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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.™.

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine the providence of God. Last time we discussed miracles, which represent an extraordinary example of God’s governing his creation. Dr. Spencer, what would you like to discuss today?

Dr. Spencer: I want to briefly discuss God’s eternal decrees. We already examined God’s decretive will, which is simply whatever actually happens, in Sessions 84, 85 and 86. But I want to take some time to relate God’s decrees to his providence. In their book A Puritan Theology, Joel Beeke and Mark Jones note that “Providence is not the same as God’s predestination or eternal decree, but rather is the execution of that decree within the time and space of His creation.”[1]

Marc Roby: Perhaps we could summarize what we have said before by saying that God’s eternal decrees are, essentially, his overall plan for creation, while God’s providence is his preserving and governing his creation to bring that plan to fruition.

Dr. Spencer: And Wayne Grudem says much the same thing in his Systematic Theology. He writes that God’s “providential actions are the outworking of the eternal decrees that he made long ago.”[2] When we first started discussing God’s providence we noted, in Session 89, that it is purposeful. He governs his creation for the purpose of bringing about the end he decreed from before the beginning. In Isaiah 46:9-10 God tells us, “I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me. I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.”[3]

The Bible begins with the words, “In the beginning God …” and then it goes on to tell us his purposes for creation, to tell us about the fall and how we may be saved. And, along the way, it tells us about our proper role as God’s image bearers in creation and gives us numerous examples of his providential governing of his creation to instruct and encourage us.

Marc Roby: And it is very important to emphasize that while God has decreed all things from before the beginning, he also made man with a degree of free will. Our actions have real consequences for ourselves and for others and we make real decisions for which we will be justly held accountable.

Dr. Spencer: That is a critically important point. Many people throughout history have either wrongly rejected the doctrine of God’s eternal decrees because they think it eliminates man’s freedom, or they have wrongly concluded that how they live and what they do doesn’t matter. But the proper biblical understanding is that God has ordained both the end to be achieved and the means to achieve that end. And he has chosen to use us as secondary agents with a degree of freedom and responsibility to accomplish his purposes.

Marc Roby: In other words, God’s eternal decrees and his providence do not negate human responsibility.

Dr. Spencer: Not at all. I think Wayne Grudem is right to deal with this subject in the chapter on God’s providence in his Systematic Theology.[4] God has ordained all things that happen, but he has also ordained the means to achieve those ends, and most importantly from our perspective, he has created us as moral creatures with a degree of free will who can be justly held accountable for our actions.

Marc Roby: Now, when you say that we have a “degree” of free will, you are emphasizing the fact that our freedom is constrained, right?

Dr. Spencer: Absolutely. We talked about this in Session 84. We do not have absolute freedom in the sense of being able to make any and every decision. That is incompatible with making intelligent, as opposed to random, choices. My freedom is constrained by my nature because what I decide to do in any given situation depends on what I believe to be right or wrong and by what things I enjoy or don’t enjoy, or perceive to be worthwhile or not and so on.

Marc Roby: Which means, as we pointed out before, that since God knows us perfectly, he can predict exactly what we will do in any and every situation and can, therefore, ordain whatever comes to pass without negating our freedom.

Dr. Spencer: And, in addition, it means that what I do really does matter. Since God chooses to work through secondary agents, I may very well be his ordained means for bringing about a particular result. The fact that he ordained the result does not in any way detract from my free agency in producing it. Grudem gives a great biblical illustration that our choices matter even though God has ordained the outcome.

Marc Roby: What example is that?

Dr. Spencer: It’s Paul’s shipwreck while he is being taken to Rome. In Acts 27:24 Paul tells the men on the ship that God had revealed to him that they would all survive, but that the ship would be lost. Then, in Verse 30 we read that some of the sailors lowered a life boat and were preparing to abandon the ship. In response, Paul tells the centurion and soldiers in charge, in Verse 31, that “Unless these men stay with the ship, you cannot be saved.” As a result, the soldiers cut the ropes attached to the life boat and let it float away.

The relevant thing for our present purposes is that even though God had revealed to Paul that everyone would survive, he told the centurion that “Unless these men stay with the ship, you cannot be saved.” Note the word “cannot” – it expresses an impossibility. The sailors had to stay with the ship or what God had revealed to Paul could not come true.

Marc Roby: That is a very interesting point.

