God’s Free Grace Made the Difference (Henry)

Matthew Henry's Commentary There’s an old hymn called, “How Sweet and Awesome Is the Place.” When we sang it last Sunday during worship, the following lines stuck out:

Why was I made to hear Your voice, and enter while there’s room,
when thousands make a wretched choice, and rather starve than come?

‘Twas the same love that spread the feast that sweetly drew us in;
else we had still refused to taste and perished in our sin.

Scripture says it this way: In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:4-5 NIV).  Paul also talks about this extensively in Romans 9, where he says that God’s election of some to salvation has nothing to do with their merit, but his mercy: I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion (Rom. 9:15).  Election is unconditional!  Matthew Henry wrote well on this theme as he commented on Romans 9:

All God’s reasons of mercy are taken from within himself. All the children of men being plunged alike into a state of sin and misery, equally under guilt and wrath, God, in a way of sovereignty, picks out some from this fallen apostatized race, to be vessels of grace and glory. He dispenses his gifts to whom he will, without giving us any reason: according to his own good pleasure he pitches upon some to be monuments of mercy and grace, preventing grace, effectual grace, while he passes by others.

The various dealings of God, by which he makes some to differ from others, must be resolved into his absolute sovereignty. He is debtor to no man, his grace is his own, and he may give it or withhold it as it pleaseth him; we have none of us deserved it, nay, we have all justly forfeited it a thousand times, so that herein the work of our salvation is admirably well ordered that those who are saved must thank God only, and those who perish must thank themselves only, Hos. 13:9.

Applying this general rule to the particular case that Paul has before him, the reason why the unworthy, undeserving, ill-deserving Gentiles are called, and grafted into the church, while the greatest part of the Jews are left to perish in unbelief, is not because those Gentiles were better deserving or better disposed for such a favour, but because of God’s free grace that made that difference.

 

Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), 2217.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

When The Rebellious Will Is Renewed… (Murray)

I always enjoy reading John Murray’s sermons.  I recently read a brief sermon Murray gave on John 6:37, where Jesus said, “All those that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away” (NIV).  Here’s a helpful section in which Murray talks about the Father’s donation (gift) to the Son (…”those that the Father gives me…”):

“We are sometimes amazed at the conversion of certain people.  They seem to be the most unlikely people to be savingly affected by the gospel, the most unlikely candidates for discipleship.  In the first century when the early church began to feel the full brunt of opposition to the gospel, there was one man who breathed out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord.  This man went to the high priest and asked of him letters to Damascus that, if he found any of this way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem.”

“In that day people might well have said: ‘If anyone is to be one to the faith of the gospel, it is not Saul of Tarsus.’  And the enemies of the gospel might well have said: ‘If there is anyone on whom we can rely for persecution of the church, it is Saul of Tarsus.’  For this man verily thought with himself that he ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth.”

“But, behold, it was Saul of Tarsus who was converted.  And the history of the church of Christ is marked by similar surprises for the people of God and the enemies of the gospel.  Why have such people become partakers of saving grace and trophies of redemption?  Why have they become the called of Jesus Christ?  The text gives the answer.  God the Father has drawn them and donated them to his Son.”

“Think of it.  When a sinner comes to Christ in the commitment of faith, when the rebellious will is renewed and tears of penitence begin to flow, it is because a mysterious transaction has been taking place between the persons of the Godhead.  The Father has been making a presentation, a donation to his own Son.  Perish the thought that coming to Christ finds its explanation in the sovereign determinations of the human will.  It finds its explanation in the sovereign will of God the Father.”

“When a sinner comes to Christ, this event is the reflex of effectual donation of that person by the Father to the Son.  And if any person has that child-like faith in Christ whereby Christ is made wisdom from God, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, whereby he is made precious as all in all, be assured that God the Father took delight in you and took delight in causing raptures of joy to spring up in the breast of his own Son.  The Father presented you to Christ in the effectual donation of his grace.  And take no credit or glory to yourself.”

