Breaking Through the Despair of Unbelief
MINNEAPOLIS — Michael Reeves may now serve as the President of Union School of Theology in Oxford and be recognized as the author of wonderful books like Delighting in the Trinity and Rejoicing in Christ — but those affections for God were hard-won.
Reeves will not soon forget his arduous battle with unbelief in his early twenties, a season of life under the tyranny of unanswered doubts and questions that haunted him and brought him to the lowest point in his life — to what he describes as “a suicidal despair.”
“I was brought up in an evangelicalism that was quite rationalistic,” he said in a recent interview with Desiring God, as he reflected on his past. “I went to a private school and then to Cambridge University, and that meant really until the age of 21 I had been told, ‘You are the best and the brightest.’ There certainly was a huge amount of pride in me. I felt Jesus would be honored to have me on his team, and I was confident that I was bright enough to establish the reliability of Christianity for myself and make it logically sound and tight for others. And then it all fell apart.”
Instead of rationally winning over converts for Christ, the 21 year old found himself locked in darkness and uncertainty, the bleakest year of his life, in which he doubted everything he had assumed, and started to feel the despair of personal desolation close in on his life.
His life came down to one ultimatum. “Either Jesus is true, or nihilism is true,” he remembers thinking. “For me, it was Jesus or nothing. But I was also unsure about how to be saved. So if nihilism is true, I wanted to kill myself; but if Jesus is true, I might drop straight into hell if I do.”
This was his existential dilemma.
Reeves began wrestling with how to be saved, and next needed to make a choice between the Protestant gospel of divine acceptance by faith alone and the Roman Catholic claim that our deeds are included in justification. It was this internal struggle that made him reach for answers.
“I wasn’t getting theologically robust answers to my questions from people around me. So I turned to reading random books and stumbled across various volumes, one by Martin Luther.” Luther’s questions and struggles “chimed exactly with where I was at,” he recalls. “I felt like I had a personal relationship with Luther. He seemed to understand my wrestle and absolute terror with God, but he had an answer to it.”
“So I was seeing beautiful answers in Luther, for which I am hugely grateful, but then came the next question, Can I really trust the Bible? And it was in that moment that seventeenth-century Puritan John Owen entered my life, and as I read his works about the self-attesting nature of Scripture, I found the key that changed everything.”
What the doubting Reeves stumbled upon in the works of John Owen was a long established fact in the Reformed tradition. The Bible is autopistic — that is, self-credible, self-attesting, self-authenticating.
In the pages of Owen’s book The Reason of Faith (1677), Reeves read about the working of the Holy Spirit, that he “irradiates the mind with a spiritual light, whereby it is enabled to discern the glory of spiritual things” (volume 4, page 57). And later, as the Spirit works, the soul discovers God’s beauty. “Finding the glory and majesty of God in the word, our hearts do, by an ineffable power, assent unto the truth” (page 63).
There it is. We trust the Bible because in it we find God’s glory shining undeniably.
Which means we know the Bible is ultimately true, not because of external evidence; not because we find a shroud cloth with a burned image of Christ’s face in it; not because a boy claims to have died, gone to heaven, and then returned to earth to tell us in a bestselling book; not because the authority of any governing church or the Pope have claimed it to be so; not because new archeological evidence has surfaced; and not even because John Owen says it is.
Fundamentally, this glory that shines through the pages of Scripture, and takes over the epicenter of our lives, is the work of God in us, awakening us to see his staggering beauty in his Son, Jesus Christ. The Bible itself explains how this works: “God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). This glory — this peculiar glory — is the deciding factor. It is the heart of all apologetics. In it we find the only ultimate hope of salvation.
The sun is a fitting metaphor. “Just as the human eye, seeing the sun, is immediately convinced of its reality,” writes theologian Herman Bavinck, “so the regenerate person ‘sees’ the truth of God’s revelation” (Reformed Dogmatics 1:592). That is the foundation of our knowing.
