The world is asking Christians some big questions.
At least, that’s what I’ve found lately. Whereas most evangelicals have been trained to one degree or another to answer questions like “How can I have eternal life?” or “Who is Jesus?” I’ve found that much of the unbelieving world has a far more bulky set of objections to the faith.
So last week I sat down to give thoughtful, full-bodied answers to a set of seven deep, intellectual questions asked by a friend of a friend, a self-described theistic humanist who is in the process of writing a book on the issue.
Why share my answers on the blog? So that we all may be better equipped to provide an apologia for the faith in a cultural climate where Christians are maligned (1 Peter 3:15).
What follows is a slightly edited version of my responses to each question.
“Why do you personally believe in Jesus Christ?”
Ultimately, I believe in Jesus Christ because God revealed Christ to me by the Holy Spirit and opened my heart to see him as more true, desirable, and glorious than all my sin and the other figurative gods I could follow. I don’t see any other belief system in the world that better answers history’s biggest question about God—how can there be a holy God who still forgives sinners? Only in the cross do I see the full holiness of God displayed against sin and the full mercy of God displayed in saving sinners. So in the cross I see the fullness of God and it has caused me not to want to look elsewhere.
As C.S. Lewis remarked, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it,but because by it I see everything else.”
“Do you know/believe that the Bible is completely 100% God’s Word written through man? What parts do you question the most? Or, to put it in another way what parts would you change if you could, based on how you feel about them? And, the biggest question: do you believe acceptance of Jesus Christ is the only way to heaven, and is that belief only relevant if we believe in all of scripture?”
I indeed trust that the Bible is fully inspired by God, inerrant in its original manuscripts, and is our only authority on all matters of faith and life. Honestly, I’m not sure if I “question” any of it. I certainly would not dare to change anything, nor have I ever really felt the desire to do so.
One area of personal, reflective wrestling for me over the years (not in truth, but in application) has been the strong commands about following Jesus in Luke 9:23-26 and Luke 14:26-33—“If you don’t hate everything else in comparison to me, pick up your cross, and follow me, you’re not worthy to be called my disciple.” This used to rattle my brain, especially because Jesus offers unconditional love and forgiveness. For a while it didn’t make sense, but I have always at all points in my life instinctively trusted that wherever there is an apparent contradiction in Scripture (keyword: apparent), there is always a point at which the roots converge and the competing ideas are actually in harmony. I realized that the mercy of Christ extends to those who love him more than anything else in life, which is the essence of the faith which saves. Therefore to forsake all else and deny oneself is the necessary response of someone who desires Christ above all. And if we want him, he will receive us fully and unconditionally because of his blood shed in our place.
So to answer the second part of the question: Yes, I affirm that faith in Christ is the only way to Heaven. Jesus said in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man comes to the Father except through me.”
Regarding the final part of that question—since true faith is a gift from God produced by his Spirit’s working in our hearts when we hear the message of Christ proclaimed (see Ephesians 2:8), then it stands to reason that the same Holy Spirit who produces saving faith in Christ also produces an accompanying confidence in the whole of Scripture. That said, we are all in the process of being molded, challenged, and shaped by Scripture more and more, and I am constantly learning new things in the Bible that challenge the way I think. To constantly yield our understanding to Scripture is a fruit of true conversion (see Romans 12:1-2). There are varieties of Scriptural interpretations among true believers, and it is quite possible to be wrong in many areas yet be right about Christ and thence be genuinely saved. However, when a true believer is shown what the Scriptures have to say, they will respond favorably with the Scripture. Someone who persistently denies the full counsel of what God’s Word teaches gives reason to think that Christ does not in fact dwell in them. Thus we make it our aim to have the Bible shape our minds to confirm our conversion (see 2 Peter 1:10).
“Is it possible that God is just himself without the expression of trinity? Is it possible that our own goodness is a reflection of who he is? And, the world can choose to embrace who he is through one another. I believe we have an innate ability to know what’s right and wrong based on how we were created. If we do what’s wrong, it’s not that we can’t see what’s right, but it’s our conscious ability to ignore what’s right. But, even in this does God have the power to embrace us in his unconditional love, and accept us to be with him despite our sin?”
I take the first part of this question to mean, “Is it possible that God is purely unitarian, as in the Jewish and Islamic portrayals of God, rather than Trinitarian, as in the Christian portrayal?” If by “possible” you mean, “Could the Bible be wrong about this?” or “Could one knowingly reject the Trinity and be still be saved?”, I would answer “no” to each. A Christ who is not fully God and fully human is incapable of bridging the gap between God and man and hence incapable of saving us from our sins.
If by “possible” you mean, “Does theism itself logically necessitate a belief in the Trinity?” I would answer “of course not”—the Trinity, like many doctrines of Scripture, was revealed progressively: foreshadowed in the Old Testament through various appearances of the Yahweh on earth as “Angel of the Lord,” confirmed in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, and ultimately revealed in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. We would not understand that God is triune apart from these historical events of the incarnation and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
If we were to surmise the nature of God using only natural comparisons and logic apart from Scripture, I do not believe we would not be able to arrive at the trinity—though we might, perhaps, be able to surmise that there is plurality as well as unity within God, and that if God possesses a self-conception (the Logos) and affections towards that self-conception (the Spirit), then that conception of God may be implicitly Trinitarian or at least binitarian. (Editorial note: I draw this from the teachings of Jonathan Edwards as described by John Piper. In regards to a theist having to at least admit that God might be implicitly binitarian, this was a concession made by Islamic apologist Dr. Shabir Ally in a debate with Dr. Nabeel Qureshi). But the point is moot because the Trinity is necessarily concluded from the revealing of Jesus Christ and the outpouring of the Spirit.
Is it possible that our goodness is a reflection of who he is? Yes—but a broken reflection. Everything that is good is a reflection of God’s character (see James 1:17). But as humans, though we were originally made to reflect God’s character (see the “image of God” in Genesis 1:26-27), since we rebelled from God and sinned this reflection has been broken and marred at best. We still see glimpses of what God originally intended man to be, but they are reflections which in fact pale in comparison to the original and are actually an abomination to God, because “all that does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). We have a proclivity to worship, but instead of worshiping God, we worship status, health, prosperity, family, or self—all reflections of the God-given proclivity to worship, but all abominably godless substitutes. The image of God in man turned inward because we refuse to acknowledge God or honor him (see Romans 1). This is the root of all sinful actions—a mind that is cold, dead, and hardened against God.
Can we choose to “embrace who he is through one another”? I take this question to mean, “Can we see enough of God in each other to actually find God and be saved?” To this I would answer absolutely not. It is true that we can see the evidence of God in each other and in the entire universe around us. But there are two levels on which this knowledge is insufficient to reconcile us to that God.
First, though we may see evidence of God and learn about him through various means, we constantly suppress this knowledge of God by nature and reject our obligation to honor and obey him (see Romans 1:21, 28). It is because of this that we substitute the true God for false deities that better suit our self-interests (see Romans 1:22).
Second, though we see glimpses of God around us, it only increases our accountability to God and in fact condemns us. Though not all humans in history have possessed God’s Laws expressed in the Old Testament, we all possess his laws in our consciences, which testify to us that there is a right and wrong. We see this testimony in others as well. But because we all violate our consciences, we know in ourselves that we have not kept the law of God. Creation, conscience, and human community all reveal aspects of God to us, but the knowledge of God we receive through such things are only sufficient to damn us to Hell; they are insufficient to save us. They reckon us accountable to God because they reveal to us our position before him.
So I agree that the conscience is a gift from God. It is one of the means by which God shows us right from wrong. So see what Romans 2:14-16 says: “For when Gentiles, who do not have the law [that is, the Old Testament law given the nation of Israel], by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.”
Therefore the conscience puts us in trouble before God—even if we are living on a tropical island that has never read the Bible or heard of Jesus, because all humans have an innate knowledge of God’s existence and of right and wrong.
Thus God revealed to one particular nation, Israel, the full reality of his law in codified form—saying, in essence, “Here it is once for all: right and wrong. Do right, you can have me. Do wrong, you cannot.” But as with the conscience, God’s law lacks the power to actually help us do right. In fact, all those moral commands can do is inflame our passions and tempt us even further. They expose our sinfulness and reveal our desperate need for forgiveness. When Christ came, he taught God’s law in such a way, saying that hate is tantamount to murderous desire and that lust is tantamount to adulterous desire.
