The Sovereign God

In my last post (Wrestling with the Sovereignty of God), I discussed the idea of God’s Sovereignty, and how it was at odds with my previous belief. Little else has occupied my Bible study time lately, and I’ve continued to grapple with this matter. Here follows some further thoughts on this, and hope you find the discussion helpful.

I should warn you – it’s not for the faint of heart!

I spoke briefly last time about Romans 9, and how Paul was debating the same matter that we are. Does God’s Sovereignty mean He controls everything, and indeed who does and does not get saved?

Let’s read Romans 9:9-25 (and sorry it’s a long extract, but it’s hard not to include the whole chapter!)

For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.” 10 And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, 11 though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— 12 she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

14 What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! 15 For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. 17 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” 18 So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.

19 You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” 20 But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?”21 Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? 22 What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction,23 in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— 24 even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?

Romans 9:9-25 (ESV)

The thrust of this passage is that God does indeed “elect” some and not others. This is not based on their performance or on their character, but rather a sovereign act of God’s will.

There are two main objections here I think (both of which Paul answers). Firstly, that if God chooses some and not others then that is unfair. Secondly, that if God controls everything, then no one can resist His will and so should not be held accountable for their actions.

Let’s take these in turn.

It is unfair of God to choose some and not others

For some people, the very idea that God has an elected group He chooses to save is completely objectionable. I believed it myself I think, on reflection. The problem is that it does appear to be the case – if you study the Bible thoroughly.

Is it unfair of God to choose some and not others for salvation? On the face of it, it does appear so. Through no action of their own, they are specially selected to belong to God’s family, while others are rejected. Surely this is the very definition of “unfair advantage”.

What do we mean by “fair” however? Do we mean that all should be treated the same? If so, then I don’t think we want that at all. Why? Because not one of us “deserves” to be saved. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23) and so in reality, the “fair” thing would be to reject everyone.

Given this, I’d say the last thing we want from God is fairness. Rather, we want grace.

When we look at it this way, we realise that actually for God to save anyone is a miracle.

I’ve been over this argument many times in my mind, and have come to accept that it is the case. I have only one remaining objection really, and one I’ve not yet worked through.

We are sinners, no argument there, and we need saving. So if God saves anyone, it is a great act of His mercy towards us. The issue for me though is that if God controls every action, and we have no free will whatsoever, then is it fair to say we all deserve punishment? Could I sin without God allowing it?

Here we encounter the second issue mentioned above.

If God controls everything, even our actions, then how can we be held responsible?

I touched on this last time, and there is no simple answer. Look at what Paul says in verse 20.

But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?”

Romans 9:20 (ESV)

Indeed, who are we to talk back to God?

I don’t mind telling you that in the midst of this journey or battle with the sovereignty issue, there were times when I felt a whole host of negative emotions. I’ve never really been taught these things, and in fact, was taught that God does not control everything but leaves it up to humanity’s will as stewards of the Earth.

I don’t think that can be supported biblically.

What really caused difficulty for me was the conclusion of this line of thought. If God controls everything, then you cannot separate our experience from His will. If His will is paramount, then everything we all experience is exactly what He foreordained. All the suffering and pain of this world must be exactly as He willed it.

It doesn’t end there. If God does indeed control everything, and it was all planned in advance, then not only the cross was foreordained, but so was the fall of humanity.

At the time I came to that thought, it was too much for me. I had to go back over all of my study to find the flaw in my logic and understanding. Can it really be that God planned for mankind to fall in the Garden of Eden? If so, why?

I am not sure it is even possible for us limited humans to answer such a question.

Does it in any way suffice to say that it is because it brings Him glory?

I cannot, and will not, try to convince you on this point now. It is really the only natural conclusion of understanding that God’s sovereignty does mean He is in total and complete control.

We elevate ourselves in pride if we try to fathom this and question the One who made us. As uncomfortable as it may be, we cannot select the parts of the Bible that we like and ignore the rest. We must take the whole counsel of God and understand Him as best we can from it.

So how can God claim He wants all to come to repentance and be saved?

In 1 Timothy 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9, we read the following.

who [God] desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

1 Timothy 2:4 (ESV)

The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.

2 Peter 3:9 (ESV)

A question I posed last time was how can these verses be true if God only elects some for salvation? Surely that is contradictory.

I began to read materials about the “Two Wills of God,” which I, at first, rejected. The idea is that God has a “revealed” will and a “secret” will. I struggled to find chapter and verse on such a concept.