John Murray, Collected Writings, volume 3, page 206.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Calvinism Has No Use for Such Drivel (Bavinck)

Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2 Some have said that the Pelagian or Semi-Pelagian view of God, evil, election, salvation, and damnation is more kind and loving than the Calvinist view.  If you’ve heard that, it’s completely false.  I usually like to keep posts shorter than this, but Herman Bavinck’s full section on the topic is worth reading.  After spending quite some time discussing the Scripture texts that talk about reprobation, God rejecting and hardening some people, using Pharoah to show his power, and displaying his absolute sovereignty in and through evil, Bavinck applies this truth:

These numerous strong pronouncements of Scripture are daily confirmed in the history of humankind. The defenders of reprobation, accordingly, have always appealed to these appalling facts, of which history is full. Present in this world there is so much that is irrational, so much undeserved suffering, so many inexplicable disasters, such unequal and incomprehensible apportionment of good and bad fortune, such a heartbreaking contrast between joy and sorrow, that any thinking person has to choose between interpreting it—as pessimism does—in terms of the blind will of some misbegotten deity, or on the basis of Scripture believingly trusting in the absolute, sovereign, and yet—however incomprehensible—wise and holy will of him who will some day cause the full light of heaven to shine on those riddles of our existence.

The acceptance or rejection of a decree of reprobation, therefore, should not be explained in terms of a person’s capacity for love and compassion. The difference between Augustine and Pelagius, Calvin or Castellio, Gomarus and Arminius is not that the latter were that much more gentle, loving, and tender-hearted than the former. On the contrary, it arises from the fact that the former accepted Scripture in its entirety, also including this doctrine; that they were and always wanted to be theistic and recognize the will and hand of the Lord also in these disturbing facts of life; that they were not afraid to look reality in the eye even when it was appalling.

Pelagianism scatters flowers over graves, turns death into an angel, regards sin as mere weakness, lectures on the uses of adversity, and considers this the best possible world. Calvinism has no use for such drivel. It refuses to be hoodwinked. It tolerates no such delusion, takes full account of the seriousness of life, champions the rights of the Lord of lords, and humbly bows in adoration before the inexplicable sovereign will of God Almighty. As a result it proves to be fundamentally more merciful than Pelagianism. How deeply Calvin felt the gravity of what he said is evident from his use of the expression “dreadful decree.” Totally without warrant, this expression has been held against him. In fact, it is to his credit, not to his discredit. The decree, as Calvin’s teaching, is not dreadful, but dreadful indeed is the reality that is the revelation of that decree of God, a reality that comes through both in Scripture and in history. To all thinking humans, whether they are followers of Pelagius or Augustine, that reality remains completely the same. It is not something that can in any way be undone by illusory notions of it.

Now, in the context of this dreadful reality, far from coming up with a solution, Calvinism comforts us by saying that in everything that happens, it recognizes the will and hand of an almighty God, who is also a merciful Father. While Calvinism does not offer a solution, it invites us humans to rest in him who lives in unapproachable light, whose judgments are unsearchable, and whose paths are beyond tracing out. There lay Calvin’s comfort: “The Lord to whom my conscience is subject will be my witness that the daily meditation on his judgments leaves me so speechless that no curiosity tempts me to know anything more, no sneaking suspicion concerning his incomparable justice creeps over me, and in short, no desire to complain seduces me.” And in that peaceful state of mind he awaited the day when he would see [God] face to face and be shown the solution of these riddles.

Well said.  Agreed.

The quotes are from Herman Bavinck, John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 394–395.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

Divine Purpose and Foreknowledge (Augustine)

The Protestant Reformers did not make up their teaching about God’s foreknowledge, sovereignty, and divine purpose.  Here’s Augustine:

“Now God foreknew everything, and therefore could not have been unaware that man would sin.  It follows that all our assertions about the Holy City must take into account God’s foreknowledge and his providential design; we must not advance theories which could not have become matters of knowledge for us, because they had no place in God’s plan.  Man could not upset the divine purpose by his sin, in the sense of compelling God to alter his decision.  For God in his foreknowledge anticipated both results: he knew beforehand how evil the man would become whom God himself had created good; he also knew what good, even so, he would bring out of man’s evil.”

