Updated: Nov 13, 2021
It was Labor Day weekend, 2005. We were living in St. Louis at the time while I attended Concordia Seminary. As summer gave way to fall, Jenny and I drove up to Hannibal, Missouri. We were interested in checking out this historic river town. Hannibal’s main claim to fame is due to its native son—Mark Twain.
As soon as we pulled into town and parked our car, we met Mr. Twain. It was almost like he was waiting for us. The impersonator had Twain down to a T. He dressed like the famous author; white suit, mustache and all. Not only so, he also spoke like the writer as well. Despite trying my best, but I couldn’t get the actor portraying Twain to break character.
Mark Twain has been called the father of American literature, and for good reason. He’s the author of such novels as Tom Sawyer and the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, along with many others. During his life-time, Mark Twain was one of the best-known men not just in America, but around the world.
Why I am sharing this with you today?
It’s because there is an important detail you should know about America’s best-known author. He is frequently quoted, for very good reason, on atheist websites. Consider just a few things that Twain wrote about the subject of religion:
“Man is a marvelous curiosity. . . he thinks he is the Creator's pet... He even believes the Creator loves him; has passion for him; sits up nights to admire him; yes and watches over him and keeps him out of trouble. He prays to him and thinks he listens. Isn't it a quaint idea?”
[The Bible] “is full of interest. It has noble poetry in it; and some clever fables; and some blood-drenched history; and some good morals; and a wealth of obscenity; and upwards of a thousand lies.”
“I believe that the Old and New Testaments were imagined and written by man, and that no line in them was authorized by God, much less inspired by him.”
“Stripping away the irrational, the illogical, and the impossible, I am left with atheism. I can live with that.”
Atheism is on the rise in America today. But as Mark Twain reveals, religious skepticism is nothing new in our country. As a matter of fact, skepticism goes back to our very founding as a nation. One of the men most responsible for igniting the American Revolution, Thomas Paine, was a strident opponent of organized religion in general, and of Christianity, in particular.
We dare not scoff at atheists and skeptics. Why is this? They have plenty of good evidence for their positions. Let me give you just one prime example.
Many of us are familiar with these words from Jesus: If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.
There is a big problem with this. What's that? Christians can’t agree on what the truth is. This is true even about some of the basics of our faith. Protestants and Catholics don’t agree on how many books should be included in the Bible. Protestants can’t agree on things as fundamental as the practice and significance of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Many sincere Christians believe that evolution is not incompatible with Genesis 1 or 2, while others are equally certain that it is. I could go on and on, but I think you get the picture.
Given this sad situation, is it any wonder that sometimes one of biggest problems that unbelievers have with Christianity is the confusion caused by infighting between denominations? If we can’t agree on the truth, why should we expect an unbeliever to listen to us?
As Lutherans we prize the Small Catechism. For five hundred years we have been bold to teach, preach, and confess "this is most certainly true" about the basics of our faith. But the sad truth is that Lutherans can’t even agree on many important subjects: women’s ordination and homosexuality being just two examples.
The sadder truth is this: The Church has been plagued by discord for a very long time. In the early centuries of the Church a violent dispute arose between Arius and Athanasius over something as crucial as the question: who exactly is Jesus Christ? Not long after this another great dispute arose between Augustine and Pelagius. This dispute involved the nature of grace in salvation.
We even see a fierce disagreement in the pages of the New Testament itself. Paul outlines the dispute he had with Peter in the second chapter of Galatians.
As Christians, we cannot deny the struggle the Church has had from the very beginning—the struggle to hold on to the truth of Christ’s teaching. As Christians, we should lament that things are worse than ever in this regard.
You might think that the creeds could help, and they do, to some extent. But even when it comes to the Apostles’ Creed and The Nicene Creed, not all denominations agree with their use. Some churches prefer to say, “we are a Bible-believing church,” and forego the historic creeds as man-made inventions. I understand the reasoning behind such a position. The problem is that the Mormons and the Jehovah Witnesses say that they are Bible-believing, too.
Centuries ago, one troubled Christian proposed a path out of the discord and violence that plagued the Church of his day and age, proposing: "In Essentials Unity, In Non-Essentials Liberty, In All Things Charity."
But there’s a problem with this. Christians can’t even agree on what‘s essential and what isn’t. Concord has been hard to come by in the Church. And that’s a true shame.
Where does this leave us?
Theology matters because doctrine matters. What we believe matters. Nothing less than our salvation can be at stake. Consider what the Apostle Paul had to say: This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance, and for this we labor and strive, that we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, and especially of those who believe (1 Timothy 4:9-10).
Paul is absolutely convinced of the supreme importance of the Gospel. Sadly, many churches, and many pastors have strayed from this. This is true even in other Lutheran denominations. Some Lutheran pastors skirt around such clear statements as the one made by Christ in our Gospel lesson this morning: I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me (John 14:6).
What Jesus so clearly stated is what the apostles boldly proclaimed. God our Savior . . . wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all (1 Timothy 2:3b-6a).
Theology was very, very personal for the apostle Paul. In the very same letter he records: Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display His unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on Him and receive eternal life (1 Timothy 1:15-16).
For the Bible-believing Christian, our struggle to know the truth began in the Garden of Eden. It began when Eve, followed quickly by Adam, disregarded the clear truth of God and His Word, falling for the tricks of the father of lies.
It shouldn’t surprise us then that, even inside the Church, the struggle to know, and to hold onto, the truth persists to this very day. We must join with the saints of old and pray: Show me Your ways, O Lord, teach me Your paths. Guide me in Your truth and teach me, for You are God, my Savior, and my hope is in You all day long. Remember, O Lord, Your great mercy and love, for they are from of old (Psalm 25).
We need the Holy Spirit more than ever. The Spirit of Christ is the Spirit of truth. He will guide us into all truth (Romans 8:9; John 16:13).
Let us never forget the Word of Christ Himself: If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.
But this is easier said than done. It’s been this way for a long, long time. Consider what Blaise Pascal had to say four centuries ago: “Truth is so obscure in these times, and falsehood so established, that, unless we love the truth, we cannot know it.”
No doubt about it. We live in a day of great foolishness. Then, again, maybe its always been this way. We would do well to take to heart what Soren Kierkegaard had to say: "There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true. The other is to refuse to accept what is true.”
In closing, let‘s go back to Jesus. Did we catch what he said in our Gospel lesson this morning? He didn’t say: "I will show you the way. I will teach you the truth." Instead, he declared: "I am the way, the truth, and the life."
At its best, the Church always keeps this in mind: “Not only do we know God by Jesus Christ alone, but we know ourselves only by Jesus Christ. We know life and death only through Jesus Christ. Apart from Jesus Christ, we do not know what is our life, nor our death, nor God, nor ourselves” (Blaise Pascal).
This is most certainly true.