Book Review of R.C. Sproul’s Surprised by Suffering

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Biblically Based Reasons for Suffering

Book Reviewed by Dr. David P. Craig

It’s difficult for Christians in the United States to grasp that a huge part of our lives entails suffering – probably due to the influence of the so-called “American Dream” and the onslaught of prosperity preachers in our midst. However, it’s really impossible to read Genesis through Revelation at face value without realizing that part of our vocation in a fallen world is that tests, trials, tribulations, and persecutions, are not only possible, but inevitable for those who follow Christ.

Sproul states early in the book: “The promise of God is not that He will never give us more weight than we want to carry. The promise of God is that He will never put more on us than we can bear…What is difficult to bear without Christ is made far more bearable with Christ. What is a heavy burden to carry alone becomes a far lighter burden to carry with his help.” He emphasizes how and why God uses suffering in Christian’s lives so that we can become more like Jesus – spiritually mature and useful to others.

Here are some of the strengths of this book:

(1) The amount of references used to show that suffering is a huge part of Christian growth and the development of our character.

(2) The stories of biblical characters that suffered and what we learn from their suffering: Joseph, Elijah, Job, John the Baptist, Paul, Peter, and Jesus.

(3) The hope that our sufferings aren’t worthy to be compared with the glories to be revealed in the new heaven and earth.

(4) He writes about how to prepare for, endure, and be victorious over trials and triumph in Christ.

I highly recommend this book to prepare you for suffering well, and with purpose, for the glory of God, and the glories that await us in Heaven.

My Ten Favorite Books By R.C. Sproul by David P. Craig

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Since R.C. Sproul’s promotion into the presence of Christ’s glory on December 14, 2017 I have had mixed emotions. No single person has had a greater influence on my understanding of the Triune Nature of God, the Gospel, the Bible, Reformed Theology, Philosophy, Apologetics, teaching, and preaching than R.C. Sproul. There have been a lot of great tributes to R.C. in recent days, but I have been out of sorts since his passing. I have sorrowed as if I lost a blood brother and comrade in the ministry. He was the mentor who has most influenced me by far – especially intellectually – helping me to love the Lord my God with all my mind, heart, soul and strength. The way I am going to pay tribute to R.C. is by writing about the books he wrote that influenced me the most. I have read over 60 of his books.

At one time I could keep up with his writing and let him know at a book signing table at a Ligonier Conference (early 90’s) that I had read all his books and he said to me, “I bet you haven’t read Soli Deo Gloria: Essays in Reformed Theology: Fetschrift for John Gerstner; a book I edited for my Mentor in 1976.” He was right, I hadn’t read this book. I’ve since read his chapter in that book entitled “Double-Predestination.” But I was never able to keep up with his writing while he was alive. Since his death I have been re-reading some of his books, articles, watching videos, and listening to his audio recordings. I am so grateful that Ligonier Ministries has such a plethora of his resources available so that maybe before I die I can catch up on all the great writing, teaching, and preaching of this amazing Theologian and friend in Christ.

I never thought I would be so sad at someone’s death that I only met a few times “live”. I attended four Ligonier Conferences and was able to say hello to him each time and thank him for his ministry in Fullerton, and Pasadena in CA; and Orlando twice. I also got to spend some time in a smaller group setting with him at WTS in Escondido while working on my D.Min. there. Dr. Sproul was always humble, gracious, and kind. He treated me with dignity and respect and modeled what he taught. As others have made great tributes to him, I’d like to give my “two-cents” with the hope that maybe I can influence others to read, or listen to him. I can honestly say that I love R.C. and can’t wait to see him on the other side. I am grateful beyond words for what he has meant and will continue to mean to me and has tremendously deepened my relationship with Jesus.

I will write a little blurb on each of the 10 books he wrote that have impacted me the most:

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(1) Apart from the Bible itself – no other book has made a greater impact on me than The Holiness of God. At the time (summer of 1986) I had never heard of R.C. Sproul. I was a second year student my sophomore year at Multnomah School of the Bible in Portland, Oregon. I was working at a church near my home as an intern that summer working with college students. On my day off I went first thing in the morning to read a book at my favorite spot in a cove in Corona Del Mar near my home in Huntington Beach. On the way to the beach I stopped by the bookstore (Pilgrim’s Progress Bookstore – long since out of business, unfortunately) and R.C.”s book caught my eye. I was fascinated by the topic and decided that I would read it at the beach.

I don’t know how long it took me to read the book, but by sunset I was reading the last words at the beach and found myself literally on my knees weeping over my sin in repentance before this Holy God of which Sproul knew so well. I realized that though I had been a follower of Christ from the age of six; I was in practice full of unconfessed sin; a great idolater; and desperately needed to elevate my view of God and His character and attributes.

Since 1986 I’ve probably read this book a dozen times. It’s my go to book when I need to re-charge my spiritual batteries. It’s also set the tone for my personal life; relational life, ministry, teaching, and preaching. Reading this book helped me strive to place God at the center of all of life and seek to live “Coram Deo” – before the face of God and for His glory.
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(2) A close second to R.C. Sproul’s Holiness of God in impact is his classic Chosen By God. Like many young college or seminary students I wrestled with the concepts of predestination, foreknowledge, free will, faith, election, and how all these work together. I was definitely (though I’d never heard the term before) a Semi-Pelagian or Arminian before reading this book. R.C. brilliantly and cogently helped me see that I was dead in my sin and that I needed nothing short of the miracle of God’s electing grace to save me from a destiny banished from Him – had He not sovereignly  graciously and mercifully intervened. I’ve given at least 100 copies of this book away over the years and it’s my go to book to recommend to anyone who wrestles with how God saves His chosen ones. If anyone wants to understand the biblical doctrine of predestination – this book is an outstanding introduction.

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(3) Shortly after reading Chosen by God while in Bible college I read a book called the Psychology of Atheism by R.C. Sproul which I found in the school library. The book has been re-published under the title: If There’s A God, Why Are There Atheists? This book peaked my curiosity because at the time I had an ongoing ministry with philosophy students at a college department across town called Reed College. There was a period of time where I would drive over to Reed College once a week and wait outside the Philosophy Department to talk with Philosophy students (most of whom adhered to Atheism or Agnosticism). R.C. Sproul’s book is essentially a practical exposition of Romans 1. It makes a great case for the fact that people are atheists not because of the evidence of atheism, but because they want to live in sin. I found this to be the case then; and I still find this to be the case. In our secular culture I consider this book “must” reading for believers who take evangelism and apologetics seriously. It gives one a deep understanding of the psychological makeup of those who are in rebellion against God.

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(4) Another book that has helped me tremendously in the area of apologetics and evangelism is Reason to Believe. I read this book when it was titled Objections Answered when I was doing a lot of evangelism with professing Agnostics and Atheists in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. I still think this is the best book available to give to lay-people to help them answer the 10 biggest objections to the Christian faith. R.C. is famous for making the complex simple via his use of language, illustrations, and biblical theology and exegesis. I have used his arguments in this book hundreds of times over the years in evangelism, teaching, and apologetics.

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(5) Pleasing God. I can’t remember the first time I read Pleasing God, but it’s a book I’ve read and used in counseling, teaching, and preaching many times over the years as a great introduction to the biblical doctrine of sanctification. In this book Sproul tackles the greatest enemies in the battle of our seeking to please Christ: the battle with the flesh; the world; and Satan. Laced throughout this book is the reality of God’s grace and practical ways to please God. I still think this is the best introduction available on the biblical doctrine of sanctification.

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(6) I have read this book on the Attributes of God as it has transformed into three different titles over the years: One Holy Passion; Discovering the God Who Is; and most recently Enjoying God. There simply is no better introduction on the character, nature, and attributes of God than this book. R.C. does a wonderful job of explaining the major concepts of how God is different than us and worthy of our worship and passion.

844685.jpg

(7) The best introduction to how to read and study the Bible is still Knowing Scripture. In this short book R.C. gives a plethora of helpful information for anyone who wants to know how to read, interpret, and apply the Scriptures.

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(8) One of the most comforting and practical doctrines for Christians to understand is the providence of God. R.C. has helped thousands of believers around the world be comforted through his teaching on the biblical doctrine of God’s sovereign working to bring about His ends for our good and God’s glory in all things in his classic The Invisible Hand of God.

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(9) The least understood Person of the Trinity is the Holy Spirit. In The Mystery of the Holy Spirit R.C. handles the biblical portrayal of the Holy Spirit with great clarity and makes the complex and controversial issues related to the Spirit understandable and practical. I know of no other better introduction to the Holy Spirit than this great work by Dr. Sproul.

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(10) In 2012 I had a brutal bout with cancer. I read several books while undergoing treatment and wrestling with pain, unemployment, and even death. I have read a lot of books on suffering over the years, but this is still my first choice to give caregivers, people in pain, and those helping people understand the biblical purposes and practical ramifications of suffering.

I feel sort of bad because I’ve left out a lot of great books by Dr. Sproul. Even though many books of R.C. are introductory in nature. They are all deep, profound, cogent, and full of helpful theological truth that are practical, weighty, and lead one to becoming more and more like Jesus each day. It seems that almost every book R.C. Sproul wrote was well written, thorough, and yet he never said too much. I have given away more of his books as gifts than any other author by far. I’ve also recommend his books more than any other author. He was so omnicompetent it’s just hard for any modern writer or theologian to match him on just about any subject. I will continue to read Sproul’s books, listen to his teaching, and watch his videos. He had a unique style, was always interesting, and always taught me something new about the glory and grandeur of God. I can’t wait to see him in heaven and listen to him chatting it up with Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, and the many he influenced along the way – like me.

R.C. Sproul’s What Is The Trinity?

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What The Triune God Isn’t and What He Is

Book Reviewed by Dr. David P. Craig

If you were asked to clearly define what it means that God is Triune could you do it? In this short book (60 pages) Sproul helps you to understand the biblical doctrine that God is one in essence and three in person. In his inimitable style Sproul gives a lucid  and cogent defense of the Trinity as articulated in key passages of Scripture and as has been defended in the great early Church Council’s of Nicea and Chalcedon.

One of the most helpful sections in this book is when Sproul explains what the Trinity is, by explaining what it isn’t. He gives a brief history of the different early heresies with reference to the early teachings of the church in trying to articulate a unified understanding of the doctrine of God – His character, nature, and essence. He explains and shows the weaknesses of all the major early heresies with reference to a misunderstanding of the Trinity: Adoptionism, Monarchianism, Modalism, Monarchianistic Modalism, Monophysitism, Nestorianism, and Dynamic Monarchianism.

I highly recommend this book on the Trinity as a good place to start in trying to comprehend the biblical doctrine of how God can be one in essence and three in person. Don’t let the shortness of this book turn you away. Sproul is always deep, clear, biblical, theologically precise, and easy to understand. You are sure to learn something new and practical to help you in your walk with Jesus.

R.C. Sproul’s “The Intimate Marriage”

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Wisdom For Building a Great Marriage

Book Review by Dr. David P. Craig

A book is always so much more powerful when the one who writes the book practices what he or she preaches. R.C. Sproul and his wife Vesta had a great marriage for forty seven years before he went to be in the Lord’s presence in December of 2017. In this very practical book of 163 pages Sproul practically covers six subjects with biblical insight, practical wisdom, and wry humor: (1) Communication between the husband and his wife; (2) The Role of the Man and the Woman in marriage; (3) Problems in Marriage; (4) What the Bible says about Divorce; (5) Communication and Sex; (6) The Institution and Sanctity of Marriage.

This book is by no means an exhaustive resource on Christian marriage, but it is very instructive, has strong biblical wisdom for its points, and Sproul’s inimitable ability to take deep theological truths and make them very practical. This book has something for everyone: Singles considering marriage, young engaged couples; couples with a good marriage who want it better; and those who are in trouble in their marriage. You will definitely find wisdom and encouragement to help you in whatever state you find yourself in your current relationship.

I think the greatest area of strength in this book to help you is in the area of communication. Since two of the six chapters primarily focus on communication it is particularly helpful for men – who typically have a greater struggle with communicating intimately than their female counterparts. Sproul gives numerous illustrations, and helpful ways to communicate the truth in love with your spouse. The author is a master communicator. If you have ever heard Dr. Sproul teach, preach, or read another of his many books you will be impressed with his unique ability to communicate effectively.

Since a huge problem in marriage for many couples is the inability to communicate – who better to learn from than a master communicator. I highly recommend this book to help you communicate more clearly and effectively in your marriage. Great communication is a wonderful goal to have whether you are single or married and this book is a deep well full of apples of gold to help you become a better communicator.

 

Book Review on R.C. Sproul’s “Meeting Jesus”

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A Helpful Guide To Understanding The ‘I Am” Sayings of Jesus

Book Review by Dr. David P. Craig

The stated purpose of the Gospel of John is found in the second to the last chapter in verses 30-31 of chapter 20, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” Before arriving at this conclusion John gives many proofs along the way of Jesus’ deity. Perhaps the most profound examples of Christ’s deity are His eight “I am” sayings in chapters 6, 8, 10, 11, 14, and 15.

In this short little book (77 pages), R.C. Sproul covers the 8 ‘I am’ sayings of Jesus in the following order: (1) The Bread of Life; (2) The Light of the World; (3) The Door; (4) The Good Shepherd; (5) The Resurrection and the Life; (6) The Way, the Truth and The Life; (7) The True Vine; and (8) Before Abraham Was, I Am.

In each chapter Sproul uses biblical theology to show how the types, shadows, and illustrations of the person and work of Jesus in the New Testament have been the total fulfillment of Israel’s expectations. Each chapter articulates how the person and work of Jesus demonstrates how the realities of Christ’s birth, life, death, and resurrection are essential for our salvation and abundant living in Christ in the hear and now.

The book is based on a series of lectures that R.C. Sproul gave available through Ligonier Ministries. I also found that the Study Guide available from Ligonier Ministries entitled  “Knowing Christ: The ‘I Am’ Sayings of Jesus” by Sproul was also very helpful for further study, discussion questions for small groups, and cross references related to each ‘I Am’ saying. I highly recommend the book, study guide, and lecture series by Sproul for anyone who wants to better understand the person and work of Christ.

 

Book Review on R.C. Sproul Jr.’s – Growing Up With R.C. – Truths I Learned About Grace, Redemption, and The Holiness of God

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Reviewed By David P. Craig

I have to admit that I read this book with great reluctance. I was hoping it would not be another Franky Schaeffer angrily vomiting on his famous parents type of book. I was pleasantly surprised to read a book that endeared me even more to R.C. Sproul Sr., and made me appreciate the honesty and respect of R.C. Jr., for his wise and loving Heavenly and Earthly Father’s.

I am grateful that R.C. Jr. has written this book for three reasons: (1) It made me understand more of where he is coming from – I especially appreciated his transparency and humility in admitting his own struggles with the flesh; (2) I appreciated his insights and gleanings of grace and wisdom from his dad and mom over his lifetime; (3) I am grateful for his Christ-centered focus and glorying in the grace of God in the Gospel.

I just want to say “thank you” to R.C. Jr. for sharing your father with us. Thank you for owning up to your own struggles and modeling repentance and faith in Jesus alone. Thank you, Lisa (R.C. Jr.s, wife) for praying for and unconditionally loving your husband. And thank You R.C. Sr. and Vesta for your passion for Jesus and for the grace and mercy you have given your children. 

I heartily commend this book as a respectful tribute to R.C. Sr., and an even greater tribute to our Gracious and Merciful Lord and Savior – Jesus Christ.

Book Review on R.C. Sproul’s: The Prayer of the LORD

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Great Insights and Principles On Prayer – Reviewed By David P. Craig

There are some great books that hone in on the specificities of what has commonly become known as “The Lord’s Prayer” – particularly it’s exposition from Matthew 6:9-13. This week I will be completing a preaching series on the “Lord’s Prayer” which began in January and will be ending in May of 2018. I read seven books specifically as expositions or sermons based on the Lord’s Prayer of which this was one of those seven. I also consulted various commentaries on the passage as well.

Of all the resources I consulted on the Lord’s Prayer that I enjoyed Sproul’s the most. This book not only breaks down the specific petitions in the prayer but also contains helpful chapters on the following: “How Not to Pray”; “Questions and Answers” on Prayer from various passages of Scripture; and a whole chapter devoted to the question: “If God Is Sovereign, Why Pray?”

If I were only going to get only one book specifically on “The Lord’s Prayer” this is the one I would recommend. Sproul is a master communicator and does an excellent job providing insights, principles, and pointed applications that help you to be more God-centered, God-focused, and God-glorifying in your prayer life. As I have been taking in Sproul’s insights I have found myself growing in my intimacy with Christ, and helping others to do the same.

 

My 10 Favorite R.C. Sproul Books by David P. Craig

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Since R.C. Sproul’s promotion into the presence of Christ’s glory on December 14, 2017 I have had mixed emotions. No single person has had a greater influence on my understanding of the Triune Nature of God, the Gospel, the Bible, Reformed Theology, Philosophy, Apologetics, teaching, and preaching than R.C. Sproul. There have been a lot of great tributes to R.C. in recent days, but I have been out of sorts since his passing. I have sorrowed as if I lost a blood brother and comrade in the ministry. He was the mentor who has most influenced me by far – especially intellectually – helping me to love the Lord my God with all my mind, heart, soul and strength. The way I am going to pay tribute to R.C. is by writing about the books he wrote that influenced me the most. I have read over 60 of his books.

At one time I could keep up with his writing and let him know at a book signing table at a Ligonier Conference (early 90’s) that I had read all his books and he said to me, “I bet you haven’t read Soli Deo Gloria: Essays in Reformed Theology: Fetschrift for John Gerstner; a book I edited for my Mentor in 1976.” He was right, I hadn’t read this book. I’ve since read his chapter in that book entitled “Double-Predestination.” But I was never able to keep up with his writing while he was alive. Since his death I have been re-reading some of his books, articles, watching videos, and listening to his audio recordings. I am so grateful that Ligonier Ministries has such a plethora of his resources available so that maybe before I die I can catch up on all the great writing, teaching, and preaching of this amazing Theologian and friend in Christ.

I never thought I would be so sad at someone’s death that I only met a few times “live”. I attended four Ligonier Conferences and was able to say hello to him each time and thank him for his ministry in Fullerton, and Pasadena in CA; and Orlando twice. I also got to spend some time in a smaller group setting with him at WTS in Escondido while working on my D.Min. there. Dr. Sproul was always humble, gracious, and kind. He treated me with dignity and respect and modeled what he taught. As others have made great tributes to him, I’d like to give my “two-cents” with the hope that maybe I can influence others to read, or listen to him. I can honestly say that I love R.C. and can’t wait to see him on the other side. I am grateful beyond words for what he has meant and will continue to mean to me and has tremendously deepened my relationship with Jesus.