Of course, ultimately the Reformers did not lean on Augustine, but Scripture:

“[God] works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will” (Eph. 1:11 NIV).

“[Jesus] was handed over…by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge…” (Acts 2:23 NIV).

“The plans of the LORD stand firm forever…” (Ps. 33:11 NIV).

“He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth.          No one can hold back his hand or say to him: ‘What have you done?'” (Dan. 4:35 NIV)

To be sure, there are quite a few other Bible texts that affirm the truth that God is sovereign and in total control of all things.  Nothing surprises him; his counsel will stand and nothing can thwart his plans or purposes.  This is good news for Christians.  Not only do all things come our way by the good and sovereign will of God, but our salvation is also secure because it is part of his sovereign plan in Christ.

The above quote from Augustine is found in City of God, XIV.11.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

Balaam: Wizard or Prophet?

Numbers 22-24 contains a very interesting part of Israel’s history right before they entered the Promised Land.  In these chapters, we learn about Balaam and his talking donkey (she-ass).  Opinions about Balaam vary; some say he was God’s prophet who stumbled, others say he was a wizard or seer of some sort.  Which is it?  I appreciate Keil and Delitzsch’s (K&D) perspective:

This double-sidedness and ambiguity of the religious and prophetic character of Balaam may be explained on the supposition that, being endowed with a predisposition to divination and prophecy, he practised soothsaying and divination as a trade; and for the purpose of bringing this art to the greatest possible perfection, brought not only the traditions of the different nations, but all the phenomena of his own times, within the range of his observations. In this way he may have derived the first elements of the true knowledge of God from different echoes of the tradition of the primeval age, which was then not quite extinct, and may possibly have heard in his own native land some notes of the patriarchal revelations out of the home of the tribe-fathers of Israel.

K&D go on to say that Balaam had also heard about Yahweh from Israel’s overwhelming defeat of Sihon and Og, which happened right before Balak asked Balaam to curse Israel.  K&D continue:

[Through knowing this about Israel and Yahweh], Balaam was no doubt induced not only to procure more exact information concerning the events themselves, that he might make a profitable use of it in connection with his own occupation, but also to dedicate himself to the service of Jehovah, “in the hope of being able to participate in the new powers conferred upon the human race; so that henceforth he called Jehovah his God, and appeared as a prophet in His name” (Hengstenberg). In this respect Balaam resembles the Jewish exorcists, who cast out demons in the name of Jesus without following Christ (Mark 9:38, 39; Luke 9:49), but more especially Simon Magus, his “New Testament antitype,” who was also so powerfully attracted by the new divine powers of Christianity that he became a believer, and submitted to baptism, because he saw the signs and great miracles that were done (Acts 8:13).

And from the very time when Balaam sought Jehovah, the fame of his prophetical art appears to have spread. It was no doubt the report that he stood in close connection with the God of Israel, which induced Balak, according to Num. 22:6, to hire him to oppose the Israelites; as the heathen king shared the belief, which was common to all the heathen, that Balaam was able to work upon the God he served, and to determine and regulate His will. God had probably given to the soothsayer a few isolated but memorable glimpses of the unseen, to prepare him for the service of His kingdom. But “Balaam’s heart was not right with God,” and “he loved the wages of unrighteousness” (Acts 8:21; 2 Pet. 2:15). His thirst for honor and wealth was not so overcome by the revelations of the true God, that he could bring himself to give up his soothsaying, and serve the living God with an undivided heart.

