by John W. Ritenbaugh
Deuteronomy 30:15-20 establishes a principle vital to every aspect of life that touches on character and the outworking of God's purpose:
See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil, in that I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments, His statutes, and His judgments, that you may live and multiply; and the LORD your God will bless you in the land which you go to possess. But if your heart turns away so that you do not hear, and are drawn away, and worship other gods and serve them, I announce to you today that you shall surely perish; you shall not prolong your days in the land which you cross over the Jordan to go in and possess. I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live; that you may love the LORD your God, that you may obey His voice, and that you may cling to Him, for He is your life, and the length of your days; and that you may dwell in the land which the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give them.
We begin with this passage to emphasize the importance of God's sovereignty to our lives. Understanding God's sovereignty is essential to living by faith and making right choices. Adam and Eve stumbled over this issue, and we continue to stumble over it. The overriding issue of life is to whom we will give ourselves in obedience. Will it be ourselves, society, business, Satan or God?
When studying God's Word, another principle to grasp in conjunction with sovereignty is that in Genesis, the book of beginnings, God lays down the fundamental elements of His purpose. These elements will be high priority issues virtually all our lives.
From the very beginning He establishes that He is Creator; life, its purpose and all of its potential has its beginning in and flows from Him. We are thus without excuse in knowing that the Creator is life's central figure—not Satan, not ourselves, not any other human being or thing—because our relationship with Him is pivotal to His purpose for creating us. His purpose is worked out through our individual relationship with Him. Before we read beyond Genesis 1, God has stated His purpose of making man in His image (verse 26). In chapter 2, He establishes the institution of marriage and family as fundamental to learning how to become one humanly. This marks the family as the primary area of preparation for becoming one with Him too once He begins a relationship with us, for He is also creating a family.
In chapter 3, He portrays the sovereignty issue within a personal relationship. Over his life a person chooses whom he will love and obey as ruler, and this choice determines his character, quality of life, and therefore whose image will be created in him. Satan subtly persuades Adam and Eve that by taking the knowledge of good and evil, they would be like gods, and by this he inserts himself as a rival to God for man's loyalty. He implies that they could institute their own ways and standards. However, he conceals from them that he would influence mankind in establishing those ways and standards so that he, the god of this world, would be sovereign and obeyed. The result of this is that those who submit to him are made in his image.
In Whose Image?
Paul writes in Ephesians 2:1-3,
And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others.
Satan, eminently successful in his ruse, has been imitated by all mankind. By the time God calls us, we are thoroughly in his image. We are so indoctrinated into his way of life that even by nature we are children of wrath!
Satan cunningly hides something else from Adam and Eve: His brand of freedom to establish standards and to choose creates tremendous diversity and thus a constant and wearying confusion. When vanity enters this mix, the result is divorce in the family, social problems in the community, and on a larger scale, bloody warfare. Mankind has paid a horrible price for wrongly choosing Satan as sovereign.
From His nature of love and wisdom, God pre-determined what is right and beautiful, and He taught Adam and Eve His way of life, instruction now included in His Word. If we want to achieve His purpose and be in His image, unlike our first parents, we must limit our free moral agency to choosing whether to submit to the universal, life-encompassing standards He has already determined.
In Deuteronomy 30:15-20, God is urging us to make serious and deliberate choices to propel us toward the conclusion of His purpose. He requires us to commit and make decisions. In matters of morality, remaining neutral is not an option. The issues are sharply defined: obedience, disobedience; life, death; good, evil. He especially points out that He will not tolerate idolatry. Idols are useless vanities that people choose to submit to rather than the sovereign God.
II Peter 3:1-6 contains vivid illustrations of God ruling and overruling to bring His purpose to a successful conclusion in spite of men:
Beloved, I now write to you this second epistle (in both of which I stir up your pure minds by way of reminder), that you may be mindful of the words which were spoken before by the holy prophets, and of the commandment of us, the apostles of the Lord and Savior, knowing this first: that scoffers will come in the last days, walking according to their own lusts, and saying, "Where is the promise of His coming? For since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation." For this they willfully forget: that by the word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of water and in the water, by which the world that then existed perished, being flooded with water.
