The Perfect Balance of God’s Truth
A friend recently visited a church where in the past five years a renewing work of God has taken place. He wrote describing his weekend with the members: “One remarkable thing was that whenever I passed by a group of men they would be talking about the things of God. I finally asked what was the secret of this blessing they had known. I had an answer myself, but I wanted to see what they would say. They gave the correct reply, that it was a sovereign work of God. They said that it had not always been this way, and they were aware that God was at work in their midst. It was very encouraging. It wasn’t revival, but when I envision revival, that’s one of the things that comes to my mind. It was encouraging to see it actually taking place somewhere and it gave me fresh hope for the possibility of revival.”
In every awakening there is a new fascination with the Bible: “Then they that feared the Lord spake often one to another” (Malachi 3:16). Of course in awakenings, too, men get sidetracked and obsessed by the fine points of theology or by those doctrines which divide true Christians. Yet one mark of God blessing a congregation is a desire to talk together about the diverse and even apparently contradictory ways of God. We love to attend those fellowships where people discuss the teaching of the Bible as readily as others talk of their interests and jobs. Understanding the Word is to be among our greatest joys.
One mark of maturity is an experiential grasp of those truths which seem to be in conflict with one another, but in fact are like the arms of a Father gripping his children. Both are to be believed as each stands on the basis of its own independent biblical witness. There are a wide range of such truths in Scripture, of which five examples now follow.
1. Inability does not rule out responsibility
The Scripture asserts unmistakably man’s total inability to transform his character by his own unassisted wit and energy, so making himself Christlike. This is beyond his capacity. “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil” (Jeremiah 13:23). “No man can come unto me except the Father who sent me draw him,” says the Lord Christ (John 6:44). The act of true and simple faith in the Lord is impossible apart from the drawing and gracious gift of the Father. Jesus again tells us that except a man be born again he cannot see or enter into the kingdom of God (John 3:3,5).
Yet, there are commands with which God confronts every single person. For example, “You must be born again” (John 3:7); “God commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30); and “Love the Lord your God with all your heart.” Are they sincere commands? Absolutely. All creatures are responsible to their Creator. Do not such commands presuppose a modicum of ability? No. Not since the fall of our father Adam. God deals with people according to the standards of responsibility and obligation, not according to the measure of ability. John Murray says, “If obligation presupposes ability then we shall have to go the whole way and predicate the total ability of man.” Why are the commands given? They are a revelation of the will of almighty God, and they also make men realize their helplessness. One result of the inability of man being preached is that people are forced to stop trusting in themselves. This shuts them up to rely upon God’s grace. It is not the conviction of helplessness that keeps men away from Christ; it is the opposite: “I cannot come to him, but I must come to him. What fearful inability! What high responsibility! Who shall deliver me from this dilemma? I thank God for Jesus Christ the enabling Saviour.”
2. Certainty does not rule out necessity
All that God has determined to do will most certainly be achieved: “I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please” (Isaiah 46:10). The plan of God is unchangeable, because God is faithful and true (Job 23:13-14). It is unconditional, that is, its execution does not depend on any action of man but even renders such action certain (Acts 2:23; Ephesians 2:8). Moreover, it is all-inclusive, embracing the good and the wicked actions of men (Ephesians 2:10; Acts 2:23), contingent events (Genesis 50:20), the duration of a man’s life (Job 14:5) and the place where a man will live (Acts 17:26). It ensures the certain salvation of a vast number of favoured sinners.
Yet the certainty of God’s secret will being accomplished does not rule out the necessity of men doing all that God has commanded in the Bible. When Paul was told that the Lord had many people in Corinth he did not sit on a chair on his veranda waiting for Corinthians to drop decision cards in his lap. For eighteen months he taught the Word of God to all in Corinth who would hear him (Acts 18:11). He did it beseeching them to believe, stretching forth his hands to them, entreating them to repent. He wept for them. He prayed for them all, and he asked others to pray. He visited them privately, debated with his opponents publicly, and apologized if he offended them by harsh words. He sought to live a Christlike life before them so that in nothing would his message be maligned through sin. He knew God’s chosen people in Corinth would most certainly confess Christ, but that knowledge in no way ruled out the necessity of his living a God-fearing and fervently evangelistic life.
