The first thing we want to do is introductory remarks. This is just stage setting, so you know where I’m coming from, and what’s on my front burner. In 1985, from October 13 to November 3, I delivered seven messages at Bethlehem, on Romans 8:28–30, which says:
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
I preached seven messages on those verses. Up until that point in the life of our church — I had been there for five years — we had not made any issue at all about “so called” Calvinism. We hadn’t made any issue at all of this controversial thing. I had just tried to be faithful to Biblical texts because I think that’s what wins the confidence of God’s people. They don’t want to hear a system mainly, they want to hear Bible mainly, which is what they ought to mainly hear.
I tried to just win their trust to say, “I’m a Bible man. I’m not a system man, mainly.” But after five years, it seemed like the time was right to talk about those verses. They present to you one of the reasons why this issue of the sovereignty of God in salvation, or TULIP, which we’ll talk about shortly, or Calvinism, however you want to describe it, is important. These realities in Romans 8 are the foundation of the most precious promise in the world — namely, that everything works together for our good.
All Things for Our Good
Did you see the connection? I’ll put it up here for you. It says:
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).
Most people find that to be one of the most precious promises in the Bible. All things work together for good for those who are called, according to his purpose. But not many people contemplate the word right here — for. The foundation for that promise is:
For . . . those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified (Romans 8:30).
Those are links in a chain, and if any of them breaks, that promise is over. To see that is practically very important for me. I don’t ever want to lose Romans 8:28. I build my life on Romans 8:28. I do my pastoral ministry on Romans 8:28. I face seminars like this with voice challenges on the basis of Romans 8:28. If I lose Romans 8:28, I can’t do my ministry. I don’t know how I would do life.
How the Bible supports Romans 8:28 and holds it up makes a big difference to me, and the way it holds it up is through foreknowledge, predestination, calling, justification, and glorification, and they all hang together. That’s the first thing, by way of introductory remark, that I wanted to say. Historically, I introduced these things to the church after about five years of being here, and I introduced them where I want them to be: as a precious, powerful support for the most practical realities in the world. These things aren’t for fighting about, tom me. They aren’t for winning arguments about, they aren’t to puff yourself up or distinguish yourself from anybody; they’re to live by; they’re to survive with.
Supported by the Sovereignty of God
I can’t tell you how many people over the years have come to Bethlehem, and they’ll be here about five months and their 21-year-old son gets lumps in his neck. I go to visit him in the hospital, and after the test the next day, they give him about five months to live, and he dies, and they say, while you’re standing around the hospital in his last hours, “Had I not heard the word concerning the absolute sovereignty of God over my life, I would have gone insane in losing my son.”
Not everybody responds that way, I know that. But I have heard it enough from the depths of people’s being, and I live it enough to know that’s reality. That’s the way it’s supposed to work. These doctrines are not mainly there just to entertain our intellects. They’re there to provide a rock under our feet when everything around our soul gives way, which it will sooner or later, in your life. That’s the first one. The second one, these are just introductory thoughts to set the stage.
The Minimization of God
I want to read a few quotes from A. W. Tozer. Tozer was a pastor in the middle of the last century, who wrote quite a few books, and almost all of them were about God. He had a very huge passion to reorient the American church to a bigger God. He lived at the same time that J. B. Phillips was living, and if you’re my age or around it, you can remember what J. B. Phillips contributed to the church in the ’60s. He contributed a paraphrase of the New Testament, and he contributed a little book called Your God Is Too Small. You had J. B. Philips and you had A. W. Tozer, and there have always been others, helping the church wake up to the American minimization of God. We Americans are so amazingly self-sufficient and self-determining and self, almost everything that for Americans to hold a high view of the greatness of God is more difficult than some.
Here are a few quotes that resonate with me to this very day. It was written 60 years ago, but they’re still true. He said:
It is my opinion that the Christian conception of God current in the middle years of the 20th century, is so decadent, as to be utterly beneath the dignity of the Most High God and actually to constitute for professed believers, something amounting to a moral calamity. All the problems of heaven and earth, though they were to confront us together at once, at once would be nothing compared with the overwhelming problem of God— that is, that he is, what he is like, and what we, as moral beings, must do about him. The man who comes to a right belief about God is relieved of 10,000 temporal problems.