Dr. Spencer: Grudem draws the right conclusion from it. He wrote, “Wisely, Paul knew that God’s providential oversight and even his clear prediction of what would happen still involved the use of ordinary human means to bring it about. He was even so bold to say that those means were necessary … We would do well to imitate his example, combining complete trust in God’s providence with a realization that the use of ordinary means is necessary for things to come out the way God has planned them to come out.”[5]

Marc Roby: That is a very clear example of the fact that what we do really does matter. And it isn’t just our actions that matter, our prayers do as well. In James 5:16 we are told that “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.”

Dr. Spencer: Prayer is definitely one of the means that God has ordained to accomplish his purposes. It isn’t magic, but it definitely matters. God knows what we are going to pray before we do, so it isn’t that we are telling him something he doesn’t know, or making a request he isn’t already aware of, but it is still true that it is a means he has ordained.

Marc Roby: Of course there are other purposes for prayer as well. For example, it helps us to stay humble and to be consciously aware of our dependence on God.

Dr. Spencer: Sure, prayer does serve other purposes as well, and we can’t presume upon the answer, it may be “no”. But, nevertheless, prayer does have real efficacy in bringing about events. It is important to note however that we shouldn’t just pray if there are things we have it within our power to do to help a situation. Consider Joshua as an example.

Marc Roby: You mean the Joshua who succeeded Moses and led the Israelites into the Promised Land, right?

Dr. Spencer: That’s the one. When the Israelites had first entered the Promised Land and were preparing to attack Jericho, God told them, as we read in Joshua 6:18-19, that after he caused the walls to come down and the people went up into the city, they must not[6] take any of the silver, gold, or articles of bronze and iron for themselves. These were to be considered sacred to the Lord and if anyone took any of them, they would make the Israelites liable to destruction.

Marc Roby: Which is exactly what happened. After conquering Jericho, the Israelites attempted to conquer Ai and were routed by the men of Ai.

Dr. Spencer: And because of that rout Joshua and the people were afraid and we’re told in Joshua 7:6-9 how he responded. He “tore his clothes and fell facedown to the ground before the ark of the LORD, remaining there till evening. The elders of Israel did the same, and sprinkled dust on their heads. And Joshua said, ‘Ah, Sovereign LORD, why did you ever bring this people across the Jordan to deliver us into the hands of the Amorites to destroy us? If only we had been content to stay on the other side of the Jordan! O Lord, what can I say, now that Israel has been routed by its enemies? The Canaanites and the other people of the country will hear about this and they will surround us and wipe out our name from the earth. What then will you do for your own great name?’”

Marc Roby: God’s response was probably not what Joshua was expecting.

Dr. Spencer: I’m sure that it wasn’t at all what he was expecting. He was pouring out his heart in prayer, but he wasn’t doing what he should be doing. God had told them that if they took some of the forbidden items the Israelites would become liable to destruction, so Joshua should have been investigating to see who had violated God’s prohibition. Even heartfelt prayer is never to be used as an alternative to action when we have the means at our disposal to do God’s will.

Marc Roby: And so we read, in Joshua 7:10-12, that “The LORD said to Joshua, ‘Stand up! What are you doing down on your face? Israel has sinned; they have violated my covenant, which I commanded them to keep. They have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen, they have lied, they have put them with their own possessions. That is why the Israelites cannot stand against their enemies’”.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, God was not pleased with Joshua’s prayer. He told him to gather the people and find out who had stolen some of the items, which they did. It turned out that a man by the name of Achan had stolen a beautiful robe from Babylonia, two hundred shekels of silver and a wedge of gold weighing fifty shekels. Only after the Israelites obeyed God and destroyed Achan, his family and all he owned, did God bless them again.

Marc Roby: I’m sure that episode brought a greater fear of God to the people and made them far more careful to obey his commands.

Dr. Spencer: And, in keeping with our current topic, I’m also sure that Joshua learned that he needed to do those things that were in his power and in God’s will rather than just crying out to God for help. There is nothing wrong with prayer, and Joshua certainly could and should have prayed for God to give him wisdom and to show him why the Israelites were defeated, but it is false piety to expend great energy crying out to God when he has already told us what he wants us to do.

Marc Roby: That reminds me of the quote you read at the end of Session 91 from A Puritan Theology, it said that “Stephen Charnock warned that pride uses means without seeking God, and presumption depends on God while neglecting the means God provides.”[7]

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that’s a great quote. We want to avoid both pride and presumption. We should seek God and pray, but we must also do the work he has given us to do using the means he has provided. Grudem points out three additional points of application for the doctrine of God’s providence.[8] He first notes that God’s providence should cause us to not be afraid, but to trust in God. If we have done what it is within our power to do, it is right for us to not worry about the outcome, but to leave it up to God.

