March 24, 2014 Broadcast


A Message by R.C. Sproul

The Bible contains figures of speech that are unfamiliar to modern readers.  Perhaps you have come across passages that say the same thing twice, or that seem to make contradictory statements.  Such verses exhibit a figure of speech called Parallelism, and in this message, Dr. Sproul explains how to interpret it.

From the series: Knowing Scripture

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Further Study On This Topic

  1. question and answer

    How can we as Christians ascertain when God's Word was applicable only to a certain culture and therefore may not be applicable to us today?

  2. article

    The Law of God

  3. devotional

    Principle or Custom?

How can we as Christians ascertain when God's Word was applicable only to a certain culture and therefore may not be applicable to us today?

The real question here is, Is everything that is set forth in Scripture to be applied to all people of all time and of all cultures? I don’t know any biblical scholar who would argue that everything set forth in Scripture applies to all people at all times. Since Jesus sent out the seventy and he told them not to wear shoes, does that mean that evangelists today would be disobedient unless they preached in their bare feet? Obviously that is an example of something practiced in the first-century culture that has no real application in our culture today.

When we come to the matter of understanding and applying Scripture, we have two problems. First, there is understanding the historical context in which the Scripture was first given. That means we have to go back and try to get into the skins and into the minds and languages of the first-century people who wrote down the Scriptures. We have to study the ancient languages—Greek and Hebrew—so that we can, as best as we know how, reconstruct the original meaning and intent of the Word of God.

The second difficulty is that we live in the twentieth century, and words that we use every day are conditioned and shaped by how they are used in our here and now. There’s a sense in which I’m tethered to the twentieth century, yet the Bible speaks to me from the first century and before. How do I bridge that gap?

I also think we need to study church history so that we can see those principles and precepts that the church has understood as applying across the centuries and speaking to Christians of all ages. It helps to have a historical perspective. You’ve heard the cliché that those who ignore the past are doomed to repeat it. There is much to be learned through a serious study of the history of the world and the history of the Christian faith, and how other generations and other societies have understood the Word of God and its application to their life situation. By doing that, we’ll readily see elements of scriptural instruction that the church of all ages has understood not to be limited to the immediate hearers of the biblical message but to have principle application down through the ages.

We certainly don’t want to relativize or historicize an eternal truth of God. My rule of thumb: We are to study to try to discern a difference between principle and custom. But if after having studied we can’t discern, I would rather treat something that may be a first-century custom as an eternal principle than risk being guilty of taking an eternal principle of God and treating it as a first-century custom

The Law of God

R.C. Sproul

In giving a summary of what constitutes the true knowledge of God, we showed that we cannot form any just conception of the character of God, without feeling overawed by His majesty, and bound to do Him service.

—John Calvin

Yesterday, a man I met for the first time asked me, “And what is the Lord doing in your life?” (Something about how he asked the question, the tone of his voice, and his manner in it disturbed me.) The manner of asking was a bit too casual, as if the utterance was mechanical. I suppressed my annoyance and answered as if the question were sincere. I said, “He is impressing upon me the beauty and sweetness of His law.” The man obviously was not prepared for my answer. He looked at me as though I was from another planet. He visibly recoiled from my words as if I was weird for uttering them.

We are living in an era in which the law of God is not given much attention either by secularists or by Christians. The law, we assume, is a relic of the past, part of the history of Judaeo-Christianity to be sure, but of no abiding relevance to the Christian life. We are living out, in practice, the antinomian heresy.

A recent survey by George Gallup Jr. revealed a startling trend in our culture. According to Gallup the evidence seems to indicate that there are not clear behavioral patterns that distinguish Christians from non- Christians in our society. We all seem to be marching to the same drummer, looking to the shifting standards of contemporary culture for the basis of what is acceptable conduct. What everybody else is doing seems to be our only ethical norm.

This pattern can only emerge in a society or a church wherein the law of God is eclipsed. The very word law seems to have an unpleasant ring to it in our evangelical circles.

