by Rev. Lance Filio
Finally, the president made some concessions in his controversial speeches about religion. He admitted in public that he does believe in God and explained his personal view about Him. Because of the backlash he received, he realized that while the nation is still generally religious, they are not ready with these kinds of religious talk. And after admitting his belief in God, he apologized for his behavior and reasoned that he was only testing the people’s limit. As a sleek politician, he knows when to proceed and when to concede so this time, the president decided to let public opinion win.
Growing up, I learned to avoid controversial discussions. In my experience, there are two topics that can spoil a good conversation among family and friends – these are politics and religion. Personally, I think religious talk is an uphill battle. It is not popular and considered impolite. And like what was demonstrated with the recent issue, because the president spoke his mind about religion, the country goes berserk!
I think what happened showed us that people are mushy about the reasons for their belief. We’d rather be left alone with our reasons for believing as if we possess a private knowledge directly from God and that is enough. Like a pandora’s box, no one would want others to open up any religious talk and allow anyone questioning their own belief systems. Why? Because it forces us to explain why we believe what we believe. And like a can of worms, no one would like to see the ugly truth that he or she don’t know. We don’t like anyone poking around and questioning our beliefs. We believe and don’t need to explain why. This is the true reason why most people react to religious talk negatively.
But is this how the Bible revealed believers should be like? Jesus himself reminded us: “…this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent (John 17:3)”. To receive eternal life comes with an intimate understanding of who God is. In the same way, Jesus said as his disciples they hear his Word and this truth shall set them free (John 8:32). The knowledge of God comes to us in His word and they are true knowledge of Him. And as God’s truth, we are called to defend it “against principalities, against powers, against the lords of this age, rulers of this darkness (Ephesians 6:12)”. We are called to “be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have (1 Peter 3:15)”. We need to know the reasons for our beliefs. We need to know what we believe and why we believe it. And we need to tell others why.
So why do we believe in God? We believe in God because he revealed himself to us in nature and in his Word. All creatures can understand that God is God through everything he has made because they are created in the image of their Creator. However, due to sin, man has suppressed this truth and denies God’s general revelation. So as an act of pure grace, God sovereignly revealed himself in Scripture. Genesis up to Revelation spoke about the Triune God redeeming his people from sin and death. The believer believes in God because his heart, being regenerated by the Holy Spirit, sees the light of Scripture enabling him to see everything in creation as God’s own revelation to him in nature.
This is what we will be hearing preached and expounded today Lord’s Day. We will hear about (1) God’s general and special revelation; and (2) The believer’s disposition to believe.
General and Special Revelation
There is an almost universal agreement among people throughout history that a “divine being” exists. A recent poll in the US confirmed that most American, 75% of them, believe in a higher power or “being”. In our country, almost a majority or 98% of the Filipinos are either Christians or Muslims. With only 2% of professing non-believers, people have concluded that religion or adherence to a faith is reasonable or normal for any human person.
Majority rules as some asserted. The overwhelming number of people confessing faith to a god shows us a pattern of behavior that is already self-evident. We cannot assume that the majority of the people is suffering from a mass delusion. They do not anymore need any justification. As a result, the burden of proof then lies to those who do not believe – the atheists and the agnostics. We have the numbers so everyone is expected to simply follow the majority. But is this enough? Is this how we believe in God? Do we believe because almost everybody believes?
This argument, “agreement of the people”, was shared in history between pagans and even Christians alike. It was actually the orator Cicero who once lived during 100 BC said, “There never was any nation so barbarous, nor any people in the world so savage, as to be without some notion of Gods.” According to Dr. Scott Oliphint, John Calvin even referred to this quote from Cicero to establish the common observation pagans and Christians make about the religiosity of the man throughout history. However, Oliphint further explained that while they, the pagans and the Christians, share the same observation, they do not have the same explanation of the phenomena. He reasoned that because a person believes in something to be true for a long time, he or she will always be right even when proven wrong by new facts or reasons. Everyone believes the sun revolves around the earth but when Galileo proved otherwise, the belief of the majority will not negate the factuality of his discovery – it is the earth that revolves around the sun. Therefore, in matters of faith or belief, the majority is not the authority.
