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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine the providence of God. Dr. Spencer, we made the case in Session 88 that there are no chance events in this universe, God rules over every detail. And in our last Session, 89, we provided some of the Biblical data to support the case, showing that God controls every aspect of his physical creation and of human history. And we closed by noting that God’s providence is personal and moral, that it deals with specific individuals, and that it has a purpose. But all of this raises an obvious question, which we have dealt with before, but I think it bears looking at again in light of God’s providence. The question is this; if God controls every detail, what room is there for human freedom?

Dr. Spencer: Well, as you noted, we have dealt with this question before. In fact, we’ve discussed it twice; once in Session 65 when we examined God’s sovereignty, and once in Session 86 when we discussed God’s will. God’s sovereignty, will and providence are, of course, closely related topics since God brings about his sovereign will through his works of creation and providence.

Marc Roby: Which is again an illustration of God’s simplicity, that all of his attributes work together all of the time.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true. In any event, the short answer to the question is that God can ordain every detail of human history without having to force us to do anything. In other words, he can control everything and still have us be really and truly free to make decisions for which we can be justly held accountable. The Bible does not tell us exactly how God does this, but as we noted in Session 65, unless we want to claim our own decisions are purely random, there is no logical contradiction.

Marc Roby: I remember that discussion, and as I said at the time, I certainly wouldn’t want to claim that my decisions are random, and I don’t think many others would either.

Dr. Spencer: Of course not. We may not always make our decisions in the best way possible, in fact, to be honest I should probably say that we often don’t make decisions as carefully as we should. But, nevertheless, we do make decisions for reasons, and those reasons are based on our nature and all of the information available to us at the time, and all of our decisions are perfectly predictable by God since he knows us even better than we know ourselves.

Marc Roby: But, of course, predicting what we will do is not the same thing as controlling what we do.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true, there is obviously a radical conceptual difference between predicting what I will do and controlling what I do. But, in practice, this may be a distinction without a difference. Consider the following facts. First, God knows exactly what I will do in any and every possible situation. Second, although God will never tempt me to sin, he can place thoughts in my mind, he can cause me to remember certain things I have seen or heard or thought about before, and he can directly control any aspect of my circumstances if he chooses to. Given those two facts, it is pretty obvious that he can bring about exactly what he wants to have happen without ever forcing me to do anything against my will.

So, without going into the topic in depth, suffice it to say that there is no contradiction between God’s sovereignty and our freedom, and they are both clear teachings of Scripture.

Marc Roby: The Westminster Confession of Faith says it well. We quoted this passage in Session 65, but it is well worth repeating. In Paragraph 1 of Chapter 3 the confession says that “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.”

Dr. Spencer: That is a wonderful statement and, most importantly, it is completely biblical. But now let’s get back to specifically talking about God’s providence. Theologians have often divided God’s providence into three subtopics:[1] preservation, government and concurrence, which is sometimes called confluence,[2] concursus or cooperation.[3] Others have used only the two topics of preservation and government, in which case concurrence is considered under the topic of government.[4]

Marc Roby: We already covered concurrence, which refers to God’s will and our will both being operative in bringing about events, when we discussed God’s will in Session 86.

Dr. Spencer: And that is why in our present discussion I plan to break providence down into two topics, preservation and government. It is interesting to note that these two topics are those given in the answer to Question 11 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, which says that “God’s works of providence are, his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures, and all their actions.”

Marc Roby: That is a great short definition, well worth memorizing.

Dr. Spencer: I agree. So, let’s begin, by looking at God’s preservation in more detail. Wayne Grudem has a good definition of preservation, he writes that “God keeps all created things existing and maintaining the properties with which he created them.”[5]

Marc Roby: And when the apostle Paul was speaking about God to the Athenians at the Areopagus, we read in Acts 17:28 that he said, “For in him we live and move and have our being.” [6] Grudem’s definition completely agrees with this statement.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it does. The reality is that God upholds all of creation all of the time. Job’s friend Elihu knew this. We read in Job 34:14-15 that he said about God, “If it were his intention and he withdrew his spirit and breath, all mankind would perish together and man would return to the dust.” And we could add to Elihu’s statement that the dust itself would disappear if God didn’t uphold it.

Marc Roby: Yes, you’re correct in that addition, a more comprehensive statement is found in Hebrews 1:3, where we are told that Jesus Christ “is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.”

Dr. Spencer: That is, perhaps, the best verse to make this point. But it isn’t the only verse. Another good one is Colossians 1:17, where the apostle said that Jesus Christ, “is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

The Bible clearly teaches that God upholds his creation. The whole of creation is completely dependent on him for its existence. He created it out of nothing, and if he ever ceased willing it to exist, it would disappear in an instant. But Grudem’s definition goes even further than saying that God preserves the universe, it says that “God keeps all created things existing” and here comes the additional part, “and maintaining the properties with which he created them.” In other words, things remain the same because God causes them to remain the same.

Marc Roby: And Grudem supports this contention, in part, by looking at the Greek for the verse I just read from Hebrews 1. Where our translation says that Christ is “sustaining all things by his powerful word” the Greek says, more literally, that he carries all things.

Dr. Spencer: And the Greek word used for carry in that verse is φέρω (pherō̄), which Grudem says, “has the sense of active, purposeful control over the thing being carried from one place to another.”[7] He also notes, as we have before, that the fact that God preserves all things provides the rational basis for science. We tend to take it for granted that the physical laws of our universe and the properties of materials stay the same from day to day, but why should they? We believe there is randomness in the quantum realm, why should there not also be randomness in the very laws that govern our universe?

Marc Roby: I don’t think anyone can give a reason why things should remain the same if they don’t believe in God. The best they can do is to simply argue that we believe they will remain the same in the future because they have in the past.

Dr. Spencer: I think that is the best anyone can say. And, of course, we can’t entirely dismiss that reasoning, it is proper as far as it goes. But there is a deeper reason why things remain the same. The verses we’ve quoted, along with others, show that God sustains things. He is carrying all things along to a specific end. We should never forget the point we made at the end of our previous session, that God’s providence is purposeful. He has a purpose for creation and he is guiding all things toward the fulfillment of that purpose.

Marc Roby: We see that in 2 Peter 3:5-7, where the apostle wrote about the great power of God’s word and about the flood in Noah’s time being a foreshadowing of God’s final judgment. Peter wrote that people “deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens existed and the earth was formed out of water and by water. By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.”

Dr. Spencer: That is a very clear teaching about the power of God and the fact that he has a plan for creation. We recently buried a woman in our church and, as always, the death of someone we know is a reminder to all of us that life is short. But death is not the end of life, it is just the end of life on this earth in this body. As our pastor likes to say, the important question is not whether she died, we will all die sooner or later. The important question is, where did she go?

Marc Roby: That is a sobering thought. God’s providence has an end in view. And we have clear biblical support for the idea that God’s providence includes his preserving, or sustaining, his creation.

Dr. Spencer: We certainly do. The theologian Charles Hodge went further and examined the nature of God’s preservation. He pointed out that there have historically been three general views held about this topic. The first view he presents is basically the view of most deists. He describes this view as believing that God “created all things and determined that they should continue in being according to the laws which He impressed upon them at the beginning. There is no need, it is said, of supposing his continued intervention for their preservation. It is enough that He does not will that they should cease to be.”[8]

Marc Roby: In other words, this view thinks of the world as a wind-up toy. God created it and set things in motion, but then backs up and watches without intervening in any way.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that’s right. The first objection that Hodge raises to this view is that it is opposed to the clear teaching of Bible. We’ve just read several verses that are simply incompatible with this idea.

Marc Roby: And that argument alone should be sufficient for any Christian.

Dr. Spencer: It should be, yes. But he also points out that this view, as he puts it, “does violence to the instinctive religious convictions of all men.”[9]

Marc Roby: In other words, people often speak and act in ways that make it clear that they don’t believe the universe is a big wind-up toy. Which is a point we made last time in discussing the sorts of things people say when a loved-one dies.

