Jesus Christ is the Truth – Part 2

Confessing Jesus Christ as the way, the truth, and the life means he is not merely one truth among others. He is the truth by which all others are measured.

Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.The Theological Declaration of Barmen, Article 1

Last time I talked about how certain “events and powers, figures and truths” were vying for recognition and acknowledgment in 1934 as sources of revelation, “apart from and besides this one Word of God.” I talked about how certain understandings of nature, history, and experience were proclaimed as decisive, definitive, and incontrovertible truths of our being “apart from and besides this one Word of God,” and why the Confessing Church in Germany rejected them as such. It rejected them as such, i.e., “apart from and besides this one Word of God,” because they constituted competing standards of authority. The point of Barmen’s first article is that Jesus Christ, as he attested for us in Holy Scripture, is not just one truth among others. He is the truth, the standard by which all others are measured.

Of course, this raises many questions, not least of which is: If “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture” is the truth, what is the relationship between him and other truths? It’s a big question and I cannot begin to answer it here with the degree of academic precision some of you may expect. But let me begin by responding to a concern I suspect some of you may have.

So long as we define truth simply as that which corresponds to reality, talking about truth is fairly easy. It’s easy until we’re asked, “What do you mean by reality?” “What do you mean by correspond?” Some of you may have noticed yesterday that I did not elaborate a general theory of truth, a coherence or correspondence theory, or any abstract, philosophical theory of truth. Some may have been disappointed. I suspect most were relieved. Yet some of you may wonder, “How will people ever believe Jesus Christ is the truth if they don’t even believe there is such a thing as truth?” I recognize this concern and think the Bible does as well. But the Bible doesn’t address this question abstractly.

Few scenes in the Bible are full of richer irony than when Pontius Pilate stands before Jesus and asks, “What is truth?” It’s rich because John’s Gospel repeatedly refers to Jesus as “the truth.” But it’s also rich because of who is asking question. It’s a Roman! Since when have Romans been interested in truth? Oh they’re famous for being great warriors, architects, and builders, but not for thinking about the truth. For them, truth tended to be a nice idea, but not really necessary to get things done. Yet Pilate asks about truth. But he can’t recognize the truth even when it is standing in front of him, talking to him.

When it comes to truth, the Bible knows our preference for abstraction. Like the woman at the well, who, instead of answering Jesus’ question, preferred to discuss a general religious question, “Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship” (John 4:20).

I’m not at all so sure people have really changed so much in this regard. It has been said that if given the choice between having the truth or having the quest for the truth, modern people tend to prefer the quest. The reason, it is said, is because modern people are more skeptical about having the truth. They don’t think truth is so havable. But another reason is that claiming to know the truth places demands on us. Once you claim there is such a thing as truth, you’re accountable to it. You’ve admitted there’s a standard. That’s why talking about truth is so dangerous.

I’m not at all so sure modern people are more skeptical about truth. Many before Pilate asked, “What is truth?” And many ask it today. I don’t know what you tell them. But I suspect some of you have discovered that adding adjectives like absolute or objective doesn’t usually help much. I know many of you have encountered those in our culture who are quite agnostic about truth. I know some of you have encountered others who are definitely not agnostic. You’ve encountered nihilists who say, “We can’t know the truth,” and when you ask, “Is that true?” or when relativists say, “There are no absolutes,” and you ask: “Hmm. Isn’t that a pretty absolute claim?” it’s easy to point out the inconsistency and futility of thinking of those who, Paul says, “suppress the truth” (Rom. 1:18). Yet such suppression is real, deep, and profound, such that, as Scripture teaches, they really do not know the truth––or even sometimes their right hand from their left (Jonah 4:11).

