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Seeking Comfort in Our Inability to Truly Comprehend God

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making all things new!”

Having recently come across this passage from Revelation, I was reminded of the captivating scene from the film Passion of the Christ in which a bloodied, humiliated, and exhausted Jesus collapses under the weight of his cross on his way to crucifixion. As a tearful, bewildered Mary rushes to help her son, Jesus looks at her and says, “See, Mother? I make all things new again.”

Certainly, the director used creative license when filming that scene, for the Bible makes no mention of a similar exchange. Still, the scene stuck with me over the years, though I never knew why until I read the passage in Revelation and began to think more about how powerful the statement “I am making all things new” really is.

Man cannot accomplish what is written in this passage. He cannot make things new. He can make a new something, but he cannot take an existing something and make it new. What is worse, any new thing man creates immediately loses its newness.

This is not so with God. He can take an existing something, say an imperfect 26-year-old father of two, and make it new again. He not only can, but he will. What is more, the newness will never wear off.

This concept confuses the mind, but it should lead to great comfort. It reminds me of something I once read in an article concerning man’s inability to comprehend God’s nature:

“There are none like God. Nothing about which we know anything is in any relevant way like God. Therefore, our language categorically fails to touch the divine.”

I’ll admit that at first, I was troubled by this. As a life-long student and avid consumer of knowledge I have a great appreciation for the power of language. I have always believed that through some combination of carefully chosen words, one can successfully convey even the most abstract thought.

But the author of the article is right. When it comes to understanding God, our language is insufficient; thus I cannot truly appreciate His assertion in Revelation that He is making all things new. Further, I cannot truly understand about God much of what I once thought I could. I have no idea what “omnipotence” or “omniscience” truly entails. I don’t know what “holy” really is. I know what it means, but I can never understand what “holiness” is in the same way that I understand “happiness” or “loneliness.”

This, of course, is not a new problem. We have wrestled with trying to make sense of God since the Fall. It became important to me because one, it is another reminder of just how far removed from God I would be were it not for his love and mercy; and two, because as I mentioned, it was at first quite disillusioning to realize how little I knew about God. Why, the very language I use to describe God in no way comes close to accurately describing Him!

While I mulled this one night during the occasional bout of insomnia, I opened my Bible with no particular destination in mind. My eyes soon fell upon Psalm 46:10, “Be still, and know that I am God.”

What had given me great pause now gives me great comfort. I realized that I should be overjoyed that I do not understand God’s nature as completely as I understand other things. If I could, God would be of no use to me. His nature would be flawed, and He could do little more to save me from my sin than anyone else could.

Bringing God’s idea of love down to my level of comprehension immediately reduces the power of that love. I have two sons. Would I condemn one of them to a gruesome death to save anyone who has sinned against me? Emphatically, no! But God did. What more do I need to understand about His decision to do so? And why should I, the perpetrator, feel entitled to such understanding?

God owes me nothing, yet has given me everything. What more could I want? I should simply take His advice and take comfort in the fact that He is God. He is a power beyond my understanding and, thus, the only one capable of reversing my wretched condition-the only one capable of making me new.

Europe’s particle physics lab, CERN, is racing to discover the elusive Higgs boson, or “God particle.”.

The particle, whose existence has been predicted by theoreticians, would help to explain why matter has mass. Finding the Higgs boson is the major goal of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN along the French –Swiss border.

Identifying the so-called God Particle has been a target for the European Organization for Nuclear Research (Cern) ever since the LHC was first conceived in the early 1980s.

What is the Higgs boson? In quantum physics, the Higgs boson is one quantum component of the Higgs field. The Higgs field gives mass to every elementary particle that has mass.

Think of the Higgs field as a big pool of molasses that causes all the mass-less particles that travel through that field to come together, converting them to particles with mass that form the components of atoms.

In theory, without the Higgs boson, nothing in the universe could have mass. Without it, the universe and all that is in it would be without form and void.

It is the Higgs boson that converts the invisible into the visible and it converts the immaterial into the material.

The Higgs boson was first theorized by science in 1964 – but it was first revealed some 1900 years before that.

“Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them, for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse:” (Romans 1:19-20)

The more we learn about the ‘invisible things of creation’ the more difficult it is to reconcile that creation with the theory of unguided evolution.

The Higgs boson is nicknamed the “God Particle” because it does exactly what the Bible says God does – He holds the universe together.

“Who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn [prototokos] of every creature. For by Him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by Him, and for Him: And He is before all things, and by Him all things consist (sunistemi).” (Colossians 1:15-17)

Look over those verses again, carefully. One of the key words in the Colossians passage above is the Greek word sunistemi which means “to stand-together,” “to be compacted together,” “to cohere,” “to be constituted with.”

We’ll revisit that shortly.

The nucleus of the atom contains positively charged and neutral particles-to use a simplistic model. Mutual electrostatic repulsion between the like-positive protons would drive the nucleus apart if it were not for the “strong force” which binds the nucleus together.

There is thus an active force imposed on the universe, which actively holds the very atoms of the material world together moment by moment, day by day, century by century.

Similarly, accelerated electrons circling the nucleus should quickly radiate all their energy away and fall into the nucleus unless there is an invisible energy source to counteract this.

While we’ve not yet identified the God particle, we have managed to split it. The resultant explosion that occurs is called an ‘atomic reaction’.

It is hard to imagine what would happen if every atom was suddenly allowed to come apart.

The Apostle Peter was given a vision of the unimaginable, and he did his best to describe the scene.

“But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up.” (2nd Peter 3:10)

The more we learn about science, the more it confirms the Bible. Peter is here perfectly describing a scientific process that wasn’t learned until 1945.

“Looking for and hasting unto the coming of the day of God, wherein the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat? (2nd Peter 3:12)

The Big Bang theory demands that time move more rapidly at the edges, and more slowly at the center as the universe expands.

Einstein’s theory of relativity says while the expansion of the universe took billions of years as measured from the outer edges, viewed from the center, it would have only taken a matter of days. So the six days of creation are compatible with science after all.

Did God create a god particle?

The Hebrew text of Genesis suggests that He did. He completed creating the heavens and the earth on Day One. Yet what He completed had no form, it was tohu bohu, empty, formless yet it had a surface (face – panyim – is mentioned twice). Then God continually commanded light to continually be. It was then that matter began to take up space as a relation with light. The continuous nature of this command suggests that atoms continue to act relationally – continue to take up space as a relation with light.

Even if scientists could detect a god particle, we are still left with the atomic conundrum. Visibly, all the properties of atoms continue to shift in parallel throughout the visible history of the universe. Ancient atoms gleamed with very long waves apparently because they were tiny scale models of modern atoms. That is certainly why the earth has continued to grow. Three times the Hebrew text states that God spreads out the Earth (erets) in unbroken continuity.

How simple is the evidence for biblical physics. Biblical physics simply believes what is visible, that the whole creation is phthora – fundamentally changing. With biblical physics, one is allowed to believe what is visible, how the galaxies formed. Scientists cannot accept the visible history of the cosmos. Instead they invent a magical universe that is 99% invisible to protect their creed.

Scientists begin every deliberation with an idea, that the properties of matter are fixed, not emerging. Western science was historically built on this idea. Peter wrote that in the last days false teachers will come stating that all things remain the same since the fathers died.

Jesus Glue

Now, let’s return to Colossians again. “In Him all things sunistemi.”