Because the Creator God truly is sovereign, He is constantly moving His creation, including us, toward the conclusion of the purpose He determined from the beginning. All things do not continue as they were. God is working and intervening, making adjustments in the course of international, national and personal events, as the incidents of the Flood and the Tower of Babel vividly illustrate. Peter could have added many more examples, such as freeing Israel from Egypt, guiding Israel to power and destroying it and scattering the Israelites over the face of the earth. God has done this so completely that most have no idea where Israel is or that they themselves might be Israelites.
The Living Bible paraphrases Proverbs 21:1 as, "Just as water is turned into irrigation ditches, so the Lord directs the king's thoughts. He turns them wherever He wants to." This helps us to understand God's sovereignty and history as well. If the thoughts of a king—representing the highest and most influential person in the nation—are in God's hand, and He influences his decisions when it pleases Him, are not all governors of men completely under the Almighty's sovereign control? Clearly, the sovereign Lord of Creation is moving all history in the direction He desires it to go.
But Where Is God?
It is not hard to comprehend, then, how Paul formulated the concepts he expresses in Romans 13:1-2: "Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves." This explains why Moses declares that the actions of Korah and his group were a rebellion against God Himself (Numbers 16:11). Nor is it hard to understand why Jesus says in Luke 10:16 that to reject an apostle, one sent by God bearing a message, is to reject Him, and to reject Him is to reject the Father who sent Him.
Government is the overriding issue in the Bible. Ultimately, a son of God need not be concerned if the government of his homeland is legal or illegal, or if it governs appropriately or inappropriately. What matters is that the Christian recognizes God's sovereignty, confident that in His oversight God never sleeps or looks the other way. He is fully aware of whatever happens. Because of the purpose He is working out, this One who knows every sparrow that falls has either passed on what occurs or directly caused it. That is all that matters. With this understanding, we can truly live by faith, knowing God is ruling His creation. That is what we are here to learn and trust.
Proverbs 21:30-31 says in the King James Version, "There is no wisdom nor understanding nor counsel against the LORD. The horse is prepared against the day of battle; but safety is of the LORD." We of all people do not want to be fighting God when He brings about changes in economies or government. The changes may appear on the surface to be working against us, but who is ruling? Who can turn Him back? Who can stop Him from providing for us in spite of what is happening around us? Romans 8:32, 38-39 reminds us who is really in charge:
He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?. . . For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Such constructive encouragement is a valuable bulwark against the stressful fear and depression that can arise when events seem to be spiraling out of control.
But how do these things apply to individual Christians? Many times, as we go about our lives, it seems as though this powerful Sovereign is nowhere around. Job 23:10-14; 24:1 records an interesting complaint of the perplexed Job, who represents anyone whom God has led through a trial.
But He knows the way that I take; when He has tested me, I shall come forth as gold. My foot has held fast to His steps; I have kept His way and not turned aside. I have not departed from the commandment of His lips; I have treasured the words of His mouth more than my necessary food. But He is unique, and who can make Him change? And whatever His soul desires, that He does. For He performs what is appointed for me, and many such things are with Him. . . . Since times are not hidden from the Almighty, why do those who know Him see not His days?
On the one hand, Job perceives by faith that God is almighty and is involved in the events of his life. He is also confident that he is obedient to God. On the other hand, he cannot understand why God is being so hard on Him, where He is or how He can be persuaded to change His course of action. Job feels God is treating him unfairly. He also questions why those who know God still sin despite realizing He will judge those sins. The piper must be paid. We know that whatever a man sows, he reaps—and still we sin!
Many of us who have undergone a heavy trial have taken this course of thought. We may not use the same words, but they will have the same sense. We might say, "I am God's child, and I know I am not perfect, but I am not out there sinning a lot or terribly. Why is God so overbearing? Why does He seem so far away? Why does He not answer when I pray to Him? When am I ever going to get relief from this? Others seem to be doing things a great deal worse than I. Why are they getting away with it?"
We will begin to answer this by recalling a few principles that may not have direct bearing but lay a foundation for understanding it more clearly. It is humbling to grasp that we are not completely in control of our destinies. A great, overriding Power sees life and its purpose far differently and with much greater clarity than we can even grasp. His every thought is righteous, and as our Creator He has every right to move us about as He wills. He is in charge, and nobody keeps Him from carrying out His ultimate purpose, to create a family in His image. Psalm 33:14-15 provides an interesting insight into His work among men: "From the place of His habitation He looks on all the inhabitants of the earth; He fashions their hearts individually; He considers all their works."
Isaiah 10:5-19 is on a much larger scale—involving an entire nation and millions of people. It predicts God's intention to use Assyria to punish Israel and His response when Assyria boasts of "its" accomplishment. This yet-to-be-fulfilled prophecy is a clear example of how God intervenes in man's affairs to complete His purpose. In verse 7, He even prophesies that Assyria will not want to cooperate with Him, but He makes them. After Israel is punished (verses 12-15), Assyria takes undue credit, and God's judgment begins in verse 16. The lesson to all is that we are empowered to do only what God wills or permits. There is no room for pride when God enables us.
Like Job when he understood more fully, we as sons of God should be rightly humbled—and at the same time, greatly encouraged—by the awesome knowledge that His creative efforts focus on us (Job 42:1-6). Paul writes, "For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us" (II Corinthians 4:6-7). God is doing something very special in us, but all the praise and glory belong to Him.
Even though His path for us may sometimes seem very rough, and He often appears distant and deaf, who is better in directing our lives toward a glorious end? Were we or some other human to choose our way, the result would surely be ignoble and shameful. To comprehend these truths and yield ourselves to searching for His path for us are among life's greatest accomplishments. Submitting to Him produces the abundant life Jesus so graciously wants us to have (John 10:10).
God's Sovereignty and Our Calling
Because Passover is not far off, we need to examine ourselves so that we can share in the symbols of Christ's blood and broken body in the right spirit. An earlier article in this series showed that God is sovereign over whom He calls into His Family and to salvation. Examining this in greater detail will help us humbly appreciate what He has given us. It will not only assist us in preparing for Passover, but the right spirit it produces will carry through the entire year.
During Jonah's repentance in the belly of the great fish, he declares, "Salvation is of the LORD" (Jonah 2:9). It becomes obvious from other passages, however, that salvation is not open to all at this time. Why does He call some and not others? Sometimes He calls one but not another within a family. We may never know the answer to this, but we can ask some questions that Scripture does answer.
For instance, does He not call some because they are too sinful and depraved? No, because Paul says in I Timothy 1:15, "Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief." God overcame Paul and saved him. Certainly there have been sinners far worse than Paul, but the sense of his thought is that nobody is beyond the reach of God's power to convict of sin and affect dramatic changes of behavior.
Job describes the wicked in Job 21:14-15: "Yet they say to God, ‘Depart from us, for we do not desire the knowledge of Your ways. Who is the Almighty, that we should serve Him? And what profit do we have if we pray to Him?'" Does God not call some because they are just too stony-hearted, irreligious, even atheistic? But God says in Ezekiel 11:19-20:
Then I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within them, and I take the stony heart out of their flesh, and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in My statutes and keep My judgments and do them; and they shall be My people, and I will be their God.
We once said in our carnal ignorance, "I will not have this One to rule over me." We may not have uttered these exact words, but our conduct in breaking God's commandments and being conformed to this world spoke as if we were literally saying them. That has changed to some degree, has it not? If it happened to us, why can it not happen to anybody? It can, but only if God gives the same things to them as He has given to us. To understand and appreciate properly what He has given us, we must recall our lives before conversion and honestly recognize what we lacked compared to what we now have because of God's calling.
A number of scriptures effectively show our unique position as the called of God among mankind. Jesus' statement in John 6:44 clearly sets the tone, "No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day." This drawing is totally beyond our control; it is entirely a sovereign act on the Father's part. Jesus intimates that even He has no say in selecting those drawn to Him to be His disciples.
