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Ligonier Conference - R.C. Sproul
March 19, 2009
The subject of God’s holiness has been a theme at Ligonier Ministries since its infancy and it is good to revisit that theme this year, one year before Sproul’s book The Holiness of God reaches its twenty-fifth anniversary. And who better to introduce the subject and kick of the conference proper than Dr. Sproul? He preached tonight from Isaiah 45:1-8.
This is one of the strangest portions of divine revelation found anywhere in Scripture. At the time of its writing, Israel was in captivity to Babylon. But the message in this text is not addressed to somebody from Babylon. It is addressed to the future king of the Persian empire which would defeat the Babylonians and eventually liberate Israel to return to their homeland.
In verse 45 we read this word: “Thus says the LORD to his anointed (his messiah), to Cyrus.” This verse scandalizes the Jewish people that God would call a future gentile king his anointed. He is saying that he will give power to this king and his armies to lay waste to the dominant power. God is going to do all of this so Cyrus might know that God is the Lord.
Sproul has tried to imagine what would be going through Cyrus’ mind when he hears this prophecy for the first time. He sees Cyrus hearing these words in which this foreign deity announces that he would like to have a word with this king. Cyrus may well think “this is the lord of Israel but I am the lord of Babylon. This other lord must want to get together with me to plan out this military campaign.” But God does not allow him to rush to this conclusion. He adds to his declaration, “…there is no other. Besides me there is no God.”
Tonight we want to focus on this refrain: I am the Lord, there is no other. This declares the uniqueness of God, of the God of the Old Testament. We will consider what it is about the God of the Bible that is unique.
When we talk about the holiness of God, the term “holy” has two references:
- God’s otherness, the sense in which he is different from anything in the created world.
- His perfection in righteousness, his purity.
Only the second of these is a communicable attribute; the first belongs to God alone. It refers to his transcendent divine nature in which he is other than us.
In systematic theology when we try to detail the attributes of God, we struggle with the limitations of human language to do this. Theologians have relied on three distinct methods in which we describe the being and character of God.
The favorite of Augustine is the way of negation. In this way we define something by saying what it isn’t. God, then, is infinite. All this means is that God is not finite. A second way we use this way of negation is with the term “immutable.” All this tells us is that God is not mutable. Nothing defines creaturely existence like the idea of change. We are all constantly changing. That is simply the world in which we live in; but this category cannot be applied to God. He is the same yesterday, today and forever.
The second way is taking normal, earthly categories and exalting them to the nth degree. So we say that we, as humans, have the capacity to learn and to increase in knowledge. We may have plenty of knowledge, but we do not have all knowledge. We may have science, but God has omniscience. We all exercise some degree of power, but none of us have all power, omnipotence.
The third way is the way of affirmation. And this begins to take us to the extreme edges of our ability to comprehend God. We say that God alone is eternal and self-existent. Of all the theological attributes of God that are found in the theological tomes of history, the one that most sends chills up Sproul’s spine is the word aseity. If there is any word in the English language that captures the otherness of God, it is this one. It refers to his self-existence, that God and God alone has the power of being in and of himself.
A great quote as he discussed modern science which posits creation without a Creator: “Nothing has no is-ness.”
If there ever was a time when nothing at all existed, what could possibly exist now? Nothing! But if something exists now, it tells us that there never was a time when there was nothing. Everything that we know of, including the universe, had a beginning. Everything is contingent, derived from something outside of itself to lend being to it…except for God. He is not created. There was never a time when he was not. Eternally he is. He has that power of being in and of himself. There is nothing more profound to say about God than the way he reveals himself in the name “I Am Who I Am.” I Am the LORD and there is no other.”
Aquinas’ offered two proofs for God’s existence that rose above all others and Sproul discussed each of these quite briefly.
The first proof is that God is the “ends necessary,” that he possesses necessary being. He alone has being that is necessary and this makes him holy. We can define necessary being in two ways, ontologically and logically. When Aquinas said God has necessary being, he was saying that he’s the kind of being who cannot possibly not be. God is who he is from everlasting to everlasting and he cannot be anything other than what he is eternally in and of himself. His being is also logically necessary. There is no reason why Sproul should exist. There was a time when he did not exist. He can claim no logical necessity for his existence. But you need to leave your reason behind when you explore the idea that God does not exist. You have to stop thinking logically to think that the universe came into being by itself without God. Nothing could be more irrational that something comes from nothing. Logic demands that if something exists now, something always existed or you have to choose an irrational alternative.
We also need to consider from this text what this God does. He brings the light and the darkness, he brings well-being and calamity. After 9/11 it was unthinkable to the American people that God could have anything to do with calamity. We are people who believe that God can bless a nation but refuse to believe that he can also judge a nation. We believe this because we do not know who God is. The God of popular religion is not holy. This is not the God of Isaiah 45—the God who brings calamity, the God who brings the bear market and the bull market, who pulls kingdoms up and tears kingdoms down. “I will raise you up Cyrus, but I can also tear you right down.”
The two books Sproul has written that have received more attention than any other, he says, are The Holiness of God and Chosen by God. He so often hears how much people like the first but hate the second. One of two things must then be true: either you didn’t understand The Holiness of God or you didn’t understand Chosen by God. The God who is holy is the God who is sovereign. The God who is transcendent in his majesty is the Lord. He brings good things and he brings bad things. This is the God with whom we have to do.
He closed with these words: “Let me give you some pastoral counseling if you do not like this God: tough!” This God is the only one we have. You may try to make and fashion another one; you might prefer a different one. But there is no other. “I am the LORD your God, there is no other…”