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Glory to God Alone, Part 1

A Message by R.C. Sproul

Since the beginning, the church has been celebrating the glory of God through song. But do we understand the significance of what we are singing? What does glory actually mean? Does the Father have a different kind of glory than the Son? In this message entitled “Glory to God Alone,” Dr. Sproul answers these questions as he reminds us of our true purpose in life as children of our glorious God.

From the series: God Alone

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Further Study On This Topic

  1. devotional

    A Cause to Glory in Christ Jesus

  2. devotional

    Glory to God Alone

  3. blog-post

    Soli Deo Gloria: To God Alone Be the Glory

A Cause to Glory in Christ Jesus

As we saw in Philippians 1:21–24, Paul spent a little time considering whether, given the choice, he would rather go on living and ministering or whether he would be better off dying so that he could meet the Lord face to face. We can certainly surmise from that passage that he would have preferred the latter. Yet the apostle knew that whether he lived or died, he did so in Christ, who would be the ultimate decider of his fate (v. 21). And although Jesus had not granted him a perfect view of what awaited him in the future, from everything that Paul could see it did seem that he would be released soon after finishing his epistle to the Philippians (vv. 18–20). Believing that it was all but certain that he would soon be free, the apostle logically surmised that remaining alive and continuing his ministry to the Philippians and the world was more necessary in God’s providence than his immediate death. That is what he tells us in today’s passage (vv. 25–26).

Upon getting out of prison in Rome, the apostle expected that he would come to Philippi again and visit the church he had established there, having planted it in the midst of a great deal of supernatural activity (v. 26; see Acts 16:6–40). Seeing his beloved congregation in person once more would bless Paul and be a benefit to the Philippians for their “progress and joy in the faith” (Phil. 1:25). Paul was an apostle, so it is easy to understand why he was confident that his ministry would be such a blessing to others. Since we are not apostles, at times it is harder for us to have this view of our own service to the people of God. Yet there is a real sense in which we should expect our Lord to use us to help others progress in the faith and find great joy. Why would our Creator, after all, bless us with spiritual gifts that the church needs if not to make us a part of His plan to bring about a people who are perfectly united in faith and in love (1 Cor. 12; Eph. 4:11–16)? In saving us, God has ordained that His people need what we each have to contribute to the well-being of His body, and we are sinning if we do not put our gifts to work in the church.

Paul’s return to the Philippians would also give them cause to “glory in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:26). We likewise have abundant reasons to boast in the same Savior who meets the needs of His church as we use our gifts to benefit His body.

Glory to God Alone

Today we will look at the final sola of the Reformation, the one that sums up the point of all the others. The truth that the Reformers were most concerned to promote and what can be seen as the central theme of Scripture is soli Deo gloria — to God alone be the glory.

The first question and answer of the Westminster Shorter Catechism tells us that “man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever.” God’s glory is the highest good and therefore is the purpose for which we were created. We were made to glorify Him, to reflect His glory and proclaim it to all creation (Isa. 43:6–7). In saving His people and defeating their enemies, His glory is displayed (Ex. 14). Salvation must be sola fide, sola gratia, and solus Christus — through faith alone, by grace alone, and on account of Christ alone — because to attribute redemption to our efforts in any way is to rob God of His full glory. If God and God alone is not the one who saves, then He shares His glory with creatures. But as the prophet Isaiah tells us, God will share His glory with no one (42:8). Sola Scriptura — Scripture alone is the final, infallible authority — must be the church’s confession. If any other source is placed on par with or above the Bible, then the Word of God is no better than the fallible words of creatures, and therefore the one who superintended the writing of the Bible is mocked.

We often think of the Reformation as involving only a doctrinal dispute, but for John Calvin and others, the purity of worship was a major concern as well. Calvin and others took seriously the teaching in Romans 1:18–32 that the basic sin of humanity is its refusal to honor God as God and thank Him for all that He has given us. Instead of bowing the knee to the Almighty, we suppress knowledge of Him and make all sorts of lesser gods.

Some idolatry is crass, such as the worship of trees or nature. Other forms of idolatry are more refined, such as the exaltation of human reason above divine revelation. But any time we substitute something else for the God of the Bible, we attempt to have Him share His glory with another. Any time we deny one of His attributes, we conceive of Him as less than the sovereign Lord of all.  

