Yes Single


[Download PDF Transcript]

You’re listening to What Does the Word Say, a series of podcasts on biblical theology produced by Grace and Glory Media, and I’m Dr. Spencer. Our usual host Mr. Roby is not with me again today because we are both still obeying the stay-at-home order issued as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. We are also continuing to take a short break from our series on systematic theology. This week I want to talk about how to think biblically.

It is important for Christians to think biblically at all times, but it is especially important in difficult times like these. In 2 Corinthians 10:5 the apostle Paul wrote, “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”[1]

We are not free to think whatever we want to think. Jesus Christ is Lord of everything, including our thinking. It dishonors God and therefore displeases him when we think improperly. So, for example, if we think that the coronavirus pandemic is somehow outside of his control, we dishonor him. To think that way is to disparage his sovereignty and power.

Now someone may think that by believing God is not in control of this pandemic he is defending God from being charged with not being good or loving, but that is a completely unbiblical way to think. We discussed God’s providence in some detail in Sessions 88 through 93, but for now let me just note that if God is not in control of every detail of every single event in the universe, then we can’t trust any of his promises.

Also, the Bible clearly tells us that God is in control of everything, so to say otherwise is unbiblical. I won’t go back through all that we covered before, Session 89 provides a number of Scripture references in support of this statement, but let me just give three examples for today.

First, in Proverbs 16:33 we are told that “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD.” Now casting a lot was the Old Testament equivalent of rolling the dice, so this proverb is explicitly telling us that God is in control even of things that people tend to think of as random events.

Second, in Psalm 139:16 King David was praying to God and said that “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” This shows us that God is also in control of our lives. In fact, we are told elsewhere that he knits us together in our mother’s wombs (Ps 139:13), he ordains when, where and to whom we are born (e.g., Ps 139:13, Is 45:13, Acts 17:26). He elects us unto salvation or passes us by and leaves us to be justly punished for our sins (e.g., Rom 9:13). He has ordained the exact moment and cause of our death (e.g., 1 Sam 28:19, Ps 139:16). And all of this was done before the creation of the world (e.g., Eph 1:4).

Third, in the New Testament we read, in Matthew 10:29, that Jesus said, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father.” Which makes it clear that even seemingly unimportant events in this world are under God’s control.

And we also can’t restrict God’s sovereignty by saying that he isn’t in control of disasters and sinful acts as well. With regard to so-called natural disasters, God has established the fixed laws of heaven and earth as we read in Jeremiah 33:25, which certainly include the physical laws governing weather, earthquakes and so on. But God is still in control of these things. For example, Jesus calmed a storm on the Sea of Galilee by simply commanding the wind and the waves to be still as we read in Mark 4:39. And with regard to sin, God does not directly cause sin, but he is in complete control of it. If he so chooses, he can stop anyone from doing any particular sinful act. And yet, we must admit the obvious fact that there are very many natural disasters and wicked sinful things that happen in this world. So, it is clear that God allows them to happen, and he does so for a purpose. He is not capricious.

It is sometimes argued, although incorrectly, that the existence of evil in this world proves that God is either not completely good, or not completely sovereign. We answered that charge in Session 74 and so all I’m going to say now is that the statement is the result of a faulty assumption; namely, that God’s purpose is to make our lives here on earth as pleasant as possible, which simply is not true, that isn’t his purpose.

In order to think biblically, in other words correctly, about anything that happens in this life we must first have a biblical perspective on life, which includes understanding that God’s purpose is the manifestation of his own glory. The biblical perspective is also eternal. This life is short, but we are all made for an eternal existence, either in hell or in heaven. When you consider those two eternal realities, all of sudden you realize that the most important thing, in fact, we could say the only truly important thing in this life for everyone is determine to which of these two possible eternal homes you are headed.

All of human history is subservient to this ultimate purpose. God is creating a people for himself, which is variously called the church (e.g., 1 Tim 3:5), or the family of God (e.g., 1 Pet 4:17), or the bride of Christ (e.g., Eph 5:24-32), or God’s inheritance (e.g., 1 Sam 10:1), or God’s treasured possession (e.g., Ex 19:5). The one thing needful, as Christ said to Martha in Luke 10:42, is to make sure that Jesus Christ is our personal Lord and Savior, “for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” as we are told in Acts 4:12.

To think biblically means to view everything through the lens of Scripture. In other words, it is to have a biblical worldview. Phil Johnson, the late professor of law at the UC Berkeley Law School and author of a number of excellent books, wrote that “Understanding worldview is a bit like trying to see the lens of one’s own eye. We do not ordinarily see our own worldview, but we see everything else by looking through it. Put simply, our worldview is the window by which we view the world, and decide, often subconsciously, what is real and important, or unreal and unimportant.”[2]

The common idea that we can build our worldview from scratch by being entirely neutral observers of reality and then analyzing the data and determining what we think is right is completely false. There is no such thing as a neutral observer and everyone, the scientist no less than the artist, views everything through the lens of his own preexisting worldview. And he will work to incorporate everything he sees into this preexisting worldview.

Now, our worldview is a bit like an onion, it has layers to it. On the outer layers we have opinions that are things we think are probably true, but we are perfectly able and willing to change those views if we find them to be inconsistent with the world we observe. So there certainly is a sense in which we can correct and build our worldview. But as you peel off the layers and get deeper and deeper into your worldview, you get into things that you believe far more strongly. Views that it would be incredibly difficult to convince you to change. And when you get to the very core of your worldview, you come to your most dearly held personal commitments, and the most important of these by far is whether or not you believe the God of the Bible exists and whether or not you believe the Bible to be his infallible Word. Every single human being alive either believes these statements are true, or not true. There are no exceptions. To think that you haven’t decided yet, is to have decided in the negative.

And these two statements are really inseparable since the Bible is the only place we receive objective revelation of the true and living God and his way of salvation. Now, we can learn many things about God from the world around us and from our own nature, but that revelation doesn’t provide sufficient information to be saved and to properly love and serve God; it is only sufficient to leave us without excuse when we stand before God.

Paul wrote in Romans 1:18-20 that “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” In other words, this revelation, which is called general revelation, is sufficient for obligating every single human being to seek to know the true and living God, but no one does so. Paul wrote in Romans 3:11 that “there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God.”

So, all people in their natural state have a fundamental, core belief, or presupposition, that the God of the Bible does not exist and the Bible is not his infallible Word. In one sense everyone knows better but, as Paul wrote, they suppress this truth. And because of this fundamental presupposition at the core of his worldview, the unbeliever thinks differently than a born-again Christian will think. Paul wrote, in Romans 1:21, immediately after the verses I read a minute ago, that “although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.” He also wrote, in Ephesians 4:17, “So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking.” An unbeliever’s thinking is futile because it will never arrive at the right answer about God.

It isn’t that unbelievers can’t design cell phones and GPS systems, build cars and bridges and so on. They can do all of those things. But whenever it comes to thinking about God, they will get the wrong answer. And God is the only reality that truly matters in the end. Because where you spend eternity, whether in heaven or in hell, depends on your answer to one simple question, which Christ posed to his disciples in Matthew 16:15, “Who do you say I am?”

Unbelievers will give a range of answers to this question. Some may simply say that Jesus Christ is a fictional character and never really existed at all. Some will say that he is a real, historical figure, but that he was just a normal man who was put to death by the Romans in 1st-century Palestine and that was the end of him. His disciples then told people he had been raised from the dead and started what we call Christianity. Some unbelievers will concede that Christ was a great moral teacher, but nothing more.