I will write a little blurb on each of the 10 books he wrote that have impacted me the most:

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(1) Apart from the Bible itself – no other book has made a greater impact on me than The Holiness of God. At the time (summer of 1986) I had never heard of R.C. Sproul. I was a second year student my sophomore year at Multnomah School of the Bible in Portland, Oregon. I was working at a church near my home as an intern that summer working with college students. On my day off I went first thing in the morning to read a book at my favorite spot in a cove in Corona Del Mar near my home in Huntington Beach. On the way to the beach I stopped by the bookstore (Pilgrim’s Progress Bookstore – long since out of business, unfortunately) and R.C.”s book caught my eye. I was fascinated by the topic and decided that I would read it at the beach.

I don’t know how long it took me to read the book, but by sunset I was reading the last words at the beach and found myself literally on my knees weeping over my sin in repentance before this Holy God of which Sproul knew so well. I realized that though I had been a follower of Christ from the age of six; I was in practice full of unconfessed sin; a great idolater; and desperately needed to elevate my view of God and His character and attributes.

Since 1986 I’ve probably read this book a dozen times. It’s my go to book when I need to re-charge my spiritual batteries. It’s also set the tone for my personal life; relational life, ministry, teaching, and preaching. Reading this book helped me strive to place God at the center of all of life and seek to live “Coram Deo” – before the face of God and for His glory.
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(2) A close second to R.C. Sproul’s Holiness of God in impact is his classic Chosen By God. Like many young college or seminary students I wrestled with the concepts of predestination, foreknowledge, free will, faith, election, and how all these work together. I was definitely (though I’d never heard the term before) a Semi-Pelagian or Arminian before reading this book. R.C. brilliantly and cogently helped me see that I was dead in my sin and that I needed nothing short of the miracle of God’s electing grace to save me from a destiny banished from Him – had He not sovereignly  graciously and mercifully intervened. I’ve given at least 100 copies of this book away over the years and it’s my go to book to recommend to anyone who wrestles with how God saves His chosen ones. If anyone wants to understand the biblical doctrine of predestination – this book is an outstanding introduction.

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(3) Shortly after reading Chosen by God while in Bible college I read a book called the Psychology of Atheism by R.C. Sproul which I found in the school library. The book has been re-published under the title: If There’s A God, Why Are There Atheists? This book peaked my curiosity because at the time I had an ongoing ministry with philosophy students at a college department across town called Reed College. There was a period of time where I would drive over to Reed College once a week and wait outside the Philosophy Department to talk with Philosophy students (most of whom adhered to Atheism or Agnosticism). R.C. Sproul’s book is essentially a practical exposition of Romans 1. It makes a great case for the fact that people are atheists not because of the evidence of atheism, but because they want to live in sin. I found this to be the case then; and I still find this to be the case. In our secular culture I consider this book “must” reading for believers who take evangelism and apologetics seriously. It gives one a deep understanding of the psychological makeup of those who are in rebellion against God.

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(4) Another book that has helped me tremendously in the area of apologetics and evangelism is Reason to Believe. I read this book when it was titled Objections Answered when I was doing a lot of evangelism with professing Agnostics and Atheists in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. I still think this is the best book available to give to lay-people to help them answer the 10 biggest objections to the Christian faith. R.C. is famous for making the complex simple via his use of language, illustrations, and biblical theology and exegesis. I have used his arguments in this book hundreds of times over the years in evangelism, teaching, and apologetics.

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(5) Pleasing God. I can’t remember the first time I read Pleasing God, but it’s a book I’ve read and used in counseling, teaching, and preaching many times over the years as a great introduction to the biblical doctrine of sanctification. In this book Sproul tackles the greatest enemies in the battle of our seeking to please Christ: the battle with the flesh; the world; and Satan. Laced throughout this book is the reality of God’s grace and practical ways to please God. I still think this is the best introduction available on the biblical doctrine of sanctification.

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(6) I have read this book on the Attributes of God as it has transformed into three different titles over the years: One Holy Passion; Discovering the God Who Is; and most recently Enjoying God. There simply is no better introduction on the character, nature, and attributes of God than this book. R.C. does a wonderful job of explaining the major concepts of how God is different than us and worthy of our worship and passion.

844685.jpg

(7) The best introduction to how to read and study the Bible is still Knowing Scripture. In this short book R.C. gives a plethora of helpful information for anyone who wants to know how to read, interpret, and apply the Scriptures.

27094.jpg

(8) One of the most comforting and practical doctrines for Christians to understand is the providence of God. R.C. has helped thousands of believers around the world be comforted through his teaching on the biblical doctrine of God’s sovereign working to bring about His ends for our good and God’s glory in all things in his classic The Invisible Hand of God.

