WHY WE DO NOT KNOW GOD
In order to speak to the question, “Why don’t we know God?” we must first grant that we do, in a sense, know God. So we can hardly speak to the question, “Why don’t we?” without making the kind of distinction that Dr. Packer makes. Dr. Packer distinguishes between the different ways in which we may know God. He speaks of the distinction between notitia and cognitio, that is, the difference between an intellectual awareness or mental apprehension of something and a more profound or deep relational knowledge of someone or something.
Obviously, the Bible uses the verb “to know” in at least these two ways and perhaps even more widely. There are different levels, degrees, or ways in which we can know things and persons. That is why the Scriptures say on some occasions that men do not know God, that men are in darkness concerning God, yet on other occasions that men do know God. Unless the Bible is speaking with a forked tongue, or unless we violate radically the Reformed principle of the coherency of Scripture, we have to conclude that the Bible is speaking from different perspectives about different kinds of knowledge. Perhaps we can circumvent the dilemma by making these distinctions. But one thing is certain: no one knows God at the depth to which it is possible to know God. And that is the question with which we must wrestle: Why do we not know God as intimately, deeply, personally and comprehensively as it is possible for us to know him?
The answer to that question does not require an extended dissertation. The reason that we do not know God as intimately, deeply, personally, and comprehensively as we possibly could is because we do not want to know God intimately, deeply and comprehensively. Moreover, even though we may be redeemed, even though we may be “the elite of the elect,” there still remains within us the residual elements of our fallenness. Our natures have been regenerated, but the sin that dwells within us has not been eradicated and will not be, this side of glory. So as long as there remains any disposition within us to sin there is a propensity toward ignorance of the things of God. I would like to focus our attention on a detailed analysis of why men do not know God to the degree that it is possible to know him. The basis for this analysis is the first chapter of Romans, beginning at verse 18.
In the part of the prologue that is found in verses 16, 17 and 18, Paul maintains that he is not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith. Then we find the thematic statement of the Epistle: “For therein [that is, ‘in the gospel’] is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.” This is the topic sentence for the whole Epistle: the righteousness of God is revealed through faith. So, in a word, Paul is concerned with revelation. But notice, he begins in verse 18, not with the revelation of God’s mercy, grace, or justification, but with the revelation of God’s wrath: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.”
What we find here, as always in Scripture, is that God’s wrath is never arbitrary, capricious, irrational or demonic, but that it is always a response to something evil. God’s wrath is revealed against unrighteousness and ungodliness. It is not a wrath revealed against righteousness, godliness or piety, but against unrighteousness and ungodliness. Unrighteousness and ungodliness are general terms—wide-sweeping, wide-encompassing descriptive terms. But we must not stop here, for Paul moves from the general to the particular. He does not leave us to wonder about what particular form of unrighteousness, what specific kind of ungodliness is provoking the wrath of God. Rather, Paul names the child. He mentions it in the second clause of the sentence: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold [that is, ‘suppress’] the truth in unrighteousness.” The specific provocation of God’s wrath is human suppression of truth.
If you go to different translations of the Bible, you will find a wide variety of English phrases used to translate the last part of verse 18. The old King James Version says, “who hold the truth in unrighteousness.” Some translations say, “hindering the truth.” One translator has preferred to say “repress the truth.”
Let us go back to the old King James Version: “holding the truth in unrighteousness.” That whole phrase seems a bit archaic, does it not? How does one hold truth? Truth is an abstract thing; truth is not quantitative. How can we use tactile, empirical terms to describe truth? We do not hold truth; we hold a wristwatch, or we hold onto something. But there are different ways to hold things. If I hold a wristwatch, that is one kind of holding. If I hold onto a lectern, that is another kind of holding. If I hold my wife, hopefully that is an altogether different kind of holding. What kind of holding does the apostle have in mind here? Well, notice that we can hold something up, or we can hold something down. The verb used here literally means “to hold down, to incarcerate, to hold back,” and it suggests the notion that one must use force to repress a counterforce. The way I like to think of “holding down” is of a giant spring compressed to its point of highest tension. In order to hold that spring in place, one must exert all kinds of counterpressure to keep it compressed; otherwise it will spring up by its own tension and perhaps even injure the one who is seeking to hold it back.
So why is Paul using this verb with respect to truth? He is talking about the human effort that brings the wrath of God upon man. It is man’s active, positive resistance to God’s truth.
