Sustained by Sovereign Grace

The Ground of Assurance

The Reformation Heritage Lectures | Birmingham

The following is a lightly edited transcript

If you have your Bible, I invite you to turn to the text that was read from Jeremiah 32:36–41. You need to feel the Reformation wonder of having a Bible in your lap. On October 6, 1536, one great saint let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also. His name was William Tyndale, and he was strangled and then burned for one basic reason: He thought you should have a Bible in your lap, and that’s why they killed him. The Catholic Church killed him because he thought the Bible should be in English.

The Reformation really matters. It really matters. Oh, how precious are our Bibles and those who gave their lives that we might look at Jeremiah 32 in a language we can understand. My theme here is the sovereign, sustaining grace of God. I want to begin with a kind of definition and then a couple of illustrations and stories from my life, and then I will unpack it from this text. The definition flows out of years now of dealing with pain. And it’s intensifying, is it not? At least, in the world, it seems to look that way.

Sovereign, Sustaining Grace

I sat with a couple at our church whose daughter, Jenny, was hit by a speeding driver and killed two weeks ago. I heard them say it was a “sovereign car”. She was 22 years old. I got an email yesterday at the hotel from parents who lost three daughters in a car accident last January, whom I had heard about and just wrote them a word of encouragement. They wrote me back to say, “Thank you for the word. God is faithful. God is sovereign. God rules. It hurts like you don’t know what, but God reigns.” I was with Wayne Grudem last April, and buried his daughter-in-law who was 23 years old.

The list just goes on and on and on. Don’t go into the ministry if you don’t love helping people trust a sovereign God in the middle of pain. Here’s my definition of the grace that I’m talking about:

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 my definition of sovereign, sustaining grace. I’ll give it to you again: 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.

A Story in the Scars

Here’s the first story. Bob Ricker used to be the president of the Baptist General Conference, of which we are a part, and he came and spoke at our church about 10 years ago. I remember this story so vividly because of the turn it took. His daughter was driving down the road as a teenager and had a serious accident; she was thrown from the car, was not breathing, was turning blue, and a car pulled up behind her and there happened to be a doctor in the car. And in his pocket, he happened to have one of those instruments by which you do an emergency tracheotomy. He then put it in her throat, and risked lawsuits to save her life. She survived.

Then Bob did her wedding and, at her wedding, he looked down at her and pointed to the scar on her throat, in her beautiful wedding dress, and said to her, “Those are memorials of sovereign, sustaining grace,” because of the marvel that there would be a car behind her that would have a doctor in it who would have the right instrument, would have the courage to use it, and that it would work she would live. That felt like sovereign, sustaining grace.

Now, the catch is that a God who can see to it that there’s a doctor in the car behind, and see to it that he has the instrument in his pocket, and see to it that he has the kind of courage and heart to use it, could have prevented the accident very easily. He could have used that same power to just avert the accident and make life easy. But sovereign, 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.

Can You Take a Baptist Church?

Here’s another one that’s little. I could give you big ones, but this is the little one. My wife was driving from Minneapolis to South Carolina on a trip, but this happened in Indianapolis. In the car was little Talitha, Barnabas, and Abraham, and the car died. It was a Saturday afternoon. There was no husband in the car to take care of her, and she was thinking, “I’ve got three kids. It’s Saturday. No places are open. I don’t know what’s wrong with this car.” Then a man pulled up behind; he was a farmer in his mid 60s. He looked at the situation and said, “Well, you could come stay with us.” And she said, “I think we need a motel,” because you don’t just say to a stranger, “We’ll come to your house.”

But then he said, “Well, the Lord says if you do good things to others, it’s like doing them to him,” which kind of gave a little clue to my wife that maybe this was safe. So, she came back with a little parry and said, “Could we go to church with you tomorrow morning?” And he said, “If you could take a Baptist church.” So then the deal was closed, and they were off to stay with the farmer.

It turns out, the farmer was a retired aviation mechanic, and he drove early Monday morning to Indianapolis, bought a radiator, put it in, did not charge her anything, and sent her on her way. In the meantime, Barnabas, the only fisherman in our family, who’s 22 years old today, threw his line into the only pond on this farm he could find and caught a 19-inch catfish. The best day of vacation was the day when the car broke down.

So, if God could make sure that a farmer stops behind our broken-down car, and that he’s an aviation mechanic, and that he’s a Christian and a Baptist to boot, and that he knows where to get a radiator, and that he is willing to purchase it and put it in, and could arrange for a big catfish to be tooling around on the bottom of the pond and latch onto Barnabas’s hook and make it the best day, then he could have preserved this radiator all the way to South Carolina and back. But sovereign, 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.