While scientists attempt to find the “God particle” that holds the atoms together, science has already located, identified and mapped the glue that holds each of us together at the cellular level.

Laminin essentially “glues” the cells (such as those lining the stomach and intestines) to a foundation of connective tissue. This keeps the cells in place and allows them to function properly. Without laminin your cells would fall apart.

The structure of laminin is very important for its function. It is that structure that I find very amazing. This is the structure that holds our cells together and it looks exactly like a cross.

Yes? No? Maybe? More likely? Less likely?

In order to support the traditional Christian view of the relationship of Jesus to the Father, we must understand the background for certain claims about the nature and identity of Jesus in the New Testament. Our general argument may be outlined as follows:

Jesus, as God’s Word and Wisdom, was and is eternally an attribute of God the Father.

Just as our own words and thoughts come from us and cannot be separated from us, so it is that Jesus cannot be completely separate from the Father. But there is more to this explanation that is related to the distinction between functional subordination and ontological equality.

We speak of Christ as the “Word” of God, God’s “speech” in living form. In Hebrew and Ancient Near Eastern thought, words were not merely sounds, or letters on a page; words were things that “had an independent existence and which actually did things.”

Throughout the Old Testament and in the Jewish intertestamental Wisdom literature, the power of God’s spoken word is emphasized (Ps. 33:6, 107:20; Is. 55:11; Jer. 23:29; 2 Esd. 6:38; Wisdom 9:1). “Judaism understood God’s Word to have almost autonomous powers and substance once spoken; to be, in fact, ‘a concrete reality, a veritable cause.'” (Richard N. Longenecker, The Christology of Early Jewish Christianity , 145.)

But a word did not need to be uttered or written to be alive. A word was defined as “an articulate unit of thought, capable of intelligible utterance.” (C. H. Dodd, Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel, 263. It cannot therefore be argued that Christ attained existence as the Word only “after” he was “uttered” by God. Some of the second-century church apologists followed a similar line of thinking, supposing that Christ the Word was unrealized potential within the mind of the Father prior to Creation.)

This agrees with Christ’s identity as God’s living Word, and points to Christ’s functional subordination (just as our words and speech are subordinate to ourselves) and his ontological equality (just as our words represent our authority and our essential nature) with the Father. A subordination in roles is within acceptable Biblical and creedal parameters, but a subordination in position or essence (the “ontological” aspect) is a heretical view called subordinationism.

It is not sufficient to object that because Jesus is a person, he cannot be an “attribute” of the Father. Personhood is not incompatible with being an attribute of another person. Moreover, we should not presume that our inability as humans to have a personal attribute also means that God cannot have one.

Some scholars think the Gospels attribute sayings to Jesus he never made yet the Gospel writers deny that they put their own ideas on Jesus’ lips. Who is right?

The writer of the Gospel of John claims he was an eyewitness of all the teachings and circumstances of Jesus’ life that he writes about. He maintains his Gospel is a true account of Jesus’ thoughts and words.

John said of himself and his Gospel: “He who has seen has testified, and his testimony is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth” (John 19:35). A second time he says: “This is the disciple who testifies of these things, and wrote these things; and we know that his testimony is true” (John 21:24).

John was there when Jesus spoke and worked; he knew Jesus personally. In a letter to the church, John wrote of this Jesus “which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled” (1 John 1:1).

John, in this same epistle, when speaking of Jesus, insists that he and the others “have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us” (verse 2). John maintained that he wrote a true testimony of Jesus’ words and works: “That which we have seen and heard we declare to you” (verse 3).

Clearly, the Gospel writers did not create spurious “Jesus sayings.” Nevertheless some critical biblical scholars, such as the Jesus Seminar members, argue that the early church created Jesus’ sayings to justify its teachings.

If this argument were valid, “We would expect to find those needs reflected and dealt with in the Gospels,” writes New Testament scholar Robert Stein in The Synoptic Problem. This need for justification would be, he says, especially true regarding “the most important religious issues that the early church faced.”

The most volatile issue would have concerned the physical circumcision of gentile converts. “If the early church was creating gospel traditions to meet its religious needs,” wrote Dr. Stein, “one would expect to find something on this subject.”

However, no “circumcision materials” exist in the Gospels. The four Gospels contain only a single reference to circumcision, and it doesn’t deal with the controversy in the church (John 7:22-23). The lack of circumcision material in the Gospels is evidence “in favor of the view that the church tended to transmit the Jesus traditions faithfully,” Dr. Stein points out.

On the other hand, the book of Acts deals with the circumcision controversy in detail. The apostles and elders even meet to decide this question (Acts 15:1-29). However, no “Jesus sayings” are cited to justify their decision that gentiles did not need to be circumcised.

A careful reading of Acts shows the church’s teaching on circumcision does not rely on the sayings of Jesus. No “Jesus proof texts” are cited. The church acts in Jesus’ name and by his authority, but does not invent any sayings to prove their point.

Bible scholar Thorlief Boman has observed that there are 24 speeches in the book of Acts. These account for about 300 of Acts’ 1,007 verses. In these speeches, there is only a single saying of Jesus (Acts 20:35). This lack of Jesus’ sayings and stories demonstrates, says Dr. Boman, “that the church did not create sayings of Jesus and read them back upon the lips of Jesus.”

In the words of British biblical scholar, George B. Caird, there is “not one shred of evidence that the early church ever concocted sayings of Jesus in order to settle any of its problems.”


The witnesses to Jesus’ life and their associates affirm that they correctly passed on Jesus’ teachings to us. Can we believe their testimony? Where do we stand if we disbelieve?

Jesus did not write any of the Bible. Neither does the risen Christ speak directly to all the church today. We live about 2,000 years after Jesus’ earthly ministry ended. We don’t have tape recordings of what Jesus said. We may even lack the exact wording of his teaching.

Of course, the issue is not over exact words or whether the Gospels contain Jesus’ precise statements. The issue is whether the Gospels give us God the Father’s word as taught by Jesus and as faithfully described and applied by his authorized representatives, the apostles and their co-workers.

We cannot run and hide from our dependence on those who wrote the New testament Gospels. They are unique individuals in the history of the church. These writers saw Jesus’ mighty works and heard his words, or they worked closely with people who had. Only these individuals were in a position to pass on to us the correct Jesus traditions.

Those who had been with Jesus in the flesh, such as the original apostles, said they witnessed his words and teaching. Because they saw and heard Jesus, they believed (John 20:24-29). But what about those living after the apostolic age—perhaps in our day? On what basis can we believe? Jesus said of us: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (verse 29).

We have not personally heard Jesus teach what is written in the Gospels. We did not experience his miracles. We did not observe his crucifixion and resurrection. Nor can we prove in a scientific sense that they occurred. We are called on to believe without having seen what we must believe in.

What are we to do? We must see Jesus Christ through the writings of the eyewitnesses and their associates. We have the choice of either believing or rejecting what the witnesses and their co-workers said of Jesus. If we spurn their testimony, we have no foundation or authority for what we believe as Christians. It is that simple.

Critical scholars do not accept the claims of the witnesses or Gospel writers. They want corroborating, scientific proof. Robert W. Funk, the Jesus Seminar’s founder, says the Jesus Seminar’s conclusions about Jesus’ words are not determined “by prior religious convictions, but by the evidence.” Seminar member Marcus Borg writes, “One cannot settle historical questions by ‘belief.'”

