BOOK REVIEW: R.C. SPROUL’S “CAN I HAVE JOY IN MY LIFE?”

WHY PUTTING JESUS FIRST RESULTS IN JOY

CIHJIML? Sproul

Book Review by David P. Craig

In this insightful book Sproul helps the reader discern what true biblical joy consists of. It is not based on our circumstances, or even our personality. Sproul writes, “The key to the Christian’s joy is its source, which is the Lord. If Christ is in me and I am in Him, that relationship is not a sometimes experience. The Christian is always in the Lord and Lord is always in the Christian, and that is always a reason for joy. Even if the Christian cannot rejoice in his circumstances, if he finds himself passing through pain, sorrow, or grief, he still can rejoice in the Lord, and since He never leaves us or forsakes us, we can rejoice always.”

R.C. helps the reader by taking you to key passages of Scripture from Philippians, James, Romans, and the Gospel of John and gleans principles on the ground and source of our joy as being in Christ – who never changes and will never leave nor forsake us. The primary enemy of our joy is anxiety. Fear and anxiety rob us of our joy. However, if we understand who Christ is, and what he has done for us it deepens and opens up a new dimension of joy in us.

The acronym J-O-Y is used to demonstrate that Jesus first, then others, and then you – is actually a good way to practice the habit of joy in our lives. If we focus on Jesus – who is perfect, never changing, loving, and so forth – instead of our imperfect selves, or the imperfections of others and changing circumstances we can maintain and equilibrium of and growth in the genuine joy of the Holy Spirit who dwells within us as Christians. According to Sproul the reason that joy is often so elusive s because we put ourselves first, and Jesus last.

I love what Sproul has to say about Jesus’ own joy: “Jesus is the only person in history who spelled the word joy without putting the letter ‘j’ first. He put Himself last in order to make it possible for us to participate in joy.” The greatest joy anyone can possibly have is knowing and being like Jesus – trusting and believing in His redemptive work on our behalf. By participating (abiding) in our new life with Christ as forgiven, reconciled, children of God we have everything we need to live in peace and joy with God, others, and ourselves. Joy is possible because of Jesus alone. Even our continued struggles with sin, doubts, guilt, and so forth can never take away His righteousness in exchange for our sins and His gift of eternal life. Since our names our written in the Lamb’s Book of Life we have reason to rejoice no matter what our circumstances are – because ultimately we win in Him. We can always rejoice “in the Lord” – because the Lord has an infinite supply of unchanging perfections for us to delight in.

BOOK REVIEW: R.C. Sproul’s “WHAT IS THE CHURCH?”

A GREAT PRIMER ON WHAT THE CHURCH IS ALL ABOUT

WITC? SPROUL

Book Review by David P. Craig

R.C. Sproul examines what the Church isn’t, and what it is. In breaking down four key words from the Council of Nicea about what the Church is, Sproul articulates what it means that the church is (1) one, (2) holy, (3) catholic [i.e., universal], and (4) apostolic. Some of the issues addressed in this helpful book are: Why are there so many denominations? What are the essential truths that unite all Christians? What is Liberalism? Why do doctrines divide and unite? What’s an Evangelical? What does it mean for the church to be holy? What is the foundation of the church? What does it mean to be “in Christ”? What is the Gospel? What are the Sacraments? and Why should the church practice discipline?

Sproul covers a lot of ground in this short book. It is full of historical and theological insights, wisdom, and biblically based. I would recommend this book especially for new Christians and as a cogent argument for so-called “Christians” who are not a part of a visible local church. It will help you appreciate what unites Christians throughout history, today, and forever.

SUNDAY OT SERMON: Dr. James Montgomery Boice on “IN THE BEGINNING” – Genesis 1:1

Genesis 1-11 vol 1 Boice

SERIES: GENESIS – PART 1

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

These are exciting days in which to be studying Genesis. They are especially exciting for theologians and other students of the Bible, for much has recently been written on Genesis and there is new openness to looking at the book in the light of scientific data and theories as well as at science in the light of the Bible. They are also exciting from the viewpoint of recent developments in science, particularly those bearing on the origins of the universe.

Science has undergone what can almost be described as a revolution. For generations the prevailing view of the universe had been what is known as the steady state theory. That is, the universe has always been and will always be. It is ungenerated and indestructible. Such a view was materialistic and atheistic. It contained no place for God. In recent years this view has given way to the theory that the universe actually had an instant of creation. It came into being 15 to 20 billion years ago in a gigantic fireball explosion that sent suns and planets tumbling outward from this center into the form we observe them now. Moreover, they are still moving outward. In contrast to the steady state idea, this is called the big bang theory in reference to the instant of creation.

The change in scientific thinking goes back to 1913, when an astronomer at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, Vesto Melvin Slipher, discovered through his study of the shifting light spectrum of very distant stars that the galaxies in which these stars were found appeared to be receding from the earth at tremendous speeds—up to 2 million miles per hour. Six years later, in 1919, another American astronomer, Edwin Hubble, used Slipher’s findings to formulate a law for an expanding universe, which pointed to a moment of creation. Meanwhile, Albert Einstein’s theories of relativity were shaking Newtonian physics. And two Bell Telephone laboratory scientists, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, were using new and sophisticated electronic equipment to pick up background radiation from all parts of the universe, which they now identified as the leftover “noise” of that first great explosion.

To be sure, there are still many problems. Current scientific theory puts the origin of the universe at a point approaching 20 billion years ago, which some Christians find unacceptable. Again the big bang theory, even if true, tells us nothing about the thing or One who caused it. Nor does it throw light on why the universe has such astonishing complexity and order or how life originated or many other things. Yet this is still exciting if for no other reason than that “the Big Bang theory sounds very much like the story that the Old Testament has been telling all along,” as Time magazine wrote.

Robert Jastrow, Director of the National Aeronautics and Space Admin-istration’s Goddard Institute, puts it even more strongly. He is known for two very popular books, Red Giants and White Dwarfs and Until the Sun Dies. Now, in God and the Astronomers, he writes of the dismay of scientists who are brought by their own method back to a point beyond which they cannot go. “There is a kind of religion in science; it is the religion of a person who believes there is order and harmony in the Universe. Every event can be explained in a rational way as the product of some previous event. … This religious faith of the scientist is violated by the discovery that the world had a beginning under conditions in which the known laws of physics are not valid, and as a product of forces or circumstances we cannot discover. … At this moment it seems as though science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”

None of this should make the theologians smug, however. They should remember that they have not been without difficulties in their attempts to understand Genesis and that the ancient Hebrews were not without wisdom when they forbade anyone under thirty to expound the first chapter to others.

Roots

The significance of Genesis is not in its proof or disproof of scientific theories, however, any more than the significance of science is in its proof or disproof of the Bible. It is important for its teaching about the origin of all things, which is what the word “Genesis” means. Genesis takes us back to the beginnings, and this is very important because our sense of worth as human beings depends in part on our origins.

In a smaller but very dramatic way, we have recently witnessed something like this in American pop culture. In early 1977 a serialized presentation of Alex Haley’s Roots, a book in which this distinguished black author traced the historical origins of his family back through their days of slavery in the old South to his African progenitors, was first aired on American television. This series was a success of such proportions that it astonished planners and producers alike. By the end of its seven-night run, Roots commanded 66 percent of the television audience—about 130 million people—and had become the most watched television program ever. It has been rebroadcast, both here and abroad, and has caused hundreds of colleges to provide Roots courses. In the aftermath of that historical week in January, thousands of Americans scrambled into libraries to search out their own family origins. The National Archives in Washington found itself flooded with requests for ancestral information. What caused this astonishing phenomenon? Some have suggested that it was Haley’s frank and wise handling of the racial issue. But Haley did not think this was the explanation, nor do many others.

The reason for the popularity of Roots is that it discovered a sense of present dignity and meaning for one black family by tracing its link to the past and thus also providing a direction for the future. In this it gave a sense of meaning to us all.

In an earlier age this would not have been so important, because many people at least still had a sense of history. They knew where they had come from and hence had an optimistic outlook on what the future would hold. But that has evaporated in current culture so that, as a number of writers have correctly pointed out, this has become the “now” generation in which any firm anchor to the past has been lost. We have been told that the past is meaningless. Everything is focused on the present. We are told by the advertisers that “we only go around once.” We should forget about the past and not worry about the future. It sounds like good philosophy. But the loneliness and anxiety of a philosophy like that is almost intolerable. Consequently, when Roots came along many identified with Haley’s search for the past and for dignity.

R. C. Sproul, founder of Ligonier Valley Study Center, has analyzed this in terms of secularism, which means “living within the bounds of this age” (from the Latin saeculum, meaning age). It is to live with our outlook confined to this period alone—without the past, without a future, above all without God, who is in both past and future and controls them. He writes of the secular man,

Man in the twentieth century has been busily engaged in a quest for dignity. It is a very earnest quest. The civil rights movement developed the cry, “We are human beings; we are creatures of dignity; we want to be treated as beings of dignity.” So also have others. But the existentialist tells us that our roots are in nothingness, that our future is in nothingness, and he asks, “Think, man, if your origins are in nothing and your destiny is in nothing, how can you possibly have any dignity now?” …

If our past history tells us that we have emerged from the slime, that we are only grown-up germs, what difference can it possibly make whether we are black germs or white germs, whether we are free germs or enslaved germs? Who cares? We can sing of the dignity of man, but unless that dignity is rooted substantially in that which has intrinsic value, all our songs of human rights and dignity are so much whistling in the dark. They are naïve, simplistic and credulous. And the existentialist understands that. He says, “You’re playing games when you call yourselves creatures of dignity. If all you have is the present, there is no dignity, only nothingness.”

This is what Alex Haley saw and what those many thousands of Americans saw who took their clue from Haley and began to search through libraries for their history. It is what makes Genesis important. Genesis is important because it gives us our origins—not merely the origins of one particular family but the origins of matter, life, values, evil, grace, the family, nations, and other things—in a way that unites us all.

Without the teachings of this book, life itself is meaningless. There are even parts of the Bible that are meaningless. Without this book, the Bible would be like the last acts of a play without the first act, or a meeting of a corporation’s trustees with no agenda. Henry M. Morris has written, “The books of the Old Testament, narrating God’s dealings with the people of Israel, would be provincial and bigoted, were they not set in the context of God’s developing purposes for all mankind, as laid down in the early chapters of Genesis. The New Testament, describing the execution and implementation of God’s plan for man’s redemption, is redundant and anachronistic, except in the light of man’s desperate need for salvation, as established in the record of man’s primeval history, recorded only in Genesis. … A believing understanding of the Book of Genesis is therefore prerequisite to an understanding of God and his meaning to man.”