Paul adds in I Corinthians 15:10, "But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me." Not only is our calling a gift of God, but God also abundantly bestows other gifts beyond that to enable us to carry out our responsibilities in the church. God has distributed such gifts to every member of the body (I Corinthians 12:7-11).
I Corinthians 15:22-25 expands our thoughts beyond the church to the rest of mankind:
For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ's at His coming. Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet.
These verses conclusively reveal that others will be called besides us, until Christ defeats all enemies of God's rule. Because every person who has conformed to the image of Satan is an enemy, God will eventually call all of mankind and confront each one about who their sovereign is! As Satan has deceived "the whole world" (Revelation 12:9), so in His time will God call the whole world.
I Corinthians 4:6-7 confirms our calling and simultaneously sternly warns us about what our attitude ought to be:
Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively transferred to myself and Apollos for your sakes, that you may learn in us not to think beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up on behalf of one against the other. For who makes you differ from another? And what do you have that you did not receive? Now if you did indeed receive it, why do you glory as if you had not received it?
We have no basis for feeling greater, better or more rewarded than either an unconverted person or a brother in the church. God's calling is strictly His choice and not based on a person's accomplishments, personality or character. He tenders His many gifts, further aspects of His grace, according to what He wants us to fulfill within His church. We truly have no grounds for being puffed up, but instead, we should be humbled by the blessings of God's generosity.
I John 5:19-20 puts a capstone on our unique position:
We know that we are of God, and the whole world lies under the sway of the wicked one. And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us an understanding, that we may know Him who is true; and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life.
The very fact that we know these things—that we are of God, that Satan is the unseen ruler of this world, and that we know God and His Son Jesus Christ—is evidence that we have been given an understanding. This knowledge is not something we have determined on our own; the sovereign God has given it to us to fulfill His purpose in us. And in His sovereignty He has withheld it from others.
Other passages, in more specific areas of our profession, show the uniqueness of our calling to an even greater extent. For example, Paul writes in II Thessalonians 3:1-2, "Finally, brethren, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may have free course and be glorified, just as it is with you, and that we may be delivered from unreasonable and wicked men; for not all have faith." From our own experiences we know his statement is true. Not everyone has faith. It is obvious that some believe and others do not. Even within the church we are at different stages of faith.
Acts 13:48 adds important ramifications to this subject of God's sovereignty, our calling and faith: "Now when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and glorified the word of the Lord. And as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed." The implications of Luke's words are rather startling. Only those whom God appointed or predestined to eternal life believe the preaching of Paul and Barnabas! The rest, though they also hear the word of the Lord, persecute and expel them from the region. They do not believe what they hear, and it angers rather than converts them. We must conclude that God triggers something in the minds of those He calls, making the Lord's words agreeable, so they will believe what they are hearing.
For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.
God has the whole process planned out, and He is so confident of His ability to accomplish it that He perceives it as already done! He knows the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:10).
The quotation of II Thessalonians 3:2 above is exactly as it is printed in the New King James Version, and the King James translates it similarly.In both, however, there is a mistake. An interlinear Bible will clearly show that the definite article "the" should appear before "faith," making this faith a specific kind or level of faith distinct from others. Anybody can have a spiritual faith in somebody or something—even in the Creator God—and still not have saving faith, the faith to which Paul refers here. Many believe in a Creator God yet do not know Him, do not understand His purpose, do not understand the extent of Satan's influence on them or the world, and do not obey God's commands. They are, in short, uncalled by the sovereign God and not as yet appointed to eternal life.
This saving faith appears frequently in Scripture:
» Colossians 2:7: ". . . established in the faith."
» I Timothy 1:2: "To Timothy, my true son in the faith."
» I Timothy 4:1: ". . . some will depart from the faith."
» I Timothy 5:8: ". . . he has denied the faith."
» Titus 1:1: ". . . according to the faith of God's elect."
» Titus 1:13: ". . . that they may be sound in the faith."
» Titus 3:15: "Greet those who love us in the faith."
» Jude 3: ". . . contend earnestly for the faith."