The reason that God is angry is further elucidated in verse 19, where Paul says, “Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God has shown it unto them.” If Paul had merely said, “What could have been known about God was available to man,” that would have been reason enough for God to reveal his wrath against those who did not avail themselves of a divinely given opportunity to know him. That in itself would have been a serious sin against our Creator. But Paul is not simply saying: God has made knowledge of himself available to men and men have never made use of this opportunity. No, he is saying that the knowledge of God which he has revealed to all men has been made plain, not obscure, and that mankind has rejected it.
Let me comment on that with an illustration from the academic world. There are different ways in which you can bring students to a state of knowledge. You can say to them, “Look, we have a course in the Doctrine of God. I am the professor in this course, but I am not going to teach you anything; I am simply going to moderate the course. Each student is responsible to lecture. If you want to know about the Doctrine of God, just go to the library and find those books that have something to say about the Doctrine of God and then come in and give your paper.” That is one way I could do it. Or I could say, “Look, I want you to do heavy research about the Doctrine of God. So I am going to take all the books in the library that deal with the Doctrine of God and put them together in one place on the reserve shelf. I am going to make it easy for you to discover this information.” In other words, I would be facilitating the student’s efforts to learn something about the Doctrine of God. Or, finally, I could go even further. I could put those books on the reserve shelf, and then I could take the student by the hand, march him over to the library, show him where the reserve shelf is, take each book off the shelf, open it up to the first page, and say to him, “Listen to this,” and start to read it.
I think that Paul is getting at something like this last illustration. God does not just make the knowledge available. He shows himself to us, as the apostle says. How thoroughly that knowledge has been received remains a question. But one thing is certain: God has revealed himself to all men with sufficient clarity and with sufficient content as to render men inexcusable. He has presented himself with enough clarity, with enough revelation, to remove the cry of ignorance as a justifying reason for a person’s rejection of him.
Paul goes onto say that when men refuse to honor God and refuse to acknowledge him even though they know he is there, their thinking becomes “foolish” and their minds “darkened.” Have you ever read the works of David Hume? Have you ever read the works of Jean-Paul Sartre? These men are great thinkers. David Hume, I think, is one of the most formidable opponents that the Christian faith has ever had to wrestle with. How can men who have clearly and blatantly denied the existence of God be so scholarly, so knowledgeable, and manifest such high gifts of intelligence? The answer is in this text. Once a man refuses to acknowledge what he knows to be true he can go on to construct magnificent systems of philosophy. He can manifest gifts of intellectual acumen and brilliance. But if he is consistent, if his starting point in the procedure involves an obstinate rejection of what he knows to be true, his system can end only in futility. Imagine the scientist who starts his scientific endeavor by denying what he knows to be the basic facts. The only way such a scientist can arrive at any kind of truth is by a happy inconsistency, by compounding his errors to such a degree that possibly he will be fortunate enough to stumble onto some truth.
The pagan adds insult to injury, Paul continues, for not only does he begin his systematic approach by refusing to acknowledge what he knows to be true and thereby working continuously with a darkened mind but, having done this, he tells the world that he is wise. Paul says, “ … professing themselves to be wise, they became fools.” Sinful man, after he repudiates what he knows to be true, then has the audacity to say to God and to the world, “I am a wise man.” But God says that the wisdom of sinful man is foolishness!
In the Scriptures the designation “fool” is not primarily an intellectual evaluation. When God says that a man is a fool, he is not saying that he is dull-witted. He is not saying that he has a low I.Q. or that he is a poor student. The term “fool” is a judgment of man’s character. It is more of a moral evaluation than an intellectual one. It is the fool who says in his heart, “There is no God.”
Foolishness is in many of the catalogues of serious sins in the New Testament, along with adultery and murder and things like that. Foolishness is a moral refusal to deal honestly with truth.
We notice next that men’s foolishness of compounded. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged “the glory of the incorruptible God” for images resembling mortal man, birds, animals or reptiles. Therefore, “God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonor their own bodies between themselves, who exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed forever.”
What happens after the truth is held down, after the truth is repressed? Is there a vacuum? No! Immediately an exchange takes place. Substitution occurs.
It is valuable to talk about this in contemporary psychological terms. Johannes Spavink, the Dutch scholar, finds in this text a statement about man’s psychological prejudice. Spavink asks: Why do men repress or suppress things? He says that knowledge which is most likely to be suppressed is knowledge which comes to us in the framework of the traumatic. We try to push down knowledge that frightens us or is unpleasant. We have a kind of psychocybernetic system with which we screen from our conscious mind those things which are unpleasant. But the question I ask you in modern psychological terms is this: Is the memory of a threatening or traumatic experience destroyed by our repression? I do not know of any psychologist or biochemist who would say that those memory notions or images are destroyed. Rather, we bury them or push them down.
