The Power of Proper Thinking
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The Power of Proper Thinking

Philippians 4:8–9  (ID: 2029)

How do we think “Christianly”? It doesn’t involve thinking exclusively about Christian products, teaches Alistair Begg. Instead, it means learning to think about everything from a perspective that is constrained by the revealed truth of God’s Word. In a world that asserts, “What’s true for you may not be true for me,” we must train our minds through habitual focus on God’s revelation of Himself through His creation and His Word.

Series Containing This Sermon

A Study in Philippians, Volume 2

Take Dead Aim Philippians 3:1–4:23 Series ID: 15002

Encore 2020

Selected Scriptures Series ID: 25911

Sermon Transcript: Print

I invite you to turn with me in your Bibles, if you would, to Philippians and the fourth chapter, and I’m going to read from the first verse:

“Therefore, my brothers, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, that is how you should stand firm in the Lord, dear friends!

“I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, loyal yokefellow, help these women who have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.

“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.”

Amen, and may God grant to us understanding of his Word as we come to study it together.

Father, as we turn now to your Word and to these precious moments when you, in some mysterious way, choose to take up your Bible and your servant, and when he is lost in all that you desire to communicate, so we are confronted by you and not by him. This is what we long for—to hear your voice, to see your face, to encounter your truth, to live as your children. So then, come by the Holy Spirit, we pray. For Jesus’ sake we ask it. Amen.

It’s absolutely imperative that we think about the right things, and indeed, that we learn to think in the right way. Is there, then, a Christian way to think? How do you think Christianly?

You are what you think about. You are what you think about. Now, let me ask you, what do you think about that? Our minds are the root of all of our human actions. It is via our minds that our affections are stirred. It is the mind that directs the will. It is our minds that conceive and direct every action of our lives. Unless, of course, there is some cerebral impairment, some mental deficiency, all of us can claim no excuse for anything that we’ve determined to do, because we have conceived of it first of all in our minds. It’s therefore absolutely imperative that we think about the right things, and indeed, that we learn to think in the right way. Is there, then, a Christian way to think? How do you think Christianly?

Now, some people would say that to have a Christian mind is to have a mind that is trained only to think about Christian topics, so that this mind closes itself to every other notion that does not fit within the framework of that which would be described as being “Christian.” And such individuals would say that this is a “Christian mind.”

Well, we would have to say that while there is great benefit from thinking expressly and supremely and, in some ways, in a primary way about these matters, that would not fit the description of a Christian mind. Rather, a Christian mind is a mind that has learned to think about everything from a Christian perspective. So that the Christian thinks about music—all music—from a Christian perspective. They don’t just think about “Christian music,” no more that they think about “Christian engineering” or “Christian algebra” or “Christian medicine” or “Christian art,” but that in the whole gamut of the experience of human existence, we bring our minds to bear upon the variety of life in a way that is constrained by the revealed truths of God’s Word.

And it really is too bad that too often those who profess Christianity seek to influence others in their views by some blustering attempt at persuasion which gives every indication of being actually mindless—that is strong on emotion, which is, of course, not absent; that is strong on feeling, which is, of course, relevant; but when pressed at the realm of rationality, when pressed at the realm of the mind, has very little to say, and is left simply reiterating well-worn clichés. And consequently, those who are our friends and neighbors at the end of the twentieth century, confronting deep and significant questions, are rather put off rather than attracted by those who think that a Christian mind is simply a mind that has been constrained by four or five proof texts.

A proper use of our minds not only glorifies God but also strengthens us in our ability to provide an answer for those who ask a reason for the hope that we have.[1] The ability of the apostles to persuade men and women—and you find that verb coming again and again in the Acts of the Apostles, as well as in the Epistles—their ability at persuasion was not by dint of their personality; it was not even on account of the significance of the power of God, although clearly both were involved. But it also involved from a human perspective.

