God’s Acts of Providence (52)

foolishness-of-the-crossMeditation on God’s Providence (9)

The World Turned Upside-Down

The first point that must be made, and that must serve as the foundation for all that follows, is that the Lord God chose to overthrow the world’s wisdom, power and glory with utter, destitute weakness and folly.  He literally turned the world upside down.  Everything that had been learned about how to live and prosper was erased from the blackboard.  In its place were written ideas so radical that they literally appeared to be the ranting of a lunatic to the vast majority who heard them.

The Apostle Paul knew this with full consciousness.  But he also knew that deep within that foolishness there existed a power so great that all the forces of the world, gathered and concentrated in fury against it, were helpless to hold back its joyful advance.  Let the Great Apostle speak, as can no other, empowered by God’s Holy Spirit.

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.  For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever I will thwart.”  Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?  For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.  For consider your call, brethren; not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth; but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.  He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption; therefore, as it is written, “Let him who boasts, boast of the Lord.”

(1 Corinthians 1:18-31)

I sometimes fear that I, and we, have lost touch with just how radical this faith is that we claim as our own.  We have built our own cathedrals of wisdom and power within Christianity.  In one sense, a faith that has been in existence for almost two millennia has no choice but to set standards of intellectual competency and integrity, no way to avoid engagements with the world that have within them the opportunities and temptations of power.

But the deep, debilitating failure that flows from the Church grasping too tightly on wisdom and power is a discrediting of the very power upon which its faith stands.  Let there be no doubt.  Our faith is built on a mystery deeper than any human intellect can penetrate.  Its power flows from sources that have no dependence on human will or organization.  It is of a Lord God who has determined in the depths of His infinite wisdom, love and justice to teach us that

“the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men”

So let the Christian search Scripture, history, culture, all that falls within the domain of wisdom; let the church speak to and act in the world to pursue peace and hope.  But make sure that all acknowledge in awe, worship, joy, wonder, and fear the mystery of faith by which each one of them has been brought into salvation by the mighty work of Jesus Christ, their Lord and Savior.

God’s Acts of Providence (51)

Meditation on God’s Providence (8)

c-s-lewis-christian-quote-finger-of-godPart 2: God’s Action in History

We have engaged with God’s Word in the Acts of the Apostles, Luke’s Spirit-inspired history of the church’s rise from a few trembling followers of Christ to an empire spanning movement.  What happened to bring this about would be viewed as one of the greatest fantasy-myths of all time was it not for one incontrovertible fact – Christ’s Church does indeed exist!

Not only does it exist, but as shown by the Apostle’s Creed (circa second century A.D.), it has been built on a gospel that seamlessly extends back to the very beginning.

I believe in God, the Father Almighty,

    the Creator of heaven and earth,

    and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:

Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit,

    born of the Virgin Mary,

    suffered under Pontius Pilate,

    was crucified, died, and was buried.

He descended into hell.

The third day He arose again from the dead.

He ascended into heaven

    and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty,

    whence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church,

    the communion of saints,

    the forgiveness of sins,

    the resurrection of the body,

    and life everlasting.  Amen.

What we must consider is why the Lord God chose to act in history through this means.  That is, since He has chosen to act in history, it’s reasonable to assume that He has done so at least in part to transmit information to us.  We would be contemptuous indeed were we not to delve into the possible meaning.  For this is a message transmitted in our Lord and Savior’s own blood and that of untold multitudes of saints who followed Him to their own ultimate sacrifice.  It’s a message transmitted through countless acts of love, generosity and humility.  Yes, we must listen intently; consider with the greatest care what our Lord God is saying to us through His action in history.

God’s Acts of Providence (50)

p03xsw49Meditation on God’s Providence (7)

And so, though all of eternal import and first causes has been decided before the beginning of time, we still are given the gift of exercising our wills to good or ill.  Though this may not appear to be of great significance, Holy Scripture tells us repeatedly and with one voice that the LORD God places the highest value on this aspect of our lives.

Is this an “end” worthy of humankind?  We should consider it a magnificent act of generosity for the LORD God of the universe (and beyond) to give us any role at all in His creation.  The fact is that He has granted such significance to the acts of our free wills so as to make them integral parts of salvation history.  That is, though the end is never in doubt, the path taken to arrive there is influenced by our decisions.  This is indeed an end of the highest possible value. We should wear it with awe and meekness, but also with the boldness that accompanies those on the greatest of missions.

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”  

(Matthew 28:19,20)

God’s Acts of Providence (49)

fast-mountain-streamMeditation on God’s Providence (6)

Our finite minds rebel at the idea that our ultimate fate is predestined, that is utterly independent of influence by our own decisions and actions here on earth.  It must also be admitted that the doctrine of predestination is highly controversial within Christianity, even within Presbyterianism.

Controversy exists because Holy Scripture appears to speak with two minds on this issue.  On the one hand, the doctrine of predestination is clearly taught.

“You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide; so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.”  (John 15:16)

We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren.  And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Romans 8:28-30)

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God– not because of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.  (Ephesians 2:8-10)

On the other hand, the concepts of human responsibility and God’s will to seek and save all are also clearly taught.

“For the Son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay every man for what he has done.”  (Matthew 16:27)

The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. (2 Peter 3:9)

Attempts to reconcile these seemingly contradictory teachings often feel either evasive or unsatisfying.  Is it possible that we go wrong by assuming that God’s eternal decrees must be arbitrary and unjust because they don’t take our worldly lives into account?

But we affirm that God is perfectly just.  Perhaps there are dimensions of reality of which we are completely ignorant that account for God’s eternal decrees and by which they become perfectly understandable and just.

I believe that this must be so.  Thus, when these additional dimensions of reality are visible it will become perfectly true and just that God simultaneously holds us accountable, desires that we all be saved and has determined our destiny in the depths of eternity past.[1]

[1] Has this discussion been any less evasive or more satisfying than any others that have attempted to reconcile these seemingly contradictory passages?

If any progress has been made it is because modern science has opened up stunning new possibilities for understanding the nature of our universe that may provide clues into how our LORD God’s infinite nature could intersect with our finite world.

For example, consider the results of “string theory,” a branch of theoretical physics that is seeking to develop a unified theory that links together all known physical phenomena.  String theory strongly suggests the existence of ten or eleven space-time dimensions, as opposed to the usual four (three spatial and one temporal) apparent to us at the macro level.  The point is that the very existence of this (unproven) theory opens our minds to the possibilities of dimensions of existence far beyond what are apparent to us.

Isn’t it possible, even likely that the LORD God exists in an infinite-dimensional space in which time, space, cause, effect exist on completely different planes of reality than we experience them here?  And, finally, isn’t it possible that when seen from that perspective God’s eternal decrees are transformed from apparently arbitrary and unjust to logical and perfectly just?

Once again, we must not fall to the temptation to belittle our LORD God, applying worldly limitations to His actions and reasons just because He humbles Himself to meet with us as the Son of Man and to communicate within the limitations of language.

God’s Acts of Providence (48)

fast-mountain-streamMeditation on God’s Providence (5)

Allegory of Predestination as that of Creatures on a River

The LORD God created a great river.  All currents, obstructions and any other element that influenced the flow of this river were completely, eternally, and at every instant under His absolute control.  Downstream was a fork; creating two completely separate river branches.  One branch led to a terrible Abyss from which there was no escape.  The other led to a Pool of Living Water that cleansed all impurity and ensured Eternal Life. The only means by which any created thing could be swept down the branch leading to the Pool of Living Water was by the free choice of the LORD God in His perfect grace, justice and love.

The LORD God next created living creatures that possessed eternal souls and that were designed to float on the river’s water.  They were given the ability to propel themselves and to do kindness or evil to the other creatures with whom they came into contact.  They also had the power to do good or evil to their own selves by virtue of their thoughts, actions and desires.

However, these creatures’ wills were not by any means absolute.  The power of their propulsion could not overcome the currents and obstacles of the river if the LORD God so willed.  Thus, for example, if one creature sought another’s death and the LORD God willed that it should not succeed, then the river’s currents and obstacles would prevent that creature or any of its agents from getting to the protected one.  On the other hand, the river’s power would inexorably ensure that creatures the LORD God intended to meet did so.  Also, a given creature could be willed by the LORD God to encounter obstacles of His choosing in the order and timing of His choosing that could not be altered by any act of the creature’s will.

Before the river or anything else known to the creatures had been created some were elected[i] to enter the Pool of Living Water.  Nothing done by those so elected would change their destination, for they were forever safe in Christ, the Second Person in the Trinitarian God-Head, through Whom they had been saved.

