The Whole Glory of God
Reformission Conference | Seattle
Thank you very much. It’s an honor to be here. I’ve had a good time with Mark already this morning, and I like him. Hadn’t met him before and that’s important to me. He has some of the same burdens that I do. Let’s pray together.
A Passion for God’s Supremacy
One of the advantages of being at a church for 25 years or so is that the mission of the church and the mission of the Pastor tend to become one. It’s the only way really to avoid crisis. My life mission statement and Bethlehem Baptist Church’s mission statement are the same now. I hope it stays that way till I am dead, and I’d like to be there as long as I can. I’m not eager to jump anywhere else. I love where I am, I love doing what I’m doing, and I would love to see it multiply. I love what you’re doing from all that I understand of it.
Every word in here of the mission statement I will read in moment was battled over in 1995. I mean, when you forge a church mission statement that everybody can memorize and bleed for, you go away for three days and you hammer out every single word. Then you preach on every single word for a season, and then you live by it:
We exist to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ.
Almost everybody at my church could say that to you. It hangs on the wall. That’s been what our heartbeat has been for the past 10 years or so. That’s the way we define ourselves. That’s why I’m here. I’m released to do these kinds of things because the elders believe, “Well, go do that. That’s what we exist for. If you can do that out there, go do that. Spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ.”
Is Joy Optional or Essential?
Now you might ask, and you should ask if you’re a good biblical person or a good presbyterian, “Why don’t you just say, instead of using that long sentence with the words passion and joy in it, that we exist to glorify God? Wouldn’t it be just simpler and more biblical?” There’s a reason for that.
The reason is that we, I think, in America and all around the world in the 20th and 21st centuries, have lost a truth that I would like to help recover, and I would like you to help recover — namely, the truth that essential (not marginal) to glorifying God is being satisfied in God. In other words, there’s this passion component, this emotion component, and this affectional component, to use the old language of Jonathan Edwards. And this is not optional.
It’s not a caboose at the end of the train. It’s not icing on the cake of commitment, as if this were just about discipline and making it happen — managerial Christianity. Rather, it is right at the heart. God is most glorified in me when I am most satisfied in him. That’s the banner that flies over our ministry, which is underneath this statement that we exist to spread a passion. The reason that the phrase passion for the supremacy of God is so crucial is that God is glorified as we are satisfied in him. Now, that changes a lot, if you believe that.
If for the glory of God, you believe people have to become deeply, profoundly satisfied in him, so that the roots of sin that lie to them about where satisfaction can be found are severed by a superior satisfaction, it changes everything. One little change, which is huge, but it’s only part of the big picture, is that in evangelism the true, standard, solid, biblical language of “We are seeking to win people to receive Jesus as Lord and Savior” must be supplemented. I think today in my situation we should add “and as treasure.”
Wholly Embracing the Whole Christ
When I talk about what it means to become a Christian, I say, “Are you willing to embrace Christ?” I like that word. That word has connotations about it that are both embracing an idea that you must and embracing a person. Embrace has good connotations about it. I say, “Are you willing to embrace Christ as Lord over your life? He gets to tell you what to do. Are you willing to embrace him as Savior, trusting that he can forgive all your sins and free you from all the junk? And are you willing to have him as the treasure of your life, greater than any other treasure? If not, come back later when you’re ready, because you’re not ready to be a Christian.”
I find that when you make a verb out of it (treasuring Christ), and make that essential to the meaning of faith — that it’s not something you add on; that to trust him as savior and Lord, is to treasure him — then you’re starting to make disciples and win people to Christ. In this mission statement, we have the phrase passion for the supremacy of God because the absence of it results in some terrible skewing of life and doctrine. If you wonder, “Where in the world is he going?” I really am on my way to talk about open theism this morning. Believe it or not, that’s where we’re going.
The ignorance of the truth that God is most glorified in us when we’re most satisfied in him, that being satisfied in God is an essential dimension of glorifying him, skews doctrine and what you do with it. When satisfaction in God is not seen as indispensable, then something has to come in to replace it. What comes in usually is right-thinking about God and right living. When right-thinking (called doctrine) and right-living (called holiness or love) displace passion, satisfaction, joy, zeal, affection, or treasuring then what emerges is either intellectualism, regarding doctrine, or legalism, regarding behavior.
Usually, since nobody likes intellectualism and legalism, counter-errors emerge. In reaction to intellectualism, the error emerges that we should debunk doctrine. People think, “You don’t want that. That’s dead. Debunk that. Belittle that. Marginalize that doctrine, because clearly, we don’t want that.” The distortion that emerges from the absence of passion, and the absence of satisfaction, and the absence of joy, and the absence of treasuring in relation to doctrine, creates intellectualistic churches, to which then people react by debunking doctrine.
With regard to behavior, legalism emerges when there’s no root down in joy, causing the flower of holiness and love to be beautiful because it’s the overflow of joy in God. Then you have duty-driven religion. Then you have legalists, and of course, nobody likes that except the people trapped in it, and therefore, we react to it with antinomianism or loose living, or with the sentiment that it doesn’t really matter what you do anyway because grace is grace.
All of that mess, I think, is what I am devoting my life to fixing. I am seeking to put satisfaction in God back at a place where it is profoundly connected to doctrine and profoundly connected to love and behavior — lay-down-your-life, sacrificial love for people.
The way it comes is by putting itself right in the middle, with doctrine now functioning under it as the root of joy. All biblical truth is meant to serve satisfaction in God — all of it. And all satisfaction in God is meant to serve the flower or the fruit of love, holiness, or radical, self-sacrificing, give-your-life away service to other people. Now you see the roots and you see the fruit. In the middle here, is this massive thing called a passion for the supremacy of God, or treasuring Christ above all things. The root of it is right-thinking, and the flower and the fruit of it is love.