3. Limited purpose does not rule out indiscriminate preaching
There are a people whom God the Father has given to God the Son (John 17:2 etc.). They have such titles as “the church,” t”he people of God,” “the children of God” or Jesus’ “sheep.” Often in the New Testament we are told that Christ’s death was focused upon accomplishing their salvation: “He shall save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21); “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25); “Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one” (John 11:51-52); “You do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:26-28). The Lord Christ has fulfilled God’s purpose in saving all those who are his people.
Yet to every single person in the world without exception the Christian may sincerely say, “I have good news for you. I have Christ crucified for you to believe upon. I have this Saviour who is prophet, priest and king for you to receive, and serve.” The Christian must then invite his hearer(s) to believe his message, and demand that he do so, and even beseech him in the name of Christ that he does not go on in unbelief. The Christian does that to every single person without distinction or discrimination. The Christian quotes to all men the words of God, “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God and there is none else” (Isaiah 45:22); and again, “As I live saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways: for why will ye die, O house of Israel?” (Ezekiel 33:11). The Saviour is presented to lost men as one who has accomplished a full and perfect redemption, who would sincerely save them from their sin, and who takes no pleasure in their death.
4. Preservation does not rule out perseverance
Every true Christian experiences the continuous operation of the Holy Spirit by which the work of divine grace begun in him is continued and brought to completion. This doctrine is clearly taught in Scripture (John 10:28-29; Romans 11:29; Philippians 1:6; 2 Thessalonians 3:3; 2 Timothy 1:12; 4:18). Every believer is preserved by the power of God through faith unto salvation (1 Peter 1:5).
Yet the Bible teaches that every Christian must persevere on his individual pilgrimage. That guards against every notion or suggestion to the effect that a believer is secure, that is to say, secure as to his eternal salvation, quite irrespective of the extent to which he may fall into sin and backslide from faith and holiness. While a Christian may and does sin he cannot abandon himself to sin; he cannot come under the dominion of sin; he cannot be guilty of certain kinds of unfaithfulness (e.g. the sin which is unto death). So, though the believer is preserved he is not secure utterly irrespective of his subsequent life of sin and unfaithfulness. He will persevere in believing in God. It is not that he will be saved irrespective of his perseverance but he will keep plodding to the end. His preservation is inseparable from his perseverance.
5. Love does not rule out law
Christian love is the greatest of all. It is the “distinguishing mark of the Christian life” (John Blanchard), “the badge of Christ’s disciples” (Matthew Henry), “the leading affection of the soul” (Matthew Henry), “the queen of all the Christian graces” (Arthur Pink), “the silver thread that runs through all your conduct” (J. C. Ryle). Without love a church is nothing at all (1 Corinthians 13:2). The new commandment Christ gives his people is to love one another as he has loved us. By this fervent pure affection the world will know that we are God’s people Love is the most godlike grace.
Yet Paul says, “The law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good” (Romans 7:12). Of course it must be; it comes from God; it displays his very nature. Paul cries, “I delight in the law of God after the inward man” (Romans 7:22). He loves the law because it shows the perfections of the Holy One. The Christian is freed from the law’s condemnation and curse through the saving work of Christ. No longer is the law to him a dread voice accusing and judging. Christ has quenched Mount Sinai’s flame; the believer is freed from sin and from the law. But now he becomes the bondslave of Jesus Christ his great liberator, and so fulfills “the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). “If you love me, keep my commandments,” says the Saviour (John 14:15). Love is the Christian’s inward motive; but the law of Christ is his directive. As someone has put it, “Law is love’s eyes. Without law love is blind.”
These twin themes, the outworking of the revelation of God’s sovereignty, both taught so clearly in Scripture, are the stuff of holy conversation and profitable meditation.