DO WE KNOW...?
(This is an edited transcription of a sermon preached by Kent Philpott at Miller Avenue Baptist Church, Mill Valley, California, on September 5, 2003.)
This is as basic a sermon as you can get because it asks the question: How do we as Christians know that what we believe is the truth?
The fact is there are many “truths” proclaimed, and they cannot all be true at the same time. If they were all true, then nothing would actually be true. There would be no ultimate, objective truth at all, only quaint belief systems that would only be of interest to the cultural anthropologist or sociologist.
How is it that we know that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life? Jesus said this of Himself, as recorded in John 14:6. How do we know this is true? How do we know that Christianity is right over against all of the other competing and contradictory religious faiths that exist in our world?
One of the current and dominant ideologies is “Pluralism.” For our purposes here, pluralism is a point of view wherein many religious doctrines are considered of equal value though they differ and contradict one another. Pluralism accepts and tolerates the existence of competing philosophical and religious doctrines. This goes along with post modernism and the demise of dominate religious traditions. In the Western cultures then it means we are living in a post-Christian era. In the West, Christianity is no longer the exclusive religion, rather it exists side by side with Hinduism, Buddhism, and so on. We talk about a “spiritual marketplace.” How is it that we know Christianity is true over and against any of the other world religions, small or large. And I want to address this issue this morning. How do we know?
The Texts I have two texts of Scripture and I am using the English Standard Version of the Bible.
The first text is Romans 10:17:
“So faith comes from hearing and hearing through the word of Christ.”
The second text is Hebrews 11:1.
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
It must be asked: Faith and hope in what? What is it that we have faith in? What is it that we are hoping for? And I want to answer this question as best I can.
Both faith and hope are common to humankind. I think they are hardwired into us. They have been present throughout human history and amongst all people of whatever language or tribe that we know anything about. It is faith and hope for life first of all. Somehow the idea that death is the end of it all is repugnant to us. The hope for life beyond the grave is at least one of the reasons for the existence of the religions of the world. Somehow, it just seems wrong that when this earthly life is over it should be permanent—dead forever. That we should be extinguished as the blade of grass, or the ant that crawls, or the microbe that swims in our blood system—the absolute end, is something that does not resonant with us. Secondly, there is a desire to know God, which I believe is fundamental to our nature. There is this strong, powerful desire, need really, to know, love, and experience God. Thirdly, we have in us the desire to know why we are here and to at least comes to terms with what this living and dying, this pain, suffering, and pleasure, is all about? And I think these desires and needs are intimately tied together.
So, how do we know that our longing for life and love and God, how do we know these are satisfied and brought to completion and maturity, through Jesus
Christ? You understand, this is a subject not easily approached.
Is truth based on leaders and systems?
I was inspired to write this sermon after reading a book about Gail Carruth, who, as a young hippie living in Berkeley, California, became a member of a popular eastern religious group. It was the one the Beatles embraced for a short period in the 1960s. She was very committed to it and became a leader. But as she got involved in the inner workings of the organization, she discovered some things that bothered her a great deal. One was imperfection of the leaders and another was corruption in the organization. Her thought was, as she laid it out in her biography, (the woman became a Christian and is active in Christian ministry today) that this group couldn’t have the truth because the organization and the leadership were so flawed. And when she asked a question, “How do I know?” the way she answered it was, “Now that I am an insider, I see things are not like I thought. This group cannot have the truth.” Imperfection and corruption in Christianity
I thought about this approach to truth and realized that if I were to take the same approach, I would be indeed on unhappy ground. Teaching through the Book of Acts like I am with our weekly Bible study, which is the story of the primitive, early church, I am aware of the troubles with that existed in that church, and aware of the imperfections of the leaders, even Peter among others. And it was to Peter that Jesus said, “You have the keys to the kingdom. I am going to build my church on you.” (preachers paraphrase) That was the statement Jesus made, you remember it from Matthew 16. And Peter was far from prefect, a flawed individual, and you see it before and after the crucifixion, the resurrection, and Pentecost. Right from the beginning, there were major problems in the church. As you read the epistles, particularly 1 Corinthians and Galatians, you see the problems. That system was flawed.
And then you get to the book of Revelation and the letters to the seven churches of Asia found in chapters two and three, only one church is praiseworthy, without any flaws at all. All the rest had problems, and some serious ones at that. If someone would take the view that truth is based on the integrity of the leaders and the system, Christianity must be dismissed. It is critical to note that there was no attempt to hide the flaws of either the leaders or the church itself, in the New Testament. The point is: we do not know the truth due to an institution’s integrity and/or its leaders. Leaders and followers are flawed and collectively produce flawed systems. We have known this for a long time.
Is truth based on claims for truth?
Do we know something is true because someone says it is?
While the Philpotts were driving home from vacation this summer, we stopped in Salt Lake City. I am going to mention a particular religious group now, and please notice that I am not intending to demean or criticize individuals, but I will evaluate the organization itself with its claims for truth. This is legitimate and acceptable—we are not so empty headed that we cannot critic systems that are in our environment.
