All Things?

When reading about God, we need to be careful not to miss the way that the Lord has allowed himself to be described. After all, inspired, inerrant, holy Scripture tells us the exact truth of who God is and what he is like. And, if we are not careful, we will let ourselves skip past the descriptions of God in one part of a sentence in order to get to the verb. We like to read about the actions of God. But we must not miss his attributes.

Note how God is described here. Ask yourself if you are willing to believe what God says about himself. Because, if you believe it, you accept a serious doctrine.

Ephesians 1:11 In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will,

God is here called “him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.” Believing this requires the acceptance of the sovereignty of God in a significant way. God works all things according to the counsel of his will—all things, God’s will.

Of course, this is not a new thing in Scripture. We can look other places to see a similar truth claim (cf. Psa. 115:3; Rom. 8:28). But, ask yourself, “What changes in my worldview if I accept the fact that God works all things according to his will?”

Before you let yourself become discouraged, this is not to say that God enjoys evil. Nor does it mean that God is declaring all things to be good things. But, if we grasp that God is purposeful and not random, and Scripture is clear that God is not and has never been random, then we can trust that God has purpose even for our greatest pains and the darkest evils of history. It is a logically flawed view that declares that if God is all good and all powerful, he must eliminate all evil. In truth, the God who is all good, all powerful, and all wise has the ability to have a purpose for all things, good and evil, that is beyond our limited ability to comprehend. And that same God can use all things without himself being tainted by the evil of the actions of mankind.

What the truth that God works all things according to the counsel of his will does declare is that no event on earth, no event in the universe, no great good, no terrible hardship, nothing happens apart from the ultimate and sovereign will of God. Every cubic inch of the universe is under God’s power. Nothing is beyond God’s control. Nothing, absolutely nothing, thwarts God’s will. Life and death, kingdoms rising and falling, harvests and disasters, salvation and damnation, all things work in accord with the ultimate will of God to his ultimate glory. Yes, these include things in which God takes no pleasure. But they never include things that God is powerless to change. God is he who works all things according to the counsel of his will. And such a God is the one we are far better to serve than to think we could ever oppose.

Sovereignty and Responsibility in a Shipwreck

When discussions arise of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility, we often have a hard time. So much emotion is attached to the topic of free will and predestination, election and responsibility, that many cannot allow room for thinking past our feelings. So, perhaps it would be worthwhile to consider sovereign decree and human responsibility from a more temporal angle, one with less feeling included.

In acts 27, Paul and his companions are on a sea voyage to transport the apostle to Rome. Along the way, there will be a shipwreck. And that shipwreck has the potential to kill all on board.

What we need to notice for our look at the topic of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility are the two guarantees that Paul makes in the chapter. First, Paul will make it clear exactly whom God will keep alive in the upcoming ordeal. Then, just after that, Paul will set forth a condition that, if unmet, will prove his first guarantee false.

Acts 27:21-26 – 21 Since they had been without food for a long time, Paul stood up among them and said, “Men, you should have listened to me and not have set sail from Crete and incurred this injury and loss. 22 Yet now I urge you to take heart, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. 23 For this very night there stood before me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, 24 and he said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before Caesar. And behold, God has granted you all those who sail with you.’ 25 So take heart, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told. 26 But we must run aground on some island.”

God promised Paul that Paul would make it to Rome. And, more importantly for our purposes, God promised Paul that all on board the ship would survive. That was a guarantee. It will happen. God has sovereignly decreed it, and Paul knows it.

So, one might argue that Paul need take no action at all to see this happen. Paul need not speak to anybody about anything. Paul need not give warnings to any.

But watch what happens next.

Acts 27:30-32 – 30 And as the sailors were seeking to escape from the ship, and had lowered the ship’s boat into the sea under pretense of laying out anchors from the bow, 31 Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved.” 32 Then the soldiers cut away the ropes of the ship’s boat and let it go.

A group of the ship’s crew determined to use the boats to escape the doomed vessel. They were going to slip away unnoticed by the soldiers. But Paul gave the Roman soldiers a very significant warning. If those sailors leave the ship, the soldiers will not survive the wreck. If the sailors leave, the guarantee from earlier will not be true.

The sailors are not allowed to escape. That leaves the sailors on the ship to bring the ship in as close to the beach as possible. And, in the end, every life on board is spared.

Now, let’s talk sovereign decree and free will and possibility. Was Paul telling the truth when he said that God would spare every life on the ship? Of course he was. That was the ultimate decree of God. Nothing was going to change that.

Well then, was Paul speaking nonsense when he warned the Roman soldier that the people would die if the sailors left the ship? No, not at all. God intended to save the lives of all on board the ship through the means of the active work of the sailors.

Well, then was it possible that the people could die? It depends, of course, on what you mean by possible. The people genuinely would have died had the sailors left. But God used the means of Paul’s warning to prevent the sailors from leaving the ship. That allowed the sailors to remain and steer the ship. And through the means, God worked the physical salvation of all the lives on board. On the one hand, it was possible that the people could have died—hence Paul’s warning. But, from another perspective, there was no way this was going to happen. God decreed the end of the adventure as well as the means he would use to bring about that end. Was Paul free? Yes. Were the sailors and the Romans free? Absolutely. Did God work the outcome with absolute sovereignty? You bet. Were the people responsible for the choices they made? Of course. Were their decisions genuine? Yes. But, in the end, was God the ultimate cause of all that took place to save those lives? Absolutely.

Perhaps this will help you to think better about God’s sovereignty and our salvation. All we see here is parallel with our salvation with a few exceptions. Like the sailors, we are headed for doom if we stay on our natural course. Unlike the sailors, we are far more bent against God than they were bent against staying on the ship. Sin blinds us and our hearts are dead within us before God moves upon us. But, our choices, like the choices of the sailors and the Romans, are genuine choices. And God uses means, very real means, to move us. Yet, in all, we know that God has decreed the end from the beginning, and our salvation is based on his sovereign will and election.

God Sent Me-Some Thoughts on the Sovereignty of God and the Freedom of Man

How do you deal with the issue of the sovereignty of God and the freedom of man? Of course we know that this issue has been one of struggle and controversy among Christians for centuries. The issue can seem quite mysterious. Scripture does not always let us know how the sovereign hand of God and the choices of humanity work. But some places in Scripture do a lovely job of pulling back the veil and letting us see.

Consider the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis. In chapter 37, we learn that Joseph’s brothers hated him. They hated that his father preferred him to them. They hated that Joseph had given a bad report of their activity to their father. They hated that Joseph told them of dreams in which he was in a place of honor and authority over them. And so the brothers determined to do something about it.

You remember the story, don’t you? Joseph’s brothers first decided to kill him. Then they changed their minds and determined to sell him to slave-traders. And just like that, Joseph was on his way to Egypt.

Now, whose choice was it to send Joseph to Egypt? We all would say that Joseph’s brothers chose to send him to Egypt. They, by their free will, did exactly what their hearts longed to do. They certainly sinned against God and committed what, in later Scripture, would be ruled a capital offense.

But look at the words of Joseph to his brothers when they were reunited.

Genesis 45:4-8 – 4 So Joseph said to his brothers, “Come near to me, please.” And they came near. And he said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. 5 And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. 6 For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. 7 And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. 8 So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.

Three times in that paragraph, Joseph says to his brothers that God sent him to Egypt. Three times, Joseph made it absolutely clear that his presence in Egypt was a sovereign work of the Almighty. Three times is significant.

So, who sent Joseph to Egypt? Whose choice was ultimate? According to Joseph, God’s choice, God’s hand, God’s sovereignty was ultimate. But, in chapter 37, it was clear that the brothers were choosing based on their personal desires, acting according to their understanding of their own freedom. In 42:21-22, the brothers admit that they saw Joseph’s distress and made a choice to sell him anyway. They knew they were guilty. They made no indication of being forced to act under compulsion against what they would have wanted.

So, we see two things. We see that the brothers acted exactly as they desired. They felt free. They did exactly what they naturally would have wanted to do. And yet, according to a greater understanding, according to God’s word, they acted under the direct hand of God to do what God sovereignly determined to do.

When we discuss God’s sovereignty and man’s freedom, do not let yourself be confused. One of the big objections to the doctrine is that, if God is sovereign over our affairs, he must be forcing people away from himself by his sovereign decree. The objection is that God must be reaching into the hearts of basically good or even neutral people and driving them toward the devil. But such is not the case. The word of God is clear that men do, in almost all cases, exactly what they want to do. And the God who made us all is still over it all, sovereign, in control.

In truth, the biblical picture of God changing our will to match his will is not often exposed to us. The place it happens most clearly is when people who are naturally evil are drawn to the Lord for salvation. There we see the mighty and sovereign hand of God working to bring into sinful people new life and new desires that would not be theirs naturally.

So, in a super-simple summary, we can say that the sovereignty of God is fully compatible with the freedom of mankind in almost all circumstances. Joseph’s brothers did exactly what they freely wanted to do. They were fully to blame for their sin. And yet the sovereign, almighty, omniscient working of God brought about that Joseph would be in Egypt saving lives and preserving the promise of God. The same sort of thing can be said for hundreds of other events in the Bible where God was sovereign even as evil men made evil choices.

What about our salvation? God does not have to interfere with a human being’s freedom for any person to reject him. That is the natural disposition of the human heart. But for any human being to be saved, the Lord God must bring a dead heart to life (Eph. 2:1-4), God must forcefully and powerfully draw us to himself (John 6:44, 65), God must give us new birth so that we can see the kingdom of God (John 3:3). It is in turning us from evil to himself that God must take an action to interpose his sovereignty over our hearts to change our course. In that change, we will make an honest choice. That choice, however, is preceded by a sovereign move of God that we cannot detect on our own to move us to desire what we would not naturally desire, as no human being, on our own seeks God (Rom 3:10-12). Thus, the salvation of any person is all of grace, a gift given by God.

Is man free? Of course man is free. But man is not more free than God. Is God sovereign? He has to be. Otherwise, if the universe is spinning on its own without the control of the Lord, there is no guarantee of the promises of God. If the universe is more free than God, then God is not God.

We are not often privileged to see behind the veil and understand when something is being done by the sovereignty of God in comparison to the full freedom of mankind. But we know that God is God and we are not. We know that God works in all things. We know that God moves people where he wants them even as they act according to their own deepest desires. And we know from his word that, for a sinfully dead heart to desire him, that heart must be supernaturally changed by God.

Who put Joseph in Egypt? Joseph’s brothers acted according to their freedom. God moved and sovereignly put Joseph where he wanted him. Let us understand that God is God, working in ways we cannot see, but always working in perfect righteousness.

Amazing Sovereignty in History

In the final chapters of the book of Jeremiah, we see the Lord pronounce judgments on many peoples. The Egyptians, Edomites, Moabites, Philistines, and Assyrians, along with others, will receive the judgment of the Lord for their evil. These nations have opposed and abused the people of Israel and Judah, and the Lord will not let them off the hook. But there is one big one left that the Lord still will speak of.

In chapters 50-51, we finally see what the Lord is going to do regarding Babylon. You must see this as fascinating. The Babylonian Empire was a tool in the hand of God. The Babylonians came into the land of Judah, and they brought the judgment of God on his rebellious people. The Babylonians would be the nation that would subdue the Philistines, Moabites, Egyptians, and even the mighty Assyrians. And, when it is all said and done, the Lord would then turn and bring his judgment on the Babylonians for their actions.

Jeremiah 50:1-3

1 The word that the Lord spoke concerning Babylon, concerning the land of the Chaldeans, by Jeremiah the prophet:
2 “Declare among the nations and proclaim,
set up a banner and proclaim,
conceal it not, and say:
‘Babylon is taken,
Bel is put to shame,
Merodach is dismayed.
Her images are put to shame,
her idols are dismayed.’
3 “For out of the north a nation has come up against her, which shall make her land a desolation, and none shall dwell in it; both man and beast shall flee away.

And in case you are curious, the Lord did exactly what he said. The Babylonians came into the land and did damage. They put down enemy nations that never really rose again. They seized power from major players like Egypt and Assyria. And then the Lord brought judgment on the Babylonians just as he promised.

Why think about such ancient history? You should think about this because it tells you something about the Lord our God and how the world around us works. Let’s take a couple of truths from what the Lord did.

First, recognize that no nation is beyond the reach of the power of the Lord. Nobody in 722 BC, when Israel’s northern kingdom was carried away, would have believed that Assyria could fall in around a century, but it did. Nobody would have thought that the powerful Egyptians, the folks who took out King Josiah at the end of the seventh century BC, would fall; but they did. And nobody, after seeing all that, would think that the Babylonians who had firmly established their rule would then lose their own power within a century; but they did.

One lesson for us is to stop thinking that everything we see in our world is unchanging and unchangeable. No nation, no empire, no power structure has ever proved immune to the passing of time or the power of the Lord. The US is not guaranteed to stand. The EU is not guaranteed to stand. No other major nation on the world’s stage is guaranteed to stand. There is no power that can match the might of our Lord. Let us remember that, and let us find our hope in him and not in worldly kingdoms that crumble.

Second, note the sovereignty of God. He used Babylon to judge. Then he punished Babylon for how they did violence. But way, he used them. Yes, and in doing so, the Lord did not sin. He, by his sovereign might and perfect wisdom sent the Babylonians into the land to bring his wrath. And yet the Lord did not cause the Babylonians to do anything that they in their hearts and nature did not already want to do. And so the Lord can also righteously punish the Babylonians for their brutality.

This reminds me of the fact that the Lord God used Judas, the Jews, Herod, and Pilate to accomplish the crucifixion. That was the wickedest action ever taken by humanity. The Lord sovereignly brought it about; however, the Lord did not do wickedness, as he never caused those evil men to do the evil that was in their hearts. And through their actions, their sinful choices, the Lord God accomplished the most wonderful thing we will ever experience, our salvation. God is sovereign, and gloriously so.

When we read a history like the prophecies and then the fulfillments of the end of Jeremiah, we need to remember that God is bigger and greater than we have imagined. And we need to remember that our supposedly strong and invulnerable nations are not nearly so solid as we think. The Lord will do his will. He will even use the free actions of evil men to accomplish that which is most good and glorious. Our best reaction to all this is not to try to figure out exactly how it all works. Our best move is to get on board, to bow to the Lord, and to surrender to the God who made us and who will rule forever. He is holy and his ways are perfect. He is mighty, and no king and no nation and no individual will ever stand in his way.

Who Is This?

One place where modern folks might find the book of Job quite helpful is in how the Lord responds to the questions of Job. It is popular these days to tell everybody that every question they have is a valid one, a good one. We are told there are no stupid questions. We are told that everybody has the right to be angry with god—an obvious falsehood, but not one opposed by nearly enough people.

But consider Job. This man suffered. He went through a hardship that he did not earn through open rebellion against the Lord. And he had questions. Job did not understand why God was doing what god was doing. The actions of God had hurt Job. And Job felt like he deserved an answer.

If the modern Christian wrote this book, I think he would be likely to depict God as a friendly psychologist, listening, nodding, validating Job’s feelings. Perhaps a modern author would even have God tell Job what was up, opening the curtain to give Job a well-deserved peek. But that is not what really happened.

