Coming Face to Face with God
Introduction: “No one” declares the master Puritan theologian John Owen, “can grasp or rightly understand evangelical theology by human power or reliance on intellect, apply what outside assistance he will, for none of these things will bring him to experience the salvation to which this theology points the human mind. In this, its nature is distinct from all human sciences. As our Lord proclaims so eloquently, “No man can come to Me, except the Father which hath sent Me draw him: (John 6:44). It is this theology which demonstrates everywhere that men outside of Christ are dead in their sins, blind, foolish, and so stupid that they cannot grasp this heavenly teaching nor accept it in a saving way”.[i] This is a far cry from the popular notion that is entertained by many professing evangelicals that people not only can seek after the True and Living God, but actually are self-inclined to do so![ii] Christians are not immune to lapsing into a decidedly unbiblical way of thinking about God. Here are only a few ways that this happens.
Deism. Since in this theory the linking power of God’s Word is absent, the Creator and the creature are allowed to drift apart. Deists are, however, not atheists. They still formally acknowledge a Supreme Being, a higher Hand, as the original source of the world. But once created, the world is ascribed an independent existence over against its Maker. God becomes an absentee landlord on a rather permanent holiday. He may indeed occasionally pay a surprise visit. We call such supernatural visitations miracles. For the rest, however, mankind, endowed with certain “inalienable rights,” acts autonomously. Once the great clockmaker designs, constructs, and winds up his masterpiece, the clock then runs on its own according to natural law. The result is practical atheism.
Pantheism. This theory drifts in the opposite direction. In the absence of God’s Word, which fixes the borderline between Creator and creature, God and the world are allowed to converge. Pantheism is a modern form of ancient neo-Platonism, except that, whereas in the latter the movement is from God downward into the creation, in modernity the movement is upward from the creation into God. The world tends toward a higher spiritual unity, evolving into divinity. Men possess within themselves a “spark of the divine” which can be fanned into full flame. The noblest in creation is man, and the noblest potentiality in man is God. God is thus a symbol of the disunity of all creation at its highest level of achievement. By an evolutionary process pantheists view man and all creation as either actually or potentially divine—thus wiping out the Creator/creature distinction.
Gnosticism. This also is a neo-Platonic system of thought, but instead of seeing creation as evolving toward God, sees it as devolving from God. God is pure Spirit. Inasmuch as creation is material, it is of a lower order, enslaved to an alien power. Material things are to be avoided by fleeing the world. The spiritual in creation and in man, which is good, is viewed as the sole avenue of communion with the divine.
Voluntarism. Unlike deism, however, voluntarism ascribes literally every activity in the world to the immediate and arbitrary intervention of God. Creation has no significant reality of its own. For this would constitute a threat to the sovereignty of God. God is everything, creation nothing. The world has no real integrity. Its history is a marionette show. Creational activity is a direct extension of the will of God. Every important creaturely action is at bottom a divine action. The divine will is the unmediated cause of all culturally formative happenings. The result is quietism. (Extremely popular in pietistic circles i.e., “Let go and Let God”).
Monism. This contemporary worldview is a kind of inverted form of pantheism—inverted in the sense that, instead of creation evolving toward divinity, the divine is assimilated into the historical process. God has no identity or integrity apart from the world, nor the world apart from God. Yet the two cannot simply be fused. There is duality (the sacred and the secular) within a unitary process—captured in the concept “pantheism.” God’s existence is therefore no longer describable in terms of “up there” or “out there,” but only “down here” and “in here.” He is deeply enmeshed in the unfolding historical process, which, as a closed continuum, spirals open-endedly toward its future. That future represents the full eschatological unfolding of the reality of God-and-man-together. Monism, a form of radical historicism, like pantheism and Gnosticism, finally demands a thoroughgoing restatement of the Creator/creature question, since in the end both parties lose their unique identities.[iii]
In 1736, in Northampton, Massachusetts, Jonathan Edwards preached a sermon entitled, “Men Are Naturally God’s Enemies.” In this sermon, Edward gave a lengthy exposition of the Biblical text, “For if when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his son…” (Rom. 5:10). The basic thesis of the sermon was that man hated God. Edwards allowed that men rarely claim moral perfection and would readily admit that they sinned. However, men protest the charge that they are enemies of God, arguing that they bear no malice and feel no hatred toward God. Edwards proceeded to challenge that disclaimer by analyzing human behavior in such a way as to demonstrate that man shows his hostility to God by his behavior. In summarizing the substance of Edwards’ sermon, R. C. Sproul remarks, “In a word, natural man suffers from prejudice. He operates within a framework of insufferable bias against the God of Christianity. The Christian God is utterly repugnant to him because He represents the threat of threats to his own desires and ambitions. The will of man is on a collision course with the will of God. Such a course leads inexorably to a conflict of interests.”[iv] The blindness that is in the heart of man, which is spoken of in the text, is neither for want of faculties nor opportunity to know, but from positive cause. There is a principle in his heart of such a blinding nature that it hinders the exercises of his faculties about spiritual matters, exercises for which God has made him capable and for which He gives him abundant opportunity.[v]
I. Man’s Extreme Blindness in Spiritual Matters is Manifested is Manifested in the Things which Appear in Their Open Profession
A. It Appears in the Grossness of the Ignorance and Delusion Which Have Appeared Among Men.
Man was created in the image of God and is capable of inferring from creation the existence of God (Rom. 1:20). Yet, grossly absurd notions concerning the Godhead have prevailed in the world. Instead of acknowledging and worshipping the true God, they have fallen off to the worship of idols
B. It Appears in the Profession of Things That Are Unnatural.
They have not only embrace errors which are contrary to Truth, but are contrary to humanity, such as offering their children in sacrifice to their idol. Many have and do worship their idols with painful and tormenting rites, as cutting and gashing their flesh.
C. It Appears in Their Confidence in Their Errors and Delusions.
Multitudes live and die in the most foolish and absurd notions and principles and never seem to doubt of their being in the right.
D. It Appears in the Desperation of Man’s Ignorance and Delusion.
No nation or people in the world have ever had any remedy or deliverance from such gross ignorance and delusion from themselves. No instance can be mentioned of any people who have once fallen into heathen darkness or any other gross superstitious and ridiculous opinions in religion that ever had any remedy by any wisdom of their own.
II. Man’s Extreme Blindness in Spiritual Matters is Manifested by Inward Experience and Their Practices Under the Gospel
A. This Is Seen in Their Proneness to Be Deceived.
They are deceived about God and Christ. They imagine there is happiness and satisfaction in the profits, pleasures, and honors of the world. They undervalue the heavenly glory and are not much terrified with the damnation of hell. They are deluded about themselves. They think they are wise when they are fools.
B. This Is Seen in Their Blindness to That Which Is Clear and Plain.
If we consider how great God is and how dreadful sin against Him must be and how much sin of which we are guilty and of what importance it is that His infinite majesty should be vindicated, then how plain that man’s righteousness is insufficient! Yet our natural spiritual blindness is such that we cannot see the light.
C. This Is Seen in That Small Things Will Deceive and Confound Them.
A little self-interest or only the bait of some short gratification of a sensual appetite or a little stirring of passion will blind men’s eyes and make them argue and judge most strangely and perversely and draw the most absurd conclusion. The devil finds it easy work to deceive them a thousand ways.
D. This Is Seen in Their Remaining Stupidly Insensible Under Great Means of Instruction and Conviction.
They are told how eternal things are of greater importance than temporal and of what importance it is to escape eternal misery. They have the evidence of the shortness and uncertainty of life. They find the world is vain and unsatisfactory. They find by experience that their attempts to make themselves better fail, but alas, with what small effect!
III. Practical Inferences and Application of the Subject of Man’s Mutual Blindness in Spiritual Things
A. By This We May See How Manifest Are the Ruins of Man’s Fall.
The principal faculty by which God has distinguished man from the rest of the creation is his understanding. Would God so distinguish man and then seal up the understanding with blindness to render it useless? Therefore, if the Scripture had not told us so, yet we might safely conclude that mankind is now in a fallen state and condition and is completely helpless in changing it.
B. By This We May See the Necessity of Divine Revelation.
If human reason is really sufficient and there is no need of anything else, why has it never proved so? Why has it never happened that so much as one nation, one city or town, or one assembly of men have never been brought to the notion of Divine things unless it was by the revelation contained in the Scriptures?
C. By This We See the Great Mercy of God in Sending His Son Into the World.
It is a wonderful instance of Divine mercy that God has so beheld us in our low estate as to provide such a glorious remedy. He has not sent a created angel, but His own Son. He sent Him to be the light of the world, as Christ said, “I am come a light into the world” (John 12:45).
D. By This We May See the Misery of All Persons Under the Power of Darkness.
1. The misery which is universal to all natural men. All who are in a natural condition are in a miserable condition because they are in an extremely dark and blind condition. It is uncomfortable to live in darkness. That natural men are not sensible of this blindness and the misery they are under by reason of it is no argument that they are not miserable.
2. The misery of the person s whom God has judicially blinded. The Scripture teaches that some are judicially blinded (Rom. 11:7; II Corinthians 3:14; Isa. 6:6-10). This judgement is inflicted for contempt and abuse of offered light, resisting the Holy Spirit and the many gracious calls and counsels of God. Such as are given up to this blindness are especially miserable.
Conclusion: Most people (even among professing evangelicals[vi]) have an aversion to seeing God as a God of wrath. But that is one of the ways Scripture characterizes Him. “A jealous and avenging God is the Lord,” wrote Nahum the prophet. “The Lord takes vengeance on His adversaries, and He reserves wrath for His enemies. The Lord is slow to anger and great in power, and the Lord will by no means leave the guilty unpunished…Who can stand before His indignation? Who can endure the burning of His anger? His wrath is poured out like fire” (Nahum 1:2-3, 6). Isaiah said, “The day of the Lord is coming, cruel, with fury and burning anger, to make the land a desolation; and He will exterminated its sinners from it” (Isa. 13:9). The Lord Himself said, “Behold, My anger and My wrath will be poured out on this place, on man and on beast and on the trees of the field and on the fruit of the ground; and it will burn and not be quenched” (Jer. 7:20).
In the New Testament John the Baptist declared, “His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matt. 3:12). Paul said regarding the lost, “Because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God” (Rom. 2:5). In the Book of Revelation we read of Christ, “From His mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it He may smite the nations; and He will rule them with a rod of iron; and He treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty” (19:15). MacArthur concludes, “Scripture paints an absolutely fearful and horrifying picture of God’s wrath. Yet today’s church has soft-pedaled the theme of judgment and quietly omitted or altered the doctrine of hell.”[vii] We are not free to pick and choose what we like about God. Rather we are to come face to face with the God of Scripture, the true, and living God. There is no other and He in great mercy extends to us the call to faith in Christ. A faith that leads to repentance and to peace with God.
[i] John Owen, Biblical Theology (rpt. Soli Deo Gloria, 1994), p. 603.
[ii] Lee Strobel, one time teaching pastor at Willow Creek Community Church (he is now at a West Coast mega-church—Saddleback Community Church) authored a book with this hubristic title What Would Jesus Say? (Zondervan, 1994) Strobel has the audacity to offer up what he thinks Jesus would say to contemporary personalities like O.J. Simpson, Rush Limbaugh, cartoon character Bart Simpson, David Letterman, and Madonna! Regrettably the Evangelical Free Church denomination decided to us Strobel’s exchange between Jesus and Madonna as an evangelistic tract! Strobel contends that “Madonna, at least to some degree, in her own way is seeking God.” He further states that Madonna’s “befuddled” misunderstanding of God is traceable not to her sinful lifestyle and darkened heart but to inaccurate and distorted instructions she received as a child. This is pure Pelagianism (the belief that at heart people are basically good and only go astray due to bad teaching or example). cf. the analysis by David W. Hegg “The Modern Marketing of the Gospel, Reformation & Revival Journal (Vol. 5, No. 1, Winter 1996)
[iii] Extended discussion found in G. J. Spykman, Reformational Theology: A New Paradigm for Doing Dogmatics (Eerdmans, 1992), p. 72.
[iv] R.C. Sproul, The Psychology of Atheism (Bethany Fellowship, 1974), p. 154.
[v] The following outline is distilled from Edwards’ sermon as found in The Works of Jonathon Edwards II (rpt. The Banner of Truth, 1974), pp. 131-140
[vi] The Open-View theists like Clark Pinnock and John Sanders drastically re-defined the attributes of God so that the result is that God’s wrath completely disappears. cf. Pinnock’s Unbounded Love: A Good New Theology for the 21st Century (IVP, 1998), John Sanders’ The God Who Risks: A theology of Providence (IVP, 1998), states that the cross is not to be understood in terms of a penal satisfaction. He writes, “I understand sin to primarily be alienation, or a broken relationship, rather than a state of being or guilt. This damages relationship has produced mistrust, and we cannot compel God to love us. Furthermore, there is nothing we can do to merit God’s love. Similarly, God cannot compel us to reciprocate his love, for that would not be love. In order to win our love, God forgives us the injury done to him. God considers the breach in our relationship a greater evil than the harm we have cause and so desires reconciliation.” (p. 105). This is entirely foreign to the teaching of the New Testament.
[vii] J. MacArthur Jr., God: Coming Face to Face with His Majesty (Victor, 1993), p. 88.