…for although men do not choose and resolve to be negligent and inadvertent, yet if they choose the things that will make them so, they choose inadvertency itself as a thing may be chosen in its cause. And let not men think that the evil of their hearts is in any measure extenuated because they seem, for the most part, to be surprised into that consent which they seem to give unto it; for it is negligence of their duty in watching over their hearts that betrays them into that surprise. John Owen, Overcoming Sin and Temptation
When upon thoughts, perplexing thoughts about sin, instead of applying himself to the destruction of it, a man searches his heart to see what evidences he can find of a good condition, notwithstanding that sin and lust, so that it may go well with him. For a man to gather up his experiences of God, to call them to mind, to collect them, consider, try, improve them, is an excellent thing—a duty practiced by all the saints, commended in the Old Testament and the New. This was David’s work when he “communed with his own heart,” and called to remembrance the former lovingkindness of the Lord [Ps. 77:6-9, 10, 11]. This is the duty that Paul sets us to practice (2 Cor. 13:5). And as it is in itself excellent, so it has beauty added to it by a proper season, a time of trial or temptation, or disquietness of the heart about sin, it is a picture of silver to set off this golden apple, as Solomon speaks [Prov. 25:11]. But now to do it for this end, to satisfy conscience, which cries and calls for another purpose, is a desperate device of a heart in love with sin. When a man’s conscience shall deal with him, when God shall rebuke him for the sinful distemper of his heart, if he, instead of applying himself to get that sin pardoned in the blood of Christ and mortified by his Spirit, shall relieve himself by any such other evidences as he has, or thinks himself to have, and so disentangle himself from under the yoke that God was putting on his neck, his condition is very dangerous, his wound hardly curable. Thus the Jews, under the gallings of their own consciences and the convincing preaching of our Savior, supported themselves with this, that they were “Abraham’s children,” and on that account accepted with God; and so countenanced themselves in all abominable wickedness, to their utter ruin.
— John Owen, Overcoming Sin and Temptation
Recently I contacted a longtime friend and brother in the Lord who is currently a chaplain in the U.S. military. At the end of our conversation, I inquired about specific things I could be praying about. The first thing he said was, “Pray for the military leadership, that God would move their hearts like rivers of water to ensure that, as Chaplains, we may continue to minister the Gospel.” My brother fears that the end of evangelical military chaplains draws near.
In fact, Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary wrote several days ago about about the increasing pressures that military chaplains face as homosexuality becomes normalized within society. Tom Carpenter, a PCUSA elder and co-chair of the Forum on the Military Chaplaincy, believes that Southern Baptist chaplains have no choice but to resign from their stations if they are not able to follow in accordance with the homosexual-friendly policies of the U.S. military. His reason? Because military chaplains “have a duty not only to God, but also country” and also because “they are not salaried by the NAMB but by the American taxpayer.”
The sobering part of this story is this: Carpenter believes that if a chaplain views homosexuality as a sin, then he cannot serve his country. And this is one reason why Christians should pray, because I think as Mohler rightly points out, this mentality will seek to spread outside the military, especially since the broader context of government leadership is moving ever closer to classifying anti-homosexual speech as a hate crime.
But there is still hope, if the children of God in this country will pray for their leaders to do what is right and good. Christians should model the example given in Paul’s letter to Timothy,
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2:1-4 ESV)
The primary reason we are to pray for our leaders is this: That we as followers of Christ might follow our Savior in peacefulness and quietness, living godly and dignified lives. We are to pray on behalf of all people, both for the righteous and the unrighteous, including those who are in high positions. This is pleasing to God. There are several reasons for this:
First, praying for our leaders acknowledges trust in God as the ultimate Ruler of our country. Praying in such a way acknowledges that God, not men, sets up rulers of nations, both righteous and wicked. God is in control. God is sovereign. He rules over all the nations in His own perfect timing. Praying for our leaders confesses trust in God, rather than men. This pleases God greatly.