Finally, and most terribly[ii], most mysteriously, the LORD God had ordained in His perfect grace, justice and love that some creatures would be swept down the branch that led to the Abyss.  It was not God’s action that led to this end.  Rather, any creature for whom God did not actively intervene would inexorably make decisions that placed them into the branch leading to the Abyss.

Though the creatures experienced their trip as happening over time and space, not so the LORD God.  For Him, time and space had no limiting effect.  He sees all time as happening in the present and all space as existing at a point before His all-seeing “eyes.”  Therefore, nothing done by the creatures at any point in time or space is a surprise to Him.[iii]  And, knowing all of this, none of it was taken into account in determining which creatures would be destined for the Abyss and which for the Pool of Living Water.[iv]

The creatures destined for the Pool of Living Water could become conscious of this end while on their trip down the river.  They did so through God’s Spirit awakening their spirits to the mysterious truth that lies behind the pattern of God’s willing the currents, obstacles, events and other creatures in their lives. 

The supreme event that opened their souls to this Good News was becoming aware of a Creature, the Christ, who was also God and who died so that they might be made right in God’s sight.  Though the “word on the river” was that it is a foolish thing to dwell upon and would only cause unhappiness if accepted, they discovered in it astonishing treasures of the greatest value.  Those destined for the Abyss that encountered this Good News left the experience angry, bewildered or both.[v]

Now the LORD God, though all was decided regarding the river branch and first causes, still cared greatly about the choices made by creatures based upon their wills.  That is, for those aspects of their lives left open to their own choice, the LORD God deeply desired that they would freely choose to glorify and enjoy Him.[vi]  In fact, at the Pool of Living Water there would be greater rewards[vii] for those who more earnestly did so, or did so through greater suffering than for those who did less.  But none would feel envy, so lost would all be in everlasting worship and thanksgiving to their LORD God. [1]

[1] What can be said of this allegory?  Surely that it falls far short of both satisfaction and accuracy, as will all attempts to explain the infinite Mind of the LORD God in this matter.  However, it is the best that I can do at this point in my faith journey to reconcile God’s eternal decrees and man’s free will.

It may appear that I am staking out unstable middle ground between the strict Reformed (Calvinist) and Methodist (Arminianism) points of view.  However, upon careful reflection it becomes clear that this allegory actually is in harmony with Reformed theology.  To understand why, consider that even here it is God who makes the ultimate decision on if or how hard to press His will against that of his Creature.  And, since He knows all, He can choose to allow the Creature’s will to determine an outcome or override with perfect foreknowledge.  Thus, the space that I have opened for operation of the Creature’s will is yet still utterly under the sovereign control of the LORD God.

[i] Q. 67. What is effectual calling?

  1. Effectual calling is the work of God’s almighty power and grace, whereby (out of his free and especial love to his elect, and from nothing in them moving him thereunto) he doth in his accepted time invite and draw them to Jesus Christ, by his Word and Spirit; savingly enlightening their minds, renewing and powerfully determining their wills, so as they (although in themselves dead in sin) are hereby made willing and able, freely to answer his call, and to accept and embrace the grace offered and conveyed therein.
  2. 80. Can true believers be infallibly assured that they are in the estate of grace, and that they shall persevere therein unto salvation? [2]
  3. Such as truly believe in Christ, and endeavor to walk in all good conscience before him, may, without extraordinary revelation, by faith grounded upon the truth of God’s promises, and by the Spirit enabling them to discern in themselves those graces to which the promises of life are made, and bearing witness with their spirits that they are the children of God, be infallibly assured that they are in the estate of grace, and shall persevere therein unto salvation.
  4. 81. Are all true believers at all times assured of their present being in the estate of grace, and that they shall be saved? [2]
  5. Assurance of grace and salvation not being of the essence of faith, true believers may wait long before they obtain it; and, after the enjoyment thereof, may have it weakened and intermitted, through manifold distempers, sins, temptations, and desertions; yet are they never left without such a presence and support of the Spirit of God, as keeps them from sinking into utter despair.

[ii] Why say that God “most terribly, most mysteriously, … willed … that some creatures would be swept down the branch that led to the abyss”?

