Celebrating Alone

It was hot and humid that day, August 1, 1992. I stood, and waited.  Beside me stood several of my closest friends, and nearby was my father. All of us, however, had our eyes glued to the same spot, anticipating.  The music changed, heralding the arrival we were all waiting for, me most of all. The doors swung open, and there she was, on her father’s arm. Slowly, stately, they made their way up the center aisle and soon he placed her hand in mine.

Jesus redeemed me. His life, death and resurrection assured me adoption by my heavenly Father. I will one day see Him as He is, and I will be like Him. Apart from this, however, despite a lifetime of showering me with blessing upon blessing, He had never blessed me as He did this day. House and wealth are an inheritance from fathers, but a prudent wife is from the Lord (Proverbs 19:14).

I knew then what I know well now, that this woman was so much more than I deserved. She was a living, breathing reminder of the gospel, that God gives well beyond my due. For nearly twenty years His grace graced our home in and through her.  I woke up each morning astonished at what God had done for me. I went to bed each night beside His grace. I did not get the opportunity to plan a grand twentieth anniversary celebration.  We will neither repeat our honeymoon cruise nor hold hands on the Champs Elysees. Instead I will travel to the cemetery.

I will, almost certainly, cry. I will certainly ache from missing her.  I will remember those two days that have so shaped me- our wedding and her home going. But my prayer is that I will celebrate. I have much to give thanks for. I am thankful for the twenty years we had together. I am thankful for the eight children we had together, for how faithfully she mothered them, and how powerfully she shows in them.  I am thankful for the family and friends she brought into my life. I am thankful for how she was used to help me grow in grace and wisdom, that I am a better man because of her. She spoke God’s wisdom into my life, while modeling it in her own.

All of this gratitude, however, pales in comparison to the one thing I am most grateful for. Because I love her I wanted to take her on a special trip for our anniversary. Because I love her I give thanks that she is somewhere infinitely more glorious than any place I could take her. My queen is not sailing to exotic ports but is casting down her golden crown around the glassy sea. She won’t stroll through Paris with me, but is walking hand in hand with Jesus on streets of gold. She is enjoying her greatest anniversary ever. Which is the best I could wish for for the woman I love.

My anniversary is, like every day, a day for giving thanks. He gave me more than I deserve in giving me her. He gave her more than she deserves in giving her Him.  And one day He will bless me in the same way. Rejoice, and be exceedingly glad.

All Sense of Proportion

I have in the past noted both my irritation at and imitation of those who seem to constantly fold today’s newspaper headlines into their favorite hobby horse.  It is annoying when that guy shows up in your discussion about Chik-Fil-A and gay marriage to explain why the gluten in the breading of their chicken is toxic. Or you are discussing Ichiro’s move to the Yankees as yet another example of how free agency kills team loyalty and, because Ichiro was born in Japan but plays baseball in America the whole thing becomes a birther conversation.

My post here is one step removed from this habit. The day after the tragic massacre I tweeted this- Today a man walked into Orlando office and brutally murdered 20 babies, wounding the moms. Police made sure he was not disturbed. Some didn’t get it. They thought they had somehow missed a headline, that my beef was that it was unfair that Denver’s news overshadowed Orlando’s. And just what did I mean that the police made sure he was not disturbed? The truth is that isn’t exactly what I was saying.

Though I am put out that the national and local news outlets don’t cover the story that I find so compelling, the harder truth is I’m far more puzzled at how Christians don’t even seem to notice.  Now I want to be careful here. My desire is in no way to diminish the tragedy at the movies, to denigrate the genuine hardship of those affected.  But I am genuinely befuddled as to why so many Christians seem so personally aghast, bewildered and befuddled over this one event, yet are so at ease about the shocking truth that in their own town there are mad men who live in nice neighborhoods, drive nice cars, and do this everyday, all with the protection and blessing of the state.