You are asking the right questions. You asked if God, being loving and all, can forgive sinners if those sinners are basically well-meaning people at heart. This is part of the Bible’s biggest overall question. You have King David, whom the writer of 1 Samuel 13 called a “man after God’s own heart,” yet he was a murderer and adulterer at one point in his life. And in Psalm 32:1-2 he rejoices in saying, “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.” How is this possible? How can a just God forgive a man like David? How can David repent of his murder and adultery in Psalm 51 and go on being God’s chosen, much-loved king? Sure, he suffers some temporal consequences like losing the child from his affair and suppressing his son’s rebellion after he kills David’s other son for making a sexual advance towards David’s daughter. But Nathan, the prophet, tells David at one point, “The Lord has taken away your sin; you shall not die” (2 Samuel 12:13). How is this just? How is David still counted righteous in God’s eyes at the end of his life? David’s life is the question for all of us—how can we sin and still be forgiven by a just God? It appears that God must be both just and also the one who justifies (makes right) those who sin, in order to be consistent with his own character. The answer to that exact question is in Romans 3—it’s in Christ!
So the good news is this, as described in Romans 3:19-26:
Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
Righteousness with God doesn’t come from affirming that he exists, loving our neighbor, or doing our best to obey our consciences. Since we all fail these simple standards, righteousness can only come as a gift through Christ—who took our sin upon himself on the cross and put it to death, and who imputes to us his perfect righteousness through faith in him. Although we are hopelessly sinful, God unconditionally loves people and chooses to save them, sent Christ to die for their sins so that God’s justice would be maintained, at the right time sends his Holy Spirit in us to awaken faith in Christ within us, and thereby promises to keep us secure to the end heading towards Heaven (see Romans 8:29). This unbroken chain is the chain of how God can unconditionally love and accept sinners while still meeting the demands of justice. Apart from faith the atoning work of Christ no one can be saved.
“If God’s love is unconditional, then isn’t it a condition in itself to believe in him so we can obtain salvation? Or, does God’s love end for us when we die and do not know him?”
This is partly answered by my above response. God has unconditional love, but he does not love everyone in the same way. There is both universality and particularity in the love of God. Note John 3:16: “For God so loved the world [all types of people] that he sent his one and only Son so that whoever believes [Greek: all the believing ones] would not perish but have eternal life.” There is a sense in which God loves the entire world, yet that love is expressed in salvation that is only applied to some individuals. That is because God’s unconditional love is not rooted in the loveliness of mankind, but in the glory of God—in that God is most glorified by demonstrating wrath to some and showing mercy to others.
See Romans 9:21-24:
Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?
To summarize, God’s love is unconditional towards his people, those chosen from before time. These are all the people who at some point in their lives respond to the Gospel message in faith—“all the believing ones” as John 3:16 puts it. They are chosen unconditionally by God because no good deeds, sinfulness, race, creed, background, gender, nationality influenced God’s decision to save. He simply saved them because he wanted to.
This is the supreme demonstration of God’s mercy—that it is applied with no respect to a person’s worthiness or unworthiness. In this love I delight because I know that God’s love for me is rooted in his character, his desire to show his mercy through the cross—not in what I might boast as being any sort of loveliness towards him. This is not true for those who are not elect; God has certainly shown them kindness by allowing them to live life on earth, enjoy food and air, giving them commonplace blessings, giving them opportunity to hear the Gospel, and in not damning them instantly the first time they sinned (see Psalm 145:9, Matthew 5:45). But ultimately such persons harden their hearts against God, sin freely, and God is justified to choose not to overcome their stubbornness and leave them to their fate in judgment. God is glorified in this too. Moreover, his mercy upon believers is glorified in this, because they look at the judgment of the rest of humanity and realize how costly their own salvation was and honor God as a result. Thus God is magnified as the supreme, joy-giving, all-satisfying treasure that he is, as a God of mercy and of justice simultaneously.
In fact, salvation is conditional because it is conditioned on such things as you mentioned—namely, faith in Christ. But God’s love is unconditional because it is only possible to have faith in Christ—that is, to fulfill the condition of salvation—if God chooses you, permits you the hear the Gospel, brings your heart alive in faith, and grants you such belief through the sovereign intervention of the Holy Spirit (see Ephesians 2:8). Faith in Christ is actually not possible apart from the change of heart granted by the Holy Spirit (see Ezekiel 36:26, John 10:26, Romans 8:8).
