Presuppositional Apologetics and the Moral Government of God
Not long ago I received by e-mail a one-page article written by Ray Comfort, “Avoiding the Wall of Antagonism.” In this short piece, he suggests that the intellect of the unbeliever is like a brick wall that will not let in biblical arguments. Comfort then asserts that the only faculty in man that is not an avowed enemy of God is the conscience.
The author then makes an appeal to the reader to “learn to speak directly to the conscience.” He then suggests that when the conscience is targeted, the arguments that commonly arise in apologetic discussions will become non-issues (i.e. origins, doctrines, denominations, the fate of the heathen, etc.). “The conscience is God’s ally” says Comfort. “It doesn’t speak against the Law of God; it speaks for it.” In order to win our case, we must bring forth the “star witness” – God’s Law.
Out of a personal desire to find a more perfect union between apologetics and evangelism, my study in the use of the Law in evangelism has taken me to an excellent work on the Puritans –The Grace of Law, by Ernest Kevan.
In Kevan’s work, he documents the way the Puritans used the Law in evangelism. In applying this material to our presuppositional apologetic, my thought was, “To what degree is the conscience of man afflicted when the inconsistencies in his world view are exposed? Does our internal critique of erroneous worldviews fall short of speaking directly to the conscience? How can we turn the transcendental argument into an occasion for humbling the conscience?”
It is my desire to write an apologetic methodology that takes a very calculated aim at the conscience of man. I want to answer Comfort’s charge that apologetics falls short of afflicting the moral conscience.
The following article is a proposal for the aforementioned methodology. Of late, in my evangelism, I have been adding conscience material to my apologetic and have seen an excellent response.
Can a man understand the Gospel if he has no understanding of the divine economy of Law? The Puritans would say, “No!” The Law now has both a precept role and an evangelical role. Its evangelical role is to make sin exceedingly sinful. We are to therefore preach the law “killingly” to the end that the sinner loses all hope of contributing to his own salvation.
It’s fascinating that early Puritans such as Robert Bolton (1606-1654) recognized the danger of “short-cutting” the Gospel by offering free grace, before the conscience was afflicted by the Law (Robert Bolton, Afflicted Consciences, p. 175).
The Puritans believed that the Law was God’s holiness in transcript. They regarded the moral law as a codified copy of the divine nature; an unchanging expression of the holy majesty of God’s Person. Since God’s moral government is founded upon His Law, the ineffable principle of moral cause and effect reveals God’s righteous character. C. H. Dodd regarded God’s moral Law to be built into the very fabric of the universe and creation (C. H. Dodd, Gospel and Law, pp. 70, 71, 79).
Under the new covenant, the evangelical role of the Law is summarized in Galatians 2 and 3. In those chapters we find that the moral law is a “bulldozer” that scrapes human merit off the face of the earth. In fulfilling that role, it functions as a prosecutor, an executioner, a jailor, a tutor, and a curse-er. (In fulfilling this role, the Law prepares the sinner for the Gospel.)
What is the use of the Law in apologetics and evangelism? Ernest Kevan documents the way in which the Puritans used the Law in evangelism (Ernest Kevan, The Grace of Law, pp. 91, 92). Kevan quotes William Perkins who identified four aspects related to God’s moral majesty which must be grasped before the Gospel can be understood: a.) the existence of God’s Law, b.) man’s sin against God’s Law, c.) the guilt of sin incurred by breaking God’s Law d.) the eternal wrath of God poured out in judgment against sin (William Perkins, Two Treatises, in Works, p. 541).
The Puritans believed that the Holy Spirit utilized the preaching of the Law to produce a state of conviction designated as “legal faith” or “the spirit of bondage.” Once in that state of conviction, the awakened sinner recognizes the guilt of his sin, he recognizes the moral government of God, and he comes to understand the hopelessness of working his way out of condemnation (Kevan, p. 92).
A suggested procedure for using the Law in apologetics.
1.) Establish the very concept of moral law. Note how our culture separates the Person of God from moral law. How can we in our preaching bring the two back together again? When ethics are “orphaned” from the Person of God, they are easily debauched. Vices can be legislated as “virtues” (John O. Anderson, Cry of the Innocents, p. 135). (Note the recent legislation on the recognition of homosexual domestic partnerships.)
2.) Establish that moral law is a direct reflection of God’s unchanging moral character. It is impossible to love God without submitting to and valuing His commands as the expression of His righteousness (Deut 30:19, 20). The formula repeated in Leviticus is, “I am the Lord, therefore . . . “ Only the man who “imitates God” will enter the kingdom of heaven (Eph 5:1-6). God’s standard never evolves because the Lawgiver never changes. His moral law for man reflects the immutable character of His righteousness and holiness. It is a standard that is eternally binding upon all civilizations (Douglas W. Phillips, Esq., “Do Laws and Standards Evolve?” Impact #303, Institute for Creation Research, 1998).
3.) Establish the existence of God’s moral government. Moral cause and effect are administrated by God (note Deut 10, 11, 13, 27, 28). To possess salvation is to be possessed by God. By obedience to God’s commands we manifest that we are God’s possession and that we are willingly subject to His moral government. Paul preached the Gospel against the backdrop of the coming judgment of God’s moral government (see Acts 17:30, 31; 24:15, 16).
A proposed line of questioning in apologetics that can be used to promote the recognition of God’s moral government.
1.) Do you believe that we can know right from wrong?
2.) Do you believe that the concept of right from wrong is merely the result of social convention, cultural mores, and/or Darwinian evolution?
3.) Do you believe that right from wrong is a matter of personal opinion? OR, is right from wrong an external, constant standard which flows from the holy character of the one, true and righteous God?
4.) Do you believe that God has revealed His standard of right and wrong in the Ten Commandments found in the Holy Bible? (Do you also believe that God’s standard in the Ten Commandments is absolute, universal, and unchanging?)
5.) Do you believe that God is the sovereign, moral Governor of all creation, ruling over his moral creatures by means of his righteous laws found in the Ten Commandments?
6.) Do you believe that God’s righteous character, expressed in His moral government, requires that He thoroughly punish all evil? Do you believe that God will someday judge every man and woman by this righteous standard which flows from His own character?
7.) Do you believe that your conscience is an undeniable testimony of the righteous standard found in the Ten Commandments? Do you believe that the same holy God created both your conscience and the Ten Commandments which are an expression of His moral perfections?
8.) Do you believe that God requires you to keep the Ten Commandments? Do you believe that God has a record of your transgressions of His laws?
9.) Do you know what God’s Word, the Bible, teaches concerning personal guilt before God due to the breaking of His laws? My I show you from God’s Word the Bible what God declares concerning the lost and sinful condition of the human race?
(Remember, some of the most flagrant inconsistencies within pagan philosophies and worldviews are in the area of morals and their origin and enforcement.)
The Apostle Paul states that the human condition is made known by means of God’s Law.
“Creation in the image of God demands moral conformity to that image. Romans 1:18-32 is God’s indictment upon man as a creature in sin. Both being created by God and being sinful are universal realities since the fall of Adam. . . Paul is describing God’s attitude toward His creatures that find themselves in sin and outside of Christ. The very fact of their creation makes all men ethically responsible to God. Creation by God’s hand demands moral conformity to God’s law. Man is responsible to God for his conduct and is held to a standard of conduct and indicted and judged for not upholding that standard, even if he has never read or heard of the Bible. According to Paul, man has an innate knowledge of God’s attributes (Rom 1:20), an innate knowledge of God’s person (Rom 1:21), an innate knowledge of God’s law (Rom 1:32; 2:14-15), and an innate knowledge of God’s judgment (Rom 1:32)” (Richard C. Barcellos, The Ten Commandments, p. 19).
“[Thus] man by creation is responsible to God to uphold an assumed code of ethics that comes from God and is known by all men. [The sins listed in Romans one are direct violations of the Decalogue.] This at least suggests that the Ten Commandments can be easily consulted when pointing out the sins of men without special revelation.
