A Discourse on Knowledge in Christianity
Recently I’ve been in conversation with a Roman Catholic named Tony Fernandez, via Twitter (@phattonez). We have a good rapport, and our discourse has been free of rancor, thank the Lord. This allows for time and effort to speak directly to the definitions and reasoning we each employ, rather than having to waste time hashing out attitudes and tone, as often happens on Twitter when trying to discuss differences in religion, politics, and so forth.
Yet Twitter remains a challenging platform for extended debate and discussion. It works great for brief volleys of thoughts and ideas, jokes and updates, but when people begin to go deep into a subject, the limitations of the site come roaring forth. As my conversation with Tony began to stretch for days, I decided to take two steps off Twitter to attempt to strengthen the discourse. First, I published a podcast episode here, in which I laid out my foundational critique of the Roman Catholic authority problem. But second, I decided I would devote time to a series of essays here, which although tedious compared to the freewheeling format on Twitter, is necessary for men who wish to give and receive intellectual challenges that create more of an impact than a momentary emotional shift.
And in Tony, I see the obvious desire to create in me a lifelong change of beliefs. That’s the only kind of conversation partner I fully respect. I, too, wish to change Tony’s thinking through persuasive argument, and with him, the whole of the faithful Roman Catholic flock. If we are loving and honest with one another, we must admit that nothing short of a full conversion of our respective Church bodies to the other’s would be good and satisfying considering all that is at stake. But for today, I will settle for simply honoring the Lord Jesus Christ through communicating His truth adequately, as He gives me gift to do.
Thesis: God Grants Saving Knowledge Infallibly
So, in this essay I will address Tony’s misapprehensions of the Reformed doctrine of irresistible grace as it relates to our comprehension of truth and equally, our apprehending Christ for salvation. Or we might ask it as questions: How can we know that we, as individuals, have adequately understood and believed what is necessary to know and believe in order to have eternal life? How do you know you believe the right things, and believe them well enough? How do we know we are hearing and believing God’s revealed truth, whether in part or the whole? Could we be self-deluded when we recite our reasons for holding the Bible and/or Church as ultimate and final authority in matters of faith and practice? Could our eternal souls be in true danger even as faithful, devoted members of the Reformed or Roman Catholic communions? We need to know how to answer this issue with no doubt.
So then, the question is how God’s knowledge becomes ours, both as the corporate Church and as the individual. In my podcast episode I talked through this briefly. Here I will lay it out more carefully. My thesis is as follows: Jesus defines eternal life as “knowing” the Father, “the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom [He] sent” (John 17:3 ESV), and therefore salvation, which is functionally synonymous with eternal life, is predicated on a fixed, certain knowledge of God; this knowledge of God is given by God infallibly to individual people, secured, and infallibly kept within those same people for eternity. The logical corollary to this is that because God is always ensuring His knowledge is alive and kept by a number of individuals (a remnant), the visible Church will never perish or fully defect from orthodoxy. This is not to say that any given local church or denomination cannot apostatize, or that the majority of the visible Church in any given age cannot fall away from the true gospel; in fact, these horrific realities are replete in the history of the Church.
And also, none of this is to say that every person who knows about God, is baptized, confesses to believe in Christ, or who partakes of the sacraments have received an infallible, saving knowledge of God. The Reformed recognize two types of calling, the external and the internal. Keep these categories in mind as you read this essay; the definitions will be filled in as I continue along. The nuances within my claims must be clearly communicated and understood for this discourse to succeed.
Definitions and Clarifications
To be clear, we (the Reformed) do not say that salvation is only predicated on a mental accumulation of knowledge, as if a mental assent to a set of propositions is equivalent to conversion, regeneration, and eternal life. In fact, we confess that salvation can be granted by God without the apprehension of propositional facts about God, as in the case of infants and the mentally disabled.
We confess three aspects of faith: notitia, assensus, and fiducia.
