The Foundation and Priority of Truth

Feelings and Faith: Cultivating Godly Emotions by Brian Borgman

Truth always comes first. As Christians, we are dogmatically committed to “true truth.” The sufficient and inerrant Word of God is the sum and substance of that truth. All of the truths we will be exploring are biblical truths that come straight from the pages of God’s holy Word. The Word equals truth, truth equals the Word (John 17:17). The truth is of first importance when it comes to the gospel. The truth also comes first as we work out the gospel in the Christian life. We have been born again by the truth (James 1:18;
1 Pet. 1:23) and now are trying to live by the truth (James 1:22). This means that sanctification, increased conformity to the will of God, begins with and is shaped by the Word of truth (Rom. 6:17).
When we become Christians we gain a supernatural understanding of the truth (2 Cor. 4:6). Our enlightened minds, as new creations, have a new mental paradigm, giving us a new way of thinking. This new way of thinking is not “positive self-talk” based on “self-help.” It is a new way of thinking based on our new understanding of truth. We have new eyes. So as we explore how to obey God’s commands that involve the emotions and how to sanctify the emotions, we do not begin with the emotions or an emotional experience; we begin with the mind and the truth. Martyn Lloyd-Jones explains the process:
Truth comes to the mind and to the understanding enlightened by the Holy Spirit. Then having seen the truth the Christian loves it. It moves his heart. If you see the truth about yourself as a slave of sin you will hate yourself. Then as you see the glorious truth about the love
Biblical Sanctification and Our Emotions
of Christ you will want it, you will desire it. So the heart is engaged. Truly to see the truth means that you are moved by it and that you love it. You cannot help it. If you see truth clearly, you must feel it. Then that in turn leads to this, that your greatest desire will be to practice it and love it.1
Any attempt to sanctify the emotions, detoxify ourselves of hazardous emotions, and cultivate godly emotions must be built on the firm foundation of Christian truth. Any other program or process will be like trying to erect a skyscraper on a chicken-coop foundation. It will collapse. In order to sanctify the emotions we must have our minds renewed with the Word, washed with the Word, and reconstructed by the Word. Wrong thinking will lead to wrong feeling. Misperceptions about God, the gospel, Christ, the accomplishment and application of redemption, the nature of Scripture, the Christian life, and faith will cause emotional short circuits that will threaten our well-being. We must grip and be gripped by the truth. It must be noted that we are not talking about truth as an abstraction; we are talking about truth as it exists in the person of God. To truly encounter the power of truth is to encounter God in his Son (John 8:31–32, 36). “Encounter with God will not only change our emotions; most importantly it has the potential to change our hearts.”2
Proverbs 23:7 states the importance of right thinking: “For as he thinks within himself, so he is” (nasb). Pastoral and personal experience have constantly taught me there are certain truths the Christian must understand, marinate in, and fully embrace in order to have spiritual and emotional equilibrium. There are many truths, which we may not agree on, and they will not put us in the tank (e.g., end-times views, modes and subjects of baptism, the gifts of the Spirit). Although these truths and many more are important, they are not critical to our spiritual and emotional health. They are the minerals and vitamins to our spiritual growth. However, some truths are oxygen. We cannot breathe without them. We cannot live without breathing. These oxygen truths are the character of God, justification, and future glory.
