God Never Seeks in Vain (Toplady)

The Works of Augustus M. Toplady, vol. 5

In Luke 15 Jesus gave a parable about a shepherd that lost one of his one hundred sheep. He asked, “Which one of you, if he has a hundred sheep and loses one of them, would not leave the ninety-nine in the open pasture and go look for the one that is lost until he finds it?” (Lk 15:4 NET). Among other things, this parable reminds us of how the Lord seeks and saves the lost. Here’s how Augustus Toplady explained it in a sermon on Luke 15:7:

Christ is a faithful and watchful shepherd. He will not suffer [allow] so much as one of his sheep to be finally lost. If an individual saint wanders from the fold, Christ goes after that soul; and never ceases from his labor of love, until that soul is found. If you or I happen to lose anything on which we set a value; we may find it, or we may not: our search may issue in the recovery of the lost object, and it may all prove fruitless and unsuccessful. Herein is a very wide difference between God’s seeking, and man’s seeking. God never seeks in vain. An earthly shepherd may lose many a sheep, and lose them beyond retrieval. But Christ never lost a sheep, which he did not seek; and never sought a sheep, which he did not find.

[The emphasis above is mine. The (sheepish) humor below is Toplady’s:]

And, when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders rejoicing. He does not suspend the return of the sheep, on the sheep’s own free-will, (which would he very sheepish policy indeed); nor stand expostulating, and giving the sheep, what Arminianism would call, “a gentle pull” by the fleece: but actually lays hold on the wanderer; takes it up in his arms; layeth it upon his shoulders, by main strength; nor lets it go, until he has actually and finally brought it home. 

 Augustus M. Toplady, The Works of Augustus M. Toplady, vol. 3 (London: Richard Baynes, 1825), 240–241.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015


Predestination and the Promise (Bunyan)

  Not much in our lives is certain.  We could lose our job and have to move in a month.  We could get into a car accident that makes the rest of our life quite difficult.  Or we could face a diagnosis that immediately brings tears to our eyes and ache to our heart.  Much of our life is filled with uncertainty.

However, the promises of God are certain. We as Christians know that the promises of God are sure, solid, and steadfast.  They will not change and he will keep them perfectly.  This is a major source of comfort in the Christian life.  He loves me and will continue to love me (Rom 8:39).  The Lord will never leave me or forsake me (Heb. 13:5).  In his sovereign providence, nothing will happen to me apart from his will and everything that does happen to me is ultimately for my Christian good (Rom. 8:28).  These are unshakable promises that will come to pass.

There are many promises in Scripture that are of great comfort to the Christian.  One that we might not think of too often is the fact that when a person comes to saving faith in Christ, it is another promise kept: Everyone that the Father gives me will come to me (John 6:37 CSB).  Jesus says: I promise that those whom the Father has given me will come to me.  John Bunyan explained this truth in a way that magnified the sovereign grace of God:

…Coming to Jesus Christ aright is an effect of their being, by God, given to Christ before. Mark, ‘They’ shall come. Who? ‘Those’ that are given. They ‘come,’ then, because they were ‘given,’ “thine they were, and thou gavest them me.”

Now, this is indeed a singular comfort to them that are coming in truth to Christ, to think that the reason why they come is, because they were given of the Father before to him. Thus, then, may the coming soul reason with himself as he comes: ‘Am I coming, indeed, to Jesus Christ? This coming of mine is not to be attributed to me or my goodness, but to the grace and gift of God to Christ. God gave first my person to him, and, therefore, hath now given me a heart to come.’

…These words, shall come, make thy coming to be also the effect of an absolute promise; coming sinner, thou art concluded in a promise; thy coming is the fruit of the faithfulness of an absolute promise. It was this promise, by the virtue of which thou at first receivedst strength to come; and this is the promise, by the virtue of which thou shalt be effectually brought to him.

Bunyan, J. (2006). Come and Welcome, to Jesus Christ (Vol. 1, p. 254). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

Election and Sovereign Grace (Boston)

The Whole Works of Thomas Boston, Volume 1: An Illustration of the Doctrines of the Christian Religion, Part 1 In Ephesians 1 and Romans 9-11 Paul teaches what has been called unconditional election.  That is, the reason God has chosen some for salvation in Christ but not others is found in him and in his sovereign will.  Election is not based on man’s choice or faith, but on God’s sovereign good pleasure (eudokia; Eph 1:5b).  Thomas Boston explained this aspect of God’s sovereign grace in election quite well (I’ve edited the quote slightly to make it more readable):

Behold here the freedom and glory of sovereign grace, which is the sole cause why God did not leave all mankind to perish in the state of sin and misery…. He was no more obliged to the one than the other. Why did he choose any of the fallen race of men to grace and glory? It was his mere good pleasure to select some, and pass by others. He could have been without them all, without any blemish either on his happiness or justice; but out of his mere good pleasure he set his love on a select number, in whom he will display the invincible efficacy of his sovereign grace, and thereby bring them to the fruition of glory.

