Posts Tagged 'God’s sovereignty'

7 Side Benefits of Grace, Part 3

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Most of us are familiar with this definition of “grace”: God’s unmerited favor. That’s a good, solid, simple definition, and again most of us relate grace to God’s treatment of us in salvation. God saved us – He forgave us – when we didn’t deserve it and He continues to treat us better than we deserve. True enough. But most of us don’t think about grace much in our day-to-day lives. I call these “side benefits” of grace, but they really aren’t “side benefits” at all. Each of the seven is a big deal to the beneficiaries of them. Each of the seven helps us to live a fearless, courageous Christian life.

So far, we’ve looked at four of the seven:

  • God names each of us by a name of His choosing. He knows us that well;
  • God is so aware of us and He is so close to us He actually has the number of hairs on our head numbered;
  • He watches us so closely He has our very steps counted;
  • He pays such strict attention to how we talk about Him, He not only records our words but He has written our names down in His big black book in Heaven.

Those are all marvelous side benefits of God’s grace.

Let’s continue with the final three side benefits of God’s amazing grace.

God bottles our tears, Psalm 56:8 KJV

Thou tellest my wanderings: put thou my tears into thy bottle: are they not in thy book? (Psalm 56:8 KJV)

Psalm 56 has been called “the cheerful courage of a fugitive” by Old Testament scholars. David was a fugitive for part of his life; he didn’t always live the easy life on the throne in Jerusalem! While he was a fugitive, he had it bad –

Fearfulness and trembling are come upon me, and horror hath overwhelmed me. And I said, Oh that I had wings like a dove! for then would I fly away, and be at rest. (Psalm 55:5, 6 KJV)

That’s the cry of a man on the run; pursued by a relentless enemy bent on his destruction. David, the mighty warrior-king-poet, was for part of His life, a scared man hiding out in caves, behind trees, and in ditches. And he had good reason for be fearful. King Saul wanted him dead, the enemies of Israel wanted him dead, or alive so they could torture him and make sport of him. In Psalm 55, he’s a man with his back against the wall, but in Psalm 56, he’s writing with some conviction. What he wanted in Psalm 55, he received in Psalm 56. He’s still surrounded by the enemy. He’s still in mortal danger. But through all that, David realized that God was still by his side. In fact, God was more than just with him – God had been delivering Him every step of the way.

The historical background of this psalm has to be noted. David had been captured by the Philistines in Gath. He was in the worst possible place a man of God could find himself in: more or less helpless, surrounded by the enemy, with no way out in sight.

Be merciful unto me, O God: for man would swallow me up; he fighting daily oppresseth me. Mine enemies would daily swallow me up: for they be many that fight against me, O thou most High. (Psalm 56:1, 2 KJV)

What David wrote here, while poetic-sounding, was really happening to him. He was surrounded – literally covered up – by the enemy. What can a believer do when the forces of Satan are arrayed around him? David tells us –

I will trust in thee. (Psalm 56:3b KJV)

David was afraid. Fear is a very real thing that every believer has to deal with from time to time in life. Anybody who says they are never, ever afraid lies about other things, too. Fear is real. But, at the same time, no believer ever has to fear. When those real feelings of fear come on you, you don’t have to entertain them. When the fear hits, do what David did: trust in God. Each of us must learn to do this because fear and faith cannot exist in the same person at the same time.

Love contains no fear—indeed fully-developed love expels every particle of fear, for fear always contains some of the torture of feeling guilty. This means that the man who lives in fear has not yet had his love perfected. (1 John 4:18 JBP)

Love casts out fear. But it’s not just any kind of love. It’s not the love between husband and wife or parent and child, it’s God’s love for you. Yet, it’s more than that. It’s you taking your eyes off yourself and the thing that you fear, and appropriating God’s perfect love.

Verse 8 tells us that God knows “your wanderings.” Yes, He knows where you’re going and where you’ve come from. God never stops keeping track of your comings and goings. Sometimes your wanderings get into trouble – you get into deep water. When that happens, then this happens:

put thou my tears into thy bottle…

Regarding this verse, John Bunyan notes:

God preserves our tears in a bottle, so that He can wipe them away.

We cry for all kinds of reasons. We get angry, and we cry. We get sad, and we cry. We get scared, and we cry. Those are the tears God wants to wipe away, bottle up, and get rid of. A side benefit of God’s grace is that God cares when we hurt. This really is a phenomenal statement of God’s unending compassion. No believer needs to carry any burden. Let that burden go – in the form of tears, if you like – and let God bottle them up and take them away.

God takes our hands, Isaiah 41:13

For I am the Lord your God who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you. (Isaiah 41:13 TNIV)

That’s a verse of tremendous comfort to Christians, and it is an incredible side benefit of God’s grace. No non-Christian can enjoy this close relationship with God. Only you can, if you have made Christ Lord of your life. But when you understand this verse’s historical context, it becomes even more incredible.

In Isaiah 41, the prophet shouts out a challenge to all the idolatrous nations surrounding Israel.

Be silent before me, you islands! Let the nations renew their strength! Let them come forward and speak; let us meet together at the place of judgment.” (Isaiah 41:1 TNIV)

So, God has a word or two for those heathen nations. But God calling out these nations occurs within the context of His deliverance of Israel from Babylon. The instrument of His deliverance is revealed in verse 2 –

Who has stirred up one from the east, calling him in righteousness to his service ? He hands nations over to him and subdues kings before him. He turns them to dust with his sword, to windblown chaff with his bow. (Isaiah 41:2 TNIV)

God is talking about a man all these heathen nations would be aware of: Cyrus, King of Persia. He’s the one with Babylon in view and he’s going to be the deliverer of God’s people. What we’re talking about here is God’s sovereignty; His overruling purpose. That is, from time to time, God will use the people and systems of this world to accomplish His purpose for His people. Cyrus, as far as he was concerned, was wanting to extend the borders of his kingdom and that would entail conquering Babylon. But God had a greater purpose: He would use Cyrus and his ambitions to deliver his people from their captivity.

With verse 8, God turns and talks to His people –

But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, you descendants of Abraham my friend, I took you from the ends of the earth, from its farthest corners I called you. I said, ‘You are my servant’; I have chosen you and have not rejected you.” (Isaiah 41:8, 9 TNIV)

In spite of their present circumstances and dismal future prospects, God had in no way forgotten His people. He chose them. He had called them from all over, bringing them together as a nation, and they were chosen and assembled to serve Him. He never gave up on them. In fact, God thought so much of His people, that He steps in and overrules in human history just to help them out. He still does that today.

The Lord has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all. (Psalm 103:19 TNIV)

The omnipotence and sovereignty of God. Knowing the future is God’s prerogative, not yours. You don’t what the future holds. You may think you’ve got a lock on your job and your retirement, but all it takes in one downturn in the economy to wipe out all your plans. What will you do then? This incredible side benefit of God’s grace is almost too good to be true. God will step in, move the world to help you. And His promise is that He will hold your hand. He will see you through. He won’t let go.

God supplies our needs, Philippians 4:19

And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:19 TNIV)

This must surely be one of the greatest verses in the New Testament. Anybody who’s ever come up short by the third week of the month always remembers, however vaguely, that Paul wrote it to the Philippians. Sadly, most Christians get Philippians 4:19 completely wrong. And so they’re always disappointed when they not only come up short, but remain short until the next paycheck. So let’s look at what Paul was really saying here.

There is a real danger that Christians living for Christ and content in their own circumstances – even if those circumstances are difficult – might become careless about the needs of others. And that’s the context of verse 19.

I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:12, 13 TNIV)

So Paul was content with his lot, but he was no stoic. He wasn’t into deprivation. For Paul, going without wasn’t necessarily a good thing. Suffering for the sake of suffering was not necessary, and Christians who are indifferent to the real needs of others, thinking that their bad circumstances are God’s way of punishing them, are totally wacked out in their thinking. That’s why Paul wrote this –

Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles. (Philippians 4:14 TNIV)

Sure, Paul would have been content to be stuck without two pennies to rub together, but he was grateful for the thoughtfulness of the Philippians who helped him out. And the Philippians, not a wealthy church by a long shot – hadn’t only helped him out, but they had generously helped out other churches and other believers in dire need.

I have received full payment and have more than enough. I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent. They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God. (Philippians 4:18 TNIV)

These poor folks in Philippi, who had so little, gave so much to others in need. So much so, now they were in need. And it was to those generous, impoverished believers, that God gave this side benefit of grace.

You see, God puts a high premium on loving, thoughtful gifts given to those other believers in need, especially to those who are serving and ministering for Him in less than desirable circumstances. The fact is, our stewardship in temporal things is very often a barometer of our spiritual condition, and thoughtfulness in sharing with others and in relieving their need is all part of fulfilling God’s will for others and for ourselves. God doesn’t always use a Cyrus. Sometimes He uses you.

The side benefits of His grace aren’t meant to stop just with the one who has received them. If you’ve been blessed by God, turn around and bless another.

The Primacy of Praise

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Another group of psalms in the Psalter contains the psalms of praise. Not all the psalms speak of praising the Lord, but many do. There are many reasons to praise God and if you just take a few minutes to think about your life, I bet you could write your own “psalms of praise!” But then again, there are some people who should keep their thoughts to themselves. Democratic senator Barbara Boxer, for example.

Those who survived the San Francisco earthquake said, ‘Thank God, I’m still alive.’ But, of course, those who died, their lives will never be the same again.

Read it again, you’ll see it.

When we study the life of David, it becomes very obvious that the worship of God was very important to him, both on the personal level and on the national level. In fact, even though the man was Israel’s king, he also wrote songs to be used in worship services, organized choirs and even invented new musical instruments to add to the fullness of Israelite worship. David was a real renaissance man.

Psalm 33 – Praise God for His Sovereignty

The first Psalm of praise concerns God’s sovereignty; the fact that He is the Creator of the universe and remains its providential ruler. This psalm contains some theology that today’s Christian needs to be reminded of constantly. Look at verse 4:

What the Lord says is right and true. He is faithful in everything he does. (Psalm 33:4 NIrV)

God’s doings are always right, they are never wrong. God’s actions are not prompted by hatred or greed or selfishness. It is He who sets the standards of righteousness. All truth, all of man’s laws and justice are measured against His norm. In other words, the Supreme Court of America is not the final authority on anything. God’s Word is. There is a Higher Law above any government established on earth and the Christian is obliged to follow that Higher Law; God’s Law.

Several themes appear in Psalm 33 after the first three verses, which are essential a call to worship. These verses contain no less than five imperatives. In the psalmist’s mind, giving praise to God IS quite literally an imperative because, as he wrote:

It is right for honest people to praise him. (Psalm 33:1b NIrV)

Praising God is the normal thing for His people to do.

God is faithful, vs. 4, 5

The Lord loves what is right and fair. The earth is full of his faithful love. (Psalm 33:5 NIrV)

That God is faithful to His people is beyond dispute. As verse 4 said, God is faithful in everything He does. This means that God has never done anything in the past and will never do anything in the future that goes against His perfect character. He is faithful to His nature. Over in the New Testament, we read this:

Every good and perfect gift is from God. It comes down from the Father. He created the heavenly lights. He does not change like shadows that move. (James 1:17 NIrV)

Only good descends from God the Father; He is incapable of doing anything evil or of acting in a way that contradicts His character. There are, in all, five words in these two verses that speak to God’s character: right, true, faithful, fair, and love.

God is the Creator, vs. 6 – 9

Next to the account of Creation in Genesis 1, these verses teach clearly that God created the world out of nothing. He did it all simply by speaking.

The heavens were made when the Lord commanded it to happen. All of the stars were created by the breath of his mouth. (Psalm 33:6 NIrV)

This powerful verse is an expression of the kind of power God wields: He wills something to happen, and it happens. David didn’t fully understand it, but by the time John wrote his Gospel, what really happened at Creation had been fully realized: the Word that resulted in the material universe being formed out of nothing was really the Son of God. The glorious second Person of the Trinity was the creative force behind all that we see.

All things were made through him. Nothing that has been made was made without him. (John 1:3 NIrV)

Implicit in verses 6 – 9 is the command of verse 8 –

Let the whole earth have respect for the Lord. Let all of the people in the world honor him. (Psalm 33:8 NIrV)

In other words, in light of the fact that God created your world, He deserves your respect and your honor.

God’s role in international politics, vs. 10 – 12

Turning from God’s sovereignty in creation, the psalmist looks at His sovereignty in the politics of the nations. Just saying the word “politics” in an American church runs the risk of the person who said it being hit with flying hymnals, but the Bible makes it abundantly clear that God is intimately involved in our (mankind’s) politics.

The Lord blocks the sinful plans of the nations. He keeps them from doing what they want to do. But the plans of the Lord stand firm forever. What he wants to do will last for all time. (Psalm 33:10, 11 NIrV)

Taking verse 10 alone can leave you with the wrong impression. Nations sin all the time. Our own “godly” nation now has a culture that is so sinful a decent person has to stand downwind of it just to keep from passing out from its stench! Verse 10 must be read in concert with verse 11. When you do that, you realize the truth of the old axiom:

Man proposes but God disposes.

Man’s plots and programs are often vetoed by God, but not always. He gives nations enough rope to hang themselves. A nation’s ideas and ideals change by the decade but God’s ideas and ideals endure forever. Unlike nations that rise and fall with astonishing predictability, the God-fearing nation will always prosper.

Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord. Blessed are the people he chose to be his own. (Psalm 33:10 NIrV)

You may think that verse puts America in a very precarious position. But don’t despair. You are only living here temporarily; your citizenship is really in Heaven! So, verse 10, then, does carry a special meaning to Christians of any earthly nation:

But God chose you to be his people. You are royal priests. You are a holy nation. You are a people who belong to God. All of this is so that you can sing his praises. He brought you out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Peter 2:9 NIrV)

God sees all, vs. 13 – 15

As noted already, God created the world. More to the point, He created the material universe. A very common idea today is to acknowledge God as the Creator, but to ignore the fact that He is also the Sustainer. God didn’t make the world to just leave it up its own devices! This group of verses reminds us that God knows all and He sees all.

From heaven the Lord looks down and sees everyone. (Psalm 33:13 NIrV)

God maintains a careful oversight of that which He created. God sees the nations of this earth; every one of them. He knows what they are doing and what they are planning. He sees you and He sees me. Absolutely nothing escapes His eyes. Not only does He see everybody, but He hears them, too.

He creates the hearts of all people. He is aware of everything they do. (Psalm 33:15 NIrV)

Do you think God is unaware of what’s happening in the Middle East? In the halls of Congress? In the United Nations? Think again! Moffatt –

He alone made their minds, he notes all they do.

God alone is trustworthy, vs. 16 – 19

The weakness of man is contrasted against the strength of God in these verses, but they also teach God’s sovereignty. Contrary to outward appearances, it’s not the size of the army that wins a battle, it’s God. It’s never a man’s strength or determination that saves him, it’s God. If the Lord doesn’t deliver, then relying on mere military prowess is useless.

A king isn’t saved just because his army is big. A soldier doesn’t escape just because he is very strong. People can’t trust a horse to save them either. Though it is very strong, it can’t save them. (Psalm 33:16, 17 NIrV)

Truly a nation’s safety depends on its relationship with God. A godly nation will endure. A nation that turns its back on God will not. This is proven in history. Rudyard Kipling’s Recessional serves as kind of a modern commentary on these thought:

Far-called, our navies melt away; On dune and headland sinks the fire – Lo, all our pomp of yesterday Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!  Judge of the Nations, spare us yet, Lest we forget – lest we forget.

For heathen heart that puts her trust In reeking tube and iron shard – All valiant dust that builds on dust, And guarding, calls not Thee to guard – For frantic boast and foolish word, They mercy on Thy people, Lord!

Amen.

Amen indeed!  Psalm 127:1 is a good commentary on these ideas –

If the Lord doesn’t build a house, the work of its builders is useless. If the Lord doesn’t watch over a city, it’s useless for those on guard duty to stand watch over it. (Psalm 127:1 NIrV)

Because of God’s character, He can be depended upon for deliverance as long as an individual or nation fears Him and puts their hope in Him. This is why nations rise and fall. Endurance and permanence depend on God. It was Roger de Rabutin (Comte de Bussy), the French memoirist, who famously remarked:

God is usually on the side of the big squadrons against the small.

And Voltaire observed:

God is on the side not of the heavy battalions but of the best shots.

But according to the Bible, both of these guys got it wrong.

God in redemption, vs. 20 – 22

Only redeemed people can say these words with complete honesty!

We wait in hope for the Lord. He helps us. He is like a shield that keeps us safe. Our hearts are full of joy because of him. We trust in him, because he is holy. Lord, may your faithful love rest on us. We put our hope in you. (Psalm 33:20 – 22 NIrV)

These words represent a sort of self-dedication, which can be considered an act of worship in and of itself. It’s ironic that when we dedicate ourselves wholly to God, it is we who benefit. Our hearts rejoice. We receive the benefits of His protects and love. And yet, in a way God also benefits from our dedication and consecration. John Piper notes –

The climax of God’s happiness is the delight He takes in the echoes of His excellence in the praises of His people.

Praising God should come easily for those who take God and His Word seriously. When you read this particular psalm, how can you remain silent? God’s sovereignty is not meant to instill fear or dread, but rather a sense of wonder and adoration, that leads to praise and worship.

Divine Determinism

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If we as Christians want to worship God “in spirit and in truth,” and if we want to fulfill the Great Commission by taking the Gospel to the lost, then we need to be thinking rightly about God. In other words, our theology needs to be correct. All people, Christians and non-believers, acquire their “theology” or their “philosophy of life” from someplace. For most of us, our worldview is shaped by our parents. How often have we heard, “My father was a Democrat, my grandfather was a Democrat, and by golly, I’m a Democrat too!” Well, that’s often where our beliefs begin and end. Other people start off inheriting their beliefs from their parents, then off to college they go, where they are brainwashed by either their peers or more likely their professors. They went into college believing one thing and came out believing another.

Christians are the same. Which is fine, as long our parents or professors are filling our heads with true, Biblical ideas. This is, unfortunately, often not the case. It’s surprising how Biblically illiterate our parents, our Sunday School teachers, or even our pastors may be. The most influential Christian people in our lives are often sorely lacking in a fundamental knowledge of what the Bible teaches. They may know and teach a lot of “church doctrine,” but “church doctrine” is sometimes not the same as Biblical doctrines. That’s funny, since the church is supposedly in business to teach the Bible! But what happens so often is that instead of teaching what the Bible says, what gets taught in many churches is what the pastor thinks or what some theologian thought or what some denominational constitution or book of order teaches.

But if we want to think rightly about God, we need to know what the Bible teaches. It’s good to know what the great thinkers of Christianity thought, but it is essential to know what the Bible teaches. It’s good to know what John Calvin or John Wesley thought about theology, but what if they were wrong sometimes? The Bible, however, is never wrong. It is God’s revelation to man. And that’s why you need to know what really says.

How much of what we do and think is foreordained and rendered certain by God? According to one wing of the Christian church, everything is. They teach that absolutely everything down to the minutest detail of history and individual lives is ordered by God. Even evil thoughts and actions are ordained by God to further His will. This is called “Divine determinism,” and maybe you believe it. Maybe you don’t. C. Everett Coop believed it. In fact, he famously spoke on the topic, “God Killed My Son.” Dr. Koop’s son was killed in a tragic mountain climbing accident and Dr. Koop believed that God had foreordained his son’s death and that it was no accident. God quite literally “killed his son.” It gave Dr. Coop great peace to think this; knowing that his son’s death was not an accident and that there was some grand purpose behind it.

A lot of Christians believe this for the same reason. And if you don’t think too long about it, you may believe it too. It was a quick death. Dr. Koop’s son died immediately. He didn’t suffer. So you can see how appealing this aspect of Divine determinism is. It puts a purpose behind a horrible event.

But does God work that way? If He does, it’s hard to see a purpose behind a lingering, painful death by, say, cancer or some other disease. Is that Divine determinism at work, too? Some would say it is. God causes some people suffer terribly for reasons known only to Him. If you believe God orders the tiniest details of our lives, then that’s what you have to believe.

Ulrich Zwingly, John Calvin and Providence

Where did the idea of Divine determinism come from? A lot of scholars trace it back to Ulrich Zwingli’s and John Calvin’s ideas of “providence.” To put it simply, God’s providence is “God’s rule over and direction of all things in the universe. For if anything were guided by its own power or insight, just so far would the wisdom and power of our Deity be deficient.” Zwingly, who greatly influenced Calvin, flatly denied that any event in the world is “contingent, fortuitous or accidental.” His teaching was that God is the sole cause of absolutely everything that happens.

But where did this idea come from? A lot of it comes from philosophy Zwingly believed, but there are Bible verses that seem to indicate Ulrich Zwingly was on to something. Here is just a handful:

The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord. (Proverbs 16:33 NIV)

For the Lord Almighty has purposed, and who can thwart him? His hand is stretched out, and who can turn it back? (Isaiah 14:27 NIV)

I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things. (Isaiah 45:7 NIV)

There are many more verses like these, but just these three seem to support Ulrich Zwingly’s teaching of God’s absolute providence. Later on, John Calvin continued in Zwingly’s footsteps, except while Zwingly’s theology was more philosophical, Calvin’s theology was grounded more in Scripture. His teaching was simple:

No wind ever arises or increases except by God’s express command.

Even Adam’s fall, Calvin thought, was foreordained by God. Calvin continued:

Since God’s will is said to be the cause of all things, I have made his providence the determinative principle for all human plans and works, not only in order to displace its force to the elect, who are ruled by the Holy Spirit, but also to compel the reprobate to obedience.

It seems pretty clear that Calvin believed that everything, even horrible, evil things done by the unsaved are rendered certain by God.

Other Calvinists

Jonathan Edwards, great revivalist preacher and philosopher, taught the idea of Divine determinism in the strongest way possible. As far as he was concerned, all things on earth, including sin and evil, follow a course laid out for them by God.

God, however, is forever untainted by the sin He Himself foreordains. Take Adam’s sin, for example. Adam sinned because his intentions were sinful. Even though God foreordained Adam’s sin, God cannot be held culpable in any way because God’s intentions in Adam’s sin were not at all evil. As Edwards wrote,

In willing evil God does not do evil.

It’s hard to get around the fact that Jonathan Edwards believed, in some fashion, that God is the author of sin.

If by “author of sin,” is meant that permitter, or not the hinderer of sin; and at the same time, a disposer of the state of events, in such a manner, for wise, holy and most excellent ends and purposes, that sin, if it be permitted or not hindered, will most certainly and infallibly follow: I say this, if this be all that is meant, by being the author of sin, I don’t deny that God is the author of sin.

For Edwards and most Calvinists, “God is the author” of sin means that while God certainly did not force Adam to sin, or anybody else for that matter, God does render man’s sinful actions sure and certain. Most, if not all, Calvinists – R.C. Sproul and John Piper included – hold this high Calvinist view of God’s sovereignty: everything down to the smallest particle of history – history in the grand scale and history in the individual – including every human being’s thoughts and actions, are foreordained by God and necessarily rendered certain by Him so that everything and everybody carries out God’s will.

Remember, though, God is in no way stained by the sin He foreordains even though the person committing the sin has no choice in the matter. As another famous Calvinist wrote:

God wills righteously those things which men do wickedly.

God does not force men to sin but men WILL sin because God will withdraw or withhold His influence to deter them. Therefore, this wing of the church says that everything, including sin, is ordained by God for His own glory.

Is that the right view?

While much of Calvinism is worthwhile, some Calvinist teaching just doesn’t make much sense, at least to a majority of Christians.  All orthodox Christians from all wings of the Church, affirm the absolute perfect goodness of God. From Calvinists to Arminians to everybody in between, we all agree that God is totally good. There is NO debate on that. There are dozens, or perhaps even hundreds of Bible verses that either directly or indirectly uphold the theology that God is good. Here are a few:

“Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.” (Matthew 19:17 NIV)

Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. (James 1:16 NIV)

Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart. (Psalm 73:1 NIV)

You are good, and what you do is good; teach me your decrees. (Psalm 119:68 NIV)

The list goes on and on. “God is good all the time,” as the song goes. But God is also sovereign. This is also a belief that all orthodox Christians believe. And herein lies the problem. Calvinists, while affirming God’s goodness, also scrupulously protect God’s sovereignty to the point of making it an “all-determining sovereignty,” which we call Divine determinism. But can an all-good God engage in the kind of shady manipulation Calvinism teaches?

