The following is a lightly edited transcript
Yesterday, my aim was to encourage you to risk for the cause of Christ, and not just to do it yourself, but to preach and lead and live in such a way that your people become a community of risk-takers, a kind of people who think taking risks is normal. That’s as big of a challenge as doing it yourself. Not everybody understands how you awaken people to be like that. I want to just say one more comment on that as a transition, because today the focus is on encouraging you to persevere, or endure, or last, in hard places and hard situations.
The Beauty of Future Grace
But first, I want to give a word about how you lead people into being the kind of people who take risks. I think if you don’t have a theology that is something like Christian Hedonism, then you might start hammering on your people to take risks. In other words, you will get the cart before the horse. Because Jesus says things like:
Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven …
Now, if they do not believe that — “great is your reward in heaven” — they won’t rejoice when they’re persecuted, and therefore, they won’t take risks. That’s just like what we’ve been hearing from 1 Peter. It’s the future flowing back into the present. You have a life coming. You have security coming. You have heaven coming. You have vacation coming. You don’t need it now. There’s way too much over-realized eschatology in the church — having heaven now. You don’t need heaven now, you need to get engaged with hell now. Live on the doorstep of the devil now. Get blood on your face now. The now is suffering. The now is risk. The then is absolutely secure.
So what do you preach? You preach the glory of the then and you tell stories from the Bible and from history about the people who’ve been so gripped by the coming glory that they’ve said, “Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also. The body they may kill, God’s truth abideth still. Let’s go.” So the only way I think that you can engage a church to be like that is to paint picture after picture of the irresistible glory that is coming. They have to fall in love with it. Nobody is so heavenly minded they are no earthly good. Nobody is too heavenly minded. You can be too little engaged with the earth, but you cannot be too heavenly minded. So go for broke in building a people who so love what’s coming to them at the revelation of Jesus Christ that they hope fully in it, and then are able to take risks and lay down their lives for others.
Prayer and Perseverance
Now today, I want to encourage you to endure. If you just remember two words from these two messages, today is persevere, and yesterday was risk. I have in mind these different kinds of endurance. First, I’m focusing mainly on endurance in the faith — in other words, staying a Christian. We’ll talk about that more later. If that sounds like I’m not a Calvinist, just hang on. You should pray to stay a Christian.
Secondly, I’m talking about enduring the ministry of the word. I say it generally, not the particular church where you are. It’s the prayer, “Don’t let me just give up the whole ministry and go sell cars. Don’t let me do that, ever.” Pray that way.
Third, I’m talking about staying where you are, as long as God’s called you there. It’s hard to know that, I know. People come to me and say, “How can I know when I should move?” I never know what to say to that question. It’s so hard. But I’m generally in the business of encouraging perseverance in hard places. I like people who last through hard times. I like people like Charles Simeon.
And lastly, I’m talking about perseverance in marriage. Don’t leave it. Don’t change it, if it’s hard. I love this picture, and I encourage my people with it. They know Noël and I have an embattled marriage. They know we are wired about as differently as you can get. They know that we spent 33 months in Christian counseling in the late 80s. They know everything about us. There’s nothing hidden at our church.
I love to stand up and say, “One of the visions that I expect to have and want to have, if God lets me live, is to be at a little restaurant on the north shore of Lake Superior, just above Duluth, with little bushes and little birds jumping around on them, and the expanse of the largest freshwater lake in the world just a few feet away at the age of about 78 or 79, looking across the table into the eyes of my wizened wife and smiling with tears running down my face, and saying, “We made it. I love you so much. We made it.” Don’t you want to say that?
When you’re 40, you feel like you just can’t do it. Well, you can. And this sermon is to help you dream a dream of perseverance and the sweetness that will be. We live in a time when lasting is not a virtue. Enduring in your job, enduring in marriage, enduring in a church, or enduring in a friendship — all of which are troubled — is just not a virtue because we can change so easily. We change clothes, wives, churches, jobs, and the place we live in the West.
The people who built this church, they never dreamed about change. Someone could have been a blacksmith from the day they were born. You know what I’m talking about. We live in a day of incredible change. I’m just kind of swimming against the tide here, trying to encourage you that there’s some glory and joy in sticking it out.
