John Calvin begins his Institutes of the Christian Religion with the claim that if we want to understand ourselves, we must first know God. But how can we know God? This is a question that many have pondered.
Some have flipped what Calvin wrote, seeking to know God by looking deep within themselves. During the Enlightenment, philosophers tried to reach God by starting with their own intellect. Famously, Rene Descartes started with his doubts about knowing anything at all and used that to try to prove God’s existence. But human reasoning, as Descartes acknowledged, is faulty. We often have a hard enough time accurately verbalizing what is going on inside of our minds and hearts, let alone explaining what someone else thinks or feels.
It is foolish to start with ourselves. We can’t understand other human beings—let alone God—without listening to what they have to say, and even when we listen carefully, misunderstandings still arise. Everyone has had that conversation with someone who assumed they understood you (even though they really didn’t) and based everything they said on their wrong assumptions about you. Those conversations don’t go well. If we don’t approach human relationships without listening to what others have to say, why would we think that we could know God apart from what He has said in His Word?
Others have looked outside of themselves: some draw conclusions based on what the educated or successful experts say. The problem is that we can start to base our understanding of who God is on faulty human beings. We can get caught up listening to a politician or even a religious leader who says all the right things—only to realize later that we have been led astray. The God of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who described the idea of the Incarnation as blasphemous in their correspondence to each other, is very different from the true God of the Bible. Even as Christian conservatives, how often have we missed an aspect of God’s character because we start following the party line or leadership? If we look to men, instead of the God Who became Man—Jesus—we will led astray.
Still others try to figure out how the world works and use that as a guide, but this also can lead us astray. It is easy to misread prosperity as a sign of God’s blessing or adversity as a sign of God’s opposition, yet Scripture teaches us that these things are often misleading signposts and sometimes terrible indicators of God’s will. Humans often interpret their experiences wrongly: Job’s friends thought Job was being punished. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says that it is those who are broken, who mourn, who are meek, who show mercy, who are pure, who make peace with their enemies, and who are persecuted are truly blessed. No Roman, Greek, or Jew would have agreed with this perspective (1 Corinthians 1:22-24).
Because we are faulty humans, we often misunderstand the way things truly are. Even Psalm 19, which begins with how nature points us to God, doesn’t stop there; instead, it moves on to meditate on the excellence and perfection of what God commanded His prophets to write down.
All these sources have this in common: they rely on human wisdom to determine truth. But as Isaiah warned: “The wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hidden” (Isaiah 29:14). God’s Word may sometimes seem ridiculous, or maybe even embarrassing. Many apologists have devoted their lives to defending the reasonableness of the Scriptures. Though their efforts are noble (and I have had my confidence in the faith strengthened by their efforts), these apologists are sometimes inspired by the Enlightenment desire to use human reasoning to figure out if God exists or if He is good. Sometimes they will even twist the character of God to make Him seem more appealing to human ears.
A more Biblical approach is to start with the assumption that God, not man, is the judge. The Protestant Reformer Heinrich Bullinger wrote: “As God’s word is confirmed by no human authority, so no human power is able to weaken its strength.” God doesn’t need our approval. He doesn’t need apologists to defend Him. When we start to get embarrassed about God, we are in danger of misrepresenting Him by qualifying what He has commanded or done to make Him look better. Instead, we need to understand that our opinion doesn’t really matter. “From dust we were, and to dust we shall return.” But what God says does matter because He is the Creator, Sustainer, and Judge. Like Eve, we could choose to question this and assert our own wisdom, but that path leads to death. Instead choose life.
So how do we learn who God is and who we are? We learn through His Word. As a teacher, I receive information about updated textbook editions all the time, because the experts inevitably miss something or didn’t explain something accurately or perhaps there is new evidence or a new interpretation that has shifted how to understand a topic. So the publishers come out with a new and improved edition. Scripture is not like that. It is perfect and unerring. Why? Because as Bullinger said, it comes from God, so it is reliable and flawless.
But how does the Word help the Christian?
First, the Word saves (2 Timothy 3:15). Psalm 19:7 declares that God’s Word is able to bring life to the soul. Paul echoes this in Romans 10:13 when he declares that it is by preaching the Word that people are saved. Sir David Suchet was converted by reading Romans aloud to himself in a hotel room. As a teenager, Francis Schaeffer decided to read the Bible and the erotic poetry of Ovid each night, but the power of the Word was such that he soon stopped reading Ovid, only wanting to read the Bible, and he shortly became a Christian. How many more have come to faith by reading or hearing the Word preached?
Second, the Word reveals who God is. Christ Himself is the Word (John 1:1). To ignore God’s Word or to seek knowledge of God outside of His Word leads to a warped view of God. Jerome, a Roman Bible translator, said it best, “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.” If you would know Christ, then you must read His Word. The Word was written so that we might know who God is (John 20:31).
Third, the Word instructs. Psalm 19 declares the superiority of God’s Word over general revelation, and after the psalmist finishes meditating on the excellency of God’s Word he is struck by his need for God’s grace. He cries out for God to deliver him and make him righteous. God uses His Word to redirect our hearts toward Himself. I have found that reading the Word daily has steadily changed my desires and has shown me how to pray and think. Paul encouraged Timothy that the Bible had everything that was necessary for living a life of godliness (2 Timothy 3:17). It is all-sufficient.
But we mustn’t only read the Word. We must also meditate on it. In his book on Biblical meditation, David Saxton compares reading the Bible and then moving on to the next thing to wolfing down a delicious, expensive meal as quickly as possible and then hurriedly leaving the restaurant. Psalm 1 urges us to take a different path: to meditate on God’s Word. Meditation involves stopping, being silent, and savoring. We can meditate by repeating and praying about a verse or passage we have read throughout the day. Instead of reaching for the phone, we can be silent after reading the Word of our God. We can journal about it. We can pull out the Word throughout the day and reread what we have read. There are countless options. What is important is that we savor and experience this delicious, expensive meal.
We must also rely on the Holy Spirit to use the Word to transform us. We must ask Him not to let us be those who see and hear but never perceive because their ears and eyes are closed (Isaiah 6:9-10), but we need not fear. Instead we should remember that all the promises of God are “Yes” in Jesus. And Scripture is filled with promises of blessing to those who read it. When you open the Word, ask the Lord to keep His promise to bless the reading of His Word and then read with faith that He will.
As we spend time in the Word, our hearts are transformed. One reason for this is because our desires change depending on what we read, think about, and spend time doing. But another reason, and this is more important, is that we’re transformed because we are reading the very words of God. If you are looking for a transformation, go to the Word of God.
–Husband of Andrea, father of Fern and Jack, and an alumnus of Patrick Henry College, Josiah is an avid student of history, and teaches at Dublin Christian Academy.