Second, praying for our leaders is an opportunity to love our enemies, even corrupt leaders who may not fear God. Remember that the Lord Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those that persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44) Notice how Jesus put together both the practices of loving and praying for our enemies? This is important. In Romans 12, Paul elaborates further on loving one’s enemies,
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:19-21 ESV)
Praying for our leaders is difficult at times, especially when they make foolish or selfish decisions. But it is important to realize that at the heart of grumbling about our leaders is often the sin of vengeance in the heart. When we set our hearts to love our enemies, we learn to trust and hope in God, but when we resist acknowledging God’s control, we can become selfish, bitter, or cynical. Lamenting over the deeds of the wicked is a righteous act, but it is only righteous if that lamentation causes us to cry out to God for help. We would do well to learn from David who hopefully prayed, “But you, O LORD, laugh at them; you hold all the nations in derision. O my Strength, I will watch for you, for you, O God, are my fortress.” (Psalm 59:8-9 ESV)
Third, praying for our enemies actually results in change! Remember the words that God spoke to Moses,
Then the LORD said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings…
(Exodus 3:7 ESV)
And also the words of David,
The LORD is a stronghold for the oppressed,
a stronghold in times of trouble.
And those who know your name put their trust in you,
for you, O LORD, have not forsaken those who seek you.
(Psalm 9:9-10 ESV)
The prayers of God’s people are divinely intertwined with His sovereign will. Time and time again God acts in response to the cries of His people. Remember the words of Paul that God is pleased by our prayers to Him for salvation from those who oppress us. The Lord wants us to come to Him. He wants us to hope in Him. He wants us to wait on Him. This is worship to Him. That is why He redeemed us in Christ, so that we should live for Him and not ourselves! (2 Corinthians 5:15)
Remember the words of James,
Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit. (James 5:16-18 ESV)
Be encouraged. Follow God. Pray!
The Holy Spirit, not an inspirational speaker, preacher, or writer, is the One Who stirs up the hardened conscience (1 Corinthians 2:13). The Spirit is the one Who softens the heart to recognize the need for repentance and bear good fruit (Galatians 5:22-23). The Spirit illuminates the mind to desire the truth of God’s Word in faith concerning the hope and salvation of Jesus Christ (Galatians 4:6). It is not by the words, methods, cleverness, or intelligence of men. God has ordained one method only to change the heart of stone–the hearing of the Word of God by faith. (Romans 10:17; Galatians 3:2). In fact, the Church itself could not exist without the Holy Spirit, as John Owen writes,
In this promise he founded the Church itself, and by it he [built] it up. And this is the hinge on which the whole weight of it turns to this day. Take this away; suppose it to cease, as to actual accomplishment, and there is an end of the Church of Christ in this world. No dispensation of the Spirit, no Church. He that would utterly separate the Spirit from the word, had as good burn his Bible. The bare letter of the New Testament will no more produce faith and obedience in the souls of men, than the letter of the Old Testament does among the Jews, 2 Cor. 3:6, 8., p. 93, A Discourse Concerning the Holy Spirit
Owen here says that without the Holy Spirit there is no Church. In the letter to the Corinthians Paul teaches this when he writes, “…who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (2 Corinthians 3:6 ESV). The Spirit is the One Who gives life through faith in God’s Word, not the outward methods of men. Owen writes,
The kingdom of Christ is spiritual, and in the animating principles of it, invisible. If we fix our minds only on outward order, we lose the rise and power of the whole. It is not an outward visible ordination by men (though that be necessary by rule and precept,) but Christ’s communication of his Spirit, that gives being, life, usefulness, and success to the ministry…, p. 109-110, A Discourse Concerning the Holy Spirit
And upon this act of faith, when the Holy Spirit gives this life by entering the new believer, He dwells within him permanently (1 Corinthians 6:19), supernaturally sealing him and sanctifying Him until the day of redemption when Christ returns (Ephesians 4:30), building Him up into greater and greater degrees of holiness in the peace of righteousness (Hebrews 12:11).
