Faith and Reason
Ligonier National Conference | Orlando
Our theme is faith and reason. We’ll begin with reflections on reason and then on faith and then on the relationship between the two in the awakening of saving faith.
Reflection on Reason
Let’s begin our reflection on reason by looking at Matthew 16:1-4.
And the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test him they asked him to show them a sign from heaven [in other words, some evidence that would help them believe]. He answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” So he left them and departed.
When I was in seminary, there was much talk about Hellenistic thinking versus Hebraic thinking. An example of Hellenistic (or Greek) thinking would be Aristotelian logic, which has the syllogism at its foundation: “All men are mortal; Plato is a man; therefore, Plato is mortal.” The point of this distinction between Hebraic and Hellenistic was that the Bible tends to be Hebraic, but we tend to be the heirs of Hellenistic thinking. So if one uses Aristotelian logic in understanding the Scriptures, one is presumably historically uninformed. The Bible does not have its roots in linear, Aristotelian (sometimes called “western”) logic, they said, but in relational, experiential knowledge.
I always thought those distinctions were misleading and unhelpful. This text is one of the reasons I wasn’t impressed with those distinctions. It is a great philosophical gift to grow up in a Bible-saturated home. One is spared many wasted years of dead-end detours.
What is Jesus saying to these Pharisees and Sadducees? He says in verse 2, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’” What does that mean? It means that these Hebraic Pharisees and Sadducees are thinking in Aristotelian syllogisms. Premise #1: Red skies in the evening portend fair weather. Premise #2: This evening the skies are red. Conclusion from these two premises: The weather will be fair.
And again in verse 3a: “And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.” Again they are thinking in an Aristotelian syllogism. Premise #1: Red skies in the morning portend stormy weather. Premise #2: This morning the skies are red. Conclusion from these two premises: The weather will be stormy.
Jesus responded to this use of observation and reasoning in verse 3b: “You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky.” In other words, you know how to use your eyes and your minds to draw right conclusions when it comes to the natural world. In other words, he approves of their use of empirical observation and rational deliberation. In fact, it’s precisely this approval that makes the following disapproval valid. He says in verse 3c, “But you cannot interpret the signs of the times.” And when he says, “You cannot,” he does not mean you don’t have the sensory and rational capacities to do what needs to be done. He just showed them that they do in fact have the sensory and rational capacities to do what needs to be done. They are very adept at observation and deliberation when it comes to getting along in this world.
Why then can’t they use those same faculties to interpret the signs of the times? The answer is given in verse 4: “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” What does this mean? What does being adulterous have to do with their inability to use their eyes and their minds to interpret the signs — that is, to recognize Jesus for who he is?
Jesus described himself elsewhere as the bridegroom (Matthew 9:15; 25:1ff.) who has come into the world to obtain his bride — his chosen people. But the people who thought they were the people of God were by and large unwilling to have him as their husband. He was not what they expected, and they did not want to be his people or his bride (see Luke 14:18-20). They were, in that sense, adulterous. Their hearts went after other spouses — other gods, other treasures (see Luke 16:14; Matthew 6:5).
This is why the Pharisees are asking for a sign when they have all the signs they need. They are asking for a sign to give the impression that there is not enough evidence that Jesus is the Messiah and so they are justified not to receive him, when the problem is really a spirit of adultery. They don’t want this bridegroom. They prefer another. But Jesus’ response is to show them that they have all the signs they need and they are perfectly able to use their senses and their minds to make valid judgments when they are trying to draw valid inferences about what they want. The explanation of their skepticism about Jesus’ is not lack of evidence or lack of rational powers. The explanation is: They are adulterous. They don’t want Jesus as their bridegroom. Their heart is evil, and their evil hearts disorder their rational powers and make them morally incapable of reasoning rightly about Jesus.
This is what Paul said in Ephesians 4:18 about fallen man in general: “They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.” In other words, at the bottom of human irrationality and spiritual ignorance is hardness of heart. That is, our self-centered hearts distort our reason to the point where we cannot use it to draw true inferences from what is really there. If we don’t want God to be God, our sensory faculties and our rational faculties will not be able to infer that he is God.
In 2 Corinthians 3:14, Paul says the mind is “hardened” (epōrōthē). In 1 Timothy 6:5, he calls the mind “depraved” (diephtharmenōn). And in Romans 1:21, he says that thinking has become “futile” (emaraiōthēsan) and “darkened” (eskotisthē) and “foolish” (asunetos) because men “by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18). In other words, unrighteousness disorders the capacity to see the truth. The corruption of our hearts is the root of our irrationality.
We are an adulterous generation. We love man-centered error more than Christ-exalting truth, and our rational powers are taken captive to serve this adulterous love. This is what Jesus exposed when he said, “You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.” In other words, your mind functions just fine when seeking out a partner in adultery, but it cannot see the signs of Christ-exalting truth.
Nevertheless, the New Testament speaks of the use of our minds everywhere in the process of Christian conversion and growth and obedience. For example, at lease ten times in the book of Acts, Luke says that Paul’s strategy was to “reason” with people in his effort to convert them and build them up (Acts 17:2, 4, 17; 18:4, 19; 19:8, 9; 20:7, 9; 24:25). And Paul said to the Corinthians that he would rather speak five words with his mind to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue (1 Corinthians 14:19). He said to the Ephesians, “When you read this, you can understand my insight into the mystery of Christ” (Ephesians 3:4). In other words, engaging the mind in the highly intellectual task of reading and construing Paul’s language is a pathway into the mystery God has given him to reveal.
And perhaps most helpful of all is the word to Timothy about the relationship of reason and divine illumination. In 2 Timothy 2:7, he says, “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.” So many people swerve off the road to one side of this verse or the other. Some stress “think over what I say.” They emphasize the indispensable role of reason and thinking. And they often minimize the supernatural role of God in making the mind able to see and embrace the truth. Others stress the second half of the verse: “And the Lord will give you understanding in everything.” They emphasize the futility of reason without God’s illumining work. “The Lord will give you understanding.”
But Paul will not be divided this way. He says: not either-or, but both-and. “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.” The willingness of God to give us understanding is the ground of our thinking, not the substitute for our thinking. “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding.” There is no reason to think that a person who thinks without prayerful trust in God’s gift of understanding will get it. And there is no reason to think that a person who waits for God’s gift of understanding without thinking about his word will get it either.
Paul commands us to think about what he says. Use your mind. Engage your reasoning powers when you hear the word of God. Jesus warned what happens if we don’t and what blessing may come if we do. In the parable of the soils, he said concerning the seed sown on the path: “When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart.” Understanding with the mind is not optional. Our lives hang on it. And concerning the seed sown on good soil, he says, “This is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty” (Matthew 13:23).
It is true that, as Paul says in Romans 10:17, “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” But Jesus says that hearing without understanding produces nothing. When we hear the word of God, Paul says, we must “think over” what we hear. Otherwise, we will fall under the indictment of Jesus: “Hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand” (Matthew 13:13).
So, even though our natural minds are depraved and darkened and foolish, nevertheless, the New Testament demands that we use them in coming to faith and leading people to faith and in the process of Christian growth and obedience. There is no way to awaken faith or strengthen faith that evades right thinking.
Before we ponder how that can be, in view of how corrupt we are, we turn briefly from the focus on reason to consider the nature of faith.
The Nature of Faith
The only kind of faith that matters in the end is saving faith — the faith that unites us to Christ so that his righteousness is counted as ours in justification, and his power flows into us for sanctification. In other words, I am not interested in faith in general — the faith of other religions that is not faith in Christ, or the faith of science in the validity of its first principles, or the faith of children in their parents, or any other kind of faith that is not in Christ. I am only interested in the faith that obtains eternal life. The faith that saves. The faith that justifies (Romans 3:28; Galatians 2:16) and sanctifies (Acts 26:18; 1 Peter 4:11).
To get at the nature of that faith, it is helpful to ponder why faith alone justifies. Why not love, or some other virtuous disposition? Here’s the way J. Gresham Machen answers this question in his 1925 book, What Is Faith?
The true reason why faith is given such an exclusive place by the New Testament, so far as the attainment of salvation is concerned, over against love and over against everything else in man . . . is that faith means receiving something, not doing something or even being something. To say, therefore, that our faith saves us means that we do not save ourselves even in slightest measure, but that God saves us. (J. Gresham Machen, What Is Faith? [Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1991], 173, emphasis added)
In other words, we are justified by faith alone, and not by love, because God intends to make it crystal clear that he does the decisive saving outside of us and that the person and work of Christ are the sole ground of our acceptance with God. A hundred years earlier Andrew Fuller (the main rope-holder for William Carey in England) gave the same explanation.
Thus it is that justification is ascribed to faith, because it is by faith that we receive Christ; and thus it is by faith only, and not by any other grace. Faith is peculiarly a receiving grace which none other is. Were we said to be justified by repentance, by love, or by any other grace, it would convey to us the idea of something good in us being the consideration on which the blessing was bestowed; but justification by faith conveys no such idea. (Fuller, The Complete Works of Reverend Andrew Fuller, vol. I, Joseph Belcher, [Virginia: Sprinkle Publications, 1988], 281)
So, what sets faith apart from other graces and virtues is that it is “a peculiarly receiving grace.” That’s why Paul says in Ephesians 2:8, “By grace you have been saved through faith.” Grace from God correlates with faith in us. And the reason is that grace is God’s free giving and faith is our helpless receiving. When God justifies us by faith alone, he has respect not to faith as virtue but faith as a receiving of Christ. So it is the same as saying that not our virtue but Christ’s virtue is the ground of our justification.
Now the key question is: What does faith receive in order to be justifying faith? The answer, of course, is that faith receives Jesus Christ. “Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). “To all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). Faith saves because it receives Christ.
But we must make clear what this actually means, because there are so many people who say they have received Christ and believed on Christ, who give little or no evidence that they are spiritually alive. They are unresponsive to the spiritual beauty of Jesus. They are unmoved by the glory of Christ. They don’t have the spirit of the apostle Paul when he said, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8). This is not their spirit, yet they say they have received Christ.
One way to describe this problem is to say that when these people “receive Christ,” they do not receive him as supremely valuable. They receive him simply as sin-forgiver (because they love being guilt-free), and as rescuer-from-hell (because they love being pain-free), and as healer (because they love being disease-free), and as protector (because they love being safe), and as prosperity-giver (because they love being wealthy), and as Creator (because they want a personal universe), and as Lord of history (because they want order and purpose); but they don’t receive him as supremely and personally valuable for who he is. They don’t receive him as he really is — more glorious, more beautiful, more wonderful, more satisfying, than everything else in the universe. They don’t prize him or treasure him or cherish him or delight in him.
Or to say it another way, they “receive Christ” in a way that requires no change in human nature. You don’t have to be born again to love being guilt-free and pain-free and disease-free and safe and wealthy. All natural men without any spiritual life love these things. But to embrace Jesus as your supreme treasure requires a new nature. No one does this naturally. You must be born again (John 3:3). You must be a new creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:15). You must be made spiritually alive (Ephesians 2:1-4).
Therefore, saving faith is a receiving of Christ for who he really is and what he really is, namely, more glorious, more wonderful, more satisfying, and therefore more valuable than anything thing in the universe. Saving faith says, “I receive you as my Savior, my Lord, my supreme Treasure; and I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” Which is why Jesus said, “Therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33). And again, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37). And again, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matthew 13:44).
The infinite glory of Jesus makes him infinitely valuable and infinitely satisfying. Saving faith receives this Christ. Not that we experience the fullness of joy now, or the climax of satisfaction in this life, but we taste it (Psalm 34:8) and we know where it is found (John 6:35) and we “press on to make it [our] own, because Christ Jesus has made [us] his own” (Philippians 3:12).
The Relationship Between Faith and Reason
Which brings us now to the relationship between faith and reason as we have described them here. What we have seen concerning the nature of saving faith determines what will be a sufficient and reasonable ground for such faith. Saving faith cannot rest only on the ground of raw facts — facts like Christ lived a perfect life, and Jesus is the Messiah, and Christ died for sinners, and Christ is God, and Christ rose from the dead. The devil believes all those facts.
The nature of saving faith demands more than facts as a ground — not less, but more. We have seen that saving faith is not the mere receiving of facts. It is the receiving of Christ as infinitely glorious, and wondrously beautiful, and supremely valuable. Therefore, the ground of such faith must be the spiritual sight of such glory and beauty and value. This sight is not separate from the narration of historical gospel facts. We must tell the old, old story. But the sight of Christ’s divine glory in the gospel is not identical with seeing the facts of the gospel. Therefore, human reason — the use of the mind to explain and defend the facts of the gospel — plays an indispensable, but not the decisive, role in the awakening and establishing of saving faith. We must tell the story and get the gospel facts and the doctrine right. But the decisive ground of saving faith is the glory of Christ seen in the gospel.
Here is the key biblical text to make the point I am making:
The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 6 For 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 4:4-6)
Consider six observations from this text.
1. The Glory of Christ Is Seen in the Gospel
Verse 4 says that the gospel is the “gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” This is what must be seen for saving faith to respond to the gospel and receive Christ for who he really is — infinitely glorious. Jonathan Edwards commented on this text to the same effect. He said, “Nothing can be more evident, than that a saving belief of the gospel is here spoken of . . . as arising from the mind” being enlightened to behold the divine glory of the things it exhibits.” (Edwards, Treatise Concerning the Religious Affections, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 2, [Yale University Press, 1959], 298). In other words, the ground of saving faith is the glory of Christ seen in the gospel.
2. The Glory of Christ Is Really There
This divine glory is really and objectively there in the gospel. Otherwise, Paul would not speak of the god of this world blinding the minds of unbelievers. If something is not really there, you don’t need to be blind to miss it. But if it is really there, you must be blind to miss it. Therefore, the “light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” is really there. It is a self-authenticating divine glory. Jonathan Edwards calls it an “ineffable, distinguishing, evidential excellency in the gospel.” (Edwards, Religious Affections, 300).
