2011 Ligonier National Conference - Session 4 (Questions & Answers)
On Thursday evening we were treated to a question-and-answer session featuring Ligonier Ministries’ teaching fellows — Drs. Sinclair Ferguson (F), Robert Godfrey (G), Steven Lawson (L), and R.C. Sproul Jr. (S). Here is what they had to say.
1. What are your favorite 3 books?
G: The Bible, Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, and Tolstoy’s War and Peace
F: Calvin’s Institutes, Owen on Communion with God, and Young’s Concordance — It has all the Bible and challenges your memory to put it back together again.
2. What about The Holiness of God has informed your understanding of Scripture and your ministry?
S: I didn’t have the same conversion experience as my dad, but in reading that book there was an awakening, an awareness that I have to own this. It became an awareness that God is who He is and not who I want Him to be.
L: God used that book to direct me to the place where I would pursue my next degree. I enrolled in Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson because that is where Dr. Sproul was teaching at the time. I wanted a personal encounter with the man who was teaching such things. The very definition of holiness as transcendence and moral purity was significant. I had only associated holiness with moral perfection before reading that book. Taking holiness to the superlative degree was eye-opening. The book has legs. It takes you closer to God and yet lower before God because of its exposition of Scripture.
F: There are essential truths that get so covered over that the church fails to recognized that they are even there. We are thankful for how God shaped RC to write such a book and that God was working among Christian people towards the recovery of that truth. It was like Luther saying to Erasmus: “your God is too manlike.”
You can never discover the depth of your depravity without discovering the intensity of God’s holiness. And you cannot taste the riches of grace without tasting the depth of your depravity. The Christian life revolves around the three points of this triangle: God is holy, I am sinful, God is gracious.
G: As the historian looking at R.C. and his impact, it is impressive to me that such a man of learning can communicate that learning so powerfully and clearly to the church as a whole. Only the greatest church leaders can do that. Luther and Calvin were like that. It is an amazing gift to communicate first-class understanding and insight more broadly.
L: Theology proper is the defining area through which we view the other areas of theology. Reading The Holiness of God became a defining lens through which I see everything else. From Scripture it gave me an overarching way to see all of theology and all of life.
3. Considering comments on how Satan twists the Word of God, how can we discern between Satan’s twisting of Scripture and our own poor understanding?
L: Satan corrupts the Word of God at the points that are non-negotiable. To miss that the Bible is the Word of God is so glaring because it is a blatant denial of what Scripture teaches about itself; thus, it demonstrates Satan’s work. Denial of the Trinity is rooted in Satan’s corrupting of minds. Specifically, the person and work of Christ and how that affects the gospel is Satan’s beachhead for attack. Every cult goes astray at this point on the humanity and deity of Christ. They also go astray at the tri-unity of God. Satan deliberately and diabolically attacks those areas. The gospel itself — grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone — is also under attack. Satan is always trying to twist the gospel into another gospel.
Everything in the Bible is important, but where there are differences among believers that is due to our misunderstanding. You can be a Christian and differ on certain matters. Satan attacks at those areas that define what Christianity actually is. He attacks the substance of the gospel, not the symbol.
S: It does not matter where the Devil attacks, in one sense. If every Christian is in a battle against the world, the flesh, and the Devil, the issue is this: are we making progress and how are we making progress? I don’t worry about whether it is me or the Devil causing the problem but whether I am progressing or regressing. Anytime you diminish the power of the gospel to deal with your sin it could be any enemy. What I need to hold onto is: “As bad as I am, Jesus is better.”
G: Christ has called us to be a part of His church. We can weigh our understanding by belonging to a church that stands for the Word of God. In these congregations we can learn by studying in concert with the other people and elders.
F: The important overarching thing is that we get to know our Bibles very well. The way you tell counterfeit money is to learn what real money looks like. The same is true of the Bible. It is immature to want to know only where things can go wrong. We want people to learn the good money of the gospel so well so that they can at least sense when things are off. The quirky side of me has always been struck by Paul’s statement that we are not ignorant of his strategies. Satan is a creature and he has a limited number of stratagems that he keeps using again and again. One healthy exercise is to look through the New Testament letters and ask: In what way is Satan seeking to deceive this group of Christians and hinder the advancement of the gospel? We should watch out for these dimensions again and again. False teaching often begins not in denial of the truth but in leaving out important aspects of the truth.
4. Dr. Ferguson, exposit on the thread of the tree of life and the cross.
F: To use the language of trees is homiletic, for the New Testament does not make much of the connectedness between the tree in Eden and the cross. But we do have man coming to the tree and a curse falling upon him. Paul picks this up in Galatians 3:13; it is not accidental that Jesus was not stoned to death. I think it lies behind the distinction between the two Adams in Philippians 2. The first Adam grasps at being God, the second Adam does not, and lowers Himself to die the death of the cross.
L: May I ask Sinclair a question? In what way did Jesus increase in favor with God?
F: He wasn’t tested as a 12-year old as he was at 20. It was testing and meeting that test that increased the capacity for obedience in Him. Jesus possesses true humanity, not humanity transformed by an infusion of deity into humanity.
S: One of the Devil’s strategy is to so focus on the cardinal doctrine that we miss the focus of the biblical story. It is not possible to be too concerned with the legal aspects of our justification. We are, however, not concerned enough with Jesus as the second Adam. We do not want to let the metaphor breathe. One of my favorite ways to see this is to compare the tempting of Jesus and the tempting of Eve. If we could answer what Sinclair is talking about growing in favor with God, we would answer the question as to the nature of Adam’s probation.