Nihilists and relativists certainly exist among us. But most in our culture today do not deny there is such a thing as truth. Even on most university campuses today, most do not deny there is such a thing as truth. Contrary to what you may have heard, most affirm it. There may be little consensus about what it is, but there is no shortage of those who claim to know the truth, especially those who claim to know the truth about Western civilization, namely, that it’s bad! Indeed, in affirming this and many other claims, most do not deny divine transcendence. On the contrary, many see themselves as upholding transcendent values. Few are thoroughgoing materialists. Many consider themselves spiritual. Most are not against spirituality. Rather than being irreligious, most American universities today are more religious than ever before. They are certainly not godless. There are many gods!

Yet even among those who don’t think Western civilization is all bad and who are more traditionally religious, truth has little if anything to do with Jesus Christ. This isn’t new, of course. I suspect many of you know it’s not just the way of many in our universities. It’s the way of many in our churches. So, it raises the question: When it comes to confessing Jesus Christ as the way, the truth, and the life, what are we saying? 

To be sure, I certainly don’t know all that’s at stake in confessing Jesus Christ as the truth. I’ve got so much more to learn. But here are three things I’m learning.

1. How We Come to Know the Truth

Yesterday I acknowledged that maybe you have learned more about God standing on a seashore, or watching a sunset, or sitting in a deer stand than you have in church or reading the Bible. But the question is not where we learn more or less about God, but where we learn the one thing necessary, the truth.

You and I may learn all sorts of things about God by all sorts of means, but how would we know they are true––and what difference would it make––unless we know the truth about God, namely, that he loves us and sent his Son to die for us in order that we might live with him forever? And, to be sure, you and I did not learn this––and we would never have learned this––merely sitting on a deer stand, standing on a seashore, or watching a sunset, as inspiring as these experiences may be.

The point I tried to make last time is that confessing Jesus Christ as the way, the truth, and the life means he is not merely one truth among others. He is the truth by which all others are measured. Now I want to go further and say that not only is he not one truth among others, but, also according Scripture and our confessions, we do not come to know him as the truth like we come to know other truths.[1] How we come to know him is different. Jesus said to Peter: “Flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 16:17). Paul said: “The natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14).  What does this mean? It means apart from Jesus Christ making himself known through his Holy Spirit we do not know who he is. No teaching is more basic in Reformed theology than it takes God to reveal God. “For God alone is a fit witness of himself,”Calvin says (Institutes 1.7.4).This is the way of faith seeking understanding, and faith, Calvin defines, as “a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise inChrist, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Institutes 3.2.7).

Yes, Jesus Christ is a fact like other facts, but we do not come to know the truth of Jesus Christ like we come to know other facts and truths. True knowledge of God is not abstract knowledge as one might deduce from a syllogism or mathematical equation. Nor is it like a nickel you pick up off the sidewalk. It is knowledge that is revealed. What is otherwise hidden to human perception is disclosed by God’s free decision. It is not so much something as Someone (and not just anyone, but God!). It’s more like personal knowledge, yet requires a participation made possible only by the Holy Spirit. 

I realize that talk about the Holy Spirit makes some Presbyterians nervous. But nothing is clearer in Scripture than that true knowledge of God comes by faith and faith is a gift, a miracle, a work of the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit does not merely aid our intellect or confirm or authenticate what the mind would otherwise recognize as true if functioning properly and if presented with sufficient evidence. No, the Holy Spirit does more than give a final boost or synapse at the end of a long intellectual struggle for faith.  The Holy Spirit does more than merely provide a supplement to enhance our mental acuity or natural brain functioning (sort of like fish oil!). No, the Holy Spirit implants a new capacity. We are made a new creation! He does not destroy reason but redirects it. He does not suspend normal cognitive functioning, but he establishes, as Jonathan Edwards says, “a new faculty of understanding,” “a new foundation [is] laid in the nature of the soul.”[2]  

I emphasize this because this work of the Holy Spirit has been often neglected or misunderstood by many, not least by many Presbyterians in America over the last 200 years.[3]  Confessing Jesus Christ as the truth has thus been understood more or less as a matter of common sense. As a result, many Christians have talked as if they had “the truth” by the tail or in their pocket. Some think it is so handy, so much at their disposal, that they can whoop it out at their pleasure and use it as a club. But when that happens the truth of Jesus Christ is misrepresented.

