In thinking of what subjects I might include in a series of sermons on the subject of ‘distinctives of reformed spirituality,’ my problem was an embarrassment of riches. I had too many themes for too few sermons. No doubt you might have chosen others than I have. The ‘distinctives’ I have chosen to present are:
- a profound sense of sin
- a deep and serious joy
- an abiding and extravagant gratitude
- and spirituality with a corporate emphasis, and, in particular, a family emphasis
But, I thought that whatever I must include or omit from this series of sermons, I could not omit, nor could I begin in any other way, than with a consideration of that high view of God and that reverence for God which, from the beginning, has been characteristic of the reformed church when she has been at her best. In a magnificent article on Calvinism, B.B. Warfield, the great Princeton theologian, wrote:
‘The determining principle of Calvinism…is…the glory of the Lord God Almighty. The formative idea of Calvinism is the conception of God; and it is its determination that God shall be and remain God in all its thought [which is Calvinism’s determining principle].’
Yes, and I dare say it was the determining principle of the Apostle Paul long before it was the determining principle of that great Paulinist, John Calvin.
Paul not only sets out the majesty of God, the glory of God in his teaching; it is a theme which has so captured and enraptured him, that its breaks out repeatedly into his discussion of other things. Two such incidences I have read to you from his first letter to Timothy.
And here, I think, we find the truly biblical mind; and, if I may say so, the truly reformed mind and heart as well. Paul cannot speak about this or that, think about this or that, in this case his own sin and salvation, and then his charge to Timothy to hold fast the good confession, without his heart and his thought turning upwards to God, to that glorious, mighty, immortal God, incomprehensible in his majesty, as far beyond our thought as his love and mercy are beyond measure.
This is the reformed aim, vision, and goal for the spiritual life of Xian people: that they should ever live and move and have their being in God; that their minds should never be but a moment removed from thoughts of the greatness and glory of God; that whatever else may, of necessity occupy their minds and hearts, soon again great thoughts of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords will come crowding back into their souls, and they will find themselves, ever and again, pondering the infinity and the immeasurable majesty of the Almighty.
Paul, in this, is just like the Psalmist, who cannot get his fill both of thinking about God and the astounding things we know to be true about him, and who cannot keep himself from saying in so many different ways:
‘Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise; his greatness no one can fathom.’
Of course, there are many things about God which cause us to wonder and marvel. His omnipotence, his omnipresence, his holiness, his perfect justice, the boundlessness of his mercy, his immortality, and so on.
But perhaps nothing brings home to the people of God the greatness and majesty of the Lord; nothing has stamped itself so indelibly upon the soul of the reformed church as demonstrating the majesty and the glory of God and, consequently, with how much fear, awe, reverence, and adoration we ought to think of him and walk before him, as the sovereignty of God; the rule, the authority, the dominion, which he exercises over all that he has made.
It is the fundamental conviction of the Xian faith and, all the more of the reformed faith in which such care is given to give God his rightful due, that the first principle of our faith and our life must be that we are always and in every way in God’s hands.
Paul calls God ‘the Ruler,’ ‘the Lord’ and ‘the King’ in these two magnificent ascriptions of honor and blessing to God in First Timothy.
You know it was the reading of this very verse 17 from 1 Timothy 1 that made Jonathan Edwards a Calvinist. He had, he says in his diary, long resisted the notion of divine rule and sovereignty over men; he had no sympathy with the reformed doctrines of election and predestination. Indeed, he says, such a doctrine of divine sovereignty ‘appeared like a horrible doctrine to me.’ But then one day, as a young man, reading 1 Tim 1:17 light dawned and he saw that God being God, not only must he rule over all, but that his people should want it to be so. ‘I have often since,’ he wrote, ‘not only had a conviction, but a delightful conviction. The doctrine has very often appeared exceeding pleasant, bright and sweet. Absolute sovereignty is what I love to ascribe to God.’
Now, brothers and sisters, is it so with you, as it was with Paul, with Calvin, and with Edwards? Do you revel in the fact that God is the great King, that his glory is above all the earth, that he dwells in unapproachable light, and that for all his love and fatherly affection in Jesus Christ, for all his sympathy with his people and care of them, he remains forever the high God who inhabits eternity, whom no man has seen or can see? Is it so with you as it was with Paul, that the divine glory and rule has so mesmerized you that your mind and heart draw you back to it, to think about it and ponder over it and wonder at it, again and again throughout the day?
Well, let me encourage you to greater and more constant thoughts of the Lord Almighty, by reminding you of what the Scripture says about his sovereign rule, his lordship, and his reign over all, by reminding you how exceedingly great a King he is!
- In the first place, remember that the Scripture says that God’s sovereign rule is absolute.
Think of all that the Bible declares is under the control of our God, the direct and immediate control of the Almighty.
- Every throw of the dice says Proverbs (every computer generated lottery ticket)
- The rain which falls upon the just and the unjust alike
- The days and the years of our lives
- The individual characteristics of every human life as he or she is formed in the womb
- The thoughts and the decisions of kings and of governments
- The falling of sparrows from trees
- The number of hairs on your head at any moment
- The fact, the time and circumstances of anyone’s salvation
And we could go on at great length. Now do you feel the force of that mixture of things which God controls—some great and some not great at all. The rule of Kings, the length of our lives, the salvation of a soul: yes, we can see that God would be in control of such great things as these. But sparrows falling from trees; the number of hairs on the head.
Who cares about such things? And that, you see, is precisely the Bible’s point. No one cares about them. They are insignificant.
And that is how great God is; that is how far his sovereignty extends He controls everything; his mind can embrace at once the infinite number of connections between every single fact, every single detail and every other fact or minute detail in the cosmos. The precise number of hairs on your head, sitting here in this sanctuary this morning; and the great political movements of our day, are both together subject to his rule. And how grand that it is and must be so!
It is May! The month of the Indianapolis 500 auto race. Some of you older folks may remember the famous race driver of the 1950s, Bill Vukovitch, a winner of the Indy 500. Even in those days, Indy cars were amazing and amazingly complex, sophisticated, and expensive machines.
And in one particularly sad Indy 500 Bill Vukovitch was killed in a fiery crash. It was later discovered that the crash was caused by the failure of a little cotter-pin, a small but vital part of the car’s steering mechanism. This magnificent, sleek machine, costing so much money, so sophisticated in its design to attain such unheard of speeds, was transformed in an instant into a ugly mass of burned and twisted metal, all because of the failure of a ten-cent part! All of that planning; the tremendous skill of that driver nullified by the failure of a cotter-pin.
And do you see how it could be on the far greater scale of the universe, if there were even a single molecule, a single atom, winging its way throughout the cosmos which was not under God’s control, subject to his will, which did not have to do his bidding–how that single molecule for all we know could cause the whole divine plan and will and purpose to be defeated, could cause Christ’s coming again never to occur, and to bring down the whole magnificent edifice of
Christ’s salvation, of heaven, and eternal life.
No! We say with absolute loyalty to the bible and with a great conviction about the glorious majesty of the Almighty, we say with Jonathan Edwards, ‘absolute sovereignty is what I love to ascribe to God.’
- In the second place, the Scripture often reminds usthat the divine sovereignty, like the Almighty himself, isa great mystery.
We cannot trace the ways of the Lord; they are pastfinding out. He controls every throw of the dice, butdoes so mysteriously according to the principles of probability whichhe has built into his universe. He orders the fall ofevery sparrow from a tree, but we cannot see the divinehand knock the little bird from his perch, and certainlyno hand appears to pluck another hair from our head.
We cannot tell what God is doing at this fateful hourin the Soviet Union, though Gorbachev’s heart is certainlyin the Almighty’s hand. We cannot tell how one thing isconnected to another, or how God intends to bring hispurposes to pass? We cannot see the good he intends to do or the justice he intends to bring to passwith the great evil he permits to occur; we cannot eventell, many times, whether terrible events are punishmentsfor sin or something else entirely.
God does not announce himself in his acts; nor does heexplain himself and his ways to us. ‘The secret things’ the Scripture says, ‘belong to theLord our God, the things revealed belong to us and to ourchildren, that we might keep all the words of this Law.’
