Luther Rice on God’s Sovereignty and Man’s Responsibility
[Editor’s note: Luther Rice was an appointed Congregational missionary, who like his contemporary Adoniram Judson, became a convinced Baptist after leaving America. On March 15, 1813, five months after his baptism in Calcutta, Rice set sail back to America for the purpose of gathering support for the mission effort among Baptists. Though it was his intention to return to India as soon as possible, this was never to be. The rest of his life was spent in what was supposed to have been a short-term project: promoting missions among Baptists in America. He died September 25, 1836, at the age of 53.
The following article is adapted from chapter 16 of the James Taylor’s Memoir of Rev. Luther Rice: One of the First American Missionaries to the East, originally published in 1841. Taylor later became the first Secretary of the Foreign Mission Board of the SBC. His Memoir of Rice was reprinted by Broadman Press in 1937.]
He was a decided believer in the doctrine of divine sovereignty. God was contemplated as working all things after the counsel of his own will. It was to him a truth full of interest, that those who are recognized as the heirs of eternal life, have been called according to God’s “eternal purpose, which he purposed in Christ Jesus, before the world began.” That “whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate, to be conformed to the image of his Son; and whom he did predestinate, them he also called, and whom he called, them he also glorified.” This doctrine, so fully taught in the scriptures, he often referred to as furnishing in his own experience and occasion of deep humility and grateful praise. Referring to the subject in a letter to a friend, he observes:
“This you are aware is not only an item in my creed, but enters into the very ground-work of the hope of immortality and glory, that has become established in my bosom; and constitutes the basis of the submission and joyfulness found in my religious experience….Why should it not be the very joy of our bosoms, that he ‘has foreordained whatsoever come to pass?’ What can real benevolence desire, but that every thing should ‘come to pass,’ in the wisest and best manner, to the wisest and best ultimate end? Could not an infinitely wise and good God ordain everything to come to pass in this very way, and to this very end? Such, too, being the fact, is it not evidently the duty and happiness of every one to give up himself in absolute submission to the will of God; and to be pleased that all things are at the disposal and under the control of this infinitely wise and good Being.
“Nor is this at all incompatible with all those exhortations to watchfulness and diligence: admonitions to beware of any of the least departures from the right ways of the Lord, and encouragements to walk circumspectly to redeem the time; to follow holiness, which abound in the sacred Scriptures. If my recollection rightly informs me, you once suggested in conversation, that our happiness depends very much on ourselves. This, in perfect harmony too, in my apprehension, with the full conviction, that all things are of God, that of him, and through him, and to him, are all things; whose we are, and whose are all our ways; and who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will; is most unequivocally in my judgement, correct.
“And it clearly follows, it appears to me, that in securing our happiness, a main and leading object must be, to form correct views of God, and of the system of truth contained in the holy Scriptures. To this end, nothing is more important than a dutiful child-like disposition. ‘If any man will do his will, HE SHALL KNOW OF THE DOCTRINE.’ To obtain correct views of truth, humility, an obedient heart, and sincere and fervent prayer are of essential importance, and will insure success. If these are neglected, the fault must be our own; the failure in the case will be fairly, however sadly, imputable to ourselves. In reference, then, to the solemn and exceedingly important fact, of possessing a stable and permanent basis of peace, of hope, and of ample consolation, which can be found in correct views of the truth of God, in the very sense of your remark; it depends upon ourselves and should therefore call forth our serious attention, and diligent effort.
“But in addition to a correct and enlarged view of the truth of God, systematically apprehended as ascertained in the sacred Scriptures, to the attainment of which a right state of heart is so exceedingly important, it is also exceedingly important to our daily practical comfort, to be decided and prompt in the path of duty and holiness. I am persuaded that we lose much through hesitancy and indecision. ‘If ye love me, keep my commandments,’ said the precious Redeemer.
“This allows not of indecision–but requires promptness and ready action. Is it not, therefore, necessary, that our minds be made up definitely as to the line of conduct to be pursued, touching the main occasions of business, conversations, and incidents of daily occurrence; and when so made up, that we follow out promptly, and without question, the dictates of duty through all the particulars? Is it not also necessary, that our opinions should be definitely formed, on the points of obligation incident to the circumstances in which we are placed, and that we should act decisively, and without hesitation, in accordance with those opinions?
“I am persuaded that we lose much, very much, of the comforts in religion, which we might otherwise enjoy, by our very negligence in these respects. To be decided Christians–to live for heaven daily, hourly–to be constant, and undeviating, and prompt in the path of duty–to keep a conscience void of offense towards God and towards man; this, this is the way, I doubt not, to let our light shine to glorify God, to enjoy comfort ourselves, and to do good to others. If we fail of this, the fault must be our own. By sincere watchfulness, by serious and attentive consideration, by earnest prayer, and by careful circumspection and diligence, this elevated and happy condition may undoubtedly be attained.
“God grant that while I write these things–hoping they may prove acceptable, and perhaps in some degree, even beneficial to you–my own course, and conduct, and conversation, may be, by the effectual operation of the Holy Spirit, in view of these things, modified more and more by the stamp of truth and goodness: ‘Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report.’ May I be assisted by the grace and good spirit of the Lord, evermore to ‘think on these things.’ How happy, how impressively excellent, must be the character that is modified, and molded, and constantly governed, by the enlightening and purifying influence of ‘the glorious gospel of the blessed God.'”
From the above extract, it will be perceived that he did not hold the truth in unrighteousness. The doctrine of divine decrees has often in various respects, suffered injury. By its enemies, it has been caricatured. Presented in a distorted shape, and arrayed in tattered garments, its true loveliness has been concealed from the eye. All have turned away from the sight with disgust. By some of its avowed friends, also, it has been much abused; its legitimate tendencies, if not misunderstood, have been unfelt.
While the truth that believers are chosen in Christ from the foundation of the world has been maintained, they seem to have forgotten the practical design, that they might be holy, and without blame before him in love. What God has joined together they have put asunder. In an eminent degree did the subject of this biography delight to contemplate the harmony of the Scriptures, and their practical influence in promoting the good of men and the glory of God.
In another communication, he thus refers to this doctrine:
“How many proofs have we of the truth of what God says: ‘That he will work, and none shall let it.’ The conduct of his providence is wonderful; it evinces his sovereignty and his inscrutable wisdom, as well as his boundless benevolence. In one place, we may behold the people deeply anxious about eternal concerns, while the inhabitants of neighboring places are warped up in careless, profound stupidity. Here a faithful minister of Christ preaches the gospel with cleanness and energy, but apparently without success, or, at least, with very partial and limited effect; there, the people become anxious, even where the gospel is not preached in purity, or where the minister himself is opposed to an awakening.
“Here we may observe a minister of superior talents, and of apparently superior piety, diligence, and fidelity, but still his preaching seems to be most only a savor of death unto death; while there, again, we may see a man of scanty abilities blest with effusions of the Holy Spirit among the people of his charge, and is instrumental, apparently, in the hand of God, to the conversion of , many souls.
“What but the glorious sovereignty of Jehovah does all this evince? He will send by the hand of whom he will send. ‘He will have mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth.’ He will bless his faithful servant, to whom he has committed only scanty abilities, rather than the man of eminent endowments, lest his hand should be overlooked, and the attention be directed to the creature, instead of the Creator. Gideon’s army must be lessened from many thousands to a mere handful–to only three hundred?–lest Israel should vaunt themselves, and attribute their success and victory to the force of numbers, rather than the power and agency of the Lord of hosts.
“How absurd it is, therefore, to contend against the doctrine of election, or decrees, or divine sovereignty. Let us not, however, become bitter against those who view this matter in a different light, nor treat them in a supercilious manner; rather let us be gentle towards all men. For who has made us to differ from what we once were? Who has removed the scales from our eyes? Or who has disposed us to embrace the truth?
“Why are not we sunk in fatal error? Why not like alas! Too many of our friends and relatives, replying against God, rejecting his mercy, despising his truth, neglecting the Saviour, or stupidly unsolicitous about the welfare of our immortal souls? ‘Oh! To grace how great a debtor?’ Let us be humble, not only in view of past wickedness, but of daily sins, and short–comings in duty–and let us have pity on our fellow–creatures; surely we cannot be indifferent to their awfully perilous situation–let us pray for them; and as opportunity offers, warn them of the danger, and plead with them by the pains and mercies of our dying, reigning Saviour, to come unto him that they may have life.”
That the responsibilities of men are not affected by the purposes of God, Mr. Rice most sincerely believed, and on this particular topic, he very interestingly expatiates in another communication. “An observation you make, that under God our happiness depends on ourselves, appears to me important and valuable. In perfect accordance with this sentiment, is that impressive exhortation of the Apostle Jude: ‘But ye, beloved, building up yourselves on your most holy faith; praying in the Holy Ghost, keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life.’
“This is a precept of superior excellence. It connects itself with results, and the contemplation of prospects of the most powerful interest, of amazing majesty and sweetness. It dwells much upon my mind: I trust it dwells with divine influence upon my heart. Would to God I might possess and manifest, more and more of the real savor of godliness it is so well calculated to inspire.
“Now the meditating on such a passage, the bringing of it frequently within the hearty, deliberate, and cherished contemplations of the mind, depends very much on ourselves; on our own proper option–the effect too, cannot fail of being seen in the life, and state of the heart.
“Indeed, this train of thought suggests the very serious and weighty responsibilities of every day, and of every hour; in fact, of every moment! To possess the lively impress of such passages as the one referred to and which depends so very much upon ourselves, the proper action of our own minds and hearts at our own option, in the case, is obviously the way to be happy. It is the way to feel that deep and lively interest in divine things in the cause of God, which is so evidently the very basis and material of our best enjoyments; the very way to realize the truth, and the inexpressible sweetness of the sentiment in the answer to the first question, in that admirable catechism referred to in my former letter: ‘To glorify God and enjoy him forever!’
“And this we cannot but see is in perfect agreement with that solemn declaration of the Apostle Paul, that ‘to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.’ When such is the condition of the heart, it will be unavoidable manifested in the deportment; for ‘out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh;’ this then is the way, both to glorify and enjoy God, and to do good to our fellow sinners, the way, the very way, and the only way to fulfil the very serious and grave responsibilities of our relation to those around us. When the real life and spirituality of true religion thus abound in the heart, so unavoidably as it then cannot but do, to manifest itself in the temper and conversation, it cannot fail to make a beneficial impression on all around; an impression of the truth, excellence, and importance of real godliness.”
While these great doctrines of the divine word were highly regarded by Mr. Rice on account of their practical importance, and while he was ready on every suitable occasion to defend and urge them, he was not inclined to indulge in mere metaphysical distinctions, or to pronounce harshly on those who might in some slight particulars, differ from him. He believed that what the apostle called “vain jangling,” was too prevalent among the disciples of Christ, and deeply deplored it.
It was his wish to see the truth maintained, not for the purpose of promoting a denominational theory, but because it had been taught by the great Teacher, and when it was brought distinctly to view, he desired to see it in connection with the great design of its author, the sanctification and salvation of men. “It has seemed to me,” he observed to a friend, to whom he wrote, “that some brethren have dwelt so much upon the exhortations of the bible, the invitations of the Saviour, and the obligation of sinners, that they have much omitted, not say almost forgotten, that Jesus Christ said, ‘no man can come to me except the Father draw him‘; and that when they asked, ‘who then can be saved?’ he distinctly replied: ‘with men it is impossible,’ etc.
“On the other hand, some would seem to have dwelt so almost exclusively, or at least, so constantly and earnestly on the plan, and purposes, and power of the Lord Jesus, and the necessity of the agency of the Holy Spirit to work salvation in the soul; as to have seemingly forgot, or much to have omitted the consideration, that ‘God now commands all men everywhere to repent.’ The Apostle Paul urged, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ;’ Christ himself distinctly said, ‘repent ye and believe the gospel,’ and that the very commission left with the apostles, was to that effect: ‘that repentance,’ as well as ‘remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations.’
“And so on the one side, they call the others Arminians, and these again pronounce those to be Antinomians, I think it would be much better if both these words were disused, and that brethren holding the same vital truths, instead of getting as far apart as they can, on account of some points not absolutely vital, should come as near together as possible; and as the Holy Ghost commands, should ‘love as brethren‘ and also be ‘courteous.’ ‘Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.'”
Speaking of the obligations of ministers to be faithful in teaching the whole truth, in reply to one who seemed afraid to hear the decrees of God adverted to in the pulpit, he says: “Does the brother mean to imply that ‘purposes and decrees‘ and not found in the Bible, and do not, therefore, constitute any part of ‘the gospel?’ If found here, why should they not be preached? Ought not every preacher of the gospel be able to say with Paul: ‘For I have not shunned to declare unto you ALL the counsel of God,’ and if so, must he not, ‘PREACH PURPOSES?’ or, would our brother object to the preaching of ‘such purposes’ as the following: ‘That the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promises in Christ by the gospel, according to the eternal PURPOSE, which he PURPOSED in Christ Jesus our Lord. Having made known unto us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure, which he had PURPOSED in himself. In whom we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated according to the PURPOSE of Him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will.’
“‘By decrees,‘ does he mean any thing different from predestination? If not, could he be displeased with the preaching of such as: ‘Having PREDESTINATED us unto the adoption of children of Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will. For whom he did foreknow, he also did PREDESTINATE to be conformed to the image of his Son. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained; (is not here a blessed decree, and one that should be preached?) that we should walk in them.’
“Similar passages are numerous, and surely the ‘good minister of Jesus Christ’ cannot excuse himself, or be approved in it by his master, if he shuns to declare this part of the counsel of God, while he certainly ought to press the obligation of ‘all men every where to repent,’ and to ‘believe the gospel;’ in short, to urge ‘repentance towards God, and faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ,’ as the immediate duty of all, and earnestly to ‘assert the claims of Messiah upon every mortal.'”
Properly Presenting the Gospel
We have all heard the gospel presented as God’s triumphant answer to human problems–problems of man’s relation with himself and his fellows and his environment. Well, there is no doubt that the gospel does bring us solutions to these problems, but it does so by first solving a deeper problem–the deepest of all human problems, the problem of man’s relation with his Maker; and unless we make it plain that the solution of these former problems depends on the settling of this latter one, we are misrepresenting the message and becoming false witnesses of God–for a half truth presented as if it were the whole truth becomes something of a falsehood by that very fact.
J. I. Packer