In my youth I do not recall having many conversations about how one could know if one’s Christian faith was true or not. That is, regarding faith and certitude. As I look back I think that this was mainly due to the fact that I was not particularly interested in exploring what it meant to have faith in Christ and in God as described in the Bible. Strange as this may sound I was quite certain that God existed but I was resolved to try to ignore God. However, from those years of going to church with my family and being involved in Christian youth groups one indelible point stands out: Personal experience is essential to establishing one’s faith. For even though I did not actually believe the Gospel myself till I was in high school I did internalize this conviction.
When I began to seriously study Scripture and Christian theology I read authors who tended to emphasize the perspective that truth was “objective” (not subjective) and therefore faith was a straightforward (more or less) apprehension of what was Real. And what was Real was the Presence of God in the world and the truth of his written Word (Scripture). I read books that defended the teachings of the Bible, Christian doctrine and faith in the Lord Jesus as intellectually defensible (if not eminently rational). My earliest intellectual formation as a convinced Christian was focused on the intellectual defensibility and rational coherence of Christian faith. These authors assumed that faith and certitude were compatible.
I am very grateful for the influence that these books had on me and I continue to believe that Scripture is God’s Word written and is entirely true and reliable in all that if affirms. (This is by the way a positive way of affirming biblical inerrancy.) Furthermore, I remain convinced that the biblical worldview is the most intellectually coherent and persuasive option for thinking people trying to makes sense of life in this world—particularly when compared to Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Atheism, Mormonism, Transcendental Philosophies (Gnosticism reformulated), etc. The writing I do for these blogs assumes this and occasionally I make mention of and elaborate on these convictions.
One perennial question that has remained with me and I have continued to wrestle with is whether I could be certain of the specifics of Christian doctrine about God’s work in created reality (creation, salvation, judgment, ultimate renewal of creation). How do I know that what I know to be true is true? I believe it and can list many arguments for why it is reasonable to believe the declarations and affirmations of Scripture. However, how is it that I have come to have such assurance in my soul about this?
The answer God has gave me is this: God gave me a gift from an early age that I frankly did not want. Namely, the inner knowledge that the eternal Creator God existed and was Present in the world. When I say that I did not want this gift I am not exaggerating; I resented having this knowledge for I could not refute it or ignore it. God existed and was real and I could not escape his Presence. Atheism has never been nor can be a serious option for me.
To be reminded constantly of the existence of God and that he had demands on me was irritating and I became resentful as a child and youth. I thought that since God existed then the least he could have done was to leave me alone to do what I wanted! But it is not God’s way to abandon his creatures for he knows what will happen if we follow the inclinations of our hearts.
Faith and certitude do go together because truth is true. Truth is not relative since it is rooted in the Being and character of God; our understanding of truth is relative. The problem of perception of the truth lies within our willingness to by faith engage the knowledge of God’s existence and what one gleans from the many traces of his power and character embedded in his creation. For the living God has given a witness to himself for everyone (see Romans 1:18-23).
There are a variety of ways that people can come to realize for themselves that God is God and what God is like; each person’s story is different. The commonality, I believe, is found at the point when the idea of God that accords with the truth becomes confirmed in the heart and the mind of the individual. This is that point when someone says, “I know God is real and I cannot deny this.” There is in this a kind of certitude but not necessarily faith.
According to Scripture, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1, NASBU) As for myself, as I have already noted, I did not have true faith when I was a child and youth because I had not chosen to open my heart to God. He was real but that was not welcome news to me! Indeed, I took it as a reason to close my heart and my mind from pursuing knowledge of God.
Now that I have many years of life experience and have been gifted with insight into myself I can perceive that even when I had resolved to not pursue knowing God experientially I had already stumbled upon a clue to the nature of faith. Namely, that faith is a mystery of God’s sovereign work in a human being; how exactly an individual becomes convinced and resolved to exercise faith is not clear to the prying intellect. Even in those many cases when someone exercises faith while pursuing a consciously intellectual investigation into Christian faith it remains a mystery to him or her just precisely how faith becomes activated in the soul. Perhaps the person realizes a particularly meaningful insight or finds a resolution of some difficult point in biblical teaching or having witnessed the testimony of others hears truth parallel to his or her own life experience; regardless of the particularities of each one’s story what happens is that the internal eyes of the person’s heart open and faith awakens.
What I propose is this: By faith one knows but one cannot adequately explain to others how this knowledge has been attained or how it is being grasped. For lack of options to explain it one says simply, “I have assurance of the hope of the Gospel and conviction that the unseen spiritual reality the Lord taught me about is reality.” This is remarkably assuring but one thing it is not is intellectual certitude. For the mind, as powerful as it is for apprehending and imaginatively interpreting the world as we experience it, cannot grasp spiritual dimensions (at least not without supernatural power superintending upon it). The sanctified human mind is a precious gift and useful in the service of God but it cannot be the means of understanding God and spiritual reality. Thus the kind of certitude that comes with practicing faith in the Gospel is of a different character altogether.
The kind of certitude of faith I am trying to describe is rooted in the redeemed human heart. And this certitude comes only after one has willed to practice the Lord’s teaching (see John 7:17). Greater intellectual clarity and comprehension of reality may come in time for those who seek this by faith. However, certitude about one’s attempt to rationally comprehend, explain and interpret matters that are beyond human comprehension is not possible. This remains either reasonable or plausible so long as one humbly submits one’s mind to the testimony of Scripture and a sincere effort to understand its plain meaning in submission to one’s spiritual leaders and dialogue with other believers in community.
Paul’s recorded prayer for the believers in Colassae demonstrates the kind of certitude of knowledge God desires to give us. And this knowledge is rooted in love.
“And so it is that we, for our part, from the day when we first heard of it have never ceased praying for you, asking that you may be filled with knowledge of God’s will, such as brings with it spiritual wisdom and discernment of every kind to lead a life worthy of the Lord and wholly pleasing to him, a life which yields a harvest of good works of any and every kind, and makes you advance further and further in the knowledge which you have of God.” (Colossians 1:9-10; cited from God’s New Covenant New Testament Translation, Cassirer [Eerdmans:1989]).
To press into true knowledge of God requires an interplay of love between the will (rooted in the heart) and God as Triune. Progressing in this knowledge creates dissonance within the believer because the Spirit is moving him or her into inner realms of spiritual understanding and insight that are beyond the capacity of the mind to comprehend. The human mind, conditioned as it is upon life experience, is unable to understand that which is was not designed to be able to understand. Such is our lot in this life, given the wondrous limitations of human nature due to being creatures and the thorough damage sin has done to our persons.
I say this not to slight the work of renewal by the Holy Spirit or to put limits on how God can transform and make people whole and functionally human again. (Certainly the renewal of the mind is central to spiritual renewal in Christ.) Rather, I write this as a sober recognition that the transformation of human nature into the likeness of the Creator (Colossians 3:10-11) is done by design progressively and over time. I believe that this is good for us and an expression of the wisdom of the Father. Otherwise we who believe will be even more tempted to think that we have become perfect now and the enemy will make use of us to inflict great harm on the Church and people in the world. Paul warned the Corinthians about this danger (see 1 Corinthians 4:6-7; 14:20; 2 Corinthians 10:1-6; 13:5-11) and rightly so for spiritual pride is the ideal breeding ground for error and heresy.