the great work of reaching the unbeliever, not us. We are those who simply share the truth to the degree that God opens the door for conversation. We can, without pressure or anxiety speak as much of the truth as we can, and we leave the result with God. For many people this simple truth removes the element of fear, because they know they can trust God to His part. The Christian can walk away from every encounter rejoicing that no matter how far the conversation progressed, it was a divine success.

#apologetics #evangelism

Destroying False Arguments and Pulling Down Intellectual Strongholds

Tearing Down Strongholds

 

As you ask questions and challenge the unbeliever’s worldview indirectly, you will now begin to weave into the conversation more direct confrontation of his beliefs. By this time you have already debunked some of his cherished beliefs, and if the conversation continues, he will be more open to hearing alternative explanations of the issues for which he no longer has answers. There are several ways to begin to present the Christian faith more directly.

  1. Challenge his errors and misconceptions about Christianity

While you are interacting with the unbeliever, pay attention to any “facts” he proposes about Christianity. Many times unbelievers will make accusations about the Bible or the Christian faith that are simply wrong. In such a case you must correct that error before proceeding in the conversation.

For example, if the unbeliever says, “I just can’t believe in a God who toys with people’s lives and punishes them for no reason whatsoever.” If you are not listening carefully, you might try to defend this view of God, when in fact, Christians don’t believe in this type of God. This description is a distortion of the biblical concepts of God’s sovereignty and justice. So a proper response would be something like, “Oh, I don’t believe in that type of God either. Can I tell you about the God I do believe in?” In other words, don’t let misconceptions about the Christian faith to stand without correction.

Similarly, if someone says, “I believe in Jesus! I believe he was a wise teacher who taught people to love one another and be at peace. I just don’t believe that Jesus would ever condemn people or only make one way to God.” A good response would be, “Jesus was a wise teacher and he did teach us to love one another, but he also spoke of judgment. He did claim to be the only way to God. If you are going to be fair with the evidence and not make up a Jesus of your own liking, then you have to consider everything he did and said, not just the parts you like.” By doing this you are making sure that the unbeliever understands the Christian faith accurately. This point will be expanded in the next lesson.

  1. Contrast the irrationality and contradiction of unbelief with the wisdom and rationality of the Christian faith.

As you help the unbeliever realize that his worldview is inconsistent, irrational, and contradictory by asking questions, you also want to interject the aspects of the Christian faith that provide real answers to those very questions. This is the aspect of apologetics that seeks to commend the Christian faith for its beauty and wisdom. I want to help the unbeliever see that the Christian faith meets all the intellectual tests that it encounters. The Christian faith can answer every legitimate challenge raised against it.

But there’s more. The gospel of Jesus Christ answers the deepest longings of the human heart. The reason this is so is because Christianity is about a relationship with a person—the God-man, Jesus Christ. What the unbeliever really wants in his soul, as one who was made to be in relationship with God, is to be restored to Him. Therefore, you want to present the gospel clearly and in a compelling fashion. The truth should be attractive. Even as you are removing the bricks in the wall of his worldview, you are presenting the alternative of Christ as the real answer to his longings.

This step is crucial; otherwise you may seem like nothing more than someone who likes to deconstruct the views of others. If you can present the logic and beauty of the Christian faith, you show the unbeliever that there is somewhere to go once he has rejected his former views. In order to do this the Christian needs to know his faith as thoroughly as possible. The more you understand all that the Christian faith teaches, the more thoroughly you will be able to describe the merits of the Christian faith. Second Corinthians 4:6 tells us that everything humans seek—knowledge, light, and glory—are all found in knowing Christ.

  1. If you don’t know, say so

Just as we should call the bluff of unbelievers who try to present phony evidence and unsubstantiated arguments against Christianity, we ourselves should always avoid bluffing. Unbelievers are keen to sense when a Christian is making up evidence or arguments for the faith. One of the most powerful things you can do when encountering a question or challenge to which you don’t know the answer is to say three little words: “I don’t know.”

Many people think that doing this is to admit defeat, but in reality, not knowing the answer to an unbeliever’s question shows that you are a real person. No one can know the answer to every question or objection that may be raised against the Christian faith. Doing this will give you credibility as a humble, genuine person who doesn’t try to bluff his way through a defense of the faith.

