Christians read of Jesus Christ: ‘Him we proclaim’ (Col.1:28), but what do Australians, and many in the Western world, think of Him? Of course, they think many and various things. John Dickson cites some statistics from the National Church Life Survey in 2021 which suggests that 51% of Australians are not convinced that Jesus ever existed. As Dickson comments, it says as much about the decline in historical literacy as it does about the decline in belief in Christianity. This is not altogether unprecedented. Back in 1819 Richard Whately’s first book raised doubts about the existence of Napoleon Bonaparte in order to mock those who held doubts about the existence of Jesus.
It would probably be truer to say that many Australians do not give Jesus much thought at all, and the result is, not surprisingly, rather foggy. Many would consider Him a nice man who taught us to love another. This is barely more promising. ‘Nice’ is a vacuous term, and increasingly we are finding that the same can be said about ‘love’. We are often treated to discourses about loving all people with an unconditional love. All too often this ultimately amounts to a call that we be more gracious than God Himself. Don Carson wrote truly of The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God. Love is by no means reducible to slogans and mottos, to what H. L. Mencken called ‘a vague sort of good will to men’. Jesus loved the rich young ruler (Mark 10:21), but also let him go away sorrowful (Mark 10:22). A love for all is not the same as an electing saving love. It is real, but not what is made known at the cross. To say to one who is not in Christ, that God’s love is unconditional is almost certainly to mislead him or her, and act as a kind of spiritual soporific. It promotes complacency rather than conviction.
Then there are those who profess admiration for Jesus, who portray Him as a kind of martyr who lived before His time – perhaps in the category of Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela. Is Jesus simply another in the long line of dynamic teachers who have demanded justice and offended authorities? Yet Gandhi and Mandela never forgave sins in the way Jesus did, nor did they offer anyone eternal life, nor claim that they would raise the dead and carry out the Last Judgment. Nevertheless, we celebrate Jesus’ birthday every year, or at least take a holiday at that time. It is something of an almost hopeless muddle, but nevertheless something is still done. Jesus is still in the national psyche, somewhere between Santa Claus and Buddha.
How, then, do those who worship Jesus as Lord and embrace Him as Saviour, make Him known in such a social climate? In order to inure himself while studying the German biblical critics, J. G. Machen used to read the Gospel of Mark from beginning to end each Sunday afternoon. This enabled him to see a most wonderful truth – that the biblical Jesus has a great advantage over other presentations of Him, in that He at least is real.
Such a practice would imply that there is no short-cut out of our present impasse. For blinded sinners to see the truth as it is in Jesus, they need to be exposed to His light. I can only love what I know something about. I can only be drawn to the God-man, Jesus Christ, if I have accurate information about Him.
The greatest of the Puritan theologians, John Owen, warned against relying on any other means. Reading theologians and apologists could be useful, but, ‘all true revelation from God is contained in the holy scriptures’. To that end, he even quoted a Jesuit authority, Acosta: ‘The one who reads the Scriptures with the purity of their soul will have more advantage than the one who attempts to unravel mysteries with many commentaries.’
If I had a quick and simple answer, I would give it, but it would be along the lines of exposing unbelievers to as much biblical truth as one can. This is not done by making evangelistic addresses 90 minutes in length, but encouraging unbelievers to do what Machen did – to read the Gospels for themselves. Or, where literacy is not prized, to hear these things, and experience them in a community devoted to both love and truth.
With warm regards in Christ,
Rev. Dr Peter Barnes,
Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Australia