Listen: Christian Growth with Simon Manchester. (Airs 8am Sundays on Hope 103.2 & Inspire Digital.)
Many people believe Christianity is an unreasonable and irrelevant faith, even intolerant and hypocritical. In a 5-part series, Simon Manchester responds to these claims one by one.
Part 3 – Is Christianity a Leap of Faith?
[Prayer]: Our Father we want to echo the song that we have just sung and pray that for your great name sake and for our need that you would cause these few minutes to be pleasing to you and profitable to us and we ask it in Jesus’ Name – Amen.
Today is the third in a series of objections to Christianity which we are seeking to face on Sunday mornings. The question that we are facing today says ‘is Christianity a leap of faith?’ When I saw this as a suggestion from the congregation that we should tackle this, it seemed to be to be a very old phrase and a very old question but I was interested to see last Sunday evening a program on the television to do with Tony Blair which was called “Tony Blair’s Leap of Faith”.
Before you think this may be a dull subject, I want to tell you that I have two interesting people in mind as I think of this question, ‘is Christianity a leap of faith?’
Is Christianity Mystical or Dishonest?
The first is the person who thinks that Christian faith may be mystical. Mystical; not rational but mystical. Imagine you could listen in to your neighbour on the telephone and your neighbour happens to be talking about you. And the neighbour on the telephone says, “Yes, my neighbour is a Christian, seems quite a nice person but there must be some little need in there for them. I mean they can’t see God, can’t hear God but they have made their little decision, they have made their step, they have made their leap. There is no reason of course for me to follow them. There is no obligation for me to be a Christian. Something has obviously prompted them to do this but it’s not a practical thing – not like shopping or driving a car which is a sort of a fact part of life. This is faith, it’s a mystery, it’s a leap.”
That’s the first sort of person I’m thinking of. The person who thinks that something has happened to the believer of a mystical kind.
The second person I have in mind is the person who actually thinks that Christianity is contrary to the facts. This is the argument of some of the new anti-religion and pro-atheism books that are around today. No longer are we talking about the tolerant neighbour thinking of their neighbour. We are now thinking of the intolerant writer or speaker who is seeking to indoctrinate away from Christianity. This is the new militant atheism which is around today.
And this sort of person thinks or writes likes this:
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“Christianity is actually dishonest, in fact it is dangerous. Plenty of science has come to light in the last few decades to bring people into the real world, but religion, especially Christianity, they will say ‘ignore it’. And it chooses faith over facts. And so for the sake of the cause of Christianity it prefers fables to truth, and the poor men and the poor women who come on Sunday have to play a schizophrenic game which is that they have to sing songs about being made by God and then Monday they go back to the real world. And so these poor people have taken an irrational step playing a game on Sunday and then being on normal on Monday. It is contrary to facts but this is the leap of faith.”
So some people, I think, see Christianity as mystical and given the fact that there are so many Eastern religions around today, it’s no wonder that they all get thrown into the same basket. Some people see Christianity as actually contrary to truth and that will be your situation especially if you are reading all the new atheism.
I want to show you this morning as best as I can that Christianity is not mystical, that it’s not contrary to fact but in fact it is rational, reasonable and consistent with fact.
Now I know that there are many Christians who don’t help this particular program. Christianity on television is often presented as some kind of emotional trance, that thinking people turn away from, or it is a superstition kind of mantra going on for some people, superstitious fear with no attraction. We who come to the ordinary small churches of this city, we are not good at either making unbelievers re-think their life but our leader causes people to re-think. Jesus causes people to re-think and I want to show this morning that even if non-Christians think that Christianity is mystical and contrary to fact and even if Christians fail to show that Christianity is rational, robust, consistent and attractive, Jesus did. He did it right. And there are a thousand places in the New Testament where we could look at this. But I want to take just one example from John 12 reading from verse 36. You may like to look this up – we don’t trust any preachers in this church! So look up John 12:36.
I have two points this morning. Firstly, How Faith Takes Place and the second, How Faith Makes Sense.
How Faith Takes Place
Firstly – How faith takes place. How does a person actually come to faith in Jesus Christ? I want you to notice that these verses which begin from verse 36 are the final public verses that Jesus ever speaks. What’s going to take place immediately after these verses are the last supper (John 13), arrest, crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. These are the last public utterances of the Lord Jesus.
In winding up the account of Jesus in public in the last of the four Gospels, this is what John says: “When He had finished speaking Jesus left and hid himself from them”, verse 37, ”even after Jesus had done all these miraculous signs in their presence, they still would not believe in Him.”
Speaking, signs. After speaking, after signs. I just want to show you, and I could pretty well stop now and just get down – and some of you would be glad I did – I just want to say to you that’s pretty all we need to see that the leader of the Christian faith gave speaking (information), signs (miracles), in order that people would make an intelligent step into the light and what Jesus does in the Gospel is consistent with the whole of the Bible. The whole of the Bible is God speaking and doing, speaking and doing – in order that people would make an intelligent and a reasonable decision to trust Him and to follow Him. This is the pattern of the whole of the Scriptures: there is a message, there is a miracle; there is a promise, there is a proof; and when you read the Gospels, especially if you read them carefully, you see that Jesus gave information so people would know exactly what to do and then He would give demonstration so people would know that what He says, He can do.
So an example is:
- He says ‘I am the Bread of Life’ and he feeds a crowd of thousands with just a few loaves.
- He says ‘I am the Light of the World’ and he heals a blind man.
- He says ‘I am the Resurrection’ and he raises a dead man.
Promise, proof. Promise, proof – in order that people would be able to say “I understand”.
When a disciple in John 14 says to Jesus “Please show us God, please show us the Father”, He says “You have seen Me”. “My words are not just my own,” says Jesus, “my works are the evidence of the Father”. You can trust the words, you can trust the works, you can make a sensible decision. So Jesus said everything people needed to know and He showed everything that people needed to see, providing a reasonable, rational case so people would make a sensible, joyful decision. In other words, He sheds light so people made a step into the light. Or as Packer says, “People can make a thoughtful step out of the dark”- that’s in our reading.
Well, speaking (verse 36) and signs (verse 37). “You want explanation,” says Jesus, “well here’s an explanation. You want some demonstration – well here’s some demonstration.” And what the original crowds could hear and see in the 1st Century is recorded, is written, and is available for all subsequent crowds to help them to make their minds up. “These are written”, says John in chapter 20 “that you may believe and when you believe and connect with God you will have Eternal Life – what could be better than that!”
Now therefore with such a reasonable case and people today saying ‘well it’s not enough for you to talk to me, I want you to prove something’ but we go back to the 1st Century and we see that Jesus said something and proved something and still we read – look at verse 37 “they would not believe”. Why? Why would they not believe?
Why People Do Not Believe
John gives us two reasons from verse 38. And friends you need to know the two reasons why people don’t believe according to John 12. Opposition to Christianity is not all rational. Remember Aldous Huxley’s famous comment or famous confession: he did not want all Christianity to be true, he said “because we wanted to indulge our appetites”.
Chapter 12:37 shows that there is an unwilling part of the human nature. They would not believe. And even more shocking and even more humbling there is an unable part. People are unable to believe in Christ unless God gives the ability. You see that in verse 37 and 38 “they would not believe” (37) and in verse 38 “Lord, who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”
So if there is an unbeliever walking around the city and they are thinking or saying to themselves “you know I’m pretty unprejudiced on the Christian issue, pretty unprejudiced”, they don’t realise they are profoundly resistant to Christ. And if a person, an unbeliever says “I can choose Christ any time”, they don’t realise that a miracle has to take place – a miracle has to take place.
So why do people refuse to believe and therefore accuse the believer of having made a leap of faith? Well why did Jesus’ contemporaries refuse to believe? You can see the answer in verse 38a and even Isaiah said this in the 8th Century BC – “who has believed us?” says Isaiah “who has believed us?”. And Jesus could say the same, “who has believed this? I’ve given you information, I’ve given you demonstration – who has believed?” And we today say “who has believed what we say? We are just finding it hard to find someone who believes”.
