Ask RC: Does God really decide, and care who wins a football game?


I began asking this question myself long before Tim Tebow was even born. I was a little boy, deeply committed to the Pittsburgh Steelers. I remember praying that they would beat the Oakland Raiders in an upcoming playoff game. When my prayer ended fear set in- what if there were a little boy just like me, somewhere in Oakland, praying that the Raiders would beat the Steelers? My father comforted me by explaining that no real Christian would ever pray for the Raiders.
The truth is God does decide, and He does care. He not only decides who will win the Super Bowl, He decides who will win the game of hearts I play with my children. He decides, or rather decided, everything. There are no places, let alone no playing fields, where God stays on the sidelines. 
We need to remember that everything that happens must have a sufficient cause. And we must remember that every sufficient cause eventually traces its way back to God before time. This happens because that happened. That happened because this other thing happened. Eventually this takes us to “God said, ‘Let there be light, and there was light.’”
Of course God works in and through secondary means.  He gives the gifts. He creates the weather. The one who numbers the hairs on our heads softens the ground where a defensive back slips, and a playoff game ends on an eighty yard touchdown pass. There is no thing, no cause, over which He is not sovereign.
Isn’t it, though, somehow beneath His dignity to be concerned with such things? Yes, of course it is. God has only one concern- the manifestation of His glory. And that is how He determines what will happen in a football game, and what will happen in an election, and what will happen in a cancer ward. His goal isn’t ultimately to make little boys in Pittsburgh happy, or little boys in Denver happy. His goal, which cannot be thwarted, is to show forth who He is.
Does that mean He plays favorites for the likes of outspoken Christians like Tim Tebow or Drew Brees? Of course. Because God loves those who are His, even as He loves His own Son, God is certain to favor them. That favor, however, isn’t a path to winning a football game, but is instead the path to true victory, becoming more like Jesus. God isn’t glorified in giving Tim Tebow unlikely victories that somehow redound to God’s glory. No, God is glorified in making His children, including Tim Tebow, more like His Son. Sometimes that means leading them to the thrill of victory. Sometimes it means leading them through the agony of defeat.
The more difficult and pertinent question for me isn’t does God care, but should I?  I don’t pray for Steeler victories. I do pray that I, along with my parents and my children, will make memories together. And I pray that we would have grace to accept His providence, even when the Steelers lose.

Ask RC: Sin in Heaven?


The Question: If “The Fall” was caused by just one sin from the very first humans and all humans since have sinned, what are our chances of remaining sinless in heaven?  I assume we would still have our gift of free will, so surely someone would sin?
There is no chance whatsoever that we will, once we are in heaven, will fall again into sin, for at least two important reasons. First, God has so promised. The picture we are given of the eternal blessing we receive in Christ includes our being utterly pure, white, without spot or blemish. That we will stay in this state will at least come to pass on the basis of God’s promise. Remember when God stood with Joshua looking out at the city of Jericho and its rather substantial wall. God said, “See, I have delivered the city into your hands.” God’s Word is so certain that what He has spoken, though it has not yet come to pass, that it can be spoken of as in the past tense. I call this tense, “God’s prophetic past.”
Secondly, and perhaps ironically, it is precisely our free will which will be the means by which God’s promise is brought to pass. All moral beings, men, angels and even God Himself are free to choose. All of them, however, in their freedom, always choose according to their nature. God, for instance, could sin, if He so desired. But He does not so desire, for He is altogether good. He is “free” to do evil in one sense, but not free in another sense. No one forces Him to do good, but He will always and only do good.
When we enter into our reward, we will be fully and finally sanctified. That is, we will be fully and finally holy. There will be no more sin, no more desire for sin in us. We will have no more sin nature in us; we will be altogether good. We, like God Himself, will be free to do evil, were we so to desire, but we would never so desire because we will be altogether good. This is one of the greatest promises of eternity, that the struggle within ourselves between the old and the new man, between the Spirit and the flesh will be over. We will be at peace; we will enter into rest. Our warfare will have ended.
The more difficult question is how it is that Adam and Eve, who were created good, could in turn fall into sin in the first place. That answer is well outside the scope of these little missives. I do, however, address it in my book Almighty Over All, as well as in our sound teaching series, “How Strong Is He?” if you are looking to look into that conundrum. It is good and right for us to mourn the fall, to look deeply into all the destruction wrought by our parents’ first sin. But we must in turn look forward to the fullness of the promises of God. We will walk with Him in the garden again, unashamed and at peace. This is what Jesus has brought to pass for us, His beloved bride. We will be what we were made to be, and will stay so forevermore. 

