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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…

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

9 Responses

  1. Hey man,
    Good stuff. Even as one who considers himself outside of traditional Reformed theology, I definitely echo your overall response to this issue. The last paragraph about His sovereignty being a comfort is spot-on! Well said!

    My only area of gracious disagreement would be in response to the following:
    “As[k?] 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)?”

    I’ve never seen these passages as compelling evidence of a lack of free will (when “free” is defined within the parameters of being ultimately possible because of God’s sovereignly allowing it). Paul’s use of slavery as an analogy to describe our condition of bondage to Sin (along with his analogy of marriage in the next chapter) don’t provide an argument for a metaphysical anthropology of the human will, I would argue. Rather, they describe analogous aspects. Just as one could be a slave to an earthly Roman master–which would greatly restrict his or her actions–yet would not negate his or her free moral choices, one can be a slave to sin without being therefore utterly unable to make free, albeit limited, moral choices.

    The same seems true, in my opinion, of Jesus’ discussion of those who can and cannot come to Him. Only the Israelites who God called could approach His presence at Sinai (Moses, Aaron and the 70); the rest were unable to do so. Likewise, only those who God calls can approach Him through Christ. The age-old question that likely distinguishes our respective theological positions is, of course, “So what is the condition upon which God chooses to call a person? Is there one, or is it UNconditional??” 🙂

    But as I said at the beginning, even from outside a Calvinistic perspective I can agree overall with your post and definitely resonate with it to a large degree!

    Holla, bro!

    JMS

  2. heatlight says:

    I may respond to our points of disagreement at a later time (are we really going to get into this AGAIN – haven’t we been discussing this for, O – about 10 years now?), BUT, let me just say that YOU are still my very favorite Methodist thinker on earth. That’s a pretty good compliment from a non-denominational, little-p presbyterian, 3rd Wave charismatic like myself! Thanks for your response, bro – I’m always glad to be in a discussion with you!

  3. well put. I’ve never heard this discussion of free-will this way before. Interesting.

    Thanks!

  4. […] & 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 […]

  5. honest says:

    If in the case of free will we don’t actually choose our actions and they are predestined then why would god judge us after death? Are not all our actions part of his will? Why would god judge Adam and Eve if they were not only doing his will. As far as the analogy of the bicyclist, are not all those choices still his to make. It was not gods actions that removed those choices, all those choices are still his to make. It was events that have happened in his life that caused him to make a choice rather than just to react. Are we to believe that god caused the mother to lose her sister and a train to strike a boy who’s foot is stuck. All to effect a cyclist choice when being run down by a car. Rather I would suggest that “stuff happens” it is how we let that stuff affects all our life’s decisions that truly affects our free will.

  6. heatlight says:

    In all honesty, Mr/Mrs “Honest”, those are philosophical questions primarily – not Biblical ones. Again, I won’t stoop to use the words “Free Will” because there is simply too much baggage that comes with it – there is far too much restraining us to ever call us ‘free’ in the sense that most people mean ‘free will’. 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.

    Also, I should note: I don’t believe that ‘predestination’ means what you 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 ALWAYS used of a believer 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!

  7. honest says:

    Theological? Yes and No. Most of the major themes the bible deals with are theologically based. Who are we? Were do we come from? Why are we here? Who made us? What happens when we die? Are the not all Theological questions rooted in the human species covered in great detail by the Bible. Such and action makes it difficult to have a biblical question that does not lend in some way or form to theology. Without the bible would we still have these very questions? However, I will attempt to conform the best I can to the limits set forth, after all YOU are hosting this discussion. We cannot turn ourselves over to god for if we are not in control of ourselves to turn. Simply stated god wants us to give ourselves to him and accept Jesus christ as our saviour. First I cannot give to someone what is not mine to give, Second I cannot accept something when I an not in ownership of myself to take receipt of salvation. However, if we are created to choose for ourself a level of ownership must be recognized. We are to take ownership of our choices and from that we are then held accountable for our actions. Thus it would follow that we can then be punished for said actions if it deemed. He is our father and we are his children. In this relation I am expected not to punish my child for an action that he has no control over, i.e. blinking, breathing, existing in the first place. If I know I have asthma and choose to perform rigorous physical work then I am mocking god. If god is in control then he is mocking me for having me perform the work. So far as predestine we do have some clear scripture “For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son…” (Rom. 8: 29), “declare the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things are not yet done…” (Isa. 46: 10).

  8. heatlight says:

    Though your ‘case’ seems reasonable, you’ve not dealt with any of the Scriptures that seem to contradict your view. The fact it, God would be justified in judging us however he liked, because He created us. Though I don’t believe the God revealed in the Bible does so, the fact it – if we’re simply going to wax philosophical – He could do so. We cannot judge God’s just judgments, and they are just because God is the ruler by which we judge what is just – He sets the rules for us. We aren’t the judge.

    Scripturally, it seems clear we were initially created with a slight degree of sovereignty – an ability to choose to some degree, but a large degree of that sovereignty was given up when we gave ourselves over to sin at the Fall. There we became slaves to sin. At that point we revoked God as our ‘master’ (at least our ‘immediate master’), and unbeknownst to ourselves, subject ourselves to sin’s mastery. The freedom we find there is only a freedom to sin, and occasionally a freedom to do good, but with sinful motives and motivations – which in the end, is also sin. How, do you suggest, do we break that cycle, apart from being freed from one ‘outside the loop’, so to say – like the Holy Spirit…this, the Bible calls “regeneration”. But of course, our regained freedom comes from an act of God – and any act of God comes from God’s choosing to do so: God’s sovereign choice. So, again, even in our own freedom, it all goes back to God being sovereign, and that freedom is subject to His primacy and rule.

  9. Honest says:

    So then I guess it is only appropriate that I start to address scriptural evidence. I think one that best fits your question is the story of job. Let’s begin there. The obvious structure of the book consists of a story about job’s affliction, a debate between him and three friends, the speeches of Elihu, divine speeches leading to job’s submissions, and a story about job’s restoration. Agreed? Parallels to the book of Job are; “Man and his God” ‘Sumerian’, “I will Praise the Lord of Wisdom” ‘Babylonian’, and “Babylonian Theodicy”. All part of ancient civilizations attempt to wrestle with the theological question of why does bad come to even those who are good? The idea that god disciplines the one he loves are widespread in the bible. Unlike the monster in the myth of chaos, either Yam or Tannin, Job presents no threat to the deity. So here is the rhetorical question: ‘Does god pervert justice? Or does sadday pervert the right?’ In the story is god at fault for what job is going thru? It is here that Job’s reasoning leads him to reject the concept of individual retribution, the comforting belief that god rewards the virtuous and punishes the wicked. Job now believes that god makes no distinction between the innocent and the guilty The Mesopotamian Erra Epic, which deals with a similar collapse of the moral order, has the god Pestilence confess: ‘The righteous and the wicked, I did not distinguish, I felled.’ God has taken sides with the wicked, gleefully mocking the innocent when hey fall and blinding judges so that they cannot distinguish between guilt and innocence. Because Job subscribes to a modified monotheism, he must attribute both good and evil to the one deity. What we are left with is an absurd understanding that god will allow the destruction of what he has fashioned with care, he gives preferential treatment to the wicked and that god has forgotten the difference between good and evil. god’s eyes have not fleshly components that would make them fallible, so god knows job is innocent. What are we left with? One who is not the author of confusion? I think not?

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