For example, Paul’s ability in the city of Athens to say, “I can see that you’re a very religious group of people, because as I have been wandering around, I’ve encountered all these many idols. And funnily enough, I noticed that you have one to an unknown god.” Now having engaged them at the level of their thinking, he says, “Now, what you regard as unknown, I would like to proclaim to you.” And in the hearing of that, the intelligentsia said, “Get this guy up to our meeting. We need to hear what he’s on about. He seems to be a bit of a birdbrain, he seems to be a bit of a babbler, he seems to be propounding a couple of deities. And so let’s have him up at our meeting, and let’s dialogue with this character and see what he’s on about.”[2] Most of us would never get invited to the meeting, because we have never by anything that we’ve said engaged the mind of our secular neighbors in such a way that causes them to say, “You know, we’re going to have to talk about that, we’re going to have to think about that.”

Peace through Thinking

Now, the apostle Paul, here in Philippians, has been offering all kinds of advice and all kinds of directives. And indeed, it is in light of the surrounding context that we should understand the verses to which in the course of our studies we have now come—namely, verses 8 and 9. But the temptation in verses 8 and 9, because of the way they fall, is to dislodge them from their context. Paul introduces verse 8 by saying, “Finally, brothers…” And then you look at that, that’s verse 8, and it goes until verse 23. So you say to yourself, “Well, if that was ‘finally,’ that was quite a long finally. That was the average preacher’s finally”—those preachers that give you the feeling that they’re just about to end, that they’re now down about twenty feet above the runway, and then all of a sudden, they decide to do a go-around. And they fire the baby up again, and they go twice around before the end. Not that I ever do that, of course, but I have observed it in others.

His “finally” here, I think, should be understood as, “Here is a last piece of advice.” In fact, you say, “Where’d you get that from?” Actually, from J. B. Phillips’s paraphrase. That’s the way he paraphrases this “finally”; he says, “Here is a last piece of advice.” Because he has already said to them in 3:[2], “Watch out for the dogs”; verse 17, “Take note of my example”; 4:6, “Don’t worry.” And he is giving all of this instruction in light of the fact that they are confronted—3:18—by the “enemies of the cross of Christ.”

These dear believers in Philippi, whom he loves, whom he longs for—he seems to have a special place in his heart for the church in Philippi; he calls them his “joy,” and he calls them his “crown,” not because they’re absolutely perfect, but he just loves them. And he is so concerned for them; he wants them to know God’s peace umpiring their hearts and umpiring their minds. And he wants them to understand, it seems to me, that an experience of the peace of God does not come about in a vacuum.

Now, notice: I think the key to understanding verses 8 and 9 is in this phrase, “the peace of God.” Verse 7: “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” And then notice how verse 9 ends: “And the God of peace will be with you.” He’s concerned for these troubled believers—buffeted from the outside, struggling from within—that they would know God’s peace: “I want you to know the peace of God ruling your hearts and ruling your minds.” He introduces the mind at that point. He’s going to conclude this final directive by saying, “If you do these things that I’m telling you, then you will know the God of peace to be with you,” in terms of personal companionship—not simply the peace of God as a characteristic, if you like, or as a dimension of life, but the God of peace as a companion through life.

Now, it’s in the middle of this that we have the content of the sandwich, if you like. “The peace of God” and “the God of peace” are the two slices of bread, and then in the middle you have the stuff that makes up the sandwich. Because it is very clear that God’s design is such that it is as we give attention to the things of which he approves—in other words, as we allow our minds to be shaped and molded by the things of which he approves—that we then enjoy the benefits that are the fruit, if you like, growing on the tree of salvation. Because you will recall that Paul is not writing here to secular men and women; he is writing to those who’ve been embraced by Christ, who have embraced him in personal faith. Verses 8 and 9 are not a kind of suggested list of external principles to be applied by the man in the street in order to make his life a little better. He may choose to do that, and it will to some degree make his life a little better. That is not what Paul is saying. He is addressing that which is the fruit that emerges on the tree of salvation, the trunk of which is grace and the branches of which are personal faith.

The peace of God is conveyed within the context of the people of God fastening their minds on those very things of which the God of peace himself approves.

