Sep 18, 2010

2010 Ligonier Regional Conference - Ask R.C. Sproul

10 Min Read

Dr. R.C. Sproul was unable to travel to Washington, D.C., this year to speak at our regional conference in person, but on Friday evening he appeared live via video feed to answer questions from our conference attendees. Here is what he had to say.

1. How much should the church get involved with politics?

The first thing to think about here is the role of the state and the church. God has ordained both institutions, as Paul teaches in Romans, and each of these institutions has its own unique and specific responsibilities. The state’s chief roles are to protect, maintain, and defend the sanctity of human life and to promote justice in the land. When the state fails in these tasks, the church is to be a prophetic voice and call the state to perform its duties in line with its ordained role. There is a false understanding today, however, that says the separation of church and state means the separation of the state and God.

Basically, the church is to help the state be the state, to carry out its responsibilities in line with its divine call, but the church is not to perform state functions and the state is not to perform church functions.

2. How are we as Christians in a post-Christian America to respond to the increasing presence of Islam in our country?

When we talk about America as a post-Christian nation, Dr. Sproul noted how he always thinks of the writings of Jonathan Edwards in the 18th century. Back then, Edwards was decrying the departure of America from its Puritan roots. The point is that we cannot assume that the culture’s departure from Christian principles is a recent thing. Erosion has been going on for centuries.

Long ago, the church made a deal with the state in America to have the right of the free exercise of religion, but the same right is also extended to other religious bodies that are in strong competition with the church. The culture promises free exercise to Christians, Jews, Muslims, and more. We have to respect that freedom even when we do not share the convictions of others. Still, even though all religions are considered equal under the law, all religions are not equal before God as to their truth. The church is to be a prophetic critic against those religions that do not reveal God truthfully, which is any faith besides biblical Christianity, but we are to be charitable to others, no matter their faith, as we proclaim the gospel.

3. What is the difference between feeding your spirit and renewing your mind?

There is no real difference, as these statements are just two different ways of saying the same thing. We are to be transformed, not conformed. We are not to echo the secularism around us but are to rise above it. That transformation is to come to pass through a renewed mind. When the mind is renewed, the heart and spirit are renewed as well. Scripture says that you get to the heart through the mind — as the mind better appreciates the Word of God, its instruction trickles down into our souls. Some people today think that we can bypass the mind to appeal to the soul or heart, but the Lord wired us so that the road to our hearts goes through our minds. Of course, it is possible to get information into the mind and not into the soul, and we must be careful about this. Nevertheless, when man is truly transformed in mind, he will also be transformed in heart, by the Word of God.

4. What advice do you give to young people who are looking for encouragement and also to encourage others as well?

The best way to find Christians is to look in the church. There is a renewal of interest in the things of God among those in their 20s and 30s today. Together for the Gospel, for example, gathers in each of its conferences five to six thousand young men who are passionate for biblical Christianity. Other movements could be mentioned, but the church is the first place is to look for encouragement because that is where you will find Christians.

5. Do you think the church today is emphasizing the power and role of the Holy Spirit too much or not enough? Based on your experience with God, how does someone truly receive the fullness of the Holy Spirit?

The answer to the first question is yes. On the one hand, it is difficult to pursue the power and the presence of the Spirit too much. We should be acutely conscious of the Spirit; nevertheless, the flipside of the coin is that we can become exclusively preoccupied with the third person of the Trinity. In the past, Unitarianism tried to block off the Spirit and the Son in favor of the Father, but there are some movements today that are in danger of ignoring the Father and Son at the expense of the Spirit. The presence of the Spirit is felt most acutely in the means of grace — evangelism, preaching, sacraments, fellowship, and so on. Today, too many are trying to pursue the Spirit in purely experiential way, but that is not the biblical approach. We need to recover the ordinary means of grace as the way in which the Spirit is experienced in the church.

Follow Up Question: On which side are we off balance when it comes to over-emphasizing or under-emphasizing the Spirit?

The church, collectively speaking, is guilty of overemphasis on both sides. Some ignore the Spirit, other pursue Him too much. The Christian faith believes in the triune God. If there is any lack in the church today, it is in the understanding of the character of God. If we do not know the character of God, we will have distortions in understanding all the persons of the Trinity.

6. What does husband-of-one-wife qualification for eldership mean in 1 Timothy 3:2?

This is a debated topic. Some say that it precludes a divorced man from the office because he has had several wives, but that would also prevent widowers from being able to hold the office. It probably should be read a restriction against polygamy, given the first-century context. It is not a strict requirement that says an elder must be married, but it says that if an elder is married, he is to have one wife at a time.

7. Please expound on the sovereignty of God and free will.

The simple way to look at both concepts is to say that we are free but God is more free. Some bind God’s sovereignty by human freedom, saying that God limits Himself so that human freedom always wins out when it bumps up against God’s sovereignty, but that is completely false according to Scripture. Our freedom is always limited by God’s sovereignty. As with Joseph, God’s sovereignty can work through our free will to bring about his purposes. Even in that case, God’s sovereignty triumphed over the sin of Joseph’s brothers (Gen. 50:15–21).

The doctrine of divine sovereignty is good news for the Christian. If God is not sovereign he is not God. And if He is not God, we have no hope.