The idea is this. I, the parent, am going out Christmas shopping for my children. When they ask, “Where are you going?” I answer, “I’m going out.” We see that my “revealed will” is “I’m going out.” But that my “secret will” is “I’m going out Christmas shopping.”

As an illustration, this works well. It is clear to see that I as a parent may not want to tell my children every little detail of my plans. This may be my choice, or it may be that they simply wouldn’t understand.

I can, to an extent, apply this to God and accept that there may well be things He chooses not to reveal to me, and so I should focus on what He does reveal. Where my illustration breaks down is that in terms of election AND God wanting all to be saved, they appear in direct contradiction.  My example of revealed and secret will going Christmas shopping fit together and are both true. We can’t obviously see that here in our Scriptures.

Again, it may be beyond our minds to be able to see the wide-angle view here.

For some, the “all” in these verses from Timothy and Peter refers only to the “elect” and so there is no contradiction at all. That is neat, but I’m not sure you can obtain that from the text alone and have to apply this interpretation.

Another way to look at it is a well-known ethics test. A train is hurtling towards a junction. On one side is your spouse, and the other a group of eight individuals. You have control the lever and can divert the train away from your spouse and into the group. What do you do?

Perhaps God is faced with such a dilemma. His will (revealed) is that He does not want anyone to perish, but He chooses to only elect some – this choice may be considered His “secret will”. It is impossible to put ourselves in God’s shoes here. If He owns the train, the tracks, the junction and the points, then how can it apply? I can safely say it’s beyond me.

Prayer, evangelism, healing and the rest

As I hit the bottom of the valley in this journey through sovereignty, I realised that much of what I had been taught was perhaps based on false foundations.

If you cannot separate God’s will from our experience, then you cannot say it is God’s will to heal someone if they remain sick. If it were, the sick would be healthy. This flies in the face of what I have previously believed God’s word to say.

It doesn’t end there though, and some of the classic questions about sovereignty are as follows:

  • If God is sovereign, then why pray?
  • If God is sovereign, and has an elected group, then why evangelise?
  • As I mention above, I would add – If God is sovereign, and healing (appears in my view) is His will for His people, then why do some remain sick?

This is already a long post, and I am keen to share my conclusions with you. I can’t answer the above questions fully in what little space I have left, but here goes.

Prayer

Prayer is problematic because the logic goes like this: If I pray for God’s will, then I am praying for something which will happen anyway. And if I pray against His will, then there is no possibility of it occurring. In both cases, prayer is pointless, right?

Paul, who wrote Romans 9 and stated emphatically that God is sovereign, had no issue telling people to pray. Indeed, just one chapter over in Romans 10:1 we read:

Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved.

Romans 10:1 (ESV)

If Paul saw no contradiction between Romans 9 and 10, then neither should we. Perhaps he knew something we have not yet uncovered.

I was musing about time. If I pray, when does God hear it? The simple answer is straightaway. But there is no “straightaway” for God. Not wanting to drown in physics I don’t really understand, time is a physical property and (I think) linked to gravity.

I think Einstein proposed an experiment which said that if you take twins born at the same time, and send one to our nearest star at 99.9% the speed of light, then on their return, the traveler will still be a baby and yet the one left on Earth would have grown up. Time on Earth passes at a different rate.

Hope that didn’t melt your brain!

Put it like this, God is not subject to our time constraints. We think that we pray, and God hears and then acts, influencing our future. God knows the end from the beginning, and so knows our prayers before we were even formed. I’m not sure if it breaks the sovereignty of God to suggest that maybe He heard our prayers before the foundation of the world. Perhaps in making His sovereign choices, He takes our requests on board. Just my considerations here, and nothing I can support scripturally.

Evangelism

Likewise, if prayer remains valid, then so must evangelism. You simply cannot argue that the Bible does emphatically tell us to share our faith, and by that, the full number of the elect can be reached.

Healing

If God always gets His way, and if we remain sick, we must conclude that it is not His will to heal us. And yet, physical healing is certainly Scriptural. Could it be that God wanting us well is His “revealed will” and when we don’t, it is His secret will coming into play? I leave that thought with you.

Conclusions

How can I hope to conclude such a post! My head spins writing it, let alone you reading it. This is the culmination of much thought and study, and so I cannot expect you to just swallow it whole and accept it. I urge you to look into it yourself and see what you think the Bible says.

But what does it matter?

I don’t mean to be flippant there, of course it matters. Understanding the nature of God and how we can relate to Him must matter a great deal.

My point is this. What difference does it make to the way we live?