The Key to Endurance: Sustaining Grace
So the answer to the question of how you endure is sustaining grace, or persevering grace, if you like that old word. What I’m going to do is define it, then I’m going to give about three or four illustrations of it, and then I’m going to take you to a text in Jeremiah and unpack it in whatever time we have left. Here’s my definition. I put it in a poem. It’s a four line rhyming poem on sustaining grace:
Not grace to bar what is not bliss,
nor flight from all distress, but this:
The grace that orders our trouble and pain.
And then, in the darkness, is there to sustain.
Now, I’ll probably repeat that five more times in this message. That’s my definition of the grace that you may count on to enable you to endure in all those areas. It’s not grace to bar what is not bliss, nor flight from all distress, but this: The grace that orders our trouble and pain, and then, in the darkness, is there to sustain. That’s what I count on, and that’s what has worked over the years.
A Story in the Scars
Here are some illustrations of what I mean. Bob Ricker was the President of the Baptist General Conference for about 15 years, and he came to our church to preach at the 125th anniversary of the church in 1996. He told a story of his daughter from about 10 years earlier, who was driving down the road as a teenager and had a terrible car accident. She had been thrown from the car and she wasn’t breathing, turning blue on the side of the road.
A car came up behind and a doctor was in the car. The doctor had one of those emergency tracheotomy kits in his pockets. I don’t quite understand them, but this doctor had the courage against all possible malpractice suits, to actually stab her in the throat and save her life. Then Bob Ricker said, “A year or two ago, I did her wedding. And she was gorgeous with her wedding gown, except she had a big scar on her neck.” And he said he paused at one point in the marriage ceremony, looked at her, and he said, “That, on your neck, is a memorial of sustaining grace.”
Now, Bob Ricker is no fool. He knows that if God can arrange for a doctor to be driving behind his daughter, and arrange for this device to be in his pocket, and arrange for him to have the courage to use it, and arrange for the skill of this doctor to use it in a life-saving way, he could have prevented the accident. But sustaining grace is not grace to bar what is not bliss, nor a flight from all distress, but this: The grace that orders our trouble and pain, and then, in the darkness, is there to sustain.
Can You Stand a Baptist?
Here’s a funnier one. In 1996, my wife was driving from Minneapolis to Atlanta, which is about 1,000 miles, and she had our two sons and our baby daughter. Abraham was 16. Barnabas was 12. Talitha was one, and I was not with them. On a Saturday night, the car broke down, and it was the radiator. They were one hour south of Indianapolis in Indiana in the middle of nowhere.
So Noël is without her husband, the 16 year old isn’t driving, and she has a baby and a 12 year old with her. She pulled off on the side of the road because it was Saturday and nothing was open, and now what is she going to do? A man pulled up behind her, who happened to be a farmer, and she said to him, “I don’t know what’s wrong. There’s no water pressure or anything. It’s overheating. We’ll have to have a motel and see if we can find a place Monday morning to get it fixed.”
Then he said, “Well, you could stay at our house if you’d like, my wife and I.” Now, that puts my wife in a really awkward position, right? He could tell she was hesitant, so he said, “You know, the Lord says that when we do something to somebody else, it’s like doing it to him,” which gave her some hope. And she said, “Well, could we go to church with you tomorrow morning?” to kind of test him out. And he said, “Can you stand a Baptist church?” not knowing he was talking to a Baptist pastor’s wife. So they agreed and they piled into his car and headed to his farm.
Now, it turns out, this man was a retired aviation mechanic. He drove early Monday morning to Indianapolis and got a new radiator and put it in with his own hands before noon. And then they were on their way. They went to church together, and the icing on the cake was that my 12 year-old son, Barnabas, who is the only fisherman of all my four sons, pulled his fishing rod out of the car on the farm, found a pond, threw it in, and caught a 19-inch catfish. That made his summer. This was the best detour we’ve ever had.
Of course, if God can arrange for there to be a farmer who’s a retired mechanic, who is generous, who’s a Baptist, who has a pond with a 19-inch catfish arranged to bite onto a 12 year old’s worm, he could have spared the radiator. It’s a piece of cake for him. There’s just not the least difficulty for God to spare my wife that trouble. But sustaining grace is not grace to bar what is not bliss, nor flight from all distress, but this: The grace that orders our trouble and pain, and then, in the darkness, is there to sustain.
Sorrow and Sufficient Grace
One more, then we go to the text. Sometimes it’s good to put your stories at the front, but we won’t talk about homiletics. We’ll just do it.
