In the January/February 2015 issue of Expositor magazine, Dr. Steven Lawson had the opportunity to sit with R.C. Sproul for a candid interview about the gospel and preaching. Below is the transcript that appeared in the magazine.
R. C. SPROUL is founder and president of Ligonier Ministries in Orlando, FL. Dr. Sproul’s teaching can be heard on the program Renewing Your Mind, which is broadcast on hundreds of radio outlets in the United States and in more than 40 countries worldwide. He is executive editor of Tabletalk magazine and general editor of The Reformation Study Bible. Dr. Sproul currently serves as the director of Serve International and co-pastor of Saint Andrew’s in Sanford, FL. He is the author of more than eighty books and scores of articles. Dr. Sproul has produced more than 300 lecture series and has recorded more than 80 video series on subjects such as the history of philosophy, theology, Bible study, apologetics, and Christian living.
You have written a book entitled Getting the Gospel Right. Perhaps the best place to begin is, what is the gospel?
There is probably no term used more loosely in the church than the term “gospel.” You hear preachers say all the time that they are “ministers of the gospel” or that they “preach the gospel,” but many times they have no idea what the gospel actually is!
During my years teaching seminary, one of the D.Min. classes I taught was on justification. What I would characteristically do is put the word “gospel” on the blackboard and ask the ministers who were present to give me a definition of the gospel. They would say things like, “getting peace in your life,” “being reconciled with God,” “gaining purpose and self-esteem.” All of those things were true to a degree, but none of them qualified as a definition for the gospel. Several years ago, Michael Horton conducted a survey of one hundred people at a convention for Christian Booksellers asking the question, “What is the gospel?”. These were people who were seriously involved with Christian education. Yet when their responses were evaluated, only one adequate answer was provided.
To answer the question “What is the gospel?” is rather simple. The gospel is Jesus, the person and work of Christ—who Jesus is and what He did. The gospel also describes how the benefits of His ministry are subjectively appropriated. That’s why the doctrine of justification by faith alone was so pivotal at the time of the Reformation, because it wasn’t a secondary matter but rather had to do with the gospel. Essentially, the pressing question that the gospel answers is, “How can an unjust person become just in the sight of God?”
Another way of approaching the question is to examine the apostolic preaching, particularly the preaching in the book of Acts. Historically, when speaking of the gospel message, we have made a distinction between the kerygma and the didache. The kerygma was the proclamation the early church made to the world, and once people respond to that they receive the didache, or the teaching. When Paul went to Athens and preached, he didn’t have time to start with Abraham and go all the way through Malachi. Yet he was able to present in a nutshell the message of the truth of God and of the history of redemption, which culminates in the person and work of Christ.
If we analyze that kerygma found in the book of Acts, we will see the message that this Man was born of woman, of the seed of David, according to the Scriptures. He lived a sinless life, made a sacrificial atonement on the cross, was raised by God from the dead for our justification, and ascended into heaven to the right hand of God, where He is crowned Lord of lords and King of kings, from where He will return and judge the world. The benefits of this is reconciliation, forgiveness of sins, and justification, from which we get peace with God, which is received by faith alone. That is the gospel.
One of the biggest problems we face in the church is preaching to people who are unconverted but think they are converted. They have made a profession of faith by walking an aisle, raising their hand, or signed a prayer card, and they think because they have done those things they have been truly converted. Just because we profess to have faith doesn’t mean that we have it.
I think can of two classical sermons that address this same theme. One was from Gilbert Tennent, “The Danger of the Unconverted Clergy,” and the other was from Jonathan Edwards, “A Warning to Professors.” This was Jesus’ great warning: “This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me” (Matt 15:8). He ends the Sermon on the Mount by saying, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness’” (Mt 7:21–23).
For me, it is liberating to be a pastor in a single location for a long time, because that allows me to preaching verse-by-verse through whole books of the Bible. I don’t have to lay awake thinking what verse I should preach; the text dictates that for me.
Preachers are accountable to preach the whole counsel of God. So, if I’m not bound to preaching through books, I can intentionally or unintentionally fall into the “hobby-horse syndrome” of preaching only the texts I like or want to preach. But when the preacher is dedicated to verse-by-verse exposition, he can’t avoid preaching the whole counsel of God.
