A Fool for a Client

Recently I taught on the parable of the Good Samaritan. For a brief moment we paused together at a few portentous words out of the mouth of the lawyer who prompted the story. He, you will remember, asked Jesus how he might be saved. Jesus, in turn, asked the lawyer what is written in the law. The lawyer gives the two great commandments and Jesus replies, “You have answered rightly; do this and you will live.” Now here comes the telling part, “But he, wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, ‘Who is my neighbor?’” Isn’t that something? He wanted to justify himself. Now why would that be?

The law, of course, condemns us sinners. Sinners that we are, we seek then to blame the law rather than ourselves. We suggest to ourselves either that the law is unclear, or unreasonable. We, ironically, seek to law ourselves away from the law- Well, the party of the first part, unable to determine the party of the second part is hereby absolved of all wrongdoing toward the party of the second part. That’s the gist of where this lawyer was going in asking who his neighbor was. What is interesting is that Jesus doesn’t tell the lawyer who is neighbor is. He tells the lawyer instead that He is the neighbor. Our attempts at earning God’s favor in keeping His law leave us naked, battered and in desperate need of rescue. Jesus alone can rescue us. He must carry us to safety. He must pay our debts, that our wounds might be healed. And He promises to come back for us. In short, we cannot justify ourselves by asking who is our neighbor. Instead we can only be justified by the One who is our neighbor.

Though the story does not say so, I suspect that when the man was healed sufficiently to go on with his life, he went through his days filled with gratitude for the Samaritan neighbor. I suspect, on the hand, that he too remained something like the lawyer. I suspect that he too, from time to time, faced the temptation in the face of the law to justify himself. He, like the lawyer who first asked the question, had a fool for a client. We all do the same. Even we who confess our dependence on the finished work of Christ alone do not always and everywhere when confronted with the law rejoice in the provision of the Great Neighbor. Too often we seek to justify ourselves. We make excuses. We rationalize. We object to the one Judge in all the universe who must always judge rightly. We seek to justify ourselves to the one Judge in all the universe who wants only one thing of us, that we would repent and believe still more.

The message here is less “Be a good egg and rescue people who are stranded on the side of the road” and more, “I am in a desperate situation, and Jesus is always and everywhere the answer. He has provided for my need, and I need no longer seek to do the impossible, to justify myself.” Would that we would always have ears to hear.

Ask RC: How do I avoid embracing hyper-patriarchy?

Though it’s a cliché, it’s true- who defines the terms wins the debate.  Before we determine how to avoid this kind of error, let’s be sure we know what we are talking about.  One could argue that in the church there is a spectrum of views on the relationships between husbands and wives. On the far right is hyper-patriarchy. One step to the left is patriarchy. One more step is complementarianism, and one more step egalitarianism. And I suppose on the far left would be hyper-egalitarianism.  Trouble is, there are not clear, easily discernible lines separating these views from each other. I honestly wouldn’t know how to define the difference between a patriarch and a complementarian, save that the patriarch is less likely to be afraid of an egalitarian.

Both the patriarch and the complementarian affirm that husbands are called to lead their families. Both agree that wives and children are their equals in the eyes of God, that the husband/father’s authority isn’t the fruit of being a superior form of humanity. Both affirm that wives are called to be helps in their families’ call to fulfill the dominion mandate.  Again, I’m not clear on what the difference between these views might be.

A hyper-patriarch, I would suggest, is someone who is eager to affirm his authority over others, but unwilling to affirm the authority of others over him.  This person refuses to submit to the civil government, except when it is convenient for him. He refuses to be under the authority of the elders of the local church.  He boldly affirms that all lines of authority run straight from him to Jesus.

A hyper-patriarch in turn is someone who sees his wife and children not as co-laborers, but as laborers. That is, they are not seen as sharing in a single calling to make manifest the reign of Jesus over all things.  Instead the hyper-patriarch thinks he has a job, a calling, and that those under him exist to help him reach his goal. They work for him, rather than with him.

How do you avoid this? You remember what a big, fat jerk you are.  That is, as husbands and fathers are mindful of their own sinful inclinations they will first understand the importance of being under authority. I know me, and know that I am not to be trusted. That’s why I need elders over me. That’s why I need civil rulers over me. That’s why I need a boss at my work.