So, our present state of consciousness is dark, but the knowledge has not been destroyed. For example, let us say that I have repressed negative feelings about my mother. I am not even conscious of these feelings. But I begin to have undefined anxiety. I begin to worry, and I do not know why I am worried. When I begin to experience restlessness I go to a psychologist to help me work through my anxiety state.
The doctor says, “What’s the matter?”
I say, “I have anxiety.”
“Why do you have anxiety?”
“I don’t know. That’s why I came to see you. I’m worried, and I don’t know why I’m worried. Help me to find out.”
The doctor begins to probe my inner man to see where the injury is and how I can be brought again to health and wholeness. As he goes through my medical history he does not pay attention simply to the words I say. He is also carefully observant of my mannerisms, my gestures, and every kind of symbolic activity with which I am communicating my deepest feelings. Eventually in our discussions he notices that every time he asks me about my mother, or every time I say something about my mother, I twitch my shoulder. So he thinks, “Every time Sproul says something about his mother he has this awful twitch.” He asks, “Do you have any kind of bad feelings about your mother?”
“My mother?” (Twitch) I ask in astonishment. “I don’t feel anything bad about my mother!” (Twitch)
But he knows that somewhere in the past I have had a bad experience with my mother, and he knows that this knowledge has not been destroyed but that it is only exchanged for the gesture. In this way it is (perhaps) still a problem but not quite as threatening as the original experience. In the same way, most people do not say simply, “There is no God”; rather they create a new God, one who is less threatening, less terrifying, less of a problem.
Let me illustrate this. A few years ago I was watching the David Frost show, and he was interviewing Madalyn Murray O’Hair. They began discussing whether or not there is a God, and David Frost suddenly became a great champion of the Christian faith, defending it against O’Hair. The discussion got so out of hand that Frost became angry and decided to determine the controversy by a show of hands. He turned to the studio audience and asked, “How many of you believe in some kind of supreme being, some kind of higher power, something greater than yourselves?” Almost everybody in the audience raised his hand.
I waited breathlessly to see what Madalyn Murray O’Hair would say to that kind of response. She said, “Well, what do you expect from the masses who come to this studio? What do they know? Give them time to catch up with modern knowledge, and this myth will disappear.” That is the tack she took. I thought that if she had been clever she would have said, “Just a minute, Mr. Frost. Let me pose the question.” Then, turning to the audience, she would say something like this. “I know that some of you believe in something higher than yourself, some higher power, some faceless, nameless, contextless, unknown god who makes no claims on your existence, who never stands in judgment over your morality, who does not demand the sacrifice of your life. Anybody can believe in that kind of god. But do you believe in Yahweh, the Lord God of Israel, who thunders from Sinai, ‘You will have no other gods before me’? Do you believe in a god who demands obedience to his perfect law and who calls men to repentance? How many of you believe in a god who makes absolute demands upon your life?” What do you suppose the vote would have been like?
The “Supreme Being,” the “Ground of Being,” “Ultimate Concern”—all these titles are nonthreatening. They have no substance. They represent our most sophisticated efforts at idolatry, in which we exchange the truth of God for a lie, a nonthreatening lie. They speak of a God who never judges us, who never calls us to repentance, a cosmic grandfather who says, “Boys will be boys.” That is the kind of God we have, not only in the secular world but in our churches.
The Immutable God
When I was writing the book Psychology of Atheism, I worked through three great attributes of God: holiness, sovereignty, and omniscience. But then I remembered a sermon I had read years before by Jonathan Edwards entitled, “Man Naturally God’s Enemy.” I wondered what Edwards had to say about why men hate God. So I went back to read that sermon. At the beginning Edwards said, “There are four things about God that make men hate him.” I thought, “Four things? What did I miss?” And I wondered if Edwards had found the same things I had found.
He said, “The first thing that terrifies man is God’s holiness.”
I said, “Aha! I got one right!”
Then he said, “The second thing man hates about God is his omniscience.” By this time my opinion of Edwards as a scholar was rising.
He went on, “The third thing that men hate about God is his sovereignty.” I could hardly believe that I had put my finger on the same things. But what was the fourth one? What had I missed?
I turned the page and read, “Perhaps you are wondering what the fourth one is?” Edwards had stolen the words right out of my mouth. Then I read: “The fourth thing about God that men hate is his immutability.” Immutability? Why would that be so threatening? Why should that bother us? Edwards explained. “Man faces this dilemma: Not only does he know and know clearly that God is holy and omniscient and sovereign, but he knows that God will always be holy, he will always be omniscient, he will always be sovereign. And there is nothing we can possibly do to make him less holy, less omniscient, or less sovereign. These attributes are not open to negotiation. We cannot find God involved in a process of change whereby he can enter into certain mutations to compromise with us.”