Notitia refers to the head knowledge of Christian faith, or as I said above, the apprehension of propositional claims, for example, “Jesus is the second person of the Trinity, was born of a virgin, lived a sinless life,” and so forth. As the Church has confessed forever, no one can be saved while consciously denying the revealed truths of who God is. These truths are communicated through the teaching of Scripture by the Church. Note, James (2:14-26) draws a dichotomy between two forms of faith, which we may call true and false faith, or perhaps saving faith and empty faith. It is critical in understanding Reformed theology to apprehend this distinction. The very demons of hell have mental faith in who God is, as James points out. Many who are Christians by birth, baptism, and profession are nevertheless possessing a merely empty, dead faith, having never truly bowed the knee to God, trusting His Word in the gospel. More on this below.
Assensus refers to the personal confession of one’s own conviction that these teachings are in fact historical and true. No one can be saved who understands what the Bible says about God, but who consciously denies these doctrines as being factually, historically true. One must agree with the Holy Spirit who breathed out the words of Scripture, that this is in fact the self-revelation of the only true God.
Fiducia refers to an individual’s personal embrace of these truths as being true “for me.” A man must see Christ incarnate, sinless, crucified, buried, and resurrected for him, personally, and trust that the work of Christ on behalf of the triune God has been accomplished for the forgiveness of the individual’s personal sin against that same God, and that through Christ, reconciliation with God is made real for everyone who believes according to this living, saving faith outlined here.
As far as this goes (regarding these three elements of saving faith), I believe all major branches of the Church agree, likely with minor qualifications.
We also agree that man, in his fallen and sinful state, can only hold the first two parts of faith on his own. Our minds are damaged, our reasoning is ultimately futile, but we can still use basic logic through reasoning to understand and assent to the propositional claims in Scripture. A man can say “yes, I understand that the Bible says ‘In the beginning, God created,’ and that in fact, that is the only logical premise that explains our universe as it is”—but that man, in his sin, cannot then say “and I choose to love and trust this God for His gospel, in what He did for humanity in Christ Jesus. I repent of my sin.” In fact, a sinful, unregenerate man may say something like that, as they do every day hypocritically without living faith, but unless God overcomes that man’s sinful, hard, resistant heart to make him capable and willing to love and trust Him, then that man will never truly have saving faith comprised of all three elements outlined above.
I’m not sure if I am speaking pure Reformed orthodoxy here, but I would add that infants and the mentally disabled are saved when God grants them simple fiducia, absent notitia and assensus. David himself said “you made me trust you at my mother’s breasts” (Ps 22:9). No two-hour old nursing baby who dies has a mental assent to anything, but nevertheless he or she has a real soul by which trust in the Lord may be miraculously granted.
And I may go further to say the Reformed and Lutherans alone can make a consistent case for this means of salvation, wherein God grants salvation through faith to the tiniest human beings. Physical and mental immaturity or absence is no barrier to our sovereign Lord calling His sheep to eternal life.
The Reformed are always facing the task of disentangling misapprehensions of this most precious truth. Most people looking at our confessions from the outside immediately interpret the meaning of “irresistible” to be that God’s grace is never resistible. This inaccurate view of the Reformed teaching would have us saying that God never allows men to exercise their own free will unto ultimate damnation. Yet He does—God allows all men everywhere to resist Him unto their own damnation, until He decides to save a man. Irresistible grace simply means God kindly grants a new heart to a man so that that man will turn from his sin and believe the gospel, unto salvation and eternal life. In other words, that man would exercise his free will directly into eternal damnation, being that he is a “slave to sin” (John 8:34b) unless God does His work of granting saving knowledge and faith. During my Twitter conversation with Tony, multiple times I made the analogy to Lazarus, in that he was dead for four days, unable to respond to the external, audible call of Jesus to “come forth.” It took an internal, miraculous call of Jesus to actually grant life to Lazarus for him to be able and willing to respond, which he was then bound to do. There was literally no possibility that Lazarus would either remain dead, or that he would remain in the tomb freshly resurrected from the dead, simply unwilling to obey Jesus’ command to come forth from the tomb.