In other words, he is calling here for his readers to understand the power of proper thinking—the power of proper thinking. I want you to understand this, loved ones: you will not, and I will not, know the peace of God or the God of peace simply as a result of, if you like, laying hold of the notion and then scurrying out into the remainder of the week to fill my mind with all kinds of false, sordid, unhelpful material. Because the peace of God does not come to the people of God in a vacuum, but it is conveyed within the context of the people of God fastening their minds on those very things of which the God of peace himself approves.

And that’s why people, they come out, they get to about eleven o’clock on a Wednesday and they say, “Well, you know, the thing was about the peace of God on Sunday, and frankly, I don’t know any peace of God. I don’t know the peace of God, and I don’t know the God of peace. My life is a total shambles!” Yes, but what radio station did you listen to first thing in the morning? What has been your constant intake in terms of material that has fed you in the early hours of the day and in the dying moments of the evening? What has been the literature that you have read, and what is the material that you have conveyed to your mind with consistency since you heard about the peace of God and the God of peace? And if the answer is totally alien bogus material, then don’t lay the charge at God’s door. Because he gave you the Bible, in which he said, “This is what you should think about: think about what’s true, think about what’s noble,” and so on.

A Call to Think

Now, it’s interesting that Paul has no contemporary concern about being too direct. You know, people go to counselors, and they ask, “What should I do about this?” and the counselor says, “Well, what do you think you should do about this?” That always intrigues me. I understand the methodology, but… you know, it’s like schoolteachers. Why do they want to know where Chile is? They’re the teachers. Tell me where Chile is! Why’re you asking me? You should tell me! You’re the teacher, I’m the pupil. Tell me where Chile is! Don’t make me stand in front of the map with a stick going, “Heck if I know where Chile is! I don’t know! Somewhere up here, obviously, or you wouldn’t have me here.”

They go to the counselor: “What should I do about this?”

“Well, what do you think you should do?”

“Look, I’m paying you sixty dollars. Tell me what I should do! Don’t give me that stunt. Don’t let me answer my own questions!”

But you see, late twentieth century dwellers don’t want anybody to tell them what to do. That’s a refrain: “Don’t tell me what to do.” And the other refrain is, “Don’t tell me what to think.” Or, “Don’t tell me how to think.”

Paul violates it all—totally politically incorrect. He spends all of his letters going, “Let me tell you what to do.” And then he says, “And let me tell you what to think. And let me tell you how to think about what to think.” In other words, it is total indoctrination, in the right sense. And in being indoctrinated to the revealed truth of God, we learn to become the greatest, freest thinkers. It is an illusion to believe that believing whatever you want and having your mind open to every notion is actually the way to free thinking. It is actually the way, as we’ll see in a moment, to close your mind to the possibilities of the greatest discoveries of truth.

Paul understands that. And so he gives them a list of six qualities, to which we’re going to come in a moment. But he has a kind of catchall at the end of verse 8, if you will notice: “If anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” It seems to me that once he has begun his list, he could keep it going ad infinitum: “Whatever’s right, whatever’s true, whatever’s noble, whatever’s admirable…” He must have said to himself, “If I keep going here, I’ll have a list of forty, fifty, sixty things.” So, if he was talking to his secretary, he says, “Why don’t we just use a kind of… you know, a collective little basket here? Why don’t we say, ‘If there’s anything praiseworthy, if there’s anything excellent, think about that’?” His secretary said, “That’s a great idea.” So that’s exactly what they did.

