The Greatest Risk You’ll Ever Take: “I Believe in God”
January 18, 2004
“And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Hebrews 11:6).
The Bible declares God’s existence. It does not attempt to prove it. Certain things are so true that philosophers call them “properly basic.” They are so true that you can’t properly understand reality without them. From a biblical standpoint, the existence of God falls into that category.
Either you believe in God or you don’t. If you do, then you are in good company. According to a recent Fox News poll, 92% of those surveyed say they believe in God. Other polls in recent years have returned the same overwhelming numbers. Nine out of ten Americans say they believe in God. There are some atheists out there, and their numbers may be growing, but they are still a tiny minority. Most Americans believe in God, even if they can’t agree on what kind of God they believe in. If that’s true, then it may seem unnecessary to devote a sermon to the first phrase of the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in God.” And in a sense, it may be unnecessary because we are a Bible-believing church. This may seem like a kindergarten lesson, a truth we learned in Sunday School many years ago. But I think it’s always dangerous to take our faith for granted. Maybe we don’t know everything we think we know.
Let’s unpack the phrase, “I believe in God,” by breaking it down into five statements.
I. Basic Declaration: “God is” is the central fact of the universe.
The very first verse of the Bible establishes this truth in these majestic and simple words: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). These are the headwaters of divine revelation. Everything God wants us to know starts right here. This verse is a declaration—not an argument. A few years ago E. V. Hill preached a powerful sermon at a Promise Keepers gathering in Chicago. In his own unforgettable style, he preached for 40 minutes on just two words: “God is.” He said it over and over again. He whispered it and he shouted it. He illustrated it, declared it, proclaimed it, and dared anyone to deny it. You wouldn’t think you could preach that long on just two words but he did, and when you think about it, you could preach a lot longer when your topic is as profound as “God is.” Once you get it settled in your heart that “God is,” a lot of other problems will be solved as well.
II. Logical Implication: All things owe their existence to God the Creator.
Because God is the Creator, he is also the owner of all things. If I make a toy boat, I can truly say, “This is mine. I made it and I own it.” Since God made us, he has the absolute right of ownership over us. He can do with us as he pleases. That’s not a popular topic in contemporary American life. We want to do our own thing, go our own way, live the way we want, do whatever we feel like doing, whenever we want to do it, and no one has the right to tell us what to do. But if God created us, he owns us. If he owns us, then we are accountable to him for everything we say and do. That’s not a happy thought for many people.
As is so often the case, we get some very good help on this point from dear old Martin Luther. Writing over 450 years ago, he asks what does it mean to say, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth?” Here is his answer: “I believe that God has created me and all that exists; that he has given and still preserves my body and soul, my eyes and ears, and all my members, my reason and all the power of my soul, together with food and raiment, home and family, and all my property; that he daily provides abundantly for all the needs of my life, protects me from all danger, and guards and keeps me from all evil; and that he does this purely out of fatherly and divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me; for all which I am in duty bound to thank, praise, serve, and obey him. This is most certainly true.”
To which I say, right on, brother!
III. Inescapable Revelation: The truth about God has been made known to everyone.
This fact comes from Romans 1:19-20. “Since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” Twice in verse 19 Paul uses the word “plain” to describe God’s revelation of himself to all mankind. Then in verse 20 he adds that the truth about God is “clearly seen” in nature. We can say it this way: Everyone knows there is a God, and the people who say they do not believe in God are deceiving themselves. God created all that we see around us. He created the sun and the stars and the moon and the planets. He created the comets and the asteroids. He created the quasars and the pulsars and the black holes of space. Scientists estimate there are 400 billion stars in the Milky Way Galaxy. They estimate there are more than 100 billion galaxies, each with at least 100 billion stars. Imagine that. And God hung each one in space and calls each one by name (“He determines the number of the stars and calls them each by name” [Psalm 147:4]). No wonder the Bible says, “The heavens declare the glory of God and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1 ESV).
God has left his fingerprints all over the universe. You have to be blind not to see them. Let me illustrate. Suppose you were to visit my house while I was not there. How much could you learn about my family just from looking around? You might suspect we had boys from the basketball goal above the garage door. You would know that we love football from the picture of Mark in his uniform on the side of the refrigerator and from the autograph of Eli Manning in Nick’s bedroom. Although you might not know I was a pastor, you would certainly know I studied the Bible from seeing all the Bibles and commentaries strewn around the computer in the corner of our dining room. All over the house you would find pictures and ceramic recreations of Noah’s Ark. In our bedroom you would find artifacts from our trips to the Holy Land and material relating to the Oak Park Christian Academy. By counting the beds you would figure out that we probably have three boys. And if you looked in my closet, you’d discover I’m tall just by looking at my suits. There’s a lot more a careful observer could discover about the Pritchard family just by rummaging around through our drawers and bookshelves. In the end, you’d know a lot about me although you wouldn’t know me personally. The clues are everywhere for those who care to look.
