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For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.”

– Romans 4:3

 

Sometimes the people who are supposed to know the most about God, know the very least of him. Sometimes the people, who we might think would believe in God the most, really believe the least. Perhaps this sounds counterintuitive, but the truth is that this has been the case throughout the history of the church.

History is littered with examples of men and women who had been raised to believe in God, who had been trained to know all they could know about him, who spent their whole lives dedicated to studying him, but did not truly know him. People who did not truly believe in him.

Luther

Take Martin Luther as a prime example. Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk who lived during the sixteenth century. As a monk, Luther was subject to a copious amount of study on God. He was required to read the densest of theological works, to perform the most rigorous religious rites, and to study the Scriptures. Take, for instance, some of the passion he directed toward his monkish duties, “he fasted, sometimes three days on end without a crumb” and “he laid upon himself vigils and prayers in excess of those stipulated by the rule. He cast off the blankets permitted him and well-nigh froze to death.”[1]

If anyone should have known God— really believed in him—then it would have been Martin Luther. He was doing everything right! Yet, he didn’t. In fact, even though Luther had all this information rattling around his brain about God, he could still say in all seriousness that he hated him. Consider these words of Luther:

Is it not against all natural reason that God out of his mere whim deserts men, hardens them, damns them, as if he delighted in sins and in such torments of the wretched for eternity, he who is said to be of such mercy and goodness? This appears iniquitous, cruel, and intolerable in God, by which very many have been offended in all ages. And who would not be? I was myself more than once driven to the very abyss of despair so that I wished I had never been created. Love God? I hated him![2]

Martin, it appears, knew lots about God yet hated him all the same.

This phenomenon—knowing lots about God, yet hating him—is present in the Bible as well. The Jewish Pharisees, the religious elites of the day, were constantly lambasted by Jesus for their refusal to believe rightly in God. Just like Martin Luther, these men were required to know the Bible, to know the Old Testament Law, and to study the things of God to a degree we all fail to live up to. Yet, Jesus says of them, “woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in” (Matt 23:13).

Of all the people who should have known what God desired of them, it should have been these people who were devoted to the study of his word, but they didn’t. Instead, they used their religious knowledge toward the wrong ends and were guilty of not really knowing God’s will for their life at all. Jesus makes this abundantly clear when he exclaims, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Matt 23:23). They’ve failed, just like Luther, to grasp the purpose of all their dutiful study.

Both of these examples demonstrate something that is extremely important when dealing with the topic of belief in God. That is, there is a marked difference between saying, “I believe in God” and “I believe in God.” The first, highlights that someone can have a lot of knowledge about God, can read all the right things on God, can even say and do all the prayers and all the rituals without ever believing in God at all. In this schema belief is merely intellectual assent to an idea. Saying “I believe in God,” under this rubric, is no different than saying “I believe that the earth revolves around the sun.” It is a mere fact, just like a fact about cosmology. This is why not everyone with the moniker “theologian” before their name will enjoy the blessedness of eternal life, because they did not know God. They believed in the wrong way, a way that fails to produce life. As the late J.I. Packer says in his classic of Christian spirituality, “A little knowledge of God is worth more than a great deal of knowledge about him.”[3]

However, when the Christian says “I believe in God,” they are not using this phrase to demonstrate their intellectual assent to an idea, but to show their trust in the God of the Bible. It is a relational category, “Christians don’t just believe—we believe in someone.”[4] Karl Barth, the great protestant theologian of the twentieth century, puts it aptly when he says, “Faith is not an opinion replaceable by another opinion. A temporary believer does not know what faith is. Faith means a final relationship.”[5] Belief, faith, and knowledge of God are primarily relational categories. To believe in God is to be in relationship with God.

Obviously, this means knowing things about God. A person cannot claim to be in a healthy relationship with someone for very long if they know nothing about that person. But, on the other hand, if they only know things about that person and have no relationship with them, then in some way, their knowledge is deficient.

Abraham

So, why do Christians think of belief in this way? Why is it that they focus on the relational instead of merely focusing on the cognitive? The answer to these questions can be found in the book of Genesis by looking at the life of Abraham.

Abraham, was called by God to leave his family and travel out of his home to a new land. God was going to take him and make him into a great nation. This is the first of God’s promises to Abraham, “And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:2–3).

As the story continues it looks as if this original promise of God may fail. Abraham still does not have an heir that will continue propagating his name and work toward creating a “great nation”. So, the next time God appears to him he asks God about his childlessness. God leads Abraham outside and tells him, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them . . . So shall your offspring be” (Gen 15:5). To which Abraham responds, not with words, but in a rather unique way; “And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Gen 15:6). Abraham believes God, he takes him at his word and trusts that he will do what he says he will do and this faith is credited to him as righteousness.

He is not commended by God for his great theological skills. He is not exalted because he can list the attributes of God without needing to reference a theology textbook. No! He is considered righteous because he believes in God. He puts his hope in the word of the Lord that is addressed to him. He has faith, and “faith is not yet sight” meaning “that we know not so much by rational demonstration as by trustful commitment.”[6] Or as Herman Bavinck beautifully says, “only by faith does a promise become our possession.”[7] It is trust in the Lord that is highlighted when the Christian exclaims “I believe in God”. It is relationship, not acquisition of knowledge, that is proclaimed by the Christian.

Martin Luther, the Augustinian monk who in frustration declared his hatred for God, later came to realize this reality for himself. He did not have any grand vision, he did not have some cathartic experience, but rather he came to believe in God through “study in the tower of the Augustinian monastery.”[8] There Luther would have a similar experience to Abraham’s, he would learn to take God at his word. Luther writes, “One thing, and only one thing, is necessary for Christian life, righteousness, and freedom. That one thing is the most holy Word of God, the Gospel of Christ, as Christ says, John 11[:25], ‘I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.’”[9]

Luther, rather than looking to his own merits, learned to take Christ at his word. He entered into relationship with Christ by trusting him, believing God, so that he could write, “What man is there whose heart, upon hearing these things, will not rejoice to its depth, and when receiving such comfort will not grow tender so that he will love Christ as he never could by any means of any laws or works?”[10] Martin Luther’s recognition of these things not only allowed him to say “I believe in God,” but sparked a movement against the cold dead intellectualism of his day and has since allowed millions of people to proclaim “I believe in God” with him.

None of this is meant to sound anti-intellectual. Learning about God, reading theology, and knowing the Bible are all really good things. Yet, Christian faith cannot and does not end with the intellect. To say “I believe in God” is to proclaim that you have entered into a relationship with him by taking God at his word. It is, as Herman Bavinck says, “not a matter of knowing a number of doctrinal truths” but consists “in the soul’s union with the person of Christ according to the Scriptures and with Scripture as the word of Christ.”[11] It is to declare a relationship, not knowledge of blunt fact.

 

 


[1] Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: The Life of Martin Luther (New York: Meridian, 1955), 34.

[2] Martin Luther in Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand, 44.

[3] J.I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1975), 26.

[4] Alister McGrath, I Believe: Exploring the Apostles’ Creed (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 20.

[5] Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline (New York: HarperCollins, 1959), 20.

[6] Donald Bloesch, A Theology of Word and Spirit: Authority and Method in Theology (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, (1992), 60.

[7] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Prolegomena, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 565.

[8] Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand, 47.

[9] Martin Luther, “The Freedom of a Christian,” in Martin Luther: Selection From His Writings, ed. John Dillenger (New York: Anchor, 1962), 54.

[10] Martin Luther, “The Freedom of a Christian,” 66.

[11] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Prolegomena, 573.

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