3. Seeing the Glory of Christ Is From the Holy Spirit
Verse 5 makes plain that the sight of this “distinguishing, evidential excellency” — the glory of Christ in the gospel — is not seen in a vision or a dream or a whispered word from the Holy Spirit. It is seen in the biblical story of Christ as the inspired apostle preaches the gospel of Christ. Verse 5: “What we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus; sake.” Here is the place of reason. Paul uses his mind to proclaim and explain and defend and confirm the facts of the gospel. He argues that Jesus is the Christ and that he rose from the dead and that he died for our sins. He does the sort of thing we read in the book of Romans and Galatians and Ephesians and Colossians. He reasons with facts and arguments and sets Christ forth. Therefore, we know that the sight of the self-authenticating glory of Christ is not separate from the rational presentation and demonstration of the truth of the gospel. That is indispensable.
4. Reason Is Not the Decisive Ground of Saving Faith
But this indispensable use of reason in proclaiming the gospel is not the decisive and unshakable ground of saving faith. That ground is the “light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” And seeing this unshakably compelling and authentic light is a gift of God. This is the point of verse 6: “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.”
In verse 4, we could not see this “light of the gospel of the glory of Christ who is the image of God” because we were blinded by the god of this world. No amount of reasoning or historical argument could produce spiritual sight in the blind. Nevertheless, the rational proclamation of the gospel in verse 5 is indispensable.
But now the decisive change happens in verse 6. God, who speaks and causes light to happen, opens our blind eyes, and amazingly the gospel of Christ crucified and risen (and rationally set forth in preaching and teaching) is now radiant with “ineffable, distinguishing, evidential excellency” — with the glory of God in the face of Christ. The glory of Christ seen in the gospel is the decisive ground of saving faith because saving faith is the receiving of Christ as infinitely glorious and supremely valuable. It cannot be grounded on anything less.
5. Saving Faith Is Reasonable
This ground of faith is a reasonable ground and the conviction that flows from it is a reasonable conviction. It goes beyond what mere reasoning upon the facts can produce, but it is itself reasonable. Jonathan Edwards explains, “By a reasonable conviction, I mean, a conviction founded on real evidence, or upon that which is a good reason, or just ground of conviction.” (Edwards, Religious Affections, 295). Nothing is more reasonable than that saving faith, as the receiving of Christ as infinitely glorious, must be grounded on the spiritual sight of his divine glory (Ibid., 307).
6. This Is the Only Path to Spiritual Certainty
The reason this understanding of the relationship between faith and reason is so important is that the great mass of ordinary people (and I count myself in this number) cannot come to an unshakable conviction about the truth of Christianity any other way. If our only confidence rests on rational historical argumentation, we will only know probabilities, but no spiritual certainty. But the apostle John said, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13).
Jonathan Edwards had a brilliant mind. No one could out argue Edwards. But what drove at this point on the relationship between faith and reason was his burden for the Houssatunnuck Indians. And what should burden us on this issue is not only how to commend and defend Christianity to intellectuals, but how to proclaim it among a thousand unreached peoples around the world who cannot wait for generations of education. This is what drove Edwards and what drives me on this issue:
Unless men may come to a reasonable, solid persuasion and conviction of the truth of the gospel, by the internal evidences of it . . . by a sight of its glory; it is impossible that those who are illiterate, and unacquainted with history, should have any thorough and effectual conviction of it at all. They may without this, see a great deal of probability of it; it may be reasonable for them to give much credit to what learned men and historians tell them. . . . But to have a conviction, so clear, and evident, and assuring, as to be sufficient to induce them, with boldness to sell all, confidently and fearlessly to run the venture of the loss of all things, and of enduring the most exquisite and long continued torments, and to trample the world under foot, and count all things but dung for Christ, the evidence they can have from history, cannot be sufficient. (Ibid., 303)
But this is why I have come. I only want to produce that kind of Christian. Fearless, venturing the loss of everything, ready to endure the worst hardships for Christ, trampling the devil underfoot, counting everything dung for Christ’s sake, and when death comes in this cause calling it gain.
So yes, we must use our minds. We must exercise our reason in the proclamation and explanation and confirmation of the gospel. We must contend for the faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 3). We must be ready, like Paul, to go to prison “for the defense and confirmation of the gospel” (Philippians 1:7).
That is indispensable. But as we use all our renewed mental powers for Christ, we must pray with Paul that the Holy Spirit would attend the preaching of the gospel and that the God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” would shine in the hearts of our hearers to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” Only when that happens will true Christians be created who say, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”