In each case "the faith" indicates not only a specific kind or level of faith but also a specific body of beliefs or knowledge from which faith arises. Paul states this in Romans 10:17, "So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God," dovetailing perfectly with the knowledge mentioned in I John 5:19-20. Saving faith arises from the knowledge God so graciously gives us through His sovereign will. This means that only those whose hearts and minds God opens can believe to salvation. Even the faith that saves is a gift of God!
So on the one hand, there is faith, but on the other hand is the faith. There is a faith that will believe, yet James describes it as "dead" (James 2:14-26). It is dead, though the person possessing it lives, because all of his labors produce death. They produce death because his faith does not conform to God's will. The faith, given to those ordained to salvation, not only believes but also works in conformity with God's will because it trusts in and relies upon the truth of the salvation message and God's purpose.
Is God Fair?
Paul broaches the question of God's fairness in Romans 9:19-24:
You will say to me then, "Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?" But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, "Why have you made me like this?" Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor? What if God, wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, and that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had prepared beforehand for glory, even us whom He called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles?
The question Paul poses is natural for those who do not have the faith and thus have not really submitted to God. The far more important question for the converted is, "Does He not have the right to do as He pleases with us, since He is not only our Creator, but He has also purchased us from our spiritual bondage to sin through the payment of His sinless Son's lifeblood?" We therefore belong to Him, and He sees us now as both sons and slaves. God fully expects us to be slaves of righteousness even as we were once slaves to sin (Romans 6:15-23). A slave is one whose master makes his choices.
The majority of us have been born into cultures where literal, physical slavery is no longer practiced. We have no direct experience with it, though most of us have at least an intellectual understanding of some aspects of it. Consider, then, the relationship between master and slave. The apostles had a good reason to use the word that means "slave" (doulos). They wanted us to understand that in our relationship with God we not only experience the joys of freedom as His children but also the serious requirement to obey as His slaves.
Suppose the Master summons a slave to meet with him every seventh day for instruction and fellowship with Him and His other slaves, and the slave refuses, saying he has something more important to do. This "something more important" does not necessarily have to be working for pay. Perhaps his justification for staying away is, "I learn more studying by myself at home," or "So many ‘unspiritual' people are there that I no longer feel comfortable." Suppose the Master says the slave is to pay back ten percent of his increase to Him, but the slave says, "I have other, more important things to do with my money."
Once we understand this, it becomes apparent where our parent church headed in regard to sovereignty. The leaders quickly changed many doctrines—and thus the theology of the entire institution—subtly turning the tables in the relationship. They made the slave the master by giving him the right to decide what is law and what is not, as well as permission to change established priorities. This is virtually the same ploy Satan used on Adam and Eve when he said, "You will be as God."
Who is the sovereign and who is the slave is one of the points Paul makes in Romans 9. Understanding that God is sovereign and we are the slaves and translating this into loving submission are essential to our relationship with Him. This absolutely requires trusting Him. Those without the faith cannot do this because they do not believe as God does. To have the faith of Christ, we must believe what Christ believes. Will anyone be in God's Kingdom who does not believe as God does?
As we have experienced this life, most of us at one time or another have considered whether God is fair. Our Creator has designed experiences to bring this question to mind so we might consider as many ramifications of it as possible. We usually glean most of our information from the disasters and tragedies of human life. What we often lack are His perspective and truth. As He gives these through the revelation of Himself, we begin to perceive His loving grace, abundant generosity, infinite patience, ready forgiveness, stable oversight and unswerving commitment to concluding His wonderful purpose successfully.
Those who see Him as unfair are usually ignorant of what is really going on because they have not yet been given eyes to see that they are included in His plan. Mankind's disasters and tragedies have their roots in sin, but God did not will man to sin. Solomon writes in Ecclesiastes 7:29, "Truly, this only I have found: that God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes." Mankind has chosen to bring disaster and tragedy upon himself.
God is gradually removing the ignorance that holds mankind in thrall to choices that kill him. He has removed this ignorance from us already, and we are therefore free to choose life, as God commands in Deuteronomy 30:19. As we approach Passover, let us examine ourselves and resolve to choose to submit to the sovereign Creator.