Sustained by Sovereign Grace—Forever

PDI Celebration East Conference | Indiana, Pennsylvania


The following is a lightly edited transcript.

We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything. (2 Corinthians 6:8–10)

That is an amazing phrase: as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing. I would love for you to give your own testimony of what that looks like in your life, because if you’re over thirty, probably, you know what that’s talking about: that you can weep your eyes out, and a part of you is rejoicing.

Joy Comes in the Mourning

The clearest example for me was when I got the phone call that my mother had been killed in a car wreck in Israel when I was 28. It’s one of those phone calls where you pick up the phone and at the other end of the line, a brother-in-law, who only has the strength to do it, says, “Johnny, I’ve got some bad news.” I can still hear it, the very phrases. “Your mother and dad were in a bus accident in Israel, and your mother didn’t make it.” Quiet silence. “And your dad may not make it. He’s in the hospital.” He said, “That’s all I know. I just got the long-distance phone call.” “OK, just let me know when you know more.”

And my little two-year-old Karsten (he’s now married), is holding onto my leg, saying, “Daddy’s sad. Daddy’s sad.” I hang up the phone and I say to Noël, “Mama is dead. Mama is dead. And Daddy may not make it.” I went back to the bedroom and knelt down and just wept and wept and wept most of the night. I was so happy inside because she was a believer and that I had her for 28 years.

So I’ve tasted this a little bit. I’ve tasted a little bit of what Paul means when he says “sorrowful, yet always rejoice.” It’s not just that you’re sorrowful sometimes and that you’re rejoicing other times. In the Christian life, there is a rootedness to this stuff we’ve been talking about — this joy thing — that is so deep and so profound, it cannot be shake. At least that’s what I long for you to have and that’s what I’m after.

We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:3–5)

We do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16–18)

I’m now into trifocals; it’s wasting away. I have to say “What?” to my kids more often because my ears are wasting away. After I play basketball, which, by God’s grace, I can still do with the guys at church, my hips ache. They didn’t use to. And someday I will die. So the misunderstanding that what I’m teaching when I talk about Christian Hedonism is a health, wealth, and prosperity thing would be the grossest misunderstanding of what we’ve been doing in these days together.

Another misunderstanding would be that it comes easy; it doesn’t have to be fought for. Listen to this apostolic self-identification in 2 Corinthians 1:24:

Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, for you stand firm in your faith.

It takes work to be happy because everything in life is militating against true joy in God, and our own flesh is lifting up alternatives to true joy all the time, and we must battle and work against it.

Sovereign, Sustaining Grace

Now I’m trying to build a bridge from where we were last two sessions and where we’re going this morning. Where we’re going is to a promise text in Jeremiah 32:36–41. If you have a Bible, I would invite you to go there with me so that we can read it together. The aim here is to talk about what we were singing about sustaining grace in the perplexities and the pain and the difficulties and the detours and the wilderness experiences of life. We are here celebrating fifteen years of ministry. My Church, in 1996, celebrated 125 years of God’s faithfulness. The only reason PDI exists still and Bethlehem Baptist Church exists still is sustaining grace.

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. (Jeremiah 32:36–41)

Let me give you a little four-line rhyme that I will repeat enough times before I’m done for you to perhaps memorize it or at least write it down. 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.

I want to give you some illustrations of this.

A Car Wreck and a Breathing Tube

Bob Ricker is the president of the Baptist General Conference, and I don’t think he’d mind me telling you this story because he told it publicly at our church a couple of years ago. His younger daughter, as a teenager, was in a very serious car accident — thrown from the car, on the road, unconscious and not breathing.

Behind them was a car that immediately pulled over. In the car, there was a doctor. In the doctor’s pocket was a breathing tube. In his heart and mind was a willingness to risk a malpractice suit. And he thrust it into her throat — and she lived. Bob did her wedding about four or five years later. As part of the ceremony, he looked her in the eye, and he reached out and he touched the scars on her throat. He said, “These are memorials of sustaining grace.” Then he referred to God who sovereignly works all things according to his will.

