Suffering and Sovereignty: Winter Conference at Ligonier Academy (Part I)
The 2010 Winter Conference on suffering and sovereignty of God marks Ligonier Academy’s first hosted conference. The Academy plans to repeat this event annually.
It began Friday, January 22, with a Q&A session featuring Drs. R.C. Sproul and Derek W.H. Thomas. At one point, the question was asked: “What’s the biggest challenge or opportunity for the church today?” Both men responded with one mind: the gospel. The clear preaching and teaching of and about the gospel of free grace, wrought by the merciful hand of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, is needed now more than ever. After the Reformation was underway, the mantra “after darkness, light” came to be in use. But now, centuries after the Reformation, Dr. Sproul quipped, our culture can be described in the reverse: “after light, darkness.” All Christian churches must be about the preaching of God’s gospel without compromise.
This morning, Dr. Thomas opened the conference discussing the challenging theme: “Sin, Satan, and Suffering.” He started by reading Job 1:1–22, and then proceeded into a moving description of the depths of suffering and brokenness in this world that refused to trivialize it. Real pain. Real despair. These are things that Dr. Thomas admitted seminary hadn’t prepared him for.
What followed was a sermon that briefly walked through the story of Job and, in the process, gave every listener at the conference the biblical tools necessary to face the darkness of this world. Dr. Thomas contended that Satan is not entirely to blame for suffering, for, mysteriously, God is at the heart of it all. He was in the midst of Job’s despair (Job 1:12); He is in the midst of the agony we see everyday in Haiti on television. Said Dr. Thomas: “If the gospel is, ‘Come to Jesus and find your best life now—health and wealth, name it and claim it, gab it and grab it,’ then Satan is on to something. Take all these things away,” he said, “and he will curse you to your face.”
Our position in the face of all such misery is clear: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). This isn’t to provide pat answers to the question of suffering and pain. In fact, Dr. Thomas noted, oftentimes the answer is “I don’t know. Except for God’s glory.”
By late morning, the attendees were ready to hear more about how God doesn’t simply stand behind suffering but how He Himself has entered into it, which Dr. Sproul aptly delivered in his lecture on the “Suffering Servant.” It may at first glance appear unthinkable, Dr. Sproul remarked, but the salvation of God has come through suffering. Equally unthinkable, however, was the apostle Peter’s audacious attempt to instruct Jesus on what the Christ was sent to do: “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Matt. 16:22).
If any person had a vocation to suffer, it was Jesus. This was His calling as the Messiah, and its description is found most notably in Isaiah 53. The gospel itself is clothed and couched in suffering and death. “Who can believe it?” Dr. Sproul asked. This is why it’s so difficult to believe with a triumphalistic spirit: the cross is a scandal and foolishness to the world. Indeed, the centerpiece of Christianity is a God-man who was “despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3). Yet this one who we fallen men are ashamed of (“hide our faces” from) has “borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (v. 4), and these sufferings were laid on Him by God Himself, for He was the ebed Yahweh, the servant of Israel’s covenant Lord.
God sent His Son, Dr. Sproul argued, to carry the cross on our behalf. He entered fully into our suffering and thus through His very “stripes we are healed” (v. 5). This is the God who commands our love, and thus we have yet another answer to the evil we see in this dark world—God the Son has entered into it and bears its agony and brings healing by virtue of the imputation of the righteousness of Christ (v. 6). Even though Jesus had done no violence, even though there was no deceit in his mouth, “it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief” (vv. 9–10). Therein is the sovereignty of God seen clearly. It was His desire. Why? Because He knew what that sacrificial act was for. He could delight in the suffering of His Son because through it the redemption of His people was accomplished.
On the one hand, it was a horrific and despicable event; on the other, from God’s view, it reveals the glory of salvation. The same holds true for all horrific and despicable events we face in this world: the sovereign Lord sees the greater good and will renew all things, just as He promised.
There were no cries of “That’s not fair!” from Jesus on the cross. Far from it. “He opened not his mouth” (v. 7). Instead, He, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name” (Phil. 2:6–9).