The Sovereignty Of God
From:Leaves from the Book
Frederick William Grant
THE sovereignty of God is what alone gives rest to the Christian heart in view of a world full of evil, which is gone astray from Him. To know that after all, spite of the rebellion of the creature, things are as absolutely in His hand as ever they were - that still with the apostle we can adore "one God and Father of all, who is over all, and through all," - this brings, and alone brings, full relief. Still He rules over all, and where evil cannot be turned to good, limits and forbids it: He maketh the wrath of man to praise Him, and the remainder of wrath (what would go beyond this) He restrains.
The shepherd-rod, the type of power exercised in love, out of the hand to which it belongs, and become a serpent, is the vivid picture of what we see on every side. The prince of this world is not Christ, but Satan but it was the sign of a deliverer for Israel that Moses had but to stretch forth his hand and take back to him what was already his, for it to become a rod in his hand once more. For us, how sweet is this assurance the rod had not jumped out of Moses' hand, but was cast out: and even when cast out, it was fully under his control : so is it with the government of this world: for Him who rules it, even disobedience works obediently Satan, meaning nothing less, accomplishes His purposes as do the holy angels which wait around His throne.
Through all, spite of all, He yet "worketh all things after the counsel of His own will." He doeth according to His will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of earth: and none can stay His hand, or say unto Him: What doest Thou? We rest, for we know Who reigns. It is not mere sovereignty, the almighty despotism of mere will, to which we bow because we must, hut the sovereignty of wisdom, holiness, and goodness, - of One in whom love is revealed in light. How strange and saddening that in any phase of it the sovereignty of God should be an unwelcome theme to a Christian heart! Surely, one would say, there must be something very wrong with the state of such an one, or with the manner of its presentation to him, or with both, for this to be the case. Yet is it not so, that the sovereignty of God in salvation, - and where else is the thought so simple and so necessary? - is by the large mass of Christians perhaps a thing most vehemently denied; and even where entertained, is entertained with coldness and suspicion. The truths of election and predestination, while the favourite cavil in the mouths of unbelievers, are undoubtedly, by many who receive them, received with inward shrinking, as at most necessary, rather than really approved. And both causes named no doubt contribute to this result.
Yet if God be (what He must be to be God,) perfect goodness, and wisdom without fault, what could one possibly desire, but that everything should he absolutely in His hand, plastic to and moulded by His blessed will, working, according to plan and forethought, His eternal purpose? It is not possible to conceive objection on the part of any, worthy of the least respect. But this is all that predestination can at all imply. It is the simple and necessary result of a really dlivine government, - of the supremacy of One who lacks neither wisdom nor power, nor benevolent interest in the work of His own hands. I know, of course, the objection that will be raised. "Open your eyes," it will be said, "and look around!
Is the world as you see it just what you would expect as the fruit of a wise and perfect and omnipotent will? What of the suffering that abounds on every side? and what of the sin? Can you say of that it is the will of God, and attribute to Him still nothing but perfection?"
It is of course true that we find around us a very different state of things from what we could have at all imagined from the necessary perfection of an almighty Creator and Governor. Nor dare we ascribe moral evil to the direct will of Him from whom it is a revolt. Nevertheless the doctrine of predestination remains our only comfort and support in this perplexity: to give it up would be to abandon ourselves to the despair of good as the final goal to which all tends. If the rebellion of His creatures has thus far thwarted the will of God, and filled the world with an unanticipated or unavoidable confusion, who can say how this may perplex the final result? On the other hand, complete foresight of all being His, with full power to avert whatever will not fall into harmony with His purposes, predestination of all things may be safely maintained. God is neither made the Author of sin, nor compelled helplessly to admit defeat at the hands of men. And this is what Scripture asserts as the truth of His government: "He worketh all things after the counsel of His own will." - " Surely the wrath of man shall praise Thee; the remainder of wrath" - foreseen in its issue as not glorifying Him, - "Thou shalt restrain." (Ps. 76:10).
It may be said by some, "This is not predestination: this is only government." But what is worthy of God to do, it is worthy of God, - and only worthy of Him, - to determine before, or from eternity, to do. This fore-determination, or predestination, alters in no wise the character of what He does in its appointed time. It frees it only from the character of after-thought, which would imply weakness and change in Him. And thus we can say, "Known unto God are all His works from eternity".
Thus, take the worst act the world has ever seen - the crucifixion of Christ; it can be said, “Of a truth, against Thy holy Servant Jesus, whom Thou hast anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were gathered together, for to do whatsoever Thy hand and Thy counsel determined before to be done.” (Acts iv. 27, 28.) If in this act then, in all acts whatever we are privileged to read the hand and foreordination of God; and thus alone everywhere the darkness is no more unrelieved.
The will of man is recognized in all this, and not set aside. Certainly we are nowhere led, from Scripture, to think of him as a mere intellectual machine, moved necessarily by influences external to himself, but as a being free and responsible, though now, alas! fallen, and be come the willing slave of sin. As to this, we shall see more directly. It is certain that in no wise are we to think of God as determining to evil the wills of His creatures, or as involving them, whether by (what is to them) the accident of their birth or in any other way, in irretrievable ruin. This Scripture unites with our own consciences to assure us of. There may be difficulties, and there are; but however even insoluble may be the mystery, God has given us that within us which witnesses unfailingly for Him, that man's evil and man's ruin are of himself alone. How, spite of contrary and conflicting wills, God is yet as absolutely "over all, and through all, and in all," "working all after the counsel of His own will,"- this is beyond our skill to fathom. But so it is: and blessed it is to recognize that, as the apostle witnesses, it is as "God and Father of all" He is so. This is in fact the very web and woof of Scripture. This is what so irresistibly appeals to us in those tears wept over impenitent Jerusalem by Him who could pronounce its sure and approaching doom,- a doom to be executed by the hands of men ignorant and careless of Him whose sentence they fulfilled. This predestination extends to everything. Foresight and omnipotent will are everywhere. Thank God they are! In the moral as in the physical universe, nowhere can one escape from His presence, save, alas! by such an insensibility as the mass of men have sunk into. For the Christian, it is joy unspeakable to recognize this pervading presence, which recognized brings light into darkness, order into disorder, peace into whatever circumstances of distress.
In the strain of triumph with which the apostle closes his development of the Christian state in Romans 8, the basis of all is this precious doctrine. "And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to those that are the called according to His purpose. For whom He did foreknow, them also He did predestinate to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the First-born among many brethren. Moreover, whom He did predestinate, them He also called; and whom He called, them He also justified; and whom He justified, them He also glorified. What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us?"
But this leads us to another doctrine, closely connected with this of predestination, and suffering the same reproach, even from those who owe their all to it. I mean, of course, the doctrine of election. Election is so plainly taught in the word that it is surely only the opposition of the heart to it that can account for its not being universally received among Christians. Nor is this an election nationally or individually to privileges or "means of grace" such as plainly Israel, and for long the nations of Europe, have enjoyed, but to salvation; and to salvation, not on account of foreseen holiness or faith, but through, or by means of, these. "But we are bound to give thanks always to God for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, because God hath from the beginning chosen you unto salvation, through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth, whereunto He called you by our gospel." (2 Thess. 2 13.) Nothing can well be plainer than this; nothing more positive than the assertion by the same apostle which was just now quoted of that "chain of salvation," link riveted to link, whereby predestination issues in calling, and calling in justification, and justification in glory. A hundred texts would fail to convince where two such as these would.
But in truth, the difficulty is not textual; it lies elsewhere. Election involves many another truth most humbling to man's pride of heart, and this is in a large number of cases the real hindrance. On the other hand, it is quite true that in the conflict of minds upon a subject which has been in controversy for centuries, the balance of truth has been very much lost (although I could not say, equally,) by those who contended on either side; extremes on either part have tended to throw men off into the opposite extreme. Thus Calvinism and Arminianism, or what are commonly so called, have nearly divided Christians between them, each refusing to recognize, for the most part, any truth in the other. Yet each has in fact its stronghold of texts and arguments, and its unanswerable appeals to conscience, never fairly met by the other. ‘The mistake has been in the supposition that what was really strong on both sides was in necessary opposition. The fact is, that, as another has said, in general, the strength of each lies in what it affirms; its weakness, in what it denies. The truths of Calvinism cluster about the pole of divine grace; those of Arminianism, about that of man's responsibility. The world revolves upon its axis between the two.