Soli Deo Gloria: To God Alone Be the Glory

R.C. Sproul

Soli Deo gloria is the motto that grew out of the Protestant Reformation and was used on every composition by Johann Sebastian Bach. He affixed the initials SDG at the bottom of each manuscript to communicate the idea that it is God and God alone who is to receive the glory for the wonders of His work of creation and of redemption. At the heart of the sixteenth-century controversy over salvation was the issue of grace.

It was not a question of man's need for grace. It was a question as to the extent of that need. The church had already condemned Pelagius, who had taught that grace facilitates salvation but is not absolutely necessary for it. Semi-Pelagianism since that time has always taught that without grace there is no salvation. But the grace that is considered in all semi-Pelagian and Arminian theories of salvation is not an efficacious grace. It is a grace that makes salvation possible, but not a grace that makes salvation certain.

In the parable of the sower we see that regarding salvation, God is the one who takes the initiative to bring salvation to pass. He is the sower. The seed that is sown is His seed, corresponding to His Word, and the harvest that results is His harvest. He harvests what He purposed to harvest when He initiated the whole process. God doesn't leave the harvest up to the vagaries of thorns and stones in the pathway. It is God and God alone who makes certain that a portion of His Word falls upon good ground. A critical error in interpreting this parable would be to assume that the good ground is the good disposition of fallen sinners, those sinners who make the right choice, responding positively to God's prevenient grace. The classical Reformed understanding of the good ground is that if the ground is receptive to the seed that is sown by God, it is God alone who prepares the ground for the germination of the seed.

The biggest question any semi-Pelagian or Arminian has to face at the practical level is this: Why did I choose to believe the gospel and commit my life to Christ when my neighbor, who heard the same gospel, chose to reject it? That question has been answered in many ways. We might speculate that the reason why one person chooses to respond positively to the gospel and to Christ, while another one doesn't, is because the person who responded positively was more intelligent than the other one. If that were the case, then God would still be the ultimate provider of salvation because the intelligence is His gift, and it could be explained that God did not give the same intelligence to the neighbor who rejected the gospel. But that explanation is obviously absurd.

The other possibility that one must consider is this: that the reason one person responds positively to the gospel and his neighbor does not is because the one who responded was a better person. That is, that person who made the right choice and the good choice did it because he was more righteous than his neighbor. In this case, the flesh not only availed something, it availed everything. This is the view that is held by the majority of evangelical Christians, namely, the reason why they are saved and others are not is that they made the right response to God's grace while the others made the wrong response.

We can talk here about not only the correct response as opposed to an erroneous response, but we can speak in terms of a good response rather than a bad response. If I am in the kingdom of God because I made the good response rather than the bad response, I have something of which to boast, namely the goodness by which I responded to the grace of God. I have never met an Arminian who would answer the question that I've just posed by saying, "Oh, the reason I'm a believer is because I'm better than my neighbor." They would be loath to say that. However, though they reject this implication, the logic of semi-Pelagianism requires this conclusion. If indeed in the final analysis the reason I'm a Christian and someone else is not is that I made the proper response to God's offer of salvation while somebody else rejected it, then by resistless logic I have indeed made the good response, and my neighbor has made the bad response.

What Reformed theology teaches is that it is true the believer makes the right response and the non-believer makes the wrong response. But the reason the believer makes the good response is because God in His sovereign election changes the disposition of the heart of the elect to effect a good response. I can take no credit for the response that I made for Christ. God not only initiated my salvation, He not only sowed the seed, but He made sure that that seed germinated in my heart by regenerating me by the power of the Holy Ghost. That regeneration is a necessary condition for the seed to take root and to flourish. That's why at the heart of Reformed theology the axiom resounds, namely, that regeneration precedes faith. It's that formula, that order of salvation that all semi-Pelagians reject. They hold to the idea that in their fallen condition of spiritual death, they exercise faith, and then are born again. In their view, they respond to the gospel before the Spirit has changed the disposition of their soul to bring them to faith. When that happens, the glory of God is shared. No semi-Pelagian can ever say with authenticity: "To God alone be the glory." For the semi-Pelagian, God may be gracious, but in addition to God's grace, my work of response is absolutely essential. Here grace is not effectual, and such grace, in the final analysis, is not really saving grace. In fact, salvation is of the Lord from beginning to end. Yes, I must believe. Yes, I must respond. Yes, I must receive Christ. But for me to say "yes" to any of those things, my heart must first be changed by the sovereign, effectual power of God the Holy Spirit. Soli Deo gloria.

This post was originally published in Tabletalk magazine.

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