All Things Wise and Wonderful

In our study of Genesis we are going to look at each of these matters in detail, but as we start we can cast our eyes ahead over a few of them. They are a part of those many things both “wise and wonderful” that confront us in the Word of God.

1. The first great matter of the Bible, the one related most directly to our origins, is God, who has no beginnings at all. He is the first subject mentioned: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

This sentence is among the most profound statements ever written, which we shall see when we come to study it in greater detail. But even here we must see that these words already take us beyond the farthest point that can be viewed by science. Science can take us back to the big bang, to the moment of creation. But if that original, colossal explosion obliterated anything that came before it, as science suggests, then nothing before that point can be known scientifically, including the cause of the explosion. The Bible comes forward at this point to tell us simply, “In the beginning God. …” We may want to bring God down into our little microscope where we can examine him and subject him to the laws of matter, of cause and effect, which we can understand. But fret as we might, God does not conform to our desires. He confronts us as the One who was in existence before anything we can even imagine and who will be there after anything we can imagine. Ultimately it is he alone with whom we have to do.

2. The opening chapters of Genesis also tell us the origin of man, the matter we have been looking at most closely in this message. Without this revelation we may look to ourselves in this present moment and conclude, as did the French philosopher René Descartes, “I think; therefore I am.” But beyond that even the simplest philosophical question confounds us. Our son or daughter asks, “Daddy, where did I come from?” and we answer with an explanation of human reproduction. “Yes, but where did you and Mommy come from? … Where did Grandma come from?” The questions baffle us apart from the divine revelation.

John H. Gerstner, professor of church history at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, tells a story concerning Arthur Schopenhauer, the famous nineteenth-century philosophical pessimist. Schopenhauer did not always dress like a product of Bond Street—he often dressed more like a bum—and he was sitting in a park in Berlin one day when his appearance aroused the suspicions of a policeman. The policeman asked who he thought he was. Schopenhauer replied, “I would to God I knew.” As Gerstner points out, the only way he could have learned who he was would have been to find out from God, who has revealed this to us in Genesis.

3. Genesis gives the origin of the human family that is—moderns especially must take note—not something that has been dreamed up by fallen men and women but something established by God even before the fall for our good. People have added to God’s provision, but not by way of improvement. They have added polygamy, prostitution, promiscuity, divorce, and homosexuality. But these are corruptions of God’s original order and bring frustration, misery, and eventual judgment on those who practice them. People are blessed only as they return to God’s original plan for the home, the ordering of the sexes, and the responsibilities within marriage of both husband and wife.

4. Genesis tells us of the origins of evil, at least so far as man is concerned. I give this qualification for two reasons. First, because the account of the fall involves temptation by the serpent and we are not told by Genesis where the serpent came from. (There are hints of it elsewhere.) Second, because there are philosophical questions about how evil could even come into a world created by a good and holy God.

This much is told us in Genesis: The evil that involves mankind is the product of our own choice, expressed as a rebellion against God, and it has affected us so totally that there is now nothing we can do to restore ourselves or regain that position of privilege and responsibility that we lost by rebellion. It is as if we had jumped into a pit. Before the jump we had the capacity for self-determination. We could use that capacity to remain on the edge of the pit or to jump in. But once we had exercised our freedom of choice in the matter by jumping, our choice was gone in that area and thereafter there was nothing we could do to restore our former state of blessedness. Moreover, because it was our choice and not that of another, we are guilty for what we have done and now quite rightly stand under the inevitable judgment of God.

5. We can do nothing. But God can—God can do anything—and the wonder of the gospel appears in the promise of One who would come to undo the results of Adam’s transgression. The origins of salvation are therefore also to be found in this book.

This is true in two senses. First, there are promises of a Savior to come, as I have indicated. When Adam and Eve sinned and God came to them in the garden, he first rebuked the sin. But then he spoke of hope in the person of One who should crush the head of Satan. Speaking to the serpent he said, “He will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Gen. 3:15). As the book goes on, this cryptic statement is elaborated and explained. God spoke to Abraham of a descendant who would be the source of divine blessing to all nations: “Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring [singular] all nations on earth will be blessed” (Gen. 22:17–18; cf. Gal. 3:8). Still later, Jacob spoke of him as a descendant of the tribe of Judah: “The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his” (Gen. 49:10).

The second way Genesis foreshadows the coming of Christ is by its record of the institution and performance of the sacrifices, which he alone fulfilled.

6. A sixth and very important origin in Genesis is the doctrine of justification by faith, clearly seen first in the experience of Abraham. We are told: “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). If righteousness was “credited” to Abraham, then Abraham had none of his own. It was the gift of God. Moreover, it was credited to him not on the basis of his works, love, service, or obedience, but on the basis of his faith, that is, on the basis of his taking God’s word in the matter of salvation. In reference to this statement Paul later wrote, “The words ‘it was credited to him’ were written not for him alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Rom. 4:23–25).

7. Genesis also contains the first teaching in the Bible of the sovereign election of God in salvation. When Adam and Eve sinned, they did not come to God. They hid from him. He took the initiative in seeking them out and in beginning to teach the means of salvation through the death of the Mediator. It was the same with Abraham. Abraham did not seek God. He did not even know who the true God was. But God called Abraham and made him the father of a favored nation through whom the Redeemer should come. God chose Isaac and not Ishmael. He chose Jacob and not Esau. In the New Testament Paul uses these examples to show that salvation does not “depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. … God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden” (Rom. 9:16, 18).

8. Finally there are the origins of divine judgment. In the story of God’s encounter with fallen Eve and Adam, we see accountability and a certain degree of judgment, but for the most part judgment is set aside or postponed. This is not so in the judgment of the flood under Noah, through which all but Noah and his immediate family perished. This is brought forward in the New Testament as a reminder of the reality and inescapability of the final judgment (2 Peter 3:3–10).

Back and Forward

When the secularists came along in the middle of the last century and cut the society of their day off from any sense of history, the deed was greeted with cries of joyous appreciation and great glee. To be freed from the past, particularly from the biblical past with its God of moral standards and threats of judgment, seemed to be true liberation. Man was free! And if he was free, he could do as he pleased—which is what he had wanted to do all along—without fear of God or judgment! Unfortunately, secular man did not see at what price this ghost of liberty had been won. Free of the past? Yes! And of the future too! But now man was adrift on a great sea of nothingness, a bubble on the deep, having come from nothing and drifting to a meaningless shore. No wonder that contemporary man is empty, miserable, frustrated. He is on the verge of a monumental breakdown. He gained freedom (so-called) but at the loss of value, meaning, and true dignity. No wonder he is searching for his roots, as Haley’s video phenomenon reminds us.

Fortunately, men and women can go back … and forward too. But the past and future are not in Haley. They are in the Bible where we find ourselves as we truly are—made in the image of almighty God, hence, creatures of value; fallen tragically, yet redeemable by God through the power and grace displayed in Jesus Christ.

About the Preacher

Boice JM in pulpit

James Montgomery Boice, Th.D., (July 7, 1938 – June 15, 2000) was a Reformed theologian, Bible teacher, and pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia from 1968 until his death. He is heard on The Bible Study Hour radio broadcast and was a well-known author and speaker in evangelical and Reformed circles. He also served as Chairman of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy for over ten years and was a founding member of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. James Boice was one of my favorite Bible teachers. Thankfully – many of his books and expositions of Scripture are still in print and more are becoming available. The sermon above was adapted from Chapter 1 in Genesis 1-11: An Expositional Commentary. vol. 1: Creation and Fall. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006.

 

BOOK REVIEW: R.C. SPROUL’S “HOW CAN I DEVELOP A CHRISTIAN CONSCIENCE?”

 AN ETHICAL PRIMER FOR DEVELOPING A CHRISTIAN CONSCIENCE

HCIDACC? SPROUL

Book Review by David P. Craig

R.C. Sproul begins this book by giving a classical definition of the Christian conscience: “The Christian conscience is thought to be something that God has implanted into our minds…the voice of God within us….The idea is that God created us in such a way that there is a link between the sensitivities of the mind and the conscience with its built-in responsibility to God’s eternal laws.” He then goes on to give several examples of how the conscience and law work together to bring about thoughts and actions that are either in accordance with God’s Word or against God’s Word. The conscience is the “tool that God the Holy Spirit uses to convict us, bring us to repentance, and receive the healing of forgiveness that flows from the gospel.”

In the short chapters of this book Sproul compares and contrasts several important matters with reference to developing a Christian conscience as we deal with what has been clearly revealed in the Scriptures and not clearly revealed in the Scriptures:

(1) Creation ordinances vs. Civil Law – here Sproul cogently and compellingly demonstrates that everyone is responsible to live by the Covenant of Creation and that everything that is legislated by law is “moral legislation” – Sproul writes: “Of course, if you think it through, you realize that moral issues are at the heart of all legislation. The question is not whether the state should legislate morality. The question is what morality should the state be legislating? Natural law states that in nature there are certain principles that we should never violate. But why? Just because nature says it’s wrong? No. Classically and historically, Christianity has said that those laws that we find in nature are the external manifestations of the law of God. Remember that all true and just law is based ultimately on the character of God and His eternal being. From those eternal principles we get a reflection of God in natural law…In the final analysis what the culture does or does not do must not affect my responsibility to God. We are called to be a people of principle. Reformation starts when we begin to live by principle and not by expediency.”

(2) The distinction between ethics and morality  – What are the indicatives (morality) of Scripture and what are the imperatives (ethics)?  Here Sproul answers two important questions: (a) What is good, and what does God require of us that is well pleasing to Him? and (b) How can we have the ethical courage to do what is right? Perhaps the most important issue handled in this section is Sproul’s treatment of major’s, minor’s, and areas of freedom in the Christian life.

(3) Legalism vs. Antinomianism – Here Sproul demonstrates three ancient and modern varieties of those who are “legalistic” and those who are “anti-law.” He demonstrates the importance of balance between these two dangerous extremes in this way, “The essence of Christian theology is grace, and the essence of Christian ethics is gratitude.” Sproul reminds us that where the Scriptures are silent “we have no right to heap up restrictions on people where He has no stated restriction…We are to be concerned with integrity, justice, mercy, and helping a world that is in pain. It is all too simple to distort the biblical ethic by a kind of legalism that majors in minors.”

(4) Degrees of sin. The last topic addressed in the book is the question are some sins worse than others? Sproul does a wonderful job of providing many examples – especially from the Sermon on the Mount – to demonstrate the seriousness of sin, and God’s provision for our sins. Tackling issues of guilt, law, righteousness, and justification this short book is jam packed with great questions and answers to some of the most important issues of our day. If you want to know how to live as a Christian in the 21st Century this book is an excellent primer of how to develop a conscience that is right with God and pleasing to God.

Book Review on R.C. Sproul’s “Discovering the God Who Is”

‘One Holy Passion” Book Review by David P. Craig

DTGWI Sproul

One of the highlights of my life as a follower of Christ has been learning from the teaching and writing ministry of Dr. R.C. Sproul. R.C. has an amazing ability to make complex truths simple and comprehensible. The first book that R.C. Sproul wrote on the character and nature of God was entitled “The Holiness of God.” I think that book and J.I. Packer’s “Knowing God” and A.W. Tozer’s “The Knowledge of the Holy” were the three best practical books on the character and nature of God in the twentieth century. “Discovering The God Who Is” is a reprint of Sproul’s second book on the character and nature of God originally entitled “One Holy Passion.”

In my opinion it is the finest book on the major attributes of God ever written for a general Christian audience. There is simply no grandeur theme in life than that of Theology Proper (the study of God). Sproul takes 12 attributes of God including His omnipotence, self-existence, omnipresence, omniscience – and 8 others – and gives penetrating insight and practical applications concerning each one. R.C. does a masterful job of heightening, illuminating, and glorifying our understanding of God. He has the ability to write with penetrating insight and skillfully stretch one’s thinking on the greatness of God, without delving into the abstract or obscure. He keeps you on the edge of your seat as you read about our amazing relational and yet totally transcendent God.

If you have never read a book on God’s attributes before this is a wonderful place to start. However, even if you’ve read Charnock’s massive treatise on the “Attributes of God” you will still be instructed and encouraged by Sproul’s practical theology. I have read this book several times over the years, and it is one of a few books I come to again and again. I think the reason I love this book so much is because Sproul has an ability to convey the realities of God’s nature in such an attractive way. He writes in a way that makes God warm up to you, and you to Him. Sproul is passionate about God and when he writes about God he stirs in the reader a passion for God as well. He conveys the “warmth” of God and the “Holy otherness” of God without watering down His immanence (nearness) or transcendence (otherness).

I think Sproul and C.S. Lewis are similar in this fashion. They have a way of taking you deep and into complex waters of truth, without sinking you. You always feel safe and grounded while they take you into the depths of reality. There are no greater depths to delve into, than the depths of God’s nature and character. R.C. is a wise, trustworthy, and safe guide who takes you into the deep waters of truth where you will find the infinite treasures of a Holy God, and he will help you to develop your own holy passion to know Him and to make Him known.

“I See You, and Jesus Sees You” by R.C. Sproul

Series: Friday Humor #4

A local newspaper told an anecdote about a burglar who stalked the neighborhood watching for homes left unguarded by people leaving for vacation. He watched as a family loaded their suitcases into their car and departed. He waited until dark and then approached the front door and rang the bell. There was no answer. The burglar neatly picked the lock and let himself in. He called into the darkness, “Is anybody home?” He was stunned when he heard a voice in reply, “I see you, and Jesus sees you.” Terrified, the burglar called out, “Who’s there?” Again the voice came back, “I see you, and Jesus sees you.” The burglar switched on his flashlight and aimed it in the direction of the voice. He was instantly relieved when his light revealed a caged parrot reciting the refrain, “I see you, and Jesus sees you.” The burglar laughed out loud and switched on the lights. Then he saw it. Beneath the parrot’s cage was a huge Doberman pinscher. Then the parrot said, “Attack, Jesus, attack!”

Adapted from R.C. Sprouls excellent book on sanctification entitled Pleasing God. Tyndale: Wheaton, 1991, p. 46.

“Fear Not!” by R.C. Sproul

Why Did Jesus Say “Fear Not” So Frequently?

We are fragile mortals, given to fears of every sort. We have a built-in insecurity that no amount of whistling in the dark can mollify. We seek assurance concerning the things that frighten us the most.

The prohibition uttered most frequently by our Lord is the command, “Fear not.” He said this so often to his disciples and others he encountered that it almost came to sound like a greeting. Where most people greet others by saying “Hi” or “Hello,” the first words of Jesus often were “Fear not.”

Why? Perhaps Jesus’ predilection for those words grew out of his acute sense of the thinly veiled fear that grips all who approach the living God. We fear his power, we fear his wrath, and most of all we fear his ultimate rejection.

The assurance we need most is the assurance of salvation. Though we are loathe to think much about it or contemplate it deeply, we know, if only intuitively, that the worst catastrophe that could ever befall us is to be visited by God’s final punitive wrath. Our insecurity is worsened by the certainty that we deserve it.

Many believe that assurance of eternal salvation is neither possible or even to be sought. To claim such assurance is considered a mask of supreme arrogance, the nadir of self-conceit.

Yet, if God declares that it is possible to have full assurance of salvation and even commands that we seek after it, then it would be supremely arrogant to deny our need or neglect the search.

In fact, God does command us to make our election and calling sure: Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things, you will never fall (2 Pet. 1:10).

This command admits of no justifiable neglect. It addresses a crucial matter. The question, “Am I saved?” is one of the most important I can ever ask myself. I need to know the answer; I must know the answer. This is not a trifle. Without the assurance of salvation the Christian life is unstable, vulnerable to the debilitating rigors of mood changes. Basing assurance on changing emotions allows the wolf of heresy to camp on the doorstep. Progress in sanctification requires a firm foundation in faith. Assurance is the cement of that foundation. Without it the foundation crumbles.

How, then, do we receive assurance? The Scripture declares that the Holy Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God. This inner testimony of the Holy Spirit is as vital as it is complex. It can be subjected to severe distortions, being confused with subjectivism and self-delusion. The Spirit gives his testimony with the Word and through the Word, never without the Word or against the Word.

Since it is possible to have false assurance of salvation it is all the more urgent that we seek the Spirit’s testimony in and through the Word. False assurance usually proceeds from a faulty understanding of salvation. If one fails to understand the necessary conditions for salvation, assurance becomes, at best, a guess.

Therefore, we insist that right doctrine is a crucial element in acquiring a sound basis for assurance. It may even be a necessary condition, though it is by no means a sufficient condition. Without sound doctrine we will have an inadequate understanding of salvation. However, having a sound understanding of salvation is no guarantee that we have the salvation we so soundly understand.

If we think the Bible teaches universal salvation we may arrive at a false sense of assurance by reasoning as follows:

Everybody is saved.

I am a body.

Therefore, I am saved.

Or, if we think salvation is gained by our own good works and we are further deluded into believing that we possess good works, we will have a false assurance of salvation.

To have sound assurance we must understand that our salvation rests upon the merit of Christ alone, which is appropriated to us when we embrace him by genuine faith. If we understand that, the remaining question is, “Do I have the genuine faith necessary for salvation?”

To answer that question two more things must be understood and analyzed properly. The first is doctrinal. We need a clear understanding of what constitutes genuine saving faith. If we conceive of saving faith as a faith that exists in a vacuum, never yielding the fruit of works of obedience, we have confused saving faith with dead faith, which cannot save anyone.

The second requirement involves a sober analysis of our own lives. We must examine ourselves to see if the fruit of regeneration is apparent in us. Do we have a real affection for the biblical Christ? Only the regenerate person possesses real love for the real Jesus. Next we must ask the tough question, “Does my life manifest the fruit of sanctification?” I test my faith by my works.

I call this last question the tough question for various reasons. We can lose assurance if we think perfect obedience is the test. Every sin we commit after conversion can cast doubt upon our assurance. That doubt is exacerbated by Satan’s assault of accusation against us. Satan delights in shaking the true Christian’s assurance.

Or we can delude ourselves by looking at our own works with an exalted view of our goodness, seeing virtue in ourselves when there is none. Here we quake in terror before our Lord’s warning: “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matt. 7:22–23).

Real assurance rests on a sound understanding of salvation, a sound understanding of justification, a sound understanding of sanctification, and a sound understanding of ourselves. In all these matters we have the comfort and assistance of the Holy Spirit who illumines the text of Scripture for us, who works in us to yield the fruit of sanctification, and who bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God.

The article above was excerpted from Chapter 7 of Doubt & Assurance edited by R.C. Sproul. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000.

About the Author:

R.C. Sproul has taught theology to hundreds of thousands of people through books, radio, audiotapes, videotapes, seminars, sermons, seminary classes and other forums.

Sproul has written approximately sixty books (and counting). In addition to many volumes designed to teach theology, apologetics, and ethics to laymen through expository prose, he has written a novel, a biography, and several childrens books. He has also edited several volumes, including a festschrift for John H. Gerstner, a seminary textbook, and the New Geneva Study Bible. He has written one of the top classics of the 20th century – The Holiness of God; and perhaps the best book to explain God’s sovereignty in our salvation for laymen entitled Chosen by God.

Sproul founded Ligonier Ministries in 1971, a teaching ministry to assist the church in nurturing believers and equipping them for the ministries to which God has called them. Ligonier sponsors a radio program, “Renewing Your Mind,” which features Sproul and is broadcast nationally, five days a week.

Ligonier Ministries sponsors several seminars each year, the largest one in Orlando every winter. Ligonier publishes a monthly periodical, Tabletalk, and has its own web site (http://www.gospelcom.net).

Sproul has taught theology and apologetics at several seminaries. He earned a B.A. degree from Westminster College, a B.D. from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, and a Drs. from the Free University of Amsterdam. He is ordained in the Presbyterian Church in America.

In 1994 Christianity Today asked a select list of “critics,” “What theologian or biblical scholar has most shaped your Christian life?” Third on the list (and the only American in the top four) was R.C. Sproul.

Dr. Erwin Lutzer on One of The Biggest Lies Moderns Believe About God

 LIE BELIEVED: “God Is More Tolerant Than He Used to Be”

“I’M GLAD NO ONE REALLY BELIEVES the Bible anymore, or they’d stone us.” Those were the words of a gay activist, replying to a Christian who was using the Bible to condemn homosexuality. The activist’s argument was clear: Since the penalty for homosexuality in the Old Testament was death, how can you say you believe the Bible? And if you don’t believe it, then don’t use it to argue against homosexuality!

How do we answer those who insist that God is more tolerant today than He was in the days of the Old Testament? Back then, the law dictated that homosexuals be stoned to death, along with adulterers, children who cursed their parents, witches, and blasphemers. I have discovered about a dozen different sins or transgressions that Jewish law considered capital crimes in Old Testament times.