But it’s more than just seeing the sun, because in the pages of Scripture the believer also senses a spiritual reality, too, writes John Calvin. Scripture is self-authenticated by God when we open our Bibles and there “we feel that the undoubted power of his divine majesty lives and breathes there” (Institutes I, vii, 5).
Apart from the Spirit’s work in opening our spiritual eyes to see the revelation of this self-authenticating glory in Scripture, we rationalists are left chasing a million historical confirmations that cannot close the case or finally settle the doubt in our hearts.
So as Reeves began reading John Owen, “it felt like an entire foundation shift happened. The foundations of my faith had rested on my ability to rationally argue the historicity of the resurrection and the reliability of biblical texts. But I found through Owen that God speaks, and I can recognize that this is God speaking in his word, and that therefore I can rest entirely on God’s word. And that drove a tank through my theology. Everything changed.”
“The despair I had been in was very real and very intense, so the liberation of having a sure foundation in Scripture, to know a gracious God, to see the glory of a beautiful Christ, and to know sure acceptance with him, was all life-changing and immensely sweet. And it saved my life.”
As everything changed, Reeves found in himself a new thirst for more of God’s glory, and that conviction drove him even further to know more about the Christ of Scripture. As the darkness began to lift and his confidence in the biblical Christ was shored up, he found himself in a used bookstore in London, and bought all seven volumes of the works of Puritan Richard Sibbes for just seven pounds (about ten American dollars) — a bargain and a buffet.
“So in just one year I came to see that God saves us by grace alone (Luther), that I can rest myself on Scripture’s self-attesting authority (Owen), and Christ is truly beautiful and I want more and more of him (Sibbes).”
His battle against these doubts, and his bout with darkness, has clearly left its mark on the historian and theologian and author, but that scar is not something Reeves regrets because it has left him now with clearer and deeper convictions as a result.
“I think I knew Scripture was the word of God, but I had been trying to prove it and provide a foundation under it. And what I heard from Owen was no, you don’t need any foundation under Scripture because it proves itself to be the word of God. There you see Jesus, the glorious image of God, who no one could invent.”
A Peculiar Glory
How do we articulate this beautiful self-credibility, self-attesting, and self-authenticating nature of Scripture? This has been a theme in John Piper’s ministry over the years, woven into his works and scattered throughout his many sermons, books, biographies, articles, and Ask Pastor John episodes. Now this glorious theme will be the focus of an entire book releasing next month, A Peculiar Glory: How the Christian Scriptures Reveal Their Complete Truthfulness.
“What is God’s peculiar glory in Scripture?” Piper asks near the end of the book. “It is the central brightness of ‘the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God’ (2 Corinthians 4:4). This is what bursts upon the heart and mind of the person in whom God ‘shines with the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’ (2 Corinthians 4:6). This peculiar brightness shines through the whole Bible but comes to its most beautiful radiance in the person and work of Jesus Christ, dying and rising for sinners” (285).
The beauty of this Christ, which burns inside of us by the work of the Holy Spirit, is the deepest confirmation we can ever find for the reliability of Scripture.
As Reeves well knows, guides to understanding this glorious point are helpful. He also knows that many rationalists today, who now find themselves in the unalleviated darkness of doubt, will not likely turn to Puritans like John Owen or Jonathan Edwards or Richard Sibbes for the answers. Perhaps they will find help in Piper.
“I don’t think since Owen wrote his works (in the 1670s), any other serious, book-length theologically robust treatment of the self-evidencing nature of Scripture has been written,” said Reeves. “We have gone through all the period of Enlightenment and there has been very little to help struggling rationalistic believers on this issue. So to have experienced this doubt for myself — Is Scripture reliable and true? — and now to see Peculiar Glory coming in print, I am utterly thrilled.
“This book might be the door out of the darkness for others, like John Owen was for me. Not so that people put their trust in John Piper, or in his book, but that people see what is already in Scripture itself, for themselves — and find a door that leads into new confidence in the Bible and new joys in Christ.”