Noblesse Oblige

Watching The King’s Speech reminded me of the purpose of kings who reign but don’t rule. They serve an important function for a given culture, one that in turn touches on the whole nobility. Kings serve as “public persons,” personifications of the morals and manners of the nations. This concept, rightly understood is the broader context for what we mean when we speak of noblesse oblige, the obligation of the nobility. Too often we reduce it down to a sort of financial “to whom much has been given much is expected” principle that argues if you have a lot you have an obligation to give a lot. Instead it understands the more subtle workings of leadership. A given culture is not made up only of its highest classes. It will, however, always reflect its highest classes.

Consider the history of Israel. The spiritual rise and fall of God’s people in the Old Covenant isn’t told through following a single middle class family across the generations. Neither, strangely, are we given accounts of faithful high priests during the good times and unfaithful prophets during the hard times. Instead we follow the lives of the kings. When they succumbed to idolatry, the nation succumbed to idolatry. When they destroyed the high places, the nation was blessed. Those who rule over a nation will set its course, then and now. The behavior of those in power, therefore, has deep and profound influence beyond the mere exercise of that power.

This does not mean, however, that we need to pray more fervently that the President would be more true to his confession of a Christian faith. It does not mean that we ought to look harder for a House Speaker who knows how to keep his marriage vows. It is true that our nation’s spiritual health is intimately tied to the spiritual health of its rulers. It is false that the men and women on C-Span rule our nation. There is instead a cadre of real power, a conspiracy that rules behind the scenes. This organization, on the one hand, is right out there in the open. Its agenda, however, tends to be overlooked. It is working for absolute world domination, and has been at it for centuries. It is called the church of Jesus Christ.

The Bible tells us that we are seated with Christ in the heavenly places (Ephesians 2:6). That doesn’t mean that we are with Jesus, and because we have chairs we are comfortable. Instead we now sit with Him in a place of rule. Our seats are thrones. The Bible tells us that we are a royal priesthood (I Peter 2:9). We are now kings and queens, and according to I Corinthians 6:2 we will one day judge the whole world. The good news then is that we, just us, have the power, by God’s grace and through His Spirit, to change the whole world. The bad news is that our current cultural mess is our fault. We are kings like Ahab, queens like Jezebel.

A dissolute king can not wring his hands over a decadent country. He has only himself to blame. And so do we. When we start seeing children as a blessing, we will no longer be a nation that murders babies. When we start paying our tithes and living within our means, we will no longer be a nation that consumes half its citizens’ wealth through taxation, and that thinks borrowing is the key to prosperity. When we start loving our wives, and our wives start honoring their husbands, we will no longer be a nation of illegitimate children and the sexually confused. When we stop dressing and talking and thinking like teenagers, we will no longer have to live in Slacker Nation.

We are the nobility of this world. Now we must learn to be noble.

Ask RC: What is the RCJR Principle of Hermeneutics?

I’m so glad you asked. Hermeneutics, of course, is the science of interpretation, typically Bible interpretation. There are any number of basic, fundamental principles we all ought to be aware of. One principle argues that we interpret less clear passages in light of more clear passages. Anyone who builds a theology on that text that mentions “baptism for the dead” is likely all wet. A second principle reminds us to interpret the historical sections of the Bible in light of the didactic, not the other way around. Here we learn our understanding of Christian marriage from Jesus’ reminding the Pharisees that from the beginning it has been one man and one woman. We don’t develop our understanding of marriage by looking at Solomon’s family portrait. The Bible, in its historical books, tells us all sorts of things people did wrong. When it is teaching, rather than giving us true history, it tells us what we need to know. For a simply wonderful introduction to proper biblical interpretation, let me commend to your reading Knowing Scripture, by a completely different RC Sproul.