When I heard that story on a Saturday at a big celebration at our church, I stood up the next Sunday morning, and I recounted it to our people. Then I said, “Bob Ricker [who was sitting right over here with his wife, Dee] is not stupid. He’s not naïve. He knows that if the providence of God, in its glorious wisdom and power, can see to it that behind his daughter’s car is coming a car with a doctor in it, with a breathing tube in his pocket, and courage in his heart to use it to save a life, he could have prevented the accident that almost killed her.” 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.

A Rusted Radiator and a Catfish

Two years ago, my wife and my son Abraham and my son Barnabas and my daughter little daughter Talitha were driving without me in this clunky old station wagon that we had from Minneapolis to Georgia to see the family with the new baby. Just about an hour south of Indianapolis, on a Saturday afternoon, the car dies. And Noël is there without her valiant husband to solve a problem — alone with three children on a Saturday afternoon.

A man pulls up behind her. He’s about sixty, and he’s a farmer, and he wants to be helpful. He looks and he sees the radiator is totally shot. It is rusted through, water coming from everywhere. This car is not drivable, and it has to have a new radiator. He says, “Well, now come stay with me tonight.” And that puts a young woman in a very awkward situation. So my wife says, “I think all we need is a motel. We can take care of it on Monday.” He says, “Well, the Lord says that if you minister to others, it’s like ministering to him.” He tried to tip her off that, “I’m OK.” I think that’s what he meant. And he said, “You can stay with me and my wife.” Noël said, “Well, could we go to church with you tomorrow morning?” I suppose that was her way of checking this guy out. He said, “If you could take a Baptist church.”

So they went. Here’s a detour, right? Here’s a detour in life you didn’t plan. Well, this man turns out to be a retired aviation mechanic. He pulls the radiator out, he gives them a church to attend on Sunday morning. He gets up at 6:00 in the morning on Monday, drives to Indianapolis, gets a new radiator, puts it in, and has them on the road by 10 o’clock Monday morning, and will not charge them for it. In the meantime, Barnabas, who is the fishermen in our family, finds a pond on their farm and catches a 19-inch catfish. He thinks this is the greatest detour he’s ever been on in his life.

Now as my wife recounted all this to me and we look together back over that little vignette of life, and we thought: here’s a farmer who’s an aviation mechanic, who’s a Christian, who’s a Baptist to boot, who’s got a pond with a 19-inch catfish swimming around at the bottom so that my son can not only feel frustrated that he’s going to get a day late to grandmama’s, but can catch that fish and feel happy. The God who can orchestrate that could have preserved the radiator another 700 miles. 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.

A Strength in Weakness

There was a young man who came to me in our church a while back, dealing with some of the heaviest stuff in his life. He just blurted out to me, “It would have been easier for me if Jesus had not healed so many people, and would have just given sustaining grace to help them when they’re not healed.”

My response to him was, “He did do that.” He did do that in 2 Corinthians 12, where Paul had the thorn in the flesh and he cries, “Take it away.” “No.” “Take it away.” “No.” “Take it away.” “No.” After three times, he says, “All right,” and God says, “My grace is sufficient for you. My power is made perfect in weakness,” and Paul responds, “Most gladly, therefore, will I 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 am I strong” (2 Corinthians 12:7–10).

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 Refining Fire

Our church is 127 years old now. In 1895, it was then 14 years old, and the church caught on fire. There are pictures of this. I’ve read about it. I’ve even read the Minneapolis Tribune reports of the fire; we’ve gone into the archives. The church caught on fire on a Saturday night. It was a huge fire. In 1895, the fire company isn’t like it is today, but they came. With their pumps and with their hoses, they climbed up on the roof of the burning church and did their hoses down in the church trying to save it. The roof caved in, except for the one little place where the firemen were standing. The Tribune reports this because this was a big deal that in the city, this big fire, the church burned down, the firemen were risking their life on top. The roof caves in on the fire, and a patch of roof is left where the firemen were standing.

Within six months, by God’s sustaining grace, the church a block away, where we are now — we’ve been in this building since 1895 — they found another building that the Second Congregational Church was willing to sell, and they bought it. And it’s turned out to be a better location and a better situation all around.

So you had saved firemen and you had instant replacement and you had a better location, and 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.

