Sunday, August 26, 2007

Discerning What is Truth, Pt 1

Documenting the events of the last hours of His earthly life, Scripture records the conversation Jesus Christ had with Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who would soon turn Him over to be crucified.

So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?”

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world— to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.”

Pilate said to him, “What is truth?”

After he had said this, he went back outside to the Jews and told them, “I find no guilt in him (John 18:33-38)

What is Truth? (Jesus Claimed to be the Truth)
Pilate's now famous question, "What is truth?" was asked by a man who seemed skeptical that such a thing as truth might be knowable. Two thousand years later people are still asking the same question, and often with the same skepticism. And yet, a foundational assumption of the Christian faith is that yes, truth exists, and that by the grace of God, it can be known by mere human beings.

Jesus came to "bear witness to the truth" and in another well-known quote, proclaimed to His closest disciples, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him (John 14:6-7)."

We see from the words of Jesus to Pilate and to His disciples that Jesus spoke about truth in a way different than all other men speak of truth. Jesus did not describe truth in term of "principles" that if followed would lead His hearers into a happy, successful life. Though following the teachings of Jesus certainly does lead to real fulfillment, both in this life and in the next (John 10:10), the truth Jesus spoke about is much more than this-- for it is intimately connected with who He is. Jesus said that His words and life bore witness to the truth, and moreover, that He Himself was the living embodiment of that Truth. Thus Jesus spoke like no ordinary man. What mere human tells others that what He has to say is the Truth, with a capital "T", and proclaims Himself the living Truth? Listen again to Jesus:

“Whoever believes in me, believes not in me but in him who sent me. And whoever sees me sees him who sent me. I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness. If anyone hears my words and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day. For I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment—what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I say, therefore, I say as the Father has told me (John 12:44-50)”

In this amazing statement, Jesus claimed people would be judged "on the last day" according to His spoken words; that His words were saving, eternal life to those embraced them; and that His words were said, not just on His own authority, but at the prompting of God, His Father.

As C.S. Lewis said in his book "Mere Christianity", such are the claims of either a madman, a deceiver, or the Lord Himself.

I am trying to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: "I am ready to accept Jesus as the great moral teacher, but I don't accept His claim to be God." That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic--on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg--or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice.

Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

The Worlds' Attitude towards Truth
In our day, the world's stance towards the concept of anyone who claims to speak truth remains the same as it was in the time when Jesus walked the Earth and Pilate asked Him his now-famous question. People still have what I'll call Pilate's attitude: the idea that with all the competing explanations of life presented by a multitude of religions and philosophies, and by scientists, artists and media, who can really discern what is the truth? Is not truth, if it exists, in the eye of the beholder? Suppose that all we experience in this world is really just sensory illusion, anyway? How do we then know if anything is real, or whether anything at all can be known?

In light of the unknowable nature of truth, the world tells us, isn't it better to humbly admit that one cannot know, and just try to get along with others? Because the minute one starts proclaiming that he or she knows what "the truth" is, all you get are disagreements and hate and wars. Don't all religions teach the same basic ideas anyway, things such as love each other, follow the golden rule, don't hurt your neighbor? Maybe, in the end, God is behind all of the religions and will lead everyone into heaven, no matter what their religion or beliefs are right now.

Besides, look at the horrible things done in the name of religion historically, and even now as we speak. People blow themselves up in the name of their "god", killing innocent people, and think that they are right in doing so because of their beliefs. Isn't this is the inevitable result of exclusive and dogmatic religions-- that they lead people into hate and killing each other? Maybe John Lennon was right. "Imagine" he sang, living in a world without religion. A world in which "All You Need is Love" and we would all "Give Peace a Chance" (other Lennon songs). Maybe, if enough of us just decided "War is Over", and together focused our thoughts on peace (as he and his wife Yoko urged), we could, by the power of our unified thought energies, sway this world away from its self-destructive path.

Mr. Lennon seems to well sum up the wisdom of this world. His well-meaning counsel sounds very reasonable, if one accepts the premise that the only truth we can really know and accept is our own, and that all religious truth, including Christian truth, just divides. But we come back to our discussion of truth-- how do we know whether Lennon's prescription for saving the world is itself right and true? A lot of people during the 1960s and 70s attempted to live out Lennon's "way of peace", but overall, the course of humanity has not turned towards peace since then.

The World's Critique of Christianity is Partly Right
But those who reject the Christian faith will argue that the same objection applies, and with more force, to Christianity. If the Christian religion is true then why is it that after almost 2000 years of Christian influence, the world remains still full of war and division? And today one finds so many Christians are hypocrites-- they talk of being loving like Jesus, but then in the news we learn they're doing things like stealing money from their ministries, getting divorced, committing adultery and worse. In addition, so many Christians-- especially in America-- seem to define faith as a lifestyle of wonderful blessings received from God (which includes guarantees of physical health, wealth, great relationships and special favor from God). Isn't this conveniently forgetting that Christ taught that His followers must suffer in this world, deny self, preach the gospel and make disciples, give to the poor and needy, and pursue justice? If Christianity were really true, they argue, one would see Christians doing more of these sorts of things and being less materialistic. Unfortunately, such criticism of many who call themselves Christian is altogether accurate.

False and True Christians
In answer to such critique however, we must distinguish between true and false professors of Christ. But first, we will admit that true believers (those born again, by the power of the Spirit who now indwells them) still do sin, because they have not yet been fully redeemed (changed) by God. According to the Bible there is this great gap between the sinless, perfect obedience of Christ to the Father's will, and the sin-stained expression of faith of even his most sincere followers. This gap will only be completely eradicated when Jesus returns. So the Christian true to the teaching of Scripture readily confesses that he/she still sins and thus falls short of the glory of God. He sorrows over such sin and repents of it, and finds forgiveness and restored relationship with God by the grace received through the "blood of Christ" (the sacrifice Christ made on the cross to bear the penalty for my sin). However, there will be, according to the Lord, many who merely claim the name "Christian" but indeed will be proven to be hypocrites. They present, by their false lives, teachings and actions, a gross misrepresentation of true Christian faith. They may on the surface however appear genuine in their profession of Christ. They themselves may be sincerely deceived that they are following Christ. How can we be wise enough to discern the difference between sincere Christ followers and those who only profess Christianity? And how do we avoid hypocrisy, and make certain that we are indeed His disciples? Let us turn to two passages of Scripture.

"For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men (1 Corinthians 1:18-25)"

Jesus said, "Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

"Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it (Matthew 7:21-27)"

The problem with the wisdom of the world, according to this 1 Corinthians text, is that earthly wisdom foolishly does not acknowledge the existence of God, and moreover, regards as foolishness the preaching of "Christ crucified" by Christians. Despite clear evidence that the world has been created by an Intelligent Designer, who has additionally revealed himself as Savior to those who believe in His Son Jesus Christ, the world prefers its own wisdom and rejects God (Romans 1:20-21). But for those who say they believe in Christ, Jesus' statements remind that merely claiming to be Christian is no proof of knowing Him. It is those who actually do the will of God, in accordance with the teachings of Jesus (albeit imperfectly), whose lives will pass the test of authentic discipleship, being built on a solid foundation.

Accepting the Testimony of Our Physical Senses, Thinking Rationally and Believing in Objective Truth

We return to our discussion on truth. I recognized a long while ago, in my own search for truth and meaning, that I would never have a basis for deciding whether one point of view was more true than another, unless I embraced the notion that there is objective truth. Philosophers and theologians may endlessly ponder the nature of reality and whether truth exists, but when it comes to practical daily living, I realized that humans have no choice but to embrace their rationality and trust their sensory perceptions, make up their minds about certain ideas, and get on with life. For even if we deny it, we all live as if there is such a thing as objective truth, and relate to the world using thought, reason and rationality in response to things we experience through our senses. We build a view of life by accepting or calling certain realities "true", and in this process, our minds seem designed to function rationally.

I make these very broad observations about the nature of how we perceive and understand true reality because we live, as you are probably aware, in a "postmodern" age characterized by the claim that all truth is not objective but relative. Yet in order to make that claim, one must take an absolute stance. But if there is no objective truth, then there is no way to prove the absolute claim that there is no objective truth.

The "truth-is-relative" view may try to assert that statements contradicting one another can both be true at the same time. It perhaps sounds more democratic and "loving" to allow everyone their own point of view, to say that they are all "true" in their own way. However, the point I'm making is that because our minds were designed to be logical and rational, I don't think such statements are ever satisfying to the earnest seeker after truth.

Don't Give Me Any Directions

I'll give you an example. Suppose I am driving through an unfamiliar town on my way to a particular destination and become very lost. I see someone walking along the road, stop and ask them for directions. Now suppose that after I have written down their detailed directions, I decide that I cannot (and will not) trust their information (after all I don't know them and/or what if they were just a phantom?). Therefore I toss the note of written directions out of the window and continue merrily on my own way, searching as best as I can, figuring that somehow I will arrive at my destination by guessing when I should turn left or right.

This little illustration symbolizes what I think the world often advises, with regard to finding life and purpose and truth. Most people at some point in their lives probably consider the question, "Is there is a God?" and wonder whether there is a destiny and purpose behind life. But the basic assumption of our day is that no one can possibly come to any conclusion about such matters, for no one person or group holds the "Truth". Also, as there are no "easy" answers, it is simply arrogant for anyone to presume to tell another that they have found "truth" that is universally applicable. Instead, each must plod along on their own path, trusting in themselves alone to direct their own journey. Someday we'll all get "there", whatever and wherever that is. But just don't give me any "directions".

As we have seen in the Scriptures however, Jesus came to this world to bear witness to the truth; to reveal Himself as the Truth and the Way to know God. He said that people do have a clear destiny-- eternal separation from God, or eternal union with God. He claimed to tell us exactly how to find God-- and His claims are exclusive- for if His claims are correct, we won't find our way to God except by Him. As we saw in my illustration above, any earthly destination has coordinates. We would be foolish to ignore those in the hope that by simply moving forward in a meandering, guessing way we will successfully arrive at our object. How much more foolish then, to think that we can arrive at the purpose of this life or find our heavenly destination, if we don't know what it is, where it is, or how to get there.

Excepting those in mental asylums and the mentally delusional, we live by certain "truths" that we accept-- most without daily reflection-- to be real and valid-- such as, I was born and I exist, my birthday is on such and such day, I have certain physical dimensions, I live in such and such place, have such and such job, such and such relationships. We also "believe in" many things-- perhaps one believes one ought to love others and not do them harm; that stealing is wrong; that if one works hard they will "succeed" in life; etc. Certainly beliefs vary tremendously, but constructing some sort of belief system about reality seems necessary to function as a human being.

The truths of Christianity are built upon this sort of practical and rational foundation. We believe that Jesus Christ really lived on earth, that He spoke and taught and did the things that have been written of Him. Why? Because there were human beings present as eyewitnesses of these events who wrote them down. We also believe because the evidence that Jesus Christ is really who he claimed to be is both reasonable and abundant (visit the sites listed in my Apologetics section to find some of this evidence). Now Christianity, unlike other religions, does not say that it does not matter if Jesus existed or not and that what is critical is that one just follow His teachings. No! It says that because Jesus as the Son of God really came to this world and really died to save sinners from their sins, that those who believe in Him will be supernaturally born and actually know eternal fellowship with God. It says that only if this Christ really was resurrected from the dead-- as He claimed He would be-- is there any real hope for those who call themselves Christians. So Christianity is more than metaphor or theory, it is the reality of a life lived in actual relationship with a living God. The God who is real came to earth and died for my sins, and if I believe in Him I will be forgiven all my sins and transformed from a sinner to saint, completely by His mighty, gracious power.

So today, if you do not know Christ in this personal way, please visit my "Gospel Presentations" section at the top right column of my blog. There you will find links to helpful presentations of the gospel of Jesus Christ. You also find instruction about what to do if you believe that Christ is indeed who He said He is, that He really died for sins and rose from the dead, and if you desire to receive His offer of mercy and reconciliation to God.

Discernment for Believers
In Part 2 of this article, I will (God-willing) address the issue of discernment of truth for believers in Christ. It seems today there are so many different teachers, preachers and points of view about what is true Christianity. How can we discern the true way? How do we decide which interpretations of Scripture are correct so that we may be faithful to Jesus and not go astray? Which teachers can be trusted? I think this is an extremely critical issue for the church today, for all of the many different "brands" of Christianity cannot be equally true and valid at the same time, since they are making opposing claims.

I recently added a new link list to my blog titled "Discernment Ministries", under the section "Apologetics". I invite you to peruse the many ministries listed in this section (though I do not vouch for the accuracy of everything written on these sites). These types of ministries recognize the danger of false doctrines within the church, how such teachings lead us away from God, and so they aim to make people aware of these teachings and warn them away from error. This is a deadly serious matter, for people's souls are at stake. As Christians we are called to test and examine all teaching and doctrine according to Scripture, but this can be difficult when almost every teaching or doctrine claims to have scriptural support. As fallen creatures, I don't think that anyone's interpretation of Scripture is ever going to be 100% perfect in understanding. Nevertheless, it is critical to the Christian's spiritual health and safety to grow in understanding and application of the truth of God's word. As Paul said to Timothy, "do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15)." Discernment ministries and blogs such as this one can assist, but are of course no substitute for one's own diligent study of the Word.

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