Today everything has changed. Homosexuals are invited into our churches; parents are told to love their rebellious children unconditionally; adulterers are given extensive counseling. Yes, murder and incest are still crimes, but witches are allowed to get rich practicing sorcery in every city in America.

We hear no more stories of Nadab and Abihu, struck dead for offering “unauthorized fire.” We read no more documented accounts of people like Uzzah who touched the ark contrary to God’s instructions and was instantly killed (2 Sam. 6:6-7). Today people can be as irreverent or blasphemous as they wish and live to see old age. As R. C. Sproul has observed, if Old Testament penalties for blasphemy were in effect today, every television executive would have been executed long ago.

Is God more tolerant than He used to be?

We need to answer this question for two reasons. First, we want to know whether we are free to sin with a minimum of consequences. Can we now live as we please, with the assurance that God will treat us with compassion and not judgment? A young Christian woman confided to me that she chose a life of immorality in part because she was sure that “God would forgive her anyway.” She had no reason to fear His wrath, for Christ had borne it all for her. Her statement begs the question: can conduct that in the Old Testament received strong rebuke or even the death penalty now be chosen with the sure knowledge that God is forgiving, showering us with “unconditional love”?

At one time Christians in America might have been described as legalists, adhering to the letter of the law. No one would accuse us of that today. We are free—free to ski in Colorado and romp on the beach in Hawaii, but also free to watch risqué movies, gamble, free to be as greedy as the world in which we work—free to sin. Is it safer for us to sin in this age than it was in the days of the Old Testament?

There is a second reason we want an answer: we want to know whether it is safer for others to do wrong today. If you have been sinned against, you want to know whether you can depend on God to “even the score.” The girl who has been raped, the child who has been abused, the person who was chiseled out of his life’s savings by an unscrupulous salesman—all of these victims and a hundred like them want to know whether God is so loving that He will overlook these infractions. What is the chance that these perpetrators will face justice? We want God to judge us with tolerance; however, we hope that He will not extend the same patience to those who have wronged us. So we wonder: can we depend on God to be lenient or harsh, merciful or condemning?

Many people decry God’s apparent silence today in the face of outrageous and widespread sin. The question is, how shall we interpret this silence? Is God indifferent, or biding His time? Has he changed?

In a PBS program hosted by Bill Moyers, Genesis: A Living Conversation, the participants agreed that there was development in God. He sent the flood to the world, but then, like a child who builds a sandcastle only to destroy it in anger, God regretted what He had done, felt duly chastised, and so gave the rainbow with a promise to never do that again. Most of the panelists agreed that the Flood was evil; it had no redeemable value. Choose almost any human being at random, and he/she would have been more benevolent than God, they said.

The panel assumed, of course, that the Bible is only a record of what people throughout the centuries have thought about God. So as we evolved to become more tolerant, our conception of God became more tolerant. Thus the New Testament, with its emphasis on love, is a more mature, gracious representation of God. This surely would explain the apparent difference between the Old and New Testaments.

Other religious liberals believe that the Bible reveals two Gods: the wrathful God of the Old Testament and the more loving, inclusive God of the New. Again, this is based on the same premise: as humanity changes, so our ideas about God change. In primitive times men’s ideas of God were harsh and unrelenting; in more enlightened times, men’s conceptions are more tolerant and loving. This, as we have already learned, is building a concept of God beginning with man and reasoning upward.

There is another possibility. We can affirm that God has not changed, His standards are the same, but He has chosen to interact with people differently, at least for a time. In fact, in this chapter we will discover that the attributes of God revealed in the Old Testament are affirmed in the New. Even in the Old Testament we see the severity of God, but also His goodness; we see His strict judgments, but also His mercy.

The neat division sometimes made between the Old Testament with its wrath and the New Testament with its mercy is not a fair reading of the text. Yes, there were strict penalties in the Old Testament, but there also was grace; in fact, looked at carefully, God appears tolerant. Note David’s description of his “Old Testament God”:

The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. (Ps. 103:8-12)

The fact is, the same balance of attributes is found in both Testaments. There are compelling reasons to believe that God has not changed a single opinion uttered in the Old Testament; the New Testament might emphasize grace more than law, but in the end God reveals Himself with amazing consistency. Properly understood, the penalties also have not changed. And thankfully, His mercy also remains immutable.

Join me on a journey that will probe the nature and works of God; we will see the magnificent unity between the Old Testament and the New. And when we are finished we will worship as perhaps never before.

 GOD UNCHANGING

Who made God? You’ve heard the question, probably from the lips of a child, or for that matter, from the lips of a skeptic who wanted to argue that believing the universe is eternal is just as rational as believing that God is eternal. If we don’t know where God came from, the argument goes, then we don’t have to know where the universe came from.

Of course there is a difference: the universe does not have within itself the cause of its own existence. The living God, and not the universe, has always existed, for He is, as theologians say, “the uncaused cause.” We can’t get our minds around the concept of an uncaused being, but both the Bible and logic teach that if there were no “uncaused being,” nothing would ever have existed, for out of nothing, nothing can arise.

Scripture tells us, “Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God” (Ps. 90:2). From eternity past to eternity future, God exists, and as we shall see, He does not change.

 God’s Nature Does Not Change

God cannot grow older; he does not gain new powers nor lose ones He once had. He does not grow wiser, for He already knows all things. He does not become stronger; He already is omnipotent, powerful to an infinite degree. “He cannot change for the better,” wrote A. W. Pink, “for he is already perfect; and being perfect, he cannot change for the worse” (A.W. Pink quoted in J.I. Packer, Knowing God. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1973, 63). “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:17).

God’s Truth Does Not Change

Sometimes we say things we do not mean, or we make promises we cannot keep. Unforeseen circumstances make our words worthless. Not so with God: “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever” (Isa. 40:8). David agreed when he wrote, “Your word, O LORD, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens…. Long ago I learned from your statutes that you established them to last forever” (Ps. 119:89, 152). God never has to revise His opinions or update His plans. He never has had to revamp His schedule. Yes, there are a few passages of Scripture that speak of God as regretting a decision and changing His mind (Gen. 6:6-7; 1 Sam. 15). In these passages Scripture shows God changing His response to people because of their behavior. But there is no reason to think that this reaction was either unforeseen or not a part of His eternal plan. As J. I. Packer put it, “No change in His eternal purpose is implied when He begins to deal with a man in a new way” (Packer, Knowing God, 72).

 God’s Standards Do Not Change

The Ten Commandments are not just an arbitrary list of rules; they are a reflection of the character of God and the world that He chose to create. We should not bear false witness because God is a God of truth; we should not commit adultery because the Creator established the integrity of the family. “Be holy, because I am holy” is a command in both Testaments (Lev. 11:44; 1 Pet. 1:16). God intended that the commandments hold His standard before us. “Love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked” (Luke 6:35).

The command to love the unlovable is rooted in the very character of God. God’s attributes are uniquely balanced. He combines compassion with a commitment to strict justice, describing Himself as “the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation” (Exod. 34:6-7).

Though we die, nothing in God dies; He unites the past and the future. The God who called Abraham from Ur of the Chaldees called me into the ministry. The Christ who appeared to Paul en route to Damascus saved me. The Holy Spirit who visited the early church with great blessing and power indwells those of us who have received salvation from Christ. The Bible could not state it more clearly: God has not changed and will not change in the future. The prophet Malachi recorded it in six words: “I the LORD do not change” (Mal. 3:6).

Reverend Henry Lyte had to leave the pastorate in Devonshire, England, because of poor health. As he bade farewell to his beloved congregation, he shared these words, which many of us have often sung.

Abide with me: fast falls the eventide;

The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide:

When other helpers fail, and comforts flee,

O Thou who changest not, abide with me. (Abide with Me)

At the Moody Church where I serve, there is a motto in the front of the sanctuary that reads, “Jesus Christ: the same yesterday, today and forever” (see Heb. 13:8). Yes, the One who changes not abides with us.

 GOD’S ADMINISTRATION HAS CHANGED

How then do we account for the difference between the consequences of disobedience in the Old and the New Testaments? If God cannot be more tolerant than He used to be, why are the Old Testament penalties not carried out? Why does it appear to be so safe to sin today? God’s judgments abide, but His method of managing them has changed. He relates to us differently without altering either His opinions or requiring less of us. He is neither more tolerant nor more accommodating to our weaknesses. Let me explain. When a four-year-old boy was caught stealing candy from a store, his father gave him a spanking. Let us suppose that the same lad were to steal candy at the age of twelve; the father might choose not to spank him but to give him some other form of punishment, such as a loss of privileges or a discipline regime. If the boy repeated the practice at age twenty, there might not be any immediate consequences pending a future date in court. My point is simply that the parents’ view of thievery does not change, but they would choose to deal with this infraction differently from one period of time to another. Rather than lessen the penalty as the child grows older and has more knowledge, his parents might exact a more serious penalty. Just so, we shall discover that God’s opinions have not changed; His penalties are yet severe. But there is a change in the timetable and method of punishment.

The more carefully we look at the Scriptures, the more we become aware of the unwavering consistency of God and His intention to punish sin. He hates it just as much today as ever. Thankfully, He offers us a remedy for it. In Hebrews 12:18-29 we see the unity of God reflected in both Mount Sinai and Mount Calvary. Here, like a diamond, the fuller range of God’s attributes are on display. We see that God has not lowered His standards; He will in the end prove that He has not mellowed with age. Those who are unprepared to meet Him face a future of unimaginable horror. No, He has not changed.

This change in management can be represented in three ways. Stay with me—the contrast between Sinai andCalvary will give us the answers we seek.

 The Earthly versus the Heavenly

The author of Hebrews gave a vivid description of the mount at Sinai when he reminded his readers: You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, because they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned.” The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear” (Heb. 12:18-21).

On Mount Sinai God’s glory humbled Moses and Aaron into silence and worship. God called Moses to the top of the mountain to see the fire, lightning, and smoke. Moses then returned to tell the people that they would be struck down if they came too close to the mountain. The physical distance between the people and the mountain symbolized the moral distance between God and mankind. Not even Moses was able to see God directly, though he was given special privileges. The word to the people was, “Stay back or be killed!” Imagine the power needed to shake a mountain! Even today we see the power of God in tornadoes, hurricanes, and earthquakes. God accompanied this special revelation with a physical act that would remind the people of His power and judgment. They were to stand back because He is holy. There was also a vertical distance between God and man. God came down out of heaven as a reminder that we are from below, creatures of the earth. He is separated; He exceeds the limits. To quote Sproul, “When we meet the Infinite, we become acutely conscious that we are finite. When we meet the Eternal, we know we are temporal. To meet God is a study in contrasts” (R.C. Sproul. The Holiness of God. Wheaton: Tyndale. 1985, 63).