You know that old Swedish song Day by Day? It’s an amazing song. Here are the lyrics of one of the stanzas:

Day by day, and with each passing moment,
     Strength I find to meet my trials here;
Trusting in my Father’s wise bestowment,
     I’ve no cause for worry or for fear.
He whose heart is kind beyond all measure,
     Gives unto each day what he deems best —
Lovingly, its part of pain and pleasure,
     Mingling toil with peace and rest.

I wonder if you believe that. God gives appropriate measures of pain and pleasure each day.

Exile under the Hand of God

I’ve got lots of other stories that illustrate the point, and so do you, but I’m going to skip them and go to the text with you. We are at Jeremiah 32:36–41, and we’ll see the Bible foundations for what we’ve been talking about.

The situation, as you can see, is that Jerusalem, God’s chosen people, are in darkness and distress in Babylon, and God himself has put them there, very clearly and very decisively. Let’s start with Jereimiah 32:36:

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’

That’s what they say and it’s absolutely true. God is the one who did it, and you can see that in Jeremiah 32:37, which says:

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.

There’s no accident here that Babylon got the upper hand without God’s hand in it. Then, God gets the last word, and the last word is going to be grace; but they were driven there by God. God is ordering their trouble and pain, and then, in the darkness, if they will have it, he’s there to sustain and turn it around.

Now, let me personalize this and ask you how you are sure that the last word will be grace in your life, or that when you’ve been sent into exile, God will bring you back? Let me get right to the heart of the matter: If you profess faith in Jesus Christ and count on everlasting life, how do you know that you will persevere to the end in faith and not make shipwreck of your faith and be lost? How do you know that? People give different answers to that kind of question.

Grace Like a Chain

Let me ask it this way: How do you know that you will wake up a believer tomorrow morning? What’s your confidence that you will wake up a believer tomorrow morning? Is it that you’ve had that kind of a trajectory? Is it because it’s been going well for 30 years and now it’s highly unlikely that you will wake up an unbeliever tomorrow morning? How do you know that? What’s at the bottom of your confidence that you will trust God tomorrow, that you will believe in Jesus Christ tomorrow, that you will not apostatize, throw him away, think it was all a mistake, and abandon him to go into lechery? It happens to pastors who have been in churches for 30 years.

So what’s your confidence that you will wake up wanting to pray tomorrow morning, wanting to believe that Jesus is the son of God, wanting to trust in his cross? What is your confidence? My confidence is sovereign grace, not free will, nor my resolve. Left to myself, I will not wake up a believer tomorrow morning. Left to myself, I will go another way than the way of Calvary. Oh, to grace how great a debtor, daily I’m constrained to be! Let thy goodness like a chain — that word fetter just doesn’t land on us the same. The song is saying, “Chain me.”

Do you pray that way, I wonder? Do you say, “Chain me. Let thy goodness like a fetter bind my wandering heart to thee.” Oh, I hope you pray like that. Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love. Here’s my heart, Lord, take and seal it — whatever cement, whatever glue, whatever chain or fetter it takes, don’t let me go. Our only hope is that he will answer that prayer. If he doesn’t answer that prayer, we will forsake the Lord and perish.

So, I ask you, when it comes to sovereign, sustaining grace, do you pray, “Keep me, preserve me. Defeat every rising rebellion in me. Overcome every niggling doubt. Deliver me from destructive temptation. Nullify every fatal allurement. Expose every demonic deception in my soul. Tear down every arrogant argument that rises up against you. Shape me, incline me, hold me, master me, do whatever you have to do, but don’t let me go”? Do you pray like that? Or is it just kind of an automatic thing for you? Have you been taught a theology that perseverance is just kind of automatic — you just sign a card or pray a prayer and you’re safe, without any battle, or fight, or obedience to Romans 8:13, which says, “Put to death the deeds of the body, because if you don’t, you will perish.” Paul, speaking to the churches, says, “Those who live according to the flesh will die.”

It’s war and we fight. What is the confidence that we will win this battle of perseverance in faith? There’s only one answer, and it isn’t your resolve; it is sovereign, sustaining, persevering grace. So, now let’s go to Jeremiah 32:38–41.

An Everlasting Covenant

I’m at a seminary, therefore I’m assuming some things. I’m assuming the ability to make the move from a New Covenant text in the Old Testament to the cross. I probably shouldn’t assume it, so I’ll explain it briefly. When Jesus lifted up the cup and said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20), he meant, at least, “What this represents is the blood I will shortly shed by which I purchase God’s yes to every New Covenant promise in the Old Testament. Anybody who inherits any promise from the Old Testament inherits it because I shed my blood.” The only people who inherit the promises are those who are in Christ, covered by the blood, whatever their ethnic connections. Everyone in Christ, under the blood, inherits Jeremiah 32:38–41.