Dr. Spencer: Exactly. The other views Hodge mentions are all types of what he calls continued creation. These views are certainly less common, especially today, and come in different forms, so I’m not going to examine them all or in any detail. Probably the most important one of them says that since God cannot be described by a succession of acts, therefore you can’t separate creation from providence. Another form of this view denies the reality of secondary agents altogether and says that God directly causes everything.

Marc Roby: Now that is a completely unbiblical view, and also not very appealing to logic and experience. It makes God the creator of evil and all of us just puppets.

Dr. Spencer: I agree. In fact, Hodge points out that it is indistinguishable from pantheism, it essentially makes God out to be the universe.[10]

Marc Roby: Which is certainly not a view to be taken seriously by anyone who has a meaningful conception of God, let alone by a Christian.

Dr. Spencer: No, we shouldn’t take it seriously at all. If it were true, which it obviously isn’t, we wouldn’t be able to seriously consider it in any meaningful sense since we wouldn’t really exist as independent sentient beings.

Marc Roby: Good point, the view is incompatible with true volitional creatures.

Dr. Spencer: That is why I will only consider the one form of continuous creation, which denies you can think about a succession of acts in God. This view allows for real secondary agents and attempts to deal with the fact that God is not subject to time in the same way we are. But it goes too far based on speculation and denies the clear teaching of the Bible. We can’t understand how God views time, but it is clear that independent of the fact he is, in some sense, outside of both space and time, he nevertheless acts in his creation in space and time.

Hodge correctly says that “It is the height of presumption in man, on the mere ground of our speculative ideas, to depart from the plain representations of Scriptures”.[11]

Marc Roby: It is, admittedly, difficult to understand God’s relation to time as we experience it.

Dr. Spencer: It is, but there is a good analogy presented by Wayne Grudem, which may help to understand this point.

Marc Roby: What analogy is that?

Dr. Spencer: It is the analogy of a human author writing a story. Grudem uses this to help understand the idea of concurrence, the fact that the free-will actions of secondary agents can work together with God’s will to produce his desired outcome.[12] The idea is simple. If you are writing a fictional story, you know all that is going to happen to your characters in the future and you weave the story together to produce the end that you have chosen. But, if you are a good author, you also make sure that your characters do and say things that are appropriate and fitting for their given natures and knowledge of events at any given moment of time. In other words, you, as the author, experience time – in the sense of the story – completely differently than your characters do.

Marc Roby: That is a useful analogy, although very limited given the fact that God has created real people, not just characters in a story.

Dr. Spencer: Obviously God is infinitely greater than we are, but the analogy is useful nonetheless. And with that, we have said all I want to say for now about preservation, and we are ready to move on to discuss God’s government.

Marc Roby: And that makes this a perfect place to end for today, so I’d like to remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org and we’ll do our best to respond to them.

 

[1] E.g., Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, pg. 315

[2] R.C. Sproul, Truths We Confess: A Layman’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, P&R Publishing Co., 2006, Vol. 1, pg. 152

[3] John Frame, The Doctrine of God, P&R Publishing Company, 2002, pg. 275

[4] E.g., Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Eerdmans, 1997, pp 575-616

[5] Grudem, op. cit., pg. 316

[6] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[7] Grudem, op. cit., pg. 316

[8] Hodge, op. cit., Vol. 1, pg. 576

[9] Ibid, pg. 577

[10] Ibid, pg. 580

[11] Ibid, pp 578-579

[12] Grudem, pp 321-322

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine God’s communicable attributes. Dr. Spencer, we ended last time by briefly discussing the fact that God did not need to create this universe. Is there anymore that you want to say about that?

Dr. Spencer: Yes, there is. In his systematic theology, Wayne Grudem lists God’s Freedom as one of his communicable attributes and he defines it in the following way: “God’s freedom is that attribute of God whereby he does whatever he pleases.”[1]

Marc Roby: And his definition is completely biblical since we are told in Psalm 115:3 that “Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him.” [2] But I think we should perhaps head off a possible objection at this point. In Session 85 we made the point that God’s will is not absolutely free, in other words there are things that he cannot do. And, in fact, we discussed God’s will of disposition and noted that his perfection constrains him to do some things that don’t, in and of themselves, please him. I can easily imagine one of our listeners thinking that there is a problem reconciling those statements with this definition of Grudem, that God does whatever he pleases.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, there does appear to be a problem there. For example, we read in Ezekiel 18:32, “For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live!” And yet people clearly die, not just temporally, but in the ultimate sense of being sent to hell. It is therefore reasonable to ask whether Grudem is right when he says that God does whatever he pleases.

I think however, that this only appears to be a problem until you look at it more carefully. Grudem’s statement is correct, but we need to realize that, ultimately, what pleases God most is to do what is perfect. And as we pointed out in Session 85, the perfect goal for this universe must be the goal that God has revealed to us, which is the manifestation of his own glory. And it must be true that to perfectly manifest that glory God has to send some people to hell, even though, in and of itself, that does not please him.

Marc Roby: I think this goes along with the idea that even God can’t make a square circle. Some desirable things are mutually contradictory. In this case, God chose the greater good of making his glorious justice manifest in judging some people.

Dr. Spencer: I think that’s right. And Grudem goes on in that section to make clear that what he has in mind is that God has no externally imposed constraints on his being or actions. Nothing in creation in any way constrains God. The only constraints he has are the result of his own perfect nature; they are internal.

Marc Roby: Which is, of course, very different from us.

Dr. Spencer: It is as different as you can possibly imagine. This is a communicable attribute and we do have real freedom of will, but not absolute freedom. Our wills are strictly constrained by the will of God. It is completely impossible for any human being, or even for all of humanity acting together, to change even the tiniest detail of God’s decrees. What he has decreed will, without any doubt at all, take place.

Marc Roby: That makes me think of Proverbs 19:21, which tells us that “Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the LORD’s purpose that prevails.”

Dr. Spencer: Yes, I also think of Proverbs 21:1, which says that “The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases.”

Marc Roby: That verse presents a great analogy. The water in a stream still does exactly what it naturally does, it follows the path of least resistance as it moves under the influence of gravity. And yet, we can direct the water where we want it go by how we shape a ditch or a canal.

Dr. Spencer: That is a great analogy. And not only is the heart of every individual king in God’s hands, but in Psalm 2 we read about many, if not all, of the kings of earth coming together to oppose God. In Verses 2-6 we read, “The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the LORD and against his Anointed One. ‘Let us break their chains,’ they say, ‘and throw off their fetters.’ The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them. Then he rebukes them in his anger and terrifies them in his wrath, saying, ‘I have installed my King on Zion, my holy hill.’”

Marc Roby: Which is speaking about the Lord Jesus Christ.

Dr. Spencer: Of course. God laughs at the greatest power man can muster. He has decreed that Jesus Christ redeem a people for himself, to be his eternal treasured possession, and so it will be.

Marc Roby: Praise God for that.

Dr. Spencer: Indeed, we should praise God for that. If men, or Satan and his demons, or any combination of powers were able to thwart God’s plans, then we could never trust in his promises. We are not able to keep all of our promises, even if we intend to. For example, I may promise to take my grandson to play golf on Saturday and then I may get sick or even die on Friday and not be able to fulfill my promise. But nothing can prevent God from fulfilling all of his promises, as well as all of his threats.

Marc Roby: And so, the next attribute that Grudem examines is God’s omnipotence.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it goes hand-in-hand with his freedom. Grudem writes that “God’s omnipotence means that God is able to do all his holy will.”[3] We have already used the term omnipotence a number of times in these podcasts, but this is a good definition of it. We discussed in Session 85 that it does not mean that God can do anything, which is why Grudem only says that it means that God is able to do all his holy will.

