Sustained by Sovereign Grace—Forever

Now therefore thus says the Lord God of Israel concerning this city of which you say, "It is given into the hand of the king of Babylon by sword, by famine, and by pestilence," 37 "Behold, I will gather them out of all the lands to which I have driven them in My anger, in My wrath, and in great indignation; and I will bring them back to this place and make them dwell in safety. 38 And they shall be My people, and I will be their God; 39 and I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear Me always, for their own good, and for the good of their children after them. 40 And I will make an everlasting covenant with them that I will not turn away from them, to do them good; and I will put the fear of Me in their hearts so that they will not turn away from Me. 41 And I will rejoice over them to do them good, and I will faithfully plant them in this land with all My heart and with all My soul." 42 For thus says the Lord, "Just as I brought all this great disaster on this people, so I am going to bring on them all the good that I am promising them."

What Is Sustaining Grace?

We are celebrating 125 years of God's sustaining grace. What is that? What is sustaining grace? Let me put it in a four-line rhyme:

Not grace to bar what is not bliss,
Nor flight from all distress, but this:
The grace that orders our trouble and pain,
And then, in the darkness, is there to sustain.

I stress this because to celebrate a grace that bars what is not bliss, and gives flight from all distress and does not order our pain would be biblically false and experientially unrealistic.

. . . In a Near-Fatal Crash

Our experience and the Bible teach us that grace does not prevent pain, but orders and arranges and measures out our pain, and then in the darkness is there to sustain. For example, yesterday Bob Ricker, the president of the Baptist General Conference, spoke of precious reminders of God's sustaining grace. Not quite ten years ago Bob and Dee's daughter was in a serious automobile accident. She is alive today for one reason. In the car behind her was a doctor who happened to have an air tube in his pocket. By the time he got to her she was already turning blue. He forced the tube into her throat and saved her life. At her wedding a few years later, Bob told her: those facial scars you have to live with—they are memorials of sustaining grace.

Now Bob Ricker is not naïve. He knows that if God can ordain that in the car behind there be a doctor, and that this doctor have a breathing apparatus in his pocket, and that he have the presence of mind to use it savingly, then this God is fully able to prevent the accident in the first place. In fact, earlier Bob had quoted Ephesians 1:11, "We have been predestined according to his purpose who works all things according to the counsel of his will." And he stressed: "All things, means all things"—including, I assume, the paths of cars and airplanes and arrows and bullets. That was the inspiration for my little poem, "What Is Sustaining Grace?"

Not grace to bar what is not bliss,
Nor flight from all distress, but this:
The grace that orders our trouble and pain,
And then, in the darkness, is there to sustain.

. . . When the Car Breaks Down

Saturday, two weeks ago, Noël and Abraham and Barnabas and Talitha were traveling to Georgia in the car and it broke down in a lonely stretch about an hour south of Indianapolis. The radiator was shot. A farmer in his mid-sixties pulls over and offers help. Noël says that she supposes they need a motel and hopes that Monday morning there may be a garage open to work on the car. The farmer says, "Would you like to stay with me and my wife?" Noël hesitates and does not want to put them out. He says, "The Lord said when we serve others, it's like serving him." She says, "Well, could we go to church with you in the morning?" He says, "If you can take a Baptist church."

So they stay with the farmer, who is also an aviation mechanic, and who diagnoses the problem, drives to town Monday morning, buys a new radiator, comes back, puts it in at no expense, and sends the family on their way. In the meantime Barnabas has pulled his fishing rod out of the car and caught a nineteen-inch catfish—for icing on the cake.

The God who can cause a farmer to stop to help Noël and who sees to it that he is a Christian (even a Baptist!), and that he and his wife have room for the family to stay, and that he is a mechanic, and that he finds a radiator first thing Monday morning, and that he is willing to take the time, and that he has a pond with catfish—this God is perfectly able to keep a radiator from bursting open in the middle of Indiana.

. . . When Healing Doesn't Happen

But in this fallen world of futility that is not all that sustaining grace does.

Not grace to bar what is not bliss,
Nor flight from all distress, but this:
The grace that orders our trouble and pain,
And then, in the darkness, is there to sustain.

One of the young men in our church is going through some deep waters right now which are testing his faith almost to the limit. He said to me recently: it would be easier if Jesus hadn't healed but instead had given grace to endure the absence of healing. One of the things I said to him was this: That's exactly what Jesus did do—and for that very reason—in 2 Corinthians 12:9–10. God's grace ordains that Paul have a thorn in the flesh for the sake of his humility and then will not remove it in answer to prayer. But he says,

My [sustaining] grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.