However, there is no escaping belief. All attempts at a ‘scientific,’ critical-historical analysis of Jesus’ teachings must ultimately fail. Everyone begins with certain beliefs about what could or could not happen.

By what test can we determine whether Jesus arose from the dead? Or that the disciples talked with the risen Jesus? Or that Jesus’ miracles occurred? Or that statements in the Hebrew Scriptures were fulfilled in Jesus’ life? No scientific, historical or critical analysis can discover to everyone’s satisfaction the yea or nay of such things.

Judging the Bible through human logic forces critical scholars into circular reasoning. They must first decide what they think Jesus taught or how he spoke. For example, would he talk about a climactic end of the age? Or would he predict his own death? Then the seminar analyzes the Gospels to see if they fit the portrait of Jesus it has constructed.

The Gospel writers do not ask us to enter into this spiral of intellectual uncertainty. They simply say to individuals through the ages: Put your confidence in what we have said about Jesus.

John said he knew he was telling the truth about Jesus (John 19:35). Luke said his account was an accurate one (Luke 1:1-3). Matthew and Mark also present their Gospels as faithful reflections of the teachings and work of Jesus of Nazareth. Do we have the spiritual ears to believe what they wrote—to believe God directed their witness? (2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:20-21).

For further reading:

  • Ben Witherington III, The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth (InterVarsity, 1995).
  • Darrell Bock, “The Words of Jesus in the Gospels: Live, Jive, or Memorex?” in Jesus Under Fire (edited by Michael J. Wilkins and J. P. Moreland; Zondervan, 1995).
  • Richard B. Hays, “The Corrected Jesus,” First Things 43 (May 1994): 43-48.

Another form of worship is prayer. What is prayer? Prayer is communicating with the Godhead; God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Prayer is having a loving relationship with the Creator of the heavens and the earth. Prayer is talking to God. It’s as simple as that.

Some people believe that prayer is complicated. How do I pray? What should I say? Prayer is not difficult. Think of prayer as if you’re speaking with your best friend. God wants us to communicate with Him. He loves interacting with us. He loves for us to include Him in every part of our lives.

It’s not enough to know about God, to know that He exists. Having a deep and personal relationship with Him makes all the difference in your life. When you are a child of God, He hears your prayers.

You can pray in church, in a group, or by yourself. You can pray anywhere and at anytime. You can pray silently or out loud. Pray in faith and hope. Pray without doubting. Pray with the right motives.

The most important thing is having that special time with the Creator. It’s the time you acknowledge His magnificence, confess your sins, give thanks for all His blessings upon your life, and the time to express your love for Him. It’s the time you share your concerns, your desires, and your needs in your everyday life.

“Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done.” (Philippians 4:6 NLT)

“When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them. I tell you the truth, that is all the reward they will ever get. But when you pray, go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father in private. Then your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:5-6 NLT)

Worshiping God through prayer brings us closer to Him. It changes us. It changes our lives. It changes our circumstances. It gives us peace. It gives us joy. It strengthens us. It builds our faith.

“Come close to God, and God will come close to you…” (James 4:8 NLT)

God answers our prayers in three ways; YES..WAIT..or NO..(I’ve got something better!) It’s the waiting that can be the hardest, but God’s timing is always perfect.

Sometimes the answer to our prayers is hindered because we are walking in sin. If you feel this is happening to you, ask the Lord to reveal anything in your life that is not pleasing to Him. God will make you aware of your sins so that you may confess them and repent. Then trust that He will answer your prayers.

Jesus constantly prayed when He was here on earth. He would separate himself from his disciples and the crowds and He would go off alone to pray to the Father. He told us how to pray like this:

“Our Father in heaven,
may your name be kept holy.
May your Kingdom come soon.
May your will be done on earth,
as it is in heaven.
Give us today the food we need,
and forgive us our sins,
as we have forgiven those who sin against us.
And don’t let us yield to temptation,
but rescue us from the evil one.” (Matthew 6:9-13 NLT)

 

What does it mean to pray without ceasing?

How can I pray without ceasing? Praying without ceasing is a biblical term found in the Apostle Paul’s first letter to Thessalonica: “Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, KJV). The Greek word “without ceasing” means continuous action. Therefore, “praying without ceasing” means to pray continuously.

How to pray without ceasing — a heart attitude

  • How does one pray continually? We cannot always be on our knees. With the daily demands on our busy lives, we are fortunate to kneel in prayer even a few minutes each day. However, the context of this passage gives us a clue. This passage focuses on heart attitude. “Rejoice always” is an attitude of joyfulness. Giving thanks in everything also requires a mental attitude of thankfulness. How do we rejoice and give thanks? Through prayer! Therefore, effective prayer is a proper heart attitude: a mental outlook of joyful thanksgiving. It expresses itself throughout the day with silent prayers of vital communication with the LORD.

  • Maintaining a healthy relationship requires communication. Always be “on line” with God so when the Spirit moves you to pray, you can instantly agree with Him. The Holy Spirit prays for us with inexpressible groans (Romans 8:26). When in agreement with the Spirit, we are praying continuously. The heart attitude of praying without ceasing means an ever-open heart to the Lord’s leading.

  • If we are praying without ceasing — even while driving, changing the baby, washing dishes, or running a lawn mower — we can be open to the leading of the Spirit when He urges us to pray for something or someone. At that time, we can agree with God and make a mental note to add that concern to our later prayer time.

  • Praying without ceasing doesn’t take the place of time alone in prayer with God. However, it is a joyful experience to unite with the LORD who lays burdens on our hearts. We can’t always stop and kneel, but our heart attitude can still be “praying without ceasing.”


The death of Christ was more than a sad display of a good man dying a needless death. It was more than the execution of an innocent man. It was more than God saying “I love you this much.” Though the death of Christ was most certainly a display of the love of God, we do not see the true meaning of it if we do not see that this display of love was rooted in the appeasement of God’s wrath. It was the payment of a price. Justice demands that sin be punished and sin was punished at the expense of the life of Jesus Christ. The punishment was for the “wages” of sinners like you and me. And it was poured out on Jesus in full force and without any restraint. This was a punishment that was more brutal than any crucifixion. It was the pure and undiluted wrath of God and it was completely exhausted on the Son of God Himself.

So why did Jesus die? Read Romans 5 for the answer. Sin entered the world through Adam, but through the death of Christ salvation is possible for all who believe (see also John 3).

“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (JOH 3:14-16)

Our text reveals that our blessed Saviour gave Himself, and God gave His Son (see the emphasis the comes on that word that), “That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” Our central motive and the theme on which we want to center is to see His purpose. The words “That whosoever believeth,” is the entire theme of this message.

God the Father, in His love, gave His Son to suffer, bleed, and die. He gave His Son as a propitiation for our sins. We want to see the condescension of God in giving His Son. “That whosoever believeth…should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Notice in verse 15, “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up.” Why? “That whosoever believeth in him….” Do you see the emphasis on “That whosoever believeth?” Do you see that the Father has put reconciliation in place? “That whosoever believeth…should not perish.”

The negative implication of our text we find in our Saviour’s words in MARK 16:16. “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.” See why it is so important that we believe, because those who believe not shall be damned. All of this preparation for our salvation was made “That whosoever believeth…should not perish but have eternal life.”

The atonement is not limited, but the blessings obtained in the atonement are limited. Salvation is limited to those who believe. Do you know what that does? That removes the limitation from God’s side and puts it on our side. It brings the responsibility home: all those who are damned are damned because they believed not, not because the atonement was limited. The only limitation in the gospel is “those who believeth.” The Lord has given His own Son, and the Son of God has been lifted up on the cross “That whosoever believeth … should not perish but have everlasting life.”