Let’s try an experiment. I’m going to cite a few passages from Psalm 119 for our reflection. I’m asking that you read them existentially in the sense that you try to crawl into the skin of the writer and experience empathy. Try to feel what he felt when he wrote these lines thousands of years ago:

Oh, how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day (v. 97).

• Your testimonies I have taken as a heritage forever, for they are the rejoicing of my heart. I have inclined my heart to perform Your statutes forever, to the very end (vv. 111–112).

• I opened my mouth and panted, for I longed for Your commandments (vs. 131).

• Trouble and anguish have overtaken me. Yet Your commandments are my delights (vs. 143).

Does this sound like a modern Christian? Do we hear people talk about longing passionately for the law of God? Do we hear our friends expressing joy and delight in God’s commandments?

These sentiments are foreign to our culture. Some will surely say, “But that is Old Testament stuff. We’ve been redeemed from the law, now our focus is on the Gospel, not the law.”

Let’s continue the experiment. Let’s read some excerpts from another biblical writer, only this time from the New Testament. Let’s hear from a man who loved the Gospel, preached it, and taught it as much as any mortal. Let’s hear from Paul:

But now we have been delivered from the law, having died to what we were held by, so that we should serve in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter (Romans 7:6).

• What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through law (Romans 7:8).

• Therefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good (Romans 7:12).

• For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man (Romans 7:22).

Does this sound like a man who believed the law of God has no place in the Christian life? Read Paul carefully and you will find a man whose heart longed for the law of God as much as David’s.

Church history witnesses that at periods of revival and reformation there has been a profound awakening to the sweetness of God’s law that can easily degenerate into legalism, which usually provokes a response of antinomianism. Neither is biblical. The law drives us to the Gospel. The Gospel saves us from the curse of the law but in turn directs us back to the law to search its spirit, its goodness and its beauty. The law of God is still a lamp unto our feet. Without it we stumble and trip and grope in darkness.

For the Christian the greatest benefit of the law of God is its revelatory character. The law reveals to us the Law-Giver. It teaches us what is pleasing in His sight. We need to seek the law of God—to pant after it—to delight in it. Anything less is an offense against the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Principle or Custom?

Herman Melville is best known for his novel Moby Dick, but the author wrote other works as well, including the novel Redburn. This novel tells about a young sailor who sails from Massachusetts to the city of Liverpool, England. When he arrives in Liverpool, the young man attempts to find his way around town using a map of the city his father used when he traveled. Yet the city has changed much since that day, so it is hard to follow the map as a guide.

Sometimes we can relate very well to the sailor in Redburn when we try to apply the Bible to our situations today. Scripture comes from a time that seems very different from our own. It is, in many ways, a foreign world, which complicates our attempts to follow the Word of God.

Obeying the Lord’s revelation, however, is not impossible, as long as we remember that the original meaning of the biblical text determines faithful application today. Otherwise, we can twist Scripture to make it sanction anything. Determining the original meaning requires us to study the background of each biblical text. This makes it easier to distinguish between principles and customs. A principle is a Godgiven standard valid in every time and place. The Ten Commandments are excellent examples of principles. Unlike principles, customs are not eternal. Let us illustrate the difference with the example of paying the tithe. We use money to pay our tithes and offerings, and tithing is a principle for all times. However, the currency used to pay a tithe is a custom — we do not use shekels in the United States today (see Num. 18).

Separating principle from custom is hard at times. For example, Paul, in today’s passage, apparently argues in principle against men having long hair, but he does not specify what counts as long hair, probably because hair length is a custom (1 Cor. 11:1–16). Length is a measurement relative to a standard, and what might be long in one culture could be short in another. A man who has hair that is one foot long, for instance, does not have hair of excessive length if most women in his culture have hair that is three feet long. In any case, determining biblical principles is not always as easy as we might like, so let us not dictate to other believers what they can and cannot do in matters that are unclear.

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