If God is Sovereign, or indeed if you believe He is not, the Bible is very clear about how we Christians should live. Whether it is God ordaining it, or you choosing it, we must determine to live our lives in a manner worthy of God.

We cannot do it in our own strength, and must rely totally and completely o Christ, but our lives should reflect His glory. The way we live should be a witness to the rest of the world so that by their acceptance or rejection of Christ, God is glorified and praised.

Praise the Sovereign and Almighty God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! Amen!

Don’t Let the Sun Go Down

Be ye angry, and sin not: let not the sun go down upon your wrath:

Ephesians 4:26 (KJV)

In my last blog post, I began to explore the above verse and what it means. As I said last time, I’ve usually heard this taught as a call not to go to bed on an argument. Good advice this may be, but not necessarily what Paul is getting at.

We considered how the first part – Be angry and sin not – isn’t just an instruction not to let your anger get the better of you, but could also be read as a command to be angry.

You may have read this verse a hundred times in the past, and perhaps each time you read it, your brain said “Don’t let the sun go down while you are still angry…” But what does it actually say?

It says – don’t let the sun go down on your wrath. Or to put it another way, don’t let your anger ever go out and grow dull.

I know this may seem like an odd idea, as surely the Bible teaches us to be loving and not to get angry. Can it really be a command to get and stay angry?

As we explored a little last time, anger is sometimes a right response. In the event of injustice or sin, we ought to be angry. Like God, we ought to hate sin and its effects on humanity. And while our sin may result in other people getting hurt, ultimately we are the ones who hurt the most as a result of sinfulness.

To truly love the good, we must also hate the bad. We must stand against sin in all of its forms. To do that, we need a holy anger, and one that does not go out.

Am I taking this verse out of context though? Is it correct to interpret it this way? I believe it is, but understand those who may disagree.

Context is always important when reading the Bible, and we ought never to take a single verse out of its proper context and form a doctrine out of it. Falsehood lies down that path.

Scripture should be interpreted in the light of other Scripture.

For some doctrines, we need to examine the entire Bible in order to see a complete picture. Of course we don’t have time or space to do this here, but lets look at this verse with it surrounding verses to get at least a small idea of context.

Wherefore putting away lying, speak every man truth with his neighbour: for we are members one of another. 26 Be ye angry, and sin not: let not the sun go down upon your wrath: 27 Neither give place to the devil.

Ephesians 4:25-27 (KJV)

Verse 25 is a clear instruction to put away lying, and to speak truth to each other. This can actually be quite difficult at times. “Do you like my outfit?” or “What do you think of my new hairstyle?” More importantly, when it comes to questions of advice or big decisions, “Should I take this job?” or “Do you think I should marry them?” an honest answer is not always easy to give, and often not the answer the asker really wants to hear.

So often we seek validation from others to agree with what we have already in mind to do. To give an alternative view can be tough.

Similarly, Paul could well be talking about correcting each other in a loving way. Often we leave it to the pastor or minister to address such matters, but indeed there is a role for each of us as part of a church family.

Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not giving you permission to walk up to just anyone in church and give them a lecture about how they ought to live – we must earn that right through a trusting relationship or as a loving member of church leadership.

But we must tackle sin. We must not just get by with it. So in speaking truth to one another, there may be times when we need a little righteous anger to stir us up to confront an issue. Again, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying we should get angry at people; rather we should be angry at sin.

Verse 27 is short and not so sweet. Don’t give the devil a foothold. Could it be that by not following the “command” to be angry, we somehow give the enemy a route into our lives?

It is a narrow path, with ditches on both sides. Err in either direction, and you’ll end up off the road!

What i mean is this. Anger which is uncontrolled or directed at people or things, can certainly give the devil a chance to wreck our lives. How many lives have been destroyed in one single moment of uncontrolled anger? How many men and women find themselves in prison for one slip of judgement allowing their temper to get the better of them?

I’m not giving anyone an excuse to be angry in an ungodly way here.

Equally though, when we reuse to be angry at sin or to have a righteous anger, we give the devil a foothold. If we co-operate with him, the enemy can destroy our lives. If you follow every temptation to do whatever you want, to commit adultery or murder or to steal or rob, your life will come to ruin.

We need to get angry at the devil

Therefore, submit yourselves to God. Resist the Devil, and he will run away from you.

James 4:7 (ISV)

James says that we must resist the devil. Often we ask God to do the resisting, but in reality it must be us who do so. We do that through prayer, our words and our actions. But notice, submission to God must come first. There is no sense in trying to resist the enemy if you are not submitting your life to Jesus.