As a Christian, our interpretation of the facts in nature depends on the authority of the Word of God. We understand the revelation of nature in the light of the revelation we receive from the Word. We read from God’s word, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. (Psalms 19:1-2)”. We can explain that every creature knows that there is a God because the creation reveals the Creator. God’s general revelation supplies us with the knowledge of his Being. However, we only understand this because it was revealed to us in God’s Word.
Furthermore, as creatures created in the image of our Creator, we have in us implanted in our nature a true knowledge of our God. John Calvin calls it “sense of deity”. He explains that as God’s image bearers, we are capable of receiving God’s creation as a witness of His existence. Therefore, we have in creation two things operating at the same time for us to know God. First, internal to a person, the sense of deity and Second, outside of a person, the divine qualities of God continually revealed in nature. This is why when the psalmist exclaimed that the heavens declare the glory of God, we know that God’s revelation in nature undeniably demonstrates that He exists and we have no excuse of not knowing Him. Paul puts it this way in his letter in Romans chapter 1, “since what may be known about God is plain to them because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse (verses 19-20)”. Therefore, as testified to us by God’s word, we believe in God because He revealed himself to us in nature and in his Word. This is why we believe in God: it is not because the majority of the people believes but because of God’s general and special revelation.
So going back to our question for this topic, is this how we believe? Do we believe in God because the general revelation of God in nature is understood properly by the special revelation of his Word in Scripture? I would like us to challenge our thinking on this matter because I have researched some facts that say otherwise. According to a survey conducted by the Philippine Bible Society, 6 out of 10 Filipinos do not read the Bible or even owned one. That is almost a majority of the professing Christians in our country. We may defend our countrymen by thinking that maybe Filipinos do receive God’s Word from the church and not by reading the Bible by themselves. Well, that seems to be a fair assessment so to find out if this is true, I researched even further. I found out that only 48% of Christians attend church regularly. Majority of professing Christians do not read the Bible and goes to church to hear the Bible preached. What does this sad reality tell us about their belief in God?
Looking back, I realized that I did not believe in God because of his special revelation in Scripture. Like anyone who lived in our religious country, I believed in God because everyone believes in one. It did not matter to me how I know why I believe, I just knew it was important that I believe. It did not even matter whether or not what I know about God is true or false, what was important is that I sincerely believe in Him. It was a private matter, after all, no one should challenge me about my belief because there is always an assumption that everyone believes in God.
However, as I learned more and more about other people and about other religions, I noticed the vast permutations of every belief systems. At first, I was tempted to harmonize them into a one world religion. I reasoned that while all these kinds of religion are different at the surface level, they were all the same at the bottom level. However, what I discovered at the fundamental level, Christianity will never be the same with other world religions like Buddism, Hinduism and etc. They worship a different “being” compared to the Triune God of Christianity. Even with Judaism and Muslim – in which Christianity has some sense of similarities – the strict monotheism of their faith does not fit squarely with the one God in three persons of the Christian faith. They may all be religious and may affirm a kind of “divine” being, clearly what was received as a revelation from nature, without the aid of special revelation from Scripture, is not the God of all creation. Therefore, what may pass as Christianity in our country is nothing more but a paganized version of Christianity without the reforming work of God’s special revelation in Scripture. Biblical Christianity, as the true belief in God, can only be revealed by Scripture. Without it, our belief in God is nothing but an idolatrous version of Him.
Why is that even with the general revelation of God, at the same time, with our internal nature capable of sensing God’s divinity in nature, we cannot come up with an accurate knowledge of Him?