Now, that might be a sermon by itself hermeneutically, but that’s enough, we’re at a seminary. Let’s read verses 38 to 41:

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.

1. Covenant Fellowship

I want you to see four promises, four absolutely breathtaking promises made to New Covenant members who are in Christ Jesus. First, in Jeremiah 32:38, God promises to be our God, saying, “They will be my people and I will be their God.” All the promises of the Bible are summed up in God saying, “I will be their God, I will use all my God-ness, all my wisdom, and all my power, and all my love, to see to it that you will be my people. And I will work with all my deity, all that I am is God, for you.”

That’s what it means to be God’s people. All his God-ness is on our side. All his God-ness is for us. All his God-ness is working not to bar what is not bliss, nor flight from all distress, but this: To govern and order our trouble and pain, and then, in the darkness, to be there and sustain. And one day, wipe away every tear from our eyes and restore us wholly, body, soul, and spirit. But for now, he is our God, and all that he is as God — and there isn’t anything greater — he is for us in all of our circumstances, no exception. He never drops the ball. Satan never gets the upper hand.

2. Heart Change

Second, God promises to change our hearts and cause us to love and fear Him. Jeremiah 32:39 says:

I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me forever …

Now look at the middle of Jeremiah 32:40, which says, “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 willpower, will fear him. He will not do that for his covenant people, for his elect, for his own. He will not stand by and wonder, “Will they come to fear Me? Will they change their hearts? Will this leopard remove his spots? Will this dead person rise? Will this blind person see? Will this deaf person hear?” That’s not the way people get saved. He says, “I will give them one heart in one way that they may fear me always. I will put the fear of me in their hearts.” He will sovereignly, supremely, mercifully give us the heart we need to trust him, always. This is sovereign, sustaining grace.

3. Irrevocable Devotion

Third, God promises that he will not turn away from us, and we will not turn away from him. Jeremiah 32:40 says:

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.

So, at the beginning of verse 40, he says, “I won’t turn from them,” and at the end of verse 40, he says, “I will not let them turn from me.” That’s why you will wake up a believer tomorrow morning, and that’s the only reason you will wake up a believer tomorrow morning.

His heart is at work and changes our hearts. This is what’s new about the New Covenant. This is what’s different about the New Covenant. By his power, by his will, he fulfills the conditions we must have to be saved. You must be a believer to be saved, you must stay a believer to be saved. You become a believer and you stay a believer by sovereign grace. Otherwise, you’re going to get the credit for being one and staying one, and rob him of his glory. He is saying, “I will put the fear of me in their hearts, and then I will not stand back to see if they keep it there.” He doesn’t just get it rolling and then stand back, as if to say, “I sure hope they pick up the momentum here.” He says, “I will see to it that they will not turn from me.” Oh, precious, sustaining grace. Where is your assurance resting that you will be a believer tomorrow?

4. Limitless Affection

Finally, God promises to do this with the greatest intensity of affection imaginable. Jeremiah 32:41 says:

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.

Now, notice two things in that verse. Notice the word rejoice — “I will rejoice over them to do them good.” He is saying, “I am not doing good to them begrudgingly. My Son did not twist my arm on the cross, or corner me so that I have to give up the wrath I really like to use.” This is the joy of the Almighty. And then, as if that we’re not big enough, he bumps it up with the word all — “With all my heart and with all my soul, I will work for them. I will keep them.” Now, I want to challenge you to imagine something that would prove this false. There’s no sermonic flair, nor a homiletical or rhetorical trick, just a simple challenge to you. I challenge you, and you come to me afterwards if you want to stand up and say it right here, you can, but you’ll just make a fool of yourself.

I challenge you to conceive right now, in your wildest imagination, of any exuberance, or any energy, or any power, or any overflow of enthusiasm greater than that implied in the words, “The joy of the infinite God with all his heart and all his soul.” Any takers? If not, you should be blown away. There is no energy, there is no exuberance, and there is no joy conceivable greater than the joy of the Almighty acting with all his heart and with all his soul to do you good. Jesus bought that for us when he died. He had to buy it for us if we were to have it.

The Ground of Our Assurance

I hope that you are enjoying the sweetness of the sustaining power of sovereign grace in your life. I hope that your struggle with assurance will shift from the struggle to be the bottom of your assurance, to the struggle to keep God at the bottom of your assurance. And I pray that you will put the beginning of this message and the end of this message together so that when the cancer announcement comes, or the wayward child doesn’t come back after so many years, or the marriage is on the hardest of times, or the email comes of some devastating news, you will not deny this last point, as if to say, “Oh, I guess he’s only working for me a little bit right now, or maybe he just stopped for a little while. He just stopped.”

I hope that you will remember saving, 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, with all his heart and with all his infinite soul, is there to sustain and bring you to a point where one day there will be nothing but joy.