Marc Roby: And the Bible clearly tells us that this is true. For example, when God told Abraham that he and Sarah would have a child in their old age, Sarah laughed because she thought this was clearly impossible. She had been past child-bearing age for quite some time. But we read the Lord’s answer in Genesis 18:14, “Is anything too hard for the LORD? I will return to you at the appointed time next year and Sarah will have a son.”

Dr. Spencer: And, of course, she did have a son in the next year. We also read that God said to the prophet Jeremiah, in Jeremiah 32:27, “I am the LORD, the God of all mankind. Is anything too hard for me?” And when the angel Gabriel told Mary that she was going to have a child even though she was a virgin, he said to her, as we read in Luke 1:37, “For nothing is impossible with God.”

Marc Roby: And when Jesus told his disciples that it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to be saved, they were troubled and asked, “Who then can be saved?” To which Jesus replied, in Matthew 19:26, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

Dr. Spencer: And, clearly, by “all things” in that verse Jesus does not mean things that are logically impossible or things that violate God’s own nature. We have to be intelligent when we read the Bible, no less so than when reading books by human authors. As we discussed when we talked about hermeneutics, the word “all” does not always mean “all” in a completely exhaustive sense.

God’s omnipotence describes his awesome power. And Grudem then notes that “God’s exercise of power over his creation is also called God’s sovereignty.” God is the Sovereign Lord over his creation and he rules it with mighty power. He is the eternal King.

Marc Roby: Grudem then closes his discussion of God’s attributes by looking at what he calls the “summary” attributes.

Dr. Spencer: And he tells us why he calls them summary attributes. He wrote that “Even though all the attributes of God modify all the others in some senses, those that fit in this category seem more directly to apply to all the attributes or to describe some aspect of all of the attributes that it is worthwhile to state explicitly.”[4]

I like that statement because it reminds us of God’s simplicity. He is not composed of parts and we dare not think of his attributes that way. They all work together all the time. We list them individually as an accommodation to our own inability to think about God on a higher plane.

Marc Roby: And the first of these summary attributes that Grudem lists is God’s perfection, which we have already discussed a number of times in dealing with the other attributes.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, we have mentioned God’s perfection a number of times, precisely because it is so important. Grudem defines it this way: “God’s perfection means that God completely possesses all excellent qualities and lacks no part of any qualities that would be desirable for him.[5]

Marc Roby: We have previously noted Matthew 5:48, where Jesus tells us to “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Dr. Spencer: And in the Old Testament there are a number of places where we are told that everything God does is perfect. For example, in Psalm 18:30 King David writes, “As for God, his way is perfect; the word of the LORD is flawless. He is a shield for all who take refuge in him.” The Hebrew word translated as perfect in that verse means to be complete, or without blemish or defect.[6]

John Frame ties this idea in with the fact that God is the ultimate standard in many ways,[7] which is something we have discussed. We have, for example, mentioned a number of times that God is the ultimate standard for truth, and in Session 73 we noted that he is also the ultimate standard for what is good. We judge all other things as being true or good based on how they compare with God.

Marc Roby: And that leads us to the next summary attribute Grudem presents, which is blessedness, which means to be happy in a very deep and meaningful way. He cites 1 Timothy 6:15 where Paul calls God, “the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords”.

Dr. Spencer: Grudem goes on to define this attribute by writing that “God’s blessedness means that God delights fully in himself and in all that reflects his character.”[8] We have noted before that for a human being to delight in himself more than anything else would be incredibly arrogant and unseemly. But the same is not true of God.

I like how Grudem puts it. He wrote that “It may at first seem strange or even somewhat disappointing to us that when God rejoices in his creation, or even when he rejoices in us, it is really the reflection of his own excellent qualities in which he is rejoicing. But when we remember that the sum of everything that is desirable or excellent is found in infinite measure in God himself, then we realize that it could not be otherwise: whatever excellence there is in the universe, whatever is desirable, must ultimately have come from him, for he is the Creator of all and he is the source of all good.”[9]

Marc Roby: That is a great statement. And he quite properly backs it up by quoting James 1:17, which says, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” And he also quotes 1 Corinthians 4:7, where Paul writes, “For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?”

Dr. Spencer: And, of course, we are no better than anyone else, and we have nothing good that we have not received from God, so we should not boast in ourselves. We need to remember that we are creatures. God takes pleasure in us, but it is to some extent analogous to the pleasure an artist takes in a painting or sculpture he has made. The pleasure is in the artist’s accomplishment and his abilities, it is not pleasure brought about by the canvas, or the paints or the marble themselves.

Marc Roby: That analogy has clear limitations though. Obviously, God has created sentient beings with some degree of free will and he takes pleasure in our willing obedience to his commands.

Dr. Spencer: Very true, but let’s move on. The next summary attribute that Grudem lists is beauty. He writes that “God’s beauty is that attribute of God whereby he is the sum of all desirable qualities.” King David wrote, in Psalm 27:4, “One thing I ask of the LORD, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple.”

Marc Roby: What a glorious thought that is. To see God face to face. We are told in 1 John 3:2, “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”

Dr. Spencer: And John Murray argues, I think successfully, that the apostle is speaking of God the Father when he writes that “we shall see him as he is.”[10] In Revelation 21 and 22 we are told about heaven, and in 22:3-4 we read, “No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face”. What a glorious future we have. To be able to see God as he truly is.

Marc Roby: That is an amazing thing to think about. And that brings us to the last summary attribute that Grudem presents, the glory of God.

Dr. Spencer: And, as Grudem himself notes, this is not really an attribute of God in the normal usage of that term. We have used the term glory a number of times in these podcasts without stopping to define it because I think most people have a reasonable sense of the meaning of the term. In one sense it refers to praise, honor, or fame. And, as Grudem says, it “describes the superlative honor that should be given to God by everything in the universe”. We have noted multiple times that the Bible tells us God’s purpose in creation is the manifestation of his own glory. The great Puritan William Perkins defined God’s glory as “the infinite excellency of his most simple and most holy divine nature.”[11]

Marc Roby: But there is another meaning of the term as well. It can just mean brightness.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true, and it is biblical. The Bible certainly talks about the glory of God in that sense. But, as Grudem notes, in that sense God’s glory is a created thing, it is “the created light or brilliance that surrounds God as he manifests himself in his creation.”[12] We see this, for example, when the angels announce the birth of Christ to the shepherds. In Luke 2:9 we read that “An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.”

Marc Roby: It is amazing to consider that God promises us that we will share in his glory. We read in Romans 8:17 where the apostle wrote, “Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.”

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that is a wonderful promise. And it is not the only place we see that promise. We also read in 2 Corinthians 3:18 that “we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” And later in that same letter, in 2 Corinthians 4:17, Paul wrote, “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.”

Marc Roby: I can’t wait for that day. But we should emphasize that our glory is a reflection of God’s glory. The only glory we have is by virtue of being created in his image.

Dr. Spencer: And we are to live for the praise of his glory as Paul tells us in Ephesians 1:12. And Jesus showed us how we can bring glory to God. In John 17:4 Jesus said to the Father, “I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do.” And in Ephesians 2:10 we are told that “we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Therefore, it is really very simple. The way we glorify God is by obeying him and doing the work he has prepared for us to do.

Marc Roby: Are we now finished with God’s attributes?

Dr. Spencer: Well, we could spend the rest of our lives on them and not exhaust them, but we are done with what I hope is a reasonable short summary of them, yes.

Marc Roby: Very well. Then let me remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org and we’ll do our best to respond to them.