This one is not funny. In our church, there was a summer in which there seemed to be an epidemic of babies born with profound disabilities — there were four of them. It just shocked the church. One baby was born with no eyes in his eye sockets. Another baby was born with 40 percent of his brain, and so on. One of the dads, who is gloriously engaged in the work now and not bitter at God at all, said to me, “You know, John, it would have been easier had Jesus not healed so many people, but had just gone around helping people cope.”
And I said, you know, that is what he did often. The clearest example is 2 Corinthians 12:7–10, where he gave Paul a thorn in the flesh and Paul cried out three times, “Please take it away, it hurts.” And three times he heard, “No,” and then the Lord said, “My grace is sufficient.” So that’s what I told him. You have to be patient with people when they have a baby with no eyes. You got to give them a lot of space to be okay with that, and this man is. The child was autistic as well to boot, we now find out. He’s in our youth ministry at 10 years old now.
So I say, in one word or another, over and over again to our people, “Sustaining grace is what you need to last,” whether it’s in marriage, or with a child who has a profound disability that will change the rest of your life. You will always be serving this child until one of you dies. You didn’t bank on it. You didn’t count on it. It’s not what you planned for. And it’s changed absolutely everything in your life because sustaining grace is not grace to bar what is not bliss, nor flight from all distress, but this: The grace that orders your trouble and pain, and then, in the darkness, is there to sustain.”
An Everlasting Covenant
Would you open your bibles to Jeremiah 32:36–41? This is the text I choose to illustrate sustaining grace, persevering grace, and keeping grace:
Now therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning this city of which you say, ‘It is given into the hand of the king of Babylon by sword, by famine, and by pestilence’: Behold, I will gather them from all the countries to which I drove them in my anger and my wrath and in great indignation. I will bring them back to this place, and I will make them dwell in safety. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God. I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me forever, for their own good and the good of their children after them.
I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me. I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul.
The first thing we see is that the people are in captivity. Jeremiah 32:36 says:
Now therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning this city of which you say, ‘It is given into the hand of the king of Babylon by sword, by famine, and by pestilence’
That’s true. God did give it into the hand of the king of Babylon. It’s a true statement, but it’s not the last word. God will get the last word. Jeremiah 32:37 says:
Behold, I will gather them from all the countries to which I drove them in my anger and my wrath and in great indignation. I will bring them back to this place, and I will make them dwell in safety.
God declares that he did it. He says, “I have driven them there.” Sovereign grace is going to triumph. Sustaining grace is going to triumph. But it did not keep the captivity from happening. Now, the really personal question I have, when it comes to watching God work with Israel in the Old Testament, is to wonder whether we can individually say, “God will always bring me back.” If he sells me into captivity or some season of suffering or even doubt, can I say, “He’ll always bring me back”? How can I be sure?
Goodness Like a Fetter
As a Reformed, lover of sovereign grace, I love to ask skeptical people about those doctrines of grace. I might ask, What makes you think you’re going to wake up and be a believer tomorrow morning? What is your assurance that you’re going to wake up and trust Jesus in the morning? Do you think that, if left to yourself, you would? Do you think willpower will do it? Do you ever sing, “Oh, to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be. Let thy goodness like a fetter …” What’s another word for fetter? Chain. The song is saying, let your goodness like a chain bind my wandering heart to thee. Do you ever pray like that, Arminian?
It says, “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it. Prone to leave the God I love. Here’s my heart, oh take and seal it.” Seal it with red-hot, molten lead that cannot be broken. Seal it. This is all prayer. There are prayers like this all over Psalm 119. Incline me to you (Psalm 119:36). Keep me (Psalm 119:29). Save me (Psalm 119:94). Preserve me (Psalm 119:37). Pastor, do you pray “Keep me in this ministry” regularly? I’ve prayed it 100 times. I’ll say, “Don’t let me quit. Please, don’t let me quit. Don’t let one of those dark moments be the last moment. Please, do whatever you have to do to get me through those moments. There will be light on the other side, but I feel like quitting. Don’t let me quit.” Do you pray like that? Do you pray, pleading with God to hold onto you, to wake you up a believer and to wake you up loving Jesus in the morning? You don’t make yourself love Jesus. That’s a work of God, a work of grace. So I pray, “Keep me. Preserve me. Defeat every rising rebellion. Overcome every niggling doubt. Deliver from every destructive temptation.”
This pornography issue is killing pastors all over the place. It’s killing their souls, if not their ministry too. Eventually, it will be their ministry. And how subtle it is. How many ways that you can get there without going there. Set yourself up. Take the stand, “I will gouge out my eye. I will cut off my hand. God, do whatever you have to do. Strike me blind rather than let me compromise my soul. Blessed are the pure in heart; they will see God (Matthew 5:8). I want to see you. Please make me pure. Keep me from pornography.”