I use the word terrible with full forethought.  God’s Word teaches that the LORD God, though he is indeed love, is not love as you and I selfishly conceive of it.  His judgments can indeed be terrible, and, have consequences that from the point of view of our finite human minds are terrible indeed.  Let Scripture speak for itself.  The word is not used to convey the common usage, but rather the less common but very legitimate meaning of causing awe or dread.

1 Chronicles 16:25

For great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised, and he is to be held in awe above all gods.

Isaiah 8:13

But the LORD of hosts, him you shall regard as holy; let him be your fear, and let him be your dread.

Jeremiah 5:22

Do you not fear me? says the LORD; Do you not tremble before me? I placed the sand as the bound for the sea, a perpetual barrier which it cannot pass; though the waves toss, they cannot prevail, though they roar, they cannot pass over it.

Acts 19:17

And this became known to all residents of Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks; and fear fell upon them all; and the name of the Lord Jesus was extolled.

Thus, when I say that God’s judgment in this issue of ultimate destiny is terrible, I’m in no way attributing negative motives or characteristics upon Him.  The fact is that the LORD God’s actions are perfect in their justice.  What’s terrible from our limited point of view is the fact that there’s nothing that we can do one way or the other to change this eternally perfect decision.

We, here and now in this fleshly life rebel at such a thought (I still do).  But we must acknowledge that there are realms of knowledge, justice, mercy and love that far transcend our earth-bound understanding. By so doing we make space for the possibility that there is a solution that makes this all perfectly right.  Faith is not meant to be easy, and predestination is perhaps the most difficult doctrine to accept in trust that it is indeed just, loving and true.

[iii] If the creatures have a free will, then how do you know that the LORD God already knows what they will do?

I know this because Scripture teaches it.

Psalm 139:4

Even before a word is on my tongue, lo, O LORD, thou knowest it altogether.

Isaiah 46:8-10

Remember this and consider, recall it to mind, you transgressors,  remember the former things of old; for 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,

Luke 18:31

And taking the twelve, he said to them, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written of the Son of man by the prophets will be accomplished.”

[iv] Knowing what they will do, why doesn’t the LORD God take this into account when determining the creatures’ fate?

Because if even the smallest act on our part counted, then salvation would be based on works rather than completely on the saving grace of Jesus Christ.

Romans 11:6

But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.

Ephesians 2:8

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God

[v] How do you know how those not chosen for the “Pool of Living Water” will react to the Gospel?

Although there is no way to predict for every individual case, there are general statements made about and examples of the response of those who apparently fall outside of the Gospel’s bounds of grace.

1 Corinthians 2:14

The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.

Luke 4:28-30

When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath.  And they rose up and put him out of the city, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their city was built, that they might throw him down headlong.  But passing through the midst of them he went away.

Acts 19:28,29

When they heard this they were enraged, and cried out, “Great is Ar’temis of the Ephesians!”  So the city was filled with the confusion; and they rushed together into the theater, dragging with them Ga’ius and Aristar’chus, Macedo’nians who were Paul’s companions in travel.

[vi] Why do you say that the LORD God deeply desires that they would freely choose to glorify and enjoy Him?

I hold this position because to do otherwise would appear to make nonsense out of some of the most important and sustained passages of Scripture.  That is, there are major sections of Scripture that are specifically intended to be teaching on moral living in God’s sight.  If there were literally no aspect of our lives that is outside of God’s direct control then there wouldn’t appear to be any point to such teaching.

For example, consider the Sermon on the Mount or the Book of Proverbs.  What sense do these parts of Scripture make if there is literally no area in which our wills have freedom?  Or consider Christ’s comparisons of one person’s response of faith to another’s.  What sense is there in comparing acts that were preordained before the beginning of time?

[vii] Why do you say that some will receive greater rewards in heaven than others?

I say so because Christ spoke of degrees of reward.

Matthew 5:12

Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Matthew 16:27

For the Son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay every man for what he has done.

Matthew 5:19

Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 20:20-23

Then the mother of the sons of Zeb’edee came up to him, with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something.  And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Command that these two sons of mine may sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.”  But Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.”  He said to them, “You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.”

We can also see this principle in action through examples of its converse.

Matthew 10:15

Truly, I say to you, it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomor’rah than for that town.



God’s Acts of Providence (47)

photo-by-hrishikesh-karambelkarflickrMeditation on God’s Providence (4)

God’s Eternal Decree

One of the primary revelations in doing this study is that the issue of God’s sovereignty, including the Doctrine of Predestination, arises unavoidably in the very first half of the Bible’s very first Book!  Prior to this I’d considered the issue to be one that lurked in the background in the Old Testament and broke out into the open in the New.  No more.

