One of the ways God’s self-authenticating brightness shines through Christian Scripture is by the brilliance of its diagnosis of the soul-sickness of people you know.
It can happen in two directions. You can read something the Bible says about human nature, and then begin to see that this diagnosis is more illuminating than anything else. It may be confirmed often, or it may be confirmed with stunning force in one single case.
Or it may happen in the other direction. You may form a diagnosis of a person’s soul-sickness, after long and close observation, and then afterward read a passage in the Bible that strikes like a lightning bolt of divine confirmation.
Slide into Unbelief
Consider an example of the second of these two ways that the brightness of God’s self-authenticating wisdom is experienced.
There is someone, or a couple, or some friends, that you care about very much. At first they seem to be Christian. They say yes to all the crucial doctrines. They go to church. They keep their lives free from flagrant sins.
Then, you start to notice a change. Or maybe they were always like this, and the Christian talk and walk was a veneer. They seem distant when the conversation turns to Jesus or his work in history or in the world. They seem to have no interest. You notice that in worship services they don’t really engage. Everything seems perfunctory.
You notice that they don’t seem to read their Bibles, or talk about anything relating to God. When there is prayer, they never participate. They are silent. When discussing personal or social issues, they never relate anything to God or Jesus or the Bible. They talk the way a person would talk who had no spiritual interest or insight. The language of the heart has disappeared from their mouths.
Some New Center
God doesn’t promise to save every unrepentant, deceived, irrational, demonized person. But he can. And he may.
Then you see what is really exciting them. Movies, TV shows, famous dancers and singers and athletes. You notice a strange disproportion between the intensity of their engagement, and superficiality of the topic. The more superficial (for example, clothes or gadgets), the more intensity of interest. You marvel at the incongruity.
Then you start to hear the ugly language. The four-letter words. And then come the verbal put-downs of religious people. The belittling of those legalistic people. To you it sounds strangely self-justifying. The thought that this is the discovery of Christian freedom vanished long before now as you have watched them starting to walk in lockstep with the world.
Church drops out of the picture. The Bible has been long gone. Defenses are now at full height if there is the slightest effort to draw them out on a spiritual or biblical concern. Questionable behaviors multiply. Relationships cease to be meaningful. Even marriages become crucibles of alienation. The planets of their lives are orbiting around another sun besides Jesus, and you find yourself unwelcome, even unknown.
Fourfold Diagnosis of the Disease
Through all this, you are desperately trying to understand what has happened. It is baffling. You grope for categories to even put it into words. You look at it from as many angles as you can in the hopes of seeing something that makes sense. After some time, you realize you have seen this tragedy from four different angles.
From one angle, you see this is a stunning turn of the heart away from Christ. However Christ was trusted and loved before, the heart has turned to the world. Like Paul’s tragic loss of Demas. Once he was part of Paul’s team and was even mentioned along with Luke: “Luke the beloved physician greets you, as does Demas” (Colossians 4:14). But then, in 2 Timothy 4:10, comes this: “Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me.”
And you think that the diagnosis surely is that there is a great need for repentance. The heart must turn back to Christ as the supreme, all-satisfying treasure. Their heart has turned to the world as the new lover of their lives. The need is to turn back.
Then from another angle, you see that they are acting like they are utterly blind to the truth. As if they are looking truth right in the face and not seeing it. You feel utterly perplexed because surely they know! They once knew the truth. Truths about God’s greatness and justice and wisdom and goodness and worth. Truths about Christ and his immeasurable suffering for sinners, and his living and reigning today, and his coming again. Truths about judgment and hell.
And you think that the diagnosis is surely that the great need is for the truth. They need to come to fresh knowledge of the truth. “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). You wonder if they are among those who, Paul says, “are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved” (2 Thessalonians 2:10).
Then from another angle, you see that they’ve lost their minds. This is crazy. They’re acting like they’re insane. They need to recover their reason. You remember utterly crazy and inexplicable behaviors of certain Bible characters like Judas and Gehazi. Judas steals money under the nose of the Son of God (John 12:6)! Gehazi lies to Elisha that he hadn’t gone anywhere, let alone deceived Naaman to get silver and gold (2 Kings 5:25). Insanity! You can’t steal from Jesus and lie to a prophet who raises the dead. This is insane. Loving money must make you crazy.
And you think that the diagnosis is surely that they must come to their senses. They must wake up from the mental stupor they are in. They must get their reason back, because this is utterly irrational.
Then from a fourth angle, you see that this is demonic. They have sold their soul to the devil. They have sinned so deeply they are in the devil’s power. This change is so bizarre and so self-destructive, and so hurtful to people all around them, it’s got to be the devil. This is his way of working — a deceiver and murderer from the beginning (John 8:44).
And you think that the only hope is that God would deliver them and set them free. That God would smash the trap that holds them so they can escape from the devil’s grip. Somehow they need to be liberated from “following the prince of the power of the air” (Ephesians 2:2).
Dam Gives Way
You think to yourself, What a horrible condition to be in — a heart that needs repentance, a mind in desperate need of truth, an irrational loss of their senses, and enslaved by the devil. You groan with a sense of hopelessness, as you think, Any one of these four conditions is enough to destroy a person. But all four!
And then one day, sitting on your couch with your Bible open, you stop, stunned by these words:
God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will. (2 Timothy 2:25–26)
You blink. You read it again. And again. Then the tears well up in your eyes. This emotion is totally unexpected. Why am I crying?
And you realize you have just seen the glory of God. Not only has God himself put words to the very four diagnoses you were seeing, but he has done so while saying, “This is not too hard for me. I am God. I am sovereign. I don’t promise that I will save every unrepentant, deceived, irrational, demonized person. But I do say, I can, and I may.” “God may perhaps grant them . . .”
You realize that the tears are tears of hope. A dam of hopelessness has given way to the sovereign words, “God may!”
You realize that everything you had been seeing in your beloved unbeliever was given to you by God, for there it stands in his word with blazing clarity — side by side with his sovereignty. It comes like a lightning bolt of confirmation. And you know: This is the word of God. He knows the soul-sickness of man like no human knows it. And he alone is the physician who can give repentance, reveal truth, restore reason, and deliver from the devil. No one but God, through Christ, gives this diagnosis and this sovereign hope.
You Are His Servant
“God alone is the physician who can give repentance, reveal truth, restore reason, and deliver from the devil.”
Then you notice how to move forward. It’s right there in 2 Timothy 2:24–25,
The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness.
Those are the words that are followed by, “God may perhaps grant them repentance . . . .” God’s sovereignty in giving repentance and truth and reason and liberation does not make Paul fatalistic or passive. It makes him hopeful, humble, kind, pedagogical, patient, gentle.
And as you ponder this agenda of gentleness and truth, you know again: God is speaking here! This counsel is the glory of the wisdom from above (James 3:17). You bow in reverence, because you are in the presence of God.