Sometimes the most religiously educated minds are the most spirituality ignorant.
Jesus confounded the religious teachers and authorities of His day. Like the time Jesus asked a perplexed Nicodemus (John 3:3-21) why he “Israel’s teacher” could not understand the basics of spiritual birth.
Nicodemus was a religious expert. He had no doubt studied Scripture his entire life. Yet his mind was dull to spiritual things, his existing knowledge clouded him, and he clearly was not understanding what Jesus was trying to explain.
What was Jesus trying to explain to Nicodemus?
Nicodemus is not the only religious authority totally ignorant of spiritual matters. Many professing Christians have the same dullness of mind of Nicodemus because they have yet to be born of the Spirit and to realize the fullness of truth.
The religiously minded tend to think they gave birth to themselves. They believe they were saved by their own study and understanding of a book. No, they will never say this in so many words, but it is evident in what they claim as the foundation of their faith and attitudes towards those who try to give credit to God alone.
The thoroughly indoctrinated church borns, those who are the cream of the crop in their own minds, are the most difficult to convince.
How do I know?
I was one of them. I was raised in a bastion of Biblical fundamentalism and religious pride. I was born in a conservative Mennonite home. (We are the best of the best and know it—Don’t let our initial humble appearance fool you!) I went into public high school arrogant enough to think I knew more about biology than the college educated teacher of the class.
This is not unusual, Biblical fundamentalist children are often ‘big fish in a little pond’ and the smartest person they know. To make matters worse, they are often isolated from outside influences (home schooled or raised with like-minded people) and too sheltered to realize how sheltered they are.
The result is that many things are just presumed to be true and never questioned. Yes, we are fed a steady diet of information to make us feel knowledgeable about everything from science to theology and philosophy. But most of it is a strawman of the other side and an attempt to vaccinate us from further questions.
But I had the misfortune of being born with a question “why” on my lips. I delved deep into apologetics, slipped on a personal tragedy, and found I could not (despite my dedicated effort and mental strain) prove the existence of God. I thrashed, gasped for that last saving breath, then disappeared into doubt and despair.
“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” (Friedrich Nietzsche)
A mother’s wail ripped a hole in my heart. All of my pretense of knowledge couldn’t save her children or keep me from my plunge into spiritual darkness. I stared at the lifeless body that had come to represent my hope for my close friend. There was no resurrection of the dead that day. My little hope died.
I had reached an end. All of the religious cliché and trite assurances were swallowed up in a tsunami of fear and hopelessness. Over the same period of time I had a falling out with the religious community that was a big part of my identity and security. I gave up. My attempts to find faith through my diligent religious effort had totally failed me.
Passing from death to life by the Spirit’s power.
Many who profess faith in Jesus believe they were saved through their religious knowledge and reading the Bible. But Scripture does not support their delusional claims. There is no evidence that we can be born of Spirit or come to faith through our own religious knowledge and effort.
Just as a child doesn’t give birth to themselves, the spiritually dead cannot bring themselves to life and this is what Scripture describes was our reality before God saved us:
“As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins… But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. […] For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 1-10)
There’s no such thing as half dead.
There’s no way for a fully dead person to bring themselves to life.
Those who claim to be saved through their Bible study have somehow missed the obvious. They may have read, but they clearly do not understand that dead is dead and the dead to not rise by their own accord. No, if you are spiritually alive today “it is by grace you have been saved” and “not by works” or Paul is a liar.
What I had failed to comprehend in my diligent study and dedicated pursuit of faith is the simplest spiritual truth of them all. Because of my religious education I had no grasp of my own hopelessness. I had always assumed faith was a product or result of my own knowledge of Scripture and religious devotion.
I was blinded by my pretense of knowledge. I had reasoned that I could be saved because of what I had learned about Jesus in church and in reading the Bible. I thought this was faith in God, but it was really only ever a trust of my own human rationality and circular reasoning at best. I really only had faith in my own ability to understand and believe the content of a book.
But my attempt to bootstrap my way into heaven this way failed me. It was a false hope built on presumption and self-righteous delusion. By assuming that my Bible reading was my salvation I had actually rejected Jesus and real spiritual life. Despite my sincerity and ability to argue Bible-based dogma, I was nothing but a 2D cardboard cutout of a 3D faith.