As I remember what a big, fat jerk I am I in turn remember my constant need for grace, for forgiveness. I do not exasperate my children by growing exasperated with them because I know how often, and how spectacularly I fail. This helps me remember that while I may be captain of the ship, albeit under authority, we are all going to the same place.  We are all working together.  We are all seeking together to grow in grace and wisdom. Which means in turn that when I cause the little ones to stumble, I lead in repentance.  If we are regularly repenting not just about but to your children, there is a good chance you will avoid hyper-patriarchy. If, however, you find such beneath the dignity of your office, you’ve already arrived.

Ask RC: Is there ever a circumstance where it is righteous to not tell the truth?

Yes. Jesus reminded us in His Sermon on the Mount that the Ten Commandments are rather wider in scope than we might be tempted to believe. If we avoid first degree murder, we haven’t escaped the charge of failing to keep the seventh commandment. One could argue that the ninth commandment merely forbids perjury, the giving of false testimony in the context of a trial. Honesty would require us, however, to note that its intent is likewise fare more broad. James, after all, encourages us to let our yea by yea and our nay be nay. We are a people of the Word, redeemed by the one who is truth. Truth ought to be our hallmark.

That said, the majority report of the church over the ages has been more nuanced. While truthfulness ought to be the order of the day among Christians, there are contexts wherein a failure to tell the truth is actually praiseworthy. The church has argued not that we must always tell the truth, but that we must tell the truth to whom the truth is due. Even if this is correct, and I believe it is, we are left with the difficult task of determining to whom the truth is due. Those who take this position would note that in the context of war, especially just war, the enemy is not due the truth. Thus Rahab, who made it into the great hall of faith in Hebrews 11, lied about the spies she was hiding. Or, one could argue that the Hebrew midwives likewise did well in lying to the Pharaoh. In like manner, the false “camp” established by the allies to trick the axis powers into believing the assault on France would not come at Normandy is also just. The same principle, of course, would give us the freedom to lie when the Nazis are at our door looking for those we are hiding.

The same principle loosely translates into more mundane circumstances.  When the Steelers quarterback pretends to hand the ball off to his tailback, this is designed to persuade the defense of an untruth. When Bobby Fisher moves this piece that way in a feint, Boris Spasky cannot charge him with a sin. Even fiction is, from one perspective, a failure to tell the truth. But if we call this lying, then Jesus is in hot water, since a certain sower didn’t really go out to sow seed, and some did not fall on the rocky soil.

The temptation here, because we are dishonest, is to develop rather narrow standards as to whom is due the truth. We might be tempted to believe that our wives are not due the truth when they ask us how we like the new recipe. We might be tempted to think our bosses are not due the truth when they ask us why we’re not coming into work that day. Wisdom and honesty would compel us to have only the most rigorous standards as to when we might be free to mislead, or even to lie.

This is, of course, a matter over which Christians have disagreed over the years. Good men have been on both sides of the issue. I pray that even if you and I are on different sides, that we can honestly and without guile remember that we are together on the same side of the great war against the serpent and his seed.

Walk With Me

Fifty two years my parents have been married.  I can’t, save for remembering photographs, recall them from that time. My memories only go back so far. I have mental snapshots from the early seventies, my father cleaning the pheasant he had shot, my mother serving my pumpkin pie on my birthday. I have images from the eighties, when my father first learned to dress preppy, and my mother did too. I have pictures in my head of the nineties, the two of them together going car shopping. From the aughts I picture them doling out hugs to their little grandbabies. And for this decade I see him preaching at Saint Andrews, her patrolling the aisles greeting people.

These snapshots, however, do not tell the story of their life together. It isn’t that they aren’t real, that they are some sort of cover for a dark underbelly. What you see is abundantly real, is who they are. My parents are profoundly, even dangerously guileless. No, the snapshots miss the story because they are still. Life together is not so much this moment or that moment, but the journey from the first moment to the last. Their life together isn’t that they experienced this thing and that, but is in the moving from one experience to the other. The moving is the life together.

