Now I See
2 Corinthians 3:12-4:6
This time Christopher Hitchens got it exactly right.
During a recent trip to Portland, Oregon, noted atheist Christopher Hitchens laid down some seriously good theology. Most people recognize Hitchens as the author of the bestselling book God is Not Great: Why Religion Poisons Everything. Since the book’s publication in 2007, Hitchens has toured the country debating a series of religious leaders, including some well-known evangelical thinkers. He is clever, acerbic, quick on his feet, and in general a very articulate spokesman for atheism. In Portland he was interviewed by Unitarian minister Marilyn Sewell. The entire transcript of the interview has been posted online. The following exchange took place near the start of the interview:
Sewell: The religion you cite in your book is generally the fundamentalist faith of various kinds. I’m a liberal Christian, and I don’t take the stories from the scripture literally. I don’t believe in the doctrine of atonement (that Jesus died for our sins, for example). Do you make and distinction between fundamentalist faith and liberal religion?
Hitchens: I would say that if you don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian.
Sewell wanted no part of that discussion so her next words are, “Let me go someplace else."
This little snippet demonstrates an important point about religious “God-talk.” You can call yourself anything you like, but if you don’t believe that Jesus is the Son of God who died on the cross for our sins and then rose from the dead, you are not “in any meaningful sense” a Christian.
Talk about nailing it.
In one of the delicious ironies of our time, an outspoken atheist grasps the central tenet of Christianity better than many Christians do. What you believe about Jesus Christ really does make a difference.
But that observation leads us to a completely different sort of irony. How is it that a man can have such a clear conception of Christianity and yet not be a Christian? How can someone say something that sounds as if it might have come from Billy Graham and yet emphatically reject the Christian faith? Not long ago Hitchens debated conservative Christian author and speaker Douglas Wilson on the theme Is Christianity Good for the World? The ongoing discussion led to a movie/DVD called Collision. In his Breakpoint commentary on the clash of worldviews, Chuck Colson summarizes the differences between the two men this way:
For all their cooperation and good fellowship, Hitchens makes the stakes clear when he declares, “One of us not just has to lose the argument but has to admit real moral defeat. I think it should be him.”
The film takes its title from Wilson’s remark, “Basically a debate like this is more a collision of lives than it is an exchange of mere views."
Hitchens is right that both views cannot be correct. And Wilson is right that this is a “collision of lives,” not just a friendly debate about who has the better recipe for apple pie. If one man is right, the other man must be wrong.
It’s obvious to me that Christopher Hitchens has been exposed to the Bible and has talked to many evangelical Christians. He knows what the Bible says and he knows what we believe, and yet he wants no part of it. He knows what a Christian is, and he knows what a Christian is not. That’s why he wasn’t fooled by the Unitarian minister in Portland. She might call herself a “liberal Christian” (many people use that term), but she is not “in any meaningful sense” a Christian.
So how could a man so clearly grasp the heart of the Christian faith and yet reject it completely? The answer must lie in the spiritual realm, and here we begin to turn a corner because this sermon is not really about Christopher Hitchens at all. He merely illustrates the point that you can have an excellent knowledge of the Christian faith and yet reject it entirely. I suppose we all understand that intuitively, mostly because we’ve all known people who grew up in the church and apparently absorbed the message, only to utterly reject it later in life. My interest at this point is not in the intellectual objections to the faith. I want to dig deeper and ask, “What is happening in the heart of a person who knows the gospel and yet rejects it completely?"
According to 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:6, they do not see the truth because they cannot see the truth. They are quite literally blind to the truth of the gospel they partially understand. And until that blindness is removed by God, they will never be saved.
I. Unbelievers Are Spiritually Blind.
Paul says this in two different ways. First, he says there is a “veil” placed over their hearts so they cannot understand the gospel.
But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts (2 Corinthians 3:14-15).
Paul is thinking about Exodus 34:29-35 when Moses came down from the mountain with his face glowing from his encounter with the Lord. But that “glory glow” kept fading away because God never intended that it be permanent. Moses veiled his face so the Jews wouldn’t see the glory fading away. That “veil” becomes a symbol for Jewish unbelief. No question more vexed the early church than this: “If Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, why did so many of his countrymen reject him?” Paul devoted Romans 9-11 to a detailed discussion of this question. In 2 Corinthians he offers a shorter and simpler answer. They do not believe in Jesus because there is a “veil” on their hearts. They continue to follow the “Old Covenant” (or Old Testament) even though its fading glory has been replaced by the unfading glory of the New Covenant secured with the blood of Jesus.
And that analysis still holds true 2000 years later in that the Lord’s earthly brethren largely have not believed in him. While it is true that many Jews have come to faith in Christ in the last generation, they still represent a tiny minority of the Jewish people worldwide. The veil remains in place.
Second, Satan has blinded the minds of unbelievers. We see this in 2 Corinthians 4:4 where Paul declares that
The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.
I find it fascinating that Paul says Satan (the god of this age) has blinded the “minds” of unbelievers. When they think about the gospel, it makes no sense to them. When they hear about Jesus dying on the cross, they can’t understand how one man’s death 2000 years ago could possibly have anything to do with them today. When they hear that he rose from the dead, the very idea seems ludicrous. After all, everyone knows that dead men stay dead. When they hear about Christians praying together, it seems like psychological self-delusion. When they see Christians going as missionaries to reach Muslims and Hindus, it strikes them at best as a great waste of time and at worst as a kind of cultural imperialism. “How dare you tell anyone your religion is better!” When we protest that it’s not about religion, it’s about a relationship with Jesus Christ who is alive today, the words sound like pious nonsense to them.
The result of this spiritual blindness is very clear: “they cannot see the light.” You can talk about the light, sing about the light, tell others what the light has done for you, but if they are blind, your words will make so sense to them. This truth ought to wisely inform our evangelism. If we get angry with the lost because they are lost, we have missed the point of this text.
Do you get angry with a blind man because he can’t see the color green?
Do you get angry with a blind man because he can’t see the color green?
If he can’t see, he can’t see. Getting angry with him won’t help his situation.
We cannot argue a person into the Kingdom. Sometimes we act as if saving the lost is our responsibility. But we can no more save the lost than we can cure someone’s blindness. Sometimes we get angry with our loved ones who don’t know the Lord. And to be honest, sometimes they say very hurtful things to us, cutting us down, insulting our faith, mocking what we hold dear, and ridiculing our faith in Christ. In those moments, the temptation to strike back seems overwhelming. With God’s help, we must not return evil for evil or insult for insult. Why get angry when lost people act like lost people? In those moments it helps to remember that when someone says about the gospel, “I just don’t see it,” they aren’t making an excuse. They really don’t see it.
II. Only God Can Give Sight to the Blind.
See how Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 4:6.
For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.
In order to help us understand what he means, Paul reaches back to the earlist moments of creation when God said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” or as Genesis 1:3 puts it, “Let there be light.” If we had been there, this is what we would have experienced.
We cannot argue people into the Kingdom.
Thick, impenetrable darkness.
Darkness filling the universe.
Darkness thick and black.
Darkness with not a trace of light anywhere.
Then suddenly . . . light!
Light filling the skies.
Light so bright we have to cover our eyes.
If we had been there, we wouldn’t have known or suspected anything until God said, “Let there be light." Light happened because God made it happen. The same is true for all of us spiritually. We see the light because God in his sovereign grace opens our eyes and causes us to see. And if he did not do that, we would never open our eyes on our own. We could not save ourselves any more than the blind man can will his eyes to see.
Salvation is of the Lord!
It begins with God, flows from God, streams from his heart of mercy, comes down to us in a great river of grace cascading from the cross of Jesus Christ, and enters our hearts, giving us eyes to see the glory of God in Jesus Christ.
We see the light because God in his sovereign grace opens our eyes and causes us to see.
What does this mean for our evangelism and for our prayers for the lost? Opening blind eyes is the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit. He and he alone can do it. But he can do it, and this is the source of our hope. This is why we pray for our children and grandchildren and for our family members and for friends and loved ones. We pray and cry out to God and say, “O Lord, open the eyes of their heart. Help them to see the light of truth.”
III. We Must Boldly and Humbly Preach the Gospel to the Lost.
All spiritual truth must be kept in balance. While salvation is of the Lord, we still have a job to do. Paul explains that in two ways.
First, we must live with integrity so that our life backs up our message. That’s the burden of 2 Corinthians 4:1-2.
We renounce shameful ways.
We do not use deception.
We do not distort the Word of God.
This is how J. B. Phillips renders verse 2: “We use no hocus-pocus, no clever tricks, no dishonest manipulation of the Word of God.” To use a modern term, Paul was not a “spin doctor.” He didn’t use underhanded means to win the lost. And he didn’t try to trick people or make false promises.
This is how we are to live . . .
We set forth the truth plainly.
We speak knowing that God is watching and listening to us.
We speak so that others can trust what we say.
While salvation is of the Lord, we still have a job to do.
Second, we proclaim Christ and not ourselves. That’s the point of 2 Corinthians 4:5, “For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake." What would it mean for a preacher to preach himself and not Jesus? It’s hard to define but you know it when you hear it. A man who preaches himself is always talking about himself, his exploits, his titles, his name, his greatness. He’s building his empire by recruiting disciples who follow him. The end of his preaching tends to make people think, “Now there’s a great man.” People go away talking about him, not about Jesus. This actually is a very tricky thing because it’s easier than you think to preach so as to subtly increase your own reputation. It’s possible to preach the truth in such a way that you glorify yourself at the same time. Paul wants nothing to do with that.
It’s not about him.
It’s all about Jesus.
Here is a good test for all who know the Lord. Am I making followers of Jesus or followers of me? Do people make so much of you that Jesus somehow gets lost in the mix? Paul’s attitude seems to be, “It doesn’t matter what you think of me as long as you make much of Jesus.”
