Our Reformed Heritage
Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies
by Bob Burridge ©2016 (updated)
Lesson 1 – “The Obvious God” – Romans 1:18-21
Back when I was in elementary school, my grandfather took me to see New York City. Along with the Statue of Liberty and the famous subway, one of the things I wanted to see was the Empire State Building. It was the tallest building in the world back then. We wandered around for a while looking for it and finally we asked a police-officer where it was. He just pointed … we were right in front of it!
Sometimes we miss things not because they aren’t there, but because we just don’t see what’s obvious, and we are probably imagining it to be different than what it is.
We’re to glorify God, and to declare that glory to others – even though some don’t seem to see that it’s there. When we speak about God’s glory to other believers in Christ we are encouraged together. We help one another know and obey the revealed ways and truths we find in our Bibles. Together we are comforted by God’s promises, and the wonder of what he is. We appreciate the amazing grace that redeemed us from the grip of our Abductor.
But when we talk about God’s glory to the unbelieving world around us there is a problem. We tell them about the gospel. But they are blinded by their fallen nature. As the Apostle Paul sums it up in Romans 3:11, “There is none who understands; There is none who seeks after God.” In 1 Corinthians 2:14 he wrote, “But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”
It’s like explaining the colors of the rainbow in a society where everybody’s totally blind. They have heard about colors, but have no idea what we are talking about.
When we tell unbelievers what God has revealed in Scripture, they will not really see what we are pointing out. In their unbelief they re-interpret the facts so they fit into what they already believe.
They usually reason that if there is a God, he should be what they expect him to be. They presume they see everything as it really is. They rule out what they do not want to accept as possible. But any crazy theory (as improbable as it may be) is accepted if it helps them explain away the supernatural workings of an Infinite, Sovereign, and Holy God.
It goes deeper than just dealing with questions about science, philosophy. and theology. The real motive is to convince themselves they are not accountable to the God who made them.
The problem is that when they assume they can test God by their own man-made rules, they have already assumed that God is not what he says he is, and that they are not what God says they really are. By this circular reasoning, man puts himself, the creature, as a test of the Creator.
Paul shows how foolish this is in Romans 9:20, “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?”
So, how do we get the unbeliever to Believe In God? We tell him what God has made known, things he is going to deny because of his blindness. But we tell him anyway because God can take away the blindness when the right time comes.
First we need to realize that God is not a secret that only believers can see.
Everything God made declares him to everybody all the time. In Psalm 19 starts out saying, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.”
In Romans 1:18-21 Paul says, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.”
Even the human conscience, though still fallen in sin, testifies to truths fallen men do not want to admit. Paul adds in Romans 2:15, “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 .”
In Romans 1:22-25 Paul goes on to say, “Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.”
It’s not that God’s communication to us in nature and in our conscience is unclear.
Their fallen condition prejudices unredeemed humans to deny the obvious.
In their blindness, those not redeemed in Christ strip away the God-glorifying content present in Creation. They suppress it. They refuse to accept it as it is. Their lost minds try to explain away the plain message embedded in all the things God made, and felt in the voice of their own conscience. All the reasoning and logical proofs we present will not change the disposition of their lost hearts.
Not every believer knows how to answer all the arguments of the philosopher, the evolutionist, the social liberal, the nihilist, or the post-modern theologian. But all have God’s truth which is preserved for us in the Bible. Our job is to declare what’s already obvious, and patiently pray leaving the results in the hands of God who alone can change the unbeliever’s heart.
But the declaring must be done well. We all have a duty to understand the Scriptures as thoroughly as we can. We need to take advantage of every opportunity to be taught well.
We also need to be sure that the word is growing in our hearts, not just in our heads. If our lives contradict what we say, our message will be confused too. This does not mean we need to be sinless. That attitude would directly conflict with Scripture. We need to admit our sins humbly, trusting Christ for forgiveness, and be working sincerely to overcome our sins out of our love for God.
