How Can I Know God?
by Pastor Daniel J. Phillips
Life's Biggest Question
Have you ever asked the really big question?
Before you try to answer, I suppose that first we must ask, "What is the Big Question in life?" When we look around at people in our world, it does not seem that too many are asking any questions of life at all, does it? They are simply living, pumping blood and processing food, going through the day-to-dayness of existence as if all the big questions were already taken care of — that is, as if they aleady knew who they were, why they were alive, what was really important in life… and what will happen to them after they die.
What would you say that the biggest question in life is, in the eyes of the majority? Judging from the lives that most folks in our society live, I would guess that the biggest question is, "How can I get what I want out of life?" Then, when we look more closely at the "what I want" part, we're talking self-oriented materialism of one sort or another. Some of it is open hedonism; some of it is cloaked as philanthropy undertaken to improve our self-image. Either way, we're after continual happiness, as often as not sought through partying, sex, having bucks deluxe, and getting lots of things. Even what we think of as non-materialistic aspirations still are quite tangible: popularity, close relationships, power, success, self-satisfaction for doing good deeds. The really happy person (in our society's unwritten Bible) is the person who has those things — or at least most of them.
Now, here is where you probably brace yourself for a sermon. After all, this is a religious essay, so you know what to expect, right? Here is where I am supposed to rant and rave about how all those things are bad, and about how everybody who wants them is an idiot? Right?
In fact, if I may speak candidly, I would have to say that, if this life is all there is then the biggest and best question that anyone can ask is, "How can I get MINE?" In fact, that is really the only question!
If this life is all there is.
But what if it isn't?
Okay, all right; maybe you believe that this life is all there is, that "the grave ends everything," and that all you really have to worry about is stimulating your body and mind with all those things we talked about a minute ago. Fair enough; a lot of people think that way. But I want to challenge you — dare you, even — to try thinking another way for a minute. Play "Let's Suppose" with me.
Let's Suppose: the Bad News
Suppose that the Bible is true. I know you haven't thought that, but you're supposing with me for a moment. Suppose that this life isn't all there is; suppose that the beer commercial was only half-right when it said, "You only go around once in life, so you have to grab for all the gusto you can get." Suppose that the Bible, instead, is right when it says, "it is appointed for men to die once, and after this is the judgment" (Hebrews 9:27).
Keep supposing with me. So, here you live out your 20 years (or 30, 50, 70, or maybe, if you give up cigarettes, hot fudge sundaes, and meat [— as if!], 90). You party hearty, you grab for that gusto, you take a toke of this and a snort of that and a hit of the other thing; in short, you check off all of the American Top Ten boffo fun exciting things. Then you wheeze your last — and you are history. Ancient history. Person in a Box — all dressed up, and somewhere to go.
Well, according to the Bible, this particular Soul Train has one major preliminary stop, and after that, only two possible let-off points. First stop? You just read about it: "the judgment."
Now, if you're bright, you're going to want to know two things about this "judgment." First, you'll want to know what kind of judge we are talking about. Second, you'll want to know what he is going to be looking for.
The Judge. As to the first question, the news is not so hot — for us. One man named John was actually given a supernatural preview of the scene of judgment, and here is what he saw: "And I saw a great white throne, and the One who sat upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away" (Revelation 20:11). Who is John describing? God, of course.
What kind of "God" are we talking about here? Is he the popular god of American culture and mythology, who essentially chuckles down lovingly at us in our self-chosen pursuits, approving unconditionally of us and helping us out here and there? Is he the omnipotent Santa Claus in the Sky? Is He The Man Upstairs, politely keeping out of our affairs unless very desperately needed? Are His mottoes really Let Bygones Be Bygones, and Kids Will Be Kids, and Oh Well, Nobody's Perfect, as most Americans seem to believe?
This question of who God is should be on the top of our lists, especially since you and I absolutely will face Him, eventually. And we should keep in mind that we have no idea whatever what "eventually" will mean. Do you think people who die are guaranteed any advance warning? Do you imagine that some sort of sign appears, blaring the announcement: "Mr. Jones, you have five minutes to prepare for eternity"? True enough, for you and for me, "eventually" can mean "five years from now." But equally, it can mean "five nanoseconds from now."