Which is why my memories are such little comfort. I don’t find myself in a fit of nostalgia wishing I could go back to this moment or that. I would not be content to relive, to step back into a snapshot of my wife, no matter how wonderful that moment might have been. No, what I miss is moving through time together with her.  She is missing Erin Claire blossoming. And I am missing her. She is missing Donovan putting together his first sentences. And I am missing her. She is missing Darby joyfully, cheerfully taking on adult responsibilities. And I am missing her. But these moments, like graduations and weddings and births yet to come, they are just the moments, the mile markers, instead of the journey.  What I miss is walking with her.

There is, however, good news. When Denise was diagnosed, Jesus, unseen, was there with us. When she relapsed, Jesus was there. When her kidneys failed, He was with us. When she slept, He led her away.  When we buried her body, He stood by the grave. When I, along with my children, wept and prayed there at the grave on Mother’s Day, He took us all in His arms.  I am grateful for each of these moments.

But, there is not the glory of the gospel.  His fidelity is not that He is there at this moment or that. Rather, He walks with us through the journey.  Every step He holds my tiny hand in His bloodstained hand. He not only has promised to never leave me nor forsake me, He not only has sworn that lo, He is with me always, but in fact, He told us that He is the way. He walks with me because He is what and where I walk. And so He walks with my beloved, together in the cool of the evening, as in the days of old. Because we both walk with Him, one day we will again walk together.

Ask RC: What do we say when unbelievers mock the law of God?

It’s not peculiarly new, this objection. People have used it for some time when confronted with the plain teaching of the Bible. Those outside the church seek to wiggle out from under the commands of God by, oddly, pointing to the commands of God. When we say “The Bible forbids x” they don’t reply, “It does not.” Instead they reply, “The Bible also says you can’t wear a shirt with both cotton and wool. The Bible also says you can sell your daughter. The Bible also says you can stone your son if he gets out of line.” And most Christians slink away.

The argument assumes the existence of a universal moral law that all humans recognize, but then suggests that the Bible itself not only falls short of that moral law but clearly and immediately opposes that universal moral law.  The argument suggests, “Given that the Bible’s sense of morality says this, why should we listen to what it has to say about that?” It has reared its ugly head again in light of the President’s endorsement of same-sex “marriage.” And as usual, too many Christians are running scared.

What though, ought we to do with laws that challenge our sensibilities? The first thing we need to do is to understand the nature, meaning and scope of the laws. Consider, for instance, God’s command to Old Testament Israel that they not wear clothing of mixed materials.  This law falls under what we call the ceremonial laws. These laws were not given because eternal moral standards require them. They were given instead for a more narrow, specific purpose- to set Israel apart from her neighbors. The same would apply to prohibitions against eating pork or shellfish. These laws were given for a people, for a time. They were not evil laws then, but they are not binding laws now. Jesus fulfilled the ceremonial law, which means we now can eat a BLT, and better still, don’t have to be circumcised.

Some of the “offending” laws, however, were not ceremonial as such, but were civil. The Old Testament civil law, for instance, allowed for recalcitrant, disobedient children to be stoned to death.  This did not mean, of course, that failure to pick up ones toys was a capital offense. The law instead dealt with older, teenaged children who defied, who dishonored, who maligned their parents continually. Still find it offensive?

Then you need to repent.  The God of heaven and earth determined that the nation of Israel, that He formed, that He governed, should have such a law. No doubt recalcitrant children didn’t like it. No doubt their heathen neighbors didn’t like it. But we who are supposed to be indwelt by the Holy Spirit are commanded to disciple the nations, commanding them to obey all that Jesus commanded. And Jesus, remember, came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.

The heathen find this retort effective not because God’s law is shameful, but because we are shamefully ashamed of it. We are already compromised, having our sense of justice informed by the world, rather than the Word. Our calling is not to squirm, not to apologize, not to try to cover for God. No, our calling is to stand on His Word, to have our consciences held captive to it, to adjust our moral sensibilities so they match God’s, rather than the world’s. Our calling is to be ashamed of ourselves, rather than the One who rescued us from our sins.

It’s Not as Bad as You Think, It’s Worse

The President comes out in favor of gay marriage, and all the church is a dither. We are posting, tweeting, protesting, and petitioning, as though some great line in the sand has been crossed. Well, it hasn’t, and it has.