Worse still is the power of a few of the sub-stories. How many Christians have shaken their heads at the parenting skills/priorities of those who took their little babies to the movies that night? What were those parents thinking? Would that the 3500 mothers who took their babies to abortion mills that day had taken them to Batman instead.  We have, in turn, squeezed a dram of comfort from stories of husbands and boyfriends sacrificing themselves for those they love (though we were in turn disappointed to learn that one such husband nobly risked his life to protect his girlfriend, while his wife was elsewhere.) In the meantime 3500 boyfriends, husbands and fathers are putting their babies to death, oftentimes cajoling or threatening the babies’ moms to get it done.

We look at James Holmes as if he were some kind of monster. He is some kind of monster- the same kind as the rest of us. We don’t murder strangers, but our own helpless little babies. We don’t paint our hair red, we paint outrage on our faces over these killings, while paining smiles on our faces over the murder of the unborn. We don’t stockpile weapons and booby-trap our homes. We concoct potions and booby-trap our wombs. We, perhaps worst of all, turn a lone gunman into our national scapegoat, while drowning in the blood of our babies.

I don’t object, of course, to mourning for Aurora. I do, however, confess my own failure to mourn for America. We are a nation of murderers. Worse still, we are proud.

The Institute for the Obvious

If you find yourself in a grand quandary, chances are you are missing the obvious. No, I don’t mean that all difficult questions come equipped with easy answers. The point isn’t that every complex question can only be reached through muddling up simple questions. Instead what I mean is that most of the time we spend on real brain teasers would be better spent on kid’s play. Suppose, for instance, I’m trying to figure out a healthy way for my children to spend time with other children. I’ve read all the arguments back and forth on age segregation. I’ve heard all the anecdotal evidence there is on both sides- Suzy’s son ran off and joined the army because she wouldn’t let him play with his cousin’s Gameboy- or Jim’s daughter ran off and married a roadie because Jim let her attend a slumber party at the pastor’s house when she was eight. I’ve even heard the wise wisdom that says these questions must be answered with wisdom. But I’ve still missed the point.

Analyzing all the stuff we homier-than-thou types like to analyze isn’t how we keep the hearts of our children. Certainly our children should dress modestly. Of course their identity ought to be toward their family rather than their peer-group. And yes, truth be told dating is not only dumb but dangerous. Nevertheless, the way we keep the hearts of our children isn’t found in mixing together the precise formula of this peculiar habit and that one. It’s not like if our daughters wear head coverings Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays they’ll stay loyal, but if they wear them Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays they will rebel. We don’t nurture our children in the faith by reading the tea leaves exactly right. Rather we keep the loyalty of our children by doing these two things- first, we love them. Second, we tell them we love them.

If you’re thinking too hard, you’re trying too hard. Go back to the beginning and do the simple things. Not only is Jesus’ yoke easy and His burden light, but you don’t need a Ph.D. to know how to carry it. So one more time. Don’t want to lose your children to the world? Good. Love them. Tell them you love them. Repeat.

Running with the Bulls

He was a pastor, a Baptist who believed in and preached the doctrines of grace. The church he served is not far from me, and on more than one occasion our paths have crossed. Today he sits in jail, charged with sexual assault against a minor. I don’t, of course, know if he is guilty or not. What I do know is that we will be seeing more and more of this as time goes on.

The devil is more crafty than any of the beasts of the field. He is crafty enough to know that just because all Christians know something is wrong, that he can still use that something. There are not, as far as I am aware, any Christians in favor of pornography.  We all know it is a sin to consume pornography. If we succumb to that temptation, the devil is there to remind us of what we have done. We have sullied our marriage bed. We have embraced sexual immorality. We have dishonored someone’s daughter. We have distanced ourselves from our spouse. It is precisely because of these sins that the internet has been such a boon to the devil. Before the internet the consumption of pornography required real interaction with a live human being. You had to make the exchange with the clerk at the convenience store or the video store. You had to buy a ticket to the seedy theater.  All the shame we feel was once public, and therefore potent but is now private and therefore weak.

The devil is content for us to feel this shame for at least two reasons. One, shamed Christians are likely porn for the devil. That is, it excites him, delights him, watching us, beloved of the Father, wallowing in our shame. The second reason is this- when we focus on the destruction wrought by looking at this website or watching that movie, we miss where we are going. It is a sin to alter our minds by injecting heroin, but the great evil is where it will lead, the sins of tomorrow whose path we blaze today. So it is with pornography.