5. Did God suffer on the Cross?
S: I’m with you. The creedal point is that the humanity and deity are united perfectly, though each nature retains its own attributes. Because of His eternal blessedness, God cannot suffer on the cross. Some object and say, “but if you say that, where do you get the eternal value of the cross.” It comes from the fact that the human that suffers is in union with the eternal deity.
G: The church fathers said that is was legitimate linguistic exercise to attribute something of one nature to the other. But the communication is metaphorical.
F: In the incarnation, the Lord did not cease to be the second person of the Trinity, but He assumed a human nature. He assumed our humanity, He did not lose our deity. Difficult though it is, we need to keep these natures distinct even though they were united perfectly in Him.
6. How does the gospel help us when we feel enslaved to sin in our Christian walk?
S: Sometimes we turn what the Bible says into something safe and reasonable. We come to the promise that he is faithful and just to forgive our sins and forgive us of all unrighteousness (1 John 1:8–9), but we only hear that he is faithful and just to forgive our sins. The good news of the gospel isn’t merely that we are square with God now and we better stay good. The good news is that we are being cleansed. Jesus is about the business of washing His bride. It’s a big job. The Devil is saying we are filthy. We say, yes I am, but Jesus has cleansed me. Don’t understand the gospel so narrowly that you miss the promises of God. It’s a glorious gospel that doesn’t stop.
L: I would add Romans 12:1–2. Because of the gospel, Paul appeals to us to present our bodies as a living sacrifice. It is inconceivable to present my body to sin because I have been set free from sin. Contemplating what God has done in the gospel should have a revolutionary impact on us. We should act upon what we know to be true.
F: We are justified by grace alone through faith alone. The faith that justifies us also unites us to Christ and it brings us into a new order of reality altogether — the dominion of sin has been broken once and for all. We need to keep hearing the gospel because we doubt what it says. We need to learn to distinguish between the fact that the dominion of sin is broken from the fact that the presence of sin remains. The only way to advance in victory over sin is to recall that its dominion has been broken even though its presence remains. Think of World War II: once D-Day happened, there was no going back even though the struggle continued until V-E and V-J day. Spiritually, the New Testament says we are in the period between D-Day and V-E day. The breaking of sin’s dominion enables us to wrestle against its dominion.
G: The language of Scripture reminds us that we feel like we are enslaved to sin yet we still look away to the work of Christ. In this work we have hope of deliverance and the work of the Spirit follows this. We are not just forgiven, we are also renewed.
S: One of the paradoxes of sanctification is that the less dirty you are, the more aware of how dirty you are. The fact you are aware of sin is a good sign that the Spirit is at work within you.
7. Have you ever struggled with assurance of salvation?
G: I did at the beginning of my Christian life. As a junior in high school I heard the gospel and I knew Jesus was the Savior, but I was not sure that I believed strong enough to save me. Learning the promises of the gospel as rediscovered in the Reformation helped me tremendously.
F: For quite a long time. But I stumbled upon the promises of God. What we think of assurance has to do with the way we think about ourselves in relation to Christ. But that is not the same thing as our actual relation to Christ. In some people, there are natural things that need to be melted away in their own view of themselves in the world before we can take it in that He loves us and is never going to leave us. Some people cannot believe that they are loved, and the gospel needs to keep working at this — until they learn that God loves them just because He loves them. We have to keep looking up to Christ.
L: I have not gone through times of doubting my salvation. The Spirit has kept me with a sense of inner peace in trusting God. I am a great sinner and Christ is a great Savior is the point that I keep coming back to. I was never taught eternal security, though I had an inner assurance that I was saved. I was helped by the hope of the eternal security of the believer, however, to sustain my assurance. The preserving of the elect in Christ is glorious news.
S: There are two kinds of doubt. I never doubted that it was true (the Bible), but I went through a period in high school that I thought I was not a Christian. Then I thought to myself, “this is stupid,” and I haven’t struggled since.
8. What is the greatest need in our pulpits today?
G: Our churches need clear, careful, consistent exposition of the Word of God. Congregations have to help ministers stay in their studies to achieve this.
S: I don’t want to disagree with what Bob said, but my answer instinctively is that we need courage. I don’t mean boldly denouncing Rob Bell. Rob Bell should be boldly denounced. We need pastors who have courage to speak to the sins of their congregation. Shepherds and their sheep have the same weaknesses, and if shepherds can see where they themselves have fallen they will speak boldly to the sins of their churches.
F: It’s easy to think we need a Steve Lawson in every pulpit. But what we actually need is the sense that our pastors are doing the most important thing in the world for us. Expounding the Word is doing the most important thing for them. We also need to recapture the wonder of what the Spirit does through our preaching. If Christ is held up, He Himself is sufficient for all the needs of all the people, no matter their needs. Finally, we need to love our people to death as preachers. It is particularly important for young preachers to learn this.
L: In 1 Timothy 4:13 Paul gives the basic parts of preaching. It matters to God how His Word is preached. There is a simplicity that many preachers try to make complex. Preaching is to read the text, explain the text, and apply the text. I am amazed at how little reading and explaining is done. We need to get into the text as quick as we can.
We have to say only what the text says and all that the text says. Conviction, clarity, and passion are all essential. True biblical preaching must affect mind, affections, and the will. Too much preaching focuses on one or two of these to the neglect of the others. The most powerful preacher on the planet is the Calvinistic preacher who is an evangelist in the pulpit. He is the only one playing with a full deck. He preaches a high view of God, he magnifies grace, and he calls people to Christ. We are borderline hypercalvinists if we do not call people to Jesus. We have too many talkers and sharers, and not enough preachers.