The Bible has some shock treatment for us here, as to what awaits us all, eventually. It turns out that the real God isn't anything like the god of popular American mythology. And that little fact makes a whole eternity of difference.
The Bible tells us right off that very name is "Holy" (Isaiah 57:15). How holy? Try this: even sinless angels hide their faces in His presence, and keep saying, "Holy! Holy! Holy!" over and over again (Isaiah 6:5) — as if even they cannot get over how awesomely, breath-takingly holy God is! What's more, sinless and pure though they are, they cover their faces in His presence, as if even they cannot bear the sight.
When the Bible talks about God's holiness, it is referring to the fact that He is utterly separate from sin. That is, He is completely, absolutely, totally removed, disassociated, from sin. He hates sin, He cannot stand sin. It is the antithesis of His character. Sin makes God sicker and angrier than you or I can even imagine. In fact, did you notice how that verse in Revelation said that God's throne was "white"? That is a Bible way of underlining the total, spotless purity of God. You can get the same message a hundred different ways from the Bible — like reading Psalm 99, where God is called "holy" again and again.
The Judgement. What we just learned had ought to give you a clue as to what God will demand from us, when He judges us. He will demand nothing less than total holiness. There you have the answer to your second question, "What is God looking for?" God will be examining your life and mine, and if we want to pass His judgement we must be able to present complete, spotless, seamless, and flawless holiness.
And I need to clue you in on something: in this department, you and I do not have a prayer!
Maybe at this point, you will want to sputter and say, "Wait a minute! I'm not so bad!" I think I know just what you mean when you say that, too. You mean that you have never killed anybody, and if you've participated in an abortion, you believe that doesn't count. You have never raped anybody. You aren't a homosexual; or, if you are, then you were just "made that way," like Phil Donahue's gray hair, and you have a right to find love just like everyone else. You don't usually rob or lie viciously; or, if you have done one of these things, you feel bad about it, so now it's okay. In fact, you're a pretty good> guy, when we come right down to it. And so on.
Fine. You feel that you're not perfect, but you are pretty good. But let me ask you one question: "pretty good" compared to whom?
Basically, you and I want to be compared to Charles Manson, or Osama bin Laden, or Adolf Hitler, or Saddam Hussein, or Charles Daumer. Maybe stacked up against those guys you and I feel that we come out pretty squeaky-clean.
But what if God doesn't judge by those comparisons? I mean, what if that's not His point? What if those guys are not His points of comparison? What if His attitude is not, "I'll let anybody in who's better than bin Laden; everyone else goes to Hell"?
The truth is, that is not His attitude. As we mentioned, there are only two stops after the judgement: Heaven, and Hell. To be blunt, God's real attitude is, "Only the perfectly righteous can come in to Heaven; everyone else goes to Hell." And I hope that you don't have any of those really foolish attitudes about Hell that you can sometimes find. You know, people who say, "Gee, I hope> I go to Hell; all my friends will be there" (yuck-yuck-yuck), or "I'll be so busy playing cards that I won't even notice the flames (ho-ho-ho), or the rest. You've heard them; God help you, maybe you've even said one. Most of us have.
Friend, nobody will be playing cards with his friends in Hell. Nobody is going to be "friends" in Hell, for that matter. You want to know what Hell is, what it really is? Jesus, who knew precisely what He was talking about (John 3:31, 32), told us plenty about Hell — more than we might wish. In fact, Jesus — everyone's Poster Child for preaching a God of Non-judgmental Love and Coolness, told us more about Hell than anyone else in the Bible. Jesus — Jesus! — said that Hell is eternal fire, and eternal punishment (Matthew 25:41, 46). Jesus said that Hell is a place like a furnace of blazing flames, where people will all be weeping and gnashing their teeth in agony and regret (Matthew 13:42, 50). Jesus said that Hell is a place where the worm of the damned does not die and the fire is not quenched (Mark 9:48). Jesus called Hell a place of outer darkness (Matthew 22:13). And Jesus said that Hell is forever (Matthew 25:41).
