Today's Broadcast

Berkeley and Empiricism

A Message by R.C. Sproul

If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there to hear it, does it still make a sound? You've probably heard that question before and you just might have passed it off as just another example of philosophical nonsense. But actually, this very question was instrumental in combating eighteenth century empiricism—a movement that ultimately leads to atheism. So how do we get from falling trees in the forest to affirming God's existence? In this message, Dr. Sproul explains the contribution of Bishop Berkeley as he challenged the tide of empiricism that was sweeping through eighteenth century thought.

From the series: The Consequences of Ideas

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Further Study On This Topic

  1. devotional

    The Obstacle of Unbelief

  2. article

    When Doubt Becomes Unbelief

  3. devotional

    God and Unbelief

The Obstacle of Unbelief

Rejecting Jesus has significant consequences, as we see in today's passage. Having described the failure of the people in Nazareth to believe Jesus despite their knowledge of His wisdom and power, Mark explains that our Lord "could do no mighty work there" except to heal a few people (Mark 6:5). Unbelief in Nazareth somehow kept Christ from doing all that He could.

Some professing Christians have concluded from texts like this that human faith gives power to God. The Word of Faith movement, for example, tends to place the blame on weak faith whenever a person is not healed of a disease. Our trust is seen as so powerful that God is unable to act without it.

Such a belief betrays a surface-level reading of Mark 6:5 and a failure to consider Jesus' wider ministry. After all, Christ did heal when people had weak faith. He restored the son of the man who cried out, "I believe; help my unbelief!" (9:24). Moreover, Jesus healed people when there was no evidence of faith at all. Martha did not believe that Jesus would raise her brother Lazarus from the dead (John 11:23–24, 39), but our Savior resurrected him anyway (vv. 40–44).

Thus, when Mark says Jesus could do no mighty works in Nazareth, He does not mean that their unbelief sapped His power. Instead, Christ could not do many miracles because the circumstances under which the Lord readily shows Himself were not present. The miracles of Jesus bore witness to His identity as the Son of God, but the people in Nazareth had rejected Him. Consequently, Jesus could give no further confirmation of His identity that they would accept. Nothing He could have done would have made them believe, for they had hardened their hearts against the revelation that they had enjoyed. John Calvin comments, "Unbelievers, as far as lies in their power, bind up the hands of God by their obstinacy; not that God is overcome, as if he were an inferior, but because they do not permit him to display his power." Jesus did not do miracles because performing them would have been against His purpose to judge those who were unwilling to believe. Dr. R.C. Sproul writes in his commentary Mark: "The circumstances by which God the Holy Spirit unleashed [Christ's] power were not available there, because there was a judgment of God on the town of Nazareth. In other words, God mostly withheld His power from the stiff-necked people who held Jesus in contempt."

When Doubt Becomes Unbelief

Alister McGrath

Doubt is not unbelief. But it can become unbelief. That basic principle should guide our reflections on this important issue. Doubt is natural within faith. It comes about because of our human weakness and frailty. We lack the confidence to trust fully in God and long for certainty in all matters of faith. But absolute certainty is hard to come by. You can be sure that 2 + 2 = 4, but is that going to change your life? Is that going to give you a reason to live and hope in the face of death? And it isn't just Christians who are in this situation. The atheist's belief that there is no God is just as much a matter of faith as your belief that there is! Doubt also comes about through our lack of humility. All of us are tempted to believe that because we haven't got the answers to the hard questions of faith, then there aren't any answers to those questions.

We need to learn to be relaxed about doubt. Doubt is like an attention-seeking child. The more attention you pay to it, the more attention it demands. By worrying about your doubts, you get locked into a vicious cycle of uncertainty.

So how does doubt become unbelief? Unbelief is the decision to live your life as if there is no God. It is a deliberate decision to reject Jesus Christ and all that He stands for. But doubt is something quite different. Doubt arises within the context of faith. It is a wistful longing to be sure of the things in which we trust. But it is not, and need not, be a problem. Just because I can't prove my faith in God doesn't mean that it is wrong.

But unbelief can creep in during those moments of doubt. How? Think of your faith as a lifeline to God. Think of it as being like an umbilical cord, linking you to God and providing a channel through which His life-giving grace can reach you. Sever that link and faith will wither, just as a branch which is broken off a vine shrivels and dies (John 15:1-6). Have you read C.S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters? If not, there is a real treat in store for you. But if you have, you will know how Lewis points out that Satan uses ploy after ploy to try to get Christians to break their links with God. Doubt is one of those ploys.

