Imputation, Infusion and Eternal Consequence: A Parable

Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18: 9-14).

It is an unfair, gross distortion to hold that Rome teaches justification by works, while we Protestants teach justification by faith. The more accurate distinction recognizes on both sides the necessity of the work of Christ. Rome affirms that His righteousness is necessary for our salvation, that without it we are without hope. That righteousness, however, becomes ours through infusion. Protestants affirm also that His righteousness is necessary for salvation, that we have no hope without it. It, however, becomes ours through imputation.

Some here are quick to affirm that our differences now amount to nothing more than a tempest in a teapot. We are arguing over two, thick, theological terms that are not a part of our ordinary language. Surely such a nuance must be insignificant. But it’s not, as Jesus’ parable illustrates. Let’s look at these two men, what they have in common and what separates them.

First, it is an unfair, gross distortion to hold that the Pharisee believes he justifies himself. How quickly we pass over the one good part of his pray, “Lord, I thank you…” The Pharisee knows from whence came the power to make him righteous. He knows that he needed the grace of God, that God had to work in him, that God is due all the glory for his obedience. The publican likewise looks to God and His grace as His only hope. He knows where to turn, even as the Pharisee knows whom to thank.

The difference, however, is here. The Pharisee believes that God’s grace has made him whole, that he is now, albeit by the grace of God, just in himself. God helped him out. God stood him up. But now he is standing on his own two feet. He gives thanks to God that he is better than other men, that he doesn’t commit this sin and that, that he performs this duty and that. God has poured righteousness into him, and there he stands.

The publican, on the other hand, knows what he still is, a sinner. The mercy he cries out for isn’t that he would be made a saint, but that he would be a forgiven sinner. He cannot cooperate. He cannot stand. He can only, and even this is the grace of God, cry out for the mercy of God, which is found in Christ alone.

The bigger difference than the differing approaches of these two men, however, is what it meant for their eternities. Only one of these two men went home justified. Only one of these men was an adopted son of the living God. Only one of these two men will spend eternity walking with God in paradise. The other will spend eternity weeping and gnashing teeth. Teapot tempests have no such eternal consequences.

In our feel-good, dumbed-down, ecumenical age we find distinctions distasteful. In the faithful preaching of our Lord He demonstrates the difference they make. That said, may we Reformed protest against our own propensity to cry out, “I thank you Lord that I am not like other men, Arminians, semi-Pelagians, or even this charismatic. I score high on all theology exams and have a library that is the envy of my friends.” Instead let us, consistent with our theology, beat our breasts and cry out, “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

Life From Death

The irony does not escape me that two days after we celebrate so earnestly the resurrection of Jesus, my dear bride begins the stem cell transplant process in our battle with leukemia. There will be a few days of sundry tests, but soon she will undergo what may be the most intense chemotherapy there is. She is in remission as I type, and God willing will be when that chemo starts. Why bury your body in chemical poison when there is no known cancer therein? Just what exactly are we trying to kill this time? White blood cells. Before we sought to kill what was killing her. Now we are seeking to kill what seeks to make her well.

The trouble with Denise’s white blood cells is that they are not up to the task. They are not able to make her well enough. Trusting in her own cells will lead to certain death. What she needs are the white blood cells of another. It is, frankly and literally, her only hope. Though her white blood cells do not have the power to make her well, they are still strong enough to fight off the white blood cells of another. That is why they must be destroyed. For Denise to live she has to give up fighting on her own, and put her trust in another.

Analogies always break down, and there is danger ahead, but let us still move forward. She is not sinless like Jesus. She is not suffering the wrath of the Father like Jesus. But Denise’s sister Susan is giving of herself, her own lifeblood, that her sister might live. She is making sacrifice, as are her seven children and godly husband. They are giving of their lives that my wife might live again. And like Jesus, they do so joyfully, out of love for her.

As we move out of this season of focused remembrance of the resurrection of Jesus, let us remember why we have this focus- that we would remember all year long. Resurrection is not something we will have done, but is the very air we breath. When we proclaim each day, “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” we are not merely speaking of His creational power. This is the day that the Lord, by walking out of that tomb, has remade. Let us rejoice and be glad in it. We live in the days of hope and promise. We live in the new creation.

Jesus has not promised that the difficult and painful process my dear wife is going through will give her forty more years to serve Him here. He has, however, promised that it will make her more like Him, that whatever the outcome, she will be beautified. He has promised that either way He will be holding her, dancing with her, laughing with her. Whatever the result, the resurrection wins. No, whatever the result, the Resurrected One wins His bride. He gave her to me. Each day I give her back. Each day He makes her more beautiful. Each day I give thanks. Every day is Resurrection Day. The Lord is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Hallelujah.