So, yes, by all means, “be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Pet. 3:15). And if some don’t recognize him as the truth it may not be because they are irrational. They may be more rational than you can imagine. The miracle––for which there is no substitute and is always beyond our control––has simply yet to occur.

2. An Order of Truth

Jesus Christ is not one truth among others, and we do not come to know Him as the truth like we come to know other truths. Yet there are many truths in the Bible and in this world that are worth knowing and acknowledging. So how do they relate, the truth and truths? It’s a huge question. It’s a question the church has been wrestling with long before the founding of the first university a thousand years or so ago. The early church fathers wrestled with it. And I can’t begin to do justice to it now. But let me describe the basic challenge.

Ever since Christians have confessed Jesus Christ as the truth they have been met by many others who also claim to know the truth. Christians have not denied but have by and large affirmed all sorts of truths found elsewhere. I say “by and large” because there have been among Christian obscurantists (known today as “fundamenta-lists”) who have denied truth found elsewhere. But the mainstream of the Christian tradition has affirmed with great energy and enthusiasm all sorts of truths found elsewhere, indeed, anywhere.[4] That’s why universities were founded in Europe. That’s why Jesus’ words are engraved in stone on colleges throughout this country, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free” (John 8:32). That’s why Christians have been so committed to liberal arts education. Jesus not only claimed to be the truth but he said his Spirit would lead us into “all truth” (John 16:13). The truth of Jesus Christ, the church has recognized, is infinitely rich and manifold. He is the Alpha and Omega, the One in whom, through whom, for whom all things were created (Col. 1:15ff). Abraham Kuyper expresses this beautifully in a statement many of you know: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!’”[5]

This is a beautiful statement and I don’t want to quibble with it. But it has often been misunderstood because it has often been interpreted in light of a far more popular claim, which has often functioned as its paraphrase, namely, “All truth is God’s truth.” If there was a more popular claim among American evangelicals in the 20th century, I do not know what it would be. It has often been used by evangelicals to disabuse the charge that they are the narrow-minded, obscurantist, ghettoizing fundamen-talists that critics claim.[6]

But, you ask, Isn’t it so? Isn’t “all truth God’s truth”? Sure, it is. But let me mention a common misunderstand-ing of this statement that I’m not the first to point out. In his book, Contending for the Faith, Ralph Wood, writes:

“All truth is from God” remains, among Protestants, the favorite unguent to grease a multitude of academic sins. This single bromide has poisoned our ability to ask whether there are greater and lesser truths, whether there is a single incarnate Truth ordering all other truths, and thus whether there are counterfeits to be identified and opposed.[7]

Do you see what’s at stake here? 1) Yes, all truth is God’s truth! But Jesus Christ is not just one truth among others!  2) Yes, the truth, Jesus Christ, is infinitely manifold, multifaceted, and is reflected throughout the entire created order, every square inch of it! But Jesus Christ is not just any kind of truth and where we come to know him as such is not arbitrary. 3) Yes, he will lead us by his Spirit into all truth (John 16:13). And we should not hesitate to follow wherever he leads. But there are many kinds of truths in this world and knowing all sorts of them may not necessarily lead one back to Jesus Christ. Knowing them may raise all sorts of important questions. And even questions about him. But there is no guarantee they will necessarily lead us all back to him, to the truth.  Not here and now. The Bible gives us no such promise.

Here and now, as Wood says, there is an order of truth. This is what it means to confess Jesus Christ is the truth. It means “there is a single incarnate Truth ordering all other truths.” It means we are to “take every thought captive” (2 Cor. 10:5) to this truth, as Paul says. And when we don’t, we risk not our own confusion, but risk distorting the truth about God. We risk diminishing and domesticating Jesus Christ, who is the way, the truth, and the life of God in this world.

