PIPER'S NOTES SERMON LIBRARY
"God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him"
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All Sermons by John Piper
Copyright John Piper
September 21, 1980
International Student Dinner
Bethlehem Baptist Church
John Piper, Pastor
THE LIFE OF THE MIND AND CHRISTIAN FAITH
I looked, and behold, a great number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, "Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!" (Revelation 7:9-10)
According to the Bible, the final hope of the Christian is not to have a private relation to God in heaven forever, but rather to stand before God in an assembly of saved people from every racial, national, tribal and linguistic group on earth, and declare hand in hand with one voice the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is the author of salvation and the ruler of the whole world. Salvation belongs to God and He sits upon the throne.
So, when I heard of the opportunity to have the International Student Fellowship for lunch at our church I said, "Let's do it!" Perhaps it will give us a little taste of what it will be like someday in God's Kingdom. I think it would be consistent with what I know of God from Scripture if in the age to come God preserved and perfected everything good from every culture on earth. How He is going to do that with regard to languages is hard to imagine. When this world draws to a close and Jesus returns as Judge and King and banishes all unbelievers from His presence and gathers the redeemed into His kingdom, what language will we speak? Hebrew? Greek? Swedish? French? Portuguese? Spanish? I don't know. But I find it hard to believe that the special things about reality that some languages can capture so much better than others will be lost in our communication. Maybe we'll all speak our own languages and be given the gift to understand every language. Or maybe we'll all speak whatever language seems to most beautifully and helpfully express what we want to say. However God sees fit to do it, I am sure that the beauties and insights of every language on earth will be preserved and perfected in the age to come when all evil and imperfection is put away.
So, it is good to be together internationally and I hope that whatever is good in our various languages and cultures will rub off on each other already in this age.
The topic I've chosen to talk about today is "The Life of the Mind and Christian Faith." I chose the topic first because I knew that our special guests were mainly going to be students. And I view a student as someone who is devoted largely to the life of the mind. I think a student is a person being formally trained to deliberately use his mind to observe reality, perceive relationships and patterns, understand ideas, weigh alternatives, form sound judgments, and cultivate an appreciation of beauty and truth.
So I asked myself, "What do I have to say to people formally engaged in the life of the mind?" Possibly I should tell about some of my experiences as a student. I went to school until I was 28 years old: twelve years in South Carolina, four years of college in Illinois, three years of seminary in California, three years of graduate school in Germany, and six years of college teaching in Minnesota. I loved my student days and owe almost all I am today to the teachers and experiences that came to me for 22 years as student and teacher. But I'm not going to fill up our few minutes here with stories about me.
When I have only one opportunity to speak to a group (though I wish you would all come back to worship at 6:00 P.M. and 11:00 A.M. on Sundays) I feel compelled to speak about what to me is most important and to somehow relate it to the lives of the listeners. For me, the most important thing is Christian faith, or, more personally, faith in Jesus Christ. So in putting listener and speaker together I came up with "The Life of the Mind and Christian Faith."
As I thought about how these two things fit together the direction of my thought went something like this. First of all, in order to have Christian faith we have to understand what the good news is that God offers us in Jesus Christ. None of us can exercise Christian faith if all we know is the phrase "Christian faith" but don't understand the meaning of it. The good news that we find in the Christian Bible is useless to us if we don't understand it.
Second, in order to have Christian faith we must be properly persuaded that the good news we understand is true news. Not every religious claim is true. We can't flip a coin and choose our faith if we want to be Christians. If a man had stood before Jesus 2000 years ago in Israel and said, "Well, Jesus, I don't see any reason why you should be trusted and followed any more than any other religious teachers but I'll flip a coin and if it lands on heads instead of tails I'll follow you," Jesus would have said, "Forget it! What honor is that to me if your love and trust comes from the flip of a coin? What wife wants to be chosen by the flip of a coin? How much less a Savior and a Lord!" No, the only way to have a faith which Jesus will approve is to be reasonably persuaded that He is worthy of our love and trust and that the good news about Him is true.
Third in order to have Christian faith we must daily rely on the promises of God in the Bible. None of us is a Christian just because we understand and are persuaded of the truth of the Bible. A Christian is a person who, having understood the meaning of God's offer of salvation and having been convinced of its truth, now with all his heart trusts or relies on God's promises.
Those were my first three steps in thinking how the life of the mind and Christian faith fit together. The next step was simply to observe from Scripture and from my own and others' experience that none of these three steps in attaining Christian faith can happen apart from the life of the mind. Or to be more precise, without the use of our God-given mind to observe and reflect upon and make judgments none of these three steps to Christian faith can be attained. So what I want to do is look briefly at how the life of the mind is necessarily involved at each of these stages in the emergence of Christian faith. And I want to do it under three thesis statements: 1) The meaning of the Christian gospel cannot be understood without a proper use of the mind. 2)The truth of the Christian gospel cannot be determined without a proper use of the mind. 3) Daily reliance upon the promises in the gospel cannot be maintained without a proper use of the mind.