Once you put doctrine down there doing that kind of service, and once you put above joy, this glorious thing called love, that lays down its life, then love will not become legalism, and doctrine will not become intellectualism. We won’t have to have those counter errors of thinking, “Well, let’s just do anything we want, because it doesn’t matter; there’s just grace.” And we won’t have this anti-doctrinal, doctrinal-debunking thing at the bottom. We can get the whole biblical picture together. That’s what I would like to see happen. Maybe what we should do is go first to a sub-authority and then the main authority.
The Vision of Jonathan Edwards
I love Jonathan Edwards. I hope that you get to know him. He’s not alive if you’re newer at this. He’s dead. In fact, I was talking with Mark this morning and I’m so happy that Mark hung out in his early Christian life mainly with dead people. That is why he is where he is. Our little bookstore at the church is called, “Books By a Bunch of Dead Guys and a Few Living Ones.” I just want to encourage you, because there are no living people — I say this without any qualification — who write like Jonathan Edwards and who think like Jonathan Edwards. There are none.
We do not have a church yet in the world that can sustain and produce that kind of depth. When I read Edwards, I am in another universe — a universe of discourse, a universe of passion, a universe of doctrine, a universe of a vision of God. It does not exist in the world. Now, maybe you think, “How in the world can you say that?” Really, I don’t know how I can say that. I’m just in my little world. I don’t know the world. I just operate in teeny little places, so just take that with a grain of salt. I haven’t met one yet, so I’m going to Edwards and I’m going to read you the most important paragraph I’ve ever read in Jonathan Edwards.
Received by the Whole Soul
This is from his Miscellanies, which isn’t in a main book. It’s just his collected thoughts in the edition and you can find it. But, here’s what he wrote. Now, this little paragraph is intended to support the central, essential, indispensable truth, that if you love the glory of God, you must pursue your satisfaction in him all the time, 24/7, even if it kills you. Here’s what he wrote:
God glorifies himself toward the creatures in two ways: 1) by appearing to their understanding; 2) by communicating himself to their hearts and in their rejoicing and delighting in him and enjoying the manifestations which he makes of himself. God is glorified, not only in his glory’s being seen but by its being rejoiced in.
When I read that in 1971 everything changed. I was seeing it in Lewis, I was seeing it in Edwards, and I was seeing it in Dan Fuller down at Fuller Seminary. Then I began to see it everywhere in the Bible. I’ll read that sentence again: God is glorified, not only by his glory’s being seen — and that means seen by the eye of the mind — but by it being rejoiced in. I had never heard anybody tell me that God is glorified in this way. The Westminster Catechism asks, “What is the chief end of man?” and answers, “The chief end of man is to glorify God, and enjoy him forever.” Well, it depends on what and means. I want to say God is glorified by this rejoicing, but I had never heard anybody say that God is glorified by enjoying him forever. That’s what Edwards is saying. Let me finish the paragraph by Edwards:
When those that see it, delight in it, God is more glorified than if they only see it. His glory is then received by the whole soul, both by the understanding and by the heart. God made the world, that he might communicate and the creature receive his glory, and that it might be received both by the mind and the heart. He that testifies his idea of God’s glory doesn’t glorify God so much as he that testifies also because of his delight in it.
That’s the paragraph that changed everything. God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. If you can see your Bibles out there in that room, turn to Philippians 1:20–21.
Now this room that we’re in is part of cultural relevance, I suppose, because I hate rooms like this. I hate black ceilings. I said to my church, “I’ll resigned if you put a black ceiling in our north campus.” That’s just how I feel here. But, I really like Mark. Good night, it’s like the devil is in the ceiling. I like white ceilings and windows. But of course the video doesn’t work if you have windows. Well, I said to my people, “We’re in the 21st century. Pay $1 million for a video that’ll work with windows if you have to. We’re having windows.”
But, really the way to think about this building is that you’re in Seattle, right? They won’t let you build big churches with shiny windows, so you meet in catacombs, right? Amen. Jesus is the light of the world. I can just hear next Sunday’s sermon.
Christ Magnified, by Life or Death
Here’s Philippians 1:20–21:
As it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored (magnified, glorified) in my body, whether by life or by death.
This is Paul’s passion, and it’s my passion. This was the first sermon I preached at my church. I said, “This is what I want to live for. Whether I live or whether I die, I want Christ to be made much of. I want people to read off of me, ‘Jesus is great.’” That’s what Paul says. His passion is, “I want Christ to be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.”
Now, my question is, “Paul, how is Christ magnified, honored, glorified in your body, in life and death?” He answers that in Philippians 1:21, which says, “For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Now, just shorten it down to the death pair. Just paraphrase it and leave out the life part. He says, “My longing, my desire, is that with full courage, now as always, Christ would be honored in my body when I die, for to me to die is gain.”
Now, can you work that logic? Can you make that work? Christ will be magnified in my dying, in my body, when for me, dying is gain. I think I get it, Paul. I think I get it. The way to make Christ look good is for Christ to be your treasure when you die — not your wife, not your kids, not your church, not your health, not your retirement plan, not your dream of getting married when you’re dying of cancer at age 19. I don’t want to in any way make this verse trite. What he is saying is, “Christ is most glorified in me when I am most satisfied in him, especially as I die.” Isn’t that what the word gain means?
When Dying Is Gain
He is saying, “May Christ be magnified in my body as I die, for to me to die is gain.” And then, Philippians 1:23 says:
I am hard-pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.
That’s what death means. When you face a moment called death, and at the end of that moment you lose everything in the world and all you gain is Christ, and you say in the face of that moment, “Gain,” then Christ is made to look great. That’s my biblical basis for the statement God is most glorified in me when I’m most satisfied in him.
God is made to look great when we treasured him this highly. When he satisfies our souls so much that at the moment of death, when our wife goes, our kids go, our job goes, and everything goes but one thing, Christ, and you call it gain, he looks really good. When that happens, he looks really good to the nurses.
