Turning It Up to 11, or Why The Means of Grace Rock the House

The only thing worse than falling into a spiritual valley is the conviction that one must always be on a spiritual mountaintop. Though the Bible is the very history of the ups and downs of God’s people, God’s people go on thinking themselves immune, and that something is terribly wrong if their passion and joy today is not at the same fever pitch it was on the day they came to faith.

There is, of course, a ditch on the other side of the road. We can grow complacent, our ardor having all the vitality of lukewarm water. But cooler than it once was can be a long way from lukewarm. We ought to be taking our spiritual temperature. We ought to pray for passion, joy and gratitude. What we have to watch out for is when the devil comes calling like some diabolical pusher offering us his spiritual uppers.

When we are dissatisfied, when we are looking for more, the devil is more than happy to offer us what we think we need, and keep us from what we truly need. The history of the church is littered with sundry strategies to cure the spiritual blah’s.  After Constantine turned down the heat and Christianity became acceptable, it got flabby. So monasteries were invented. You leave the world behind, enter into your vows, and become a super-saint. Not long after universities popped up, with much the same goal. Eventually contemplative prayer forms and then revivals, camp meetings stoked sundry fires, leading us to the annual tacky-fad-of-the-day in the broad evangelical world.

Pietism, Methodism, quietism, charismaticism, all of these seemed to offer to the “plateau-ed” Christian a means to get to the next level, to relight the fires, to receive a second blessing, to stand out from the crowd, to draw nearer to the living God. The motive has much to commend it, the means not so much. What all these have in common is that the Bible says not a word about them. They are, every one of them, man made, human inventions to lift us up to God. Which is why they simply do not work. The Bible offers a gospel-infused answer to our problem. We do not labor to draw closer to Him, to stoke the fires of our passion. Instead He draws near to us. He lifts us up. And He does these things through His appointed means.

If we would be closer to God, we must give heed to His word. We must attend to the preaching of the Word. If we would be closer to God, we must sit at His table, and feast in His presence. If we would be closer to God, we must grow closer to those whom He indwells. If we would be closer to God we must cease trying to be a special kind of Christian, and start crying out “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner.”

There are no special Christians, only a special Christ. We have no need to ask Him to give us more. We need only ask Him to help us see all that He has already given.

In Adam All Sinned

Once again the American people, Christian and non-Christian alike find themselves rightly mourning a terrible tragedy while asking “How could this happen?” The left is at best hinting and at worst demanding further or complete gun control. The right is at best arguing to arm teachers and at worst insisting on better government tracking of the mentally ill. Everyone is looking for systemic sources and institutional solutions, because we don’t know who we are. We want to blame guns, drugs, video games, anything but the real cause- our darkened and evil hearts.

The gospel truth is that changing policies won’t change anything. We can’t educate, legislate, pontificate, murder away, because when the lectures, the laws, the sermons end, there we are. We cannot wash it away, because under all the filth and grime is just us, filth and grime. Adam Lanza gunned down the principal, his mother, the little children, himself, every one of his victims because he hates God and His image bearer, man. Which is true of every man, outside the grace of God.

The bereavement over Adam Lanza’s sin makes perfect sense. The surprise over it does not. When we rightly affirm, “There but for the grace of God go I,” when we have enough self-awareness to know that there is no sin we are not perfectly capable of committing on our own, we are not merely saying “God keeps this from happening.” We are also affirming that the GRACE of God keeps this from happening.

When we understand how wicked we are in ourselves we come to understand that each of us, indeed the little children who died, wake up each morning under a just death sentence from God most high. The surprising thing isn’t that so many were killed, but that any were spared. Because each of us, each and every one of us, is the kind of person that would kill strangers, our mothers, little school children. Those who are hoping Adam is burning in hell are right, he deserves it. As do we all.

We want to believe that Adam Lanza is a bizarre anomaly, his rampage a freak occurrence. But the truth is on the very day Adam took so many lives, there were in cities across the country three thousand mothers who did not race to their children fearing they were in danger, but instead took their children to an assassin. The next day three thousand more mothers, having heard the news fromNewtown, carried their babies to town that they might be exterminated. And the rest of us, if we gave those three thousand murders a thought at all, never stopped to ask, “How could this happen?” It was just normal.

Which is just what it is, normal. We are child killers. We are murderers. We, each one of us, would if we could, climb up to heaven and kill God Himself. Since we can’t, however, our bloodlust is satisfied by snuffing out the lives of His littlest image bearers.

The answer is Jesus. We need Him not just so little children won’t be murdered, but so that we won’t be murderers of little children. In Adam, we are all murderers. In the Second Adam, we are made alive. May we be given the grace to tell the world as our Lord did before us- Repent, lest you likewise perish.

Ask RC: One year later after the passing of your wife, what have you learned?

That time heals some wounds. It is natural as we enter into that season of the year, and now the very anniversary of her passing, that the pain would grow more acute, more insistent. And it is certainly possible that my expectations were terribly naïve. But the truth is not that I thought I would be done by now, but that I thought I would be feeling better, that there would be by one year some kind of improvement. And it just isn’t so. It hurts, and I am sad.

I am sad, if this makes any sense, not because my wife passed away, but because I miss her. I miss being with her. I miss her as the very framework of my life. Though I am a rather minnow sized fish in something more like a large puddle than even a small pond, most of the world that knows me knows me either as a guy giving some sort of talk, or as a guy publishing some sort of writing. They, perhaps you, think that’s who I am, that the public ministry defines the private person. As much as I love my work, as open, honest, and vulnerable as I aspire to be, as much as I give thanks for all the opportunities God has given me, as much as I love to exercise my gifts, it’s still what I do. What I am is Denise’s husband.

This sadness is rather like a localized rain cloud following Charlie Brown around. It is always with me. Now when I smile, when I laugh, I mean it. It’s genuine, real, and something for which I give thanks. Hugging my littles before I go to work, teasing my bigs on Facebook, catching my students at Reformation Bible College in a formal fallacy, all these things I delight in. But they are rays breaking through the cloud. They do not drive the cloud away.

I learned as well that because life is short, life is long. My beloved did not get her three score and ten. She was welcomed into her reward earlier than many. And here I am. The wait that I have has now multiplied, because I am without her. This past year has been not just the hardest, but the slowest of my life. I wake earlier than I wish, and lie awake at night while wanting to sleep. The things I once looked forward to no longer appeal. Isn’t half the blessing of a blessing having someone with whom to share it?

By God’s grace I have not had to struggle with anger. I remain confident in His tender love for me, His assurance that what He has begun in me He will see through to the day of Christ Jesus. That work hurts. And it will continue to hurt. That doesn’t mean something has to change. My sadness is not a sign that something is wrong, that I need counseling or pills, or even a change in perspective. It means I have received the wounds of a Friend. He is ever with me, and there is no one, no one, I would rather have near.

Ask RC: Is it a sin to celebrate Christmas?

You have heard it said, and rightly so, that it’s rather important to define our terms. Here is a case in point. There are at least three ways we use the phrase “celebrate Christmas.” The first is as the celebration Mass of the birth of Christ, that is, as Rome has celebrated it for centuries. Our fathers objected to this, and rightly so. If by celebrating Christmas we mean attending Roman Catholic mass, most assuredly we should not. When I was a college student one Sunday I went with some friends to Mass. I knew enough to know that I should not participate, and so went as a student, studying the mass. My sister was concerned (okay, more likely delighted) that my dad would be angry with me. I thought she didn’t quite grasp what a careful scholar I already was. So I told him what I had done, laughing off the notion that he would be upset. He replied, “Why would I be upset? You wanted to go and watch as Jesus was being crucified again? Where’s the harm?” That was the last time I went to Mass, during Advent or any time of year.

A second definition would be more broadly cultural. Here what we mean by celebrating Christmas is decorations, Santa, the Grinch, egg nog, Rudolph, chestnuts roasting on open fires, Frosty, bells on bob tails, Charlie Brown, Texas death matches over the last Tickle-Me-Elmo, second mortgages for the latest game consol, and everything Americans equate with the holiday. And no, this is not such a good idea either. Without much work one could rather quickly connect each of these Christmas traditions with breaking at least one of the Ten Commandments. At best this kind of Christmas is a deeply troubling distraction from where our hearts ought to be, at worst it is an evil, false, civil religion.

What though, if we mean something else by “celebrating Christmas?” What if we ask the question this way- is it wrong to remember the incarnation? Is it a sin to devote some time to rejoicing over the coming of the Messiah? Can we in our celebration feast with our loved ones, even giving them gifts? Can we sing of that little town of Bethlehem? Can we preach on the glorious gospel truth that God took on flesh and dwelt among us?

Some would argue that doing this third thing wraps us up in doing the first or the second. Some suggest that God has already given us one glorious holiday, that comes not once a year, but fifty-two times a year.  Some believe that we are not only entering into the sin of our modern culture, and entering into Romish heresy, but that we are entering into the pagan holy day of Saturnalia. I’m sympathetic to these concerns. But I answer them this way. We do not re-crucify Christ at Christmas, nor do we re-advent Him. But we do remember our fathers’ longing, and we do long for His return. We do not have to buy ourselves into debt, or tell stories to our children about a jolly old elf. But we do feast, and bless our children because we are His blessed children.

