Future Grace: Its Purifying Power

Part 3

Newfrontiers Conference


The following is a lightly edited transcript.

A passion for the supremacy of God drives this thinking, and a passion for joy. Those two are not at odds, but God’s supremacy is exalted through our delighting in him. And then we talked about a passion for holiness — the necessity of holiness, I believe, necessity for salvation.

Then the question, Well, how does that relate to justification by faith alone? I read the Westminster Confession paragraph that we are justified by faith alone on the basis of Christ’s righteousness alone. And then, the question was asked, Well how does faith, like that, and those necessary works relate? And the confession takes us so far, but, in my judgment, not far enough, by saying, “This faith is not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is not dead faith, but worketh by love.” Faith alone justifies, but the faith that justifies is never alone. That’s the classic Reformed way of saying it: “Faith alone justifies, but the faith it justifies is never alone in this life.” Therefore, there will always be evidences, evidences, that there is faith. All those texts that I read are God’s way of saying, “I will look for evidences at the judgment day.”

Clear Evidence of Faith

Now, let me give you an illustration of what I think that day will look like from an Old Testament passage. This is just an illustration. This is not a snapshot of the judgment, but it gets at a principle that I think the Lord will follow, and does follow. It’s the story of Solomon and the two harlots, the two prostitutes, who each got pregnant in their business, had their baby at night, cuddled in their arms. One of them rolls over on her baby, smothers the baby and kills it. She wakes up, is terrified that she has killed her baby. She notices the other woman sleeping soundly with her safe baby, and quietly takes the well baby, puts it in her arms, takes the dead baby, puts it in the other person’s arms and goes back to sleep. In the morning, the mother who has the dead baby in her arms now is horrorstruck that her baby is dead. When she looks at the baby, she says, “This is not my baby; that’s my baby.” The other woman says, “No, no, this is my baby.”

Kingly Wisdom

Somehow or another, this gets all the way to the king. Now, what would you do if you were Solomon? I’ve been in situations, and I’m sure most of you leaders have, where you’re facing an issues, and all you knew to do is say, “Give me the wisdom of Solomon here. Show me when to say, ‘Cut the baby.’” I’ve been in many situations and that’s the way I pray. I said, “Lord, I don’t have a clue right here. I don’t know who to believe in this situation. Show me this prophetically inspired word that says, ‘Cut the baby in half.’” And God brings remarkable wisdom to mind at those times to break through what seems to be an absolutely insoluble problem. I’ve been in at least two of those in church discipline situations of huge proportions where morality is at stake and there’s blatant denial of what others are saying, with two or three witnesses. You don’t know what to do.

Well, Solomon looks at these women and he says, “Bring me a sword.” And then, I suppose he gives it to somebody and says, “Cut the baby in half and we’ll give half to one mother and half to the other.” The true mother cries out these words, ““Oh, my lord, give her the living child, and by no means put him to death.” (1 Kings 3:26). Solomon says, “She’s the mother; give her the baby.”

Sign of Relationship

Now, Solomon looked for something in the life of this woman; he looked for something. “I need to know who the mother is here. There will be evidences of motherhood here.” When the woman said, “Don’t cut the baby,” that was the work he was looking for. Now, that work did not create the relationship of motherhood any more than our good works create a relationship with God. The work, “Don’t cut the baby in half,” did not earn the baby; she didn’t earn the baby. All those words did is evidence a reality: “I’m the mother.” She had become the mother through a gracious work of God by which the baby was created (albeit through sin).

When God says, “Works like that are required of you,” he’s not saying, “Earn your way to heaven.” There’s no earning of heaven. He’s not saying, “If you don’t do this, you don’t create a relationship.” We don’t create the relationship. God creates the relationship by the supernatural work of new birth, which enables us to cry out like little babies in faith to him. I hope you can get, through that analogy, some glimpse of how the necessity of works — as those texts I read described them — does not involve you in earning your salvation or in creating, by them, a relationship with God; they are evidential rather than creative.

How Faith Works

Now, how does faith — how does saving faith — do that? The reason I say that the Westminster Confession is inadequate, doesn’t go as far as I need it to go, is that I want to ask the question, Why is it that the faith that justifies is never alone? And it just stops. It doesn’t analyze why. It just says it is.