A Tearful Path to the Pastorate

We have just one more story; otherwise, I’ll wear it out. I want to go back and document a detour in my own life and try to interpret for you why when I hear a song like “In my deepest loss, I will cling to the cross,” I can feel it wonderfully.

Glossophobia

I don’t remember much about my childhood. I think the reason I don’t remember much is because my memory is merciful to me and blocks out things that weren’t happy. I had wonderful parents. My parents were not abusive in the least and it’s nothing like that. There were just humiliating things that happened. I’m embarrassed to even talk about them. In fact, I won’t talk about them. There were things that happen to me as a child in the fourth grade, in the fifth grade, the sixth grade at school that are so humiliating, you wonder, as a little child, if you can come back the next day.

I don’t know whether those are the kinds of things that fed into this phenomenon, but when I came to the seventh and eighth grade, my body would not allow me to speak in front of a group. I would shake so violently, and my heart would beat so horrendously hard, I could look down and see my shirt going like this. My legs would be weak and my throat, which was the main problem, would completely close up.

So this was not your ordinary butterflies and weak knees. I have people tell me when they sit down, having read Scripture or having sung or something, “Oh, I was so nervous.” I say, “You do not know what nervous is because you did it; you did it, and I couldn’t do it.” You’ve got to realize what that cost in the eighth grade.

I can remember one in particular: Everybody had to write a report of their science experiment — one paragraph, and read it. So I thought and I prayed. Maybe if I hold a very firm piece of paper, and maybe if there were something in the front I can lean on, I could do it. So I was going to try to do it. And we’re just going down the line like this. As the person two in front of me got up and read their paragraph, what was going on inside of me was just horrendous. My body was screaming, “I will not do this,” and I have no idea why this is. But when the person in front of me got up to go, I got up and I went to the bathroom. I just cried and cried and cried and cried and waited until class was over, and went back and said to the teacher, “I’m sorry, I can’t do it.”

Tenth grade, two years later (I’m just picking out ones I remember), Mr. Vermilion, the civics teacher, says, “You have to give an oral book report.” I said, “Mr. Vermilion, I can’t give an oral book report. I’ll do anything. I’ll do any extra credit. I can’t give an oral book report.” He says, “John, this is part of your education. You have to give an oral book report or you can’t get anything better than a C in this class.” “Fine, I’ll take a C.” He didn’t believe me, and I didn’t do the oral book report. I didn’t do it, and I got my C.

I was a nice guy in high school, but I refused every opportunity to take an office, because do you know what you have to do to be a vice president of your class? You have to give a speech, and I couldn’t. So I was never elected to any office or anything like that. This lasted right on into college, and I won’t tell you the story of its change because you can read about it in the chapter on anxiety in Future Grace. I tell the whole story there.

Making a Preacher

Here’s the point I want to make this morning: I think what God was doing in those days is not hating me. I don’t think he hated me; I don’t even think he disliked me. I think God was making a preacher. I think God clogged by mouth in order to fill my heart, because what I would do in those days is to get alone and feel desperate, and go to God over and over and over again, because I had nobody else to go to. And he took me off of the fast track of popularity, and drove me into his word, and drove me into myself, and drove me into nature — into the sky at night. I would go up on my roof, and I would lie down on the roof of my house and look up into the sky at night. I’d wonder why, I’d marvel at the bigness of it all and think thoughts about eternity.

I think if I’d been a cool teenager and everybody liked me and I had it all together, I wouldn’t have ever done that. I’d have been out being cool every night with everybody who thought I was cool, but I wasn’t. Nobody thought I was cool. The silence that fell over those classrooms when it came my turn to say no was horrible. I wouldn’t ever wish it on any kid.

We would go to these things called “creativity nights” where my kids used to go to school, and it was the night where everybody had to do a little something — a little poem or a little reading or something. There was one kid, tall and gangly, and he would stand up. I watched this happen for four years, from about grade 1–4 or something. He would fail, and have to stop in the middle every time. I’m sitting at the back, inside, saying, “Don’t make him do that. I hate what I’m seeing here.” I felt exactly like I was in his skin. It took me back twenty-five years. Everything inside of me was saying, “Don’t torture this kid this way.” I think he’s doing OK. I saw him the other day. He’s about 6-and-a-half feet tall. It seems like he’s all right. But he’s probably telling stories like this somewhere too.

