Why is my theology not changing my life? Or at least, not changing me as fast as I thought it would? Anyone who regularly plunges into the riches of Scripture and of the Reformed tradition will eventually face this very sobering and probing question. The topic was taken up by Pastor John and by the late R.C. Sproul at a Ligonier National Conference back in 2011. The conversation was on stage. There the dialogue turned toward how the mind and heart relate to the discovery of biblical truth. We jump into the conversation, beginning with Pastor John.
Behold and Be Changed
John Piper: I totally agree that the primacy of the affections is in terms of the mind serving the affections so that they’re not emotionalism, but real fruit of knowing. God is not honored by emotions based on falsehood. He’s only honored by emotions that are rooted in truth.
Now, here’s the practical issue: Lots of people know things and don’t get changed. Some of you are just discovering the doctrines of grace, and you’re just as crabby this year as you were last year. What’s wrong? Knowing leads to right affections and doing, but not quickly for everybody, or not immediately, or sometimes not at all. The devil knows quite a bit of theology and hates all of it. And he’s maybe more orthodox than most of us, but he can’t abide it. The reason is because he doesn’t know it as glorious. He doesn’t know it as beautiful.
I’m just going to add: to know something aright is not just to get the theological pieces in order and have the right quotes in the Bible, but to go to 2 Corinthians 3:18: “Beholding the glory of the Lord, [we] are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” Now, I would say the implication is that the veil is lifted by the Holy Spirit. This is Reformed, sovereign grace, lifting the blinding veil, so that now we don’t just see five points; we see five stunningly glorious, beautiful things about God. And it’s the beauty of them that changes us: beholding the glory, we are being changed.
‘Open My Eyes’
They asked me the other day in our little roundtable at Bethlehem College & Seminary, “We’re students here and we’re faculty here. What can we do so that we don’t just become academically big-headed and get it all right and not be changed or help anybody?”
The most practical thing I can say is that as you study from morning till night, pray at least every ten minutes that God would not let that happen, and would reveal himself to you as beautiful in the part of Scripture that you’re working on or the theological issue you’re working on. Ask him over and over again: “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law” (Psalm 119:18). Open my eyes. I’m staring at it right now. Nothing’s happening. Ask him, “Open my eyes.” Because I need to see not just truth, but beautiful truth, glorious truth, and that’s what changes. So, prayer, I think, would be the key.
You look like you’re ready to say something.
Beauty in the Heart of Worship
R.C. Sproul: No. I’m just sitting here eating that up, John. One place where I have felt so much alone in the ministry that I am involved with is I find so few people who have a passion for beauty. God is the foundation for the good, the true, and the beautiful. And you can distinguish among those three things, but you better never separate them.
And I love it when you sit here and talk about it, because you’re articulating what I’ve been trying to articulate for years. I’ve usually said that it’s not just enough to understand the truth; you’ve got to see the loveliness of it. You’ve got to see the sweetness of it. You talk about the glory of it, but you’ve added to it the beauty of it. And that’s it.
Our worship is supposed to be for beauty and for holiness. God went to such extremes in the Old Testament to communicate that principle of beauty in the heart of worship. That’s one of the great weaknesses of our tradition is that we seem to think the only thing that’s virtuous is ugliness and we have to get away from beauty. But everything that’s beautiful, even paintings painted by pagans, travesties — sometimes in spite of themselves — they call attention to the character of God, because everything beautiful bears witness to him because he is the source of beauty.
And that beauty is not just in the eye of the beholder. It’s there essentially in the character and the being of God himself. When you talk about it here, it just thrills my heart because we have to see how beautiful the truth is and how beautiful the God of the truth is.
I think that the enticement to sin is that sin promises pleasure. That’s the bad kind of hedonism. But it never delivers; it’s a lie. And that’s where our great deception is. We think that we can’t be happy unless we’re sinning. And sin can be pleasurable for a season, from one perspective. But it can never be joyful — ever. It can’t possibly bring joy because it’s not beautiful. It’s ugly. And we have that attraction to ugliness. Our basic makeup is to prefer the darkness rather than the light.
We live in a world that has been marred, seriously marred. It’s been vandalized. The glory of God is everywhere in the beauty of creation. The whole world is full of his glory. But we have vandalized that glory.
Escape Through the Promises
John Piper: It seems to me that the way Jesus argues is that the kingdom of God is like a man who found a treasure hidden in a field, and in his joy — from his joy — he went and sold everything he had and bought that field (Matthew 13:44). That’s the paradigm for how you get freed from the bondage to the world and sin and the devil. If you see the kingdom and the King as a treasure more valuable than your grandfather’s clock, your car, your computer, your books, your fame, and whatever, then it all becomes rubbish and you’re freed.
Before then, it had tremendous power. It held you. Sin has the power of pleasure. And the Bible breaks that power with the power of a superior pleasure. It severs the root of it.
His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. (2 Peter 1:3–4)
How do you escape from the corruptions in the world? Precious and very great promises of the glory and excellence of God. The sequence of thought in 2 Peter 1:3–4 is this: escape from corruption comes through a superior promise.
I think that the beauty of holiness, the more it goes deep and satisfies — really, really satisfies — the freer you become from pornography, and from the pleasures of resentment and bitterness that you want to hold on to, and from fear of man. These sins have their talons in us, and those talons are dislodged, not so much by duty — yanking them out like this — but by pushing them out.
Someone asked once, “What’s the easiest way to get the sin of air out of a glass?” Should you put a vacuum on it and suck the air out? No, just pour water in the glass. If you want to get the air out of the glass, just fill it with water. That would be the way I want to build holiness into my people’s lives.