The Foundation and Priority of Truth
Oxygen Truth #1: The Character of God
The character of God is the core. It is the sine qua non, the “without which nothing.” If we do not have the truth of God’s character firmly fixed as foundational to all our thinking, then all effort in trying to obey God and sanctify the emotions will amount to our chasing our tails, ending in frustration. We must know who God is. Bruce Ware states, “To know this God, and better to be known by him (Gal. 4:9a), is to enter into the security and confidence of a lifetime of trust in his never-failing arms.”3 The theological North Star by which we will navigate the rest of this book is this: the most important thing about any one of us is what we know about God and that we know God. The Scripture supports this truth:
Thus says the Lord: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.” (Jer. 9:23–24)
“For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hos. 6:6)
I still vividly recall sitting on the lawn at Biola University reading A. W. Tozer’s The Knowledge of the Holy and soaking in these life-changing words: “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”4
Reading A.W. Pink a couple of years later, I had a similar jolt when I read this: “Soothing-syrup may serve for peevish children, but an iron tonic is better suited for adults, and we know of nothing which is more calculated to infuse spiritual vigor into our frames than a Scriptural apprehension of the full character of God.”5
My nonnegotiable premise in a book about the emotions is that we all must be good, God-centered, biblical theologians. I can hear someone object and say, “Hey, I just wanted to learn to control my anger. I’m not interested in being a theologian.” Well, here is the truth that R. C. Sproul has been driving home for years now:
Biblical Sanctification and Our Emotions
everyone is a theologian! The question is, are we good ones or poor ones? Poor theologians, those with low, unbiblical, unworthy views of God, will never grow in their emotional life as they ought. Good theologians, those who have a biblically robust, God-intoxicated theology, marinated in the riches of God’s glories, will find their capacity to sanctify the emotions expand in life-changing ways.
Another related premise is this: knowing God—who he is, what he does, what he is like, and what he requires of us—is the foundation for life and faith, joy, obedience, love, and worship. Knowing God is eternal life (John 17:3). When we come into the new covenant by the work of Christ and the Holy Spirit, we know God (Jer. 31:31–34; 24:7). That relational knowledge is in an infant stage, but it is a real relationship with real knowledge. The requirement is that we grow in that knowledge. As we grow in the knowledge of God, our faith also grows. Psalm 9:10 states, “And those who know your name put their trust in you, for you, O Lord, have not forsaken those who seek you.” God’s name is not his title or his proper name, but rather it is his character, what he is like. The water level of faith rises in proportion to our growth in knowing God. Pink underscores this truth: “The foundation of all true knowledge of God must be a clear mental apprehension of His perfections as revealed in Holy Scripture. An unknown God can neither be trusted, served, nor worshiped.”6
Not only does faith grow in proportion to our knowledge of God, but active obedience also grows as our knowledge of God grows. “But the people who know their God shall stand firm and take action” (Dan. 11:32). “Obedience to God is always based on a corresponding provision from God. God’s actions of provision in the past lead to trust and hope in Him for the future, which in turn brings about obedience in the present. . . . Only knowing God Himself as He is revealed in His Word can create the kind of hope in His promises that brings about obedience to His will.”7
A biblical understanding of the sovereignty, faithfulness, love, and goodness of God not only bolsters our faith, but it gives us emotional equilibrium and joy, peace, and a whole host of other godly emotions that can sustain us. A biblical understanding of God
The Foundation and Priority of Truth
helps us to see his goodness in trials. A biblical vision of who God is compels us to give him the benefit of the doubt in the mysteries and trust him in the darkness. Such a high view of our great God promotes God-honoring feelings and helps immunize us from toxic, faith-threatening emotions.
A few years ago a number of women in our church wanted to organize a women’s theology study group. The elders of our church agreed this was a great idea. We cannot say, “Everyone is a theologian; we are either just good ones or bad ones,” and then quench people’s desires to be better theologians. The women sought the counsel of their pastors and settled on Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology. For three years they studied theology. One of the women wrote to me after they finished their first semester of study. Here is an excerpt from her letter, which illustrates the point I am trying to make:
Studying theology has brought me incredible joy. Knowing God better and spending more time in His presence and beholding His beauty and glory make me happy and content in a way I have not known before. . . . Studying systematic theology is gradually bringing together into one coherent whole all the strands of teaching and Bible reading of 30-plus years. Everything is making much more sense, both biblically and in life. Hearing the doctrine of God preached has made me mentally and emotionally healthier. I rarely suffer from depression now like I used to. A deep joy in the Lord is mine.8
Oxygen Truth #2: Justification
Another oxygen truth is justification by faith alone. When I originally preached this series, justification was not very controversial, at least among Protestants. It seemed safe. There were a few renegade Protestants here and there who were getting wobbly over what some call “the New Perspective on Paul (NPP).” How quickly times change! This is now a front-burner issue. I have no significant interest in the NPP. I am not going to spend any time refuting the new view or defending the old view.9 My complaint is that most people do not even know what the old perspective on Paul is, and,
Biblical Sanctification and Our Emotions
ironically, it is the old perspective on Paul, which is the ground of all true liberty, freedom, and joy in the face of a holy God.