God was not failing to answer my prayers, I believe. He was causing me to feel deeply. He was causing me to think a lot. He was addicting me to himself and his greatness as the only hope of my life. He was doing it in a way nobody else would do it, that is he was making a preacher in the way nobody else would do it.

My dad’s a preacher. You know what people always ask me as a kid? “Gonna be a preacher?” They didn’t know me if they asked that question. And I said, “No way.” The humiliation and the loneliness and the crying out. I’ll tell you, if you Eugene Lawrence, my old pastor, could be in the audience right now — maybe he is because he’s in heaven — and he would see what I’m doing here, he would go to Acts 11:23 and say what Barnabas said: “I have seen the grace of God, and I am glad. I have seen the miraculous sustaining grace of God in a young man’s life, and I am glad.”

Every Day’s Pain for Good

I think God took every day’s pain, and used it for my good. That’s what I believe. What a difference, what a difference, I think, it would have made in my life if I had not spent certain fall afternoons, sitting out on my front lawn overlooking Dellwood Valley, off into the piney mountain across the valley, listening to distant trains, and wondering what it would be like to get on them and go to some place where nobody asks anymore why the preacher’s kid can’t give a three-minute report in Training Union in a Southern Baptist Church. I think my life would be weak today, weaker today, if I didn’t spend those afternoons looking across the valley, wondering if I should get on the train and just disappear. I don’t think that was a mistake.

What would my life have been if I hadn’t sat alone under the dogwood tree? I remember this dogwood tree. I can remember what the grass looked like, what it smelled like after I cut it. I had a pad of paper in my hand, writing a poem to my mother, trying to express my appreciation, because she was the only one who seemed to understand, and would, at night, sit on my bed before one of those horrible reports were due and cry with me and say, “Somehow it’ll work out.” She didn’t have an answer.

She tried to send me to a psychologist one time, and the psychologist had me look at a Rorschach chart, and he said, “Tell me what comes to mind.” Well, I don’t remember what I said, but she, at the end of this one hour together, told me it was my mother’s fault. I was so furious that I walked out of there and never would go back. Mother was the only person that would get me through this, and she was telling me, “It’s your mother’s fault that you’re like this.” Well that’s irrelevant to me, whether that’s true or not. I have no idea whether something happened in my mother’s womb or anything else. All I know is my mother was there. My father was never there. He was always traveling. And so, my mother was always there with a hug and with a, “You’re going to make it through this.” If I hadn’t spent those days under the dogwood tree, writing poems to her, I wouldn’t be the preacher I am today.

Teenager, don’t want a smooth life. Don’t get mad at God because you look funny, or you’re not developing the way you’d like to develop, or you don’t have the friends you’d like. Embrace that pain. Embrace that pain. God’s up to something really good here. Embrace that, and let it have its full ministering, deepening effect. You’re going to pass through this thing. Something’s going to happen in five or ten or fifteen years, and you will look back, and you will bless him. You won’t minimize it. I am not minimizing those days. I would not want to live through that again for anything.

But now I put an interpretation on it that says God was in the business of making a creature who feels deeply, who’s addicted to the supremacy of God, who’s tasted grace, who can empathize with some of that, and I won’t begrudge God’s wisdom in that.

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.

Through Your Darkness

Now this is all based on a text, believe it or not. There’s a text, and I want you to go with me to the text — o move into Jeremiah 32 I want to pose the question of whether you’ll make it through your darkness and how are you going to make it through your darkness and your detour in life.

In Jeremiah 32, the people have been in Babylon and have been in bondage. Verse 36 gives the people’s statement about it.

Now therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning this city [Jerusalem] of which you say, “It is given into the hand of the king of Babylon by sword, by famine, and by pestilence.”

That’s true, but they don’t get the last word. God gets the last word and he gives his word in verse 37:

Behold, I will gather them from all the countries to which I drove them in my anger and my wrath and in great indignation.