How unbelievable a thing it is to imagine that the very Spirit of God might condescend to dwell within sinful flesh! But this is the overflowing generosity of God toward sinners, who otherwise seek a joy from from a source that gives no joy, a hope from a place that gives no hope, and a peace from a place that gives no peace. Without the work of the Spirit, a person knows only to seek happiness in serving himself and his interests. For all we like sheep have gone astray, says Isaiah. Each one has turned to his own way, but the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:6)
But through the Lord Jesus, He sets us free by the Holy Spirit so that the believer no longer lives for himself, but rather for Jesus Christ Who lives even today (2 Corinthians 5:15), and although every day the believer will have struggles in the flesh both great and small, as he endures and perseveres through his trials, his joy will be greater than his struggles. All of this is possible only through the supernatural work of God the Spirit.
The Father in heaven has great love for His children. The Lord God is a merciful God, choosing the least of peoples for His own. He chooses the insignificant, the downcast, the vile, the desperate, and the unregarded. There is no sinner too great for the love of the Father. He seeks to work in us and through us, drawing near to us as we cry out to Him for mercy each day. And He only requires of us a daily abiding love for Him, which is not burdensome or heavy, and even that requirement is made possible as a gift by grace through faith. Consider the words of our Savior,
All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:27-30 ESV)
Those that know the Father know Him because the Son has chosen to reveal the Father to them. This knowledge is a gift of grace. The call to know the Father through the Son is given to all. It is a gentle and gracious calling for all to find their rest in Christ, whereby the righteousness of God and the pursuit of holiness grants rivers of peace and rest in one’s heart, as they turn away from the burdensome nature of sin. Sin wastes away life, but righteousness restores the soul and heals the mind, as Solomon himself learned by inspiration of the Holy Spirit,
A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh,
but envy makes the bones rot. (Proverbs 14:30 ESV)
To turn away from the desires of the world, to turn away from sin and living for self, to pursue the fear of God, these are what will bring healing to one’s soul and refreshment of one’s mind. Sin brings envy and causes rottenness of the bones, but the peace of God heals in the pursuit of goodness and truth.
The pursuit of God will be hard. Jesus Himself said that the way is hard that leads to eternal life (Matthew 7:13-14). The world will hate us for loving God. The world will reject and despise His Word. But do not lose heart in doing good, for in due time, we will reap (cf. Galatians 6:7-9). If you fall, get up. Keep going. Keep pursuing the peace of God in your heart. Fight. Do not be slothful in zeal. Be fervent in spirit. (Romans 12:11) Be zealous and repent. (Revelation 3:19) As the apostle Paul said,
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18 ESV)
The work of God the Spirit is not independent of the work of God the Father or God the Son. They have different roles, but they work together toward the same goal. (John 16:5-15) The Father sends the Son. (John 6:44; 8:18) The Father and Son send the Spirit. (John 14:26; 15:26). The Spirit carries out the will of God in and through His chosen ones, sealing them until the fullness of their inheritance. (Ephesians 1:4; 1:13-14)
The astounding work of the Holy Spirit is then found to be absolutely necessary to complete the work of Christ in His chosen people. The Father and Son send the Spirit Who now lives in the hearts of those who love God. (Romans 5:5) The Spirit, having been poured out in our hearts, enables God to work directly within us for the salvation of our souls, keeping us so that we endure until the end. (Matthew 10:22; Ephesians 1:13-14) It may be said then that without the Holy Spirit salvation is impossible. This doctrine also reveals the importance of working out one’s salvation with fear and trembling, because in doing so, we prove that the Spirit of Christ is in our hearts. (Acts 7:51; Romans 8:9-11)
To add to this John Owen says,