Now, Calvin, also does not help me here as much as I need help. Calvin says that when you believe, you receive the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit performs the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, meekness, faithfulness, self-control. And therefore, they’re always co-extensive: genuine faith and the fruit of the Spirit exist in the same person, and the link is the Holy Spirit.

What I need there is a link that has some conscious element to it, something I do, or some explanation how what I do, and what I choose, and how I believe, relates to the way the Spirit brings about those fruits, the holiness that we’re after. This book, Future Grace, is written to explain what that dynamic is that gives rise to those works. I’ll put it in a nutshell here. Then, we’ll spend the rest of our time tomorrow analyzing it. I’m going to take sample sins like bitterness, and covetousness, and lust, and impatience, and ask, How it is that saving faith triumphs over those sins? Not some other kind of faith, not some second-stage Christianity, but basic saving faith is the key that triumphs over those sins and produces holiness.

Battle of Promises

I’ll give you a nutshell of how it works here, and then we’ll begin to dig in and tackle it. I argue that faith — saving faith, justifying faith — sanctifies by severing the root of sin with a superior promise. Faith in a superior promise severs the root of the promise of sin. This is a lot to say at once, and we’re going to spend three more hours on it.

What Sin Promises

Nobody sins out of duty. Nobody gets up in the morning and says, “I really don’t want to sin today, but I will.” Nobody relates to sin that way. People sin for one basic reason: sin makes promises of happiness.

  • If you lie, you have a little more money from your taxes.
  • Or if you open this magazine or watch that television program, your body will experience some titillating thrills that you’ve learned are very pleasurable.
  • If you leave this marriage, which is just one horrible, miserable, conflict, and find a younger, prettier, more amenable partner, life will go well — and other such lies.

Sin only has power through its lying. Satan is a liar, so he joins in with sin, and the flesh, and makes some of these things awesomely powerful. I’ll tell you: when sex and Satan get together, it is almost indomitable. It is frightening the power when sex, temptation, and Satan team up to blind a man or a woman to what the preciousness of vow-keeping can bring them.

What God Promises

If sin only has power through lying promises, I argue the only way, evangelically, to triumph over sin is with superior promises and confidence in those promises. Now, I’m using the word promise here instead of the word future grace. They’re the same thing, in my vocabulary. When God promises you a future — “God works all things together for your good” — that’s future grace. You can almost equate, in my vocabulary, promise and future grace. What God promises to do for us in this life and the next is future grace: it is believing those promises that sever the root of sin, because the superior promise nullifies the promise of sin. The future grace, when it is preached or read with the illuminating power of the Holy Spirit, suddenly shines in our heart as more to be desired than the fleeting pleasures of this world, and we wonder how we could have ever been allured as long as we were allured to these sinful pleasures.

I had the analogy one time in a sermon, and it’s come back to me over and over again, that in the darkroom of lying sin, someone gives you a broach. And they put it around your neck: an ebony broach. And you feel it, and it’s hard. And ebony’s a beautiful, dark material. You’re thankful and you just clutch it to you in the dark. And then, because your mother’s praying, or because you hear some powerful anointed message, or because God draws you to read the word, light begins to dawn in your life. Truth begins to dispel darkness, and you look down, and it’s not a broach; it’s a roach hanging around your neck. That’s the way sin is. And you go, “Yuck! What am I doing fiddling around with this stuff?”

Until you see sin that way, all you’ll have is duty to live by. You only see sin that way when beauty begins to reign in your life: the beauty of God, the beauty of promises, the beauty of heaven, the beauty of holiness, the beauty of obedience, the beauty of suffering for righteousness’s sake. When those things become beautiful, sin will appear ugly. And, until sin is ugly, the forsaking of sin will not be with dancing, and it ought to be with dancing: we ought to dance out of sin’s room and wonder how we could have ever enjoyed it. That’s freedom. That’s freedom. “For freedom, Christ has set you free” (Galatians). You will only know freedom if you see the glory of God, the beauty of holiness for what it is, and it severs the root of flicking on that TV tonight looking for some nudity.

Obedience of Faith

Now, what I want to do is begin to give biblical warrant for those last five minutes or so. I’ve just described to you living by faith in future grace in a nutshell. Now, it’s a big nut. I want to take a few hours to unpack it. So, we’ll get as far as we can tonight, and just pick it up in the morning.

Let me start by describing faith — saving, justifying faith — as the worker in our life. It isn’t that you begin with a thing called justifying faith, and then you turn and leave that behind. And that’s settled, and that’s good; you did that, and now there’s another way to live the Christian life besides that. I argue that faith, that faith, is the same faith by which we live, and it is a faith in future grace, and it is faith that works. Let me give you some verses where I’m getting that idea. For example, in 1 Thessalonians 1:3, Paul says,

[We remember] before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.

That little phrase work of faith I take to mean “work that faith produces.” When you have genuine faith in God, it works. I want to know why. I want to know what it is it about this faith. But first, I’m just establishing that it works. That’s all I’m doing for the next five minutes or so is establishing that it works — not why yet.

To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power (2 Thessalonians 1:11).

Here’s a prayer: Paul is praying that God may count them worthy of their calling. How? By fulfilling every resolve for good. So if you have a desire for good, and it accomplishes itself in goodness, God did that. God did that. “Work of faith by his power” —there’s that phrase again: work of faith.

But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. (2 Thessalonians 2:13)

We said earlier this morning that salvation is through sanctification; that is, the pathway along which you must walk toward salvation is sanctification. If you say, “I don’t care about sanctification; I’m walking this route,” it does not lead to salvation. Salvation is through sanctification. And then notice the phrase, “by the Spirit and belief in the truth.” We’re going to ask later how these two are coordinated — namely, Spirit and faith. But here they are: sanctification by the Spirit and sanctification by faith in the truth. If you ask, How does sanctification happen? — that is, How does holiness come about? — it comes about by faith in the truth. I’m going to argue that the truth is promises about future grace. Faith in promises that are superior than anything sin can offer you is the power by which holiness is achieved in your life.

That same thing is said in Acts 26:18 like this. Jesus says to Paul,

I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.

So, I believe in justification by faith, and I believe in sanctification by faith, and I believe it’s the same faith — which is what I think the Westminster’s divines meant when they said that the faith which justifies alone is never alone, because the same faith that justifies sanctifies. Galatians 5:6 is one of the most important texts of all in this regard:

In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.

Faith working by love avails everything, avails salvation, avails sanctification. Picture it: faith working by love, or “working itself out,” some translations say. Faith works itself out. So faith is the great worker in our lives. I’ve read some study Bibles that say we are justified by faith and we get rewards by works. I’m simply arguing at this point: what sanctifies us is faith — the same faith that justifies us. Here’s another one:

The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. (1 Timothy 1:5)

So, sincere faith is the origin of love. It’s the same as Galatians 5:6. Here’s another one: Hebrews 11:8. You could choose any number of verses from Hebrews 11, because over and over again it says, “By faith they did this,” and “By faith they did that,” and “By faith they did this.”

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance.

So faith is the energy, is the means, by which this obedience happens. When you think works in the Christian life, you must think faith — not something separate from faith. The works that God wants earns nothing. The works that God wants create nothing of a relationship. The works that God wants express the authenticity of faith. That’s all they are: they are the fruit of faith, they are the work of faith, they are what genuine faith does.

Never by Works

One more verse. This one is huge, and would create controversy among many, many, Reformed people over the nature of the law, and the covenant of works, and other things, which we won’t go into in detail. But I’ll read it to you, and hint at some of the directions that it points.

Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it [that is, the righteousness, the law of righteousness] by faith, but as if it were based on works. (Romans 9:31–32)

And the “as if” is cataclysmically important, because it implies it was never to be by works. Now those who are theologically minded among you will realize a little bit of what’s at stake here. What this verse is saying, I think, is that the law, given through Moses, was never intended to be a law of works by which we earn anything from God; it was always intended to be a law of faith by which we express our love and affection and dependence upon the exodus God, who saves by grace. I mean, this is a huge issue, but just a little pointer for you to think about is that on Sinai, as the Ten Commandments are given, at the center of the revelation — just a few verses, after Moses has said, “Show me your glory. Show me your glory,” and God let’s him go into a covert, puts his hand over him and lets him go by, and then lets him see his backside, and then as he goes up on Mount Sinai — God says, “Here’s my revelation to you.” This is the middle and essence of the law:

The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin. (Exodus 34:6–7)

That’s the law: forgiving iniquity, forgiving transgression, forgiving sin. The law, though it was a demand calling for obedience and promising life — not unlike those versus that I read — did not mean that you could earn life; but rather meant “I love you. I created you. I rescued you from bondage. I come to you again and again and again in your rebellion and stretch forth my hands to you. I have provided the means by which you can be forgiven iniquity and transgression and sin. There are no works by which you can earn forgiveness. It is freely offered; just make the offering as an expression of your dependence on me. Israel didn’t get it and turned the law into works righteousness. I get all of that form the word, “They did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works,” which it wasn’t. It wasn’t.

Now here, I have no idea where you are on this particular theological issue. But in traditional Reformed Covenant theology, there’s a covenant of grace and a covenant of works. The covenant of grace is established after the fall. Before that, there was the covenant of works, whereby God said to Adam, “If you keep my law and don’t eat this tree, you can merit, or inherit, eternal life.” Testing him, he failed the test. God creates a covenant of grace by which he can have salvation by faith alone. The law comes in as another expression of that covenant of works and calls men to earn their life, in order to show them they can’t do it and sends them to cross. The cross comes and establishes and purchases the covenant of grace in the form of the new covenant. Christians of every age are supposed to relate to God at the level of new covenant, but the covenant of works is still functional.

I don’t believe there is such a thing as a covenant of works. I don’t think God ever came to man and said, “Earn you salvation.” That’s Galatianism. God would be a heretic if he said that. God never ever told Adam to earn his salvation; he came to Adam and he said, “I’m your Father. I love you. I have provided for you a garden. I will meet every need of yours, absolutely freely. Be my son. Trust me. Relate to me in a loving, trusting, father-son relationship. I’ll show you everything you need. I’ll provide you with everything. It’s a lavish garden. There’s one tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Elsewhere in the Bible, that little phrase “knowledge of good and evil” stands for independence and self-reliance. Little children don’t have the knowledge of good and evil. Senile people lose the knowledge of good and evil. When you’re mature and independent and you call your own shots, you have the knowledge of good an evil. That tree stands for independence and autonomy over against God. “Don’t eat the tree. Love me. Be childlike in your faith.” That’s the way God related to Adam before the fall, I believe.

When the law came, it was simply an expression of the kind of life, in that dispensation, under those conditions, that you live out faith. Much of it has fallen away. Massive parts of it are no longer applicable to us, because Christ is our high priest, Christ is our sacrifice, Jesus declared all foods clean so that the whole ceremonial food law thing is gone, and so on. There are turns in redemptive history whereby we no longer are in way in bondage to those kinds of rules.

All of that just to say that this truth that faith is what works was not just started at the cross, it has always been the case with every kind of obedience God has ever asked for. The only kind of obedience God demands is the obedience of faith, obedience which flows from faith.

This was all the point that faith is the worker here.

Faith Depends on Future Grace

Next point: What faith depends on is not just past grace expressed in the cross, but the promises of future grace. We’re moving into really key elements of why having faith changes life. Grace that faith trusts in is power in the future, not just pardon for the past or the future.

Grace, in America anyway, and in recent decades — I could name a few churches that are highlighted for their grace and people feel safe there, they feel healed there. There’s no condemnation there; they stress grace mainly as God’s leniency — that is, God’s forgiveness, God’s pardon, God’s acceptance, which is awesomely precious. But it’s half the truth of grace.

Grace is also a power to change, not a leniency with refusal to change. Grace is power in the New Testament, not just pardon for sin; it is power to overcome sin. Until you sense how powerful and prevalent this is in the New Testament — that grace is thought of to be trusted, not just as pardon for bad things you’ve done and will do, but power to overcome the bad things you do — faith in grace won’t be faith in all that it should be, and your faith might not be real. To trust half of Christ may not be to trust the biblical Christ.