The RC Sproul Jr. Principle of Hermeneutics is a tad more personal, and not just for me, its namesake. I did not, by the way, name this after me because of my pride. I named it for me because of its subject matter- stupid people. The principle is this- “Whenever you see someone doing something really stupid in the Bible, do not say to yourself, ‘How can they be so stupid?’ Instead say to yourself, ‘How am I stupid, just like them?’” You see it’s all too easy to look down our noses at those unsophisticated, pre-modern people in the Bible, and to pat ourselves on the back for not being like them. Trouble is, we are like them. We think, for instance, that had we been sent to spy out the Promised Land we would have come back like Joshua and Caleb, confident that God can deliver the land. Chances are, 10 in 12 in fact, that we would have been among the frightened and foolish crowd.

This principle is born out of two more basic ones- people don’t change, and people are sinners. If we see a sin crop up in the Bible, it’s extremely likely that we will struggle with that same sin. Because we are sinners, however, we sinfully think ourselves not to be sinners. That, of course, is just what the sinners in the Bible thought about themselves. The Bible is a mirror, and we are ugly. If we would be changed by it, we have to be willing to face that reality. We need to learn to see ourselves in the sinners in the Bible in order to rightly learn from the Bible.

Which reminds us of the first corollary to the RC Sproul Jr. Principle of Hermeneutics. Whenever you are reading a story in the Bible, whether it be a parable or even history, and you want to know how it applies to you, you have to first know who you are in the story. Here’s the Corollary- You are the sinner. If there are two sinners in the story, such as the Prodigal Son parable where both sons were sinners, you are both.

The Bible is a mirror. And we ought to be able to look at our own sin. Wishing it away does nothing. Jesus, however, is busy washing it away. We can boldly face the fullness of our sins because we live in light of the fullness of His grace.

Five Things I’m Surprised I Can’t Find in the Bible

God is all and only wisdom, the very font of all truth. The Bible is His Word, and is true in all that it teaches, as well as sufficient to guide us into every good work. His Word is perspicuous, that is clear, and understandable. Not all of the Bible, however, is as clear as all the rest. These ground rules inform us, broadly speaking, that the Bible tells us everything we need to know, but that it might not all be right out there in the open. He has not only not left us orphans, He has not left us blind. That said, here are five things that are less clear in the Bible than I might, in the abstract, expect them to be.

1. Proper form of church government. The Bible is crystal clear that women are not to rule in the church, and that we are to submit to the elders over us. See Hebrews 13 for the latter. Thus the Reformers were correct to list discipline as a mark of the true church. If you are not under the authority of name-able specific elders, you are not part of the visible church and thus do not have a credible profession of faith. Repent, and get under authority. That said, good men have read all the relevant texts and ended up believing that only the local elders of a local church have any authority. That is what we call, historically, congregational church government. John Owen believed this and John Owen is pretty good company. Others believe that a body of elders in a given region oversee the local elders at the local church. This is Presbyterian church government. This is what Knox, Calvin, and all the great Princeton divines affirmed. Then some see oversight of particular congregations being done by bishops, individual men with peculiar callings. Here we find Lattimore, Ridley, and Cranmer. The Bible doesn’t come with a Form of Government.

2. Proper form of a service of worship. The Bible forbids us to forsake the gathering together of the saints. It tells us, in rather great detail, exactly how worship was done in the Old Covenant. In the New Covenant we know that we are not supposed to shed blood anymore. We know, anecdotally, what happened at this meeting and that. But even the most ardent supporter of the most narrow construction of the Regulative Principle of Worship has to confess that we tend to construct our orders of service like Frankenstein constructed his monster, a part here, a part there, cobble it all together and hope lightning strikes.

3. Proper form for preaching the Word. The Bible is clear that there is power to change us in the preaching of the Word. We know we are to preach the Word, and not our own wisdom. We know we are to preach Christ, and Him crucified. That, however, doesn’t tell us everything. I confess that I could preach for days on how to preach a proper sermon, but I would run out of proof-texts the first hour.

4. Proper way to move from single to married. The Bible is clear that marriage is between one man and one woman. They are to leave and cleave. And there are any number of specific instructions on how to be married. Not so much on how to get there in the first place. For such an important decision, it’s kind of scary there isn’t more direction here.