8. In Deuteronomy 18:18, God tells Moses that there will be a prophet like Moses. Is this person the Messiah?

Scholars differ on this question. Some say the fulfillment is Paul, but I would have to say that it is probably a reference to the Messianic office of Christ. Moses had an extraordinary prophetic role. He was the mediator of the old covenant. Jesus is the only ultimate mediator between God and man, as well as the mediator of the new covenant. O Palmer Robertson’s books The Christ of the Prophets and The Christ of the Covenants are good reference books on this subject and other related matters on how Jesus is revealed in the Old Testament.

9. Given the tendency of the church to conflate the church and the state throughout history, would the 1770 edition of Tabletalk magazine, if it existed, have encouraged Americans to be loyalists to the British crown or not?

There was a division back in the day about this subject among Christians. In fact, many of those who advocated rebellion were Presbyterians. They argued that the structure of the relationship between the colonies and the crown allowed for protest from the lesser magistrates. But many earnest Chrsitians remained loyal to the English crown because of Romans 13. It is a difficult topic.

10. A recent article in World magazine said that there are very few colleges that teach a literal interpretation of Genesis 1 — God made the world in six twenty-four-hour days. Some people also question the existence of a historical Adam. Is not the theory of evolution incompatible with the idea of a historical Adam and is not the theory of evolution also incompatible with the fact that Scripture says sin and death entered the world with Adam’s fall?

When discussing the theory of evolution, we must always remember that there are many different theories of evolution among scientists. We must at least distinguish between microevolution, which allows for variation and change within species and macroevolution, which says that all life evolved from a single microbe. I do not see any way of reconciling Scripture with the theory of macroevolution.

We must also be committed to the reality of a historical Adam and Eve. The classical structures of narrative are used to describe our first parents, which points to their existence as real people in real history.

In recent years, Doug Kelly’s book Creation and Change convinced me that the exegetical case for viewing the six days in Genesis 1 as literal twenty-four-hour days is quite compelling. But this does not say much about the age of the earth. Many Christians believe in a young earth created in six twenty-four hour days, others believe in an old earth made in six twenty-four hour days.

11. Is it possible for a person who dies without understanding the deity of Christ to be saved?

The answer to this question is bit complex because on the one hand we have to say yes, it is possible for someone who dies without understanding Christ’s deity to be saved. After all, none of us can fully understand this great mystery. Also, there were points in all of our lives when we did not understand a doctrine even though we benefitted from it. I did not even know what the word justification meant when I came to faith, but I was still declared righteous by faith alone in Christ.

On the other hand, if someone self-consciously rejects the deity of Christ, I would have to say that the person is not in a state of salvation. If we reject what we know Scripture to be teaching, then we are in real trouble.

12. Is it possible for a Christian to completely surrender himself or herself to the Holy Spirit? What would you do if someone told you that he had found the secret for surrendering himself completely to the Spirit?

The only point at which it is possible for a Christian to be surrendered completely to the Holy Spirit is at death. Our glorification begins when we die, and it is completed in the resurrection, but once we die we enter the presence of God and have sin removed completely from us. That enables us to surrender to the Spirit fully. Before then, we cannot achieve complete surrender because we are perpetually at war with sin, and Scripture promises no end to this war before our death or the return of Jesus, whichever comes first.

Therefore, if someone says that they have found the secret for surrendering himself completely to the leading of the Spirit of God, I say run as far away as you can from that person. They are giving you a false promise.

13. What has influenced the withdrawal of the church from the culture and has caused it to so often be silent as a prophetic critic of ungodliness in government?

Historically speaking, there are two main things that have influenced the church’s withdrawal from making its voice heard in American life. First, federal law has prohibited the church from speaking out about certain political candidates and other matters if it wants to maintain its tax-exempt status. Second, the social gospel that started to be promulgated at the end of the nineteenth century also led to the withdrawal of many evangelicals from social matters. Liberalism at the end of the nineteenth century had so removed the supernatural element from the gospel that those who advocated the liberal position believed the only good the church could do is to feed the hungry, help the poor and so on. Without any confidence in the hereafter and life eternal, the mainline denominations, for the most part, became so focused on this world that they forgot heaven and hell. Soon after the social gospel took root, evangelicals in many quarters began to withdraw from social concerns because they did not want to look like liberals. This withdrawal was unfortunate because Jesus calls us to be concerned about both the body and the soul, and we should not let the false interpretation of Scripture by one group drive how we act.

Those are just two of the main factors I see in influencing the church’s withdrawal from culture. There are several others that could be listed.

14. At the close of the Lord’s prayer in Matthew 6:14–15, Jesus says, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” What does this mean? Is it talking about unilateral forgiveness?

The basic teaching of our Lord on forgiveness is that since we are forgiven people, we must stand ready to forgive at all times. However, I do not see in Scripture a mandate to forgive people when they do not ask specifically for our pardon. This is a minority position among pastors and theologians, and it is one that I take. God does not forgive us unilaterally — without us asking for it — He demands that we repent and believe in Jesus. Therefore, it is hard for me to see a mandate in the New Testament that we forgive unilaterally if the person does not ask for our pardon.

Now, we may forgive unilaterally when the person does not ask for it, and in many or most cases it might even be wise to offer such forgiveness, but it is not mandated. The structures of church discipline that call for the church to discipline and even excommunicate unrepentant people, if they remain impenitent, do not make any sense if we are to forgive unilaterally in all cases. We should also note, finally, that when we do not offer unilateral forgiveness, we are not thereby allowed to become embittered toward other people.

Thank you to Dr. Sproul for taking time to answer all of these thoughtful questions.