From age to age, the hound of heaven brings his light into a world of darkness; but men love the darkness rather than the light because their deeds are evil.
About the Author: Dr. R.C. Sproul is the founder and chairman of Ligonier Ministries, an international Christian education ministry located near Orlando, Florida. His teaching can be heard on the program Renewing Your Mind, which is broadcast on hundreds of radio outlets in the United States and in 40 countries worldwide. He is the executive editor of Tabletalk magazine and general editor of The Reformation Study Bible, and the author of more than seventy books (including some of my all time favorites: The Holiness of God; Chosen By God; Reason to Believe; Essential Truths Of The Christian Faith; Knowing Scripture; Willing to Believe; Intimate Marriage; Pleasing God; If There’s A God, Why Are There Atheists?, and Defending The Faith) and scores of articles for national evangelical publications. Dr. Sproul also serves as president of Ligonier Academy of Biblical and Theological Studies and Reformation Bible College. He currently serves as Senior Minister of preaching and teaching at Saint Andrew’s in Sanford, FL. The article above was adapted from the chapter entitled “Why We Do Not Know God” from the book: Our Sovereign God: Addresses Presented to the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology, 1974-1976. James M. Boice, ed. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1977.
In any discussion of reformation in doctrine one must come to the realization that the real problem of our time is that there is hardly any doctrine at all to reform. So when we talk about reformation we must focus on a recovery of theology, period. Certainly in the liberal churches there is a lack of exposition of Scripture and sound doctrine, and unfortunately, this is rapidly becoming the case in evangelical circles as well.
Now you might ask which doctrines are missing? I argue that primarily what we need is a recovery of the doctrine of God. You have to have some kind of starting point and that’s the point where I think we should begin. People have lost any real sense of the fact that when we come to church we come to worship and learn about God. Years ago I spoke at a conference and my topic was on a number of the attributes of God. Later I got some feedback from a gentleman who was listening to my presentation. He had been in the church for thirty years, and in fact was now an elder, and that was the first time that he ever heard a series of messages on the attributes of God. And after hearing this his friend asked him, ‘Well, whom did you think you were worshiping all that time?’ But he hadn’t really thought about those things and I’m convinced that we have literally thousands of people in our churches today who really seldom, if ever, think about who it is they are worshiping, if they think about God at all.
Now, I think there are some reasons for this. One reason is the terrible impact of television on our culture which has produced a virtually mindless age. Television is not a medium which shares information well, it is primarily an entertainment medium. It puts pictures on the screen onto which people project their own aspirations and desires, and because it works so powerfully and is so pervasive it has the tendency to transform anything it touches into entertainment, and it does it very quickly. One of the most significant books I’ve read in the last few years in terms of what is actually happening to the mind is Neil Postman’s, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show-Business. It’s not that entertainment itself is bad. But television is most damaging when it tries to be serious. So when you put news on TV, you get brief little sound bites encased in slick images, and this is not really information, it is entertainment.
This happens to politics, it happens to education, and according to Postman, it happens to religion. Postman even raises the question of what one loses when one puts religion on television. It is obvious what there is to gain: a mass audience, money. But what do you lose? He argues you lose everything that is important: tradition, creeds, theology, etc. And he says above all, you lose a sense of the transcendent. And what he means is that you lose a sense of the presence of God. When Christians meet together to worship God, whether it is in a cathedral or a simple chapel, typically there will be prayers and open Bibles for the study of God’s Word. There is a sense that God is present in these activities. And you lose that when religion is put on TV. All you have on television is the picture of the star of the show who is the ‘entertainer.’ Postman says God necessarily, in that kind of medium, comes out second banana. And when the preacher becomes the star of the show he begins to think and act as if he is a Hollywood star then you have the kind of tragedies that we’ve seen in the industry. Postman has a very serious comment at this point. He says, ‘Now, I’m not a theologian and maybe I don’t have the right word for it, but I think the word for it is ‘blasphemy.”
All of this would be irrelevant if it were not for the fact that all this has a significant impact on our churches. So just as God is absent from televised religion, there is tremendous pressure to push him out of our church services in favor of a more upbeat entertainment-oriented Sunday morning visit. We do all kinds of things to fill in that vacuum, but as Augustine said, “we are made for God and our hearts are restless until they rest in him.” In my judgment, we have a hollow core at the heart of evangelicalism, and that is the cause of all the restlessness.