This work of the Spirit being not an original but a perfecting work, it supposes the love, grace, counsel and eternal purpose of the Father […] But in the new creation, God intends the special revelation of each person [of the Trinity] distinctly, in his peculiar distinct operations; a full discovery of the economy of the Holy Trinity, with superior light to what was afforded under the Old Testament. We find in the saints of old, vigorous actings of faith and ardent affections in their approaches to God; but as to a clear access to the Father—through the Son—by the Spirit, Ephesians 2:18, (wherein the life of our communion with God consists) we hear nothing of it. Herein therefore God plainly declares, that the foundation of the whole was him even as they honour the Father, John 5:23; and the actual application of all to the souls of men is by the Spirit [Ephesians 2:22], that they may be partakers of the grace designed in the counsel of the Father, and prepared in the mediation of the Son. And herein is the Holy Ghost to be glorified, that he, together with the Father and Son, may be known, adored, and worshipped. [emphasis mine] (A Discourse Concerning the Holy Spirit, pg. 107-108)
From William Plumer’s “The Fear of God,”
But what are the “little foxes?” One says they are worldly thoughts. This is true. Another says they are wrong opinions. This is as true. Another, no less wisely, says they are our hidden corruptions, our sinful appetites and passions—which destroy our graces and comforts, quash good motions, and crush good beginnings. When men fear not little sins—they will soon fall into presumptuous iniquities. When they are not conscientious about minor duties, they will soon fail in weightier matters. He who cannot walk well, cannot run well. Envy is the forerunner of murder, and naturally leads to it. Covetousness is the fountain of all theft. As a grain of sand will fret a sound eye and make it weep—so the least sin perceived will tenderly affect a good conscience. We must take and destroy these little foxes by a right use of the word of God. The Scripture is clear. It is pure. By it are all God’s servants warned. We must watch day and night. We must pray frequently and fervently. We must have the Holy Spirit dwelling in us. We must make constant application to the blood of cleansing. Above all, we must be in the fear of the Lord all the day long. Blessed is the man who avoids little sins and minds little duties; in the great events of life he shall not be covered with dishonor. His heart is right. God is with him. Christ will never forsake him. “The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever.”
A number of years ago, there was a time when I foolishly waited on the Lord, not in the biblical sense, but in the sense of frustration and impatience, secretly whispering to myself that if the Lord wanted me to live for Him, then He would have to do the work Himself. Ultimately, this is true. By grace through faith we are saved (Ephesians 2:8-9), and by that same provision of grace we continue to be molded and used by Him. (Philippians 2:13) Yet God chose to give us a will, and after our will is redeemed from bondage to sin, that will is free to choose and pursue God of its own volition. A redeemed will is no longer a slave of sin, but a slave of righteousness, not by force or coercion, but by passion that delights and longs to know God more fully and walk in His ways. (Galatians 4:8-11)
During my struggle I was plagued with all sorts of bitterness and pride, discontent about the state of my life, refusing to humble myself. Instead I clung to my pride and deceived myself into believing that I had done my spiritual duty and now it was God’s turn to work in me. So I waited on God to change me, I waited on my wife to change me, I waited on my friends to change me. As David said, “I was like a beast,” and as I childishly refused to pursue God, I felt myself slipping further and further into darkness.
But God is faithful. It is often within those moments when our faith is so weak and we see so dimly, that God is working most mightily on our behalf to redeem us from our foolishness and bring His sheep back into the fold. (John 9:1ff) When we wander off, the Great Shepherd has not lost sight of us, though we may have lost sight of Him. Though we can be completely and utterly stupid beyond comprehension, the Great Shepherd knows where we are at all times, and He is always working to guide us back to Himself. He can never lose a single one of His sheep, and we cannot be taken from Him. Though we may be lost for a season, we are never truly lost. (John 10:1-18)
During that period of great struggle God began to soften my heart, and by His grace He drew me closer to Himself by showing me my error. Through His Word he helped me see that I was to fight for Him at all costs — that the mark of a healthy Christian is an attitude of spiritual aggression and a zeal for holiness — not of complacency. But rather it is a fight — a fight of faith. (Ephesians 6:10-18) I had somehow forgotten this.
