God’s Sustaining Grace

Vineyard Christian Fellowship


The following is a lightly edited transcript.

We’ve been talking about living by faith in future grace for the last couple of days because I’m on a mission from my church. The mission statement of our church — as well as the mission statement of my life — is that we exist, Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis exists, to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples.

As I have reflected for the last twenty-five years or so on how you do that, on what kind of life magnifies the supremacy of God, I have come to the conclusion that it is a life of faith in future grace. It simply means trusting God for his promises, then taking all the risks appointed for you in the confidence that his promises will take care of you.

Radical love is born out of that, worship is born out of that, and joy is born out of that. If you like rhymes, we have concluded in these last two days together that a life of faith in future grace sees to it that God is magnified, I am satisfied, and life is sanctified. And that’s everything.

Now, what I want to do this morning is pick up on a little promise that faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God (Romans 10:17). My aim this morning is to simply build more faith in future grace, and I’m going to use one promise in Jeremiah to do it.

Sustaining Grace Is Not Immediate Relief

Let me tell you a poem. I wrote a four-line poem called “What Is Sustaining Grace?” to capture the point of the text and the message, which is all about sustaining grace. Here’s its definition in four lines.

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.

That’s what I mean by sustaining grace. I know that in a room like this one there is much pain, much trouble, and much darkness. I stress this because if I were to define grace for you as that which bars what is not bliss, that which is flight from all distress, or that which can’t possibly order your trouble and pain, I would be a liar. I would be unbiblical, and I would be out of sync with real life and real experience. It’s just unbiblical to think about mighty, sovereign grace in that way.

Now let me tell you a few stories, which are the text in life, as it were. My hope is that they will help to illustrate what I mean by sustaining grace.

Grace That Scars

A man named Bob Ricker heads my denomination. He does not live too far from here, and he has a wife named Dee. He came to my church last June, and he told me about his daughter. She was in a very serious car accident. Her neck or head was injured, so she wasn’t getting air. She was turning blue on the road, but a doctor was in the car behind her. He just happened to have an air tube in his pocket. He also happened to have the courage and the willingness to risk malpractice lawsuits when he stuck it into her throat, saving her life.

“You have no hope of making it on your own to heaven.”

Then, just a few year ago, Bob did her wedding. As she and her husband stood before him at the altar, he looked at her, and he pointed to the little scars. He said to her, “Those scars are not scars only. They are memorials of sustaining grace.”

When he said that, a thought went through my mind. Bob Ricker is not naïve. He knows that if sustaining grace can place a doctor in the car behind his daughter, an air tube in his pocket, and courage in his heart, then sustaining grace could have prevented the accident.

But sustaining grace is not grace to bar what is not bliss nor flight from all distress. It’s the grace that orders our trouble and pain. It’s the grace that’s there — on the side of the road, in the darkness, amid all the trouble and pain — to sustain us.

Grace That Stops

Recently my wife and I bought a 1986 Chevy Caprice station wagon for less than two thousand dollars. “What a deal,” I thought. She took the car to Georgia without me. She had our one-year-old Talitha with her, as well as Barnabas, who was thirteen, and Abraham. At sixteen, Abraham was able to help her drive.

One hour south of Indianapolis, the car stops in the middle of nowhere. Here she is without her husband, who is supposed to be her protector, alone in the middle of nowhere on a Saturday evening, with a car that won’t run. What do you do? You wait.

Divine Hospitality

A 67-year-old farmer who lives nearby pulls up behind them. He asks if he can help, and she says, “Well, I suppose all we need to do is find a motel because nobody’s going to be able to fix this car before Monday morning. If you could direct us, and maybe help me and my family to get there.” He said, “Well, look, we don’t live too far away. You want to come and stay with us?” She throws out a little fleece, testing him, and says, “Well, I don’t want to inconvenience you.” He says, “Well, the Lord says if you’re ministering to somebody, it’s like ministering to him.” She does one more test. She says, “Well, could we go to church with you tomorrow morning?” To this Baptist pastor’s wife, he says, “If you can take a Baptist church.”

And so, they go to his house. Not only does he take the whole family in, but he also looks at the car. He says, “Radiator’s shot. It’s leaking out everywhere. I’ve got a friend in Indianapolis. I’ll get up early Monday morning, drive up before he opens, get the radiator, come back, and put it in.” Then he does what he says he’ll do, and as a retired aviation mechanic, he won’t take any money for it. My wife is on her way by ten o’clock in the morning.