We stopped in Salt Lake City, stayed overnight, even saw the film, Open Range with Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall. The next day we went to visit the Mormon Temple, which I have done several times before. The Temple and the other buildings are beautiful, and the whole place is intriguing. More gracious people you will not find than the Mormons, I will tell you. Pleasant, courteous, sincere—all this and more. And I cannot resist engaging the young missionaries, the tour guides, in discussion. And I had two such opportunities. I didn’t announce who I was, I have to admit this, because I didn’t want to end up in a quarrel about what I believed versus what they believed. I had something else in mind.
Approaching Salt Lake, I began to rehearse in my mind something that I have thought about many times, which is the striking similarity between Islam and Mormonism. In a moment, I will list some of the similarities. What would the Mormon missionaries think about the similarities between their religious views and those of Islam since they parallel each other so closely? And since they are so close, can one be truth while the other is not? Or, are they both based on error?
I began by saying, “I have noticed how similar Mormonism and Islam are. Have you ever considered this?”
Here are the points I made:
1. Both Islam and Mormonism were started by a prophet who said he had the last word from God. This was the last word and there would be nothing else. This was finally it. Mohammed said this and so did Joseph Smith.
2. Both received, as they reported, a revelation from an angel, Gabriel for Mohammed and Moroni for Joseph Smith. (A number of religions and sects have begun with a visitation by an “angel.”)
3. The purpose behind both visitations was to restore Christianity and true religion. Everything that had been revealed by God before then was wrong or temporary and was now to be put aside.
4. Both of these encounters with angels resulted in a book, the Koran for Mohammed and the Book of Mormon for Joseph Smith.
5. Opposition began and both prophets were martyred. Upon their martyrdom, the groups split along family lines, some following one side of the feud, some following another.
6. Both groups developed a system of prophets or other leaders who proclaimed the authoritative word of God on an ongoing basis.
7. Then there was rapid growth, both groups employing some rather radical methods of evangelism, some quite militant about it.
8. Both religious groups are rich and powerful.
10. Both groups are quite defensive when they perceive that their belief systems are being
11. Both groups rely on miracles to substantiate their “truth.”
At one point, we were in Sandy, Utah, and while my wife and two daughters were in a quilt store looking for fabrics, I stumbled across the most magnificent antique store I ever saw in my life. If I had had a truck with me I would have filled it up. In the back section, I discovered a collection of old Mormon books, written in the 1860s and 1870s. Several of them were stories of miracles performed by Mormon elders and prophets. I had know before that the Mormons relied of these miracle accounts, but here it was right before me. I knew that Muslims did the same.
Back to the missionaries
I presented my points to the missionaries, then I asked, “How do you know your religion is truer that the Muslim’s religion?” They answered, “We have miracles. And we have living prophets.” And I said, “Everybody has miracles, and prophets, and holy men who claim to speak for God.”
We know that in the New Testament Jesus warned about religious people who would deceive many with their supernatural powers. He said these would show great signs and wonders, so great that even the “elect” might be persuaded. Miracles are common, and a miracle is not necessarily from God. Miracles prove nothing.
I could not help pointing out also that the size, wealth, and the age of a group means nothing. I said, “If I were to evaluate a group on such traits, well, Islam is bigger, wealthier, and older. If this was how to determine truth, then I would have to become a Muslim.” With a smile, as I was leaving, I cautioned them not to become Muslims.
So then, it is not based on the integrity of the leaders, or the purity of the system, or the claims of angels and prophets, or the age, size, success of the group, or the splendor of buildings, that determines truth. How do we know? I am going to give you my answer right now and you may not like it.
It is only faith. And it is a faith that we do not have in ourselves. It can only be given to us.
I know it is not the answer you want, but there is no better answer.
I do have another answer of a sort, and though I think it is somewhat incomplete, still I think enough of it to give it to you now. In the September 2003 issue of Christianity Today was a wonderful article titled, “Why Don’t They Listen” and it was an interview with one of the great Christians of our day, John R. Stott. He was dealing with the issue of how we know that Christianity is the truth of God. He rightly based it all upon Jesus. He said, “It is not the uniqueness of Christianity as a system that we depend on, but the uniqueness of Christ.” Now Stott essentially said what I am saying in this sermon. He said if you look at the church, if you look at the people, if you look at the system and the organization--that really is meaningless. He said, “It is the uniqueness of Christ.” Stott referred to the uniqueness of Jesus in His incarnation (God becoming flesh), in His atonement (dying once for our sin), in His resurrection (breaking the power of death), and in His gift of the Spirit (to indwell and transform). Jesus has no competitors. Then there was this magnificent summary: “So, because in no other person but Jesus of Nazareth did God first become human (in His birth), then bear our sins (in His death), then conquer death (in His resurrection), and then enter His people (by His Spirit), He is uniquely able to save sinners. Nobody else has His qualifications.” And I completely agree with John R. Stott.
This is the testimony of the Scripture. Jesus is incomparable. He is not only incomparable, He is supreme. If you look at the claims of all the religious teachers, nothing comes close to this. The story of Jesus is absolutely incredible. And as you look at the Scripture, in this precious Bible of ours, which contains the story of God, the story is seamless. Those who read and study it carefully see it is perfect and entirely different from every religious teaching in the world. I made a very categorical statement, but I would repeat it.
And only Christianity is based upon grace, the gift of forgiveness and salvation given by God alone, unearned but freely given, without strings or condition. Although other religions in competition with Christianity try to claim they teach “grace,” and even the most human centered religions are beginning to claim this, yet it falls short. Hindu gurus will claim “grace”, that theirs is a religion of grace. Islamic holy men are now claiming that Islam is based upon grace just like Christianity is. Well, that’s hollow. It is a misunderstanding of grace, and borne out of competition. Only Christianity is based upon the sovereign grace of God Himself. Every other religion is based upon the ability of the human being to accomplish something before God and earn the favor of whatever deity. Only biblical Christianity claims that we have no ability to please God. The only power that we have is to reject and to rebel against God. We have no ability whatsoever to forgive our own sins or to save ourselves--no matter what we do.
I am reading a book by Jessica Stern titled, Terror in the Name of God. She is a professor of terrorism at Harvard University and probably one of the foremost experts on terrorism in America. She went all over the world and interviewed individuals belonging to different terrorist groups. There were Christian based terrorists such as anti-abortionist people like Paul Hill who even are killing doctors who perform abortions. People, in the name of God, who are so obsessed and confused that they will commit murder to prevent abortions. Stern interviewed Jewish terrorists who will commit murder to advance their cause, as well as the Islamic militants who support and encourage suicide bombers—all in the name of one God or another. It is hard to say if these groups are political or religious or both. But they are all convinced they had the truth. Stern didn’t see that, she didn’t see the similarity in all the groups she was interviewing, that at the bottom line each group of people thought that by doing terrorist acts they could earn favor with God.
Faith is the gift of God
Faith cannot be earned or obtained in any possible way. God gives us faith. It is the theme we find throughout Scripture. On my own, the faith I have, is weak and always mixed with doubt. I cannot claim faith on my own. What did our text teach us? “Faith comes by what is heard, and what is heard by the preaching of Christ.” And then in Hebrews, once again, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” In other words, the writer of Hebrews answered the question, “How do we know? “ By faith.” And Paul tells us faith is a gift of God. “Not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2: 8-9). The faith that I might have, the faith that you might have, is a gift from God. And beyond that, we have no other authority. Even the Bible, as true and inspired as it is must still be taken on the basis of faith. Even the things that John Stott spoke of, the incarnation, the crucifixion, the resurrection of Jesus--all comes to us on the basis of faith. I may be convinced of the historicity of the work of Jesus, based on overwhelming information. You can actually come to a place of acceptance of the basic tenants of Christianity that we find in the Apostle’s Creed for example, on the basis of logic and on the basis of historical demonstration. The authority of the Scripture, the reliability of the Scripture – yes it is all there, but it can only really come to us by faith.
We know by faith alone!
How we know then is the result of God given faith. Five verses along from our Hebrews 11:1 text, we have these words, “Without faith it impossible to please Him” (Hebrews 11:6).
I may have misled you in the introduction to the sermon. Maybe you thought we would have this issue resolved. Perhaps you thought that the preacher would give us something that would be rock solid. And then when I say, “It is all faith.” you say, “I knew that.” Everybody here really knew that. And I know that you might be just a little disappointed in me this morning. You think to yourself, “You have been a pastor all these years, you have all these degrees, and you have all this experience. You know the Bible well, couldn’t you have something better for me so that I could really know that I am right.” But if I gave you something else, something less, I would be merely misleading you. We know truth only and always by faith.
Faith is incredibly spiritual. Faith is not tangible. It is a mystical experience to have a relationship with God by faith. It will be that way all your life. And I think there is something freeing about that, to know that that is so. To know that this thing is between me and Jesus and it becomes, I tell you, far more solid than if you had one, two, three, four things that were as good as an incontrovertible mathematical theorem. Faith is always stronger than anything else. Faith is the strongest thing we know anything about. We’ve got this in our head, it’s in our heart, it’s in our mind, it’s in our soul. It is something that God puts there and it can’t be taken away. It will get weak, it will get strong, it will grow, but it can’t be taken away from you because God has given it to you as a gift. That faith in Jesus is planted there. He opened your eyes to see that Jesus died for your sin on the cross. He opened your eyes and He showed you that Jesus rose from the dead. He opened your eyes and showed you that you belong to Him by simple faith. God is a sovereign God and He calls His elect; you are the chosen of God and that is the strong reason why we know that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.
Our Father, we thank you that it is so. Our salvation and forgiveness is not based on anything in ourselves. We are not in competition with anyone, to do anything, to accomplish anything, to embrace anything. Lord, it is very simple. For all the faith you have given us, we thank you. For the faith that we lack, we trust you will take care of that, too. And we bless your
September 05, 2003