To which Paul responds,

Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ's sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.

Not grace to bar what is not bliss,
Nor flight from all distress, but this:
The grace that orders our trouble and pain,
And then, in the darkness, is there to sustain.

. . . When the Church Burns Down

On Monday, March 16, 1885, when Bethlehem Baptist Church was 14 years old and located on the corner of 12th Avenue and 6th Street (where the Douglas Company is now) the church caught fire. It was ruined beyond repair. But in that darkness there was a marveling at God's grace. The part of the roof where the firemen stood was the only part that did not collapse. And within seven weeks the church had bought the building of the Second Congregational Church where we worshiped for 106 years until this building was completed in 1991.

Now the God who can spare firemen by holding up part of a weakened roof, and who can arrange for a new and better building in seven weeks, could have prevented the fire in the first place.

I hope the point is clear: We are celebrating sustaining grace.

The grace that orders our trouble and pain,
And then, in the darkness, is there to sustain.

God Does Not Always Spare Calamity

Our text in Jeremiah 32 is about this kind of sustaining grace, and holds the key to why Bethlehem Baptist Church is alive in the city today after 125 years of trials. Jerusalem and God's chosen people are in darkness and distress. And it is God himself who has ordered it so. Look at verse 36: "Now therefore thus says the LORD God of Israel concerning this city of which you say, 'It is given into the hand of the king of Babylon by sword, by famine, and by pestilence.'" That's what they say about it. And it is true. Grace has not spared them this calamity. Nor will the grace of God spare you your appointed calamity.

But what they say about God's chosen ones is not the last word. God has the last word. And it is a word of grace. Verse 37: "Behold, I will gather them out of all the lands to which I have driven them in My anger, in My wrath, and in great indignation; and I will bring them back to this place and make them dwell in safety." So God declares that he has ordered the trouble and pain. "I have driven them" to these foreign lands. And he declares that he himself will deliver them and bring them back to himself and to their land. In other words, sovereign grace will eventually triumph over the calamity.

How Can We Be Sure of the Triumph of Grace?

How can we be sure of this triumph of grace? If God is a God of justice who can send Israel into devastating exile where many are lost because of their sin and disobedience, then how can we have confidence that this will not happen to God's chosen people today—the church, the bride of Christ, the true Israel, you and me, who have been called into the fellowship of his Son? It is one question to ask: why has Bethlehem endured for 125 years? But an even more urgent question is: how can we be sure that grace will triumph for Bethlehem and in our own lives in the future? How can you be sure that grace will sustain you to the end in the faith and holiness that brings you safe to heaven?

That's what the rest of this text is about. The answer is: sustaining grace for God's chosen people is sovereign grace. That is, sustaining grace is omnipotent grace. It is grace that overcomes all obstacles and preserves the faith and holiness that brings us home to heaven. This is our only sure confidence for the future. You and I, in ourselves, are utterly fickle and unreliable. If we were left to our own powers to persevere, we would make shipwreck of our faith, it is sure. This is why the saints have prayed for centuries,

O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I'm constrained to be!
Let thy goodness like a fetter
Bind my wandering heart to thee:
Prone to wander, Lord I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here's my heart, O, take and seal it;
Seal it for thy courts above.

Is that the way saints should pray? Is that the way to pray for your future and for Bethlehem's future? Is that a biblical way to pray? Make your goodness like a fetter—a chain—that binds my wandering heart to you. Seal my heart with an unbreakable bond for the courts of heaven. In other words: Keep me! Preserve me! Defeat every rising rebellion! Overcome every niggling doubt! Deliver from every destructive temptation! Nullify every fatal allurement! Expose every demonic deception! Tear down every arrogant argument! Shape me! Incline me! Hold me! Master me! Do whatever you must do to keep me trusting you and fearing you till Jesus comes or calls. May we—should we—pray and sing like that?