Now interestingly, Phillips, when he paraphrases this, takes the close of verse 8 and he makes it the beginning of verse 8. That’s, incidentally, why it’s a paraphrase. And he says—“If there is anything excellent, if there is anything praiseworthy”—he paraphrases that, “If you believe in goodness, and if you value the approval of God…”

That’s one of the distinguishing marks, incidentally, of being a Christian. You see, being a Christian is not simply being able to stand up and say, “You know, I’m a Christian because on such and such a day I made a certain decision.” No! The Christian is somebody who believes in goodness and who values the approval of God. So the Christian shouldn’t have to be constantly saying, “Oh, well, you see, on such and such a day I did such and such a thing.” The Christian should be distinguishable in the community because it becomes apparent, “This guy believes in goodness. And this guy values the approval of God. This girl is different, because she seems concerned about a different standard. I haven’t heard exactly what it is she’s into; I don’t know whether she’s a Muslim or a Christian or a Jew at the moment. But I do know this: she values the approval of God. Because I’ve seen her bow her head and close her eyes before she eats her food. I’ve listened to her speech. I’ve seen the way she frames her life. I’ve observed all of this.” These are the distinguishing characteristics.

Oh, we cannot get away with a funny little bumper sticker! As if somehow or another we did our business for God and the kingdom by something stuck on our bumper that we violate at fifty-five and seventy-five and ninety-five miles an hour on a daily basis. That’s easy! No: “If you believe in goodness and if you value the approval of God…” In other words, here’s the meter. Here is the gauge. Here is the plumb line against which we can judge our thought patterns on a regular basis. Stop at any point of the day and ask this question of your thoughts: Is what I am thinking about right now in line with God’s approval, and is it likely to be praiseworthy before men?

Gentlemen, at any point in the day, you can stop and say to yourself, “Is what is going on between my ears right now the kind of thing that I would be happy to have shone up on either of these screens and for my teenage daughters to observe?” Is it praiseworthy? Is it marked by a concern for goodness? Is it the kind of thing that God looks upon and he says, “You know, I approve of that. I like that thought. That kind of thinking is the kind of thing I’m describing when, through my servant Paul in my letter to the Philippians, I encouraged them, and you too, to ensure that if there is any interest in goodness, any concern for the approval of God, that you will learn to think in a particular way.”

Interestingly, the word that is used here for “excellence,” which Phillips paraphrases “goodness,” is the word arete, which is the most comprehensive word in the Greek language for moral excellence. He says, “If there is anything that is marked by moral excellence…” What a challenge that is! How apropos our day, is it not? We live in a world that is full of things that are sordid and shabby. We almost needed to ask our surgical friends for rubber gloves to read yesterday morning’s newspaper, because it was soiled and it was smutty. And Paul says, “In a world like that, the Christian’s preoccupation is to be with that which is virtuous, which calls down the approval of God, and which deserves the praise of men.”

The call that Paul issues is a call to think.

Now, notice also that the call that he issues is a call to think. Those of you who are schoolteachers know just what a challenge that is. You’re not at the point of getting them to think about certain things; you’re just at the point of getting them to actually think: “Now, folks, let’s try and use our minds this morning. Let’s do something radically different.” And the same is true, again, I suggest to you, in a Christian church that has grown very fond of clichés and very fond of talking about how it feels about everything. And the call here is a call, and the word that he uses is a very important word, logizomai, which means to bring your faculties to bear upon these things.

We’re going to see—not today, but we will see—that the Bible calls us in verse 8 not only to think, but again in verse 9 also to do. The Bible never introduces us to mental reflection for its own sake. It is always thinking, doing. Romans 12:2: “Do not be conformed to this world; but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”[3] The renewed mind reveals itself in transformed activity. So what he’s saying is, “Groove it in. Bring all of your mental faculties to bear upon these things.”

Now, I see these places in the mall, they have all these sayings, and they apparently sell you tapes that help you to “groove” your memory. I haven’t used any of them yet. Maybe the day will come. I don’t know if they work. But I also notice that they provide them in relationship to muscle memory. And I’ve never really taken the time to find out if there’s any validity to it at all. Seemingly, you can train your muscles to do certain things. This, of course, presupposes that you have muscles worth training, which may be one of the reasons that I’ve never bought the tapes. But the fact is that the notion that they are conveying is, “If you will focus on this, your mind will either establish itself in a rut from which you have great difficulty in extricating yourself, or you can train your mind in a groove, and you can groove it in.”