Pornography disguises itself as a rabid ferret- fierce, destructive, but small, when it is actually a tyrannosaurus rex. What starts as immorality, the dishonoring of an unknown daughter of an unknown father, what starts as a small wedge in a marriage bed will and does become imprisoned fathers and husbands, and worse still, scarred little children who are more likely to continue the swath of destruction to another generation.

It’s a good thing to fight pornography by remembering the damage a ferret can do. But it’s a dangerous thing. Better to understand the nature of our enemy here. Would we not more earnestly flee if we knew our homes will blow up, and our lives will be ruined?  Pornography is no cherry bomb; it’s an atom bomb. When we bring fire to our hearts, we light the fuse. Do not let your heart turn aside to her ways; do not stray into her paths; For she has cast down many wounded and all who were slain by her were strong men. Her house is the way to hell, descending to the chambers of death (Proverbs 7:25-27).

Rabbits Out of Hats

The heart of magic is misdirection.  Sure, there are specially made tools of the trade. There is well-trained prestidigitation. There are moments of art and flourish. The magic, however, is to get the audience to look one direction while you do something decidedly ordinary in plain sight. That’s how we start with an empty hat, and end up with a fluffy bunny.

It is much the same in all manner of intellectual magic.  If we can get our intellectual opponents to overlook the fact that we are bringing something out of nothing, we can wow them all the way to the bank.

Consider first naturalistic science.  Here we begin with one of two hats, both of them black. Some will say that all of reality was compressed into a point of singularity that existed from all eternity. Did you see what they did there? They explain the creation of the universe by presupposing the existence of the universe. We ask, “If you deny that God made everything, where did everything come from?” and they reply, “Well, everything was really squished together…” We let them get away with a universe, and a profound change (the explosion of the point of singularity) from and by nothing. The second option is more brazen. On the one hand these scientists are more honest, affirming that there was nothing. And then they get more dishonest, when they tell us “it” exploded into everything. Wait. There was no “it.” There was nothing, not even a hat surrounding the emptiness. And now it’s everything?

They don’t, of course stop there. Evolution takes center stage for act two.  We’ve got everything, but how are we going to make it better? How do we go from chaos to cosmos? The magicians flourish again and tell us, “Everything gets better.” We ask, , “But how? Where’s the oomph?” They tell us, “Everything gets better. It’s science.” More order, more information jump out of the hat as fish take a walk on the dry side. All by themselves.

Consider second economics. An honorable politician promises to defend our wealth. A truthful politician promises to take some of this one’s wealth for the benefit of another. A common politician promises he can make us all richer by taking from all of us. Once again the common politician is the magician. He wants us to forget that the state has nothing it can give that it did not first take from another.  He may take it via taxes. He may take it by inflating the money supply. But he will leave it out of the equation, pulling bunnies out of hats. And worse, getting us to pull levers behind the curtain at our voting booths.

Consider third man’s will. Calvinists are quite content to confess that men are free to do what they want, to act according to their nature. Indeed we affirm we must do what we want, and can do no other. Non-Calvinists, on the other hand, define freedom of the will as the ability to do what you don’t want to do. You choose without the desire for what you choose. This too is something out of nothing. Two men are presented with the gospel message. One embraces it, the other does not. How’s come? If we confess the difference in the man, it is the man God made, the man for which God is the ultimate cause.  (And of course the wiser man would have something of which to boast (Ephesians 2:9)). If we confess the difference is in God, well, welcome to Calvinism.

All three, like magic, claim to give us effects without causes, something from nothing. All three depend on our willingness to be distracted, to be misdirected.  All three are rabbits out of hats, and hats out of thin air.

Ask RC: Does God hear the prayers of the unregenerate?