The Reformation recovered a glorious truth: a sinner is declared righteous by a holy God through faith alone in Christ alone. Faith is the instrument of justification. The work of Christ is the ground of justification. The work of Christ entails both the life that he lived and the death that he died. He lived a perfectly righteous life, impeccably faithful to the law of God and unswerving in his confidence in God (Rom. 5:19). He lived the life we could never live. We call this the active obedience of Christ.10
Christ’s obedience was not mechanical, formal, or merely external; it was true obedience that came from his heart. He lived a life of wholehearted obedience that flowed from a perfect love for and delight in God. Jesus cherished doing the will of God. “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34). “I delight to do Your will, O my God; Your Law is within my heart” (Ps. 40:8, nasb).
With every trial, every temptation and phase of life, Jesus grew in obedience (Heb. 5:8–9).11 His ultimate demonstration of “active obedience” began on the night he was betrayed and faced the horror of the cross. He had said earlier in his ministry, “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father” (John 10:17–18).
On the night of his betrayal, he began his greatest act of voluntary obedience to the Father. “Not as I will, but as you will” was his final answer (see Matt. 26:39–44). Christ’s obedience in death was the climax of his obedience. “Who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:6–8).
This leads us right into the next aspect of justification, our
The Foundation and Priority of Truth
Lord’s death. Some theologians have called this his “passive obedience.” In reality, all of Christ’s life was both active and passive obedience, as many have pointed out.12 But we will work with the traditional categories. In his passive obedience, he lay down his life in death. His death was a substitutionary death. It was in our place. It was a penal death, that is, he paid the penalty for our sins (Rom. 5:8; Gal. 3:13; 1 Pet. 3:18). It was a propitiatory death, that is, he absorbed the wrath of God, which we deserved (Rom. 3:25; Heb. 2:17; 1 John 2:2; 4:10).
As Jesus was on the cross he cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” He paid the penalty of death; he was the target of divine white-hot, holy wrath. He suffered our hell right there on the cross. Hymn writer Annie R. Cousin captures the awe and wonder:
Jehovah bade His sword awake; O Christ, it woke gainst Thee;
Thy blood the flaming blade must slake, Thy heart its sheath must be.
All for my sake, my peace to make: Now sleeps that sword for me.
Justification is the great exchange. God took his sinless Son and put all our transgressions, sin, and filth on him and in turn took Christ’s perfect righteousness and put it over us (2 Cor. 5:21). He punished his Son as he should have punished us, according to our sins. All that was condemnable in us was condemned in him so that we are forever free from condemnation (Rom. 8:1). Now he treats us as his own righteous Son deserves to be treated. We are forgiven and accepted as perfectly righteous. We are justified, redeemed, reconciled, and adopted in God’s family forever. We cannot add anything to the work of Christ. It is completely finished (John 19:21). It sounds almost blasphemously audacious, but the words of this theologian are gloriously true: “We have in Christ all the righteousness God can require. We are as righteous as Christ Himself. Indeed, we have God’s own righteousness—we have kept the covenant as faithfully as God Himself.”13
What does this have to do with the emotions? If you believe that your acceptance with God depends on your performance or
Biblical Sanctification and Our Emotions
your works, if you believe that God treats you according to your good or bad conduct; you will be the emotional equivalent of Slinky after a three-year-old has tangled it up. No matter how much Dad tries to straighten out the twisted metal coils, it is an irreparable mess. The other alternative to thinking God accepts us on the basis of our performance is to be a self-deceived hypocrite. Neither option is very appealing.
