Hughes Oliphant Old (9780802831392)

I love to read about, and be inspired by, the rich legacy of preachers throughout church history. John Chrysostom has become one of my favorites (more about his ministry later). To this end A History of Preaching by Dargan was a helpful introduction I used for many years. But more recently, my study of preaching has been molded by the literary productions of Dr. Hughes Oliphant Old (Dean, Erskine’s Institute For Reformed Worship). In his massive work, The Reading and Preaching of the Scripture in the Worship of the Christian Church, Old has traced the history of preaching from the Biblical era (vol. 1; 1998), the Patristic age (vol. 2; 1998), the Medieval church (vol. 3; 1999), the Reformation period (vol. 4; 2002), Moderatism, Pietism and Awakening (vol. 5; 2004) and now the most recent volume covering the Modern age of 1789-1989 (vol. 6; 2007). A seventh and final work is planned. Dr. Derek Thomas has written a very helpful and discerning review of Old’s newest volume on the Reformation21 website.

“Studying these volumes is like walking around a great cathedral: every section, however distinctive, unites in a grand design whose aim is to restore preaching to its rightful place. This multivolume work is easily the best history of preaching ever written, one that will serve generations of those whose faith comes by hearing.”

-William Edgar, Westminster Theological Seminary

The Atheist Within

The Atheist Within

Recently I engaged with an atheist in a short dialogue. I was drawn into the conversation because of the young man’s honesty and from a sense of love towards him and his soul. He stumbled into this blog by “accident” and he started asking some very good questions. But he also came in with a lot of presumptions, expecting responses from me like “of course you must believe because X, Y and Z are true.”

Instead, I felt led to share the struggles of unbelief in my Christian heart. I could tell that my response shocked him. He was saying he could not believe and I was saying — because of my sin — I too find it hard to believe. He assumed, as many atheists do, that faith is easy. In a sinful world that is a false assumption. Faith is not easy. Apart from God’s grace, faith is impossible.

Three interesting (and unexpected) conclusions resulted from this conversation.

First, because of the climate in our culture, the difference between atheists and Christians seems suited for a debate. Truly one is right, one is wrong. God is or He isn’t. Both opinions cannot be correct. But while I agree with this, the public polarization of the debate makes arbitrary distinctions between faith and reason, religion and science. Rather, the debate is solved by both faith and reason. God is not unreasonable. To ultimately conclude there is no God is not to lack faith, but to be a fool without knowledge (Ps. 14).

Secondly, belief is not easy or natural. He staked his claim in atheism and I stake my faith in the Cross, but there was a common conclusion: there is nothing easy about faith. The atheist assumes, for those living in a culture projecting Christianity, that faith is the easy response. Faith is never easy.

We assert with Peter, “Lord, I will never deny You” and then in our actions deny Him three times over. “I believe; help my unbelief!” is our cry (Mark 9:24). Christians transgress the greatest commandment every day by living in unbelief because at some level, all sinners (whether redeemed or unredeemed) are atheists. Atheism is not only a supposedly rational conclusion that a god does not exist, but also the practical conclusion that God is unworthy of my affection. The idols of my own heart reveal the depth of remaining atheism!

Look at your commitment to private prayer. Does it show a lack of faith in God’s existence? And only remaining unbelief would permit sin to continue our hearts. Each sin communicates the unworthiness of God. Paul says atheism is revealed by sexual sin, covetousness, envy, strife, lying, pride, disobedience to parents, being unloving, untrustworthy, unforgiving and unmerciful (Rom. 1:18-32). As long as sin remains, a level of atheism remains.

Third, the atheist assumed that God is pleased with me because I believe. This, too, is incorrect. God is pleased with me because His pleasure has been purchased in the blood of Jesus Christ! The blood of Christ shed on the Cross, not my faith, merits salvation from the guilt of sin and perfect righteousness. I have been embraced as the prodigal son into the arms of my adoptive Father through Christ (Luke 15:11-32).

What a glorious Savior that He saves even through faith the size of a mustard seed (Luke 17:6). By this, Jesus reminds us our salvation is not through great faith but through the great Savior. In the age of the telegraph C.H. Spurgeon said,

“There is no difference between one believer and another as to justification. So long as there is a connection between you and Christ the righteousness of God is yours. The link may be very like a film, a spider’s line of trembling faith, but, if it runs all the way from the heart to Christ, divine grace can and will flow along the most slender thread. It is marvelous how fine the wire may be that will carry the electric flash. We may want a cable to carry a message across the sea, but that is for the protection of the wire, the wire which actually carries the message is a slender thing. If thy faith be of the mustard-seed kind, if it be only such as tremblingly touches the Savior’s garment’s hem, if thou canst only say ‘Lord, I believe, help thou mine unbelief,’ if it be but the faith of sinking Peter, or weeping Mary, yet if it be faith in Christ, he will be the end of the law for righteousness to thee as well as to the chief of the apostles.”

Unbelief is a very serious sin, a sin Christians grieve over in their own hearts. This personal struggle equips believers to be especially sensitive and knowledgeable of atheism. Added to this, atheistic chatter always reaches a pinnacle near presidential elections. This discussion will continue heating up and provide excellent opportunities to share the greatness and beauty of Jesus Christ and His Cross that redeems us from our sin. It just may be that a slender wire of faith, rather than a polemical debate, separates our hearts.

When we as Christians see the atheist within our hearts we begin to understand the glorious greatness our Savior! What a beautiful Savior that holds on to sinners and never lets go.

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” (John 10:27-30)