Seeing that the blessings obtained in the atonement are limited to those who believe, it is very urgent to rightly understand what it is to believe. Can you think of anything that’s more important than to rightly understand what it means to believe? Our eternal salvation – or our eternal damnation – depends upon it.

Seven Images of Salvation

The New Testament uses a wide range of images to express the richness of the work of Christ. We may describe these images as analogies, models or metaphors. Each gives part of the picture:

Ransom: a price paid to achieve someone’s freedom. The emphasis falls on the idea of being freed, not the nature of the price.

Redemption: “buying back,” or for a slave, buying freedom.

Justification: being put right with God, as if declared by a court to be in the right.

Salvation: deliverance or rescue from a dangerous situation. The word can also suggest restoration to wholeness, a healing.

Reconciliation: the repair of a broken relationship. God reconciles us to him. He acts to restore a friendship, and we respond to his initiative.

Adoption: making us legal children of God. Faith brings about a change in our status, from outsider to family member.

Forgiveness: This can be seen in two ways. In legal or financial terms, forgiveness is like the cancellation of a debt. In terms of personal relationship, forgiveness means the setting aside of personal hurt or injury.

(Adapted from Alister McGrath, Understanding Jesus, pp. 124-135).

A mere intellectual belief is not saving! I can have a historical knowledge of the crucifixion of Christ and truly believe it to be true, but that is not saving. There is often much feeling associated with an intellectual belief. I can think back to when, as a little child, I used to hear the explanation of how Christ was crucified, and I could become very emotional about that. I could really feel emotional and sympathetic towards the poor Saviour: to think that these terrible people had done all this to Him! Yet there was no salvation in that. Those feelings and emotions have no salvation in them. It’s still an intellectual belief, even though we may have great emotions connected with it.

The emotions may become very deeply stirred, while faith is nothing more than a morning cloud which passes away. The next morning those emotions are gone, and nothing has been altered in my heart at all. Nothing has changed. This is why all the the feelings are not connected with believing – there is no relationship at all.

“But he that received the seed into stony places, the same is he that heareth the word, and anon with joy receiveth it. [There was joy in receiving the Word, they heard it, and they believed it! See what was missing.] Yet hath he not root in himself, but dureth for a while: for when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, by and by he is offended.” (MAT 13:20-21)

What was missing? What was missing was the washing of regeneration, the new attitude, and new desires. A right attitude towards sin was missing, because when persecution arises for the Word (when for the sake of the Word certain habits and attitudes have been given up) in the face of persecution the fallen will cleaves to the things of earth.

All these feelings, emotions, joy, and intellectual belief have no salvation in them. These truths are fearfully solemn! Today, there are so many who do not endure unto the end. They believe – they even have joy in believing – but when persecution arises for the sake of the Word, they become offended. They cannot endure to have everything of the flesh cut off and crucified. They cannot endure the washing of regeneration of the Holy Spirit.

As we see from MAR 6:20-27, King Herod heard John the Baptist “gladly.” There was joy in hearing John the Baptist. He was emotional, but when the dancing of the daughter of Herodias pleased the king, he went against his own conscience.

MAR 6:26 says, “And the king was exceeding sorry….” He had to start seeing where he was going to put his values: his honor before those to whom he had made such a foolish oath, his honor before such a sinful woman who had danced so beautifully, or his feelings. Verse 26 continues, “yet for his oath’s sake, and for their sakes which sat with him, he would not reject her.”

Persecution because of the Word had arisen, and now he has become offended. What does he do? Verse 27: “And immediately the king sent an executioner, and commanded his head to be brought: and he went and beheaded him in the prison.” These are solemn truths. This is where the true believer emerges. Do we stand for the authority of the Word, and do we understand the washing of regeneration of the Holy Spirit so that we are able to have everything of the flesh cut off for the purifying of our souls? That is believing.

Our attitude and actions may gauge whether or not we believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. We may not gauge whether or not we believe in the Lord Jesus Christ by our intellectual knowledge, our feelings, or by some certain experience. These are deceiving. Our gauge must be our attitude and actions. Do we understand what it is to be renewed in the spirit of the mind? Do we understand what it is to be cleansed by the washing of regeneration of the Holy Spirit, the washing of the water of the Word? We can gauge that in a much better and safer manner, than by our emotions.

See how the Pharisees rejoiced in the light of a man, but only for a season in JOH 5:35. See how dangerous it is when we have our emotions toward a certain man because he has a calling or some certain gift in preaching. Many people worship the preacher instead of Christ. Many are deceived in this area. See what happened: John the Baptist had a true call, did he not? John the Baptist was prophesied as the forerunner of Christ. He was, indeed, a mighty, powerful preacher of the gospel, and preached without flinching from the truth. But are we to worship John the Baptist because of his call?

In JOH 5:35, the Lord Jesus told the Pharisees, “He was a burning and a shining light: and ye were willing for a season to rejoice in his light.” Do you see where the missing link was? They were rejoicing in his light. They were rejoicing in the wonderful, powerful preacher rather than in the true light. They weren’t rejoicing in the truth that was being preached. They were rejoicing in the power and the credentials of the man. There’s no salvation in this type of emotion.

We may hear some gospel preacher, and greatly rejoice in his light: “Oh! That was a wonderful sermon. Oh! That was a wonderful message.” But it’s the man we’re worshipping. We’re rejoicing “in his light.” We can rejoice in his light and yet be totally void of the new birth, because the first time that our little maid dances well, we’ll probably behead a John the Baptist. We’ll cut his head off rather than to cut down some of our own fleshly desires. The work of regeneration begins with the crucifying of self.

We may delight to come to the light of some powerful preacher, and we may rejoice in such a one as John the Baptist, and yet flee from the true light. Look at the context of our text and see how urgently important this is. The Lord Jesus is giving the definition of those who believe and those who believe not.

Jesus is showing the distinction between who believes and who does not believe. “He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. [He goes on to show that condemnation wherein are those who believe not.] And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.” (JOH 3:18-19)

There are multitudes who sincerely believe they are saved, yet who have never rightly believed in Jesus. They have never rightly understood the condemnation of the unbeliever. What is the condemnation of the unbeliever? It is the light of the Word. MAT 7:13 says, “Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat.”

Do you know what the strait gate means? Turn to MAT 7:12. “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.” Then He says, “Enter ye in at the strait gate.” What does the word strait mean? It means difficult to stand. He’s telling us to do unto your friend, unto your neighbor, what you would want him to do to you. He follows that by telling us how difficult it is to stand: “for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat.” They that don’t stand, don’t understand the law of love, and have never learned to understand what it is to love God with their heart, soul, and mind, and love their neighbor as themselves.

These “many” that Jesus spoke of here saying, “broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat,” are not openly professed infidels who have no reason to believe in Christ. They are the professed believers in Christ; they are those who are on that “broad” road.

MAT 7:22 says, “Many will say to me in that day [it’s the same “many”, the same parable, the same illustration that Christ is giving], Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?” They’re going to come on the Day of Judgment, having died believing in the Lord Jesus Christ as their only hope of salvation, but they had not believed with a true gospel faith.

Look at what He says next (verse 23). “And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.” The washing of regeneration of the Holy Spirit had never cleansed them from their sins. They continued on the broad road where they didn’t have to stand, they could have a little grudge, hate, spite, nag, pleasure, sin, and a little of everything that pleases the flesh. They respond, “Oh, yeah, but it’s all washed in the blood of Christ,” yet they’ve never had a renewing of the heart. They’ve never rightly believed, and so perished eternally.

It is one thing to believe that sin is the awful thing that it is, and quite another to have a holy hatred for sin in the very soul. I could have a true belief that sin is a terrible thing, and damning, but yet have secret sins – sins that I love and cherish – and still go on cherishing “sweetheart sins.” It’s quite a different thing to understand the true fear of God, in which you hate all iniquity.

PRO 8:13 says, “The fear of the LORD is to hate evil: pride, and arrogancy, and the evil way, and the froward mouth, do I hate.” The fear of the Lord is to hate sin because if we stop cherishing sin, we’ll start turning from sin. As long as we cherish sin, as long as we love sin in our hearts, we will continue to sin. There is the mark of true believers. That’s where you divide the sheep from the goats: by the hatred we have for sin, in which sin becomes loathsome and exceeding sinful. No person who cherishes sin in his heart can truly say he loves the truth. Can you truly say that you love the truth while you hide a lie in your heart and cherish it? No, this takes some soul-searching, examining of our own hearts, which brings us before the Lord to ask Him to examine our hearts. David said in PSA 26:2, “Examine me, O LORD, and prove me; try my reins and my heart.” An honest soul’s desire is to have sin revealed unto us, that we might repent of it and turn from it.

The spirit of the antichrist enters the heart, “with all deceivableness of unrighteousness in them that perish; because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved.” (2TH 2:10) Do you realize how important it is that we learn to love the truth and that we hate sin? Do you understand the new birth? It is to be renewed in the spirit of your mind. The work of the Spirit is to wash us by the washing of regeneration, so that our hearts are cleansed, and we cannot continue in sin.

Those that perish are those who love not the truth, that they might be saved. The great multitude are on the broad road to destruction and have a strong delusion to believe that they are saved! These are the “many” that Jesus is talking about in MAT 7:22. God will send a strong delusion for those who love not the truth. 2TH 2:11-12 says, “And for this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie: That they all might be damned who believed not the truth [who loved not the truth], but had pleasure in unrighteousness.” When we can have pleasure in sin, and enjoy sin, then we may not claim that we have believed on the Lord Jesus Christ.

Seeing the solemn reality that God Himself may send strong delusion that we should believe a lie, how important it is to examine our own hearts and determine whether or not we pass the test set forth! Do we love the truth, or is it our condemnation? Is the truth our greatest delight, or does it condemn us? Do we hide from the truth?

See where the possibility of condemnation comes right back to our attitude and our actions. “For every one that doeth evil hateth the light [Do you see that our actions and attitude are what clearly define whether or not we have believed on the Lord Jesus Christ?], neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved.” I want you to see the entire contrast and what the Lord Jesus says about those who believe. Verse 21 says, “But he that doeth truth cometh to the light [I want you to see again, attitude and actions], that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God.” (JOH 3:20-21)

The light is not a condemnation to one who does the truth because it is his heart’s desire to know and do what’s right. We come to the light that our deeds might be made manifest, that they are wrought in God. Then we know that we have received the washing of regeneration of the Holy Spirit, when our hearts desire is to be examined in the light of His Word.

As we see these solemn truths in the context of our text, let us examine what Jesus is saying in JOH 3:14-16. “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

He’s not saying “whosoever covers his sin;” or those who love sin should not perish. He says, “That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” So what is it to believe?

The Lord Jesus is saying, “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,” look at the history that teaches us of lifting up the serpent in the wilderness. “And the LORD said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live. And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.” (NUM 21:8-9)

Do you know what a beautiful lesson this teaches? As with the beginning of miracles, as they obeyed, the miracle was performed. Without obedience, the miracle would not have been performed. If you and I are going to obstinately wait and say, “Well salvation has to be given, and in the meantime, I’m going to live on in my sins,” we are on the broad road to hell!

As we begin to obey, the miracle of grace is performed. “Every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.” The miracle was dependent upon the act of obedience of faith. Those who refused to look were not healed. In verse 9, “when he beheld the serpent,” when he obeyed, he turned his eyes, looked unto that brazen serpent, and lived. The miracle was performed as they obeyed.

Do we earn salvation by our works? No. Turn with me to ROM 4. It is important we understand this because Satan is a master of twisting the Word of God out of context. “What shall we say then that Abraham our father, as pertaining to the flesh, hath found? For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God.” (ROM 4:1-2)

Do you know what the word by means? Sometimes when we rightly understand these small words, we start to understand the gospel. The word by is a preposition, and means on the account of, as the foundation of, on the basis of. Abraham was not justified on the basis of his works: there was no merit in his work.

Now turn with me to JAM 2. What he’s saying there is that you can be justified by works! “Was not Abraham our father justified by works?” (JAM 2:21) Is that a contradiction? Is there contradiction in the Word of God? No, that word by comes from a totally different word in the original. What it means is instrumentality.

Abraham was not justified in the sense of meriting salvation by works, but works were the instrument whereby he had salvation conveyed to him. Works were instrumental. They were the vehicle whereby he received salvation. Looking unto Jesus is not meritorious in itself, however, it is the instrument, the vehicle, whereby the miracle is performed. These are beautiful truths when we learn to understand them.

I don’t preach to you that you’re going to merit salvation by doing anything, but you’ll never receive salvation without doing anything. Obedience of faith is the instrument whereby salvation is conveyed to you.

As with the beginning of miracles, I want you to see that “when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.” If they had refused to obey, and had not lifted their eyes unto that brazen serpent, (our blessed Redeemer, which is typified by the serpent of brass), they wouldn’t have lived. It was by obedience of faith that the miracle was performed.

As we look unto Jesus by faith, the quickening of the Spirit takes place through the washing of regeneration of the Word. It is as our eye is fixed upon Christ that sin becomes exceeding sinful. JOH 6:63 says, “It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.” As our eye is fixed upon our blessed Redeemer, the Lord Jesus Christ, by faith, the Word becomes the quickening power of the Spirit.

JAM 1:18 says, “Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” We are born by the Word of Truth. It is as our eye is fixed upon that precious Saviour, as it is set forth in the Word of God, that the miracle is performed, that sin becomes exceeding sinful, that we learn to see the sinfulness of sin and learn to hate it. Thereby that miracle of grace is performed through obedience of faith as the instrument. ROM 1:4-5 says, “And declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead: By whom we have received grace and apostleship, for obedience to the faith among all nations, for his name.”

As we “behold” that blessed sacrifice of Christ by faith, which is symbolized by the “the serpent of brass,” we begin to “live.” We begin to live spiritually, which is evidenced by true gospel repentance. We truly become renewed in the spirit of our mind. As our hearts are fastened upon that blessed sacrifice of Christ, as we obey, our hearts are removed from the things of this life and the things of sin, and turned unto the Lord Jesus Christ. Then He becomes so precious! The things of this life lose their value.