That He has given us 52 holidays a year does not mean that we cannot rejoice over His grace on Monday, and Tuesday, or any day- even December 25.  That others before us celebrated the same day as us, for wicked reasons cannot mean that we cannot do what we will do in eternity for godly reasons- rejoice over the coming of the Messiah. That others tell their children stories about Santa is no reason for us to not tell true stories to our children about Jesus, and to laugh with joy as we do so.  May Christians celebrate Christmas?  One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it. He who eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he who does not eat, to the Lord he does not eat, and gives God thanks. For none of us lives to himself, and no one dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s” Romans 14:5-8).

Tidings of Comfort and Joy

Some suggest that the engine for the too frequent train wrecks in the lives of pastors’ kids is the fishbowl they must live in. In their local churches they, more than their peers, are watched, judged, measured. It is an unwelcome, indeed unwholesome attention. When your father is a widely known and deeply respected theologian you carry some of those same challenges. The Lord offers then a number of different options. One can rebel in protest to the inequity of the attention. One can become adept at disguising ones sins and maintain the appearance of godliness. One can labor to meet the expectations of others. Or, one can rest in the finished work of Christ alone, confident of the unchanging love of one’s heavenly Father.

For more than a year now I have found myself living in an increasingly glaring spotlight not just because of whom my father is (he is, among other things, a man that would want me to know to use “whom” there, rather than “who”) but because of the hard providences sent by my heavenly Father. I have exacerbated that scrutiny by choosing to write about my experience via sundry internet outlets. It has been a profound encouragement and comfort to me to hear from others who have been blessed by my pieces. It has, in turn, been a great comfort and encouragement to hear from others how they have been praying for me and for my family.  I am grateful.

You could, however, if you are willing, help still more. It is important to me that these hardships not become my identity. I hate to think that when I cross your path you think, “There goes that poor man who lost his wife and daughter.” Not because they don’t matter, but because they do. I wouldn’t mind at all if you thought, “There goes that blessed man who so loved his wife and daughter” so long as you remember, “who so loves the seven children that are still with him.” Or, better still, “There goes a sinner, saved by grace.”

You could, if you are able, not look for the third arm of holiness. That is, while hardships are most assuredly sanctifying, they don’t turn us into weird creatures who are visibly, nor even spiritually different from the rest of the body. I am, most assuredly, a sinner. I can still be petty, impatient, self-involved, even frivolous. God is growing me in righteousness, but I am still a pygmy.

You could, if you are willing, find a fitting balance, as I try to do, between sympathy and normalcy. That is, don’t be surprised that I’m a little more sad, a little more shy, a little more distracted than normal. But don’t treat me like a Faberge egg, like someone too fragile to laugh at a joke, even one at my expense. Don’t be afraid to talk to me about Denise or Shannon. Neither be afraid to talk to me about something other than Denise or Shannon.

Finally, you could, if you are able, help me by studying hard on the lesson behind all the lessons. That is, in my writing on my mourning it is not my desire to prepare others to mourn. It is not ultimately to protect or spread the biblical doctrine of the sovereignty of God. It is instead two-fold. First I want you to love your wife, husband, father, mother, children more fully, more intentionally, more gratefully than ever before because second you rejoice in His saving, redeeming, resurrecting, glorifying grace more fully, more intentionally, more gratefully than ever before.

God rest ye merry.

Shortcutting in the Cul-de-sac

The interwebs has democratized our discourse. Time was when to reach an audience one had to go through a series of gatekeepers. You had to have a publisher of your books. You had to have an editor who would publish your article. You had to raise mountains of money from others in order to buy airtime. Now any one person has the ability to reach billions virtually for free. The interwebs has in turn put the feedback cycle into hyper drive. When I finish writing a book it will likely be at least a year before anyone responds privately or in print with a review. I write a magazine article and it is months typically before it arrives in a mailbox, and weeks later before I might receive a written response. Now, I write an article this morning, post it this afternoon, and am up late moderating comments.

The shortened cycle has lead us I fear into some dangerously shorthand thinking.  Labels have their purposes and place. It is helpful for me to know, when discussing an issue with my brother, if he is baptistic or not. It is helpful to others to know that I am committed to Reformed theology, even if I’m committed to it not because it is Reformed but because I believe it to be biblical.  The rush to comment, however, can lead us to a rush to judgment.