Of course. And, of course not. The difference depends on what we mean by “hear.” God hears the prayers of all people, before they even leave their lips. Here we are careful to affirm the omniscience of God, that God quite literally knows all things. Remember as well that we are promised that when we are judged we will give an account of every idle word. God’s interest in the world is not limited to the rise and fall of nations. Instead He is sovereign over, and knows all things. In fact, God ordains all things, having planned everything that would come to pass before the foundation of the world. God hears the prayers of the unregenerate, whether they believe these prayers to be addressed to the living God, or addressed to false gods the world around.

On the other hand, God does not hear the prayers of the unregenerate, if we mean by hear, “heed.” That is, God is not listening to these prayers as an attentive father listens to the concerns of his child. Remember that the unregenerate, and such were once all of us, are not disinterested persons, but are by nature the enemies of God. I tried to make this same point in my contribution to my friend Gregg Strawbridge’s book The Case for Covenant Communion. My chapter was titled “In Jesus’ Name, Amen.” There I pointed out the inconsistency many people suffer from in that they both affirm that their own children are unregenerate, and that they are free to pray to “their Father” in heaven. When we pray these words, “In Jesus’ name, amen” we are reminding God that we are well aware that were we not covered in the atoning blood of Christ, we would not be free to even enter into His presence with our prayers. To say of one’s child, “This one is not covered by the blood of Jesus” and “I will encourage this one to pray” is to invite one’s own child to face the unmediated just wrath of God the Father.

In short, God does hear the prayers of the unregenerate, but He is not all pleased to hear them. He sees them as we ought to see them, presumptuous affronts to His holiness. We should not be encouraged when those who will not confess the name of Christ are praying, thinking that this means they must be at least part way there. Instead we ought to fear for their safety. God is not impressed with such “spirituality” and is profoundly offended by it. Even the regenerate would be wise to remember that “In Jesus’ name, amen” isn’t just a polite sign off to our prayers, but is instead the very foundation of our prayers, the very door by which they might be “heard.” We would likewise be wise to remember that while God does not “hear” the prayers of the regenerate, He does indeed hear, and delights to hear the prayers of the regenerate for the unregenerate. Pray for the lost, for their prayers will only lead them deeper into His wrath.

Ask RC: Should Christians refuse to pay taxes when they are used to finance abortions or other great evils?

It is one of my great passions, the desire to see me, and the evangelical church take the evil of abortion more seriously, to have our hearts more deeply broken, and our actions more faithful. We have all, I fear, come to accept the status quo. We are content to vote for Republicans hoping they will give us justices that will slow down the horror. What we are generally unwilling to do is go through any kind of hardship to stop abortion.  When I am asked about this, should we stop paying taxes, I am at least heartened to know that there are some willing to pay dearly to win this battle. Not paying taxes rarely ends up comfortably for those who won’t pay.

That said I can say with confidence that Christians should in fact pay whatever taxes they owe even when that money ends up financing abortions. The Christian who pays such taxes has no need to feel guilty, while the Christian that refuses to pay, however well intentioned, ought to feel guilty.

Theologians have long understood the principle that must be applied here- we are responsible for our own actions, not the actions of others. In this instance, the Bible is quite clear about our obligation to pay our taxes (Mark 12:17). It is also clear that the proper function of the state is not to finance evil, but to punish it (Romans 13). Their failure to do what God calls them to do, however, does not mean I am free to not do what I am commanded to do. That they have so horribly misused the taxes that I have paid doesn’t mean I am guilty of what they have done. I have been taxed, and when those taxes are paid, they are no longer mine. What the state does with them may be something I should speak against. It may be something I should condemn. But I am not guilty.

Remember that the same Caesar to whom Jesus commanded taxes be paid used those taxes for what may be the only thing worse than abortion. Those tax moneys financed the judgment of Pilate. They paid the salaries of the Roman soldiers. They purchased the nails that held our Lord on the cross.  Those taxes crucified the Lord of Glory.

More close to home, suppose the more a husband loves his wife the less she respects him, or the more the wife respects her husband the less he loves her. In either instance we are not to try to guess the result of our behavior. We are supposed to do what God commands. We are not responsible for the results of what we do. We are responsible to obey whatsoever God commands. We are called not to success, but to obedience.