Thesis 1: The meaning of the Christian Gospel cannot be understood without the proper use of the mind.
No matter how anti-intellectual a person is, the only weapon that they have to debunk the intellect is their mind. And no matter how strongly and rightly a person cries that Christian faith is an affair of the heart, if their cry is intelligible and communicable, then it has been formulated by his mind. Language is the product of the mind and without some form of language we can learn nothing. We sometimes forget all the mental work that went into learning our language in the first six years of our lives, and all the mental work expended in the next six years learning to communicate through writing. And when we forget that, we can make the mistake of thinking we came into the world with our hearts already fluent with the language of our culture. And the result is that we get irritated with anyone who insists that two hearts can communicate only through the life of the mind, or who says that if you want to move another person's emotions you must inform his mind with something moving.
It is possible to try to reach men's hearts without their minds. Advertisers try to do it all the time. However, none of these attempts really get around the mind; instead they pass through weak minds on the tracks of a delusion. For example, the aim of a cigarette commercial is to create in the heart of the view a strong desire to smoke this particular cigarette. What do the advertisers do? They must engage the faculties of sight and hearing which feed into the mind and where their meaning is construed, and then to that mental construction or picture the heart or emotions responds with desire or rejection..
So advertisers know that there is no detour around the mind into our desires, our heart. But they also know that people are often very irrational, their minds don't work the way they should, they can be deluded. So what the advertisers do is not escape the mind but confuse it so that it sends a false impression to the heart. One example that I think of is the old ads for Salem cigarettes. Two of the inescapable accompaniments of all cigarette smoking are smoky air around the head and dry heat near the mouth. Since, for most people, the picture of hot dry smoky air around the head is a strong incentive not to smoke, the Salem commercials do their best to deny that these are necessary accompaniments of smoking their brand. The handsome couple make their way up to where the flavor is in some romantic bower in the hills where the air is fresh and cool and clear, just the opposite of what the air is around a person who smokes. So what the advertisers try to do is conceal the truth and replace it with an attractive lie and so move the heart to desire their brand. And the same thing is done with all sorts of products.
And what is of special interest to me is that it is possible to do this with the gospel. And the people who are most likely to fall into this pattern of deceit are those who think that engaging the mind is not essential in transmitting the gospel and winning faith. But I personally don't want anything to do with that approach to the faith. The gospel has a tremendous power and attractiveness when presented heartily and reasonably to the mind for what it really is.
The Christian gospel is the good news that, even though all men in every nation have disobeyed and dishonored God and deserve condemnation, yet God took the initiative to send his only Son to die for our sins and to rise again so that anyone in the world who trusts Christ can be saved from condemnation and inherit eternal life. The best news in all the world for sinful people like us is verses like Romans 5;6-8,
While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Why one will hardly die for a righteous man -- though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die. But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.
2 Corinthians 5:21,
We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake He made Christ to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
1 Peter 2:24,
Christ himself bore our sins in His body on the cross that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.
1 Peter 3:18,
Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.
And what must we do to have a part in this salvation: "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved" (Acts 16:31). Trust Christ every day for the forgiveness of sins and for the supply of all our needs.
That's the Christian gospel - a message addressed to the mind through language for our understanding. The assumption is that if this gospel is true it should reach the heart and produce faith. Which leads us to the second thesis.
Thesis 2: The truth of the Christian gospel cannot be determined without the proper use of the mind.
Jesus said in Matthew 24:24, "False Christs and false prophets will arise and show great signs and wonders so as to lead astray if possible even the elect." And John wrote in his first letter (4:1), "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." In other words, God means for people not to be gullible, not to believe just any claim that comes along. Some teachings are false and should be rejected. Some teachings are true and should be accepted. Therefore, when Luke, who wrote the Acts of the apostles, described the people of Berea, he said they were noble because they tested Paul's preaching to see if it were true (Acts 17:11), "Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with all eagerness, examining the scriptures daily to see if these things were so." "Examining the scriptures daily to see if these things are true" that is an exercise of the mind. So Luke evidently thought it was the work of the mind to decide what was true or not.
This is the very thing that Paul encouraged people to do as he went from place to place preaching the gospel. Acts 17:2,3 pictures Paul's preaching like this:
Paul went in as was his custom, and for three weeks he argued with them from the scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead.