In more recent months I believe the Lord has helped me understand a little bit more about why I experienced these earlier struggles. I believe they are connected to a fierce war of holiness — a bloodless and invisible, yet violent war. Many times as a child and an adult I have sung the line “Onward Christian soldiers marching as to war…”, not fully realizing the depth of its meaning, but as God in His grace has helped me more seriously reflect on holiness, I now have a better understanding that we are called to a truly glorious war — one in which we fight for that deep-rooted holy joy that surpasses any temporary happiness on this earth… A joy that is built upon an unshakable confidence and surety about the things to come and an experiential knowledge of the mighty visible and invisible works of the Lord in our own lives and the lives of others.
But because the forces we fight against are unseen, the battle is very difficult to fight. When a fighter cannot see his opponent, he is almost completely unable to defend himself; and certainly unable to launch an offensive attack. Paul uses the same analogy in his first letter to the Corinthians when he writes, “So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” (1 Corinthians 9:26-27) Paul was single-minded in his focus on Christ and service to Him, and he understood the prize at stake and sought to attain it. He also understood his opponent, the many forms of sin within and without that assaulted him daily, and the steps of discipline necessary to defeat it.
When I think about Paul’s writings in Ephesians 6 on the armor of God, I find every word so incredibly relevant for the Christian life. Every day I find myself assaulted with the “flaming darts of the evil one” — darts from my co-workers, darts from television, darts from the internet, darts from billboards, and even darts from one brother against another. All of these clever ways the devil uses to distract us from running the race (Hebrews 12:1-2) and fighting the fight of faith. And this is why the fight for holiness is so incredibly difficult — because it requires us to be vigilant and ready at all times. It requires perseverance, alertness, and constant prayer. Otherwise, the darts of the devil will pierce and wound us — the devil will find our weaknesses and attempt to exploit them and hold us hostage by them. But as we fiercely fight against the darkness, we learn and experience a holy joy that is beyond any forms of earthly joy. We learn that happiness in the Lord is more satisfying than any other happiness we have ever experienced.
The world looks on the outside, but God looks in the heart. (1 Samuel 16:7; 2 Corinthians 5:12) The world says “be faster, be stronger, be smarter, be prettier,” but God says…”be holy.” (2 Corinthians 7:1; Matthew 5:8; Hebrews 12:14).
The heart is deceitful above all things,
and desperately sick;
who can understand it?
(Jeremiah 17:9 ESV)
All the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes,
but the LORD weighs the spirit.
(Proverbs 16:2 ESV)
The problem of self-deception has been around from the beginning. With Eve’s first crunchy bite into the fruit, she determined in her own heart that eating the fruit was good. But when she came to her senses under the wisdom given to her by God, she knew that her heart had deceived her, so she fled.
Submitting oneself to the discretion of God’s wisdom is synonymous throughout Scripture with a desire for life. To seek wisdom is to seek life. To seek wisdom is to love one’s own soul. To seek wisdom is to hate evil and its self-destructive consequences. The shunning of wisdom brought about death into the world, and even afterwards, to rebel against wisdom shortens one’s life through the web of consequences which ensnares those who refuse it.
To seek the wisdom in God and not in ourselves is to hate evil (Proverbs 3:7). Human wisdom cannot be trusted because the heart is plagued with sin (Jeremiah 17:9). Therefore true wisdom is attained through fear of God with a humble spirit (Proverbs 15:33). To seek wisdom is to recognize that wisdom is found only in God, Who graciously gives to those that seek it (James 1:5).
I came across this section on grace by Geoff Thomas, a pastor in Wales that many including myself look up to. I was so encouraged by this quote that I wanted to share. You can read the full text here.
i] Grace has a purpose. It has a specific and particular end in view:- “He did predestinate us to be conformed to the image of his Son.” If we begin at that relatively modest goal it takes our breath away. Grace is God’s determination to make favoured sinners Christ-like. Grace is not content with justification, or adoption, or union with Christ. Grace is concerned to make people like God. Grace is not going to rest until all it embraces are a transcript of the Lord Christ himself. God so loves his Son that he will fill heaven with an innumerable company of people each one of whom, morally and spiritually, are in the image of Christ, and all the divine energy and creativity are committed to that end. All his resources are to serve that great enterprise. “When we see him we shall be like him.” “That he might present the church to himself, a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that it should be holy and without blemish.” That is the destination of grace.