The state should repent for all misuses of taxes paid. Christians should prophesy against the state when they do evil, including financing evil.  We should all be on our knees imploring God to stop the horror. But we should pay our taxes.  March on Washington. Preach outside your local mill. Write your congressman. Support your local crisis pregnancy center. And, as painful as it may be, trusting in His providence, render unto Caesar the things that are Caesars, our taxes, and unto God the things that are God’s- obedience.

Stupid Is as Stupid Does

(Written 2008)

We all have our blind spots. Some of our blind spots can be found where we think we see the blind spots of others. We too often confidently declare that we have exposed an open and obvious contradiction in the other guy’s position, send out funeral announcements and declare ourselves the winner, when what we are actually doing is hanging our ignorance out in the wind. Some of the most frequent questions I receive are all about the other guys- “How do dispensationalists make sense of this text?” Or, “If you were an Arminian, how would you answer this argument?” Sometimes I’m able to give a reasonably able defense of the other guy. Other times I get to give my favorite answer, “I don’t know.”

Here are two such questions that have been on my mind of late. A few Sundays ago as our van labored up the driveway of the local Seventh Day Adventist church where both Saint Peter parishes gathered for worship on Resurrection Sunday, I wondered, “Do Seventh Day Adventists celebrate the resurrection? And if so, on what day?” I have a friend who might be described as a “Seventh Day Baptist.” He is eager, but always gracious in his attempts to win me over to his view. The arguments are not without nuance and subtlety. I have seen Lord’s Day keepers squirm rather much in the face of these arguments. But what about when the shoe is on the other foot? Fifty-one Sundays a year we might face a challenge. But one Sunday, the other guys get to walk a mile in our moccasins.

Even more challenging, and slightly more common is this question. Do my friends who are hard core about the Regulative Principle of Worship, who not only only sing Psalms, but sing them without musical accompaniment, sing those Psalms that enjoin us to praise Him with a lute, and a harp of ten strings? If not, does that make them itchy? If so, do they ever wonder where the instruments went? Again I expect my friends have their answer all ready. I can’t be the first to ask the question. If anyone has one, or an answer to the above question, I’d love to hear it. I don’t, however, want to get involved in debates over the respective issues.

My point here isn’t to ask these particular questions. It is to encourage all of us toward greater grace when dealing with disagreements within the church. If you think you have caught your brother in a glaring contradiction, you probably haven’t. He may be wrong, but if he names the name of Christ, his error is probably a little more subtle than it appears. We Calvinists, for instance, are well aware that the Bible says “The Lord is not slow to fulfill His promises as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” Our Baptist friends likewise already know that Paul promised the Philippian jailer, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” We Calvinists are still right with respect to limited atonement, even as our Baptist friends are wrong in withholding the sacrament from the children of the covenant. But in neither case is anyone flagrantly disregarding the plain teaching of Scripture. All of us are wrong from time to time. Few of us, however, gleefully thumb our nose at what we know the Bible says.

When we assume that our brother in the pew (or worse, in the pulpit) is utterly stupid and ignorant, we are acting stupid and exposing our ignorance. We are the blind mocking the blind. Soon enough, we’ll all fall into a pit. Of course we must correct errors, encouraging one another onto righteousness. But let’s give one another a judgment of charity, lest we be judged with an unkind standard ourselves.

No Whining Zone

If you have a computer with an internet connection you have probably already heard the news. A pastor in Arizona will soon begin serving six months in jail, and paying his $12,000 fine. For what? Well, based on the slander many Christians are spreading, his crime is holding Bible studies. But what he is actually charged with is he violated local zoning laws. Now I would love to report that this latest outrage has caused the Christian community to rise up against the wicked Ahab-ian notion that the state has a right to tell you how you may use your property, but that just isn’t the case.  Zoning laws are wicked, intrusive, and a principial denial of property ownership. But too often Christians also find them rather convenient.