ACT 5:30-32 says, “The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom ye slew and hanged on a tree. Him hath God exalted with his right hand to be a Prince and a Saviour, for to give repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins.” When our eye is fixed on Christ, then He has been lifted up before the eye of faith. God has exalted Him. He becomes exalted in our hearts and our minds, and sin loses its power. He is there to “give repentance.” When we look unto Christ for repentance, we look unto Him for forgiveness of sin. Verse 32 says, “And we are his witnesses of these things; and so is also the Holy Ghost, whom God hath given to them that obey him.” Do you want the Lord to give you the Holy Spirit? He has given the Holy Spirit “unto them that obey him.”

Wherein must we obey Him? When we feel that bite of sin, when we feel that serpent’s venom of sin in our veins, we obey Him by looking unto our blessed Redeemer. We look unto that precious love of the Father. We look unto that bleeding, dying Son, in the Garden of Gethsemane, pleading and saying, “O Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me. Yet not my will but thine be done.” As we behold that precious love of God, sin loses its power, and those who obey Him will receive the Holy Ghost. We must obey the command to look unto Jesus whom God has lifted up, and then this miracle is performed as we look unto Him.

As we obey this command to look away from ourselves unto Jesus, we begin to live by faith, which is the gift of God. “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God.” (EPH 2:8) As we look away from ourselves unto Jesus, we receive a right understanding of the true character of God by the example He has given us. It is by looking unto Jesus that we receive a right understanding of His character: that God is love. To see the love of the Father in giving His Son, the love of the Son in giving Himself, and the love of God leads you to repentance.

1JO 5:20 says, “And we know that the Son of God is come, and hath given us an understanding, that we may know him that is true, and we are in him that is true, even in his Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God, and eternal life.” Think of how the Apostle Paul’s actions were affected by his first encounter with Christ. Believing is to be measured by our attitude and our actions. See what effect it had on the Apostle Paul’s attitude and actions when he received but a glimpse of Christ.

1CO 15:10 says, “But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.” Were his actions altered? Yes, he was no longer persecuting the church. Was his attitude altered? Oh, yes. What did he do? He was now serving under the kingship of that same Redeemer whom he had been persecuting. What brought about the change? One glimpse of Christ did. He looked and saw, and he “laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.” What did he do now? He labored to bring those that were outside into that very gospel that he had been persecuting.

Eternal security becomes ours as we look unto our blessed Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. 1PE 1:3-5 says, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to his abundant mercy hath begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, To an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you, Who are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”

What is it to believe? True believing is “faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time…To an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled.” There’s the washing of regeneration. There is what prepares the heart for heaven: to be washed from sin. As we look out of self unto Jesus Christ, He produces the fruits of the Spirit in our hearts. A serpent has the power of fascination, and Satan chose a serpent. The power of fascination means that by looking in his eye his prey has no might against him, and a serpent can swallow his victim alive by merely catching it’s eye; as long as it looks into his eyes, it has no power to flee. So it is with the power of sin. As long as our eye is fixed upon Satan and sin, we have no power against it, but think of the Lord Jesus Christ.

JOH 12:31-33 says, “Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out. And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me. This he said, signifying what death he should die.” He was lifted up as the brazen serpent. What does this teach us? It teaches that He also has that drawing power, and as long as our eye is fixed upon Him, Satan and sin lose their power.

“And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me. This he said, signifying what death he should die.” What death did He die? He died unto sin. As we look unto Jesus, away from ourselves, He produces the fruits of the Spirit in our hearts. HOS 14:8-9 says, “Ephraim shall say, What have I to do any more with idols? I have heard him, and observed him: I am like a green fir tree. From me is thy fruit found. [That fruit of the Holy Spirit comes from the Lord Jesus Christ.] Who is wise, and he shall understand these things? prudent, and he shall know them? for the ways of the LORD are right, and the just shall walk in them: but the transgressors shall fall therein.”

Do you see the way of life Christ is looking for? It’s walking in those fruits of the Spirit, “but the transgressors shall fall therein.” As we obey the command to look away from ourselves and unto the Lord Jesus Christ, we find the truth of what Christ says: “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.” (JOH 12:32) That’s the command: look unto that brazen serpent.

As we learn to die unto self and sin by looking unto that blessed obedience of Jesus, then we see what death He died unto sin that He might live unto God. (ROM 6:10) Then we understand ROM 6:11. “Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Oh how blessedly our Saviour illustrates what it is to truly believe! First, Jesus directs our attention to His sacrifice for sin (“And I, if I be lifted up”) to teach us how displeased God is with sin, and that the slightest disobedience to God’s holy law demanded His death in our place. It is the penalty, as we see in verse 14 of JOH 3. “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”(JOH 3:14-16)

Second, Jesus directs our attention to the love of the Father (in verse 16) in giving His only begotten Son to appease His just wrath upon sin before He would let one sin go unpunished with its rightful penalty, which was nothing short of death. He draws our attention to this.

Third, Jesus tells us why the Father has demonstrated such love to His people. He teaches us why He gave Him as a sacrifice for sin, “That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” (JOH 3:15) See the responsibility we have in looking unto Jesus. He died and rose again according to the will of His Father, all so “That whosoever believeth…should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

Jesus teaches that the miracle of the new birth takes place as we begin to obey this gospel command. Those blessed teachings are a powerful call of the gospel to look away from the pleasures of sin unto the blessed service of Christ, and the kingdom of heaven. That is the instrument that the Holy Spirit will use to bring about the new birth.

Next Jesus teaches the contrast between true believers and the deplorable condition of the unbelievers. JOH 3:17-21 says, “For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.”

The Lord sent His Son into the world that we would see His perfect righteousness and, by contrast, what monsters we are. That was not to condemn, but that we might believe upon Him and be saved. Verse 18 continues, “He that believeth on him is not condemned [He did not come to send condemnation upon those who believe.]: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.”

Wherein does their condemnation lie? They have not “believed in the name” (that name of authority). They would not bow to that authority: “because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” Then He goes on to explain wherein their condemnation lies in verse 19. “And this is the condemnation [that is, of those who believe not], that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.”

Where was their heart and attitude? The light revealed their attitude: they loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil, and they had no desire to change them. That’s the definition of an unbeliever. That’s the Word of God giving you a clear definition of an unbeliever. They “loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.” Verse 20 says, “For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved.”

We have to examine our hearts. What’s our attitude? Do we love sin? Do we love darkness? Do we hate light? If we do, we are on the wrong road. He came “that whosoever believeth…should not perish.” They are those who have had that renewal of their mind.

Now He’s giving us the definition of a believer in verse 21. “But he that doeth truth [he that loves the light – what a beautiful definition of those who `believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.’] cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God.”

The light is not his condemnation; he loves the light and the truth. The washing of regeneration of his heart and his mind has renewed him, and he hates sin. Oh, how it humbles all our pride when we learn, by looking unto Jesus, that God cannot be glorified in anything from the flesh.

ISA 26:12 says, “LORD, thou wilt ordain peace for us: for thou also hast wrought all our works in us.” You and I can lay no claim to our salvation on the basis of what we have done. There is no merit in it. He has “wrought all our works in us.” That change of attitude and work of regeneration, is all the work of grace; that change of mind and heart: He has “wrought all our works in us.” Repentance is a gift of grace.

Outside of the imparted righteousness of Christ, which becomes ours by looking unto Jesus by faith, we find the awful truth about our own righteousness. That is what we read in ISA 64:6-8. “But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away. And there is none that calleth upon thy name, that stirreth up himself to take hold of thee: for thou hast hid thy face from us, and hast consumed us, because of our iniquities. [That’s what we are by nature.] But now, O LORD, thou art our father; we are the clay, and thou our potter; and we all are the work of thy hand.”