That’s an amazing statement. One of my philosophies of ministry, if you want to call it that, of preaching, is that even though I don’t know in this room here, how many problems you’re facing right now — say two or three thousand, corporately and collectively — and in summing up all the problems, I don’t know what they are, so how am I supposed to address them? How am I supposed to say anything that’s helpful to you on Sunday morning, or in the seminar? If you think that being a pastor and looking out on several thousand folks week after week you’re going to be relevant by addressing each problem specifically, you’re not.
People are going to bring to the church and to this room issues I’ve never even dreamed that you’re facing. Does that mean I cannot say anything that God would be pleased to use for that very thing that I’ve never heard of? The answer for me is, if I keep God himself central, and lift him up, week after week, and do everything I can to make him look and feel magnificent, that very issue will solve 100 problems in your life that you do not even know is the solution to the problems. We’re made for God, we’re made to see him, know him, tremble in his presence, and be awed by him, and if we are seeing him as he is and responding as we ought, there are 100 things that get worked out in our brains and our hearts and our circumstances that would not have gotten worked out had we been presented with a lesser God.
The Essence of Idolatry
When Tozer says that, I think he’s right. He continues:
The man who comes to a right belief about God is relieved of ten thousand temporal problems, for he sees at once that these have to do with matters which at the most cannot concern him for very long; but even if the multiple burdens of time may be lifted from him, the one mighty single burden of eternity begins to press down upon him with a weight more crushing than all the woes of the world piled one upon another.
In other words, if we could solve that issue, understand that issue, get that settled — Who is God? What’s happening to me in eternity? How do I relate to him? — then ten thousand other things would be settled. Continuing down the page a little bit, he says:
Let us beware lest we in our pride accept the erroneous notion that idolatry consists only in kneeling before visible objects of adoration, and that civilized people are therefore free from it. The essence of idolatry is the entertainment of thoughts about God that are unworthy of him.
I think that’s a very penetrating and indicting definition of idolatry. He continues:
It begins in the mind and may be present where no overt act of worship has taken place . . . Wrong ideas about God are not only the fountain from which the polluted waters of idolatry flow; they are themselves idolatrous. The idolater simply imagines things about God and acts as if they were true.
In other words, according to that definition of idolatry, you must think rightly about God, in order not to be an idolater, because if you entertain thoughts about him that are untrue about him or unworthy of him, those very thoughts your affections are responding to are not the way he is.
Thoughts Worthy of God
Here is one more section:
The first step down, for any church is taken when it surrenders its high opinion of God. Before the Christian church goes into Eclipse anywhere, there must first be a corrupting of her simple basic theology. She simply gets a wrong answer to the question, “What is God like?” and goes on from there. Though she may continue to cling to a sound or nominal creed, her practical working creed has become false. The masses of her adherence come to believe that God is different from what he actually is, and that is heresy, of the most insidious and deadly kind. The heaviest obligation lying upon the Christian church today is to purify and elevate her concept of God until it is once more worthy of him.
That’s Tozer, and it rang true with me. I think that’s exactly right. We live in a day where in the churches in America, by and large, as David Wells has said so powerfully in his book No Place for Truth and God in the Wasteland, the glory of God “weighs lightly upon the church.” God is not felt in your typical church as a weighty reality. People want to be cheery. They want to be light-hearted, not weighty. And so, in order to feel friendly, we calculate everything in entertainment mode so that people feel chipper. How can a magnificent view of God survive in that atmosphere? How can a right view of God and right affections for God survive? When I read this book, I get a different flavor. This book is an amazingly serious book.
There’s weightiness everywhere you turn in this book, and so it seems if we’re to be biblical, which we are, then our churches should have about them a flavor, not of moroseness but of serious joy, weighty joy. That’s number two, in my introductory reflections — the Tozer missing piece of the great, big God in our culture and in our churches and our psyche.
Sovereign Over Sin
Third, let me put on the overhead a few texts that I have been moved by recently, just to give you a flavor. I think catching the flavor of this seminar is very important. These are texts that have moved me in recent months. I just sent off to the publisher the sermon series that I did last year called Spectacular Sins and Their Global Purpose in the Glory of Jesus Christ, which is an extremely offensive title because it implies that sins have purpose in the glory of Christ. I mean, it doesn’t imply it, it says it. You’ll see, that the sermon series grew out of this burden, and these burdens are new extensions of things I’ve been seeing all along.
As you grow older, you read the same Bible over and over again, right? But oh, what we see, that we hadn’t seen before. Isn’t it wonderful, how you can just see so many things you’ve read 100 times and affectionately they grip you in a new way, and even the insights are new.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved (Ephesians 1:1–6).