The Sovereignty of God
If we want to recover the doctrine of God we have to recover the attributes of God, and one attribute that is sorely missing in our time is the attribute of God’s sovereignty. What happens in the Christian world if you don’t give attention to the sovereign God? Human sovereignty comes in to take the true God’s place. Idols always replace the true if the true is not kept there. So you have human beings becoming sovereign in their own estimation in a variety of ways.
Theologically: we are the ones who elect God rather than God electing us.
Programmatically: we are the ones who determine what should be done in our worship rather than following the statements of Scripture.
In this sort of business God gets relegated to the sidelines, we really don’t need him. But really, when you think about it, this is secularism.
I think the best illustration of this in the Bible is the story of Nebuchadnezzar when he stood on the roof of his palace in Babylon and he looked over that magnificent city with its famous hanging gardens and he said, ‘Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?’ That is probably the best statement in all of literature of what we call secular humanism, because he is claiming that the world he observed was of him, by him and for his own glory. But the sad thing is that it is not just secular humanism, but is becoming ‘evangelical’ humanism as well. If we’re the ones who conceive of what should be done and we’re the ones who accomplish it by our skills, whatever they may be, often without prayer (because we are not a prayerful people), then I guess the glory should go to ourselves. So we find ourselves right back where Nebuchadnezzar was, right around the time God judged him with insanity. And as I look at the evangelical world I’d say a lot of it is insane. In addition, Nebuchadnezzar was driven out to live with the animals to behave in a bestial way. And when I read the polls that tell me that evangelicals behave virtually no different from their secular counter-parts, and I recognize the bestial manner that the world around us is behaving, I think that maybe the judgment of Nebuchadnezzar has come home to us as well.
Fortunately, Nebuchadnezzar got the message. For his final testimony reads:
At the end of that time, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored. Then I praised the Most High; I honored and glorified him who lives forever. His dominion is an eternal dominion; his kingdom endures from generation to generation. All the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back his hand or say to him: ‘What have you done?’ …Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humble. (Dan 4:34-35, 37)
God is not only able to humble them. He does humble them, and perhaps that ought to be a good starting point for renewal in our churches. We evangelicals need it especially.
The Holiness of God
If there is any doctrine that rivals God’s sovereignty in importance it is the holiness of God. But do we have any sense or appreciation of the holiness of God in our churches today? David Wells writes that God’s holiness weighs ‘lightly upon us.’ Why? Holiness involves God’s transcendence. It involves majesty, the authority of sovereign power, stateliness or grandeur. It embraces the idea of God’s sovereign majestic will, a will that is set upon proclaiming himself to be who he truly is: God alone, who will not allow his glory to be diminished by another. Yet we live in an age when everything is exposed, where there are no mysteries and no surprises, where even the most intimate personal secrets of our lives are blurted out over television to entertain the masses. We are contributing to this frivolity when we treat God as our celestial buddy who indulges us in the banalities of our day-to-day lives.
Perhaps the greatest problem of all in regard to our neglect of God’s holiness is that holiness is a standard against which human sin is exposed, which is why in Scripture exposure to God always produces feelings of shame, guilt, embarrassment and terror in the worshiper. These are all painful emotions, and we are doing everything possible in our culture to avoid them. One evidence of this is the way we have eliminated sin as a serious category for describing human actions. Karl Menninger asked the question years ago with his classic book, Whatever Became of Sin? He answered his own question by arguing that when we banished God from our cultural landscape we changed sin into crime (because it is now no longer an offense against God but rather an offense against the state) and then we changed crimes into symptoms. Sin is now something that is someone else’s fault. It is caused by my environment, my parents or my genes.
But once again, this is not simply a problem outside the church. We too have bought into today’s therapeutic approach so that we no longer call our many and manifold transgressions sin or confront sin directly, calling for repentance before God. Instead we send our people to counselors to work through why they are acting in an ‘unhealthy’ manner, to find ‘healing.’
David Wells claims that ‘holiness fundamentally defines the character of God.’ But ‘robbed of such a God, worship loses its awe, the truth of his Word loses its ability to compel, obedience loses its virtue, and the church loses its moral authority.’ It is time for the evangelical churches to recover the Bible’s insistence that God is holy above all things and explore what that must mean for our individual and corporate lives. To begin with we need to preach from those great passages of the Bible in which people were exposed to God’s awe-inspiring majesty and holiness. If nothing else, we need to preach the Law without which preaching the Gospel loses its power and eventually even its meaning.
