08 December 2011

Faith, reason, obedience and sufficiency

by Dan Phillips

As I read through the first part of Jeremiah 13, an instructive and timely pattern leapt out at me.

In verse one, Yahweh instructs the prophet to purchase and wear a linen loincloth. In verse 2, Jeremiah does it. Period. Then, and only then, does the prophet receive another word from Yahweh.

Pause and reflect on that. Such a trivial command, no? As if God parted the heavens to tell you to buy a can of olives, or a jar of mayonnaise, and put it on the shelf?

If that were the case, would it be lawful and reasonable to ask why this command was given? Sure, I don't know why not. We could ask. But suppose no answer was forthcoming? What then?

In response, let me ask four questions of my own:
  1. Was the directive surely from God?
  2. Was the directive clear enough?
  3. Does God deserve obedience, regardless of the presence or absence of further explanation as to His rationale?
  4. Would it in any sense be unreasonable to say that disobedience, dithering or delay would itself be unreasonable?
In the Biblical example before us, the answers are clear enough. To the first three questions, I would suggest that Yes is the only reasonable answer; and, to the fourth, only No.

Suppose Jeremiah never received one further word from Yahweh. The entry for that day might be, "Dear Diary: today, Yahweh told me to buy a belt, so I did." The diary's last entry of his life might include, "...oh, and I never found out what the deal with the belt was. But that's okay. He's Yahweh. I'm not."

Why would it be "okay"? Do this mental exercise. List for me every last being who does not have exhaustive knowledge of the nature, meaning and significance of every fact or event that ever has existed or will exist, as well as every fact or event that might have existed.

That will be a very, very long list. Blogger won't allow you to write all the names in your comment. This list will contain the name of every last sentient creature, of any order, ever.

My name will be on that list. Yours, as well.

Now: list for me every last being who does have exhaustive knowledge of the nature, meaning and significance of every fact or event that ever has existed or will exist, as well as every fact or event that might have existed.

That will be a very short list. It will contain only one name: God.

At this point — because this is what they do — your village atheist might sputter and fume with explosive, scornful fury. But, just to be blunt and plain, that's what Hell is all about, and that is why only people who deserve to be in Hell will be in Hell... and why we all deserve to be in Hell. The idea of a God who deserves ultimate and all-consuming love and respect and obedience, simply because He is God, is abhorrent, and the rejection of that premise is what launched the doomed project known as "the world."

Back to our passage. The issue to Jeremiah, once he received this seemingly nonsensical directive, is this and only this: is Yahweh worthy of faith, love, and obedience?

That, right there, is the archetypal question. It was that same question in the Garden, and it was at that same point that our great-great-greats answered wrongly, and doomed us all.

You see, they had a word from God that was also clear and sufficient: don't eat the fruit of this tree, or you will die. In that, they actually had more than Jeremiah had, in that they had a known consequence. So the issue was exactly the same: was Yahweh worthy of faith, love, and obedience?

Sure, they could have asked a million questions. Why that tree? Why make that tree? Why put that tree there? and on and on. But the trump to every last question was the answer to the same four questions above, and the answer would have been exactly the same. Did they need to know the answers to any of those questions in order to know what they must do, and why? No.

But Eve listened to Satan, and decided that epistemological autonomy was the way for her. Maybe Yahweh was right, maybe He was wrong. Who knows? She would decide for herself. She would cull reasons and information from sources that made sense to her, and give and pursue the answer that made sense to her. The locus of authority, the pivot-point of the universe, shifted at that moment from the throne of Yahweh to the mind of Eve — though only in her mind.

And Adam said, "Sure, honey, whatever." 

And what in the world does that have to do with the post's title?

Simple. We can ask a million questions about God's Word, too. Why did this and that happen, according to the Bible? Why can't men do this and this, and why must they do that and that? Why can't women do this and this, and why must they do that and that? And children? Why must we believe this, and disbelieve that? Why must we preach this, and denounce that?

While I am forced to say that we are, all of us, inconsistent with what we should believe and do, and we all fail and sin in one way or another; I am equally forced to say that we are compelled to ask and answer the same four questions as we posed of Yahweh's quizzical-but-crystal-clear command to Jeremiah, above.

This is the dividing-point between orthodoxy and heterodoxy, and between faithfulness and faithlessness. And here, too, is the dividing-point between those who rest in the sufficiency of Scripture, and the endlessly-discontented Leaky Canoneers. 

Both groups share in common that the Bible doesn't tell them all that they would like to know or hear. The difference is that the first category trusts God's wisdom and goodness, and sets itself in faith to make the most of every bit God's abundant provision — whereas the second sets itself to invent and pursue different avenues to get the experiences and knowledge they demand.

Though both claim "faith" as their motivator, I think the Biblical definition and illustration will properly apply only to one of the orientations.

To the other, other Bible words and other analyses will apply.

Dan Phillips's signature


Chris Tolbert said...

I was blown away by this post. You are a very wise man.

Thank you.

Robert said...

Great post. I hope that God works in the hearts of those who have been deceived (whether by self or others) so that they might grasp the truth of what you are saying here.

In the past few days, I have read about people who won't dress themselves without direction from God on how to do so...how crippling (and nonsensical) is that?

olan strickland said...

Great post Dan. Because all men as sinners have decided that epistemological autonomy is their way, any apologetic approach that does not presuppose divine revelation (Christian theism) as its foundation cannot challenge the natural man's interpretation of himself as the ultimate reference point for knowing truth.

Autonomous human wisdom cannot determine truth. To believe such is to claim to be truth incarnate; omniscient; transcendent.

God, speaking through Christ by His Spirit in the infallible Word, is the ultimate reference point for determining truth.

DJP said...

Robert, thanks. Lest people imagine that what you are saying isn't a real threat, they need to turn an eye to perhaps the most virulent false teaching of that sort on this subject — "virulent" because embraced and propagated by otherwise-sound churches: Blackabism. For new readers, we looked into that at some length, starting here.

DJP said...

Olan, thanks. Many would agree with the central premise, but not agree with including Leaky Canoneers. However, the thinking of many of them amounts to:
1. The Bible doesn't tell me X
2. I have determined that I need to know X
3. I demand to know X
4. If I can't know X, I will say I don't have a "relationship" with God
5. I will design a way to know X
6. I will sign God's name to my way

Mary Elizabeth Tyler said...

People take a simple command from God, such as, women should remain silent in the church, and then ask a million questions why? Well, what about this situation and that situation, and it isn't fair, and on and on they go.

Whatever happened to "God has spoken?"

This article is brilliant!!!!! Absolutely brilliant!

DJP said...

Thanks, ME.

And here's the thing: they think they have a "note from God" not to obey Him until He has explained Himself to their satisfaction.

I think most parents have had kids do this, and have recognized that it isn't a good trait.

olan strickland said...

Demanding to know and designing a way to know is DANGEROUS.

DJP said...

Old Butler, in Butler's Bible Works from (I think) the 1800s, says something like (from memory) "He who has an ear to hear where God hath not mouth to speak will find himself listening to the voice of the Tempter, as Eve did in the Garden."

DJP said...

BTW, you who are liking the post, don't forget the ratings stars. Haters won't.


Kerry James Allen said...

I'd rather wear a loincloth than have to build a boat any day. Or worse yet, having to wear a loincloth WHILE building the boat. Ouch!

Stuart Brogden said...

A very nice contrast to the voice of the serpent that emits from the likes of Rob Bell, questioning everything in unending efforts to get people to question God's Word.

Grow not weary in well doing.

Kerry James Allen said...

Spurgeon on obedience: "Do what the Lord bids you, where he bids you, as he bids you, as long as he bids you, and do it at once." and...
"The less the thing is in itself, the more does it become the test of our obedience."

Mary Elizabeth Tyler said...

So true, Dan. We think God's ways are negotiable, and that He gives instructions/commands that we can outwit with reasonable objections. How foolish we truly all are.

God has said it, and that settles it! :) There is no court of appeals.

Mary Elizabeth Tyler said...

I know you guys have talked about the stars and ratings at the top of the article for a long time, but they have not shown up on my end for a very, very long time. I wonder if other people are not seeing these, as well?

Willy said...

Why don't I see rating stars on the post? Problem with Mozilla Firefox?

Willy said...

Never mind...the rating stars showed up after I created a Google account.

Willy said...

Great post Dan, convicts me of how quick I am to search for more guidance when I don't do what He asked to begin with.

Family Blogs said...

A thoughtful and well articulated piece here Dan - thank you for this. And thank you for the following t-junction between cessationsim and continuationism:

Both groups share in common that the Bible doesn't tell them all that they would like to know or hear. The difference is that the first category trusts God's wisdom and goodness, and sets itself in faith to make the most of every bit God's abundant provision — whereas the second sets itself to invent and pursue different avenues to get the experiences and knowledge they demand.

Marvelous phrasing there I have to say. I think one viewpoint feels our fallible understanding and fills it with God's sufficiency, omniscience and perfection: the other with man's ideas of how the missing pieces might look and then stamps them with 'thus says the Lord'.