Now, to the degree that there is validity in that, what Paul is saying is, “I want you to think about these things in such a way that you groove into the thought processes of your life the very channels which will be approved of by God and which will be praiseworthy by men and by women.” And this thinking activity is not a moment’s thought in passing, but it is continual, it is habitual. Because the human mind will always attach itself to something, and it is therefore imperative that we focus our minds on the right things.

Now, if we were in a dialogue, we could stop for a moment and talk about the place of secular literature, and the place of contemporary music, and art, and so on. We’re not dialoguing, and so we can’t. But I should let you know that I do not subscribe to the notion that we need to remove from the minds of our children all books which are not “Christian books,” in the fear that when they read Daniel Defoe, when they read Swift, or when they read Lewis Carroll, or when they read whoever it is they read, that somehow or another they will be violating Philippians 4:8, because it mentions in there something that isn’t true or something that isn’t honorable, etc. On that basis, you could never read any book at all! You could never even read the newspaper.

This is a classic illustration of which we need to be in the world but not of the world. In other words, as our minds pass through that information, we do not bring our faculties to bear upon its error, taking it to ourselves, imbibing it, and grooving it in. “Ah,” says somebody, “but there is the risk there that you might.” Yes, there is! And that is why it is imperative that from infancy—Deuteronomy 6—we train up our children, we talk about these things as we walk along the road and when we lie down and when we get up,[4] we bind them on the tablets of our hearts,[5] and we make sure that it is grooved into their thinking, so that when they encounter some evolutionary perspective, the antenna goes up. And they come home, and they say, “Mom, what a strange thing: Mrs. So-and-So told me I came from a monkey!” And the mother says, “Well, sometimes you act like a little monkey, but you didn’t come from a monkey. Although your dad sometimes acts like an ape… but you didn’t come from a monkey.” Now, that’s the kind of thing we’re talking about.

Thinking about Whatever Is True

Now, the first thing on the list is truth: “Finally, brothers whatever is true, think about that.” Now, that immediately poses a problem, doesn’t it? In an earlier generation, at another point in history, at least in America, the notion of “whatever is true” could have been stated, acknowledged, and we might move on. But at this point at the end of the twentieth century in a postmodern culture, the fact of the matter is, if we say “whatever is true,” we hear the voice of Pilate from the first century saying, “Ah, yeah, but what is truth?”[6] And the cumulative cacophony of sound down through the ages has reached epidemic proportions now in our universities and colleges.

Allan Bloom, in The Closing of the American Mind, which is becoming an old book now, writes this: “There is one thing a professor can be absolutely sure of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says she believes, that truth is relative.”[7] You may recall me mentioning being with my family in a Johnny Rockets in Santa Barbara, and the waitress being from UCSB, and she telling us that she was a philosophy major at the University of California, Santa Barbara. And I just said to her in passing as she was giving us the ketchup, I said, “And what do you think about true truth?” And her rejoinder was, “I don’t think about true truth, because I don’t believe there is such a thing.” And as I dialogued with her, she could think of only one person in the context of her philosophical studies—and she was now in her third year—who had given any indication that they believed in such a thing, so that when somebody said, “Whatever is true, think about that,” they would go, “Got you! Will do.” Everyone said, “Depends what you mean by ‘true.’”

You see, relativism, which is what we’re dealing with, claims that what we think is knowledge—what we think is a firm grasp of truth and reality—is really only an opinion.

I was in a swimming pool in Dallas earlier in the summer. There were two ladies there from England—not only two ladies there from England, but there were two ladies there from England. It was at the National Religious Booksellers Convention. And they had come to Dallas to go shopping, ’cause they’d heard the shopping was very good in Dallas. And in the course of conversation, when they found out why I was there and what I was doing, and I told them about this book that’s coming out next month, and I told them it was called What Angels Wish They Knew, and they said, “Well, what do angels wish they knew?” and I said, “Angels wish they knew what it means to be saved.” And they said, “What do you mean ‘saved’?” And I said, “Well, I mean that when Jesus died upon the cross, he made an atoning sacrifice for the sins of those who believe.” And immediately their response was, “But that’s just your opinion! You can’t say that’s true,” the lady said to me. “You can say it’s true for you, but it sure isn’t true for me!”