As a follow up to admitting you don’t have an answer you can say, “I don’t know, but I will get an answer and get back to you. Can we plan to meet soon so you can hear my answer?” An honest unbeliever won’t expect you to know the answer to every question and will usually respect an honest admission.

Conclusion

Learning to incorporate this method of engaging unbelievers takes considerable practice. The best way to learn, however, is not to keep reading and studying until you feel super-confident, with no doubts regarding your ability. That day will simply never come. No, the way to grow in your ability is to remind yourself of these truths and then to just go do it. Engage non-Christians in conversation. Start by asking questions about their worldview and then begin to incorporate these ideas little by little. No amount of study will replace actual encounters with unbelievers. By doing apologetics to the best of your ability, you will build up your skill in answering questions and pointing people to the gospel of Christ.

One thing that is especially important is to remember that conversion is a work of the Holy Spirit. God is the one who saves; you are merely the messenger of the truth. Be sensitive to how much the unbeliever can take at one time. If he shows interest in the Christian faith, keep going! If after awhile he seems to want to stop the conversation, model the gentleness and respect commanded in 1 Peter 3:16, and end the conversation graciously. Trust that the Holy Spirit will continue to use your words to convict and draw the unbeliever long after you are done speaking with him.

This lesson has shown that anyone can do apologetics. Anyone can learn to ask good questions. Anyone can learn to share the truth of the gospel in a clear and compelling fashion. May your efforts in this venture yield abundant fruit in the lives of the unbelievers that God brings across your path!

Asking Questions and Calling Bluffs

clarify-expectationAsking questions in an apologetics encounter is not always a straightforward venture. There are several keys to making progress in your questions with the unbeliever:

  1. Ask clarifying questions

As you ask questions and the unbeliever explains what he believes, ask questions from time to time to make sure you understand his position. If he says something unclear, such as that he couldn’t believe in such a complex God as Christianity presents, ask, “What do you mean by complex in this situation?” Sometimes people make vague or confusing arguments that are not clear at all. Be sure to ask for clarification so you don’t talk past one another. You may also ask him to define his terms, because if you both have a different understanding of an issue or concept, you will not be able to effectively communicate. Other clarifying questions include:

  • Am I understanding you correctly?
  • Are you saying that…?
  • Is it fair to say that you are arguing X position?
  1. Restate his position

Once you understand what the non-Christian believes, restate his position in simple terms. This is an important step, because once he affirms that you properly understand him, you can move on to the next step. For example, if he says that he believes that evolution explains everything in the universe, clarify by saying something like, “So you are saying that everything comes about randomly through time and chance?” This helps him see that if he wants to hold to Darwin’s theory of evolution, there are intellectual consequences. This is an important step, because once he affirms that you properly understand him, you can move on to the next step.

  1. Force him to hold his position consistently with all its implications

Once you understand what the non-Christian believes, the next step is to take his position for the sake of argument and show him the implications. For example, he may argue that everything came about by time and chance, but we should still do good to people and not harm. Show him that if this is so, we can’t say that anything is necessarily right or wrong. Anything that develops randomly is just that—random. A sense of right or wrong that everyone ought to obey cannot come from a universe that is random. In doing this you are demonstrating that his beliefs are irrational or a contradiction.

By taking his position and holding it consistently, you are showing him that beliefs should be coherent; they should be related to one another. Some beliefs are the basis of other beliefs. Other beliefs are the necessary consequences of those basic beliefs. For example, if someone is a nihilist (someone who believes that life has no meaning), then a logical consequence of that belief is that there is nothing worth living for, no action is better than another, and suicide makes sense. If the unbeliever is a nihilist, yet wants to use his life in service of humanity, you want to point out that doing so is no better than living only for yourself, because he as already started with the idea that life has no meaning.

This step is often a moment of awakening for unbelievers as they realize that their beliefs contradict each other. By asking good questions and playing along with their worldview with all its implications, you help them see for themselves the error of their thinking.

  1. Call his bluff

Sometimes in his opposition to the Christian faith the unbeliever will spout “facts” and “statistics” that seem to strengthen his case for unbelief. Often these arguments will pertain to topics you may not be familiar with. This can make you feel like you have lost the case for Christianity because you don’t know how to answer him. The truth is, however, that many times the unbeliever is bluffing. He may be making up his information, or may be quoting someone else in error. This happens more often than you might think.