There’s no merit. We are dependent upon the working of God’s grace, but that doesn’t mean that out of our inability to justify ourselves we sit back and wait till grace is given. We are commanded to obey. Man became lost in sin by a look: “the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes.” (GEN 3:6) That look changed her attitude toward God: it defiled her heart, and she coveted and lusted-all from one look.

ISA 45:22 says, “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is none else.” Did you ever stop to realize that by looking unto Christ, we start having a change of attitude? Our hearts become cleansed because sin becomes hateful and exceeding sinful. “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is none else.”

There is only one way in which we shall proceed in the footsteps of Christ, and that is to continue looking. It isn’t that we take one glance and then look back to sin. It is by continuous looking. HEB 12:1b-2 says, “Let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, Looking unto Jesus [We see His faith, His way of life, we see how displeased God was with sin.] the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Then the joy that is set before us is in serving Him, as we see how He bowed to serve the Father to earn our salvation.

That’s how we “lay aside every weight” and every “sin which doth so easily beset us”: looking unto Jesus, “the author and finisher of our faith.” Amen.

One of the more difficult Biblical themes to understand is the concept of God hardening the hearts and minds of certain human beings. The most memorable case is that of Pharaoh wherein, before sending Moses to him God said he would “harden Pharaoh’s heart” (Ex 4:21). But there are other instances where biblical texts speak of God as hardening the hearts of sinners, even from among his own people.

What are we to make of texts like these? How can God, who does no evil, be the source of a sinful mind or heart? Why would God do such a thing since he has said elsewhere:

  1. As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?’ (Ez 33:11)
  2. God our Savior…wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. (1 Tim 2:4)

To be sure, these questions involve very deep mysteries, mysteries about God’s sovereignty and how it interacts with our freedom, mysteries of time, and mysteries of causality. As a mystery within mysteries, the question of God hardening hearts cannot simply be resolved. Greater minds than I have pondered these things,  and it would be foolish to think that a easy resolution is to be found in a blog post.

But some distinctions can and should be made, and some context supplied. We do not want to understand the “hardening texts” in simplistic ways, or in ways that use one truth to cancel out other important truths that balance it. So please permit only a modest summary of the ancient discussion.

I propose we examine these sorts of texts along four lines:

  1. The Context of Connivance.
  2. The Mystery of Time
  3. The Mystery of Primary Causality
  4. The Necessity of Humility

To begin it is important simply to list a selection of the hardening texts. The following are not the only ones, but they sample them widely enough:

  1. The LORD said to Moses, “When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders I have given you the power to do. But I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go. (Ex 4:21)
  2. Moses and Aaron performed all these wonders before Pharaoh, but the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let the Israelites go out of his country. (Ex 11:10)
  3. Why, O LORD, do you make us wander from your ways and harden our hearts so we do not revere you? Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes that are your inheritance. (Is 63:17)
  4. He [God] has blinded their eyes and deadened their hearts, so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn–and I would heal them. (Jesus quoting Isaiah Isaiah 6:9-10, at John 12:40)
  5. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie (2 Thess 2:11)
  6. Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another…..Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. (Rom 1:24, 28)

Point I. –  THE CONTEXT OF CONNIVANCE – In properly assessing texts like these we ought first to consider the contexts in which they were made and written. Generally speaking, most all of these declarations that God hardens the heart, come after a significant period of disobedience on the part of those hardened. In a way, God “cements” the deal and gives them fully what they really want. For having hardened their own hearts to God, God determines that their disposition is a permanent one, and in a sovereign exercise of his will, (for nothing can happen without God’s allowance), declares and permits their heart to be hardened in a definitive kind of way. In this sense, there is a judgement of God upon the individual that recognizes their definitive decision against him. Hence, this hardening can be understood as voluntary, on the part of the one hardened, for God hardens in such a way that he uses their own will, whom he hardens, for the executing of his judgment and his acceptance that their will against him is definitive.

A. For example, in the case of Pharaoh, it is true, as the Exodus 4:21 text says above, God indicated to Moses that he would harden Pharaoh’s heart. But the actual working out of this is a bit more complicated than that. We see in the first five plagues, it is Pharaoh who hardens his own heart (Ex. 7:13; 7:22; 8:11; 8:28; & 9:7). It is only after this repeated hardening of his own heart, that the Exodus text shifts, and speaks of God as the one who hardens (Ex 9:12; 9:34; 10:1; 10:20; 10:27). Hence the hardening here is not without Pharaoh’s repeated demonstration of his own hardness, and God, if you will, “cements the deal” as a kind of sovereign judgment on Pharaoh.

B. The Isaiah texts, many in number, that speak of a hardening being visited upon Israel by God, (e.g. #s 3 and 4 above),  are  also the culmination of a long testimony, by the prophet, of Israel’s hardness. At the beginning of the Isaiah’s ministry, Israel’s hardness was described as of their own doing by God who said through Isaiah: For the LORD has spoken: “I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows his master, the donkey his owner’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” Ah, sinful nation, a people loaded with guilt, a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption! They have forsaken the LORD; they have spurned the Holy One of Israel and turned their backs on him. (Is 1:2-4). There follows a long list of their crimes, their hardness and their refusal to repent.

1. St. John Chrysostom – of the numerous texts Later in Isaiah (and also referenced by Jesus (e.g. Jn 12:40), that speak of Israel as being hardened by God, and having him shut their eyes, St John Chrysostom says, That the saying of Isaiah might be fulfilled: that here is expressive not of the cause, but of the event. They did not disbelieve because Isaias said they would; but because they would disbelieve, Isaias said they would…. For He does not leave us, except we wish Him….Whereby it is plain that we begin to forsake first, and are the cause of our own perdition. For as it is not the fault of the sun, that it hurts weak eyes, so neither is God to blame for punishing those who do not attend to His words. (on a gloss of Is. 6:9-10 at Jn 12:40, quoted in the Catena Aurea).

2. St Augustine also says, This is not said to be the devil’s doing, but God’s. Yet if any ask why they could not believe, I answer, because they would not…But the Prophet, you say, mentions another cause, not their will; but that God had blinded their eyes, and hardened their heart. But I answer, that they well deserved this. For God hardens and blinds a man, by forsaking and not supporting him; and this He makes by a secret sentence, for by an unjust one He cannot (Quoted in the Catena Aurea at Jn 12:40).

C. Of the text of 2 ThessaloniansGod sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie quoted in # 5 above, while the text speaks of God as having sent the delusion, the verse before and after make clear the sinful role of the punished saying: They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved….so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness ( 2 Thess 2:10,12).

1. Of this text, St. Augustine says, From a hidden judgment of God comes perversity of heart, so that the refusal to hear the truth leads to the commission of sin, and this sin is itself a punishment for the preceding sin [of refusing to hear the truth]. (Against Julian 5.3.12).

2. St John Damascus says, [God does this] so that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness (The Orthodox Faith 4.26).

D. The texts from Romans 1 speak  of God handing them over only after they have suppressed the truth (1:18), persevered in their wickedness (1:18) and preferred lust and idolatry (1:23-24), hence, as a just judgement, he hands them over to sexual confusion (homosexuality) and to countless other destructive drives. So here too, though it is said God hands them over, it is really not that simple. God has, in effect, cemented the deal. They do not want to serve them and so He, knowing their definitive decision, gives them what they want.

