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Reflections on Suffering & the Sovereignty of God: Discussions…

As I’m still working on Chapter 4, I thought I’d bring some of our more interesting discussions to the fore-front. To keep up-to-date on the discussion to far, please also read INTRO & CHAPTER 1, CHAPTER 2 PART 1, CHAPTER 2 PART 2, CHAPTER 3, & A DETOUR.

The primary issue that keeps coming up in my ‘response’ box is that of “free will”.

I will be the first to admit that I don’t have all the answers on this – I am convinced of one thing: there is a LOT of mystery in God and God has not chosen to answer all of our questions in the here & now. Look at Job, whom God not only allowed, but even seemed to direct Satan to (”Look at my servant, Job…”) bring trouble upon: God’s response to Job’s “WHY?!” was “Who are you?” – not in the rude sense, but in the sense that He let Job have a BIG revelation of God INSTEAD of a direct answer to his question.  And that’s, more often than not, what we really need in those circumstances: we don’t need answers, we need His presence, and revelation.

For years, I too struggled with the issue of “Free Will”, but now I struggle with it from the other-side: the Bible clearly says, “But our God is in heaven; He does whatever He pleases” (Psalm 115:3). “Free Will” is a troubling man-made term, but IF “Free Will” exists in any sense, the only being that can have it is God, otherwise it could be possible for us to make decisions which could trump (and as a result “bound” – tied His hands) God’s will, making Psalm 115 no longer true.

Also, what is the ‘will’ – isn’t it simply our ‘desires’: what we want to see ‘come to be’? Do we really get to freely choose what those desires are? How much of what we desire comes from 1.) Family pressures, 2.) Cultural influence, 3.) our upbringing, 4.) psychological issues, 5.) social issues, 6 past experiences, 7.) Genetics (alcoholism is – in-part – genetic), etc. Can a will so shaped by so many factors be called ‘free’, when we seem most-times DRAWN to make the decisions we do?

As a result, the issue that is most often brought up by ‘free will’ proponents is the “If God is truly sovereign, how can we be held responsible?”. A good question, but more a philosophical question than a Biblical one. However, there are rare cases in the Bible where those sorts of questions are asked of God.

Romans 9;19-20 addresses this question directly: “You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?’ But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’”

The issue in Romans 9 is exactly the one you bring up: if God chooses, how can we be held responsible. The answer seems to be “Who do you think you are?” Basically, God is so holy, so high above our thinking, that this is something we could never adequately understand, so we need to be very careful making such accusations (and such a question is, in all reality, an accusation veiled – that God is not ‘just’). The Bible affirms that God is just. The Bible affirms that He is absolutely sovereign. The Bible affirms that man is responsible for his actions. End of story. All three should be affirmed as true by Biblical Christians, even if we don’t philosophically understand perfectly how the three work together.

Lastly, I should note: I don’t believe that ‘predestination’ means what many of my readers may think I think it means. Biblically, predestination is used differently than it often is doctrinally and philosophically. Philosophy and Doctrine/Theology often use the word predestination to talk about any and all events that are planned out before-hand, and are pre-ordained to happen. However, in the Bible, ‘predestination’ is used of believers being conformed into the image of Christ. I know many ‘Reformed/Calvinist’ folks will take issue with me ‘giving away ground’ like that, but it is true – what is predestined, according to the Scriptures, is believers being made like Christ Jesus. Now, that doesn’t get non-Reformed folks off of the hook, as they still have to wrestle with the issue of ‘election’, but that’s an entirely different matter altogether.

I hope that helped and as you wrestle with these issues! Stay tuned for chapter 4!

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Reflections on Suffering & the Sovereignty of God: a momentary detour for deeper clarification…

Having used one of my own analogies on human ‘will’ in a recent blog post in this series, utilizing the bicyclist attempting to avoid a drunk driver, I thought of another useful analogy when considering the relationship of God’s will to human will: the Scriptures themselves.

When we read the Scripture, we immediately recognize its human origin. For instance, Peter wrote in chapter 2, verse 16, of his second letter;“We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” Notice who is doing the “telling” – Peter, who is claiming that his testimony should be believed NOT BECAUSE GOD IS SPEAKING THROUGH HIM, but because he was an eyewitness to the things of which he wrote. Also, in 1 Peter 1:10-11, he speaks of the Old Testament prophets searching “intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing…” Here, again, human effort is put into seeking out the truth that was then written down for us.

The human origin of the Bible is made even clearer by passages such as Luke 1:3-4. Here he states; “Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” Here, not only do we see the author speaking of his own effort in researching the events about which he wrote, but that the book was a personal letter, written to a specific individual, Theophilus, by a specific individual, Paul’s disciple, Luke. In fact, many of the New Testament books in particular are letters to either individuals or churches, each displaying the authors’ own styles, personalities, and concerns.

In all reality, the human origin of the Scripture is so clear that no case really needs to be made for it, but that is not ALL the Bible is…

Isaiah 51:16 says; “I have put my words in your mouth and covered you with the shadow of my hand– I who set the heavens in place, who laid the foundations of the earth, and who say to Zion, `You are my people.’”Hebrews 1:1-3 speaks to this when it says, “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe.” The Bible is overflowing with the words “thus sayeth the Lord.” In fact, Robert Reymond, a professor of Systematic Theology at Knox Theological Seminary, counted more than 3,800 time in the Old Testament alone where the writer’s message is introduced with some form or another of “the mouth of the Lord has spoken”, “the Lord says”, “the Lord spoke”, “hear the word of the Lord”, “thus the Lord has shown to me”, or “the word of the Lord came unto me, saying…”

The Bible seems to claim for itself, therefore, not to be merely a just another book written by men, but rather a book chronicling the works and words of a God who SPEAKS. The authors weren’t left playing a total guessing game as to the nature and purpose of the God about which they wrote. The author’s didn’t write about a distant Greek god, or a god of their imagination, but they wrote about the God of revelation – a God that they purport to have KNOWN in a ‘personal’ way.

We notice that Paul claims God’s authority for he and the Apostles’ own words in 1 Thessalonians 2:13; “And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe.” In fact, Scripture is so closely equated with the very words of God that when the New Testament quotes the Old to say “God said” or “(the human author) said” are virtually interchangeable.

Why is this? Because Scripture is “God-breathed.” 2 Timothy 3:16 says, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness…”, and much has been said about this. I’ve been told numerous times by others that we simply don’t know WHAT “God-breathed” means. Well, if understood in a literal sense, the Greek here – and I am not a Greek scholar but am trusting the scholarship of others – has the sense not that God “breathed into” the words of man, as He breathed life into Adam, but rather that he “breathed out” the words of Scripture through men. If this is true, we can only affirm that in some sense the human authored words of Scripture are God’s very own. B. B. Warfield wrote, “The Biblical writers do not conceive of the Scriptures as a human product breathed into by the divine Spirit and heightened in its qualities or endowed with new qualities; but as a Divine product produced through the instrumentality of men.”

It is also clear that the words of the Bible are much more than just normal human prose because, for instance, mishandling As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner, great book though it may be, will not likely have negative eternal consequences for your soul. However, Peter, when referring to Paul’s letters states in 2 Peter 3:15-16; “…our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.” Notice here that Peter, long before the canonization of the New Testament, and most likely even before the writing of the four Gospels, already considers Paul’s letters to be of the same quality as the Old Testament Scriptures – and equally dangerous if misunderstood or misused.

Is it logically consistent to believe that the Bible was truly written by men, and yet is fully the Word of God?  Yes, in as much as it is also logically consistent to believe that God is absolutely sovereign, yet man is responsible for his own actions. Isn’t it true, that if God totally overwhelmed a human, and dictated Scripture through them, that that text would not be the words of men at all? But clearly this isn’t the case – again, we see the author’s own personalities, styles, and concerns ALL OVER the Scripture.