This approach is not going to be accepted well by the unbeliever until the Holy Spirit works in his heart. We should not expect it to. The fallen soul does not like to be told he is so prejudiced that he denies the obvious. And what is worse, he hates the idea that aside from God’s grace he can’t do anything about it. But the facts stand clearly on the pages of Scripture.
These ideas have been under attack for a long time. Not only from those outside the church, but also from those who manage to sneak in as wolves in sheep’s clothing. It should not surprise us that Satan infiltrates the church with his ideas to weaken us. This is what even human enemies have done to defeat one another for ages.
In the Early Church there were all sorts of cults and mystical claims that crept in.
The Middle Ages saw the invasion of both secular rationalism and extreme mysticism into the church. Sometimes church councils adopted ideas that were not in the Bible. At times individuals claimed to get visions on their own from God. Some have believed stories of miracles that attest to ideas completely contradictory to the Bible. In each case, information from outside of Scripture crept in confusing God’s message.
Liberalism in the late 19th Century tried to explain away all the supernatural elements in the Bible.
Then came Post-Modernism that says it’s not even important if there is real truth or not. It all becomes subjective and unimportant. They say that what’s important is what’s real to the individual. Man becomes the test of what’s valuable, and God fades into a mere comforting myth.
Through all this, God has kept his truth alive in his church.
One who led in keeping the church anchored to it’s biblical roots was Dr. Cornelius Van Til.
He is one of those great Christians I have had the privilege of meeting personally. I spent a few very enjoyable afternoons at his home drinking lemonade and discussing biblical things. I got to see how humble, kind, and patient that brilliant man was.
He was born in 1895 in Grootegast, Holland to a dairy-farming family of 8 children. He was the 6th. When he was 10 his family sailed to America and settled in Indiana.
Though he loved farming and animals, Cornelius loved scholarship too.
He worked as a part-time janitor to attend Calvin Preparatory School, and Calvin Seminary. There he mastered Latin, Greek and Hebrew. He already knew Dutch and English well. At Calvin he studied under Louis Berkhof, then transferred to Princeton to study under Machen, and some of the all-time greats of Reformed Scholarship: Charles Hodge, Robert Dick Wilson, O. T. Allis and Geerhardus Vos.
He won awards for his papers on theology and philosophy and earned his PhD in 1927. He lectured in Princeton for a short while, but when it was re-organized to line up with Liberalism, he went with Machen and others to form Westminster Seminary. Later in 1936 he helped form the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
Van Til died on April 17th in 1987. I remember hearing that sad news (our loss, his gain) the same year I was ordained as a Pastor.
His lasting legacy is his work on what’s called the Presuppositional Apologetic.
Apologetics deals with what is knowable, and how we can have confidence in the truth of what we know. In general, the word “apologetic” has a broad set of meanings. We think of apologizing as admitting we are wrong about something and that we feel bad about it. That’s not at all what we mean here. Christian apologetics is not apologizing — it’s almost it’s opposite.
The Greek word used in the New Testament is “apologia” (ἀπολογία). It means giving a defense of innocence, or to explain something. In Theology and Philosophy it has a more narrow technical meaning closer to the New Testament use of the word by Paul and Peter. It’s how we can have confidence in the truth of what we know.
The Presuppositional approach exposes the assumptions people make about the Bible. Things they pre-suppose. We all begin our thinking with some presumptions. There are things we assume before we start reasoning things out. By their nature assumptions are things that cannot be tested. To test something you need a standard to compare it with. That standard needs to be tested too – tested by something still more reliable. Eventually we come to our “presuppositions” – things we assume before we start “supposing” things.
We all have these fundamental ideas – whether we’re aware of them or not. We have a view of ourselves, of what is around us, and how we find out about things.
In our fallen condition we assume we can figure things out with our senses and minds. We gather information, put it together, then we draw conclusions about things. The problem is – we are not neutral about how we see and interpret things. Since we are not neutral, we deny our own bias. The lost often deny they start with any presumptions. They think they begin on neutral ground. They just observe, measure, and use science, math, and logic to come to conclusions. But how do they know they are not biased? How do they know they have gathered all the information they need? They presume they can reason free from assumptions, and that neutrality is possible. They stand firmly upon these assumptions, the very point they are denying. They assume they have no assumptions.