Some unbelievers will even say that Jesus Christ is God and will call themselves Christians, but they have made up a different Jesus in their minds rather than believing in the Jesus who is revealed to us in his Word, the Bible. And this is nothing new. In his second letter to the church in Corinth Paul was rebuking them for not remaining true to the gospel and he wrote, in 2 Corinthians 11:4, “For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough.” But a different Jesus is of no use, in fact a different Jesus, a different gospel, will damn you. Jesus himself tells us in Matthew 7:21 that “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” That statement is terrifying. Jesus goes on to say that many will come to him this way and he will tell them to depart from him. In other words, he will send them to hell.

Only a true, born-again Christian will give the right answer to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?”. A true believer will say that Jesus Christ is the second person of the eternal, almighty triune God, the Creator, Sustainer, Judge and Redeemer of all mankind. This eternal second person of the holy Trinity became incarnate when the Holy Spirit caused the virgin Mary to conceive. She then gave birth and Jesus grew up, lived a perfect sinless life, and willingly gave his life on the cross as the perfect sacrifice to atone for the sins of all those who put their faith in him.

This radical difference in worldviews between a believer and an unbeliever leads to a radical difference in thinking. But there are two important points to make about this difference. First, you cannot change your own worldview in this radical way. You must be born again. You must cry out for God to do a mighty work and give you a new heart and a new spirit so that you can repent and believe on Jesus Christ. As Jesus said in John Chapter 6, Verses 44 and 65, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” and “no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him.”

And the second important point, and what I want to spend the rest of our time on today, is that if you have been born again, you still need to work in order to develop proper biblical thinking. A born-again person has the right presupposition at the core of his worldview, and he has the Spirit to enable him to understand God’s Word and apply it, but he also still has his old sinful nature to fight against and he needs to study the Word seriously, put it into practice, mortify his sin and walk in holiness in order to grow in faith and knowledge. We can’t just assume that if we have been born again, or regenerated, we suddenly know how to properly live the Christian life.

That is why the New Testament epistles always contain both indicatives and imperatives. The indicatives are there to instruct us about certain facts and the imperatives are there to command us how we are to live in the light of those facts. And we are given pastors and teachers to help us understand and apply the Word properly. We read in Ephesians 4:11-16 that it was Christ himself who, “gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”

Without proper teaching and study, you can be born again and yet remain an infant in Christ, being “tossed back and forth by the waves” of this life. Waves like the coronavirus pandemic. And you can be “blown here and there by every wind of teaching”, like the false preachers who will tell you that if you have enough faith God will certainly heal you and keep your finances from failing. Now, to be clear, the Bible says that God is able to heal you and keep your finances from failing, and it is proper for you to pray for that. But the Bible is equally clear that God does not promise to do so. He will do whatever is best for you and will give him the greatest glory.

For example, even the apostle Paul was given a thorn in the flesh to humble him. He prayed three times for God to remove it, in fact we are told he pleaded with God to remove it, and yet God said “No.” We read in 2 Corinthians 12:9 that God’s answer was to say, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” It would obviously be silly to say that Paul’s faith was not sufficient, so the false teachers who say things like this are wicked charlatans on their way to hell and they want to bring you along with them. Don’t listen to them! Read the Word of God. Study it. Know what it says. Be guided by pious and learned men. If you study the Word yourself and pray, you can tell the difference. Go to our website, whatdoesthewordsay.org, and request your free copy of Good News for All People by the Rev. P.G. Mathew. If you read it prayerfully and then continue to study the Word, you will find it is written by a pious and learned man and that it properly expounds the Word of God, which is able to save you and equip you for difficult times, which the Bible says we will all go through. Times like we are in right now.

In our session last week, I mentioned that we must all make our calling and election sure because if we are not God’s children, then his promises are not for us and we have no real hope. The way you make your calling and election sure is by prayerfully studying God’s Word and then examining your life in the light of the many tests given to us in that Word. I will speak more about that next week, but for today let me just say that if you have been born again, if the love of God is in you, then you can take great solace in his promises.

You may die from Covid-19, or your spouse may die from it, or you may lose your job and much of your savings, these are all possible even for God’s children. But you have eternal life and God has promised that he will never leave you nor forsake you. You can rejoice as I noted last week even as you go through these trials. In fact, let me close with one of God’s great promises to his children. In Philippians 4:6-7 God commands us, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Brothers and sisters, what a glorious promise this is! The peace of God, which transcends all understanding, can be ours even as we go through trials. Do not be anxious. Go to God with thanksgiving and praise and, yes, even with your requests for worldly things. He may not grant all of your worldly requests, but he does promise to give you his peace. And he promises, in Roman 8:28, that in all things, even this pandemic, he works for the good of those who love him.

So, may God bless you with his peace. And I hope that you will join with me in praying that God will use this pandemic to draw many people to himself, that we would see a mighty revival.

And remember that you can send your questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We would love to hear from you.

[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] In the Foreword to Nancy Pearcey’s book, Total Truth; Liberating Christianity form its Cultural Captivity, Crossway Books, 2004

Play
Yes Single


[Download PDF Transcript]

Marc Roby: We are interrupting our study of systematic theology to deal with a significant current event; namely the corona virus pandemic.

As we come together to record this podcast, President Trump has declared a national emergency, virtually all professional and collegiate sporting events have been cancelled for at least the next few weeks, and almost all concerts and other public gatherings have been cancelled in the United States and many other countries as well. Most schools are closed and some major cities have told people to stay home entirely. In addition, the stock market has been on a wild roller coaster ride for about three weeks and the Dow Jones Industrial Average currently sits more than 31% below its peak from just over a month ago. All in all, this is a very troubling time for many people, and so the question arises, “How should a Christian respond to circumstances such as these?” Dr. Spencer, how would you answer that question?

Dr. Spencer: Well, as always, a Christian should turn to the Word of God and prayer to understand how to respond. In other words, we prayerfully meditate on God’s Word, specifically asking the Holy Spirit to show us through the Word what we should do. And when we do that, at least one thing becomes crystal clear.

Marc Roby: What is that, that becomes so clear?

Dr. Spencer: That a Christian should not be anxious. We know God and that knowledge should give us confidence and peace. For example, look at Psalm 55, which is a lament that was written by King David, in Verse 22 we read, “Cast your cares on the LORD and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous fall.”[1] The apostle Peter was most likely thinking of this verse when he commanded us, in 1 Peter 5:7, to “Cast all your anxiety on [God] because he cares for you.”

Marc Roby: Well, that sounds easy, but it is hard to do at times.

Dr. Spencer: It certainly can be difficult. But if we spend some serious time in prayer and meditating on the Word of God it is achievable. This is an example of how systematic theology is very important. If our faith is built on the mushy foundation of feelings or the fatally flawed foundation of the modern health and prosperity gospel, then our faith will fail when we experience serious trials. And even if we have real faith, but have not studied God’s Word, trials will cause our faith to falter, although God will not allow it to fail completely. But if we have a solid faith based on new birth, real repentance and an intelligent understanding of the Word of God – in other words, an understanding of systematic theology – then we can overrule our natural, emotional response and be filled with confidence, hope and joy even in the midst of great trouble.

Marc Roby: And that is why we do this podcast. Our goal is to help Christians to develop a better understanding of systematic theology.

Dr. Spencer: Exactly. And if we have an understanding of systematic theology, then in times of trouble we will be able to stand. As Paul wrote in Ephesians 4:14, “Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves”.

Through prayer and meditation on the Word a mature Christian can, in essence, give a sermon to his own soul and command himself to respond correctly to any situation.

Marc Roby: Very well, given our current circumstances, what would you say to your soul in this sermon?

