Suffering and Sovereignty: Winter Conference at Ligonier Academy (Part II)
The afternoon sessions of the Ligonier Academy Winter Conference began with Dr. Derek Thomas’ lecture entitled “Take Up Your Cross.” Dr. Thomas reflected on Matthew 16:13ff., showing how cross-bearing and self-denial is the biblical pathway for Christians to follow.
Dr. Thomas explained that chapter 16 is a turning point in Matthew’s gospel. Up to that point, Jesus had been speaking and preaching about the kingdom. In Matthew 16, Jesus, for the first time, begins to speak of building the church. Focusing on Jesus’ reply to Peter, Dr. Thomas explained that there are four things our sovereign Lord does.
1. He purchases the church at the cost of His death. Jesus came to suffer and die. Dr. Thomas read Aaron’s blessing and asked, “Do you know what it cost for you to hear the Aaronic blessing?” It cost Christ the torments of hell.
2. He expands it through the proclamation of the gospel. Jesus tells Peter, “I’m going to give you a key that will lock and unlock.” The key is the gospel. Preaching the gospel sets free, or it binds.
3. He calls us to a life of cross-bearing and self-denial. Some are told that when they become a Christian, all of their troubles will disappear, but when a person becomes a Christian he discovers troubles he never had before. Jesus suffered, and His people suffer. Bonhoeffer rightly said: “Jesus bids us come to him and die.” And the puritan Thomas Goodwin is said to have asked a prospective student, “Are you ready to die?” Christians are to die daily to self and to sin.
4. He will defeat every hostile force. Christ builds His church right up against the gates of hell, but the gates of hell will not prevail.
Dr. Thomas ended with a quotation from Thomas a’ Kempis who said: “If you bear the cross, it will bear you.” The Christian life is a call to suffering, but the suffering is worth it.
Dr. Thomas’ lecture was followed by a question and answer time. After a series of lectures on how suffering sanctifies us, one attendee asked whether Christians should actively pursue suffering seeing that it can help us so much. Dr. Sproul pointed out that this has been a perennial question in the history of the church and cited monasticism and practices such as self-flagellation. Dr. Sproul concluded that there is enough suffering in the world without us seeking it. Dr. Thomas observed that if you follow Jesus, suffering will come to you. The question we should ask ourselves is: How closely do we want to identify with a Christ-like life.
The conference closed with Dr. Sproul’s message “The Former Things Have Passed Away.” Dr. Sproul explained that we tend to lock our gaze on the present. We are “secular” in the sense that we focus exclusively on the here and now. Christians, however, are called to consider the present in light of the eternal. As Jesus taught us: What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?
If we focus on the end instead of the here and now, our present suffering will pale in significance. Revelation 21 and 22 describes the things to come, and when John describes what he saw he tells us that there will be no more death, no more sorrow, no more crying, and no more pain. All of these are former things that will have passed away. Better yet, we will be in the presence of our Lord forever.
When we look at our present suffering, we need to look at it with the proper perspective — the perspective of eternity.