It was only after my faith in my own abilities had died that there was a realization out of the blue. The epiphany was the sudden understanding that it wasn’t my faith that saved me. No, it was God’s faith expressed through Jesus that saved me while I was yet a sinner. I was miraculously raised from the dead with Him.
“For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority. In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead. When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ.” (Colossians 2:9-13)
My Biblical ‘Christian’ indoctrination did not save me. No, it had blinded me. I was too full of religious pride, intellectual assumptions and the pretense of spiritual knowledge to know the truth. However, despite this pretense of faith that had taken root, I had believed in Jesus as a child and was baptized in sincerity of faith.
And now that spiritual seed of my Baptismal faith was ready to emerge from the water. Suddenly the words of the Jesus and the Apostles came alive in a new way as I read them. I was astonished, what had once confused and confounded me was now clear as day. I could finally understand the book that had caused me (and others like this guy) to fall into agnosticism.
Are we saved by our book knowledge or saved by Jesus?
I can hear the howls of protest from both the book worshipping religious people and other unbelievers: “How could I know about Jesus and come to faith without reading the Bible?!?”
But these religious cynics and skeptics lack understanding of their own spiritual ignorance:
“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day. It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard the Father and learned from him comes to me.” (John 6:44-45)
This is the mystery those who reject the Bible and those who think their own knowledge saves them refuse to understand. They have both (tacitly or openly) rejected the resurrection of the dead and, in their self-reliance, dismiss the promise of Jesus and cling to what is reasonable to their spiritually dead mind.
But Jesus never promised we would be saved or taught by a book. That idea is a misunderstanding of Biblical terminology and causality at best. It is spiritual idolatry or rejection of the person of Jesus and blasphemy again the Spirit of God at worse. This is what Jesus did promise:
“But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” (John 14:26)
Now, lest any of you protest and attempt to credit your own understanding of the Bible for saving you. Go back and read the passages I’ve quoted previously, dead people do not come to understanding and life by their own reading comprehension. We are told the real teacher is the Spirit and that it is only through the spiritual anointing promised by Jesus that we avoid deception:
“I am writing these things to you about those who are trying to lead you astray. As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit—just as it has taught you, remain in him.” (1 John 2:26-27)
At first glance it might seem paradoxical to write to warn someone about deception if they don’t need to be told. However, faith is not individualistic effort or personal project and God uses many means to encourage us through the collective body of believers. Only those with the Spirit know that the words of a writer originate from the Spirit.
But, wait, isn’t that circular reasoning, how do you know?
I’ve mentioned that predisposing the Bible to be true because it says so is circular reasoning or an argument based in two unproven premises that rely on each other to be true. So, isn’t saying that I know the Spirit because I have the Spirit the same thing?
Of course, the only way it is the same thing is if we believe a book is equal in ability and power to the Spirit of God. Many Christians do this when they describe the Bible as “word of God” and claim it saved them. But the Scripture is indeed different from the word of God and we can know this as fact.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.“ (Isaiah 55:9-11)
That word translated as “word” in the passage above is the Hebrew דָּבָר (dabar) and in the New Testament Greek comes out as λόγος (logos) or ῥῆμα (rhema) and does not refer to Scripture. If it did refer to Scripture, and Isaiah is true, then it would be impossible for those who knew the Scripture to reject the word of God:
“Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life. […] And the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me. You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent. You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” (John 5:25-40)
These people Jesus says studied the Scripture diligently. Yet, despite their religious dedication to a book, according to Jesus, they did not have God’s “word” in them and therefore would not come to Him for life. If Scripture is the word of God and they knew the Scripture, then how could they not know the truth standing literally in front of them?
The answer is that they knew Scripture and not the word. The two are not one and the same. One is divinely inspired writing useful to a true believer (2 Timothy 3:16) and the other is divinity embodied and a promise that cannot fail. One is infallible while the other can be twisted and misused as Peter warns:
“Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.“ (2 Peter 3:15-16)
Scripture can be distorted the “ignorant and unstable” but God’s word is always true. Satan can quote Scripture, but we also know he always lies, has “no truth in him” (John 8:44) and this is a problem if you presume that “word” is synonymous with Scripture.
Fortunately we need not make such a presumption. Scripture and the word of God are related to each other. God’s word is what inspired Scripture. I will even venture to say that Scripture can become as God’s word to the believer. However, we must get first things first or we are deceived and Jesus always comes first.