5. More information on the incarnation and the Trinity. The Bible clearly teaches that Jesus is a man. The Bible clearly teaches that Jesus is God. The Bible clearly teaches that the Father is God, the Spirit is God and that God is One. How these things can be, that’s where it gets awfully complicated. For the first five hundred years after the ascension of Christ the church wrestled over these complex issues of doctrine. Athanasius was exiled five different times for championing the orthodox position that eventually prevailed.

This exercise, of course, isn’t designed to register complaints with the Bible. It is perfect. The exercise does, however, instruct me. I am far less than perfect. It reminds me to not shout where God has whispered. It reminds me to seek to align my priorities with His. It reminds me that while the Bible is not less than a rule book for the Christian, it is more than that. It is the very food by which we live. When we find ourselves troubled by the Bible, either by what is in there or what isn’t, we get a clue as to where our troubles lie.

We learn submission to authority is more important than the form of the authority.

We learn that while form matters, worship is a matter of the heart.

We learn to allow preaching to correct us, more than we correct preaching.

We learn that being a godly spouse is more powerful than picking the perfect spouse.

And we learn that we have eternity to learn more about who God is.

The Bible, like its author, is perfect. Praise that author that He is perfecting me through it.

Sending My Thoughts Your Way

I seek to be a professional persuader. Though I am much less pushy in my more private life, my profession is to profess my confession. Sometimes I am given a classroom of students. Sometimes I am given a sanctuary of sheep. I seek to persuade readers of books, or magazines, and of the internet. My desire, of course, is to help. My prayer is that my confession matches one for one with the fullness of the Word of God. His wisdom, not my own folly is what we all need. And so here I am sending my thoughts your way.

My wife is sick. She has acute myelomonocytic leukemia. By God’s grace she has beaten cancer twice before, and we remain hopeful she can do it again. We are deeply and profoundly blessed to have so many saints praying for us, storming the mercy seat on her behalf. We find ourselves more centered, more peaceful, more grateful and content than we were before the diagnosis. We see the hand of God at work.

We are likewise grateful for the well wishes of those outside the kingdom. It is a blessing to be loved. What is heartbreaking is that these friends are so alone. Just days ago one lost friend told me, “I’m sending my prayers to your beautiful wife.” I thanked him but let him know, “It would help her more if you could send those prayers to the Lord of heaven and earth. He can do something about this.” I wasn’t trying to embarrass my friend. I wanted him to know where the power is. In an “under the sun” world, sadly, all we can do is “send good thoughts your way.” How anemic. How pathetic. How terribly lonely.

Those outside the kingdom are wont to accuse those inside of needing a crutch. The God that we believe in is just something we need to cope with life. They are of course, wrong. God is not a crutch. He is instead life. Without a crutch the crippled stand still. But I’m not crippled, I’m dead. He doesn’t help me walk; He makes me live.

God does not become real because we need Him. Instead, we need Him because He is real. We were made for Him. He hears our prayers. He answers our prayers. He is at work in space and time, in giving cancer for His glory, and we pray again in healing cancer for His glory. Our prayer is that as we go through this, our thoughts, as manifested in our lives, will show forth that reality to a lost and dying world. And we ask that you would pray the same. How glorious it would be if through this trial a nurse, a tech, an unbelieving family member, a doctor, even a worried patient in the room next door, might be brought to eternal life. Please pray with us that our lives would profess our confession, that Jesus Christ came to save sinners, and that He lives and reigns now and forever.

Outrage Du Jour

Media, as a general rule, is directed more toward our emotions than our minds. As Neil Postman argued so eloquently in his delightful book Amusing Ourselves to Death, a word based culture tends to be more reasoned, more thoughtful, whereas an image based culture tends to be more emotive, more reactionary. We are a sensate culture accustomed and comfortable with experiencing emotions lightly and at the behest of others. We pay Hollywood to make us fearful, or sad, or excited. But of course the monster isn’t real, the sick child just an actor, the rampaging dinosaur a creation of a computer, rather than a mad scientist. We take our emotions in manageable doses by feeling them in contexts that have precious little to do with reality.

