Rob Sturdy: Why do we believe what we believe?

20 12 2011

This was originally prepared for a new believers class

Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton write in their book SoulSearching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers that teens who self identify as Christians could be profoundly articulate about drinking, drugs, and sexually transmitted diseases, but had a difficult if not outright impossible time discussing what they believed and why. They argue:

“Philosophers like Charles Taylor argue that inarticulacy undermines the possibilities of reality. So, for instance, religious faith, practice, and commitment can be no more than vaguely real when people cannot talk much about them. Articulacy fosters reality. A major challenge for religious educators of youth, therefore, seems to be fostering articulation: helping teens practice talking about their faith, providing practice using vocabularies, grammar, stories, and key messages of faith. Especially to the extent that the language of faith in American culture is becoming a foreign language, educators, like real foreign language teachers, have that much more to work at helping their students learn to practice speaking that other language of faith.”

The simple lesson here is that if you are unable to articulate the faith for yourself, then you haven’t really learned the faith in such a way that you can own it.  You may wonder why it is that we begin a confirmation class here, discussing why we believe what we believe.  I hope it has become a bit more clear.  If you cannot articulate the faith then you have not really apprehended the faith.  If you have not apprehended the faith then the faith is not truly yours.

This wisdom is reflected not only in modern research as shown above, but it is an ancient wisdom found in the Old and New Testaments.  For example, in the Old Testament the ancient Jews were required not only to have faith in God but every member of Ancient Israel was required to be able to articulate who He was and what He had done for His people.  This is illustrated most vividly in the Passover service recorded Exodus 12.26-27.  Similarly in 1 Pet 3.15 we read “always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.”  This is not merely an evangelistic strategy, or a mechanism for handing the faith down to our children, but it is also a way inspired by the Holy Spirit for us to own our faith.  Once we articulate it, it is ours.

So we begin with a simple articulation of why we believe what we believe.  Each of us will articulate this in some form this evening to the people we are sitting with in order to make it our own.

If someone were to approach you this evening and ask you, “Why is it that you are a Christian as opposed to a Muslim, Jew or agnostic?” What would you say to them?  Would you make an appeal to the Bible?  But then they might ask, “Why do you believe the Bible?”  Would you say that you were raised a Christian?  Well, they might simply say that a Jew is raised a Jew.  Perhaps you would argue that you had a spiritual experience that led you to believe in Christ.  But how would you articulate that in terms that weren’t abstract but reasonable and concrete?  Tonight we will explore these things and many others.

Why are we Christians and not Buddhists, Jews, Hindus or Muslims?

There are many different people in the world, just as smart if not smarter than you.  There are many different people in the world just as moral, if not more so than you.  There are many different people in the world just as spiritual, if not more so than you.  So why are you a Christian?  And if you are a Christian who are you to say that you have the truth and someone else does not?  Surely we live in a very big and confusing world and God is a very big and confusing topic.  Who are we as Christians to say we’ve got the market cornered on God and the truth about him?

Christianity shares many things in common with the other major religions of the world.  And of course there is a sharp separation on many points.  However if you wanted to find the main point of departure between Christianity and the other world religions it would have to be Jesus. Huston Smith notes, in the world religions only two people ever astounded their contemporaries so much that the question evoked was not “Who is he?” but “What is he?”  They were Jesus and Buddha.  The answers these two gave were exactly opposite.  Buddha said unequivocally that he was a mere man, not a god- almost as if he foresaw later attempts to worship him.  Jesus on the other hand, claimed to be divine.

The problem with Jesus’ identity emerges from the data.  For example:

“Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” So the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.” (John 8.56-59)

“And when he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. And many were gathered together, so that there was no more room, not even at the door. And he was preaching the word to them. And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him, and when they had made an opening, they let down the bed on which the paralytic lay. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” And immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them, “Why do you question these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic— “I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home.” And he rose and immediately picked up his bed and went out before them all, so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!” (Mark 2.1-12)

So the main point of departure between Christianity and the other world religions is that Jesus claimed to be more than a man.  In fact, Jesus claimed to be God.  He did not claim to be God in such a way that he left open the possibility that others might be God as well.  In fact, He claimed that he and he alone was God.  He claimed that it was only through him that you could know real truth.  He claimed that only through him could you receive salvation.  Only through him could you know the father.

