I’ve been sitting on a 25,000-word book manuscript for quite some time now. Its name is How to Be Made Holy, and it’s meant to be a book that a Christian can hand to an unbeliever after an evangelistic encounter. Think of it as “Here’s everything I wanted to tell you but didn’t have three hours to say.” Partly because I don’t want it just sitting there, here’s an excerpt. There may be more to come. Please feel free to use this in your own evangelism. —GPO
“If God really wants me to acknowledge his existence, why doesn’t he just literally write it in the sky or strike me with lightning right now?” No one who demanded this of a Hollywood celebrity would be considered seriously. “Will Smith, I demand that you call my phone number right now, or you don’t exist!” The Bible isn’t new to this scenario.
There may be some anecdotal modern-day stories out there about God giving people a sign. I recall one I heard in college in which a student was walking about on a sidewalk while praying, unsure whether all this Christianity stuff was real. “God, give me a sign!” The student ends her prayer, opens her eyes, and finds herself inches from a large construction sign in front of her. Ha ha, very punny. Whether this story is real or not, the source from which we should be getting our theology is not from what we perceive as ‘signs’ but rather from the Bible, God’s message to us.
The Surface Problem
Consider the biblical story of Jonah. In the popular culture, he’s decreasingly known as that guy in the Bible who gets eaten by a whale. For those who grow up in the church, he’s a mainstay of Sunday school flannelgraphs and anthropomorphic vegetables. You have to love a story where a guy gets eaten by a whale and lives to tell about it. But if you consider the story as a whole, Jonah is probably the “Worst Missionary Ever.” If you can admit that you don’t know why he’s the Worst Missionary Ever, you might consider flipping to the book of Jonah in the Bible and reading it before continuing on here. It’s only four chapters. You might even learn that being eaten by a whale was actually God’s mercy upon Jonah, not a punishment.
Why is Jonah the Worst Missionary Ever? He’s disobedient, and he doesn’t love the people to whom God sends him, both the crew on the boat that could have been destroyed and the people of Nineveh to whom he proclaimed, “At the end of forty days, Nineveh will be demolished!” Nineveh repents from their evil ways, and Jonah gets upset about it! Jonah reveals that he’d rather that Nineveh actually be destroyed, and he ran away from God’s call to preach to Nineveh because he knew that God would be merciful towards them! Note one other critical detail: nobody ever promises salvation to the Ninevites. They believe Jonah’s message, and they begin praying and fasting in hope that God will be merciful to them. Even the animals fast. In the words of their king, “Who knows? Perhaps God will turn and relent, and turn away from his burning anger, and we will not perish.”
Fast forward some 800 years to Jesus’ earthly ministry. Jesus is teaching, and the scribes and Pharisees (experts in the Jewish law) want a sign from Jesus.
Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.”
He answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation desires a sign, yet no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was in the belly of the huge fish for three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights. The men of Nineveh will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and—behold—something greater than Jonah is here.
The scribes and Pharisees certainly didn’t get the sign they were looking for — indeed, they had already seen Jesus perform miraculous healings, and it’s probably fair to say that if Jesus had actually performed that sign, they still wouldn’t have believed. After all, they received an even greater sign, namely Jesus rising from the dead. Contrast that with the Ninevites. They never insisted upon or saw a sign. They never even received any promise of forgiveness on the condition that they repent. Jesus considers these Ninevites to be far greater than these scribes and Pharisees, considered in their culture to be the most holy and spiritual men around.
Consider another teaching of Jesus:
There was a rich man who regularly dressed in purple and fine linen, living extravagantly every day. And a poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores and longing to be fed with the crumbs that were falling from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores. Now the poor man died and was taken away by the angels to Abraham’s side; then the rich man also died and was buried.
In Hades he lifted his eyes, and, being in torment, he saw Abraham from afar and Lazarus at his side. And he called out to him, “Father Abraham! Have mercy on me and send Lazarus in order that he would dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in anguish in this flame!” But Abraham said, “Son, remember that you received your good things in your life, and Lazarus to the same degree received bad things. But now he is being comforted here, and you are being tormented. And besides all this, between us and youᴾ a great chasm has been established so that those who want to pass from here to youᴾ are not able, nor can those from there cross over to us. “
The rich man said, “Then I beg you, father, that you send him into my father’s home, for I have five brothers, that he may warn them, in order that they also will not come into this place of torment.” But Abraham said to him, “They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.” The rich man said, “No, father Abraham, but if goes to them from the dead, they will repent!” But Abraham said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.”
By “Moses and the prophets,” Jesus is referring to the writings found in what we now call the Old Testament. In other words, if reading or listening to the Bible doesn’t convince the rich man’s five brothers to turn from their sin, what will? Not even a man rising from the dead, which Jesus did! Burn! Many believed. Others persisted in their unbelief. The overall point here is that divine, miraculous signs don’t do what we think they can do in terms of convincing everyone.