Here’s the icing on the cake. The man has a pond on his farm, and my 13-year-old catches a nineteen-inch catfish. Barnabas says, “This is the best thing that ever happened on our vacation. The car broke down.”

No Problem for God

Now if God, in his sustaining grace, who by his wonderful mercy puts all kinds of silver linings around our clouds, could see to it that there was a Christian, Baptist, airplane-mechanic-turned farmer one hour south of Indianapolis, who’s willing to stop, take my whole family in, and put in a radiator without charge as a nineteen-inch catfish swims around at the bottom of his pond, mouth open, waiting for a worm — then he could have stopped the accident. He could have kept the radiator running for another ten hours, all the way to Barnesville, Georgia. That would have been no problem for God at all. But sustaining grace is

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.

Grace That Blinds

A young man who goes to my church has a baby that was born blind last year. It hasn’t been easy for him to maintain his faith, so he emailed me, saying, “You know, John, there has been a lot of wonderful support. A lot of good things have been said. Still, nobody can really know what it’s like to have your first baby born without any eyes. It would have been easier if Jesus had not healed the man in John 9.”

Remember that story? John 9 — the man born blind. The leaders say to Jesus, “Who sinned, the man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus says, “Neither. It is that the glory of God might be manifest.” Then Jesus healed him, and the glory of God was manifest (John 9:1–7).

“If God doesn’t chain me to God, I’m a goner.”

The man with the little blind baby says, “It would have been easier had God not healed the man in John 9.” I said to him, “He didn’t do it that way for Paul in 2 Corinthians 12.” Remember the thorn in the flesh? We don’t know what it was, but it was thorny. It was painful, and so he cried out, “God, take it away! God, take it away! God, take it away!” Three times he cries out, and three times the answer comes back, “No, no, no.”

Then Paul gets it, because of the reason that Jesus gives him: “My grace, my sustaining grace, is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Paul relents, and he says, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9–10).

It is not grace to bar what is not bliss nor flight from all distress. It’s the grace that orders our thorns in the flesh, our broken cars, and our choking daughters. It’s the grace in the darkness that’s there to sustain.

Grace That Burns

My church is over one hundred years old. In 1885, when the church was fourteen years old, its building caught fire. It burned down and was destroyed. A few people at our church researched the fire, to find out what really happened. One young woman is a true researcher, so she went down and got out the old microfilms from the Minneapolis Tribune. She found articles on the fire, ones from over one-hundred years ago.

Back in those days, the press treated religion decently. This article celebrated the goodness of God because of what happened to the firemen that came to the church. When they climbed up on the roof with their hand-pumped hoses to pour water into the building, the whole roof collapsed — except for the little patch where the firemen stood. It was a big deal in the newspaper. Sustaining grace was celebrated in Minneapolis.

Owing to that sad tragedy, the church that we still use today was bought. The building is bigger and better, so it all worked out. As I heard that story, I thought that if God can hold up a little patch of roof for the sake of a few firemen who were probably pagan, then he could have put out the teeny-weeny spark that started the fire. He could have saved the church. But sustaining grace is

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.

Will We Shipwreck Our Faith?

I invite you to turn to Jeremiah 32 with me. There’s a verse in here that I hope you’ll memorize when we’re done, because it’s precious. Let’s read through Jeremiah 32:36–41. The people of Israel have been taken captive in Babylon because God sent them there in judgment. He’s going to bring them back, and he has a new covenant promise to make to the people of God.

Now therefore thus says the Lord, the 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”: Behold, I will gather them from all the countries to which I drove them in my anger and my wrath and in great indignation. I will bring them back to this place, and I will make them dwell in safety. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God. I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me forever, for their own good and the good of their children after them. I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me. I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul.

That should take your breath away. Now, the reason that this text relates to these stories is that they are in a mess. They’re in Babylon. God has sent them there. It’s no accident that they’re there. It says in the text that he drove them there, but that’s not the last word. He’s going to, by sustaining grace, bring them back: “Behold, I will gather them from all the countries to which I drove them in my anger and my wrath and in great indignation. I will bring them back to this place, and I will make them dwell in safety” (Jeremiah 32:37).

“How big and extensive and immeasurable is the heart of God?”