Now Jesus is neither the first or the last person to make such statements.  In fact, many people even today make such statements.  Most of the time we commit them to mental institutions.  Why?  Because we don’t believe them.  Why don’t we believe them?  Because they have not given us adequate reason to believe them.

We should be thankful that Jesus depicts himself and who he thought himself to be in such clear terms because it forces us to make a clear choice.  C.S. Lewis puts it this way:

“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 the level with a man who says he is a poached egg – or he would be the devil of hell. You must take your choice. Either this was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool 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.”

So what did Jesus say about himself?

Jesus claimed to have the authority to forgive sins:  And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” (Mark 2.5)

Lewis demonstrates well why Jesus’ claims to forgive sins are so remarkable.  He writes:

“We can all understand how a man forgives offences against himself.  You tread on my toe and I forgive you, you steal my money and I forgive you.  But what should we make of a man, himself unrobbed and untrodden on, who announced that he forgave you for treading on other men’s toes and stealing other men’s money?  Asinine fatuity is the kindest description we should give of his conduct.  Yet this is what Jesus did.  He told people that their sins were forgiven and never waited to consult all the other people whom their sins had undoubtedly injured.  He unhesitatingly behaved as if He was the party chiefly concerned, the person chiefly offended in all offences.  This makes sense only if He really was the God whose laws are broken and whose love is wounded in ever sin.  In the mouth of any speaker who is not God, these words would imply what I can only regard as a silliness and conceit unrivalled by any other character in history.”[1]

Jesus claimed that he would one day judge the world:  “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” (Matt 25.31-32)

Jesus claimed to be God’s Christ/ Messiah:  “But he remained silent and made no answer. Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” And Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” And the high priest tore his garments and said, “What further witnesses do we need? You have heard his blasphemy. What is your decision?” And they all condemned him as deserving death.” (Mark 14.61-64)

Jesus claimed to be God:  “The Jews answered him, “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God.” (John 10.33)

“Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20.26-29)Notice at Thomas’ confession of Jesus as God, Jesus does not rebuke Thomas but rather affirms Thomas’ conclusion. 

Now that we’ve established some of what Jesus had to say about himself, we then go on to say why it is that it is reasonable to believe him.  While there are many persuasive elements as to why it is reasonable to believe Jesus, we will spend time on only one.  Perhaps the most persuasive is the event of the resurrection.

Consider this episode from Luke’s Gospel:

“That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and they were talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What is this conversation that you are holding with each other as you walk?” And they stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” And he said to them, “What things?” And they said to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened.” (Luke 24.13-21)

What is remarkable about this excerpt from Luke’s Gospel is that it takes the doubts and disbelief of the disciples so seriously.  Read it closely.  The disciples respond “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”  In other words, they were convinced by his teaching, by his miracles, and by his character, however his death on the cross persuaded them that he could possibly be the Messiah.  It was inconceivable that God would allow his Messiah to die on a cross.

Consider also this episode from John’s Gospel:

“Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” (John 20.24-25)

Again, the point being that Thomas had ceased to believe in Jesus as the Messiah, and certainly was not going to believe that he (Jesus) had come back from the dead.  Thomas is an “un-believer”.

Consider the Apostle Paul on the road to Damascus:

“But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letter to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.” (Acts 9.1-2)

Whether we are considering the disciples on the road to Emmaus, Thomas in John’s Gospel, or Paul (Saul) in the book of Acts, the unifying theme is that none of them believed Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God.  Yet all of them had a change of heart.  What provoked this change of heart?  In each and every instance it was a personal encounter with the risen Jesus.  Furthermore, it is important to note that in each instance, the men who did not believe would later be martyred for their confession that Jesus was the risen Lord.  What provoked this change of heart?  Is it not reasonable that the risen Lord did this?  So you see our hope is not grounded upon “a blind leap.”  There are more ways to develop and challenge these thoughts, but this is a good introduction into why we believe what we believe.

[1] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan 1977) pg 55



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