This world is God’s house. He’s left clues everywhere about what kind of God he is. When you stand at the Grand Canyon, you can’t help but be overwhelmed at the mighty power of God to create such magnificence. He must have had a mighty hand to scoop out the Royal Gorge in Colorado. He is as infinite as the dark recesses of the mighty Atlantic Ocean. Each snowflake testifies to his uniqueness. The changing colors of the Great Smoky Mountains proclaim his creativity.
The galaxies shout out, “He is there.” The wildflowers sing together, “He is there.” The rippling brooks join in, “He is there.” The birds sing it, the lions roar it, the fish write it in the oceans—”He is there.” All creation joins to sing his praise. The heavens declare it, the earth repeats it and the wind whispers it—”He is there.” Deep cries out to deep, the mighty sequoia tells it to the eagle who soars overhead, the lamb and the wolf agree on this one thing—”He is there.” No one can miss the message. God has left his fingerprints all over this world. Truly, “This is my Father’s world,” and every rock, every twig, every river and every mountain bears his signature. He signed his name to everything he made. The earth is marked “Made By God” in letters so big that no one fails to see it. “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalm 19:1).
That’s the point of Romans 1: No one fails to see it. Everyone knows something about God! No one has ever lived who missed this revelation. It doesn’t matter whether they consciously thought about it or not. The truth was there for all to see, so plainly laid out that no one could miss it. It doesn’t matter whether you were a headhunter on some South Pacific island or an upscale yuppie in downtown Chicago. No one could miss the truth about God … and no one has ever missed it because God made the truth about himself as plain as day. That’s why Paul says in verse 20, “They are without excuse.” He means the whole human race knows about God. No one can say, “I didn’t know.” Everyone knows. That explains why every culture on earth has some conception of a Supreme Being—however flawed that conception might be. Man was made to look for answers outside of himself. He is incurably religious by nature. The French philosopher, Pascal, said that inside the heart of every man there is a “God-shaped vacuum.” And Augustine said, “O Lord, you have made us for yourself. Our hearts are restless until they find rest in you.” Ecclesiastes 3:11 says that God has put “eternity in the hearts of men,” meaning that the longing for ultimate answers comes from God himself. God put that longing (the “God-shaped vacuum”) inside the human heart to cause men to look to him.
That explains why atheism has never commanded the interest of a wide circle of people. Atheism is the most unnatural philosophy on the face of the earth. Idolatry is more natural than atheism because at least the idolater acknowledges a higher power outside of himself. For a man to be an atheist he must not only deny the truth about God that he sees in nature, he must also deliberately and repeatedly suppress the truth about God found in his own conscience. In the end it takes more faith not to believe in God. Several years ago Ray Comfort wrote a book with the clever title, God Doesn’t Believe in Atheists. He’s right. God exists whether you believe it or not because God doesn’t believe in atheists. “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Psalm 14:1). God loves the atheists just like he loves all the sinners of the world, and an atheist can be saved just like anyone else. Down deep the atheist knows there is a God—he just won’t admit it.
IV. Saving Manifestation: God revealed himself in his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.
We are not left to ourselves to decide who God is. He revealed himself in nature, and he revealed himself in the human heart. But Christianity declares that God supremely revealed himself in Jesus. If we want to know God, we must come on his terms—through his Son. Jesus said in John 14:6, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” That verse isn’t very popular today—but truth isn’t determined by majority vote. This week I flew to Florida where I spoke to a group of retired SIM missionaries in Sebring, Florida. The average age of the missionaries was 80. Most had served in Africa for 30 or 40 or 50 years. Their accumulated missionary service totals several thousand years. Many of them did pioneer mission work in predominately Muslim areas. I ate lunch with one elderly woman who worked at a mission station in a Muslim area where she taught a Bible class that attracted a group of Muslim children. One day during the lesson she referred to Jesus as “God’s Son.” One of the boys became angry, spit on the ground to show his contempt, and then walked out. Most of the children followed him. The missionary felt bad about that, but then she said, “What else could I do? The Apostle Paul didn’t back down from the truth.” In this day of theological compromise and evangelical weakness, we must proclaim again the message that God’s love is broad, reaching to the ends of the earth, so that anyone can be saved. But we must also tell the truth—that salvation comes through Jesus Christ and for those who will not come to God through Jesus, there is no other way. If you reject Jesus, God has no other plan of salvation.