Now, unless I’m living in a bubble, my experience is that this is one of the great conversation finishers of the late twentieth century. In fact, I’m thinking about doing a series in the evening on conversation stoppers—the things that people say to us that end up being a terminus for us and we don’t know where to go next. We’ve done our best, we shared a little bit about our experience, we mentioned something from the Gospels, and then all of a sudden their rejoinder is, “Well, that may be true for you, but it’s not true for me.” What do you do then? Because, you see, relativism claims that objective universal truth just does not exist.

You say, “Well, please don’t get off on this, Alistair. This is a sideline.” No! It’s tangential to our study, but I want to stay with it for a moment or two.

The extent to which this is the case is borne out in every research study at the moment in this country. In 1991 the Barna Research Group found that 66 percent of American adults didn’t believe that absolute truth exists—66 percent in the study. Specifically, these individuals, when interviewed, agreed that “there is no such thing as absolute truth,” and “two people,” they said, “could define ‘truth’ in totally conflicting ways, and still both be correct.”[8]

Now, you see, those of you who are sitting around going, “I don’t understand how someone can say, ‘I did not have a sexual relationship,’ and somebody else says, ‘You did have a sexual relationship,’ and how they could both possibly be regarded as telling the truth,” I’ll tell you how! When relativism is the standard by which everything is gauged, then there is no objective standard by which things may be ratified. Do you see how difficult it is to be an attorney in these days? How in the wide world do you get a verdict in a court of law with a jury of twelve people, three out of four who believe in relativism? And a judge sitting behind the bench who himself has concluded there is no such thing as truth?

Before you are ever able to go out and declare true truth to a relativistic culture, you have to first declare true truth to a relativistic church.

Most disturbing of all is the fact that the researchers discovered that 53 percent of those who declared themselves to be born again Christians also maintained a relativistic view—that over 50 percent of the people attached to evangelical churches in America espoused relativism.[9] Now, to the degree that we are simply representative of evangelicalism, that means that part of my task—our task as pastors—is to help a congregation that is increasingly buying the notion of relativism to the degree that more than fifty percent of the people there—at least one in two of the group to whom you are speaking—when you mention truth are replying from the perspective of a relativist. They’re saying not, “I have to believe this Bible”; they’re saying, “I don’t have to do that.” They’re saying, “I don’t have to apply this in relationship to my marriage. That doesn’t mean what it says about morality. That’s not what it means about premarital sex. That’s not why you have to exercise discipline. No, no, no! Why not? Because it might be true to you, but it isn’t truth for me.” So it’s not, like, out there with a big bogie man. It is, if the statistics are accurate at all, right in here. So before you are ever able to go out and declare true truth to a relativistic culture, you have to first declare true truth to a relativistic church.

When he conducted the poll three years later in 1994, Barna discovered that the statistic was getting worse, not better, and that 72% of American adults declared their conviction regarding relativism.[10] You say, “Well, that doesn’t really matter. I mean, it doesn’t affect the way you live your life.” You bet your life! It affects everything you do in your life. You are what you think! And our friends are what they think! And the law of non-contradiction is shot. That’s why a person can say one thing and do another thing and stand up and say the two things are not mutually exclusive.

Gene Veith, in his book Postmodern Times, gives a pathetic indication of the implications of relativism laying hold of the heart of a generation as he quotes the words of a young lady. She says, “I belong to the Blank Generation.” What a phrase! “I belong to the Blank Generation. I have no beliefs. I belong to no community, tradition, or anything like that. I’m lost in this vast, vast world. I belong nowhere. I have absolutely no identity.”[11] You can’t tell me that relativism is something to be debated in the ivory towers of the university of the Western world and that it has no impact on the grassroots. Listen, as you drive away from here today, you are driving in a context in which virtually three out of four people who are driving alongside you have got no real reason as to why they shouldn’t take a baseball bat and smash it right through your windscreen—except pragmatism, except the last vestiges of normalcy, except “that’s not what nice people do.” But not because it was wrong! ’Cause there’s no wrong. That’s where we live.

