I’ve seen it happen many times. A new believer is sharing their testimony and when speaking of a moment of breakthrough gospel understanding, they say things like,
“I had never heard that before.”
“That was the first time I heard the gospel.”
“No one had previously explained Jesus to me in that way.”
Meanwhile, their longtime believing friend is sitting nearby, with an incredulous look on their face or perhaps a perplexed smile, knowing that that moment was definitely not the first time they had had the gospel presented to them clearly. The new believer represents the first time they understood the gospel as the first time they heard the gospel. And this doesn’t seem to be an intentional revision of the historical record, but an honest representation of their experience. In some mysterious way, there seems to be a memory loss effect upon the mind of an unbeliever when they hear, but don’t comprehend, the good news. Things get blocked out. Then all of the sudden, they’re not any more.
Perhaps you’ve never seen this with unbelieving or newly believing friends, but have experienced a parallel with your own offspring. I know a similar dynamic takes place with our kids.
“Ohhh, why have you never said that before? That makes sense.”
How many parents have heard similar sentiments, knowing that that same truth has indeed been repeated dozens, perhaps hundreds, of times in the past? Such moments for the parent are an interesting mixture of perplexity and deep relief that said truth has finally reached its target.
This past week our church plant was studying the person of the Holy Spirit in John 14. In verse 17 it says, “… the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.” While discussing what this verse means regarding the truth-revealing role of the Holy Spirit, we turned to 1st Corinthians 2:12-14.
Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.
These passages are clear. Those who are not yet believers cannot understand the truths of God, because the Holy Spirit and his spiritual understanding have not yet been given to them. The presence of the Spirit in a person is the key that leads to true spiritual understanding and discernment. The natural person cannot understand spiritual things without this key.
I saw it this morning as I shared the gospel with two older men in a money-changing shop – furrowed brows indicating that the message of salvation through the sacrifice of Jesus was not quite making sense to them. I’ve seen it for the last three Tuesday nights as a group of us gathered to field hard questions, including those of Darius’* cousin and another close photographer friend. These two former-Muslims/current agnostics are being treated to some excellent apologetics and biblical answers, especially from Alan*, with his scholarly mind and long experience of himself wrestling to find the truth (What a joy it is to see local believers taking a more prominent role in these kinds of conversations). Yet these unbelieving friends grind the gears of their unregenerate minds, seeming to move mere millimeters in terms of actually understanding and agreeing to what we are saying. They will likely not remember the spiritual answers they have been given at this point if they later become believers. And Alan will shake his head when some other guy later repeats the same point and they claim that it’s the first time they’ve heard it.
So what’s the point? Why sow seed that just seems to get eaten by the birds, rich truths that seem to immediately get suppressed and later forgotten? Simply because this is the only way that spiritual understanding comes about – through the unrelenting sowing of God’s word. The Spirit only comes upon those who have heard the words of truth. He does not work without it or around it. He works through his word, period. And from our perspective we cannot see what is going on behind the scenes, which seed is the one that will take root and burst through the concrete. He sovereignly chooses to strike with life sooner, later, or not at all.
To borrow an analogy from Donald Whitney, we cannot control the lightning, but we can set up lightning rods. Lightning tends to strike metal rods, so we would be foolish to not set them out simply because the actual strike is beyond our control. On the contrary, if you want the lightning to strike, then put out as many rods as you can.
It really is OK when our newly believing friends remember things inaccurately. God knows the true part that each and every conversation played and the mysterious ways that the spiritually-dead mind represses things. We can sit back and smile when we have played a part that is now forgotten or even distorted. What really matters is that spiritual truth is now understood by our friends, who are now themselves truly spiritual.
In fact, they are not all wrong when they claim to have never heard said truth before. They just never heard it spiritually.