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(9) The least understood Person of the Trinity is the Holy Spirit. In The Mystery of the Holy Spirit R.C. handles the biblical portrayal of the Holy Spirit with great clarity and makes the complex and controversial issues related to the Spirit understandable and practical. I know of no other better introduction to the Holy Spirit than this great work by Dr. Sproul.

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(10) In 2012 I had a brutal bout with cancer. I read several books while undergoing treatment and wrestling with pain, unemployment, and even death. I have read a lot of books on suffering over the years, but this is still my first choice to give caregivers, people in pain, and those helping people understand the biblical purposes and practical ramifications of suffering.

I feel sort of bad because I’ve left out a lot of great books by Dr. Sproul. Even though many books of R.C. are introductory in nature. They are all deep, profound, cogent, and full of helpful theological truth that are practical, weighty, and lead one to becoming more and more like Jesus each day. It seems that almost every book R.C. Sproul wrote was well written, thorough, and yet he never said too much. I have given away more of his books as gifts than any other author by far. I’ve also recommend his books more than any other author. He was so omnicompetent it’s just hard for any modern writer or theologian to match him on just about any subject. I will continue to read Sproul’s books, listen to his teaching, and watch his videos. He had a unique style, was always interesting, and always taught me something new about the glory and grandeur of God. I can’t wait to see him in heaven and listen to him chatting it up with Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, and the many he influenced along the way – like me.

“Discerning God’s Will” by R.C. Sproul

THE THREE ‘WILLS” OF GOD

“It is the will of God.”

How easily these words fall from the lips or flow from the pen. How difficult it is to penetrate exactly what they mean. Few concepts in theology generate more confusion than the will of God.

One problem we face is rooted in the multifaceted way in which the term “will” functions in biblical expressions. The Bible uses the expression “will of God” in various ways. We encounter two different Greek words in the New Testament (boulē and thēlema), both of which are capable of several nuances. They encompass such ideas as the counsel of God, the plan of God, the decrees of God, the disposition or attitude of God, as well as other nuances. Further distinctions in historical theology add to the labyrinth of meanings attached to the simple formula “the will of God.”

Augustine once remarked, “In some sense, God wills everything that happens.” The immediate question raised by this comment is, In what sense? How does God “will” the presence of evil and suffering? Is He the immediate cause of evil? Does He do evil? God forbid. Yet evil is a part of His creation. If He is sovereign over the whole of His creation, we must face the conundrum, How is evil related to the divine will?

Questions like this one make distinctions necessary—sometimes fine distinctions, even technical distinctions—with respect to will of God. Some of those distinctions made by theologians include the following:

(1) The Decretive Will of God

This is sometimes described as the sovereign efficacious will, by which God brings to pass whatever He pleases by His divine decree. An example of this may be seen in God’s work of creation. When God said, “Let there be light,” He issued a divine imperative. He exercised His sovereign efficacious will. It was impossible for the light not to appear. It appeared by the sheer necessity of consequence. That is, the decretive will can have no other effect, no other consequence than what God sovereignly commands. He did not request the light to shine. Nor did He coax, cajole, or woo it into existence. It was a matter of the authority and power vainly sought by the king of Siam when he said to Anna (to no avail), “So let it be said; so let it be done.” No creature enjoys this power of will. No man’s will is that efficacious. Men issue decrees and then hope they will bring about their desired effects. God alone can decree with the necessity of consequence.

(2) The Preceptive Will of God

The preceptive will of God relates to the revealed commandments of God’s published law. When God commands us not to steal, this “decree” does not carry with it the immediate necessity of consequence. Where it was not possible for the light to refuse to shine in creation, it is possible for us to refuse to obey this command. In a word, we steal.

We must be careful not to make too much of this distinction. We must not be lulled into thinking that the preceptive will of God is divorced from His decretive will. It is not as though the preceptive will has no effect or no necessity of consequence. We may have the power to disobey the precept. We do not have the power to disobey it with impunity. Nor can we annul it by our disregard. His law remains intact whether we obey it or disobey it. Even this law cannot ultimately be frustrated. There will come a time when no one will steal. The sinner in hell will be forcibly restrained from stealing. The saint in heaven, in the glorified state of perfected sanctification, will be totally disinclined to theft.

In one sense the preceptive will is part of the decretive will. God sovereignly and efficaciously decrees that His law be established. It is established and nothing can disestablish it. His law exists as surely as the light by which we read it.

Yet we still observe the acute difference between the light’s obedience to God’s creative decree and our disobedience to God’s moral, preceptive decree. How do we account for this?

A common way to resolve this conundrum is by appeal to a distinction between the sovereign will of God and His permissive will.

(3) The Permissive Will of God

The distinction between the sovereign will of God and the permissive will of God is fraught with peril, and it tends to generate untold confusion.