The authors of the Gospels were all eyewitnesses or disciples of eyewitnesses to the life or resurrected life of Jesus. They not only relied on their own experience and memories, which Jesus promised would be quickened by the Spirit, but, as Luke mentions, also relied upon other eyewitness accounts of the events that had taken place. Now, though the Spirit of God might have led Luke to have a great concern for Theophilus, and thus given him the desire to write to him an “orderly account”, and the Spirit also was at reminding his apostolic sources of all that Jesus had taught (John 14:26) and leading them “into all understanding”( John 16:12-13), the desire to write, and the words themselves would be Luke’s very own. In fact, even to get an inerrant Bible, all God would have to do is suppress ideas and concepts in the minds of the authors that might be misleading to their audience or misrepresent the truth! This is not outside the way God sometimes works; regularly God redirected Paul by blocking him from going one way or another during his missionary journeys. If so, can the Holy Spirit not also block a neural pathway in the brain, so a certain faulty or misleading idea might not be retrievable? So, if this were how God inspired the Gospels, what you would have is this; Jesus as God taught the importance of spreading the good news, to which Luke was responding by writing an account of the Good News for Theophilus. The content of the Gospel, though remembered in detail and understood by the apostles by the aid of the Spirit, was researched and written by Luke’s own effort. The teachings contained within that Gospel would reflect the mind of God for they are the words and acts of God working in the world through Christ Jesus and by the Holy Spirit. God, by suppressing content or ideas that might be misleading, maintains that Luke’s letter to Theophilus contains nothing more than what God wants conveyed. However, Luke himself is choosing terms, ordering sentences, and doing the writing reflecting his own style and concerns. If this were so, the whole content, message, and truth of the text of Luke would be from God, yet written by a man using his own skills ultimately of his own free-will. This being one possible route for God to have worked, and containing no logical inconsistencies, we are perfectly reasonable in saying that the Scripture is both the words of men AND the Word of God.

And, then – if we believe that the Bible, a book written by sinful men – which even documents many sinful acts – can be the ‘Word of God’, why do we find it hard to believe that the same God, in allowing sin and suffering, cannot maintain His sovereign control and direction over and through it all?  I think He can, and does.

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Mid-April Blog-Love

Sometimes it’s hard to keep up with all the blogging out there – that’s why I like doing these ‘blog-loves’, and enjoy reading other people’s blog-loves: it helps me to not miss the good stuff, when it’s hard to find the time to read the numerous blogs in my reader every morning.  So, since last time – here it goes!

Stephen Altrogge over at THE BLAZING CENTER posted a powerful blog entitled DO YOU LOVE THE WRATH OF GOD? A question I’m sure most of us have never asked ourselves.  Well worth reading.

Brad Hightower at 21ST CENTURY REFORMATION reflected on Lloyd-Jones’ comments on the Kingdom of God in THE KINGDOM OF GOD IS AT HAND.  As I’ve been doing a LOT of thinking about the Kingdom of God recently, this was a helpful and challenging read for me.

John Piper posted a sermon of his from 1990 on WHY THE GIFT OF PROPHECY IS NOT THE USUAL WAY OF KNOWING GOD’S WILL.  As is most Piper, this is worth using during your devotional time.

Lastly, new music & books worth looking into!  As you should know by now, Sovereign Grace Music recently released their newest c.d., COME WEARY SAINTS, and while waiting to finish my own review, I’d suggest you read Dave Bish’s over at THE BLUE FISH PROJECT.  Also, Graham Cole just released what looks to be an excellent book, ENGAGING WITH THE HOLY SPIRIT, which Justin Taylor said a few words on HERE.  It’s definitely being added to my reading list.

Stay tuned for more blogs on SUFFERING & THE SOVEREIGNTY OF GOD, and my own review of COME WEARY SAINTS soon!

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Reflections on Suffering & the Sovereignty of God (chapter 3)

The first 3 blogs in this series are available here, here, & here.

The 3rd Chapter in Suffering & the Sovereignty of God is John Piper’s own, THE SUFFERING OF CHRIST AND THE SOVEREIGNTY OF GOD. In it he lays out his Biblical case that suffering – at least some aspects of it, particularly the suffering of Jesus – was in the plan of God from the beginning. Though I agree with him, overall, I do disagree with him on a few minor issues of interpretation along the way, which will surely come as a surprise to some of my friends who may sometimes suspect that I hold Piper’s writings in higher esteem than the Bible itself – not at all true!

Please forgive me if I lose you: some of the issue I will be discussing here even confuse me, but that doesn’t relieve us from thinking about them – God deserves our WHOLE mind, so if there is one place we should not let our mind become lazy it’s when thinking about God.  I hope you will try to follow me as I do my best to ‘think Christianly’ about this.

“[God] who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began…” – 2 Timothy 1:9

Piper says, as a result of this verse in particular, “…we have suffering – the slaughter of the Son of God – in the mind and plan of God before the foundation of the world. The Lamb of God will suffer. He will be slaughtered. That’s the plan.” (Piper)

Personally, I’ve always found this explanation – depending on how it’s understood – a bit unsatisfying, though my debate is – to a large degree – theological hair-splitting, and I will readily admit it. The problem is, it’s more an a philosophical or logical debate than one grounded in Scripture. That doesn’t mean that the Scriptures don’t speak to the issue, but by no means are they definitive. That’s just to say, I’m not a ‘double-predestination’ guy, and consider myself a pseudo-Amyraldist (like Richard Baxter), or a mild infralapsarian (like Calvin himself), not a supralapsairian like Piper and many of the more radical reformed folk. Honestly, if I play all of my cards, it may just be that I don’t find it emotionally satisfying to think that God ‘decreed’ the fall, which may even remove me from all camps. Is for God to have fore-seen the fall, and still chosen to create as He did, the very same as decreeing that it happen? I don’t choose to use that language, at least. I’m sure some proper Calvinists will choose to pounce on me for that one!

Either way, from the verse one thing is clear: God at least fore-knew the fall, because the sacrifice of Jesus of was part of God’s plan from the beginning – not merely as part of his ‘permissive will’ as I prefer to view the fall of man, but as part of his explicit will – his ‘purpose’.

Another verse that seems to drive this home is Ephesians 1:4-6: “…even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.”

Again, I do have serious questions about Piper’s – and most ‘reformed’ folk’s – interpretation of this passage, but either way I think the application is likely the same. I’ll explain…

Reread the whole book of Ephesians sometime. Did you notice that that “us/we” vs. “you” distinction is played out rather extensively? There seems to be a table-tennis game of sorts taking place. First God has blessed, chosen, predestined, redeemed, lavished on, and made known to “us”, who were the first to hope in Christ. Then “you were also included when you heard…the gospel of your salvation…you were marked with the promised Holy Spirit.” Later, “you were dead in your transgression and sin, in which you used to live…”, “All of us also lived among them…we were by nature objects of wrath…made us alive in Christ…”, “…it is by grace you have been saved.“God raised us up…that he might show his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.” , “..It is by grace you have been saved…”, “for we are God’s workmanship…”, and then the winning serve; “…you who are Gentiles by birth.”! Ephesus was a gentile community, and this letter seems specifically aimed towards a gentile audience, hence “you” is a very specific group of individuals; gentile converts to Christianity. If that is the case, remembering that those that Paul would be representing, i.e. the majority of the church of his day, including the apostles, were all Jewish converts to Christianity – the TRUE chosen people; chosen both in the original sense of them being born Jewish, AND according the Abrahamic covenant which is actually by Faith. Paul and those he represents are the remnant, the true chosen who have only recently recognized that God is also working in those who are not Jewish by birth. Who were the “first to hope in Christ”? The Jews, of course—they had been reading and interpreting prophecy concerning their coming messiah for centuries. In fact, one can translate “first to hope in Christ” as “those who believed before hand.” Why is it significant to point out that the Jews were also by nature objects of wrath? Because by covenant they were the people of God. In fact, the whole of Ephesians 1-3 should be read as an explanation of “the mystery of His will”, by which these verses are bracketed. “And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment—to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.” And in chapter three, Paul expands on this mystery; “Surely you have heard about the administration of God’s grace that was given to me for you, that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly. In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to men in other generation as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. This mystery is that through the gospel Gentiles are heirs together with Israel.” Reading “we/us” primarily as a referent to Jewish believers, and “you” as a referent to Gentile believers, in fact, simplifies many of the clumsy passages in Ephesians and yet is also consistent within the context of the whole book. Therefore, in 1:3-23 Paul argues that in spite of the fact that God chose to reveal Himself and His plan of salvation particularly through the Jewish people, that Gentiles might also be included through the Gospel, and like his remnant people, the Jewish believers in Christ, they might also have the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and both people co-exist under one “head”, which is Christ.

There is a problem with oversimplifying this reading of Ephesians, though – the use of “us/we” will not be entirely sufficient, since at the end of each of these sections there seems to be what I’d call a ‘summery verse’, including both the Jews and Gentile believers, making clear how they are indeed one. Several examples of this would be “us who believe” in 1:19, summarizing Paul’s argument that both Jews and Gentiles can be saved in Christ. “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do”, verse 2:10, is Paul’s summery of 2:1-10, showing that both are saved by God’s work of free grace. And lastly, 2:14-18 sum up the section from 2:11-22; “For he himself is OUR peace. . . for through him we BOTH have access tot he Father by one Spirit.”

So, I’m left with a question. Chapter 1:3-8 – do they refer to the church universal or only the remnant of God’s chosen people? Does my “remnant/gentile” reading of “us/we/you” begin as early on as verses 3-8? Honestly, I don’t know, but even in being honest about my doubts about these verses as they are commonly used by Calvinists, I think either way Piper’s point may stand. Whether Paul is saying that the true Jews (those who would trust in Christ) were chosen to be God’s people before creation, or if it’s specific to individual Christians, or Christians as a group, being chosen to salvation prior to creation – either way it paints a picture of a God who makes choices without having committee with us first – a sovereign God who CHOOSES, and part of that choice that was made prior to creation is that a people would be “adopted as sons through Jesus Christ”, which happens through Christ’s death on the cross on our behalf. Therefore, somehow the death of Christ – and the suffering of Christ – has been in God’s mind as part of the plan from the very beginning.

One thing I found particularly interesting in this chapter is Piper’s reading of Lamentations 3…

“…though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men.” – Lamentations 3:32-33

Piper writes: “Literally: ‘He does not from his heart (millibo) afflict or grieve the children of men‘. He ordains that suffering come – ‘though he cause grief’ – but his delight is not in the suffering, but in the great purpose of creation: the display of the glory of the grace of God in the suffering of Christ for the salvation of sinners.” (Piper)

This brings a comforting balance to the thought that God may ‘ordain’ our suffering – God’s delight is not in the suffering, but in its’ purpose – that we display the glory of God as a result.

Piper adds,“The goal of the entire history of redemption” – which includes the suffering of Christ – “is to bring about the praise of the glory of the grace of God.”

Which takes us back to Ephesians 1. What is the purpose of it ALL – including the Suffering of Christ – and as a result, our Suffering? “To bring about the praise of the glory of the grace of God.“!

I wrote about this at length in my older blog, GOD IS IN CONTROL:

Isaiah states in verse 14 of chapter 63 that God delivered Moses and his people “to make for himself a name,” or rather, for his own renown and glory. Likewise, Psalm 106:8 says “…yet he saved them for his name’s sake, that he might make known his mighty power.” John Piper says in THE PLEASURES OF GOD, and rightly I believe, that “God’s first love is rooted in the value of his Holy name, not the value of a sinful people. And because it is, there is hope for the sinful people, since they are not the grounds of their salvation, God’s NAME is.” This idea is carried over into the New Testament as well; Jesus life and work are aimed at revealing and honoring the Father’s name, which leads to His further glory. Jesus prayed in the garden, “Now my soul is troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour?’ No, for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then the Father responded, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” Again, I believe Piper speaks wisely concerning this; “…we should think of the death of Jesus as the way the Father vindicated his name – his reputation – from all accusations of unrighteousness in the forgiveness of sinners. On this side of the cross we should pray just as David did in Psalm 25:11; ‘for your name’s sake, O Lord, pardon my guilt, for it is great.’

We must be careful in thinking that suffering is accidental, as the most significant case of suffering we can imagine – the suffering of Christ – was clearly ordained before the very creation of the world, and for the primary purpose of giving God glory. If the greatest suffering ever undertaken was ordained by God for His glory, I can not only hope – but trust – that my own suffering has significance in the overall plan of our great God as well.

What do you think?

Up next: WHY GOD APPOINTS SUFFERING FOR HIS SERVANTS.

Filed under: Books, Calvinism, Contraversy, Doctrine, John Piper, Reformed, Theology

‘Just Keeping up with…’ the BlogLove

Some good stuff coming down the pipe-line this past week:

Ched Spellman of Says Simpleton wrote a GREAT reminder of the central truths of the Gospel in GOOD NEWS! You may be surprised by some of the goodies in there.

Also, the Internet Monk has been inspired by one of my personal favorite authors, N.T. Wright, to publish a multi-part blog on the afterlife. Prepare to be challenged, BIG-TIME! They are TOO MUCH HEAVEN?, HEAVEN AND EARTH, and HEAVEN AND EVANGELISM, followed by a fairly detailed review of what one will find in Wright’s newest book on the same subject, which I can already tell I mostly agree with. Add one more to my ever-growing ‘to read’ list!

Blessings!

Filed under: Blog-Love, Bloggers, Gospel, N.T. Wright

Reflections on Suffering and the Sovereignty of God (Chapter 2 – part 2)

For the first two parts in this blog read here & here.

Here is the question I posed last: is God involved, and if so, how, in creating, sending, & permitting evil?

I suppose THAT should be simple enough to answer? 😉

Mark Talbot’s chapter, “ALL THE GOOD THAT IS OURS IN CHRIST” brings to bear many troubling and – if seen in the correct light – comforting verses, many of which we tend to skim over in our Bible reading without thinking deeply about what they are really saying.

“I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,'” – Isaiah 46:9b-10a

Talbot clarifies this passage: “They (the Jewish readers) would know that the One who said (Isaiah 46) is the One who ensures this by bringing everything about, including, in the immediate context of Isaiah’s words, ‘calling a bird of prey from the east, …from a far country’ (Isa. 46:10f.) – that is, Cyrus the Great, king of Persia from 559-530 B.C., who would conquer Babylon in 539 B.C. and then allow the Jews to return to Jerusalem so that they could rebuild the temple… God here calls the pagan, unbelieving Cyrus ‘a man to fulfill my purpose.’

God can use evil men – by creating them, sustaining them, and even by not deterring their actions (which He could easily do – look at the boundaries He set around Satan regarding what the devil could and could not do to Job) – to accomplish His own purposes, which He intended and foreknew from the beginning.

Matthew 10:20 says “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.” Sparrows – in man’s eyes, worth very little. Yet, God’s sovereign hold on things is so all-encompassing – far greater than the so-called ‘sovereignty’ of earthly kings – that even the seemingly insignificant events on earth, like the death of a single half-penny sparrow, only happen because of the Father – only happens because it is the Father’s will to allow it, and bring it to pass.

If not even a sparrow dies apart from the Father’s will, cannot God sovereignly move, direct, and restrain the hearts of evil men? As he adds in Isaiah 46:11b regarding his use of the pagan King Cyrus, “I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it.”

Some, when hearing this, will most assuredly run aground trying to understand how this understanding of God’s sovereignty squares with human ‘free will’ but we must always keep in mind that ‘free will’ as a word or phrase is found no where in the Scriptures, and though that is not proof that it does not true (the word “Trinity” is also nowhere found in the Scriptures, but the concept is centrally Biblical), it does seem that we should be incredibly careful to glean the concept of a ‘will’ from God’s Word, and not simply from the Western political ideas that have shaped our thinking far more greatly than we would often be comfortable admitting.

Again, I will revert to an excerpt from a later post, GOD IS IN CONTROL:

“The second foundation of Biblical Faith flows from the first; free will. I do not speak of the free will of man, but rather, the ultimately free and sovereign (all powerful – in control) will of God. It is frequently and clearly stated in Scripture that God does as he pleases. Psalm 135:6 states, “The Lord does whatever pleases him, in the heavens and on the earth, in the seas and in their depths.” Likewise, Isaiah 46:9-10; “Remember the former things, those of long ago; I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me. I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: my purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.” Lastly, whether or not this passage supports traditionally understood views of salvation (I question that it does), Romans 9:15 indeed makes is clear that God’s will in regard to whom he will be merciful to will not be thwarted; “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.””

That is all just to say, God’s is the only will that is truly free, in the sense that He can do whatever He wills – man’s will must be subject to God’s to some degree, otherwise it may be possible for man, or even angels – like the devil himself – to thwart the will of God (however hard that is to imagine under any circumstances). However, the Bible is clear – God is truly free – He does whatever He pleases, and his purposes will stand. Therefore, it must be true that our will can only be as free as it keeps us from hindering God’s.

Think about it: say there is a man who is riding his bike along a beautiful bike path, when suddenly he hears a car coming up quickly from behind him. Glancing behind him, he sees the car swerving erratically, and knows he has only a moment to act. He dives from his bike to the left of the road, rolling down the sidewalk, and avoiding the speeding, drunk driver, getting nothing worse that some bloody road-rash from the concrete, and some rough marks on his clothes. Now, he chose to dive to the left onto the sidewalk, but was his decision ‘free’ in the sense that a person who emphasizes ‘free will’ would understand it?

Let’s just say that the opposite side of the road from the sidewalk was a stream, which any other bike rider may have opted to dive into to avoid the swerving car – but our bike rider never learned to swim, because his mother lost one of her best friends to drowning and wouldn’t let her children near water except for the bathtub. Let’s say that there was a railroad crossing exactly at the location, so tracks crossed not only the sidewalk to the left, but also created a bridge over the water to his right, which he could have dove towards and clung to – but he lost his own younger brother when he was in his teens because he got his feet stuck between the ties and was hit by a train, causing such a deep seated fear of trains and railroad tracks that he intended on turning around at this point in his bike trip so he wouldn’t have to cross the tracks on his bike. Another option would be to simply stop the bike in the middle of the road and take on the car head on – essentially suicide, but he had a very happy marriage, a good job, great kids, and people he loved who loved him, and killing himself wasn’t really a live option – he simply had too much to live for. If he were me, what he would have most wanted to do upon hearing that speeding car coming from behind is simply fly off his bike (do I have ANY dreams where-in I cannot fly?) like an eagle, out of the impending danger – unfortunately, his basic biology was of a human, and not a bird, so that wasn’t a live option either.

So, our ‘friend’ made his choice – he dove to the left onto the sidewalk – and he was responsible for that decision: the scratches he took were truly his, as was his life which was just saved. But, if you rewinded those events a million times, and played through them over and over again, could he have even considered doing anything else? The events of that day were entirely pre-determined by his genetics, biology, psychology, sociology – everything about who he was, by his birth, upbringing, and the events from his past DROVE him to do the only thing he could: the only option he could will was the one he chose!

I argue that such is our lot, especially when we look at the picture of human freedom painted in the Scriptures – we are absolutely responsible and pay the consequences and/or receive the rewards from our own actions – but to call them ‘free’ in the sense which most of us understand ‘freedom’, especially here in the West – the USA particularly – that seems to be a serious stretch and far outside the Biblical portrait of human freedom. Ask yourselves, is a human ‘will’ which is – in the flesh, before Christ frees it – a ‘slave to sin’ (John 8:34, Romans 6:20) in any sense ‘free’? Can we consider our wills ‘free’ if it is true, as Jesus says, that “…no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father” (John 6:65b) and on the flip-side that “All that the Father gives me will come to me” (John 6:37a)?

Though I admit that Biblically we seem to be given some degree of autonomy regarding our decision making, to call our wills “free” seems to me to be a stretch.

This all goes full circle back to our original topic: though God doesn’t DO evil, his sovereign control over it is far beyond what we are often comfortable with, but also brings us our greatest hope – the gospel itself:

“…this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” – Acts 2:23

“…for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.” – Acts 4:27-28

The ‘lawless men’ – Herod, Pontius Pilate, the Gentiles, and the Jews – who killed God the Son, Jesus Christ, were entirely responsible for the evil done on that great day, however God had carried them along in the strongest sense of the word – He had actually predestined it (i.e. – it could not have happened any differently!) – he called them ‘annointed’ for this purposed – he had not only allowed, but had somehow ‘planned’ according to ‘foreknowledge’ to use the greatest evil the world has ever known for the greatest good possible: the death of the God-man, was the salvation of all who would believe.

This is why I see God’s sovereignty over evil as a comfort, and not something to despair over – if neither the death of a sparrow, nor the death of God’s son were meaningless evil, then neither is the pain and suffering I undergo as I live this life being conformed more and more into the image of Jesus for God’s glory.

Stay tuned next week for my reflections on chapter 3, one of John Piper’s chapters, “THE SUFFERING OF CHRIST AND THE SOVEREIGNTY OF GOD”.

discuss…

Filed under: Bible, Books, Calvinism, Contraversy, Debate, Doctrine, Mystery, Philosophy, Reformed, Suffering & the Sovereignty of God, Theology

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