The Kingdom Notes: Forty Days of Mourning


My deepest gratitude to all of you who have walked with me through my grief. Your prayers and encouragement have buoyed me up in the long and dark hours. It is possible that the below will be my last piece committed to this difficult journey.  Rest assured, however, that the deep wound will not fully heal on this side of glory, and even then my scar, like His, and yours, will beautify eternity.
  
Because we are modernists and Gnostics we love to pretend that symbols and rituals have no meaning, that all that matters is what is in our hearts. Because we are humans, and image bearers, we find we cannot escape symbols and rituals. When my wife and I were married almost twenty years ago there were precious few surprises.  Black tux for me, white dress for her. Traditional hymns were sung, traditional vows were taken. She processed with her father, and recessed with me. And in between, we exchanged rings- simple, traditional, gold rings. The only twist remained within the tradition, inside the ritual. Inside our rings we had inscribed Joshua 24:15- As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.
Too many pundits tell us that if we want to have a successful marriage we need to make Jesus the center of it.  He is the glue, the center, the guide. There is wisdom here, but also danger. Is Jesus a means to a happy marriage? No, He is the end. Jesus does not exist for our marriages. Rather, our marriages exist for Him. Denise and I married not for ourselves, but that we might serve the Lord. We committed from the beginning not that I would die to self for her sake, nor that she would die to self for mine. Instead we would both strive to die to self for Him. We would pursue not our own happiness, but His glory. And in losing our individual lives, we found our one life together.
Jesus did not, forty days ago, take Denise from me. She was never mine to begin with. He placed her under my care. He blessed me with her wisdom, with her example, with her love. But she was then what she is now, and will always be, His. 
I too belong to Him. I asked Him to give me forty days to mourn- to devote time, space, energy to entering into my loss. Those forty days have drawn to a close. Crossing this barrier, stepping out of the ash-pile, however, hasn’t changed my heart.  Indeed despite recognizing the objective wisdom of my friend who suggested that I give myself over to mourning for forty days, I find myself not wanting to let go. I know, as I knew from the beginning that moving past this forty days will not end my sadness. I fear, however foolishly however, that it will end her, that she will pull further away from me.  I fear that I would be giving up the ghost, which seems to be all I have left of her. The dust of her death has become my familiar familiar.
The irony is the matching fears. That is, in putting that ring on Denise’s finger, in that ritual pregnant with promise and meaning, I was afraid. Could I be the kind of godly husband she deserved?  Would I be faithful in leading her? It is the same fear that haunts me now. Will I honor her memory by being the man she helped make? Will I be faithful to her memory, and our pledge? And the mirror of that fear is in the mirror of the ritual. On this, my fortieth day of mourning my beloved, I remove the ring she put on my finger. I cried through putting her ring on, even as I cry in taking mine off.
The ring reminded me not that my life was committed to Denise, but that our lives were committed to the Lord. Its absence, I pray, will remind me still of the message inside. As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord. God called me to be a husband for almost twenty years. He has called me to be a servant, a soldier, a disciple and a friend for always. Pray that I would be faithful.

Honoring the Living


There is, in all honesty, a constant tension when dealing with a terminal illness between giving up and facing facts. As I have noted earlier, during my beloved’s nine month battle with leukemia her most frequent question to me was “I can get better, can’t I?” Giving up hope is giving up, and neither of us wanted that. We do indeed serve a God who gave Hezekiah a new lease, who can make dry bones live and so from one perspective it isn’t over until it’s over. That doesn’t mean, however, that we can’t at least begin to discern what is more likely than not by reading test results.
This question became frighteningly practical to the two of us a few months before Denise passed away. We had yet to embark on a clinical trial that held out some hope for us. But still two of Denise’s dearest and oldest friends determined to come and visit. On the one hand this was a great blessing and an encouragement to Denise. She, though still cooped up in a hospital room, spent hours laughing and reminiscing with these dear ladies. They recounted shared childhood memories, and compared notes on the shared experience of growing up. On the other hand the visit spiked Denise’s fears. Was she facing, she wondered, a farewell tour? What did it say about her prognosis that these ladies were laboring so hard to come and see her?
A few months later we were left with only one choice- hospice. Yes we still believed God could heal. But in our more honest moments we in turn understood that He probably wouldn’t. This, in turn, prompted more visits. A flock of ladies from our beloved church in Virginia came down for one last visit.  Family members made special trips. Beall Phillips also came to see Denise. By this point Denise was fading fast. She asked insightful questions of her friends, but fell asleep in the midst of the answers.  I found myself in the unenviable position of having to ration her time.
Within a matter of days Denise’s visitor list multiplied by a factor of ten. The only difference was that she was gone. Scores of old friends said goodbye to a casket. I highlight this with the hope of not making anyone feel bad. We all have responsibilities and limitations. I can assure her friends that she never once asked, “Why hasn’t this one come to see me?” Instead I write to encourage you to choose the right hand. Go, and visit. Your loved one may fear more deeply that there is little hope. But that will be utterly trumped by the joy of seeing you.  “I must be dying or they wouldn’t have dropped anything to come and see me” is ultimately nothing compared to the joy of seeing you. And if God should bless, what a wonderful memory it would be if ten or twenty years later you could hear, “Remember that time you came to see me because you thought I was dying?”
The truth is, by God’s grace, that I have no regrets about anything. Everyone, childhood friends, relatives, pew neighbors, ministry associates, everyone has done wonderfully by us. We are so overwhelmed with the grace of others that our biggest burden is how to adequately say, “Thank you.” In the end we know we can’t, because the very source of all the kindness we have received is the same grace by which we are redeemed. You don’t repay that. You simply weep in thanksgiving.
So I ask two things. First, if you ever find yourself wondering, “Should I go?” The answer is “Yes, of course.” Second, receive not just my thanks, and the thanks of my children. But also receive the thanks of my dear wife. She is still grateful, on high. There is, among believers, no such thing as a “farewell tour.” There is instead only a “Until we meet again tour.”

Five Evangelical Myths or Half Truths


It can happen even in careful systematic theology. How much more so in popular parlance? We take what the Bible actually teaches, rephrase it so we can understand it, and end up believing our own phrasing, rather than the actual biblical truth.  It’s not malicious, but it is dangerous. What follows are five common thoughts, common expressions, within the evangelical church that just aren’t so.
“All sins are equal in the sight of God.” Well, no. It is true enough that every sin is worthy of God’s eternal wrath. It is true enough that if we have broken part of the law we have broken the law (James actually says this.) It is true enough that unjust anger is a violation of the commandment against murder (Jesus actually says this.) None of this, however, means all sins are equal in the sight of God. To say that because all sins deserve eternal wrath means they are all equal is like saying that all numbers over 100 are equal. The truth is that Jesus said of the Pharisees that while they rightly tithed their mint and their cumin, they neglected the weightier matters of the law (Matthew 23:23). No sin is weightless, but some weigh more than others.
“Hell is the absence of God.” Well, no. If God is omnipresent, and He is, is there anywhere He can not be? David understood this, and thus affirmed, “If I make my bed in Sheol, Thou art there” (Psalm 139:8). Hell isn’t the absence of God, but the presence of His wrath.  God is there, but His grace, His kindness, His peace are not. God is the great horror of hell.
“Jesus saves us from our sins.” Well, no. It is absolutely true that Jesus saves us. When we face trouble, He is the one we should be crying out to for deliverance. But the great problem with our sins isn’t our sins, but the wrath of God. The trouble I need to be delivered from is the wrath of God. Hell is not my sins, but the wrath of God. We don’t need to be saved from our sins. We need to be saved from the wrath due for our sins.
“God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” Well, not if your name is Esau. Okay, there certainly is a kind of universal love that God has for all mankind. And certainly all those who repent and believe will be blessed. And certainly God calls all men everywhere to repent. But it is also true that God has prepared vessels for destruction (Romans 9:22). Being prepared for destruction likely wouldn’t be considered “wonderful” by anyone. We don’t know God’s hidden plans, and thus should preach the gospel to all the world. But we shouldn’t, in so preaching, promise what He hasn’t promised.
“Money is the root of all evil.” Well, no. Actually this one is wrong on two counts. First, the text (I Timothy 6:10) tells us that it is the love of money, not money, and that it is all sorts of evil, not all evil. If money were the root of all evil, all we would need to do to bring paradise on earth would be to have no more money. If money were the root of all evil, the problem would be out there, rather than in our hearts. Sin is not an it problem, but an us problem.
The devil isn’t lazy. He will take the breaks we give him. Myths and half-truths are perfect opportunities for us to miss who we are, who God is, and how He reconciles His own to Himself.  Perhaps were we more faithful to His Word, we might just be more faithful.

Ask RC: Do familial curses still exist?


God tells us in Exodus 20 that He will visit “the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me,” (verse 5).  That might settle the issue, but then God also told us this, “In those days they shall say no more: ‘ The fathers have eaten sour grapes, And the children’s teeth are set on edge.’” (Jeremiah 31:29).  Does this mean that there was, in the old covenant, familial curses, and that in the new they no longer exist? I think not.
I would suggest instead that what was still is, and what is not, never was. God’s promise in Exodus 20 is not that He will send fresh judgment against one generation for the sins of another generation. God does not have beside His throne a box full of thunderbolts that He hurls down on sinners. Much less does He hurl down thunderbolts against someone’s great grandchildren. The consequences of our sin are much more organic than that, as are the results of our obedience.
Suppose that I suffered from covetousness. God is unlikely to, if I am outside the kingdom, send me boils to punish me. Neither is He likely, if I am inside the kingdom, to send me boils to coax me toward repentance. What He is far more likely to do, in either case, is afflict me with collection calls, repo men, crippling interest rates and foreclosure. Now suppose my sons grew up in this covetous household. Is it not more likely that they will learn covetousness from me? Will they not likely see the afflictions as normal life? They certainly are not likely to receive an inheritance that could bless them.  They would, in this sense, live with the consequences of my sin, for multiple generations. My iniquity would be visited on them.
That said, if they in turn live covetous lives, will they be able to blame either God or me for the collections calls, repo men, etc? Of course not. They are still responsible to be financially responsible.  They are in like manner free to live in gratitude, and to end the cycle.
Those who promote the notion of “familial curses” are correct to note that our sins are not hermetically sealed, affecting only the sinner. (Remember that multiple “innocent” families lost husbands and fathers at Ai because of Achan’s sin at Jericho (Joshua 7:4).) God does indeed deal with us corporately, not just in the family but in churches, communities and nations. Those who think there is some sort of mystical cure, beyond repentance, are, I fear, mistaken.
In the end, if we are suffering and wondering why, the last answer we should come to is, “It is my ancestor’s fault.” On the other hand, when we are tempted to sin, we ought never to lose sight that the consequences certainly can outlive us, and afflict those we love. Thus I pray often that God would spare my children from the fruit of my sins. In either case the answer is to repent and to give thanks. We all enjoy so much more than we are due. And even suffering, for the believer, is blessing. We are to count it all joy. 