First, the notion that the President has only recently evolved to come to this conclusion is pure political blarney.  His position has not actually changed. He has always believed this. And, as bad as that is, it is far less evil than his convictions on unborn children. Where was the handwringing in the church last week, and the week before that, and the week before that and the week before that? And what does it say about the church that we are more upset about the President endorsing gay marriage than we are about the President supporting abortion? The same thing that is said by the sad truth that the Tea Party movement arose when our 401K’s were threatened, instead of when the babies were being killed.

The President has not really changed. Nor has there been any legislation proposed from the White House on this matter.  Better still, the President does not have the power to change what marriage is. Even if, or when “gay marriage” becomes a reality across the land, it will still not exist. A justice of the peace or a liberal cleric can call a brick a horse, but it still won’t pull a sleigh. Marriage is not endangered by any of this nonsense. It’s not as bad as you think.

It is, however, worse. The trouble is not that the President made this announcement. The trouble is not that marriage is in danger. The trouble is that our nation is so lost, so deluded, so willfully ignorant that the President’s announcement makes good political sense. That is, the problem isn’t what this tells us about marriage. It isn’t what it tells us about the President. It’s what it tells us about us. We, as a nation, are a nation that does not simply snort and giggle when someone suggests that two men or two women could be married. We, even in the church, haven’t even the most basic biblical lens to see this movement as Romans 1 come to life. We are instead at worst backpedaling, compromising, nuancing, or at best thinking ourselves valiant worldview warriors for listening to the right radio programs and reading the right blogs.

Because the great bulk of professing believers buy into the notion that sexual pleasure is the highest good, because we have willfully driven a wedge between the blessing of the marital act and the blessing of children we corporately haven’t a leg to stand on, much less a soap-box.  We are Lot. We in the church for thirty years have thought the way to win the world was to become like them, to lose our savor. Now we are growing comfortable with the stench of sexual perversion. All we await is being trodden underfoot.  It is indeed much worse than you think. It, however, isn’t the President, nor homosexuals. It is us.

Come as You Aren’t

Too many conversations are far too predictable. Praise the sovereignty of God in salvation and someone will inevitably remind you that God didn’t make robots. You will then remind said friend that dead people are passive people, only to be reminded that God is not willing that any should perish. Warn against the dangers of too much wine, and someone will in turn present the biblical praises for wine, and before long in the back and forth you can count on someone pointing out that sometimes oinos means grape juice. As soon as the conversation begins we know how it will end.

It is the habit of my family to dress for church. I have, on more than one occasion, argued in print that we casually worship a casual god because we enter into his presence casually. I have suggested that on the Lord’s Day we should dress as if we were going to meet the King, because we are going to meet the King. I know, from experience, that it won’t take long for someone to point out the obvious, that God looks not at the outward, but at the heart.

This nugget of wisdom is designed to make us comfortable, even in our comfortable clothes. The implicit message is Jesus doesn’t care what you wear, because He can see what a wonderful person you are. Unlike the modern day Pharisees who are always judging people, Jesus has the insight to really understand you. It is true enough that Jesus is far more concerned with what is in our heart than He is with what is on our backs. It is likewise true that Jesus knows exactly what is in our hearts. What confuses me, however, is how this is supposed to comfort me. Would I rather have Jesus judge me on the basis of my recently dry-cleaned suit, my well ironed dress shirt, and my just-so necktie, or would I rather He judge me on the basis of my desperately wicked, self-deceiving, black as ink heart?

What our “Come as you are” dress says about us is that we are meeting a “Come as you are” god. But if we come as we are, because of what we are, we are walking straight into the wrath of God; we are walking straight into hell.  The God we worship is not a come as you are god. He is instead the true and living God who cannot even look upon sin. He is a consuming fire, who insists above all else that He be treated as holy.

The glory of the gospel is that God isn’t looking at my clothes when I come to worship. Whether I am dressed to the nines or dressed in flip-flops, He isn’t looking at my clothes. He is, however, looking at what I am wearing. And praise God what I’m wearing not only covers my body, but covers my heart as well. What I wear to worship is what I wear the rest of the week. I do not come dressed for a formal dance. I do not come dressed for a picnic on the beach. I come instead dressed like royalty. I come dressed like a prince. For I wear the righteousness of the Son of God. I do not come as I am. I come as I AM is.

