This article first appeared in The Reformed Journal 26, (November, 1976), pp. 17-20. It is reprinted here by permission of Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
Is there adequate evidence for the truth of the gospel available to scholar and layman alike? Wolfhart Pannenberg, the contemporary German theologian, attempts to ground faith solely on historical reasoning. He demonstrates historically that Jesus rose from the dead. While I am not in the least inclined to deny the validity of Pannenberg's arguments, what bothers me is that only trained historians can find a ground of faith in that way.
What about the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker? What do they base their faith on? Are they left totally without evidence that the gospel is true? Must they simply take the word of the scholars? Would that be an adequate ground of faith anyway? If not, what is an adequate ground of faith available to the simplest nonhistorian among us?
Of course this kind of question is only a problem for the person who thinks that saving faith must have an adequate ground. If you do not think faith is based upon evidence, you are free from the whole problem I am dealing with here. If you say with Kierkegaard that "the absurd is the object of faith, and the only object that can be believed," or that the more probable a thing is the more surely it can be known, but the less it can be believed, then the concern I have been wrestling with for years will make no sense at all to you.
But if you agree with John Stuart Mill that "the good of mankind requires that nothing should be believed until the question is first asked what evidence there is for it" or with Edward John Carnell that "a man of character can believe nothing until it is established by sufficient evidences," you will share my eagerness to answer the question: What is the true ground of saving faith?
One reason I side with Mill and Carnell rather than Kierkegaard and his existentialist posterity is that I cannot in good conscience approve in my religion what I disapprove of in every other area of life. I disapprove of buying a used car without evidence that it is not a lemon. I disapprove of hiring a baby-sitter without evidence that she is reliable. In this almost all men judge my behavior as wise. Shall I then come to my religion and play the fool?
Another reason I feel obligated to seek the true ground of faith is that the Scriptures urge me to. "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world" (1 John 4:1). It would have been illuminating to hear some of Paul's missionary preaching, for according to Luke he had an interesting custom: "According to Paul's custom he went in unto them [the Jews of the synagogue in Thessalonica] and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and giving evidence that Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead" (Acts 17:2,3).
Believing and knowing are not alternatives in the New Testament as they are for Kierkegaard. Belief is based on knowledge and leads to deeper knowledge. Jesus prays concerning his disciples: "They know now that everything you gave me is from you; for the words which you gave me I have given to them, and they received and knew truly that I came out from you and they believed that you sent me" (John 17:7,8). Paul writes to the Corinthians, "We believe and therefore we speak, knowing that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will also raise us up with Jesus" (2 Cor. 4:13, cf. 5:1). And, finally, in John's first epistle he bears witness to "what we have seen with our eyes and what we beheld and our hands handled" (1:1), so that his faith is grounded in real evidence and he can say "We have known and believed the love that God has toward us" (4:16).
It is texts like these in concert with my own conscience that will not allow me to escape the question, What is a true and adequate ground for saving faith? Is there such a ground that is available for the simplest people to see?
Help has come to me from a surprising source, the eighteenth-century preacher-theologian Jonathan Edwards. Edwards thinks that there is "clear evidence from history" for the truth of the gospel, but since most people do not understand the nature of historical reasoning and cannot take the time and effort to collect the historical data, he does not develop a detailed historical argument. Instead, he seeks to ground faith in a way available to all men.
As Carnell did, Edwards thinks a saving faith must be a reasonable conviction: "By a reasonable conviction I mean a conviction founded on real evidence, orupon that which is good reason, or just ground of conviction." Where does this evidence come from? "The gospel of the blessed God does not go abroad a begging for its evidence, so much as some think: it has its highest and most proper evidence in itself." Specifically, "the mind ascends to the truth of the gospel but by one step, and that is its divine glory.... Unless men may come to a reasonably solid persuasion and conviction of the truth of the gospel. . . 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” (Works, I, p. 292).
Within the six pages where Edwards discusses this issue of the ground of faith, he cites some thirty biblical passages to support and explain his view. Perhaps the most important of all is 2 Corinthians 4:3-6:
And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, 4 in whom the god of this age has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ who is the image of God. 5 For we do not proclaim ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake. 6 For God who said, “Light shall shine out of darkness," is the one who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.
Notice how similar the wording of verse 4 is to that of verse 6. In verse 4 Satan blinds, in verse 6 God enlightens. The thing Satan hides from men is what God enables them to see. What this is can be put in two parallel columns:
of the gospel
of the glory
who is the image of God
of the knowledge
of the glory
in the face of Christ
The parallelism helps explain the terms. “Gospel” and “knowledge” are parallel because the gospel is the embodiment of the knowledge spoken of. At first glance one might think that the "glory of Christ" and the "glory of God" are not the same but notice how each of these terms is qualified. Christ has glory precisely because he is the image of God (Heb. 1:3), and God reveals his glory in the face of Christ. So the glory of God and the glory of Christ are one glory. The gospel, then, is the proclamation of the acts and character of God in Christ which exhibit this divine glory. When the gospel is truly perceived it brings light into the dark heart.
Commenting on this text Edwards says, "Nothing can be more evident than that a saving belief of the gospel is here spoken of by the apostle as arising from the mind being enlightened to behold the divine glory of the things it exhibits." In other words, the "real evidence" or "just ground" on which saving faith must rest is the glory of God manifest in the gospel.
Edwards defines this glory of the "things of the gospel" as "the beauty of their moral perfection. " This is a real distinguishing quality evident in the "things of the gospel" themselves, and does not consist in any information added to the gospel by the Holy Spirit. Men can be called blind only if they do not see what is really there. Therefore the glory of God in the gospel is real evidence for those who have eyes to see. And as Edwards says, "It is no argument that it cannot be seen, because some do not see it; though they may be discerning men in temporal matters."
Verse 5 is sandwiched between the two parallel verses that describe the light of the gospel. Paul writes: "For we do not proclaim ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus' sake." There are two focal points in this verse: Christ, and the lowly position of Christ's proclaimer as a slave of men. Both of these points are important for understanding how Paul helped people see the glory of God and so have a reasonably grounded faith.
First, he proclaimed Jesus Christ as Lord. If the true ground of faith is "the glory of God in the face of Christ," then preaching which aims at faith must be a vivid and true portrayal of Christ. Men must come face to face with him, so that they can say with John, "We beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father" (John 1:14).
The glory which the disciples saw in Jesus, and which we see when he is faithfully portrayed, was the moral beauty of a man whose meat was to do the will of his Father in heaven (John 4:34), and whose desire was always to seek not his own glory but his Father's, even to the point of death. Precisely in his last hour of betrayal his glory became most visible: "For this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify thy name.... Now is the Son of man glorified and in him God is glorified" (John 12:28; 13:31). It is this beautiful, selfless allegiance of Jesus to God's glory which stamps him as true and confirms our faith: "He who speaks on his own authority seeks his own glory, but he who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true and in him there is no falsehood" (John 7:18).
This is the beautiful Christ whom Paul proclaimed as Lord. While Paul did not focus on the earthly life of Jesus as John did, yet the same character of Christ is presented. He set aside his rights as God to take on the form of a slave and humbly die in obedience to his Father (Phil. 2:6-8). Though he was rich, yet for our sakes he became poor (2 Cor. 8:9). He did not please himself but took the reproaches of men that he might accept us into his fellowship to the glory of God (Rom. 15:2,7). When Paul proclaimed the glory of this crucified Christ, he believed that he had given an adequate ground of saving faith for those who were not blinded by the god of this age.
The second focal point of verse 5 is this: the proclaimer of the crucified Lord is a slave for Jesus' sake of those whom he is seeking to build up. That is, in his God-given freedom he puts himself at the disposal of others for their good. There is a clear cause and a precise purpose of this behavior.
The cause of this self-giving behavior is found in 2 Corinthians 3:18. The one who proclaims the glory of Christ as Lord must have seen that glory. According to Paul you cannot see the glory of Christ and remain unchanged: "We all with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory." The promise of John that "when Christ appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is" (1 John 3:2), has already begun to be fulfilled as we behold the glory of Christ in the gospel. The result is that we are becoming like him. One always tends to become like those one admires. This means that we, like him, will set aside our rights and not seek to please merely ourselves, but rather we will become servants for the benefit of others. Beholding the beauty of Christ's character we will begin to share it.
The purpose of our self-giving servant role is to display the glory of God as the ground of faith not only in our message but also in our deeds. While proclaiming the light of the knowledge of the glory of God, in the face of Christ, we must also be the light of the world, so that men may see our good deeds and glorify our Father who is in heaven (Matt. 5:16). If we love the glory of God in Christ and are being transformed by it, we will become for someone a mirror of that glory and a means to their well-grounded faith.
To sum up: my conscience and my understanding of Scripture compel me to search with Jonathan Edwards and Edward John Carnell for a "good reason or just ground" of saving faith. While historical reasoning can demonstrate with high probability to the eye of the scholar that Jesus rose from the dead, yet the mass of ordinary people do not have the time or the tools to pursue such disciplined study. If well-grounded, saving faith is to be available to all, it must be found in a more direct way than through detailed historical arguments.
Jonathan Edwards pointed me to 2 Corinthians 4:3-6, which has proved to be a watershed of insight. Here the presence or absence of saving faith is shown to depend on whether one is blind or has been granted to see the light of the gospel of the glory of God in Christ. Edwards calls this glory an "ineffable, distinguishing, evidential excellency in the gospel" which can be seen by those who are not blind and which is a "just ground" for saving faith. In this I think he is right.
Let me urge just one of the implications this has for preaching and personal Bible study. It is very simple: all preaching which aims to build faith must demonstrate the glory of God; and all Bible study which aims to strengthen faith must be done with a gracious sensitivity to the glory of God evident on every page of Scripture. In this day of emphasis on interpersonal relations and heightened self-images we do well once again to fix our gaze on the glory of our great God and so be transformed into a people after his own image.