Marc Roby: We have a great example of that in 2 Samuel 10:12 where the commander of King David’s armies faced a difficult situation and he said, “Be strong and let us fight bravely for our people and the cities of our God. The LORD will do what is good in his sight.”

Dr. Spencer: That is a wonderful example of this principle.

The second application Grudem makes from this doctrine is that we should be thankful for every good thing that happens to us. They are all under the control of our great sovereign Lord and King. In Psalm 103:2-5 we read, “Praise the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits—who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.”

Marc Roby: God is wonderful to his people. And I would add that even when bad things happen to us, we can give thanks to God for his promise in Romans 8:28 that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

Dr. Spencer: Yes, good point. Grudem’s third point of application is that there is no such thing as luck or chance, a point we already made in Sessions 88 and 89. We can be confident that God is in charge, which means that all we have to focus on is walking in obedience and doing what he calls us to do. We can leave the results up to him.

Marc Roby: That is a great comfort. Are we done with discussing God’s providence?

Dr. Spencer: We are. And we are also finished with theology proper. We certainly may come back to it, but I think we’ve covered all we need to for now.

Marc Roby: Perhaps it would be good to remind our listeners that we are going through the six loci of classical reformed theology. A locus is a central point or focus of something, so the six loci are the six main headings under which we can organize all of systematic theology. Those six loci are: 1) Theology proper, which means the study of God; 2) Anthropology, which means the study of man; 3) Christology, which means the study of Jesus Christ the Redeemer; 4) Soteriology, which means the study of salvation; in other words, how sinful men can be saved; 5) Ecclesiology, which means the study of the church; and 6) Eschatology, which means the study of last things; in other words, of the final eternal state of everything. So, I assume we are going to move on then to examine biblical anthropology next time?

Dr. Spencer: That is the plan.

Marc Roby: Very good. Then 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] Joel Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life, Reformation Heritage Books, 2012, pg. 163

[2] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, pg. 332

[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] Grudem, op. cit., See Section E. starting on pg. 333

[5] Grudem, op. cit. pg. 336

[6] The word “not” was left out of the original transcript by error. Corrected on 4/19/19

[7] Joel Beeke and Mark Jones, op. cit., pg. 170

[8] Grudem, op. cit., pg. 337

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine the providence of God. Dr. Spencer, last time we made the point that it is both illogical and unbiblical to think that God can control major things if he doesn’t control the details of life. How would you like to proceed today?

Dr. Spencer: I would like to look at some Scriptures to strengthen and extend the scope of our argument that God providentially rules his universe.

Marc Roby: Very well, please proceed.

Dr. Spencer: There are many passages that tell us that God is in control of every aspect of our lives. Louis Berkhof gives a nice representative, but certainly not exhaustive, list in his Systematic Theology.[1] He gives eleven categories to illustrate God’s providential control. His first category is sort of an umbrella that actually covers all of the others too, because he first points out that the Bible clearly teaches God’s providential control over the universe at large, by which he means the physical creation and all of human history. To back up this claim he first cites Psalm 103:19, which says, “The LORD has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all.” [2]

Marc Roby: That verse implicitly makes an important point. When we think of God’s providence, we need to think of him ruling over his creation. He has a throne in heaven and a kingdom. And, as Psalm 19:1 tells us, all of creation declares his glory.

Dr. Spencer: I agree that’s an important point. God is not an impersonal force, he is a person, the King of the universe. Berkhof also cites Ephesians 1:11, which says, “In him”, referring to Jesus 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”.

Marc Roby: And since this verse is speaking about God’s plan of salvation, it is clear that when it says “everything” it is speaking about human history, both collectively and individually.

Dr. Spencer: Absolutely. This verse speaks about human history, so it’s clear that Berkhof isn’t just thinking about the inanimate creation. That’s why I said this first category is a sort of umbrella. But, now let’s move on to Berkhof’s second category, which is God’s providential control over the physical world. He cites Psalm 104:14, which says that God “makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate— bringing forth food from the earth”. He also cites Job 37, where Job’s friend Elihu is speaking about God and says, for example, in Verses 11-13, “He loads the clouds with moisture; he scatters his lightning through them. At his direction they swirl around over the face of the whole earth to do whatever he commands them. He brings the clouds to punish men, or to water his earth and show his love.”

Marc Roby: And that verse again illustrates that God’s providence is personal and has a purpose to achieve. I would also cite Job Chapter 38 to show God’s control of the physical world, where God himself peppers Job with a number of rhetorical questions regarding his creation and control of the world.