When Christians have confessed Jesus Christ to be the truth we have insisted he is a special, unique truth, divine truth, truth of completely different class, species, and order. Thus, it should come as no surprise that confessing Jesus Christ to be the truth is considered provocative today. It’s always been provocative and always will be. And if it’s not, then people do not understand, and we ourselves do not understand, what we are talking about.

Let me give you another reason why it is and always has been considered provocative. When the church has confessed Jesus Christ as the truth and been faithful to Scripture, it has always done so in continuity with Israel, in complete and unequivocal agreement with the Shema: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One” (Deut. 6:4). Certainly, this has profound implications for who we are, but also for who God is. To say, “The Lord is One” and “Jesus is Lord,” forced the church to reckon early on with the Trinity, yes, and also something called ‘the simplicity’ of God, namely, that there is an integrity, wholeness, indivisibility, unity, and oneness of God and the truth, Jesus Christ, who God is.

What does it mean to say, The Lord is One? It means divine truth cannot be divided up, parceled out, tacked on, or distributed. It cannot be used. It is whole, complete-in-itself, self-revealing, self-determining, self-authenticating, or it is something else altogether. I wish we had time to discuss this, but it is what the church’s greatest theologians have known. Suffice it to say: divine truth is like no other truth in or of this world. [8]

Of course, I wonder if you think any of this really matters or if you think it has any practical significance or if it is just a vain intellectual exercise, some sort of head trip that has no bearing on ‘real life.’ If so, I wonder how much you have thought about some of the young people I know. Or I wonder how much you have thought about the only conversation the Bible records Jesus ever having with a young person. Do you remember Jesus’ conversa-tion with the rich young man? He asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus cited the Law. And the young man responded, “All these things I have kept from my youth.” And do you remember what Jesus said? He said: “You lack one thing” (Matt. 19:16–22).

What a highly impressive, conscientious, dedicated, responsible individual this young man was! Who wouldn’t want him on your team, as an employee, a co-worker, a public official, or perhaps even as a family member? Yet Jesus said to him, “You lack one thing.”

Yes, Jesus added, “Go and sell all you have and give it to the poor,” which might suggest his basic problem was that he was materialistic and the lesson for us is not to be. But that’s too easy. It doesn’t go deep enough. The Bible doesn’t have anything against people having things and records no other instance of Jesus telling anyone to sell all they have and give it to the poor. Yes, this young man had many things and perhaps many things had him. But the text does not portray him as obsessed with things or suggest that he was simply a materialist, living on four feet, licking the earth, seeking to suck as much juice out of it as possible before dying. No, not at all. What does he want? He wants “eternal life.” He asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” And here’s the thing: He thinks there’s something he can do to get it.

The most disturbing feature of this passage to me is how moral and virtuous this young man was. His life was about many good things. He was doing many good things. He was keeping the Law, the Ten Command-ments, which––if you are determined simply not to break them, but actually to keep them or fulfill them––takes an enormous amount of time, energy, and discipline. And this is what this young man claims to have done. And the text gives us no reason to doubt his sincerity. Yet Jesus said to him, “You lack one thing.” What was it?

Before answering, should we not pause a moment and consider that it was one thing, not many things, a set of things, a laundry list of things, or even what some of our dear friends and fellow believers may call “first things”?

His life was certainly active and full of doing many good things. He must have been very disciplined. But fulfilling so many righteous demands and obligations, how could he not have felt divided, fragmented by the force of being pulled so in many directions?

This is the great burden of living under the Law. And you may say, “I’m glad I don’t live under the Law.” But isn’t that how many of you feel here today? You feel you’re being pulled in so many directions by so many demands and obligations. Is this not a problem for you? It is for me. It’s not so much having to choose between doing so many bad things. It’s having to choose between doing so many good and righteous things! There are so many competing goods vying for our time, attention, energy, and resources, so many righteous demands and obligations. Most pastors I know often feel overwhelmed because people are continually saying to them, “We need to do this.” “We need to do that.” “This is important.” “That’s important.” And it all usually is! But how does one decide between doing so many good and important things? Pastors, of course, are by no means the only ones forced to decide between so many competing goods.