And there are many other keeping, preserving, and holding kinds of prayer. Do you pray that way? Do you cry out day and night, “Keep me. Help me to last. Help me to persevere in the faith, in purity, in the church, in the work.” We should. We should pray that way. I never have understood people who translate Reformed theology into prayerlessness or lack of evangelization. Never have I had the least emotional resonance with those kinds of arguments at all. It all works the other way to me.
The only reason I could pray for my son when he was away was because I knew God could save him. He couldn’t save himself; he was blind as a bat. But God can save him. I can’t keep myself a Christian. I can’t stay pure. But God can do it. That’s why we pray. We cry to him, “Act on behalf of your name and spare me from making shipwreck of the ministry in your name.” So plead with him for it.
The Root of Assurance
Now, here’s the ground of your confidence. I’m reading from Jeremiah 32:38–41. I’ll make four brief points. I’m answering the question that I raised about five minutes ago: Can I personally take this text and get confidence that I’ll stay a Christian and come back from my Babylonian wanderings?
I don’t know if I need to say this in a group of pastors, but I will anyway. My hermeneutic for saying yes to this question is that this is clearly a New Covenant promise. I hope there’s no argument there. These are New Covenant promises. And Jesus said, “This cup is the New Covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). Therefore, Jesus, by his blood, bought those promises for all who are in him. Those are the true Israel, and these promises are valid because of the blood of Jesus, who said that his blood is the foundation and purchase of the New Covenant.
So when you read a New Covenant promise — in fact, I think when you read any promise in the Old Testament — and you’re in the seed of Abraham, in the Messiah, it’s yours. There’s a good hermeneutical warrant for embracing those promises, and this is one of the best promises. Let’s read Jeremiah 32:38–41.
And they shall be my people, and I will be their God. I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me forever, for their own good and the good of their children after them. I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me. I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul.
1. Covenant Fellowship
Now, here are my four points from that set of verses. First, God promises in the New Covenant to be your God if you belong to Jesus. If you cleave to the one who bought these promises, God promises to be your God. Jeremiah 32:38 says, “They shall be my people, and I will be their God.” I take that to mean that God will use all of his God-ness — his wisdom, his power, his love — to see to it that you remain his. He will use everything he is as God to see to it that you remain his. When he says to a person, “I will be your God,” that’s the fullest meaning in Christ, I believe.
2. Heart Change
Second, God promises to change our hearts and give us love and fear for him. Jeremiah 32:39 says, “I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me forever.” And then, in the second half of Jeremiah 32:40, he says, “I will put the fear of me in their hearts.” That means God will not simply stand by to watch what will become of your faith. He won’t simply stand by to watch whether you become a believer and stay a believer.
The New Covenant people are different from those under the Mosaic covenant, who did not keep the covenant. That’s the difference between the old and the new. In the new, God moves in power to save and to keep his own. And so, we may have strong confidence that he will do it. I believe sustaining grace is sovereign grace. It is irresistible grace, by which I do not mean you can’t resist it. I mean that anytime he pleases, he can overcome your resistance.
So when Stephen says to the Israelites, “You resist God all day long” (Acts 7:51), that’s not a contradiction of irresistible grace. Anytime he pleases, he can do a Damascus road. Of course Paul resisted him. For decades he hated him and resisted him. In Galatians, he says that God chose him in his mother’s womb (Gal 1:15). Paul was his all along. He was elect, and God let him go in a murderous way. And then, when he decided, the resistance was over. Of course God can overcome your resistance, and he did if you’re a Christian. He overcame your resistance. The grace that I need in the ministry more than any other grace is sovereign, resistance-overcoming, wandering-seeking, returning-back-from-Babylon-bringing grace. And it’s there. It’s promised.
3. Irrevocable Devotion
Third, God promises that he will not turn away from us, and he won’t let us turn away from him. I remember growing up in a fairly non-Reformed atmosphere where I would try, not knowing what I believed in those days, to quote John 10:28, which says, “no one will snatch them out of my hand,” and they would always say, “But you can jump out!” I didn’t know what to say then, but now I do. He won’t let you jump out if you’re his. That’s what this says.