Reformation in Worship
John R. W. Stott has written a book on some essentials of evangelical religion in which he affirms “that true worship is the highest and noblest activity of which man, by the grace of God, is capable.” But that highlights our weakness, namely, that for large segments of the evangelical church, perhaps the majority, true worship is almost non-existent.
A. W. Tozer, a wise pastor and perceptive Bible student, saw the problem nearly fifty years ago. He wrote in 1948, “Thanks to our splendid Bible societies and to other effective agencies for the dissemination of the Word, there are today many millions of people who hold ‘right opinions,’ probably more than ever before in the history of the church. Yet I wonder if there was ever a time when true spiritual worship was at a lower ebb. To great sections of the church the art of worship has been lost entirely, and in its place has come that strange and foreign thing called the ‘program.’ This word has been borrowed from the stage and applied with sad wisdom to the type of public service which now passes for worship among us.”
It is not unusual to read in books dealing with worship that worship is hard to define, but I do not find that actually to be the case. I think it is very easy to define. The problems-and there are many of them-are in different areas.
To worship God is to ascribe to Him supreme worth, for He alone is supremely worthy. Therefore, the first thing to be said about worship is that it is to honor God. Worship also has bearing on the worshiper. It changes him or her, which is the second important thing to be said about it.
William Temple defined worship very well:
“To worship is to quicken the conscience by the holiness of God,
to feed the mind with the truth of God,
to purge the imagination by the beauty of God,
to open the heart to the love of God,
to devote the will to the purpose of God.”
In defining worship, William Temple also gives us a good description of the true godliness throughout the Christian life.
John H. Armstrong is editor of a journal called Reformation and Revival, and he devoted the 1993 winter issue to worship. In the introduction Armstrong calls what passes for the worship of God today ‘Mc-Worship,’ meaning that worship has been made common, cheap or trivial. What is the problem? Why is so little of that strong worship that characterized past ages seen among us? There are several reasons.
First, ours is a trivial age, and the church has been deeply affected by this pervasive triviality. Ours is not an age for great thoughts or even great actions. Our age has no heroes. It is a technological age, and the ultimate objective of our popular technological culture is entertainment.
I argue that the chief cause of today’s mindlessness is television, as I discussed earlier. Because it is so pervasive-the average American household has the television on more than seven hours a day-it is programming us to think that the chief end of man is to be entertained. How can people whose minds are filled with the brainless babble of the evening sitcoms have anything but trivial thoughts when they come to God’s house on Sundays morning if, in fact, they have thoughts of God at all? How can they appreciate his holiness if their heads are full of the moral muck of the afternoon talk shows? All they can look for in church, if they look for anything, is something to make them feel good for a short while before they go back to the television culture.
Second, ours is a self-absorbed, man-centered age, and the church has become sadly, even treasonously, self-centered. We have seen something like a Copernican revolution. In the past true worship may not have taken place all the time or even often. It may have been crowded out by the ‘program,’ as Tozer maintained it was in his day. But worship was at least understood to be the praise of God and to be something worth aiming at. Today we do not even aim at it, at least not much or in many places.
Pastor R. Kent Hughes, the former Senior Pastor of the College Church in Wheaton, is on target when he says, “The unspoken but increasingly common assumption of today’s Christendom is that worship is primarily for us-to meet our needs. Such worship services are entertainment focused, and the worshipers are uncommitted spectators who are silently grading the performance.”
From this perspective preaching becomes a homiletics of consensus-preaching to felt needs-man’s conscious agenda instead of God’s. Such preaching is always topical and never textual. Biblical information is minimized, and the sermons are short and full of stories. Anything and everything that is suspected of making the marginal attender uncomfortable is removed from the service, whether it be a registration card or a ‘mere’ creed. Taken to the nth degree, this philosophy instills a tragic self-centeredness. That is, everything is judged by how it affects man. This terribly corrupts one’s theology.
As I have been arguing all along, we are oblivious to God. In recent years, as I have traveled around the country speaking in various churches, I have noticed the decreasing presence and in some cases the total absence of service elements that have always been associated with the worship of God. These desperately need to be recovered.
Whatever Happened to Prayer?
It is almost inconceivable to me that something that is called a worship service can be held without any significant prayer, but that is precisely what is happening. I mean really, what do you go to a church service for if it is not to pray? And yet, you can go to evangelical services filled with thousands of people and hear virtually no prayers at all. There is usually a very short prayer at the beginning of the service and another prayer at the time the offering is received. But longer prayers-pastoral prayers-have all but vanished. Whatever happened to the ACTS acrostic in which ‘A’ stands for adoration, ‘C’ for confession of sin, ‘T’ for thanksgiving, and ‘S’ for supplication? Now and then a few supplications are tacked onto the offering prayer, but most all other prayers have been thrown out. How can we say we are worshipping when we do not even pray?
