The Bridge of Persuasion

Scott Oliphint
Last month we explored the biblical notion of antithesis. It is important to see that this notion has its home in Reformed thinking. Because we confess that man, in Adam, is dead in trespasses and sins, we understand that there is nothing in our character as depraved sinners that can move even an inch toward the truth of God. Our condition before God is not simply that we are sick, not even that we are really, really sick. We are dead. We are Lazarus in the tomb. The only way that we can move toward Christ is if he calls us out of the tomb, and by that call gives us new life. Apart from that, there can be no movement at all. Dead means dead; it doesn't mean 'partly alive.'

By grace, those who are in Christ have eternal life. The Spirit of Christ has given us Christ's resurrection life; he has re-created us so that we can see ourselves, the world, and, most importantly, him for what and who they really are. As the hymn writer put it, "Heav'n above is softer blue, Earth around is sweeter green! Something lives in every hue Christless eyes have never seen." The life that is given to us in Christ gives us, for the first time, eyes to see and ears to hear.

It is this regeneration, this new life, that activates the antithesis. Without new life, we are all in the same sinful boat. We are all dead in our sins. How, then, can those who are made alive in Christ communicate with, reason with, those who remain in the tomb? What advantage is there, what rationale is there, for attempting to communicate with someone who is dead? There needs to be more to the story than simply spiritual life and spiritual death if it is communication we're after. There needs to be a bridge between those in Christ and those in Adam, a way that the two can be "connected."

We said in our last post that the bridge between the antithesis has its focus in our constitution as image of God. But we need now to highlight just what (in part) that image is, and to see how it provides the foundation for a persuasive defense of the Christian faith. And here we will be drawing out implications of things we have discussed in the past in these posts, so those blessed with good memories will likely already be ahead of us.

One of the initial things that Paul wants to make clear in his letter to the church at Rome is that all men, both Jew and Gentile, abide under the wrath of God. Because sin is universal, the wrath of God is universal. Paul is anxious to point them to the "righteousness of God revealed," (1:17), but before he explains to them the glories of the gospel, he has to make clear to them the "wrath of God revealed" (1:18).

It is clear from Paul's discussion beginning in Romans 1:18 that the general theme he has in mind is the universality of man's condition after the fall. Specifically, he is, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, explaining to us the effects of sin on those who are, and remain, in Adam and image of God. Because Paul is describing God's natural revelation, both in terms of God's activity and of ours, he has in view who we are by nature and how sin seeks to pervert and distort that which is natural. And by "natural" Paul does not mean a self-sustaining world, or a neutral context in which all of us live. For Paul, "natural" is not "mother nature," but it is God's revealing activity in and through his creation.

The wrath of God, says Paul, is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness. It is God's universal disposition toward all who are in Adam. What does this wrath look like? It looks like the Lord giving people over to their own sinful desires (cf. 1:24, 26, 28ff.). One of the reasons that sin takes its destructive course in the life of one who is in Adam is because of God's wrath; it is because God lifts his gracious restraints in the lives of some, and allows them to pursue more of, and more deeply, the sin for which they perversely lust.

But there is something deeper than God's wrath going on in the lives of all of God's human creatures. It is "deeper" because it is the foundation that lies beneath the surface of our sin; it is what makes sin so inexcusable. The activity of God revealing his wrath presupposes a "prior" activity of God toward all men. And that activity is God's constant and universal revelation of himself, his character, to every person, through creation.

Paul is clear in this section that, "since the creation of the world" (v. 20), God has been revealing himself through the things he has made. That revelation accomplishes God's purposes for it. There are (at least) two purposes that Paul mentions. First, because it is God revealing himself to all men, all men receive and understand that revelation. They receive and understand it to such an extent that they know God (v. 21). So, by virtue of God's activity, all men, since creation, know the true God. Second, because all men know God, they will be rendered inexcusable before the judgment seat of God. No one will stand before God on that day and say, "I never knew you." Those words will be reserved for God alone (Matt. 7:23).

We can begin to see now just how it is that those who are, by grace, in Christ, can reason with those who remain in Adam. Because all men (male and female) are naturally image of God, all men constantly, by virtue of being alive, know God. This knowledge of God is not something static in us; it confronts us, both within and without, every moment that we "live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28). In other words, the "bridge" that we need to connect those who are in Christ to those who are in Adam is the bridge of the true knowledge of the true God that all of us, since we are image, have. Because of what God has done, and is doing, we all have the true knowledge of God in common. Those who are in Adam seek perpetually to suppress that truth (Rom. 1:18); those who are, by grace through faith, in Christ revel in it.

Two crucial implications flow from this. First, it is not possible, for us, to "connect" with the true knowledge of God that all men have by way of communicating something false. This should be obvious, but unfortunately it gets overlooked often when discussing apologetics. For example, I recently had a conversation with someone who thought it appropriate to argue, by way of Bayes' probability calculus, that the resurrection of Christ probably did happen. This person asked me what was wrong with such an argument. My response was that the main problem with the argument was that it simply wasn't true. Without going into the technicalities of probability theory, we should be able to see that it is not appropriate to urge someone who is in Adam to move toward a probability, however high, that Christ rose from the dead. Christ's resurrection is not probable, not even highly probably. It is absolutely certain. Without it, the faith that we urge men to have is empty, and we are of all people most to be pitied (1 Cor. 15:14, 17, 19).

If we are meant to "connect" the truth of God's Word with the truth that God is always revealing to all men, then we dare not present the resurrection of Christ, or the existence of God, or any other truth of Scripture as if it were a "maybe." Any "maybe" has underneath it a standard of measurement that will, if applied, undermine and negate the foundation of God's revelation. In order to be as persuasive as we are meant to be, we are obliged to connect the truths of God's revelation; we must connect the truth of his Word with the truth that he always and everywhere gives in his world, to all men.

Second, this means that we can, and do, reason with those who are in Adam. Because they are not completely consistent with their own sinful principle, and because God often restrains them from themselves, men are able to grasp and understand the concepts and ideas that we communicate to them. Except for the work of the Holy Spirit, who is the Ultimate Persuader, they will not accept those concepts and ideas. But it is the truth that God has promised to use in the process of drawing his people to himself. (God himself can use anything he wants in the conversion of his people, however. I once met a man who said he was converted to Christ through his study of Buddhism. God, of course, can use Buddhism to draw people to himself, but this does not mean that we should use Buddhism to communicate truth). \

One of the prime examples of this kind of persuasion can be seen in Paul's Areopagus address in Acts 17. Paul begins his address by telling his audience that the God they idolize as "Unknown" is actually the God who is independent, sovereign, and ever-present. Paul "connects" the truth that God gives in creation, suppressed as it was in Athenian idolatry, to the truth of who God really is. 

After Paul tells them what God is really like, he then uses two quotations from their own poets. Why does Paul use these poets? Is he telling the Athenians that they properly understood the true God in affirming what those poets wrote? Not at all. Rather, having already explained to them who the true God is, Paul then takes these two quotations, false as they were in their original context (since they referred to Zeus), and remakes them into truths that now refer to the true God. This is a master stroke of persuasion. Paul "connects" to the Athenians by taking their own material, but now as referring, not to Zeus, but to God himself.

Was Paul reasoning with the Athenians? Any read of Acts 17 will have to conclude that he was. But his reasoning included, as it must, the truth of God himself, and it concluded, as any Christian apologetic must, with the reality of Christ and the gospel.

The bridge of persuasion has been constructed by God himself. Our responsibility, our God-given task, our privilege, is to walk across that bridge to those who are in Adam and, perhaps, by the sovereign grace of God, to walk them back.

Dr. K. Scott Oliphint is Professor of Apologetics and Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. His forthcoming book, Covenantal Apologetics (Crossway, 2013), will be released next month.