Category Archives: Scripture

An Admiring Look at the Greatest Popularizer of Reformed Theology

R.C. Sproul: A Life, Stephen J. Nichols.  Wheaton: Crossway, 2021.  Hardcover, 371 pages.

Back in the early 90s, there was a fuss in the pages of our denominational magazine over what one of the pastors was doing with his catechism students.  This pastor was having his youth listen to tapes of an “outside” Reformed theologian.  That theologian was R.C. Sproul.  As I recall, that was my first introduction to his name.  A short time later I was browsing the theology stacks in the Rutherford Library at the University of Alberta.  For a public university, the U of A actually had a remarkable collection of Reformed theology works.  I spotted a book by R.C. Sproul, The Holiness of God.  I borrowed the book and wolfed it down in short order.  I was impressed, not with Sproul, but with God’s holiness.  Especially the explanation of Isaiah 6 left me in awe of the Holy One.

Part of the legacy of R.C. Sproul was his profound gift to make Reformed theology accessible to everyone.  When he died in 2017, many spoke of the way God used him to convey biblical truths clearly and effectively.  This biography, the first, highlights the life and work of the man I’d call the greatest popularizer of Reformed theology. He had a knack for making complex things simple. Here’s a great sample of the man in action:

The author, Stephen J. Nichols, was a friend and admirer of Sproul.  Nichols’ affection is impossible to disguise.  As is often the case with this sort of less-than-arms-length biography, we get a good understanding of the main lines of Sproul’s life and influence, but we don’t really see the man “warts and all.”  This biography is edifying and informative, but the author’s relationship to his subject (and the Sproul family) brings in a measure of restraint to what he can and does tell.  I’m sure someone in the future will write a scholarly, critical biography telling us a fuller picture of the Sproul story.

Sproul was involved with several important stories during his lifetime.  One was the struggle for biblical inerrancy beginning in the 1970s.  Sproul was a pivotal figure in the establishment of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy.  He wrote the first draft of the articles of affirmation and denial for the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.  Nichols devotes a whole chapter to this topic. 

There’s also a whole chapter dedicated to Sproul’s defence of the biblical doctrine of justification.  A document was released in 1994 entitled, “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” (ECT).  Some of the original signers of this statement were close friends of Sproul, especially Charles Colson and J.I. Packer.  ECT compromised on the doctrine of justification, how we’re declared righteous by God.  Sproul and others pointed out how ECT’s compromise formulations left out the crucial element of imputation – i.e. that Christ’s righteousness is credited to us by God.  Sadly, the controversy over ECT ended Sproul’s friendships with Colson and Packer.  The story, as told by Nichols, inspires readers to discern which hills are truly worth dying on.  If justification isn’t worth it, what is?

It’s hard not to love R.C. Sproul.  I loved him before reading this biography and I love him more after.  That doesn’t mean I’ve always agreed with everything he’s stood for.  Apologetics is one area where I have to respectfully disagree with him.  Nichols stresses Sproul’s contributions to the revival of what we call classical apologetics.  This approach stresses the use of rational arguments to argue towards God, and from there towards the God of the Bible, and from there towards the truth of Christianity.  Contrasted with classical apologetics is Reformed, presuppositional apologetics.  This approach argues for the truth of the Christian worldview taken as a whole by pointing out that unless Christianity is true, no reasoning is even possible.  This was the approach championed by Cornelius Van Til.

On the topic of apologetics, this biography leaves me with some questions.  According to Nichols, Sproul went to seminary “committed to presuppositional apologetics” (p.59), but had his mind changed by John Gerstner.  One of his most influential college professors had been a student of Van Til and, apparently, impacted the young Sproul.  Here’s the important thing to realize:  presuppositional apologetics is inextricably bonded to Reformed theology.  You can be an Arminian and hold to classical apologetics, but it should be impossible to be an Arminian and hold to Reformed apologetics.  That’s why I’m confused when Nichols writes the following:  “R.C. went to PTS [Pittsburgh Theological Seminary] a presuppositionalist and a non-Calvinist” (p.63). If he really was a presuppositionalist, he can’t have had a very good understanding of it if he still wasn’t Reformed.  It gets more interesting, because later in the book, we discover that Sproul spent time visiting with Cornelius Van Til at his home in Philadelphia.  Yet, when you read his (co-authored) book Classical Apologetics and its critique of Van Til, it seems Sproul didn’t really understand him.

That leads me to one last point of critique on the apologetics theme.  In 1977, there was a debate between R.C. Sproul and Greg Bahnsen on apologetical method – classical versus presuppositional apologetics.  You can find this debate online here.  Bahnsen was a formidable debater and, even though it was brotherly and cordial, by the end Sproul was conceding Bahnsen’s key points.  Sadly, Stephen Nichols doesn’t mention this debate at all.  I’m left wondering:  what did Sproul think about that debate in the following years?  If Sproul conceded those points during the debate in 1977, how does one explain the publication of Classical Apologetics in 1984, in which Sproul reasserts the claims he had to earlier walk back?  I’m perplexed.   