Power for Work

So, let me give you some verses to show you what I mean. This may be the most important one, although there are several here that are really important.

But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them [the other apostles], though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. (1 Corinthians 15:10)

Now, how do you compute that if grace is only pardon? “Grace came to me, and is coming to me, and will come to me. It didn’t come in vain, but it produced striving and work. I labored as an apostle, harder than any of them. I stayed up late in Ephesus. I worked around the clock. I taught all morning. I made tents all night. My fingers got bloody. I lost sleep. And I built a church. Nevertheless, it was not I, but the grace of God that was with me as power, as power.” So, grace is power.

Grace to You

When I was preparing this book back in the summer of ’94, I was at my wife’s parents’ place, a little cabin that overlooks a little pond with pine trees in the state of Georgia, in the South of our country. I was just working so hard to get this thing finished in the brief little one-month sabbatical that I had from the church to do it. I began to see things that I had never seen before with regard to grace in the New Testament Epistles.

One of them was this pattern. I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed it. Have you ever noticed that in every single one of Paul’s letters it begins with some form of the phrase “Grace to you”? It might be “Grace to you,” “Grace and peace to you,” “Grace and mercy to you.” But it’s always to you. Without exception, every single letter of the apostle Paul ends with “Grace be with you” — with you, not to you. So always at the front: “Grace to you.” And always at the back: “Grace be with you.” I had never seen that in any commentary pointed out. It may be there, and I just missed it. For me, that stopped me for a long time saying, Why? What is going on here? What does this to you at the beginning mean, and with you at the end mean? And grace, that’s not just back there in the cross, but right here now moving toward you.

Here’s my effort to understand that. In the beginning of the letters, Paul knows that he will roll the scroll up, he’ll give it to Tychicus or somebody. They’ll travel over the miles to Thessalonica or Rome or Corinth. And somebody on a Lord’s day will stand up in a group like this in a house. They’ll open the scroll of the apostle Paul — precious — and with some trembling, begin to read. They’ll say, “Paul, an apostle of the Lord Jesus, a servant of Jesus Christ. Grace and peace to you who are in Ephesus.” It’s as though Paul wanted to just bless them and say, “Right now, in my letter, through the word of God, inspired from him, I am ministering grace to you. Grace is coming to you as you read this epistle. Grace is coming to you.”

Oh, how we ought to feel that when the Bible is read, or when we can open the Bible ourselves. We ought to feel, “Grace is coming to me.” As you being to read the Bible, you should hear God saying, “Grace to you. I’m giving grace to you. This is grace to you. The word of God is grace to you.” This is future grace. As long as you’re reading the Bible, the cascading grace coming out of that reservoir in the future is pouring over your life.

And they just keeping reading. At Rome it would’ve taken a long time. At Philippi, twenty minutes or so, depending on how they read it. They read it, and as they come to the end, they read, “Grace be with you,” knowing that as this is read, the assembly will very soon break up. They’ll go out into very hostile and difficult and painful and dangerous circumstances, and Paul wants them to know: “The grace of God is going with you.”

Tonight, when we stop in a few minutes, we can say, “Grace be with you.” Grace will go with you to your cars. Grace will go with you to your bed and breakfast or your hotel. Grace will hover over you as you sleep. Grace will guard you from demonic destruction. Grace will wake you up. Grace will sustain you if you get a horrible phone call that somebody you love has died through the night. Grace will be there. Grace is with you.

That’s why I think it’s “grace to you” at the beginning. The word of God is a ministry of grace to the people. When it’s over, he doesn’t leave. Grace is not just past. It’s going on into the future with you. So, that’s where I’m getting this idea of future grace. Grace is not just pardon. It’s not just the cross. But grace is a power that is moving with us into the future.

God Is Able

And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work. (2 Corinthians 9:8)

This is in the context of giving. Notice it says, “God will make all grace abound to you.” Will — future tense. This is all I mean by future grace — nothing fancy. It’s just this verse: “God is able to make all grace abound to you for every good deed.” Faith in future grace is the means by which we tap into that grace. Faith in that grace, faith that it’s coming, brings it home, and frees us from anxiety.