 

[1] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, pg. 216

[2] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[3] Grudem, op. cit., pg. 216

[4] Ibid, pg. 218

[5] Ibid

[6] See Vine, W.E., Merrill F. Unger, William White, Jr., Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, Thomas Nelson, 1996, pg. 176 or Frame, The Doctrine of God, P&R Publishing Company, 2002, pg. 403

[7] John Frame, The Doctrine of God, P&R Publishing Company, 2002, pp 405-409

[8] Grudem, op. cit., pg. 218

[9] Ibid, pg. 219

[10] John Murray, Collected Works, Vol. II, Banner of Truth Trust, 1977, pg. 310

[11] Quoted in Beeke, Joel R. & Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life, Reformation Heritage Books, 2012, pp 120-121

[12] Grudem, op. cit., pg. 221

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine God’s will. Dr. Spencer, we ended last time by looking at 1 Peter 1:18-20, and in verse 20 it says that Christ “was chosen before the creation of the world” [1]. You also pointed out that he was chosen for the purpose of becoming incarnate and giving his life as an atonement to save his people from their sins. And that all of this is part of God’s decretive will.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it is part, God decrees everything that happens, even our sin. Listen to what the apostle Peter said to the crowd on the day of Pentecost. We read this in Acts 2:22-24, “Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.”

Marc Roby: And in Acts 4:28 we read that the believers were praying about the authorities crucifying Jesus Christ and they said, “They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.”

Dr. Spencer: God’s will is wonderful. He can work directly in this universe, as he did in creation and as he does in regeneration, but he normally uses secondary agents to accomplish his purposes. In this case, he used this horrible sin of crucifying the completely innocent God-man Jesus Christ to bring about the redemption of his people. It completely boggles the mind. God used what was the worst sin ever committed to bring about the greatest good ever achieved.

Marc Roby: And yet Judas, who betrayed Jesus, was still morally culpable for his sin. And so were the Jewish leaders who conspired against him and condemned him, and so was Pontius Pilate, the prefect of the Roman province of Judaea, who acceded to their demands; they were all morally culpable for their sins even though they were accomplishing God’s set purpose in doing so.

Dr. Spencer: They most certainly were morally responsible for their sins. No one forced them to sin, even though God had ordained from before the creation of the world that they would do so. The theological term used to describe the fact that God’s free will and our free will can work together to accomplish exactly what God has foreordained, or decreed, is called concurrence. It is a very important concept.

Marc Roby: And, of course, the crucifixion of Christ is not the only dramatic example of concurrence. The story of Joseph being sold into slavery in Egypt gives us another great example.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it does. But in order to give that example, we need to remind our listeners of some of the facts relating to Joseph’s life.

Marc Roby: Alright, let me begin. Joseph was one of the twelve Patriarchs of the Jewish people. He was the favorite son of his father Jacob, who was the son of Isaac, the son God promised to Abraham and Sarah. Joseph’s brothers hated him because he was his father’s favorite, so they sold him to some Midianite slave traders who were heading down to Egypt and then told their father Jacob that he had been killed by a wild animal. Joseph was later sold to Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guard.

Dr. Spencer: And we read about all of that in Genesis Chapter 37. But God was gracious to Joseph in Egypt and through a long process, which included his being unjustly imprisoned for years, he miraculously became second in command in Egypt as we read in Chapters 39-41 of Genesis. We also read that there was a severe famine in the land and Joseph was in charge of Pharaoh’s storehouses of grain.

Marc Roby: And in Chapter 42 of Genesis we are told that there was also famine in the land of Canaan, where Joseph’s brothers and father lived. And because they heard that there was grain in Egypt, Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt to buy grain for their families. In doing so, they came before their brother Joseph.

Dr. Spencer: And there is a lot that we are leaving out in order to get to our main point. This is a marvelous story of God’s grace and sovereignty and I encourage our listeners to read it if they don’t know the story. But to move on, Joseph’s brothers didn’t recognize him because he now spoke, dressed and acted like an Egyptian, but he recognized them. I will again leave out a lot of wonderful and edifying material from Chapters 43 through 49 and just say that Joseph eventually revealed himself to his brothers and then his entire family, including his father Jacob, moved down to Egypt.

Marc Roby: And Jacob died in Egypt, which then left Joseph’s brothers worried. In Genesis 50:15 we read that “When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, ‘What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?’”

Dr. Spencer: And we finally come to the verses we want to discuss today. In Genesis 50:19-21 we read, “But Joseph said to them, ‘Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.’ And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.”

Marc Roby: What a gracious response that was.

Dr. Spencer: It was incredibly gracious, but Joseph saw God’s purpose in all that had happened. I’m sure that as a human being he must have struggled with all of the trials he went through because of his brother’s hatred, and in the material we skipped over we do see him exacting a bit of revenge. But the main point here, just as we saw in Acts regarding the crucifixion of Jesus, is the concurrence between the free, sinful actions of human beings and God’s ultimate purpose and decrees.

Marc Roby: Now I suspect that that will sound very strange to many of our listeners. The idea that God would, in any way, concur with sinful acts.

Dr. Spencer: I’m sure that does sound strange to anyone who has not heard of this doctrine before. The word concur is often used to indicate agreement or approval, but it can also simply mean to act together toward some common goal, in which case it does not imply approval of the actions of the other person. And that is the sense in which we are using the word here.

God’s actions and the sinful actions of human beings can work together to bring about a result that God has decreed will happen, but there is no implication that God approves of the sinful actions.

Marc Roby: Louis Berkhof gives a good definition of concurrence in his systematic theology text. He writes that “Concurrence may be defined as the cooperation of the divine power with all subordinate powers, according to the pre-established laws of their operation, causing them to act and to act precisely as they do.”[2]

Dr. Spencer: That is a great definition. We will have more to say about concurrence, which is part of the doctrine of God’s providence, when we finish with God’s attributes. But for now, let me just point out a couple of things. First, note that Berkhof talks about divine power and subordinate powers. God is in complete control of his creation. That does not mean that we are all puppets, but it does mean that we are completely subordinate. No one can thwart God’s plans. He brings about exactly what he has decreed will happen. When we sin, he uses our sin, together with other factors, to bring about his purposes.

Marc Roby: That’s an amazing thing to think about.

Dr. Spencer: It really is. But I also like the fact that Berkhof mentions the “pre-established laws” that are in operation. There are, for example, the laws of nature, which God himself established and upholds, but there are also laws, if you will, of human behavior. As we noted in Session 84 and will talk about more when we get to biblical anthropology, we do have free wills, but our wills are not absolutely free. We cannot violate our own nature. Which is perfectly logical and reasonable. It strikes me as exceedingly strange, to say the least, to think that I have the freedom to choose to do something that goes completely against all of my own inclinations and desires.

Marc Roby: That is indeed illogical. But, now that we have established that in order to accomplish his decretive will God works through secondary agents, including even the sinful actions of human beings, what else do you want to say about the will of God?

Dr. Spencer: Well, since we have been talking about human sin and its relation to God’s will, I want to stick with that general idea and talk about what is usually called God’s permissive will. I can’t find a good definition of this term in any of my theology texts because theologians seem to not use the term. But Christians use it reasonably often, so I think we should discuss it. I think that what people usually mean by God’s permissive will is that it encompasses all those things that God allows to happen even though they are not what he desires or commands to have happen.

Marc Roby: And these actions may include sin as well as things that are not, in themselves sin.

Dr. Spencer: I think that’s right. And although I can’t find a theologian speaking about God’s permissive will, Berkhof does talk about the fact that God’s eternal decree, which is basically synonymous with what we have been calling God’s decretive will, is permissive with respect to human sin.

Marc Roby: Now, that’s an interesting statement, can you explain what he means by that?

Dr. Spencer: Yes, I can. He wrote that when God decrees human sin, “It is a decree which renders the future sinful act absolutely certain, but in which God determines (a) not to hinder the sinful self-determination of the finite will; and (b) to regulate and control the result of this sinful self-determination.”[3]

Marc Roby: This sounds like concurrence again, mixed in with God’s sovereign control of all things, including human sin. Berkhof’s point seems to be that God permits sin, but it is never outside of his control and is used by him to accomplish his own purposes.

Dr. Spencer: I think that’s a fair summary.

Marc Roby: When people speak of God’s permissive will, it is usually in some way contrasted with his perfect will.

Dr. Spencer: That contrast is what you typically hear.[4] And what is usually meant by God’s perfect will for us is almost synonymous with his revealed, or preceptive will. It is what God has commanded us to do, although it often goes beyond that. For example, someone might talk about it not being God’s perfect will for them to marry a particular individual, whereas Scripture, of course, does not command us to marry or not marry a specific individual. It only gives us the command that as Christians, we must marry another Christian.

Marc Roby: I’ve certainly heard that kind of talk, and it does make a valid point. We can make decisions that are not necessarily sinful, they aren’t the wisest choice. God will not usually intervene in any direct way to stop his people from making bad decisions, or even from sinning, so we need to be careful to not conclude that just because he allows us to do something, that it is the best thing to do, or even to conclude that it isn’t sin.

Dr. Spencer: I agree that is the point usually being made when people talk about God’s permissive will versus his perfect will. And it is an important point. It should scare us to know that God will allow us to make bad decisions. And it should scare us even more when we read, for example, that God allowed King David to commit adultery and murder. We would prefer to read that David was prevented from doing so. But the reality is that, for his own perfect purposes, God allows his people to sin, sometimes grievously. And we cannot take any solace in the fact that he is sovereign even over our sins and will somehow use them to accomplish his good purposes. It would always, without exception, be better for us to not sin.

Marc Roby: I completely agree. We need to seek to be led by the Word of God, with the help of the Holy Spirit, in order to avoid sin and even decisions that are not sinful, but that are also not the wisest choice.

Dr. Spencer: And we have a great promise from God about temptation to sin. In 1 Corinthians 10:13 we read that “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.”

Marc Roby: Yes, that is a great promise. But it does not say that God will not allow us to be tempted. It only says that he will not allow us to be tempted beyond what we can bear.

Dr. Spencer: And the painful truth is that we sometimes give in to temptation in spite of God keeping it limited to what we can bear. We need to be very careful to watch our life and doctrine closely as the apostle Paul wrote to Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:16. God will provide a way out of every temptation, but we must look for it and avail ourselves of it. If we don’t, we will suffer harm.

Marc Roby: Yes, and very often others will be harmed as well.

Dr. Spencer: That’s quite true. This is why Jesus taught in the Lord’s prayer to pray that God would deliver us from temptation. He also told us to pray “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10), which is obviously speaking about God’s preceptive will; in other words, we are praying that people, including ourselves, would obey God’s commands. It would make no sense for this to refer to God’s decretive will since whatever God decrees will, in fact, happen. Therefore, if this referred to God’s decretive will we would be praying that God would cause what is going to happen to happen.

Marc Roby: That certainly wouldn’t make any sense. But I doubt that many people are consciously aware that they are praying for their own obedience when they pray the Lord’s prayer. What else do you want to say about God’s will?

Dr. Spencer: I think it is important to distinguish between what theologians call God’s necessary and free wills.

Marc Roby: We have already pointed out that there are things that God cannot do, so his necessary will must refer to those things which he must do because he is God. Things like continuing to exist and always telling the truth.

Dr. Spencer: That is exactly what is meant, so in a sense we’ve covered God’s necessary will already. But the important point I want to make is that God also does many things freely, and it is particularly important for us to know that creation was God’s free decision. He did not need to create this universe for any reason. Nor did he need to redeem anyone after the fall.

Marc Roby: You do sometimes here Christians talk about God creating us for fellowship, which sounds a bit like he would be lonely without us.

Dr. Spencer: That is precisely the view I want to oppose. It is unbiblical. God is love as we are told in 1 John 4:16, and that is an essential attribute of God. It is part of his fundamental nature. It was true before he ever created this universe. There was absolutely perfect love and fellowship between the persons of the Trinity prior to the creation of this universe. God did not need to create. Wayne Grudem states it well in his systematic theology. He wrote that “It would be wrong for us ever to try to find a necessary cause for creation or redemption in the being of God himself, for that would rob God of his total independence. It would be to say that without us God could not truly be God. God’s decisions to create and to redeem were totally free decisions.”[5]

Marc Roby: That is a very important, and humbling, point. Is there anything else you wanted to say about God’s will?

Dr. Spencer: I want to go back to the Lord’s prayer and note again that in that prayer Christ taught us to pray that God’s will would be done on earth, which certainly includes in our own lives. If we have surrendered our lives to Christ, we must work hard to submit our will to his will. When Jesus was crying out to the Father from the Mount of Olives prior to his crucifixion, we read in Luke 22:42 that he prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” That is the kind of complete submission to God that all of us should strive to achieve in our own lives.

I’ve heard that people used to add the letters D.V. to statements of their intentions for the future. For example, I might write that I will visit you in Oregon this summer, D.V. The letters D.V. stand for the Latin phrase deo volente, and mean God willing.

Marc Roby: Which comes, of course, from James 4:13-15, where we read, “Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’”

Dr. Spencer: I assume that is where it comes from, yes. And although I’m sure it can easily become a meaningless cliché used to try and sound godly, it is a good sentiment to have in mind at all times. As Christians, our job is to seek to know and do the will of God. As Jesus himself told us in John 13:17, “Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.”

Marc Roby: I think that is a good place to end for today, so let me remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org and we’ll do our best to respond to them.

 

[1] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[2] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1938, pg. 171

[3] Ibid, pg. 105

[4] It shows up, for example, in a popular old daily devotional called My Utmost for his Highest by Oswald Chambers, see the entry for December 16.

[5] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, pg. 213

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Marc Roby: Before we begin our regular session this week, we want to take a moment to let our listeners know about an exciting upcoming series. Dr. Spencer, you’re going to be doing an interview with Prof. Henry Schaefer III. Can you tell us a bit about him?

Dr. Spencer: I’d love to. Prof. Schaefer is one of the world’s most highly regarded chemists. He is currently the Director of the Center for Computational Quantum Chemistry at the University of Georgia. It has been reported that he has been nominated for a Nobel Prize five times.[1]

Marc Roby: That’s impressive.

Dr. Spencer: It is. He has also published over 1,600 scientific papers. There have been scientific conferences held specifically in honor of his work and even a book published in honor of his work. [2]

Marc Roby: I’m no scientist, but 1,600 papers sounds like an awful lot.

Dr. Spencer: It is a huge number. He got his PhD from Stanford in 1969, so that is an average of more than 32 papers a year from then until now, which is a number that simply blows my mind. And these are not fluffy papers, they are mostly published in the best journals in his field and are clearly important papers since he is one of the most highly cited scientists in the world.

Marc Roby: When you say “highly cited”, you are referring to the number of times other researchers cite his work as a reference, right?

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. He has over 67,000 citations to his papers, which puts him in very elite company indeed.

Marc Roby: And yet, Prof. Schaefer is a Bible-believing Christian.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, he is. And he has given talks on his faith hundreds, if not thousands, of times around the world. He will be here in giving a talk on the UC Davis campus on October 3rd and he has graciously consented to letting me interview him for this podcast while he is here.

Marc Roby: Well, I certainly look forward to hearing that interview. But now, let’s get back to our study of systematic theology by continuing to examine God’s communicable attributes. We finished with God’s omniscience last time, are we ready to move on to another attribute?

Dr. Spencer: Not quite. I want to take a few minutes to go over some of the implications of God’s omniscience and people’s reactions to this doctrine. I think these are important because this is an attribute that is frequently denied by professing Christians, in practice if not in word.

Marc Roby: What do you mean by that?

Dr. Spencer: I mean that even Christians who have accepted the biblical teaching that God is omniscient sometimes act in ways that are inconsistent with that belief. For example, we all sin. But every single time we sin we are denying the lordship of Christ and are acting as if God will not know about our sin or that he can’t or won’t do anything about it.

Marc Roby: In other words, we don’t fear God. We are neglecting not only his omniscience, but his omnipotence and holiness as well.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that’s right. But we definitely should fear God. Even when our sin is just in our mind, God knows. In Luke 5 we read an account of Jesus healing a paralytic. But the first thing he did was tell the man his sins were forgiven. As a result, some of the people present were thinking to themselves that Jesus was committing blasphemy because only God can forgive sins. But, in Verse 22 we are told that “Jesus knew what they were thinking”. Psalm 139:2 also tells us that God knows our thoughts.

Marc Roby: Now that is frightening!

Dr. Spencer: Yes it is. We have no privacy from God. He knows every thought, word and deed. He knows our emotions, how we feel about things and so on. This is a clear teaching of Scripture. And that’s why the apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 10:5 that “we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”[3]

Marc Roby: And it certainly doesn’t make any sense to say that we should make our thoughts obedient to Christ if he doesn’t know what they are.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that’s right, that wouldn’t make any sense at all. Hebrews 4:13 tells us that “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” And, in Revelation 2 we read Jesus’ letter to the church in Thyatira, in which he chastises them for tolerating an immoral woman, whom he calls Jezebel.

Marc Roby: People today might not recognize how bad it was to be called Jezebel. Perhaps a modern equivalent would be to call someone Hitler. Jezebel was the extremely wicked wife of King Ahab in the Old Testament.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right, so we get the message quickly that Christ considered this woman to be evil. Based on some of the Greek manuscripts we have, she may even have been the wife of the Pastor of the church in Thyatira. [4] But, whoever she was, she led people in the church into sin, most likely by teaching, as many do now, that because we are saved by grace it doesn’t matter if we sin. But listen to Christ’s condemnation of this idea. We read in Revelation 2:23 that Jesus said to the church, “I will strike her children dead. Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds.”

Marc Roby: That is not the Jesus that most modern churches like to preach about; one who will repay people according to their deeds.

Dr. Spencer: No, it isn’t at all. But it is the true Christ as revealed to us in the Word of God. He searches hearts and minds and will repay each according to their deeds. Even those who are truly saved are subject to God’s severe discipline. If you are born again you cannot lose your salvation, but you certainly can bring great trouble to yourself, your family and your church if you sin.

On the one hand that is obvious. If I commit some serious sin and end up in jail or something, that obviously brings shame and real hardship to my family and my church. But, in addition, Paul told the church in Corinth that they were experiencing serious problems because they were not repenting of and forsaking their sins before taking communion. In 1 Corinthians 11:29-30 he wrote that “anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep.”

Marc Roby: And “fallen asleep” is an obvious euphemism for dying.

Dr. Spencer: It is, yes. In 1 Corinthians 3 Paul had told the church that God would test every person’s life work by fire. This passage is most directly addressed to church leaders, but the general principle is consistent with what is said throughout the Bible for all believers. In Verses 13 to 15 we read that “fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.” Now there is comfort in that verse of course, it does say that “he himself will be saved”, but there is also great pain involved for him and others associated with him as is indicated by saying he will be saved “only as one escaping through the flames.”

Marc Roby: That certainly doesn’t sound like a pleasant way to go to heaven.

Dr. Spencer: No, it doesn’t. But, and this is extremely important, we want to be sure and make it clear that the pain we suffer for our sins does not in any way atone for our sins; only Jesus Christ can do that. But God does discipline his children. Now, if we are smart, we will take the warning and live holy lives. And now let me make clear how this ties back into our topic of God’s omniscience.

Marc Roby: Please do.

Dr. Spencer: We won’t suffer only for sins that are obvious and seen by others. As we read a minute ago in Hebrews 4:13, “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” This includes our thoughts. Remember that Christ said, in Matthew 5:28, that “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” We can conclude that even our lustful glances and thoughts, which no human being can discern, make God angry and subject us to the possibility of discipline.

Marc Roby: That is a very sobering realization.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, this realization should bring serious sobriety to our lives. Not all sickness is directly attributable to our own sin, so you don’t want to assume that just because someone is sick it is a direct result of personal sin. But we should also not neglect that possibility. Most professing Christians today seem to completely ignore the possibility that they could be sick or experiencing some trial because of their sin. But, if the doctor tells you that you have cancer, or you lose your job, or whatever, a serious period of self-reflection and repentance is certainly appropriate.

Marc Roby: Yes, I agree. How else do Christians act in ways that practically deny God’s omniscience?

Dr. Spencer: We practically deny his omniscience along with his omnipotence and his goodness, whenever we allow ourselves to be anxious.

Marc Roby: Anxiety is obviously a very common thing, even among Christians.

Dr. Spencer: I agree. In fact, I suspect that every single one of us has allowed ourselves to be anxious at some point. But in Philippians 4:6 we are told, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” In the Greek Paul used the imperative mood for the verb, so this is a command to not be anxious, not a suggestion. And we are given great reason to not be anxious in 1 Peter 5:7 where we are told, “Cast all your anxiety on [God] because he cares for you.”

Marc Roby: That is a great comfort.

Dr. Spencer: And it is even greater comfort when you remember that God does in fact know everything! There are no problems of mine that go unnoticed by God. And there is no problem of mine that he cannot solve. God’s omniscience is not only frightening, it is also very comforting when you couple it with his fatherly love.

Marc Roby: But, of course, we must be Christians for that to be comforting.

Dr. Spencer: That’s very true. God’s omniscience should be terrifying to anyone who does not know Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior. I think that is why there is so much animosity in the world directed at Jesus Christ and his followers. People know that God exists, even if they call themselves atheists, and in their heart of hearts they know they will be judged. As a result, a lot of anger wells up inside. I always find it very revealing when you encounter a very active or angry atheist.

Marc Roby: What do you mean?

Dr. Spencer: Think about it. Have you ever heard of a society of people who spend a lot of time trying to disprove the existence of Santa Clause?

Marc Roby: No, I haven’t, and I don’t expect to either.

Dr. Spencer: And that’s precisely my point. If someone is truly convinced in the core of their being that God cannot exist, there is no reason for that person to expend huge amounts of time and energy trying to disprove his existence and to discredit the Bible. And there is no cause for anger. He might feel sorry for people who believe that God exists, but unless one happens to be a close relative or friend I can’t imagine that would motivate him to spend a lot of time and energy on the topic. So, whenever I see a really active atheist, and there are many atheist clubs on college campuses and elsewhere, I think it reveals a person who knows that God does exist and is angry at the prospect of being judged.

Marc Roby: That’s an interesting thought. It reminds me of the line from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” Do you want to say anything more about God’s omniscience?

Dr. Spencer: Yes, just one more quick point. In J.I. Packer’s little book Concise Theology, he makes the following statement: “God’s knowledge is linked with his sovereignty: he knows each thing, both in itself and in relation to all other things, because he created it, sustains it, and now makes it function every moment according to his plan for it.”[5] And he then cites Ephesians 1:11 in support, which says that in Christ, “we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will”. Packer then goes on to say that “The idea that God could know, and foreknow, everything without controlling everything seems not only unscriptural but nonsensical.”

Marc Roby: That states very clearly the point we made in Session 65 that God cannot know everything that will ever happen unless he has the ability to control everything that will happen.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, Packer makes that point quite forcefully I think. And Ephesians 1:11 is very clear; everything has been “predestined according to the plan” of God.

Marc Roby: And we again see the simplicity of God as well. His attributes of divine sovereignty and omniscience are linked.

Dr. Spencer: And his omnipotence comes into play as well. Planning is one thing, but he must also be able to execute his plan. And with that, I think we are done with God’s omniscience and it’s time to move on to the next attribute.

Marc Roby: Okay. Assuming that we are going to continue following the treatment in Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, that means the next attribute would be God’s wisdom, correct?

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And Grudem defines this attribute in the following way: “God’s wisdom means that God always chooses the best goals and the best means to those goals.”[6] Wisdom and knowledge are closely related, but different. It is possible for a person to have vast knowledge but not be very wise in putting that knowledge to use, and it is also possible for someone who is relatively ignorant to, nonetheless, be wise. Grudem’s definition is similar to that given by others as well; they all contain the idea of some end purpose being achieved, and the purpose and the means both being the best possible.

Marc Roby: And God’s purpose in creation is the manifestation of his own glory as we discussed way back in Session 2.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And his wisdom guarantees, as I noted then, that the manifestation of his glory is the best possible purpose for creation. Nothing in creation can compare with the glory of God, but creation itself can display the glory of God. So, there is no other purpose that would be as great.

God’s power, holiness, justice and mercy, to name just a few of his attributes, are all displayed by creation. And when I say creation here I am not just talking about the physical universe, but also God’s plan for the history of the universe and, more particularly, his plan for the history of mankind.

Marc Roby: That makes me think of the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, which asks, “What is the chief end of man?” And the answer is, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that’s a wonderful statement of our purpose, and it is completely biblical. In Isaiah 60:21 God tells us about the future glory of his people and says, “Then will all your people be righteous and they will possess the land forever. They are the shoot I have planted, the work of my hands, for the display of my splendor.” In the ESV and other translations, instead of saying “for the display of my splendor”, it says “that I might be glorified”. There are many other places in the Bible where we are told that God’s ultimate purpose is the manifestation of his own glory.

Marc Roby: Probably the most well-known verse is 1 Corinthians 10:31, which says, “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”

Dr. Spencer: That is probably the best-known verse, and we quoted it in Session 2. But there are many others as well. For example, in Ezekiel 36 God tells his people about what he is going to do and, in Verse 22 we read, “This is what the Sovereign LORD says: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am going to do these things, but for the sake of my holy name”.

Marc Roby: We have also pointed out before that it isn’t just human beings that are made for God’s glory, even the inanimate creation is created for that purpose. Psalm 19 famously begins by saying, “The heavens declare the glory of God”.

And I think this is a good place to stop for today, so let me remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We look forward to hearing from you.

[1] According to Wikipedia: see Jeffery L. Sheler and Joannie M. Schrof. 1991. “The Creation” U.S. News and World Report, Dec. 23, 1991, pp. 56-64. See inset quoting Schaefer and citing him as “quantum chemist and five-time nominee for the Nobel Prize,” p. 62.

[2] E.g., In May 2010, the University of California at Berkeley hosted a large international conference in Professor Schaefer’s honor, the title of the conference being “Molecular Quantum Mechanics: From Methylene to DNA and Beyond.”  Simultaneous with the Berkeley conference was published the book Selected Papers of Henry F. Schaefer III, Edited by R. J. Bartlett, T. D. Crawford, M. Head-Gordon, and C. D. Sherrill.  In May 2014 the Peking University Graduate School sponsored a large conference in honor of Professor Schaefer in Shenzhen, China.

[3] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[4] J. Beeke, Revelation, Reformation Heritage Books, 2016, pp 117-118

[5] J.I. Packer, Concise Theology, Tyndale House Pub., 1993, pp 31-32

[6] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, pg. 193

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine God’s attribute of omniscience, or perfect knowledge of all things. We were examining Wayne Grudem’s statement of this attribute, which is that “God fully knows himself and all things actual and possible in one simple and eternal act.”[1]  Dr. Spencer, how would you like to proceed today?

Dr. Spencer: We discussed what it means for God to know “in one simple and eternal act” last time. We also considered the fact that God fully knows himself last time.

Marc Roby: Which led to an interesting discussion of the meaning of infinity.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, as hard as it may be to believe, we did stray off topic a bit.

Marc Roby: But it was an interesting and useful diversion. It is completely amazing to try and grasp the nature of God. But, getting back to Grudem’s statement about God’s knowledge, he also says that God knows “all things actual and possible”. We’ve talked about God’s knowledge of possibilities before as well. I remember in Session 59 talking about when King David asked God if the people in the town of Keilah would hand him over to Saul. When God told him that they would, David left the town to avoid that fate.

Dr. Spencer: We also gave other evidence there for God knowing all things that might happen. That was a part of our discussion of God’s eternity, which again illustrates that God’s attributes are all tied together. Grudem notes that God’s knowledge of all possible events can be deduced from the fact that he knows himself fully. He writes that “If God fully knows himself, he knows everything he is able to do, which includes all things that are possible.”[2]

Marc Roby: Do you want to say anything more about God’s omniscience?

Dr. Spencer: Yes. I first want to note two objections to this doctrine that are mentioned by Grudem. First, some people object to saying that God knows all things when they read verses in the Bible like Isaiah 43:25, where God says, “I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more.” [3] But that is a silly objection because this verse does not mean that God literally forgets my sins. To say that he doesn’t remember them is a figure of speech. It is impossible for God to truly forget anything. The real meaning there is captured by David’s statement in Psalm 32:2 where he says that “Blessed is the man whose sin the LORD does not count against him”, that’s what it means when it says God remembers my sins no more.

Marc Roby: You said you had two objections to discuss, what is the other?

Dr. Spencer: Some people object to the idea that God is omniscient because they think his omniscience is incompatible with human free will. They reason that if I have real free will, then God can’t possibly know my decisions before I make them. But there are two fatal flaws with that reasoning. First, to say that my decisions cannot be free if God knows them in advance is illogical. God knows me perfectly and he knows exactly what I will do in any situation, so he certainly can know what I will decide prior to my making the decision, unless, of course, someone wants to try and defend the idea that their decisions are completely random.

Marc Roby: I don’t want to defend that position, it doesn’t sound very logical or flattering.

Dr. Spencer: That’s because it isn’t very flattering. And I would also contend that even supposedly random events are not random to God anyway, but let’s leave that discussion for another day. This argument against God’s omniscience essentially assumes I have a completely free will and can decide to do anything. But as we noted in Session 15, no one acts in a way that opposes their own nature unless they are forced to. So, our nature is one constraint placed on our decisions and there are other constraints as well, for example, our knowledge, experience, physical limitations and so on. In fact, even God is not totally free, he is constrained by his nature too. For example, we are told in Hebrews 6:18 that it is impossible for God to lie. So, these people want more freedom for man than God himself has!

We will talk more about the proper understanding of human free will in a later session, but for now what I’ve said is sufficient to demonstrate that God’s omniscience does not violate our free will.

Marc Roby: I look forward to discussing human free will, that is going to be very interesting. But you said there are two fatal flaws with the idea that God’s omniscience is incompatible with human free will. What is the second fatal flaw?

Dr. Spencer: The second flaw is that their argument doesn’t account for the fact that God does not experience time the same way we do. He experiences everything that has ever happened or ever will happen immediately as we discussed in Sessions 58 and 59. And, if that is true, then there really is no “future” to God in the sense of its being unknown as it is for us. And the fact that God experiences the past, present and future all with equal clarity is a necessary consequence of his immutability as we discussed in Session 58. If God learns new things as time goes on, then his knowledge is changing and he is not immutable in the same sense that we have used that term.

Marc Roby: Well, I’m sure that some will object and say that he is immutable in his being, but not necessarily in his knowledge.

Dr. Spencer: I’m sure that some would object and say that. But the only important question is whether or not such a view is biblical. The Bible is, as always, our ultimate authority. We don’t want to go back over God’s immutability all over again, but how can God’s promises about the future be certain if he doesn’t know the future? And how can God be said to be perfect if there are things he doesn’t yet know? We noted in Session 56 that God’s immutability is a logical consequence of his perfection.

Marc Roby: When you think this through you really see how all of God’s attributes are linked.