Ask RC: Why was Jesus raised from the dead?

It is a good thing to enter into the pathos of the disciples during those dark days between the crucifixion and the resurrection. It is easy for us to forget that they haven’t read the rest of the story. We live on this side of the resurrection, and its explication in Scripture. We have Truth revealed. They had only anguish and uncertainty. They had lost their Lord. Their trouble, however, was not ultimately that they missed Jesus. Their heartache was rooted in something more substantial than personal sadness. In His death we would have had to conclude one of two things. Either it means that in the end the bad guys can win, that God’s sovereignty can be overcome by the forces of darkness. Or it means something even worse, that Jesus was a sinner. Death, after all, is a function of sin. No sin, no death. Either the bad guys win, or Jesus is a bad guy. Not a choice anyone would want to make.

No sin, no death. Which is true of Jesus as well. Had He had no sin, He could not have died. What the disciples missed, and we would have missed also was that the sins that brought His death were not properly His own. Forensically, legally, by sovereign decree they were. In Himself, however, He knew no sin. He died because of our sins. God the Father poured out His wrath on Jesus that was due for the sins of His people. His wrath is finished. We are forgiven. We have peace with the Father, and so the celebration could begin, right, even with Jesus still in the tomb? His spirit had already been commended to the Father, so He is already in paradise. Why should we care what happens with His mere earthly body?

Our celebration, in principle, could have begun while His body was still in the tomb, had we known about the atonement. Without the resurrection, however, we wouldn’t know whose sins Jesus died for. Maybe He was guilty, in which case our sins are still our own. In His resurrection, however, we have not merely the salvation of His body, though that is a good thing. Not merely the hope of the salvation of our bodies, though that is a good thing. What we have is a vindication of His innocence. What we have is the Father’s declaration, “This is My Son in whom I am well pleased.” His death was because of His unity with us. His resurrection, on the other hand, because of that same unity, is in turn a vindication of us. Through His resurrection we hear our heavenly Father’s declaration of us, though we are sinners in ourselves, “This is My beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.”

In His death, guilt is defeated. In His resurrection, innocence is declared. In us, He is guilty. In Him we are innocent. Good has overcome evil, because Jesus is good. The Lord is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Hallelujah, hallelujah.

What in the World?

I posted a few days ago, on facebook and twitter, the following bit of wisdom- “Too often we train our children to make their way in the world. I want to train my children to make war on the world.” In the days that have passed I have been asked by several different people not what such training would look like, not how my children make war on the world, not what are the weapons of their warfare, but what do I mean by “the world.”

That expression, the world, is in fact used in different ways in the Bible. Sometimes it refers to the whole of the created order. Sometimes it refers to the whole of humanity, as in John 3:16. Other times, however, it refers clearly to the city of man, to the army of the serpent. When John warns us that “If anyone loves the world the love of the Father is not in him” (I John 2:15) he is not suggesting that God’s love for the world in John 3:16 means that the love of the Father is not in the Father. Here “world” refers to the world system, that realm of darkness out of which we have been called.

It is a sure sign of our worldliness that warring with the world is seen as someone unspiritual, rather than the zenith of spiritual maturity. We have come to believe that we love the world in a John 3:16 sense by loving the world in a I John 2:15 sense, and the devil just laughs.

I understand the temptation. The very first time I broke open the Word publicly, when I was 9, I followed in the same path. At Bible camp I had been chosen by my cabin to be counselor for the day. My duties included leading evening devotions. My brilliant theme? What if, I wondered, the biblical account of creation, and the scientific theory of evolution could both be true?!?!? And so that evening I shared by insights with my little troop. My hope was that not only might I not offend anyone but I might help my charges not to offend others in the future.

CS Lewis, in his brilliant Screwtape Letters, warns us against the temptation of Christianity and… It doesn’t matter what we add. Vegetarianism, socialism, nudism, libertarianism, if added to the Christian faith will swallow the Christian faith. He was right. But there is another danger, Christianity minus… We are always looking for ways to make keep the faith, and lose its hard edges. Nowhere is this more so than our desire to hold on the faith, and jettison the truth that we will be hated by the world. Every generation we find new ways to try the same folly. Hipster Christianity is just a younger demographic of the same spirit that wafts through Willow Creek and Saddleback. Let us remove the offense, and keep, what exactly?

What the world hates about us isn’t our conservative politics. It isn’t our disapproval of their sexual escapades. It isn’t our insistence in disbelieving Darwin. What the world hates about us is Jesus in us. If they don’t hate us, John is telling us, Jesus isn’t in us. There is no safe, reasonable, palatable Christian faith. There is only faith and unbelief. If the world does not hate you, fear for your soul. If the world does hate you, blessed are you for great is your reward in heaven.

Ask RC: What are your thoughts on alternative medicine?

The medical profession suffers from undue honor, and unwarranted suspicion. There are those, both patients and some medical professionals themselves, that mistake their great training with omniscience, their great skills with omnipotence. Much of this is driven by modernist presumption, the dual silly notions that man is a simple machine and that simple men can operate the machine well. The human body is knit together by God and is grand and mysterious. If technology is the god who limps, such proud doctors are just broken crutches.

On the other hand, doctors, as a profession, are not all evil conspirators or ignorant rubes who just are just too blind to see the magic healing power of: insert-home-remedy-here. Because homeschooling families as a general rule tend toward self-sufficiency and away from dependence on experts, many of them think a good root cellar and the chapters on medicine in the Foxfire books are all we really need. We think we can defeat the willful pride of some in the medical profession with our own willful pride. That’s bad medicine.

Doctors who think too highly of themselves will tend to look for technological, typically pharmacological solutions to what ails us. Alternative medicine, on the other hand, will tend toward a greater faith in the body’s own healing powers, and seek to tap into those powers. I’m sympathetic to thinking in that direction. Whether it is a nagging cough, a dripping pipe under the sink, or a sputtering exhaust in my truck, my first, natural response is always, “Leave it alone and eventually it will take care of itself.” It drives my dear wife crazy. Trouble is, sometimes a nagging cough is lung cancer, a dripping pipe is eating away at the house’s foundation, and the exhaust is leaking carbon monoxide into the cab. That’s when you want a doctor, a plumber, and a mechanic, not someone who learned their craft from their up-line in their herbal network marketing program.

I never want to discount the experiences others have had with alternative medicine. I am happy to hear about how people are made better, and to believe that there are many good men and women outside the establishment that want to help and are able to do so. Yay and amen to people getting better without the blessing of the AMA. All I ask of those in the alternative medicine cage stage is that they afford me the same honor. I’ve had my own experience as well. The traditional doctor who has cared for my family for the past fifteen years is literally one of the finest men I know. He is caring, thoughtful, gifted, humble, and the loving homeschooling father of eight. He’s far too aware of his own limitations to buy into modernist notions of the doctor as god. He knows the best thing he can do for any of his patients is what we can all do, pray to the Great Physician. We trust him, not because he is a doctor, but because he trusts Him. Moderation then is what is called for. It’s good for what ails us.

Grace Unknown, or, It’s a Wonderful Life

My dear wife is about in the middle of her treatment for her leukemia. Step one they call inception chemo. That involves roughly a month in the hospital with intense chemo. She made it through that and was happily found to be in remission. Now she goes once a month for a week of chemo, what they call consolidation chemo. The goal here is for remission to stick. She has had one of these treatments. Still ahead of us, God willing, is a stem cell transplant that has serious risks, but offers the hope of a cure. As with her previous two bouts with cancer I marvel at her strength, at her character, at her peace. I believe all of this is the result of the many hundreds if not thousands of prayers that have been made on her behalf. God has likewise upheld me and our children thus far through this ordeal. This too I believe is the result of faithful prayer by the saints.

I can’t, of course, prove objectively the power of your prayers on our behalf. It is certainly possible, however unlikely, that the Sprouls are simply a hardy bunch who would be doing this well without your prayers. It’s far more likely that had you not been praying that we would have collapsed in a heap a long time ago. But just as our Lord would not tell Peter how John’s life would end, just as Aslan would not tell Lucy about what might have been, so we are not shown alternative endings. The strength my wife exhibits does carry with it an imprint that tells us its ultimate source. It reads on the bottom not “Made in China” but “Birthed in Heaven.” But there is no specific information, no tag that reads, “Prayed for by Prayer Warrior #7165.”

That may well be for an important reason. While we remain terribly grateful for your prayers, and ask that they would continue, we want your prayers not because of their power, but because of the power of the One who hears your prayers. Prayer “works” not because of the power of the one making the prayers but because of the power of the One hearing the prayers. We are not, from one perspective, doing as well as we are because of the potency of your prayers. We are doing as well as we are because of the sovereign power of the One who ordained your prayers, who gave us this challenge, and who walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death.

We are told what we need to be told. That we want to be told more is proof that we haven’t sufficiently believed what has already been revealed. Our prayers matter, in ways far too beautiful to be measured with a prayer-ometer. Your prayers are used by Him to make me think more deeply about prayer. They are used by Him to make us feel more closely His hand as we walk through this valley. They are used to fan the flames of my love for my wife and my children. They are used to teach me gratitude, to teach me that it is indeed a wonderful life, because of His marvelous death. Pray for us. And pray in gratitude that we serve a God who hears us, and loves us.

Ask RC: Is there such a thing as a “carnal Christian?”

Yes, no, and yes. First, Paul, in addressing those whom He elsewhere calls “saints,” makes reference to their “carnality.” In I Corinthians 3 Paul bemoans that he must speak to these to whom God’s grace has been given (I Corinthians 1:4) as to the carnal rather than spiritual, describing them as “babes in Christ.” All living Christians deal with carnality, the remaining temptations of the flesh. (Remember that by flesh we do not mean our physical bodies, but rather our sin natures, from the Greek sarx.) We have seen the power of sin broken in our lives. We are new men. But that sin principle is not eradicated. Indeed if we say that it has, if we say that we are without sin, the truth is not in us (I John 1:8). The victory has been won in principle, but there remains a mopping up operation in the great war against our own sin. As such, carnality, sin, sarx, the flesh is still with us until we die.

That said, there are those who would define “carnal Christian” as one who has accepted the saving work of Christ, but whose life is unchanged. Not so. All those who trust in the finished work of Christ are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Though we all start in different places, and all grow at different rates, we all grow in grace. (Indeed we are changed already when we are given new hearts by the Holy Spirit when He regenerates us.). As John McArthur so ably argued in his book The Gospel According to Jesus, one cannot divide Jesus, accepting Him as Savior while rejecting Him as Lord. That wing of the dispensational church which teaches this doctrine is not just mistaken, but is propagating gross and heinous error. A “Christian” with no change in his life is no Christian at all.

Which brings us to our second “yes.” Here the difficult word isn’t “carnal” but “Christian.” That is, we must be careful not to equivocate on the term. Sometimes when we say “Christian” we mean someone who trusts in the finished work of Christ alone for his salvation, who has peace with the Father and who will spend eternity in paradise. Sometimes, however, what we mean by the term is “Someone who claims to be a Christian.” Because we cannot fully see into anyone’s heart we cannot always distinguish between professors of the Christian faith and possessors of the Christians faith. The word “Christian” can be appropriate in either circumstance, so long as we don’t conflate the differing meanings. There is nothing wrong with using the term Christian for all who profess the faith, nor for using the term for only those who truly possess the faith. There are no carnal Christians in one sense, but there are plenty in the other. Those in this latter category do not need to be assured of their salvation, but need to be called to repentance. A life of unrepentant gross and heinous sin is evidence not of a carnal believer, but a carnal unbeliever.

Life in Death

We do not serve a reactive God. It is certainly true, an abiding truth, that the most fundamental covenant between God and man is this- obey Me and be blessed; disobey Me and be cursed. Praise the glory of His name there is an addendum- if you trust in the finished work of Christ, He will be cursed for your disobedience and you will be blessed for His obedience. That obedience leads to blessing, however, doesn’t mean that God is sitting on His throne with a box full of roses on His right and a box full of thunderbolts on His left. He is not watching to see what you will do, and reaching into the box appropriate for your choices. The cursings for disobedience are organic, connected to the sin itself. In like manner, the blessings of obedience inhere in the obedience.

Consider what happens when we live for ourselves. We, because we are sinners, think if we will pursue our own pleasure, our own desires, our own reputation, our own wealth, that we will naturally acquire them. When we end up disappointed we think God interfered, that He snatched up our hard earned roses and hurled thunderbolts at us. Having learned our lesson we seek to be more giving, more focused on others, we think then that God spared us the agony that such a life would naturally bring, and kindly dropped roses our way.

The truth is that we are naturally designed for things to work unnaturally. We gain our life when we lose it precisely because that is how our lives are gained. We were made for others, and our joy is found in service. We find ourselves when we lose ourselves. More is drinking from the ocean. Less is drinking our tears of joy in satisfaction.

When I am feeding or changing or carrying my profoundly disabled 13 year old daughter I don’t receive roses from heaven. I receive instead something far more precious- smiles from my little girl. Her eyes crinkle together and sparkle, and every now and then she lets out a little laugh. I see in her eyes not only her trust in me, but her delight. She, because such is her redeemed nature, is serving me. I, by the grace of God, am serving her. We together drink in the gospel.

She in turn shames me. If she, whose father is such a miserable sinner, who is weak and selfish, looks at me like that, why don’t I look to my Father in heaven with even greater trust and joy? The good news, however, is the good news. Despite my failures, my weaknesses, my frailties, despite the very sin that keeps me from looking to Him in that way, in her eyes I see His. Though He knows my sin more than she does, more than I do He looks at me with the same delight that she does. He smiles. His eyes crinkle together and He laughs. My daughter loves me because my Father loves me. I love my daughter because my Father loves me. And when we love each other, there He is in the midst of us.

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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