Now stop and let that land on you: I will bring them back from the misery into which I drove them. Alright, from grade eight to sophomore year in college, God put me in the wilderness. God made me lonely, he made me nervous, he made me sad, he made me pimple faced. My mother also sent me to a dermatologist for two years. My face was covered like leprosy with pimples because I was so anxious, and I ate too much chocolate probably. Now it may be that I did enough bad things. I did lust a lot as a teenager. I did struggle with a lot of masturbation as a teenager. I did look at things I shouldn’t have looked at as a teenager. And it may be that in his fatherly anger, he was upset with me, and I needed to suffer to be cleansed of some of that crap as well — maybe. I don’t know. I don’t know how God works. I just know the anger toward his children is not a condemning anger; it’s a very healing anger. There were reasons why they went to Babylon, and there were reasons why he’s bringing them back in seventy years the way he does.

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)

So there’s a great triumph here now: he put them into the trouble, he’s going to get them out of the trouble, and he’s got purposes in it all. Now the question that’s raised for your life right now wherever you are in the PDI movement and my church is: How can we be confident? What promises will get you home today into that darkness, sustain you in it for whatever number of years it takes, bring you out on the other end, like he brought Joseph out on the other end of a 17-year absolutely inexplicable miserable detour? Where are you in the Joseph cycle? Are you in the pit, or are you coming up out of the pit, ready to be sold into slavery? Are you sold into slavery, or are you now in Potiphar’s house, thinking, “Oh cool, I’ve got a good job at least,” just before you get lied about and put in jail? How far down have you gone?

You may think it can’t get any worse. It probably can. Joseph probably said in the pit, “It can’t get any worse.” But then they sold him into slavery, and he probably said, “It can’t get any worse.” But then Potiphar’s wife lied about it and he said, “It probably can’t get any worse.” Then the butler forgot about him for two more years, and he probably said, “It can’t get any worse.” Well, it could have, but God stopped it after 17 years, and he made vice president and saved the people of God.

So don’t begrudge your 17-year detour on the way to the vice presidency. In heaven, you will judge angels. You will judge angels (1 Corinthians 6:3). You will shine like the sun in the kingdom of your father (Matthew 13:43). Don’t begrudge his preparatory work. He is God; we are not God. Now the question is: What will sustain you? What will get you through?

Sovereign Grace

There’s a song that goes like this:

Oh, 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.

I wonder if you pray like that. Do you pray, “God, my heart, especially in times of darkness and discouragement, is prone to wander away.” Bind me, my heart, like a fetter. Bind me with a fetter. Bind me with a chain so that I will not wander. Do you pray that way? I’m a Calvinist. I’m not a Calvinist because of John Calvin. I’m a Calvinist because I am weak and fearful that left to myself, I will apostatize. I will turn on Christ and leave him as many do.

They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us. (1 John 2:19)

My only hope is that by sovereign grace, God binds me with a sovereign, iron, bronze, divine fetter to himself. That’s my only hope. That’s why I’m a Calvinist. It’s just John Piper’s desperate wish. So I pray — and I commend these kinds of prayers to you:

  • Keep me.
  • Preserve me.
  • Defeat every rebellion that rises up in my heart.
  • Overcome every niggling doubt in my head.
  • Deliver me from destructive temptation.
  • Nullify in my life every fatal allurement.
  • Expose every demonic deception.
  • Tear down every arrogant argument.
  • Shape me.
  • Incline me.
  • Hold me.
  • Master me.
  • Do whatever you have to do to sustain me.
  • Keep me for yourself.

I don’t think an Arminian can pray like. Although you know, thank God, that most Arminians are so much better than their theology. J.I. Packer — bless his heart — says, “God loves to honor the needle of truth in a haystack of error.” And he does. Most people who are born of God (I’ve seen this in my own family, my wider family) pray better than they believe.

My mother-in-law lost her 16-year-old son in a car accident four years after Noël and I were married. I married her oldest daughter. They have ten children. It was the fourth son, I think. He was sixteen, got broadsided, and was killed instantly. This woman was so deep with God that she just lifted up her heart and said, “Thank you that we had him. Thank you that he was born of God. Thank you that a few days before, he was writing poems to Jesus.” And she hates Calvinism. She doesn’t anymore really. This was 25 years ago. She doesn’t anymore. But her misunderstandings of what I believe were profound, I think. And yet there she was: utterly submissive to the sovereignty of God, because she’s born of God. It’s the way you are when you’re born of God: you submit to God. It doesn’t really matter what your head does with your theology for a while; you’re driven to God and you submit to him.

New Covenant Promise

The text that I want to draw to a close now with is the last verses here, that gives you the assurance that you will make it through your darkness, and that when you cry out for years, like I just prayed, God will hear the recordings to his new-covenant promise.

They shall be my people [you can put yourself in there because you are true sons and daughters of Abraham by faith in the seed of Abraham, Jesus Christ], 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. (Jeremiah 32:38–41)

Let me point out four things from those verses.

1. God promises to be your God.

Now that may sound simple, but that’s huge.

That means that all of his Godness, all of his sovereign power, all of his wisdom, all of his love — all of it is there for your disposal. If you say, “This is my Bible,” it means this Bible exists for me to do with what I want and it meets my needs. If you say, “This is my car,” I have this car at my disposal to get me where I want to go. It serves me. If you say, “This is my God,” or God says, “I am your God,” you mean that all his Godness is at your disposal to serve you for his great purposes.

So when you say, “God is my God,” you mean something very, very big.

2. God promises to give you a new heart.

The second thing he promises is not just, “I will be your God,” but then he says, “I will change your hearts and cause you to love and fear me.” Verse 39 says: “I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me forever.”

So how did you come to fear God? Know yourself, Christian. Know yourself so that you will know whom to thank when someone asks, “How did you get to be the way you are? How did you become a believer? How did you come to trust in God?” The answer is: I will give them one heart and one way that they may fear me always.

God did that. God should get the glory for that. When you stand before God, and he says, “Why are you here? Why do you presume to come into heaven?” Your first answer will be, “I trust your Son and not my merit.” And he’ll say, “That’s a good answer.” Then he’ll say, “Why do you trust my Son?” And you might answer, “Because he’s trustworthy. He’s beautiful. He’s glorious. I have seen his invincible, self-authenticating glory in the gospel.” He would say, “That’s exactly right.” Then he might ask, “Why did you see it and not your brother?” Then what are you going to say? “I’m smart; he’s stupid.” You’re going to quote 2 Corinthians 4:6. You’re going to look God in the face (if you can stand it) — and he will grant enough asbestos shears to allow it. You will look him in the face and you will say, “The God who said let light shine out of darkness shown in my heart to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ, and I saw.” And he’ll say, “Come on in.” But if you try to take the glory for yourself, you will be in big trouble.

3. God promises he will never turn away.

The third thing he promises is that he will not turn away from us, and he will not turn away from you, nor let you turn away from him. This is getting as close to the best news in all the world. We’re almost at the pinnacle and we’re almost finished so hang on. Verse 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.

This is love, folks. Remember when I began yesterday morning, I said that I spoke to my people on Sunday about the phrase “beloved of God.” And I said to them that if you read that phrase, and you think like this: “He loves everybody. I’m part of everybody. Therefore, he must love me.” If that’s all you know of the love of God, you’re not part of his covenant bride, because this is the description of the love of God for his covenant bride: “I will make with you an everlasting covenant, and I will put the fear of me in your heart. I will not turn away from doing good to you and I will not let you turn away from me.” God does not say that to everybody in the world. That’s his covenant love to you. That’s the love for his bride.

You’ve got to know that love because that’s the love you feed on as a Christian. If you feed only on the love that God had for Judas, you can’t have any assurance that you won’t be a Judas. This text is the ground for why you won’t become a Judas. Do you see that? “I will not let them turn away from me.” Now don’t press me on the mystery of why God didn’t do it for Judas. There are ultimate things, there are hidden things, in the Bible. Deuteronomy 29:29 says:

The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.