As we look back over the lives of Abraham and Sarah we see God’s unyielding, sovereign determination to bless all nations on earth through the descendents of a particular man and woman.  Yet, this couple weaves a path full of decisions and consequences that are presented as the story of morally responsible entities interacting with the Holy God.  Thus, though the end is sure, their wills appear to influence, even control, the means by which the process plays out.

How can we square this all with the Doctrine of Predestination?  This question must be answered because I write as an ordained Elder of the Presbyterian Church who has answered in the affirmative to the following question (Book of Order, Paragraph G-14.0207, c).

Do you sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do, and will you be instructed and led by those confessions as you lead the people of God?

And just what does this doctrine teach?  I will quote just the first paragraph from the The Westminster Confession of Faith on “Of God’s Eternal Decree,” for it implies the full scope and power of this difficult doctrine.[i]

  1. God from all eternity did by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass;[1] yet so as thereby neither is God the author of sin;[2] nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.[3]

My first response is that I can no more claim competence to sort out this issue than could a first grade math pupil to explain the concepts of multivariable calculus.  Yet, as a student of God’s Word who is called to seek all possible understanding for use as doctrinal and moral compass, some attempt must be made.

To begin, let there be no doubt that God’s will is utterly sovereign.  For example, even when it appears that Abraham is bargaining with the LORD on His way to Sodom, there is no doubt that the end that was ordained from the very beginning would come to pass.  Yet, as we have noted above, humans are apparently treated as responsible moral beings.  All of this is in line with the Confession, and yet still has the feel of utter contradiction.

To bring it to a sharp point, how can it be simultaneously true that:

  1. God from all eternity did by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass, and:
  2. nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures.

That both are affirmed as true ensures that we take with the greatest seriousness the issues of our wills, that is, our thoughts, actions and desires.  The problem remains, though, as to just how this all works in practice.  Here we enter realms so far beyond human wisdom that all who have deeply and honestly engaged have come to the place where they can only say that beyond this point is the unfathomable mystery of the infinite God’s mind.

But prior to that we come to the point where the only hope of progress is through the assistance of allegory.  Many have been used, and I will attempt one as well.  Chances are that others have used a similar argument given the long, vexing history of this true doctrine.  I simply state that it represents my best current and feeble attempt to reconcile the truths that are found in Holy Scripture.

It’s my hope, dear reader, that the Holy Spirit will move you to consider this terrible, fraught issue with me as one of the mysteries that we try to understand but in which we will always fall short.

[1] Eph. 1:11; Acts 4:27, 28; Matt. 10:29, 30; Eph. 2:10.

[2] James 1:13; I John 1:5.

[3] Acts 2:23; Matt. 17:12; Acts 4:27, 28; John 19:11; Prov. 16:33; Acts 27:23, 24, 34, 44.

[i] Predestination: Of God’s Eternal Decree (Biblical footnote references omitted)

  1. God from all eternity did by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so as thereby neither is God the author of sin; nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.
  2. Although God knows whatsoever may or can come to pass, upon all supposed conditions; yet hath he not decreed anything because he foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass, upon such conditions.
  3. By the decree of God, for the manifestation of his glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life, and others fore-ordained to everlasting death.
  4. These angels and men, thus predestinated and fore-ordained, are particularly and unchangeably designed; and their number is so certain and definite that it cannot be either increased or diminished.
  5. Those of mankind that are predestinated unto life, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to his eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of his will, hath chosen in Christ, unto everlasting glory, out of his free grace and love alone, without any foresight of faith or good works, or perseverance in either of them, or any other thing in the creature, as conditions, or causes moving him thereunto; and all to the praise of his glorious grace.
  6. As God hath appointed the elect unto glory, so hath he, by the eternal and most free purpose of his will, fore-ordained all the means thereunto. Wherefore they who are elected being fallen in Adam are redeemed by Christ, are effectually called unto faith in Christ by his Spirit working in due season; are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by his power through faith unto salvation. Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only.
  7. The rest of mankind, God was pleased, according to the unsearchable counsel of his own will, whereby he extendeth or withholdeth mercy as he pleaseth, for the glory of his sovereign power over his creatures, to pass by, and to ordain them to dishonour and wrath for their sin, to the praise of his glorious justice.
  8. The doctrine of this high mystery of predestination is to be handled with special prudence and care, that men attending the will of God revealed in his Word, and yielding obedience thereunto, may, from the certainty of their effectual vocation, be assured of their eternal election. So shall this doctrine afford matter of praise, reverence, and admiration of God; and of humility, diligence, and abundant consolation to all that sincerely obey the gospel.