This proceeds from his absolute sovereignty. …If he had pleased, he might have made all the objects of his love; and if he had pleased he might have chosen none, but have suffered Adam and all his numerous offspring to sink eternally into the pit of perdition. It was in his supreme power to have left all mankind under the rack of his justice; and, by the same right of dominion, he may pick out some men from the common mass, and lay aside others to bear the punishment of their crimes. There is no cause in the creature but all in God. It must be resolved into his sovereign will.

So it is said in Romans 9:15 & 16 where God speaks to Moses, ‘I will have mercy, on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. So then it is not of him that wills, nor of him that runs, but of God that shows mercy.’ And yet God did not will without wisdom. He did not choose hand over head and act by mere will without reason and understanding. An infinite wisdom is far from such a kind of procedure. But the reason of God’s proceedings is inscrutable to us, unless we could understand God as well as he understands himself. The rays of his infinite wisdom are too bright and dazzling for our weak and shallow capacities. The apostle acknowledges not only a wisdom in his proceeding, but riches and a treasure of wisdom; and not only that, but a depth and vastness of these riches of wisdom; but was wholly incapable to give a scheme and inventory of it. Hence he cries out in Romans 11:33, ‘O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!’ Let us humbly adore the divine sovereignty. We should cast ourselves down at God’s feet, with a full resignation of ourselves to his sovereign pleasure.

Thomas Boston, The Whole Works of Thomas Boston: An Illustration of the Doctrines of the Christian Religion, Part 1, ed. Samuel M‘Millan, vol. 1 (Aberdeen: George and Robert King, 1848), 311–312.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

Before You Sought Him (Bernard)

It’s not for nothing that in his Institutes John Calvin cited Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153) more than a few times.  The doctrines of grace were not absent in the Medieval era!  One very bright spot of Bernard’s writings is “Sermon 84” on the Song of Songs.  This sermon is on Songs 3:1: “On my bed night after night I sought him whom my soul loves” (NASB).  In it Bernard talks about seeking and finding the Lord.  He starts like this:

“It is a great good to seek God; I think nothing comes before it among the good things the soul may enjoy. It is the first of its gifts and its ultimate goal.”

Bernard then explains that the soul seeking God finds unending joy in abundance.  It’s not like joy and desire are gone once a person finds God.  But there’s more to it.

“Now see why I have said this as a preliminary. It is so that every soul among you which is seeking God will know that He has gone before and sought you before you sought Him. Otherwise you may turn a great good into a great evil for yourself. For from great goods can arise evils no less great, when we treat as our own the good things God gives and act as though they were not gifts, not giving God the glory (Lk 17:18).”

In other words, Bernard says it is important to realize that God seeks us before we seek him.  If we don’t understand this, we’ll rob God of his glory:

“If someone says, “Perish the thought, I know that it is by the grace of God that I am as I am” (1 Cor 15:10), yet is eager to take even the smallest credit for the grace he has received, surely he is a robber and a thief (Jn 10:1)? Let such a man hear this, “Out of your own mouth I judge you, wicked servant” (Lk 19:22). What is more wicked than for a slave to usurp his master’s glory?”

Instead, Bernard wrote, ‘The soul seeks the Word, but she has first been sought by the Word.”  And where does the soul get the will to seek?  “From the visitation of the Word, who has already sought her.”

“That seeking has not been in vain, because it has made the will active, without which there can be no return [to God]. …’Seek your servant’ [the Psalmist] says [Ps. 119:176], so that he who has been given the will may also give the power to act…”

Here’s the heart of it – which sounds like Augustine (“I would not have sought You unless You had first sought me”).

“I have sought,” she says, “him whom my soul loves” (Sg 3:1). This is what the kindness of Him who goes before you urges you to do, He who both sought you first and loved you first (1 Jn 4:10). You would not be seeking Him or loving Him unless you had first been sought and loved. You have been forestalled not only in one blessing (Gn 27:28) but in two, in love and in seeking. The love is the cause of the seeking, and the seeking is the fruit of the love; and it is its guarantee. You are loved, so that you may not think that you are sought so as to be punished; you are sought, so that you may not complain that you are loved in vain. Both these sweet gifts of love make you bold and drive diffidence away, and they persuade you to return and move you to loving response. Hence comes the zeal, the ardor to seek him whom your soul loves, for you cannot seek unless you are sought and now that you are sought you cannot fail to seek.”

