"He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything."
Colossians 1:18

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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

For Those Who Grapple with a Difficult Doctrine

Candor is an arm-twister.  Hard as I try, I am obliged to confess that the truth of God's complete sovereignty over completely everything is difficult to wrap my theological arms around.  God's sovereignty gives us confidence, and it answers many questions, to be sure, but it also raises some hard questions, and sometimes these questions amalgamate to cause us to question the very reality of God's sovereignty - how can God be sovereign with evil in the world, and so forth?

Fortunately, the concept of utter sovereignty is not one that is unveiled dramatically in Romans 9.  Paul did not invent it, and neither did John Calvin.  Certainly, that go-to passage in the ninth chapter of Romans speaks very clearly about God's sovereignty, but there are incredible and innumerable pictures of His sovereign hand in action all throughout Scripture.  I would like to touch on one of these - a very well-known story indeed - in order to bolster us in our confidence in this indispensable fact of God.

A word to Moses from his God:  "But I know that the king of Egypt will not permit you to go, except under compulsion.  So I will stretch out My hand and strike Egypt with all My miracles..." (Ex. 3:19-20a) We know the setup here - God's people are enslaved in Egypt, and He commissions Moses to bring them out.  At first, this appears as merely a predictive statement - God need not be sovereign in this declaration, but merely omniscient.  However, after Moses is first rebuffed by Pharaoh, God reassures him in this way:  "But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart that I may multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt." (Ex. 7:3)

Some will say, and indeed have said many times, that God's hardening of Pharaoh's heart is only because Pharaoh first hardened his own heart - a judgment laid down by a loving God whose hand is forced.  We note, though, that God provides His own reason for the hardening - the same in both of the aforementioned verses, actually - it is for the cause of glory, so that God may do more wondrous works in Egypt.  Elsewhere He addresses Pharaoh himself and categorically states the same (Ex. 9:16, Rom. 9:15).  Glory, not judgment, lies behind this divine act, and it was done not in response to Pharaoh's misdeeds, but in accordance with God's own purposes (His intentions were voiced, incidentally, before Moses ever departed for Egypt, back in Ex. 4:21).  God's plans include and require Pharaoh's sins.  God's power is uniquely displayed!

Then comes the miraculous and repeated devastation of Egypt (Ex. 7-10).  God's targets:  vital crops, coveted livestock, and - most importantly - the false, impotent deities that the Egyptians set up as patrons over these economic essentials.  The façade of legitimacy is forcefully torn from the religious system of Egypt, and her economy is utterly unraveled. 

The final plague, of course, comes at the hand of God Himself, who goes throughout Egypt and kills all of the firstborn personally, a tragedy that would burst into every Egyptian household and family.  This proves to be the final straw, and the Israelites take their leave at long last, laden with the treasures of Egypt, which they obtained merely by asking (Ex. 12).  See how God continues to take things away from the rebellious nation, all in the process of exalting His own name!  God's plans include and require the blessing and deliverance of His chosen people.  God's grace and love are powerfully manifested!

When the children of Israel begin to move out of the land, they are led by God very carefully.  He keeps them from some obvious routes that would certainly lead them into warfare, and in so doing, leads them pointedly toward the Red Sea (Ex. 13:17-18).  When they arrive, God gives very interesting instruction:  "Tell the sons of Israel to turn back and camp before Pi-hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea; you shall camp in front of Baal-zephon, opposite it, by the sea.  For Pharaoh will say of the sons of Israel, ‘They are wandering aimlessly in the land; the wilderness has shut them in.’  Thus I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will chase after them; and I will be honored through Pharaoh and all his army, and the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord." (Ex. 14:2-4a)

Mark this well, friends.  God has been demonstrating absolute control here, and He now expresses the desire to deceive Pharaoh into still greater folly, one that will brutalize the Egyptian military on top of everything else, by drowning their elite chariot battalions in the Red Sea (which the children of Israel had just traversed on dry land).  God's plans include and require the deception of Pharaoh so he is driven to pursue the Israelites, to great ruin.  Behold His conquering power!

Mind you, this is the same God doing all of these things.  He delivers on one hand, and He slaughters on the other.  He plans the obedience of Moses, unto His glory, and also the disobedience of Pharaoh, also unto His glory.  Amazing!  Divine purpose, when joined with divine omnipotence and divine omniscience, leads to assured outcomes.  Let us make two statements, now that we have looked at God's work in Egypt.

1.  God does whatever He likes, for His own reasons, with absolutely everything.  The centuries of enslavement, the sinful and stubborn resistance of Pharaoh, the enticement for Pharaoh to pursue God's people - all of these were indispensable features of God's plan, purposed before time began.  If we wrap our minds around this - that the evil as well as the good was a part of God's plan (not that He sinned or tempted, but it was in His plan nonetheless) - then amazing comfort begins to build in our hearts.  Could God have delivered the Israelites sooner?  Of course.  Could He have helped Pharaoh's heart to be softened?  Certainly.  He did things the way He did them, though, because these constituted the conditions of maximum glory.  He says, in effect, to Moses, "My glory is more important than your objections to My plan."  To the Israelites:  "My glory is more important than your immediate release."  And, yes, to Pharaoh, "My glory is more important than your repentant heart."  The Lord has His reasons, which far supersede our own, and He acts on those reasons.  Bless the Lord for His wonderful reasons!  When we grasp the value of His reasons, immeasurable comfort is ours, for we see that He commands all things according to His perfect designs.

2.  God is loving and fair.  Absolute sovereignty does not negate what we know about God. This same God pronounces Himself as good, just, loving, merciful, and patient, in response to Moses" plea to be shown His glory not so long after the Red Sea excursion (Ex. 34:6-7).  The fact of complete sovereignty does not change our God; amen?  If you struggle with how He could be in control of all things, and yet completely fair as He condemns or saves, you are certain to have plenty of company.  In fact, Paul has words just for you in Romans 9:20-24.  In a nutshell, we are in no position to question the God whom we cannot fully understand; we must accept what His Word reveals about His sovereignty (just as we do with regard to the Trinity, the divine and human authorship of Scripture, and many other such truths). 

This is one case in which we can certainly have our cake and eat it as well.  We have the double reassurance that God is always going to act with holy integrity, and is always working events according to His purposes alone.  We have the blessing of His sinless, just, certain, and glorious work in all things!


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