Or we can expand the purpose further, that grace will make Christ the first-born among many brethren. There is this constituency of the redeemed which does not exist for itself, but to be a family of brethren in which Christ has the pre-eminence. He will be the first-born, and the centre, and the sun. They will all cohere in him. This will be a community of joy and praise because from eternity God has purposed to fill the heaven of heavens with the sound of the praise of the Lamb, like the sound of many waters. “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain ….” “Unto him that hath loved us and washed us from our sins in his own blood…”
Or beyond that, God’s purpose can be expanded further: he will regenerate the whole heavens and the earth. He will make a new universe which shall be, in all its glory and beauty, the inheritance of the Son of Man and all the children which God has given to him. The whole cosmic environment comprehending the distant stars, or the blades of grace, the solar system or the sands on the seashore, the beasts of the field or the atoms and molecules will be redolent with the righteousness of Christ. God will gather together all things in Christ. There will be a reconciliation of everything in the universe joined to that single hub. Grace has that great end in view.
ii] Grace is invincible. God has made an eternal commitment. He has set his mind upon saving a company of people more than any man can number. He has donated every one of them to his Son to have and to hold for ever. His whole heart is in it. “I shall be their God,” he has said. His omnipotence is committed to save them. He has enlisted every divine attribute, and prerogative, and function to this end. The Father is committed. The Son is committed. The Holy Spirit is committed. The angels, principalities, powers, things present, things to come, height, depth, every other creature has that end in view. That is the goal of the incarnation – that is reason there dwelt in Christ all the fulness of the Godhead bodily.
Grace is invincible because it is the strength of God. It is not sentiment, though songs about it may be. It is not feeling, though it creates the most powerful feelings. Grace is power acting to redeem. The old persecutor from Tarsus became what he became by the grace of God. When his thorn in the flesh almost destroyed him it was Christ’s grace that was sufficient for him and his future life. That mighty grace can change every circumstance, strengthen every weakness, cheer every distress, lift every burden, enable us to climb every mountain, carry every load, handle every responsibility.
Grace is super-abundant. If we make the claim that our lives have been touched by grace we are saying that we are being preserved by the might of the Maker of the heavens and the earth. The grace of the one who raises the dead has a grip on us. So all our hope of keeping on and on and on, going on trusting, and repenting, and believing, and persevering, and entering heaven and receiving a resurrection body depends upon the power of God alone.
Grace is invincible because Christ has ultimate authority in the whole universe. The Lamb sits in the midst of the throne, not as a spectator. He exercises real power. His session there is not only eloquent to us of his centrality in the cosmos and the blessedness of the position he now occupies but it is eloquent of his unchallengeable supremacy. That Lamb who loved the church and gave himself for it today wears a crown. He is head over all things to the church. He has supreme power over every force in the cosmos – physical, intellectual, spiritual – all must obey his command. If you can conceive it, it is under his command. If you can think it then Christ is in control of it. Grace is invincible because Christ is unchallengeable. Should all the hosts of hell gang against him they must miserably fail because he has already triumphed over them at his weakest. Now that he has a name above every name how can he fail? What is utterly beyond human comprehension is ruled over in its every movement by the supremacy of the enthroned Lamb. Christ has taken the church in the grip of grace and is leading it through the darkness and the valleys to its blessed rest. The message of grace is that the divine pity is invincible and is enfleshed in the Man in glory.
iii] Grace is sovereign. God’s determination to save sinners is entirely a matter of his own initiative. It is reduced by the apostle Paul to one marvellous statement as he reminisces about his own conversion – “When God was pleased” he says (Gals. 1:15), then Paul was saved. Grace is utterly discretionary – consider the title of Shedd’s sermon on the text, “I will have mercy upon whom I will have mercy”. Shedd calls it, “The Exercise of Mercy Optional with God” (W.G.T.Shedd, “Sermons to the Natural Man,” Banner of Truth, p.358ff). No saviour was commissioned to the angels that rebelled: God simply dealt with them in utter fairness. God has no obligation to save a single sinner. You would think today, hearing some men, that the most obvious and predictable characteristic of God was his mercy, that he should love the world and spare not his Son. In the New Testament the forgiveness of God is a mystery. It is a supreme paradox. In vain the first-born seraph tries to sound the depth of love divine. That is because grace is optional. It is rooted into God’s sovereign good pleasure.