Imagine a New Ager standing at Mount Sinai, engulfed in bellows of fire and smoke, saying, “I will come to God on my own terms. We can all come in our own way!” Sinai was God’s presence without an atonement, without a mediator. It pictures sinful man standing within range of God’s holiness. Here was the unworthy creature in the presence of his most worthy Creator. Here was a revelation of the God who will not tolerate disobedience, the God who was to be feared above all gods. Now comes an important contrast. The writer of Hebrews affirms, “But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God” (Heb. 12:22). When David conquered Jerusalem and placed the ark on Mount Zion, this mountain was considered the earthly dwelling place of God and later the word Zion was applied to the entire city. Centuries passed and Christ came and died outside of its walls, fulfilling the prophecies that salvation would come from Zion.

Mount Zion represents the opening of heaven, and now we are invited to enjoy six privileges. Look at Hebrews 12:22-24.

First, we come to “the heavenly Jerusalem” (v. 22). As believers we are already citizens of heaven. As we have learned, we are invited into the “Most Holy Place” by the blood of Jesus.

Second, the writer says we come to the presence of hundreds of millions of angels “in joyful assembly” (v. 22). We come to celebrating angels whom we join in praising God. Don’t forget that angels were present at Sinai too (Gal. 3:19), but the people were not able to join them there; these heavenly beings were blowing the trumpets of judgment. Like God, they were unapproachable. But now we can join them, not for fellowship, but for rejoicing over God’s triumphs in the world. Whereas Sinai was terrifying, Zion is inviting and gracious. Sinai is closed to all, for no one can keep the demands of the law; Zion is open to everyone who is willing to take advantage of the sacrifice of Christ. In Jesus the unapproachable God becomes approachable.

Third, we come to the “church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven,” that is, the body of Christ (v. 23). Jesus said that the disciples should not rejoice because the angels were subject to them, but rather because their names were “written in heaven” (Luke 10:20). The names of all believers are found there in the Book of Life; all listed there are members of the church triumphant.

Fourth, we come to God, “the judge of all men” (v. 23), for the veil of the temple was torn in two and we can enter “the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus” (Heb. 10:19).

Fifth, we come to “the spirits of righteous men made perfect” (v. 23), which probably refers to the Old Testament saints who could only look forward to forgiveness, pardon, and full reconciliation with God. In Christ we receive in a moment what they could only anticipate. In a sense they had to wait for us (Heb. 11:40). The bottom line is that we will be united with Abraham and a host of other Old Testament saints. What a family!

Finally, and supremely, we come to “Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (v. 24). God accepted Abel’s sacrifice, but his shed blood could not atone for his sin, much less for the sin of his brother. Jesus’ blood, however, is sufficient for us all. The contrast is clear. Sinai was covered with clouds; Zion is filled with light. Sinai is symbolic of judgment and death; Zion is symbolic of life and forgiveness. The message of Sinai was “Stand back!” The message of Zion is “Come near!” Look at a calendar and you will agree that Christ splits history in two—we have B.C. and A.D.—but He also splits salvation history in two, even as the veil of the temple was torn from top to bottom. Now that His blood is shed, we can come to God in confidence. Does this mean that God’s hatred for sin has been taken away? Has Christ’s coming made the Almighty more tolerant? It’s too early in our discussion to draw any conclusions. Let’s continue to study the passage, and our questions will be answered. There is a second way to describe this change of administration. The Old Covenant versus the New Covenant Jesus, we have learned, is the mediator of “a new covenant” (v. 24). What does this mean? If He gave us a new covenant, what was the old covenant?

In Old Testament times God made a covenant with the entire nation of Israel. He chose to rule directly through kings and prophets, revealing his will step by step, and expecting them to follow His instructions. The prophets could say, “The word of the Lord came to me” and tell the kings what God’s will was. There was no separation between religion and the state, as we know it; the state existed to implement the divine will of God. Obviously, there was no freedom of religion in the Old Testament era. Death was the punishment for idolatry. “You shall have no other gods before me” was the first of the Ten Commandments given to the nation Israel. If people did not obey, the penalties were immediate and, from our standpoint, severe. Jesus brought with Him a radical teaching, the idea that it would be possible for His followers to live acceptably under a pagan government. He did not come to overthrow the Roman occupation of Israel; indeed, His kingdom was not of this world. When faced with the question of whether taxes should be paid to the pagan Romans, Christ replied, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar‘s, and to God what is God’s” (Luke 20:25). Yes, believers could pay taxes to a corrupt government, and yes, they could fulfill their obligations to God as well. There are two major changes inherent in Jesus’ teaching.

First, God would no longer deal with one nation, but with individuals from all nations. He would now call out from among the nations a transnational group comprised of every tribe, tongue, and people, to form a new gathering called the church. These people would live, for the most part, in political regimes that were hostile to them. But we who are a part of this program are to continue as salt and light, representing Him wherever we find ourselves.

Second, in our era, we are to submit, as far as possible, to worldly authorities; we are to do their bidding unless such obligations conflict with our conscience. Indeed, Paul, writing from a jail cell in Rome, said that we must submit to the governing authorities (in his case, Nero) because they were established by God (see Rom. 13:1). Our agenda as a church is not to take over nations, politically speaking. Of course Christians should be involved in government as good citizens, but our primary message is the transformation of nations through the transformation of individuals.

The early disciples had all of our national woes and more, and yet without a political base, without a voting block in the Roman senate, they changed their world, turning it “upside down,” as Luke the historian put it (Acts 17:6, NLT). When Paul came to the immoral city of Corinth, he taught what surely must have appeared a novel idea, namely,that it was not the responsibility of the church to judge the unbelieving world with regard to their morals, but only to judge them in relation to the gospel, which is “the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18).

To the church he wrote: “I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked man from among you” (1 Cor. 5:9-12).

If you work in the unbelieving world and decide not to eat with those who are immoral, greedy, or idolaters, you just might have to eat your lunch alone! Of course we can eat with such people if they do not claim to be believers in Christ. But if a Christian lives this way and we have fellowship with him over a meal, or if we enjoy his company, we are in some sense approving of his sin. To help such see the error of their ways, Paul says don’t even eat with them.

Now we are ready to understand why we do not put people to death today as was done in the Old Testament. We have no authority to judge those who are outside the fellowship of believers; the state is to penalize those who commit certain crimes, and those laws must be upheld. But—and this is important—all the behaviors that merited the death penalty in the Old Testament are infractions for which we now discipline believers within the church.

We do not have the right to take a life, we do not have the right to inflict physical death, but we can announce spiritual death to those who persist in their sins. Paul instructed the Corinthian church to put the immoral man not to death but out of the congregation (1 Cor. 5:5). Such discipline is our duty. It is foolish for us to think that we can sin with impunity just because Christ has come. The purpose of redemption
was to make possible our holy lives. It is blessedly true, of course, that God does forgive, but our sin, particularly deliberate sin, always invites the discipline of God. We are to pursue holiness, for “without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14).

God has not revised His list of offenses.

A woman said to her pastor, “I am living in sin, but it’s different because I am a Christian.” The pastor replied, “Yes, it is different. For a Christian, such sin is much more serious.” Indeed, God takes our disobedience so seriously that the Scriptures warn: “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son” (Heb. 12:5-6). There is a final and important way to describe the contrast between Sinai and Calvary, and at last we will specifically answer the question of whether God is more tolerant than He used to be. Immediate, Physical Judgment versus Future, Eternal Judgment Continue to read this breathtaking passage. See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven? At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” The words “once more” indicate the removing of what can be shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain. (Heb. 12:25-27)

We can’t miss it: if God judged the people for turning away from Him when He spoke at Sinai, just think of the greater judgment that will come to those who turn away from the voice that comes out of heaven, from Mount Zion! The Jews who heard God speak at Sinai did not get to enter the promised land but died in the wilderness. Their primary punishment was physical death, though for the rebellious there was eternal spiritual death as well. Today God does not usually judge people with immediate physical death, but the judgment of spiritual death remains, with even greater condemnation. If God judged the Jews, who had a limited understanding of redemption, think of what He will do to those who have heard about the coming of Christ, His death, and His resurrection!

If the first did not enter the promised land, those today who reject Christ will forfeit spiritual blessings in this life and will assuredly be severely judged by an eternal death. Imagine their fate! At Sinai God shook the earth. From Zion He is going to shake the whole universe. “Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens” (v. 26). The phrase is borrowed from Haggai 2:6, where the prophet predicts that God will judge the earth (see Rev. 6:12-14). Everything that can be shaken, which denotes the whole physical order, will be destroyed and only eternal things will remain (see 2 Pet. 3:10). Don’t miss the first principle: the greater the grace, the greater the judgment for refusing it. The more God does for us, the greater our responsibility to accept it.

The judgment of the Old Testament was largely physical; in the New Testament it is eternal. If you, my friend, have never transferred your trust to Christ for salvation, the terrors of Calvary are much greater than the terrors of Sinai could ever be! Elsewhere, the author of Hebrews faces directly the question of whether God has relaxed His judgments as we move from the past to the present. If we keep in mind that the law at Sinai is spoken of as accompanied by angels, we will understand his argument, “For if the message spoken by angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?” (2:2-3,). He argues from the lesser to the greater: if the law demanded exacting penalties, think of the more severe punishment for those who refuse grace!

In a sense we can say that the harsh penalties of the Old Testament demonstrated an overabundance of grace: by seeing these punishments immediately applied, the people had a visual demonstration of why they should fear God. In our day, these penalties are waived, and as a result people are free to misinterpret the patience of God as laxity or indifference. Today God allows sins to accumulate and delays their judgment. Paul, writing to those who had hardened their hearts against God, said, “Because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed” (Rom. 2:5).

Retribution and justice have not escaped God’s attention. Grace gives the illusion of tolerance and, if not properly interpreted, can be construed as a license to sin. Indeed, the New Testament writer Jude warned that there “are godless men, who change the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord” (Jude 4). They confuse the patience of God with the leniency of God. A second principle: we should never interpret the silence of God as the indifference or God. God’s long-suffering is not a sign of either weakness or indifference; it is intended to bring us to repentance. “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). It would be a mistake to think that His “slowness” means that He is letting us skip our day of judgment.

Solomon in Ecclesiastes warned that a delay in applying punishment encourages wrongdoing: “When the sentence for a crime is not quickly carried out, the hearts of the people are filled with schemes to do wrong” (Eccles. 8:11). How easily we misinterpret divine patience as divine tolerance! In the end, all penalties will be exacted; retribution will be demanded; nothing will be overlooked.