“People need God because unbelief is not just disinterest in Christianity, unbelief is helplessness.”
Over the Christmas for which we give huge thanks at St Thomas, we estimated on the staff that there were probably 800 visitors. Now let’s imagine for the sake of argument, maybe 400 of them are outsiders who don’t understand Christianity at all and they came to our Christmas Services for which we praise God – what an opportunity. And let’s imagine that the explanation of Christianity over those Services was faithful and reasonably clear and quite persuasive. You would think, wouldn’t you, that 400 of the 400 – what we imagined to be maybe 400 – who would understand Christianity at all, maybe 100 of them would say they never understood but say it’s absolutely fascinating, that’s very persuasive. And yet it’s a shock to us that perhaps 400 people can walk in and apparently, although we’ll never know until the end, it just seems that all those 400 can walk out saying “thanks very much – see you next Christmas”.
Who has believed? Isaiah called that out in the 8th Century. Jesus might have echoed it in his Century and we say it again, don’t we? And the answer comes back in verse 38b “to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” You see it’s just not a believing issue. It isn’t just that the unbeliever says “You give me three clues, I’ll become a Christian”. God is the revealer and it’s obvious that people need God because unbelief is not just disinterest in Christianity, unbelief is helplessness.
We are responsible to listen to the information, to look at the demonstration but are also completely dependent on God to do a miracle and make a person believe. So coming to faith in Christ means we have to face up to the words of Jesus and the deeds of Jesus and behind the responsibility to believe which everybody has is God who gives the ability to believe. So Christianity is not just a new lifestyle where you walk in and say “give me the Book – OK I’ll put it into practise”. Christianity is a new life which is a transforming, miraculous rebirth worked by God.
People Misunderstand Christianity
If you think that’s humbling and shocking, look at verses 39 & 40. These are more humbling and shocking. Why is the unbeliever not a believer? According to verses 39 & 40 – they cannot believe. They cannot believe. God has blinded the unbeliever and has deadened the unbeliever so that they cannot see or understand or turn and now you say “Well this Christianity is even more ridiculous and even more irrational and I have even more reason to despise Christianity than ever before”. But be very careful – when a person rejects God’s information that is not a harmless decision, that is not like rejecting an invitation to dinner which may have very small consequences.
To reject God’s information is not a harmless thing and it carries an appropriate penalty, it carries a penalty from God for refusing God and that penalty is that’s the end of your seeing and that’s the end of your living and that’s the end of your power and it’s the end of your freedom. You turn your back on the one that gives all those things, you lose all those things.
And that’s why strident non-Christians on television or in print who give their versions or their views of Christianity normally show how disastrously they misunderstand Christianity. The reason is that they are blind. They are deaf. They are like people who walk into an art gallery and they look around at the paintings and they are completely blind. And then they come out and give you a report or they go to the opera completely deaf and they listen through the whole performance, or they sit through the whole performance and then they give you a critique at the end. They have seen nothing, they have heard nothing, they don’t understand. Pride, you see, makes people think that they can do anything but the non-Christian position is much more serious than non-Christians realise. Non-Christians not only have their prejudices but they have also lost spiritual faculties.
Now this doesn’t mean that they are not responsible to consider Christianity. All the world is responsible to consider Christianity. Nor does the penalty God gives to such people come unfairly. It comes justly. Nor does it mean there is no hope of turning. God is able to turn anyone he wants. Nor does it mean that there is no salvation plan. Most of us sitting here today are giving thanks to God for a miracle as well as good news.
Fear of What Others Think
But the bible you see explains hostility to Christianity much better than non-Christians explain hostility to Christianity. They are saying it’s illogical, unreasonable, and irrational, it’s a leap of faith, it’s a piece of madness. The Bible says, you are in much more dangerous territory than you think you are. And a lot of unwilling silence on Christianity (see if you look at verse 42) is fear. Many did believe but because of the Pharisees they wouldn’t confess their faith for feat they would be put out of the synagogue. You know there are lots of people who don’t believe or don’t go far because of fear and then if you look at verse 43, there is a lot of weakness isn’t there in Christianity, they loved the praise of men more than praise that comes from God.