“Do you think religion divides man? More deeply, do you think the structure of religious principles cause division rather than man himself?”
Religious is absolutely a source of division. False religions constantly divide men and have put nonstop friction between nations for all of human history. True religion—faith in the God of the Bible—is also a source of division, but this is a necessary division as it separates God’s people from a world in rebellion (see 2 Corinthians 6:16-18, Luke 12:52-53). A good visual picture for this is the division between Noah and his neighbors—an unfortunate division, but it was also that division of those within the ark and those outside the ark that allowed Noah and his family to be spared! Thus if we are not inside God’s saving vessel—Jesus Christ—we too will be swept away along with the rest.
So to answer the second part of the question, I do think man himself is to blame rather than the “structure of religious principles.” Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” Likewise Ephesians 2:1-2 tells us that human nature is corrupt and depraved. With or without religious structures, whether rooted in true religion or false religion, man will find reason to quarrel and fight—because it is our sinful desires that are at war within us (see James 4:1-3). Religious principles are not the ultimate culprit for human division, though they are a culprit. The ultimate culprit is that all of man is born at war with God in his mind, and the effects of that are experienced on a variety of levels.
“When does sin become warranted? If sin can become warranted then the issue lies in the heart of man rather than what’s biblically written.”
Sin is never warranted. Sin is any thought, action, or attitude that dishonors or disobeys God or prefers something lesser to him. Sin is an issue in the heart of man. It is the issue in the heart of man. The Scripture performs two functions: the Law diagnoses the problem of sin, and the Gospel provides the remedy to sin through the atoning death of Christ and the power of God to change the human heart.
“Do you believe humanism and religiosity can become cohesive? Would these ideologies be able to sacrifice parts of what they both believe and be able to bridge the gap in their disagreements?”
Religiosity is a fickle word. Religiosity seems to refer to a set of practices and beliefs which man thinks will be able to bridge the gap between him and God, or between him and some ultimate form of happiness. Religiosity is the attitude of the Pharisees, the attitude of Islam, and was the attitude of the ancient Athenians in Acts 17. With this definition of religiosity humanism shares much in common. They are both about man finding his own personal worth and happiness. Humanism and legalistic, hyper-religiosity share the same root: sin—the state of a human heart turned inward on itself rather than reflecting the image of God.
True religion, however—faith in Christ as revealed in the Scripture—shares nothing with humanism nor religiosity. In particular, to drive at the root of what I think you’re asking, biblical Christianity cannot share any common ground with humanism. One is built on the glory of God and the other is built on the glory of man. In one, God is glorified in providing his Christ for us, and we are satisfied and filled with joy in knowing him. In the other, man is glorified in being his own “Christ,” and must endlessly search for meaning in the pleasures of this short, futile life. Biblical Christianity cannot compromise any of the doctrines of the Scripture because it would cease to be biblical Christianity.
However, if we’re seeking to work our way from a humanistic worldview to a biblical worldview, here’s what I would say. Man craves meaning. We are all seeking to find ultimate purpose and joy. We are all, in one sense or another, seeking immortality—and banking our life on wherever we think the solution to be. The Muslim seeks purpose in living an outwardly religious life and living in paradise forever, and he bets his life on his good deeds earning him immortality. This is empty. The humanist seeks purpose in physical pleasure, rationalistic pursuits, the advancement of humanity, and efforts towards altruism. He seeks immortality, perhaps not in a literal sense, but in a sense of lasting legacy and meaning that will somehow outlive him. This too is empty.
We all fall short because we walk in the footsteps of our forefather Adam, who fell into the trap of looking for meaning within himself rather than in God, and thus became a sinner and condemned all of us to sin and death. So we’re all hopelessly lost looking for meaning apart from the fountain of all joy and worth, God himself. The solution is this: only one human ever lived a perfect life and earned immortality, and that is Jesus Christ—God in human form. And because he offered himself to us as the perfect man, we can be made alive in him. If we repent from all sin and trust in his finished payment on the cross, the barrier between us and God is lifted. We have immortality with God forever and the promise of a resurrection fashioned after Christ’s own resurrection. We have ultimate joy and peace because we know God. We have a solution to our own evils because the Holy Spirit is dwelling within us changing us.
It is little wonder why David penned these words in Psalm 16: “Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices; my flesh also dwells secure. For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption. You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”
Image credit: Huge Chisholm (CC 2.0)