Ask RC: What should our relationship be with our oldest son and his live in girlfriend?

It would seem to be a reasonable corollary to the Apostle John’s affirmation that he knew no greater joy than to know that his children walk in the truth (III John 4) that there is likely no greater sorrow than to see one’s own children walk away from the church and the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is no mere intellectual question but cuts us to our hearts.

The question above suggests that there are two different but related questions in play. First, how ought we to look at such a son, and second, how should such a son relate to the rest of the family? It is both a blessing and a curse that we are not able to see into the hearts of others. It is a curse when such might offer us assurance, a blessing when such might lead us to doubt.

Our first bedrock principle we should not lose sight of is that all humans, outside of our Lord, sin while we live on this planet. Your son is indeed in dark and grievous sin. So to, however, was King David when he took Uriah’s wife and his life. David, remember, was called the friend of God.

That said, the second bedrock principle is that those who practice gross and heinous sin have every reason to doubt their salvation.  “No one knows the heart of another” can become too soft a pillow that misses the plain teaching of Scripture on what we can know. Paul wrote to the Galatians, “Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (5:19-21).

Then there is this third bedrock principle- reaching the conclusion that a person is not a believer is not the same things as reaching the conclusion that he or she will never be a believer. Your son may be like David, given over to this sin for a season. He may be like Saint Augustine, who was brought to faith only after a riotous youth. Or, he may not be among those chosen before the foundation of time. We just can’t know for certain.

How then ought your family to treat him? The more important question is how ought the church to treat him. When your son professed Christ he surely came under the authority of a local expression of the body of Christ, the church. The elders there vowed to watch out for your son’s soul, and so now have a duty to bring to bear the grace of church discipline in his life. He should be called before the elders to repent, to turn from his sin. If he refuses, he should be barred from the Lord’s Table and from the table of those who belong to the Lord. He should be excommunicated, disfellowshipped. He should, that is, no longer be welcome at your own table as well. Your relationship with him changes from one wherein you believed one another to be bound together in the bonds of Christ to now being mere relatives. Yes you can be polite to him. You can be cordial to him. You should let him know that your hearts are broken, that you love him and always will, but that having left the faith; he has left that which defines your family. Remind him of the story of the prodigal son, and let him know that your prayers will always be that God the Holy Spirit would bring him to himself, that you might feast once again with him. Let there be no bitterness and rancor. Let him instead see your broken hearts.

Ask RC: What does Peter mean when he says “Love covers a multitude of sins” in I Peter 4:8?

While it is certainly gloriously true that out of God’s love for us He sent His Son to cover our sins, to remove them as far from us as the east is from the west, this is not likely what Peter has in mind here. He is instead, in context, talking about interpersonal relationships among Christians in the church. He is calling us to a dual kind of grace toward others.

First, we should be slow to convict. I Corinthians 13 tells us that love “thinks no evil.” When we love each other we practice with each other a judgment of charity. We assume the best about others, assigning the best of motives to their actions. Sadly, however, this wisdom is often confused with something altogether different.

Too often we are unwilling to call sin sin. Not long ago I wrote a brief piece arguing that x was a sin. I might have been right. I might have been wrong. What puzzled me, however, were those who replied this way. First, they were willing to concede that x was unwise, selfish, dangerous, even shameful. But they argued that saying it was sin was going too far. Indeed these same friends argued that I was dangerous, Pharisaical, legalistic, small-minded, arrogant, even ungracious to say X was a sin. They did everything but call me a sinner. Which makes no sense. It is a sin to be foolish, and selfish. It is a sin to be arrogant and ungracious. Somehow we Protestants have reduced “venial” sins to folly and in turn elevated “mortal” sins as unforgivable.  Sin, though, is any want of conformity unto or transgression of the law of God. Have we forgotten that we do this all the time?

The second kind of grace that Peter calls us to here is to not even bother to deal with every sin in a given relationship. Here we are, redeemed, indwelt, heaven bound, but we still sin against each other. Peter calls us here to not sweat the “small stuff.” Note, however, that he recognizes that the small stuff is still sin. The text doesn’t say, “Love covers a multitude of unwise, selfish, arrogant, shameful decisions.”

Consider addiction. I was, for over twenty years a nicotine addict. I am grateful to be free now for ten years. I was well persuaded, and remain so, that my addiction was sin. We are called to not let anything rule over us, and for certain nicotine ruled over me. My old habit is rather rare in Christian circles. What is far more common is addition to caffeine. We joke about it, laugh about it, but the truth is coffee is the chemical stimulant of choice among evangelicals. Being addicted is a sin. But it is precisely the kind of sin Peter is talking about. We don’t fuss at each other because coffee is more needful than it ought to be.

Consider being habitually late. When we are late for an appointment we are a. not keeping our word, b. stealing time from those we keep waiting c. not doing unto others and likely d. thinking of ourselves more highly than others. So should we concoct a Matthew 18 intervention for the late? Probably not. What we ought to likely do is plan around the late folks, or move on without them. What we certainly do is continue to love them.

When we are wronged our calling is to practice a careful moral calculus. Is this offense one I should let go of? Is it among the multitude that love covers? Or is this offense grievous enough that love means confronting in grace my brother? Sadly what we usually do is think we are practicing the former while actually holding grudges and putting miracle-grow on roots of bitterness. Peace in the church calls us to under-accuse, over-repent and over-forgive. Let us not be afraid to call sin sin, but let us not be slow to forgive it and to look past it.

By This Will All Men Know

It is sure evidence that we are so caught up in the modernist mindset that we think evidence is found only in careful argumentation, in neatly stacked syllogisms, in test-tubes and beakers. Jesus, however, tells us that it is our love for one another that demonstrates that we are His disciples (John 13:35). This love is manifest in both great ways and small. It may well be that the smaller ways are in the end a more potent message.

I’m not the first to observe this, but have you ever noticed that there are no orphanages run by atheists? That no one ever checks into a hospital founded by secularists? The world has yet to see the rise of missionaries of unbelief, men and women so committed to their “under the sun” perspective that they give up everything to go and tell the world that above us is only sky. Now I’m willing to confess that there are “mercy ministries” that exist beyond those who name the name of Christ. These, however, by and large, like the Peace Corps, or FEMA are funded with tax dollars, rather than by volunteers. And it is certainly true that there are privately funded programs run by unbelievers. These provide things like museums and ballets and orchestras, for the unbelievers. Nor should we fail to consider the reality that there are agencies providing “services” that enjoy both tax payer financing and private donations. Planned Parenthood comes to mind, whose service to humanity is the murder of babies.

It has been, by and large, the citizens of Christendom, that have served the weakest, the poorest. It is those who are Christ’s who have not only loved one another, but who, by His grace, have extended that love beyond the boarders of our commonwealth, serving those who hate us. Jesus, through His body, has given us hospitals, soup kitchens, crisis pregnancy centers, orphanages.

Recently I witnessed the love among the brethren in a smaller and more potent venue. There we were, the fifteen or so families that make up the Mendota parish of Saint Peter Presbyterian Church. We stood together outside the sanctuary while announcements and prayer requests were shared before we entered into worship. One man, who has personified service to the brethren for many years at Saint Peter, who has used his gifts and training not for personal gain but to help heal the flock, announced his request for prayer, and in so doing announced that his family was expecting another blessing, by asking that we pray for the unborn baby his dear wife was carrying. As is usual, hoots and huzzahs were raised as we celebrated the goodness of God to this family. As is usual, tears filled my eyes. God had heard our prayers. What is usual here, though I fear not so in other places, is not only that this family was rejoicing for their blessing, their eighth, but that others who likewise long for more children rejoiced as well. There was no envy. There were no begrudging acknowledgments. There were no moments of self-pity. Everyone, everyone rejoiced and gave thanks. That is unusual, and that is love among the brethren. By this will all men recognize love among the brethren, that we rejoice with those who rejoice, even as we mourn with those who mourn.

Love among the brethren is a potent apologetic. It is also, however, a blessed reward. Obedience always is.


Written: June 18, 2009

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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