It is as if Jesus purposely exhausts human language, searching for ways of bringing home to us the fact that Hell is unspeakably awful, hopeless, endless torment. Whatever horrors we can imagine, Hell is worse. Jesus clearly wants us to be perfectly clear about the fact that Hell is miserable and terrifying beyond all our ability to imagine.
There. Do you still think that Hell is pretty funny? Still want to joke about it? I know I don't. No wonder Jesus said, "For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his soul?" (Mark 8:36) What profit, indeed? Do a chart on that one! Weigh 40 or 90 years of self-oriented living, against endless trillions and trillions of years of unrelieved anguish. Not much of a deal at all.
And add to that the fact that all of us have sinned, and continually fall sort of the glorious nature of God (Romans 3:23). None of us measures up to His absolute standard. And sin is one boss that has never, ever changed its salary through inflation, deflation, or cost-of-living adjustments: "the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23). Not just death of our body, but that eternal punishment and torment and anguish or our soul, that living death, that we just saw laid out in Jesus' words.
A Scary Scene. We are still "supposing" together, then. You die, you find yourself standing before God's judgement seat to give an account of yourself (cf. Romans 14:12). God asks you, "Why should I let you into My Heaven, Bob? Juanita? Raj?" — and you say...what? "Because I'm better than Charles Manson"? Wrong answer; that isn't what He is looking for, as we just saw. Try again. "Because I am a pretty good guy/gal"? Wrong answer; "pretty good" won't wash. We already saw that. How about, "Because I did a lot of good things"? Won't that work? No.
Just in case you still don't get the point: TOTAL, SINLESS, WOMB-TO-TOMB PERFECTION is what you and I will need if we want to win our way to Heaven. I am talking about the sort of perfect person who has never sexually lusted after the wrong person in his heart (Matthew 5:28) What is "the wrong person? In case you forget the Bible's standards, which is easy to do in our culture, "the wrong person" is anybody other than your wife or husband. Again, it is the sort of person who has never been angry or abusive with another (Matthew 5:21, 22). Or again, it is the sort of person who has never desired something (or someone) that belonged to somebody else (Romans 7:7-9; this is the one that got Paul, in spite of his meticulously religious upbringing and life).
In fact, we are talking about the sort of perfection that has flawlessly fulfilled all of God's commandments (James 2:10, 11). You may respond, "Gee, I don't even know all of those commandments?" Well then, clearly that means that you obviously do not qualify, doesn't it?
Now, how do you measure up to those standards? While you're puzzling out the answer to that, do you mind if I ask your wife, your husband, your best friends? Get the point?
Let me tell you how I measure up: I'm totally sunk! If I need to produce that kind of righteousness to get into Heaven, then I literally do not have a snowball's chance in the Sahara! I mean, one sin blows the whole deal — and God knows that this old boy passed the "one-sin" mark before I even left the womb!
Now, frankly, I hope that you're a little bothered right now. In fact, I hope that you're a lot bothered. There aren't nearly enough people nearly as bothered about this as there should be. There are folks who do not have a gnat's hiccup of a chance of passing God's judgement, who in spite of that fact feel that everything is just fine and dandy between them and God. I hope that's not you my friend; truly I do. Or if it has been, I pray your eyes are coming open to the truth of the situation.
So maybe you're asking, "How can anybody be 'saved'? Nobody has that kind of righteousness! Why, you'd have to be Jesus Christ to produce that kind of life!"
The Good News
In fact, you are much closer to the answer than you might imagine. ("I am?" Yep — just read on!)
At one point, Jesus' disciples "were extremely amazed, saying, 'Then who is able to be saved?' And looking at them closely, Jesus told them, 'With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible'" (Matthew 19:25, 26).
The Bible teaches the most astonishing, the most unexpected thing about what God did for sinners like me. Maybe you remember John 3:16 — "For thus did God love the world: that He gave His unique Son, in order that everyone who believes in Him should not perish, but should have life eternal." That is, in His astounding love God did something that actually saves sinners from their justly-deserved fate of eternal Hell, something that actually transfers their citizenship into His eternal kingdom of Heaven. Isn't that wonderfully good news?