Dr. Spencer: The first thing we must always remember is that God is in control. In Isaiah 45:7 God says, “I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD, do all these things.” We have to remember that nothing that happens is outside of God’s sovereign control. Jesus told his disciples, in Matthew 10:28-29, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father.”

His point was clear. We shouldn’t fear anything in creation because creation is completely under the control of God. Even seemingly insignificant details like the death of sparrow are under God’s control. Therefore, God is the only one we should fear.

Marc Roby: Mentioning insignificant details makes me think of a passage in Luke that is very similar to the one you just quoted from Matthew. After saying that God does not forget about the sparrows, Christ says in Luke 12:7, “Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” Telling us that God has numbered the hairs on our heads is a clear indication that God knows every detail in creation.

Dr. Spencer: And more than just knowing every detail, God controls every detail. He created, he sustains, he governs and he will judge. We still make free decisions of course, but God orchestrates everything that happens. And that includes the corona virus and the stock market.

Marc Roby: That is hard for people to accept because they think God can’t possibly be in control of unpleasant circumstances. After all, the thinking goes, isn’t God entirely good?

Dr. Spencer: And the biblical answer is of course that yes, God is entirely good, and he is also sovereign. If he weren’t sovereign, then we couldn’t trust any of his promises. We could never be sure that he had the ability to keep them. But he does have the ability because he created this universe and it is entirely under his control. Therefore, a proper understanding of the Bible must include realizing that God is in control of everything, even seemingly bad things that happen. We have to be humble enough to realize that we often can’t see God’s purposes in allowing what we think of as bad things to happen.

Marc Roby: One classic biblical illustration of this is found in the life of Joseph. His brothers, out of jealousy, sold him into slavery in Egypt. After Joseph spent years as a slave and then even as a prisoner in Egypt, God orchestrated events so that Joseph rose to be second only to Pharaoh himself. Then, many years later, when there was a great famine, Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt to buy food and had to come face to face with him. They didn’t recognize him and he didn’t reveal his identity at first, but he did eventually. Later, when their father Jacob died, Joseph’s brothers were worried that he would exact revenge on them. But we read in Genesis 50:19-20 that “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.’”

Dr. Spencer: That is a classic example. We can’t see or understand all of God’s reasons for doing the things he does, but we can know for certain that he is sovereign and that he is good. And, knowing those things, we can trust him, most especially when we don’t understand a particular series of events.

And there is an even more amazing example of this in the New Testament.

Marc Roby: You must be speaking of the crucifixion itself.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, you’re right. Here is the most wicked thing ever done by man. Men crucified the Lord of glory. And yet, we read about the disciples praying in Acts 4:27-28 and they said to God, “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 is astounding to consider. God had ordained this most wicked act.

Dr. Spencer: And out of that great sin came the redemption of God’s people. The greatest good ever accomplished for men came out of the worst sin ever committed by men.

Marc Roby: I think that clearly establishes that God is able to bring good results out of terrible circumstances. What else would you say to yourself in this sermon?

Dr. Spencer: Well, the second thing I would say to myself is that we need to remember what Paul wrote in Romans 8:28. He said, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” This verse is universally true, it is not suspended when we go through some trial that we don’t understand.

Marc Roby: It requires faith to accept the truth of that statement when we are troubled.

Dr. Spencer: Oh, it does for sure. But if we remind ourselves that God created all things and then remember things like the story of Joseph and the crucifixion of Christ, we can clearly see how God has used terrible events to bring about good ends in the past and that he has the power to do so again in the future. Therefore, we can trust his promises.

But we do need to notice that Romans 8:28 does not say that in all things God works for the good of everyone, it only says he does so for those who love him. We need to make our calling and election sure. We need to be certain that we are among those who love God.

Marc Roby: And if we do, then we can claim his promises for ourselves.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And in Jeremiah 29:11 God tells us, “For I know the plans I have for you … plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

Marc Roby: That is a wonderful promise. What else would you say in this sermon to yourself?

Dr. Spencer: I would remind myself of the purpose of life. In 1 Corinthians 10:31 Paul tells us, “whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” This is a familiar verse, but we need to think through the application of it to a situation like this.

If I am to do everything for the glory of God, then obviously I am to glorify God in how I respond to troubles.

Marc Roby: The people who know us will certainly take note of how we respond. Our colleagues, neighbors, friends and family are watching all the time.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, they are. If you identify yourself as a Christian, and we all must, then people definitely keep watch. And our response to trouble can either glorify God or demonstrate that our faith is really a powerless façade. If we stand around the coffee machine at work and moan and groan with everyone else about how much money our 401K lost this past week and talk about how worried we are about the possibility of catching the virus, we prove that our faith makes no real difference in our life. Our so-called Christianity only matters for an hour or so on Sunday mornings.

Marc Roby: And that is not a Christianity that God accepts.

Dr. Spencer: No, it isn’t. Because it isn’t real. If our claim to being a Christian is real, it means, as we have been discussing recently, that we are united to Christ by faith. We are adopted children of God. We know that this life is short and that we are just on a journey to a better place. This world is not our home. Nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord as Paul tells us in Romans 8:39, and that includes the corona virus, or a financial collapse, or anything else that might happen.

Marc Roby: Even death itself.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, even death itself. If God calls us home it is gain for us, although it may be difficult for our loved ones. Paul wrote in Philippians 1:21, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Now, we really must have an eternal perspective to properly evaluate the troubles in this life.

Marc Roby: Alright. To summarize what you’ve said so far, your sermon to yourself would begin with the following three points: first, God is in control. He is sovereign over all things. Second, God works all things for the good of those who love him. And third, the purpose of life is to glorify God.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true, but the third point contains a bit more. We must ask how we are to glorify God. And Jesus himself gave us the answer. In John 17:4 he was praying to the Father and said, “I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do.” In other words, we glorify God by our obedience.

Marc Roby: As you noted earlier, we can only lay claim to God’s good promises if we love him. And Jesus told us in John 14:15 that “If you love me, you will obey what I command.”

Dr. Spencer: Yes, this is the essence of true love for God. True love for God must be based on a proper understanding of the Creator/creature distinction. He is the Creator and we are his creatures. He made us for a purpose and if we truly love God, we should do our very best to fulfil that purpose. And the wonderful truth is that this is also our greatest joy. We were made in God’s image for the purpose of ruling creation in his stead and in so doing bringing him glory. And when we do our best to fulfil that purpose, we also find our greatest joy.

That is why the answer to the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism is that “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”

Marc Roby: I think most people can remember the joy they have had when they did something really well, something which pleased their parents, or a teacher or a boss.

Dr. Spencer: I agree. That is our greatest joy in life; to be doing that which we were made to do and to do it well. Obedience brings joy. Disobedience brings depression.

And so, we come to the final point of the sermon I would give myself, which is also where we began. You asked me what is the first thing that would be clear after we spent time praying and meditating on the Word of God about our current troubles and I said it was that we should not be anxious.

Marc Roby: And I can clearly see that that is a reasonable conclusion from the sermon you would preach to yourself. When we take into account the first two points; namely the fact that God is fully in charge and that in all things he works for the good of his people, well, we should be comforted and should not be anxious.

And then, when we consider the third point, that our purpose in life is to glorify God, which means to obey him, and we look at his command to not be anxious but to cast our cares on him, well that should finish the job. We not only have good cause to not be anxious, but our sovereign Lord commands us to not be anxious.

Dr. Spencer: That is the right conclusion. In Philippians 4:6-7 the apostle Paul commands us, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” This is both a command and a glorious promise. Paul assures us that if we go to God in prayer, with thanksgiving, and present our requests to him, then he will give us the peace of God. In other words, the peace that God himself possesses.