How far above us is the Lord; how great he must be to seeall that we cannot see, and to see how every thread iswoven at last into the complete fabric of human life andhistory. How small we seem in comparison; how limited;how ignorant. And how wise then, to spend our lives bowingdown before the King of Kings, happily submitting ourselves to his will, however completely we may fail to understand it, in the supreme confidence that the Judge of all the Earth does right!
Some of you may know the story of John Gifford. John Gifford was a royalist major who fought against the Puritan forces of Parliament in the British Civil War. On the first of June 1648, the Puritan army routed the royalists at Maidstone in Kent and among the prisoners taken was Major John Gifford. As a leader in the anti-parliament insurrection, he had no prospect but the gallows. The night before his execution, as a courtesy of the Puritan commander, Gifford’s sister was permitted to visit him in his cell. By her shrewdness she enabled her brother to escape. How bitterly the friends of the gospel’s cause must have regretted the escape of this active enemy of reformed religion in England!
Gifford himself made his way to Bedford and, as he had studied medicine previous to his career as a soldier, he made his living as a doctor. He had been a godless man as a soldier and, if possible, was even more so as a doctor in Bedford. His life there was, in fact, a public disgrace. He was an embittered opposer of the few godly people in the town, a drunk and a gambler. His sins finally reduced him to begging and he came near to suicide–overwhelmed by his vices. But the secret things belong to the Lord our God and he had a plan all along for John Gifford. In that moment of despair the Lord revealed himself to Gifford and he was wonderful1y converted to Christ–a conversion which, by reason of his former life and hatred of the gospel was the occasion of much surprise as well as much glorifying of God among the few faithful people of the town. He soon became the pastor of the church in Bedford and as the pastor was instrumental in the conversion of another sinner of that place–John Bunyan. It was Gifford who taught Bunyan about sin, about conversion, about, the life of faith and the Christian pilgrimage and it was ‘Holy Mr. Gifford’ as Bunyan cal1s him, who is immortalized as ‘Evangelist’ in Bunyan’s never enough praised Pilgrim’s Progress.’
How believers must have regretted black-hearted Gifford’s escape from their clutches in 1648. But how wise and holy Christians have, with all of their hearts, blessed God in the centuries since that God brought Gifford out of that jail, taught him of the deceitfulness of sin and then of the grace of God that he might teach the same with power to others—and especially to one another who could pass those great lessons on to us all in his immortal book!
You cannot see the connection of one thing to another in your life or in the world—it is all a mystery. But God sees it! He sees it all, because he has ordered it all. How great must God be to construct and fathom such wonderful mysteries and how worthy he must be of our constant pondering of his greatness and our praising him.
- In the third place, the Scripture often reminds us that God’s rule, his sovereignty is always directed to the achievement of his holy and wise and gracious purposes.
God not only controls all things, from the least thing to the greatest; but he controls those things so as to accomplish some purpose, and indeed, ultimately, to accomplish the final purposes he has and has had from eternity past, for mankind and for his church.
This is the great theme of divine sovereignty in Holy Scripture. It is a wonderful truth precisely because we know that that absolute control which God exercises over all things, is exercised to accomplish the wisest and best of ends, and, in particular, to accomplish the glory of God and the salvation and everlasting well-being of God’s people, of you and me, who believe in Jesus Christ.
It is not just that all things work together; but that they work together for good to those who love God and are called according to his purpose.
And when God brings up the fact that he controls every sparrow’s falling from a tree, it is only to make the greater point that ‘you are worth more than many sparrows’ and, therefore, if God sees to their affairs, you can be sure he will never let you or your welfare out of his sight or out of his hand!
Precisely here, you see, lies the infinite distance between fate and the sovereignty of God. Many accuse us; accuse the bible indeed, of preaching ‘fate.’ But we do not. But the difference does not lie in the certainty or inevitable necessity of events. Everything will happen as it must; there are no accidents in this world; nothing happens except as it was intended to happen. Those who believe in fate and those who believe in Paul’s God both agree about that. (Though we would add much about God’s use of means and of responsible human actions in accomplishing his will.)
The difference, and it is all the difference in the world, lies here: according to fate, this absolute control of all things is exercised by a blind, indifferent, thoughtless, natural necessity. Whereas, according to the Word of God, this absolute control is exercised by a person, the living God, who has a perfect, wise, good, and righteous plan for all men and all things and is bringing that plan to pass. It is the difference between control by a machine and control by a person, and not just a person, but a person so wonderful and wise and good as to be beyond our power to describe.
And do you know what happens when this truth grips a man as it gripped Paul and has gripped so many of our spiritual forbears in the generations past? I will tell you.
Do you know of Thomas Boston, the famous Scottish Presbyterian pastor and author. A man of great holiness and deep thought, Boston is one of my great heroes, and I regard his Memoirs as one of the greatest books I have ever read. The famous Rabbi Duncan of the Scottish Free Church of a century ago, once said that he would like to sit at the feet of Jonathan Edwards to find out what true godliness is and then at the feet of Thomas Boston to learn how to obtain it.
Boston’s wife was not a woman of robust health and every childbirth was for her not only an ordeal but a threat to her life. In April of 1707 he records having prayed earnestly for his wife’s safety, as she was near to delivering a child. He says that while in prayer he was given an impression that the child would be a boy and at that moment he promised the Lord that if it were a boy, and if God delivered it alive, he would name it Ebenezer, after the memorial to God’s goodness which the prophet Samuel had set up in Israel. He says that on the 23rd of that month his wife safely delivered and his heart leaped for joy, hearing it was a boy and, so Ebenezer. But, in the entry for September of that same year we read: “It pleased the Lord, for my further trial, to remove by death, on the 8th September, my son Ebenezer. He goes on: “I had never more confidence with God in any such case, than in that child’s being the Lord’s. I had indeed more than ordinary, in giving him away to the Lord, to be saved by the blood of Christ. But his death was exceeding afflicting to me, and matter of sharp exercise. To bury his name, was indeed harder than to bury his body…but I saw a necessity of allowing a latitude to [God’s] sovereignty.”
A year later, in August, Mrs. Boston delivered another son, which, Boston said, “after no small struggle with myself, I named Ebenezer.” But in October of that same year this son too fell ill with the measles. Boston records how he went out to the barn and there prayed for his son. He writes: “I f renewed my covenant with God, and did solemnly and explicitly covenant for Ebenezer, and in his name accept of the covenant, and of Christ offered in the gospel; and gave him away to the Lord, before angels, and the stones of that house as witnesses. I cried also for his life, that Ebenezer might live before him, if it were his will. But when, after that exercise, I came into the house, I found, that instead of being better, he was worse [and in a few hours he was dead].”
After the funeral of this his second Ebenezer, Boston wrote: ‘I see most plainly that…I must, stoop, and be content to follow the Lord in an untrodden path…”
How mysterious are God’s ways! How sharp the sorrows he sees fit to make his children pass through. But Thomas Boston had schooled himself, like the great Apostle to the Gentiles before him, in the majestic sovereignty of his God. He knew that in his sorrows it was God with whom he must deal, for God the Almighty King brings all things to pass in conformity with his will; and he knew, for a certainty, that God had a purpose in those sorrows, however impossible it was for him to see that purpose at the time.
And Boston is, in all of this, the epitome of the Pauline and the Calvinist mind. He had such a high view of God in his majesty and sovereignty, he so often saw and pondered the Lord in his unapproachable light, reigning omnipotent over all things, that when God visited sorrow upon sorrow upon him, Boston could draw no other conclusion but that he needed to learn to follow God more willingly, more submissively than he had in the past.
Who is a God, like unto our God, who when he in his all-wise sovereignty visits affliction upon affliction upon his children? They only love him more, trust him more, and cling to him more.
Who is a God like Paul’s God, the very thought of whom made Paul break out into wonder, love, and praise; who is a God like Edwards’ God, to whom Edwards loved to ascribe absolute sovereignty, and who is a God like Boston’s God, whom Boston trusted only the more through such deep sorrows?
Lift up your eyes brothers and sisters; that immortal, invisible, eternal King who dwells in unapproachable light, is your God; the living God, who endures forever.