So my deep, deep conviction is that we should do what Paul did in Philippians 1:25, which says:
Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith . . .
He is remaining for their joy in the faith. Isn’t it amazing that Paul would define his whole apostolic, earthly existence as “I am here for the progress of your joy”? And the reason is because of what he just said in Philippians 1:21. When you have joy in Christ, he is made to look really good because this joy functions as a razor that severs the roots of all joys that drag us into sin. We become the freest people in the world. We don’t need what the world needs. We can let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also. The body they may kill; God’s truth and my Christ abide still. We think, “I have him. I don’t need life, I don’t need a house, I don’t need lands, and I don’t need a family. I have Christ.” Therefore, we are the freest and most dangerous people in the world.
He gets a lot of glory. I believe God is made to look really great when we are satisfied in him. All of that to say, put that back as the center where doctrine is feeding that and love is overflowing from that. Doctrine is the root and love is the fruit, and in the middle is this passion of counting Christ as gain in the face of losing everything on earth.
For the Joy Set Before Him
That really does produce the fruit of love. Jesus is the best example, isn’t he? Hebrews 12:2 says, “For the joy that was set before him, he endured the cross.” So where did the biggest act of love that has ever been performed come from? It came from the pursuit of joy. He was not letting the joy go, even in Gethsemane. That wasn’t a pleasant experience in Gethsemane, but what sustained him, according to Hebrews 12:2, is that he could see just over the horizon, the sunrise of the joy of his own glory restored with the Father, his own supremacy and authority over all things, and millions and millions of redeemed people because he died for them. And they would all be surrounding him to their own satisfaction, praising him forever and ever. That vision was the happiest thing he could think of and it carried him right through the cross. Don’t ever, ever do the blasphemy of thinking you’re going to be motivated by anything higher than the joy that sustained Jesus.
There are a lot of people out there who are trying to say it’s low to be motivated by joy. That’s blasphemy in view of Hebrews 12:2. And of course, where does this joy come from? I could spend an hour here. It comes from doctrine; that is, it comes from right views of the glory of Christ. Wrong views of the glory of Christ do not produce the kind of joy that produces the fruit of love.
Second Corinthians 3:18 says, “Beholding the glory of the Lord, we are being changed from one degree of glory to the next.” How do you behold the glory of the Lord today? Well, just go down five verses into chapter four, and it says:
In their case 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 4:4).
It’s the gospel of the glory of Christ. The gospel — the news, the words, the teaching, the doctrine of the glory of Christ — is where you behold it from 2 Corinthians 3:18. Therefore, right gospel teaching creates a spiritual sight of the glory of Christ, which transforms us into people who count him as our treasure above all things.
The Error of Open Theism
So if we don’t get the gospel right, we distort the glory of Christ, and therefore we lame the church at every level. Even if it doesn’t show up in our generation, it’ll show up sooner or later, which brings me now to open theism. My sadness and anger over the emergence of open theism in the last 10 years or so is rooted in my passion for the glory of Christ and the glory of God. Whatever undermines true views of the glory of Christ, undermines joy, love, mission, church planting, families, and worship. Open theism profoundly distorts the glory of Christ and the glory of God. I hope that there are open theists in this room because I would love to see you change your mind.
This is not a small thing, even though I could not persuade my denomination four or five years ago when we battled through this that it was a big thing, which made me realize more than ever that I’m a man without a home. Doctrine really matters, and the closer it gets to the deity of Christ, the nature of the cross, the deity of God, the closer it gets to distorting the glory of God at its center, the worse it becomes. Open theism is about as close to the center as you can get. I don’t take this lightly at all. I do not think open theists should be allowed to be pastors in my denomination or yours. I think they are false prophets and should not be allowed to preach and teach and be elders in the church of Christ.
So let me explain to you what it is and then how it’s defended, and then what the response to it is and give you another vision and another pastoral approach. The way open theists generally talk is very tenderly and very pastorally and very emotionally about pain in the world. Believe me, I live with pain all the time. You don’t have a church that’s large without having people dying all the time and having little children needing open heart surgery when they’re seven weeks old, or having another little child needing brain surgery to hopefully get rid of his seizures, and it doesn’t work and a third of his brain is now missing and he is at risk for blindness. You just live with these things.
Open theists don’t need to tell me anything about pain. I also read the newspaper. I also count bodies in Iraq, and I count bodies in earthquakes in Japan. I go and I look at the grossest pictures on the web to see bodies and what would become of mine someday. I walk up against pain intentionally every day lest I sound artificial and mechanical and intellectualistic when I’m dealing with doctrine. We pastors are designed to know suffering, and God will see to it that it goes into your own life, according to 2 Corinthians 1:3–4, so that you will know how to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which you are comforted by God. Don’t choose church planting if you want to run away from pain.
Here’s the definition of open theism from Greg Boyd in his very popular book Letters from a Skeptic. I know Greg. We serve across town from each other. I’ve been face-to-face with him at Olive Garden. I debated with him before 500 people for three hours. I have agonized in prayer and in conversation, and we just don’t see the world the same at all. But he is the most articulate, I believe, and the most bright, winsome representative of the movement alongside Clark Pinnock and John Sanders. Here’s what he wrote:
In the Christian view of God, God knows, of all of reality, everything there is to know. But to assume he knows ahead of time how every person is going to freely act, assumes that each person’s free activity is already there to know, even before he freely does it. But it’s not. If we have been given freedom, we create reality out of our decisions by making them, and until we make them, they don’t exist. And thus, in my view at least, there simply isn’t anything there to know until we make it there to know. So God can’t know the good or bad decisions of the people he creates until he creates these people and they in turn create their decisions.
That is the vastest departure from orthodoxy you can imagine. It’s unbelievable that Evangelicalism does not see this as serious as it is. The term open theism means that the future is open to God. They would say he doesn’t see it all as an infallible God. Rather, it’s unknown, and therefore open, because all of you have ultimate self-determination. That’s a phrase that comes right out of God At War. Now that’s the key word. If you have ultimate self-determination, it means you create de novo, out of nothing, like a little God. Your choices may surprise God and often do surprise God. He just missed it.