Within expository preaching more broadly, I have found it tremendously encouraging to preach through the four Gospels. I enjoy this so much, because it is an excellent opportunity to tell people as much as you can about Jesus. Every single night, I pray for an awakening in our church. Getting the Gospels in front of people as much as possible allows their minds to be filled with Christ, that the Spirit might bring them all to a saving knowledge of Christ.
What are some of the distinguishing marks of preaching with a desire for conversions?
Sunday morning worship is primarily for the believer. I don’t establish our worship on the needs or desires of “seekers,” because no one seeks after God by his or her own initiative. Instead, I establish our worship for believers. But, at the same time, as Augustine said, the church is always a “mixed body.” This idea did not originate with Augustine but with Jesus. So, we know that on any given Sunday morning, the odds are great that there are going to be unbelievers present at our worship service.
On the one hand, if you preach an evangelistic sermon every Sunday morning and focus your attention on the unbeliever exclusively, you have missed the point of corporate worship. The church is there to grow into the maturity of Christ through learning from the expounded Word of God. On the other hand, at the same time that my primary focus is on expounding the text for the benefit of the believer, I am also acutely conscious that there are unbelievers present. As a result, I almost always make an evangelistic appeal to unbelievers, letting them know that if they died tonight they would wake up in hell. There are many ways to make evangelistic appeals without spending the primary time doing so.
I do not believe I personally have an extraordinary anointing of God during my preaching like some men such as George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and others experienced during their ministries. Therefore, I struggle with the inadequacy of my preaching. This struggle is exacerbated by not seeing the kind of response that I would love to see in response to the Word of God. That is why I pray all the time that God will move the people listening to the preaching of His Word.
Even though I often feel very inadequate, I am fully and completely confident in the power of the Word. The Word is not going to return void. When I preach the Scriptures, week in and week out, in an expository manner, people may not remember what I preached on several weeks ago, but there is still a cumulative effect that is building up in their lives. The power of the Word is what changes and transforms the hearts of people.
As Spurgeon ascended to his pulpit, he would repeat over and over to himself, “I believe in the Holy Spirit, I believe in the Holy Spirit.” As I am walking up into the pulpit of my own church, I remind myself, “I will lift up my eyes to the mountains; From where shall my help come? My help comes from the Lord” (Ps 121:1). God has revealed Himself in His Word, and there is no substitute for that.
I am reminded of the well-known illustration of Vince Lombardi picking up a football before his players and saying to them, “This is a football, am I going too fast for you?” Before today’s modern preachers, I would pick up a Bible and say to them, “This is a Bible, am I going too fast for you?” In other words, when we start anywhere other than with the Bible, we go every way but the right way. I am not providing a technique for success. This is the job and duty of the preacher of the Word of God. Forget your entertainment and other gimmicks, and preach the whole counsel of God!
All biblical preaching puts Christ at the center of the message. Why do we say the message we preach is an exclusive message?
I cannot imagine an affirmation that would meet with more resistance from contemporary Westerners than the one Paul makes in 1 Timothy 2:5, “For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” This declaration is narrow and downright un-American. We have been inundated with the viewpoint that there are many roads that lead to heaven, and that God is not so narrow that He requires a strict allegiance to one way of salvation. If anything strikes at the root of the tree of pluralism and relativism, it is a claim of exclusivity to one religion or one God. A statement such as Paul makes in his first letter to Timothy is seen as bigoted and hateful.
Paul, of course, is not expressing bigotry or hatefulness at all. He is simply expressing the truth of God, the same truth Jesus taught when He said: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14:6). Paul is affirming the uniqueness of Christ, specifically in His role as Mediator. A mediator is a go-between, someone who stands between two parties that are estranged or involved in some kind of dispute. Paul declares that Christ is the only Mediator between two parties at odds with one another—God and men.
Why, then, does Paul say there is only one mediator between God and man? I believe we have to understand the uniqueness of Christ’s mediation in terms of the uniqueness of His person. He is the God-man, that is, God incarnate. In order to bring about reconciliation between God and humanity, the second person of the Trinity united to Himself a human nature. Thus, Jesus has the qualifications to bring about reconciliation—He represents both sides perfectly.
People ask me, “Why is God so narrow that He provided only one Savior?” I do not think that is the question we ought to ask. Instead, we should ask, “Why did God give us any way at all to be saved?” In other words, why did He not just condemn us all? Why did God, in His grace, give to us a Mediator to stand in our place, to receive the judgment we deserve, and to give to us the righteousness we desperately need? The astonishing thing is not that He did not do it in multiple ways, but that He did it in even one way.