Salvation is through faith and Jesus, not in our religious devotion to a book.
I am saved because Jesus saved me. If I were to make any other boast I would only out of ignorance of both Scripture and the word of God which inspired it. My faith and eventual salvation is entirely a gift of grace (Ephesians 2:8) and rest in the mystery of God’s power.
It was knowledge apart from God that drove Adam away from the tree of life—I believe (after the fact) that it is God’s word or Spirit who “quickened” me to salvation.
There is no faith without obedience and there is no obedience outside of hearing God’s word. This is the paradox of the promised Spirit. We hear because we are made alive in the grace of Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:5) and must be faithful in the very little we know before we can expect to get very much.
I believe salvation is totally the work of God. God makes the initial payment through grace and we continue to grow in faith through obedience to to what we know. My faith is not a presupposition based in something I read in a book or a product of religious indoctrination. My faith is personal relationship and something experienced in the heart of those who believe.
I believe the word comes to us through revelation of the Spirit. It is not our mere knowledge of Scripture that saves us, but also always an act of God and work of the Spirit. It was only after Jesus revealed himself to the disciples on the road to Emmaus that they were finally able to understand:
“[Jesus] said to them, ‘This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.’ Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.” (Luke 24:44-45)
If the very men who spent all that time with Jesus teaching them needed His help to understand the Scripture, how can we expect to do better?
But the most compelling case for direct revelation is how Paul’s explanation of how we (as believers) understand the Scripture when others with the same written texts did not:
“We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. However, as it is written: ‘What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived’—the things God has prepared for those who love him—these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for, ‘Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 2:6-16)
Scripture is only useful for those of the Spirit and those who do not accept the Spirit “considers it foolishness” because they have yet to experience the indwelling of the word. They are spiritual blind and often the most religiously arrogant hard-headed people. If they profess Jesus Christ and seek to obey Him, I do believe they will be saved. However, because of their refusal to fully acknowledge or accept the gift of God’s Spirit they may be as those who have built a foundation somewhat on the works of men rather than completely on Christ—who will see their work burn but still be saved (1 Corinthians 3:10-15) because God is gracious to the ignorant.
For those who think the Bible is the best way of sharing the Gospel I will again point to the explanation of Paul who writes (2 Corinthians 3) we ourselves are a letter from God and it is the Spirit that makes us competent. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is always best learned through application. Bible study has it’s place for certain, in fact that is probably one of the first places the Spirit will take us. However, reading without loving as Christ loved to our best ability will limit our deeper understanding of the book.
What am I… a Calvinist?
I make no such allegiance. I have not studied John Calvin enough to know where I stand in relation to his teachings.
I believe in free will and still acknowledge the clear pattern of causality and determinism in the universe. I also do not ignore the language of predestination and election in Scripture.
I do believe in paradox.
There are many cases where dualities of both/and (as opposed to either/or dichotomies) offer the better explanation. Dualities are found in both the uppermost, lowermost and outermost limits that define the universe as we currently know it.
The singularity of a black hole, on the scale of the very big, is an object both infinity small and massive, a place where time itself ceases, defies normal reasoning. Quantum mechanics, the world of the extremely small smallest parts of the universe, brings us to an irrational bizarreness where particles behave as waves until observed and time ceases to matter.
Advanced physics is now making the long held assumptions of materialists obsolete, we can now look beyond these constraints and to possibilities once unimaginable.
Our rationality is time based.
God’s is not.
Time is an illusion.
This has huge implications.
This might explain the language of ‘is and is yet to come’ in Scripture. Jesus explained “my kingdom is not of this world” and pointed to a higher spiritual dimensionality that is beyond the reach of normal human reasoning or natural science.
Perhaps the question of free will and predestination is answered by a paradoxical both. If we are adopted by God, sons and daughters according to His word, then we will eventually become one with the Father, our Father who exists in timeless reality, and therefore we participate in our own coming to salvation through the Spirit.
Who knows? Only Jesus.
I don’t pretend to know the answers to those questions. I don’t need to know the answers to those questions. All I know I need to know is Jesus. Even if I were not a Christian I am convinced Jesus, his way of self-sacrificial love and leadership by example, is the answer.
“And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.” (1 Corinthians 2:1-5)
That is the testimony I have. Only by the love of Jesus and the Spirit’s power am I saved.
Jesus is the answer that found me.