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United in the Truth

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
The Truth Network Radio
May 28, 2024 12:01 am

United in the Truth

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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May 28, 2024 12:01 am

Christians must maintain unity in the truth, not at the expense of truth. Today, R.C. Sproul illustrates why true harmony in the church can never come from compromising sound doctrine.

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Meet Today's Teacher:

R.C. Sproul (1939-2017) was known for his ability to winsomely and clearly communicate deep, practical truths from God's Word. He was founder of Ligonier Ministries, first minister of preaching and teaching at Saint Andrew's Chapel, first president of Reformation Bible College, and executive editor of Tabletalk magazine.

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Nathan W. Bingham is vice president of ministry engagement for Ligonier Ministries, executive producer and host of Renewing Your Mind, host of the Ask Ligonier podcast, and a graduate of Presbyterian Theological College in Melbourne, Australia. Nathan joined Ligonier in 2012 and lives in Central Florida with his wife and four children.

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Renewing Your Mind is a donor-supported outreach of Ligonier Ministries. Explore all of our podcasts: https://www.ligonier.org/podcasts

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The church is always plagued with errors, or at least members who are in error in their thinking and in their belief. But when an error becomes so serious that it threatens the very life of the church, when it begins to approach a doctrinal mistake that affects the essentials of the Christian faith, then the church has had to rally to stand up and say, this is not what we believe, and that this false belief is heresy and cannot be tolerated within the visible church.

R.C. Sproul often reminded us that yes, doctrine divides, but doctrine also unites. We must find our unity in the truth and not in error or indifference. Welcome to Renewing Your Mind. This is the Tuesday edition.

I'm your host, Nathan W. Bingham. True unity is always found in the truth, which is why Ligonier Ministries is so careful with the teaching that appears in our discipleship resources, whether here on Renewing Your Mind, our vast podcast and teaching series libraries, the articles and books we publish, and at the events that we host. So when you support Ligonier Ministries and Renewing Your Mind, you can know that you're supporting the spread of trusted and faithful Bible teaching. And if you do support us today with a donation at renewingyourmind.org, we have two resources for you as our way of saying thanks. You can learn more about that offer at renewingyourmind.org. As you and I face pressure from society to shrink back from our beliefs, it's vital out of our love for the Lord and for the purity of the bride of Christ that we seek unity in the truth.

Here's Dr. Sproul to explain. We're looking at the doctrine of the church, the bride of Christ. How do we understand the characteristics of a church? We've looked at the ancient creeds which declared the four qualifications for the church of Christ, that it is one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic.

And we've begun this study by looking, first of all, at this concept of the oneness or the unity of the church. And in our first session, I looked at some of the historical problems that have emerged as a result of the ecumenical movement which seeks to bring as much visible organizational and institutional unity to the church as we possibly can, and how in the wake of that movement the churches have found it necessary to broaden their theological base, their confessional base, in order to accommodate divergent theologies within the institution. I used an illustration that I encountered with the confessional change in the denomination in which I was ordained later on in that particular church's history, and I don't want to pick on that church because this is just illustrative of what's going on in many, many denominations. A crisis occurred several years ago over what was known as the Kazeman decision, where a minister and theologian within a local presbytery, when he was examined for transfer into the presbytery, refused to affirm the deity of Christ. And in addition to his refusal to affirm the deity of Christ, he categorically denied the substitutionary atonement of Christ as well as other historic doctrines of Presbyterianism. Now, something happened on that occasion that has become exceedingly rare, and that is a man's credentials were challenged over his theology in what was tantamount to a heresy trial.

Heresy trials rarely take place in this day and age, though they were commonplace in earlier days within church history. But I want to be careful here that this particular gentleman would not affirm the deity of Christ, but nor was he willing to deny the deity of Christ. He was basically agnostic about the deity of Christ. He would not say Jesus is God. He said God is God, and no matter how much he was pressed to affirm the divine nature of Christ, he wouldn't make that affirmation.

He wouldn't deny it, but he wouldn't affirm it either. And so the case reached the highest judicatory of the church, and in that session where the General Assembly of the church heard the case for this gentleman's views, the church did two things at that General Assembly. On the one hand, the church reaffirmed her conviction in the historic creeds of Christianity and of the particular institutional church. They reaffirmed the doctrines set forth in their creeds, including the deity of Christ and the substitutionary atonement of Christ and so on, and at the same time declared that Mr. Caseman's views were, quote, within the acceptable limits of interpretation of those creeds. I had never seen anything like this in church history before, where the church on the one hand reaffirmed its conviction of a certain doctrine and then said at the same time that a person who categorically denied the doctrine was within the reasonable limits of interpretation of the doctrine.

It's like having your cake and eating it, too. It's saying, we as a church still affirm these truths, but you don't have to embrace these truths to be within the guidelines of the Confession. So people walked away with an excedrin headache, and it was kind of like, now you see it, now you don't. Is the church now doing theology with mirrors? That was a serious moment, I believe, in church history. But again, it was illustrative of this phenomenon that we call pluralism, because the idea of pluralism, again, is to allow for a wide divergency of belief. Now, there's always been a certain level of pluralism within historic Christianity.

I once had a course in graduate school in the Netherlands that had an unusual title. The title of the course was The History of Heresy, and we as students had to examine some of the most volatile theological controversies of church history going back to the early centuries. In fact, the churches struggle in the New Testament era with Judaism, for example, and the Evianite heresy, and then later on with the Docetic heresy and the Gnostic heresy, and then the great church councils that had to deal, for example, at Nicaea with the Arian heresy, and in the fifth century with the Eutychian Monophys, heresy everywhere. The church has always had to deal with heresy, and the church has always made a distinction between heresy and error, and it's a distinction not of kind, but of degree. The church is always plagued with errors, or at least members who are in error in their thinking and in their belief. But when an error becomes so serious that it threatens the very life of the church, when it begins to approach a doctrinal mistake that affects the essentials of the Christian faith, then the church has had to rally to stand up and say, this is not what we believe, and that this false belief is heresy and cannot be tolerated within the visible church. That's what has happened historically with the conflicts over theology. And I'm going to make a distinction here for you, and I hope that it's a meaningful one.

There are errors that we would call non-essential. That is, salvation is not at stake. We may debate what is the proper mode of baptism. Is it immersion? Is it sprinkling? Is it dipping?

What is it? But there are a few, there are some, but there are a few people in Christian history who argue that that mode of administering of the sacrament is essential to Christianity and essential to salvation. But as I said, there are very few people who would take that position. Now, on the other side of the coin, most Christians will grant that all truth is important and that all obedience in the Christian life is important. And though we differ on certain things, we recognize that we are all trying to be pleasing to God and do what's right and obedient to the Scriptures and so on, but we just don't agree on some of the details on what the Scripture actually teaches. Now, with respect to sin in general, the Bible speaks of a charity or a love that covers a multitude of sins. And yet there are also particular sins that are so egregious, so heinous in New Testament terms, that they require discipline in the life of the church and actually in many cases formal trials that may lead actually to excommunication of someone. We remember the incestuous man of the Corinthian church, and Paul had to rebuke the Corinthian congregation because they didn't discipline this man, and this man's sin was scandalizing the whole church, and the Corinthians were called to admonish and rebuke him and if necessary excommunicate him if he remained impenitent, which in fact happened. The man was excommunicated.

Then what happened? Then he repented, and now the church won't let him back in, so Paul had to write them again and say, look, first of all, you were too lax with your discipline, and now that the point of the discipline has been successful, you've recovered your brother, now you're being too severe and too stern, and you won't let him back in. And so the Corinthian community erred in both directions with respect to the incestuous man. But the point is, in the New Testament, there's not a provision for having excommunicating disciplinary action over every sin that we commit. Rather, there is to be a love, a patience, a tolerance, a long suffering that is characteristic of Christian people that we bear with one another's weaknesses in a patient and loving manner, not trying to make a federal case out of every difference of opinion. All of that is to say simply that historically the church has recognized that there are differences that are not of the essence. They're not essential to salvation, and they don't affect what we call the esse, E-S-S-E, which is the Latin term for essence, being, or substance of the church. Now, there are some issues that affect the very essence of Christianity, and those are the issues that have covered the most disturbing controversies of doctrine in the history of the church. But there's another level, and that is there are those errors that are not necessarily mistakes with respect to the essence of Christianity, but they do impact what we call the bene, E-S-E, B-E-N-E, E-S-S-E. And bene is simply the word for well in Latin, and so we're making a distinction between those errors that impact the being of the church, those major heresies, and then lesser heresies that impact the well-being of the church. And so the church, in trying to preserve unity historically, has always at the same time also had to face the problem of maintaining the purity of the church. Now, we'll look more at the purity of the church when we look at the second qualification, namely that the church is holy.

But right now, we're still concerned about unity. My great fear in this generation is that what we're seeing take place is a kind of ecumenical movement, a kind of movement to unity, that in order to achieve unity, neutralizes and relativizes doctrine, where we begin to negotiate essential truths like the deity of Christ, like the atonement of Christ, and all for the sake of visible unity. Now, this crisis that the church is facing today is largely a result of the impact of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment on the historic church, both Catholic and Protestant, as it came to its strongest manifestation in the nineteenth century with the advent of what was called nineteenth-century liberalism.

And I want to talk about that for a moment. I wrote the word liberalism on the blackboard here and used a capital L for this reason. To be liberal just simply means to be free and open, and considered in and of itself, the term liberal I believe describes a virtue. But when you put that suffix "-ism-" on the end, we're talking about a particular school of theology, the redemptive historical school, that appeared in force in the nineteenth century and had massive influence on the visible church across denominational lines. It began basically with German theologians who attacked the supernatural dimensions of historic Christianity and denied, for example, the validity of the biblical miracles, the virgin birth, the atonement of Christ, the resurrection of Christ, the ascension of Christ, and tried to reduce the Christian faith to a moral code or a system of values. One member of this group in the nineteenth century left the visible church saying to attempt to redefine Christianity after 1900 years by this radical difference from the biblical affirmations which are full of supernatural assertions such as the virgin birth, the resurrection, and everything, is simply dishonest. And that integrity demands that if a person comes to the place where they're convinced that what the Bible teaches about the person and work of Christ simply isn't true historically, that they should be honest at that point and say, I'm not a Christian, at least not in the historic classical sense, and I don't really put any stock in the New Testament records.

But that's not what the vast majority of the liberals did. Instead, they sought to maintain their standing in the visible churches and indeed to capture the power structures of the visible churches by first of all capturing seminaries and colleges and boards and agencies of the major denominations, and that's what happened. So that at the turn of this century, you had a catastrophic struggle in America that was known as the modernist fundamentalist struggle. Now that struggle from a historical perspective may be easily distorted and misunderstood because the term fundamentalism or the term fundamentalist has undergone a significant change from its early use at the turn of the century to the way it's used today. If you would go out in the church today and ask the question, what is a fundamentalist, usually the answer will be something like this, somebody who's definitely Arminian in their theology, somebody who's moralistic in their theology, somebody who has a literalistic approach to Scripture, somebody who is opposed to serious theology.

