Dr. R.C. Sproul concluded our 2011 Ligonier Academy Conference with his message “Post Tenebras Lux.” What does this phrase mean and why is it important? Dr. Sproul explains thusly:
I have appreciated the speakers that went before me today, and I particularly enjoyed Dr. Trueman’s emphasis on the doctrine of justification. Luther called it the doctrine upon which the church stands or falls. Calvin said it is the hinge on which everything turns.
I have met people who have forgotten what this means. They are Protestants and I ask them what they are protesting. They look at me funny because the theology of Reformation has given way to the theology of Rodney King: “Can’t we all just get along.” Protest as a theme seems so very passé.
The Darkness of Sin
Let us turn first to Romans 1:18–32. This is a passage I look at again and again and again because it is foundational for understanding our predicament as people in a fallen world, what it means to proclaim this gospel in the fallen world, and how the gospel relates to our own Christian pilgrimage.
The motto for the new Ligonier Academy is post tenebras lux. It is not original by any means but is borrowed from the motto of the sixteenth-century Reformation. In the Reformation Park in Geneva there is the large Reformation Wall that is built of marble. There are a few figures and statues depicting Luther, Calvin, Bucer, Zwingli, Knox, and others intimately involved in the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation. The first time I saw this wall, the thing that caught my mind was not the statues but the words post tenebras lux — “after darkness, light.” What these words refer to is the darkness that came over the church in the Middle Ages that obscured and hid from public view the very essence of the gospel. The light of this gospel was hidden in large measure until the rediscovery of it by a German Augustinian monk named Martin Luther in Wittenberg, Germany.
When the gospel was rediscovered, it was though the light of the sun burst upon the midnight darkness and the whole world was turned upside down. This Reformation witnessed the greatest revival of apostolic Christianity in two thousand years of church history.
There is a problem of darkness when it comes to the church. Jewish philosopher Martin Buber in the twentieth century published a book called The Eclipse of God. I was intrigued as a student by the title of this book and I devoured it with relish. What Buber was getting at was that in modern and postmodern thought, there is a shadow that hides God and God is removed from our thinking. We do not think of history being guided by the invisible hand of God but by human programs and machinations.
I remember seeing the documentary on the Civil War on PBS and was amazed by its inclusion of letters written from both north and south. These letters communicated the pathos the soldiers knew in their situation when they saw the forces grouping and that a conflict with many casualties would follow. Nearly every soldier said, “I don’t know what providence has in store for me tomorrow. Maybe you will hear from someone else what that providence has for me, but I am going into the morrow trusting in the benevolence of that providence.”
Our culture does not talk like that anymore. Providence is now a city in Rhode Island famous for jewelry, not a viable, vital Christian doctrine. Yet it is not just the idea of providence that is in eclipse, but God Himself has been eclipsed from the view of everyday life in this country.
I like Buber’s metaphor. In a solar eclipse, a shadow passes across the sun, and as the shadow begins to cover up the sun, darkness comes upon the land. This darkness only lasts for a short while until it moves past the sun and it can shine through once more. When an eclipse takes the place of the sun, the sun is not destroyed. The sun is not extinguished. It still burns with all of its intensity and manifests itself in all of its luminous brightness and refulgence. It is only hidden for a time. The shadow cannot harm it or annihilate it, but can only obscure it. That tenebras (darkness) is what the Reformers saw in the Middle Ages when the gospel of Jesus Christ had been eclipsed. The gospel had not been obliterated, the Bible was still there and the gospel was plainly taught in it, but the church had developed a sacerdotalism in which people are justified by priests and sacraments. Justification took place by the ministry of the church, not the finished work of Christ. Nothing was said about the importance of faith as the sole instrument of our justification. The light came on in the Reformation with the rediscovery of the gospel.
I read from Romans 1 because Paul is speaking of the universal, foundational, fundamental sin of the whole human race. That sin that brings us before God’s tribunal in our natural state and leaves us exposed without an excuse.
The Innocent Native in Africa
The question I have heard more often from students than any other is “what happens to the poor, innocent native African who never hears the gospel?” I always answer that the poor, innocent native African goes straight heaven when he dies because the poor, innocent native in Africa does not need to hear the gospel or hear of Jesus Christ. I would not get out of bed to preach the gospel to innocent natives everywhere.
The real question is what happens to the guilty native of Africa, for there are no innocent natives in Africa or anywhere else. God is not going to punish people for rejecting that which they never heard, for that would be manifestly unjust. This does not mean that there is no need to worry. The gospel is given to a world that is already under judgment, not for rejecting the Son about whom it has never heard but for rejecting the Father. Why is the wrath of God revealed? It is revealed against all ungodliness and righteousness of men.
Is that fair? Of course it is. Why should he not be angry at these things? If God is good, he can hardly be pleased with evil. He cannot bless unrighteousness of any sort.
Paul is not speaking of unrighteousness in general but a particular sinful act. That one act is both ungodly and unrighteous. It is impious and immoral. That sin, the most fundamental, foundational sin of human existence, is the sin of suppressing, hiding, and distorting the truth of God.
God’s Plain Revelation of Himself
Paul is teaching us in Romans 1 that God reveals himself to every person in this world, and this revelation does not happen in a hidden, esoteric way. He does not plant obscure clues for which a man must diligently search in order to conclude that God exists. God’s revelation is phaneros — plain, clear, not obscure or hidden by shadows. God has revealed himself clearly to every human person. It is not that God has just made it possible to know He is there, but He has made Himself plain. He has shown us Himself in nature.
His invisible attributes are clearly seen. That sounds like a contradiction. We cannot see things that are invisible. To see them they must be made visible.
As a boy I saw the movie The Invisible Man. If he wanted to be seen he would put his clothes on. In the movie you would see the suit of clothes but no face or hands, and his hat would be perched on nothing. If he wanted to make himself more visible, he would powder his invisible face and he would suddenly become visible again. In order for the invisible man to make himself visible, he had to use means that were visible. This is what God does. God is invisible, yet He makes himself visible through the things that are made. Through the created order. What is known about Him includes even his eternal power and Godhead. This renders us without excuse.
On the day of judgment, what excuse will every impenitent sinner seek to use before God. What plea will they bring. In the 1940s there was a song with the lyrics “I didn’t know the gun was loaded. And I’m very, very sorry my friend.” This is the songwriter’s plea to absolve Himself from harming somebody else because of ignorance. We want to argue the same before God. How can I be held responsible if I acted out of ignorance? This is the excuse every non-believer is banking on in the day of judgment. They will claim ignorance and say, “if I had seen you, I would have served you. I was not hardcore in my unbelief, I was an agnostic.”
Those who are agnostics invite more judgment than atheists because the agnostic makes his lack of knowledge into God’s fault. He says that God is hiding somewhere. Paul demolishes this argument with this teaching on general revelation. He has made himself known so that everyone is without excuse. The portrait we have of the final judgment and the response of those in God’s presence at the final tribunal is that of silence. Every mouth will be stopped. On the judgment day there will be no debate. No prosecution will give a case that is that countered by the unbelievers’ defense attorneys. Mouths will be shut because there are no excuses in light of the clear self-disclosure God gives of Himself to every human being.
Why are they without excuse? Because they did not glorify Him as God and nor were they were thankful. Although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God. We refused to acknowledged what we knew to be true. That is the sin. The foundational sin of the human race is an antipathy towards honoring God and a lack of gratefulness to Him. Ingratitude, dishonoring of God — those are the sins that provoke God’s wrath in this epistle.
These are the driving tendencies that seek to put God in eclipse. This is the condemnation — that we love the darkness rather than the light, because our deeds are evil. This is how the gospel went into eclipse. It was much easier to go to the church, take the sacraments, and be righteous before God. People did not want the gospel. To be justified by faith alone, if it is true, is not just sola fide (faith alone) but also sola gratia (grace alone). I don’t bring any of my own righteousness, I only rely on the grace of God.
Luther said the righteousness by which we are justified is an alien righteousness. A foreign righteousness that, strictly speaking, is inherently not my own. It is someone else’s — it is extra nos, outside ourselves. Who would not want this righteousness? Anyone who thinks depending on grace is beneath them and who wants to stand on their own merit. But if you think like this, then you have nothing on which to stand. Because by works of the law no man be justified (Gal. 2:15–16). No one is righteousness, not one (Rom. 3:10).
Only in the gospel is this made clear — that we cannot get into the kingdom ourselves or even with the help of 1,000 priests. We have to be dependent on grace and grace alone. During his lifetime, Luther rejoiced that the gospel had been rediscovered and that light had shown forth. But he had a fear that someone would come with a new motto: post lux tenebras — “after light, darkness.” He was afraid that the light of the reformation would fade again and another shadow would obscure the truth of justification by faith alone.
He feared this because whenever the gospel is clearly and boldly preached, it inevitably brings conflict. We do not enjoy conflict. We want things to be peaceful. We hear today words like “don’t worry about justification, it is doctrine and doctrine divides. Let’s not make a big deal about it.” The last sermon Luther preached in February of 1546 expressed concern about what was already happening in Germany. The gospel was being preached from pulpits across the land and yet people were still taking trips to reliquaries to touch Mary’s milk, Joseph’s pants, straw from the manger, the bones of John the Baptist, and so on.
Why were they doing that? Because they believed there was power in Joseph’s pants. Because they though there was power in the straw from the manger. They looked for power in every place except where God put it. The power is in the gospel, and if a generation does not believe this then we have an eclipse of the gospel in that generation. Luther said people want to improve on the gospel. They are not satisfied with it. Paul calls it the gospel of God, not the gospel about God but God’s gospel, God’s message. Can you imagine hearing a message from God and then taking a moment to edit it? Can you imagine anyone trying to improve God’s message?
If I decided to ask you to tell me the gospel, how would you answer? Would you say, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” That may be good news, but it is not the gospel. Or what about this: “God can direct your life with purpose.” That is great news, but it is not the gospel. Maybe the gospel is this: “You can have a personal relationship with Jesus.” Well, the Devil has a personal relationship with Jesus, but it is not a very good one.
The gospel is very clear in the New Testament. It is the news about Jesus. It is not my personal testimony. It is the news about who Jesus is and what He has done. It says that in the fullness of time, Jesus fulfilled the law perfectly, made atonement on the cross, was raised for our justification, ascended to heaven, sits at God’s right hand as our Great High Priest and King of kings, and He will return again. This is the objective dimension of the gospel.
But we still do not have the gospel without the subjective dimension of it. We must know how these benefits are appropriated to us. It is by faith and faith alone. Justification by faith alone is an inherent part of the gospel. And if you are preaching anything besides this you are preaching a different gospel, and there is no different gospel.
In our day, we are seeing the resurgence of so-called evangelicalism and at the same time the so-called evangel — the gospel — is being obscured. We are in profound need today of rediscovering the gospel. The faith that we proclaim and share is a faith in something. It is faith in what Jesus has done and who He is. It is a grasping of Him and relying on Him and Him alone for our salvation. This is not understood. People do not want to hear it.
Doing our best is not good enough. Christ has done his best, and that is the best I need and the best I want. This is what this conference and academy is about. We want to make sure the gospel of Jesus Christ is not eclipsed now or ever but that we will raise up a generation of faithful students who know who God is, who do not want to suppress the truth, who want to proclaim the truth, and who hunger and thirst for the gospel.