It is utterly unconditional, that is, it is not evoked by any qualities in us at all. It is not because of perceived beauty, or righteousness, or attractiveness that constrained the pity of God. He did not look and see a decent life and so focused his salvation on that one. Salvation comes forth utterly and entirely out of God’s own unconditional love. So the message of God’s grace declares that always it is objective, and invincible and sovereign.
iv] Grace redeems. Think of John Murray’s classic, “Redemption Accomplished and Applied” (Banner of Truth). Whether by Christ or by the Holy Spirit, for us or in us, past accomplishment in the finished work or present reality in the ongoing work – it is all of grace, from beginning to end, from the alpha to the omega.
In the accomplishment of redemption it was God who conceived the possibility. He thought of it. It dawned on him, we would say. He then took the initiative. He had not created the quarrel, nor forged the enmity, nor set up the estrangement, but in effecting reconciliation he acts. He draws the blue-print in its every detail. It was not that his intervention is constrained by the pleading of man. No counsel of the most holy men in the world gathering together laid out this plan before him and urged him to act upon it. Prior to any human initiative or sense of need God alone set up this tremendous machinery of redemption.
God provided the instrumentality. He found a Lamb in his own flock, even from his own bosom, bearing his own image. He even became that Lamb: the providing God is not a different being from the provided Lamb. The God who said that without the shedding of blood there could be no remission himself provided the blood that should be shed: “Feed the church of God which he purchased with his own blood.”
That same grace made him who knew no sin to become sin for us. That same grace paid him the wages of sin. It was all of God. We did not make Christ our substitute – that was God. We did not offer him upon Calvary – that was God. We did not give our son to the death of the cross – that was God. He aroused the sword of rectitude and commanded it to find its sheath in Christ’s breast. We did not go through our sins one after another trying to think of them all placing them carefully upon him – the Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all. The accomplishment of redemption was all of God. The great theme in the letter to the Hebrews is that Christ was all by himself when he purged us of our sins.
But also in the application of redemption it is the same divine grace which saves us. God embarks upon a ministry of reconciliation. God becomes the preacher of his own gospel. Men are “ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us” (2 Cors. 5). Paul was conscious that behind all his speaking there was the authority of God. Behind Paul’s imploring there was a yearning God, longing and pleading with men – the one who in the days of his flesh saw the city and wept over it.
We might think that that would be the conclusion of God’s application but the audience hearing of the finished work of Christ are deaf and blind and hostile. The hearts of the hearers are closed to the message. What happens? Grace acts again, and the one who preaches to the heart opens the heart. On the road to Emmaus the one who opened the Scriptures also opened the understanding. Lydia heeds the message of Paul for this reason – the Lord Jesus opened her heart to receive it. He gave her a birth from above. He resurrected her. He made everything new. He gave her the conviction that this message was true. He revealed to her the beauty of Jesus. He created in her heart a desire for him. He made sin loathsome. To what does Paul ascribe the success of the gospel in Thessalonica? That “our gospel came not to you in word only, but in power and in the Holy Ghost and with much assurance.”
So firstly our message is a message of grace, and whenever it is preached the Lord is delighted and our experience will be that of the apostles: “So Paul and Barnabas spent considerable time there, speaking boldly for the Lord, who confirmed the message of his grace” (Acts 14:3). Thus it has ever been in the history of the church – think of Geneva, and Edwards, and Whitefield, and Princeton, and Spurgeon, and Lloyd-Jones.