Think through what will happen if Satan can manage to get you obsessed with your doubts. You'll start becoming introverted, as you become preoccupied with your doubts. You'll look inwards, at yourself and your state of mind. And you will stop looking outwards, away from yourself and toward the promises of God, confirmed and sealed through the death and resurrection of Christ. The more you worry about your doubts, the less you will look to God. Gradually, those vital links with the life-giving grace of God will wither—and your spiritual life will wither and shrivel. Doubt will become unbelief—because you allowed it to. Feed your doubts and your faith will starve—but feed your faith, and your doubts will starve. Doubt initially becomes a problem, and finally becomes unbelief, if, and only if, you allow it.

Unbelief thus comes about through several possible routes. First, through an unrealistic attitude to faith. If you believe that you can, or need to, know everything with absolute certainty, your faith will be in difficulties very soon. But faith isn't like that! Faith is about being willing to live, trusting in the existence and promises of God, knowing that one day, that existence and those promises will be totally vindicated. But for the moment, we walk by faith, not by sight.

Second, unbelief may come through a morbid preoccupation with doubt, by which you become so obsessed with your own mental states and feelings that God is shut out of your life. Give Him some breaks! Look outward, not inward! Look to the promises of God; savor them; accept them. Stop allowing your doubts to dominate your life. Doubt, seen properly, is just the darker side of faith; rediscover the "sunnier side of doubt" (Tennyson)—the joy of faith itself.

And third, unbelief may come through an immature faith—a faith which refuses to grow up. A weak faith is a vulnerable faith. The process of maturing as a Christian involves deepening our understanding of what we believe. As we grow older, we are meant to deepen our understanding of our faith. The things that bothered us when we were young in faith don't bother us quite so much. In fact, if I might speak from personal experience, I now realize that most of my own early doubts simply reflected my inadequate understanding of my faith. As I grew older, I grew wiser—through reading, thinking, and listening to or reading wise Christians. Reinforce faith with understanding, in much the same way as you would reinforce concrete with steel. Together, they can withstand far greater stress than they could ever withstand on their own.

When does doubt become unbelief? Answer: When you let it. When you cling to unrealistic ideas about faith, when you get hopelessly preoccupied with the doubts that are a natural part of the Christian life, or when you fail to allow your faith to grow. These pitfalls can all be avoided. Don't feel ashamed about your doubts. Talking them through with older and wiser Christians can be a vital safety valve which stops a head of doubting steam from building up—a head of steam which could eventually lead from normal doubt to the hopelessness of unbelief.

God and Unbelief

The main reason we began discussing election right after we studied the initial stories about Jacob and Esau is because later passages of Scripture use these brothers to explain God’s grace. Today, Paul’s use of Isaac’s sons in Romans 9 will help us evaluate what is known as the prescient view of divine election and reprobation.

Today, most evangelicals lean toward Arminianism, which teaches that the Lord’s election is based on His foreknowledge of whether people will choose to believe. Looking “down the corridors of time,” God elects those whom He foresees will put their faith in Him when they hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This prescient view of predestination, however, is unable to overcome several difficulties, the chief one being that Scripture never describes election in this way.

Augustinianism finds a strong foundation in Romans 9. By implication, the Arminian system makes salvation based finally on works, because in rejecting the doctrine of sovereign, irresistible grace, our faith is ultimately a work we generate and not a gift of the Spirit. But Paul tells us Jacob was chosen long before he did any good work (vv. 9–13). Moreover, Jacob was chosen to make the Father’s electing purpose stand, not because He knew Jacob would obey Him (v. 11). 

Those who question the Lord’s fairness here are really questioning His justice. Paul anticipates this in verse 14, reminding us that God is never unjust. Whether or not a person is chosen for salvation, no human has ever received injustice from God’s hand. In Adam we all willingly sinned (5:12) and are wholly undeserving of grace. Some people receive mercy and eternal life. God passes over others without intervening to take away their love of sin. Yet the Lord does not deal with the reprobate (the non-elect) unjustly. He leaves them be, letting them run themselves into hell, which they have earned (9:19–24).

God elects some to salvation only because mankind has willingly and freely run from Him to follow after its own lusts. It is our fault that we need salvation, and we cannot think the Lord is obligated to save anybody. We should instead, like Paul, praise Him that He has decided to save anybody at all (11:32–36).

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