Christians, because we are still sinners, are, like the world around us, rather adept at missing the hypocrisy staring at us in the mirror.  We think it perfectly acceptable for Christian school teachers to affirm their faith in the government’s schools, while on the government’s time. We’re quite content to have the cool evangelistic ministry come do a vacuous school assembly so that we can invite the kids to get the good stuff after hours. But, when the Muslim, or the Wiccan does the same thing we grab our pitchforks and our torches and find a nice sensible mob to march with. We will use zoning laws to keep out strip clubs and liquor stores, but protest when zoning laws keep us from having church meetings in our homes.

Our hypocrisy, I would suggest, is grounded not just in the remnant of our sin natures, but is grounded in our view of ourselves as the center of the universe. When our enemies are victims of an overreaching state, well, tough luck for them. But when we are harassed by the local gendarmes, well, something is very wrong with the world indeed. When we use the club of the state to pummel those who annoy us, we ought not be surprised when that same club eventually clops us in the ear.

In like manner, we yell at the evil of the world in large part to distract ourselves about our own evil.  If the world is divided into evil, unbelieving Nazis that drag people off just for hosting Bible studies on the one hand, and people like me on the other hand, that go to Bible studies, well then I must be pretty good. If I can portray unbelievers as jackbooted thugs then I can see myself as a godly, helpless damsel in distress.

The world is an evil place, because of sin. Because of the same sin that still infects us all. Our calling as believers is to be ashamed, aghast, at our own sins. We, after all, are reborn, indwelt by the Spirit. Our daily outrage ought to be over our daily sins. We should be ashamed of our hypocrisy. We should be confessing our whining. We should be beseeching the Spirit for the courage to believe we are blessed when we are persecuted for His name’s sake. And we should be asking Him for the wisdom to discern the difference between being persecuted for righteousness’ sake and being persecuted for picking a fight over silly, annoying zoning laws.

Taking Our Medicine

It is true enough that the church is worldly. Like the world’s younger brother we follow a few steps behind the spirit of the age, mimicking its swagger.  That truth, however, ought not cause us to miss another truth- that the world follows the church.  Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount that believers are salt and light, that we act as a preservative to a world swirling in a maelstrom of moral entropy. How easy it is to diminish this truth, to reduce it down to “Be nice, so your neighbor will be nice.” The truth is, however, not only that the broader world becomes a less moral place when we behave in less moral ways, but that the connection runs deeper still. When we fail at X, odds are the world will fail at X, spectacularly. And in ways we won’t like.

When the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Obamacare the blogosphere devoted a fair percentage of its infinite space to reading the tea leaves. Why did it happen? What did Roberts mean? Did he switch sides at the last second? What will it mean for the election? Most Christians are rightly up in arms over the decision. Most understand not just the economic but the moral evil of the decision. What we miss, I fear, is that it is our fault.

The blame trail leads back to the church, not, I believe, because we didn’t show more support for the Republican in the previous presidential election. We are at fault not because we didn’t pressure this Senator or that when the voting took place. The problem is much more organic. The world has given us socialized medicine because the church is socialistic.

Of course we want our socialism in small doses, just like campers like tent- encroaching camels in small doses.  We have bought into the notion that it is fitting for the state to tax us all, to finance health care for the aged.  We have bought into the notion that it is appropriate for governments to tax us all, to finance education not just for them, but for eighty percent of our own children.  We have bought into the notion that the state should tax us all and guarantee our mortgages, underwrite our college loans, supplement our retirements.  The country is embracing socialism because the church has embraced socialism. We have lost our savor, and are baffled at the stench all around us. We tear our clothes, tossing ashes into the sky, angry at the government for merely doing more of what we have asked it to do.

When we determine to plunder our neighbors by availing ourselves of largesse, have we not affirmed to the watching world that God is in favor of plunder? When we accept government schools, government pills, government this and government that, then Obamacare is merely bad policy, not a wicked power grab. We show the world the path, and are shocked when they race ahead of us.

I hope and pray we will never actually see Obamacare become a reality. I pray still more that Christians would cease asking Caesar to give us our daily bread. I pray still more that the church would honor the eighth commandment. I pray still more that we would recognize and repudiate socialism whenever and from whichever party it rears its ugly head. I pray the servants of the King will one day come to love the liberty He came to preach. I pray we would be free men.

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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