You see how realistic the Bible is when it comes to unbelief. We get up in our series – our topic is “Is Christianity a Leap of Faith”? I immediately feel as though we are on the defence. “Oh no”, we want to say “it’s not a leap of faith. We’ve made a very sensible decision“. The Bible is much bolder. The Bible says “behind your question, may be more irrational opposition, more hostility, more spiritual deadness than you ever, ever understood”. It’s a very revealing book, isn’t it?
Still Jesus gives his invitation in verse 44 – it’s an unbeatable invitation. He says “Come and believe.” “And when you come and believe in Me,” says Jesus, “you will arrive at God.” “Come to me,” says Jesus, “and you will have come to the Father.” “Come to me,” says Jesus, “you’ll have entered the family. You’ll be adopted. You’ll belong. You’ll be forgiven. You’ll be accepted. You’ll be forever.” That’s the invitation. And Jesus says “I’ve come” in that last verse (v 46) so that you’ll not leap into the dark but that you would leave the dark and you would not stay in the dark.
How does faith take place (in a nutshell)? It is God revealing the evidence as we have it here and causing us to grasp it as we take responsibility for what Jesus has said and done. It’s the opposite you see of a leap. It’s a response to information and it’s actually a great work of God.
How Faith Makes Sense
Now our second point this morning – How Faith Makes Sense. Jesus has given us a model in the New Testament. It’s speaking and acting in order that people would have a sensible faith and we realise of course that a lot of unbelief is prejudiced, far from rational. We also see that Christian faith is a rational decision, is consistent with the facts, the historical facts of Jesus because He said what He did and He did what He said and therefore to avoid somebody like Jesus, carries its own question. Why would you avoid somebody who is so good, so great, so gracious, so real, so commanding, so essential, so attractive? There is something unusual going on if a person is avoiding the wonderful Jesus. It makes no sense.
Rodney Stark, who has written a book called The Victory of Reason, traces the European successes in exploration and expansion in the 15-16th Century and he asks the question why the European exploration and expansion was so successful? And his answer is pretty well to trace this to Christianity and its appreciation for truth in all the spheres of the world. And he says in the book, “while the other world religions emphasize mystery and intuition, Christianity alone embraced reason and logic as the primary guides to truth.
That’s why putting a wedge between faith and reason is the furthest thing from Christianity and it’s the furthest thing from reality. Faith in Christ means that you have got to use all your reason and when you become a Christian, you have to use all your reason.
I was talking to somebody earlier who has begun Bible College and he is finding himself overwhelmed with things to think about. And I remember getting to the end of four years of theological college wondering whether I’d scratched the surface of the great truths of Christianity. There is no point in putting a wedge between the two. There is the need for reason in order to become a Christian and all our big decisions, of course, need reason.
So God has given us two schools in which we can learn. One we might call ‘nature’ or ‘science’ and there are some things which you only learn in that school. Then there are other things we learn in the school which is called ‘grace’ or ‘scripture’ and there are some things you only learn in that school. And these two schools are not contradictory. These two schools are complimentary. God has given them to us to explore and enjoy. You won’t get answers to IT or surgery or car engines in the scriptures and you won’t get answers to why you are here or who owns you or where you are going or where you should live in the science text books.
Science and Faith Do Not Clash
There are two spheres for us to learn in. They are both gifts from God. If you had only one to get through this world – I would suggest to you that the Scriptures outweigh the other. Christians are very privileged because they have and face and appreciate both. Both don’t fall for the idea that they clash. It surfaces every now and again in discussion that these two clash or contradict. For example, the famous story of Galileo, it’s a myth that Galileo clashed with Scripture; that he set forth his views of the solar system and that that clashed with the scriptures. No, Galileo clashed with some of the bishops who took really a non-scriptural position and Galileo clashed with some of the scientists who took a non-truth position and it wasn’t until the views of Galileo on the solar system were properly grasped, that people realised that they were true to science and that they were also consistent with Scripture.
“It wasn’t until Galileo’s views on the solar system were properly grasped, that people realised they were true to science and scripture.”
Same in the area of evolution. So easy is it for people to think, Oh I’m a Christian, I’ve made a kind of a brainless decision to go with creation. Really if I had the intelligence, I would go with evolution. But it is a myth that micro-evolution must clash with Scripture. Micro-evolution of course is the idea of there being development within species seems to be a plainly objective scientific truth utterly consistent with Scripture.
Macro-evolution, however, which teaches that the basis, background to us of course is chance not creator, that we are basically rising not falling, that we’re on par with the animals – that is not a scientific position, it’s more a philosophic position. You won’t find people who are able to set out a plain, irrefutable scientific case for macro-evolution, although some people say you can.
It’s also a myth that biblical miracles clash with science or reason. Miracles lie outside of science. Science deals with the normal patterns. Science cannot legislate on supernatural or even many historical events. Remember CS Lewis’ illustration – if you put some coins in a drawer and you open the drawer on a regular basis, there are the coins, and then one day you pull the drawer open and the coins have gone – it’s not a scientific issue. Somebody has taken the coins! Some hand outside, some supernatural hand has taken the coins! It is a historical issue! It’s not a scientific issue! Somebody historically has stepped in and taken the coins!
The Natural World Can’t Explain Everything
Again the natural categories of this world cannot explain everything. Take sin. What is sin? Break down of relationships between God and people and the world. How are we going to explain sin? Look up a medical text book? Look up a legal text book? In the end you see, it’s only the Scriptures that will explain the root of sin. The break down between us and God. It’s the Scriptures that will take us to the cause and the solution so that we’ll know what to do about the subject of sin.
As I come to a finish this morning, Christian is not a leap of faith in the reckless sense. It’s not mystical any more than catching a train is mystical or getting married is mystical or starting a job is mystical. You have got some information, you’ve got to make a decision. That’s what they are about. Nor is Christianity contrary to fact. It faces all the facts. The non-Christian of course may be seriously avoiding some facts and of course needing God to enable to believe. Christianity is a step of faith, nevertheless, like catching a train is a step of faith, getting married is a step of faith or starting a new job is a step of faith. It requires information, sensible information and then a decision. Sometimes a bold decision, courageous decision – but it requires a decision.
I was very struck in Tim Keller’s book called “Reason for Faith” to read just one example of this. A guy called Kevin who gives his testimony as he sits reading CS Lewis’ Mere Christianity in a coffee shop in New York – and he said this:
While sitting in a coffee shop reading Mere Christianity I put down the book and I wrote in my notebook the evidence surrounding the claims of Christianity is simply overwhelming. I realised that my achievements were ultimately unsatisfying, that the approval of man is fleeting, that a carpe diem life lived solely for adventure is just a form of narcissism and idolatry, and so I became a believer in Christ.
And Jesus says in John 12:44 ‘when a man believes in Me, he does not believe in Me only but in the one who sent Me. I have come into the world as a light so that no one who believes in Me should stay in darkness’.
To anyone who thinks that Christianity is a mystical leap of faith, it is worth asking [yourself] the question “what decision have I come to about Jesus?” Very rational claims, very wonderful achievement. “What decision have I come to about Jesus?” and to anyone who thinks that Christianity is inconsistent with the facts is contrary to the facts, remember there may be some unwillingness, there may even be some inability according to Jesus to go forward, But millions of followers of Jesus enjoy the treasures of science and scripture with no sense of being schizophrenic but great integrity and great joy and great hope.
Our gracious God we thank you for giving to us in this world such information as to delight us and stretch us and challenge us. We thank you for giving to us your word such information as to explain and interpret and enlighten the very purposes of our lives. We pray that you would help us as we live in this world to explore and enjoy these two schools that you have given and we pray that you would hear our thanks for giving us the ability to wake up and respond, to talk not of your Son the Lord Jesus, His promises and His proofs and we pray that you would help us as humble, dependent servants to be your light in this world and to help others lovingly, joyfully come to put their faith reasonably, rationally in Him.
We ask this in His Name – Amen.
- For more in this series, head to ‘Facing Up to Disbelief – A 5-Part Christian Growth Series’.