That is the Reformed—indeed apostolic—doctrine of grace. In His saving work, God does not allow His sheep to resist the internal call of the gospel unto regeneration and salvation. We may and do resist Him throughout our lives, but in His timing and by His mercy, He grants new life to us at the exact moment He purposes.
Tony replied to this that “many are called, few are chosen,” which he takes to mean that the call is broadly resisted, since not all the called are chosen. I never got the chance on Twitter to elaborate on the external/internal distinction, and how this solves the issue of a broad rejection of the gospel by many who hear. Simply put, the external call of the Church to the whole world is always resisted, unless it is accompanied by the mysterious, sovereign, internal call of God.
We recognize four states of the will in man:
1) Pre-fall Adam and Eve had a truly free will, circumscribed only by creaturely limitation, (could not will to exist for eternity, to blink out of existence, or to change one’s fundamental nature). Could choose good or evil without internal inability.
2) Post-fall humanity is born dead in sin and trespass, and the will is enslaved to the moral nature. We are constitutionally unable to please God apart from His gracious intervention to restrain our evil desires so that we may tend toward and choose good, virtuous things. Our free will, in this regard, is free in potential, but in actuality, constrained by the power of evil such that we will never, and do never choose what is ultimately good unless God quite literally changes our nature from evil to good beforehand.
3) Post-regeneration, when the Holy Spirit has given us new life, we are enabled and made willing to choose the ultimate good, which is trust and faith in Christ. Our wills are freed will once the Spirit inhabits our bodies in salvation, sealing us for the day of redemption. Though by the nature of our flesh, which is unredeemed, we continue to do and desire evil, we have a renewed ability to fight that flesh and to choose good for good’s sake, for God’s sake.
4) Glorification, the utterly freed will when we are resurrected in new bodies, unable to choose to sin. Indeed, brother Tony, think of how our supposed “free will” is violated in eternal life wherein we cannot sin ever again. In fact, it is the most gracious and good thing God does for us to take away the “freedom” to do evil, which is in fact slavery.
There is so much more to say here, but I just needed to get a basic definition on the table. In the rest of this essay, I will explore the relationship between irresistible grace and an individual’s apprehension of God’s revelation in Scripture. This then extends to the question of authoritative tradition through creeds, confessions, and councils.
For the distinction between visible and invisible Church, see here. I have nothing more to add to it than a couple of mentions herein.
How Do we Come to Know God’s Truth Savingly?
In the midst of our discussion, Tony said “If we have to wait for a perfect teacher, then we would have to wait for the second coming.” See our exchange here:
What we uncovered here was the foundational difference between us in regard to grace, and the rest of our conversation so far has born that out.
In case you need this simplified before we move on, the Roman Catholic position is roughly: “we cannot know for sure that we are hearing Jesus’ voice as the Shepherd of the sheep. It would violate our free will for God to make us know Him unto eternal life.”
The Reformed position is: “Because God determines to infallibly save His people, He also infallibly calls each one of us by name so that we know Him savingly, having eternal life, never falling away from Him into perdition.”
Again, Jesus defines “eternal life” as indicated by the state wherein a person “know[s] you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). Our question is, how does one come to possess that saving knowledge by which he has eternal life? By what means and actions on God’s part and ours?
The answer is found by examining the foundation of all truth.
A Brief Warning to the Reader
Now keep in mind here, we must never allow a conclusion we do not wish to embrace to control the clear logic of a truth claim. For example, because I do not wish to believe that the Pope is the true successor of the Apostle Peter, I would be prone to subconsciously twisting my own reasoning so as to keep myself from being persuaded by a plausible argument. This is a danger to all of us, as I am reminded of Justin Martyr arguing with Trypho the Jew in second-century Ephesus, saying “[even] though one should speak ten thousand words well, if there happen to be one little word displeasing to you, because not sufficiently intelligible or accurate, you make no account of the many good words, but lay hold of the little word, and are very zealous in setting it up as something impious and guilty” (Dialogue chap. 115). I fear this for Tony because of the length to which I am going in this essay; because of the many words, there is the danger that some one or two things out of place would be the opportunity to forget any other points I secure. I urge you, reader, and myself, to be vulnerable to the most persuasive elements of a good opponent’s arguments, and to treat more lightly his missteps.