Anxiety is a big sin-producer, believe me. It is sin, and it’s a sin-producer. Almost all lying comes from anxiety. Almost all greed comes from anxiety, about whether you can afford this or that, whether you’re going to be happy if you don’t have this or that. To have faith in a promise like this of future grace — “God is able to make all grace abound to you so that having all sufficiency in everything you may have an abundance for every good work.” Everything God expects you to do, he gives you grace to do. If you don’t have grace to do it, it’s not required of you.

Sufficient for You

My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)

Whether it was a painful relationship, or whether it was arthritis, or whether it was eye problem, or whether it was a speech defect so that he stuttered or something — all these have little evidences throughout the Epistles of Paul, that he had eye problems, or that he had speech defect, or it could’ve just been that horrible back that he had, because he said five times he was given 39 lashes. A back after one time of 39 lashes will give you pain the rest of your life. It’s jelly when they’re done. And then it heals after a few months, and then it happened again — same back. And then it healed more slowly. And then it happened again three times. And then they pushed him down in the dirt. He got all covered with dirt. They don’t know anything about infection. They don’t know anything about antibiotics. It just gets infected. He has a fever for weeks. What if he’s going to die? It heals after about a year. Then it happens a fourth time. And, it happens a fifth time. Maybe that’s the thorn in the flesh. You wouldn’t need any more. He probably couldn’t stand up straight. He probably couldn’t gesture without straining. He probably walked with a stiffness, because of the scar tissue all over his back.

Whatever it was, Jesus said, “My grace is sufficient for you. Future grace will enable you to carry this, whatever this is.” And, therefore Paul said, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”

So the second point is that grace is power coming to us out of the future, or as we walk into the future, meeting us at every moment. It is a promissory grace:

From of old no one has heard
     or perceived by the ear,
no eye has seen a God besides you,
     who acts for those who wait for him. (Isaiah 64:4)

I love that passage of Scripture. There have been key points in my life, and the life of my staff, where that verse has been what we’ve held onto for dear life. God works for those who wait for him. When he works for us, and we rest in that work, we sever the root of grumbling and anxiety and greed and impatience. Faith in future grace is the great sin-destroyer in our lives. Psalm 37:5:

Commit your way to the Lord;
     trust in him, and he will act.

Do you need God to act in your life, to triumph over something? Trust the promise of future grace.

The eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to give strong support to those whose heart is blameless toward him. (2 Chronicles 16:9)

God loves to bear his arm, and flex his muscles, and work on behalf of those who trust him, because the giver gets the glory. And he’s bent on getting glory in your life.

Call upon me in the day of trouble;
     I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me. (Psalm 50:15)

Spurgeon preached a sermon one time called “Robinson Crusoe’s Text.” It’s because Robinson Crusoe, in the book, prayed this prayer from Psalm 50:15. “Call upon me. I deliver you. You glorify me. I give the deliverance and I get the glory; you get the help.” Faith in future grace prays without ceasing. It prays for more grace, and more grace, and more grace.

  • grace to get home tonight
  • grace to get a good night’s rest
  • grace to wake up healthy in the morning
  • grace to keep on believing
  • race for our hearts to be inclined to the word tomorrow morning
  • grace to speak
  • grace to listen
  • grace for our churches.

It just constantly is doing what Psalm 50:15 says: “Call upon me in the day of trouble.” And there is no other kind of day in a world like ours. You have to be blind not to see trouble in all hands. And so, we call upon the Lord continually, and he comes continually in his wisdom, and does help us and gets the glory.

Grace That Pursues

Everybody knows Psalm 23 by heart, but I have never ever been able to understand why the Elizabethan translators translated the last verse the way they did — namely, “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Because anybody who reads Hebrew knows what the verb is behind the English word “follows”: radaph, which always means pursue, not follow. Maybe there was some nuance three hundred years ago in this island that said follow meant pursuit. Follow, to me, is like a pet dog, just wagging his tail: “I’m behind you. I’m behind you. You going that way? I’m behind you.” Well, frankly, that’s not good enough for me.