At the Great White Throne judgment, the unbelievers of all ages will be called into account and meticulously judged. Those who see a difference between the severity of the Old Testament and the tolerance of the New should study this passage carefully: “The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Rev. 20:13-15). Nothing that terrifying occurs in the Old Testament.

Is it safe to sin? In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C. S. Lewis tells the story of four children who encounter

a magical world through the back of an old attic wardrobe. In this land, Narnia, animals talk, and one especially glorious creature, a majestic lion, represents Christ. Some beavers describe the lion to Lucy, Susan, and Peter, who are newcomers to Narnia, and they fear meeting Asian. The children ask questions that reveal their apprehension. “Ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he—quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.” “That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver, “if there’s anyone who can appear before Asian without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.” “Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy. “Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you” (C.S. Lewis. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. New York: Macmillan, 1950, 75-76).

Is God safe? Of course not. “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31). But thankfully, He is good, and if we respond to Him through Christ, He will save us. If we still think that God is more tolerant of sin in the New Testament than in the Old, let us look at what His Son endured at Calvary; imagine Him as He languishes under the weight of our sin. There we learn that we must either personally bear the penalty for our sins, or else it must fall on the shoulders of Christ. In either case, the proper and exact penalties shall be demanded. And because we ourselves cannot pay for our sins, we shall have to live with them for all of eternity—unless we come under the shelter of Christ’s protection. Only Christ can turn away the wrath of God directed toward us.

Is it true that justice delayed is justice denied? For human courts this is so, for as time passes evidence is often lost and the offender is freed. But this does not apply to the Supreme Court of heaven; with God, no facts are lost, no circumstances are capable of misinterpretation. The whole earthly scenario can be re-created so that scrupulous justice can be satisfied. Judicial integrity will prevail, and we shall sing forever, “Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for true and just are his judgments” (Rev. 19:1-2).

Is Jesus only, as the old rhyme goes, “meek and mild”? In the same C. S. Lewis story I quoted above, the children meet Aslan the Lion. Lucy observes that his paws are potentially very inviting or very terrible. They could be as soft as velvet with his claws drawn in, or as sharp as knives with his claws extended. Christ is both meek and lowly, but also fierce and just.

Read this description of Christ, and you will agree that the warnings of the New Testament are as terrifying as the Old: “With justice he judges and makes war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the wine-press of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS” (Rev. 19:1-6).

What follows in this passage is an unbelievable description of the carnage that takes place after Jesus executes His judgment. With sword in hand, He smites His enemies and leaves them dying on the battlefield. Even if we appropriately grant that the account is symbolic, it can mean nothing less than the revelation of the vengeance of God Almighty. The Lord God of Sinai is the Lord God of Zion. Finally, figuratively speaking, we must come to Sinai before we come to Zion.

We must see our sin before we can appreciate grace. In the allegory called Pilgrim’s Progress, a man named Christian travels with the weight of sin on his shoulders, but the burden proves too much for him. Thankfully, he comes to Calvary, and there his load is rolled onto the shoulders of the one Person who is able to carry it. To his delight the terrors of Sinai are borne by the Son at Calvary. What a tragedy to meet people who are comfortable with who they are, people who have not felt the terrors of God’s holy law. Since they do not see themselves as lost, they need not be redeemed; absorbed in themselves, they have lost the capacity to grieve over their sin. To those aware of their need, we say, “Come!” Come to Mount Zion to receive mercy and pardon. Stand at Mount Sinai to see your sin, then come to linger at Calvary to see your pardon. “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our ‘God is a consuming fire’” (Heb. 12:28-29). There was fire at Sinai; there will also be fire at the final judgment. A consuming fire!

Donald McCullough writes: “Fire demands respect for its regal estate. It will not be touched, it will be approached with care, and it wields its scepter for ill or for good. With one spark it can condemn a forest to ashes and a home to a memory as ghostly as the smoke rising from the charred remains of the family album. Or with a single flame it can crown a candle with power to warm a romance and set to dancing a fireplace blaze that defends against the cold. Fire is dangerous to be sure, but we cannot live without it; fire destroys but it also sustains life” (McCullough, The Trivialization of God, 20).

There is a story that comes to us from the early days, when a man and his daughter spotted a prairie fire in the distance. Fearing being engulfed by the flames, the father suggested they build a fire right where they stood. They burned one patch of grass after another, in an ever-widening circle. Then when the distant fire came near, the father comforted his terrified daughter by telling her that flames would not come to the same patch of ground twice; the father and daughter would be safe if they stood where the fire had already been. When we come to Mount Zion, we come to where the fire of Sinai has already struck. We come to the only place of safety; we come to the place where we are welcome. There we are sheltered from terrifying judgment. God’s Son endured the fire that was headed in our direction. Only those who believe in Him are exempt from the flames.

A PERSONAL RESPONSE

There is a story about some members of a synagogue who complained to a rabbi that the liturgy did not express what they felt. Would he be willing to make it more relevant? The rabbi told them that the liturgy was not intended to express what they felt; it was their responsibility to learn to feel what the liturgy expressed.

There is a lesson here. In our day some have so emphasized “felt needs” in worship that they have forgotten that in a future day our most important “felt need” will be to stand before God covered by the righteousness of Christ. The real issue is not how we feel, but rather how God feels. Our responsibility is to “learn to feel” what God does. Let us worship at both of the mountains that are symbolic of the two covenants. We must first come to Mount Sinai as a reminder of our sinfulness; then we stand at Mount Calvary as a reminder of grace. On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the LORD descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, the whole mountain trembled violently, and the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder. Then Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him. The LORD descended to the top of Mount Sinai and called Moses to the top of the mountain.

So Moses went up and the LORD said to him, “Go down and warn the people so they do not force their way through to see the LORD and many of them perish.” (Exod. 19:16-21) And now we turn to Mount Calvary.

At the sixth hour darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice,“Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”—which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of those standing near heard this, they said, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah.” One man ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a stick, and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said. With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:33-39)

Let us join with the centurion and say, “Surely He was the Son of God!”

About the Author:

Erwin Lutzer image

Since 1980, Erwin W. Lutzer has served as senior pastor of the world-famous Moody Church in Chicago, where he provides leadership to Chicago pastors. Dr. Lutzer earned his B.Th. from Winnipeg Bible College, a Th.M. from Dallas Theological Seminary, an M.A. in philosophy from Loyola University, an LL.D. from Simon Greenleaf School of Law, and a D.D. from Western Conservative Baptist Seminary.

Dr. Lutzer is a featured radio speaker on the Moody Broadcasting Network and the author of numerous books, including The Vanishing Power of Death, Cries from the Cross, the best-selling One Minute Before You Die and Hitler’s Cross, which received the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (EPCA) Gold Medallion Book Award. He speaks both nationally and internationally at Bible conferences and tours and has led tours of the cities of the Protestant Reformation in Europe. The article above was adapted from Chapter 3 in the excellent book by Dr. Erwin Lutzer. 10 Lies About God: And the Truths That Shatter Deception. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2009.

Dr. R.C. Sproul on Making Your Calling and Election Sure

“Fear Not”

We are fragile mortals, given to fears of every sort. We have a built-in insecurity that no amount of whistling in the dark can mollify. We seek assurance concerning the things that frighten us the most.

The prohibition uttered most frequently by our Lord is the command, “Fear not.” He said this so often to his disciples and others he encountered that it almost came to sound like a greeting. Where most people greet others by saying “Hi” or “Hello,” the first words of Jesus often were “Fear not.”

Why? Perhaps Jesus’ predilection for those words grew out of his acute sense of the thinly veiled fear that grips all who approach the living God. We fear his power, we fear his wrath, and most of all we fear his ultimate rejection.

The assurance we need most is the assurance of salvation. Though we are loathe to think much about it or contemplate it deeply, we know, if only intuitively, that the worst catastrophe that could ever befall us is to be visited by God’s final punitive wrath. Our insecurity is worsened by the certainty that we deserve it.

Many believe that assurance of eternal salvation is neither possible or even to be sought. To claim such assurance is considered a mask of supreme arrogance, the nadir of self-conceit.

Yet, if God declares that it is possible to have full assurance of salvation and even commands that we seek after it, then it would be supremely arrogant to deny our need or neglect the search.

In fact, God does command us to make our election and calling sure: Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things, you will never fall” (2 Pet. 1:10).

This command admits of no justifiable neglect. It addresses a crucial matter. The question, “Am I saved?” is one of the most important I can ever ask myself. I need to know the answer; I must know the answer. This is not a trifle. Without the assurance of salvation the Christian life is unstable, vulnerable to the debilitating rigors of mood changes. Basing assurance on changing emotions allows the wolf of heresy to camp on the doorstep. Progress in sanctification requires a firm foundation in faith. Assurance is the cement of that foundation. Without it the foundation crumbles.

How, then, do we receive assurance? The Scripture declares that the Holy Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God. This inner testimony of the Holy Spirit is as vital as it is complex. It can be subjected to severe distortions, being confused with subjectivism and self-delusion. The Spirit gives his testimony with the Word and through the Word, never without the Word or against the Word.

Since it is possible to have false assurance of salvation it is all the more urgent that we seek the Spirit’s testimony in and through the Word. False assurance usually proceeds from a faulty understanding of salvation. If one fails to understand the necessary conditions for salvation, assurance becomes, at best, a guess.

Therefore, we insist that right doctrine is a crucial element in acquiring a sound basis for assurance. It may even be a necessary condition, though it is by no means a sufficient condition. Without sound doctrine we will have an inadequate understanding of salvation. However, having a sound understanding of salvation is no guarantee that we have the salvation we so soundly understand.

If we think the Bible teaches universal salvation we may arrive at a false sense of assurance by reasoning as follows:

Everybody is saved.

I am a body.

Therefore, I am saved.

Or, if we think salvation is gained by our own good works and we are further deluded into believing that we possess good works, we will have a false assurance of salvation.

To have sound assurance we must understand that our salvation rests upon the merit of Christ alone, which is appropriated to us when we embrace him by genuine faith. If we understand that, the remaining question is, “Do I have the genuine faith necessary for salvation?”

To answer that question two more things must be understood and analyzed properly. The first is doctrinal. We need a clear understanding of what constitutes genuine saving faith. If we conceive of saving faith as a faith that exists in a vacuum, never yielding the fruit of works of obedience, we have confused saving faith with dead faith, which cannot save anyone.

