Distinct but Inseparable Series, No. 7
“Clarity and Mystery”
September 23, 2018
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Rayburn
In this morning sermons we considering matched pairs of biblical truth, each a separate and emphatic teaching of the Word of God but one that must be held in unity one with the other. Think of pairs we have considered so far: law and gospel, justification and sanctification, and faith and works. Let any of those truths be separated from the other, and each will be disfigured, corrupted, changed into something less and something worse; held together, they are life itself. This morning our pair is clarity and mystery and our text is the famous passage in Isaiah 55 that sets these two degrees of comprehension and understanding side by side.
v.6 To “seek the Lord” does not mean to search for him in the hope that he might be found but coming to someone you know is there! “While he may be found” adds a note of urgency; there is a limited opportunity for repentance. Delaying repentance may mean and has often meant that one will never repent since repentance is God’s gift and the day of salvation may come to an end while the sinner is still dallying with his sin. Whenever God speaks it is time for the sinner to respond!
v.7 One commentator exactly captures the sense of v. 7: “We come to the Lord as we are, but not to stay as we are.” [Dowsett in Motyer, 456] Both sides of repentance are here: forsaking and returning; and both sides of the Lord’s response also: compassion and pardon. Repentance, real repentance is sure to receive a favorable response from the Lord. [Motyer, 456-457]
v.9 In this particular case the mystery we confront, the thing that we do not understand and cannot understand is the nature of God himself, his will and his ways. They are so unlike those of men and women that we do not and cannot grasp them. In particular the vast gulf that separates sinful man from a holy God is one that we cannot cross even in our thoughts, because we really have no conception either of how sinful we are or how holy God is. We would never do what he does or think as he thinks or condemn as he condemns or love as he loves. Between his thoughts and our thoughts there lies a distance of inconceivable magnitude. We stand before a transcendent personal presence so far above us that it is impossible that we should know or be acceptable to God unless he should call us to repentance and promise us his pardon, divine acts that in themselves remain deep mysteries. Why should God care? Why should he offer us pardon? Why should he bear with our sin and our ingratitude? And how does he speak to us? No one can explain these things!
Consider this single text as a window on reality. Across the great gulf that separates God from man, the Creator from the creature, the infinite from the finite, the holy from the unholy, God speaks to us. First, he speaks to us of himself and his nature in what he has made: the stupendous creation that reveals his power and his goodness. We learn something of God from ourselves, because we have been made in his image. We learn of God’s conscious, rationale, and moral nature because we find that nature stamped upon our own and cannot possibly explain ourselves – not honestly, not seriously – without reference to him.
But supremely God speaks to us in his Word. Such a word as we have read here in Isaiah 55; a word that addresses us in words that we understand very well. That Word itself, what we know as the Bible, is an absolute marvel of communication: personal, practical, full of immediately accessible illustrations, clear and comprehensible while at the same time powerful and stirring. On every page we know what the Lord is saying to us. We can understand it; line after line makes sense to us. And as the Word of God is carefully and reverently studied, it continues to yield to the earnest believer ever new, ever fresh layers of truth, wisdom, and instruction. There is no book in the world remotely like the Bible. Reading it we can know what God intends us to know and to do.
For example, God in his Word exposes us as sinners against him. Not a welcome message; not an easy one to hear. There is much of that in Isaiah, of course, as there is everywhere else in the Bible. He identifies our sins one by one. He shows us how evil they are, illustration by illustration, narrative after narrative. He describes the selfishness, foolishness, and prideful rebellion of our hearts in ways we can neither deny nor escape. Side by side with this depressing exposure he shows us who and what we ought to be. He does this in his law, those many commandments that we ought to obey, in the many narratives of faithful people living righteously, and supremely in the example of the Jesus Christ himself. And on the basis of that comprehensive explanation he summons us to repent of our sins and to seek pardon and a new life from him.