How does an individual come into possession of saving knowledge? We must first ask what is the fountain of all wisdom and knowledge in general–a fountain without which no human being can give a rational account for his ability to reason. I defer to Paul, who said “Christ” is He “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:3), for it was “by him” that “all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him” (Col 1:16). Make the connection here–Jesus is the source of all things in creation, and He is the hidden treasury of all wisdom and knowledge.” Put negatively, if a man attempts to explain anything in the world, including his own sapience, without acknowledging the Son of God as the beginning and source and telos of that principle, whatever it may be, then that man will stumble into contradiction, error, and foolishness. The Hebrew sages of antiquity knew this without having ever met the Incarnate Son, having written “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov 1:7), and “No wisdom, no understanding, no counsel can avail against the Lord” (21:30). These are epistemological claims; these are deductive premises laid out in the wisdom literature breathed out by the Holy Spirit. Indeed, to seek any form of truth or understanding without holding the Word of God, the Son, at the center and source, is to become a fool. The Psalmist joins in the fray, saying “For with you is the fountain of life; in your light do we see light” (36:9). That latter clause is an all-encompassing principle of wisdom, in that God’s “light,” metaphorical for His Being, His own wisdom, and His shared nature within us, His image bearers, indicates the beginning and rational explanation for man’s sapience. It is by God’s eternal Being reflected within each of our rational minds that anything at all external or internal becomes intelligible. The wise Christian must acknowledge the preeminent place of the Son of God in his own claims to any sort of knowledge, including how and why saving, eternal-life-giving knowledge of God enters into our minds and souls. Conversely, we know nothing by ourselves–without God, knowledge is impossible, certainty is gibberish, and the very concept of sapience is thrown into absurdity and scorn.
Look now at how the sovereign Lordship of the Son relates to our certainty of saving knowledge.
The Son of God who was to be born of the virgin had lived for eternity past as God with the Father and the Spirit, but it is in this Son of God, and by Him, that the creation of all things began, and to this day “hold[s] together” (Col 1:17). Jesus the God-Man is ruling the cosmos by sovereign power, as He claimed before His ascension: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt 28:18), and which Daniel saw from over five centuries before in a vision:
I saw in the night visions,
and behold, with the clouds of heaven
there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
and was presented before him.
And to him was given dominion
and glory and a kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom one
that shall not be destroyed (Dan 7:13-14).
So we see the clear reality that Jesus has total authority over the cosmos, He is the treasure house of all wisdom and knowledge, and all things were created by and for Him. Simply put, the universe, the earth, and human beings are created for Jesus, who defined eternal life as knowing the true God.
He also prayed in thanksgiving to the Father, who gave Jesus “authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given [Jesus]” (John 17:2). Jesus was grateful to the Father that His (Jesus’) authority as King of the universe was adequate for the grand goal of giving “eternal life to all whom you have given” to the Son. This speaks to the mission of the Son in His Incarnation. The Father gave His sinless Son authority over all flesh, “to” give eternal life–the “to” is the Greek ἵνα (hina), which indicates the subjunctive mood (which normally indicates a possibility with unknown outcome), but in the hina clause, with a certain outcome, as for example in 1 John 3:8 “εἰς τοῦτο ἐφανερώθη ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ ἵνα λύσῃ τὰ ἔργα τοῦ διαβόλου”–“for this reason the Son of God appeared, SO AS TO destroy the works of the devil” (author’s translation). We recognize this common form of grammar, and I rest my case regarding the appearance of hina in John 17:2, so we understand Jesus has been given sovereign authority over the entire world of human beings to the end that His elect people would each receive eternal life, infallibly, which in the next verse is defined as knowledge of the triune God. This is not to say this is the sole purpose for Christ having been given this Kingdom and authority, but it is featured prominently throughout the apostolic writings as being in the forefront of God’s purposes for the Incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension, and intercession of the divine Son.
