So You Have to Understand It Before You Will Believe It? Are You Sure?

If men will not receive the Truth of God till they understand it, there are many things which they will never receive.  Yes, there are many facts, common facts in Nature, which nobody would deny but a fool—which yet must be denied if we will not believe them till we understand them! There is a fish fresh taken from the sea—you take it to the cook to serve it on the table. You eat salt with it, do you? What for? You will have it dried and salted, but what for? Did not it always live in the salt sea? Why then is it not salt? It is as fresh as though it had lived in the purling brooks of the upland country—not a particle of salt about it—yet it has lived wholly in the salt sea! Do you understand that? No, you cannot. But there it is, a fresh fish in a salt sea!

And yonder are an ox and a sheep, and they are eating in the same meadow, feeding precisely on the same food. But the grass in one case turns to beef, in the other case to mutton—and on one animal there is hair and on the other wool. How is that? Do you understand it? So there may be two great Truths in Scripture, which are both Truths of God and yet all the wise men in the world might be confused to bring those two Truths together. I do not understand, I must confess, why Moses was told to cut down a tree and put it in the bitter waters of Marah. I cannot see any  connection between a tree and the water, so that the tree should make it sweet, but yet I do believe that when Moses put the tree into the water the bitterness of Marah departed and the stream was sweet. I do not know why it is that Elisha, when he went to Jericho, and found the water the bitterness of Marah departed and the stream was sweet.

I do not know why it is that Elisha, when he went to Jericho, and found the water nauseous, said, “Bring me a cruse of salt.” I do not know why his putting the salt into the stream should make it sweet—it looks to me as if it would operate the other way—but I believe the miracle, namely, that the salt was put in and that it was sweetened. So I do not understand how it is that my bidding impenitent sinners to repent should in any way be likely to make them do so, but I know it does—I see it every day. I do not know why a poor weak creature saying to his fellow men, “Believe,” should lead them to believe, but it does so—and the Holy Spirit blesses it—and they do believe and are saved! And if we cannot see how, if we see the fact, we will be content and bless God for it!

— Charles H. Spurgeon, Apostolic Exhortation #804, delivered April 5, 1868 at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, London.

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Categories: apologetics | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “So You Have to Understand It Before You Will Believe It? Are You Sure?

  1. So, I read the title, and, while I think that you possibly understand the difference, I felt like I should point out a possible confusion about the use of the word “understand” here. You are right in the sense that one need not understand the *explanation* of a statement in order to believe it. Nevertheless, it is impossible to believe a statement if one doesn’t understand its *meaning*.

    The fact that you, or I, or Spurgeon believes that “when Moses put the tree into the water the bitterness of Marah departed and the stream was sweet” without knowing the explanation does not mean that we can believe it without understanding the statement’s meaning. If I were to make that claim to you, and you understood me to mean Moses from Frankfurt, KY, you could not actually believe me; you misunderstood me. Moreover, if we can believe things we don’t understand – in the sense that we don’t comprehend the meaning – then there is not much of a point in translating Bibles. If I can believe things I don’t understand, then hand me a Chinese newspaper, and I will believe every word while understanding none of them. But if you agree that only people who can understand the Chinese can believe the newspaper (directly), then you agree that understanding is a necessary condition of belief. If it is a necessary condition, then, yes, “You have to understand it before you’ll believe it.” Therefore, if someone wants people to believe the Gospel, then he had better help them understand what it means, for they will not believe it otherwise. If they could, then we might as well go back to preaching in Latin.

    Lastly, since, as it seems, one understands something better when it is explained, explanation is certainly not detrimental to preaching. In this article, we are given a few examples of things that we can believe, but we don’t know why they are true. I can’t see how this is a good argument to disparage explanation. After all, would it not then be an explanation as to why explanation is to be disparaged? Would it not be meant to help us understand better why explanation is not useful to help people understand better?

    To quote: “The disparagement of the intellect always involves a certain amount of inconsistency. It takes a little intellectual argument to justify the disparagement” (Gordon Clark RRR).

    Anyway, I hope that you don’t feel I was too hard on your views, but there are not many more important views than those on saving faith. If we don’t get faith right, then we don’t get justification by faith right. I hope that I have convinced you that faith does in fact require understanding.

    • Josh:

      Of course I believe that faith requires understanding, else there would be no point of preaching and compelling and persuading as the Word tells us is needed (Romans 10:14-17). Plus, having spent almost 20 years in ministry, I am certainly all for preaching and persuading and explaning and compelling. 🙂

      I believe you read way too much into the ultimate point. It seems as if a word or two triggered a cannon that was readied to fire. 🙂 There are many things in this world that we believe and accept even though we do not understand it. Even Paul notes in 1 Corinthians 2:10ff that the Scriptures, while they can be understood cannot not be understood with proper discernment because they are spiritually discerned. I may not understand the Virgin Birth, but I believe it and accept it as truth. I may not understand miracles or the resurrection, but I know enough about the one who accomplishes these things to accept it as truth even if I don’t understand the nuts and bolts of the matter.

      You seem to be coming at it from understanding it grammatically and syntactically. I believe that Spurgeon did make his motive clear that he was not simply talking about nouns, verbs, etc. but truly understanding and grasping the concept and the thrust of all the attendant implications. It’s back to Augustine’s “I believed so I could understand.” No one disparaged explanation–but things happens both in the natural world and the spiritual realm that cannot be explained. What then? Is it not acceptable? Is it to unbelievable? That’s the ultimate issue with Spurgeon, in my feeble and finite opinion.

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