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RESPONDING TO SECULAR IGNORANCE
Dr. J. W. Jepson
copyright © 2004, 2008, 2012 by J. W. Jepson
All rights reserved, including the right to grant the following permission and to prohibit the misuse thereof: The Author hereby grants permission to reproduce the text of this article, without changes or alterations*, as a ministry, but not for commercial or non-ministry purposes. *Permission is given for publication of excerpts and condensed versions.
(NIV) Scripture quotations from the Holy Bible, New International Version are copyright © 1973, 1978, International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.
(NKJV) Scripture quotations from The Holy Bible, New King James Version are copyright © 1990 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission.
(NASB) Scripture quotations from the New American Standard Bible are copyright © 1972, The Lockman Foundation.
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RESPONDING TO SECULAR IGNORANCE
Text: Romans 1:18-32 and Ephesians 4:17-19.
Romans 1:18-32 (NIV)
18The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20For 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. 21For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. 24Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. 26Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. 27In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion. 28Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. 29They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32Although they know God's righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.
Ephesians 4:17-19 (NIV)
17So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. 18They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts 19Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more.
Our text describes what happens when any society refuses to acknowledge God. It degenerates into idolatry. In secularism the idolatry is the worship of self. Whatever form idolatry takes, it is motivated by a commitment to self-gratification against reason. The result is spiritual, moral, and intellectual darkness. At the end of the line is the judgment of God.
America is at a defining moment. The battle is underway for the very soul of the nation. The moral code is under attack by militant secularists, and God and His word are the bulls-eye of their target. The issue is clear. Will we continue to be a nation under God, built on the solid foundation of the universal moral law, revealed in the Bible; or will we follow the trend in Europe and sink into moral license and corruption? The battlefield is the human mind and heart. The war is being waged in almost every institution of society: the media, the entertainment industry, education, politics, even religion.
Perhaps the best example of this conflict is seen in modern science. Secularism has gained control of science and has redefined it to fit a naturalistic (materialistic) premise. Instead of seeking the best explanation of the data, secularized science seeks only the best naturalistic explanation on the questionable premise that everything that is knowable is by definition materialistic. Thus it limits itself by its own self imposed ground rules.
True science is humble; it recognizes its limitations; it considers that there might be possibilities beyond itself, possibilities that arise naturally out of the data themselves. Secularized science is arrogant; it refuses to consider even the possibility that some things might be beyond human ability to know and explain.
Secularized science rejects all religion as “anti-science.” So we hear of “science vs. religion” with all the implications of that slogan. Although secularized science has no religion, it certainly does have a theology. That theology is atheism. Atheism is not the absence of theology; atheism is a theology. Atheism is a statement of belief about God, and that makes it a theology.
So then, the antithesis is not between science and religion, but between secularized science's theology and other forms of theology, particularly revealed theology. For that reason secularized science and other institutions of society where secularization has become pervasive (education, the media, entertainment) reject and vehemently resist any challenge to atheism. We witness this reaction in the determination to defend Darwinism at all costs. Darwinism is not allowed to be brought out of its privileged sanctuary and made to defend itself in the open arena of free academic inquiry. Darwinism is the “Maginot line” of unbelief, the “Fuehrerbunker” of atheism. Without it atheism is defenseless. So the conflict rages.
At the same time, this is perhaps our moment of greatest opportunity. God is mightily at work. Signs of spiritual awakening are evident. Because this is a spiritual battle, we do not wrestle against flesh and blood. Our weapons are not merely human but are mighty through God for demolishing the strongholds of all specious systems of thought that raise themselves up against the knowledge of God. Our goal is to liberate people from error and bondage, and bring their minds and hearts into the true freedom of loving obedience to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:4, 5). Christ Himself is our Captain; presenting the truth in love is our strategy; and prayer is our effective weapon.
The issue is the moral authority of Almighty God versus secularism. A secularist is defined in Funk And Wagnalls as: “1. A person who bases morality on the well-being of mankind in this world without any consideration of religious systems and forms of worship. 2. One who believes that religion should not be introduced into public education or the management of public affairs.” Of course, the rejection of “religious systems and forms of worship” in morality includes the rejection of God Himself.
So it is the people of faith versus the people of unbelief, the faithful versus the faithless (“lacking in or devoid of faith, especially in the Christian religion”—Funk And Wagnalls).
It is impossible to separate religion and morality. The attempt to do so destroys both. This statement strikes a nerve because it challenges the basic assumption of secularism. Secularists consider themselves to be moral people even though they are not religious. They have established their own righteousness without submitting themselves to the righteousness of God (Romans 10:3).
So let us examine this matter. Let us explore and expose the fallacy of secular “morality.”
It is possible to start at a wrong premise and proceed “logically” to a wrong conclusion. The process is deductive and often refuses to acknowledge inductive evidence.
We remember the story of the man who went to a psychiatrist with the assertion that he was dead. The psychiatrist got him to agree that dead men do not bleed. If the man bled, that would be proof that he was not dead. So with the patient's permission, the doctor pricked the man's finger. Of course, his finger bled. The man looked at his finger in amazement and exclaimed, “What do you know! Dead men do bleed!”
On one occasion I watched a film that showed evidence that man and an extinct animal were contemporary. A human footprint and a footprint of an animal that was supposed to have been extinct for many millions of years were shown together in the same stratum of sedimentary rock. The evidence was shown to a professor at a major university. The professor appeared to be very uneasy as he said (and I quote), “I deny the evidence.”
Secularism is the product of a perverse bias. At the root of secularism is human pride, what C. S. Lewis calls the totally anti-God attitude. It is the unrealistic and unreasonable determination to be one's own supreme being in one's self-created world, “the world according to me.” It is self, the usurper, refusing to give up, get off the throne, and love and obey its lawful Sovereign. Secularism is determined to eliminate self's chief competitor—God. It boasts, “I am the captain of my ship; I am the master of my fate!”
If a person is self-convinced that God does not exist, that person is also self-convinced that it is possible to be of good moral character without loving, obeying and worshiping God. After all, no one can be guilty of an offense against a non-existent God.
So the secularist assumes that he or she can ignore God, blaspheme His name, withhold from Him the loving obedience and worship that is rightfully His, reject His moral authority and influence others to do the same, and no moral offense has been committed—all on the assumption that God does not exist. Hence he or she is still a good, moral person who treats other human beings with respect and dignity.
In secularism, man is his own starting point, his ultimate authority and point of reference for determining reality and truth. He selects the criteria and arrives at his own conclusions. This secular assumption permeates science and influences much of the culture. Satan reinforces it. “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4 NIV).
The perverse determination to eliminate from human thinking the true and living God, the God of creation and the universal moral law, is driven by an unreasonable commitment to self-gratification. Sometimes it is cloaked in such euphemistic terms as “self-actualization,” “self-fulfillment,” and “self-realization.” Nevertheless, it is still selfishness, and selfishness is the essence of immorality.
When people choose to live to gratify their own desires (whether “good” desires or “bad” desires), they have made themselves their own “god.” They have chosen to please themselves above all else, whether the thing that brings them the most self-gratification is “praying” or “preying,” giving or taking, living lawfully or lawlessly, being honored or dishonored, enjoying the benefits of marriage and family or sacrificing a happy home life for the flesh pots, being sober or drunk, mild-tempered or angry, honest or dishonest—in short, being “good” or “bad.” Self still rules the heart and life. This is choosing desire over reason. It is contrary to reason, moral law and the Lawgiver.
Many societies create their own “gods,” gods that justify their deeds and provide a moral base for their culture. It might be a metal image or a “mental” image. Either way, it is a false god, a god of their own fabricating. In secularism, self is god. Its pride rejects any supreme being other than self. It is too enlightened to accept classical idolatry. Its error is that it puts the Judeo-Christian revelation in the same category as (and on a par with) religions in general. Thus it dismisses “the God who is there.” It rejects the true along with the false. In so doing secularism reveals its shallowness of thought and lack of objectivity.
So the suppression of light results in darkness—moral, intellectual, and behavioral. Dishonesty of heart results in wrong thinking. Jesus said, “And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19 NKJV).
Secularism is currently seeking to control and use the mechanisms and institutions of government to further its cause and secure its goals. It calls for state “neutrality” toward religion. But secularism cannot be neutral. By its very nature and definition it is hostile to the God it rejects and denies and to everyone and everything that represents His authority. Secularism attempts to use the state as an agency to get God out of the way. If it controls the state, the state will become hostile to religion. That will lead to the repression of religious expression.
Human government cannot be neutral regarding God and the universal moral law. Government must neither prescribe nor proscribe religion. But that does not mean that government has no obligation to God. Even though we cannot force one another to obey God, each of us has a moral obligation to obey Him. Likewise, even though government cannot force anyone to obey God, government itself has a moral obligation to obey Him.
Secularism assumes that separation of church and state requires government to be godless, to function on the premise that God does not exist. On this point secularism makes a fundamental mistake. Government must deal with moral issues, and that places it under the jurisdiction of moral law—the law of nature and therefore nature's God. Although the state is not under the authority of the church, both church and state are under moral law and therefore under the supreme Lawgiver. Both are accountable to Him.
Secularism cannot provide a basis for human rights. America's founding fathers knew that. In the Declaration Of Independence they affirmed that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Thus they appealed to a Source of our rights that far transcends every level of human authority.
If human rights are conferred on us by government or by society, then no rights exist apart from those rights that government or society chooses to confer. In that case, it would be impossible for a government or society to violate unspecified human rights because unspecified human rights would not and could not exist. If government or society creates our rights, then government or society can legitimately abolish them.
Whenever a government and/or society fails or refuses to recognize its ultimate accountability to a moral authority higher than itself, the seeds of injustice and tyranny have been sown.
“Separation of church and state” never was intended by our founding fathers to mean the rejection by the state of its moral obligation and accountability to the Creator. Such a position could not possibly be “neutrality.” By its nature and definition it would be hostility.
Because the Judeo-Christian assumptions underlie our civilization, we champion human rights throughout the world. Without those assumptions we are merely intruding into the internal affairs of other governments whenever we charge them with violating the human rights of their own people, no matter how cruel and brutal those violations might be.
Human government conducts its civil and other duties under universal moral law—the law of nature and nature's God. Romans chapter 13 clearly states the fact that human government operates under and as an application of the moral authority of God and therefore is accountable to His authority. If government denies our inalienable rights, it violates the Source of those rights. Government cannot legitimately take them away because government did not create them. Civil government has a moral obligation to the Source of those rights and values to respect and protect them.
Also, secularism provides no adequate basis for truly human values. Biological complexity does not and cannot create intrinsic value. Human beings are of transcendent value not merely because they are complex biological organisms. So was the chicken we ate for dinner!
The moral relativism inherent in secularism cannot stand up under the weight of objective reality. Certain essential values derive from our nature and relationships as human beings, and certain universal moral principles and obligations are grounded in our nature and relationships as moral beings, precisely because we are created by God “in His image.” Because they are founded in the objective and immutable reality of who we are, they are absolute.
If God is not who He is, we cannot be who we are. We are who we are precisely and only because God is who He is.
If we reject that, we look in vain for an adequate basis for human values and rights. If we are only matter, we do not matter. Molecules and electro-chemical processes have no intrinsic value and therefore no inherent rights. No “morality” can be based on the well-being of mankind if man is only a bio-electro-chemical machine. Therefore secularism—particularly secular humanism—falls of its own weight.
If we refuse to love God supremely, it is impossible truly to love our neighbor as ourselves. The same human pride that rejects God in preference for self will also reject others in preference for self. Selfishness arranges everything and everyone around the centrality of self—spouse, children, neighbors, friends—even God Himself if He is useful. Self is at the center of the sinner's world and will reject any intruder that threatens it. Let a spouse or other member of the family turn to God and become a dedicated follower of Jesus Christ. An unwelcome foreign element has invaded the “sovereign's” little kingdom. If the “ruler” cannot accommodate it so as not to be threatened by it, he or she will fight it.
In secularism, all these little “gods” keep meeting at the crossroads of life, and each one wants the green light. Try if possible to maintain a balance of mutual selfish interests (Jesus said that publicans and sinners do that; see Matthew 5:46, 47). Do all the “right and good things” as long as it makes you feel good and does not threaten your self-supremacy. Be nice and polite if possible; but if not—look out!
So then, how should believers respond to the intellectual dishonesty that results from pride? That is, how do we respond to secularism?
Ephesians 5:11 tells us to “have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them” (KJV). This includes living a life that exposes them, just as light exposes what darkness hides.
Proverbs 26:4 and 5 is an interesting passage in the Bible. In the New King James Version it reads: “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, lest you also be like him. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.”
How can we do both? Here is how. We are not to answer him by lowering ourselves to his level, by taking his flippant questions and remarks seriously and replying on his terms and presuppositions, or by responding to him in his attitude. On the other hand, we are to answer him as his folly deserves and in such a way as to expose it; if we do not, he will go away strengthened in his vain opinions, thinking that we could not answer him.
The Bible makes it clear that there are some people we are not to answer. We are not to answer scoffers.
“He who corrects a scoffer gets dishonor for himself, and he who reproves a wicked man gets insults for himself. Do not reprove a scoffer, lest he hate you. Reprove a wise man and he will love you” (Proverbs 9:7, 8 NASB).
“Do not speak in the hearing of a fool, for he will despise the wisdom of your words” (Proverbs 23:9 NASB, NKJV).
Jesus plainly told us not to cast our pearls before swine. If we do, they will trample them under their feet and turn around and rip us (Matthew 7:6). Also, when the disciples informed Him that the Pharisees were offended at something He said, Jesus replied, “Let them alone; they be blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch” (Matthew 15:14 KJV).
A passage in Paul's final epistle speaks directly to this subject. In 2 Timothy 2:23-26 we read: “But avoid foolish and ignorant disputes, knowing that they generate strife. And a servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be gentle to all, able to teach, patient, in humility correcting those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will grant them repentance, so that they may know the truth, and that they may come to their senses and escape the snare of the devil, having been taken captive by him to do his will” (NKJV).
This instructs us both in what we are not to do and in what we are to do. We are to avoid foolish and ignorant disputes. The word “foolish” here means dull, stupid, absurd. On the other hand, we are not to quarrel; we are to be gentle, humble (meek), patient, and able to correct (instruct). We must leave the results to God, knowing that we ourselves cannot change anyone against their will. Only God can drive the truth “home” effectively to the mind, bring the person to his or her senses, and move the heart to repentance.
Our life is our best answer. Many an unbeliever has been convinced of the truth by observing the genuine change in a newly converted spouse, other family member, or friend. A consistent godly life is the essential foundation of a credible verbal witness. At times we might have the privilege to speak. At other times we must earn the right to speak.
Colossians 4:5 and 6 says, “Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making most of the opportunity. Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned, as it were, with salt, so that you may know how you should respond to each person” (NASB).
The apostle Peter writes in the same vein: “For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men” (1 Peter 2:15 NKJV).
Peter goes on in 1 Peter 3:15, 16, “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear; having a good conscience, that when they defame you as evildoers, those who revile your good conduct in Christ may be ashamed” (NKJV).
Paul wrote to Titus, “...in all things showing yourself to be a pattern of good works; in doctrine showing integrity, reverence, incorruptibility, sound speech that cannot be condemned, that one who is an opponent may be ashamed, having nothing evil to say of you” (Titus 2:7, 8 NKJV).
When the situation calls for an answer, we must not be afraid or hesitant to speak up. We must speak as politely, kindly and respectfully as possible. We must not become argumentative. At the same time we must speak confidently, definitely and decisively. This requires mental and spiritual preparation, including a prayerful dependence on The Holy Spirit.
When people voice glib, flippant cavils, sometimes the best response is silence and a brief, serious look straight in the face.
Sometimes it is appropriate to say politely, “When you get saved, you'll see things differently.” The premise is that the problem is moral, not intellectual. When the heart gets right, the thinking straightens out.
When people ask questions such as “How do you know there's a God?” or “How do you know the Bible is true?” it is appropriate to respond calmly, “Is that a serious question?” “How serious are you about finding the answer?” In other words, is the person willing to give the time and effort to the subject that its importance demands? If not, it is not a sincere question.
An appropriate statement to a self-confident unbeliever would be: “If you are an atheist, you'd better be right.” Or, “How much are you willing to risk (how much are you risking) on the chance that Jesus Christ was wrong?” Or, “On a most important subject you have come to a very definite conclusion. I would like to review your research to see what you have discovered that conclusively discredits and refutes the massive body of evidence that supports the Christian faith.” These are just a few that should provoke a thinking person to serious self-reflection. The Holy Spirit can bring others to mind that are appropriate for each occasion.
Sometimes a person who expresses his or her ignorance openly and dogmatically needs to be reminded politely, “You are talking about something you do not understand.”
But remember, always know what you are talking about and be ready in humility to give a clear, reasoned explanation of the hope that is in you. Your purpose is to convert, not merely confute. One might win an argument with someone but make it harder to win that person’s soul.
Unless a person is “past feeling”—has deliberately and resolutely hardened himself and crushed all the highest and most noble qualities of his humanity—there resides deep within him a sense of incompleteness without God, an emptiness that only God Himself can fill. God has put eternity in his heart. The Holy Spirit is drawing him toward Christ, and he is discontented and dissatisfied until he yields that rebellious heart to his Savior and Lord. Our role is to work with The Holy Spirit in this great evangelical task.
Remember 2 Corinthians 10:4 and 5. Our weapons in this warfare are not of human ingenuity. They are “mighty through God.” That places our dependence and our confidence solidly on God and moves us to earnest, consistent prayer. God's promise in 2 Chronicles 7:14 still holds true: “If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land” (KJV).
God has His special way of responding to secular ignorance. In the early church God confirmed His word with signs following. God brought people to obedience by word and deed (Romans 15:18). That Biblical precedent and pattern is still God's method of operation. What is needed now is a massive reconfirmation of the word of God by signs, wonders, and miracles.
God is ready, willing, and active. He is calling us to join Him.