The second requirement involves a sober analysis of our own lives. We must examine ourselves to see if the fruit of regeneration is apparent in us. Do we have a real affection for the biblical Christ? Only the regenerate person possesses real love for the real Jesus. Next we must ask the tough question, “Does my life manifest the fruit of sanctification?” I test my faith by my works.

I call this last question the tough question for various reasons. We can lose assurance if we think perfect obedience is the test. Every sin we commit after conversion can cast doubt upon our assurance. That doubt is exacerbated by Satan’s assault of accusation against us. Satan delights in shaking the true Christian’s assurance.

Or we can delude ourselves by looking at our own works with an exalted view of our goodness, seeing virtue in ourselves when there is none. Here we quake in terror before our Lord’s warning: “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matt. 7:22–23).

Real assurance rests on a sound understanding of salvation, a sound understanding of justification, a sound understanding of sanctification, and a sound understanding of ourselves. In all these matters we have the comfort and assistance of the Holy Spirit who illumines the text of Scripture for us, who works in us to yield the fruit of sanctification, and who bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God.

The article above adapted from Chapter 7 in the short book edited by Dr. R.C. Sproul. Doubt & Assurance. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000.

About Dr. R.C. Sproul: He 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 Holiness of God; Chosen By God; Reason to Believe; Knowing Scripture; Willing to Believe;  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.

Dr. R.C. Sproul on the Essence of God’s Sovereignty in Our Salvation

The Pelagian Captivity of the Church

by R.C. Sproul

Shortly after the Reformation began, in the first few years after Martin Luther posted the Ninety-Five Theses on the church door at Wittenberg, he issued some short booklets on a variety of subjects. One of the most provocative was titled The Babylonian Captivity of the Church. In this book Luther was looking back to that period of Old Testament history when Jerusalem was destroyed by the invading armies of Babylon and the elite of the people were carried off into captivity. Luther in the sixteenth century took the image of the historic Babylonian captivity and reapplied it to his era and talked about the new Babylonian captivity of the Church. He was speaking of Rome as the modern Babylon that held the Gospel hostage with its rejection of the biblical understanding of justification. You can understand how fierce the controversy was, how polemical this title would be in that period by saying that the Church had not simply erred or strayed, but had fallen — that it’s actually now Babylonian; it is now in pagan captivity.

I’ve often wondered if Luther were alive today and came to our culture and looked, not at the liberal church community, but at evangelical churches, what would he have to say? Of course I can’t answer that question with any kind of definitive authority, but my guess is this: If Martin Luther lived today and picked up his pen to write, the book he would write in our time would be entitled The Pelagian Captivity of the Evangelical Church. Luther saw the doctrine of justification as fueled by a deeper theological problem. He writes about this extensively in The Bondage of the Will. When we look at the Reformation and we see the solas of the Reformation — sola Scriptura, sola fide, solus Christus, soli Deo gloria, sola gratia — Luther was convinced that the real issue of the Reformation was the issue of grace; and that underlying the doctrine of solo fide, justification by faith alone, was the prior commitment to sola gratia, the concept of justification by grace alone.

In the Fleming Revell edition of The Bondage of the Will, the translators, J. I. Packer and O. R. Johnston, included a somewhat provocative historical and theological introduction to the book itself. This is from the end of that introduction:

These things need to be pondered by Protestants today. With what right may we call ourselves children of the Reformation? Much modern Protestantism would be neither owned nor even recognised by the pioneer Reformers. The Bondage of the Will fairly sets before us what they believed about the salvation of lost mankind. In the light of it, we are forced to ask whether Protestant Christendom has not tragically sold its birthright between Luther’s day and our own. Has not Protestantism today become more Erasmian than Lutheran? Do we not too often try to minimise and gloss over doctrinal differences for the sake of inter-party peace? Are we innocent of the doctrinal indifferentism with which Luther charged Erasmus? Do we still believe that doctrine matters? (J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnston, “Introduction” to the Bondage of the Will. Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming Revell, 1957: pp. 59-60)

Historically, it’s a simple matter of fact that Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and all the leading Protestant theologians of the first epoch of the Reformation stood on precisely the same ground here. On other points they had their differences. In asserting the helplessness of man in sin and the sovereignty of God in grace, they were entirely at one. To all of them these doctrines were the very lifeblood of the Christian faith. A modern editor of Luther’s works says this:

Whoever puts this book down without having realized that Evangelical theology stands or falls with the doctrine of the bondage of the will has read it in vain. The doctrine of free justification by faith alone, which became the storm center of so much controversy during the Reformation period, is often regarded as the heart of the Reformers’ theology, but this is not accurate. The truth is that their thinking was really centered upon the contention of Paul, echoed by Augustine and others, that the sinner’s entire salvation is by free and sovereign grace only, and that the doctrine of justification by faith was important to them because it safeguarded the principle of sovereign grace. The sovereignty of grace found expression in their thinking at a more profound level still in the doctrine of monergistic regeneration (Ibid).

That is to say, that the faith that receives Christ for justification is itself the free gift of a sovereign God. The principle of sola fide is not rightly understood until it is seen as anchored in the broader principle of sola gratia. What is the source of faith? Is it the God-given means whereby the God-given justification is received, or is it a condition of justification which is left to man to fulfill? Do you hear the difference? Let me put it in simple terms. I heard an evangelist recently say, “If God takes a thousand steps to reach out to you for your redemption, still in the final analysis, you must take the decisive step to be saved.” Consider the statement that has been made by America’s most beloved and leading evangelical of the twentieth century, Billy Graham, who says with great passion, “God does ninety-nine percent of it but you still must do that last one percent.”

What Is Pelagianism?

Now, let’s return briefly to my title, “The Pelagian Captivity of the Church.” What are we talking about? Pelagius was a monk who lived in Britain in the fifth century. He was a contemporary of the greatest theologian of the first millennium of Church history if not of all time, Aurelius Augustine, Bishop of Hippo in North Africa. We have heard of St. Augustine, of his great works in theology, of his City of God, of his Confessions, and so on, which remain Christian classics.

Augustine, in addition to being a titanic theologian and a prodigious intellect, was also a man of deep spirituality and prayer. In one of his famous prayers, Augustine made a seemingly harmless and innocuous statement in the prayer to God in which he says: “O God, command what you wouldst, and grant what thou dost command.” Now, would that give you apoplexy — to hear a prayer like that? Well it certainly set Pelagius, this British monk, into orbit. When he heard that, he protested vociferously, even appealing to Rome to have this ghastly prayer censured from the pen of Augustine. Here’s why. He said, “Are you saying, Augustine, that God has the inherent right to command anything that he so desires from his creatures? Nobody is going to dispute that. God inherently, as the creator of heaven and earth, has the right to impose obligations on his creatures and say, ‘Thou shalt do this, and thou shalt not do that.’ ‘Command whatever thou would’ — it’s a perfectly legitimate prayer.”

It’s the second part of the prayer that Pelagius abhorred when Augustine said, “and grant what thou dost command.” He said, “What are you talking about? If God is just, if God is righteous and God is holy, and God commands of the creature to do something, certainly that creature must have the power within himself, the moral ability within himself, to perform it or God would never require it in the first place.” Now that makes sense, doesn’t it? What Pelagius was saying is that moral responsibility always and everywhere implies moral capability or, simply, moral ability. So why would we have to pray, “God grant me, give me the gift of being able to do what you command me to do”? Pelagius saw in this statement a shadow being cast over the integrity of God himself, who would hold people responsible for doing something they cannot do.

So in the ensuing debate, Augustine made it clear that in creation, God commanded nothing from Adam or Eve that they were incapable of performing. But once transgression entered and mankind became fallen, God’s law was not repealed nor did God adjust his holy requirements downward to accommodate the weakened, fallen condition of his creation. God did punish his creation by visiting upon them the judgment of original sin, so that everyone after Adam and Eve who was born into this world was born already dead in sin. Original sin is not the first sin. It’s the result of the first sin; it refers to our inherent corruption, by which we are born in sin, and in sin did our mothers conceive us. We are not born in a neutral state of innocence, but we are born in a sinful, fallen condition. Virtually every church in the historic World Council of Churches at some point in their history and in their creedal development articulates some doctrine of original sin. So clear is that to the biblical revelation that it would take a repudiation of the biblical view of mankind to deny original sin altogether.

This is precisely what was at issue in the battle between Augustine and Pelagius in the fifth century. Pelagius said there is no such thing as original sin. Adam’s sin affected Adam and only Adam. There is no transmission or transfer of guilt or fallenness or corruption to the progeny of Adam and Eve. Everyone is born in the same state of innocence in which Adam was created. And, he said, for a person to live a life of obedience to God, a life of moral perfection, is possible without any help from Jesus or without any help from the grace of God. Pelagius said that grace — and here’s the key distinction — facilitates righteousness. What does “facilitate” mean?

It helps, it makes it more facile, it makes it easier, but you don’t have to have it. You can be perfect without it. Pelagius further stated that it is not only theoretically possible for some folks to live a perfect life without any assistance from divine grace, but there are in fact people who do it. Augustine said, “No, no, no, no . . . we are infected by sin by nature, to the very depths and core of our being — so much so that no human being has the moral power to incline himself to cooperate with the grace of God. The human will, as a result of original sin, still has the power to choose, but it is in bondage to its evil desires and inclinations. The condition of fallen humanity is one that Augustine would describe as the inability to not sin. In simple English, what Augustine was saying is that in the Fall, man loses his moral ability to do the things of God and he is held captive by his own evil inclinations.

In the fifth century the Church condemned Pelagius as a heretic. Pelagianism was condemned at the Council of Orange, and it was condemned again at the Council of Florence, the Council of Carthage, and also, ironically, at the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century in the first three anathemas of the Canons of the Sixth Session. So, consistently throughout Church history, the Church has roundly and soundly condemned Pelagianism  —  because Pelagianism denies the fallenness of our nature; it denies the doctrine of original sin.

Now what is called semi-Pelagianism, as the prefix “semi” suggests, was a somewhat middle ground between full-orbed Augustinianism and full-orbed Pelagianism. Semi-Pelagianism said this: yes, there was a fall; yes, there is such a thing as original sin; yes, the constituent nature of humanity has been changed by this state of corruption and all parts of our humanity have been significantly weakened by the fall, so much so that without the assistance of divine grace nobody can possibly be redeemed, so that grace is not only helpful but it’s absolutely necessary for salvation. While we are so fallen that we can’t be saved without grace, we are not so fallen that we don’t have the ability to accept or reject the grace when it’s offered to us. The will is weakened but is not enslaved. There remains in the core of our being an island of righteousness that remains untouched by the fall. It’s out of that little island of righteousness, that little parcel of goodness that is still intact in the soul or in the will that is the determinative difference between heaven and hell. It’s that little island that must be exercised when God does his thousand steps of reaching out to us, but in the final analysis it’s that one step that we take that determines whether we go to heaven or hell — whether we exercise that little righteousness that is in the core of our being or whether we don’t. That little island Augustine wouldn’t even recognize as an atoll in the South Pacific. He said it’s a mythical island, that the will is enslaved, and that man is dead in his sin and trespasses.

