In the Old Testament God required many different sacrifices and offerings from both the people and the priests. Some were required daily, some weekly, some monthly, and some yearly (see for example Lev 1-7; Num 28-29). These offerings and sacrifices would have taken both a financial toll on the people as well as a physical toll, as the Temple in Jerusalem was the only authorized place to present offerings to God. From north to south Israel is about 150 miles, and from east to west spans approximately 75 miles. Jerusalem sits in the southern part of Israel. Thus traveling to Jerusalem to offering a sacrifice would have been no small task. Nonetheless, sacrifices and offerings were the means of worship which God had prescribed in the Old Testament, and a way in which one could demonstrate their devotion to God--a way of suffering for the Lord. In fact, the word sacrifice by definition implies the suffering of loss.
However, the simple act of presenting offerings and sacrifices to the Lord was never enough for God. In the Old Testament, the attitude of the heart in the giving of the offering or sacrifice was just as important to God, if not more. Of course Cain is the first and classic example to illustrate this point. There in Genesis 4 we read: “ In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard” (vv. 3-5). Notice the text says that Cain brought to the Lord “an offering of the fruit of the ground”. Yet with regards to Abel's offering we are told that he brought “of the firstborn of his flock”. It's not so much that Abel brought something better, and it's not that God prefers sheep or goats over fruits and grain—this is clear from the fact that God prescribes the use of grain offerings in Leviticus 2—rather it has to do with the attitude of the heart in the giving of the offering. It may be that they both thought that giving something to God would be costly and difficult, a suffering of loss, thus Cain sought to minimize his suffering by offering something less costly. Yet by the very act of doing so he was murmuring against that which God had willed for his life at that moment.
We see a similar event in 1 Samuel 15 where King Saul had been commanded by God to utterly destroy the Amalekites, “both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey” (v.3). Yet Saul decides to spare the “best of the sheep and of the oxen and of the fattened calves and the lambs, and all that was good” (v. 9). When Saul tries to explain that he had brought the best of what the Amalekites possessed so that he might offer them to God, Samuel replies: “Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams” (v. 22). We cannot miss the point that the issue is not merely about obedience vs. disobedience, but is about the heart attitude that causes obedience or disobedience. Obedience stems from a heart that desires to honor God, that trusts God, that believes his word even when it doesn't make sense to do so. Disobedience stems from a heart that lacks confidence in God, that does not fully trust God, and questions the wisdom of God. In the end, Saul's biggest problem was a heart issue--not simply an obedience issue.
The problem is magnified by the late 5th century BC when we see in Malachi chapter 1 that God will reject the offerings of the people because they are despising God's name. “But you say, 'How have we despised your name?' By offering polluted food upon my altar. But you say, 'How have we polluted you?' By saying that the LORD's table may be despised. When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that not evil? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that not evil?” Again it cannot be missed that the issue here is not simply a disregarding of Old Testament law, but a heart issue that leads to that disregard. This is the very issue that Jesus would later condemn the Pharisees about in Matthew 15. “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: 'This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me'” (vv. 7-9). Regardless of the sacrifices and offerings they would present to God, their worship was in vain because their hearts were far from Him.
In Romans 12:1-2 the apostle Paul makes clear that worship for God is not just singing, and it's not just what we do on Sunday mornings, worship is how we live and think and and feel and what we believe. Worship is the whole of who we are and what we do. Thus, just as worship in the Old Testament, which entailed the suffering of loss through costly sacrifices and offerings, was accepted by God, and was glorifying to God when rendered from a heart that desires to honor God, that trusts God, and believes his word. So also when we experience suffering in this life by the foreordained will of God, we offer acceptable worship to God when we endure suffering with a heart that desires to honor him, that trusts him, and believes his word. When we murmur about the suffering which God has called us to walk through, while simultaneously attending church and engaging in other Christian activities, we become like Cain and the Jews of old who suffered the loss of sacrifices and offerings--halfheartedly. It is for this reason James writes that we should“count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, [knowing] that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness” (1:2-3). Or, that Paul could write “we rejoice in our sufferings” (Rom 5:3). When we endure sufferings with joy, with confidence in God, with a heart that fully believes God is working all things for our good and for his glory (Rom 8:28), we render to God acceptable, glorifying, honoring worship.
On December 14, 2017, Dr. Robert Charles (R.C.) Sproul went to receive his reward. He was a pastor, teacher, theologian, and trailblazer. To say that Evangelical Christianity has lost a giant would be an understatement. Born on February 13, 1939, he earned his Doctorate degree from the Free University of Amsterdam in 1968. He is the founder of Ligonier Ministry and has authored over 100 books and articles. I will not spend much time discussing his life and ministry as I am sure there are far more qualified scholars and historians who can do that. I would, however, like to discuss the impact R.C. Sproul has had on my own life and on Evangelical Christianity.
Very early in my Christian life there were two works of Sproul which had a profound impact on my life and future ministry. The first was a video series based on his book The Holiness of God. In those series of lectures Sproul introduced me to what it means to serve a holy God. He helped me fully understand the richness and depth behind the words of the angelic beings who continuously sing before the throne: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Isaiah 6:3). He was the first to teach me that although it is true that Jesus is our friend, our brother, and companion, he is first and foremost the King of kings and the Lord of lords and should be honored and reverenced as such. For a young believer from Southern California who had been greatly influenced by Calvary Chapel churches and the spiritual descendants of the Jesus Movement, this was mind-blowing and life-altering. The idea that Jesus is not in heaven on his hands and knees pleading for unbelievers to come to repentance and believe in him. He is not in heaven pulling out his hair in frustration at the direction of world events and the choices people make. Rather, Jesus sits upon his throne and governs and directs all of world history with a mighty arm, moving everything toward its predetermined end. He is the Sovereign Ruler who “upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Heb 1:3). I found this biblical truth to be enormously comforting. In a world filled with uncertainty, it was profoundly comforting to know that the course and ultimate end of my life is not determined by my ability to make wise decisions or to accurately weigh pros and cons, but instead is being guided by a loving, merciful, sovereign, and holy God.
Sproul’s book, The Holiness of God, also helped me to understand and grasp the gospel in a deeper sense. The gospel is not merely that the Son of God took on human flesh, came to earth, and died on a cross for our sins, though that would certainly be enough. More accurately, however, the gospel is about the King of the universe, the Creator and Sustainer of all that is, the Sovereign Ruler, and Holy God, stepping down from his majestic throne, setting aside his robe, and being willing to satisfy the Law’s demand for absolute perfection and the Law’s demand for death as a consequence of sin. In the words of Sproul, ‘if all Jesus had to do was die on a cross, then why didn’t he just parachute down from heaven and do so?’ Jesus had to live the perfect life of obedience for us, which God’s Law demands, which we could never do for ourselves. The idea that the King of the universe would do this for me was truly amazing, and it catapulted my life to a greater level in the pursuit of holiness and godliness. More than ever before I wanted to be like Christ and glorify Christ.
A second book by Sproul I read early in my Christian life was one which he wrote in the midst of the controversy surrounding the “Evangelicals and Catholics Together Statement” (1994). He wrote a book titled Faith Alone: The Evangelical Doctrine of Justification (1995). In that book he taught me that God is the just Judge of all the universe and cannot allow even one crime against his divine law to go unpunished. This of course places all of us on the horns of a dilemma. We can either allow someone else to pay the penalty for us or we can pay it ourselves in eternal damnation. However, how can a holy and just God allow sinners into heaven without violating his own standard of justice? How can God remain just and be the justifier of the ungodly? As Sproul explains in his book, the answer is not the Roman solution that sinful humans must earn their righteousness by means of fulfilling the sacraments of the Church. If this were true, then how can people ever be certain they have earned enough righteousness to satisfy the just Judge of all the earth? Rather the answer is found in the biblical doctrine that sinful humans are declared not guilty by the Judge of heaven and earth based on the imputed righteousness of Christ which comes to us by faith alone in Christ alone. In other words, in his perfect life of obedience to the Divine Law Jesus earned the righteousness for us which we could never earn for ourselves. Then at the moment we place faith in Christ, that righteousness is imputed (or credited) to us. Christ did the work, but we--who believe in Christ—receive the credit. As Paul writes in Romans 4, “Now to the one who works [to the one who strives to earn his righteousness by means of good deeds], his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly [to the one who does not strive to earn God’s favor but simply places faith in Christ], his faith is counted as righteousness” (vv.4-5). When Sproul introduced this truth to me it was as if the weight of the world had been lifted from me. For I knew that if the Judge of all the universe had declared me not guilty, there is no one who has the authority to reverse his ruling. I am henceforth forever free! What a glorious truth! This was the second biblical truth in my early Christian life that compelled me to live for God’s glory with every fiber of my being. It was part of what God used to compel me into pastoral ministry. For I soon realized there are a great many Christians out there who do not fully understand the holiness of God nor completely grasp the beauty of justification by faith alone in Christ alone.
In the end, R.C. Sproul was a trailblazer who was instrumental in recovering the gospel for the second time since the Protestant Reformation. He was the tip of the spear in bringing about a second great awakening, as it were. He helped to bring to the forefront of Christian conversation and into the pulpits of Evangelical churches important biblical truths regarding the holiness of God, justification by faith alone, the sovereignty of God in salvation, and the total depravity of all mankind. He will be greatly missed, but I am certain if the Lord tarries, his books and writings will be studied and read for centuries to come. Farewell Dr. Sproul, and soli Deo gloria!