Marc Roby: That is a staggering thought.

Dr. Spencer: I agree. But this explains how Christians can be at peace in situations that are absolutely hopeless in a purely human sense.

Marc Roby: That makes me think of the apostle Paul in prison in Philippi.

Dr. Spencer: That is a great example of a Christian being at peace in trying circumstances.

Marc Roby: In Acts Chapter 16 we read about Paul and Silas being in prison together there in Philippi. We are told that they were severely flogged, put in an inner cell in the prison with their feet in stocks. And yet, in Acts 16:25 we read that “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.”

Dr. Spencer: That is clearly a peace that transcends all understanding. And we know that God used this situation to bring about the salvation of the Philippian jailer and his entire household.

Marc Roby: That is amazing.

Dr. Spencer: Yes it is. When we have real faith and it shows in our having peace in times of trial, that is a great witness to those around us. We will then often have opportunities to explain why we aren’t distraught about the drop in the stock market or the threat of the corona virus or whatever. Not only will we glorify God by behaving this way, but we will, like Paul and Silas, enjoy the peace that passes all understanding ourselves. We have nothing to fear from the corona virus or anything else in this world.

If we are God’s children, then he is for us and he will watch over us. That doesn’t mean that our 401K might not suffer tremendously, or that we won’t get sick and die. But it does mean that we will spend eternity in heaven with God, worshipping him and enjoying fellowship with him and with each other forever.

Marc Roby: Would you like to say anything else before we close for today?

Dr. Spencer: Yes. When we pray, we should always remember to pray with thanksgiving for all the good things that God has done for us. And it is also good to pray for others. First because prayer is powerful, but also praying for others helps to give us proper perspective. At a time like this we should, for example, pray for wisdom for our leaders, God’s protection for people in the medical profession, God’s protection and mercy for the most vulnerable people in society and for those whose jobs are adversely affected. We should also, as always, pray that God be glorified and use the situation to save people.

Marc Roby: That’s a great reminder of our privilege and responsibility as Christians to pray for others. I’d like to remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. And we will do our best to answer you.

[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.™.

Play
Yes Single


[Download PDF Transcript]

Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine soteriology, the doctrine of salvation. At the end of our last session we were discussing the reformed, or biblical, doctrine of God’s irresistible grace. Dr. Spencer, how would you like to proceed today?

Dr. Spencer: Well, we have already noted that this doctrine, while it is denied by the post-reformation Roman Catholic church, Arminians and Lutherans, is biblical. It was not something that first appeared in the reformation though, it had been the teaching of the Roman Catholic church, through St. Augustine, long before the reformation. But, the most important question, in fact, the only one that really matters, is what does the Word say? And, on that score, the answer is clear.

Marc Roby: In our last session we quoted Roman 8:30 in support of this doctrine, which says that those God “predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.” [1]

Dr. Spencer: And that passage, which is sometimes called the “golden chain” of salvation[2], is clear biblical support for irresistible grace. But there is much more.

Marc Roby: What other Scriptures would you cite in support of the doctrine?

Dr. Spencer: Well, let’s begin in the Old Testament. God tells us in Isaiah 55:10-11, “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”

Marc Roby: That is a clear statement of the efficacy of God’s Word. What other Scriptures would you cite?

Dr. Spencer: In the famous passage in Ezekiel 36:26-27, God declares, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” And note that God says I will give you a new heart, I will remove your heart of stone, and I will put my Spirit in you to move you to follow my decrees.

God doesn’t just make salvation possible and hold out an invitation for us to accept or reject, he removes our old heart, gives us a new one, and puts his Spirit in us to move us to obedience. In other words, he causes us to be born again.

Marc Roby: And, as we noted last time, that metaphor of new birth is itself significant evidence that we play no role in our regeneration. It is a monergistic work of God.

Dr. Spencer: And a monergistic work means a work that is done by one person alone, in this case, God. It is the opposite of a synergistic work in which two or more parties cooperate. Just as no one is responsible for bringing about his own physical birth, so no one is responsible, even in part, for bringing about his own re-birth.

Marc Roby: That reminds me of what John wrote in his gospel. In John 1:12-13 we read, “to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.”

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that’s a good passage. Our new birth is not the result of human decision. This is really the crux of the issue in irresistible grace. Does God cause us to be born again, or do we cooperate? Those who want to say we cooperate are concerned with preserving the idea of man’s free will, while those who say we do not cooperate are concerned with preserving God’s sovereignty.

Marc Roby: And, of course, as you said earlier, the only question that really matters is what does the Word of God say?

Dr. Spencer: And, while we have not gone through all of the verses we could, we have adduced a number of verses to argue that Scripture teaches that God is sovereign not only in electing some to salvation, but then in bringing that salvation about by the irresistible working of his Holy Spirit causing a person to be born again.

But we must be careful to note that we still truly and freely respond to God’s call. He monergistically changes our nature through re-birth but then, in that new nature, we freely choose to repent and believe. As it says in the Westminster Confession of Faith, “All those whom God has predestinated unto life, and those only, he is pleased, in his appointed and accepted time, effectually to call, by his Word and Spirit, out of that state of sin and death, in which they are by nature, to grace and salvation, by Jesus Christ; enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God, taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them a heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and, by his almighty power, determining them to that which is good, and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ: yet so, as they come most freely, being made willing by his grace.”[3]

Marc Roby: This goes back to our discussion of free will. We do have the freedom to choose what to do, but our choice will always be consistent with our nature. Prior to being regenerated, all men are enemies of God and will not, in fact cannot turn to him in faith.

Dr. Spencer: In fact, Paul wrote in Romans 8:7-8 that “the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God.” And repenting and believing would please God, so they are among those things that an unregenerate person simply cannot do.

And finishing what you were saying about the fact that we do have the ability to choose what to do, once God causes us to be born again, we have a new heart. In other words, we have a new mind, will, affections and so on.

Marc Roby: I like the way Paul puts it in Romans 6:18. He says that “You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.”

Dr. Spencer: That expresses it very well. Before God regenerates us, we are slaves to sin and could not choose what is good, but then regeneration frees us from sin and we become slaves to righteousness. And so, as new creations in Christ Jesus, we freely choose to repent, believe and walk in obedience.

Marc Roby: What Paul calls the obedience of faith in Romans 1:5.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. The question boils down to how significant is that work that is required to save us? Is it just a matter of persuading us to the truth of the gospel? Or, as the doctrine of total depravity would indicate and as the Bible teaches, are we truly enemies of God in need of a whole new nature? The 19th-century theologian Charles Hodge wrote that “If regeneration is a change effected by the man’s own will; if it be due to the mere force of truth and motives, it is a small affair. But if it be the effect of the mighty power of God, it is as to its nature and consequences supernatural and divine. The whole nature of Christianity turns on this point.”[4]

Marc Roby: Now that is a strong statement.

Dr. Spencer: It is very strong, but I think it is correct. We don’t just need a little help to be saved, we need radical change. The biblical doctrines all logically fit together. Back in Session 128 I quoted R.C. Sproul, who wrote that “If one embraces this aspect of the T in TULIP, the rest of the acrostic follows by a resistless logic.”[5]

If we are totally depraved, then we are incapable of responding to God’s command to repent and believe. Therefore, if our salvation depended on us, no one would be saved. God must work first. And the very first thing God did with regard to our salvation was accomplished in eternity past. We read in Ephesians 1:4 that God chose us in Christ “before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.”

Marc Roby: And that election must have been unconditional if total depravity is true since there is nothing in us, and nothing we can do, that will merit salvation in any way.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And his grace must be irresistible because, as totally depraved sinners, we would resist it to the end if that were possible. It’s interesting to note that independent of the position of the modern Lutheran church, Martin Luther himself would have agreed on this point. In his famous work The Bondage of the Will, he wrote that “now that God has taken my salvation out of the control of my own will, and put it under the control of His, and promised to save me, not according to my working or running, but according to His own grace and mercy, I have the comfortable certainty that He is faithful and will not lie to me, and that He is also great and powerful, so that no devils or opposition can break Him or pluck me from Him. … Thus it is that, if not all, yet some, indeed many, are saved; whereas, by the power of ‘free-will’ none at all could be saved, but every one of us would perish.”[6]

Marc Roby: That’s very interesting. His final conclusion is exactly what we have been saying. If it were left up to the supposed freedom of our own unregenerate will to accept God’s offer of salvation, “none at all could be saved, but every one of us would perish.”

Dr. Spencer: And although it would be anachronistic to speak of Martin Luther having anything to say directly about TULIP, since that acrostic came more than 70 years after his death, this quote does tie in one more of the five doctrines represented by the acrostic. Notice that he said that because our salvation is under the control of God’s will, he has “the comfortable certainty that He is faithful and will not lie to me, and that He is also great and powerful, so that no devils or opposition can break Him or pluck me from Him.”

And, although I left it out of the quote the first time, he then cites John 10:28-29 where Jesus is speaking to the Jews about his followers and says that “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand.”

Marc Roby: That is marvelous comfort indeed. We are held in Christ’s hands, and in the Father’s hands.

Dr. Spencer: And it supports the fourth doctrine we want to look at from the TULIP acrostic; namely, the perseverance of the saints.

Marc Roby: Although, as has been pointed out by many, a better name for the doctrine might be the preservation of the saints since our confidence is really in God’s sovereign power, not our ability to persevere.

Dr. Spencer: That’s very true. All of God’s chosen people will persevere, but only because he enables them to do so. Paul wrote to the church in Philippi, as we read in Philippians 1:4-6, that “In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”

Marc Roby: And when Paul refers to the “day of Christ Jesus” he is, of course, referring to Christ’s second coming, which he wrote about in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17, where we read, “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.”

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that is the glorious hope that all true believers have. God will complete the work he has begun in each one of us and we will be given a glorious body like that of the resurrected Christ we are told in Philippians 3:21. The doctrine of the perseverance of the saints is also supported by Romans 8:30, which we have looked at a number of times. It says that those God “predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.” No one who is predestined by God for salvation is able to finally and utterly fall away. So, although true Christians can certainly backslide and fall into serious sin, they will always be brought to true repentance.

Marc Roby: That is a great comfort. Paul also wrote, in 1 Corinthians 1:8-9, that Jesus Christ “will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful.”

Dr. Spencer: And Paul also said, in his benediction to the church in Thessalonica, as we read in 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24, “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it.”

The message in all of these verses is consistent. God is faithful and as the sovereign Lord over all creation, he will save those whom he has chosen to save. Not one of them will be lost.

Marc Roby: This does not mean, however, that everyone who professes to be a Christian will ultimately be saved.

Dr. Spencer: Not at all. That would contradict Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 7:21, where he tells us that “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”

Marc Roby: That verse should make everyone who claims to be a Christian shudder. As Paul commands us in Philippians 2:12, we should work out our salvation with fear and trembling.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, we should. We can have assurance of faith, as we will discuss later, but that is not incompatible with a careful, honest and even fearful, self-evaluation. Our confidence is based on God’s truthfulness, power and faithfulness, not on ours. He alone is unchangeable and cannot lie or be deceived. But, at the same time, we can never be presumptuous in believing that we are among God’s elect. The biblical doctrines of unconditional election, irresistible grace and perseverance of the saints should never, ever be used in a presumptuous way. If we have been born again, we will live in a way that makes that new birth evident. If we don’t, we have no basis for personal assurance.

Marc Roby: In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told us to “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.”

Dr. Spencer: That is a very important principle. We must examine our own fruit. It is easy to say “I repent”, but true repentance always includes turning away from the sin. We are told in Acts 26:20 that the apostle Paul, in speaking before King Agrippa, said, “First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and to the Gentiles also, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds.”

Marc Roby: And, when the Pharisees and Sadducees came to John the Baptist, we read in Matthew 3:7-8 that he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.”

Dr. Spencer: And, most famously of course, in James Chapter Two we have the discourse about faith without works. James asks a serious question in Verse 14, “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?” And he then goes on to explain that a faith without deeds, in other words, without proof of a changed heart, will not save anyone.

In fact, he points out that even the demons have an intellectual faith, but the result is that they shudder in abject fear.

Marc Roby: True saving faith is more than just knowing and agreeing with the facts of the gospel. We must place our personal trust in Jesus Christ.

Dr. Spencer: That is exactly right. And we will talk about that more later, but I think we have said all that we need to for now about the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints.

Marc Roby: And with that we have completed four of the five doctrines represented by the acrostic TULIP. We’ve discussed total depravity, unconditional election, irresistible grace and perseverance of the saints. So that only leaves the doctrine of limited atonement.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that is the only one left. But we are nearly out of time for today, so I think we had better stop. And this podcast will be released on December 26th, the day after Christmas. So, before we sign off, I’d like to take this opportunity to wish all of our listeners a blessed Christmas and a victorious new year in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Marc Roby: I join you in that and I will also remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org, we would appreciate hearing from you.

[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] e.g., see R.C. Sproul, What is Reformed Theology?, Baker Books, 1997, pg. 143

[3] Westminster Confession of Faith, Chap. 10, Par. 1

[4] C. Hodge, Systematic Theology, Eerdmans, 1997, Vol. II, pg 697

[5] Sproul, op. cit., pg. 128

[6] M. Luther, The Bondage of the Will, Trans. By J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnson, Fleming H. Revell Comp., 1957, pg. 314

Play
Yes Single


[Download PDF Transcript]

Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine soteriology, the doctrine of salvation. Dr. Spencer, at the end of our session last week we dealt with the very difficult material in Romans Chapter 9, where Paul tells us quite clearly about God’s sovereign election of some to be saved and others not to be saved. How would you like to proceed today?

Dr. Spencer: I want to say a little more about the presentation in Romans 9 and then defend the biblical view of God’s sovereign unconditional election against some of the most common objections. The doctrine of unconditional election says that God chooses whom he will save based on his own good pleasure and not any merit in us.

The last thing we looked at in Romans 9 was God’s response to man’s objection that it isn’t fair for God to judge him given that God is completely sovereign in deciding whom to save.

Marc Roby: And God’s answer, in essence, was to shut your mouth. As a mere creature you have no business questioning the Creator.

Dr. Spencer: That was the answer. And then Paul went on, in Romans 9:21-24 to say, “Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use? What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory—even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?”[1]

Marc Roby: Those verses are extremely difficult for people to accept. We spoke at length about them recently, in Session 109.

Dr. Spencer: And interested listeners can go to the archive and read or listen to that podcast. I don’t want to repeat it all here. But we noted there that an unbeliever will not accept the answer. He will continue to accuse God of being unfair. But a believer will accept God’s answer, even though it is still hard.

Marc Roby: Yes, it is very hard to understand. When we are born again, we are given a new worldview, which accepts God’s Word as our ultimate standard for truth even though God has not revealed a complete answer to the question of how to reconcile his sovereignty and our freedom.

Dr. Spencer: The tension between man’s freedom, or responsibility, and God’s sovereignty is one of the most difficult things for us to deal with. And I say “deal with” rather than “understand” because we can’t fully understand it. We can see that it is not a true contradiction, but we cannot fully resolve the tension.

