What does it take to be right with God? More good deeds than bad? To have been a good person, whatever that is? To not have done horrendous things, whatever those are? I know, I know; skeptics may say, “First, you have to prove God’s existence.” Perhaps there’s a time to engage in that discussion. For now, however, I want to ask this straightforward question: What does it take to be right with God?
I will show my theological cards up front. I now write as one who believes that the height of folly is to deny God’s existence. “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” (Psalm 14:1a, ESV). Scripture indicates that mankind’s root problem is sin, and the root of sin is willful suppression of the truth. Perhaps the clearest indictment of our universal sin was penned by Paul in the first chapter of his letter to the Romans: “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Romans 1:21-23, ESV). In short, all of us know God exists, but we suppress that knowledge because we want to evade God’s holy judgment.
When I was an undergraduate studying philosophy, I remember a conversation I had with one of the closest friends I have ever had. The conversation was about epistemology (how we know things), and about God’s existence. My friend was always a levelheaded guy, and he was patient with my moods as I battled waves of doubt. I’d been reading Locke, Berkeley, and Hume; I’d been reading Kant. I’d read Heidegger and Nietzsche. I read more Descartes than was probably healthy. Then Whitehead and the logical positivists nearly drove me to despair because I couldn’t explain my own thoughts. Were my thoughts only material accretions? What about language? What about any moral category? Was justice just a figment of my thinking? Was truth a chimera? Why write? Why be honest? It seemed solipsism was the only option if materialism were true.
All that is context for the conversation I had with my friend. I asked him, in utter seriousness, “I cannot even prove that I exist, so what hope is there?” He looked at me and said, “Some things are just obvious, Jon. You know we’re here, by these tennis courts; you know we’re friends. You know these things.” To some readers, you may scoff at this, but I promise it’s true. I longed to understand how we come to know things for sure. What is the basis for knowledge? Is knowledge just a sensation, or do we have innate ideas/categories for understanding? After all, if all knowledge is sensory, how does one explain love, or language, or beauty, or friendship, or sacrifice, or honor? These ideas make no sense in a materialistic worldview. But my friend reassured me, “You know certain things.”
I was in my twenties then; now I’m in my forties . . . and I’ve learned a few things. You might say, I know some things now. First, I now recognize (literally, to re-know something) that much of my questioning then was an intellectual cloak. I wanted there not to be a straightforward answer to my longings in order that I might indulge my flesh. If I couldn’t prove God’s existence, I reasoned then, I could live as I wanted. I thought it would get me off the God-hook. But what I didn’t want to admit then is that I was proving Paul’s thesis: I was suppressing the truth. I did know certain things. I knew my friend was there; I knew we were having that conversation; I knew what lifestyle I was living. But I didn’t want to admit the moral nature of the God-ruled world. If I could exclude God from the equation, if you will, I’d not be culpable. In short, I was living out the Psalm 14:1 and Romans 1 indictment—suppression of the truth. This suppression of the truth is the root sin. This is man’s nature prior to regeneration. We cloak our questions in the garb of sophistication; we adorn ourselves with degrees and titles, but at heart, we’re suppressors of the truth.
Recently I was in a chapel service listening to a peer preach from 1 Corinthians 1. If you’re unfamiliar with that text, the thesis is simple: man’s wisdom is folly; God’s wisdom is Christ and him (Christ) crucified. Paul writes: “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1:27-29, ESV). And earlier in the passage, Paul made this profound indictment: “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 1:22-25, ESV). In other words, Paul teaches us this: before God, we creatures are humbled. There’s no way around it. “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6, ESV).
And it hit me—again. What does it take to be right with God? A recognition (a re-knowing) that God is holy and I am not. And humility. None of us, when we have a right understanding of God’s holiness and our depravity, should boast. Job learned it; Solomon learned it; I learn it (oftentimes, the hard way).
Perhaps my favorite book of Scripture is Ecclesiastes. Solomon learned of his own suppression of the truth, but he did, eventually, learn what it takes to be right with God (see Ecclesiastes 12:13-14). During that process, however, he penned this wisdom: “Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few” (Ecclesiastes 5:2, ESV). The idea here is to guard against ornamentation of speech, to guard against pride in our speech and in our lives. Why? Because the end of the matter leads us and the whole of creation to this: humility before the wisdom of God. And that wisdom of God is not a thing. It’s not a what; it’s a who, and his name is Jesus.