The Bible tells us that Jesus came to "save His people from their sins" (Matthew 1:21). In Jesus' very own words, He came "to serve, and to give His life a ransom in the place of many" (Matthew 20:28). That word ransom means a price paid to set us free — free from the grips of our sin, and from its terrifying, horrible penalty. Later, Jesus said that His blood would be "poured out for many for forgiveness of sins" (Matthew 26:28). Now, I hope that you see that all these things — being given eternal life, being saved, being ransomed and set free, and being forgiven of our sins — are precisely what we need. But how does that work? The answer is fantastic beyond my power to describe adequately. But I will try.
First, Jesus was born under the law of God (Galatians 4:4), and He perfectly fulfilled that law by a spotlessly righteous, sinless life. Jesus "has been tempted in all respects as we are — without sin" (Hebrews 4:15). In His own life, He was "holy, innocent, undefiled" and "separated from sinners" (Hebrews 7:26). For this reason, He was the only human being who had no sin for which He needed forgiveness (Hebrews 7:27). He was the only one who ever lived who met that standard of total, flawless, sinless perfection that I described earlier.
Now before the next part, I need to remind you of something. God is holy, and you and I are guilty before Him, utterly without excuse. And because He is holy, God must punish our sin in His wrath, with that eternal death that you read about a few minutes ago. If He just was "a good guy" and "let us off," then we would never be able to say that He was truly holy, would we? Of course not. His holiness absolutely cannot tolerate sin. So His very nature requires that He must punish our sin; and we must have perfect righteousness if we are to enter His presence.
That is where the great exchange comes in.
The Great Exchange. The "great exchange" happened at the cross, where Jesus died for sinners. Why do you think that Jesus died at Calvary? Why do you think that He yelled out, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me"? Was it because of some sin of His own, because of something wrong that He had done? Of course not!
It was because Jesus was bearing sin. My sin, and the sins of all of His people. Do you remember that verse we just read (Matthew 1:21), where the angel said that Jesus "Himself will save His people from their sins"? This was how Jesus did it: He Himself bore the wrath of God in the stead of His people! That is, it was as if God transferred my sin, and the sins of countless sinners besides, to the "account" of that spotless Man, Jesus Christ. Then God forsook Jesus; He turned His back on Jesus in His wrath for sin — but it was my sin! And under that burden, the burden of human sin, Jesus suffered and died on the cross.
But do you remember one thing that He said before He died? He said, "It is finished" (John 19:30)! This translates a solitary Greek verb, tetelestai. Sometimes that selfsame Greek word used to describe a bill that had been paid in full. That is exactly what Jesus was saying. He was saying that He had paid the bill in full for His people, and had accomplished perfect and complete salvation for them.
Perhaps you say, "How do I know that God accepted Jesus' sacrifice as sufficient?" You know it because of the proof of its acceptance. The proof is the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead! Scripture says that Jesus "was delivered over [to death] on account of our transgressions, and was raised [from the dead] on account of our being declared righteous" (Romans 4:25). That last part means that the resurrection of Jesus is God's "all-clear," His signal that the sacrifice of Jesus for His people had been accepted as payment in full.
That is one part of the great exchange: my sin was "credited" to Jesus Christ on Calvary. But that still does not give me the perfect righteousness that I need to enter Heaven. How that I get that — or is it, in fact, impossible?
This brings us to the other part of the great exchange. When I believe in Jesus Christ, accepting Him and His words as true; when I by faith take Jesus Christ as my Savior and Lord, I am credited with His own perfect righteousness! That is, my sin had been transferred to Him; now His righteousness is transferred to me. What a fantastic exchange! The Bible calls this "the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe" (Romans 3:22), and says that each person can be "declared righteous [— a courtroom term] as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus" (Romans 3:24).
Is this automatic? Suppose you have read about this, and now understand it a little better. Does that mean that you possess this gift of Christ's righteousness, and all that goes with it? Not at all! Goodness, the devil and his fallen angels understand these things — and they certainly aren't going to Heaven!