God’s Acts of Providence (46)

the-creation-of-man-by-michelangeloMeditation on God’s Providence (3)

Part 1: Man’s Chief End

The Scandal the We Should Have One

For many modern minds the proposition that “man” does indeed have an “end” is controversial.  That there is a transcendent, omnipotent being that has chosen in His perfect wisdom to endow human life with meaning is an affront to their reason.

To insist that man has an end is a stinging rebuke to the philosophy of materialism[1] that has penetrated so many postmodern (and modern) minds.  The Church has too often underestimated this belief system’s impact on both our culture and its own flock. For with materialism comes the freeing option of meaninglessness.  That is, we are free to do as we please because life at its core has no meaning or purpose.

Such a proposition would have been absurd to Abraham and Sarah.  Yes, they lived in a very material world.  They worked exceedingly hard to master the practical skills required to survive and prosper in that horizontal dimension of existence.  Yet they also moved in a vertical relational dimension to their LORD God that was just as real and of much greater significance.

That significance flowed from God to them, as opposed to being sourced within them.  This too is a reproach to our postmodern, self-centered mind-set.  We too often view our end as beginning and ending with our own desires.  The notion that our end is by design to be subordinate to anything else, even the LORD God, flies into the teeth of the radical individualism that under girds so much of our culture’s life.

But lest we too strongly stress humanity’s subordinate status, the amazing extent to which God apparently bends to accommodate our wills must be accounted.  Yes, God’s will is inexorable.  But it’s as if it’s inexorable within the context of our free wills.

[1]   Materialism:

  1. the theory that physical matter is the only reality and that psychological states such as emotions, reason, thought, and desire will eventually be explained as physical functions
  2. devotion to material wealth and possessions at the expense of spiritual or intellectual values

God’s Acts of Providence (45)

Man Standing At Beginning Of Winding RoadMeditation on God’s Providence (2)

Opening Thoughts

We have arrived at the place where the lessons and implications of this journey through God’s Word must be addressed.  The stated theme is “God’s Works of Providence.”  We have explored Abraham and Sarah’s life, the formation of the Church and Saul’s transformation into the Apostle Paul.  Within all of these passages can be found wonderful clues to the workings of God’s providence.

However, in order to make significant progress we will have to loosen our grip from these Biblical passages and broaden our view.  This is because God’s providence encompasses the Bible’s entire story and invades our world at all points.  Therefore, though what we have just considered will be starting points for this meditation, it will be quickly expanded to include the larger doctrinal and life issues that arise.

Although there are resources on God’s providence that proceed with painstakingly logical development, I have not traveled this path.  What I have done is to isolate the key issues (as I have been given light to see them) and then consider the doctrinal and life consequences.  The following comments provide a framework intended to make the meditation more accessible.

To begin, I state adherence to the historic Reformed position on God’s providence and rejection of the competing theology of Arminianism.[i]  I make this clear statement not to exclude those who have accepted some form of Arminianism from Christian fellowship, but rather to be clear about my own point of view.  Neither do I want to be misunderstood to presume that those of the Arminian point of view are excluded from God’s salvation, for to do so would be to reintroduce a work into the equation.

On the other hand, the truth about God, His nature and how He has chosen to act is of the greatest importance.  That is, to draw closer to these truths is to become more able to apprehend and then act within God’s will.

Much is made of the problems raised by providence, predestination and election as understood by the Reformed.  To many, the Arminian position appears to be far less difficult to defend.  This is the case not because Arminianism is correct, but rather because it conforms so pleasingly to our pride.  Though it is not my work here to consider Arminianism directly, be assured that there are deep and difficult (insurmountable in my opinion) problems with this theological position.[ii]

With the above as context, I will proceed along the following outline.

In Part 1 I will consider the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human will with Abraham and Sarah as the point of demarcation.  The theme will be “Man’s Chief End” with an emphasis on the “ends” pursued by us in relation to God’s sovereign determining of ultimate ends.