The Reading of the Word
The reading of any substantial portion of the Bible is also vanishing. In the Puritan age ministers regularly read one long chapter of the Old Testament and one chapter of the New Testament in every service. In some services I’ve attended there are no Scripture readings at all, other times it is a reading of only one or two verses. Sometimes it just precedes the sermon and very often it is only a pretext because the sermon has nothing whatsoever to do with the passage. I’m not talking about liberal churches, mind you. I’m talking about the lack of Scripture readings in our evangelical churches. We must again recover the apostle’s command to ‘devote [ourselves] to the public reading of Scripture’ (1Tim. 4:13).
The Exposition of the Word
In this television age of ours, preachers are expected to be charming and entertaining. And so your sermons have to be shortened because people have short attention spans, they are funny if they can be, and you have to eliminate any theological material that would cause people to think, and you most certainly do not bring up negative theological material like sin because that makes people feel uncomfortable. Preachers want to be liked, and in order to be liked today you have to be entertaining. I am reminded of Jesus’ harsh words to the Pharisees about wanting to be popular, seeing the smiles from the folks in the market place. As our Lord said, ‘They have their reward.’ But for pastors who are looking for more than smiles, and parishioners who are looking for more than to have their ears tickled, our Lord gave a very simple explanation of what the exposition of the Word is really all about. ‘You search the Scriptures thinking that in them you have eternal life: yet these are they which testify of me’ (John 5:39). The preaching of God’s Word is about Christ, and him crucified. This central message is food for our souls. But we are settling for junk food.
Confession of Sin
Who confesses sin today-anywhere, not to mention in church as God’s humble, repentant people? It is not happening, because there is so little awareness of both God and sin. Instead of coming to church to admit our transgressions and seek forgiveness, we come to church to be told that we are really all right, we want to be affirmed.
One of the saddest features of contemporary worship is that the great hymns of the church are on the way out. They are not gone entirely, but they are going. And in their place have come trite jingles that have more in common with contemporary advertising ditties than the psalms. Now, not all of them are bad and I would even argue that there is a place for some of them, like when you’re having a fun night with the Jr. High. But what place do they have in serious worship? The problem here is not so much the style of the music, though trite words fit best with trite tunes and harmonies. Rather it is with the content of the songs. The old hymns expressed the theology of the church in profound and perceptive ways and with winsome memorable language. Today’s songs reflect only our shallow or non-existent theology and do almost nothing to elevate one’s thoughts about God.
Worst of all are songs that merely repeat a trite idea, word or phrase over and over again. Songs like this are not worship, though they may give the churchgoer a religious feeling. They are mantras, which belong more in a gathering of New Agers than among the worshipping people of the triune God.
Reformation in The Church
The disaster that has overtaken the church in our day in regard to worship is not going to be cured overnight. But we ought to make a beginning, and one way to begin is to study what Jesus said about worship. He had been traveling with his disciples and had stopped at the well of Sychar while the disciples went into the city to buy food. A woman came to draw water and Jesus got into a discussion with her. As the discussion progressed he touched on her loose moral life, revealing his insight into her way of living, and she tried to change the topic by asking him a religious question. ‘Sir,’ she said, ‘I can see that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshipped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem’ (John 4:20).
Jesus’ answer is the classic biblical statement of what worship is all about: ‘Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth’ (vv. 21-24). There are several important things about this.
First, there is but one true God, and true worship must be of this true God and none other. This is the point of Jesus saying that the Samaritans did not know whom they were worshipping but that the Jews did, that ‘salvation is from the Jews.’ He meant that the true God is the God who had revealed himself to Israel at Mount Sinai and who established the only acceptable way of worshipping him, which is what much of the Old Testament is about. Other worship is invalid, because it is worship of an imaginary god.
We need to think about this carefully because we live in an age in which everyone’s opinion about anything, especially his or her opinion about God, is thought to be as valid as any other. That is patently impossible. If there is a God, which is basic to any discussion about worship, then God is what he is. That is, he is one thing and not another. So the question is not whether any or all opinions are valid but rather what this one true existing God is like. Who is he? What is his name? What kind of a God is he? Christianity teaches that this one true God has made himself known through creation, at Mount Sinai, through the subsequent history of the Jewish people, and in the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of his Son Jesus Christ. In addition, he has given us a definitive revelation of what he is like and what he requires of us in the Bible. So that is the point at which we start. There is one God, and he has revealed himself to us. That is why there can be no true worship of God without a faithful teaching of the Bible.