The answer from this text is yes. That kind of singing and praying is rooted in the new covenant promise of sovereign, sustaining grace. Let's read it. Keep in mind: this is one of several Old Testament promises of the new covenant that Jesus said he sealed with his own blood for all who are in him. It is not just for Jews, but for those who are true Jews by virtue of union with Jesus, the seed of Abraham (Galatians 3:7, 16). Jeremiah 32:38–41 says,

And they shall be My people, and I will be their God; and I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear Me always, for their own good, and for the good of their children after them. And I will make an everlasting covenant with them that I will not turn away from them, to do them good; and I will put the fear of Me in their hearts so that they will not turn away from Me. And I will rejoice over them to do them good, and I will faithfully plant them in this land with all My heart and with all My soul.

Four Promises of Sovereign, Sustaining Grace

Notice four promises of sovereign, sustaining grace.

1. God Will Be Our God

God promises to be our God. Verse 38: "They will be my people and I will be their God." All the promises to his people are summed up in this: "I will be your God." That is, I will use all that I am as God—all my wisdom, all my power, and all my love—to see to it that you remain my people. All that I am as God, I exert for your good.

2. God Promises to Change Our Hearts

God promises to change our hearts and cause us to love and fear him. Verse 39: "I will give them one heart and one way that they may fear me always . . . (v. 40b) I will put the fear of me in their hearts." In other words, God will not simply stand by to see if we, by our own powers, will fear him; he will sovereignly, supremely, mercifully give us the heart that we need to have, and give us the faith and the fear of God that will lead us home to heaven. This is sovereign, sustaining grace. (See Deuteronomy 30:6; Ezekiel 11:19–20; 36:27.)

3. God Promises We Will Not Turn Away from Him

God promises that he will not turn away from us and we will not turn away from him. Verse 40: "I will make an everlasting covenant with them that I will not turn away from them, to do them good; and I will put the fear of Me in their hearts so that they will not turn away from Me." In other words, his heart work is so powerful that he guarantees we will not turn from him. This is what's new about the new covenant: God promises to fulfill by his power the conditions that we have to meet. We must fear him and love him and trust him. And he says, I will see to that. I will "put the fear of me in their hearts"—not to see what they will do with it, but in such a way that "they will not turn from me." This is sovereign, sustaining grace.

4. God Promises to Do This with Infinite Intensity

Finally, God promises to do this with the greatest intensity imaginable. He expresses this in two ways, one at the beginning and one at the end of verse 41: "And I will rejoice over them to do them good, and I will faithfully plant them in this land with all My heart and with all My soul." First he says that he will exert this sovereign, sustaining grace with joy: "I will rejoice over them to do them good." Then he says (at the end of verse 41) that he will exert this sovereign, sustaining grace "with all [his] heart and with all [his] soul."

How Great Is God's Desire to Do You Good?

He rejoices to sustain you and he rejoices with all his heart and with all his soul. Now I ask you, not with any sermonic exaggeration or rhetorical flourish or with any sense of overstatement at all—I ask you, I challenge you, can you conceive of an intensity of desire that is greater than a desire empowered by "all God's heart and all God's soul"? Suppose you took all the desire for food and sex and money and fame and power and meaning and friends and security in the hearts and souls of all the human beings on the earth—say about six billion—and you put all that desire, multiplied by all those six billion hearts and souls, into a container. How would it compare to the desire of God to do you good implied in the words, "with all his heart and with all his soul"? It would compare like a thimble to the Pacific Ocean. Because the heart and soul of God are infinite. And the hearts and souls of man are finite. There is no intensity greater than the intensity of "all God's heart, and all God's soul."

And that is the intensity of the joy he has in sustaining you with sovereign grace: "I will rejoice over them to do them good . . . with all my heart and all my soul." Some of you may be tasting the sweetness of this grace for the first time this morning. That is the work of the Holy Spirit in your life, and I urge you to yield to it and be mastered by sovereign, sustaining grace.

Others of you have lived in this sweet assurance for decades and simply join me this morning in exulting over this glorious reality in our lives. I invite you all to sing with me, to bless the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit for the sovereign, sustaining grace that has kept us as a church for 125 years and will keep God's elect in the faith till Jesus comes or Jesus calls.

Not grace to bar what is not bliss,
Nor flight from all distress, but this:
The grace that orders our trouble and pain,
And then, in the darkness, is there to sustain.

©2014 Desiring God Foundation. Used by Permission.

Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in its entirety or in unaltered excerpts, as long as you do not charge a fee. For Internet posting, please use only unaltered excerpts (not the content in its entirety) and provide a hyperlink to this page. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Desiring God.

Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By John Piper. ©2014 Desiring God Foundation. Website: desiringGod.org