If God is totally sovereign, and if people are fallen and some perish, how can God, who is sovereign, allow evil in the world? I've never actually met a Christian who comes out and says, I don't believe in the sovereignty of God.
After all, the Bible says that He's the Lord of Lords and the King of Kings. That is, until tragedy strikes. It's in those moments, those trials, where we might be tempted to question, is God still on His throne? Hi, I'm Nathan W. Bingham, and thank you for joining us today for Renewing Your Mind. This week we've been studying the topic of predestination, God's sovereignty, and it's an important topic.
It's also a controversial one. It's why we need to handle this subject with care, with grace, with charity. I think one of the reasons that we may be tempted to limit the scope of God's sovereignty, particularly when tragedies and difficulties come our way, is in an attempt to protect the character of God. But as we're going to hear from Dr. Sproul today, far from protecting God's character, we're actually distorting it, and distorting it so far that we're denying God Himself.
Here's Dr. Sproul. In this session of our study of predestination, I want to focus our attention on the sovereignty of God. One of the reasons why I think it's important that we really begin here with our study of the doctrine is that here is an area in which virtually all Christians agree. We agree that God is sovereign.
How we understand the sovereignty of God may differ from Christian to Christian, but certainly we would all make the confession that God is sovereign. I like to tell one of my favorite stories that took place in the seminary where I teach a couple of years ago. I had announced in my theology class that the following week I would be lecturing on chapter 3 of the Westminster Confession of Faith, which deals with the eternal decrees of God. And the students didn't miss the implications of that. They realized that we would soon be entering into this volatile arena of discussing predestination. And since the evening class in theology was open to the public, they went and invited all their friends, particularly their friends who were not inclined toward the Reformed doctrine of predestination. So I had a tiger by the tail the following Monday night when we started, and I began by reading the first line of chapter 3 of the Westminster Confession of Faith. And I'll read that now for your benefit so that we can recapture the glory of what happened in Mississippi a couple of years ago. The third chapter of the Westminster Confession begins with these words, God from all eternity did by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will freely and immutably, that is without possibility of changing it, God did freely and immutably ordain whatsoever comes to pass, semicolon.
Let me take a breath there at the point of the semicolon. God from all eternity, according to His own holy and wise counsel, did freely and immutably ordain or foreordain whatsoever comes to pass. And I paused at that point in the seminary classroom, and I said to my students, how many of you believe that statement?
I have to understand this was a Presbyterian seminary, so these fellows were pretty well steeped in the Augustinian tradition, and I got like a 70% vote there. That large number believed it. I said, okay, how many of you don't believe that statement? And 30 or so hands went in the air, and I said, fine. Now let me ask another question. I said, without fear of recriminations, nobody's going to jump all over you.
We just would like to know, feel free to state your position, how many of you would call yourselves atheists? And nobody put their hand up. And I went into my Lieutenant Colombo routine.
There's just one thing here I can't understand. I looked at those 30 who had raised their hand, and I said, do you mind if I ask you a personal question? I said, I can't figure out why those of you who raised your hand saying you did not believe this statement didn't raise your hand when I asked if you were atheists. And they looked at me with a mixture of puzzlement, the same kind of looks I'm seeing in your eyes here today, and I was saying, because if you don't believe this statement, you understand that fundamentally, bottom line, you're an atheist.
And that was about the most outrageous thing they ever heard in their lives. And I said, well, let's understand that this statement that I've just read that God has foreordained whatsoever comes to pass is not a statement that is unique to Calvinism or to Presbyterianism. It doesn't distinguish the Reformed tradition from other traditions. It doesn't even distinguish Christians from Jews or from Muslims. This statement here distinguishes theists from atheists.
And they were still puzzled as I continued this harangue. And I said, don't you see that if there's anything that happens in this world outside the foreordination of God, that if there's no sense in which God is ordaining whatsoever comes to pass, then at whatever point something happens outside the foreordination of God, it is therefore happening outside of the sovereignty of God. Understand that when we talk about God's ordaining things, there are different ways that God ordains things to come to pass. This doesn't necessarily mean that God jumps down into the planet and makes something happen through a direct and immediate personal involvement on His part.
But the trick, I guess, in the statement has to do with the word ordain. All that statement means is that God is sovereign over anything that happens. Anything that happens in this world cannot happen apart from divine sovereignty. We distinguish sometimes between God's efficacious will and His permissive will. You've heard those kinds of distinctions.
But let me state it in the easiest of all possible terms. If something happens in this world by the power of men, by the power of nature, by the power of machines, God always has the power and authority to prevent it at least from happening, does He not? And if He does not prevent it from happening, then that means at least this much that He has chosen to let it happen. That doesn't mean He applauds it. That doesn't mean that He's in favor of it insofar as that He gives His divine sanction to it. But He does allow, not in the sense of again approving all the time, but He does allow it to happen, and in so allowing He is making a decision. And He is making it sovereignly.