It’s so clear in Jeremiah 32:40. It says, “I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them.” Okay, everybody agrees with that, namely that God promises to do good to us. But the statement, “I will put the fear of me in their hearts so they will not turn away from me,” is the part they don’t agree with. That’s my only reason for thinking I’m going to wake up a Christian tomorrow morning. It is not the consistency of John Piper’s will that guarantees me waking up a believer in the morning.
This sentence, “I will not let you turn away from me,” is why I wake up believing tomorrow morning, and you, whether you know it or not. Praise God that he saves people with bad theology. Praise God he keeps people who don’t even believe he’s doing it. I’m so thankful for that little sentence in Packer’s book Keep In Step With the Spirit, where he said, “God loves to honor the needle of truth in a haystack of error.” That’s so helpful when dealing with mixed up people.
Well, don’t be mixed up anymore. Love this. Enjoy this. He will not let you turn away from him. The doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, and then perseverance in marriage, perseverance through sickness, and perseverance in ministry, is a doctrine that’s rooted in the sovereign keeping of God.
You know, just about everybody in America who’s a Christian believes in eternal security. Well, that’s an overstatement, but a lot of people who don’t like anything else about Reformed theology, love that one. But they don’t understand it. They think it’s automatic. They think you just pray a prayer, or you sign a card, or you walk forward, and then a person can quote to them, “You’re saved. You’re safe. You have eternal life. You can’t lose it.” They don’t understand it’s only because God has moved on you and keeps moving on you day by day. And you should be praying for this and relying on this and exulting in this and praising him for this — that he does this New Covenant promise for you every day.
4. Limitless Affection
Finally, this is the best of all. God promises to do this keeping — this staying with you and keeping you with him — with the greatest intensity of desire imaginable. Jeremiah 32:41 says:
I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul.
Now, at the front of verse 41, it says he loves doing what he’s doing in keeping you — “I rejoice to do you good.” You need to let your imagination work because your capacity for joy is very small. You’re a human being. You need to somehow extrapolate what it would be like for infinite power to be happy. It will make you tremble. I mean, he might create a universe. What would you do? How would you celebrate if you were God? You would just clap and poof, 10,000 universes coming to being — “Oops, did you not mean for us to be? Sorry. We can just go back out of existence. We thought you meant for us to come into existence.” But the best part is at the end where I don’t know what more he could’ve said. Not only does God rejoice to do you good — to be sustaining and helping you — but he does it with all his heart and with all his soul.
Now, I want to give you a non-rhetorical, non-sermonic challenge. I challenge you, can you even conceive of an intensity of desire greater than the desire expressed in all God’s heart and all God’s soul? Raise your hand if you can, or come to me afterwards if you’re embarrassed, and tell me what intensity of desire would be greater than all of God’s omnipotent heart and all his omnipotent soul. Not a piece of his heart, and not your heart, but all of God’s omnipotent soul and all of God’s omnipotent mind and heart — all of it wholly engaged in rejoicing to do you good. That has to be one of the most amazing verses in the Bible.
I was thinking of how I could impress this on you, and I thought of this analogy: If you took all the desire for food, all the desire for sex, all the desire for money, all the desire for fame, all the desire for power, all the desire for meaning, all the desire for friends, and all the desire for security in all the hearts of all human beings, and put it in a container — a lifetime of desire for all of those things in every human being — how would it compare to this desire in God, who says, “With all my heart and with all my soul, I rejoice over you to do you good”? It would compare like a thimble to the Pacific ocean, and that’s an understatement, infinitely.
We must feel this. He didn’t write these words for them to be thrown away. He meant for pastors to be absolutely blown away that God almighty, on his throne, maker of heaven and earth, as we heard from Dick, is rejoicing over you to do you good with all of his heart and with all of his soul, all of the time. He never sleeps and never slumbers. We need to believe that and not just think about it.
We need to pray, “Oh God, open my eyes, change my heart. Help me to feel the wonder of this.” And then we need to have words and a life that will create a people so satisfied in a God with that amount of energy toward them that they live so radically the world simply has to ask, “What’s the reason for the hope in you?” You’re going to live differently, if you believe this. You will not become a health, wealth, and prosperity person. You will let goods and kindred go. You won’t need them. Heaven is around the corner. It’s coming so fast.
This sustaining grace is not grace to bar what is not bliss, nor flight from all distress. That’s not what grace is in this life. Rather, it’s grace that orders our diseases, our conflicts, our marriages, and our teenagers, and then, in the darkness, is there with omnipotent energy to delight in doing us good.