It should be obvious now that what the Gentiles possess is the Ten Commandments, though not necessarily in the identical form as they appear in the Decalogue. . . In other words, what the Jews get by special revelation, the Gentiles get by general revelation” (Barcellos, p. 20, 23).
In our apologetic “reasoning” with the unbeliever, we must remember that the conscience of man must be reached BEFORE the sinner is ready to abandon his cherished intellectual fallacies.
Arguments against biblical theism come from the unbeliever’s intellect. “The ungodly mind is like a brick wall. It has been built to keep God out. It is at enmity against Him. It refuses to bow to the Law of God – ‘because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be’ (Rom 8:7)” (Ray Comfort, Avoiding the Wall of Antagonism).
The human mind spins off arguments and attacks against God. The carnal mind is the place of battles against God – it is a place of great hostility against the knowledge of God (Col 1:21). “The wall of antagonism is hard and immovable, so make it a habit of going around it. Learn to speak directly to the conscience. This is good news. It means that we can be effective in our Christian witness without having to learn how to pronounce, ‘Australopithicus afarensis’ or define the [contents of] the fossil record, or know the [precise] age of the earth. When you address the conscience, these things become non-issues. [The conscience] is the part of human nature that isn’t an enemy of God. The conscience is God’s ally. It doesn’t speak against the Law of God; it speaks for it. It is the work of the Law written on their heart. It bears witness (Rom 2:15). It testifies for God. It is the trustworthy witness who points out the guilty party in the courtroom. . . If we want to win our case we must bring out our star witness and put it on the stand to give it a voice. We want to stop the mouth of the criminal [a criminal in God’s sight], and that’s what the lawful use of the Law does (Rom 3:19). It condemns the guilty and drives him to give up his defense, so that he will be forced to look solely to the Judge for mercy” (Ray Comfort).
If our witness is to be both biblical and effective, we must know why the Gospel offends the unbeliever.
The religious reasoning that is natural to man always thinks in terms of personal merit. The natural man thinks of salvation in terms of a “commodity” that is bestowed in exchange for religious exertion.
Only the born again Christian understands (by the Spirit’s illumination) that salvation is by union with Christ. The natural man seeks to add something religious to his life; he doesn’t think in terms of abandoning himself to the lordship of Christ.
As a consequence, the Gospel offends because it lays bare one’s life before God. It confronts personal idolatry in all of its forms. It calls and commands us to say the same thing about our ruined condition as God does. It demands that we discard our faulty “scales” of reasoning in exchange for the absolute authority of God’s Word.
The Gospel offends because it demands we make the greatest “U-turn” conceivable, acknowledging that our chosen path has been one of destruction and one of rebellion against God.
The Gospel offends because at its center is the cross. The cross states that man is horribly wrong and God alone is right. The cross of Christ is a monument to the fact that the human race deserves to die, and that nothing less than the death of the only begotten Son of God can avail to remedy our ruin (Gardner Spring, The Attraction of the Cross, pp. 205-207).
The Gospel offends because man is not in charge of its eternal benefits. The sinner’s only hope is the sovereign mercy and pity of God in Christ. If one is to be saved, it hangs completely upon un-obligated divine compassion.
The Gospel offends because the sinner is rescued solely by Christ’s might, love, and infinite grace. Every saved man is therefore utterly beholden to the Son of God. Yes the Gospel offends because men hate being obligated forever to the lordship and Mediatorial Kingship of Christ. They resist the values of God’s Kingdom in which the lives of the citizens of the Kingdom are no longer their own but are possessed and constrained by Christ’s love (2 Cor 5:14).
The Gospel offends because it declares the sinner’s abject moral and spiritual bankruptcy; a bankruptcy in which the sinner has no resources in himself with which to “trade” with heaven. He has no spiritual life, but is like a decayed corpse – whose only hope is spiritual resurrection by Almighty God.
The Gospel offends because sinners are suspicious of the cross; for the cross speaks of pain, suffering, self-denial, and death. The cross calls for a complete reordering of one’s life; a repentance that goes to the depth of one’s being and leaves no existing loyalties untouched.
The cross offends because it speaks of an extremely demanding and comprehensive worldview. It is a worldview that divorces the believer from the love of the world and binds him completely to Christ for his identity, purpose, happiness, and destiny.