I do not say that lightly or at caricature, because I believe it is clear that open theists believe God makes mistakes, even though they won’t say he makes mistakes. They define a mistake as something you only make if you have all the data that you need, and you still fail to predict what will come to pass. But if you have all the data you can have and you make the best judgment call, and it doesn’t come to pass, you didn’t make a mistake. God’s doing that a lot according to open theism. He looks, he tends to know how our minds work, he’s omniscient in that he can see the present you perfectly, but you have this card in the deck called free will, or ultimate self-determination, and you can throw that down in ways that can really surprise God from time to time. That’s the essence of open theism. The future is open.
Arguments for Open Theism
Now the defense of it, I think flows in two channels. First, I think there’s a philosophical presupposition, and second, there are a set of exegetical arguments. The philosophical presupposition, which is almost universally held in America — so all you cutting-edge church planters who are reaching out to your culture should keep in mind that this is what they’re going to believe almost certainly — is that if God is going to let us have responsibility for our behavior, and if he’s going to have a genuine love-reciprocal relationship with us, he must give us free will. Sometimes that’s the phrase that’s used, but that’s a really, really vague term, which some people might approve of rightly.
In open theism, free will means ultimate self-determination. Without ultimate self-determination, God is put in charge of the whole world, which means he’s accountable for suffering and sin, and they cannot have that. Therefore, that must be rejected. You cannot have a genuine, authentic love relationship with Christ because without that you’re just then a robot, an automaton.
So this reality, this all-determining reality called ultimate self-determination, is a philosophical assumption that is brought to the Bible. Not one of you could show me a single verse in the Bible that teaches that. You can show verses that in your mind seem to imply it, but they don’t necessitate it. That is an assumption that is brought to the Bible in order to say, “Well that’s how we can have accountability, and that’s how God can be holy in the face of a world filled with sin and suffering.” Those can be explained another way.
The exegetical stream is that texts are brought up, which show, first, that God changes his mind. For example, in Isaiah 38:1 Isaiah prophesies that Hezekiah is going to die. Hezekiah prays, and he doesn’t die. Also, Jonah prophesied that Ninevah was going to be destroyed. They repented and they weren’t destroyed.
Second, God says he’s sorry for what he’s done (Genesis 6:5). How can he be sorry for something if he knew it was going to turn out this way? He was sorry that he made Saul king (1 Sam 15:11). He seems surprised in Jeremiah 26:1–3. He says, “It may be that they will listen.” He puts people to the test like Abraham to see how it will turn out. If God knew how it was going to turn out, why would he need to test him? And so on. Those are the kinds of arguments. We don’t have nearly enough time here to answer each of those arguments.
Let me just say this: the books that are out there. There are a lot of them. Bruce Ware was going to be here, I think, and couldn’t come. He has a book called God’s Lesser Glory: The Diminished God of Open Theism. Millard Erickson has a book as well called What Does God Know and When Does He Know It?. They give plausible answers. The church has always known these texts are in the Bible that have this prima facie appearance of God being a mere man. Plausible explanations have been given, which cohere with God’s foreknowledge of all things and God’s governing of all things. I would just send you there to see those answers.
Let me show you an example of the kind of thing that we’re dealing with, with regard to mistakes in open theism. In Jeremiah 3:19–20, God says:
I thought you would call me, My Father, and would not turn from following me. Surely, as a treacherous wife leaves her husband, so have you been treacherous to me, O house of Israel, declares the Lord.
In other words, God says, “You’re not going to turn away from following me.” Then he says they became treacherous. So Boyd says that God predicted one thing and that another came about. This is a quote:
God genuinely thought his people would behave differently.
Then he softens those words with these:
The Lord thinks one thing will most likely occur, while it turns out that something else occurred.
Again, he says:
The Lord, having a perfectly accurate assessment of all probabilities, thought his people would do the former when the situation came about. But they did the opposite of what he thought they would do.
Now, Dr. Boyd does not call this a mistake, because he does not believe it is a mistake when you mispredict on the basis of the best knowledge available. It’s not a mistake when you mispredict based on the best knowledge available. He does not have knowledge of what they will do. He only has knowledge of what they are, and they can surprise him.
I think most people think it is a mistake when you mispredict on the basis of the best knowledge available. That’s the meaning of mistake, and I don’t think we will be able to get out of this. I don’t think open theists can escape this. God makes mistakes in what he thinks and says will come to pass, according to some of the texts that they use.
Now, why do I think this is serious? It might be obvious to you. I’m sure some of you don’t think it’s obvious. First, it undermines the deity of Christ, and second, I believe it undermines the deity of God. Here’s why I think that. In Isaiah, God presents his foreknowledge as part of his peculiar glory as God. Jonathan Edwards says:
It is one of the evidences of God’s peculiar glory greatly distinguishing him from all other beings that he has foreknowledge of human decisions.
I’ll read you one of the texts. There are about eight of them in Isaiah 40 through 48. Here’s Isaiah 46:9–10:
Remember the former things of old;
for I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me,
declaring the end from the beginning
and from ancient times things not yet done,
Why is he saying, “I am God, there is no other”? Then he follows it with a defining clause, saying, “I am God, and there is no other. I am God and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning.” That’s the meaning of deity. That’s the meaning of Godness — declaring the ending from the beginning.
I think if Isaiah heard or read the God of the Possible or God at War or Pinnock’s books or Sanders’s The God Who Risks, I think he would say, “No way can they believe in the living God. They call him God?” A God who does not know the future is not the biblical God. His deity is being called into question.
Diminishing the Deity of Christ
Now here’s the attack on the deity of Christ. In John 6:64, Jesus says:
But there are some of you who do not believe. (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.)