Now, here’s the personal, practical question that I want you to ask the Lord and to let him answer for you. How can we know, as we move in and out of trouble and difficulty and pain and distress and fretting and agony that we will be sustained to the end — that we will make it to heaven, that we will have the whole inheritance of glory and joy and perfection forever and ever? How can we be sure that having made some mustard-seed commitment to the Lord, having been indwelt by the Spirit, and having begun a faltering path of sanctification — how can we be sure that we’re not going to abort, make a shipwreck of our faith, fall away, apostatize, blaspheme, forget the Lord, be lost, go to hell, and enjoy nothing of God forever? How can we be sure that’s not going to happen?

Whether you’re going to last is the mega issue when you get into hard times. It’s not just whether you’re going to live physically, but whether your faith is going to carry through the pain that you’re in, or whether you’re going to lift your fist against God and say, “If you’re that sovereign and great, and you’re doing this to me, I don’t want any more to do with you. I’m out of here.” How do you know that you won’t do that someday?

Only God Can Chain Us to Himself

That’s what Jeremiah 32:36–41 is about. It’s all about the new covenant promises of why that’s not going to happen to God’s people. It’s not going to happen because sustaining grace is sovereign grace. I take comfort that there are hymns and songs that show me it is this way, and one that you may or may not know goes like this:

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.

Do you ever pray like that? Another word for “fetter” is “chain.” “Let your goodness, like a chain, bind my wandering, maverick, wayward, pulling-at-the-chain heart to you.” Do you pray like that? If God doesn’t chain me to God, I’m a goner. That’s my belief. My understanding of sustaining grace is that if it isn’t made of chains, I’m a goner. I’m out of here. My flesh is a wandering flesh, and everything in the world is inviting me to leave: “Come on, come on, come on.” And there’s enough flesh left in me to say, “That would be attractive.” If grace doesn’t work to chain me to a superior satisfaction, I’m going to be blinded and will go after the fleeting pleasures that are beckoning me.

The song continues:

Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
   Prone to leave the God I love.
Take my heart, O God, and seal it,
   Seal it for thy courts above.

Now, that hymn writer had it right. He prayed right. “Keep me, O God. Preserve me, O God. Defeat every rebellion that rises in my life. Overcome every niggling doubt that comes. Deliver me from destructive temptation that begins to take root in my mind. Nullify every fatal argument that I start to throw up against your sovereignty and the pain that it seems to be ordering in my life. Expose every demonic deception that comes against me. Tear down every kind of allurement that hooks me. Shape me, keep me, save me, preserve me.” Do you pray like that?

If you have the confidence that without that kind of sovereign sustaining grace in your life that you’re going to make it, you’re in grave danger. You were never designed to make it on your own, and when sin kicks in, contrary to God’s original design, you have no hope of making it on your own to heaven. Sovereign, sustaining grace gets you there.

What God Promises to Us

Let’s read Jeremiah 32:38–41 and watch God commit himself to you.

And they shall be my people, and I will be their God. I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me forever, for their own good and the good of their children after them. I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me. I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul.

For Every Child of God

Can you believe that God Almighty talks like that? Now, lest there be a skeptic in the crowd who says, “That’s a promise made to the Jewish people. That’s not made to us. That’s Israel’s promise. What are you doing, taking Israel’s promise and applying it to all these Gentiles?”

Well, I take Israel’s promise and apply it to you Gentiles because of a few simple verses in the New Testament. It proves that you who are in Christ are implicit in the Old Testament because Jesus Christ is the seed of Abraham. Take Galatians 3:18: “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” Or as Galatians 3:7 says, “Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham.”

Faith in God’s Promises

The faith of Abraham, according to Romans 4, is what you must have to be saved. It’s faith in the promises of God. If you have the faith of Abraham, you are a son or a daughter of Abraham, which means, according to Romans 2:29, a true Jew, which means the Old Testament is your book. Only slight changes have been made according to redemptive history, like the sacrifice being given — namely, Jesus Christ — so that all the sacrifices are over. He’s also the High Priest, so all the priesthood is over. Know that the Old Testament is your book. Read it and believe it.

What’s more, this is called the everlasting covenant in Jeremiah 32:40. Back in Jeremiah 31:33 and following, it’s called the new covenant. Jesus said in Luke 22:20, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” What we are doing right here in the Lord’s Supper is tasting the emblems of the sealing of the new covenant for every Gentile and Jew who by faith are in Christ.

Now, that’s a little hermeneutical defense for my using this text. It’s your verse. Don’t let anybody say to you that this is not your verse.

Four Promises for You

Now I want to unpack the four promises that are here in Jeremiah 32. Take each one and love it.

