Viewing entries tagged
Sovereignty

Amazing Providence

Have you ever asked God to go back in time and fix something?  I sure have!  There are times when what I have been praying for has seemed so unlikely to ever come to pass because of other events that I know have already taken place that I just ask God to go back and change those events so that my request can be granted.  I mean, certainly God is powerful enough to do something like that.  He is the Creator of time itself, so why couldn't He just alter it a little? One problem with that request, though, is that it assumes that God has steered history in the wrong way - or at least not the best way - the first time around and that He is only going to get it 'really right' after I have asked Him to do so.  Or maybe it just simply assumes that God sits back and watches what we do with history - as if He is not the One writing every scene for His own purposes and glory - and therefore He should be open to the possibility of changing something that we have messed up.  Either way, though, there is a denial - however subtle - of the fact that God is all-wise, perfectly good, and totally sovereign, and it is distrustful - again, however subtly - that this all-wise and perfectly good sovereign God has done the right thing in allowing certain events to come to pass.

Now, those of us who have been truly born of the Spirit of God know that these things are not true.  We know that God is all-wise, all-knowing, all-powerful, totally sovereign, and perfectly good because He has told us these things about Himself in His Word.  We know that He directs all of history to tell His story the way that He wants to and that nothing ever happens that He has not perfectly planned for the ends that He had in mind; and again, we know this because He has told us these things are so in His Word.  It's just good to be reminded of these things sometimes when we begin to despair at the way circumstances are working out in our own lives.

So consider this reminder from 2 Kings 3.  In that chapter, the king of Moab decided to rebel against Israel rather than pay the tribute that had been previously demanded of him and his people.  Thus Jehoram, the king of Israel, sent word to Jehoshaphat, king of Judah, and asked him if he wanted to go to war against Moab with him.  Jehoshaphat agreed and they also talked the king of Edom into coming along with them to the battle.  But then these three kings made an error in their supply calculations, and suddenly their armies were left with no water to sustain them.  This was one of those moments where you would wish that you could go back in time and do things differently.  I'm sure they had to feel stupid and vulnerable, and they began to despair that the battle would be lost.

At this point, the godly King Jehoshaphat knew that they needed to inquire of Yahweh, to find out what He would have them to do.  Therefore they sent for Elisha the prophet.  And Elisha told them that God would work a fantastic miracle for them, filling the land with water without a single drop of rain falling.  At the same time, he told them that God would give them victory over the Moabites.

And this is how the whole thing worked out: God did indeed miraculously fill the land with water, which was exactly what the people needed right when they needed it, but the Moabites were not aware that this had happened.  When they woke up in the morning and went to look at the camp of the Israelite army, the sunrise caused all that water to look red like blood.  They thought that their enemies had slaughtered each other, so they ran down into the camp, not suspecting an armed force standing at full strength.  The Moabites were then cut down easily by the combined forces of Israel, Judah, and Edom, and when they fled the battle, the three kings and their armies followed them and conquered some of their choice cities.

Looking back over the entire story, we can see that God was engineering each event to perfectly provide for His people and to declare His own majesty and glory - for we can't read a story like that without marveling at how awesomely sovereign our God is!  And this should remind us that God works similar wonders in our own times of distress.  The thirst and unpreparedness of the armies of Israel and Judah was a part of God's plan to both provide for their victory and to cause them to see that He is awesome and glorious!  Why would we ever think that our own difficulties are anything less?  After all, the God who always tells the truth and who always keeps His promises has told us that He works all things for good for those who love Him and who are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28).

A Wise Sentiment

Joab is probably not anyone's favorite character in the Old Testament; he certainly isn't mine.  This commander of King David's armies is often a jerk, likes to take matters into his own hands for his own reasons, even when it is potentially disastrous, and has even been known to obey such wicked orders as, "Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, that he may be struck down, and die" (2 Samuel 11:15). And yet, there are some points in the story of David's reign where this too-violent Joab speaks as though he were the one who was the "man after God's own heart".  It is Joab who rebukes David for mourning over the death of his wicked son, Absalom, to the shame of all of those who fought valiantly against the usurper (2 Samuel 19:5-7).  It is also Joab who sternly warns David against taking an ungodly census of the Israelites in 2 Samuel 24 that would end up killing thousands.

But one of my favorite lines from the lips of Joab comes in 2 Samuel 10:12.  As he is organizing the placement of his troops in a battle against the joined forces of the Ammonites and Syrians, he says to his brother, Abishai, "Be of good courage, and let us be courageous for our people, and for the cities of our God, and may Yahweh do what seems good to Him."

I love that that statement for two reasons.  First, it acknowledges God's sovereignty and the fact that He "works all things according to the counsel of His will" (Ephesians 1:11).  It is as Job stated, once he had been duly corrected by God, "I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted" (Job 42:2).  Joab's wise sentiment is rooted in an understanding that God is truly on the throne of all His creation and that He has plan - a will - that He will not fail to work out.  Joab also knows that no human action can constrain that will of God.  In other words, we can't force Him to side with us or do for us exactly what we would like Him to do.  He will always "do what seems good to Him."

The second reason that I love Joab's statement to his brother is because it shows us the wondrous simplicity of our responsibility as human beings.  Notice that he doesn't tell his brother anything like, "Make sure you rout their western flank, or the battle will be lost!"  He understands - quite differently from almost everyone in our own day - that the victor in a battle is determined by Yahweh.  God can defeat a huge host of warriors at the hands of one man and his armor bearer, as He did in 1 Samuel 14.  He can also engineer events so that an army that is vastly successful one day gets hammered the next, as He did in the issue of Achan's sin at Ai in Joshua 7.  So what matters is not individual strategies or even the military skill and might of champion warriors.  What matters is what God wants to do.  And the most important thing that we can do in light of that fact is just simply to make sure that we are being the kind of people that God has commanded us to be.

One church sign that I saw on the way to work one morning put it like this: "Obey God's commands and let Him take care of the rest."  And that's it in a nutshell!  You and I are not the ones on the throne; we are the ones that should be on our knees in front of the throne.  Therefore, our place is not to dictate the events of history - whether that means thinking that we should be able to accomplish whatever we desire by our own hard efforts, or whether that means thinking that God has to answer our prayers in a certain way.  Instead, our role in all of these things is blessedly simple: just obey the King!

Obedience is very important to God.  And it is very important in the New Testament context of the church as well.  Some of Jesus' last and most important words on earth to His disciples, before ascending to heaven, were "...and teach them to obey all that I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:20).  Our God has not made His commands hard to find or ambiguous.  The Scriptures are full of His laws and statutes and rules and instructions.  They are "more to be desired than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and the drippings of the honeycomb" (Psalm 19:10).  And here is the wonderful, freeing, most basic truth of a life of faith: just concern yourself with obeying your awesome God, and "let Him do what seems good to Him."

He Is Great

I heard a man recount the story of his conversion a couple of weeks ago, and it was impossible for him to speak more than a few sentences without breaking into praise again and again at just how great and awesome and majestic and holy and wonderful our God truly is.  And if you were to hear this man's testimony (I tried to get a copy of the audio, but they didn't record it), you would understand why he felt compelled to glorify God's Name like that. "I was not looking for God," he said on more than one occasion.  "I didn't care a thing about church...I wasn't even curious...I had friend that tried to tell me about Jesus for sixteen years and I never cared a bit."  He did finally go to church with his friend - "just to get him off my back" - but said that, even then, "I was bored and not paying much attention to what the young preacher said."

And yet at some point during that service, the man said that "all of a sudden it hit me like a lightning bolt.  I saw the filth and evilness of my sins before a holy God and simply had to scramble out of the pew and rush to the pastor and ask him how to receive the forgiveness offered in Christ."  He said, "I did not leave that church a changed man that day.  I left that church a new man!  God birthed a new person that day!  I went in not caring a thing in the world about Him - not seeking Him at all!  I came out in love with Him, having been given a new heart and a new spirit!"

The man's testimony of how God saved him sounds just like Ephesians 2:1-10, Romans 3:10-26, and Ezekiel 36:25-27.  In passages like those, we are shown how salvation must be a sovereign work of God in producing a new heart and imparting new desires because "no one seeks for God" (Romans 3:11).  If God doesn't "birth new people" by the power of the Holy Spirit, then they will never run to Him in faith.  That's why even faith itself is called a "gift of God" in Ephesians 2:8.  And there's just something about finally understanding God's sovereignty (the fact that He in in control of all of this) in this work that causes people to burst forth in praise to Him!

King David had a similar experience in 2 Samuel chapter 7 - in the passage that we call the Davidic Covenant.  It is there that God tells David of all of the amazing good that He is going to accomplish in building David a house - or dynasty.  And after God tells him all this, David breaks out in praise and thanksgiving, saying at one point, "Because of your promise, and according to your own heart, you have brought about all this greatness, to make your servant know it.  Therefore you are great, O LORD God" (vv. 21-22).

I see in David's praise of God's greatness there in 2 Samuel the same thing that I heard in the man's testimony a couple of weeks ago.  David understood that he was nothing before God got a hold of him, and that every good thing that had happened had all been God's doing.  He confessed that he understood that God had brought it all about "because of His promise and according to His own heart" and "therefore your are great, O Yahweh God."

When I talk with people about the doctrine of God's sovereignty - mostly in the context of ideas like election, predestination, and the new birth - I am often asked the question, "Why should any of that matter?  What difference does it make if I believe that God did it all instead of what I have always been taught?"  My first answer is always that what we believe about salvation ought to be only and exactly what the Bible says about it, and the Bible consistently and strongly teaches all of these doctrines.  But in addition to the simple concept of "the Bible says it, therefore I believe it", I also always point out this very effect that I have been writing about: people that finally come to understand how much God has had to be in control of their conversion (because of their own spiritual blindness, sin hardened heart, and enslavement to their fleshly nature) cannot stop praising Him for being such an awesome God!

In other words, accepting the Scripture's teaching regarding the sovereignty of God, and embracing it as the story of how God brought you to life, always abounds to the glory of the God who did it!  Truly, our God is a great and majestic and holy and perfect and just and compassionate King who pours forth His grace and mercy on His people and lifts them up so that they may have joy in His presence and sound forth His praises and His truth to the end of magnifying His glory and His fame and His worth to every corner of His creation.  To God be the glory!  Amen.

Worthless

God likes to apply the term 'worthless' to wicked men in the Bible.  Even a quick search of an online or electronic Bible will show you a ton of passages (mostly in the Old Testament) where this word is used to describe a person or persons.  But in almost every case we see that these 'worthless' fellows actually have the exact opposite estimation of their own worth. Such is surely the case for Nabal (who I discussed in part yesterday).  His flocks had been protected by David and his men for an extended period of time while David camped in that land.  Yet, when David's men approached Nabal on a feast day to ask that he share something with them, he responded by saying, "Who is David? Who is the son of Jesse? There are many servants these days who are breaking away from their masters. Shall I take my bread and my water and my meat that I have killed for my shearers and give it to men who come from I do not know where?" (1 Samuel 25:10-11)  Nabal showed clearly that he found no worth in David, and yet the man's own wife accurately described her husband as 'worthless' (25:25).

The same word shows up again just a few chapters later in 1 Samuel 30:22.  In that story, the 'worthless' men are the ones that went with David to the battle against the Amalekites who had sacked their city, Ziklag, and then complained afterwards about those who did not go with them.  When the army had reached the brook Besor, two hundred of the men were too exhausted to continue on to the battle, so they had remained behind with the baggage.  So when the army returned triumphantly with much spoil, there were some who did not want to give the two hundred exhausted men an equal share of what they had taken from the enemy.

Now, that sentiment is in no way unique to those men in that particular battle.  Even most of us, as we read that story, find ourselves partly siding with those whom the Bible calls 'worthless'.  After all, why should these men get the same reward that I get when I put my life on the line to win the victory and they sat in the dirt rubbing their aching feet?  We'll be generous and give them their wives and children back, but that's it!  Next time they can actually help!

The difficulty that arises here that causes us to think along the same lines as those 'worthless' fellows is that we think about the battle in the same way that they thought.  They saw those who stayed behind as 'worthless' - not worthy of any of the spoil - because they believed that they were the ones primarily responsible for winning the battle: the ones who went out to fight it.  David saw it differently, however.  He saw the truth of it.  He understood that he took only four hundred men with him (30:10) against a force that were "spread abroad over all the land" (v. 16), and yet his company was able to slaughter this far mightier force for over twenty-four hours straight (v. 17) so that only four hundred young men escaped - the same number that comprised the entirety of David's force!

In other words, the victory did not belong to David and his four hundred men.  Only one person truly won the battle and that was God.  As David said, "He has preserved us and given into our hand the band that came against us" (v. 23).  Therefore, the spoil did not somehow belong only to those that fought - as though they earned it - but really to God, who had graciously allowed them all to share it.  That's why David demanded that the two hundred who were too exhausted to go down to the battle receive the same portion as everyone else: because he knew what grace is all about.

Jesus tells a similar story in the New Testament about a farmer who hires servants all throughout the day to work his fields, but at the end of the day he pays all the workers the same amount.  Those who got there early and worked all day got the exact same amount as those who came late and toiled for only an hour or so (Matthew 20:1-16).  In that parable, those who worked harder have the same kind of 'worthless' attitude as the men in David's company.  They begrudged the others an equal share of the master's reward.

The point is that in order to not be 'worthless' fellows ourselves, we must must first rightly understand that we have no intrinsic worth!  All of the strengths and gifts and good qualities that we possess were in fact given to us by our gracious God.  We did not produce them in our own strength.  And as we experience victories in life, we must not think that we somehow accomplished those things in our own power, but we must rightly understand that God does it all.  He sets kings on their thrones, works military victories according to His purposes, He builds up and He tears down, and He is the one that even gives us life and knits us together in our mothers' wombs.  So the irony is that if we find worth in ourselves - stemming from our own strengths and abilities and apart from God - then we are truly 'worthless' people. But if we see that the only worth in us is a gift from God and not of ourselves, we are then those who can be useful in God's hands.  In other words, we will have value to Him and true worth.

Detention

In 1 Samuel chapter 21 we have one of the most puzzling stories in the Old Testament.  This is the one where David and his men come to Nob - which was apparently where the tabernacle had been set up in those days - and David asks Ahimelech the priest to give them some of the Bread of the Presence because they were hungry. The story is puzzling because we are left unsure as to who did the right thing here and who did the wrong thing.  David is the 'good guy'; he's the hero is so many of these stories.  Saul and his men are the 'bad guys.'  And yet here David does something that is forbidden for him to do: he takes and eats the Holy Bread.

You shall take fine flour and bake twelve loaves from it; two tenths of an ephahshall be in each loaf. And you shall set them in two piles, six in a pile,on the table of pure goldbefore the LORD. And you shall put pure frankincense on each pile, that it may go with the bread as a memorial portion as a food offering to the LORD. Every Sabbath day Aaron shall arrange it before the LORD regularly; it is from the people of Israel as a covenant forever. Andit shall be for Aaron and his sons, andthey shall eat it in a holy place, since it is for him a most holy portion out of the LORD’s food offerings, a perpetual due. (Leviticus 24:5-9)

This bread was reserved only for Aaron and his sons (the family of the High Priest); it was not lawful for anyone else to partake of it.  Jesus even points this out in Matthew 12:3-4: "Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him:how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests?"

So is what David did excusable?  Is what Ahimelech did in giving the Bread to David and his men excusable?  Many say yes.  Even one of my great heroes, John Gill, says that pretty much anything is excusable when we're dealing with the preservation of life, and so of course this act is excusable.  I have to take issue with that, though.  Would it have likewise been excusable - it would still have been in the name of preservation of life - if David's men had not kept themselves morally pure on their journey?  As I cited earlier, Jesus said that what they did was unlawful.  The Law does not have some kind of "unless they're really hungry" loophole that suddenly makes everything okay.  Therefore, I think we have no choice but to see this act as a violation of one of the things that God called "most holy" (Leviticus 24:9).

If that is the case, then what follows makes a good deal more sense.  We are told that "a certain man of the servants of Saul was there that day, detained before Yahweh.  His name was Doeg the Edomite" (1 Samuel 21:7).  Phrases like that always catch my attention.  From a human standpoint, a real villain enters the story at this point.  Here is the man who will rat out Ahimelech, telling Saul exactly what he did for David and his men.  And when Saul declares that all of the priests shall be killed for helping his enemy, no one but Doeg the Edomite - this very villain - will lift his sword to carry out the death sentence.  And yet we are told very clearly that this man was "detained before the LORD."

What could that phrase possibly mean?  Since it was the Sabbath day, it could mean that Doeg was "detained" within a Sabbath-day's walk of the tabernacle, unable to travel any further until the following day.  It could mean that he was there to fulfill some sort of vow and so could not leave until that was done.  Regardless of why he was there, though, the fact remains that his detention was a part of God's plan.

There's a reason why God's Name is evoked in that statement: "detained before Yahweh".  God had a purpose for his presence.  Whatever else we may guess about Doeg and his business, we know this much: it was he who got the priests killed, and it happened by his hand.  And so God was in the deaths of these priests.  The text never goes so far to tell us that they died because they defiled the holy things of Yahweh, but it is certainly not a big stretch given similar stories in the Old Testament (Nadab and Abihu come to mind, as does Uzzah and the ark).

All of these stories of deaths surrounding the violation of God's holiness ought to leave us with a healthy and profound fear of misusing any of God's "holy things".  This fear should really hit home for us in the area of worship.  Aside from the holiness of His own Name - which is protected by one of the Ten Commandments - nothing else seems more jealously guarded by God than His formal worship (of which the Holy Bread was only one part).  Oh, we must be so careful to worship our great God only in the ways that He has proscribed.  He does not want our innovation (He showed that with Nadab and Abihu), but only our obedience.  Let us strive to worship Him the way that He commands and leave all of our other ideas at the door.

Mind Boggling

Jonathan Edwards once said, "Absolute sovereignty is what I love to ascribe to God." Many years ago, when I first read those words cited in John Piper's Desiring God, they struck an instant chord in my soul.  This was what made God so incredibly greatin my mind: He was in control of absolutely everything.  And when I let my mind start tracing the sequence of causes and effects that lead up to any single event, I am astounded with wonder at the amazing God I serve who can work all things out to His desired ends.

Almost nowhere in the Bible is this more clearly seen than in the story of Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Egypt, and the Exodus.  Just fifteen chapters into the Bible, God promises Abraham that his descendants will dwell in the land of his sojourning (Canaan), but the promise doesn't end there.  He also says that before that happens, Abraham's descendants will spend four hundred years in a land that is not their own.  And the reason that God gives for this delay?  Because "the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete."

So Abraham has no idea how all of this is going to work out, and neither does anyone else.  But one day, Abraham's grandson, Jacob, ends up favoring one of his sons over the others - an affection that leads ten of the brothers to sell Joseph into slavery because of their jealousy.  While enslaved, this Joseph is falsely accused of adultery by his master's wife and ends up in prison.  While in prison, he meets a couple of Pharaoh's staff members who dream some interesting dreams.  God then gives Joseph the interpretation of their dreams which - two years later - leads to Joseph having an opportunity to interpret Pharaoh's dream of a coming famine.

So God sent a famine on the whole earth, but he sent seven years of plenty first.  And He sent the warning in a dream to Pharaoh, whose cup-bearer remembered the dream-interpreter from the prison.  Therefore, it ends up being this great-grandson of Abraham who is set up to save the world from the seven years of blight by storing up the surplus from the seven years of plenty.  In the process, the family of Jacob is affected by the famine also and has to come to Egypt for food, where they eventually get reacquainted with their brother and end up moving the whole family.

This leads directly to the promised four hundred years of captivity, a situation that causes the Israelites to be forged into a mighty nation.  And it is from this situation that God leads leads His people out with many signs and wonders, creating for them a story of rescue and salvation that becomes the central narrative of their entire existence as a people.  It is an event also that leaves the nation of Israel with a great deal of wealth, as God promised Abraham - a wealth that they will need when God gives them the design for the tabernacle.

And so, when this mighty nation reaches the borders of the Promised Land, they are then set to bring the judgment of God upon the completed iniquity of the Amorites (Genesis 15:16), acting as God's sword against that sin even as they are fulfilling an age old promise of blessing to their forefather Abraham.  And God has masterfully orchestrated the whole thing to declare His glory: the glory of His justice in punishing the sin of the Amorites, which did not go unchecked; the glory of His grace is saving an unworthy people; the glory of His faithfulness in fulfilling His promises; and the glory of His sovereign will in revealing the sweeping scope of this plan to readers of His Word.