In his commentary on Romans, the Rev. P.G. Mathew wrote that “The point of contention in Romans 9-11 is the conflict between the sovereignty of God and human responsibility. Paul never offers a logical solution to this tension, except when he concludes ‘Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! “Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?” “Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.”[2]

Marc Roby: And that says about all that we, as creatures, can say in regard to this issue. As we are told in Deuteronomy 29:29, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.”

Dr. Spencer: That’s quite true. We cannot fully explain how to reconcile God’s sovereignty and man’s freedom and responsibility. But we certainly can say a bit more about whether or not the Lutheran and Arminian position avoids this complication. Remember that Lutherans and Arminians claim that every human being has the ability to accept or reject God’s offer of salvation. They assume that by doing so, they protect God from the charge of being unfair by electing some to salvation while leaving others to pay for their sins in hell.

We have already shown that this is at odds with the biblical teaching, but we can say even more, because even if it were a possible interpretation of the biblical data, it doesn’t shield God from man’s charge of being unfair.

Marc Roby: Well, please explain why not.

Dr. Spencer: The 19th-century theologian Charles Hodge said it well, so let me quote him. He wrote that “If it be right that God should permit an event to happen, it must be right that He should purpose to permit it, i.e., that He should decree its occurrence.”[3]

Marc Roby: That’s a very important point, and a great way of putting it. If we think we are somehow isolating God from a charge of being unfair for his eternal election by leaving it up to men, we still have to face the problem that according to the Lutheran and Arminian view God permits some people to refuse his offer and go to hell. The end result is the same, not everyone is saved. So, as Hodge says, if it is right for God to permit such an event, it must also be right if his purpose is to permit it, or we could say, if he foreordains it.

Dr. Spencer: And Hodge draws a very reasonable conclusion from this observation. We must remember that he refers to the reformed view of the decree of election as the “Augustinian system”, since it was also the teaching of St. Augustine. Hodge wrote that “The Augustinian system, therefore, is nothing but the assumption that God intended in eternity what He actually does in time.”[4]

Marc Roby: And that sounds eminently reasonable. The only logical alternative is that God is no longer sovereign over his creation, which would be a frightening thought.

Dr. Spencer: That would be a very frightening thought. We would not be able to trust any of God’s promises. And so, as you said, Hodge’s conclusion is completely reasonable. He goes on to write that all “anti-Augustinian systems”, which certainly includes Lutheran and Arminian theologies, “assume that God is bound to provide salvation for all; to give sufficient grace to all; and to leave the question of salvation and perdition to be determined by each man for himself. … The question is not which of these theories is the more agreeable, but which is true.”[5]

Marc Roby: That’s a critically important point. We should want to know the truth, even if that truth is in some way less agreeable to us.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, we certainly should. Especially when we take into account the fact that we are finite, sinful creatures, so what we think of as being agreeable certainly should not be the standard we use. But Hodge goes on to make a very good point about which view is true.

Marc Roby: Alright, please proceed.

Dr. Spencer: He writes, “And to decide that question one method is to ascertain which accords best with providential facts. Does God in his providential dealings with men act on the principles of sovereignty, distributing his favours according to the good pleasure of his will; or on the principle of impartial justice, dealing with all men alike? This question admits of but one answer. … the fact is patent that the greatest inequalities do exist among men; that God deals far more favourably with some than with others; that He distributes his providential blessings, which include not only temporal good but also religious advantages and opportunities, as an absolute sovereign according to his own good pleasure”.[6]

Marc Roby: I’m afraid I have noticed that “the greatest inequalities do exist among men”, we certainly aren’t all equally capable in virtually any endeavor I can think of.

Dr. Spencer: No, we aren’t. And we need to recognize that God is the one who sovereignly decides what gifts to give to each person. In 1 Corinthians 12 the apostle Paul addresses the issue of gifts given to different people in the church and he writes, in Verse 11, that “All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines.” And this isn’t just true of gifts we are given for the edification of God’s church. God is sovereign over all the affairs of men. When Paul was speaking to the people in Athens he declared, as we read in Acts 17:26, that from one man God “made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live.”

Marc Roby: The Old Testament teaches us the very same thing. For example, in Job 12:23 we read that God “makes nations great, and destroys them; he enlarges nations, and disperses them.” And, in Psalm 139:16 King David declared to God that “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”

Dr. Spencer: It is a clear teaching of the Bible that God is sovereign over every detail of life. We don’t choose where, when or to whom we are born, and we don’t get to choose how tall we are, what color hair we have, what gifts we have and so on. And the flip side of that is that we have no basis for pride if we possess some particular gift, be it intellectual, musical, athletic or whatever, and we also have no rational basis for thinking that God has been unfair to us if our gifts aren’t as great as we would like. God doesn’t owe us anything. He never treats anyone unjustly.

Marc Roby: Do you think there is someone whose gifts are as great as he or she would like?

Dr. Spencer: Well, I doubt it. I certainly haven’t met the person. But let me finish this discussion by stating Hodge’s conclusion. He wrote, “It is therefore vain to adopt a theory which does not accord with these facts. It is vain for us to deny that God is a sovereign in the distribution of his favours if in his providence it is undeniable that He acts as a sovereign. Augustinianism accords with these facts of providence, and therefore must be true. It only assumes that God acts in the dispensation of his grace precisely as He acts in the distribution of his other favours; and all anti-Augustinian systems which are founded on the principle that this sovereignty of God is inconsistent with his justice and his parental relation to the children of men are in obvious conflict with the facts of his providence.”

Marc Roby: That is a very solid, logical argument. We should avoid having our theology be inconsistent with known facts.

Dr. Spencer: We should avoid holding any theory that contradicts known facts, whether we are talking about theology, physics, chemistry or whatever. But in every one of these fields there is a natural tendency to construct theories that are consistent with our own underlying assumptions. And if some of our assumptions are wrong, we are going to come up with wrong theories.

Marc Roby: And when we see that one of our theories doesn’t comport with the facts, it should cause us to go back and reconsider our assumptions.

Dr. Spencer: That’s a good point. We should seek to gather together all of the available data and then find the theory that best explains all of it. That is no less true in theology than it is in physics and chemistry. But in doing this, we have to realize that we need some ultimate standard for determining truth and, as we have said many times, the ultimate standard of truth for a Christian is the Bible.

Hodge wrote, “If the office of the theologian, as is so generally admitted, be to take the facts of Scripture as the man of science does those of nature, and found upon them his doctrines, instead of deducing his doctrines from the principles or primary truths of his philosophy, it seems impossible to resist the conclusion that the doctrine of Augustine is the doctrine of the Bible. According to that doctrine God is an absolute sovereign. He does what seems good in his sight. He sends the truth to one nation and not to another. He gives that truth saving power in one mind and not in another. It is of him, and not of us, that any man is in Christ Jesus, and is an heir of eternal life.”

Marc Roby: It is interesting that Hodge notes in that statement that God doesn’t send the truth to every nation. In other words, not every human being who has ever lived has heard the gospel.

Dr. Spencer: That statement is undeniably true. And it also argues against the standard Lutheran or Arminian position. No one can accept as true a gospel they have never heard, and it is obvious that not everyone in history has heard the gospel. So even if all people did have equal ability to respond in faith, not all have equal opportunity and you’re right back to the initial question about God’s fairness. We can’t let our own idea of fairness overrule what the Bible clearly teaches.

There is one final argument that Hodge makes against those who object to the doctrine of unconditional election.

Marc Roby: What argument is that?