V. Personal Transformation: Once we meet God, our lives are changed forever.
Hebrews 11:6 says this very clearly: “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” There is a hunger for God in our day that is insatiable. That’s why people read The Da Vinci Code and that’s why 12 million people have purchased Rick Warren’s book, The Purpose-Driven Life. Those two books could hardly be more opposite but both are on the New York Times bestseller list.
On my way back to the Orlando airport on Friday, I rode with John & Anne Ockers, our Calvary missionaries who served the Lord in Niger for many years. John told me how his first wife, Evelyn, died on the mission field and how he buried her in the missionary graveyard in Miango, Nigeria. When Marlene and I visited Greg & Carolyn Kirschner in Jos, Nigeria a few years ago, we visited the missionary graveyard. It contains about 60 graves of men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of the gospel. Half or more of the graves are children—most of them dying in the first few days or weeks of life. In the early part of the 20th century the life expectancy of a missionary to Africa was only eight years.
I saw a grave with a man’s name and then the dates—1919-1953. The marker read, “Placed in loving memory by his wife and children”—then giving their names. Underneath were two words—”Abundantly Satisfied.” Then I found the grave of Evelyn Ockers. So many markers. Here is a child who died after one day. Then another one who lived a few days. And over here is a father and son buried side by side. He died trying to rescue his son from an overflowing creek. Both drowned.
Why would God allow this to happen? Why would he permit such suffering for his servants who sacrificed so much for the gospel? The missionary graveyard at Miango sends this message: God’s grace is free but it is never cheap. The missionaries and their children buried there bear testimony to the high cost of the Great Commission. Reaching the world has never been easy and Jesus knew that it wouldn’t be. That’s why he said, “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33). It has always been true from the very first day. Many centuries ago Tertullian declared that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Wherever the church has gone, the cost of a new field has always been paid in blood. I saw a marker at Miango for a little child—a boy, I think—who died in the 1950s. The inscription read something like this: “We plant this seed in the hope that it will someday bear a harvest of souls for the Kingdom.” When I walked back to my room, my eyes wet with tears, I said to Marlene, “When I think of how little I have placed on the altar …” Compared to these men and women, I have made no sacrifice for Christ at all.
Our visit to the missionary graveyard took place in 1998. Now we run the clock forward to the week just past. Day after day I listened to the aged missionaries look back over a lifetime of service for Christ. I never heard the first word of regret by anyone for their decades of service in distant lands. No regrets. Any of them could have had an easier life here in the States, but they heard the call of God and that settled the matter for them. Some of them endured many years of difficulties, and those who labored in Muslim lands often saw only a handful of converts at the end of it all. The woman I mentioned earlier said that at the end of her time in Africa, she had known of “three or perhaps four” Muslim convents. She also said that back in the 1940s, when she was just starting out, she met an elderly SIM missionary who said, “Focus on the cross and not on the hardness of the Muslim religion.” That is what they have done—and they built hospitals, clinics, schools, churches, and mission stations in very remote areas. Now they are 75, 80, 85, 90 years old and living their final years in the SIM village.
Besides the “no regrets,” I noticed all week long a very definite “gladness of heart.” As in, “Serve the Lord with gladness, come before his presence with singing.” That’s the other side of it. Visible joy, deep satisfaction with how things have turned out. It is bracing and good for the soul to be around saints of God who have no regrets and gladness of heart. The missionaries have known their share of hardship, discouragement, opposition, sickness, loss, frustration, loneliness, physical suffering, and spiritual warfare. But they do not dwell on these matters. They speak with excitement of seeing God at work changing hearts, lives, families, villages and whole tribes by the power of the gospel. They have “counted it all joy” for the sake of serving Christ. And each morning they eagerly pray that God might grant further victories for the gospel around the world. It is inspiring and humbling to be around these great saints of God. The world barely knows they are here. In heaven their names are written in gold.
They have sought and found the promise of Hebrews 11:6. They have proved that God truly rewards those who earnestly seek him. How else do you explain what they have done? There is no other reason to leave the comfort of home for decades of difficulty in distant lands. Because they believe that “God is,” they heard his call and responded with willing hearts. They sought him, they found him, and now at the end of their pilgrimage, they have no regrets, gladness of heart, and a burning zeal to see the world come to Christ.
The Creed begins with the words, “I believe in God,” for a good reason. It’s the biggest risk you’ll ever take. If you’ve never met him, I challenge you to give your heart to Jesus here and now. Trust in Jesus and you can have a relationship with the God of the universe right now. And as John & Anne Ockers and Greg & Carolyn Kirschner and all our missionaries have proved—God rewards those who truly seek him. It’s not an easy road, but there is gladness along the way and joy at the end of the journey. Start seeking God with all your heart and your life will never be the same. Amen.