July 25, 2014 Broadcast

Questions & Answers #2

A Message by Various

How does God view the elect before they are born again? How should we deal with anger towards God? Why is God’s wrath so severe, since the Bible says He is slow to anger? In this question and answer session from the 2014 Ligonier Ministries National Conference, Drs. Voddie Baucham, Stephen Nichols, R.C. Sproul, R.C. Sproul, Jr., and Derek Thomas field these questions, and more.

From the series: Overcoming the World: 2014 National Conference

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  1. article

    Why Do We Suffer?

  2. article

    Contra Mundum

  3. article

    Faith and Repentance

Why Do We Suffer?

Robert Rothwell

Throughout my life I have always been a voracious reader. I can remember being enamored by books at a very young age and becoming excited during my preschool years as I was first taught to read. Even today, hardly a day goes past when I am not reading something, whether it be a magazine, a newspaper, or any other kind of print media. In addition, I usually am reading one or more books on a variety of topics.

Since high school I have been particularly enamored by theological literature. Reading the great theologians of the past and the present helps me to answer the questions that I have, and it invariably raises new ones. Of course, all this does is spur further research and reading.

I have to admit, however, that I have not always been the most discerning reader. During high school and the first year or so of college I read a great many popular works on eschatology — works that never claimed an exact date for Christ’s return although they did strongly hint that He would return before the year 2000. Even those that did not mention timing at all were convinced that true Christians would escape the great tribulation and not have to suffer at the hands of the coming Antichrist.

In addition to these books, I also read a few books claiming that it was never God’s will that His people suffer sickness or poverty. The key to abundant health and wealth is in the tongue. All one had to do was to “claim” their healing or financial blessing in order to receive it. Illness and poverty were never seen as a calling but as a sign that faith was weak or lacking.

Over time, I began to see the trouble with these ideas. The fact that such views are eagerly embraced, not by countries where suffering abounds but in America where we experience comparatively little suffering, made me question the truthfulness of some of these claims.

My understanding of these things was altered primarily because of the teaching of Scripture. I was blessed to get a hold of works written by theologians who had a better grasp of the multi-faceted view of suffering presented by the Bible. A study of the book of Job one summer also made it clear that suffering even illness is a calling for some even though the reasons for this suffering may not always be clear to us.

That we cannot always discover the reasons for our suffering is what makes our trials so hard to bear at times. This is not to say that Scripture gives us no explanations for our suffering. In fact, our study of 1 Peter has given us many reasons why a believer might have to suffer.

In the first place, we have been told that we are grieved by various trials in order that our faith might be purified and proven (1:6–7). We are even told that such suffering is necessary for us. So in the midst of our difficulties, we can be confident that God is working in us to refine our trust in Him. Peter’s repeated emphasis on suffering for being a Christian (3:14–17) makes it clear that the persecution we experience simply for confessing Christ is the kind of suffering God especially uses to strengthen our trust in Him.

Peter’s admonitions against suffering as an evildoer (4:15) imply that sometimes our suffering is a direct consequence of our sin. The wisdom literature of the Bible tells us that there is not always a one-to-one correlation between sin and suffering; nevertheless, it is clear that sometimes we suffer because of our misdeeds. We deserve such suffering, yet we can honor God in it if we turn from the sin that we suspect is behind our trouble.

Related to this is the fact that Peter tells us that judgment begins with the house of God (vv. 16–17). Sometimes God uses suffering to judge His church for sin, or to refine the faith of the corporate body. In this case, the church as a whole must honor God through repentance and reformation.

As helpful as these things are, they do not really address all of our questions. Our pain still hurts. We wonder why God has not chosen some other way besides suffering to make us into whom He wants us to be. We look at others who have indulged in the same sins as we, yet they seem to have worry-free lives. We see churches, which flagrantly violate the Scriptures, continue to operate as usual.

These teachings help but they do not exhaustively explain our suffering. Yet Peter and the rest of the biblical authors never try to give God’s intent behind every individual instance of pain in our lives.

Rather, Peter ultimately calls us not to spend too much time analyzing the exact purpose for our suffering. Instead, we must respond to God properly in our trials. We must remember that suffering is our calling, and we must look to Jesus as our example in it (2:21). We must continue to remember that our proper place is in submission to His mighty hand so that we will be exalted one day (5:6). We must throw ourselves wholly on Him, as in His hidden providence, He uses suffering to prepare us more fully for eternal glory (vv. 7–11).

Contra Mundum

Ken Jones

As illustrated in other articles in this issue, the fourth century was a very interesting time in the history of the church. Having undergone a great deal of persecution as a despised religion in the eyes of Rome, the conversion of Constantine and the Edict of Milan in 313 brought about a policy of toleration for Christianity. The external threats to the church having somewhat subsided, internal threats once again began to mount. Heresy was not new to the church. The apostle Paul took on the challenge of the Judaizers in the first century, and, among others, Irenaus refuted the Gnostics and Marcionites of the second century. In the fourth century, the number one heresy was the teaching of a presbyter in Alexandria named Arius, concerning the person of Christ. Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria, refuted the teaching of Arius and his followers and this eventually led the emperor Constantine to call the first ecumenical council in Nicaea during the winter of 324–325.

Controversy is never a pleasant thing, but in the life of the church some of the most bitter controversies have yielded the sweetest and most enduring fruit. The Arian controversy produced not only the Nicene Creed of 325 (which is still recited in many churches today) but it also brought to the fore a truly heroic figure of the faith, namely, Athanasius of Alexandria. Born around 296, Athanasius was somewhat of a theological prodigy and was brought up from an early age in the home and under the tutelage of Bishop Alexander. At the time of the Council of Nicaea, Athanasius was a deacon and attended the council as a secretary for Alexander. Even in the role of secretary, Athanasius was a significant contributor to the wording of the creed. But it was in the aftermath of the council that Athanasius’ legacy was forged as he ascended to the office of bishop in 328 upon the death of Alexander. There are three things concerning this champion of orthodoxy that I would like to commend to the contemporary church for consideration.

First of all, Athanasius was driven in his rebuttal of Arianism by its practical implication. In other words, in this finely nuanced theological debate he was concerned about the implications of this heresy on salvation. Two of Athanasius’ writings reflect his practical and pastoral concerns. On the Incarnation outlines the fact that in the incarnation, God the Word, Jesus Christ, became human to renew what was human, to sanctify what had become corrupt in Adam. And in Against the Arians, he asserts that God alone initiates and accomplishes salvation, and he argues that it was necessary for our Savior to be both fully human (to renew humanity) and fully divine (to accomplish reconciliation).

Evangelical Christians have a tendency to stand back from theological controversies assuming that it’s just a matter of theologians flexing their intellectual muscles in speculative debates that have no bearing on personal faith. While there may be instances where this is true, many of the current controversies, such as the “Lordship debates,” “E.C.T.” (Evangelicals and Catholics Together), and the “New Perspective” controversies are very practical. And, like Athanasius, we must understand their implications in relation to the “faith once delivered.”

A second thing we can learn from Athanasius is that unity should not be sought apart from, or at the expense of, truth. The Council of Nicaea produced the creed that established the orthodox formula of the nature of Christ. All those who did not conform to this creed were deemed to be heretics, and this resulted in the exile of Arius and those who sided with him. Ten years later, key leaders of the church prevailed upon the Emperor Constantine to restore Arius. Constantine in turn wrote a letter to Athanasius (who had become a bishop by this time) urging him to receive Arius “whose opinions had been misrepresented.” Athanasius refused to re-admit Arius and his followers on the grounds that “there could be no fellowship between the church and the one who denied the divinity of Christ.” Seeing that the Emperor and many of his fellow officers were pushing for restoration, concession would have been easy if not understandable for Athanasius, but he would not budge. The lesson for us is obvious: when those with whom we have fellowship depart from the fundamentals of the faith, it is nothing less than a breach of that fellowship. This is the clear teaching of Scripture: Galatians 1:6–9; 2 John 7–11; Jude 3–4. Separation is painful, but sometimes it is necessary. The eventual restoration of Arius and his followers eventually led to Arianism becoming dominant in the Eastern provinces of the church.

A third thing we can learn from Athanasius is bold tenacity for truth. The restoration of Arius and his followers eventually led to Athanasius’ expulsion in 335. Although he was restored shortly before the death of Constantine in 337, this was only the beginning; in all, Athanasius was exiled five times. Two things can be gleamed from Athanasius’ expulsions. First, he did not allow the experiences to make him bitter or wallow in pity. Like Paul during his various imprisonments, Athanasius was quite productive while in exile. Second, exile did not cause this saint to cave in and compromise. Our adversary seeks to wear us down in his assaults, and if the first attack doesn’t do the trick maybe the third or fourth will. Athanasius was just as bold for truth after his fifth and final exile as he was after the first. What can we learn from this courageous man of faith? We can learn that the Gospel is defended or denied in the doctrines we hold and that Christian fellowship is first a matter of doctrinal unity. Finally, we must firmly hold to the Gospel in spite the consequences.

Faith and Repentance

Sinclair Ferguson

When the gospel is proclaimed, it seems at first sight that two different, even alternative, responses are called for. Sometimes the summons is, "Repent!" Thus, "John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, 'Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand'" (Matt. 3:1–2). Again, Peter urged the hearers whose consciences had been ripped open on the day of Pentecost, "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ" (Acts 2:38). Later, Paul urged the Athenians to "repent" in response to the message of the risen Christ (Acts 17:30).

Yet, on other occasions, the appropriate response to the gospel is, "Believe!" When the Philippian jailer asked Paul what he must do to be saved, the Apostle told him, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved" (Acts 16:31).

But there is no mystery or contradiction here. Further on in Acts 17, we discover that precisely where the response of repentance was required, those who were converted are described as believing (Acts 17:30, 34).

Any confusion is surely resolved by the fact that when Jesus preached "the gospel of God" in Galilee, He urged His hearers, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel" (Mark 1:14–15). Here repentance and faith belong together. They denote two aspects in conversion that are equally essential to it. Thus, either term implies the presence of the other because each reality (repentance or faith) is the sine qua non of the other.

In grammatical terms, then, the words repent and believe both function as a synecdoche—the figure of speech in which a part is used for the whole. Thus, repentance implies faith and faith implies repentance. One cannot exist without the other.

But which comes first, logically? Is it repentance? Is it faith? Or does neither have an absolute priority? There has been prolonged debates in Reformed thought about this. Each of three possible answers has had advocates:

First, W. G. T. Shedd insisted that faith must precede repentance in the order of nature: "Though faith and repentance are inseparable and simultaneous, yet in the order of nature, faith precedes repentance" (Dogmatic Theology, 2.536). Shedd argued this on the grounds that the motivating power for repentance lies in faith's grasp of the mercy of God. If repentance were to precede faith, both repentance and faith would be legal in character, and they would become prerequisites for grace.

Second, Louis Berkhof appears to have taken the reverse position: "There is no doubt that, logically, repentance and the knowledge of sin precede the faith that yields to Christ in trusting love" (Systematic Theology, p. 492).

Third, John Murray insisted that this issue raises

an unnecessary question and the insistence that one is prior to the other is futile. There is no priority. The faith that is unto salvation is a penitent faith and the repentance that is unto life is a believing repentance . . . saving faith is permeated with repentance and repentance is permeated with saving faith. (Redemption—Accomplished and Applied, p. 113).

This is, surely, the more biblical perspective. We cannot separate turning from sin in repentance and coming to Christ in faith. They describe the same person in the same action, but from different perspectives. In one instance (repentance), the person is viewed in relation to sin; in the other (faith), the person is viewed in relation to the Lord Jesus. But the individual who trusts in Christ simultaneously turns away from sin. In believing he repents and in repenting believes. Perhaps R. L. Dabney expressed it best when he insisted that repentance and faith are "twin" graces (perhaps we might say "conjoined twins").

But having said this, we have by no means said everything there is to say. Entwined within any theology of conversion lies a psychology of conversion. In any particular individual, at the level of consciousness, a sense of either repentance or trust may predominate. What is unified theologically may be diverse psychologically. Thus, an individual deeply convicted of the guilt and bondage of sin may experience turning from it (repentance) as the dominant note in his or her conversion. Others (whose experience of conviction deepens after their conversion) may have a dominant sense of the wonder of Christ's love, with less agony of soul at the psychological level. Here the individual is more conscious of trusting in Christ than of repentance from sin. But in true conversion, neither can exist without the other.

The psychological accompaniments of conversion thus vary, sometimes depending on the dominant gospel emphasis that is set before the sinner (the sinfulness of sin or the greatness of grace). This is quite consistent with the shrewd comment of the Westminster Divines to the effect that faith (that is, the trusting response of the individual to the word of the gospel) "acteth differently upon that which each particular passage thereof [of Scripture] containeth" (WCF 16.2).

In no case, however, can real conversion take place apart from the presence of both repentance and faith, and therefore both joy and sorrow. A "conversion" that lacks all sorrow for sin, that receives the word with only joy, will be temporary.

Jesus' parable of the sower is instructive here. In one type of soil, the seed sprouts quickly but dies suddenly. This represents "converts" who receive the word with joy—but with no sense of fallow ground being broken up by conviction of sin or any pain in turning from it (Mark 4:5–6, 16–17). On the other hand, a conversion that is only sorrow for sin without any joy in pardon will prove to have been only "worldly grief" that "produces death" (2 Cor. 7:10). In the end, it will come to nothing.

This, however, raises a final question: Does the necessity of repentance in conversion constitute a kind of work that detracts from the empty-handedness of faith? Does it compromise grace?

In a word, no. Sinners must always come empty-handed. But this is precisely the point. By nature, my hands are full (of sin, self, and my own "good deeds"). However, hands that are full cannot hold on to Christ in faith. Instead, as they take hold of Him, they are emptied. That which has prevented us from trusting Him falls inevitably to the ground. The old way of life cannot be retained in hands that are taking hold of the Savior.

Yes, repentance and faith are two essential elements in conversion. They constitute twin graces that can never be separated. As John Calvin well reminds us, this is true not only of the beginning but of the whole of our Christian lives. We are believing penitents and penitent believers all the way to glory.

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