Job 38:1-4

1 Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind and said:
2 “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
3 Dress for action like a man;
I will question you, and you make it known to me.
4 “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.

Job had questions for God. Job demanded answers. Job let us know that he would not be satisfied until he could get from the Lord the answers he sought.

God turned to Job, and his first two questions make clear how this is all going to go. God asks who in the world this man is. He is darkening counsel through words without knowledge. That is God telling us that, as Job speaks, he is lowering the IQ of the room. Job is speaking without knowledge. Thus, Job is muddying the waters and not shining the light of wisdom. Job is decrying the unfairness of God, but Job does not know enough about ultimate reality to speak.

Then, in the second question, God turns to Job, tells him to get ready, and then asks where Job was when God laid the foundation of the earth. Are you as old as the planet, Job? If you are not, then how could you possibly think you know enough about reality to begin to question the God who created the universe?

Think of something you know nothing about: cooking, carpentry, plumbing, physics, musical composition, etc. I’m sure that one of those categories will suffice. For illustrative purposes, let’s say you know nothing about plumbing. A plumber, an expert plumber, the kind of plumber that Mario would be uber-jealous of, sets up a new bathroom for you. Imagine that you look at his work, and then begin to scold him for having used what is, in your opinion, the wrong tool to tighten up a pipe fitting. You look at him and demand that he explain to you how he could possibly have chosen the particular wrench he did. Would you not expect the expert to look at you and say, “Where were you when I set up my plumbing business? Have you been trained?”

Your question to the imaginary plumber is infinitely less insulting than was Job’s question of the Lord. Job has no knowledge, none whatsoever, to qualify him to demand that God explain himself. And the point is that neither do we.

God is holy. God is infinite in his perfections and wisdom. You and I are sinners, finite in our understanding. We have no right to demand God answer to us. We have no right to sit in judgment over the Lord as if we could evaluate his decisions. God is God and we are not. And the book of Job reminds us of this foundational truth. Indeed, who do we think we are?

God is God and We are Not

In the book of Job, Elihu brings us wisdom that the older men sitting in front of him are lacking. Job gets off track and declares his innocence before the Lord, a dangerous thing. The other three friends declare that they understand exactly what God is doing and they offer no comfort to Job, a dangerous thing. And only when the frustrated Elihu speaks do we start really getting some wisdom.

When Elihu speaks in the text below, he will open to us two significant truths that we need to keep hold of today.

Job 34:13-15

13 Who gave him charge over the earth,
and who laid on him the whole world?
14 If he should set his heart to it
and gather to himself his spirit and his breath,
15 all flesh would perish together,
and man would return to dust.

Elihu shows us, in his questions and thoughts here, two important things. First, he reminds us that God is not under the authority of any other power. God is the authority, the ultimate judge. Second, he shows us that God is the necessary being, the one upon which the entire universe rests.

In verse 13, Elihu asks, “Who gave him charge over the earth, and who laid on him the whole world?” What is the obvious answer? Nobody put God in charge. God is the Creator. God is the one by whom, for whom, through whom the universe exists.

That truth must remind us that God is not, therefore, subject to any sort of outside judgment of his actions. God is not judged by an external standard of justice. God is not measured by a law or a standard other than himself. We do not look at God’s actions and then look to someone or something else to check to see if his actions are OK. God is the measure that determines righteousness. God is not subject to any other measure.

Then, in verses 14-15, Elihu says to us, “If he should set his heart to it and gather to himself his spirit and his breath, all flesh would perish together, and man would return to dust.” This is the idea that God is necessary to the existence of all that is. If the Lord were to stop upholding the universe by his will and his power, the universe would cease to exist. God makes the universe be. The universe contributes nothing to the existence of God.

