Summary of Stephen Charnock’s Essay: Practical Atheism
The only way to understand yourself or your life is to start with God. And right at the very beginning the Bible takes us there. If you are not clear about this, you will go wrong everywhere else.
Charnock begins with the proposition in Psalm 14:1: “The fool has said in this heart, There is no God.” He then makes his general point, which he will develop in support and implication throughout the remaining essay, “Practical atheism is natural to man in his depraved state, and very frequent in the hearts and lives of men.” (89)
Charnock then briefly exegetes the basic proposition of Psalm 14:1, “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. He regards him as little as if had no being. He said in heart, not with his tongue, nor in his head: he never firmly thought it nor openly asserted it…. Men may have atheistical hearts without athiestical heads” (89). Charnock’s point is important for the demonstration of his essay and for the implications of this doctrine: Practical atheism (atheism in practice) is not necessarily a cogent, articulated doctrine of the human being. In fact, one may steadfastly deny the truth of the proposition (indeed, overt atheism is rather rare – and self-professed atheists often display behavior and beliefs quite inconsistent with a logically consistent atheism).
Charnock then explains that the atheism in view is not necessarily a denial of all divinity, but really only a denial of the God self-revealed in Creation and the Bible, “There is no God…He denies some essential attribute of God or the exercise of that attribute in the world. He that denies any essential attribute, may be said to deny the being of God” (89).
Thus, even a polytheist, or Arian, or Muslim may be said to be an “atheist” even though the person steadfastly insists on the fact of God. What Charnock measn by practical atheism is that a human being suppresses the knowledge of God or otherwise denies some aspect or attribute of God. This is consistent with the suppression of Romans 1:18-25, where humanity does not deny outright all divinity but rather degrades or debases God in some manner.
The Incorrigible Atheism of Humanity
Charnock sets out to first demonstrate that such practical atheism is everywhere found throughout humanity. As some introductory remarks, he specifies that the naturalness of atheism is not the result of original nature but of “corrupted nature” (90). Second, such corruption is “universal” to mankind (90). To prove his point he cites to Psalms 55:3, Eccl. 7:11 and Romans 3:9-12, where Paul lays the indictment of sin upon all mankind:
To conclude: though no man, or at least very few, arrive to a round and positive conclusion in their hearts that there is no God, yet there is no man that naturally hath in his heart any reverence of God. (91)
He next sets forth six introductory propositions which he will use to set forth his argument at length.
Prop. I: Actions are greater discovery of a principle than words. The testimony of works is louder and clearer than that of words; and the frame of men’s hearts must be measured rather by what they do than by what they say. . . . Men’s practices are the best indexes of their principles. . . . (Tit. 1.16) (92)
Prop. II. All sin is founded in a secret atheism. Atheism is the spirit of every sin; all the floods of impieties in the world break in at the gate of a secret atheism. . . . As all virtuous actions spring from an acknowledgment of God, so all vicious actions rise from a lurking denial of him: all licentiousness goes glib down where there is no sense of God. . . . Every sin invades the rights of God, and strips him of one or other of his perfections. (93).
This proposition will be of particular importance in the later discussion of remnant sin in the believer.
Prop. III Sin implies that God is unworthy of a being. Every sin is a kind of cursing God in the heart; . . .  A man in every sin aims to set up his own will as his rule, and his own glory as the end of his actions against the will and glory of God; and could a sinner attain his end, God would be destroyed (94)
In this proposition, we can see the tie between sin and the original temptation, “You will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5). As will be shown at length below, the corrupting influence of sin is to destroy the ability to distinguish good and evil. It is only in the heart of a regenerate man that the capacity to distinguish – to know – good and evil can occur.
Prop. IV. Every sin in its own nature would render God a foolish and impure being. Many transgressors esteem their acts, which are contrary to the will of God, both wise and good; if so, the law against which they are committed, must be foolish and impure. (95)
If God’s laws were not wise and holy, God would not enjoin them: and if they are so, we deny infinite wisdom and holiness in God by not complying with them. (95)
Sin has a self-protective attribute. Here Charnock notes that sin protects itself by casting its own foolishness as God being foolish. It is at this point that sin lays down deceptive covering-fire.
When presented with a desire to do or not do some sinful, there must also be a concomitant deception to our reason: the conscience must (typically) be bribed before we will sin. For example, a man tempted to steal will first concoct some rationale which permits the stealing: that other fellow won’t miss it, he is very rich. Criminals often report explanations for their crime such as the victim (somehow) “deserved it.”
When a desire for sin is presented with a prohibition of God, sin will cast about looking for some explanation as to why this sin in this instance is “good” or wise. In so doing, the sinner effectively argues that God’s law is foolish.
Prop. V: Sin in its own nature endeavors to render God the most  miserable being. It is nothing but an opposition to the will of God (95-96).
Sin is more than accident or an infirmity: it is active rebellion against God. While sin cannot truly run contrary to God’s sovereign will, it does contradict, “the will of his precept” (96).
Charnock notes how sin does not merely seek to have its own way, it also seeks to lord over God’s declaration and set itself up as the standard: “Sin endeavors to subject the blessed God to the humor and lust of every person in the world” (96). This, of course, lies at the heart of the original temptation.
Prop. VI Men sometimes in some circumstances do wish the not being of God.
Men are knowingly under the judgment of God (Rom. 1:18). Therefore, to avoid that judgment they wish to force any knowledge of God from their minds – but they want more: they want their judge to simply disappear: “Fear of God is natural to all men; not a fear of offending him, but a fear of being punished by him: the wishing the extinction of God has its degree in men, according to the degree of their fears of his just vengeance” (96).
The one who wishes to continue in rebellion against God has no defense other than to somehow diminish God: whether by eradicating God; or that failing, diminishing the perfection of God. Practical experience shows that the final argument of the atheist is not “God does not exist” but “God is not holy”. To argue that absolutely no God exists taxes the imagination of even the most ardent atheist: the fact of some God or god is undeniable to humanity. Thus, the atheist must turn to the argument of harm (“Why do children get cancer?” et cetera).
The argument is that
God is not just.
Therefore, God cannot judge.
Charnock then asks a biting question:
Let us now appeal to ourselves, and examine our own consciences. Did we never please ourselves, and sometimes in the thoughts, how happy we should have be, how free in our vain pleasures, if there were no God? Have we not desired to be our own lords, without control, subject to no law but our own, and be guided by no will but that of the flesh? (99)
There is always a bosom sin which will be kept back: sin may willingly and easily retreat a certain distance, but when it comes to this last sin, it will go no further. The poor soul thinks, If I could just have Christ and this single sin, I would be content. Sin of course will not rest satisfied with merely one foothold, but it will always plead at that one foothold.
Having laid out his general propositions, Charnock then proceeds to his main argument which has two main divisions: “[M]ost may be reduced to these two generals: Man would set himself up, first, as his own rule; secondly, as his own end and happiness” (99). In this we see the nature of practical atheism: It rejects God and makes self that which must be “glorified and enjoyed forever.”
MEN NATURALLY WANT TO MAKE THEMSELVES THE MEASURE OF ALL THINGS:
“Man sets himself up as his own rule instead of God” (99). This was the promise of original sin:
For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
Genesis 3:5 (ESV). This was a lie, and a dangerous one. Human beings were not created to be able to distinguish good and evil without God’s guidance. As Jay Adams writes:
From the beginning, human change depended upon counseling. Man was created as a being whose very existence is derived from and dependent upon a Creator whom he must acknowledge as such and from whom he must obtain wisdom and knowledge through revelation. The purpose and meaning of his life, as well as his very existence, is derived and dependent. He can find none of this in himself. Man is not autonomous.
“In the beginning was the Word” (John 1:1) says it all. Man needed God’s word from the outset—even before the fall. His revelatory Word was necessary to understand God, creation, himself, his proper relationships to others, his place and functions in creation and his limitations.
The Fall did not increase the abilities of humanity. It merely made the counsel which is needed by man more difficult to obtain and follow. The obtaining and integration of godly counsel is called “wisdom” and “knowledge”. Proverbs makes it plain that such knowledge can only be rightly obtained in the context of a proper relationship with God: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 9:10). Propositional knowledge of the Lord can only be increased by a continued training “by constant practice to distinguish good and evil” (Heb. 5:14).
Charnock breaks this topic down into four separate headings, which themselves are broken down into parts and subparts. The practice of dividing and subdividing was standard practice among the Puritans [citation]. It permitted them to be exhaustive in their treatment of a subject, but it can easily become tedious for a modern reader unaccustomed to the style. The four primary elements of making himself the source for rule (practical law) used by Charnock are:
1. Man naturally disowns the rule God sets him.
2. He owns any other rule rather than that of God’s prescribing.
3. These he doth in order to the setting himself up as his own rule.
4. He makes himself not only his own rule, he would make himself the rule of God, and give laws to the Creator.
First, Man naturally disowns the rule God sets him.
Explaining the relationship between atheism and rejection of God’s rule, Charcnock writes, “It is all one to deny his royalty, and to deny his being” (99). This act of disowning God’s rule (and right to rule), entails multiple aspects of ignorance and purposeful rejection.
Men Don’t Even Want to Know What God Has Said
The first element in the rejection of God is an “unwillingness to have any acquaintance with the rule God sets [upon] him [that is, the human being]” (99). As Psalm 14:2 tells us, “None that understand God” (KJV). There is an automatic, visceral dismissal and rejection of God ruling over us. Unfortunately, “It is found more or less in every Christian, in the remainders, though not in the full empire” (100).
To make graphic the natural resistance to the will of God in the heart of man, Charnock writes, “A man may sooner engrave the chronicle of a whole nation, or all the records of God in the Scripture upon the hardest marble with bare finger, than write one syllable of the law of God in a spiritual manner upon his heart” (100).
How does this manifest itself. First, human beings “are negligent for using the means for the knowledge of God’s will” (100). It is not as if God has made himself difficult to hear. The necessary aspects of instruction are found in written form in the Bible, which is the most widely distributed book in the history of mankind. Yet, even among professing Christians there is a marked failure to receive God’s instruction. The Bible is a book more honored in its negligent than by reading or hearing.
Then, even when the biblical instruction comes into the mind, it does not stay (Rom. 1:28). Charnock says that we reject God’s instruction like a criminal “would a sergeant [police officer] who comes to arrest him” (101). He then bemoans, “How unable are our memories to retain the substance of spiritual truth; but like sand in a glass, put in at one part and runs out the other” (101). It is a fascinating thing to note how or memories can retain the most profane or trivial matters, but the truth of God runs out without constant care.
What then of those matters which we cannot outright forget: those we subjectively reject those truths as a matter of acceptance; “they have no pleasure in the consideration of them [the rules of God]” (101). The modern North American Christian is more likely to cry against “legalism”, that is, the proposition that God has any right to set a rule for his people. The “lordship salvation” debate which raged after Dr. MacArthur’s book The Gospel According to Jesus merely illustrates the point. The men and women who admit to the truth of the Bible would reject its right to set limits upon their desires proves Charnock’s observation.
Our “natural corruption” (102) makes it impossible for a man to look into the rule of God with delight. It is like reading a love letter addressed to a stranger: the words are comprehensible, but they create not love or affection in the reader.
This rejection is not merely passive; Charnock notes the active “swelling of the heart against the will of God” (102). The active rejection is both in terms of thought and affection (internal) and actual conduct (external). “We have a natural antipathy against a divine rule, and therefore when it is clapped close to our consciences, there is a snuffing at it, high reasonings against it, corruption breaks out more strongly: . . . (Rom. vii.8)” (102).
There is also a false “acceptance” of the information concerning God. My office has books written by knowledgeable unbelievers. These men and women have spent their lives diligently studying the words of God, but receive not as true truth, but as the words of men: “Judas was a follower of Christ for the bag, not out of any affection to the divine revelation. . . . It is all one to such that have no respect to God, what they have, as it is all one to a sponge to suck up the foulest water or the sweetest wine, when either is applied to it” (102).
Charnock then sets out an aspect of this disease (refusing God to set up a rule for our lives) by noting a feature which applies to believers, “Many that entertain the notions of the will and mind of God, admit them with unsettled and wavering affections” (104). “Our hearts, like lute strings, are changed with every change in the weather, every appearance of a temptation” (104).
This can be seen the one who is willing to accept the words of God until it crosses a certain beloved sin. “This is not to make God, but our own humor, our rule and measure” (105).
Related is the “twisting of Scripture” to serve some desire: “Many desire an acquaintance with the law and truth of God, with a design to improve some lust by it; to turn the word of God to be a pander to the breach of this law” (105). This is not to say that they will not toy with the words, but they will not lay the words wholly to heart so as to lay aside their sins: “Men are unwilling to acquaint themselves with any truth that leads to God, because it leads from self” (107).
Men Hate the Words They Cannot Ignore
What happens with counsel which is heard and remembered? There is always some element of God’s law which cannot be utterly ignored. When the conscience fastens upon some aspect of God’s rule, the natural man seeks to hate it out of his conscience, “The rule of God is burthensome (burdensome) to a sinner; he flies from it as a from a frightful bugbear, and unpleasant yoke” (107).
Citing proofs for this proposition (Job 23:12; Hos. 8:3; Rom. 7:12), Charnock turns to the subjective psychology of man: It is impossible to truly own God as God and at the same time reject his rule, “To think we firmly believe a God without living conformable to his law is an idle and vain imagination” (108).
One may object that Charnock has overstated his case. Surely some laws of God are held and affirmed by even the worst of men. The modern atheist argues that the atheist is as well behaved as the professing believer, thus “belief” in God is of no purpose or merit. Charnock counters this proposition with the fact that God’s law is of a whole: there are no separate parts which can be broken and yet the whole be spared (James 2:10-11) (108).
Why then does the unbeliever “obey”any of God’s law? “The rest [those laws of God which one does not actually break] are obeyed because they cross not carnal desire so much as the other, and so it is an observance of himself, not of God [Such as the drunk who does not murder.]” (109).
The rejection of the law is an insanity: “They would not have a bridle to restrain them from running into the pit, nor be hedged in by the law, though for their own security” (109). The prohibitions of God’s law are all for the good of men. And yet, God’s laws are rejected. “To what point soever the declaration of God stand, the will of man turns the quite contrary way” (110). The rule is rejected because it comes from God.
I recall reading a story concerning a newspaperman who managed to get a school to take down the Ten Commandments from a public posting. When the same man later bemoaned the stealing going on at the school, the Christian suggested that perhaps a sign forbidding theft should be put up.
The hatred of God is shown most clearly the fact that we most strongly reject those rules which are “most for his honor and his greatest pleasure” (110). People can be had to do any number of “religious” actions: human kind is inveterately religious. But there is a point which cannot be crossed, “We are more willing to observe order in some outward attendances and glavering [flattering] devotions, than discard secret affections to evil, crucify inward lusts and delightful thoughts” (111).
The insanity and depth of man’s hatred of God can be seen “In running the greatest hazards, and exposing ourselves to more trouble to cross the will of God, than is necessary to the observance of it” (111).
And what of we actually do? Even as believers, sin makes our “hearts unwieldy to any spiritual service of God” (112). “There is a slightness in our service of God. We are loath to come into his presence; and when we do come, we are loath to continue with him” (113). We treat service to God as dull and dead; every possible distraction will take us away from Him.