God further explains to us precisely how he has intervened to deliver us from both the guilt of our sin – that is, our liability to be punished for it – and its power over our lives. The incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of the God the Son, the work of the Holy Spirit in the human heart, and our own exercise of faith and repentance: all this is taught repeatedly, comprehensively, and emphatically throughout the Bible. No one can claim to be without excuse who does not bow down before God, acknowledge his great glory and holiness, Christ’s conquest of sin and death; who does not repent of his sins and seek the grace and favor of the living God.
Line after line, page after page, book after book, we read, and we know what we are being told, what we are being taught, what we are being commanded or invited to do. We know how high the stakes are. We know what faith or unbelief portends. People do not believe in Jesus Christ precisely because they know only too well what such faith would require of them. And people do believe in Jesus Christ precisely because they know what God has promised to give them and do for them if they believe in his Son. That is clarity. Clarity is actually a part of the Christian doctrine of Holy Scripture. The old word was perspicuity. It meant that the Bible was understandable, understandable precisely because its communication was clear and precise.
As we read in the first chapter of our Westminster Confession of Faith:
“All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.”
The divines cited as proof of that statement texts such as Psalm 119:130: “The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple.” My private opinion is that were the Confession to be written today, that statement would be made even stronger. There would be less said of what cannot be understood in the teaching of the Bible and more said of how clear its teaching actually is and how easy it is for us to understand what God is saying to us in it, all the more with a minimal amount of help, instruction, context. We’ve come a long way in our understanding of the Bible over the last 400 years! The great teachings have always been clear, but nowadays the meaning of most everything is better understood than once it was. In any case, the problem is not that people can’t understand the Bible; the problem is that they understand it perfectly well and do not want to believe its teaching or obey its commandments. They know what God wants but they do not want what he wants. Such is human sin, but such too is the clarity of God’s revelation.
However, on the other hand, the Bible reveals only so much. What it reveals it reveals clearly; but all along the way, behind the truth that is given, looms a reality that we cannot grasp, that we do not understand, that we never see or comprehend. I came across this the other day. It is a citation from one of the historical novels of Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle is, of course, known for the Sherlock Holmes stories, but like some other frustrated authors, he wrote those to pay the bills. He wanted to be known for his more serious works, which, alas, have been largely forgotten. In one of those novels he was explaining to his readers, the educated citizens of Edwardian England, the thinking of the ordinary inhabitant of Europe during the Middle Ages.
“In those simple times there was a great wonder and mystery in life. Man walked in fear and solemnity, with Heaven very close above his head, and Hell below his very feet. God’s visible hand was everywhere, in the rainbow and the comet, in the thunder and the wind. The Devil, too, raged openly upon the earth; he skulked behind the hedgerows in the gloaming; he laughed loudly in the night-time; he clawed the dying the sinner, pounced on the unbaptized babe, and twisted the limbs of the epileptic.” [Cited by Peter Hitchens in a book review, in First Things (October 2018) 53]
Well, one has only to read the Bible and realize that that picture of human life is far closer to the truth than the naturalistic, simplistic empiricism of modern man. Today men suppose that if they cannot see it, it isn’t there; a ridiculous conclusion on its face. Think with me of the vast mysteries that lie behind and beneath the revelation of Holy Scripture. First, there is God himself. Pure spirit: what is that? Infinite. We understand the word but have no real grasp of its true meaning. How is it possible for the living God to be present in every square foot of this impossibly vast universe that he has made. Or how can he bring such wonders into existence by the mere utterance of a word? We cannot comprehend power like that; or wisdom. Consider, for example, the incomprehensible, the virtually indescribable complexity of the living cell, the basic building block of life. We are only beginning to understand what a universe of fantastic ingenuity and engineering is found in the living cell: millions upon millions of finely tuned parts and pieces that make bio-chemical machines of wonderful power: memory banks that can store more information than all the books in the world together; factories, and transportation systems. And, of course, on top of all that, the capacity to reproduce itself – all of that intricate machinery – all in a matter of minutes. We could never have imagined such a thing, had we not seen it. Who is God? And what is God like? But we are just getting started.
Consider Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The tri-unity of God explains so much: the nature of human life as life in relationship, the incarnation of God the Son, the sending of the Holy Spirit and so much more. But how is the one God three persons? If you think you understand this, congratulations; you are a cult! We are told what we can know: that God is one and that God is three persons. But this is not explained to us because it cannot be explained. The reality far exceeds our mental powers of comprehension, in the same way that we can calculate vast numbers of light years separating one galaxy or even one star from another but cannot grasp the actual distance. The nearest real galaxy to ours, the Milky Way, is the Andromeda, a mere 2 million light years away. That is 5.9 trillion miles multiplied by 2 million. You can multiply the numbers, but you can’t comprehend the space. In a still greater way God himself is far beyond us. We know he is one, we know he is three, but how he is both we have no idea. We may know God, but grasp him, understand him, comprehend him and his inner life, his nature, his powers, we do not! We cannot! We never will!
Why did this all-powerful God create mankind only to allow human beings to fall into sin and rebellion against him, to make of his creation such a sad and evil place? Where did sin and rebellion come from? Why would perfectly good creatures disobey their Maker who loved them and gave such marvelous gifts to them? This is the deep mystery of evil. We know how it is all going to end but why history has taken the course it has we do not know and probably could not understand were God to stoop down to explain it to us. And why did God bother to save sinners as he did? Why not destroy them and start over? This is a deeper mystery than you might think! After all, he is saving only some; a great multitude, but only some. People wonder why this holy God would punish the wicked as he will. It may trouble them that he does; it troubles us all at one time or another. But there is no answer that we can understand. Indeed, the Bible makes no real effort to explain such things. The ways of God, as Isaiah has put it, are far above us. The Bible itself says, and many times, that God does not desire the death of the wicked but that all should be saved. If the all-powerful God desires something, why on earth does it not come to pass? This too we cannot explain. It is not for nothing, then, that Herman Bavinck, one of the greatest of all Reformed theologians, begins his study of God with the sentence, “Mystery is the lifeblood of dogmatics,” which sentence opens a chapter entitled “The Incomprehensibility of God.” He goes on to say, “the knowledge that God has revealed of himself in nature and Scripture far surpasses human imagination and understanding.”
But then, because we are dealing with this incomprehensible God in all things, we meet deep mystery at every turn. Mysteries, impenetrable mysteries meet us at every turn because God meets us at every turn and because God and his ways are infinitely above our powers of comprehension. Consider another of these mysteries: the incarnation of God the Son, his taking to himself a true and authentic human nature. We are told what happened, but understand it, we do not. How can the same person be omniscient but ignorant at the same time; omnipotent but weak; omnipresent but limited to a single location; infinite but finite? We have no idea. It happened, but how it happened we don’t know and, I suspect, will never know. We know there is no logical contradiction here; we can tell from what we are told that the truth of the incarnation is reasonable, however far it transcends the powers of our reason. Our ignorance is the limitation of our finitude and we will never be infinite in any way; we will always be human beings.
And so it goes. Why does God do what he does? Why is there so much sorrow, trouble, woe and human nightmare and why is it distributed as it is? Little children get sick and die; the good die young and the evil live to a ripe old age. The crimes of evil men often go unpunished while the righteous often suffer cruel punishment for no reason but that they are righteous. God’s own people, those who have forsaken their sinful ways and sought the Lord also suffer, sometimes sooner and sometimes more than the impenitent and the unbelieving. God’s people have pondered these realities from time immemorial, the Scripture is full of their musings and their cries for help and understanding, but God remains silent. He does not tell us why such things happen, why they happen as they happen, why they happen when they happen, why they happen to whom they happen. God knows. We are told that explicitly. God knows why. But then God knows everything; he sees the connection between one thing and everything else. He is accomplishing a hundred things or a thousand things at one and the same time, with one and the same event. God is so very great, and we are so very small and therein lies the impenetrable mystery of human life and of believing life.
If all of that is not enough mystery consider the life of prayer, a mystery indeed. We are commanded to pray; promised that God will hear and answer our prayers. But every experienced Christian knows only too well how impossible it is to explain why God treats our prayers as he does. No wonder Martin Luther spoke of the Deus absconditus, the hidden God. So much of the explanation of things lies hidden behind a veil, a veil we cannot penetrate precisely because God is God.