Dr. Spencer: That is a great chapter. And I would add that this in no way implies that there aren’t physical laws that govern our universe. God uses secondary agents to accomplish his purposes. There is a very interesting reference to the physical laws of our universe in the book of Jeremiah.

Marc Roby: It might be good to point out that Jeremiah prophesied to the people of Jerusalem before, during and after the Babylonians captured the city and took most of the prominent Jewish people away into captivity in Babylon between 605 and 587 BC.

Dr. Spencer: That does set the stage for his comment. As part of his prophecies, God told Jeremiah to encourage the people by telling them that their captivity was not the end of God’s work on their behalf. God was still in control and would, ultimately, restore the kingdom of Israel and bring the promised Messiah.

So, in Jeremiah 33:25 we read, “This is what the LORD says: ‘If I have not established my covenant with day and night and the fixed laws of heaven and earth, then I will reject the descendants of Jacob and David my servant and will not choose one of his sons to rule over the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. For I will restore their fortunes and have compassion on them.’”

Marc Roby: That verse uses a very interesting literary device. Instead of using a simple “if A then B” sentence structure, God uses an “if not A then not B” structure. But then he emphasizes the certainty of B by giving an A that the listener knows without any doubt to be true. When God says “If I have not established my covenant with day and night and the fixed laws of heaven and earth”, he assumes that the listener will immediately recognize that he has, in fact, established his covenant with the day and night and the fixed laws of heaven and earth and therefore, when he says “then I will reject the descendants of Jacob and David”, the implication is clear; God will not reject the descendants of Jacob and David.

Dr. Spencer: That is a very interesting literary device. And it also serves to emphasize God’s providential control of creation via the secondary agent of fixed laws, because the statement assumes that it is obvious to all that there are fixed laws of heaven and earth.

This is the reason science works. God rules his universe in an orderly way. The law of gravity, for example, is the same now as it was 200 years ago, and we have every reason to believe that it will be the same 200 years from now. Therefore, we can perform experiments, make observations, put forth hypotheses about the nature of gravity and then confirm or deny and refine those hypotheses by further experiments. And that is how we have come to understand so much of the physical world. This verse gives us a good biblical basis for doing science.

Marc Roby: Of course, it does not logically follow that God himself is incapable of violating those fixed laws if and when he so chooses.

Dr. Spencer: Of course not. But, the vast majority of the time, they are fixed. And we have no power to alter them. Berkhof’s third category notes that God’s providence extends over all animals, which he calls the “brute creation”. He cites Matthew 6:26, where Jesus tells us to, “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.”

Marc Roby: We could again point out that there are secondary agents involved here. Plants have to grow and the animals themselves have to go and find the plants and eat them. It isn’t that God comes down and puts the food into their mouths.

Dr. Spencer: It is important to constantly take note of God’s use of secondary agents. There are very few things that God has done or continues to do by his own immediate action. In his fourth category, Berkhof notes God’s providence over nations, citing, for example, Job 12:23, where we read that God “makes nations great, and destroys them; he enlarges nations, and disperses them.”

Marc Roby: Another great example would be Cyrus, King of Persia. God told his people about this king and what he would do more than 100 years before Cyrus was born. For example, in Isaiah 45:13 we read, “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”.

Dr. Spencer: Cyrus is an impressive example of God’s providential control over the nations of this world. Berkhof’s fifth category is God’s providence over man’s birth and lot in life and he cites Psalm 139:16 where we read that “your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”

Marc Roby: And I would add Jeremiah 1:5 to this list, where God tells the prophet, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that is another great example, and it isn’t just the prophet Jeremiah that God knew before he was conceived. We read in Ephesians 2:10 that “we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” God has prepared work for each one of us in advance, and he can only do that if he has control over the details of our lives.

For his sixth category, Berkhof notes God’s providence over the successes and failures of men and he cites Luke 1:52, where we are told that God “has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.”

Marc Roby: I would, again, want to add a verse to the list. We read concerning Joseph’s time in an Egyptian prison in Genesis 39:23 that “The warden paid no attention to anything under Joseph’s care, because the LORD was with Joseph and gave him success in whatever he did.”

Dr. Spencer: And in Proverbs 21:31 we read that “The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but victory rests with the LORD.” There are many other verses we could cite as well, but it is clear that the Bible teaches us that all success comes from the Lord.

Berkhof’s seventh category is that God is sovereign over apparently accidental or unimportant events and he cites Proverbs 16:33 and Matthew 10:30, both of which we looked at in our previous session when we made the point that there are no chance events.