In John 6:64, Jesus knows Judas will use his will to betray him. He knows this, and Judas is still responsible. You see, the philosophical argument says, “If God knows what Judas is going to do, and God is infallible, then Judas will do that. It is fixed. It is determined because God can’t make a mistake. And if it is fixed and determined, Judas can’t be responsible.” Philosophy is governing there, not exegesis mainly, I don’t believe. Philosophy is being pushed down, whereas I just back up and say, “Look, we’ve all got some mystery in our theology. Where you draw the mystery lines is different from group to group. The goal is to draw it where the Bible draws it, and where the Bible draws it on this issue is that God knows all things and you are responsible.” If you can’t figure that out, live with it.
Here’s another little piece about the culture you serve in. I think they can probably handle that. I think that this pressure of self-determination as the philosophical presupposition of accountability does not have to be brought in if you’re willing to teach people just from the Bible.
But now here’s the issue with the deity of Christ. In John 13:19, Jesus has just finished washing the disciples’ feet and he knows that Judas is on his way to do his deed, and he says:
I am telling you this now, before it takes place, that when it does take place you may believe that I am he.
It helps to study your Greek here. The translations say, “So that you may believe that I am he.” But the “he” is not there. All it says is, “I have told you these things before they come to pass so that when they do occur, you will believe that I Am.” What in the world is that? He is saying, “I’m telling you about the future. I’m predicting the decisions of an evil man who remains accountable, and in doing that, I am trying to win faith in myself as I Am.” I assume you know your Bible. In John 8:58, Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” That takes your breath away.
The Great I Am
I wrote a poem about that back in 1967. I don’t remember the poem, I just remember I pictured Jesus walking on a dusty road with ordinary fishermen with him. And he looks over his shoulder at one point and says, “Before Abraham was, I Am.” You get a feeling for why it was hard for these guys to compute. Jesus says, “Before Abraham was.” He didn’t say, “I was” — that would be awesome. But using the words of God, the “I am who I am language,” he said, “I Am.” So he’s saying not only that he was there before Abraham, but that he is God. And that’s what he was saying. And to me it’s huge. It’s just huge that Jesus made his ability to predict Judas’s betrayal an evidence of his deity.
So if a movement comes along and they’re cool and they’re hip and they’re growing big churches and they say, “He can’t do that. He can’t predict all of your decisions.” I say, “You’re calling the deity of Jesus into question. I don’t care how big or hip your church is, or how good your band is, I’m going to call you a heretic because that won’t fly in heaven. And I want to help people get there.”
What about the pastoral dimension of this? That’s where we want to go, isn’t it? We’re not just into winning arguments here. I don’t care about winning arguments. I want to save people. I want to help people endure the suffering that they endure, make it through death, and have an everlastingly joyful experience of God in heaven. I would really like to be used by God to do that. So I care about the pastoral dimension of this.
Is There Purpose in Pain?
Let me read you now, Greg Boyd’s heart, which I think is a very, very loving heart at one level. Here’s what he wrote:
Within the limits set by God, an individual may purpose to do things that are utterly at odds with God’s ultimate purpose. Thus, when an individual inflicts pain on another individual, I do not think we can go looking for the purpose of God in the event.
Now I can’t tell you how much I hate that sentence. It is so destructive. It is so wrong. I’ll read it again. And then I’ll read more. It gets worse. He says:
When an individual inflicts pain on another individual (like crucifying somebody, maybe?) I do not think we can go looking for the purpose of God in the event. I know Christians frequently speak about the purpose of God in the midst of tragedy caused by someone else. There was a young girl . . .
And then he gets really personal. Greg is very good at this. He really knows how to name the names and get personal and painful. I sat with him at Olive Garden over in Roseville, across the table. We exchanged painful stories and I think it helped him to know how I felt. I said, “Greg, I know that last week in the Twin Cities, a young mom threw her six-month baby out of the window while driving down the freeway. I know that happened. I read that story. I ached over that story. I could not believe that story. I lose sleep over those stories.” I think that helped him because he evidently thought people that defend traditional doctrine have no hearts somehow. Where that came from, I don’t know. Maybe he knows somebody like that. Don’t be that person. But here’s what he wrote:
There was a young girl this year at Bethel who was killed by a drunk driver. A lot of students were wondering what purpose God had in “taking her home.” But this I regard . . .
I start getting really mad here. We were talking about getting mad and how to sanctify our anger this morning. I have a lot of young people just like you at my church, hundreds and hundreds of them, and they’re in this sentence. They would ask, “What is God doing in ‘taking home’ the young girl that got hit by the drunk driver?” And he responds to those people in my church that I’m trying to teach and prepare to handle the kind of suffering they would have if they want to plant the First Baptist Church of Mecca:
But this I regard to be simply a piously confused way of thinking. The drunk driver alone is to blame . . .
Now I just have to stop here and do a little language analysis because I know the word postmodernism is thrown around a lot here, and I don’t like the word frankly. I think it’s trendy and old, but that’s okay if it helps you relate. But there is a language game in America and you can use it at age 60 and you can use it at age 20. You have to understand the way people massage language to back you in a corner so that there is no possible response to their question because they’ve set up the terms in a way there’s no way out. The most familiar old one is, “When did you stop beating your wife?” Now that’s a language game. That’s a language game that’s used in high-powered radio shows, by really clever, fast-talking, talk show hosts, to back you into a corner and make you stumble over your words so that you can’t get out of the hole that was just dug for you by them. I think Greg Boyd just did that.
I’ll read it again. He regards asking about the purpose of God and the death of this little girl as a piously confused way of thinking. He says, “This, I regard, to be simply a piously confused way of thinking. The drunk driver alone is to blame for the girl’s untimely death.” Now in choosing the word blame do you see what he’s done? In order to say “no” to that sentence, you’re forced into saying, “God is to blame,” and you don’t want to use the word blame. Blame does mean you’re the cause in a bad way; you’re the cause in a way that has sin in it. Blame is a word you use for causes that are sinful causes. We don’t want to talk about God that way. We can’t talk about God that way, and he cornered us into a corner by saying, “I believe that the driver needs to be the person to blame. And you blame God.”
I’m just taking this little parenthesis right here to say, get savvy with language, not to do that. So many Christian, right-wing, religious talk people just get good at doing it. So they just go back and forth with each other. What I want is the kind of people Paul talked about when he said, “We speak before God, our consciences are open” (2 Corinthians 4:2). We’re not trying to trap anybody. We are in the service of truth. We want our language to mean what we say. If I’m distorting your view, and if you’re an open theist and you think I’ve distorted open theism, you come up and talk to me afterward and tell me what I need to change. We don’t want to distort anything or trap anybody. We’re not maneuvering. We’re not into soundbites. We’re into truth and glory and beauty and reality. We want language to have a wholesome, helpful feel to it, not a tricky, trapping feel to it.
I hated watching those presidential debates. I just went crazy watching those debates. I made a lot of my Republican people really unhappy by writing things about our president that make me unhappy. I’m not even going to go there. I just if they ask this question, answer the question. That’s a biblical, Christian way to act.
Healing Wounds with Superficial Treatments
There is the pastoral take. Greg Boyd has what, three or four thousand people in his church? He tells the story of a young woman who married and sought the counsel of her parents and her pastor and God, asking, “Should I marry this man?” And she had a dream for missions and everybody said, “Yes,” and she married him. And a year later, he cheated on her, deserted her, left her, and her life was devastated for missions and the dreams she had for her life. And she came to Dr. Boyd and said, “What can I make of this?” And his counsel to her is, “God did not know that was going to happen.”
Now, the way that is supposed to comfort, I believe, is that she’s wrestling with the goodness of God. And the rescue of God is to say, “He did the best he could. If you had gone to him and asked him a year ago, “Is this guy the one to marry?” God would have said, “Yes.” And that’s supposed to help her process, thinking, “Oh, God is still good.”
Now I’ll tell you, I have worked at this for 25 years with people through hundreds and hundreds of tragedies, and I don’t think it works that way. I don’t think it works that way. So I’m going to give you an alternative pastoral vision, and that’s the last thing I want to do, and close with some illustrations.
God’s Meticulous Sovereignty
You know where this Acts 29 thing is coming from theologically, and I presume that’s what you think I believe as well — namely, that God is sovereign. And I do believe that with all my heart. It’s one of the most precious things in the world to me that God is good and wise and absolutely sovereign. Not one bird falls to the ground apart from your Father who is in heaven (Matthew 10:29). Not one hair turns white or black apart from his will (Matthew 5:26). The dice are thrown in the lap in Reno, Las Vegas, and every decision is from the Lord (Proverbs 16:33).
Just to show how small and great this is in my life, I handle the worst pain in my life and I handle playing Scrabble with my wife with the sovereignty of God. Because I know I have this Q sitting in my rack here. I need a U, right? There’s a U in the bag. My hand is going to go into this bag. If God wants me to have a U, he can make me have a U. Easy.
Now I’ve decided after 35 years of marriage, that I probably shouldn’t pray to win. I don’t know if Noël does. She usually beats me, so she may not believe that, but I don’t think I should pray to win. And I know good and well, God could put all the letters in my rack and I could rack up this seven-letter word, and I could catch up. Every time I put my hand in the bag — I really do this — I say, “For the kingdom and for the family, amen.” My thought is, “If it’s good for me to lose, let me lose. If that would make the marriage better, make sex better tonight, let me lose. But if she needs to be humbled, your call.” So right down to the nitty-gritty of where I live, I believe in the sovereignty of God.
Now, the serious thing that you will need to do in all your young churches is to help people get a grip on the suffering that you’re going to call them to. Jesus said, “Nobody can be my disciple unless they take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). Paul said, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom” (Acts 14:22). You have to teach that from the beginning. Paul, when he founded these four churches on the first missionary journey and he did his return route, remember what it says? He was telling every one of them, “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom.” That’s Discipleship 101. He’s saying, “Suffering is on the way, both because you’re a Christian, and in spite of the fact that you’re a Christian. Suffering is on the way.” You have to deal with the sovereignty of God in that and have a paradigm for how you’re going to help your people when you go to the hospital.
Christ and Cancer
I think the third or fourth sermon I preached in 1980 when I came to Bethlehem was called Christ and Cancer. I was looking out on about 300 folks. Most of them had gray hair. You said you’d do something like 150 weddings a year or something. I didn’t do weddings for a long time. I did a funeral every three weeks for a year and a half.
I talked to Leith Anderson over at Wooddale a few years ago, and he said he hadn’t done a funeral in a year and a half. I said, “Well, that’s demographics.” That’s all that is. I was looking out on a sea of gray hair, and I wanted to preach to them and ask, “What do you know about my belief about your cancer? When I come to the hospital, I want you to know what I believe so that when I walk in there, you won’t think I’m a name-it and claim-it person, and you won’t think I’m saying, ‘You’re sinning. That’s why you’re in that bed. You lack faith.”
I just wanted to get all the conceptions out of the way, so that they would know when I walked in there that I believed in the sovereignty of God, who loves them and who will work through this with them. They should know I think, “Yes, God has, in his inscrutable wisdom, ordained that you be there. I don’t know why it hurts. I wish it were otherwise, but God is good, and God is wise, and God is strong, and he could give you grace and heal you.” Now, I want them to know that’s how I’m coming to them, and I encourage you to make that claim. First Peter 3:17 says:
For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.
God wills his people to suffer sometimes. First Peter 4:19 says:
Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.
Acts 4:27–28 says:
Truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.