For example, someone who has heard a skeptic on the radio, or read an internet article that attacks Christianity will often use those “facts” in a discussion with a Christian. Many times, however, he will get the facts wrong, misquote the source, or even misunderstand the source all together. The truth is that the average Christian knows much more about the ancient Near Eastern world of the Old Testament and the first century world of the New Testament than the average unbeliever. So when the unbeliever tries to attack some aspect of the Bible or the Christian faith, he often has no idea what he is talking about.

In these cases the Christian should “call the bluff” of the unbeliever. In other words, if you hear a “fact” that supposedly proves Christianity wrong, or challenges the truth, question it. Going back to our questions above, ask, “Where did you hear that?” or “What is your source for that fact?” or “Can you prove that statistic reliably?” Often you will find that the unbeliever has no idea where his argument came from and no way to substantiate his claim. By calling his bluff you are pulling him back to real facts. And the Christian faith deals in real, historically verified facts (1 Cor. 15:1-20).

In the next post we will address the ways to carry out 2 Corinthians 10:3-5, where we are called to destroy false arguments and pull down intellectual strongholds.

The Advantages of Asking Questions in Apologetics and Evangelism

QuestionThe key to making progress with unbelievers is asking questions. This has several advantages over a full frontal assault on the ideas opposing the Christian faith. First, as mentioned previously, asking questions encourages the conversation to continue, as opposed to expressing disagreement bluntly. In our increasingly secular society people are easily put off by disagreement.

Second, asking questions prevents the Christian from having to possess extensive knowledge of philosophy, science, history, and other academic fields. The truth is, the average Christian will never become conversant in these areas. Asking questions, however, removes the burden of having to know so much. It allows the Christian to place the burden of knowledge on the unbeliever who is rejecting Christianity.

The third advantage of asking questions is that it allows the unbeliever to arrive at conclusions about his worldview and belief system on his own without you telling him he is wrong. The goal is to ask the right kind of questions so he comes to see for himself that his beliefs are a problem. Self-discovery is powerful when it comes to belief systems. This is what is known as the subversive power of the gospel. To subvert something means to undermine it and overthrow it. The gospel destabilizes, disrupts, and sabotages belief systems constructed out of suppression of the truth. They key to doing this well and bringing the unbeliever closer to Christ is, to repeat, asking good questions.

Christian thinker, Os Guinness, explains this well:

Questions are always more subversive than statements. For one thing, they are indirect. Whereas it should be crystal clear what a statement is saying and where it is leading, a good question is not so obvious, and where it leads to is hidden. For another thing, questions are involving. Whereas a statement always has a “take it or leave it” quality, and we may or may not be interested in what it tells us, there is no standing back from a well-asked question. It invites us, challenges us or intrigues us to get into it and follow it to see where it leads. In short, even a simple question can be a soft form of subversion.[1]

As mentioned earlier, questions invite further conversation. This makes the encounter with the unbeliever more natural and less strained. The unbeliever does not feel like he has encountered a salesman, but a satisfied customer (to put it crassly). Instead of being awkward, the conversation feels more like a person who has been healed of a deadly disease telling another sick person where to find healing.

Imagine the unbeliever’s worldview as a wall of bricks that he has constructed around himself to keep the truth from pressing in on his heart and mind. Every brick in the wall is a different belief, experience, and opinion that he has built up to make him feel justified in rejecting the truth. By asking questions and showing that his beliefs are contradictory or irrational, you are removing these bricks one by one. The more you can cause him to doubt his own beliefs, the less protection he has in his unbelief and the fewer reasons he has to keep rejecting the truth. Therefore, no matter how far the conversation goes as long as some bricks are dislodged or removed, the encounter is a victory.

In the next post we will look at several keys to effective apologetics with unbelievers.

[1] Os Guinness, Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 53.

The Role of Questions in Apologetics

keep-calm-and-ask-questions-159The key to engaging unbelievers in a non-threatening way is to ask questions. This approach has several advantages. First, asking questions encourages the conversation to continue. This is a basic principle of human relationships. By asking questions about the other person, conversation is encouraged.

It is easy to see that this approach to evangelism is different than others that are often practiced. Some people who evangelize focus their efforts primarily on distributing literature such as tracts. This approach often aims for quantity—give out as many tracts as possible with minimal interaction as possible with those who take them. While tracts can be helpful as a summary of the gospel to be read at a later time, those who use them sometimes do so to avoid real conversations with unbelievers. Another approach to evangelism is what one author calls “the gospel burp.” This amounts to a monologue with the unbeliever, in which the Christian tries to blurt out as much of the gospel as possible before the unbeliever cuts him off. This is called the gospel burp because the gospel is blurted out as fast as possible, the Christian feels good afterward, and the unbeliever feels assaulted.

The approach we are advocating here, however, is a genuine engagement in conversation with the unbeliever. It starts by showing interest in the person, and asking questions that get to the heart of the unbeliever’s worldview and belief system. After beginning a conversation, the Christian may steer the conversation toward spiritual matters any number of ways. An effective segue may be something like, “So, what is your religious background?” Or equally effective would be something like, “So, what do you value most in life?” The key here is to move the conversation as naturally as you can into questions of ultimate meaning. Cornelius Van Til described this is carrying the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. In other words, almost anything, including current events, cultural events (such as music, film, literature, etc.), or common interests, can be used to transition to spiritual matters.

Once the conversation turns toward spiritual matters, the questions continue. If an unbeliever has a religious background, you can then ask something like, “Tell me about how that affected your beliefs,” or “I don’t know much about that religion/denomination. Tell me more about it.” This is a genuine request, as you should be interested in discovering as much as you can about the person, so that when you begin to share the gospel, you know how to target your presentation to the non-Christian’s actual beliefs. If the unbeliever has no religious background or has rejected belief in God, you can ask a question such as, “Why don’t you believe in God?” or “What made you lose your faith?”

The key here is to listen. To avoid the offense of the gospel burp, we must take the time to listen to unbelievers explain why they don’t believe. We must listen to the stories of how they lost their faith. Remember, evangelism and apologetics should flow out of a genuine interest in and love for that person. Listening and asking follow-up questions demonstrates respect and gentleness, and often opens the door for you to challenge their unbelief and present the gospel.

Once the non-Christian begins to tell about what he believes, you can begin to ask questions that push below the surface to the reason why he believes what he does. These are seemingly safe questions that force him to justify his own belief system. Some common questions include:

  • Why do you believe that?
  • What do you base that on?
  • Where did you get that idea?
  • What makes you think that?
  • What do you mean by that?
  • Can you give me an example of that?

These are all variations on a theme, and they make him think about the grounds for believing what he believes. The truth is, many people have not thought too deeply about why they believe what they believe. His answer to these questions will begin to reveal the authorities in which he trusts. For example, if he says, “I believe we all just evolved and that fate rules the universe.” That kind of statement is nearly impossible to answer directly, because it is so vague and involves such complicated ideas as evolution and fate. Rather than answering or arguing against this statement, you will ask one of the questions above.

In the next post we will look at the advantage of asking questions in an apologetic encounter.

Challenging the Authority of the Unbeliever’s Worldview

134ee-strongholdIn 2 Corinthians 10:3-5, the Apostle Paul explains that the battles that we fight are not physical, but spiritual battles. As a result, the weapons we use are not swords or guns, but rather truth and ideas. In the ancient world cities were surrounded by high, thick walls. The walls were the first line of defense. Inside the walls, however was a stronghold where the city stored supplies to outlast a siege. The stronghold was also a place to which the city leaders could retreat if the walls were breached until help would arrive. If the stronghold was brought down or breached, all was lost and those inside had to surrender to survive.

This is the word picture Paul uses to describe the tactic Christians should use when interacting with unbelievers. We should try to discern the authority on which the unbeliever relies. For some people, the authority is human reason; for others, science is their authority. Other authorities on which people rely include religion, a particular philosopher, parents, or their own experience. On whatever authority the unbeliever bases his ideas and values, that is the stronghold in his life.

Once the stronghold is identified we can begin to challenge that authority. By undermining the authority in which he trusts, we take away from him the grounds of his objections to the gospel. This approach echoes the wisdom saying in Proverbs 21:22, which says, “A wise man scales the city of the mighty, and brings down the stronghold in which they trust.” Even though an intellectual stronghold can be difficult to bring down, Paul reminds us that Christians have been given divine power to do so. This power is not a magical power, but is found in the arguments themselves. As he says in verse 4, we “destroy arguments.” That is, the arguments we use to defeat the objections raised against the Christian faith are powerful by virtue of being true. Truth is always more powerful than falsehood.