And so, my argument might be diagrammed like so:
Major premise: eternal life is granted to the individual by means of specific saving knowledge of God
Premise: God ensures that that knowledge is received by each individual He has given to His Son
Conclusion: every individual given to the Son by the Father is then granted saving knowledge of God by the action and initiative of the Son, and thus infallibly brought to the state of eternal life
How Jesus Taught This
Jesus’ discourse of the good shepherd in John 10 is entirely purposed around this teaching. Without opening a full-blown exegesis of the first 30 verses, Jesus is explaining here how, in contrast to false and selfish shepherds, He is the selfless Shepherd of His sheep who will never fail us or let us be lost.
The striking, relevant language He uses begins in verse 3: “The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.” Anyone who denies the individual, infallible election unto salvation that we confess must seriously reckon with these words. Jesus does not say something like “Everyone hears his voice, and those who come to him become his sheep,” or “some of his sheep hear his voice, while some reject it,” but rather, Jesus’ voice calls to His own sheep by name, and not to be downplayed, He “leads them out.” In what way could these words be more clear, that the Son of God literally gathers His individual sheep one by one by means of an irresistible call?
Look, He strengthens the point further: “When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice” (4). He does not leave one behind, for it is only “when he has brought out all his own” that He proceeds onto the next thing. There is most literally no room within these words for the possibility of a sheep of His hearing and rejecting His voice, for He brings out all His sheep whom the Father gave Him, and He does it by the power of His sovereign glory as ruler of the universe.
It is actually a mark of deep impiety to artificially introduce man’s will here as the force by which God is eternally stymied in His plan, as if God somehow chose a person to hear the voice of His Son, goes through all the trouble of bringing the world to the moment when that person hears the call, and then by an act of sheer free will, the Son is denied His sheep whom He called by name, He who has omnipotent glory and authority to gather His people out of the world. This impious and sub-Christian doctrine is framed as God not wishing to violate our free will, but without even needing to drive this logic to its absurd ends, we need only return to Jesus’ own words as the Shepherd to be denied such a folly. Look, and open your eyes:
So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” 25 Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, 26 but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep. 27 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 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. 30 I and the Father are one” (24-30).
The Jews present before Him as still unbelieving, in spite of all the evidence of His Messiahship that they have seen. Jesus here gives us the direct, from the mouth of God Himself reason for unbelief–“you do not believe because you are not among my sheep.”
Notice, it’s not “you are not among my sheep because you do not believe.”
It is condition: unbelief followed by explanation of condition: not belonging to the group of people whom Jesus has come to save.
2,000 years of Church history is replete with men furiously wearing down their quills trying to explain away these types of stark revelations, but the Word of God will never pass away, and Jesus’ words are absolute and final.
We can know that whom He saves, that one can definitively hear His voice, for He promised it would be so.
We can know that because He is the source and foundation for reality, including the rational bedrock of human knowledge and wisdom, that any claim or argument butting up against His words will fail. In this case, Tony’s argument that God does not grant saving knowledge to a man unless that man first allows it to happen by free will is to invert the universe, to enthrone fallen man, and to privilege our sense of fairness and rightness above the clear, unambiguous teachings of Christ and His Apostles.
To conclude, Jesus has been given all authority over the universe in order that He might grant saving, eternal-life-giving knowledge of God to every person whom the Father gave to Him. He claims that He calls His sheep by name, and that “no one may snatch them out of my hand.”
There are hard questions that flow from this truth, such as why throughout the New Testament there are warning passages about falling from grace and shipwrecking one’s faith, but we must not leap to those arguments while leaving this starting point incomplete. Deal with, reckon fully with the words of Jesus here presented, and do it exegetically, or else yield your claims as inferior to this mighty truth we confess in the Reformed churches.
God bless the reader,