The preacher tries to explain and demonstrate, the hearers try to understand and validate. The speaker addresses the mind, the hearers exercise the mind. This is the way Paul tried to reach the heart and win faith. If this process is abandoned, preaching will degenerate into emotional manipulation and faith will be hindered, because saving faith rests in a reasonable conviction of truth.
How would one today go about verifying the Biblical claims that the gospel of Jesus' death for sin and his resurrection as Lord are all true? There are several ways, but I will only mention one for lack of time. In 1 Corinthians 15:3ff Paul seems to include in his description of the gospel a reference to its verification. He says,
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that He was buried and that He was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at once, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
Why does Paul give this extended list of witnesses of the resurrection? And why mention that most of the five hundred are still alive? Because the only way to verify an event you didn't see for yourself are the witnesses and the effects of the event that you can see around you. And evidently Paul thought that if the resurrection could be shown to be true, then the words and work of Christ in his life and death for sin would be amply verified.
If that was the case 35 years after the resurrection, then it is still true today. So in answer to our question, How would we today verify the claims of the' gospel, one answer is, show the resurrection of Christ to be true--that it really happened. Perhaps I can sketch very briefly what such a demonstration would look like, since I do believe there is ample evidence that Christ did rise from the dead as Lord of all.
First of all, there is general consensus that the apostles founded the church at Jerusalem by preaching the resurrection of Jesus. But it would have been impossible for the apostles to have preached such a message even for an hour if the rulers in Jerusalem, who had every reason to silence this message, could have pointed to the occupied tomb of Jesus. But the fact is that the Christian church did originate in Jerusalem through the preaching of the resurrection. To be sure, the Jewish leaders tried to silence the message but there is no evidence at all that they produced the dead body of Jesus. Instead, they started the rumor that the disciples had come at night and stolen the body (Matthew 28:11-15 and Justin Martyr Dialogue with Trypho ch 108). But nobody today takes this rumor seriously because it suffers the total objection that the apostles would be preaching at the risk of their lives what they knew to be a fraud. The apostles had been ready to call it quits after the death of Jesus. Their hopes had been dashed. Then in a few weeks all of them, with unbounded joy and conviction, were risking their lives to preach their Jesus as the risen Lord. Now, is their testimony true or not? To say it is not true would mean either that they, the disciples, risked their lives preaching what they knew to be false, or that the church arose right next to the occupied tomb. But both of these alternatives are very improbable. Therefore, the evidence that Jesus rose from the dead is very strong. There are other sorts of evidence that would confirm this conclusion but I would refer you to several books for a fuller treatment: Frank Morrison, Who Moved the Stone?; J.N.D. Anderson, The Evidence for the Resurrection; and Daniel Fuller, Easter Faith and History (pp. 145-262). No matter what sort of evidence one examines, the proper use of the mind is crucial. Therefore, the truth of the Christian gospel cannot be determined without the proper use of the mind.
Thesis 3: Daily reliance upon the promises in the gospel cannot be maintained without a proper use of the mind.
Nobody is a Christian merely because he understands Christianity or even accepts it as true. Christian faith is an ongoing dependence on the promises of God day by day. It is more like marriage than voter registration. 1 Corinthians 15:2 says you are saved by the gospel if you hold it fast -- unless you believed in vain.
When Paul comes to the end of his life he says, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness." There is a struggle that has to be fought and won. How shall we fight it? In Ephesians 6:14-17 Paul describes the weapons and armor we must use, and the first and last are of special interest to me in this message about the life of the mind. He begins,
Take the whole armor of God that you may be able to stand in the evil day ... Stand, therefore, having your loins girded with truth.
And he concludes with the words, "Take the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God." The first and last weapons with which to fight the fight of faith are the truth and the Word of God. But without a mind to understand or a mind to read the truth and the Word life useless.
This is why Christians have always been among the first to start schools and promote literacy, because it is a great spiritual disadvantage not to be able to read the Bible. The thing that maintains and strengthens faith from day to day is being reminded of the promises of God. And not the word: re-minded --put in the mind again. If we daily use our minds to keep God's promises before us, then we will remain in faith and no sway from the hope of the gospel (Colossians 1:23). For why would anyone want to stop trusting a God who says (Romans 8:31-34):
What then shall we say? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him? Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies; who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus who died, yes, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.
When the mind is fed day by day with such good news, then the heart will be moved to faith and the battle will be won.
My prayer in conclusion is that all of us here, from every nation and tongue and tribe will use our minds to understand the Christian gospel, confirm its truth and rely daily on its promises. "For God so loved the world that he gave Jesus Christ, His only Son, so that anyone who believes on Him will not be condemned but have eternal life. Amen."
© COPYRIGHT 1980, 1997 John Piper.