In our conversations with unbelievers we are seeking to show the weakness of the unbeliever’s worldview. We do this with the confidence that even though we can’t always see weakness in his arguments at first, they are there. Only the Christian faith can coherently answer the deep questions of meaning in life. The more we interact with unbelievers and seek to identify their strongholds, the better we become at identifying them accurately. When we identify them accurately we can show how the stronghold cannot stand the scrutiny of truth. But how do we do this?

In the next post we look at how to ask questions that reveal the true authority in the unbeliever’s worldview. The intent is to help him see that what he trusts epistemologically is self-contradictory, and cannot stand up to scrutiny.

God’s Response to the Suppression of Truth

In response to the idolatrous exchanges mentioned in the previous post, Romans 1 tells us that God, in judgment, “gives the unbeliever over” to punishment. This word is used three times in Romans 1, each time in response to one of the exchanges. It is used in the Gospels to describe Pilate handing Jesus over to be scourged, and Judas handing Jesus over in betrayal. It means “to hand over, to give back, or deliver into the hands of.” In other words, God’s response is to give those who suppress the truth into the hands of their unbelief. The unbeliever is forced to live with the consequences of his rejection of the truth. What are these consequences?

God hands the unbeliever over to impurity and disgrace. (v. 24, 26, 28). One of the common characteristics of those who suppress the truth is they specifically don’t want God limiting their sexuality. As a result, God gives them over to the lusts of their hearts to the extent that they become “unclean” and “without honor.” The idea of being unclean or defiled hearkens back to the Old Testament need to become ritually clean before an Israelite could approach God. Until he cleansed himself according to God’s directions, the Israelite remained impure and could not approach God. On the other end of the scale was the pagan worshiper who defiled himself with his debased worship of his gods, brutal sacrifices, and gross immorality. The pagans in Canaan were so inhuman that the land “vomited them out” (Lev. 18:28). When God hands a person over to the lusts of his heart, he has to live with the resulting uncleanness.

God also allows unbelievers to dishonor their bodies among themselves and become slaves to their passions. This speaks of the lack of dignity that comes from rejecting God’s ways. By rejecting the glory of God, the unbeliever becomes undignified as he who is made in God’s image worships animals, birds, and animals that creep along the ground (v. 23). Their minds dwell on the most worthless and beastly thoughts. The list that concludes Romans 1 details the extent of the baseness with twenty-one descriptions of the wickedness of those who suppress the truth. Paul concludes with a stunning statement—not only do those who do such things know they are deserving of death, they encourage others to do them too.

Conclusion

This extensive description of unbelievers is a stunning contrast to the way unbelievers, and often Christians, view non-Christians. Things are far worse for the unbeliever than he ever imagines. Yet, this makes the Good News all the more glorious. The more a person accepts God’s assessment of his heart and estrangement from God, the closer he comes to repentance and faith in Christ. To soften the blow of this description is to blunt the call to repentance, making salvation more difficult to obtain. Only with the conviction of his rebellion and idolatry will the unbeliever be able to see the beauty and rationality of the gospel.

In the next post, we return to the Christian’s strategy for evangelism and apologetics. We will see that God calls us to confront the intellectual and ethical fortresses that people construct in order to resist the knowledge of God that rises up in them every day.

The Intellectual Exchanges of Idolatry

Buddha and monks statue meditaing, Laos.

In order for an unbeliever to continue to deny what is obvious and plain, he must bargain with his heart and mind. Romans 1:23 calls this an exchange. This is a word drawn from Greek marketplace language where one object is traded for another, presumably of equal value. The irrationality of unbelief, however, means that something of immense value is exchanged for another thing of far lesser value. Three exchanges are mentioned in Romans 1:23-26. In response to each of these bad trades God levies a judgment against them.

  1. First, unbelievers trade the glory of the immortal God for the tarnished glory of his creation (v. 23). When God first created the world it perfectly reflected his glory. Nothing in creation was cursed by sin or tarnished in any way. It was all “very good” (Gen. 1:31). After Adam and Eve sinned, however, the creation was cursed. Humans became corrupt, animal life became marked by death and brutality, and the natural order was frustrated (Gen. 3:14-19). No longer able to see God’s glory uncorrupted, people quickly turned to idolatry, in which objects became worshiped.

An example helps us understand this. Let’s say a soldier goes off to war and brings with him a photo of his wife. He stares at the picture every day because it gives him courage and hope. He may even speak to the picture, so he feels like he is talking to her. When he returns home, we would expect him to set aside the picture and focus on his wife, talk to her, and interact with her. If he kept staring at the photo of his wife while she was present, we would question his sanity. The real is present in all its glory. The image is not needed and doesn’t compare to the glory of the real person.

Whether we talk about ancient idols (such as gold statues of animals) or modern idols (career, cars, cash, popularity, power, fame), anything we worship other than God is a mere image, something of greatly diminished glory. We were not made to worship created things, but rather the Creator. When we worship anything less than the God in whose image we are made, we diminish our dignity and endanger our humanity, making us liable to becoming inhuman. This is exactly what is described in Romans 1:31, 2 Tim. 3:2-5, and 2 Pet. 2:12, where inhuman and animalistic behavior marks the worst of those who worship created things.

  1. Second, unbelievers trade the truth for a lie (v. 25). Even when they know the truth, unbelievers, apart from the work of the Holy Spirit, do not want to accept the truth of God. To accept the existence of the Christian God that is already clearly known is to acknowledge several distasteful truths. First, to accept the existence of God is to accept his authority over his creation. This means that the unbeliever must acknowledge that God is the rightful sovereign, not human beings. It also means that the unbeliever is accountable to this authoritative God; he must give account of his actions. Second, to accept the existence of God means that the unbeliever is guilty before God. This is something no one naturally wants to admit. As a result, some people simply deny that they have sinned in any way, or that they are guilty before God.

This exchange lies at the heart of those who can accept lies they know to be untrue. When a person rejects the Christian God for another religion, or for non-belief in any deity, he accepts what he knows to be a lie. Sometimes believing a lie is easier psychologically than facing the truth. Sometimes when parents are told that their child has died, they respond by saying, “No, that’s not true. It can’t be!” They deny what they know to be true because the truth is to awful to consider.

In the case of unbelief, however, the exchange of the truth for a lie is not rooted in grief, but in rebellion. The unbeliever will accept anything other than the Christian God. This is one reason why there are so many religions in the world. Each is a variety of the human heart saying, “I will believe anything but the truth of who God is.” The ultimate expression of this foolish rebellion is denying God altogether (Ps. 15:1). However, atheists, agnostics, and skeptics don’t escape belief and worship by denying God. They simply worship other, less visible idols—reason, science, wealth, and more. As G. K. Chesterton said, “When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.” While nonbelievers often regard Christians as irrational, their rejection of what is obviously true makes them truly the irrational ones (1 Cor. 1:18-25).

  1. Third, unbelievers trade what is natural for what is unnatural (v. 26). The last trade builds on the first two. Once a person turns away from truth and glory and worships images and believes lies, he will live in a way that is the antithesis to God’s design. The word antithesis means the exact opposite. The unbeliever who suppresses truth long enough will believe that beauty is ugliness and ugliness is beauty. He will believe a moral good like trying to prevent the murder of babies in the womb is evil, and that making abortion free and easy to obtain is a moral good. He will also reject the good of sexuality as God designed it and embrace and endorse perversions of God’s design.

In this passage, homosexuality is featured as an illustration of the unnatural. Paul is not saying that homosexuality is the worst sin one could commit, but rather that homosexuality is the most vivid example of unbelievers declaring something to be good which is so obviously contrary to the design of nature. Homosexual acts are attempts to bring a union similar to sex within marriage, but without the benefit of anatomy designed for such purposes. At the most basic level of human anatomy is the complementarian design of heterosexual sex in which body parts fit and are capable of reproduction. Homosexuality cannot fulfill God’s intention because it goes contrary to His design.

All unbelief results in some form of unnatural behavior. In the Old Testament, God reminds Israel many times that the idols they worshiped were made out of the same stuff as their firewood. To burn one half of a log in the fire and carve the other half into an idol for worship goes against nature, which tells us that trees cannot hear, speak, walk, or do anything else that only God can do (Ps. 115:1-8; Is. 44:9-20).

Unnatural behavior is a hallmark of someone who has severely suppressed the truth, as is rejecting the truth for a lie and preferring images to real glory. Each of these exchanges is clearly a loss for the unbeliever. He moves farther away from relationship with God and with the life God intends. The more the unbeliever makes these exchanges, the further he descends into blindness (Is. 59:1-13; 2 Cor. 4:4).

