“Existential” is the word of the year according to Dictionary.com. Apparently “it speaks to this sense of grappling with our survival, both literally and figuratively, that defined so much of the discourse.” It is frequently accompanied by the word crisis especially when connected with Oxford dictionary’s word of 2019 “climate emergency”. Aside from panic about threats of doom we are also in existential crisis about identity. The singular pronoun “they” was selected as Merriam-Webster’s word of the year. It is used to describe those who consider themselves neither he nor she, opening up a linguistic as well as identity crisis. It is a crisis of confusion within western culture about who we are and where we are going. How did we get here?
From a biblical perspective existential angst is the inevitable consequence of shutting God out of our minds and lives. Our culture has denied what the light of nature clearly teaches us about God’s being and existence and refused to glorify Him as God. The consequence of this is a darkness of heart that makes us fools, however much we may claim to be wise (Romans 1:20-21). We have imagined that we are progressing to new heights of knowledge when it is in fact empty delusion. This imagined progress is in fact a progressive decline. When shut out what the light of nature teaches about God, we start to shut out what it teaches about ourselves.
The apostle Paul returns to this theme in Ephesians 4:17-18. He shows the extent of the impact of rejecting God. He calls the mind of the unrenewed vain because it is empty of the knowledge of God in Christ (1 Corinthians 2:14). The knowledge it has of God, or right and wrong, is nothing but empty notions (Romans 1:21).
Rejecting God has an inward effect on the understanding and affections and impacts outwardly on life and conduct. The understanding and ability to reason are entirely blind and darkened in relation to God and heaven (1 Corinthians 1:21). This leads to a deeper darkness in the understanding than even what they have by nature.
This ignorance flows from a blindness or hardness of heart, whereby their heart obstinately refuses the light of God offered to them. They become wilfully hardened by themselves (Exodus 8:15). In the following updated extract, James Fergusson reflects on how this unspeakably sad and solemn process takes place.
1. THOSE WHO REJECT GOD’S KNOWLEDGE LIVE WITHOUT PURPOSE
The way of life of all unrenewed people is empty and fruitless. They are spending their money for that which is not bread and their labour for that which does not satisfy (Isaiah 55:2). Paul says that all the unconverted Gentiles “walk in vanity”.
2. THOSE WHO REJECT GOD’S KNOWLEDGE LIVE CORRUPTED LIVES
Whatever vanity or wickedness is in the outward life of an unregenerate person flows entirely from the vanity of their mind and understanding. As the mind is, so will be the conduct. Even the mind itself, the primary place of reason, is corrupted and vain. It is so vain that corruption and vanity flow from it to the person.
The way the Gentiles walked in this world was the result of the vanity of their mind. It is the root of everything else in every unrenewed person (1 Corinthians 2:14). Every such person is increasing towards all the wickedness described and would reach the utmost height of it if restraining grace did not hinder him (Genesis 20:6).
3. THOSE WHO REJECT GOD’S KNOWLEDGE LIVE WITH DIMINISHING KNOWLEDGE
Everyone by nature is entirely unskilful in being able to discern the things of God. They cannot make best use of the principles of the knowledge of God and right and wrong that have remained after the fall (Romans 1:20). They cannot draw solid conclusions from them for rules to direct them in relation to worship and the way to salvation.
This unskilfulness and darkness increase daily. The longer they live and only use the direction and guidance of natural light, the further they are from the mark. Paul speaks of a further darkening of their understanding, than what they had by nature. Their understanding is darkened due to the ignorance that is in them.
The longer they live in their unrenewed state, the more they are estranged from right knowledge. Every sin they commit makes them less capable of knowing it. They become still further from the life of God, than they were by nature. This comes from their ignorance and hardness of heart.
4. THOSE WHO REJECT GOD’S KNOWLEDGE LIVE WITH HARDENED HEARTS
Hardness of heart is a terrible evil and the source of several other evils. When someone obstinately refuses light and walks contrary to it in hardening their heart to commit sin, they provoke the Lord to give them over to ignorance. They will then lose the small measure of knowledge they formerly had (Romans 1:28).
Hardness is the cause of ignorance. Being thus both hardened in heart and blinded in mind, they are further removed and estranged from the life of God (the saving knowledge of God in Christ, John 17:3). Their understanding and reason become more unskilful in discerning between what is truth or error, right or wrong. The common principles remaining in them after the fall concerning such things have been almost completely obliterated by continuing obstinately in sin. Blindness or hardness of their hearts is mentioned as the cause of the ignorance which was in them. Both hardness and ignorance are the cause of their alienation from the life of God, and the darkening of their understanding.
The sin of rejecting God and His truth is the existential threat to our culture. We are descending into further confusion and bewilderment as we continue in this sin. The existential crisis is an inability to define ourselves and our purpose in a meaningful way. We are being abandoned to further futility of thinking and living. The singular pronoun “they” has only been in prominence for a matter of a couple of months. This shows that we are diminishing in our ability to know basic realities on a weekly basis.
The priceless alternative that the apostle Paul points us to is, however, to learn Christ (Ephesians 4:20). To be delivered from the darkening influence of sin in the understanding, we need a saving knowledge of Christ. We need the life of God within. This is what the gospel offers to us.
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