1. God is completely on your side.

Jeremiah 42:38 says, “And they shall be my people, and I will be their God.” Now, these are common sentences in the Old Testament. Please don’t run over them at sixty-five miles per hour. Pause and say, “What does it mean to have the Creator of the universe as my God and to have him say to me, ‘You are my people’?” What does that mean?

“God saved you by taking out an absolutely unresponsive heart.”

Well, since we only have one sermon to preach instead of four, it means that all of God’s God-ness is there for you. All that he is — his infinite power, infinite wisdom, infinite knowledge, infinite justice, infinite goodness, infinite love, infinite mercy, eternality, immortality, absolute being — is there for you, in the same way that your Visa card is there for you. Nobody else can use your Visa card unless you tell them your PIN number.

Love this promise, “I am your God,” spoken by the God of the universe. What more can he say to you? That’s the first promise. “I will be your God, and everything I am, I am for you.” If God is for us, who can be against us?

2. God alone can transform your heart.

Second, God promises to change our hearts and to cause us to love him and to fear him. Jeremiah 32:39 says, “I will give them one heart.” He says that he’s going to give you a new heart. Do you have a heart of stone? If you’re part of God’s people, he is going to take out the heart of stone and put in a heart of flesh: “I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me forever.” The new heart that he gives to his people is a God-fearing heart. “Always,” he said. “Always, they will fear me.”

He says it again in Jeremiah 32:40: “And I will put the fear of me in their hearts.” In other words, when God is assembling a people for his own, from all the nations, he is not waiting to see who, in their own sovereignty or self-determination, elects him to be their God. He alone is giving new hearts. He is taking out hearts of stone and is putting in God-fearing hearts of flesh into his people.

If you are a Christian this morning, you did not save yourself. God saved you by taking out an absolutely unresponsive heart. Some of you came into this room with that kind of heart, and I pray that you are experiencing that transplant right now. He took out that heart of stone that had no interest in Jesus, had no eyes for his glory, had no delight in his beauty, thought everything was a myth and useless, thought that sin was the way to go and that death was the end of the line, and he put in a heart of reason and light and truth and joy so that the whole world of God opened up to you. You saw it as beautiful and true and reasonable. It solved so many problems. The universe began to make sense. It gave meaning to your life, and you believed.

You didn’t do that. My view of what it means to be a Christian is so big, so amazing, and so miraculous that the thought that a human being could become a Christian is unthinkable. You can’t think that thought, and this text underlines it: “I will give them one heart. I will give them one way, that they may fear me. I will put the fear of me into their hearts.” The second promise is that God assembles a people of his own by sovereignly creating them with new hearts and by putting the fear of himself into those hearts.

There are so many promises to that effect. You can go back to Deuteronomy 30:6, where it says, “And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.” Someday I’m going to circumcise their hearts so that they will love me. Nobody chooses to love God apart from the massive, sovereign, transforming work of God in your heart.

3. God will bring you to glory.

The third promise comes from Jeremiah 32:40. It’s my favorite. God promises that he will not turn away from us and that we will not turn away from him: “I will make with them an everlasting covenant.” Don’t miss the word everlasting. The rest of the words in this verse show why it’s such a precious word: “I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them.”

If you stopped right there, you would have people who say, “Oh, yeah. I know. God will not turn away from me, but I can turn away from him.” That’s a sad view of salvation. God doesn’t say that. He says, “I will put the fear of me in their hearts so that they will not turn away from me.” If you don’t understand that right — the freedom, power, and authority of God — then you don’t yet understand the new covenant.

“I will put the fear of me in their hearts so that they will not turn away from me.”

Here’s the difference between the old covenant made at Mount Sinai and the new covenant sealed by the blood of Jesus. In the old covenant, the stipulations were laid down, the commands given, but no sovereign enablement was guaranteed. And what happens when flesh meets commandments without sovereign, divine spiritual enablement, is that it turns them into legalism and makes a ladder by which you try to climb into heaven, instead of a railroad on which you highball to heaven with the power of God in your life.

But in the new covenant, this is what happens. No longer will the flesh meet the law and create a legalistic enterprise. “I will put into hearts what needs to be in hearts, and guarantee this people will trust me, love me, fear me, and make it to glory. I will never turn away from them, and I will see to it that they will never turn away from me.”

If you ask me how I can be sure that, having made a good start with God, I’ll finish it, my answer would be that God will finish it. God will enable you to get to the end. Our eternal security does not come from any past decision.