In ordinary language the term permission suggests some sort of positive sanction. To say that God “allows” or “permits” evil does not mean that He sanctions it in the sense that He grants approval to it. It is easy to discern that God never permits sin in the sense that He sanctions it in His creatures.

What is usually meant by divine permission is that God simply lets it happen. That is, He does not directly intervene to prevent its happening. Here is where grave danger lurks. Some theologies view this drama as if God were impotent to do anything about human sin. This view makes man sovereign, not God. God is reduced to the roll of spectator or cheerleader, by which God’s exercise in providence is that of a helpless Father who having done all He can do, must now sit back and simply hope for the best. He permits what He cannot help but permit because He has no sovereign power over it. This ghastly view is not merely a defective view of theism; it is unvarnished atheism.

Obviously the motive behind this specious theology is virtuous. It is fueled by a desire to exonerate God from any culpability for the presence of evil in the world. I am sure God is pleased by the sentiment but repulsed by a theory that would strip Him of His very deity. Calvin said of this:

“Hence the distinction was devised between doing and permitting because to many this difficulty seemed inexplicable, that Satan and all the impious are so under God’s hand and power that He directs their malice to whatever end seems good to Him, and uses their wicked deeds to carry out His judgments. And perhaps the moderation of those whom the appearance of absurdity alarms would be excusable, except that they wrongly try to clear God’s justice of every sinister mark by upholding a falsehood” (Institutes I.xviii.1).

Calvin locates the scurrilous untruth in the faulty distinction between willing and permitting:

“It seems absurd to them for man, who will soon be punished for his blindness, to be blinded by God’s will and command. Therefore they escape by the shift that this is done only with God’s permission, not also by His will; but He, openly declaring that He is the doer, repudiates that evasion. However, that men can accomplish nothing … except what He has already decreed with Himself and determines by His secret direction, is proved by innumerable and clear testimonies” (Ibid.).

Calvin goes on to enumerate several passages that support his thesis, looking to Job, Satan and the Sabeans, the role of Pilate and Judas in the execution of Christ, the role of Absalom in Jewish history, etc.

The key phrase is this: “Therefore they escape by the shift that this is done only with God’s permission, not also by His will.”

Here the operative word is only. If we are in any just way to speak of God’s permissive will, we must be careful to notice not only the word permissive but also the word will. Whatever God “permits” He sovereignly and efficaciously wills to permit. If I have a choice to sin or not sin, God also has a choice in the matter. He always has the ability and the authority to stop me from exercising my will. He has absolute power to restrain me. He can vaporize me instantly if it is His pleasure. Or He can keep me on a long leash and let me do my worst. He will only permit me to do my worst if my worst coincides with His perfect providential plan.

In the treachery perpetrated by Joseph’s brothers, it was said, “You meant it for evil; God meant it for good.” God’s good will was served through the bad will of Joseph’s brothers. This does not mean that since they were only doing the will of God the acts of the brothers were virtues in disguise. Their acts are judged together with their intentions, and they were rightly judged by God to be evil. That God brings good out of evil only underscores the power and the excellence of His sovereign decretive will.

We sometimes get at this same problem by distinguishing between God’s active will and His passive will. Again we face difficulties. When God is “passive,” He is, in a sense, actively passive. I do not mean to speak nonsense but merely to show that God is never totally passive. When He seems to be passive, He is actively choosing not to intercede directly.

Augustine addressed the problem this way: “Man sometimes with a good will wishes something which God does not will, as when a good son wishes his father to live, while God wishes him to die. Again it may happen that man with a bad will wishes what God wills righteously, as when a bad son wishes his father to die, and God also wills it.… For the things which God rightly wills, He accomplishes by the evil wills of bad men.”

About the Author: Dr. R.C. Sproul is the founder and chairman of Ligonier Ministries, an international Christian education ministry located near Orlando, Florida. His teaching can be heard on the program Renewing Your Mind, which is broadcast on hundreds of radio outlets in the United States and in 40 countries worldwide. He is the executive editor of Tabletalk magazine and general editor of The Reformation Study Bible, and the author of more than seventy books (including some of my all time favorites: The Work of ChristThe Holiness of God; Chosen By God; Reason to Believe; Knowing Scripture; Willing to Believe; The Intimate Marriage; Pleasing God; If There’s A God, Why Are There Atheists?, and Defending The Faith) and scores of articles for national evangelical publications. Dr. Sproul also serves as president of Ligonier Academy of Biblical and Theological Studies and Reformation Bible College. He currently serves as Senior Minister of preaching and teaching at Saint Andrew’s in Sanford, FL. The article above was adapted from Ligonier Ministries Tabletalk magazine – August, 1993.

Practical Guidelines for Biblical Interpretation from Dr. R.C. Sproul

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1: READ THE BIBLE LIKE ANY OTHER BOOK – The Bible does not take on some special magic that changes basic literary patterns of interpretation.

2: READ THE BIBLE EXISTENTIALLY – We ought to get passionately and personally involved with what we read. We should seek to “crawl in the skin” of the characters we are reading about so that we get absorbed into the world of the text, so that their world begins to shape us. By trying to put ourselves in the life situation of the characters of Scripture, we can come to a better understanding of what we are reading. This is the practice of empathy, feeling the emotions of the characters we are studying. Such reading between the lines may not be regarded as part of the text of Scripture itself but will aid in our understanding the flavor of what is happening.

3: INTERPRET THE HISTORICAL NARRATIVES BY THE DIDACTIC (‘Teaching’ or ‘Doctrinal’ Passages) – The term didactic comes from the Greek word that means to teach or to instruct. Didactic literature teaches or explains. Much of Paul’s writing is didactic in character. The relationship between the Gospels and the Epistles often has been defined in simple terms of saying that the Gospels record what Jesus did and the Epistles interpret the significance of what He did. It is true that the emphasis in the Gospels is found in the record of events, while the Epistles are more concerned with interpreting the significance of those events in terms of doctrine, exhortation and application…The principle of interpreting the narrative by the didactic is not designed to set apostle against apostle or apostle against Christ. It is merely recognizing one of the principle tasks of the apostle, to teach and to interpret the mind of Christ for His people.

4: INTERPRET THE IMPLICIT BY THE EXPLICIT – When an implication is drawn that is contradictory to what is explicitly stated, the implication must be rejected. If we interpret the clear in light of the obscure, we drift into a kind of esoteric interpretation that is inevitably cultic. The basic rule is that of care: careful reading of what the text is actually saying will save us from much confusion and distortion.

5: DETERMINE CAREFULLY THE MEANING OF WORDS – Only the context can determine the particular meaning of a word.

6: NOTE THE PRESENCE OF PARALLELISMS – Parallelism may be defined as a relationship between two or more sentences or clauses that correspond in similarity or are set with each other. There are three basic types of parallelism: synonymous, antithetic, and synthetic.

Synonymous parallelism occurs when different lines or parts of a passage present the same thought in a slightly altered manner of expression. For example:

“A false witness will not go unpunished,

And he who tells lies will not escape” (Proverbs 19:5).

And: “Come, let us worship and bow down,

Let us kneel before the LORD our God our Maker” (Psalm 95:6).

Antithetic parallelism occurs when the two parts are set in contrast to each other. They may say the same thing but say it by way of negation.

“A wise son accepts his father’s discipline,

But a scoffer does not listen to rebuke” (Proverbs 13:1).

And: “Poor is he who works with a negligent hand,

But the hand of the diligent makes rich” (Proverbs 10:4).

Synthetic parallelism is a but more complex than the other forms. Here the first part of the passage creates a sense of expectation that is completed by the second part. It can also move in progressive, “staircase” movement to a conclusion in a third line.

“For, behold, Your enemies, O LORD,

For, behold, Your enemies will perish;

All who do iniquity will be scattered” (Psalm 92:9).

“Give to him who asks of you,

and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you” (Matthew 5:42).

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek and you shall find;

knock and it will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7).

7: NOTE THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A PROVERB AND A LAW – Proverbs are catchy little couplets designed to express practical truisms. They reflect principles of wisdom for godly living. They do not reflect moral laws that are to be applied to absolutely every conceivable life situation.

8: OBSERVE THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE SPIRIT AND THE LETTER OF THE LAW – Jesus goes beyond the letter to the spirit of the letter. The Pharisees noted only the letter; Christians are to take note of the both the letter and the spirit of the letter.

9: BE CAREFUL WITH PARABLES – Some parables are extended similes, others are comparative stories, and still others have an obvious moral application. The safest way to look at parables is to look for one basic central point in them.

10: BE CAREFUL WITH PREDICTIVE PROPHECY – If we examine how the NT treats the OT prophecy, we discover that in some cases an appeal is made to the fulfillment of the letter (such as the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem) and in others fulfillment has a broader scope (such as the fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy of the return of Elijah).  When interpreting Apocalyptic literature (e.g., Daniel, Ezekiel, Revelation) it’s important to seek the general meaning of such images in the Bible itself. For example, most of the images of the book of Revelation are found elsewhere in the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament.

11: INTERPRET THE BIBLE WITH A SPIRIT OF HUMILITY – We must humbly acknowledge the possibility that at some points we could be mistaken…If my views cannot stand the test of objective analysis and verification, humility demands that I abandon them.

*Adapted from Chapter 4: “Practical Rules for Biblical Interpretation” from R.C. Sproul. Knowing Scripture. IVP: Downers Grove, IL.: 2009.