E. Thus, our first point of distinction in understanding the “hardening” texts is that the context of connivance is important in assessing them. It is not asserted by Scripture that God takes a reasonably righteous man and, out of the blue, hardens his heart, confuses his mind or causes him, against his will, to become obstinate. The texts are usually presented as a kind of prevenient judgement by God, that the state of the person’s hardness has now become permanent. They refuse and so God cements the deal and “causes” them to walk in their own sinful ways since they have insisted so.

Point II.  – THE MYSTERY OF TIME – In understanding these hardening texts, which we have seen, are akin to judgment texts, we must strive to recall that God does not live in time in the same we do. Scripture speaks often of God’s knowledge and vision of time as being comprehensive, rather than speculative or serial (e.g. Ex 3:14; Ps 90:2-4; Ps 93:2; Is 43:13; Ps 139; 2 Peter 3:8; James 1:17; inter al.).

A. To say that God is eternal and that he lives in eternity is to say that he lives in the fullness of time. For God, past, present and future are all the same. God is not wondering what I will do tomorrow, neither is he waiting for it to happen. For Him, my tomorrow has always been present to Him. All of my days were written in His book before one of them ever came to be (Ps 139:16). Whether, and how long I live, has always been known to him. Before he ever formed me in my mother’s womb he knew me (Jer 1:4). My final destiny is already known and present to him.

B. Hence, when we strive to understand God’s judgments in the form of hardening the hearts of certain people, we must be careful not to think he lives in time like we do. It is not as though God is watching my life like a movie. He already knows the choice I will make. Thus, when God hardens the hearts of some, it is not as though he were merely trying to negatively influence the outcome, and trip certain people up. He already knows the outcome and has always known it, he knows the destiny they have chosen.

C. Now be very careful with this insight, for it is a mystery to us. We cannot really know what it is like to live in eternity, in the fullness of time, where the future is just is present as the past. If you think you know, you really don’t. What is essential for us is that we realize that God does not live in time like we do. If we try too hard to solve the mystery (rather than merely accept and respect it) we risk falling into the denial of human freedom, or double predestination, or other wrong-headed notions that sacrifice one truth for another, rather than to hold them in balance. That God knows what I will do tomorrow, does not destroy my freedom to actually do it. How this all works out is mysterious. But we are free, Scripture teaches this, and God holds us accountable for our choices. Further, even though God knows my destiny already, and yours as well, does not mean that He is revealing anything about that to us, as though we should look for signs and seek to call ourselves saved or lost. We ought to work out our salvation in a reverential fear and trembling (Phil 2:12).

D. The Key point here is mystery. Striving to understand how, why and when God hardens the heart of anyone is caught up in the mysterious fact that he lives outside of time and knows all things before they happen. Thus he acts with comprehensive knowledge of all outcomes.

Point III. – THE MYSTERY OF CAUSALITY – One of the major differences between the ancient and the modern world is that the ancient world was much more comfortable in dealing with something known as primary causality.

A. Up until the Renaissance God was at the center of all things and people instinctively saw the hand of God in everything, even terrible things. Job of old said, The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised….if we have received good things at the hand of God, why should we not receive evil?” (Job 1:21; 2:10). Thus the ancients would commonly attribute everything as coming from the hand of God, for he was the “first cause” of everything that happened. This is what we mean by primary causality. The ancients were thus more comfortable attributing things to God that we are not. In speaking like this, they were not engaged in a form of superstitious or primitive thinking, but they emphasized that God was sovereign, omnipotent and omnipresent and that nothing happened apart from his sovereign will,  He is the Primary Cause of all that is.

1. Of this ancient and scriptural way of thinking the Catechism says, And so we see the Holy Spirit, the principal author of Sacred Scripture, often attributing actions to God without mentioning any secondary causes [e.g. human or natural]. This is not a “primitive mode of speech”, but a profound way of recalling God’s primacy and absolute Lordship over history and the world, and so of educating his people to trust in him. (CCC # 304)

2. The Key point here is understanding that the ancient Biblical texts while often speaking of God as hardening the hearts of sinners, did not, as we saw above, mean that man had no role, or no responsibility. Neither did it mean that God acted in a merely arbitrary way. Rather, the emphasis was on God’s sovereign power as the first cause of all that is and hence he is often called the cause of all things and his hand is seen in everything.  We moderns are uncomfortable in speaking this way as we shall see.

B. After the Renaissance man moved to the center and God was gradually “escorted” to the periphery. Thus our manner of thinking and speaking began to shift to secondary causes (causes related to man and nature). If something happens we look to natural causes, or in human situations, to the humans who caused it. These are secondary causes however, since I cannot cause something to happen unless God causes me. Yet increasingly the modern mind struggles to maintain a balance between the two mysteries of our freedom, and responsibility and God’s Sovereignty and omnipotence.

C. In effect we have largely thrown primary causality overboard as a category. Even modern believers unconsciously do this and thus exhibit three issues related to this.

1. We fail to maintain the proper balance between two mysteries: God’s Sovereignty and our freedom.

2. We exhibit shock at things like the “hardening texts” of the Bible because we understand them poorly.

3. We try to resolve the shock by favoring one truth over the other. Maybe we just brush aside the ancient biblical texts as a “primitive mode of speech” and say, inappropriately, “God didn’t have anything to do with this or that.” Or we go to the other extreme and become fatalistic, deny human freedom, deny secondary causality (our part)  and accuse God of everything; as if he were the only cause and had the sole blame for everything. Thus, we either read the hardening texts with a clumsy literalism, or dismiss them as misguided notions from an immature, primitive, and pre-scientific age.

D. The point here is that we have to balance the mysteries of primary and secondary causality. We cannot fully understand how they interrelate, but they do. Both mysteries need to be held. The ancients were more sophisticated in holding these mysteries in the proper balance. We are not. We handle causality very clumsily and do not appreciate the distinctions of primary causality (God’s part) and secondary causality (our part, and nature’s too). We try to resolve the mystery rather than hold it in balance and speak to both realities. As such, we are poor interpreters of the “hardening texts.”

Point IV – THE NECESSITY OF HUMILITY – By now it will be seen that we are dealing with a mysterious interrelationship of God and Man, between our freedom and God’s sovereignty, between primary and secondary causality. In the face of such mysteries we have to be very humble. We ought not think more of the details than is proper for us, for, frankly they are largely hidden from us. Too many moderns either dismiss the hardening texts or accept them and sit in harsh judgment over God, as if we could do such a thing. Neither approach bespeaks humility. Consider a shocking but very humbling text where Paul warns us in this very matter:

What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all!  For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden. One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?” But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” (Romans 9:14-20)

In effect, none of can demand an absolute account of God for what he does. Even if he were to tell us, could our small and worldly minds ever really comprehend it? My thoughts are not your thoughts, and my ways are not your ways, says the Lord (Is 55:8).

Summary – In this post, rather too long, we have considered the “hardening texts” where it seems that God is said to harden the hearts of certain people and groups. And so he does. But texts like these must be carefully approached with proper distinctions, appeal to the scriptural and historical context, and deep humility. There are profound mysteries at work here: mysteries of God’s sovereignty, our freedom, his mercy and also his justice.

We ought to be careful to admit the limits of our knowledge when it comes to such texts. As the Catechism so beautifully stated, when it comes to texts like these, they are to appreciated as a profound way of recalling God’s primacy and absolute Lordship over history and the world, and so of educating his people to trust in him. (CCC # 304)