Realize that both of these points come as a response to Job’s accusations of injustice on the part of god. And thus, these points should also come to modern folks who accuse God of injustice. When a person indicates that the ways of the Lord do not meet their personal understanding of what is right, they need to recall that God, not mankind, is the standard of what is right. So, it should not surprise us one bit that God does not fit our description of how things should be. God is straight while we are crooked. God is even while we are warped. God is holy while we are sinners. And God measures us; we do not measure God.

And when a person thinks to himself or herself that they will walk away from the Lord, we also need to remind them that God is necessary for their very existence. They live by his mercy and in accord with his sustaining power. To turn and think they will make a point against God by not following him is not to harm God. We are subject to the judgment of the Lord. We are dependent upon the Lord. He has never been and will never be reliant upon us.

May we allow verses like these to remind us of the old truth that God is God and we are not. God is Master and we are his subjects. God is right and we are naturally wrong. And the only way for us to be right is for us to shape our view of the world to match the revelation of God in his holy word.

More Than Such a Time as This

The Book of Esther is a glorious drama of the sovereign working of God. And many who have read Esther have a single verse in mind, the Sunday School memory verse that we all learn when we first study the book. We walk away from Esther wondering what it might mean for us to be where we are, “for such a time as this.”

Something else in the context of that verse, however, is significant to me as I read through the book again.

Esther 4:12-14 – 12 And they told Mordecai what Esther had said. 13 Then Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, “Do not think to yourself that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. 14 For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”

Here’s the context. Haman has plotted to destroy the Jews. Mordecai, Esther’s near relative, has learned of this and is sending Esther word. He urges her to approach the king and to seek relief. But Esther is afraid, understandably, for the Persians have a law that says that any person who approaches the king uninvited and is not immediately forgiven by the king must be put to death.

It is true that Esther is a wife of the king. But it has been some time since he has called her to himself. Maybe he is not so into her as he was before. Maybe she offended him. For sure, to go to the throne room with a complaint is taking her life into her own hands.

Mordecai reminds her that, if she does not go into the throne room to ask for help, her life is forfeit anyway. Esther is Jewish. The decree would cost her her own life as well. And Mordecai speaks that famous phrase, “And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” Maybe, dear queen, you have come to power to do this very thing.

I love all of that story. But I notice that we often, when thinking of it, miss something else Mordecai says with complete confidence. In his message to Esther, Mordecai also says, “For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place.” Mordecai does not even begin to give Esther the notion that her action or her inaction has anything to do with the question of whether or not the Jews will be delivered from destruction. All Esther’s actions have to do with is whether or not she takes part in that deliverance or her life is just as at risk as the Jew on the street. It is not that her actions are the ultimate decision-maker for the fate of the Jews. But her actions will matter to her, and can be a part of God’s plan.

And here is what first struck me. Mordecai knew, without question, that God would not allow the Jews to be wiped out by the evil scheme of Haman. How? I believe Mordecai knew the promises of God in Scripture. Mordecai knew that God had promised that the descendants of Abraham would survive and bring into the world the promised one who would bless all nations. That promised one had not yet come, and so God would in no way allow the nation to be cut off. In the promise of a Savior to come, a promise that cannot fail, God also wrapped that promise up in a promise of protecting physical Israel as well. God would keep the nation of Israel alive in order to preserve his promise of Messiah.

The second piece that strikes me is that the motivation for Esther to join in the mission had nothing to do with whether the mission would be accomplished without her. Esther was to join the mission for her own good and for the glory of the Lord who had raised her up. I think of that in parallel to evangelism. Those who believe in God’s sovereign predestination realize that we are not the ultimate factor in the salvation of others. Others will be saved without us. But, for the good of our souls and for the glory of god, we join in the work of taking the gospel to friends, family members, coworkers, classmates, and the nations. If it puts you off to think that God could save somebody without you, you are very confused as to who is God and who is not. But if you grasp that the Lord allows your participation in the process, you should be honored and overjoyed to join in for such a time as this.