In Part 2 I will consider the relationship between the existence of history and our participation in it with the first half of Acts as the starting point.  From there I will take up the specific issues and questions raised by Reformed theology on God’s providence.  This section is intended to be the report from one who has explored part of a difficult and vast domain.

Although I have drawn conclusions and taken definite positions, the goal is not to immediately convince, but rather to raise up the possibility that God’s love and justice is so perfect that He can be confidently trusted for all, even the working out of our own salvation.

[i] Arminianism

The following information is intended to explain the Arminian theological position.

Free-Will or Human Ability:

Although human nature was seriously affected by the fall, man has not been left in a state of total spiritual helplessness. God graciously enables every sinner to repent and believe, but He does not interfere with man’s freedom. Each sinner possesses a free will, and his eternal destiny depends on how he uses it. Man’s freedom consists of his ability to choose good over evil in spiritual matters; his will is not enslaved to his sinful nature. The sinner has the power to either cooperate with God’s Spirit and be regenerated or resist God’s grace and perish. The lost sinner needs the Spirit’s assistance, but he does not have to be regenerated by the Spirit before he can believe, for faith is man’s act and precedes the new birth. Faith is the sinner’s gift to God; it is man’s contribution to salvation.


Conditional Election:

God’s choice of certain individuals unto salvation before the foundation of the world was based upon His foreseeing that they would respond to His call. He selected only those whom He knew would of themselves freely believe the gospel. Election therefore was determined by or conditioned upon what man would do. The faith which God foresaw and upon which He based His choice was not given to the sinner by God (it was not created by the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit) but resulted solely from man’s will. It was left entirely up to man as to who would believe and therefore as to who would be elected unto salvation. God chose those whom He knew would, of their own free will, choose Christ. Thus the sinner’s choice of Christ, not God’s choice of the sinner, is the ultimate cause of salvation.


Universal Redemption or General Atonement :

Christ’s redeeming work made it possible for everyone to be saved but did not actually secure the salvation of anyone. Although Christ died for all men and for every man, only those who believe on Him are saved. His death enabled God to pardon sinners on the condition that they believe, but it did not actually put away anyone’s sins. Christ’s redemption becomes effective only if man chooses to accept it.


The Holy Spirit Can Be Effectually Resisted :

The Spirit calls inwardly all those who are called outwardly by the gospel invitation; He does all that He can to bring every sinner to salvation. But inasmuch as man is free, he can successfully resist the Spirit’s call. The Spirit cannot regenerate the sinner until he believes; faith (which is man’s contribution) proceeds and makes possible the new birth. Thus, man’s free will limits the Spirit in the application of Christ’s saving work. The Holy Spirit can only draw to Christ those who allow Him to have His way with them. Until the sinner responds, the Spirit cannot give life. God’s grace, therefore, is not invincible; it can be, and often is, resisted and thwarted by man.


Falling from Grace:

Those who believe and are truly saved can lose their salvation by failing to keep up their faith, etc. All Arminians have not been agreed on this point; some have held that believers are eternally secure in Christ – that once a sinner is regenerated, he can never be lost.


[ii] Some Problems Associated with Arminianism

The debate between Reformed and Arminian theologies is vast, covering centuries of human disputation.  Here I will discuss only two of the more prevalent positions taken by those arguing for Arminianism.

  1. That God’s salvation is like that of a gift, carefully and painfully prepared by Christ and offered to us to accept or reject as our wills determine.

Let’s start by accepting the (false) premise that humans are morally capable of deciding to accept such a gift.  First, it is absolutely clear that the sovereign entity in this transaction is the human.  That is, should the human choose to reject the gift, Jesus Christ is left helplessly willing that which He cannot accomplish.  All of His work on our behalf falls pathetically short.  Secondly, if the human does accept the gift, then it is a work on their part that made the difference.  In consequence, Arminianism allows for the saved Christian to secretly or openly consider himself as morally superior to those who apparently are not saved.  That is, they can boast of their own act of moral superiority by which they have arrived at this blessed position. Arminian theology can twist and turn to its heart’s desire to obfuscate this implication, but ultimately to no avail.

But it gets even worse.  The Bible teaches that:

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins (Ephesians 2:1)

When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins (Colossians 2:13)

Have you ever considered handing a gift to a dead person?  The act is clearly ridiculous, since the corpse has no way of even knowing that something is being offered, let alone the ability to reach out and accept.  And yet, we are asked to believe a doctrine that makes our Lord God this ridiculous.