The modern “gospel” fails to bring the human condition to light; therefore it comes short of producing true conviction of sin.
Without exposing the human condition in a convincing way that afflicts the conscience, people have little idea what they are to be saved from. Modern presentations of the Gospel tend to emphasize the benefits of salvation rather than the character of God and the sinner’s condition (Jim Elliff, The New Gospel: Appealing but not Revealing, p. 3).
When the Gospel is preached minus the offense of the cross, sinners will attempt to do business with God on their terms, not God’s terms. It is by preaching the offense of the cross that sinners are brought to true repentance. The Gospel is not a different “happiness formula” that we hope to promote over the world’s formula. The Gospel is about knowing the God of Scripture and living for His glory. A Gospel without sin, hell, justice, conviction, and repentance bears no resemblance to the Gospel our Lord preached (Elliff, p. 4, 5).
When Christ preached the Gospel, He removed all middle ground; He eliminated all gray areas. He emphatically stated that there is no territory between truth and lies, between heaven and hell.
Christ’s words concerning the Gospel made a very clear division between men. If a person is not following Christ with all his heart, and seeking to build His Kingdom, and involved in gathering souls, then according to Christ, that person is scattering, and is “against Me” (Luke 11:23).
Christ and the Apostles preached the Law of God, original sin, the need of repentance, and the need for a new nature. When the Gospel is preached biblically, the soil of the heart will be “plowed up” in order to receive the good seed.
Preaching the Law of God and preaching repentance toward God is necessarily joined to the Holy Spirit’s preparation of the sinner.
Only the man prepared by God’s Spirit goes to war against his own sin and his own sin nature. The sinner prepared by the Holy Spirit takes God’s side against himself. As Luther said, “Penance remains while self hate remains.” In other words, no one comes to Christ without being overwhelmed with self-contempt over personal sin.
In order to be brought to true repentance, a man must be taken beyond merely the fear of punishment; he must be taken all the way to hatred of sin and love of Christ. Repentance begins with sobering thoughts of eternity then proceeds to conscience crushing contemplation of personal sin (John MacArthur, Exposition of Luke 3:1-18).
The sinner will come willingly if the Spirit of God has prepared him by crushing his conscience over sin and by bringing him to the end of self. Unbelievers stop short of saving faith and repentance when they place their trust in their efforts of personal reformation. Therefore it is the Spirit’s convicting role to bring the sinner to utter bankruptcy of soul and despairing of all self-help. Only then has the sinner been made ready to seek the solution outside of himself in the eternal Son of God.
Fear of judgment is a preparatory part of repentance. The Holy Spirit brings down the sinner’s pride by means of conviction of sin. The unbeliever is radically humbled so as to behold his wretchedness for the very first time. This is essential preparation for the desperateness that accompanies brokenness and penitence (John MacArthur, Exposition of Luke 12:22-34).
True turning from sin has a desperate-ness about it. The prepared sinner longs for forgiveness and deliverance from sin. The cost of discipleship lived out under the absolute lordship of Christ appeals ONLY to the person who is desperate to be delivered from sin. The prepared person is willing to pay any cost and part with anything in order to have Christ and deliverance (MacArthur).
The Scriptures warn against temporary discipleship. The false believer follows for awhile then falls away. He was never prepared to the point of being so destitute that he pleads with God to be delivered from sin and judgment. The prepared man, by God’s sovereign grace, trusts in God and abandons any imagined right to earthly attachments. He puts his life in the hand of the Lord; he finds in Christ the ability to deny himself and submit to the Heavenly Father’s care and love. He regards his true treasure to be heavenly treasure (MacArthur).
The man who is genuinely converted never outgrows his amazement at divine forgiveness. His mind and affections are now a servant and instrument of God’s Word and grace. He continues to glorify God by viewing God’s grace from the vantage point of his own ill desert (Eph 2:1-16). This is why we preach the Law, for it is the beginning of understanding our ill desert and it is the beginning of preparing the sinner to appeal to the throne of grace for mercy.