But, upon the ground of responsibility merely, men are lost. Hence the texts upon which Arminianism relies have to do with the world at large, with the provision made in grace for these, and the divine appeals to and dealings with them. An important class of texts, however, even with regard to these, they overlook or explain away, while they infer wrongly from their general texts as to the actual salvation of those saved. Calvinism, on the other hand, when it treats of actual salvation, is almost wholly right. Scripture and conscience agree here in their witness to its truth, and the opposition made is compelled to be mainly upon another ground, namely, the supposed bearing of this upon the case of the lost. Here the Arminian is upon his own ground, and if the Calvinist follow him here, he loses the strength he but now had, and Scripture and conscience turn against him.
Let us take up first the texts upon which the Arminian relies, and see how far they lead us, before we speak of those which may seem more to suit our present subject.
In the first place, then, God's love to the world is manifested in the cross. "God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on Him should not perish, but have eternal life." It is not allowable to narrow this down to a love simply to the elect, as has been only too often done. It is true that the elect are all originally of the world, and that thus He loves them when dead in trespasses and sins, and for His great love quickens them (Eph. 2:3). But we cannot limit His love here to this: it is out of keeping with the "whosoever" which follows. Moreover the "world" cannot fairly be interpreted as less than the whole of it, if we believe in the transparent honesty and accuracy of Scripture. God's love to the world, then, is so deep and wonderful that it can only be measured by the gift of His Son. We dare not refuse to credit fully what is so solemnly assured.
But this being so, it settles decisively the meaning of Christ's death being for all. "For there is one God, and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all;" "a propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world:" these and many similar passages assure without any doubt of full and sufficient provision for all made in the atonement.
Upon this ground, and to give express utterance to what is in the heart of God, the gospel is bidden to be proclaimed to "every creature." Men are assured that God "willeth not the death of a sinner," but that on the contrary He "will have all men to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth." These testimonies are simple, and they deny that there can be any contrary decree of God hindering the salvation of any. The Redeemer's words as He wept over Jerusalem assure us that it is man's contrary will that resists God's will -" How often would I have gathered your children together, even as a hen gathereth her brood under her wings, and ye would not!"
But this will of man itself, what shall we make of it? Is there not after all in it, define it as we may, some mysterious power which, spite of the fall, spite of the corruption of nature, should yet respond to these invitations, these pleadings of divine grace? It is clear that final condemnation is not for any sin of another, nor yet for any depravity of nature derived from him, but for men's own sins. They are treated not simply as a race, but individualized. And thus the apostle teaches that the whole world is brought in guilty before God. Conscience bears witness in the same way of these individual sins, and refuses to put them down simply to the account of nature. Eternal judgment according to the "deeds done" by each man "in the body," a judgment which of course will recognize all diversity of circumstance, knowledge or ignorance of the Master's will, will proclaim a personal difference to which "few" or "many stripes" will answer. All this is the antipodes of a mere necessary development of a common nature, alike therefore under like conditions. Freedom, in some real sense, is recognized by us all, whatever our creed, as necessary to responsibility, although it is true that we may freely deprive ourselves of freedom, and be accountable for this. There is a confessed mystery here, which no one can pretend to solve; but Scripture and conscience unite to assure us that man's guilt is truly his own, and that all those tender pleadings, admonitions, reasonings of God with man have in them a real suitability to men in general, and are no vain show.
Man's will is nowhere inheritance from his fathers as his "nature" is; it is something which is in Scripture and in conscience held as his own personal, righteous accountability. It constitutes him, we may say, a person, a man; and to men God ever addresses Himself; as fallen creatures, born in sin and shapen in iniquity, "by nature children of wrath," yet always and none the less proper subjects of appeal; if destroyed finally, then self destroyed.
