Mysticism has gained popularity in our day, but it’s far from a new idea. In this brief clip, R.C. Sproul contrasts the true communion shared between Christ and His people with the mystical teachings of the philosopher Plotinus. Watch the full message today.
But for Plotinus, the good life, the virtuous life, is the life of the mystic who makes a pilgrimage along life’s way from being preoccupied with the physical word, where most people spend their lives just as materialists. Their whole life is focused on things that you can handle, taste, touch, see, and hear, and that sort of thing. And, he said that the first step beyond that is to the contemplative life, whereby the mind rises above the shadowy cave of Plato, where people are locked into the world of material things, the world of the receptacle. Remember, Plato wanted us to get out of the cave of sense perception and into the realm of the mind, where contemplation is the highest source of truth. Well, Plotinus adds a new dimension to this. There is still another stage after that, and it is the stage of “mystical union.” Now, how does this fit with Christianity? You read the New Testament, and there are obviously elements of mysticism found within it. Paul is up in the third heaven, and Paul talks about our union with Christ, what we would call the “mystical union” of the believer with Christ, and so on. But there is different kind of thinking in historic Christian mysticism from what we find in these ancient philosophers. For the ancient mystic, this stage of progression, this movement, this pilgrimage that I have talked about begins with sense perception, or sensation, and then moves to contemplation, and then it moves to what the mystics call “communio,” which is a being “with” God, a communion with God. We talk in Christian theology about the “communion of the saints” and the sense in which we have fellowship with each other, not only with those who are alive, but also with those who were part of the church past, present, and future. But that’s more or less the end of the road for Christian mysticism: the highest form of mysticism is to have this mystical communion with God. But not so with Plotinus and other mystics. The next stage is “unio,” where you become “one with” God. Now, this is a common feature in Eastern religions, where the goal of your religious experience is to lose your personal identity, to become one with the “over-soul.” So often, you will hear the illustration of the drop of water that falls into the ocean and loses its identity as it becomes absorbed into the whole of things. Now, this is significant for Plotinus because of his concept of God. For Plotinus, God is called “the One.” He calls God “One” in such a way that would suggest a pure pantheism. But most experts who study Plotinus say that Plotinus was not really your garden-variety pantheist. In fact, he tried to avoid pantheism and at the same time avoid Christianity, but still the highest being is called “the One.”
God promised to take away Israel’s heart of stone and give His people a heart of flesh. But weren’t Old Testament believers already born again? From one of our Ask R.C. events, R.C. Sproul explains what this promise entails.
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“If the Word does not dwell with power in us,” wrote Puritan John Owen, “it will not pass with power from us” (The Works of John Owen, vol. 16, p. 76.). This godly minister personified this truth in his personal life and public ministry more than three centuries ago. For years he carried the message of Jesus Christ into the trenches of a culture as chaotic as our own while simultaneously dealing with the death of his wife and all eleven of his children. John Owen was no ivory tower theologian, but rather a zealous pastor who worked to the brink of exhaustion to further the work of the Reformers. He is remembered for shining gospel light into the spiritually dark arenas of politics and academia. And his love of Scripture was clearly and forcefully articulated from the variety of pulpits into which God called him.
Yet what gave John Owen success in ministry was not so much his oratory skill, nor his evangelistic zeal, nor even his love for the people he shepherded. John Owen was used mightily by God in all these ways because he was a man characterized by personal holiness. And in an age when the church is emulating the world, where it is no longer distinguishable from our pleasure-oriented culture, the example of John Owen shines like a beacon on a stormy night.
Let's consider whether we have allowed contemporary culture to infiltrate our minds and hearts. Have we inverted Christ’s desire that the church be in the world by bringing the world into the church instead? If we take an honest look, perhaps we’ll discover that we are contributing to this trend. Rather than relying solely on the sufficiency of God’s Word, are we employing counselors in our churches who apply worldly methods of psychological analysis to address felt needs? Have we adopted worldly means to reach the seekers who sit skeptically in the back pews rather than offering them the truths of the Gospel and the Christian life? Faithful teaching of God’s Word is vanishing. Are we among the number that have replaced preaching with elaborate drama productions aimed at entertaining? In terms of covenantal relationships, the rate of divorce and remarriage reflects societal statistics. Where do we stand on this issue? The church has become tolerant of all kinds of biblical compromise, casting aside principles that Owen and his contemporaries would have given their lives to protect and defend.
