If you’ve been a Christian for any length of time, you’ve either heard or said something along the lines of the following:
“I still believe in God. I mean, I’m not becoming an atheist or anything. I know God exists.”
Let’s unpack this a little, shall we? That little bit at the end is usually the kicker. “I know God exists.” Well, of course you do. Paul tells us this much in Romans 1. Everyone is without excuse, because they know God exists- yet they suppress this truth. This reality is the reason that Alvin Plantinga can say that belief in God is “properly basic.” This means that, although evidence exists in nature for the existence of God (again, cf. Romans 1), it is not necessary to have evidence to believe in God. It is an innate knowledge, a knowledge that we are born with. The Reformer John Calvin called this the sensus divinitatis– a sense of God, implanted within us. The question is never whether you know God exists or not. The question is whether you are suppressing that truth. What then is the outcome of such knowledge? If we follow the trajectory of Romans 1, we see that it is not at all what we expect. Though innately born with a knowledge of God, and with the testimony of creation (theologians call this “general revelation”), the outcome of Romans 1 is a twisting of the natural order- the worship of creation over its creator. Why is this so? Well, Paul unpacks this in the next few chapters- this suppression is due to our sinful nature. Because we are sinful, all general revelation will lead us to is idolatry. Knowing that God exists is not sufficient- we all know he exists, and yet we suppress that truth.
“Well, it’s more than that. I really do believe.”
Ah. Well, we are definitely getting into the deeper issue. The problem with belief is that there are a lot of things you can believe. It’s not enough to simply say “I believe,” and leave it at that- belief always has an object. What is it that you believe? If it’s simply that God exists, that takes us back to the issue of the knowledge of God. What is the object of your belief? Is it just some vague spiritual notion, (which is more new age than Christian)? Is it that God exists but is not personal, (which is deism)?
“No, not at all. I believe in Jesus Christ. That he was the messiah.”
Well, that’s definitely Christian content. It’s also necessary for true salvation. But what about James 2.19- “You believe that there is one God… Good! Yet even the demons believe this- and shudder!” A quick glance through the Gospels will show that the demons knew who Jesus Christ was- the messiah, the son of God, etc. Yet, they shudder. Certainly, someone can realize the facts of the Gospel- essentially that God reigns, and this would cause them to shudder also. This can be seen in those who feel that their sin is somehow bigger than God- that God cannot forgive them. What then, is the fundamental difference?
Theology is never meant to simply be an issue of knowledge, but a practical outpouring and application of that knowledge. The person terrified of God’s judgment because his sins are “too much” for God’s grace doesn’t truly know grace. They have some head knowledge- but certainly no experiential understanding. By experiential, I don’t mean believing in an experience over and against Scriptural authority- I mean actually experiencing the grace of God and the knowledge that it puts forth. There is a disconnect somewhere between their thoughts, and Romans 8.1- “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” You may say that you know God exists- even the pagans do that. You may say that you believe- but what are you believing in? You may say that you believe Christ is the Son of God- so do the demons.
What are you trusting in?
Is it the fact that the good things you’ve done outweighs the bad? “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.” (Romans 3.20).
Is it simply because you know God exists? “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.” (James 2.18).
Or is it by trusting only in the finished work of the cross- a belief with an object, a trust that flows from a change of nature?