Why We Need Jesus
A passenger on a recent plane trip happily divulged his spiritual views. Raised in a conservative religious home, he proudly dismissed traditional Christianity, with its radical claims about Jesus of Nazareth, because it substitutes dogma for reason, he said. Fifteen minutes later, he became an apologist for a sacred cosmos, with tarot cards and astrology. But of course, he said, these were true just for him.
The encounter epitomized what we have all experienced in a culture that identifies reason with naturalism and faith with feeling. And it comes from a deeper problem: the attempt to "climb to heaven" on the rungs of reason, morality, and experience. The "search for the sacred" is what happens when our God-centered nature is taken captive by sin. Religion and spirituality are all about what we feel and think deep within our precious, delightful, individual souls. The true God calls us outdoors into a history that sweeps us into its wake. Yet we prefer to sit inside our own souls and minds, stewing in our own juices.
Biblical faith emphasizes that we cannot ascend to God on our own; rather, the God of the Bible descends down to us. Our inner self is not the playground of "spirit," but the haunted plains on which we build our towers of Babel. In other words, our hearts are idol factories, in bondage to sin and spin. As Jeremiah declared, "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?" (17:9, ESV, used throughout). We look for a god we can manage rather than the God who is actually there.
In Romans 1 and 2, Paul affirms this. He says that everyone knows God exists and is a sovereign, righteous, and all-knowing judge. Jew and Gentile alike know God's moral will and so "are without excuse," but "by their unrighteousness suppress the truth" (1:18-23). Quoting the psalmist, Paul presents the universal indictment: "… all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written, 'None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one'?" (Rom. 3:9-12).
Given all this, we need to receive an external word from outside our hearts and to our hearts—one that stops our spin and gives us new hearts even as it is spoken. That's just where Paul turns next in Romans:
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus …. (3:21-24)
In other words, our hearts create spiritualities, therapies, and programs that arise out of our natural knowledge of the law, which we distort. Outside our hearts, and at the core of special revelation, is the surprising God, known uniquely in his Son.
There are, however, strong forces that tempt us to grasp the divine on our own accord.
Enslaved to Naturalism
Many people today act like someone created a peace treaty between reason and faith after reason won the war. Reason cedes territory to faith, as long as faith relinquishes its rational claims. Reason is in the realm of public, objective truth, while faith is relegated to the realm of private experience and personal therapy. So, responding to my airplane acquaintance, who said faith is "whatever works for you," I said, "Would you say that about World War II—that it happened for me but not for you?" Of course, the resurrection of Christ is more significant than the Battle of the Bulge, but no less historical.