So how do we decide? Augustine, the church’s greatest theologian of the first millennium, said we must order our loves.[9] Why must we order our loves? Because we cannot love all things equally. And we do not love all things equally. We love some things more than others. The problem is: we are often not aware of it. We get confused. Sometimes we think we are loving one thing when we are really loving something else. I am not talking here about inordinate love. I am talking about loving people, purposes, and things that are worth loving. And let’s not kid ourselves by saying: “O I love everybody.” Really? I don’t think so. Or at least that’s likely news to many we claim to love.

Ordering our loves is easier said than done. Most of us say we love or want to love what is good. Yet there are so many good things to love and it is impossible to love all things equally. So, we must choose among a multiplicity of goods, which means we must decide not simply what is good, but what is the highest good. And do you remember the first thing Jesus said to this rich young man, after he addressed him as “Good Teacher”? Jesus asked, “Why do you call me good?”

Jesus was inviting this young man from the get-go to think more deeply about the good. He invited him to know and to love not simply the highest good, but the Source of all good, God himself. This young man was about many good and righteous things, but Jesus said to him, “You lack one thing.” And it was not simply one more thing on his to-do list. Nor was it a sense of meaning or purpose or larger organizing principle of life.

No, it was the one thing necessary: the truth, apart from which we will never be able rightly to order our loves. He lacked the way, the truth, and the life of God living in him. He lacked the life-giving, life-transforming Spirit of the living God who comes to us through Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ alone. He is our life, our salvation, our wisdom, righteousness, strength, peace, joy, and hope.

Notice: Jesus didn’t ask this young man simply to acknowledge this as a fact. Jesus called him to follow him. He didn’t ask merely for his intellectual assent. He asked for more. He asked for his life. True knowledge of God, you see, is always active knowledge and never merely passive, which is why Calvin says, “all right knowledge of God is born of obedience” (Institutes 1.6.2)

In other words, if we truly know God, we will follow him. But not in order to earn our salvation or make ourselves worthy. No, our salvation is in him alone. He is the One in whom the Law has already been fulfilled and who has done everything for us and for our salvation. Thus, for us it is no longer a matter of striving to earn our salvation by fulfilling the law, but a matter of joyful obedience to him in whom our salvation has been fulfilled and is complete. Christ alone is our salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, as told to us through Scripture alone. 

This is what the Protestant Reformation was about. It was about this one thing. It was about acknowledging this one truth. Each of the “solas”––Christ alone, grace alone, faith alone, Scripture alone––were never meant to be understood separately, but always together, mutually reinforcing, clarifying, and underscoring this one truth, Jesus Christ. And confessing this one truth has always been a challenge. It has always been subject to misunderstanding both within and without the church. 

In November of 1962, on the eve of the Second Vatican Council, a reporter from Paris traveled to Basel, Switzerland, to interview Karl Barth, whom Pope Pious XII had called, “the greatest theologian since Thomas Aquinas.” The reporter asked, “In your opinion, what is the greatest obstacle to rapprochement between the Evangelical Church and the Catholic Church?” Barth answered,

 It is one tiny word that the Roman Church adds on after each of our propositions. It is the word “and.”  When we say “Jesus,” the Catholics say, “Jesus and Mary.” We seek to obey only our Lord the Christ; Catholics obey Christ and his vicar on earth, the pope. We believe that the Christian is saved by the merits of Jesus Christ; the Catholics add “and by one’s own merits”. … We think that the only source of revelation is Scripture; the Catholics add, “and Tradition.” We say that the knowledge of God is obtained by faith in his Word as it expresses itself in Scripture, the Catholics add, “and by reason.” In fact, here, one hits upon the fundamental problem of the relation between grace and freedom in the salvation of humans.[10]

The Protestant Reformation, to be sure, was not the discovery but the rediscovery that we are saved by Jesus Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone, as told to us through Scripture alone. It was the rediscovery that Jesus Christ is not one truth among others, and we do not come to know him as the truth like we come to know other truths. And though there are many truths in this world that are worth knowing and acknowledging, there is an order of truth. And the rediscovery of this order of truth, this singular focus and commitment to Jesus Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone, through Scripture alone, changed the world.