Years ago I confided to a friend that if my father would be remembered for his teaching on holiness, if he would be the “holiness guy”, and were I to be blessed to be remembered at all, I wanted to be remembered as the “kingdom guy.” It is a passion of mine, an emphasis in my teaching. Of course, the kingdom was likewise high up there on Jesus’ favorite things to talk about.  Turns out, in the providence of God, that NT Wright has emphasized the same theme from time to time. Therefore, ipso facto and qed, I must be a Wright-y. And am now guilty of all of Dr. Wright’s errors. That’s how shorthand often works. That guy said a, b, c, d, e, and f. You said a and b. Therefore you are guilty of c, d, and e.

In like manner I recently wrote a short piece explaining my understanding of Sonship theology. I was rather positive about it, albeit with a minor caveat or two. I appreciate their emphasis on our identity in Christ, on our adoption as sons, on God’s unchanging present love for us. But I appreciate those things because I have always appreciated those things. Because they are wonderful gospel promises right out of the Bible. Convicting me of what you think are Jack Miller’s errors because I believe in adoption is like convicting me of being an incipient Roman Catholic because I believe Peter exercised some leadership among the disciples, or because I believe in the Trinity.

It’s certainly possible that an emphasis on kingdom is wrong for me and NT Wright. It’s certainly possible that an emphasis on adoption is an error on my part, and on the part of Jack Miller. But I know I’m no disciple of Wright nor devotee of Jack Miller. I have never met either man. I’ve never heard a lecture, sermon, or recording of any kind by either man. I’ve never read a book or an article by either man.

If you are smart you will be careful with your shortcuts and your guilt by associations. If you are smarter, however, you will recognize that you, just as I do, fail here from time to time. You can own your guilt because you understand the RC Sproul Jr. Principle of hermeneutics- whenever you see someone in the Bible (or anywhere for that matter) being really, really stupid do not say to yourself, “How can they be so stupid?” Instead say to yourself, “How am I stupid just like them?”  We’re the guilty ones. Of course, be careful.  Don’t tell anyone where you heard it. You wouldn’t want to get the reputation of being a Sproulian Jr.

Ask RC: Where did it all go so wrong?

These are dark days for the church in the west. While we can, indeed must rejoice over the spread of the gospel in China, and in the southern hemisphere, here the church is losing its savor, and the putrid smell of death is all around us. Perverts are parading in the streets. Mommies are murdering their babies 3500 times a day.  Eighty percent of evangelical kids reject the faith by the time they reach their 20’s, and those that stay (or come back) usually opt for church-lite. And our nation has just elected the most socialistic, leftist man in our history.

Everyone has their favorite spot, a particular battle we either lost or retreated from on which to place the blame. Was it 1963, when we let them take prayer out of “our” schools? Was it 1973, when the Supreme Court declared war on the unborn? Was it 1983, when All My Children became the first soap to run a gay story line? Was it 1993 when Bill Clinton took office, promising to socialize medicine with Hillarycare? Was it 2003 when George W. Bush signed his own legislation giving us socialized pills for seniors?

The trouble with these guesses is that they all think the problem is the camel in the tent, when the real problem is the camel’s nose. We gave up on educating our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord the moment we accepted the premise of government schools, a hundred years prior. We began seeing children as a burden and inconvenience when we embraced the pill in the 60’s. We normalized the pursuit of sexual pleasure outside God’s design when we embraced no-fault divorce (brought to you first in California, under Governor Reagan.) We accepted socialized healthcare when we embraced LBJcare for the elderly. All Bill and Hillary, Mitt and Barack have proposed is lowering the enrollment age to birth. And we have had socialized retirement since 1933. How can we object to adding pills?

With every one of these issues we have missed the forest for the trees. We engage in sundry policy debates- this program is too expensive; we can get Bible as literature classes into the schools; if we elect Republicans we can hold back the tide- and miss that we have already given up the war. Unless or until the church of Jesus Christ is ready to affirm that education is not the calling of the state, that children are a blessing from God, that any sexual behavior outside the marriage bed is an abomination before God, that healthcare, pills and retirements are not entitlements, we will continue to slouch toward Gomorrah.

I know the principled approach freaks people out. That’s my point. But you can’t turn a ship around by accepting that we’re going in the right direction generally, we just need to move a degree or two. You can’t have godly education or godly sexual standards while excluding God. And you can’t have liberty in a nation whose children are nurtured in socialized schools. We should not object to this or that in the state’s schools, but should object to state schools. We should not object to the murder of babies because they are babies, but because it is murder. We should not object to homosexual perversion because it is homosexual, but because it is perversion. We should not object to this socialist program or that but should object to socialism. Otherwise we’re not fighting but retreating.

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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