I know it’s a rich paragraph; you may have to read it again!  Basically, Bernard is highlighting the divine initiative and priority of the sovereign grace of God.  He loved and chose us before we loved and chose him.  And no one can come to Christ unless God sovereignly draws him (John 6:44). But, as Bernard said (echoing Scripture’s teaching), “now that you are sought, you cannot fail to seek!”

The above quotes are found in Bernard of Clairvaux, Bernard of Clairvaux: Selected Works, ed. John Farina, trans. G. R. Evans, The Classics of Western Spirituality (New York; Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1987).

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

Regeneration: An Act of Sovereign Grace

Systematic Theology, 3 Volumes  When a sinner who is dead in sin comes to saving faith in Christ, it is a sovereign and gracious work of God.  We cannot take even 1% of the credit for coming to Christ; we cannot pat ourselves on the back or seek an award for coming to Christ.  Instead, we stay at the feet of Jesus where we first came, realizing that from first to last it is all of grace, love, mercy, and the sovereignty of God.  In his grace, by the power of the Holy Spirit, he has drawn the Christian to Christ, enlightened the Christian’s mind, renewed his will and made him willing and able to answer the call and embrace Christ (Titus 3:5, John 6:44-45, Acts 16:14, 2 Cor. 4:6, Ezek. 36:26-27, etc; see also WLC Q/A 67).  I like how Charles Hodge noted that regeneration is an act of sovereign grace:

“No believer ever ascribes his regeneration to himself. He does not recognize himself as the author of the work, or his own relative goodness, his greater susceptibility to good impression, or his greater readiness of persuasion, as the reason why he rather than others, is the subject of this change. He knows that it is a work of God; and that it is a work of God’s free grace. His heart responds to the language of the Apostle when he says: “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and the renewing of the Holy Ghost.” (Tit. 3:5.) Paul says of himself that God, having separated him from his mother’s womb called him by his grace. (Gal. 1:15.) There was nothing in him, who was injurious and a persecutor, to demand the special intervention of God in his behalf. So far from his referring his vocation to himself, to his greater readiness to yield to the influence of the truth, he constantly represents himself as a monument of the wonderful condescension and grace of God” (p. 707).

“…Regeneration is an act of sovereign grace. If a tree must be made good before the fruit is good; the goodness of the fruit cannot be the reason which determines him who has the power to change the tree from bad to good. So if works spiritually good are the fruits of regeneration, then they cannot be the ground on which God exerts his life-giving power. If, therefore, the Scriptures teach the doctrine of efficacious grace in the Augustinian sense of those terms, then they teach that regeneration is a sovereign gift. It cannot be granted on the sight or foresight of anything good in the subjects of this saving change. None of those whom Christ healed, pretended to seek the exercise of his almighty power in their behalf on the ground of their peculiar goodness, much less did they dream of referring the restoration of their sight or health to any cooperation of their own with his omnipotence” (p. 688-689).

Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 2, p. 688–689.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church
Hammond, WI

An Instance of Sovereign Grace

Here are some words John Newton wrote in March, 1775, to a friend and fellow minister of the gospel.  The dialogue had to do with what we might call the “spiritual ups and downs” of the Christian life.  Newton wrote,

“The enemy assaults me more by sap than storm; and I am ready to think I suffer more by languor [i.e. spiritual sluggishness] than some of my friends do by the sharper conflicts to which they are called.  So likewise, in those seasons which comparatively I call my best hours, my sensible comforts are far from lively. But I am in general, enabled to hold fast my confidence, and to venture myself upon the power, faithfulness, and compassion of that adorable Savior to whom my soul has been directed and encouraged to flee for refuge.”

“I am a poor, changeable, inconsistent creature; but he deals graciously with me. He does not leave me wholly to myself; but I have such daily proofs of the malignity and efficacy of the sin that dwelt in me, as ought to cover me with shame and confusion of face, and make me thankful if I am permitted to rank with the lowest of those who sit at his feet.  That I was ever called to the knowledge of his salvation, was a singular instance of his sovereign grace; and that I am still preserved in the way, in defiance of all that has arisen from within and from without to turn me aside, must be wholly ascribed to the same sovereignty.”

“And if, as I trust, he shall be pleased to make me a conqueror at last, I shall have peculiar reason to say, Not unto me, not unto me, but unto thy name, O Lord, be the glory and the praise!”

How oft have sin and Satan strove
To rend my soul from you, my God!
But everlasting is your love,
And Jesus seals it with his blood.