So I hope that at this point you are wondering, "How can I get this gift? It is what I need more than anything in the world — so how can I get it?"
Scripture tells us plainly what God's terms are. We receive this gift through faith in Jesus Christ. We must personally know and belong to Jesus. Jesus said, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through Me" (John 14:6). Again, Jesus said, "The one who believes in [Me] is not condemned; the one who does not believe already stands condemned" (John 3:18). John the Baptist said the same thing: "The one who believes in the Son has life eternal; but the one who disobeys the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains upon him" (John 3:36). Again, the apostle John said that many people did not receive Jesus, but "as many as did receive Him, He gave to them the right to become children of God" (John 1:12).
So we can see plainly from these verses that receiving this righteousness comes from believing in Christ, from receiving Him personally.
Let me make that a bit more clear, if I can. It is NOT a matter of being religious. (In fact, you can read the third chapter of John's Gospel to meet a deeply religious man who was not saved!) It is not a matter of doing good things. It is not a matter of going to church, or of saying nice things about Jesus. It is not splashing on holy water, repeating somebody else's words, bowing, or doing anything except one thing: believing in Jesus Christ. Thus, every one of us can easily see that it becomes terribly important that we understand what it means to "believe in Jesus Christ."
Beware False Hopes!
What "Believing Does Not Mean. Much sad experience has made me very afraid that a lot of people will still misunderstand here, so let us examine "believing," or faith, more closely.
Does faith mean simply thinking that somebody named "Jesus" once existed? Or, does faith mean even being able to say nice, complimentary, apparently adoring things about that Jesus? Does faith mean having had some sort of a spiritual experience, or religious feelings? Does faith mean having raised our hands, or signed a card, or walked down an aisle at an evangelistic meeting, and having repeated a prayer someone recited to us? Does faith mean saying, "Yep, I'm a Christian; I received Jesus"?
No, not necessarily at all.
Jesus Himself said — and please hear these words well — "Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven" (Matthew 7:21). These words very clearly mean that there are a great many people who consider themselves "saved," Christians, card carrying and the whole shot — who are nonetheless not slated for Heaven! Is that not a frightening thought? I surely think that it is.
What "Believing" Does Mean. Jesus put it very vividly, as you might expect. Jesus said, "Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me" (Matthew 11:29). Is that not a clear picture, as we think of becoming yoked to Him, which means to be attached to Him? That is what happens when somebody is truly saved: he lays hold of Jesus by living faith, he receives Him, he becomes yoked to Jesus. Because of that, he can never stay the same. It is like clearing out of the driver's seat and letting Jesus take the wheel. That is why the Bible can say, "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old things passed away; look! New things have come into being!" (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Here is an illustration I have found very helpful. What do you need to get into a boat? Well, certainly you need to see and acknowledge that the boat is there. But that's only the start. You also need to know enough about the boat to believe that it will hold your weight. So you need awareness, and you need understanding. But are you done? The boat is about to sail — is everything cool with you and the boat now?
No. You need to get into the boat!
And those elements are the same elements needed for saving faith: awareness, understanding, and that volitional element that makes Jesus not simply Savior, but my Savior; not simply Lord, but my Lord.
Do Not Be Fooled. Now, maybe you had a spiritual experience once. You heard an exciting speaker talking about Jesus, and you became emotionally stirred up, so you raised your hand or walked down an aisle or something, and "Got saved." But then after that, nothing in your life changed. Your habits of thinking and living stayed essentially the same. You have not continued in the study of the Bible, you have not attached yourself to a Bible-believing, Christ-honoring church in obedience to Christ's commands. In short, it is quite apparent that Jesus is not Number One in your daily life.
If that is true, then you should not assume that you are going to Heaven. In fact, it sounds very much as if you have not yet been saved — and I will not be doing you any favors, or being truly loving, if I try to tell you otherwise.
Maybe admitting this will be very hard for you. Our pride fights very hard against us in matters like this. Pride disguises itself as an old friend, as if it were protecting our best interests and our dignity. But what pride is really doing is cutting us off from the forgiveness and life that we need above all else!