Unlike Owen, we are in danger of falling prey to the belief that without entertainment and other-worldly concessions, no one will want what Jesus offers. Let's not forget the exchange, in the nineteenth chapter of Matthew's gospel, between Jesus and the rich young ruler when Jesus told the man the realities of true discipleship. As the rich man realized that personal sacrifice is required to live in God’s kingdom, he walked away. What did Jesus do? He did not do what many churches do today: run after the man in an effort to make the Gospel more appealing. No, Jesus let him go, because the only terms on which anyone can truly follow Christ are God’s terms.
Owen engaged the culture without capitulating to it because his chief desire was to reflect God's purity in his life and ministry. He remained faithful in his preaching to the truths of Scripture — even in the face of life-threatening persecution — because of his commitment to holiness. People flocked to hear Owen preach because he reflected God’s character. Owen wrote, as noted in Peter Toon's book God's Statesman: The Life and Work of John Owen: “I hope I may own in sincerity that my heart's desire unto God, and the chief design of my life … are, that mortification and universal holiness may be promoted in my own life and in the hearts and ways of others, to the glory of God, so that the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ may be adorned in all things” (p. 56).
I fear that personal holiness is not a priority within the church — even among its leaders — as it was in the days of the Puritans. Many ministers are often nowadays more concerned with visual growth and success than with cultivating personal purity. That was certainly not the case with John Owen. Rather than devoting much time to developing innovative amusements for the worship hour, Owen made private communion with God a top priority. He understood why the apostle Paul wrote: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Rom. 12:2). The Word of God is the means employed by the Holy Spirit to transform us into the image of Christ, so if preaching and evangelism are to be effective, private communion with God in His Word must be more important than discovering the latest ministry technique. Owen wrote that “whatever else be done in churches, if the pastors of them, or those who are so esteemed, are not exemplary in gospel obedience and holiness, religion will not be carried on and improved among the people” (Works, vol. 16, p. 88).
Yet holiness isn’t just a necessity for ministers. If the church is to recover its distinctiveness, holiness is a requirement for each individual member. Hebrews 12:14 says,“Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.” Unless we recover this emphasis on holiness, how will the world look in and be able to see the Jesus we profess? Evangelistic efforts will ring hollow if such efforts are not accompanied by personal purity.
This post was originally published in Tabletalk magazine.
It’s time for our weekly $5 Friday sale. This week’s resources include such topics as Martin Luther, the Canons of Dort, reformed theology, grace, Richard Sibbes, and more.
Plus, several bonus resources are also available for more than $5. These have been significantly discounted from their original price. This week’s bonus resources include:
- The Legacy of Luther, Audiobook CD $20 $12
- By Grace Alone: How the Grace of God Amazes Me by Sinclair Ferguson, Hardcover book $18 $10
- Getting the Gospel Right by R.C. Sproul, Paperback book $18 $9
- Saving the Reformation: The Pastoral Theology of the Canons of Dort by W. Robert Godfrey, Hardcover book $19 $12
- Faith Alone by R.C. Sproul, Paperback book $18 $10
Sale runs through 12:01 a.m.–11:59 p.m. Friday ET.
Sometimes, even if we know that something is wrong, it can take a bit to see the ugly side. Starting the generator right outside the door on the porch might seem like a good idea in a thunderstorm, but the headaches caused by carbon monoxide poisoning will soon enough tell us otherwise. Like anything else that Scripture warns us about, anxiety also has some very damaging effects. The New Testament word for anxiety, merimna, is also translated “care” or “worry.” Because anxiety is real and prevalent in our world, so is the impact. And while anxiety may come from imagined scenarios, real and present issues, or a sense of impending doom, a life of perpetual anxiety makes it impossible to love God and neighbor as we should. Regardless of the cause or source, anxiety disrupts life on multiple levels.
The official blog 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.