Of course, Arminianism teaches that we are indeed morally alive enough to make this decision.  Once again, our pride is stroked, allowing us to evade the depth and scope of our estrangement from God through Original Sin.

  1. That God’s act of election is based upon His foreknowledge that we would will so as to accept Him, and so God then predestined us to that end.

This position is based on one of the most famous passages in Scripture, Romans 8:29,30.

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.

Since “foreknew” precedes “predestined,” the argument is made that salvation is based on God’s foreknowledge that we would accept the offer of salvation.

The first point against this interpretation is that in the very next chapter of Romans the Apostle Paul makes it abundantly clear that this is not what he means.  Here is the passage from Romans that proves this statement.

Not only that, but Rebekah’s children had one and the same father, our father Isaac. Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad—in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” Just as it is written: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.

One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?” But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’ ” Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?

Romans 9:10-21

Do we contend that the Holy Spirit, acting through the Apostle Paul is so incompetent as to teach two contradictory positions in the same Epistle, in adjacent chapters?

Secondly, isn’t there a logical contradiction in this formulation?  For if God did indeed predestine us to be saved prior to our act of acceptance in time, then how is it that we freely choose when the time He foresaw actually arrives?  Or, if God first ran through time and observed who accepted His offer; what is the point of a second running through time with the elect now predestined?  There’s simply no point, for you need not predestine that which has already occurred. This isn’t a simple problem to sort out.

This discussion is meant to provide a brief taste of the problems and issues created by Arminian theology.






God’s Acts of Providence (44)

grand-canyon-lightning-milky-way-0166Meditation on God’s Providence (1)

The LORD has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all.

(Psalm 103:19)

Manifestly these things are ruled and governed by the one God according as He pleases; and if His motives are hid, are they therefore unjust?
Saint Augustine, The City of God

God’s Acts of Providence (43)


Becoming the Apostle Paul (10)

Closing Thoughts

What happened to turn the hateful persecutor Saul into the Great Apostle Paul?  How could a man of such overpowering will and set purpose be suddenly turned into the instrument that would spread that very faith he was determined to destroy over the known civilized world?  We have the testimony of Scripture, but even so to deeply reflect on this event is to be drawn into a state of awe and wonder.

Just above we read this apostle’s words, “at the right time.” When we consider the astonishing rise of Christ’s church, which happened one saved soul at a time, perhaps one lens that we should look at it through is this “right time” one.

Is it possible that part of Saul’s rage was due to a felt but deeply suppressed realization that the faith of his fathers was proving powerless to deal with the real issues, spiritual and practical that he faced?  We have reason to suspect so from the Apostle’s own hand.

What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet, if it had not been for the law, I should not have known sin. I should not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, finding opportunity in the commandment, wrought in me all kinds of covetousness. Apart from the law sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died; the very commandment which promised life proved to be death to me.

(Romans 7:7-10)

Yet, many feel such conflicts and still go through life clinging to the known.  In Saul’s case he left everything – family, career, friends – to become a slave of Christ.

The mystery lessens when we lift our eyes from this one event and view the larger sweep of Christianity’s spread.  For then we begin to realize that individuals by the hundreds, then thousands, ten-thousands and hundred-thousands gave up their security, families, social standing, economic well-being even their very lives for this same Christ – “at the right time.”

Saul was not the exception – he was the rule.  We focus on his conversion because its tremendous consequences led Luke to include it in the Book of Acts along with accounts of the missionary journeys.

Finally, some might claim that this was the greatest conversion to Christianity in history.  From the human point of view, seeing the consequences for the spread and theological grounding of the Church this may be a supportable position.  However, I would argue that from God’s sovereign point of view every saved soul is equally precious.

“Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” 

(Luke 15:10)

Yes, the Great Apostle must be given his due for what he accomplished.  But if we were able to ask him for what he is “great,” my guess is that he would respond along the lines of ‘great in Christ’s love for and forgiveness of me,’ ‘great in Christ’s comfort and strength to me’ and ‘great in the honor to serve and suffer for my Savior.’  Perhaps when we get to heaven we will be able to ask Paul ourselves.  But I suspect he will be difficult to find, so low will he be bowed in worship and adoration of his beloved Father, Savior and Spirit.