And He knows in advance what's going to happen. And if He decrees that it shall happen, He is retaining His sovereignty over it. Now if things happen in this world outside the sovereignty of God, then that would simply mean that God is not sovereign. And the reason I brought up the question of atheism is of course if God is not sovereign, then God is not what? God.
It's that simple. If God is not sovereign, God is not God. And if the God you believe in is not a sovereign God, then you really don't believe in God. You may have a theory of God, you may have theoretical theism, but bottom line for all practical purposes it's no different from atheism because you're believing in a God who is not sovereign. Now what are the practical implications of a non-sovereign God? Think of it now from the perspective of those of you who are professing Christians. I like to explain it this way.
If there's one molecule in the universe running loose outside of the control of God's sovereignty, what I like to call the one maverick molecule, then the practical implications for us as Christians is that we have no guarantee whatsoever that any future promise that God has made to His people will come to pass. Remember when you were little kids and you learned a little rhyme? For one of a male the shoe was lost, and one of the shoe the horse was lost, and one of the horse the rider was lost, and one of the rider the battle was lost, and one of the battle the war was lost. One grain of sand in the kidney of Oliver Cromwell changed the whole course of Western civilization. A tiny little thing like that can change the course of history.
A bullet into the head of John Kennedy changed the course of American history. Now if we have one maverick molecule running loose out there, we have no assurance whatsoever that that single molecule may not be the grain of sand in the machinery of God's eternal plan. It may be that thing that runs amok and makes it impossible ultimately for Christ to return to this planet. It may be the thing that destroys any hope for the consummation of the kingdom of God and leaving all of those promises of God unfulfilled.
Do you ever see how the hand of providence is traced throughout biblical history? What if Joseph had never received a multicolored coat? What if that caravan group didn't happen to come along at the moment that his brothers threw him into the pit and decided to leave him there and then they suddenly had an alternative, and for their reasons were strictly to do what? To be able to give a tale to their father and not actually have to kill their brother, and so they sell Joseph to the caravanners who happened to be going to Egypt, right? And they happened to sell him to Potiphar to guard Potiphar's house, who happened to be a less than moral person, who had these problems and he happened to go into prison, and while he was in prison he happened to be in there with the butcher and the baker and the steward, no candlestick maker, whoever else was in the prison with him, who happened to remember him when he came back out, and it just so happened that Joseph became prime minister and happened to be a famine come into the land in the north, and it just so happened that they ran into these brothers and pretty soon a whole Jewish people were down in there.
It just so happened that this Pharaoh came along and enslaved them all. I mean if it hadn't been for that coat, you know, there'd be no redeemer, there'd be no redemption. I mean there are no maverick molecules in a universe where God is sovereign. Now I need to continue what the Westminster Confession of Faith says.
Remember I gave you a semicolon? After that semicolon the Confession is quick to add that though God ordains whatsoever comes to pass, yet He does it in such a way as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of secondary causes taken away but rather established. So we're not talking about a rigid determinism that eliminates free creatures, but we are affirming a sovereign God who is sovereign even over free creatures. That is the point that the Confession is making.
Now this brings us to the thorny problem that came up at least briefly in one of our discussion periods. If God is totally sovereign and if people are fallen and some perish, how can God who is sovereign allow evil in the world? How can God allow people to perish?
If God knows in advance, for example, that a certain person is going to be born and is going to live their life and perish everlastingly in hell, how could a good God let that happen? The dilemma was set forth philosophically by John Stuart Mill when he said, if God allows this evil situation to exist, it can only mean one of two things. Either God does not have the power to stop it, that is He would like to have a world where there's no suffering, no pain, no evil, and no one is ever lost, but He just can't pull it off. If that's the case, then God is not omnipotent. But if God is omnipotent and evil still exists and people still perish, then God is not loving. So for Mill, as he looks at it, he says that we're faced with this dilemma. Either God is not omnipotent, He's not all-powerful, or He is not benevolent. Now that argument in one form or another has been set forth as a criticism of Christianity again and again and again since John Stuart Mill formulated it the way he did.
And as Christians, how would we respond to that? Don't we struggle over that very question and over that very problem? I think philosophically we can demonstrate that John Stuart Mill's dilemma here is what we would call a false dilemma.
It commits the fallacy of the false dilemma because he doesn't consider every option that is involved here, and there's some great big assumptions going on here in this argument that aren't brought to the surface, but we'll try to do that in a few moments. But to set the problem even more graphically for you, let's consider for a moment the relationship of a sovereign God to a world that is fallen. Because two things that all Christians agree on, one, that God is sovereign, and two, that the world is fallen.