It's kind of characterized or caricatured as a backwoods, uneducated, pietistic, narrow-minded, bigoted ignoramus. I mean, that's kind of the cloak that fundamentalism covers today. Originally, the term fundamentalist was used by very serious scholars. One of the leaders was a professor of systematic theology at Princeton Seminary in New Jersey, and what these men, who were the main Calvinists, not Arminian, highly educated theologians, were saying that the issue with modernism was an issue that regarded the foundational premises, the fundamental truths of biblical and historic Christianity, truths that the Roman Catholic Church, for example, would certainly maintain without being called, quote, fundamentalists in the pejorative sense in which I've just mentioned it. And this controversy at the turn of this century really began the proliferation of church splits as people in all kinds of churches were facing the influence of liberalism within their denominations. And so, the churches began to be divided inside between the liberals and the conservatives, or between evangelicals and modernists. And for many, they continued to coexist within large denominations, but it was anything but a peaceful coexistence. And what has since happened is, in many cases, the churches have split, so much so that we've seen that the mainline churches are not even mainline churches anymore in terms of size and influence. The growth rate among evangelical churches has been steadily upward, whereas in the mainline churches that were captured by liberalism were on a downward trend. One denomination, I know over a period of ten years, lost over a million members. And so, we face this crisis today where the people are scrambling to find the church, to find the church in her historic biblical unity.

And we'll look at some of the ways in which that has taken place in our next session. I'm amazed how often I meet people who seem to have little awareness of the distinctive theology of 19th century liberalism. There still seems to be a public trust of pastors, where if you find out from a poll that a certain number of pastors don't believe in the deity of Christ or the atonement of Christ or the virgin birth of Christ, you find in certain denominations almost 80% of the ministers there say they don't believe in the virgin birth of Christ. And people are shocked by that. They say, well, why would somebody be a minister and not believe in these things? And I say, well, there's nothing new about that.

I mean, we've had this problem for quite a long time. And I can remember when I was in seminary, a student was in a class, a homiletics class on preaching, and he happened to give a sermon on the substitutionary atonement of Christ. And the way this would proceed was at the end of the student sermon, the professor of the homiletics class would then give a critique or evaluation of the person's preaching. Now, the idea was to critique the delivery, not the content, because the homiletics professor was not a theologian or a biblical scholar, but was there to teach voice and gestures and delivery and sermon construction and so on. Well, this particular day, this fellow preached on the substitutionary atonement, the seminary where I attended. And when he stepped down from the pulpit, the professor was livid.

He was furious. And he literally screamed at the student and said this, how dare you preach the substitutionary atonement in this day and age. See, we're shocked when there are people who are in the church who don't believe the historic tenets of Christianity. They're shocked whenever they find anybody that does believe historic Christianity. I just was reading a theologian the other day on a particular historic classical doctrine of the faith, and he made the glib observation. Nobody believes that anymore.

And I thought, well, maybe I ought to write him a letter, unless I'm nobody. But these are the struggles that we have as we seek the unity of the church. If no one believed the truths of Scripture, they would still be true.

So you and I stand firm, unmoved, despite the changing views of those around us. This is the Tuesday edition of Renewing Your Mind, and you just heard a message from R.C. Sproul's ten-part series, The Bride of Christ. Dr. Sproul goes into greater detail than you'll hear this week on Renewing Your Mind, so I encourage you to give a gift of any amount at renewingyourmind.org. And as our way of saying thanks, we'll give you lifetime digital access to all ten messages and the study guide, plus we'll send you a copy of In the Year of Our Lord. This hardcover book from Sinclair Ferguson surveys each century of church history, from the first century to the 20th. What is unique about this overview is that he also shares a hymn from each century, giving us an insight into the worship of the church. Dr. Ferguson dedicated this book to Vesta Sproul and in deep gratitude for R.C. Sproul. Give your gift at renewingyourmind.org by clicking the link in the podcast show notes or by calling us at 800 435 4343. We said earlier that truth unites, that doctrine unites, the doctrine also divides, and that's R.C. Sproul's theme tomorrow, here on Renewing Your Mind.
Whisper: medium.en / 2024-05-28 03:01:26 / 2024-05-28 03:09:39 / 8

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