Thus it came to pass, that through the appeal addressed to him by Balak, he was brought into a situation in which, although he did not venture to attempt anything in opposition to the will of Jehovah, his heart was never thoroughly changed; so that, whilst he refused the honours and rewards that were promised him by Balak, and pronounced blessings upon Israel in the strength of the Spirit of God that came upon him, he was overcome immediately afterwards by the might of the sin of his own unbroken heart, fell back into the old heathen spirit, and advised the Midianites to entice the Israelites to join in the licentious worship of Baal Peor (Num. 31:16), and was eventually put to death by the Israelites when they conquered these their foes (Num. 31:8).  Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 1 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996), 761–762.

In my view, this is a helpful perspective on Balaam; to compare him to the NT Jewish exorcists or Simon Magus makes a lot of sense.  This story also shows the sovereignty of God in using people like Balaam to accomplish His good purposes for His people.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

God’s Sovereignty, Our Suffering (Bridges)

Is God Really in Control?: Trusting God in a World of Terrorism, Tsunamis, and Personal Tragedy This is one of the better books I’ve read on suffering and the sovereignty of God: Is God Really in Control by Jerry Bridges.  This book is outstanding because it is very biblical, pastoral, and practical.  You won’t find a detailed philosophical discussion of theodicy in these pages, but you will find hope, comfort, and encouragement in the sovereignty of God’s love in Christ.  As always, Bridges writes in a straightforward manner that most Christians can understand.  You can give this book to a 60-year-old Christian going through a trial or a newly married husband and wife grieving over a miscarriage.  This is truly a book for the church.

Here are a couple of highlights from the book:

“In order to trust God, we must always view our adverse circumstances through the eyes of faith, not of sense.  …We must shape our vision of God by the Bible, not by our experiences” (p. 19 & 35).

“God never wastes pain.  He always uses it to accomplish his purpose.  And his purpose is for his glory and our good.  Therefore we can trust him when our hearts are aching or our bodies are racked with pain” (p. 65).

“We must depend upon God to do for us to do what we cannot do for ourselves.  We must, to the same degree, depend on him to enable us to do what we must do for ourselves” (p. 75).

“The good that God works for us in our lives is conformity to the likeness of his Son (Rom. 8:28-30).  So, his good is not necessarily our present comfort or happiness but rather conformity to Christ in ever-increasing measure for eternity” (p. 85).

“In adversity we tend to doubt God’s fatherly care, but in prosperity we tend to forget it.  If we are to trust God, we must acknowledge our dependence upon him at all times, good times as well as bad times” (p. 131).

We all face trials and suffering in life at one point or another.  When the dark valleys in life come, this book will help you keep your eyes on the Lord and strengthen your trust in his Word.

Jerry Bridges, Is God Really In Control?  Trusting God in a World of Hurt (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2006).

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

God’s Sovereign Providence – and His Means (Horton)

The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way God is sovereign, and he is providentially in control of everything that comes to pass. He’s not surprised when things happen, nor is he unsure of the future, since all things happen according to his plan (Ps. 33.11, Prov. 19.21, Is. 46.10).  At the same time, he uses means and instruments to accomplish his purposes (cf. Is. 44.28).  I appreciate how Michael Horton said it in The Christian Faith:

“Ironically, many today who would not affirm a classic Christian notion of divine sovereignty in salvation nevertheless often speak as if God does all things in their daily lives directly, without any instrumental means or ‘secondary causes.’  If one attributes a remarkable recovery from an illness to the skill of the physicians, well-meaning Christians are sometimes inclined to reply, ‘Yes, but God was the one who healed her.’  In more extreme cases, some believers even excuse their laziness and lack of wisdom or preparation by appealing to God’s sovereignty.  ‘Just pray about it’; ‘If God wants it to happen, it will happen.'”

“To be sure, the truth of God’s providence is meant to assure believers that ultimately our times are in God’s hands, but God does not fulfill all of his purposes directly.  In fact, it is his ordinary course to employ means, whether human beings or weather patterns, social upheavals, animal migrations, various vocations, and a host of other factors over which he has control.  We are comforted by the truth that God works all things – even adversity – into his plan for our salvation.  God provides, but we are commanded to pray for our daily bread and to labor in our callings.”

Michael Horton, The Christian Faith, p. 361.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI