This morning, I would like to argue that there really is no such thing as an atheist; that each and every one of us has a god of some fashion, and then show you why the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the only one worthy of setting our hearts and minds upon.
First, let’s deal with point one. There is no such thing as an atheist. If any of you here this morning lean that direction or are sympathetic to atheism, you might think I am crazy. You might think that if someone doesn’t believe in a transcendent being, then by definition, that person is an atheist. Let me take a moment to read to you what Martin Luther says in his Large Catechism. What Luther says is very important as he defines what a god truly is:
A god is that to which we look for all good and in which we find refuge in every time of need. To have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe him with our whole heart. As I have often said, the trust and faith of the heart alone make both God and idol. If your faith and trust are right, then your God is the true God. On the other hand, if your trust is false and wrong, then you have not the true God. For these two belong together, faith and God. That to which your heart clings and entrusts itself is, I say, really your God.
What is Luther saying here? Just this, whatever you put your heart’s trust in is your god. Whatever captures the imagination of your heart has become god for you. And every human heart is captured by something. Every human heart. This definition is quite different than seeing God as a transcendent being beyond the universe that may or may not intervene in this world. If this is your definition of God, then you can actually be an atheist. You can say that you do not believe in a being beyond this physical universe. You can say that you do not believe in a transcendent being who created this universe. However, if you understand Luther’s definition of a god, then there is no one who is an atheist. There is no one whose heart is not captured by the imagination of something or someone. Even those who have called themselves the “New Atheists” are not really atheists. Richard Dawkins’ heart is captured by evolution and science. Daniel Dennet’s heart is captured by philosophy and reason. Sam Harris’ heart is captured by neuroscience. Now, unequivocally, each of these folks would not say that they see these things as god. None of them would admit they worship science and reason and philosophy; however, from Luther’s definition, one could say such folks are living a delusion. (That’s a bit of a twist considering Richard Dawkins’ book titled, The God Delusion where he argues folks who believe in God are delusional. Looks like the shoe might actually be on the other foot, if we were to agree on Luther’s definition.)
The fact of the matter is that all of our hearts are captured by something. All of our hearts’ imaginations are grasped in one way, shape, or form. Thomas Chalmers in his sermon titled, “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection,” puts it this way”
It is seldom that any of our bad habits or flaws disappear by a mere process of natural extinction. At least this is very rare that it happens through the instrumentality of reason or by the force of mental determination. What cannot be destroyed may be dispossessed. One taste may be made to give way to another and to lose its power entirely as the reigning affection of the mind. A youth may cease to idolize central pleasure but it is because the idol of wealth, the desire to make money, has gotten the ascendency. So, he becomes disciplined. But the love of money might actually cease to have mastery over his heart if it is drawn more to ideology and politics. Now he is lorded over by a love of power and of moral superiority instead of wealth. But there is not one of these transformations in which the heart is left without an object. The human heart’s desire for one particular object is conquered, but its desire to have some ultimate object of adoration is unconquerable.
If you listened carefully to Chalmers’ sermon, he basically said this: our hearts will move from one affection to another. I guarantee that most of you here this morning know this. You know this even though you may not have thought of it. Remember when you were younger. Remember when you wanted a toy or a new truck or a new house or a new outfit? Remember how you just couldn’t live without it and your heart longed for it? Remember what happened when you got it? You probably rejoiced for a few days or weeks, but then what happened? What happened to your heart? Well, another object popped in there. You suddenly wanted another outfit, a piece of land, a different car or so on and so forth. Your hearts desire wasn’t quenched, it was only displaced. To go back to Luther’s definition of a god, one god was replaced by another.
I want to break from this train of thought for a moment to return to our reading from 1 Peter. Today, I want to focus on verses 13-21. Take a quick listen to these verses again
13 Therefore prepare your minds for action; discipline yourselves; set all your hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring you when he is revealed. 14Like obedient children, do not be conformed to the desires that you formerly had in ignorance. 15Instead, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; 16for it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’ 17 If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, live in reverent fear during the time of your exile. 18You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, 19but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish. 20He was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake. 21Through him you have come to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are set on God.
Peter exhorts us to set our hearts–to set all our hope–to set all our trust–on God; particularly on God revealed as Jesus. And as people who set our hearts on this holy God, we too are called to be holy. Peter basically says the condition of our hearts where we place our hearts’ desire and our hearts’ imagination will directly affect how we live our lives in the world. Let’s see how this works.
Remember how I argued earlier with Thomas Chalmer’s sermon that all of our hearts have an ultimate desire? An ultimate concern? An ultimate affection? Why should we set our hearts on Jesus instead of anything else? Why should we set our hearts on Jesus instead of science or money or clothing or possessions or our family or our friends? Why should we set our hope on Jesus instead of all of the other gods of the other world religions? What makes Jesus better than all of these things?
Just this: no other god is willing to die for you. None of them. All the other gods; all of the other things that capture our hearts’ imagination will sure as heck demand obedience from us though. They will demand our attention and affection. They will demand our time and energy. They will demand our efforts, and sometimes, they will even demand our very lives. And they will never give us satisfaction. What do I mean by this?
Well, let me use an example from my childhood. One of the members of my home congregation was very involved in teaching and leading the youth group. He was a great guy who really tried to do some good work with us kids. Just before I entered into that youth group, this guy stopped leading it. There were some things happening in his life, and from what I could see, he decided to focus on his job. And he was very, very good at it. He was an ag teacher at one of the local schools. He began pouring himself into that job. And he excelled! He did fantastic work! He was even awarded the Ag Teacher of the Year! Sounds pretty great doesn’t it. But I didn’t tell you the cost, did I? For as he poured himself into his job, his family life suffered. His relationships with his wife and children fell apart. He ended up divorced, and his son reeling from the brokenness between his mom and dad began questioning the existence of God because, “God let my mom and dad get divorced.” When this guy’s job became his god, he excelled, but at great cost. At terrible cost. And if we are honest with ourselves, we will see that this is the case with all of our false gods. Every false god demands obedience at great cost. Every false god demands obedience before giving any sort of reward. Every false god says, “Do this, and then I will love you.”
Only Jesus does the opposite. Only Jesus says, “I love you. I value you. I give you your worth and sustenance, now, love me; serve me; follow me.” And how does He love us? How does He prove His love for us? By dying for us when we least deserve it.
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.
This sets our God apart from all the others. This sets Jesus apart from every other religion or philosophy or train of thought. This sets Jesus apart from money and science and philosophy and possessions and the like. This is what makes our God holy. And you need to realize the biblical understanding of holiness. Holiness means to be set apart. Holiness means to differentiate from all the other stuff. God is holy in that He acts completely different from all the other Gods. The goodness and grace that He gives to us is not contingent upon our actions. It’s contingent upon Jesus’ actions. It’s contingent upon Jesus’ living the life we should live, dying the death we deserve and then placing His righteousness upon us.
When we begin to set our minds upon this–as Peter instructs–things begin to change. Those false gods find they have less and less of a foothold in our hearts. Those false gods find themselves with less and less power. And our hearts find themselves desiring other things less. Our hearts find themselves less enamored with power and prestige. They find themselves less and less enamored with popularity and power. They find themselves less and less enamored with acceptance and being right all the time. Our hearts find humility. They find peace. They find love. Our hearts become centered on Jesus and captured by the Gospel.
Then, this love of God which has captured our hearts begins to filter out into the world. It begins to look at others with kindness and compassion. It begins to look at others with a sense of longing to spread the Gospel to them. It begins to look differently and act differently than the world around us, and when it does, then indeed we are holy as God is holy. We are set apart because our hearts aren’t captured by everything the world deems important. Instead, our hearts are captured by Jesus. Amen.