The Need for Divine Illumination
I reckon that there’s a certain hole in this argument that I need to address really quickly.
Garrett, you’re assuming that the Bible is true. You can’t trust the Bible like you can trust people’s eyeballs.
For one, the Bible itself claims that you actually can trust it like you trust your eyeballs. See Scripture is a Most Sure Prophetic Word — 2 Peter 1:16–21. And we also need to understand how best to handle external versus internal claims concerning the Bible’s accuracy.
I certainly can’t claim to have tested every little historical claim of the Bible, but we also need to divide claims for the Bible’s authenticity and historicity logically.
There are plenty of good ministries that do scientific and archeological research to authenticate the Bible’s claims externally (or inductively if you want to be really technical). Think here in terms of a ministry like the Institute for Creation Research, which does much work to validate the Bible’s claim of creation in six literal days. Another is the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts. Because we don’t have the original manuscripts of the New Testament, CSNTM works to digitize extant New Testament manuscripts (the handwritten kind) in order to ensure we have a consistent record of the New Testament’s textual transmission. This helps serve to squash the common but largely uninformed argument that “what they had back then isn’t what we have now.” I address more of this later in this book.
Apologetics for the biblical record like the above are good and right things to do, so long as they are not to the neglect of the internal (or deductive) argument for the Bible’s authenticity. One way to understand this approach is by the famous motto of eleventh century Christian theologian Anselm of Canterbury, “faith seeking understanding.” In other words, we don’t come to faith out of nothingness simply by logical proofs. Rather, understanding of what we believe manifests after we have come to faith. Paul puts it this way:
A natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him and he cannot understand them because they are spiritually discerned. But the spiritual person discerns all things, yet he himself is discerned by no one. For who has known the mind of the Lord, that we will instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ.
—1 Corinthians 2:14–16
In other words, the One who grants people understanding of these spiritual matters, including the understanding of Scripture, is the Holy Spirit.
The work of the Spirit in imparting this understanding is called “illumination,” or enlightening. It is not a giving of new revelation, but a work within us that enables us to grasp and to affirm the revelation of the Bible, as it is read, preached, and taught. Sin clouds our minds and wills so that we miss and resist the force of Scripture. The Spirit, however, opens and unveils our minds and attunes our hearts so that we understand what God has revealed (2 Cor. 3:14–16; 4:6; Eph. 1:17, 18; 3:18, 19). Illumination is the application of God’s revealed truth to our hearts so that we grasp as reality for ourselves what the sacred text says.
Would you pray that God would grant you illumination to understand the Scripture as you read it?
The Deeper Problem
We addressed earlier in the chapter why signs alone are insufficient to cause people to drop what they’re doing, repent of their sins, and follow Christ. While there is a divine mandate to believe the signs that God gives us to lead us to believe him, human beings obviously don’t always obey that mandate.
Even many within the visible church have banged their heads together, trying to figure out “why non-Christians don’t go to church” or otherwise don’t respond positively to evangelism.
One common ostensible reason why people reject faith in Christ is that they believe they are “free-er” without any sense of religion in their lives. “If I join a religion, I’ll have to give up things that I like such as my boyfriend or girlfriend, my beer, my free Sundays, or my bacon. I’m definitely not giving up bacon!” To this point, the Bible actually confirms a portion of this sentiment.
For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness.
This question within the visible church has sparked entire movements dedicated to figuring out and addressing why non-Christians don’t go to church or otherwise become Christians. Give them kicking rock bands, motorcycle stunt shows, and appearances by NFL players. Do an entire sermon series and book about a seven-day-a-week sex challenge. I’m not joking about that last one; it actually happened. Entire consulting businesses run on helping churches design their physical spaces, marketing, and sermons to get people in the door and, sometimes, to get people to donate money. Another version promises God-given riches in return for giving the church money. It’s kind of funny how those promises never involve giving to a Christian charity outside of that particular ministry offering God’s riches despite that God is above them both, right? Meanwhile, there are nearly 1.3 billion Roman Catholics worldwide who seem content without such stunts.
What does the Bible have to say about why people don’t attend church or attach themselves genuinely to Christianity? We saw a piece of it in that Romans 6:20 quote. Here’s another instance of the same thing.
Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly I say to you, he who practices sin is a slave to sin.”
If you’re not in Christ, you’re a slave of sin. Your desire to sin outweighs your desire for righteousness because that is your very nature. Because you’re a slave to sin, you do what sin commands, which is to sin. If I might channel a series of car insurance commercials, “If you’re a slave of sin, you sin. It’s what you do!”