In the next post we will examine God’s response to the idolatrous exchanges unbelievers make in their denial and rejection of God.

The Consequences of Suppressing the Truth

David Foster Wallace world copyright Giovanni Giovannetti/effigie
David Foster Wallace
world copyright Giovanni Giovannetti/effigie

In the last post we looked at the Bible’s description of the unbeliever’s epistemic situation. He knows God clearly, but tries to hold back the rising knowledge of God in his life (Rom. 1:18-20). In this post we look at the intellectual and moral consequences for the unbeliever of his constant denial of what he knows to be true.

First, suppression leads to self-deception. Romans 1 tells us that the unbeliever suppresses what is clear and obvious to him. When a person denies reality long enough, he will be unable to tell when he is wrong. The brain’s elasticity combined with the heart’s depravity can make it such that an unbeliever can thoroughly convince himself that he does not know God. This is the most blatant form of self-deception possible. The implanted knowledge of God that is reinforced by the testimony of the created order is so clear, that to deny it is to jeopardize one’s ability to think clearly. This is exactly what we see described in Ephesians 4:17-19.

Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. (Ephesians 4:17-19 ESV)

The second consequence of suppression is irrationality. That is, a person who deceives himself will begin to think and act against reason. What is ironic is that many unbelievers accuse Christians of being irrational. They are guilty of the very charge they bring against Christianity.

For example, philosophers who deny the existence of God will, in the same breath, speak of nature and the universe as infinite, powerful, creative, intentional, and benevolent. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the well-known evolutionary astronomer, speaks of the universe “choosing” him to be a scientist. These characteristics are all true of God, yet these scholars refuse to acknowledge God. They would rather attribute these properties to an impersonal universe.

Likewise, Richard Dawkins, when pressed about the origins of the universe, is forced to admit that he simply doesn’t know where the first elements that began the universe came from. His only solution to the problem is that perhaps aliens seeded the universe with the chemical building blocks that begin the Big Bang (The God Delusion). That answer, however, simply pushed the question back to the next—from where did the aliens come? In both these examples, when the truth of God is denied, the alternate explanations are completely irrational and should not be believed by thinking people.

The third consequence of suppression is that it leads to idolatry. When a person deceives himself long enough, he begins to think irrationally. And when irrationality takes root in the heart, he will do what no clear-headed person would do—he worships false gods. The irrationality is so strong at this point that the ludicrous nature of his actions escapes the unbeliever. Isaiah 44:9-20 describes the irrationality in vivid terms. A man goes into a forest, chops down a tree ad hauls it home. With half a log of wood he makes a fire and cooks his dinner over it. He takes the other half a log to a craftsman who carves it into an idol and overlays it with gold. He then falls down and worships the idol, even though it is nothing more than firewood.

This is the height of self-deception and irrationality. Yet, it is no different than many people in the modern world who worship what they know cannot restore them to God or satisfy the brokenness of their souls. People worship all kinds of objects, values, and abstract ideas. To worship means “to give oneself over to and to find one’s significance in.” And the truth is, everybody worships something. Tim Keller explains this so eloquently in his book, Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters.

A counterfeit god is anything so central and essen-tial to your life that, should you lose it, your life would feel hardly worth living. An idol has such a controlling position in your heart that you can spend most of your passion and energy, your emotional and financial resources, on it without a second thought…An idol is whatever you look at and say, in your heart of hearts, “If I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I’ll know I have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure.” there are many ways to describe that kind of relationship to something, but perhaps the best one is worship (page xviii).

David Foster Wallace was a rising star in American Literature when he suddenly took his own life at the age of 46. A few years before his untimely death, Wallace gave a commencement speech at Kenyon University that spoke powerfully to the inescapable urge to worship in humans. An atheist himself, Wallace delivered this statement in the speech:

Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.

If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.

 

Wallace confirms the teaching of Romans 1, that everybody worships something. And whatever an individual worships that is not God is an idol. So even atheists who often argue that they don’t worship anything cannot escape the fact that they inescapably attach their hopes to something in a manner that meets Keller’s criteria for worship.

We have looked at how a person becomes an idolater, but another important question is how people continue in idolatry, even when it is so obvious that they are being irrational in their worship. The rest of Romans 1 explains how it is possible, and that will be the subject of the next post.