So the Spirit of God is represented as striving with them,- with those who nevertheless to the last "resist the Holy Ghost." It is of no special consequence whether we can show or not the manner of this striving; it is enough that the word of God speaks of it as that,- that it is that. All this shows something very different from a simple condemnation merely, and giving up by God of all but the elect; and whatever it prove as to man at large, something more is meant than simply to demonstrate his ruin and helplessness, by that too which increases his condemnation. On the contrary, when the law has proved man's unrighteousness, and the cross that the mind of the flesh is enmity against God, still in this very cross is it manifested that "God so loved the world that He gave His Son," and the gospel goes out addressed to every creature.
Thus far we must needs go, then, with the Arminians, and the truth of predestination does not conflict with this in any way. We have here simply to inquire what is, and we can affirm that Omniscient Goodness willed it so to be,- from eternity so willed it; did not of course desire or work the evil, but ordained to suffer it, and in this sense that it should be. The mystery of evil being thus suffered we accept,- do not explain, or suppose it possible to be explained. As a fact, we know it is, and know too that God is, and that He is against the evil. Scripture is of course in no wise responsible for it, while it gives us, not an explanation, but such a revelation of God Himself, and in view of it, that we can have perfect faith in Him, and leave it unexplained. The cross has glorified Him in every attribute more wonderfully as to sin than this could raise suspicion; while it demonstrates that not mere power could deal with evil, the victory must be that of goodness, and in suffering.
Christ dying for the world, the testimony of God's love to men at large, is no vain thing because in fact all are not saved by it. It demonstrates to us that infinite goodness from which men have to break away: that, of which He has sworn, "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?" (Ezek. 33:11) Men die because of their own will, not of God's will; yet they die. And men crudely ask of God's omnipotence why He cannot convert them all. But omnipotence itself must needs be limited by His other attributes. What Infinite Wisdom can do I must be myself infinitely wise to know.
Let it suffice us that "God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son," and that full provision has thus been made for that return of all to God to which they are besought. The result, it is for man himself to decide.
But now as to this result, what? Is it uncertain? Are we to conclude that because, if a man die, he wills himself to die, that therefore if he live, it is by his own will also? We may not argue so; for here too God has spoken, and the conscience of His saints responds ever really to what He says.
"He was in the world, and the world was made by Him, and the world knew Him not; He came unto His own, and His own received Him not." Was this rejection universal? No; some received Him. What, then, of these? "But to as many as received Him, to them gave He right (see margin) to become children of God, even to them that believe on His name; which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God." (Jno. i. 10—13.)
Nothing can possibly be more decisive. And this plainly covers the whole ground. It is not, of course, that the will of man is not implied in the reception of Christ, for reception is surely not in this case unwilling, but rather that, as the apostle tells the Philippians, "it is God that worketh in you both to will and to do"—" both.
Every description of this new birth ascribes it in the fullest to divine and sovereign power. The very idea of "birth" implies it, for who is aught but passive in his own birth? It is also quickening from the dead, and "as the Father raiseth up the dead and quicken eth them, even so the Son quickeneth whom He wilL" (Jno. 5:21.) It is a new creation; "for we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works." (Eph. 2:10.) And this defines the character of what is therefore truly effectual calling: "Whom He predestinated, them He also called, and whom He called, them He also justified."
This sovereign, gratuitous work in man, done in accordance with that eternal counsel which all things work out, defines clearly for us what is election. It means the gracious interference of divine love in behalf of those who, no different from others, dead in the same sins, instead of being given up to perish, are given to Christ to be the fruit of His blessed work, "that He might be the first-born among many brethren." It is love, and only love, righteously and in perfect goodness manifested in salvation only, and of those worthy of damnation. To charge upon it the damnation of the lost is blasphemy, however unconscious, of that in which the whole heart of God is pouring itself out. If others remain obdurate in pride and careless unbelief, and going on to destruction, while we, justified by faith, and having peace with God, rejoice in hope of the glory of God, is it because we are better than they? What Christian heart can believe this? No; it is because "God, who is rich in mercy, for His great love wherewith He loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ." No man has found his true level who has not come down there, and only there do we find the full and impregnable assurance of perfect and enduring peace. "Who shall lay anything to the charge of God's elect?" A love that found us with nothing, to indue us with all, is a love that has in it no element of change. "For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come,"- what possible cause of harm is there that is neither a thing present nor to come? - "nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord."