It isn’t possible to really know the truths of the gospel without it having a thoroughly life changing impact. If you know the truth without it making any particular difference in your day to day life, then you don’t really know it at all.
Obviously there are plenty people who are familiar with what the Bible teaches and even accept that it’s true. They know that they’re sinners and Jesus is the Saviour and they have no hope for eternity without him. But somehow it doesn’t translate into them putting their knowledge into practice and actually believing in Jesus for salvation. To all intents and purposes, they might as well not have the information at all. Because, if you know these things, why aren’t you acting like it?
The reason is that the knowledge that we hold in our heads doesn’t just sit there in a space purely reserved for facts and propositions, abstracted neatly from our likes and dislikes and experiences and inclinations. What shapes our knowledge, and especially how we act on our knowledge, is fundamentally the kind of person we are. For human beings, and fallen human beings, there are only two possibilities – either the kind of person who is simply fallen, or the kind of person who is fallen yet renewed.
To fallen humanity, nothing is more antithetical than God. Accepting that God is true is the last thing we want to do. We will generously concede some points when we have to, but only on our own terms, when it suits us to live with the consequences. What we can’t outright deny we ignore, and what we can’t forget we suppress. Our own sinfulness blinds our minds to the glaringly obvious realities that confront us in creation, providence, and scripture. Our own fallenness is the snarling gatekeeper for all the truths we’re prepared to accept in our minds and any truths we’ll ever act on in our lives.
It’s only that subset of fallen humanity who are renewed who are ever pleased with God and happy to hear what he has to say. The only kind of heart that gladly embraces the truth is a new heart. The Word gets a warm reception and is put into loving practice only when it’s sown in an honest and good heart, the kind that doesn’t come naturally.
This is what makes the difference between knowing you’re a sinner, and knowing you’re a sinner. In the unrenewed, this knowledge is denied, ignored, or suppressed. In the renewed, this knowledge is accepted, consented to, and motivates repentance towards God. The unrenewed know that Jesus is God’s appointed Saviour, and they reject him anyway. The renewed know that Jesus is the Saviour, and they love him and trust him accordingly.
It’s the state of our own hearts and minds – whether we hold our knowledge in the ethical environment of an unrenewed or a renewed heart and mind – the context of a heart and mind at peace with God or still enmity against him – that determines our relationship and reaction to the truths we’re acquainted with. The fallen person’s mind encounters the truth and resists it as far as they dare because of their own fallenness. The renewed person’s mind welcomes the truth and lives in harmony with it as far as they can, because of their renewedness.
The only way out of the trap set by our own nature is divine and gracious. We can’t renew ourselves. Attempting to know contrary to our own nature is as hopeless as trying to jump off our own shadow – trying to persuade ourselves of truths we’re fundamentally averse to, trying to empower ourselves to live as though we believed what we relentlessly reject, or trying to pretend to ignore the gross conflict between living life knowing that Jesus is the only Saviour and still refusing to be saved by him.
We simply cannot get beyond the constraints of our own nature. God has to rescue us from ourselves, if we’re to be rescued at all. Although we prefer to think hard thoughts about him, it is actually true that if any of us lacks wisdom we can ask it of him, as he gives it liberally to all sorts of people, and doesn’t reproach us over it.
Our minds are too dark for us to deal with, even supposing we wanted to come to the light, but not so dark that his Spirit can’t shine in. It’s a key part of his work to enlighten our minds in the knowledge of Christ in such a way that we’re persuaded and enabled to receive and rest on him as he is revealed in the gospel. Poor preachers have the task of preaching the truth to people whose minds and hearts are hardened, sermon-proof strongholds of resistance, but the situation is not hopeless while the light of God’s Word is shining out, and while the Holy Spirit is authorised and equipped to take of the things of Jesus and reveal them savingly to us.