Absolute sovereignty is what I love to ascribe to God because a God who rules His creation like this is so different from the false gods that those in world and even some in the church try to craft for themselves.  Their gods that react to situations in the world rather than cause them are weak and powerless wimps and utterly unworthy of worship.  But the God who has revealed Himself in the Bible - the God who has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ - is the majestic Creator, Ruler, Sustainer, and Sovereign King over everything.  Nothing can thwart His will (Job 42:2), and He does all that He pleases (Psalm 115:3).  He guides everything to the end that He has planned, and He is worthy of worship.

Five Times Fair

"My God wouldn't do such a thing!  He loves everybody equally!" "I just can't believe that!  That's not fair!"

These exact phrases have been spoken by Christians in response to the biblical teaching of God's unconditional election (Ephesians 1:3-14, Acts 13:48, John 6:37,44, et.al.) and in response to the biblical teaching that God gifts individual Christians with differing amounts of faith and gifts (Romans 12:3-8).  What lies at the heart of these complaints is the idea that God must treat all human beings equally or else He is not a good God.

Strangely enough, this same sentiment does not rear its ugly head when the Bible presents us with a human story of unbalanced blessings.  For example, no one seems to have any problem with Joseph's lack of "fairness" in Genesis 43 and 45 when he gives his younger brother Benjamin a portion of food at dinner that is five times greater than what his older brothers receive, or when he gives Benjamin five changes of clothes and 300 shekels of silver and the older brothers receive no silver and only one change of clothes.  In fact, if you were to ask the same people making the complaints above whether or not Joseph had the right to do this, they would say, "Of course he does!"  Why is that?

The reasons behind Joseph's right to give unequal treatment are that 1) he is the owner of the goods being distributed, and therefore he can do with them whatever he likes; 2) he has all the power in Egypt and his brothers have none, so he has every right to do whatever he wants concerning them and they have no legal right to demand otherwise; and 3) Joseph is the one who has been wronged by the brothers - they sold him into slavery and are now literally at his mercy.

In other words, the reasons why someone would believe that Joseph had every right to give any sort of unequal treatment that he wanted are the exact same reasons that ought to lead us to understand that God has that same right.  He is the Creator and thus the owner of every single particle in this universe (or any other).  You are made up of His stuff.  You breathe His air, walk on His earth, eat His produce, and on and on we could go.  Also, He has all power and authority in the universe.  This comes from the fact that He created it, but also because He is the greatest and most powerful of all beings.  We literally have no legal right to appeal any of His decisions.  He is the absolute Sovereign King and we are nothing (Isaiah 40:17).  Lastly, He has been wronged by man.  From the very beginning, He gave His Law (which He as Sovereign Master had every right to give, and which man as lowly creature had every obligation to obey) and man broke it.  And from that point on, all human beings have been steeped in sin - disobedience to the Law of God.  Therefore, man is at every moment living completely on God's mercy, without any hope in himself.

So when someone complains that the biblical doctrine of election or the biblical teaching of unequal gifts is unfair, then what is really happening is that such a person has forfeited one of the points above.  Either that person does not believe that God owns everything, does not believe that God has all authority, or does not believe that man has wronged God in some way.  Because the proper response of one who has wronged the Almighty Creator and Ruler of the universe is absolute submission to anything He desires to do.  We must leave the heretical idea of entitlement in hell where it belongs.

Are you a Christian?  Then rejoice that your name is written in the Lamb's Book of Life from the foundation of the earth (Luke 10:20, Revelation 13:8).  It's okay to thank and praise God for choosing to save a "wretch like me".  That kind of praise leaves all boasting at the door, because you're thanking God for what He did, not what you did.  He doesn't save us because we're worthy of it - far from it - He saves us because He wants to.  His reasons are His own.  And He gifts us to fulfill the role that He has designed for us.  And far from being jealous, we ought to learn to rejoice with those that God has chosen to bless more than us, because they are just as unworthy of those blessings as we are, and so we rejoice at what God is doing through them because it is Hiswork.

Those High Ways

Some awful statistics are tossed around in Baptist circles - or maybe the statistics are for all evangelical churches - at any rate, the numbers say that something like 80% of churches baptize no one in a whole year.  An even larger percentage of churches are plateaued or declining in membership.  And the way that this data is usually presented, the finger is pointed at those declining churches, making them responsible for the loss, pouring out guilt on their pastors, and beating up the members for not sharing the gospel more than they do. Here's an odd thing: I've never been a member of a "growing" church (at least not one that is growing numerically), but for some reason, I always thought that I would pastor one.  I suppose the odds should somewhat prepare young pastors for the likelihood that they will lead churches that are declining, but they don't.

I think about this issue a lot.  Recently, at our association's annual meeting, I had to sit and listen to the evidence that my church was in the 80% as the various annual church profile numbers were read aloud from all of the association's member churches (we'll not discuss at this point whether or not such a practice is sinful - maybe that would be a good topic for another time).  Why do churches seem to lose ground?  Why aren't people saved?  I mean, I'm a pastor that loves Christ, I preach the Word of God and try not to preach myself, I share the gospel, I organize mission trips, outreaches, revivals, etc.  So why does this happen?  I always had in my mind the picture of pastors who didn't care about the Bible or God's people, who didn't know the gospel or how to proclaim it, who were content to maintain the status quo and nothing else.  Those were the ones who were supposed to make up the 80% in my mind - not me!

Then I read a passage like Isaiah 55:10-11:

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

It sounds like the source of power for growth is the proclamation of the Word of God, and from these verses, it sounds like what it accomplishes will always look positive.  And yet we know that such was not Isaiah's call.  When God told Isaiah to go and proclaim this powerful Word (Isaiah 6:9-10), He told him:

Go, and say to this people: "Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive."  Make the heart of this people dull,and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.

What I think we have to gather from this is that sometimes God's intention is that His Word will drive away as much as it draws near.  His Word always accomplishes God's will as it goes out.  It never returns void.  But God's will is not always what we think it ought to be.  It is not always a positive number in the 'baptisms' column on the annual church profile, or consistently higher numbers on the Sunday School attendance board.  We have to know that God is at work even when we can't count the signs during the reading of the church letters at an associational meeting.

This reminds me of another passage in Isaiah:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.  (Isaiah 55:8-9)

God knows what He's doing even if we don't.  He is conforming His people ever closer to the image of Christ.  He is crushing pride, stirring up a hunger and a desperation for Himself, and even purging His church of those who were not of His people.  He is working on the pastor, He is working on the pillars of the church who love Christ, He is working on the immature who need to grow, and He is working on the seed of the enemy sown into His field.  Who knows, tomorrow He may begin to bring in a harvest of souls, adding thousands to the number of the faithful.  He's done it before.  But we must remember that when He does, it is not Paul who planted or Apollos who watered who are anything, but it is God who gave the growth (1 Corinthians 3:5-7).

He Doesn't Need Your Kid Gloves

A lot of times when something good happens in the world or in our own personal lives we like to say that God has "done" amazing things.  We confess that it is He who brings such wonders about.  But when some disaster strikes, either on a personal scale or a global one, we use different language.  We like to say that God "allowed" such and such to come to pass.  That way it doesn't sound so much like God is directly responsible, but we still acknowledge that it didn't happen outside of His control. The idea seems to be that God can generate the energy and the cause to bring about good, but He is more passive when the bad things happen, merely "allowing" them.  But is this an idea that we get from the Bible?

I recently had the pleasure of preaching Psalm 107 at our Olney Baptist Association Annual Meeting this past Monday.  What is striking about that Psalm is that in each of the four main verses, God is actively bringing pain and hardship into the lives of His people in order to develop them by it and then deliver them from it.  In verse 4 there is a reference to wilderness wanderings, something that God directly brought about in the lives of Abraham and later the Israelites of the Exodus.  In verse 12 it is God who bows down their hearts with hard labor so that they fall down.  In verse 25 it is God who stirs up the great storm that frightens His people, just so that He can calm it down again and they can know that He is God.  This is not a God who passively reacts to events in His universe.  This is a God who brings all things to pass for His good purposes.  He does whatever He wants, and He does it all for a reason.

Isaiah 45:7 states the case in probably the most blunt way in all the Bible: "I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am Yahweh, who does all these things."

God neither needs nor wants His creatures to soften the truth that He is in control of all things.  We don't need to use phrases like "God allowed this or that".  It is perfectly acceptable and Biblical for us to say, "God brought this about for His own purposes, and we know that His purposes are wise and just and good and that His ways are above our ways.  Therefore, we will submit to His will and trust Him to always do the right thing."

My Sick Tastes

Sometimes people get on to me when I say that some of my favorite parts of the Bible are verses like 1 Samuel 15:33: "And Samuel hacked Agag to pieces before the LORD in Gilgal."  I like the parts where God orders His people to slaughter children.  I like it when Elisha makes the bear eat the kids in 2 Kings 2:24.  I like it when God tells Satan to wipe out Job.  I like it when Paul says that he wishes the heretics would just cut their genitals off (Galatians 5:12).  My wife has asked me before, "What's wrong with you?  Those are horrible things!  Those shouldn't be your favorite parts!" Well, I suppose that I should say that really they're not my favorite parts.  Texts like Romans 7 and Ephesians 2 come most often to mind when I really need some hope.  I just really like to keep bringing up some of the more offensive passages at various times because they illustrate perfectly to me how off-kilter most of the popular ideas about God are today.

There are a lot of people in a lot of churches that don't want to think about "their god" ordering the slaughter of children or telling a prophet to run around naked for two years (see my previous post on that one).  "My god would never do such a thing!" is what you hear sometimes when you delve into the harder parts of the Bible.  So that's why I like those gross stories so much!  They're like a litmus test that can gauge whether or not a person really loves the God of the Bible or a figment of their own politically correct imagination.  If "your god would never do such a thing" then you are an idolater, worshiping a god made in your own image, because the God of the Scriptures has revealed Himself as doing these very things!

Well, I found another one of these passages this morning.  Isaiah 43:3 says, "For I am Yahweh your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.  I give Egypt as your ransom, Cush and Seba in exchange for you."

What's amazing about this passage is that if you read the chapter in context, you find that Israel has been very naughty.  When we get to Isaiah 43:3, we are not dealing with a God who is destroying the wicked but honoring the good.  No, what we have here is a God that is destroying several evil nations as a "ransom" to save another evil nation for no better reason than that He wanted to do it.  When God killed all of the firstborn of Egypt and then drowned their whole army to save Israel (Exodus 12 & 14), it wasn't because Israel was a worthy people (have you read Exodus?!).  On the couple of occaisions when God sovereignly redirected the Assyrians to attack Cush and Seba (2 Kings 19, Isaiah 20) instead of Israel, it wasn't because the Jews were righteous.  Rather, God saves His people because of a covenant.  He decided for reasons of His own that He wanted to save a certain people and then He promised that He would.

Abraham was a pagan idolater just like everyone else when God first came to him and announced His plan to bless him and his descendants.  He didn't deserve the attention from God.  So why did God pick him?  We know this: it wasn't because of anything he had done.  And we also know that it wasn't because of anything that he would do, since God is the One that changes hearts (Ezekiel 36:25-27), give gifts (1 Corinthians 4:7), and leads people along the path that He wants them to follow (Ephesians 2:10).  That power was never in man.  We can see this same logic displayed in Romans 9:10-13.  God's decision to save someone has nothing to do with man's choosing (whether in the past or in the future), but is rooted totally in God's own will and pleasure (Romans 9:15-16).

And this idea is another one of those that works like a litmus test to see if a person is really in love with the God of the Bible or one of their own making.  Do you want a God that loves you because you're so worthy to be loved, or do you love the God who chose you and saved you in spite of your own worthlessness so that you might live for Him?  It should be no great mystery which one of these views is very friendly with the world and the flesh and deeply man-centered.

Aisles of the Blind

Once upon a time, Christians believed that salvation was of the Lord and that believers were called by God to live holy lives. The first belief was built on the Scriptures that claim that man is dead in his trespasses and sins and thus requires a divine act to call him back to life (Ephesians 2:1-5).  Astute disciples realized that if it were necessary for God to call someone to spiritual life from spiritual death, then He must be in control of the process, not the spiritually dead men.  Their hypotheses were confirmed by passages like John 6:44 and Romans 9:10-12.  And it was these ideas that led such believers to fully understand then that those whom God chose to save would certainly persevere in the faith, since it was God who was totally behind their salvation from start to finish (Philippians 1:6).

These Christians, being fully aware that salvation did not begin with man attempting to be obedient to the law, but rather with God calling dead men to Himself, then naturally understood God's righteous requirements to be a good and holy way to please the God who bought them with His blood.  And so they delighted in righteousness and hated the sin that lingered within them (Romans 7:7-25).

And then sometime later, enemies came into this happy fold and introduced destructive teachings, denying the sovereignty of God in salvation - placing the means for gaining access to eternal life in the power of man's decision.  Explanations of the gospel turned into cheap offers to escape hell, if only the hearer would "decide to accept Christ" or "invite Jesus into his heart".  To further the erosion of sacred doctrine, those who bought into this "easy believism" were also told that once they were saved, they were always saved, and that they should never again question their secure place in heaven.  If did not matter what they did after they "prayed the prayer", they were always and forever 'saved'.

This deadly seed took a couple of generations before its crop was ready to harvest.  But then, almost before anyone knew what was happening, churches began to wane.  Children and grandchildren of faithful patriarchs left church never to return.  Worse than this absense, though, was the teaching that lingered on in the parents hearts: that their children were still 'saved', even though they weren't living like it.  Now one evil became two.  One group believed that they had a right standing with God because of a decision that was made sometime in the past, even though there was no evidence of such salvation in their lives, and the other group felt as though there was nothing that they could offer the first group since they had already "accepted" the gospel.

The enemy wants us to believe these two cardinal false doctrines: that salvation is in our own hands by virtue of our decision and that we should never question our salvation.  Such teaching takes the focus of salvation off of Christ and then blinds the minds of the deceived to any danger.

The apostle Peter, however, has provided a wonderful corrective in 2 Peter 1:10, "Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities (as listed in verses 5-7) you will never fall."  In Peter's way of thinking (inspired by the Holy Spirit - verses 20-21), a believer's own pursuit of holiness is an indicator of whether or not God has truly chosen to save that person.  Think of how different that is to the false doctrine that says that our decision makes our salvation sure regardless of our behavior.  They are completely opposite ideas!

We need to return our thinking to the way our spiritual forefathers thought as they were guided by the God-centered Scriptures rather than the man-centered culture.  As the Lord said, we should "Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls" (Jeremiah 6:16).

We will hopefully begin this week over at TrueBaptist.org to examine some of these historical Baptists who held firm to this "faith once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3).  Be sure to bookmark the main site (http://truebaptist.org) and check it regularly or subscribe to the RSS.

Saving the World

The following comes from a sermon preached by Benjamin B. Warfield on the text of John 3:16 entitled, "God's Immeasurable Love":

You must not fancy, then, that God sits helplessly by while the world, which He has created for Himself, hurtles hopelessly to destruction, and He is able only to snatch with difficulty here and there a brand from the universal burning.  The world does not govern Him in a single one of its acts: He governs it and leads it steadily onward to the end which, from the beginning, or ever a beam of it had been laid, He had determined for it....Through all the years one increasing purpose runs, one increasing purpose: the kingdoms of the earth become ever more and more the Kingdom of our God and His Christ.  The process may be slow; the progress may appear to our impatient eyes to lag.  But it is God who is building: and under His hands the structure rises as steadily as it does slowly, and in due time the capstone shall be set into its place, and to our astonished eyes shall be revealed nothing less than a saved world.

Absolutely Clueless

What is the meaning of Barack Obama's presidency?  We know that his installment as the executive head of this country was God's doing.  We are told so in Romans 13:1, "There is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God."  But when we start to try to hypothesize as to God's thinking behind this current state of events, we ought to quickly come to the conclusion that we don't have much of a clue. Other hard questions complicate our cluelessness.  Why were planes allowed to crash into New York skyscrapers eight years ago?  Why does Indonesia keep getting smashed with tsunamis and earthquakes?  Why are our loved ones suddenly snatched away from us before their time?  Sure, a lot of people try to give answers to these questions, but the most honest among us can say little other than, "I don't know what God is up to, but I know that He is in control."

And, really, "I don't know" is a fantastic answer to those questions.  Why should we think that we have to know?  We each have our own tiny little spheres of awareness and understanding, and we can't even get inside the mind of a single other person.  God, on the other hand, intimately knows all of His creation.  He knows how every single mind works and how it is affected by every single event.  In addition, he knows how tiny events on one side of the planet eventually effect events on the other.  When I wash my car (okay, it could happen!), He knows where the soap runoff goes and what it affects, even though I have no idea.  He's even planned it all to work together to accomplish His ends!  He's got some crazy-complex master blueprint that includes everything - even supposedly random particle collisions in the rings of Saturn!  And it all works for His purposes.

The smartest man who ever lived, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit Himself, once penned these words, "As you do not know the way the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything" (Ecclesiastes 11:5).

Really let that sink in for a second.

You may have read some textbook in biology class that explained cell division and blastocysts, but did it say anything about how the spirit of the child gets woven together with the flesh?  What kind of microscope can you use to see that?  None!  How much are we told about that in the Bible?  None!  We don't have even the foggiest notion of a clue as to how God does that.  And God says that just as we are clueless in that area, we are clueless as to His great designs in creation - other than what has been revealed to us in His word.

Can we be content with that?  Can we just let Him be in control and confess our ignorance over a lot of these hard questions?  I think we should.  So what is our responsibility, then, if we can't control everything or even know what is going on?  "Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man" (Ecclesiastes 12:13).  I'm going to trust Him and do what He says and let Him take care of all the details.  And if I can't figure it out, that's okay.  We've got a faithful, good, and just God at the helm of the universe who has everything under control.

What He Gives

According to the Bible, when I receive a blessing in my life, God is behind it (James 1:17).  Also according to the Bible, when I walk through horrendous trials in my life, God is behind it (James 1:2-4).  In fact, according to the Bible, just about the only thing that we can say that God is not behind is the temptation to sin that we experience.  James 1:13-15 makes it very clear that such temptations come from the sin that dwells within us.  We dare not cast the blame for our sinful desires on God!  It is our own indwelling sin that rises up and produces fruit - God does not implant some alien sinful desire in us - it is wholly natural. What is fascinating about all of this, though, is that God is very much in control of the consequences of the fruit of our sinful desires, and our sin leads us into various trials.  For what trial or hardship would ever have arisen outside of the sinful state of humanity?  Would we suffer hunger or sickness or loss of loved ones?  No, all hardship is a result of our transgressions of God's perfect law.  But apparently, not all hardship is an actual wrathful, just punishment for our transgressions of God's perfect law.

In fact, in James 1:2, we are even told to "count is all joy...when you meet trials of various kinds."  We are told that such trials produce steadfastness, which - when allowed to exercise its full effect - makes us "perfect and complete, lacking in nothing" (verse 4).

So, trials are good, but trials comes as a result of sin, and sin is born through the ripening of temptation.  The start of this chain reaction takes place in our own wicked hearts, and the end is a pure product of God - something that verse 17 of James 1 calls a "good and perfect gift from above, coming down from the Father of Lights."  But if that's the case, then why does it feel like He's punishing us?

I think this is where we have to make a distinction between loving discipline and just punishment.  A just punishment for our sins would be an immediately enforced, eternally enduring Second Death.  This was the wrath that Christ took for us on the cross when He suffered in our place (if we are truly believers).  A loving discipline, however, is a measure designed by a loving Father to keep a child away from a just punishment.

When I discipline my daughter for taking away something from her sister, it is not because I hate her.  It's not even really because I'm angry with her.  I discipline her because I want her to learn how to live righteously so that she will avoid a just retribution (from God and from the state) for a crime like stealing.

So, in a situation like that, my daughter actually ought to thank me for her stinging backside.  It was a good gift coming from her father.  It was meant to produce steadfastness, which, if allowed to have its full effect, would lead her toward perfection and completeness.  It was given completely in love and ought to be received with total thankfulness.

I sin, but God still just keeps handing out the good and perfect gifts.  Sometimes they seem to come in response to something I've done, and sometimes they just seem to come out of the blue.  But all of the time they are loving gifts, designed by a perfect Father to accomplish a perfect purpose in my life, whether they be heapings of joy-filled blessings or long valleys of soul-crushing trials.  One is just as good as another in God's perfect plan, and so I have to learn to "count it all joy."