Before the foundation of the world, he chose us. He chose us in Christ, and he chose us for a purpose — that we should be holy and blameless before him. He predestined us, that is, he assigned to those whom he chose a destiny, and the destiny was adoption as sons through Jesus Christ. We know that this adoption, through Jesus Christ, was through his cross. It was through grace. All of this happening before the foundation of the world, according to the purpose of his will. How did he make these choices? He chose them, not according to any constraint outside himself. But he knew what he had planned to do, and he planned to do it and did it.
The Shock of God’s Overwhelming Greatness
It was all aiming, this is the aim right here, to the praise of the glory of his grace. That’s one of the most sweeping and one of the most determinative texts in the Bible for helping me understand why I exist, why the ministry exists, why the church exists, why the universe exists, and why you exist. The ultimate reason you exist is unto the praise of the glory of his grace. If you just linger over that — I mean, that’s worth days of meditation — what does it mean that the universe exists, that the church exists, that history exists, that you exist, in order to praise the glory of the grace of God?
Well, one of the implications that hit me more recently, last year, was that grace is a response to sin. Grace is when you don’t deserve something and you get it anyway. This means that the purpose of the universe, framed from before the foundation of the world, took sin into account. Before there was anybody around to sin, God was planning with sin in mind. In fact, what’s even more stunning is that his ultimate aim is that his grace, in dealing with sin, be praised.
His ultimate purpose did not just kind of work around sin; it required that there be sin. You can’t have grace, and people praising it, if you don’t have Christ dying for sinners and displaying the grace of God. These are mind-boggling things. It’s good to have your mind boggled. So many people run away from mind boggles. They don’t want to have their mind boggled. They like Jesus in a little box, so he can just be manageable. I’m wired to want to be boggled. I feel like I’m really not encountering God unless I’m being shocked.
Why would I think any other way? Just a simple computation of how big the universe is, and that he created it with his fingers according to Psalm 8:3 (“When I look at the heavens, the word of your fingers”), means his scope can’t be any other than if I even get within a billion layers of him I’m gonna be shocked. I’m not eager to make anything un-shocking. I’m in the business of looking to be shocked, because I feel like if God is just provincial, if he’s just fitting in, if he’s just like your old man, then what’s the point? Let’s eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die. We have better things to do than mess around with a little, teeny God. Why would we even want to think of it?
Grace Before the Ages Began
Second Timothy 1:9 says:
[He] saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began . . .
He saved us and called us, not by works — praise God — but he doesn’t contrast it with faith here. He contrasts it with his own purpose, and with grace — so, not works, but grace — and then he says, “He gave us this grace before the ages began.” I’m just pointing out that in the last year and a half, I’ve just been blown away by these statements in the Bible. That my grace, that Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, saved a wretch like me, has gone up in amazingness by being told that he gave it to me billions of years ago before there was a universe. That’s where you got your grace.
The Slain Lamb’s Book of Life
Here’s one more. Revelation 13:8 says:
All who dwell on earth will worship [the beast], everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain.
Now, there are two amazing things there, more than two. One is that there’s a book, and the book existed before the foundation of the world, and the book has a name. It’s the book of the life of the Lamb who was slain. That’s the name of the Book. Before the universe was, there was a book, and the book had a name, and the book’s name was the book of life. What do you mean life? It’s the life of the life of the Lamb who was slain. Slain? History doesn’t exist yet. I know this book will require a history. There will be a history to make sense of this book. But the book is here now in eternity. Christ was slain in God’s mind before the foundation of the world. This is where it’s going.
As God contemplated the creation of a universe, one way he thought about it was, “I’m going to design a universe in which the apex of my glory will be the glory of grace, manifest in the slaughter of my Son.” The word slaughter is the literal translation of the word slain (sphazō), which is an ugly word. Slain softens it. God, contemplating what kind of universe he would make, says, “The main event of the universe that I will create will be Good Friday. It will be my Son, united with human flesh, who will be tortured, and will be killed like a lamb who is killed with a throat slit.” That just takes your breath away.
Here’s the other amazing thing: All who dwell on the earth will worship the beast except everyone whose name has been written in the book. Think of that. If your name is not in the book, you will worship the beast, which must mean that having your name in the book is the ground of why you don’t worship the beast. He’s making whether the name is in the book or not the criterion of who worships the beast or doesn’t worship the beast, it’s not the other way around, as if to say, “If you worship the beast, your name is not in the book,” or, “If you don’t worship the beast, I will put your name in the book.” It says just the opposite. Everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book will worship the beast. All of it points toward where we’re going in dealing with some of these weighty matters.
Broken by the Word
Here’s one last introductory thought. We’re still on introduction. I didn’t always believe what I do today about what the Bible teaches concerning the sovereignty of God in our salvation. My home growing up was an evangelistic home in which my dad loved the sovereignty of God and loved the glory of God, and manifestly prayed it and lived it. He didn’t articulate it much to me. We didn’t talk much about theology growing up. My father was not a theologian in the sense of being an analytical thinker who faces problems and then solves them. He was a proclaimer of the biblical gospel, and he was an evangelist. It’s the way he was put together and that was his calling.
I’m very different from my dad in that regard, in that I see problems everywhere. I’m just wired to see problems and I devote most of my life to trying to solve them or cope with them. Because I cannot not see them, and I’ve worked, in fact, relatively hard in the last 30 years to cultivate that skill because I think John Dewey was right when he said, “Nobody begins to think until they see a problem.” When you see a problem, your mind comes into gear, and you start working on it. But if you don’t see any problems, your mind generally stays neutral and you don’t apply your mind to make sense of anything.
It’s when you bump into a pair of contradictions or puzzling things in nature, or puzzling things in people, or puzzling things in the Bible, that your mind starts to ask questions and put things together and formulate hypotheses and rule out options, and thinking happens. I happen to think that’s a really good thing for some people to do. Not everybody should devote their energies to that, but I have and so, I grew up in that kind of a home.
I’m deeply thankful for it. I absorbed a high view of the sovereignty of God and a high view of the glory of God, but I wasn’t Calvinist, not by a long shot, and at Wheaton College, I did not have my Arminianism challenged. I’m not sure whether that was intentional on the part of teachers or not. I can remember reading one book in particular about John 15, which I thought was very compelling about the fact that you could lose your salvation.
A Worldview Shaping Semester
But in 1968, I moved from Wheaton to Pasadena, California, and was on the brink of having my world profoundly rocked. I didn’t know what I was about to get in for. It was not John Calvin who did it, not by a long shot. It was a conspiracy of other people. Just to give you a flavor, I was so rabid in my belief in sovereign free will in my heart, that I was in a class on systematic theology with James Morgan, and he was teaching on the sovereignty of God though I didn’t know what he was or wasn’t. He was saying things that I didn’t like. And I walked up to him after class one day — he was quite a big man, and I was quite feisty in 1968, a 22 year old — and I said, “Morgan, watch this.” And I put my pen right in front of his nose like this, and I said, “I dropped it!”
I remember doing that. And I said, “God didn’t do that, I did that. I have a will,” as if that was profound. That was one class. Then there was Philippians, and I was bumping into things like, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” which of course I liked very much, but the next verse says, “For it is God who is at work in you to will and to do for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12–13). I didn’t know what to do with that. So there were those two instances, and then there was Jonathan Edwards. They were all coming together and I remember writing in a blue book final exam for that course by Jim Morgan:
Romans nine is like a tiger, prowling around, seeking to devour free-willers like me.
Romans nine played its part, and just to comfort some of you — well, it isn’t really comforting, though I hope it’s a sustaining grace. I would go home, and I was an emotional basket case anyway because I was madly in love with Noël shoes thousands of miles away. We were going to get married in December and I went to school without her in September, 3,000 miles away, and I was just so looking forward to marriage but there my whole world was being turned upside down, and I was about to get married and, oh my goodness, this was just a mess. I remember going back to my apartment, as single guy, sitting down class after class, putting my face in my hands, and weeping.
Those memories incline me to be patient with those of you who have come to this and are willing to expose yourself to texts that we’ll look at for the next 6–10 hours, and yet find it so difficult to fit it into the way you’ve seen the world. Tears are a regular accompaniment when your worldview collapses. It’s not an easy thing to have your structure of reality profoundly altered, or some foundation pillars underneath shaken. It feels like your emotional equilibrium won’t know how to cope anymore, because you’ve learned how to cope with this vision of the world and this vision of God, and now, these pillars are starting to crumble and you’re looking around for alternative pillars, and they haven’t been put in place yet, so, emotionally, it can be unbelievably disorienting and distressing and sad and tearful. That’s the way it was. Those are my preliminary, introductory remarks.