Nothing gives emotional stability, authentic joy, and unshakable satisfaction like resting in the doctrine of justification by faith alone in Christ alone. The rallying cry of the Reformation, “Christ for me!” will give you a boldness and a strength that will go a long way in fighting off depression, frustration, and a whole anthill of ungodly feelings that erupt from a works-righteousness theology. The doctrine of free justification is a rock of solid joys and lasting pleasures. It is liberty; it is freedom, blessed freedom. Rightly apprehended and fully embraced, it becomes both a geyser of joy and Gibraltar of stability.
Oxygen Truth #3: Future Glory
The next oxygen truth has to do with eschatology. But not eschatology such as we are used to thinking about eschatology. What I am talking about has nothing to do with pre-, post-, or a-mill, horns, temples, or timelines. The oxygen truth of future glory is not tied into any one system; it is tied into something much bigger and much more certain. It is truth that has emboldened martyrs and comforted the suffering and the dying. If we are to walk in conformity with the emotional commands, sanctifying the emotions, then we must be infused with the truth and confidence of future glory. It is the reliable instrument panel on our plane when we are flying through the fog and have vertigo (Rom. 8:24–25).
Our best life is not yet. The Christian life though, is full of blessings, joy, and happiness but is not always trouble-free. It seems that certain believers have been the ordained goalie for the devil’s javelin team. As Christians, we need to maintain a future-oriented faith, which locks like a laser on our future inheritance. No matter what the best sellers have to say about the Christian life, it is our
The Foundation and Priority of Truth
future, eternal inheritance that provides emotional ballast for the child of God (Rom. 8:18).
Job, in spite of the little revelation he possessed and his frequent misjudgments about what God was doing, was sustained by what he knew of future glory. What he knew of future glory preserved his present hope. No honest reading of the book of Job can set forth Job as the poster child for unwavering faith and confidence. But even in the midst of incredible pain, he never lost sight of this: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me!” (Job 19:25–27). That confidence of the future sustained his present confidence. “Though he slay me, I will hope in him” (Job 13:15). “Faith is the response to the character of God, while hope springs from the promises God has made.”14
Paul knew the same truth and lived by future-oriented faith, based on a fuller revelation. The perspective provided him with spiritual and emotional ballast that withstood wave after wave of violent storm. Why didn’t he capsize emotionally? Paul was not only the apostle to the Gentiles; he was also the apostle of suffering (Col. 1:24). He was locked and loaded with a confidence in the future. He knew that no matter what happened today or tomorrow, God had made certain promises about the future. He knew that in the end God and his people win, and they win big. He had the oxygen mask of truth pumping the life-giving air into his lungs, strengthening his faith and sustaining his heart.
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Cor. 4:16–18)
The future weight of glory is oxygen truth that must flow through our spiritual bloodstream or else our faith platelets will
Biblical Sanctification and Our Emotions
get dangerously low, our hope will become anemic, and we will have a diminished capacity to value truth and keep an eternal perspective. Once this happens we will find ourselves at the bottom of one dark pit, and such commands as “Rejoice in the Lord” will seem to mock us. “Consider it all joy” will appear cruel. “Fear the Lord” will be empty. “Forgive from the heart,” “love from the heart,” will go in the circular file because of the seemingly obvious impossibility.
The summary of these oxygen truths is simple: knowing God—who he is and what he is like, what he has accomplished for us in his Son, and what he has in store for us in the future—is necessary for progress in emotional sanctification. Those aspects of God are foundational truths. They are life and health. To lay hold of these truths, to own them, to make them a conscious part of our thinking, will help tone our spiritual and emotional muscles. To breathe in these oxygen truths will increase our spiritual stamina and emotional vigor. When our emotions are increasingly aligned with the truth of who God is, what he has done for us in Christ, and what awaits us in the future, we will find our motives and our conduct aligning with God’s Word.

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