Sproul did have a change of mind on several matters through his lifetime.  One of those mentioned by Nichols is the meaning of the word “day” in Genesis 1-2.  Sproul came around to the conclusion that “day” there is essentially what we understand as a day today.  However, it would’ve been interesting if Nichols had shared how Sproul changed his thinking and how that was received by others.

I couldn’t put this biography down.  It’s engaging and well-written.  If you’ve ever read anything by Sproul or heard any of his talks, this volume will give you a greater appreciation for him and what God did through him.  And if you’ve never been blessed by Sproul’s lifetime of promoting Reformed theology, this will be a great introduction.                 


Don’t Waste Your Time Reading Leviticus

If you’re like me and you follow some kind of Bible reading plan, inevitably you arrive at Leviticus.  The plan I’ve been using this year had me in this book for about 2 chapters a day over 2 weeks.  Chapters about clean and unclean, different sacrifices, ceremonial laws regarding priests – in the past I’ve read through it all, but, to be honest, not without much pleasure or profit.  This year I thought to myself:  “How can I make the best use of my time in this part of God’s revelation?  How can I avoid wasting my time as I read this book?” 

There are different ways.  One would be to find a readable and reliable commentary which both explains Leviticus in its original context and also shows how it points to Christ and applies to Christians (if anyone knows of such a commentary, I will allow comments for this post – please do share!).  Another way would be to use the notes in a sound study Bible.  Sometimes those notes can steer you in the right direction.

Another way, which I used this time around, is to find reliable sermons on Leviticus.  If you go to SermonAudio, there are some 3,260 sermons on Leviticus.  I can’t vouch for how reliable all of them are, but I’m sure some of them would be, especially those preached in confessionally Reformed and Presbyterian churches.  However, listening to a sermon on even one chapter of Leviticus could involve a significant time investment.  Some might have that time, but many others won’t. 

For many others, reading a sermon on a chapter or two might be more feasible.  If you go to a website called The Seed, you’ll find 17 sermons on Leviticus.  These sermons are suitable for reading and personal study.  There aren’t sermons on every chapter, but on enough to at least generally read one per day.

The last resource I’ll mention is the Family Worship Bible Guide.  As the title indicates, it was originally written for family devotions, but it can be equally useful for personal Bible study.  Each chapter of the Bible has notes to help Christians understand and reflect on what God is saying to us.  Let me give a couple of examples from Leviticus.  One of the notes on Leviticus 3 reads:

There are significant parallels between the peace offering and the communal meal that believers can experience at the Lord’s Table.  The table is not a sacrifice but it declares the fact of the sacrifice Christ offered that removed every barrier, obstacle, and impediment to our fellowship with God as believers; it declares that we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.  Rejoice in the One who accomplished this on your behalf!

And this is one of the notes on Leviticus 9:

After Aaron offered the sacrifice to the Lord, he lifted up his hand toward the people and blessed them (v.22).  We are reminded of when our Lord “came out” from death and the grave having finished His work.  As He ascended to heaven, “he lifted up his hands and blessed them” (Luke 24:50).  How is the blessing of Christ better than that of Aaron?

The Family Worship Bible Guide is written from a Reformed perspective – it’s both reliable and helpful.  I can’t recommend it enough.

We believe the Bible is clear.  God’s written revelation is not an impenetrable mystery.  However, even Scripture itself says that not all parts of the Bible are equally clear.  Peter famously says that some passages of Paul are “hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:16).  With Leviticus the passages are not always hard to understand in their original context.  The challenge really comes in understanding their relevance for us as Christians.  We can be thankful that help is available and we ought to avail ourselves of it.    


Are Christians Perfect? Yes…and No

Atheists and agnostics love to discredit God’s Word by trotting out Bible contradictions.  You can easily find lists of them online.  We shouldn’t be afraid of these “contradictions.”  The vast majority of them have simple explanations which easily defang them.  Let’s briefly look at one of these alleged contradictions.  It involves these two passages: 

Philippians 3:12, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” 

Hebrews 10:14, “For by a single offering he [Christ] has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” 

Do you see the issue? 

In Philippians 3:12, Paul writes that he is not yet perfect.  But Hebrews 10:14 says that all Christians have already been made perfect.  So which is it?

At times referring to the original Greek will help.  Sometimes the same English word might be used to translate two different Greek words.  Those two different words might have some degree of nuance in meaning.  But that’s not the case here.  In this instance, the Greek words are exactly the same — even the tense is the same.  They’re both the perfect tense of the verb teleioo.

Context is always crucial in biblical interpretation.  It’s easy for atheists and agnostics to lift a Bible verse out of its context and then misconstrue it as being in contradiction with some other passage.  As the old saying goes, “A text without context is a pretext.”    

If we look at the context of Phil. 3:12, Paul is writing about his life as a Christian.  In verse 10 he mentions sharing in the sufferings of Christ and becoming like him.  In verse 13, he writes about forgetting what’s in the past and “straining forward to what lies ahead.”  This is about the life of a Christian.  It involves a process of change.                   