This point helps us keep in balance the sovereignty of God and human responsibility. Since God ordains both the means and ends of salvation, we always have a job to do. We are to preach and pray, to give and to go, to live honestly and speak boldly, always attempting to serve others in Jesus’ name. And as we do that, God graciously opens the eyes of the blind so that our message makes sense to them, and they “see” what once was hidden to them, and seeing it truly they believe the gospel and are saved.
And what happens when we do our part?
The veil is removed (2 Corinthians 3:14 & 16).
Blind eyes now see (2 Corinthians 4:6).
Light begins to shine in the heart (2 Corinthians 4:6).
Lost people turn to the Lord (2 Corinthians 3:16).
They are now “in Christ” (2 Corinthians 3:14).
The knowledge of God fills their hearts (2 Corinthians 3:6).
They “see” the glory of God made beautiful in Jesus (2 Corinthians 3:6).
This is God’s plan!
He intends to save multitudes of people exactly this way.
Some will perish because they do not believe the gospel.
Clearly not everyone will be saved. Some will perish because they do not believe the gospel. But (and this is a big but) we do not know in advance who will believe and who will not believe. Said another way, we don’t have any inside information about election and predestination, therefore we don’t have to worry about that at all. Our part is to preach the gospel by all means possible, honestly, sincerely, humbly, boldly, praying as we preach that God will open blind eyes to “see” Jesus as Savior and Lord. And as we do that, God takes our preaching and our prayers and makes them powerful through his Spirit to cause the light to shine in the darkness so that lost people come to Christ.
Where does that leave Christopher Hitchens, the renowned atheist who understands so much of the gospel message and yet rejects it completely and emphatically? It leaves him exactly where unbelievers have always been-veiled in spiritual darkness. His case illustrates a truth we need to embrace. Mere head knowledge is never enough. Simply knowing facts about Jesus will not take you to heaven. You could know the Bible by heart and still be lost. Hitchens understands enough of the gospel to recognize that a person who does not believe that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God who died for our sins and rose from the dead is not “in any meaningful sense” a Christian.
I’m glad he knows that much.
I pray he will come to know much more.
Perhaps the Lord who spoke into the darkness to say “Let there be light” will shine the truth into his heart, removing the veil so that light from heaven can come flooding in.
Ultimately a passage like this should give enormous hope and the highest motivation to Christians who pray for the salvation of the lost. Paul shows us three things very plainly:
The spiritual blindness of unbelievers.
The sacred obligation to preach the gospel boldly and humbly.
The spiritual illumination only God can bring.
Of those three things, we have nothing to do with the first and the last. We can preach the gospel, we can pray, and we can live with integrity that gives credence to our message. Satan will do all he can to keep the lost blind and confused so they cannot “see” the gospel. Only God can lift the veil and speak the words that will bring light to those who walk in darkness.
But God can do it!
That means there are no hopeless cases. There are some lost people who will be saved tomorrow who have no idea about it today.
We don’t know who they are or where they are.
We just know they are out there.
God honors forward-looking faith. Just because our loved ones are not saved today does not mean they won’t come to Christ tomorrow. Who knows what the Lord will do if only we will faithfully pray and preach the gospel?
A Slavetrader’s Conversion
He was born in 1725, the son of an English sea captain. At the age of 11 he went to sea for the first time. He eventually became a slave-ship captain, taking black Africans to the Mediterranean and the West Indies. Forced to join the Royal Navy, he tried to desert his ship but was flogged with 96 lashes in front of the crew. He became the slave of a white slavetrader’s black wife. For two years he lived in hunger and destitution.
In 1748 he boarded a ship for England but a violent storm in the North Atlantic hit the ship, which began to fill with water. The timbers broke away from the side. An ordinary ship would have gone to the bottom immediately but they were carrying a local of beeswax and wool which were lighter than water.
In the midst of the struggle to save the ship, the young man said to himself almost without thinking, “If this will not do, the Lord have mercy on us.” By his own testimony, it was the first desire for mercy he had felt in many years. That was the turning point of his life.
Eventually he left the slave trade and later entered the ministry in Olney, England. He soon became known as a great preacher who attracted enormous crowds. He wrote nearly 300 hymns, most of which have long since been forgotten. But some we still sing, including “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken,” and “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds,” and one that is perhaps the most famous hymn of all time:
Amazing Grace, How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now am found
Was blind but now I see.
Before he died he prepared his own epitaph, which reads this way:
John Newton, once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in
Africa, was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ,
preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the faith he
had long labored to destroy.
That’s what God can do. That’s true conversion.
Let us recommit ourselves to God’s work around the world.
Let us give and go and pray.
Let us not be discouraged by anything we see around us.
Let us press on with vigor and determination and faith and joy.
Let us roll up our sleeves and get to work for God.
And let us sing “Amazing Grace” with new understanding, remembering that the last line is our testimony too:
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind but now I see.
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