The Providence of God
Bethlehem Baptist Church
The place of free will and accountability in relationship to the sovereignty and the providence of God: If God has the right and power and authority to influence people’s wills in answer to our praying, then do people have free will? Are they held accountable for what they do and so on? Those are the kinds of questions we want to begin to tackle a little more directly tonight. They’ve been on the table all the way along. If you have ears to hear, the teaching on the providence of God has implied that God does have the right over people’s wills.
In my view, the Bible teaches that the human will is not ultimate, but that God is ultimate. We as individuals are not able ultimately to frustrate the designs of God. We can in the short run. God will suffer us to act contrary to his will. But in the long run and ultimately, he rules. That’s what I think we’ve seen in the past three months together. We’ll ask that question again tonight in relationship to other passages.
The question I’ll begin with is: Does God have ultimate influence over the wills of people? I’m tempted to rehearse all the dozens of texts we’ve looked at over the months, but I just chose a few here to remind you of what I think the answer is.
Who has spoken and it came to pass,
unless the Lord has commanded it?
Is it not from the mouth of the Most High
that good and bad come? (Lamentation 3:37–38)
Now, this is a rhetorical question right here. It’s not answered explicitly in the text. In other words, who gives a commandment or an instruction and have that instruction or commandment come to pass unless the Lord has commanded it? I’m assuming that the answer to that question is nobody. Do you agree with that? I think that’s the implication of that kind of rhetorical question. When you ask a question that way, you’re assuming the answer is nobody.
Let’s turn it into a statement. If you know the answer to a rhetorical question, you can make the rhetorical question into a statement. The statement then would be: no one ever speaks or commands or admonishes such that it comes to pass unless the Lord has commanded it. The other way to say it would be the only thing that ever comes to pass through human agency is something that the Lord commands to come to pass. All of my efforts to do or accomplish are ultimately governed by what the Lord commands to take place. The hard things that happen in your life and the easy things that happen in your life both are from the mouth of the Lord, from the will of the Lord.
It is very clear that we offend God by the use of our wills, we sin against God by the use of our wills, we act contrary to the revealed will of God by the use of our wills. I’m saying that ultimately, even when we do that, we do not do it unless the Most High has issued that from his mouth. The next text I thought of was Daniel 4:35.
He does according to his will among the host of heaven
and among the inhabitants of the earth;
and none can stay his hand
or say to him, “What have you done?”
Here’s the one other text that’s pointed in that regard: Romans 9:14–16 says:
What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.
The context here is: What ultimately does it hang on, whether a person receives decisive saving mercy in their lives or not? Paul’s answer is: “It does not depend ultimately on the will or the effort.” I think that’s what running stands for — willing and running here. But ultimately on the God who has mercy. Those are my three texts just to answer what I think has been coming for all these months and has been there: that God is God, and that means that when it comes down to what happens in the world, he is ultimately responsible.
Work Out Your Salvation
Now, what should we think about that in relationship to our willing? God’s influence enables our willing as we ought. Where does your proper willing come from? Where does your obedience come from? Where do you get the wherewithal to make the choices that you ought to make? I’m suggesting that God’s influence is decisive there. Now, let’s look at some texts on that.
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12–13.)
This is very rich and important text for understanding how the human act of willing and God’s act of willing relate to each other. This word for is all-important because if you reverse the logic of these two verses, you will be a heretic. If you put in here, for example, therefore instead of a for (which is the reverse of a for), if you say, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling and therefore (or as a result of that) God will be at work to will and to work for his good pleasure in your life” — if you make your willing first and foundational and God’s willing consequential, you turn this text inside-out, upside-down. This word for here is very crucial. The way you draw the logic is human willing is supported by God’s willing. That’s what that word for implies.
You may find fault with the logic; it may not fit your world view. But what it makes clear is that just because verse 13 is true and that God is at work in me to will and to work for his good pleasure, you may not biblically draw the inference from that that you must now and may now be passive. There are so many people who want to foist a human logic on these things. They’ll hear half the truth. God is sovereign and works in us to will his good pleasure. “Well, then I don’t have to do anything.” That’s a rebel spirit talking there. It’s not biblical.
Let’s read the logic backwards. When you read something backwards, you do have to change the conjunctions. Reading it backwards: God is at work in you to will and to do his good pleasure; therefore, work out your salvation with fear and trembling. It’s not: therefore, stay in bed because you can’t do anything anyway. That’s the cynicism with which many people approach the issue of the sovereignty of God. They’ll hear the half of the text that says God is at work, and then they draw cynical conclusions from their own brain about the half on their working. They aren’t biblical. They go to the other direction. They say, “I firmly believe that we must work out our salvation with fear and trembling. Therefore, God is not the one who decisively wills and works in my life; he cannot be because I can’t make those fit together in my brain.”
The discipline of biblical theology, which you all should be involved in — you don’t have to be sophisticated, university-educated theologian or know Greek and Hebrew to be a biblical theologian. You just have to read carefully and ask questions and answer them. Let the text say what it says. If you can’t put it together, live with the tension. I live with lots of tension in lots of areas in my life including biblical interpretation. Because I’m finite; I’m not God. I’m not surprised that there are some things in God’s word that demand a patient tolerance of mystery.
What we’ve got here are two levels. The first one is an imperative for us to work out our salvation, which is interpreted as obey. That’s all it means is obey. This is just another word for: Be obedient to what God tells you to do. Don’t kill. Don’t steal. Love your enemy. Forgive. Pray without ceasing. Be aglow with the spirit. Obey God. Do what you know is right to do. Preaching with imperatives, admonishing your children to do things because they’re right to do is fitting when you believe in the sovereignty of the will of God. Rather than saying, “Do that because everything hangs on you.” You say, “Do that for God is at work in you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
To be a Christian and to walk in obedience to Jesus is both to be given a mandate and then to have it lifted from us. That’s why his yoke is easy and his burden is light: not because there’s no yoke and not because there’s no burden, but when he puts it on you, he lifts it; he carries it. That’s the genius of Christianity. Here’s the yoke: Obey. Be an obedient people. Work. Work. But now, here’s your proper mindset: “I’m coming into your life with new-covenant grace, and I’m going to enable you; I’m going to work that willing. Now, there’s a great mystery here. You’ve got to learn to live with this. You’re lying in bed in the morning. The alarm goes off. You set the alarm fifteen minutes or half an hour early so you can have devotions before breakfast. You’re lying there and you’re half paralyzed. You contemplate the mystery of the human will.
Exertion of the Will
You say, “Do I really, really have the power to say to these muscles, ‘Get out of the bed.’ Can I really do that?” Well, God is sovereign. If he wants me to have devotions, he’ll lift me out of this bed. But it says in Philippians 2:12, ‘Work out your salvation.’ I’m supposed to do it. Yet it’s God who’s going to do it.
I do this. I used to do this a lot. I’ve got it down now that I can shorten it down a good bit from where I used to be. Because I know that I must make that exertion of will. That’s real, folks. It is real. My belief in the sovereignty of God and the ultimate rule and influence of God over John Piper’s will does not mean I must, at that moment, will it. Sometimes, it takes a tremendous exertion of will to get out of bed or to do a hard thing in your life. You will it. You stand up. You put your bathrobe on. You stumble into your study and you open your Bible. You read as well as you can read with your eyes falling back to sleep. When you’re done, you say, “Thank you.” You don’t say, “What a good boy am I.” Say, “Thank you.” The reason you say thank you is Philippians 2:13. Because God in, under, around, through mystery (I don’t know it all), God was doing it. It felt like all me as I willed to get out of bed. But I know biblically: it was decisively God. God is at work in you to will and to work for his good pleasure.
This little phrase, fear and trembling, is used I think three other times in the Apostle Paul. One of the times is he said he came to the church in Corinth with fear and trembling (1 Corinthians 2:3). The context seems to indicate a real meek, humble demeanor, not at all wanting to be presumptuous or put himself forward, but in a lowly frame. I don’t think I want to remove from the word fear and trembling all the aspects of being afraid. I certainly don’t want to enlarge it so big that it rules out deep confidence in future grace to take care of us. “Perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). The Lord wants us to love him perfectly. And yet, when you see what’s at stake — let’s just use an example: I know right now of three individuals in this church who are walking headlong into sexual sin, and are being pursued vigorously by the body, but are resisting it and acknowledging that they are rebels. And if they don’t turn around, we will do church discipline on two of them before too many months, and we need to pray.
I know my own vulnerability, my own heart. I think there’s that dimension as I contemplate obedience during the day that causes me to say, “Oh, Lord” (with a kind of fear and trembling), “Don’t ever let me slip that far.” Because you talk to these people and it baffles you. They were walking with the Lord and then suddenly, they don’t care. They’re just gone. They don’t care. “Yes, I know it’s wrong.” “Yes, I know I might go to hell.” That’s so scary that that may be part of the fear and trembling. All of us are vulnerable. If the Lord were to withdraw his grace, we would all drift into irrational blindness and sin.
The previous paragraphs make a lot of humbling ourselves and taking the form of a servant and being lowly in mind. This is, perhaps, then in contrast to pride — the pride of self-sufficiency in particular I would think. But I think this is our willing and our work that God is producing. The reason I say that is because here is God’s work: “God is at work” and then what he works is the “to will” and the “to work.”
Let’s see it a little bit different here in Hebrews 13:20–21:
Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.
I think this is virtually the same teaching. It’s different author (I don’t think Paul wrote Hebrews) in a different wording. This author is praying that God would equip you with every good thing that you need to do his will. That’s one way of praying it. You should pray that for your children. Pray that for your neighbors. Pray it for people. “Lord, equip Karsten, Benjamin, Abraham.” And I have prayed that. I have seen God answer that in some spectacular ways in recent weeks that just bring joy to a dad’s heart. This right here could be a woman named Ms. Litchford in Griffin, Georgia. It could be a broken back in Irvine, California. It could be something simple as a dream or a sudden awakening while you read the Bible. Every good thing to do his will.
Here’s another way to say it: “working in us.” This may be the way he equips us with every good thing, this participle right here. You have to ask logically how participles function by putting different prepositions or different conjunctions like “by working in us” or “through working in us” or “in order to work within us.” You’ve got to try different ones and then test by the context which you think would be the case.
May . . . God . . . equip you with everything good that you may do his will . . .
That’s the same as this working right here, I believe, from Philippians.
. . . working in us that which is pleasing in his sight . . .
And that’s this “to will” and “to work” right here in Philippians 2:13.
. . . working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.
You may remember that “Through Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Power of the Holy Spirit” sermon last fall in our spiritual dynamic. There’s so much in this through Jesus Christ and how Jesus is the key to unleashing the mercy of God in our lives and the agent by his Spirit to produce these things.
The giver gets the glory. Do you remember what it says in 1 Peter 4:11? Let him who
serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies — in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.
The reason Jesus is getting the glory here is because he’s the one through whom God is doing these things, working into us what is pleasing. As I was walking over here tonight, I was pondering: If they were to ask me, What difference does this make anyway? All this thinking and talking about the relative will of God and men, does it make any difference? The first answer to that question (and there are more than one) is that if it matters to whom the glory goes, it matters what you believe about this. Because the biblical writers bend over backwards to ascribe glory to Jesus in the context of his working in us what is pleasing in his sight.
New Covenant Mercy
Let me give you another illustration of that, which I don’t have in the overhead from Philippians 1. In Philippians 1:9 is a prayer, and don’t miss this: he’s praying that their love would abound more and more. Where does more love come from? God. There’s no point in praying to God that your love will abound more and more if you are the one who’s finally responsible.
And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.
You’re praying to God that love would abound with knowledge, so that they can approve what is excellent, so they’ll be filled with the fruits of knowledge through Jesus Christ, and glory will redound back to God who answered that prayer. Here is another illustration of the fact that what is pleasing to God here —namely, our obedience — is worked in us by God through Jesus. That’s the fulfillment of the new covenant. The Book of Hebrews is all about the new covenant. The new covenant, you remember, is:
And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezekiel 36:26–27)
That’s the new covenant. The difference between the new covenant and the old covenant is not primarily that there are new statutes in the new covenant, but that there’s a new ability given in the new covenant.
God Put It There
Here is a very, very, very helpful illustration to me, when I see things like this in the Bible because they’re not so much written to make a big theological point; they’re just the way Paul thinks when he’s not working real hard at a theological point — which shows you where a person really is I think. He’s writing about taking his money up for the saints in Jerusalem here that we talked about on Sunday.
But thanks be to God, who put into the heart of Titus the same earnest care I have for you. For he not only accepted our appeal, but being himself very earnest he is going to you of his own accord. (2 Corinthians 8:16–17)
Now, let me give you the background: He wanted Titus to go ahead to Corinth to help get the money ready. He writes to them that that happened, and in what frame of mind it happened. Now, notice two things that we would probably — if we didn’t have the Bible — put in contradiction to each other. Paul said the reason Titus was so eager to go ahead and do this ministry and come ahead to you is because God put it in his heart. When I pray, I use words like: “Put it in their heart to give generously.” “Put it in their heart to witness today.” “Put it in their heart to do this or that.” Get your prayer vocabulary from texts.
I remember a few years ago, a fellow who is contemplating whether to be a part of this church or not. He came and I forget who he talked to on the staff. They reported to me that he just scratched his head every Sunday. He said, “What I don’t get is the way you pray. Because you pray things like ‘Cause this to happen’ and ‘Cause that to happen.’ I don’t know if I think God does that.” Dr. Fuller used to say when I was in the seminary, “The fastest way to get to a man’s view of God is to ask him about prayer, and to listen to him pray.”
Paul says that God put the earnestness into Titus’s heart.” Here’s the evidence that God did that: He not only accepted the appeal. In other words, he didn’t just do it begrudgingly because we wanted him to do it.
For he not only accepted our appeal, but being himself very earnest he is going to you of his own accord.
I thought it was of God’s accord? When I read that several years ago, I thought: there it is again. Now, if you want to call this free will, you are welcome to do that. It’s probably not the best word to use. I think, frankly, most laypeople mean this by free will, and that’s why I’m not on a crusade to banish that phrase from your vocabulary necessarily. Because I think probably most people, when they use freewill, that’s all they mean: Do we have an accord? Do we have a genuine decision by which we decide to go down there to Corinth, and we can speak of it of being our accord? It was of my own accord that I did it. Nobody twisted my arm and forced me to go against my will. I think that’s basically what laypeople ordinarily mean by free will.
Sophisticated, careful arguers on this subject mean more than that by free will, which I then have a problem with; namely, free will in its sophisticated usage is ultimate self-determination. I think that’s what philosophical type people mean by freewill. I must be free from the ultimate influence of God. “I must be the end point in my willing. My willing can’t just be real and earnest and necessary; it has to be ultimate for it to be what I want it to be or to hold me accountable for anything.” You can decide whether you think that’s the case or not.
I think there is real willing here, and it is perfectly compatible with “God put it in the heart.” Titus himself was very earnest. He was very earnest, and God put it there. He was earnest and God put it there. He went of his own accord, but it grew out of God’s initiative. When he got there and they said, “Thank you for coming. Thank you for coming.” He said, “It’s my pleasure, and the reason I have a heart that delights to minister like this is because God did work in my life, and I give him praise.
We’re all in process here. When you get saved — good night, you know about one tenth of one percent of what might be helpful to know. The rest of your life is growth. By the time we die, we might know five percent. The reason we have classes like this is because of my deep conviction is that to grow about 0.4 percent in your knowledge might be really valuable in your level of devotion and obedience in handling tragedy in your life. When you become a Christian and you go in this baptismal pool here, and I lift my hand and say, “Do you intend, God helping you, to follow Jesus as Lord?” I really want that word to carry the impact of: “He has the right and authority to work in me what is pleasing in his sight.”
On God’s Terms
There’s a group of scholars that have written a book called "The Openness of God," which denies God’s foreknowledge of free moral acts because they think that if you don’t deny the foreknowledge of free moral acts, then those free moral acts are certain since God makes no mistakes in what he foreknows. And if they’re certain, they’re fixed, and if they’re fixed, they’re not free. The only way you can save the freedom of man is by denying the foreknowledge of God. There are many who are taking this route today.
What’s the fault in that logic when they say that this view that I’m propounding (a Calvinistic view) undermines the authenticity of a relationship between us and God. In response, I would ask: What are the prerequisites of an authentic relationship as you understand them? If they say, “Ultimate self-determination.” I would say, “You’re making that up.” If you come to God with your document written — “This is what it will take for me to have an authentic relationship with you” — and you lay it on God’s table and it doesn’t fit his, you better take it off the table and burn it.
I really believe, Clark Pinnock comes with that on his paper. In fact, I could show you quotes. I just read it this afternoon while getting ready for tonight, a quote in the The Grace of God and the Will of Man by Clark Pinnock, where he says that logic demanded this and he went to Scripture to see if Scripture permitted it. That’s his approach. It’s not my approach. My approach is to see if Scripture demands it, and then I’ll adjust my worldview to fit it. God decides what makes for an authentic relationship with him. He tells me, “The most thrilling, satisfying, eternity-long relationship you and I could ever have is if I put earnestness for me in your heart.” I say, “Put it in. Put it in.” If he comes and says that to me and I say, “No, no, no, the only way you and I can have an authentic relationship is if that earnestness arises from me — sovereignly, ultimately arises out of nothing from me — and then I can offer it to you, and there’s real genuine reciprocity . . .
I don’t want to belittle too much Clark Pinnock; he’s a believer. We’re going to be together in heaven, I believe. If he were here tonight, he would say, “John, you better take seriously the genuineness of reciprocity in a relationship.” He would say that I make puppets out of humans and other things like that. His writing is laced with pejorative language for people like me. I don’t necessarily want to turn the tables and do the same thing. All I want to say is: I do not prescribe to God what makes for an authentic relationship; he prescribes to me what makes for an authentic relationship. We’re going to see this in just a minute: I would be dead if it weren’t for God. I would be dead in my trespasses and sins. Who am I to prescribe to God anything about what a living relationship is? God can say, “You want to prescribe? Go ahead. I’ll watch a dead man prescribe, and a dead man prescribes nothing — zero. A dead man can’t even lift his hands.” We need to see that.
Made Alive with Christ
Now, let’s move on and see that. We are slaves to will sin without the influences of God’s sovereign grace. We are slaves to will sin; that is, we are bound to will sin without the influence of God’s sovereign grace. These are familiar verses. This is a familiar truth for many of you:
You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience . . . (Ephesians 2:1–2)
That’s a frightening thing: we not only are morally, spiritually dead apart from grace, but we can walk around in this deadness. As we walk around and will (we will things in this deadness), we are in accord, doing it in accord with, the course of this world. We are doing it in accord with the prince of the power of the air.
. . . among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. (Ephesians 2:3)
I’m dead. My deadness is experienced as harmony with the course of this world— harmony with the prince of the power of the air, and thus, I am by nature doomed and under the wrath of God. It’s my nature. I remember V. Raymond Edman wrote a little devotional called But God! He chose all these sentences in the Bible where you hear the bad news and then you hear this but God. This is one of the best. In spite all of this bad news here:
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ. (Ephesians 2:4)
I’m not bringing anything to this table. That’s my only hope: God made us alive. You all in this room right now who are born of God should look back (whether it happened like me when you were six and you can’t even remember it or maybe it was when you were forty and you remember it glowingly or eighteen or seventeen like Tom Steller) on what happened to you. Though you may not have known it or articulated it, a miracle of new life was imparted to you and the deadness of rebellion and resistance and indifference suddenly was gone; it was gone. You were reading the Bible differently. You were listening to the sermons differently. You saw the world differently. You believed.
Here’s another illustration of this condition being changed.
To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. (Romans 8:6–7)
This hostility, this refusal to subject, is so deep that you are morally unable. That’s what it means to be dead. That’s my understanding of “dead in trespasses and sins”: not able to submit to God — not able to.
Now, you ask: How can you be held accountable to do something you’re not able to do? That’s a reasonable question. You must distinguish two kinds of ability. I brought along this book just as a show-and-tell because I don’t expect anybody to read it (maybe one or two). This is the most important book that’s ever been written outside the Bible on the freedom of the will — without exception. This is Jonathan Edwards’s The Freedom of the Will. It’s the hardest book you’ll ever read. You’ll never be the same again if you read it. I just brought it along to show it to you.
Jonathan Edwards helpfully and biblically makes the distinction between moral inability and physical inability. Physical inability is if you are chained to a chair and somebody says, “Get up.” You jerk and you pull and you say, “I can’t.” “If you don’t get out of the chair, I’m going to shoot you dead.” “Well, shoot me dead because I’m not responsible to get out of this chair because I’m chained in.” We would all say, “Right, he’s not responsible to get out of that chair.” Unless maybe he locked himself in or something like that.
Moral inability simply means this (you have to ask whether this exists or not): it’s a biblical inference that he draws out, but then he tries to see it in real life. Moral inability is when you are so bad you can’t will good; you are so morally deformed and corrupted that you can’t prefer good over evil. Now, the can’t is real but it’s different. You’re not saying, “I don’t have the mental capacities to perceive the good. I don’t have the brain to construe that.” See, I would say, infants and imbeciles are physically incapable of some of the commandments of God because they can’t process the good. My little Talitha, if I say to her, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved,” she doesn’t know what I’m saying. She does not have the physical brain perceptive categories yet for that. I don’t think the Lord will condemn her for not believing on Jesus at this stage. But there will come a point where she’ll have the physical wherewithal to construe the message, perceive the good, and be so bad, she can’t believe it. That’s a possibility that I will pray against every day for the rest of my life.
In answer to the question, How can you be held accountable for something you’re not able to do? this is moral inability here: you are held responsible to do what you ought to do even if you’re morally so bad, you can’t do it — the can’t being a moral can’t, not a physical can’t.
Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. (Romans 8:8–9)
In other words, if you’re Christian, if the Spirit of God dwells in you, you’re not in the flesh. So, what liberates you from being in the flesh and thus unable to submit to God is the Spirit of God moving in your life. So, that’s another text like Ephesians 1 that portrays our condition, our wills, as dead and hostile and unable to submit to God apart from God, the Spirit of God coming in. Question or comment about that text? Yeah. Pharisees? The Pharisees had numerous faults beneath their ... Jesus said you are whitewashed tombs. Inside, it is full of rapaciousness and dead man’s bones. Greed. He said, “You are those who love money.” Luke 16. They love money.
Awake, O Sleeper
If you reject Jesus, you don’t know God. I’d say that to every human being in the world — Jew or Gentile. If you reject Jesus, having been presented with him, then you don’t know God. The god that you think you know is an idol, and he’s keeping you from the true God. It’s blindness. Let me show you blindness here. This is a beautiful text because it shows the desperate condition we’re in, but a beautiful work of grace that saves:
The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. (2 Corinthians 4:6)
The reason they’re not saved is because they don’t see the light of the gospel. What gospel? “The gospel of the glory of Christ.” Who is he? He’s “the image of God.” The gospel is beholding the superior glory of Christ over all competitors, and recognizing in him the image of God and the reality of God. And Satan is doing his best in this world today and in all of our lives to keep us from seeing the brightness of that glory.
For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness . . . ” (2 Corinthians 4:5–6)
Paul is saying that the God who said, “Let there be light,” when there was no light, only darkness in the universe, is the one who, in a similar way,
has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:6)
Now, compare Verses 4 and 6. Light goes with light. Gospel goes with knowledge. Glory of Christ goes with glory of God. The face of Christ goes with the image of God. Verse 4 and verse 6 are saying the same thing, but the difference in wording is really helpful in shedding light on what the words mean. Here’s the point: How do you move from being a person who’s blinded in unbelief by the god of this world so that you don’t see? The answer: God’s got to go into your heart and say, “Let there be light.” Or he has to say like he did to Lazarus, “Rise from the dead.”
Awake, O sleeper,
and arise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you. (Ephesians 5:14)
Here’s what happened to me when I was six years old (or somewhere along the way if that wasn’t exactly the decisive converting point): somewhere along the way in your life and my life, the God who said “Let there be light” when there was no light in the universe and it came to be did the same thing in your heart. He said, “Shine, light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” And at that moment, Christ became glorious to you; he became glorious to you.
You Are No Puppet
Let me close by saying it this way: I believe that God governs the will reasonably or rationally. That’s risky to use that language. All I mean is this: he operates by putting truth in the mind and granting the will or the mind, as it connects with the will, to perceive the superior desirability of truth. That’s reasonable. Reasonableness is when you have reasons for acting the way you act. If somebody says, “Why do you follow Jesus?” The reasonable answer is: Jesus is more glorious than any other candidate to be followed. That’s the reason: He is more glorious. He’s more attractive. He offers more. He is more. That’s a reasonable response. Now, they may disagree with you. They may argue that you can’t know that. You can come back and say, “You can’t know anything about your ostensible reasons for living either then.” There are different reasons for knowing.
What I’m saying is: my will was influenced to be drawn out to follow Jesus not irrationally. If somebody said, “Why are you doing this?” And I say, “I don’t know; I just feel pushed,” that’s no honor to Jesus. He does it by opening the eyes of my heart to behold: Christ loved me. He was an incomparable human being. He did things nobody else could do. He spoke with authority like nobody else could speak. He loved like nobody else loved. He took the sins of the world upon him and he bore them, and he rose from the dead to vindicate that. I can’t walk away from that. That’s the way your will gets drawn out.
I entered the pastorate because on one October night in 1979, about 1 a.m. in the morning, I could no longer resist the glory of it all. I’m kept in the pastorate by perceptions of how exciting it is to minister to people in this truth. If that ever shut down on me, if my mind’s eye ever closed up on me, and I suddenly looked over here and saw, “Why don’t you take your gifts and make money? You could buy lots of things.” I’d do it because you do what your mind perceives to be the most attractive thing to do. God moves your will with truth. He moves you by overcoming your blindness.
You are not a puppet. Puppets are people who are blind in unbelief, following their erroneous affections. Christians have been opened onto truth and reality and are reasonably responding to it. Their wills are engaged energetically to say yes to what God has enabled them to see.