Those outlets outside the mainstream media also know their audience. Whether it is conservative talk radio or Christian blog punditry, even though our perspectives on the issues may differ, our approach to them is essentially the same. We may pull the levers marked R when we vote, but we also like having our strings pulled. So we tune into talk radio to learn all about the outrage of the day. Of course talk radio is in one sense a word based medium. But in another it is shared experience, the theater of the appalled. “On today’s episode, we discover that black-hatted fiend is sitting on his thumbs while the mid-east ignites.” Or, “Tune in tomorrow as President Bad-inoff tells his helpless citizens, ‘You must grow the debt.’ And our heroine Congressperson Bauchman replies, ‘But we can’t grow the debt.’” Of course both sides cheer the end of the melodrama when the hero from China declares “I’ll buy the debt.” We wring our hands over the latest episode, talk it over at the water cooler and feel like we’re doing something.

Further still to the right are we committed pro-lifers. On Facebook, on our blogs we recount the genuinely heroic work of Live Action that exposed ACORN and now a Planned Parenthood office in New Jersey where a couple posing as a pimp and his underage employee learn how to receive services and avoid messy intrusions from the state. The pimp is even offered a sort of volume discount. We are outraged, as we were a few weeks ago when one abortionist was arrested for murdering seven born babies and one murderous mother. And so we sleep well at night, thinking our outrage is our doing our part, feeling ourselves to be rather fine fellows.

Trouble is our outrage is misplaced. Whatever else the President is doing wrong, it all pales in comparison to this- he uses his office to speak for and to defend the murder of unborn babies. Whatever advice and counsel Planned Parenthood provides for pimps in secret is nothing compared to what they do every day out in the open. The eight people that Kermit Gosnell is charged with murdering are no different from the hundreds if not thousands he murdered within the law. These are distractions.

If our emotional responses were to be rational, to fit with reality, we would be outraged by abortion, when it is done carefully, in sterile places, by competent, licensed, professionals. If our emotional responses were rational, our outrage would not satisfy us, but would goad us. We would respond with shame, that we have done so little. And then we would respond with resolve, that we will labor faithfully, on every front, from the voting booth to the crisis pregnancy center, to the very doors of the murder centers. And finally, we would commit to have our emotions match reality, rather than being led about in circles by the Pied Pipers of talk radio and internet punditry. It is right and proper that we should feel strongly. Neither the day’s news nor commentary on it however will bring us there. Instead it’s what’s not news- babies are being murdered.

Ask RC: Is God Happy When We Are Happy?

Of course. God, however, is also happy when we are sad. He’s happy when we are frightened, when we are disappointed, when we are hungry and when our foot falls asleep. God is always happy, ultimately speaking. The God we serve is the ever blessed God. While it would be a mistake to equate happiness and blessedness, such is so because blessedness is more than happiness, not less. God is God and as such is not dependent upon any or all of us for His joy. He has no “needs” that we can meet. He is altogether satisfied by Himself and in Himself.

God is happy, for instance, to manifest His just wrath against the sins of men. Perhaps never more so than on those who would seek to justify their sin by suggesting that it serves God’s happiness. That is, those who use this little nugget of “wisdom” to justify their sins may likely find themselves judged of God. The man who breaks his marriage vows, leaving his wife and children because he thinks God will be happy only if he is happy is deluded and headed for destruction. Were we a touch more honest we might translate this ditty this way, “God wants me to do whatever I want to do.” That is sheer nonsense. What God wants, no, what He commands, is that we would obey all that He commands.

And that is what makes us happy, which is how we can again affirm our aphorism. That is, God is happy when we are happy because we are only happy when we obey all that He commands. Indeed His law commands that we be happy, or at least joyful. Rejoice, Paul says. And in case you weren’t listening “Again I say, ‘Rejoice.’” Our calling is to joy. Sadly too many Christians, especially we who are Reformed, think that crankiness is next to godliness. We of all people ought to be the most joyous.