Second, the only way this one true God can be truly worshipped is ‘in spirit and in truth.’ Jesus was indicating a change in worship when he said this. Before this time worship was centered in the temple at Jerusalem. Every Jew had to make his way there three times annually for the festivals. What took place in the local synagogues was more like a Bible school class than a worship service. But this has been changed. Jesus has come. He has fulfilled all that the temple worship symbolized. Therefore, until the end of the age worship is not to be by location, either in Jerusalem or Samaria, but in spirit and according to the truth of God.
Worship should not be confused with feelings. It is true that the worship of God will affect us, and one thing it will frequently affect is our emotions. At times tears will fill our eyes as we become aware of God’s great love and grace toward us. Yet it is possible for our eyes to fill with tears and for there still to be no real worship simply because we have not come to a genuine awareness of God and a fuller praise of God’s nature and ways.
True worship occurs only when we actually meet with God and find ourselves praising him for his love, wisdom, beauty, truth, holiness, compassion, mercy, grace, power, and all his other attributes.
Reformation in Life
Surveys of contemporary Christian conduct tell us that most Christians do not act significantly different from non-Christian people. This is not surprising since little contemporary preaching teaches anything that might actually make a difference. But we obviously should be different, at least if we take the Bible seriously. Christians are to be the new humanity, a community of those who “love…God, even to the contempt of self’ as opposed to those who ‘love…self, even to the contempt of God” (Augustine).
Where should we start? The scope of this subject is analogous to that of the reformation of the church in doctrine with which this article began. I asked what doctrines needed to be recovered, and I answered ‘all the major doctrines of all the creeds.’ Here I ask, what areas of Christian life and conduct need to be recovered, and the answer is: all areas of life both for ourselves as individuals and the church. We need the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount and the ethical teaching of the epistles. It is all needed. In short, we need to recover what it means to ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind’ and to ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ since ‘all the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments’ (Matt. 22:37-40). We need to live out our faith, not to obtain grace, but because we have obtained God’s grace in Christ.
To God Alone Be Glory
This article began with God, and it is appropriate that it end with God, too, for a recovery of the sense of the reality, presence, will and glory of God is what it is about. It is significant that Paul’s conclusion to the great doctrinal section of the book of Romans ends with a doxology. The last words are: “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen” (Rom. 11:36).
Moreover, after the closing application section of the letter, the entire epistle ends similarly: “To the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ! Amen” (Rom. 16:27).
I would argue that the reason the evangelical church is so weak today and why we do not experience renewal, though we talk about our need for it, is that the glory of God has been largely forgotten by the church. We are not likely to see revival again until the truths that exalt and glorify God in salvation are recovered. How can we expect God to move among us until we can again truthfully say, ‘To God alone be the glory’?
The world cannot say this. It is concerned for its own glory instead. Like Nebuchadnezzar, it says, ‘Look at this great Babylon I have built by my power and for my glory.’ Arminians cannot say it. They can say, ‘to God be glory,’ but they cannot say, ‘to God alone be glory,’ since Arminian theology takes some of the glory of God in salvation and gives it to man. Even those in the Reformed camp cannot say it if what they are chiefly trying to do in their ministries is build their own kingdoms and become important people on the religious scene. We will never experience renewal in doctrine, worship and life until we are honestly able to say, ‘to God alone be glory’ in all that we do.
To those who do not know God that is perhaps the most foolish of all statements. But to those who do know God, to those who are being saved, it is not only a right statement, it is a happy, true, inescapable, necessary and highly desirable confession.
Author: *James Montgomery Boice, Th.D., (July 7, 1938 – June 15, 2000) was a Reformed theologian, Bible teacher, and pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia from 1968 until his death. He is heard on The Bible Study Hour radio broadcast and was a well known author and speaker in evangelical and Reformed circles. He also served as Chairman of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy for over ten years and was a founding member of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. He is the author of numerous Bible expositions and one of my favorite Systematic Theologies called Foundations of the Christian Faith.
©1996, 1999 Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals
Encouragement and Hope For The Journey Ahead
Book Reviewed By David P. Craig
The subtitle of this book is “how to put your regrets behind you, embrace grace, and move toward a better life.” *Lutzer definitely does that, and much more in this very helpful book on how God’s sovereignty plays out in our lives, even when we sin, fail, make mistakes, and blow it every which way. The good news is that God works things out for our good even when we have messed things up pretty bad.