Dr. Spencer: You absolutely do. The simplicity of God is such an important concept, which is why we keep mentioning it. You can’t think about any of God’s attributes in isolation from the others or you are bound to go astray in your understanding of God.

Marc Roby: And of course, the Bible is well aware that we struggle with understanding God. It has a number of examples of even very devout believers struggling with understanding God and his actions. With Job being one of the prominent examples.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that’s right. Job struggled to understand why God would allow him to suffer as he did when he knew he was not guilty of some horrible sin. And God never answered Job’s questions. He simply showed up and gave Job a deeper understanding of who God is. And when Job was confronted with God’s perfections; his knowledge, power, wisdom and goodness, he shut his mouth. He didn’t have his questions answered, but he realized that he didn’t need to.

Marc Roby: Seeing God in some sense answers a lot of questions.

Dr. Spencer: It does. We read about God appearing to Job in Chapter 38 of the book of Job. We are told in the first two verses, “Then the LORD answered Job out of the storm. He said: ‘Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge?’”

Marc Roby: That pretty well describes the situation anytime we speak to God. We have words without knowledge.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true. Compared to God we are abysmally ignorant. God makes this point clearly. In Verses 3 and 4 we read that God went on to say, “Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand.” God goes on at some length making clear that compared with God Job knows nothing and has no power whatever. And we read Job’s response in Job 40:4-5, he replied, “I am unworthy—how can I reply to you? I put my hand over my mouth. I spoke once, but I have no answer— twice, but I will say no more.”

Marc Roby: When God speaks it is wise for us to shut our mouths and simply listen.

Dr. Spencer: And God speaks in the Bible. So, when the Bible clearly teaches that God knows the future as well as the past, the wise response for us it to believe that and go on from there.

Marc Roby: I think that deals with the objections to God’s omniscience. What else would you like to say about this topic?

Dr. Spencer: I want to point out that God himself tells us that knowledge of the future is a test to determine whether or not someone is truly God. In Isaiah 41:21-23 we read, “‘Present your case,’ says the LORD. ‘Set forth your arguments,’ says Jacob’s King. ‘Bring in your idols to tell us what is going to happen. Tell us what the former things were, so that we may consider them and know their final outcome. Or declare to us the things to come, tell us what the future holds, so we may know that you are gods.’” God is telling us here that if someone is truly a god, he should be able to tell us the future.

Marc Roby: There are people today, usually called open theists, who will say that God can predict the future in some ways, but they still deny that he can know the decisions of human beings in advance.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true, and John Frame does a very good job of destroying their arguments in his book The Doctrine of God. He lists four ways in which open theists believe God can predict the future:[4] 1) He can say what he intends to do, 2) he can speak in very general terms, 3) he can say what consequences will follow a given state of affairs, and 4) he can say what will happen if a given set of conditions are met.

Frame then goes on to give numerous examples from the Bible that do not fit into any of these four categories. Now we must admit some mystery here and be careful with our language so that we don’t misrepresent the Bible. We don’t know exactly how God is able to know in advance what human beings will do. He is certainly able to predict what we will do because of his perfect comprehensive knowledge of us and all of our circumstances as I noted earlier. But the Bible indicates that God does more than just passively predict human behavior.

Marc Roby: Can you provide some examples of that?

Dr. Spencer: Absolutely. One of the classic stories has to do with the patriarch Joseph. Most of our listeners probably know the story. Joseph’s brothers were jealous of him because he was the favorite of his father Jacob, and because of some of the things had said and done. In any event, they sold him as a slave to some travelers, who then took him down into Egypt and sold him as a slave there. He ended up being unjustly imprisoned, but then he was able to interpret a dream for Pharaoh and was raised up to be the second most powerful person in Egypt. Years later there was a famine in the land and Joseph’s brothers had to come to Egypt for food and they discovered Joseph was ruling there.

Marc Roby: A most unpleasant surprise I might add.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it was unpleasant for them. And I’m leaving out tons of interesting details to get to the point I want to make right now. In Genesis 50:20 we read that Joseph said to his brothers, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” This statement makes it clear that God’s intent was for Joseph to be taken to Egypt and to become the ruler under Pharaoh. And it also makes it clear that Joseph’s brothers had their own intent, and it was not the same as God’s. We aren’t told exactly how all of this was done, but we see in this verse both divine sovereignty of many events that certainly include the free decisions of human beings, and the fact that humans are still responsible for their own decisions.

Marc Roby: That certainly shows that God didn’t just predict what would happen, he planned it.

Dr. Spencer: And he can’t carry out plans like that if he can’t in some way control the free decisions of people. But I want to be clear that when I say “control” I am not implying that God forces people to do something against their will.

Marc Roby: We know for certain that God planned all of this because he told Abraham hundreds of years before that his descendants would be enslaved in Egypt, which happened as a result of this whole episode with Joseph and his brothers.

Dr. Spencer: That’s a good point. In Genesis 15:13-14 we read that God told Abraham, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions.” And all of that happened, including the episode we just related about Joseph.

Marc Roby: Are there any other examples you want to present?

Dr. Spencer: Let me just mention a couple. We’ve seen before that God predicted the actions of the Persian king Cyrus more than 100 years before he was born. In Isaiah 45:13 God says, “I will raise up Cyrus in my righteousness: I will make all his ways straight. He will rebuild my city and set my exiles free, but not for a price or reward, says the LORD Almighty.” That prophecy clearly requires that God can cause this man to be born, to be named Cyrus, to grow up and become the king of Persia, to conquer Babylon, and then to set the Israelites free and send them back to Jerusalem to rebuild the city. Notice that this isn’t just God knowing what will happen and telling it to his people before hand, he says that he “will raise up Cyrus” and that he “will make all his ways straight”. And in Isaiah 44:28 God had said of Cyrus that “He is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please”.

Marc Roby: That does make it clear that God wasn’t just saying what he knew would happen, it was accomplishing his purposes. What other example did you want to present?

Dr. Spencer: Judas Iscariot.

Marc Roby: You mean the disciple that betrayed Jesus Christ.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. When the apostle Peter gave his sermon to the Jews on the day of Pentecost, he told them, in Acts 2:23, that Jesus “was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge”. So, it was God’s purpose that was being accomplished when Judas betrayed Christ. And, in Acts 4 we read about the believers praying after Peter and John were released from prison. In Verses 27 and 28 we read that they said, “Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.”

Marc Roby: That’s pretty explicit. God “decided beforehand” what should happen. That certainly requires that he have the ability to control what happened.

Dr. Spencer: I think it does require that, yes. And so, we have presented some examples that show that God doesn’t just know what human beings will decide, he can somehow cause certain decisions when he chooses to.

Marc Roby: I assume we will discuss that idea more when we talk about human free will in a later session.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, we will. But I want to wrap up this discussion of God’s omniscience with one more example. In Psalm 139:16 King David is speaking to God and says, “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” Which is a very clear statement that God didn’t just know what would happen to David before he was born, he ordained his days. This verse is the only place in the NIV where the Hebrew word used here is translated as “ordained”.[5] It is most commonly translated as “formed” and it can also mean “planned” or “made”. The idea clearly goes well beyond God’s simply having foreknowledge of David’s life, God planned, or made, or formed David’s life before he was born. And that is true of all of us. The Westminster Confession of Faith properly summarizes the biblical teaching when it says in Paragraph 1 of Chapter 3 that “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.”

Marc Roby: I’m sure we will have to spend more time with that wonderful statement later, but we are out of time for today. I’d like to remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We’d love to hear from you.

[1] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, pg. 190

[2] Ibid, pg. 191

[3] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[4] John M. Frame, The Doctrine of God, P&R Publishing Company, 2002, pg. 488

[5]Edward W. Goodrick and John R. Kohlenberger III, The NIV Exhaustive Concordance, Zondervan, 1990, pg. 1476

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