“The Lord leads me, in the course of my preaching, to insist much on a life of communion with himself, and of the great design of the Gospel to render us conformable to him in love. And as, by his mercy, nothing appears in my outward conduct remarkably to contradict what I say, many, who only can judge by what they see, suppose I live a very happy life.”

“But, alas! if they knew what passes in my heart, how dull my spirit is in secret, and how little I am myself affected by the glorious truths I propose to others, they would form a different judgment.  Could I be myself what I recommend to them, I would be happy indeed. Pray for me, my dear friend, that, now the Lord is bringing forward the pleasing spring, he may favor me with a spring season in my soul; for indeed I mourn under a long winter.”

John Newton, Works, II.107-108.

shane lems

Preservation/Perseverance of the Saints: Practical Application

Yesterday I mentioned the biblical foundation of the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints.  We learned that this doctrine is based on biblical texts and biblical arguments/logic.  Today I want to note the “practical use” of this amazing doctrine.  In the terms of Wilhelmus a Brakel, this doctrine effectively comforts Christians and leads them to growth in godliness.  Here are some points Brakel makes as he explains the practical use of the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints (as usual, I’ve summarized them – but I encourage you to read the orginal).

1) It is a remedy against spiritual desertion.  Christians do not always enjoy close and intimate communion with Christ.  Sometimes God covers himself with a dark cloud and seems to be far from his people.  But based on the truth of the preservation of the saints, even in times of spiritual coldness we know that God’s love is steadfast towards his people (Is. 49:14-16, 54:7-8, Mal. 3:6).  He will one day remove the cloud and sweetly visit his people in grace because he loves them with an eternal love.

2) It is a remedy against the assaults of Satan.  It is true that there is enmity between God’s people and the offspring of the serpent.  Satan will definitely use his fiery darts to frighten Christians.  He will try to rob Christians of their peace.  And his attacks sometimes cause their faith to flicker.  But “the devil will not succeed in causing the apostasy of a single one, not even of the most tender sheep.”  Instead, in Christ and because of Christ, believers will trample upon Satan one day (Rom. 16:20).

3) It is a remedy against the hatred of the world.  Since God’s people have forsaken the world, the world will hate them as it hated Christ.  The world will try to entice the saints, trip them up, and attempt to get them off the path of discipleship.  The world will persecute Christians, mock them, and even kill them.  But none of these things can separate God’s people from his love in Christ (Rom. 8:35-39).

4) It is a remedy against our own sin.  The old Adam resides in even the best Christian; all Christians are saints and sinners at the same time.  There is a war in the Christian life.  The war is putting sin to death.  But not even these indwelling sins can separate God’s children from his love.  After all, Christ’s blood washes away all the sins of all his people – every one of them.  “Your sins, which remain in you contrary to your wishes, will neither pluck you out of the hand of Christ, nor will he cast you away because of them” (Ps. 37:24, Jer. 31:37).

5) It is a remedy against weak faith, darkness, and spiritual sluggishness.  Sometimes the Christian, in the dark moments of life, doubt that he is a child of God.  The cross becomes heavy to bear, the world’s attractions seem so wonderful, and Satan’s darts are so painful.  Christians are tempted to throw in the towel, so to speak.  “Nevertheless, the Lord preserves faith in their heart and causes it to resurface again.”  God’s people are kept by his sovereign power, not their emotions and feelings (1 Pet. 1:5).

6) It is a remedy against the fear of death.  “Death is contrary to nature and is the king of terrors.”  Even Christians often fear the grave because it is indeed a terrible and unnatural thing.  But because God preserves his elect, Christians need not fear death.  Jesus doesn’t just preserve his people in life, but also in the hour of death (1 Cor. 15:54-57).

7) It gives Christians a powerful motive for sanctification.  “There is nothing that moves man so sweetly and purely unto sanctification as grace and the permanency of this grace, for the love of God kindles the love of those whom he loves” (1 Jn. 4:19).  Saints can fight against sin knowing God gives the victory.  Christians can rejoice and hold fast to hope in trials and suffering, because God will bring them through.

The Canons of Dort are right: the doctrine of the preservation/perseverance of the saints is an “inestimable treasure.”  As I’ve said before, solid, deep, and clear Christian doctrine is eminently practical in every moment of the Christian life.  Rightly preached, taught, and confessed, the truth of perseverance/preservation fuels worship, piety, praise, and joy in life – and in death.  Because God is mercifully sovereign, and sovereignly merciful, his people can rest assured of his eternal care.

The above quotes by Brakel are found in volume four, pages 296-300 of The Christian’s Reasonable Service.

shane lems