Part 6: The implanted knowledge of God (1.3)
There is no proper understanding of culture, man, belief, unbelief, evangelism, sin and preaching without a theological substructure. A truly effective methodology of ministry must begin with truly biblical theology. Calvin understood this well.
If you are a pastor, evangelist, or just a Christian who loves the lost, your great conviction is to share the truth of God to others. Before we begin considering how others come to know God as their Savior (and even how we ourselves came to know God as Savior) it’s critical to understand how God communicates Himself to all sinners. In chapters 3-9, Calvin forces us to wrestle with a biblical understanding of the knowledge of God. If we miss this foundation, we will seek to communicate God to others in a way built upon a false method of ministry.
The knowledge of God is etched on every soul (1.3.1)
We will soon look at Calvin’s understanding of a universal knowledge of God in the hearts of all sinners. But first Calvin tells us why God has “etched” this knowledge into every heart. “To prevent anyone from taking refuge in the pretense of ignorance, God himself has implanted in all men a certain understanding of his divine majesty” (43).
The word “theology” literally means “knowledge of God.” I remember a pastor sitting in my living room just after God sovereignly saved my soul at the age of 22. I told the pastor I wanted to learn theology. He said, “you already have a theology, you mean you want to foster a biblical theology.” Yes! He was exactly correct. Since birth I have understood something of God. Theology is not a big book with lots of Scripture references, but something we are born with. Why?
God implants this knowledge in all sinners to “prevent anyone from taking refuge in the pretense of ignorance.” So ask a sinner, “Why do you not love and follow God?” Sinners can say they love sin more than God, they can say they hate God, they can say they want to live without God’s authority in their lives, but NO sinner can say ‘I don’t follow and love God because I don’t know anything about Him.’ The argument of ignorance is “pretense.”
Calvin writes, “a sense of deity” is “inscribed in the hearts of all” (p. 44). Thus, because “one and all perceive that there is a God and that he is their Maker, they are condemned by their own testimony because they have failed to honor him and consecrate their lives to his will” (p. 44).
As sinners, we are all aware of God and know we must submit and love Him. We respond by running away from Him. We, who are created to worship God, substitute Him with the worship of money, sex, alcohol, work, children, and religion.
Proven by the masses and wicked (1.3.2)
Because some knowledge of God is etched in the hearts of all men, women and children, it follows that we should see evidences of this in our culture. We see this first in the masses who are drawn to religion. The “inclination toward religion springs as from a seed” (p. 45).
Lenin and Marx both said religion is the “opiate of the people.” But religion would fall on deaf ears without first the seed of God implanted the heart. The most persuasive deceptions come from religious leaders (like some TV evangelists and all false religions) who foster lies from the religious inclinations of people. Masses of people will follow the “opiate,” false religions and deceptive false teachers, only because they first know God exists. (However, it should be noted that following false religions shows a sinner seeking to appease his conscience without repenting to the true God.) All sinners know something of God.
Second, Calvin says even the most wicked, God-ignoring sinners are (at times) overwhelmed with a sense of God’s judgment. They seek to erase the thought from their minds and run from God but the sense of His judgment ever returns into their conscience and “rushes in with new force” (p. 45). “The impious themselves therefore exemplify the fact that some conception of God is ever alive in all men’s minds” (p. 45).
Impossibility of atheism (1.3.3)
A sense of God is permanently etched into the souls of sinners. We cannot erase it! Atheism – being convinced God does not exist – may sound pleasing to the ear of the unrepentant sinner but it will never bring peace to the “etched” conscience.
The knowledge that God exists is “not a doctrine that must first be learned in school, but one of which each of us is master from his mother’s womb and which nature itself permits no one to forget, although many strive with every nerve to this end” (p. 46).
Sinners are fully aware that God exists, that by not submitting to Him we are all worthy of judgment. So what prevents every sinner from coming to God, repenting and worshipping Him? That’s what Calvin addresses in the next chapter.
Calvinistic meditations …
Like Calvin said, learning about God is unlike academic learning. For example, a biology student begins in ignorance and through training begins to understand more and more of the field. Knowledge of God is different because sinners begin with the knowledge of God etched within their hearts! We are all fully aware that God exists and that His judgments are real. Unlike academic studies, there is no true ignorance of the subject. Sinners suppress the truth of God in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18-32). To say there is no God is not intellectually ignorant, but morally foolish (Ps. 14:1). Without this foundation, we will treat sinners as ignorant learners, like those entering Biology 101 for the first day of class.
Scripture prevents anyone from “taking refuge in the pretense of ignorance” (p. 43). The truth is that all sinners know of God, but push Him away in their sin. This pushing away truth in preference of sin is the basis for God’s judgment of all sinners (John 3:19-20). We are not ignorant people needing further proof of God, but sinners who need the power of God to break us under our sinfulness. Our failure to seek God and submit to Him is “without excuse” (Rom. 1:20).
When we treat sinners as largely good people who are indifferent towards God, we introduce significant lies into our methodologies. We forsake the preaching of truth on Sunday mornings and use it as a time to introduce non-Christians to fuzzy stories and vague principles. We begin treating sinners as largely ignorant of God, rather than fully aware of God. We begin thinking elementary knowledge and proofs of God’s existence can replace pleading with sinners to repent from their morally culpable suppression of God’s self-evidence.
The methodology of the church is always bound with the theology of the church. That God etched a knowledge of Himself into every heart must be at the foundation of everything we do and say.
Only when we stop treating sinners as first-year biology students will we seek the sovereign power of God to open hard hearts through His means alone! That is exactly what Calvin was driven towards. And it is exactly why (by God’s generous grace) Humble Calvinism is so necessary today.
Click here to access previous posts in the Humble Calvinism index.