If you feel your pride wrapping its velvet-gloved fingers around your throat, and doing its level best to persuade you that "that preacher isn't talking about you," then just face this question: is it worth it to go to Hell for your pride?
What Shall I Do?
What you need to do right now is believe in Christ. You have absolutely no guarantee that you will ever have another opportunity to do so. It is by God's sheer generosity that you have lived long enough to hear still one more offer of Christ to you. You may never hear that offer again!
This isn't "scare tactics"; it is the cold, sober truth, if you'll but think about it. Waste no more time! Right now, admit to God that you see that you are a sinner, helpless and guilty before Him, with no excuses and no hope as things stand. Tell God that you see that Jesus Christ is the only hope of salvation for you.
not your "sincerity"
not Mary or Joseph, or, for that matter…
not Joseph Smith or Mary Morse Baker Glover Patterson Eddy
not ET or some spirit-guide
not your "good deeds" (or the bad deeds that you think you have not done)
not the church you grew up in or the fact that you used to go to Sunday School or got baptized
in short, your hope for salvation must not rest upon anybody or anything but Jesus Christ, and His work on the Cross!
So tell God that you are through living for yourself, living in your rebellion against Him and His Word. Plead for His mercy on you. Tell Him that you desire above all to have Christ as your Savior and Lord (which means Boss), that you want Christ's righteousness to clothe you.
Then ask the Lord Jesus to come into your heart and save you, only because of His love and what He has done on the Cross.
Then be sure to thank Him for what He has done, because Jesus makes this promise: "Everyone whom the Father gives to Me shall come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I shall absolutely not throw out!" (John 6:37)
Have you done this? If you have, that is truly wonderful news! You could not have done anything better for yourself in the long run. Now right away — I mean today, now! — be sure to talk with a growing Christian friend or a pastor, and tell him that you have come to meet Jesus and want to follow Him. Any pastor who loves Jesus will be glad to help you get started on the Way of Jesus! God bless you!
Postscript: "Sorry, Not Interested"
I am also very afraid that many might read this with a sort of casual attention (if they even read the whole thing), and come away saying, "Yeah, well, I suppose that's all very nice — but it's just not for me. I'm not all that religious. Religion is nice in its place — for women, and children, and unstable people; but I'm getting along just fine, thank you, and already have all the God-talk I want to hear." Though these folks might not use just those words or be so honest about it, a lot of people feel just this way.
I need to tell you something from the heart, though. While you may say something like that in an easy, casual manner, there is nothing casual about this decision. Hiding your head in the sand will not make the reality of God's judgement go away; nor will it cancel your appointment with the Judge!
Hear what the Bible says to you>: "For when we willingly go on sinning after having received a clear knowledge of the truth, a sacrifice for sins no longer remains, but a certain fearful expectation of judgement and of a furious fire which is about to consume those who oppose [the Gospel]" (Hebrews 10:26, 27).
When you reject the claims of Christ on your heart, God counts that to be just what it is: opposition. You may have a million excuses; you may imagine that you can slip by the Throne with some fast-talking. Friend, you can plan to talk as fast as you like, and as long as you like, but you will find that the judgement has already taken place, and your sentence will be carried out so fast that it will make your head spin.
God says, "He who does not believe already stands condemned" (John 3:18). God says, "The one who disobeys the Son shall not see life, but instead the wrath of God remains upon him" (John 3:36). God says, "The gate is wide and the road is broad that leads off into destruction, and many are those who enter in through it" (Matthew 7:13). Don't listen to the majority! The majority is wrong!
Listen to what God says! Accept His saving plan, and His Son, now!
NOTE: all the Scriptures quoted are Pastor Phillips' translations of the Greek text, and all the emphases in those verses was supplied. For help in the start of your Christian life, please read "Encouragement for New Christians," by Pastor Phillips. And if, through reading this paper, you have come to a saving faith in Jesus Christ, please write the author and tell him the great news! Write me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 1997, 2000, 2003, 2004 by Daniel J. Phillips; All Rights Reserved
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