Christians have presumptions too. Certainty rests in the God who made what we study, rather than in the mind that studies them. Our awareness of these first principles is the work of the Holy Spirit. He enlivens the soul and enables the redeemed to perceive the realities God has made known.
Some try to defend the Bible with arguments from Science, Philosophy, and an appeal to our Emotions. But the Bible does not need that kind of defense. The findings of scientists, philosophers, and motivational speakers do not stand over the Bible.
Ultimately, it’s not our intellect or science that give us truth. All truth has but one source: God the Creator. We as creatures can only know what is true because God has told us.
All of creation declares God’s truth and glory all the time. He created us originally as creatures with a soul able to do either good or evil. The unfolding of God’s plan in history shows his unfailing promises. Inside, we have a conscience to condemn our sin and point us to God. Since our fallen nature distorts what we see in creation and what our conscience says, God also gave us his written word in the Bible to clear up the confusion.
Then there is that problem: Sin blinds us to all this truth as it’s given.
The revealed fact is clear in God’s word, but we are prejudiced against it because of sin’s effects. Since the fallen world begins its thinking with the reasoning of the creature instead of what the Creator said, it’s bound to come up with a distorted view of everything. To him, every beam of light, particle of matter, and wave of energy is a product of chance and evolution, and we are the judges of what is important in it.
So when we talk about God and Creation, the world hears something different. The unredeemed think of God as a religious idea we have developed down through the ages. They see him as a bigger, but not as an infinite being since he could not keep evil from happening. This makes God either an illusion, mean, incompetent, or powerless in moral matters. To many of the superficially religious, they think of God as limited. They believe he needs the work of the church or our permission in order to redeem individuals. So a social gospel or a gospel of works takes the place of the message of grace and salvation.
So how can we deal with the atheist, the cynic, the confused, and the misguided religious?
We tell them the truth simply and honestly. We confidently assume that what God himself tells us is what really is. We pray because only God can use the gospel to change people’s hearts.
We do not test the Bible against the inventions of men. We test the inventions of men against the Bible. All our evidences, arguments, proofs, and pleadings cannot change the lost heart. But all these can be effective when the power of Christ is at work.
People ask, “Is there a God?” You may as well ask if you had parents. Since we are here, we had parents. Their image is stamped all over us. It’s in our eye color, hair color and texture, bone structure, facial features, and skills. Since the universe is here, there is a Creator. The image of the one who made it is stamped all over it.
I like to say, “You don’t have to prove the sharpness of the Bible as the Sword of the Spirit. Just stick them with it.”
God blesses his word and his faithful people’s use of it.
There is a God, and he has told us about himself in his word. We begin with him, not with ourselves making up tests for him to pass to satisfy us.
We should learn and declare by word and life what God has made known. We should encourage others to trust and obey those principles and promises too. But God alone can change the lost heart. So we pray and live in confidence of God’s wisdom.
Dr. Van Til wrote, “no one can see Scripture for what it is unless he is given the ability to do so by the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit.”
John Calvin saw this in the Bible too. Without a truly Sovereign God who changes us by grace alone, there is a different gospel that rests more on the creature than on the Creator.
Van Til said that “in practice every evangelical who really loves his Lord is a Calvinist at heart. How could he really pray to God for help if he believed that there was a possibility that God could not help him?”
Van Til quotes B. B. Warfield who said, “Calvinism is just Christianity.”
What could possibly be easier than to simply point out the obvious?
We have the power of God and his promise that everyone who hears our message, and whom he intends should believe it, will without fail believe and come to Christ. Those who do not come show that our God has not worked in them yet. In some he never will.
But we are not to try to figure out who will believe and when to give up. We are to keep on with the Good Message. If we obey, should the results go either way, we can’t fail in the duty given to us by God.
Note: Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.