Commentary on Hebrews 11:6
“…he that cometh to God must believe that he is…“
He that will have any fellowship with God in Christ must first believe that God is. That is, not so much that there is a God—for that we are taught by the very light of nature—but that this God whom in Christ he labors to know and come near is the true and only God.
This is a notable point in Christian religion to believe: that God is God indeed, not a fiction, a shadow, or imaginary God, but God indeed. For it is the scope of the first commandment that God gave mankind. If any man object there is no man that knows God, but confesses God to be God; no man was so mad as ever to think otherwise—I answer, to believe the true God to be God indeed is a matter of great difficulty. For though a man by nature think there is a God, yet do we not by nature think the true God to be God. Nay, by nature every man is an atheist and denies in his heart the true God to be God and does impugn the first commandment above all other. And this may truly and safely be affirmed of all men that ever came of Adam (Christ alone excepted) that by nature they are atheists, and it may be proved thus.
By nature, though we know and believe “there is a God,” yet the corruption of our nature is such as we frame and fain Him to ourselves to be such a one as we please. For we deny in our hearts His power, His presence, and His justice. But to take away these three from Him is to deny the true God to be God indeed.
First, men by nature deny God’s presence. For men would be ashamed to do many things in the presence of any man, even the basest in the world, which, when they are out of men’s sights and yet in God’s presence, they commit carelessly and boldly. I speak not of natural actions, which are lawful, and yet in many whereof there is none so great shame as men naturally refuse to do them before others; but I mean sinful actions which not for any natural unseemliness but even for their foulness and ugliness because they are heinous sins men would fear to do if any man were present. Seeing then men fear not nor shame not to do them, though they be in God’s presence, it follows that therefore they naturally imagine that God is not present—for if they were so persuaded, they would not commit them, though they esteemed God no better than a man.
Secondly, men by nature deny God’s power, thus: when a man offends a magistrate by breaking any law which may deserve death or some great punishment, he is sore afraid, and all his care is how he may escape his punishing hand. But let a man offend God never so much by breaking carelessly all His holy commandments, he never fears at all nor trembles at the punishment belonging unto them. How can this be? But that howsoever he grants there is a God, yet he is not persuaded that God has power to revenge the contempt of His laws. And therefore he never fears nor thinks at the remembrance of Him nor flies at all from His revenging hand but plods on in sin without fear.
Thirdly, man by nature denies God’s justice. For the justice of God is to wink at sin in no man but to condemn and punish it wheresoever He finds it by inflicting the curses of the law upon it. But man denies this justice, for though he sin against God’s law, and his conscience tell him of it, yet he persuades himself there is no curse nor punishment due for it—at least that he shall escape it. Nay, though he see never so many before him punished for the same sin, yet (our nature is so blind and so corrupt) he thinks for all that it shall not light on him. And it is lamentable yet most true that the god of the ignorant men is a mere idol, a god made all of mercy and which has no justice in him at all. And their sins they carelessly lay all on Christ and say God is merciful. And in this conceit they care not how ignorantly, how loosely, how profanely they live; and their hearts never have a reverent and awful thought of the justice of God.
These are the pitiful imaginations that all men by nature have of God. All these may be proved by evident Scripture: the first in the psalm where David brings in the wicked saying to themselves, “God hath forgotten, he hides his face, he will not see, he will not regard” [Ps. 10:11–13]. The second, by the blasphemy of Rabshakeh, who uttered with his tongue that which all men’s hearts think by nature: “What God can deliver you out of my hand?” [Isa. 36:18–19, etc.]. The third Isaiah proves apparently where he tells us that the wicked say, “We have made a covenant with death, and with hell are we at agreement; though a scourge run over and pass through, it shall not come at us” [28:15].
Thus both Scripture and plain demonstrations prove this to be true, that every man by nature denies God’s presence, power, and justice and therefore is by nature a plain atheist, not believing that God is God indeed. Now furthermore, there are four sorts of people that put in practice this atheism.
First, such as are not ashamed to say openly, “Is there a God or no?” and dare dispute the question and at last avouch, “There is none,” but that all matters concerning God and His worship are nothing but devices of politique men to keep simple men in awe and to make fools fain. But these themselves are fools of all fools, and the devil devised that impious conceit to keep them in miserable blindness. There have been such fools in all ages, yet in old time David says, “These fools did but say in their hearts” [Ps. 14:1]. But now the fools of these last and rotten ages are ripe in their folly, and they dare say with their mouths, “There is no God.”
These are monsters in nature and devils incarnate, worse than the devil himself, for he in judgment never was an atheist. These are to be marked and hated worse than toads and adders. And if such a one can be convicted by any lawful evidence, if ever heretic or traitor deserved death, such a one deserves ten deaths as being a traitor to God, to mankind, and to nature herself. And though these wretches say there is no God, yet make they a god of themselves, sacrificing all their affections to their pleasure and their profit.
The second sort are such as acknowledge and worship a god, but a false god. These have been in all countries and in most ages, as histories do show—some worshipping the sun; some, the moon; some, stars; some, beasts, birds, fishes; some, dead idols of wood or stone or metal. And of this sort and no better are some in these churches where the true God is worshipped. The apostle says, “Covetousness is idolatry,” for if a man’s heart be set wholly on riches, then the “wedge of gold” is his god. And to other, whose affections are all on pleasure, “their belly is their god.” Let these men hold in judgment as you can, their practice I am sure proclaims atheism.
The third sort are such as acknowledge and worship the true God but in a false manner. And of these there are three principal sorts: first, Turks; secondly, Jews, who hold the true God but deny the Trinity of Persons and the deity of Christ. Thirdly, the true papist holds in word one God and the Trinity of Persons as we do—but look at their doctrine, and (if their words have any natural meaning) they deny it, for if the second Person be true Christ, then has He two natures, Godhead and manhood. But by their feigned transubstantiation they quite take away the truth of the manhood.
And again, Christ has three offices: He is the true King, Priest, and Prophet of His church. And if He be not so, He is not Christ. But the papists’ doctrine in plain words and necessary consequence denies them all, as has been often proved unto their shame and published to the world. And they never yet to this day could or durst answer it; for if they do, they shall soon either hear us again, or else we will recant it. But till then it appears that their God is by their doctrine not the true God but an idol, for “he that denieth the Son, denieth the Father also” [1 John 2:23], as says Saint John.
The fourth sort of atheists are such as acknowledge and worship the true God and worship Him in a true manner for the outward worship, but in their lives and deeds deny Him. And these are not to be sought for in Turkey, Jewry,12 or Italy, for all churches are full of such Protestant atheists. Italy may have more atheists in judgment than we, but these hypocrites and atheists in life are here also. Those tares we have among our corn. Of these speaks the apostle that “they profess to know God, but deny him in their works” [Titus 1:16]. Let this seem no wonder that such men be called atheists, for the apostle says plainly, “He that careth not for his family is worse than an infidel” [1 Tim. 5:8]. Whereby it appears a man may be a professor of the gospel or a Christian in profession and an infidel or atheist in his practice. And it is certain, let any man profess what he will, if his life be naught, his religion is a false religion in him.
Now then, to shut up this point with the use thereof. If this be true that there are so many sorts of atheists that almost the world is full, and that we are all so by nature, then first let us see how hard a matter it is to believe in God aright. And if no man “come to God” but he that believes God aright, then we see it is no marvel, though so few come to God. Let us therefore go to God by earnest prayer to give us His Spirit to work true faith in our hearts and to make us of a true belief. And secondly, seeing men may be Christians in profession and atheists in practice, let us all look narrowly to ourselves and join with our profession conscience and obedience—for else the more we know God the worse we are. It may please God after to give us better minds, but as yet we are no better than deniers of God. And though we come near God in profession and in His outward service, yet indeed we are far from Him, because we want that true faith which must profess God not in judgment alone but in practice. And that will bring us near unto God, “for he that cometh to God, must believe that God is.”