Stay near the cross and you won’t have too much trouble, because right here at the cross there’s a paradigm you have to build into your people’s heads. I don’t think any human being has this paradigm; it has to be created by the Holy Spirit. And it’s this: God does not sin in willing that sin happens.
Sin and Providence
If your people get big question marks on their faces when you say that sentence, you’d better stay there for a while and come back to it over and over again, because if you don’t have that structure — God does not sin in willing that sin happen — you can’t make sense of the Bible, even these verse in Acts 4:27–28 in particular. It says that Herod in all of his purple-robed mockery, Pontius Pilate in all of his hand-washing expediency, the Gentile soldiers who hammered every nail and thrust with the spear and whipped with the whips, and the peoples of Israel, as they said, “Crucify him, crucify him,” were all gathered together “to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4:28).
God willed sin. No sin is greater than killing the Son of God, is it? Can anybody here conceive of a possible sin that is greater than murdering God? Any idea? Nothing. This is the worst sin that ever happened, and it was planned by God. And he knew it would be sin. In fact, it is scripted in the Psalms down to the detail of throwing lots for the robe that wouldn’t be torn. It was scripted hundreds of years before it happened. And those soldiers are accountable, Pilate is accountable, Herod is accountable, the crowds are accountable, and they will suffer for their sins because they deserve suffering, and that is where I’m going to draw the mystery line. If you can’t handle that, I don’t know how you’ll make sense of the Bible. There will be distortions everywhere. God ordains suffering for his people.
Hebrews 12:3–5 says:
Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?
My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord . . .
Amazing. He’s talking about persecution, which is sin, and he calls it God’s discipline. Every time Paul went into prison, every time he was hungry, thirsty, and in danger on the streets and on the rivers, God was at work. God plans the world. In the selling of Joseph into slavery, Genesis 50:20 says, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.”
Okay, so I preached that, and that underlies everything we say at my church. Most of them are young, and most of them believe this. And most of them love this because it helps them suffer well.
Tender Compassion and Rock-Solid Truth
In other words, pastorally, what I would say to this young woman who came for counsel? Before I said anything, I hope the Lord would give me tears. I hope he would give me an embrace. There is a season for everything. There is a season to talk and a season to be silent. There is a season for hugging and a season for fighting false doctrine.
I hope that the Lord would give me sensitivity to know what this season is. Does she need a sermon here? Probably not now. Probably not first. You get your arms around her and you say, “I don’t know. I don’t know all the details. I don’t know what God is up to. I don’t know. I just can’t imagine what you must be feeling right now. One year married, and he’s gone. I’m so sorry.” That may be all the first encounter is.
But if she pushes on it, “Where was God a year ago? Where was God?” I have found that if you try to remove the sovereignty of God back at the beginning when the problem happened, you remove it here in the crisis as well, and here is where she needs it most of all. You need to be able to say to her, “You know what? I don’t know what God is up to entirely. I can give you some general answers from the Bible about why he does all that he does, things about his glory and our joy even through pain, but right now I know for sure God will sovereignly work this together for your good if you just hold onto it. That, I know.”
I can’t know that if he’s not sovereign. He might drop the ball again tomorrow, unless he’s sovereign. In other words, if I solved the God problem a year ago by saying he isn’t sovereign, I have no hope to give her now. My young people are seeing that. They’ve seen that.
They know that if God can’t blow a terrorist jet flying at the World Trade Center towers, and just produce a little wind like on the Sea of Galilee that would blow it aside about 30 yards, what’s he have to say to 2,800 people who now have to face the future with their lives devastated and all their people missing? God can do that, and he didn’t do that. Therefore, he willed 9/11. Therefore, in that sovereign power and wisdom, he can take you into a future that is better than you ever dreamed.
Taking Refuge in the Sovereingn Goodness of God
Let me close with a couple of illustrations. I just brought them along here. You remember some of these.
On April 20, 2001, a Peruvian Air Force jet downed a missionary plane. In it were Jim Bowers, little seven-month-old Charity, his wife Roni Bowers, and his son Cory sitting beside the pilot. Roni was sitting with the baby in her lap to Jim’s left. The fighter jet presumed this was a drug plane and shot it down, and the bullet went right through his wife’s back out of her stomach into the baby and stopped in the baby. They were both immediately dead. The pilot’s legs were all shot to pieces. The plane went down, landed in a river, and flipped over upside down. By an incredible miracle, three of them who were alive got out.
A few weeks later, they had a big memorial service. Elisabeth Elliot was there and Steve Green was there. I went online to get the whole transcript of the evening because I always want to tune into these and see how Christians cope. Jim Bowers stood up and said:
I want to thank my God. He’s a sovereign God. I’m finding that out more now . . . Some of you might ask, “Why thank God?” Of course, now after hearing some people speak tonight, you’re realizing why, maybe. Could this really be God’s plan for Roni and Charity; God’s plan for Cory and me and our family? I’d like to tell you why I believe so, why I’m coming to believe so.
Then he gave about 15 reasons why he believed that God took them. Then the phrase that got quoted in the mocking newspaper articles was this one: “Roni and Charity were instantly killed by the same bullet. Would you say that’s a stray bullet? And it didn’t reach Kevin, who was right in front of Charity; it stayed in Charity. That was a sovereign bullet.” That line was what was in the headlines.
I don’t know whether your heart resonates with that, but here’s a man who was sustained, not by calling God’s sovereignty into question, but by affirming it.
This article in Christianity Today a few years ago absolutely blew me away. I’ve written to Steve Saint since then to say, “Is that a misprint, what you said here?” He got back to us at Desiring God Ministries and said, “No, that’s what I said and that’s what I believe.” This was his research as to why or how Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Roger Youderian, Ed McCully, and Pete Fleming were speared to death on the beach in Ecuador in 1956.
Details came out in this article I didn’t first realize. Did you know that all five of those missionaries had pistols and that as the last one living was standing there with his pistol in his hand — there was this little group that came to them and he could have taken them out easily — they came toward him with a spear, and he just stood there and took it. There’s a name for that: love, courage, and faith. I admire those guys a lot. God has, as you know, used the story through Elisabeth Elliot and others to inspire hundreds and hundreds of people to give their lives to missions.
Well, he did the research to see, where did this murdering party come from? He found out that it was a result of a lot of intertribal intrigue, and that they never should have been there. They weren’t after anybody to kill anybody. There was a lot of misunderstanding going on. Here’s his conclusion, and this is what just blew me away. This is Steve Saint, son of Nate Saint, who was killed. He’s writing about his father and his father’s murder:
As they described their recollections, it occurred to me how incredibly unlikely it was that the Palm Beach killing took place at all. It is an anomaly that I cannot explain outside of divine intervention.
I read that and I said, “Oops. He didn’t mean to write that. That is backwards. He meant to say that it can’t be explained and there was no divine intervention. Let me read it again:
It is an anomaly that I cannot explain outside of divine intervention.
Can I paraphrase that for you? “God planned my dad’s murder. I cannot explain these murders outside of divine intervention.”
I wrote to him and I said, “Is that a misprint? Do you believe that?” He not only believes it, but it’s his vision of the sovereignty of God. There’s a movie out now. I think I just saw there was a debut of it down at Harvest Bible Chapel down in Illinois. I didn’t see it, but they showed it. What’s driving this son is not that God doesn’t have control over who gets killed in the mission field. We know that’s not true. We’ve read Revelation 6:11, right? The martyrs under the altar say, “How long, O Lord? How long until you vindicate us in this world?” And he clothes them with white robes and he says, “Be still until the full number of those who are to be killed for my name are gathered in.”
A Deeper Healing
I look out on you, and I hope that you plant churches that believe in foreign missions as well as American missions, for this reason: while Seattle may be the most unchurched city in America, there are people groups with zero exposure — no radio, no bookstore, no schools, no churches, no witness, and no Bible — and they won’t be reached if you don’t cross a culture. There are thousands of them left, and according to Jesus, they’re going to be reached. He says, “Go make disciples of all the nations (ethnē)” (Matthew 28:18).
So plant mission churches. Understand missions not just in missional languages here. I’m saying that because maybe God right here in this room would raise up some people who would go to the hard, unreached peoples of the world where there’s a language and an ethnicity that has zero exposure and cross that culture and bear that suffering. If you go, I hope you go ready to be martyred, knowing that your martyrdom will not be a mistake.
Joni Eareckson Tada is amazing. Joni’s got this theology. Have her come sometime and just sit here in her wheelchair, maybe she’s already been here, and just talk about suffering. Here’s a quote from her book The God I Love: A Lifetime of Walking with Jesus:
Lord, your “no” answer to physical healing meant “yes” to a deeper healing . . .
If you don’t know Joni, she has been paralyzed since she was 17. She’s in her 50s now, and she’s been paralyzed all her life. She can’t do anything for herself. She’s in a wheelchair. She’s a beautiful, artistic, articulate, creative Calvinist. She continues:
Lord, your “no” answer to physical healing meant “yes” to a deeper healing, a better one. Your answer has bound me to other believers and taught me so much more about myself. It’s purged sin from my life. It’s strengthened my commitment to you. It’s forced me to depend on your grace. Your wise, deeper answer has stretched my hope, refined my faith, and helped me know you better. And you are good. You are so good. I let the tears fall. I know I wouldn’t know you, I wouldn’t love you, I wouldn’t trust you, were it not for — I look down at my paralyzed legs — were it not for this wheelchair.
God Is in Control
This is the last one, except maybe for a list of things from my church. In the Twin Cities three weeks ago, there was a car accident, and three teenagers, Matthew (20), Jacob (17), and Justin (16), were driving home. These are evangelical, born-again, Lutheran lovers of Jesus. They were active in their church. They witnessed at their high school. They would have Bible studies. They were authentic kids. I didn’t know them personally. They weren’t at our church.
Another 21-year-old kid was talking on his cell phone with alcohol in his blood and he swerved out into their lane. He saw them, swerved back, overcorrected, went out of control, and had a head-on collision with these three boys, and they died. Two of them were dead instantly, and one of them died a few hours later. Three boys are dead. Now, their parents have five kids — two little ones and these three boys.
Of course, it was a huge deal in the Twin Cities for a few days. Their dad, Nathan Backstrom, who’s marginally related to a cousin in our church, was interviewed on his front porch. He said, “God is in control. We don’t know all the answers, but he does. And we know that someday we will know.” The cameras were running with that being said.
And then the last thing he said was this: “Many have asked how we are doing. My answer is that God is faithful. Justin, Jacob, and Matthew each had a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. They are now in the presence of their Lord and Savior. Our prayer is that because of their lives, lives will be changed and God will be glorified.” That’s the way I want my people to respond and what I seek to say.
We have a little blind boy in our church who was born without eyes seven years ago. We learned just three weeks ago that his mother has breast cancer. It’s in her lymph nodes. It’s in her groin. It’s in her spine. She has four kids, and one of them is blind.
Little Michael has had seizures since the day he was born. He’s not growing normally. They did a radical surgery taking about a third of his brain out, hoping it would work. It didn’t work.
At seven weeks old, Emily didn’t have the right kind of heart. They went and did open heart surgery. We hope she’ll be all right.
Chuck, a longtime friend about my age, sent me an email last week about a big mass in his kidney and we talked on the phone. What will it mean?
Wendy waited 10 years for her husband while he was sleeping with 18 prostitutes overseas, and he just ended it.
Wendy is the one who told me, “John, never, ever, ever try to comfort me with open theism. Tell me that God is sovereign and can take care of my two kids and me as a single mom now who waited 10 years for her husband, who just decided he would go with another woman permanently. Tell me about the good, sovereign God that reigns over my life.” Let’s pray