The context of Heb. 10:14 is quite different.  The author of Hebrews is writing about the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ and what it has accomplished.  In verse 11, he points back to the Jewish priests who offered continuous sacrifices “which can never take away sins.”  But Christ, with his single offering, has made a sacrifice which did take away sins.  The author of Hebrews is writing about what Christ has definitively done for our salvation.

In other words, we’re not faced with an “either…or” between Phil. 3:12 and Heb. 10:14.  There’s no contradiction.  Instead, it’s a case of “both…and.”  It depends on your point of view.  From the point of view of sanctification (the process of growing in holiness), we are far from perfect.  There is much remaining sin in our lives and Christians can therefore be properly described as “wretched sinners” – as the Heidelberg Catechism does in Lord’s Day 51.  But from the point of view of our standing before God because of what Christ has done – from the point of our justification – we have been perfected.  In God’s sight, because of the finished work of Jesus Christ, we stand completely righteous. 

So, to summarize, Phil. 3:12 is speaking from the viewpoint of sanctification while Heb. 10:14 is speaking from the viewpoint of justification.  There’s certainly no contradiction between these passages.  Since our Lord Jesus said that God’s Word is truth (John 17:17) we can be confident that the Bible will never contradict itself.     


Can You Read?

When I first started in ordained ministry, I was a missionary in a small, remote community in north-central British Columbia.  Some of the people there were functionally illiterate.  A few could barely speak English.  My wife and I had the privilege – and the challenge – of bringing the gospel to this village.  It’s an experience that’s shaped me to the present day and one I’ll never forget.  A few years ago I wrote a book about our time there and all the ups and downs — you can find it here.

In that book, I mention a wonderful couple named Charlie and Marion.  They were involved with our little mission congregation from the start.  In fact, our sending church had been doing outreach in the village long before we arrived and Charlie and Marion were often involved.  They struggled with things in their life, but they were usually warm to the gospel.  When they were home, they almost always attended our worship services.

I also visited them regularly to read the Bible with them.  You see, Charlie and Marion were virtually illiterate.  Because of their age and other factors, they never did learn how to read.  And yet I wanted them to hear God’s Word, not just on Sunday, but through the week too.  They told me they wanted that too.

One day I was reading Evangelical Missions Quarterly when I spotted something about a unique way to reach illiterate people with the Word of God:  the Talking Bible.  The Talking Bible looked like a Bible, but it had a tape player inside it which would allow you to hear the Bible being read.  The Talking Bible (in dozens of languages) is still around, but of course, the technology has improved vastly.

Charlie and Marion seemed to enjoy their Talking Bible.  I say that because every week or two I still had to come and visit – but now to replace the batteries in their Talking Bible.  For these people who couldn’t read, they were now able to hear the Word of God every day.

If you couldn’t read, what measures would you go to still access the Scriptures?

When I was a seminary student, I read somewhere the story of William McPherson.  He lived sometime in the early twentieth century.  He worked at a stone quarry in Colorado.  He’d recently become a Christian when he had a terrible accident.  Some dynamite exploded in his face, blinding him, and also causing him to lose the use of his hands.  As he began his recovery, he had a hunger for the Word of God.  He heard of a woman in Britain who’d learned to read Braille with her lips.  McPherson couldn’t do that because the accident had damaged the nerve endings around his mouth.  But he still had his tongue.  He learned to read Braille with his tongue.  Over the next 65 years, McPherson read through the Bible four times – reading it in Braille with his tongue.  Talk about dedication!

Now, if you couldn’t read, what measures would you go to still access the Scriptures?

But you can read!  You’re reading this.  Yet how often don’t we neglect one of the greatest gifts God has given, his Word?  Dear reader, thank God today that you can read, that you have the precious gift of literacy.  Don’t take that gift for granted!  Thank God today that you have the Bible in your own language — you have unfettered access to all the wonders of the gospel.  Then let the prayer of Psalm 119:103 be your aspiration too:  “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!”  Those words were never truer than when fulfilled by our Lord Jesus, but they’re to become increasingly true of Jesus’ disciples too.


Sproul: Infallibility and Inerrancy

In his little booklet Can I Trust the Bible? R.C. Sproul discusses the terms “infallibility” and “inerrancy.”  I appreciate the way he describes the difference and the need to maintain both:

The church historically has seen that the Bible alone, of all the written literature in history, is uniquely infallible.  The word infallible may be defined as “that which cannot fail”; it means something is incapable of making a mistake.  From a linguistic standpoint, the term infallible is higher than the term inerrant.  Though the words have often been used virtually as synonyms in the English language, there remains a historic technical definition between the two.  The distinction is that of the potential and the actual, the hypothetical and the real.  Infallibility has to do with the question of ability or potential; that which is infallible is said to be unable to make mistakes or to err.  By contrast, that which is inerrant is that which, in fact, does not err.  As an illustration: a student can take a test made up of twenty questions and get twenty correct answers, giving him an inerrant test.  However, the student’s inerrancy in this restricted arena does not make him infallible, as mistakes on subsequent tests would verify. (pp.26-27)

This is a good illustration of what medieval theologian John Duns Scotus called a formal distinction.  Infallibility and inerrancy are both characteristics of Scripture.  They can be distinguished, as Sproul did above, but they cannot be separated.  They belong together.