I can’t remember the group and I can’t remember the song, but I have two lines in my mind: “And every road that leads me there is winding, and every light that guides my way is blinding.”[12] Do you know that song? “And every road that leads me there is winding. And every light that guides my way is blinding…” I think they’re English.

But I understand that. And you know what? I’m glad of their honesty! I can talk to those kids. It’s the smarty pants businessman who’s not prepared to face up to it. Every road you take winds; there’s no direct point between A and B for you. And every light towards which you move blinds you in its iridescent glow. It’s vain, it’s empty, it’s futility. That’s why you feel how you feel! That’s why nothing tastes! That’s why there is nothing in the extra zero at the end of the paycheck! It leads nowhere!

“Well,” you say, “okay, you made the point very good. Don’t you think you should stop now?” Yeah, probably I should stop. But what do you say to these people? That’s the question. Well, you know, you have to say, “Let’s get another coffee, because this is probably gonna be quite a long discussion.” I don’t think it’s a good idea to say—when they say, “Well, you know, that may be true for you, but it’s not true for me”—I don’t think it’s a good idea to say, “You know, you’re a real dumb self-contradicting nincompoop, you know that?” I don’t think that has the sort of endearing qualities to it that you might want to use. But I think it’d be good to say—when somebody says, “Well, that may be true for you, but it’s not true for me”—to say, “You know, I’m hearing you, but there’s something that just seems self-contradictory about that statement.” Person’ll say, “Well, what do you mean self-contradictory about that statement?” Say, “Well, I don’t think the statement works.”

You see, when the relativist says everyone’s beliefs are true or false only relative to himself, the relativist means everybody except him. See, you say, “Well, I believe in the Bible.” They say, “Well, that’s just true for you. I mean, that’s just relative to you and to yourself.” But his statement that it’s just relative is an absolute statement! If he’s going to be true about relativism, he has to say, “Nothing is objectively true, including my own relativistic position. So you’re free to accept my position, or you’re free to reject my position.” But the relativist is unwilling to relativize his relativism. And that’s what we have to get them to do! We have to say, “Your relativism is relative. You can’t take the high ground. You can’t say that mine is a truth claim which is relative and yours is a true truth, which, of course, exists in your own little island.”

Geisler is very helpful in this. He says if truth can only be relative, then it must only be relatively true for the relativist.[13] But when you think about it, that can’t be claimed in any absolute sense either. So you can’t say to the relativist, “Well, that’s only relatively true for you.” Because, says Geisler, it can only be relatively true, then it is relatively true that it is relatively true. And where do you want to stop? There’s no place to stop, it just goes to… It’s futility! “I belong to the Blank Generation.” See? She thought it through!

“Either the claim”—and I’m quoting Geisler again—“either the claim that truth is relative is an absolute claim, which would falsify the relativist position, or it is an assertion that can never be made, because every time you make it you have to add another ‘relatively.’ [It’s] … the beginning of an infinite regress that will never pay off in a real statement.”[14]

Truth Comes from Revelation

The Christian conviction, the biblical worldview, says that truth is discovered not as a result of human speculation but as a result of revelation.

Well, in the first hour a number of eyes glazed over and I had to stop, and I can see it happening again, so let me just leave that bypath meadow and point you in the direction that we’ll be heading next time. The Christian conviction, the biblical worldview, says that truth is discovered not as a result of human speculation, but that truth is discovered as a result of revelation, so that when the Bible begins, “In the beginning God…” it is making a statement—a true statement—about the nature of the universe; and that when a man or a woman chooses to think logically from what is and traces it back, it is not an illogical progression to arrive at an unmoved mover, to arrive at that which has itself no… to arrive at a creator God.