Sovereignty

That God has a plan for His creation is not disputed. God does have a plan – a will – for all of us and when we speak of God’s sovereignty we are saying that, to put it simply, “God is in control.” Non-Calvinists, though, often speak of God’s permissive will. This, they say, explains the story of Joseph. Here is how Joseph, who probably wouldn’t consider himself a Calvinist, viewed the events of his up-and-down life:

You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children. (Genesis 50:20 NIV)

If you don’t like that example, here is a New Testament verse that says the same thing in a general way:

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28 NIV)

God foresaw and permitted sinful people, like Joseph’s brothers and Potifar’s wife, to do the sinful things they did because He is sovereign, and in His sovereignty He would take the sinful actions committed by those people and turn the results around so that He would be glorified. But – and here’s the departure from Divine determinism – God did not foreordain the sin or render the sin certain. He simply knew beforehand that sins would be committed and who would commit them and why. God’s foreknowledge is absolutely perfect because He knows what’s inside the heart of man:

“I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind, to reward each person according to their conduct, according to what their deeds deserve.” (Jeremiah 17:10 NIV)

Because God knows what is in the hearts of all men, He knows their thoughts and intentions. He knows what they will do. God doesn’t have to foreordain their actions, He already knows what they are planning. He doesn’t have to manipulate sinners to guarantee what they will do. His foreknowledge is perfect in ever way.

Here is where your theology determines your view of God. If you believe in Divine determinism – or God’s sovereignty to the endth degree – then God is the author of all that is good but also the author of all that is bad. He doesn’t just allow sin, He causes it so that He will be glorified. In other words, God ordains evil (and everything else) to glorify Himself. Adam sinned, not because of a decisionAdam made, but because God set the first man up for a fall. This view of God will determine how you view sinners and even how you view things like evangelism. Sinners may be lost, but they are lost because that’s how God wants them to be, because in their lost condition they somehow glorify Him. Huh?

The alternate view of God’s sovereignty is a more “passive” view. Yes, God is involved in His creation, but He doesn’t trick, manipulate or coerce people into doing what He wants them to do. He could if He wanted to, but God limits Himself. He allows His creation freedom of will – including freedom to sin – knowing that even that can bring about His will. That freedom man has is a gift from God. You can also consider it a curse. In His sovereignty, God allows His perfect will to be stymied by the actions of man.  He lets this happen because He loves man and respects him.

God’s two wills

Instead of God being a cold, impersonal force that sneakily controls man, what if God really is personally involved in the lives of man to the point where He knows them so well nothing they dream of doing surprises Him? This view of God sees Him as having not one but two wills for His creation. God has a perfect will for His creation. This will is what God truly wants to happen. A good example of God’s perfect will is this:

The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9 NIV)

And yet we know NOT everyone will come to repentance. Most people won’t. God’s perfect will is one thing, but God also has a consequent will. This is His will based on the consequences of Adam’s fall and man’s subsequent rebellious nature. This will graciously allows man to choose not to repent. God doesn’t manipulate man into not choosing Him. He genuinely limits His influence, and in doing so man makes his own, free choice.

Does this view of God do damage to His omnipotence or His sovereignty? Not at all. God is sovereign by absolute right, but He willingly limits that sovereignty temporarily.

The god (Satan) of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. (2 Corinthians 4:4 NIV)

As I stated, this self-limited sovereignty is just temporary. God’s full sovereignty will become actuality in the future when “the god of this age” is defeated for good.

When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all. (1 Corinthians 15:28 NIV)

So, whose view of God is right? Is God sovereign, or does He operate in divine determinism? Consider this:

Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me?” (John 14:9, 10a NIV)

So Jesus lived and acted as His Father would. He did nothing His Father didn’t want Him to do. Including this:

He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. He was amazed at their lack of faith. (Mark 6:3 NIV)

Jesus “could not” heal everybody in town because the people had no faith (a sin, by the way). As God, of course Jesus could have healed everybody, but He limited His awesome power because the people refused to believe. Is the power of God dependent on man? Not at all. But, we serve a God who makes covenants with man. God has willingly bound himself to man in a covenant relationship. If man rebels – if man refuses to exercise faith, for example – God’s hands are tied as far as that man is concerned.

We serve a God who is not a Calvinist. Nor is He an Arminian. Our God is a sovereign God, above any labels we try to velcro onto Him. David Bentley Hart wrote:

How radically the gospel is pervaded by a sense that the brokenness of the fallen world is the work of rebellious rational free will, which God permits to reign, and pervaded also by a sense that Christ comes genuinely to save creation, to conquer, to rescue, to defeat the power of evil in all things. This great narrative of fall and redemption is not a charade, not simply a dramaturgical lesson regarding God’s absolute prerogatives prepared for us from eternity, but a real consequence of the mystery of created freedom and the fullness of grace.

 


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