Disposition to Believe
We might be tempted to think that there may be something wrong in creation. However, we can clearly read from Scripture a factual statement that nature clearly reveals God (read again Psalms 19:1-2 and Romans 1:19-20). Therefore, there is nothing wrong with how creation reveals God. They still constantly reveal him properly and clearly. So where is the problem then?
The problem lies in the sinful nature of all men. In sin, we suppress God’s truth. What I learned clearly from my study of apologetics is when we are comparing general revelation and special revelation, we sometimes think that there is something inherently wrong with nature. We hear it often quote that creation groans waiting for the consummation of God’s work in new creation (Romans 8:22-24). However, while it is true that creation will be renewed as the new creation, creation itself now did not cease to be the instrument of God’s revelation to men about his existence and divinity. The problem is with the suppressing action of man sinful nature.
For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. (Romans 1:21-23 ESV).
Paul explained that men even in sin know God but they suppress it. Externally, they continually deny God’s clear revelation in nature and this has become a way of life for them. Internally, they persistently ignore the “sense of deity” in them and it has become second nature to them. As a result, their minds were darkened in thinking. They invented other gods and created idols to avoid God’s truth of revelation in nature.
This is the reason why in spite of God’s clear general revelation, without God’s illuminating special revelation from Scripture, no one will believe God for who He is. Because of man’s willful rebellion against God in nature, he was unwilling to believe God as God instead replaces him with an idol that is a perverted version of Him. So apart from Scripture, all of man’s ideas about God is but nothing short of idolatry. What we need to properly acknowledge him as revealed in nature is by the light of his revelation in Scripture.
Going back to our journey in the Christian faith, we may think we knew God apart from his divine revelation from Scripture. Yes, we read the Bible. We study it and it was part of our everyday Christian life. However, it does not occur to us that we need to learn who God is from the pages of this book. We always assumed that we know God on our own since we believe in Him and there was never a time we never believed in him. And since we accepted Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior, what we know of him was enough. As result, whatever we learn from Scripture will only be an add-on or a supplement of what we already know. What we know internal (sense of deity) and external (natural revelation) about God is enough. The Bible is only a secondary source of knowledge about God.
In retrospect, I realize now that I got them in reverse. I relied on the light of nature because I did not want the light of Scripture. I did not want Scripture to be primary light in my thinking because it will expose that I did not know anything true about Him. It is only by God’s grace that I was able to see the greater light of Scripture. And when I began to see God’s light revealed to his people throughout redemptive history, I was able to see the darkness of own rebellious heart and my own perverted ways. It now made sense to me that only by submitting to the authority of God’s Word in Scripture, we can clearly see everything. C.S. Lewis once wrote: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that sun has risen; not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else. So this is our claim to reason as Christians, “Only Christianity can shed light on everything we think, ask, live or do.”
Brothers and sisters in Christ, let us consider the light of the revelation of God’s word as “… a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path (Psalms 119:105).” Let us hunger and thirst after his righteousness and ask God to us fill us with his Word (Matthew 5:6). Let God’s Word be the primary means we receive the knowledge of God and let us not rely on our own understanding (Proverbs 3:6). Let us live by “every word that comes from the mouth of God (Matthew 4:4)”. Let us study God in theology and in doctrine and consider them as a necessary part of the Christian life. Let us not despise God’s authority nor follow our own autonomous desires.
ZCRC(Imus), why believe in God? Because the Word and Spirit enable us to do so. Let us know God from His Word. Let us pray the Spirit will illuminate our minds and regenerate our hearts. Let us encourage one another to search Scripture and made sense of God’s work in creation and redemption. Let us submit the sole authority of God’s Word. May the Lord continue to reveal himself to us. Amen.
Rev. Lance Filio is a minister of the Word and Sacraments at Zion Cornerstone Reformed Church (Imus). He finished his Bachelor Degree in Electronics Engineering at Mapua Institute of Technology and He is currently taking his Master of Arts in Theological Studies (MATS) at MINTS. He lives in Taguig City, Philippines with his wife and three children.