I need grace and mercy on my back, pursuing me, lest I get away from it. That’s the nuance: “Surely goodness and mercy will pursue me” — like a policeman with a siren on — “all my life.” That’s the way God is: God is not just walking around behind you, wondering which way you’re going to go, and seeing if you’ll slip up, and being ten yards behind you, saying, “Oh, wish I’d been there when you fell of the cliff.” But rather he’s always pursuing you. He’s always after you. He works for those who wait for him. So we should always be praying, “Oh God, get me. God get me. Catch me.”

The longest chapter in the Bible is about the Bible — Psalm 119. It celebrates the value and the preciousness of the word of God in the life of the believer. It ends in a most unexpected way. Because here you have 175 verses of celebrating the power, and the preciousness, and the sin-breaking might of the word of God. It ends like this: verse 176, “I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek your servant.” What a way to end the Psalm: “I have gone astray. Seek me!” Do you pray like that? “Seek me! Pursue me! Don’t leave me out here in this thicket. My wool is all entangled with these things.” It does add: “For I do not forget your commandments.”

You’re all tangled up in sin outside the sheepfold, and you realize what a mess you’ve made of your life again. You’re thinking, “Oh, that was so stupid to lie, or to cheat, or to turn that stupid station on, or to visit that person, or why did I do that? Seek me. Pursue me. Help me.” When you cry like that, according Psalm 50:15, he’s got his red lights on and his siren on, and he’s on you fast.

I believe that when you trust that kind of future grace — that God is after you, God works for you, God shows his power on your behalf, God gives to you, God pursues you — the power of sin will be broken in your life. You won’t become sinless in this age. Sin will no longer have dominion over you, Paul says in Romans 6:14, because the power of a surpassing promise severs the root of the promises of sin. Sin says, “If you do this, it’ll go better.” Along come these glorious promises of future grace and says, “It won’t go better; it’ll go worse. It’ll go better this way.” If you believe that, this loses its power.

Works of the Law

Now Galatians 3:12 says, “The law is not of faith, rather ‘The one who does them shall live by them.’” The first think I’ll say is that I could be wrong. That verse may be the Achilles heel of my system. People like C.E.B Cranfield, Daniel Fuller, Fluckiger have elaborate defenses that nomos in Paul has several meanings, and you must judge according to the context whether it’s the Mosaic Law in its Mosaic intention, which I think is gracious, or whether it’s the distortion of the law in its Pharisaic understanding, which turns it into a legalistic code by which you earn righteousness. That’s what I think is being referred to in verse 12.

Now, it’d take more than I can do now, and more than you’re wanting me to do now to try, I think, to defend that. That’s the key verse that should be brought up in contradistinction to what I gave you from Romans 9:32. So put Romans 9:32 over and against Galatians 3:12, and you work at harmony. You work it out. My effort to work it out is to say that the Mosaic Law as God intended it was a beautiful gift for that dispensation of how people of faith live out their lives. It is the evidence of faith.

Let me give you a little picture. Maybe this will stick. Picture me on a railroad here. There are two rails running, and there are railroad ties connecting the rails every few feet or so. This is the law running along the ground here. The intention of God is for you to get in the train of grace, and by faith, stay in the train. And the engine of the power of the Holy Spirit drives you along obedience to heaven. This is all leading to heaven.

What the Pharisees did wrong — the Judaizers of Galatia — was they looked at this thing, and they are essentially proud people; they’re sinners. I don’t think the Judaizers in Galatia were born again. Paul said it was another gospel. Nothing made him more angry than Galatia. It’s the only letter where he doesn’t begin with some nice words for the church. He’s fuming. Says, “Even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.” These Judaizers arrived and you just bowed down to them.

What the Judaizers did in Galatia is they looked at this thing and said, “Oh, I see what this is.” They reached down with all their moral striving and took hold of the rails and turned it into a ladder. It looks like a ladder. It’s got two railings with ties. You can climb on it. They leaned it up against heaven, and they started to climb to demonstrate their moral capacities. Because you’ve got to get good if God’s going to accept you. The way to get good is to use the law to get good, so that God will be pleased and impressed with your life.

Well, that’s a dead end. That’s against the cross. It’s against grace. We got to lay the law back down. A lot of the law is going to go, like I said, because of the change in dispensation from this side of the cross to the other. It is simply a pathway to heaven, and you’re supposed to walk on it. If you stumble off of it and you have the Holy Spirit, you wake up and you say, “What am I doing?” And you get back on it. You walk on it, yeah, up and down on your way to heaven. That’s my best effort to account for Galatians 3:12.