Dr. Spencer: He points out that Paul would not have had to provide the answers he does in Chapter 9 of the book of Romans if the Lutheran and Arminian position were true. Hodge wrote, “What appearance of injustice could there have been had Paul taught that God elects those whom He foresees will repent and believe, and because of that foresight? It is only because he clearly asserts the sovereignty of God that the objections have any place.”[7]

Marc Roby: That’s a fantastic point. Paul’s asking and answering the question about fairness makes no sense if the Lutheran and Arminian understanding is correct.

Dr. Spencer: The bottom line is that we may think that fairness requires God to give all of us the same ability to accept or reject his gospel offer, but our thinking that does not make it so.

Marc Roby: And perhaps there are good reasons for not giving us all the same ability.

Dr. Spencer: Well, in fact, I would say that there are. We have shown before because of our total depravity, if God didn’t do anything, no one would choose to believe and we would all be condemned. Our natures are initially at enmity with God and cannot choose him.

But on the other hand, if God changes our nature so that we love him, which is what happens when we are born again, then we are guaranteed to choose him.

Marc Roby: And it seems like we are right back to the issue of free will, which we have discussed before.

Dr. Spencer: That is exactly the problem. The notion that our will is completely free from any constraint, even our own predispositions, is illogical. As we have discussed before, unless you want to think that your decisions are completely randomly, there must be some predisposition one way or the other for us to make any decision. So, in particular, the idea that we could be in some neutral state where we could freely choose either to accept or reject God is, I think, simply impossible. We are either against God, or for him. There can be no neutrality. And, in fact, I would argue that if someone was neutral, that would be sinful. How could you not love the perfect God? How could you be neutral toward your Creator?

Marc Roby: I see your point. And it appears as though we have finished discussing the doctrine of unconditional election. Is that true?

Dr. Spencer: For now, yes.

Marc Roby: Very well, then this looks like a good place to stop for today. Let me remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org, we’d appreciate hearing from you.

[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] P.G. Mathew, Romans: The Gospel Life (Volume 2), Grace and Glory Ministries, 2014, pp 62-63

[3] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Eerdmans, 1997, Vol. II, pg. 336

[4] Ibid, pg. 337

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid, pp 337-338

[7] Ibid, pg. 352

Play
Yes Single


[Download PDF Transcript]

Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine soteriology, the doctrine of salvation. Dr. Spencer, we ended last time in the middle of discussing different evangelical positions regarding salvation. How would like to proceed today?

Dr. Spencer: Well, the fundamental question we were dealing with at the end of our last session was whether or not every person has equal ability to accept or reject God’s offer of salvation and I want to state and defend the proper biblical answer to that question. Lutherans and Arminians would say that everyone does have equal ability to accept or reject God’s offer of salvation, but the reformed – and I would say biblical – position is that an unregenerate person cannot accept the offer and a regenerate person cannot reject the offer.

We’ve talked about how people make choices a number of times in these podcasts, most notably in Session 84, where I presented Jonathan Edwards’ view, which I think is correct. In that session I paraphrased his view as being that we always do that which we most want to do at any given moment, but limited, of course, to those things which we are able to do.

Marc Roby: And I remember from that discussion that we are limited not only by obvious physical limitations but also by our own nature.

Dr. Spencer: And that is the limitation that matters in the current context. Theologians often refer to this constrained view of free will as free agency. As we noted in Session 126, an unregenerate person is an enemy of God and has no desire for God, so it would be contrary to his nature to accept God’s offer of salvation and he is, therefore, incapable of doing so. J.I. Packer has a wonderful short presentation on this topic in his book Concise Theology.[1]

On the other hand, if a person is born again, his fundament nature has been changed so that he has a desire for God and, therefore, he is incapable of rejecting God’s offer of salvation.

Marc Roby: Which is the doctrine often called Irresistible Grace.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. But if we look at the Lutheran and Arminian position, it seems to be logically inescapable that if every person has equal ability to accept or reject God’s offer of salvation, then those who are saved can take some credit for their salvation. Whether we word it negatively and say that only those who ultimately reject the offer will go unsaved, or we put it positively and say that only those who accept the offer will be saved, at the end of day, if everyone is equally capable of making either choice, then the deciding factor in terms of who is saved and who isn’t resides in man.

Marc Roby: And why exactly is that a problem?

Dr. Spencer: I can see three ways in which that is a problem. First, it ignores the biblical doctrine of Total Depravity. As Paul wrote in Ephesians 2:1, we “were dead”[2] in our transgressions and sins. And dead people don’t do anything to help themselves come alive. The great 18th-century theologian, Charles Hodge wrote that “Should Christ pass through a graveyard, and bid one here and another there to come forth, the reason why one was restored to life, and another left in his grave could be sought only in his good pleasure.”[3]

Marc Roby: Well that does make perfect sense, it certainly could not be the case that one set of bones accepted an offer to come to life and another set of bones rejected that same offer!

Dr. Spencer: No, that wouldn’t make any sense at all. Dead people don’t do anything. And people who are spiritually dead don’t do anything that is in concert with the Spirit. In 1 Corinthians 2:14 we are told that “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.”

Marc Roby: And one of the things that comes from the Spirit of God is his offer of salvation.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. I want to remind our listeners of the acrostic TULIP, which stands for the biblical doctrines of Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limiter atonement, Irresistible grace and Perseverance of the saints. In Session 126 I quoted the theologian R.C. Sproul, who pointed out that if we understand our moral inability to respond to God’s offer, which is part of the doctrine of Total Depravity, the rest of the reformed system of salvation, as represented by this acrostic TULIP, logically follows. He wrote that “If one embraces this aspect of the T in TULIP, the rest of the acrostic follows by a resistless logic.”[4] And I would add that Charles Hodge completely agrees. He wrote about this same plan of salvation, which he calls the Pauline or Augustinian scheme, and said, “such is the order of his plan of redemption, that if one of the great truths which it includes be admitted, all the rest must be accepted.”[5]

Marc Roby: They are both pointing out that the reformed, or biblical, view of the plan of salvation is completely consistent. What is the second problem you see with the view that every man can either accept or reject God’s offer of salvation?

Dr. Spencer: Well, if it were true, it would give us something to be proud of. If we were both equally capable of either accepting or rejecting God’s offer of salvation and I were saved and you were not, then whether we say that is because you rejected God’s offer or because I accepted it, either way, the bottom line is that I did and it was precisely that action of mine that was the reason I was saved and you were not. The difference between us would not be solely due to the mercy of God. I would have played a role in my salvation, and not just a little bit part either, I would have played the decisive role in it. But, as we read last time, Paul told us in Ephesians 2:8-9 that “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”

Marc Roby: Yes, I certainly see that argument. What is the third problem you see with this view?

Dr. Spencer: That it denies God’s absolute sovereignty. If this view is correct, then when the Bible speaks about God’s election, all it can really be referring to is his foreknowledge. According to this view, God knows in advance who will accept his offer and who won’t, so he “elects” those who will accept his offer of salvation.

Marc Roby: That is, of course, exactly how Lutherans and Arminians view the doctrine of election.

Dr. Spencer: It is, but I don’t think it does justice to the biblical data. If that were the case then you wouldn’t expect the Bible to emphasize over and over again God’s sovereign election. But that is exactly what we see all throughout the Scriptures, the clear presentation of the fact that God makes an absolutely free, sovereign choice. This is the doctrine of Unconditional Election.

Marc Roby: Now, Lutherans and Arminians would point to 1 Peter 1:1-2 where Peter addresses his letter, “To God’s elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father”.