Don't we all agree on that? Certainly there's no dispute on that point between Calvinists and Arminians, Augustinians, and semi-Pelagians. We all agree that God is sovereign, and we all agree that men are fallen. It's the question of the relationship between a sovereign God to a fallen world that now grasps our concern and our attention. There are basically four ways in which God can relate as a sovereign God to a fallen world.
Number one, God could decide to give no one who is fallen an opportunity for salvation. Now that would really enrage John Stuart Mill because this would indicate that God is not loving at all. Of course the thing that John Stuart Mill isn't really thinking about is that this God whom he believes to be loving and must be loving is also a just God, and He's a righteous God. And His love is always an expression of His righteousness. His love is a just and a holy love. And a just and holy God is never required to love a rebellious creation to the extent of extending mercy to it. He could love fallen man and punish fallen man whom He loves as an expression of His justice.
More on that later. Let's keep our eye now on the four things that God could do. He could decide that I will provide no opportunity for anybody to be saved.
Now before we go any further, let me ask you this question. If God decided not to save anybody, would there be anything wrong with that? If God decided to punish the entire human race for the human race's rejection of God and rebellion to God, the only objection we could give at that point is that God is just. And that's hardly an objection. I mean can you imagine the attorney standing up into the courtroom and saying, Objection, Your Honor, I don't like that decision because it's just.
How far would that go? I mean God would be perfectly justified to exercise justice against an unjust creation. But you see, the lurking behind all of this is somehow the assumption that God, if He's really going to be a good God, must be merciful.
And as I've often said to my students, that's one of the greatest pitfalls in Christian thinking. As soon as your mind tells you that God must be merciful or that God ought to be kind, as soon as you think for a second that God is obligated to be merciful, a bell ought to go off in your head and alert you to the fact that you're not thinking about mercy anymore. Because by definition the big difference between mercy and justice is that mercy is never, never, never obligatory. Mercy by definition is something God doesn't have to do.
It's something that God does voluntarily, freely. But as soon as you think He owes us mercy, you're not thinking about mercy anymore. Justice can be owed, but mercy is never obligatory.
Do we get that? We have to understand that principle. Okay, that's one option. God could have said nobody on this planet, since all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and He perceives from all eternity, He sees our fallenness, He could decide to provide no opportunity for salvation. Alright, second thing is He could provide an opportunity for everyone to be saved. Actually, there are six things that we could do here, and I'm trying to shortcut this for the sake of time, and I'll just put in parentheses here, or He could create an opportunity for some people to be saved. But bottom line, God could give the world an opportunity for salvation, and set it up in such a way that everybody or some of the people at least had a chance to be saved, but there's no guarantee that anybody would ever be saved.
Okay, that's what we mean by opportunity. God is an equal opportunity redeemer in this scheme. The third option is that God, exercising His power and His sovereignty, could intrude into the human situation, not only providing an opportunity for salvation, but by so working in the hearts of fallen people, ensure the salvation of some. Or, let's put it this way, ensure the salvation of everybody. That is, God can intervene for everybody, ensuring their salvation. That is, in His sovereignty, He could so guide the steps of a person, and so influence inwardly their hearts as to actually bring them to faith. Now, again, does God have the power to do that?
Yes. Now, He could do that for some, or He could do that for everybody. Now, these are different options that God had or has.
What we're trying to get at in this course is what, in fact, has He done? Now, does the Bible indicate that God has provided no opportunity for anybody to be saved? We can eliminate that one as Christians, can't we, right off the bat?
There's no argument there. We all agree that this is not the biblical view, that God has made no provision whatsoever for salvation. Now, how about the idea that God intervenes in everybody's life and ensures the salvation of everyone?
What do we call that view? Universalism. And there are Christians who believe in universalism. But the debate historically between semi-Pelagianism and Augustinianism is not a debate over universalism. Those two viewpoints both agree what? That only some people ultimately are saved.
They are particularists rather than universalists. The Bible seems to teach, I think clearly, that there are those who are lost, ultimately lost, and at the last judgment will be lost. As our Lord indicates, some will be sent out into outer darkness forever weeping and gnashing of teeth. So we believe that there are some people who will never be redeemed. So this one has to be eliminated.
So what we're left with are these alternatives. Either God gives an opportunity for all or only some, or God does more than simply make an opportunity available. He actually comes in and intervenes and ensures that some people are saved. This is the position of Augustinianism, that God ensures the salvation of the elect or of those who are predestined to be saved. The non-Augustinian views fall under this category, one or the other, either that God makes it possible for everybody or some to be saved.
Everybody has the opportunity or some have the opportunity. Before we debate about which one is actually the case, let me ask this question. Could God ensure the salvation of everyone if He so decides?
Does He have the sovereign power to do it? Now keep in mind that one of the most frequent objections to the Augustinian view of predestination is that God intervenes in the life of certain people and ensures their salvation, but He doesn't do it for everybody. And the objection from the non-Augustinian view is, hey God, that's not fair. If you're going to do it for some, then you ought to do it what?
For everybody. But do you see that the person over here has the same problem? If this person believes that God has the power to bring everybody to salvation and he doesn't, really that argument falls on the head here because all God does in that case is give the opportunity to fallen men to be saved. In this one, God does more than give the opportunity. He assures that some people will be saved. In this schema, there's no assurance that anybody will be saved. In fact, as I think we will see later, it assures us if we take seriously the biblical view of fallen man and his attitude towards God and towards God's grace would assure to my mind at least that nobody would be saved. In other words, what I'm getting at is that one of the chief objections of the Reformed or Augustinian position is that it's not gracious enough, when in fact it's so much more gracious because God doesn't just say, okay, here's the cross, choose it if you will, and leaves people to themselves. But God applies the work of Christ. The Holy Spirit works in people who are dead in sin and trespasses in order to bring them to faith and to ensure that the death of Christ is never in vain, that Christ will see the travail of his soul and be satisfied. The Scriptures speak of God the Father giving people to God the Son.
So what we have here is that the one scheme, what it has going for us is that at least theoretically the opportunity is given to everybody. Anybody who believes in the gospel can be saved. However, there are millions and millions and millions of people who never hear the gospel who in fact don't have the opportunity. The only thing we can really talk about here is that some have the opportunity, some who are not predestined have the opportunity to be saved. That is, this argument would be everyone who hears the gospel at least has an opportunity to say, but God has not made sure that everybody in the world hears the gospel. Could God make sure that everybody in the world hears the gospel?
Could God print it in the clouds if He wanted to? Yes, but He doesn't. And so we are left with that problem that God does not do everything that God conceivably could do within the bounds of His own righteousness.
He does not do everything conceivable to ensure the salvation of the world. Now why not? I don't know. I have no idea.
Why not? I know that He doesn't. That much is clear, and I know that there's no shadow of turning in Him. I know that God is under no obligation to save anybody, and I know that God does save somebody. But I don't know why He doesn't save everybody. You know, if I were God, I think I would save everybody.
At least I like to think that way. I would be so nice and so benevolent and so gracious that I would make sure that everybody got saved. I'd be so much more benevolent than God. But I'm not God.
Aren't you glad that I'm not God? But God is God, and God reminds His people of one crucial principle of divine sovereignty. And we will look at that more closely later on in this course, where God reminds Moses, and then later the church through Paul, of His divine prerogative, I will have mercy upon whom I will have mercy.
God never owes mercy. Real quickly, if God only saves some people, we have to understand that we have two groups of people in the world, the saved and the unsaved. But they are all part of a group of sinners. All are fallen. All are in rebellion against God.
What God does, according to the Augustinian view, is that He sovereignly elects and chooses and redeems some, and the rest He passes over. So that what you have in this schema is that one group gets mercy. What does this group get? Justice. Who gets injustice?
Nobody gets injustice. Now mercy is not justice. Mercy is non-justice. And injustice is non-justice. Injustice and mercy are not the same thing.
They're both outside of the category of justice. Here's justice, and over here we have non-justice, and non-justice is of two types, mercy and injustice. One form of non-justice is mercy. Is there anything sinful or wicked about mercy?
No, mercy is perfectly good. Is there anything sinful or wicked about injustice? Injustice is a violation of justice. Injustice is sin.
Injustice is evil. Now if God gave mercy to this group and injustice to this group, then God would have His integrity compromised. But God gives justice to one group, mercy to another group.
Nobody has ever been a victim of injustice at the hands of God. And I need to stop at that point and say to you that in our next session, we will consider where man's free will comes into play in all of this. What a helpful paradigm that is.
Our God is a God of justice and a God of mercy, but not a God of injustice. I can remember how helpful that was for me in my thinking as I was wrestling through this subject. That's why I'm so thankful that we're making this series chosen by God available to you this week for your donation of any amount. And when you give your gift at renewingyourmind.org, we will send you the six-message series on two DVDs, as well as giving you lifetime digital access to the messages as well as the digital study guide so you can refer back to this series time and time again.
So give your gift today at renewingyourmind.org or by calling us at 800 435 4343. When we study the topic of predestination, often one of the stumbling blocks is that of free will. Don't we make free choices every day even as we look back at when we became Christians? Didn't we freely choose to come to Christ? So how does our freedom relate to God's sovereignty? That's what Dr. Sproul will help you understand tomorrow here on Renewing Your Mind. Thank you.
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