Endure to the End

Many people come to me with wayward kids, who are off in the service somewhere in Nebraska or North Dakota living like the devil. The mom is heartbroken, and she says to me, “But I can remember when he was six. He walked to the front, and right there he prayed to receive Jesus.” I give her no security whatsoever. I say, “Look, there are a thousand ways to deceive ourselves, especially when we’re six. If this child prayed and is now an unbeliever and stays an unbeliever, that was a bogus prayer. If you can show me a card where he signed on the dotted line at an evangelistic crusade, and he forsakes the faith, I conclude that he was never born again.”

Then she says, “Well, where is my security?” The answer is that it is in this verse. It’s in God: “I will not turn away from you if you are mine, and I will not let you turn away from me if you are mine.” There’s a difference between those who are God’s and those who are not God’s. And perseverance proves who is God’s and who is not God’s.

Never Deny God’s Power

Now, let me stick in a parenthesis here that I was praying this morning. I am very concerned with a theological movement today, one spawned by several well-known theologians, called open theism. The movement denies his omniscience of future human decisions, arguing that since humans must have ultimate self-determination and must be creators in their own right, decisions come not from God’s supernatural oversight and control, but out of sovereign, autonomous, self-determining human wills, and therefore God cannot know them.

If they do not exist and are not knowable until they are created by little goblins called humans — that’s my prejudicial opinion of this view — this verse crashes, along with the whole new covenant, if that view is true, because God says, “I will not let any born-again believer ever forsake me ultimately, but I will always bring them back to myself, that they may be eternally secure.” It means that God rules your will, and if he rules it, he knows it.

Therefore, any of you that denies the omniscience of God over future human decisions undermines the new covenant and Christianity. Don’t believe that view. Fight it. I plead with you, especially you Trinity students. I don’t think any of your faculty hold that view. I mean, you’re competent enough to lift your voice, with the kind of help you get over there, and to say, “Let’s stop this thing in evangelicalism.” It isn’t evangelical.

4. God rejoices to do you good.

Finally, God promises to do this: never to forsake you, never to stop doing you good, and never to let you turn away from him ultimately. God promises to do that with the greatest intensity imaginable. I get that from Jeremiah 32:41, which just takes my breath away. God is talking. It’s not a human talking. He says, “I will rejoice over them” — you, you new covenant people who trust Jesus. “I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul.”

“Nobody chooses to love God apart from the massive, sovereign, transforming work of God in your heart.”

Now, I’m going to ask you a question: Can you even conceive, all you great imaginers and you physicists and you poets, of an energy and an intensity greater than that? I do not believe it is possible to even conceive of an energy and an intensity and a force greater than what’s described in this phrase: “with all my heart and with all my soul.” Take all the desires and all the joys and all the intensities and all the longings that are created by all the desirable things in the universe — money and sex and power and family and friends and prestige — and gather them all together.

Then take all the hearts of all the human beings in the world. Let’s just say six billion, plus or minus a few dozen million. Gather all those people with all those desires and put them into a bottle. Tell me how that bottle compares in size with this divine intensity, this divine desire, and this divine joy. And the answer is it compares like a thimble to the Pacific Ocean.

And it’s for a very simple reason. There is no dramatic, rhetorical flourish here. This is sheer mathematical reckoning. “All my heart.” How big and extensive and immeasurable is the heart of God? Does anyone have a word for it? Infinite. You can’t measure it. It’s so much bigger than the Pacific Ocean. Therefore, I don’t care how big you can conceive of intensity and desire and joy.

God Desires Your Infinite Good

You haven’t come close to what this verse is saying about how much God is after you for good. God is rejoicing over the good of his chosen with an energy that is absolutely, inconceivably great. If you believe me this morning, if you believe Jeremiah, or if you believe God, then when you have that awful car accident on the way home today, you will not shake your fist in God’s face. When your baby is born blind and when your marriage fails, when you lose your job and when your 37-year-old wife of five kids has breast cancer, like the family that I prayed over last Tuesday night, you will not disbelieve this.

You will not say, “Oh, he has turned away from doing good to me — at least, the intensity of his desire for my good is now down to about a thimbleful.” Don’t believe that. Don’t be a nonbeliever. Please don’t be a nonbeliever in the promise of Jeremiah 32:40–41. Because if it is true, there is not one millisecond of your life where he turns away from doing you good, even though terrible things happen to you. Sustaining sovereign grace is

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 always, always there to sustain.