We Have Met the Enemy


Though I am optimistic about the long-term future, believing that the nations will in fact be discipled, and the kingdom will cover the earth the way the water covers the seas, it’s an ugly world out there. Every cultural indicator is alarming- more divorce, more illegitimacy, more crime, more drugs. Our entertainment is increasingly morbid and putrid.  Perverts have become a protected class. Business, families and governments sink deeper and deeper into debt.  The church has not just grown increasingly worldly, but now celebrates its worldliness, calling it outreach. And we still haven’t even touched on the one evil that dwarfs them all, the 3,500 moms who each day murder their own babies, while the rest of us watch.
And so we wring our hands about what they are doing. We write our blog pieces about our strategies to change them. We bewail their folly. We hold our prayer vigils, all of which amounts to, “I thank you Lord that I am not like other men.” Antithesis is important. So much of the problem among God’s people is that our identity is found outside the body. We have forgotten the reality of the war between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. We have forgotten our call to make manifest the reign of Christ over all things.
That reign, however is not marked by the glory of battle victory. It is not found where we triumphantly plant the flag of Jesus. The antithesis is far too deep for that. The weapons of our warfare are not carnal. His reign is manifest as we fall to our knees. His victory song is no martial fanfare, but is instead a dirge, as we cry out “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner. “ The glory is the cross, but the cross is also the glory.
Things, in short, are bad out there because that’s where we are. Those who name the name of Christ create those alarming cultural statistics. Christians are the ones consuming Hollywood’s sewage. We are the ones who can’t tell the difference between a man and a woman, between the natural and the unnatural.  We are the ones who not only spend our children’s inheritance, but demand that the state put our grandchildren deeper in debt. We are the ones flocking to arenas to pay homage to rock star preachers. Worst of all, we are the ones going to abortion mills- not to pray and preach but to procure.  We have met the enemy, and he is us.
We, however, have been given the solution. We don’t need a new strategy. We don’t need a new political coalition. What we need is to repent and believe the gospel. We must acknowledge our sins, and turn from them. The first sin to confess is our pride, our blindness to our blindness. And then let us confess that good news that first changed a dying and decadent empire two thousand years ago- Christ is Lord. And then let us pray that He would be pleased to once again change the world with that most precious seed, that most potent weapon, the blood of His martyrs.

My Better Half


Children, and their parents, crave stability. When their world is rocked by change, they are comforted by that which remains the same. I have been reminding my children of late that the loss of their mother, for all the pain, doesn’t mean that everything has changed. Indeed when I put my littles to bed each night I, as I have always done, remind them of these bedrock truths, “Daddy loves you. Mommy loves you. Daddy and Mommy love each other. And Jesus loves you.” These are the unchanging truths they can always count on, the solid ground on which they walk. We that are left behind are still together. And I am still me.

I am afraid, however, that I am not still me. This melancholy that follows me about like a cloud hovering over Charlie Brown, that’s not me. Waking up with less energy than when I went to sleep, that’s not me. Uninterested in food, that’s definitely not me. I don’t recognize myself in the mirror. Neither do I hear my own voice in what I write. It’s a stranger that sits here crying in my office.

This should not have surprised me. I have long decried our arrogant and modernist tendency in the Reformed world to turn God’s own ontological poetry into mere metaphor. God says the church is the body of Christ and we, instead of entering into the reality that the church is the body of Christ, we reduce it down to “Be nice to each other.” I, however, am guilty as well.

The Bible says that husbands and wives are one flesh. Christian marriage pundits turn this too into “Be nice to each other.” That is, we are told about the importance of open communication. We are encouraged to be as concerned for our spouse as we are for ourselves. We, in rephrasing what God has said so that we might understand it, end up further from the truth. We are not commanded to live as if we were one flesh. Instead we are told that such is the actual truth. The one-flesh reality means that I haven’t just lost the love of my life, but half of me. How could I recognize me, when I am now only half the man I once was? It isn’t quite accurate to say that when she drew her last breath a part of me died. Instead, half of me died.

The good news, however, is the same. Half of me has died, and is with Jesus. Half of me has no melancholy, but only joy. Half of me cries no more. Half of me sins no more. Half of me loves me, and the children, with a perfect love. Mourning, over the coming weeks and months, will move to dancing, as this half of me begins to more deeply believe the blessings I have in my better half.

I love Denise all the way to heaven and back. She in turn loves me all the way from heaven and back. And Jesus loves us both as the great bridge that not only brought us together, but keeps us together. May these gospel truths give me gentle sleep tonight.

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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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