Ironically, the Church condemned semi-Pelagianism as vehemently as it had condemned original Pelagianism. Yet by the time you get to the sixteenth century and you read the Catholic understanding of what happens in salvation the Church basically repudiated what Augustine taught and Aquinas taught as well. The Church concluded that there still remains this freedom that is intact in the human will and that man must cooperate with — and assent to — the prevenient grace that is offered to them by God. If we exercise that will, if we exercise a cooperation with whatever powers we have left, we will be saved. And so in the sixteenth century the Church reembraced semi-Pelagianism.

At the time of the Reformation, all the reformers agreed on one point: the moral inability of fallen human beings to incline themselves to the things of God; that all people, in order to be saved, are totally dependent, not ninety-nine percent, but one hundred percent dependent upon the monergistic work of regeneration in order to come to faith, and that faith itself is a gift of God. It’s not that we are offered salvation and that we will be born again if we choose to believe. But we can’t even believe until God in his grace and in his mercy first changes the disposition of our souls through his sovereign work of regeneration. In other words, what the reformers all agreed with was, unless a man is born again, he can’t even see the kingdom of God, let alone enter it. Like Jesus says in the sixth chapter of John, “No man can come to me unless it is given to him of the Father” — that the necessary condition for anybody’s faith and anybody’s salvation is regeneration.

Evangelicals and Faith

Modern Evangelicalism almost uniformly and universally teaches that in order for a person to be born again, he must first exercise faith. You have to choose to be born again. Isn’t that what you hear? In a George Barna poll, more than seventy percent of “professing evangelical Christians” in America expressed the belief that man is basically good. And more than eighty percent articulated the view that God helps those who help themselves. These positions — or let me say it negatively — neither of these positions is semi-Pelagian. They’re both Pelagian. To say that we’re basically good is the Pelagian view. I would be willing to assume that in at least thirty percent of the people who are reading this issue, and probably more, if we really examine their thinking in depth, we would find hearts that are beating Pelagianism. We’re overwhelmed with it. We’re surrounded by it. We’re immersed in it. We hear it every day. We hear it every day in the secular culture. And not only do we hear it every day in the secular culture, we hear it every day on Christian television and on Christian radio.

In the nineteenth century, there was a preacher who became very popular in America, who wrote a book on theology, coming out of his own training in law, in which he made no bones about his Pelagianism. He rejected not only Augustinianism, but he also rejected semi-Pelagianism and stood clearly on the subject of unvarnished Pelagianism, saying in no uncertain terms, without any ambiguity, that there was no Fall and that there is no such thing as original sin. This man went on to attack viciously the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement of Christ, and in addition to that, to repudiate as clearly and as loudly as he could the doctrine of justification by faith alone by the imputation of the righteousness of Christ. This man’s basic thesis was, we don’t need the imputation of the righteousness of Christ because we have the capacity in and of ourselves to become righteous. His name: Charles Finney, one of America’s most revered evangelists. Now, if Luther was correct in saying that sola fide is the article upon which the Church stands or falls, if what the reformers were saying is that justification by faith alone is an essential truth of Christianity, who also argued that the substitutionary atonement is an essential truth of Christianity; if they’re correct in their assessment that those doctrines are essential truths of Christianity, the only conclusion we can come to is that Charles Finney was not a Christian. I read his writings and I say, “I don’t see how any Christian person could write this.” And yet, he is in the Hall of Fame of Evangelical Christianity in America. He is the patron saint of twentieth-century Evangelicalism. And he is not semi-Pelagian; he is unvarnished in his Pelagianism.

The Island of Righteousness

One thing is clear: that you can be purely Pelagian and be completely welcome in the evangelical movement today. It’s not simply that the camel sticks his nose into the tent; he doesn’t just come in the tent — he kicks the owner of the tent out. Modern Evangelicalism today looks with suspicion at Reformed theology, which has become sort of the third-class citizen of Evangelicalism. Now you say, “Wait a minute, R. C. Let’s not tar everybody with the extreme brush of Pelagianism, because, after all, Billy Graham and the rest of these people are saying there was a Fall; you’ve got to have grace; there is such a thing as original sin; and semi-Pelagians do not agree with Pelagius’ facile and sanguine view of unfallen human nature.” And that’s true. No question about it. But it’s that little island of righteousness where man still has the ability, in and of himself, to turn, to change, to incline, to dispose, to embrace the offer of grace that reveals why historically semi-Pelagianism is not called semi-Augustinianism, but semi-Pelagianism.

I heard an evangelist use two analogies to describe what happens in our redemption. He said sin has such a strong hold on us, a stranglehold, that it’s like a person who can’t swim, who falls overboard in a raging sea, and he’s going under for the third time and only the tops of his fingers are still above the water; and unless someone intervenes to rescue him, he has no hope of survival, his death is certain. And unless God throws him a life preserver, he can’t possibly be rescued. And not only must God throw him a life preserver in the general vicinity of where he is, but that life preserver has to hit him right where his fingers are still extended out of the water, and hit him so that he can grasp hold of it. It has to be perfectly pitched. But still that man will drown unless he takes his fingers and curls them around the life preserver and God will rescue him. But unless that tiny little human action is done, he will surely perish.

The other analogy is this: A man is desperately ill, sick unto death, lying in his hospital bed with a disease that is fatal. There is no way he can be cured unless somebody from outside comes up with a cure, a medicine that will take care of this fatal disease. And God has the cure and walks into the room with the medicine. But the man is so weak he can’t even help himself to the medicine; God has to pour it on the spoon. The man is so sick he’s almost comatose. He can’t even open his mouth, and God has to lean over and open up his mouth for him. God has to bring the spoon to the man’s lips, but the man still has to swallow it.

Now, if we’re going to use analogies, let’s be accurate. The man isn’t going under for the third time; he is stone cold dead at the bottom of the ocean. That’s where you once were when you were dead in sin and trespasses and walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air. And while you were dead hath God quickened you together with Christ. God dove to the bottom of the sea and took that drowned corpse and breathed into it the breath of his life and raised you from the dead. And it’s not that you were dying in a hospital bed of a certain illness, but rather, when you were born you were born D.O.A. That’s what the Bible says: that we are morally stillborn.

Do we have a will? Yes, of course we have a will. Calvin said, if you mean by a free will a faculty of choosing by which you have the power within yourself to choose what you desire, then we all have free will. If you mean by free will the ability for fallen human beings to incline themselves and exercise that will to choose the things of God without the prior monergistic work of regeneration then, said Calvin, free will is far too grandiose a term to apply to a human being.

The semi-Pelagian doctrine of free will prevalent in the evangelical world today is a pagan view that denies the captivity of the human heart to sin. It underestimates the stranglehold that sin has upon us.

None of us wants to see things as bad as they really are. The biblical doctrine of human corruption is grim. We don’t hear the Apostle Paul say, “You know, it’s sad that we have such a thing as sin in the world; nobody’s perfect. But be of good cheer. We’re basically good.” Do you see that even a cursory reading of Scripture denies this?

Now back to Luther. What is the source and status of faith? Is it the God-given means whereby the God-given justification is received? Or is it a condition of justification which is left to us to fulfill? Is your faith a work? Is it the one work that God leaves for you to do? I had a discussion with some folks in Grand Rapids, Michigan, recently. I was speaking on sola gratia, and one fellow was upset.

He said, “Are you trying to tell me that in the final analysis it’s God who either does or doesn’t sovereignly regenerate a heart?”

And I said, “Yes;” and he was very upset about that. I said, “Let me ask you this: are you a Christian?”

He said, “Yes.”

I said, “Do you have friends who aren’t Christians?”

He said, “Well, of course.”

I said, “Why are you a Christian and your friends aren’t? Is it because you’re more righteous than they are?” He wasn’t stupid. He wasn’t going to say, “Of course it’s because I’m more righteous. I did the right thing and my friend didn’t.” He knew where I was going with that question.

And he said, “Oh, no, no, no.”

I said, “Tell me why. Is it because you are smarter than your friend?”

And he said, “No.”

But he would not agree that the final, decisive issue was the grace of God. He wouldn’t come to that. And after we discussed this for fifteen minutes, he said, “OK! I’ll say it. I’m a Christian because I did the right thing, I made the right response, and my friend didn’t.”

What was this person trusting in for his salvation? Not in his works in general, but in the one work that he performed. And he was a Protestant, an evangelical. But his view of salvation was no different from the Roman view.

God’s Sovereignty in Salvation

This is the issue: Is it a part of God’s gift of salvation, or is it in our own contribution to salvation? Is our salvation wholly of God or does it ultimately depend on something that we do for ourselves? Those who say the latter, that it ultimately depends on something we do for ourselves, thereby deny humanity’s utter helplessness in sin and affirm that a form of semi-Pelagianism is true after all. It is no wonder then that later Reformed theology condemned Arminianism as being, in principle, both a return to Rome because, in effect, it turned faith into a meritorious work, and a betrayal of the Reformation because it denied the sovereignty of God in saving sinners, which was the deepest religious and theological principle of the reformers’ thought. Arminianism was indeed, in Reformed eyes, a renunciation of New Testament Christianity in favor of New Testament Judaism. For to rely on oneself for faith is no different in principle than to rely on oneself for works, and the one is as un-Christian and anti-Christian as the other. In the light of what Luther says to Erasmus there is no doubt that he would have endorsed this judgment.

And yet this view is the overwhelming majority report today in professing evangelical circles. And as long as semi-Pelagianism, which is simply a thinly veiled version of real Pelagianism at its core — as long as it prevails in the Church, I don’t know what’s going to happen. But I know, however, what will not happen: there will not be a new Reformation. Until we humble ourselves and understand that no man is an island and that no man has an island of righteousness, that we are utterly dependent upon the unmixed grace of God for our salvation, we will not begin to rest upon grace and rejoice in the greatness of God’s sovereignty, and we will not be rid of the pagan influence of humanism that exalts and puts man at the center of religion. Until that happens there will not be a new Reformation, because at the heart of Reformation teaching is the central place of the worship and gratitude given to God and God alone. Soli Deo gloria, to God alone be the glory.

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 Modern Reformation, Vol 10, Number 3 (May/June 2001), pp. 22-29.