Ligonier Ministries Blog

The official feed of Ligonier Ministries, founded by theologian Dr. R.C. Sproul in 1971 to help Christians know what they believe, why the believe it, how to live it, and how to share it.
Ligonier Ministries
  1. What does God love most in the world? When He looks down at the snow-topped mountains that He has made, they are breathtaking and beautiful, seemingly reaching up to heaven itself. Likewise, when He looks down on the ocean that He has made, it is sometimes tranquil and sometimes tempestuous, yet always teeming with life, mirroring back to God His creative glory. Even man retains a peculiar privilege, in that man alone is said to bear the image of its Creator with knowledge, righteousness, holiness, and dominion over the other creatures. But of all these things, it is the church that God loves the most in this world. The Bible calls the church “the body of Christ” that He nourishes and cares for as He does Himself (Eph. 5). The church is His glorious temple, in which He is pleased to dwell (Rev. 21:3). It is His fullness, in the sense that the Father in heaven promised Jesus a great reward that includes His church (Col. 1:18–20). The church is also His adopted family whom He loves and protects (Gal. 4:5). Jesus came into the world not only in obedience to the Father’s will, fulfilling the mission the Father sent Him to accomplish (John 17:4); He also came into the world because of His great love for His church. Like a husband come to rescue his bride, a king come to save his people, or a shepherd come to rescue his sheep, Jesus came into the world because of His great love for His church. There is nothing in all this world that Jesus loves more than His church. But what is the church, and when did it begin? Though the flower of the church truly blossoms in the New Testament, its seed begins to sprout noticeably in the soil of the Old Testament. In a certain sense, Adam and Eve were the first members of the church—at least, the church “under age” (Westminster Confession of Faith 19.3). When sin entered the world, God implemented His plan to save a people for Himself, a people who would be saved from sin and its wages—death. Their hope of salvation was not found in themselves, but in the promise, God made to send a Servant-Savior-Seed who would come in time in order to destroy the works of the intrusive serpent and redeem the people of God. Well before Jesus came into the world, God was gathering a people to Himself who would be, in time, united to Christ as beneficiaries of His redemptive work. Nowhere is this clearer than with the people of Israel, the called-out people of God who descended from Adam and Abraham, and from whom Jesus would descend. When God called Israel out of Egypt, He called Israel His “son” (Hos. 11:1). Israel was set apart from the world foremost by the promise of God’s presence, but also by the covenant promises and commands God gave to Israel. But perhaps most significantly, God enshrined His promise to dwell in the midst of His people by granting them a temple in which His presence would spiritually dwell. This was the capstone of Israel’s identity in the world. God brought them out of Egypt, but far more importantly, God kept His promise to dwell in the midst of His people, to bless them, to guide them, to meet with them, and to receive their worship. To be clear, not all Israel was true Israel in God’s sight. The church, even in the Old Testament, had both a visible and invisible component to it. If we can imagine two circles, one inside the other, the outer circle was the visible church—all Israel. The entire nation had been called out of Egypt and composed the gathered people of God. But only those within Israel who had faith would be saved everlastingly (the inner circle). Thus, there was a visible and invisible church, even in the Old Testament. That distinction remains in the New Testament, as not everyone baptized into the visible church, whether children or adults, are necessarily a part of the invisible church. They must enter that inner circle by faith; only then can they truly and everlastingly be a part of the body of Christ, His bride and His fullness. The church is identified by three marks: the faithful preaching of God’s Word, the proper administration of the sacraments, and church discipline. These are the essential qualities of a church. They overlap with the ordinary means of grace: the preaching of God’s Word, the sacraments, and prayer. As Calvin said, where we find these things faithfully practiced, there we find a true church. These are the things that matter most in a church—not the style of music, the length of the service, or the number of people our age. The marks and means of the church are essential to her identity and should be at the core of how we think about the church. The great privilege of a Christian is not only to be loved by Jesus, but to love Him and all that He loves. If His greatest love in this world is His church, we should love it as well. In many ways, it is the most beautiful way in which we express our love for Him.
  2. The Westminster Confession of Faith insists that Christians may be “certainly assured that they are in the state of grace” (18:1) and goes on to assert that this “infallible assurance of faith” is “founded upon” three considerations: "the divine truth of the promises of salvation" "the inward evidence of those graces unto which these promises are made" "the testimony of the Spirit of adoption witnessing with our spirits that we are children of God" (18:2). The possibility of “certain” and “infallible” assurance is set against the backdrop of medieval and post-Reformation Roman Catholic views that paralyzed the church with an "assurance" that was at best “conjectural” (wishful thinking), based as it was on rigorous participation in a sacramental treadmill. Few epitomized the contrast more starkly than Cardinal Bellarmine (1542–1621), the personal theologian to Pope Clement VIII and ablest leader of the Counter-Reformation, who called the Protestant doctrine of assurance “the greatest of all heresies.” What, after all, could be more offensive to a works-based and priest-imparted system of salvation than the possibility that assurance could be attained without either? If Christians can attain an assurance of eternal life apart from participation in the church’s rituals, what possible outcome could there be other than rampant antinomianism (the belief that God’s commandments are optional)? But what exactly did the Westminster divines mean when they implied that our assurance is “founded upon” inward evidence? Behind this statement lies a practical syllogism: (major premise) True believers demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit. (minor premise) The fruit of the Spirit is present in me. (conclusion) I am a true believer. It should be obvious that the subjectivity of this argument is fraught with difficulty. While the certainty of salvation is grounded upon the (objective) work of Christ, the certainty of assurance is grounded upon the (objective) promises God gives us and the (subjective) discovery of those promises at work in us. And it is this latter consideration that gives rise to one or two problems. Theologians have made a distinction between the direct and reflexive acts of faith. It is one thing to believe that Christ can save me (direct act of faith). It is another thing to believe that I have believed (reflexive act of faith). Apart from the first consideration (that Christ is both willing and able to save) there can be no assurance of faith. Indeed, it is pointless to move forward with the discussion about assurance apart from a conviction of the truthfulness of this statement: “Christ is able to save those who believe.” Assuming, then, that there is no doubt as to the ability and willingness of Christ to save those who believe, how may I be assured that I have this belief? The answer of the New Testament at this point is clear: there is an “obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5; 16:26). True faith manifests itself in outward, tangible ways. In other words, the New Testament draws a connection between faithfulness and the enjoyment of assurance. True believers demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit, and this fruit is observable and measurable. Four Ways of Knowing The Apostle John addresses this very issue in his first epistle: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13). Apart from belief “in the name of the Son of God,” there is no point in furthering the discussion about assurance. The question at hand is, “How can I know if my belief is genuine?” And John’s answer emphasizes four moral characteristics of the Christian life. First, there is obedience to the commandments of God. “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments” (1 John 5:2–3). True faith is not and can never be antinomian. Second, there is practicing righteousness: “You may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him” (1 John 2:29). Those who have a genuine faith will display a life of faith, a life molded and shaped by the obedience of faith. They demonstrate a desire for godliness. Third, there is a radical breach with one’s former life. John expresses it radically (by employing a relative contrast in absolute terms): “We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning” (1 John 5:18; cf. 3:6, 9). The explanation of this admittedly difficult language requires more space than is allotted here, but it is clear enough that a true and genuine faith is incompatible with a continuation in the pattern of sinful behavior that characterizes the life lived in unbelief. Fourth, there is walking in love: “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death . . . whoever loves has been born of God and knows God” (1 John 3:14; 4:7). Loving our brothers and sisters is something dear to the Apostle John’s heart. After all, according to tradition, the elderly Apostle in Ephesus, carried by the arms of his disciples, was heard to repeat, “Little children, love one another.” And when asked why he kept repeating it, he answered: “It is the Lord’s command. And if this be done, it is enough.” These four marks then collectively contribute to an assurance that our faith in Christ is genuine. But what if I cannot discern these outward evidences in myself and wonder if they are lacking? Should I then conclude that my faith is hypocritical or insincere? Yes, that is a possible conclusion. But it is not necessarily the correct conclusion, because our assessment of the evidence of outward faith in these four marks may be faulty. We may be too hard on ourselves. We may doubt what others can clearly see. Satan may cloud our thinking. The lack of consistency may lead us to conclude that no evidence at all is present. And personality and disposition may lead us to negative assessments when a more objective scrutiny deduces a different conclusion. But the possibility exists that our faith may be insincere. What then? Faith in Evidence or Faith in Christ? And it is here that differences of counsel appear. A predictable counsel might be, “Try harder.” It is a comment I most remember from annual school reports—“Could do better.” A person who doubts the genuineness of his faith due to inconsistency of behavior would then be urged to “be more consistent.” Read more Scripture, pray with greater fervency, love with greater altruism, and so on. But what would such counsel achieve? First of all, it is doubtful that someone predisposed to read the presence of fruit negatively would fare any better in his evaluation simply by increasing effort. But more importantly, such counsel is predisposed to commit the fatal error of viewing the fruit of the faith as the root of faith. It is fundamentally predisposed to appeal to self-justification—something for which we are all hardwired. The counsel to “do more” in the belief that works provide the ground of assurance rather than the evidence of assurance is the path to legalism—and legalism in its proper sense. In his book The Whole Christ, Sinclair B. Ferguson urges a “gospel logic” to the effect that "there is no assurance of faith that can be experienced apart from faith." And it is here that one perceives a counterintuitive counsel that must be given to the one lacking assurance. To look to works (and the counsel to "do more works") as a means of gaining assurance is essentially counterproductive and pastorally deadly. Only Christ can save us, and assurance, when lacking, must be found by looking to Him. Apart from faith in Christ, no work on our part will assure us of anything except Pharisaism. Far from being a counsel to laxity, what this counsel intends to secure is an understanding that faith gives rise to obedience rather than obedience's giving rise to faith. And the difference is crucial. One gives rise to legalism; the other to evidentiary, evangelical (gospel-based) works. Abiding in Christ Is not this counsel (to look first to Christ) precisely what Jesus said in His final word to the disciples in the Upper Room? > Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:4–5) Bearing fruit, something that Jesus identifies as keeping His commandments (15:10), is intimately related to abiding in Him. It is in the sphere of abiding in Christ and not apart from it that fruit emerges. There is only one cure for a lack of fruit in our Christian lives. It is to go back to Christ and enjoy (yes, enjoy) our union with Him. The "love of Christ controls us" (2 Cor. 5:14). The Greek verb translated here as "controls" is elsewhere rendered as "surrounds" and "hems in" (Luke 8:45; 19:43). That's what the experience of abiding in Christ does—it hems us in to obedience. From such gracious love, compliance with His commands emerges. Disobedience drives Him away. But when we enjoy His presence, we also desire to "please him" (2 Cor. 5:9). And as we bear the fruit of this union, assurance grows.
  3. R.C. Sproul offered a succinct and profound statement on the relationship of church and state when he said, “The church is not calling the state to be the church. The church is calling the state to be the state.” When the state, and specifically the Supreme Court of the United States, decided Roe v. Wade, the state abdicated its role as the state. The decision in Dobbs v. Jackson is a major leap back to the state’s rightful position. That rightful position of the state can be found in the opening chapters of Genesis and also in what may very well be the most brilliant documents in the history of political philosophy—namely, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the Constitution, ratified in 1791). The Declaration of Independence’s opening sentence appeals to “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” That is the most stable, worthy, and certain foundation for all the particular laws that govern a body politic. The very next sentence enumerates particular “unalienable rights”—that is to say, rights that are absolute. They are not invented or created by human institutions. They exist. They are. Those rights govern men and are “endowed by their Creator.” Those rights are “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Liberty was the watchword of the modern revolutions, overthrowing the rule of the monarchies for the rule of law. But notice what comes first in the list of rights: life. The right to life is the fundamental and foundational human right. The founders of the United States may very well have invented a government with its three branches and bicameral legislature, but it did not invent the right to life. The Declaration merely declared what is already reality. The right to life stems from one unalterable truth: All human beings are made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26–27; 2:7–8). That means one unalterable conclusion: Murder is a violation of nature (Gen. 4; Ex. 20:13). That all human beings are created in the image of God means that all of human life is to be preserved and protected, and every body politic has the main function of protecting life. Governments that protect life are good, honorable, and just. Governments that don’t protect life are not good, are dishonorable, and unjust. This is why governmentally sanctioned abortion is so egregious. This is why abortion is the abdication of the state’s role. Abortion is especially egregious because of the victim, who is powerless and vulnerable. The Supreme Court suborned injustice in the Roe decision. One thing we know is that sin has consequences. The Roe decision had consequences not only for the tens of millions of lives aborted, but it also had consequences for the broader culture. R.C. Sproul, Francis Schaeffer, and others spoke of the culture of death. This is clearly illustrated in the work of Peter Singer, a longtime professor of ethics at Princeton University, who wrote, > I do not deny that if one accepts abortion on the grounds provided in chapter 6, the case for killing human beings, in other circumstances, is strong. Euthanasia is not something to be regarded with horror. Singer refers to chapter six of his book, in which he argues that the unborn child (he exclusively uses the word fetus) is not a life, and Singer further argues that the entire notion of sanctity of life is wrong. Then he moves from the fetus to the infant: “If we can put aside these emotionally moving but strictly irrelevant aspects of the killing of a baby we can see that the grounds for not killing persons do not apply to newborn infants.” We need to follow Singer’s train of thought. He denies the sanctity of human life. Then he justifies abortion as perfectly fine, even required in some cases. Then he justifies infanticide. Then he justifies euthanasia. This is “Exhibit A” of the culture of death, and this is the consequence of an unjust decision like Roe. Dobbs is not a perfect decision. As many have observed, Dobbs returns the issue of abortion to the states. The political battle over the abortion pill has already started. That is sadly true. Some also have pointed out that some elements of the concurrences of the Supreme Court Justices of the majority opinion were weak (Justice Clarence Thomas being the notable exception). Dobbs is not the end of the legal battles, but merely the beginning of a new phase. All that to say, the fight for life and the end of legalized abortion is not over. Nevertheless, there is much to celebrate here. The Dobbs decision is a giant step back to the culture of life declared in Genesis 1–2 and beautifully echoed in the founding documents of the United States. The decision of Dobbs holds, “The Constitution does not confer a right to abortion.” Those few words overturn decades of injustice and the murder of tens of millions of lives. Those few words uphold the Constitution, which is the singular task of the judicial system. The Dobbs decision is the state being the state—as ordained by God. Genesis 1–2 does not present an exclusively Christian ethic. These two chapters present the foundational ethics that govern human beings and their interaction with one other. Genesis 1–2 is the basis of ethics and law. Genesis 1–2 is what lets the state know that the state is to uphold the sanctity of all human life. For decades, faithful Christians have advocated for the state to be the state on the issue of abortion and to reverse Roe. Dobbs is the state fulfilling its obligation as the state. : R.C. Sproul, Ultimately Podcast Episode, “Calling the State to be the State,” November 5, 2021. : This line, written by Thomas Jefferson, reflects the thought of John Locke, who spoke of the nature’s laws as comprising “Life, Health, Liberty, or possessions,” and as “Life, Liberty, and Estate [the ownership of property],” John Locke, Two Treatises on Government, Edited by Peter Laslett (Cambridge University Press, 1967) 270–71. : Peter Singer, Practical Ethics – Second Edition (Cambridge University Press, 1999, first published 1993), 175. Singer wrote the first edition while a professor at Monash University in Australia. He has been a professor at Princeton University since 1999, currently holding an endowed chair. : Ibid. 150.
  4. The problem of evil has been defined as the Achilles’ heel of the Christian faith. For centuries people have wrestled with the conundrum, how a good and loving God could allow evil and pain to be so prevalent in His creation. The philosophical problems have generated an abundance of reflection and discussion, some of which will be reiterated in this issue, but in the final analysis, the problem is one that quickly moves from the abstract level into the realm of human experience. The philosophical bumps into the existential. Historically, evil has been defined in terms of privation (privatio) and negation (negatio), especially in the works of Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas. The point of such definitions is to define evil in terms of a lack of, or negation of, the good. We define sin, for example, as any want of conformity to, or transgression of, the law of God. Sin is characteristically defined in negative terms. We speak of sin as disobedience, lawlessness, immorality, unethical behavior, and the like. So that, above and beyond the problem of evil always stands the standard of good by which evil is determined to be evil. In this regard, evil is parasitic. It depends upon a host outside of itself for its very definition. Nothing can be said to be evil without the prior standard of the good. Nevertheless, as much as we speak of evil as a privation or negation of the good, we can’t escape the power of its reality. At the time of the Reformation, the magisterial Reformers embraced the definition of evil they inherited from the earlier church fathers in terms of privatio, of privation and negation. They modified it with one critical word. Privatio began to be described as privatio actuosa (an actual, or real, privation). The point of this distinction was to call attention to the reality of evil. If we think of evil and pain simply in terms of negation and privation, and seek to avoid the actuality of it, we can easily slip into the absurd error of considering evil an illusion. Whatever else evil is, it is not illusory. We experience the pangs of its impact, not only in an individual sense, but in a cosmic sense. The whole creation groans, we are told by Scripture, waiting for the manifestation of the sons of God. The judgment of God upon the human race was a judgment that extended to all things over which Adam and Eve had dominion, including the whole earth. The curse is spread far beyond the house of Adam into every crevice of God’s creation. The reality of this curse puts a weighty burden and uncomfortable cloak upon all of life. It is indeed a cloak of pain. Many years ago I had a dear Christian friend who was in the hospital going through a rigorous series of chemotherapy treatments. The chemotherapy at that time provoked a violent nausea in her. When I spoke to her about her experience, I asked her how her faith was standing up in the midst of this trial. She replied, “R.C., it is hard to be a Christian with your head in the toilet.” This graphic response to my question made a lasting impression on me. Faith is difficult when our physical bodies are writhing in pain. And yet, it is at this point perhaps more than any other that the Christian flees to the Word of God for comfort. It is for this reason that foundational to the Christian faith is the affirmation that God is sovereign over evil and over all pain. It will not do to dismiss the problem of pain to the realm of Satan. Satan can do nothing except under the sovereign authority of God. He cannot throw a single fiery dart our way without the sovereign will of our heavenly Father. There is no portion of Scripture that more dramatically communicates this point than the entire Old Testament book of Job. The book of Job tells of a man who is pushed to the absolute limit of endurance with the problem of pain. God allows Job to be an unprotected target for the malice of Satan. Everything dear to Job is stripped from him, including his family, his worldly goods, and his own physical health. Yet, at the end of the day, in the midst of his misery, while his home is atop a dunghill, Job cries out: “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). It is easy to quote this utterance from Job in a glib and smug manner. But we must go beyond the glib and penetrate to the very heart of this man in the midst of his misery. He was not putting on a spiritual act or trying to sound pious in the midst of his pain. Rather, he exhibited an astonishing level of abiding trust in his Creator. The ultimate expression of that trust came in his words, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him” (Job 13:5). Job prefigures the Christian life, a life that is lived not on Fifth Avenue, the venue of the Easter parade, but on the Via Dolorosa, the way of sorrows that ends at the foot of the cross. The Christian life is a life that embraces the sacrament of baptism, which signifies, among other things, that we are baptized into the death, humiliation, and the afflictions of Jesus Christ. We are warned in Scripture that if we are not willing to embrace those afflictions, then we will not participate in Jesus’ exaltation. The Christian faith baptizes a person not only into pain, but also into the resurrection of Christ. Whatever pain we experience in this world may be acute, but it is always temporary. In every moment that we experience the anguish of suffering, there beats in our hearts the hope of heaven—that evil and pain are temporary and are under the judgment of God, the same God who gave a promise to His people that there will be a time when pain will be no more. The privatio and the negatio will be trumped by the presence of Christ.
  5. The celebrated church father, Augustine of Hippo, wrote, “What then is time? Provided that no one asks me, I know. If I want to explain to an inquirer, I do not know.” He made this observation after a lengthy discussion on the nature of time and eternity. While his discussion was more abstract than the question at hand, Augustine’s statement reminds us that the concept of time is complex. Still, we all operate with a pretty straightforward understanding of minutes, hours, days, weeks, and years. But our way of counting time is not the only way. The Bible was written by authors from a variety of backgrounds, in a period and culture far different from ours. To be sure, none of these factors undermine the overall divine authorship of the Scriptures. On the other hand, recognizing these differences helps us understand what the authors meant—and did not mean—when they used everyday language to record when an event happened. In fact, the New Testament is eager for the reader to understand that it is documenting events that occurred in space-time history, as we understand it in an everyday sense. Time markers abound in its pages, from when Jesus met the terrified disciples on the turbulent sea (Mark 6:48), to the time He was crucified (Matt. 27:45), to how long He was in the grave (Luke 9:22; 24:7; 1 Cor. 15:4). As the texts above indicate, the biblical authors taught that Jesus was in the grave for three days. The Gospels tell us He was crucified on Friday and rose from the grave on Sunday (Mark 15:42–47; 16:1; Matt. 27:57–61; 28:1; Luke 23:50–56; 24:1; John 19:38–42; 20:1). But there seems to be a difficulty which surfaces when we compare these accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection and our Lord’s words in Matthew 12:40: “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” Critics allege that we cannot reconcile Jesus’ words with the Gospel accounts of His death, which place it at the “ninth hour” (Mark 15:34), or 3 p.m. in modern terms. If Jesus died at 3 p.m. on Friday and was raised early Sunday morning, how can we square those facts with Jesus’ statement in Matthew 12:40? The Scriptures seem inconsistent here. Skeptics have long seized on this seeming contradiction to discredit the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. The difficulty is apparent, not real. Returning to our earlier discussion on the nature of time, we need to step back and recognize that the Jews of the first century counted days differently than we do today. According to their understanding of days, part of any day counted as a full day. Again, most of us do not mark time like this. If, for example, a newspaper report describes a certain person doing something for three days, we immediately think of three, twenty-four-hour days. But once we understand how Jesus and the majority of Jewish people around Him understood days, the seeming contradiction vanishes. Jesus’ death at 3 p.m. on Good Friday counted as one day, His entombment all day Saturday counted as the second day, and His resurrection on Sunday morning counted as the third day. Therefore, Jesus’ prophecy in Matthew 12:40 and the facts of His crucifixion, burial, and resurrection are not at odds, but simply reflect the common way of understanding days in the first century. As with many other so-called Bible contradictions, a bit of reflection and some understanding of cultural differences help us see that there is no inconsistency at all. We are once again reminded that the Bible is truth (John 17:17). We can trust it. The facts it records really happened, even if they were detailed in a way foreign to our modern sensibilities. The more pressing question is, “Do we believe the Bible?” The futile search by critics to find Bible discrepancies like the one discussed here reveals an unbelieving heart. We must make sure such skepticism does not characterize our own hearts. Instead, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful” (Heb. 10:23). : Saint Augustine, Confessions: A New Translation by Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 230.