Dr. Spencer: And that verse is certainly consistent with their view, but it does not teach us that he chose the elect specifically because of his foreknowledge that they would accept his offer. Rather, in context, the term foreknowledge here refers to God’s having loved and chosen certain sinners in eternity past, even before they were born, which is exactly what we are told in Ephesians 1:4-6.

Marc Roby: Let me read those verses. Paul wrote that God chose us in Jesus Christ “before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will—to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.”

Dr. Spencer: Notice that in these verses we are clearly told that our predestination to be adopted as God’s sons, which is referring again to our being saved, was “in accordance with his pleasure and will”, which is emphasizing God’s freedom in this choice. And we are also told that the choice was “to the praise of his glorious grace”, and we know that grace is unmerited favor, so that seems to point away from God simply having foreseen our choice. And finally, to put the nail in the coffin, we are told that he has “freely given” us this grace in Christ.

If God gave exactly the same grace to everyone and our salvation depended on our response, then this verse wouldn’t make any sense. It is speaking about a grace that is not given to everyone, but only to those whom God predestined in accordance with his own absolutely free and sovereign good pleasure.

Marc Roby: That argument is certainly persuasive. But there are also many more passages in the Bible that support the idea of God’s sovereign election. Can you give us some examples?

Dr. Spencer: Sure. When Paul and Barnabas shared the gospel with the Gentiles in Pisidian Antioch, we read in Acts 13:48 that “When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed.” Then, in speaking about Christ’s second coming, we read in Matthew 24:31 that God “will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.” Also, the apostle Paul opens his letter to Titus by writing, “Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ for the faith of God’s elect and the knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness” (Tit 1:1). There are literally dozens of examples in the New Testament that we could go through, but I don’t want to take that time. I encourage anyone who is really interested to search the New Testament for the words elect, chosen, appointed and so on and see what you find.

Marc Roby: And, interestingly, we even see a reference to elect angels. In 1 Timothy 5:21 Paul told Timothy, “I charge you, in the sight of God and Christ Jesus and the elect angels, to keep these instructions without partiality, and to do nothing out of favoritism.”

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that is interesting. And God’s free choice in salvation is also foreshadowed by his sovereign choice of Israel to be his covenant people in the Old Testament.

Marc Roby: The classic passage about God’s choosing his people is Deuteronomy 7:7-8, where Moses told the people, “The LORD did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt.”

Dr. Spencer: And when Moses said that God didn’t choose them because they were more numerous, that is a form of synecdoche, meaning it is a part of something is used to represent the whole. So, rather than listing many of the countless things that a group of people might be proud of, like their numbers, or strength, or wealth, he only lists the one. But the message is clear, he didn’t choose them because of anything in them, he chose them simply because he loved them. And that love was not motivated by something worthy in them, and that is the whole point of what Moses says to them. He is telling them to not be proud, God chose them because he chose them, not because they were better than anyone else in any way.

Marc Roby: We also have the famous line in Exodus 33:19 where God tells Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.”

Dr. Spencer: Which is a clear statement of God’s sovereignty in providing blessings to men. God doesn’t owe us anything and he does not need to give equally to all of us to treat us justly. He gave us life and we owe him everything. The fact that we have all rebelled against him leaves us justly under his wrath until and unless he chooses to show mercy to us.

Marc Roby: Now, you said earlier that mercy is God’s unmerited favor shown to us, but we can make an even stronger statement; God’s mercy is his favor being shown to those who deserved his condemnation.

Dr. Spencer: That is an accurate statement. The bottom line in this controversy is that those who say that every man is equally able to accept or reject God’s offer of salvation are concerned with preserving a notion of man’s freedom of will, often called libertarian free will, that is unbiblical and, I would add, illogical.  No sinner will choose God until and unless his sinful nature, which hates God, is changed.

Marc Roby: And God does change the fundamental nature of his elect when he causes us to be born again.

Dr. Spencer: Exactly.

Marc Roby: But it seems to me that you have not yet presented the most obvious and irrefutable biblical evidence for the doctrine of unconditional election.

Dr. Spencer: You’re quite right, I’ve saved the best, or should I say the most difficult, for last.

Marc Roby: It is certainly the most difficult for men to accept.

Dr. Spencer: That’s very true. And, of course, we are speaking about Chapter 9 of the book of Romans. God clearly tells us in this chapter that our election is not based on anything other than his sovereign choice.

Marc Roby: Let me read from Romans 9:10-13 where God tells us about the patriarch Jacob and his twin brother Esau. Paul wrote, “Rebekah’s children had one and the same father, our father Isaac. Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad—in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls—she was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.’ Just as it is written: ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.’”

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that is, as we noted, an extremely difficult passage for people to accept. And when Paul said “Just as it is written”, he was referring to the prophet Malachi, who wrote the last book of the Old Testament. We read in Malachi 1:1-3, “An oracle: The word of the LORD to Israel through Malachi. ‘I have loved you,’ says the LORD. ‘But you ask, “How have you loved us?” ‘Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?’ the LORD says. ‘Yet I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated, and I have turned his mountains into a wasteland and left his inheritance to the desert jackals.’”

Marc Roby: It is very sobering to realize that when the Bible tells us that “God is love”, it does not mean that God loves everyone.

Dr. Spencer: It is sobering, and it is difficult, but it is undeniably true. And, as we’ve seen, it isn’t just the Old Testament. God has not changed. And in the passage you read from Romans 9 we were clearly told that God’s decision about which of the twins to elect to salvation was made “before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad”. I don’t know how it is possible to read that passage and conclude that God simply foresees who will accept or reject his offer of salvation.

And Paul anticipates that people will object to this teaching. In Romans 9:19 he writes, “One of you will say to me: ‘Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?’”

Marc Roby: Yes, that is the natural question man wants to ask. How can God blame me for not repenting and believing in Jesus Christ if I am unable to do so?

Dr. Spencer: And God’s answer is not very politically correct. In Verse 20 we read, “But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? ‘Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, “Why did you make me like this?”’”

Marc Roby: I could give a simple paraphrase of God’s answer. He essentially says, “Shut your mouth.”

Dr. Spencer: But he does so while reminding us of the most important distinction there is. He is God, we are creatures. This Creator/creature distinction that we have noted a number of times is absolutely essential to a proper understanding of the Scriptures. We must humble ourselves. We must fear God. We must revere him, worship him, believe him and obey him. To do anything else is to commit cosmic treason. Sin is rebellion against the only true and living God and Creator of all things, and it deserves eternal punishment. God does not have to save anyone. It is absolutely amazing that he chooses to save anyone, especially when you consider the cost.

Marc Roby: In fact, it staggers the mind when you consider that cost. As Peter wrote in 1 Peter 1:18-19, “For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.”

Dr. Spencer: And although it is admittedly difficult to accept this idea of God’s unconditional election, it is actually a very comforting and marvelous doctrine and once you understand it properly, I don’t think anyone would want it any other way.

Marc Roby: I agree, but we don’t have time enough today to get into it further, so let me wind up our session today by reminding our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org.

[1] J.I. Packer, Concise Theology, Tyndale House Publishers, 1993, pp 85-86

[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] C. Hodge, Systematic Theology, Eerdmans, 1997, vol II, pg. 340

[4] R.C. Sproul, What is Reformed Theology?, Baker Books, 1997, pg. 128

[5] C. Hodge, op. cit., pg. 335

 

Play
Yes Single


[Download PDF Transcript]

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

Play
Yes Single


[Download PDF Transcript]

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

Play
Yes Single


[Download PDF Transcript]

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

Play
Yes Single


[Download PDF Transcript]

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 Claus?

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

Play
Yes Single


[Download PDF Transcript]

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

Play