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Shakespeare got it right. This is something we forget all too often, but it is fundamental to a Christian understanding of reality. God has told us some things, the things we must know. He has made them clear to us. Lest we misunderstand he has written a very large book in which those truths are repeated many times, looked at from a wide variety of perspectives, illustrated in many ways, and applied to our lives over and over again.
But he has also left much unsaid and unknown. He has presented us with facts that we can grasp but whose relation to one another is simply incomprehensible to us. Each fact can be explained but how they are both true at one and the same time, that cannot be explained. And there is much else that we know, that is we can state the truth of it, but the truth itself is beyond our comprehension. A phrase made famous in Christian theology is “finitum non capax infinitum,” the finite is not able to comprehend the infinite. The term is typically used in reference to the controversy over the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, but it has a much wider reference than that. It is a general truth of immense importance in a universe in which there are both finite creatures and an infinite God. The finite cannot comprehend, cannot grasp the infinite. God is so far beyond our comprehension that the most we can know about him, the most we can understand him, the most we explain of his ways is what little bit of all of that he chooses to explain to us. Much of all that even God cannot explain to us because only an infinite mind can understand an infinite reality.
It is obviously not difficult for us to understand why these two truths – clarity and mystery, real understanding and incomprehension – must be held together. We know to be true what God has clearly taught us in his Word. We know these things; they are true, and they are fabulously important. We must live our lives standing on those truths. On this knowledge and our acting on this knowledge rests our hope of eternal life. But, at the same time, we will fail to live the Christian life, we will fail to repent of our sins as we should, we will fail to love and worship God unless we carry about with us a deep unassailable conviction of the transcendent majesty of God.
If we allow ourselves to think of God and speak of God as if he were familiar to us, as if he were like us, as if we understood him – and there has always been and is today far too much of such thinking – we will not revere him, we will not obey him, we will not trust him, and we will not love him as we must for our lives to come into their own as the lives of creatures made in the image of God. God is very, very, very great. He is very high. He is far, far above us. No one can see his glory and survive. He is, the Scripture says, a consuming fire, a statement we understand but only barely. Only this God, this deeply mysterious God, this God whose ways are far above ours and past our finding out; I say only this God will command our fear and our love as he ought to command them.
It is our worst and most dangerous failure that we entertain so often such a casual and utterly inadequate view of God. We have been told in many ways in Holy Scripture how far above us God actually is. There are so many things said about him in the Bible that we cannot really grasp. All of that mystery is intended to fix in our minds and hearts the vast chasm that separates us from the infinite God and so the extraordinary miracle it must be that this God has stooped down to know us and to care about us, to love us and to save us that we might live forever with him. Only the mystery teaches us how remarkable it is that God should love us!
Clarity and mystery. Very different things but things that meet us on every page of Holy Scripture and that absolutely require one another if each is to be understood and appreciated as it should be. Clarity without mystery gives us knowledge without reverence, fear, awe, love, joy, and gratitude, which is to say knowledge that will do us no good. Mystery without clarity would give us fear but no hope, no direction, no instruction, and no path to life.
Together they give us God as he is and the way of salvation. Together they give us fear and love. Together they give us humility and faith. Together they give us caution and confidence. Together they give us wisdom, which in the Bible is knowing what one knows and what one does not know and living in the tension between that knowledge and that ignorance.
Is it not the case, surely it is: that we find in Holy Scripture a God who is worthy of our worship, love, and confidence precisely because he is a God who is so far above us at the very same time he has come so near to us and made himself known to us. This God of infinite greatness – a greatness we cannot begin to comprehend – has called on us to seek him and has promised us that if we seek him we will be found by him, he will have compassion on us and pardon our sins. That this God, who inhabits eternity and dwells in unapproachable light, should say this to us and offer this to us is the most shocking and thrilling thing that can be imagined. And anybody who actually saw the glory of God would immediately understand that. It is the greatest conceivable relief in this world of darkness and death: to know that the infinite God cares for me, for you, and is willing to lavish all his love and goodness on us if only we are willing to seek him. Tell me, if you can, something else remotely as wonderful as that!