Please don’t misunderstand my point here: I am not saying we Protestants are the only ones who have kept this straight. We have not! We have sometimes done far worse than others in keeping this focus. And, to be sure, there is a lot we can learn from Roman Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, and others. But, friends, we have a wonderful heritage, a powerful intellectual tradition, and remarkably rich theological resources, that can be of enormous help to us in keeping focus on this one thing, this one truth, Jesus Christ, as he attested for us in Holy Scripture. And I wonder what would happen if we were to rediscover these resources. I wonder what would happen if we were to learn again to confess this one truth and order our loves according to it. I wonder what would emerge from all the ecclesial rubble that surrounds us, all the spiritual confusion in this world. I wonder.

3. The Truth About God Is …

Yet may I mention one more thing I’m learning about this one truth? In my junior year in college, I began reading the Danish philosopher, Kierkegaard. He made a deep impression on me. One book was entitled, Purify Your Hearts. It’s a commentary on one verse from The Book of James, chapter 4: “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” The whole book is an exposition of the infinite number of ways one can be double-minded in doing or seeking to do the will of God.

I remember learning more about myself than I ever wanted to learn. One line stands out to this day: “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” In page after page, Kierkegaard exposed layer after layer of double- mindedness in me. It was not what you call “a pleasurable read.” But it made the point, on the one hand, of what a great challenge it is to live a life of single-minded obedience to the truth and, on the other hand, how empty, vain, frivolous, and superficial life would be not to try. Kierkegaard showed to me more clearly than ever that living in single-minded obedience to the truth requires duty, determination, and discipline. There is no way around it. And I will always be grateful for Kierkegaard.

But there is one thing I did not learn from him. Maybe I should have, but I didn’t. And maybe this is what this rich young man didn’t get either. It’s this: The life to which Jesus calls us is not simply about duty, determination, and discipline. Yes, living in single-minded obedience to the truth, requires duty, determination, and discipline. It requires living according to an order of truth, ordering our loves, etc. But there is more to it than that. There is something else about the truth, the truth about God, we should know. Do you know what it is?  It is that the truth about God is beautiful.

The truth about God is not merely a brute fact that we will all sooner or later be forced to acknowledge. It is not simply a superior power to which we will all sooner or later be forced to yield or bend our knees. The truth about God is more than this. The truth about God is beautiful. It is pleasant. It is desirable. It attracts us. It gives us pleasure. It brings us joy!

Did you know that our 16th and 17th century Protestant forebears did not talk much about this? They didn’t write much about God’s beauty. They had their reasons. They were suspicious that the truth of God might be confused with aestheticism. It happens a lot: “O Preacher, that was a beautiful service.” “Well, I didn’t mean it to be. I meant to tell you the truth.” Our forebears were right to be cautious. Truth and beauty are not the same and are often confused. And surely the truth about God may not be beautiful like beauty defined elsewhere. But that does not mean the truth about God is not beautiful.[11]  

The truth is: God is beautiful and that’s biblical: “One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple” (Ps. 27:4).

How beautiful is the beauty of the Lord? Jesus put it like this: It’s“like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. [It’s] like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it” (Matt. 13:44–46). This is what the rich young man did not know or could even imagine. And who among us here does not need to understand this better?

But let me add that in Mark’s account, Jesus doesn’t just say to the rich young man, “You lack one thing.” Mark adds, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him …”

Brothers and sisters, there is no question that following Jesus requires us to re-valuate many things, many good things, and to order our loves. But it is all for the sake of One who brings us joy and whose beauty is true and never fades and whose love never ends.


Richard Burnett
Richard Burnett
The Reverend Richard E. Burnett, Ph.D., is the Executive Director and Managing Editor of Theology Matters.

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