Christians are commissioned to go into all the world and make disciples of Jesus Christ. How do we help those people see his truth? What about the atheists who are convinced that there is no god? What about the agnostics who are convinced that there is no way to know if there is a god? In one sense, Christians have been commissioned to take an unbelievable message to an unbelieving humanity. Some might say it is the impossible task, but the Apostle Paul did not think so.
Paul did not place his confidence in his methodology, nor his persuasive rhetoric or the intellectual capacity of the recipient. Paul answers with one profoundly simple statement. “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16). Paul’s answer? The gospel!
I propose that this answer is as complete as it needs to be. Those who see this answer as too simplistic may do so because they see the skeptical nature of our opponents. People need an answer to their skeptical questions otherwise how might they know that the gospel is true?
While apologetic and evangelistic methods are important and helpful, the bible does not attribute the success of the gospel to human rhetoric or strategy. The biblical authors clearly outline that the barrier to the gospel is the human condition and the answer to overcoming that barrier is found in the doctrine of divine illumination affected through gospel proclamation. Illumination is an act of the Holy Spirit in which he enlightens the recipient to the glory and truth of the gospel message.
The Human Barrier
It is the human barrier that highlights our need for illumination. Reading through the New Testament we constantly face statements about the devastating effects of sin on the human condition and especially our ability to see the truth of Christ. We are described as having a blindness to the glorious reality of the gospel, or we see it as utter foolishness and despise it.
“Even if an unbeliever can understand the historicity or scientific reliability of the bible or the gospel message, it does not mean that they have embraced its divine glory.”
We are blind to glory. In Acts 26 Paul testifies before Agrippa that Jesus called him to take the gospel to the gentiles. In verse 18 Jesus said to Paul that he was sending him “to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” This darkness in which man lives, has made him spiritually blind. In Ephesians 4:17-19 Paul describes unbelieving gentiles as those who are darkened in understanding, ignorant, futile in mind, hardened in heart, callous, and given over to every kind of impurity. He describes to the Corinthian church that the natural man cannot understand the things of the Spirit of God (1 Corinthians 2:14). In his second letter to Corinth Paul makes the very well-known statement that the “god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ.”
Clearly Paul believes that it is the glory and light of the gospel message that is beyond understanding for the unbeliever. Even if an unbeliever can understand the historicity or scientific reliability of the bible or the gospel message, it does not mean that they have embraced its divine glory. John Piper states it this way as he describes the view of the great American preacher, Jonathan Edwards: “The object of our faith is not merely the factuality of the gospel, but also the ‘holy beauty and amiableness (loveliness) that is in divine things.’ It is the glory of God’s moral perfections. It is the beauty, or glory, of these perfections that are the proper object of our conviction. It is the ‘supreme and holy excellency and beauty of those things.’”1
We see truth as foolishness. Paul also says that the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing (1 Corinthians 1:18) and then talks of it being a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Greeks (vs. 22-23). In the gospel of John, Jesus says that men love darkness rather than light (John 3:19). This would suggest that men have seen something of the truth of Jesus but find it reprehensible. They prefer to walk in darkness.
We have seen many instances where atheists have articulated an understanding of Christian truth and yet they despise it preferring to dismiss the thought of God, claiming faith in God to be foolishness. They can smell the fragrance of the truth of the gospel and find it putrid (2 Corinthians 2:14-16).
With darkened and ignorant minds to the glory of Christ and a despising attitude toward truth, human beings cannot know the reality of the gospel without a divine awakening.
The Spirit of Illumination
Even though the thought of illumination echoes throughout Paul’s letters (Ephesians 1:13-16, 1 Thessalonians 1:5, 2:13), 1 Corinthians 2:6-16 provides an articulate explanation of the process of illumination. In verses 12-13 Paul says that the Christian person (the spiritual person) understands spiritual things because they have been freely given by God and taught by the Spirit. These spiritual truths do not appear in a vacuum in the mind of the believer but they have been “imparted by words.” This tells us that the Spirit communicates the light and glory of the proclamation of the gospel to the believer. Without both the word of the gospel and the Spirit of God, there would be no illumination to the glory of Christ.
Illumination is directly linked to inspiration. In earlier verses in this same passage Paul tells us that these are words that are the wisdom of God. They are true words about God because they originate from the Spirit of God. Peter tells us that the Word of God, even though written through human authors, did not originate from them but they “were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (1 Peter 1:20-21).
This then means that God’s Spirit has breathed out his word through human authors to bring us the good news of Jesus Christ. This news, imparted by words and proclaimed by mouths, is taught and brought to light in the life of the believer by that same Spirit of God. It is affected through repentance and faith as a gift of God’s grace (Ephesians 2:8-9). We know truth by Spirit and word.
Helpful or Necessary
Scripture clearly places our evangelistic confidence solely in the work of the Holy Spirit in the proclamation of His gospel. This does not negate the importance of apologetic methods, but it does help us to have the right priority. We understand that the greatest human problem is separation from God through sin and the only solution is the gospel. The only way reconciliation with God is achieved is through proclamation of the good news of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. Apologetics can and should be a very helpful tool in leading to this proclamation but it is the gospel proclamation that is necessary. Therefore Paul says that it is the gospel that is the power of God unto salvation. Simple and profound.
“Scripture clearly places our evangelistic confidence solely in the work of the Holy Spirit in the proclamation of His gospel. This does not negate the importance of apologetic methods, but it does help us to have the right priority.”
If you are not an expert apologist, never fear, you have the necessity of the gospel. That doesn’t mean you should not make every effort to learn that which is helpful. It just means that in this process you already can have absolute confidence in that which is necessary.