His eighth category is God’s providence in the protection of the righteous. The most important verse he cites there is Romans 8:28, which says, “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.”

Marc Roby: That is a familiar and very comforting verse for Christians. It isn’t that all things are, in and of themselves, good, but that they all work together for good. But only for those who love God and have been called according to his purpose.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that is an extremely comforting verse. God takes care of his children. And Berkhof’s ninth category is God’s providence in supplying the wants of God’s people. Now I must point out that he is using the word “want” in an old-fashioned sense here. He is really speaking of those things which we need. And to support this, he cites Philippians 4:19, where the apostle Paul told the believers in Philippi that “my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.”

Marc Roby: And, of course, one of the most famous verses in the Bible is Psalm 23:1, which says, “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.” Which is, again, speaking about things we need, not all of our earthly desires.

Dr. Spencer: We also read in Psalm 84:11, “For the LORD God is a sun and shield; the LORD bestows favor and honor; no good thing does he withhold from those whose walk is blameless.”

Marc Roby: And, amazingly, it isn’t just his chosen people that God cares about, Jesus himself commanded us in Matthew 5:44-45, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that is incredible. Berkhof’s tenth category is God’s providence in answering prayer. And to illustrate that point I would cite one Old Testament verse and one New Testament verse.

Marc Roby: I’m going to guess that the Old Testament verse is 2 Chronicles 7:14, where God tells Solomon, “if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”

Dr. Spencer: That is exactly the verse I had in mind. And in the New Testament, I would cite Matthew 21:22, where Jesus tells us that “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” And then finally, Berkhof’s eleventh category is God’s providence in the exposure and punishment of the wicked.

Marc Roby: I’m surprised Berkhof doesn’t also mention God’s providence in the full and complete salvation of his chosen people.

Dr. Spencer: I am as well, so let’s take the liberty of adding that ourselves. In Matthew 25:31-46 we read about the final destiny of all people. Jesus tells us in Verses 31-32 that “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” And then, in Verse 46 we read that those who have not trusted in Christ, “will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

Marc Roby: And that verse shows us the end toward which God’s providential control of this world is headed. There are only two possible eternal destinations, heaven or hell. We must see our need for a Savior, repent of our sins, and trust completely in Jesus Christ to be saved.

Dr. Spencer: That is the most important decision any human being makes, what will they say to God’s glorious offer? The secular view of history is that it is not controlled by anyone and it has no ultimate purpose. We are just animals that live out our lives and then disappear from the scene. But that is not the truth, and God has given all of us more than enough information to know that it isn’t truth.

Marc Roby: Which is why even people who don’t claim any faith in God speak of people who die as being “in a better place” and things like that. They know the person still exists in some way.

Dr. Spencer: And that is also why people fear death so much. They know in their heart that they will be judged. And so, the biblical view of history takes into account the fact that history is linear. It had a beginning, it has an appointed end, and it has a purpose. In his book Foundations of the Christian Faith, James Boice notes that “There is probably no point at which the Christian doctrine of God comes more into conflict with contemporary world views than in the matter of God’s providence.”[3] And he goes on to point out three things about the Christian view of providence. First, it is personal and moral.[4] It is not like the secular view of fate or chance. There is a personal God who rules his creation and deals with us as moral creatures who can be justly held accountable for our actions.

Marc Roby: Yes, and even for our thoughts.

Dr. Spencer: You’re quite right, we’re told in Hebrews 4:12 that “the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” And God’s word is a reflection of his character. It isn’t just that his word judges in some abstract way, God himself will judge our thoughts and attitudes in a very concrete way on that day.

Marc Roby: Which is obvious given the fact, for example, that Jesus told us in Matthew 5:28, “that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” In other words, we will be judged as having broken the commandment to not commit adultery.

Dr. Spencer: Very true. In addition to saying that providence is personal and moral, Boice makes two more points about the Christian view of providence. He says, secondly, that providence is specific. By which he means that God deals specifically with individual people in our different individual situations.

Marc Roby: Which goes along with providence being personal. What is the third point that Boice makes?

Dr. Spencer: That God’s providence has a purpose, it is directed toward a specific end.

Marc Roby: Which is why you said that history is linear.

Dr. Spencer: Exactly. And now that we’ve given an outline of the biblical data regarding God’s providence, and made some general comments about the nature and purpose of his providence, I think we are ready to dive in a bit deeper and look at the doctrine systematically.

Marc Roby: But, we are out of time 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] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1938, pg. 168

[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] James Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith, Revised in One Volume, InterVarsity Press, 1986, pg. 176

[4] Ibid, pg. 180

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