I don’t have answers for everything. But I know he did it for you, and he didn’t do it for Judas. You should just tremble with gratitude. That’s all you can do. You shouldn’t be puffed up in the least and go out to any unbeliever and say, “He did it for me. He didn’t do it for you.” You would be so profoundly mistaken if you responded like that. You should devote all the rest of your life to commending to every unbeliever: “You may have this if you will believe.” And leave in God’s hands whether the sovereign work is done to bring them to believe. Leave it with him.

But you lay down your life for them. You lay down your life for every unbeliever and leave with the sovereign God whether he does this covenanting. He alone could do the covenanting, and put the fear of him in a heart and change the heart of stone to a heart of flesh, and take out the evil heart and put it in a heart of faith, and cause them to walk in his statutes. Only God can do that. But you can love them, and you can woo them, and you can pray for them, and you can serve them.

4. God promises to rejoice in doing you good.

Now there’s one last step in this text, and this is the best of all. You think it couldn’t get any better than to know that God is working to keep you. But there is one more step; namely, God promises to do this for you with the greatest intensity imaginable. That’s verse 41:

I will rejoice in doing them [you] good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul.

He’s not begrudgingly doing you good. He is rejoicing to do you good. Now I want you to see very clearly in this verse, so rivet your eyes on this verse, so that when you leave this place, you won’t be dependent on John Piper for his words, you’ll be dependent on God for his words in this verse. At the front of the verse, there is the joy of God to do you good. At the end of the verse, there is a statement of the intensity of that joy in the repeated word all: “With all my heart and with all my soul.”

Now there is no closing sermonic flare here. This is not a rhetorical exaggeration what I’m about to say. I have thought carefully, reasonably, logically, textually about this. I want to ask you, and I challenge you: Can you imagine or conceive of an intensity in the universe — galaxies, heaven and hell, and earth — of an intensity greater than the intensity carried by the words with all God’s heart and all God’s soul”?

Now that’s a challenge to you. I’m in your face saying to try it. Let’s try it. Let’s just try it. Let’s take all the desire for food in the world. How many people are in the world? Six billion people or so. Let’s take all the desire for food. Eight hundred million of these people are on the brink of starvation right now. Let’s take all the desire for sex in the world. Do you have it? Let’s gather it together. Think of all the men and all the women in their different ways of desiring sex. Get all that desire together. Then all the desire for money — get all that. Get that into your head. Then all the desire for fame. Oh, how we want to be somebody. Get all the desire for power. Get all the desire for meaning. Get all the desire for friends. Nobody likes to be lonely, rejected. Get all the desire for friends. Get all the desire for security. Oh, how we want to have 911 handy and how we want to have security for our retirement. Get all of that desire from six billion people — and any other desire you can think of. And put it in a container now. Do you have it in a container?

Now compare that container and that desire with what is carried by the words, “I rejoice to do you good with all my soul and with all my heart.” Now how does the container of that all compare with the container you’ve got holding all the desire for all the food and all the sex and all the fame and all the power and all the security of the world? The best I can come up with is that it compares like a thimble to the Pacific Ocean.

Now here’s my rational, logical, reasonable, textual reason for saying that. God’s soul is infinite, and all the desires of the universe outside God’s desire are finite. And therefore, we must grasp for images to compare the infinite which goes up and up and up and up, and never stops going up, and goes down and down and down and down, and never stops going down, and goes out and out and out and out and never stops going out, and compare that to the finite limit of a mere six billion people desiring with all their might to sleep with somebody or eat a meal or become powerful. It is as nothing, as dust in the scales, compared to what all God’s heart brings in intensity behind the words “I rejoice to do you good”.

Now you’ve got to pray about this because your one-quart mind cannot handle this hundred-thousand-gallon reality. And yet, for some reason, God told it to you. And I think it has to do with happiness.

So we’re done. I hope that today’s ministry to you from the word, concerning your detours, your wilderness experience, your Joseph trajectory —

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.

The one who gives sustaining grace secures for himself the highest place. The one who gives sustaining grace secures for himself the highest place.

There is no contradiction between my passion to be sustained in joy and satisfaction in God, and God’s passion to be magnified and glorified and to preserve for himself the highest place. You may revel in sustaining grace that comes to you with infinite, omnipotent intensity, and not feel that you are making much of yourself because of the joy that abounds, because God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him.