How does sin affect our motivation at service to God? When we actually do act in worship, we stop if our desired ends are not quickly met. We come to God to get and if we do not receive, we give up our worship. Even treat God with contempt in our “breaking promises with God” (116). “The fear of Divine wrath makes many a sinner turn his back upon his sin, and the love of his ruling lust makes him turn his back upon his true Lord” (116).
Second, He owns any other rule rather than that of God’s prescribing.
Charnock’s point is easily observed: Human beings will follow rules – often quite strict rules. The false religions with the most extraordinary demands are known to make the quickest converts. “There is not the basest thing in the world, but man would sooner submit to be guided by it, rather than by the holiness of God” (117).
For the counselor, this can be seen in the ready following of any psychological theory or fad – even when its known not render true change. The most ludicrous claims can be foisted upon the public and they will be swallowed hook and line. Yet, God is rejected. This shows that the rejection is not on the basis of studied position, but on an automatic hatred of God which springs from sin and shows as sin.
Third, We Follow our Own Rule.
Charnock states that we do so, “as if our own will, and not God’s, were the true square and measure of goodness. We make an idol of our wills, and as much as self is exalted, God is deposed; the more we esteem our own wills, the more we endeavor to to annihilate the will of God” (121). “To make ourselves our own rule, and the object of our chiefest love is atheism” (121).
“Fourthly, Man would make himself the rule of God, and give laws to his Creator. We are willing God should be our benefactor, but not our ruler; we are content to admire his excellency and pay him a worship, provided he will walk by our rule” (127). This is acme of nonsense, creature giving rules to the Creator. Such insanity could not derive from true knowledge. On this, both Psalm 2 and Job 42:1-6 are instructive. Those who rebel against bizarrely believe that they are freely themselves from God – while God is actually installing Christ as king (Ps. 2). Job, who rightly sees God, can do nothing but repent. Paul also notes that a failure of knowledge leads to rebellion, “[F]or if they had [known], they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (2 Cor. 1:8).
Having made his case (Charnock’s argument actually entails far more detail than presented here), he process to lay out the problem in practice and the means of responding to the sin which flows from suppression.
First, without regeneration, no change is possible (163).
Second, “We can never honor him supremely whom we do not supremely love; till this be, we cannot glorify God as God, though we do things by his command and order; no more, than when God employed the devil in afflicting Job” (163).
“We may gather from hence, the difficulty of conversion, and mortification to follow thereupon. . . . The love of sin hath been predominant in our nature, has quashed a love to God, if not extinguished it. Hence also is the difficulty of mortification. . . . It is impossible to strike any true blow at any lust till the true sense of God be re-entertained in the soil where it ought to grow” (164).
Charnock’s use of the word “mortification” is an important reminder to the counselor. Too easily, we define good as merely alleviating some discomfort. However, our goal is to help a fellow kill sin – not merely make sin more palatable. A mere suppression of pain can easily lead to a deeper suppression of the knowledge of God. The pain which flows from may be the result of self-sufficiency or self-faith which God seeks to destroy by permitting the pain. That self-reliance is what Paul calls “flesh.”
Finally, Charnock lays out three points which must lie at the heart of any truly biblical counseling:
Watch against this atheism, and be daily employed in the mortification of it. In every action we should make the inquiry, What is the rule I observe? Is it God’s will or my own? Whether do my intentions tend to set up God or self? As much as we destroy this, we abate the power of sin: these two things are the head of the serpent in us, which we must be bruising by the power of the cross.
Be often in the views of the excellencies of God. When we have no intercourse with God by delightful meditations, we being to be estranged from him, and prepare ourselves to live without God in the world. (172)
Prize and study the Scripture. We can have no delight in mediation on him, unless we know him; and we cannot know him but by the means of his own revelation; when the revelation is despised, the revealer will be of little esteem.
Take heed of sensual pleasures, and be very watchful and cautious in the use of those comforts God allows us.
Take heed of sins against knowledge. (173)