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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.

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

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