But even then, with all of the best of our searching, it doesn’t bring us there. It is only as God has disclosed himself. And therefore, the Christian conviction is that God has made himself known in the world in which he has made, he has made himself known in the Word that he has given to us. That takes us into the realm of textual criticism, takes us into the matter of the historicity of the Bible; it makes us fight and think all those things through. Because if we’re going to make the assertion—Psalm 33:4—that “the word of the Lord is right and true,” we’re going to have to know something about the evidence for the New Testament documents. If we’re going to declare the psalmist’s words with conviction, in Psalm 119:151—“Yet you are near, O Lord, and all your commands are true,” 160, “All your words are true; all your righteous laws are eternal”—then we are challenging the Blank Generation that surrounds us.

Now, here’s the thing that we’re going to see, I hope: that is that just in the same way as we cannot think of knowing the peace of God in abstraction from these virtues, we cannot ultimately understand truth except as it then is extrapolated for us. Because I think that nobility, rightness, purity, loveliness, admirability, excellence, and praiseworthiness are all ultimately characteristics of truth—that when you take up truth like a prism or a diamond and you hold it at one, you see nobility, you see admirability, you see rightness, and so on, and as you examine it in that way.

So the Christian does have a view on contemporary art. There is a reason as to why it would be possible for us to argue that the work of Salvador Dalí is in many cases ugly. Because it is an expression of a worldview that is not ordered by truth. And here is the means, incidentally, young people, as we’ll see, of how to choose your albums, sacred and secular. Here is the way to determine what pieces of art you want to have in your home. Here is the plumb line against which we can discover how to build a library. Because a Christian way of thinking is not just thinking Christian thoughts, singing Christian songs, reading Christian books, going to Christian schools. It is learning to think about the whole spectrum of life—scientific and sexual, material and maternal—from the perspective of a mind that has been trained in truth. And until we get it, there isn’t a hope in the world of our secular neighbors and friends coming close to getting it.

Let’s pray together:

Father, out of an abundance of all these words that send our minds in multiple directions, we pray that you will help us at least to determine on the strength of what we’ve thought about this morning to get serious about reading our Bibles, about reading books on apologetics, about searching out the thought forms of our day. We recognize that it’s very easy for us to climb into our little citadels, sing our songs to one another, prooftext each other, and yet be pretty hopeless when it comes to standing in the lab on a late Monday afternoon, or standing over technical drawings, or examining samples of DNA, or thinking about English literature or drama.

Help us to see, O God, that you are vaster than all these things, that you are great and greatly to be praised.[15] We want you to send us out in the power of your Spirit, so that those who as yet have never heard might come to hear the saving news that there is in the Lord Jesus. Help us today in our conversations not to be content with simply passing people off with a couple of clichés and a “How do you do?” Give us a strong reminder as to why it is you’ve given us two ears and only one tongue. For Jesus’ sake we ask it. Amen.

[1] 1 Peter 3:15 (paraphrased).

[2] Acts 17:16–23 (paraphrased).

[3] Paraphrased.

[4] Deuteronomy 6:7 (paraphrased).

[5] Proverbs 7:3 (paraphrased).

[6] John 18:38 (paraphrased).

[7] Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987), 25.

[8] George Barna, What Americans Believe: An Annual Survey of Values and Religious Views in the United States (Ventura, CA: Regal, 1991), 83, 85.

[9] Barna, What Americans Believe, 85.

[10] George Barna,Virtual America(Ventura, CA: Regal, 1994), 84–85.

[11] Walter Truett Anderson, Reality Isn’t What It Used to Be: Theatrical Politics, Ready-to-Wear Religion, Global Myths, Primitive Chic, and Other Wonders of the Postmodern World (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1990), 51, quoted in Gene Edward Veith, Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1994), 72.

[12] Noel Gallagher, “Wonderwall” (1995). Paraphrased.

[13] Norman L. Geisler, Systematic Theology, vol. 1, Introduction: Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 2002), 92.

[14] Geisler, Systematic Theology, 120–21.

[15] Psalm 145:3 (paraphrased).

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.