I like the fact that you help us negotiate with what God has and hasn't said, in a way which enthrones God and de-thrones us.

DJP said...

The discontented crowd just haven't learn to deal with the thunderous reality of the "evidently not."

Scot said...

These posts make me very glad I added "Clintonize" to my vocabulary, it seems apropos to this discussion. In today's world it seems very popular to say, "I am competent on my own to judge and weigh good and evil, therefore God and I must agree and I'll make sure that happens."

It's scary to think that the Jews assumed God in their epistemological assumptions of reality, and to think about how far they fell into sin. Today we decided to throw that assumption out. We really and truly don't know our own place.

Lastly, it's humbling to realize that though I claim the Scriptures as my authority, I still find myself acting and doing without God as my absolutely foundation.

Good word today Dan.

Tom Chantry said...

As an interesting corollary to this concept, consider this from the Westminster Confession of Faith:

By this faith, a Christian believeth to be true whatsoever is revealed in the Word, for the authority of God Himself speaking therein; and acteth differently upon that which each particular passage thereof containeth; yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life and that which is to come. But the principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace. (WCF XIV:2)

Many have had trouble with this passage, speaking as it does of obedience in the context of faith. The point of the confession, though, is to say that faith accepts God's Word on its own authority, and, accepting it, acts upon it.

Jeremiah believed the Word of the Lord, therefore he obeyed. How do you know that he believed - he who lived in an age of rampant hypocrisy? Because of that linen loincloth he's wearing.

(See, Dan, there's no reason you couldn't have added a paragraph to drive the gutless gracers mad, too.)

Family Blogs said...

I think Matthew Henry nicely captured our need to submit on matters mysterious to us when he wrote:

‘When we cannot by searching, find the bottom, we must sit down at the brink and adore the depth’

Dave said...

Thank you for this post, Dan. I have a tendency to question and was humbled by reading through the book of Numbers yesterday. I have been thinking about Balaam...

trogdor said...

I sure hope Jeremiah didn't buy that loincloth in the power of the flesh. He probably should have waited on the Holy Spirit to buy it for him.

DJP said...

There y'go. There's always that.

Best do nothing until you're sure.

Robert said...


And don't forget praying about it...because God saying it isn't good enough...

wv: disect

JoyBeth said...

Thank you SO much for this article. It's just what I needed today.

Unknown said...

"...the endlessly-discontented Leaky Canoneers."

Wow. Sublime. Been there, done that.

Thomas Louw said...

A Leaky Canoneer, one told me that Matthew Henry's commantary was a great door stop.

My though "your right to keep it open so that all your students can run for the hills, away from you."

The Bible Christian said...

You read throughout the Word of God "Has not the Scripture said" "As it is written" "as the Scripture has said" "You search the Scriptures" Paul tells Timothy that All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; "The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us Deuteronomy 29:29 It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, But the glory of kings is to search out a matter. Proverbs 25:2

Great post Dan

Five Solas said...

Good article, Dan!
And I really like your summary here:

the thinking of many of them amounts to:
1. The Bible doesn't tell me X
2. I have determined that I need to know X
3. I demand to know X
4. If I can't know X, I will say I don't have a "relationship" with God
5. I will design a way to know X
6. I will sign God's name to my way

And the Bulter quote:

"He who has an ear to hear where God hath not mouth to speak will find himself listening to the voice of the Tempter, as Eve did in the Garden."

I also think that being satisfied in the sufficiency of Scripture applies to theological debates where we might wish that Scripture were a little more clear.

Nate Archer said...

God's explanations are nice but not necessary for obedience. Great post.

Burrito34 said...

Do the ratings stars not appear when you're using Internet Explorer? I tried signing into my google account but I still didn't see them.

Rachael Starke said...

My ratings system is based on how many times a day I find myself thinking on, applying, and sharing what I read.

This one easily gets a five. (Being able to reference is in an aside to Frank is what puts it over the top....)

Tom Chantry said...

Further weekend thought if anyone is still reading, generated by Dan's very thoughtful post:

Yesterday I told one of my kids to do something, and he said, "Ok, but..." and I cut him off with, "No, there's no reason to say 'but'; just say yes and obey." As I thought about it, though, I realized that this is not true in an absolute sense. Even though my kids are very young and know almost nothing, it is not uncommon for them to know something that I don't.

Consider: "Drink the rest of your milk right now." "But, I'm about to be sick." (Sometimes that's true, and how would I know?)

Or: "Come outside with me." "But, Mom said to pick up all the books before I do anything else."

In other words, while there is a large set of information which I possess and which any one of my kids lacks, there is also another (albeit smaller) set of information which he possesses and which I lack.

But when it comes to God, we have to address the fact of His omniscience. If God is omniscient and if I am not, two conclusions are unavoidable. First, the set of information which He possesses and which I lack is infinite. Second, the set of information which I possess and which He lacks is empty.

All which is a further reason to drive home Dan's point. Even though I expect obedience from my children, there are circumstances in which they ought to question me because of information at their unique disposal. That will never occur between God and myself. It is unavoidable that in every circumstance He knows more than I and better than I. Actually, He knows infinitely more and infinitely better.

Just take the two examples above and consider how they apply with God and His people. Daniel and his friends might have said to God, "But we'll be sick if we reject all the wholesome food!" Yet God's law was absolute. Peter might have said to God, "But the law forbids me to eat this food." Actually, Peter did say that! God's answer was, "I told you to do this, it is therefore the right thing to do."

Omniscience leaves us with no excuses, no exceptions.

Linda said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Linda said...

Nate Archer said...

"God's explanations are nice but not necessary for obedience. Great post."

Tres a propos

As applied in life circumstances for me, I don't understand everything and my Father(earthly)was in the army so we obeyed and didn't ask questions.
To me it was harsh and unpleasant and implied no care to console in him as my daddy.

I do enjoy knowing why God tells us things or why he doesn't. I don't think it wrong in itself. But reality is he is infinitely wise and we are to obey him regardless. When we learn of the beauty and tenderness of Jesus we want to obey whether we know why or not we do because we are so docile by the humble Jesus in our lives.

From a world life perspective I've found that I can better teach others around me to be MORE obedient to me-willingness when I tell them why and explain to them how come we do certain things like this or whatever. They are more willing to learn because to them I'm showing them they are important to me-relationship. I find it helps them understand and be more open in doing a better job-especially at work. If you just tell them to "do" things it implies that I really don't care or that they are just another #.

God doesn't let us in on many things not because he doesn't long to but because for our good and also in this life we don't understand and as a result we should obey whether or not we understand. God confides in those who fear him. That confiding adds a whole new meaning to obeying him-Psalm 25:14

Jesus said "if you love me you will obey what I command" --the trust is in him and the learning and understanding doesn't usually come until afterwards.
Obedience that comes from faith-Romans 1:5 ~~not faith comes from obedience
Faith in the Lord Jesus is why we are able to obey. People who disobey God's word consistently are not able to obey because they either don't have a relationship with Jesus or they have placed him on a bookshelf. Rules without a relationship will equal rebellion.

Sorry if I digressed from your post. that's my take anyhoo

Wendy said...

One of my favorite posts ever.

Chris Nelson said...

Chantry, you missed the whole point of Daniel 1. It was Jenny Craig for the Hebrews of the Diaspora.

Chris Nelson said...

Great post Dan. I always do what God's word says unless Driscoll peers into my soul and gives me a new revelation.

DJP said...

As do we all.


Bob said...

This post was excellent and so powerful in its simplicity. And here I go and complicate it, but I do have a question. Maybe you have written on this in another post. As I read Scripture I have to first understand WHAT God has commanded. Second I have to determine if he has given the command to ME. "Put on a loin cloth" is not hard to understand, but God did not tell me to do this. For the purpose of illustration (and not to sidetrack the post), God speaks of women and head-coverings. I need to understand WHAT this command involves and whether it was given to ME (well, that's easy . . . I'm not a women - but to US, as in the women in my family and church in 2011). Passages could be multiplied that have commands that some would say are obviously binding today and others would say are not.

DJP said...

Bob, it's a perfectly fair observation, and I don't see it as particularly complicating my point. You could more-or-less fairly analogize my post by saying you'll find everything you need for the next meal in the kitchen, as opposed to immediately bolting the house and looking in every dumpster or under every rock for food. But having said that, I haven't said which cupboards to search in or how to prepare the food (to flog my own analogy).

Sadly, just saying "the kitchen has everything we need" is a revolutionary claim in Evanjellybeanicalism today.

Bob said...

Ah, so what you're saying in this post is that if you are looking for guidance from God about life, then read what He has already written, humbly acknowledging that this is all the instruction that you need because it is all that He has given. Or to use your kitchen analogy, if your soul is hungry for God, feast on His word.

I guess my question is how do our efforts in the "kitchen" of Bible study interact with the Spirit of God guiding us through the Word. And more particularly, why serious seekers of God and His guidance through the Word come to differing conclusion about the interpretation of what God means by what He has said.