First, we know the depths from which we have been rescued. We have, by the power of the gospel, by the work of the Spirit, been saved from the uttermost, to the uttermost. That is cause for rejoicing. No matter what hardships we may be going through, they cannot be compared to the eternal weight of glory. Second, we know that even the hardships we endure are sent by the same sovereign God that redeemed us. And we know why they were sent, that we might be made more like Jesus. The unbeliever cannot be truly happy for he knows he is under the wrath of God. The believer who hasn’t yet come to understand the sovereignty of God is robbed of the confidence of His salvation, and can’t see the tender hand of His loving Father in his suffering.

The whole story ends, as all stories ought, “And they all lived happily ever after.” This is what our Lord is bringing to pass. We will dance with the Lord of the Dance on into eternity. His face will shine upon us, and we will laugh for the joy of it.

Ask RC: Sovereignty and the Little Things.

If God is sovereign, how do we determine the significant from the insignificant? I often hear the layman exclaim how God’s hand was in this or that, but they seem somewhat selective in their testimonies. If something good happens, God is often referenced. When something bad happens there is also the desire to find God in the matter. But what about the seemingly insignificant things? What about the rolling stone? Are we to see God’s hand in absolutely everything, if His hand is in fact in absolutely everything?

Of course the first thing we have to address is those two little letters at the beginning. There is no “if” about God’s sovereignty. He is absolutely sovereign over all things. He ordains whatsoever comes to pass, from the rise and fall of nations to the rise and fall of each dust particle in a gentle breeze. There is, of course, no genuine distinction between significant and insignificant events, because everything ties together. Read through the book of Ruth and consider the sundry details about which even the writer says “And it came to pass” that ended up not just in Ruth’s marriage, but ultimately in the creation of King David, and eventually in the birth of Jesus. Even the world understands this as it confesses, “For want of a nail the shoe was lost. For want of the shoe, the horse was lost. For want of the horse the rider was lost. For want of the rider the battle was lost. For want of the battle the war was lost.” The big things are made up of the small things. As one wise theologian says, “There are no maverick molecules.”

That doesn’t mean, however, that your concern is invalid. There are two problems that are far too common within the evangelical church as we seek to understand the sovereignty and providence of God. One is what I call the Superman theory of providence. Someone narrowly escapes a car crash, and suggests “God was really with me there.” And He was. Trouble is, His sovereignty not only extends to keeping the cars an inch apart, it also extends to the cars getting that close in the first place. God is not in heaven passively watching the two cars start to get too close, then jumping into a phone booth (kids, ask your parents what that was), donning his suit and flying to keep the cars apart. He was in control of the whole thing, just as He is in control in our nice, uneventful trips in the car.

The second problem is our incessant and erroneous desire to read His providence. It is one thing to say “God brought this to pass.” It is altogether a different thing to say, “God brought this to pass because…” We who are Reformed are particularly tempted to this error. I remember once reading a sermon in which a Puritan pastor told the story of finding the tattered remains of the Book of Common Prayer that had been eaten by a church mouse. As a Puritan the pastor didn’t care for the Book of Common Prayer. He explained to the flock that even God’s littlest creature the mouse knew the Book of Common Prayer was no good, that God had sovereignly brought to pass the destruction of the book. On the latter point he was dead on. God, from all eternity, ordained that that particular mouse would chew up that particular book. Why He did so, however, is a mystery. Had I been there for that sermon I would have, hopefully graciously, asked that pastor, “Isn’t it equally plausible to suggest that the reason God had that mouse eat that book was so we would know that even the tiniest creatures know to feed upon the Book of Common Prayer?” One event, two radically different but equally plausible understandings of Why.

Grasping the sovereignty of God ought to humble us. First, we should be humbled to consider that we are under the care of a God who controls all things, down to the hairs on our head. We live our lives not only coram Deo, before the face of God, but also within the power of His almighty hand. Second, we should remember that a God so powerful, well, His thoughts are not our thoughts, His ways are not our ways. We should not be quick to read His inscrutable purposes. We should, however, we resolute to trust them.

Stand on the Word. Walk by the Way. Run to the Battle. Rest in the Son.
Dr. R.C. Sproul Jr. teaches at Reformation Bible College and Ligonier Ministries in Sanford, Florida.
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