Notice that Paul, in declaring the uniqueness of Christ, also affirms the uniqueness of God: “There is one God.” This divine uniqueness was declared throughout the Old Testament; the very first commandment was a commandment of exclusivity: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exod 20:3). So, Paul brings all these strands together. There is only one God, and God has only one Son, and the Son is the sole Mediator between God and mankind.
In thinking through the narrow terms of the exclusivity of Christ and of the Christian faith, let me ask you to think through the ramifications of putting leaders of other religions on the same level as Christ. In one sense, there is no greater insult to Christ than to mention Him in the same breath as Muhammad, for example. If Christ is who He claims to be, no one else can be a way to God. Furthermore, if it is true that there are many ways to God, Christ is not one of them, because there is no reason one of many ways to God would declare to the world that He is the only way to God.
There is much discussion today about the role of the law in preaching the gospel. What is the relationship between the law and the Christian?
“O how I love your law!” (Ps 119:97). What a strange statement of affection. Why would anyone direct his love toward the law of God? The law limits our choices, restricts our freedom, torments our consciences, and pushes us down with a mighty weight that cannot be overcome, and yet the psalmist declares his affection for the law in passionate terms. He calls the law sweeter than honey to his mouth (Ps 119:3).
What is it about the law of God that can provoke such affection? In the first place, the law is not an abstract set of rules and regulations. The law reflects the will of the Lawgiver, and in that regard it is intensely personal. The law reflects to the creature the perfect will of the Creator and at the same time reveals the character of that Being whose law it is.
When the psalmist speaks of his affection for the law, he makes no division between the law of God and the Word of God. Just as the Christian loves the Word of God, so we ought to love the law of God, for the Word of God is indeed the law of God.
The second reason why the psalmist has such a positive view of the law is that the law, by revealing God’s character, exposes our fallenness. It is the mirror that reflects our own images—warts and all—and becomes the pedagogue, the schoolmaster that drives us to Christ. The law does not drive us out of the kingdom but rather ushers us into the kingdom by directing us to the One who alone is able to fulfill its demands.
The most wonderful function of the law, however, is that it shows us what is pleasing to God. The godly man is the one who meditates on the law day and night (Ps 1:2), and he does so because he finds his delight therein. By delighting in the precepts of God, he becomes like a tree planted by rivers of living water, bringing forth its fruit in its season (Ps 1:3). Our Lord said, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15), but we cannot show that love for Him unless we know what the commandments are. A knowledge of the law of God gives to us the pattern of loving obedience. If we love the Lord, we must also love His law. To love God and despise His law is a contradiction that must never be the profile of the Christian.
God gives us His law not to take away our joy, but rather that our joy may be full. His law is never given in a context of meanness, but in the context of His love. We love the law of God because God loves His law and because that law is altogether lovely.
As expositors, we are responsible for preaching and presenting the message of the gospel. Our responsibility stops there, for it is the work of the Holy Spirit to draw the soul to Christ. What is the role of the Holy Spirit in salvation?
The monergistic work of regeneration by the Holy Spirit is an immediate work. It is immediate with respect to time, and it is immediate in the sense that it operates without intervening means. The Holy Spirit does not use something apart from His own power to bring a person from spiritual death to spiritual life, and when that work is accomplished, it is accomplished instantaneously.Here we have a classic either/or situation. A person is either born again, or he is not born again. There is no nine-month gestation period with respect to this birth. No one is partly regenerate, or almost regenerate. When the Spirit changes the disposition of the human soul, He does it instantly. A person may not be aware of this internal work accomplished by God for some time after it has actually occurred. But though our awareness of it may be gradual, the action of it is instantaneous.
When the Holy Spirit regenerates a human soul, the purpose of that regeneration is to bring that person to saving faith in Jesus Christ. That purpose is effected and accomplished as God purposes in the intervention. Regeneration is more than giving a person the possibility of having faith; it gives him the certainty of possessing that saving faith.
The result of our regeneration is first of all faith, which then results in justification and adoption into the family of God. Nobody is born into this world a child of the family of God. We are born as children of wrath. The only way we enter into the family of God is by adoption, and that adoption occurs when we are united to God’s only begotten Son by faith. When by faith we are united with Christ, we are then adopted into that family of whom Christ is the firstborn. Regeneration therefore involves a new genesis, a new beginning, a new birth. It is that birth by which we enter into the family of God by adoption.