Likewise, Jesus said:

From the days of John the Baptist until the present, the kingdom from heaven has been forcefully advancing, and violent people have been attacking it,

Matthew 11:12 (ISV)

The kingdom from heaven is forcefully advancing…

Christians ought not to be passive, weak or downtrodden. We are children of God, and the Spirit of God dwells in us. We should be advancing God’s kingdom with passion and determination. Not in our own strength, and certainly not without persecution but always pressing on.

So, Paul tells us to be angry and to never let the sun go down on our wrath. Are you advancing or just barely holding on? Do you need some righteous anger to take a stand against the enemy and resist his influence in your life?

Ask God to stir you up. Pray that He will help you to have a controlled anger that is pointed at the right things. Renew your mind in God’s Word and learn who you are in Christ. Don’t just put up with the enemy, resist him!

Don’t let the sun go down.

Be Angry

Be angry, yet do not sin.” Do not let the sun set while you are still angry,

Ephesians 4:26 (ISV)

I like the ISV Bible, but here’s that same verse from the KJV.

Be ye angry, and sin not: let not the sun go down upon your wrath:

Ephesians 4:26 (KJV)

The KJV has a certain grandeur to it which other translations can lack at times. For every day reading however, I prefer a more contemporary version than the KJV with its “thee” and “thou” wording.

In this case, I find that the KJV is one of the closest to the Greek language. Many modern translations render this verse slightly differently, and even stray into interpetting it for us the reader.

Whenever I have heard this verse taught in the past, it goes something like this:

If you get into an argument with someone, try to settle the matter before you go to bed…

This is not bad advice at all, but I’m becoming less convinced that this is really what Paul was saying here.

Some translations actually bring forth the idea that we should deal with our “heated debates” before bedtime, and again, while that may be good advice, i’m not so sure that’s what the Scripture is really all about.

Take the Amplified Bible for instance, which is one I find very helpful at times. It says this:

Be angry [at sin—at immorality, at injustice, at ungodly behavior], yet do not sin; do not let your anger [cause you shame, nor allow it to] last until the sun goes down.

Ephesians 4:26 (Amp)

The first part of the verse is very similar to the KJV – advising us not to sin while angry. It specifies the kind of things we ought to be angry about, such as injustice. The latter part of the verse advises us not to let the sun go down while we are still angry.

In some respects, this is a contradiction. The first part appears to be encouraging us to “be angry” and then tells us not to “be angry” when the sun goes down. So what’s happening here?

I think this verse is going beyond advising us not to be angry during night hours.

Let’s work through this verse logically, and study the text itself rather than our usual interpretation.

Anger is not a sin

The first thing to note is that anger is not a sin. This verse clearly indicates that we can be in a state of anger, but without falling into sin.

Jesus Himself – who was without sin – got angry. He got very angry. In fact, He was so angry that He turned over tables and even had a “weapon”.

 In the Temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, as well as moneychangers sitting at their tables.  After making a whip out of cords, he drove all of them out of the Temple, including the sheep and the cattle. He scattered the coins of the moneychangers and knocked over their tables.

Then he told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

John 2:14-17 (ISV)

So we see clearly that Jesus was angry, and yet did not sin even once. This tells us that anger alone is not a sin.

The problem comes when our anger is directed at the wrong things, or gets out of control.

As the Amplified Bible expanded this verse, it showed that the target of our anger ought to be things such as injustice or sin. That’s why we were given anger in the first place – to take action when we recognise that someone or something is unjust.

When a child is killed by a drunk driver, or an elderly person is robbed at gunpoint, it is perfectly acceptable to be angry about such things.

The issue is when we direct that anger against the slow checkout attendant or the person who didn’t see us and cut us off in traffic. Frustrating as those things may be, they are not real reasons to get angry.

The way to test is to examine our selfishness. Chances are that if we are angry because of a selfish reason (such as having to wait) then that is not a righteous anger. Righteous anger is directed at ungodliness, sin or the devil. Other unrighteous anger is usually a result of our own selfishness.

Anger is a secondary emotion. No one ever gets angry without reason, there is always something that comes first. It may be offense, humiliation or fear that triggers it.

Perhaps you have children and get angry at them at times. Ask yourself why. It may be because of fear – they did something daft and were in danger of hurting themselves. It may be that they interrupted something you were doing, and “self” didn’t like it. If my anger is kindled against my children, it is often because “I” just want to sit down, or “i’ve” had a tough day. It is rarely anything to do with them.

Be Angry

While the verse is often interpreted as “don’t sin when you get cross,” it goes even further than that. Rather than just don’t sin, it’s a command to be angry.

Actually this is a quote from Psalm 4:4 –

Be angry, yet do not sin. Think about this[b] when upon your beds, and be silent.
Interlude

Psalm 4:4 (ISV, emphasis added)

Psalm 4 is a passionate plea to prayer. David starts off crying out to God, then to man, then to God about man and finally to man about God.

Paul grabs hold of this passion and says, “Be angry, and sin not.” One of the problems in the church today is that it is afraid to stand up and call sin by its name. We compromise our position, accepting the world’s way and either ignoring or dismissing the Bible, and people outside don’t always know what the church stands for.

It’s not enough just to love the good things, we must also hate the bad.

I once heard someone say that love and hate are two separate ends of the same stick. To truly love something, you must also hate the things that come against them. I don’t know if i wholeheartedly agree with this or not, but i certainly do understand that loving good is not the same as hating evil.

When we try to love good without hating evil, we end up accepting everything and standing for nothing. We end up with watered down doctrines and a church that looks like the world instead of the Word.

So Paul’s command to be angry is not by accident. This post has already gone longer than I planned, and I haven’t yet addressed the issue of going to bed while you are still angry! Let’s pick that up next time.

For now though, perhaps you are someone with a temper and you know that you need to bring it in line. Perhaps though, you are on the opposite end, and actually need to stir yourself up and start getting angry at sin and injustice. Perhaps – slightly confusingly – you are both, and need to redirect that temper towards the right things.

Do you need to be more or less angry this week? (At appropriate things of course) Do you need to have a serious think about the things that make you angry, and the things that don’t?

Justice for all

All the Benefits of Believing (ATBOB) #5

The Lord works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed.

Psalm 103:6 (ESV)

We pick up at verse six of this stunning psalm. Our focus now turns to righteousness and justice. Righteousness here is not moral correctness, or even right standing with God, but is a perfect pairing with justice. It refers to God’s righteous judgement. That may sound a difficult thing to face, but simply means God making things right.

The word translated as “works” here could also be translated as “executes”. We can therefore read this verse as saying “The Lord executes righteousness and justice for all the oppressed”.

Justice is an important theme throughout the Bible. God’s justice, His sense of right and wrong, are of paramount importance for us to understand – both in terms of the Gospel and how we ought to live.

Fairness is often something we struggle with. We occasionally get a sense that life is unfair, especially when hard times come. Something inside of us tells us that when something bad occurs, it just is not right! We get that sense of right and wrong, fairness and justice, from our Heavenly Father. It’s built into all of us.

While morality seems a flexible concept for some, each of us has a built in consciousness of right and wrong. That may be warped at times, but across the world there are certain things that nearly all agree are “wrong”. For instance, murder is generally outlawed, as is stealing or physical abuse.

We know these things are wrong instinctively because God made us that way.

The Gospel

God’s interactions with humanity is all about making wrong things right. The pinnacle of this effort was in dealing with sin once and for all in Jesus Christ. The Gospel therefore is the ultimate expression of justice. Sin was punished. Every wrong thing done against God and man was placed on the shoulders of Jesus, Who bore it on our behalf.

Justice demands action against wrongdoing. God, loving us as He does, did not want us to face the eternal consequences of sin. He fulfilled His requirements of justice by putting the Righteous One in our place. Jesus is our Substitute so we no longer face those consequences.

Justice in our everyday lives

But what about the wrong done to you? When is God going to put that right?

This is not easy to answer. If you have been mistreated, falsely accused or abused in some way, then you might be wondering what God’s justice means for you. What about the person who hurt you? They look to have gotten away with it, and you feel left behind and in pain.

Hurting people hurt people, and while that is no excuse, it does at least explain why some treat others the way they do.

God is a healer, and I believe He can heal you from the pain of your past. It may take a long time, and it will certainly be a difficult journey, but He can get you through.

God’s justice is not instantaneous and rarely is it quick. We must begin to take an eternal view of our lives. Perhaps, on this side of heaven, the hurt caused you may not be resolved, but I can assure you that God will wipe away every tear from your eye.

He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.

Revelation 21:4 (ISV)

God is a just God, and everything will come right in the end. Our part is to trust Him, which can be very tough at times. God cares about the oppressed, and those who have been hurt. He knows how it feels also – as Jesus Himself faced it all.

Take your pain to the Righteous Judge, Who will do right by you.