God and Evil

If God created all things for his glory and we’re to delight in him and bring him glory through joy, why did he create evil? If he didn’t create evil, where did it come from? That’s the biggest question in the universe. Any answer is inadequate, so I won’t feel bad by giving you one. It would be theologically ill-advised to say “God created evil.” However, there are texts, in Isaiah for example, that say he creates weal and he creates woe (Isaiah 45:7).

My view of the sovereignty of God is that God never sins. He’s pure. He is light. But God ordains that sin be. There’s a difference between sinning and willing that there be sin in the universe. Now, if you can’t handle that, you best just say this is a mystery, and we can’t figure it out, and go home. Otherwise, you’re going to get yourself into some really hairy and horrible things. Calvin said what God was doing in eternity was preparing hell for people who tried to answer this question. Calvin was very, very, willing to live with mystery, and we must also. Because, even after I give you this answer, there’ll be lots of mystery left that we don’t understand.

If you ask, Where did the serpent in the garden come from? I think there are enough tips in the Bible that we can say he’s a fallen angel. And then, if you press it back further and say, “Where did Lucifer come from?” “He was a good angel.” And then, if you push it and say, “Why did he stop being good and choose to be evil?” I don’t know why he did, but I know God could’ve stopped it, and he didn’t. Therefore, he willed in his sovereign counsels — he governs all things according to counsel of his will — he willed permissively (that’s one of the words used in Reformed theology) that sin be.

I think that the ultimate answer to why is given in Romans 9:22. I wrote a whole book on this chapter, The Justification of God. It took me longer to write that book than any of my other books. Romans 9 consumed me as an Arminian — just consumed me. I went to seminary as a raving, fighting, vicious Arminian.

I already told you what a disrespectful student I was. I walked up to Jim Morgan the Calvinist systematic theology teacher, who died of cancer the next year. I loved him by the time he died, but at the beginning, he was a real adversary. He was teaching on theology and arguing that God was sovereign, and that free will was in bondage to sin. I was fuming in the back rows. I walked up to him after class one day, and I put a pen in front of his nose, and dropped it. “I dropped it!” That’s what I said. That was my Arminianism. I couldn’t see it any other way. If I can drop that, I can not believe, or I can believe, and I can do what I please. And God doesn’t intrude on any of this free will that John Piper has.

Well, all he did was make us read Romans 9. That was 1969, I believe. My book, The Justification of God, which is an exposition of Romans 9, was published in 1983. That chapter just consumed me — just consumed me. I must understand this chapter. I must get the God of Romans 9. This God seems so out of sync with my theology. I don’t get it. And so, that’s the book you should get, though it’s really heavy sledding, because it’s got all kinds of Greek and Hebrew in it. I haven’t produced a popular edition of it yet. Here’s the end of Paul’s theodicy, which is the justification of God.

What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory? (Romans 9:22–23)

What if he’s done that? The question isn’t answered; it’s just hanging. I think it’s to be finished by: no legitimate objection can be raised. I think that’s the end of the sentence. If God has willed or desired to make known his wrath, by enduring, in much longsuffering, vessels made for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for the vessels of mercy. God ordained that there be sin in order that he might lavish the world with grace against the backdrop of wrath for the vessels of mercy to be staggered by, as it says in Ephesians 2:7, to lavish them with grace forever and ever.

I’ll add this and close with this: he has done it in a way so that nobody is treated unjustly. Now, I know much in our own minds rises up and says that cannot be. He cannot ordain that there be sin and that some of those sinners be condemned in order that his wrath be displayed as a huge backdrop for the hugeness of grace. He cannot do that without treating those people unjustly.

The Bible simply says, “Yes he can, and does.” There is no injustice with God, even though the objector in verse 19 says, “Why does he then still find fault?” Our problems are in the Bible. Paul is very much aware of what we’re all thinking right now. He says, “This is God.” You can see why this is seven years’ worth of meditation, and why it took a book and more to figure it out.