Deuteronomy 29:29 “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children for ever, that we may follow all the words of this law.”
I began by describing four of the secret things that belong to the Lord, and now I want to continue to expand this theme by speaking of a number of contrasting truths found in the Bible that to us appear to be irreconcilable. The secret of their reconciliation is held by God. To us it seems that if one of them is true then how in the world can the other also be true? There’s a technical word – a buzz word – for this phenomenon and it is an ‘antinomy,’ a conclusion that is discrepant but apparently true and necessary. It doesn’t matter if that word and concept is a little perplexing to you. What I am going to say is going to be very plain and simple.
HOW CAN YOU RECONCILE THAT GOD IS ONE BUT THAT GOD IS ALSO THREE DIFFERENT PERSONS?
Reconciling the fact that God is one and God is also three is a secret thing that belongs to the Lord. That God is one is the most basic claim of Christianity. Question 5 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism asks, “Are there more gods than one?” It affirms this famous answer, “There is but one only, the living and true God.” This statement is based on so many claims of the Bible; “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deut 6.4). “the LORD is God and that there is no other” (I Kings 6:80). “Israel’s King and Redeemer, the LORD Almighty: I am the first and I am the last; apart from me there is no God” (Isa. 44:6). “Even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’), yet for us there is but one God” (I Cor. 8:5&6). “There is one God and one mediator between God and men” (I Tim. 2:5). No truth is more emphatically or persistently taught in Scripture than this, that one God existed before the foundation of the earth, that that same God spoke and said “Let there be . . .” and the universe was created. There is but one God that all the world has to have dealings with today. The God who is the Father of Jesus Christ; he is the God of the Bible; the God of providence. Not two rival gods . . . not a million gods. One only, the living and true God.
Yet the Bible also teaches clearly that not only is the Father God, but the Son is also God and the Holy Spirit is God, and these three are one God. You have a hint of this at the beginning of the Bible where God says in Genesis 1, “Let us make man in our image.” There are three different persons in the Godhead; each is distinct from the others. The Father alone is Father. The Son alone became incarnate. The Spirit alone is sent by the Father and the Son. What, then, do we have here? We have a being of whom we have no experience at all in this world. Every other being we meet is one and only one, but the God who is one is also three. Every other being we meet had a beginning, but God had no beginning. He is eternally God. Every other being we meet has dimensions; it has boundaries; even the vast universe has shape and size, but God is infinite and measureless. There is the immensity of God. God is different from any other being; he has no analogy. We cannot say that God is like this or like that, because there is no one to whom we can compare God. God alone is the one living and true God.
Yet the revelation that God has given us of himself through his prophets and apostles and especially in his Son, is that God is three as well as one. For example, the Lord Jesus is called God very directly by inspired prophets and apostles. The prophet Isaiah says that the Messiah will come and his name will be called, “Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isa. 9:6). David in the Psalms addresses the Messiah, “Thy throne O God is for ever and ever” (Psa.45:6). John begins his gospel, “The Word was God,” and ends his gospel with Thomas saying to Jesus, “My Lord and my God.” Our Lord claims, “I and my Father are one.” Peter speaks of “the righteousness of our God and Saviour Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:1). Paul speaks of “our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13). He tells the church in Rome of “Christ who is God over all, forever praised, Amen” (Roms. 9:5). He tells the Colossians of Christ that “in him the whole fulness of deity dwells bodily” (Cols.2:9). The Holy Spirit is also spoken of as one who possesses all the attributes of God, omnipresence, inspiration, omnipotence, creation, and the Spirit is joined with the Father and the Son in terms of equality, for example in the words of baptism, “baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” or again in the words of the grace, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.”
So there is this emphasis in the Bible on pluralness in our God, and it is important to remind ourselves that God’s oneness, God’s unity, is not the singularity of loneliness. God was from eternity never alone. Before there was ever a possibility of fellowship with angels and men and other creatures God was never alone in that eternity, because we have this phenomenon of God with God. The Word was with God in the beginning. There never was a time when there was not God the Father and God the Word. The Word was with God, or perhaps more exactly, “The Word was towards God.” And in many ways it is a marvelous picture of the pre-creation divine existence, where you have not simply God, and not simply God alongside God, but you have God towards God. You have the face of the Son towards the face of the Father in an outgoing of love, of adoration and of communication. There is perfect loving plurality and perfect love unity in God.
It reminds us that God created all things from nothing not because of any felt need arising out of his emptiness or loneliness or inadequacy or lack of fulfillment. He didn’t create in order to have fellowship with something, because there had always been fellowship, the eternal fellowship of God and his Son, God and the Spirit, the Son and the Spirit. Instead, God creates into the fellowship. We may go into the marvels of John chapter 17 and see the consummation of Christian privilege as it is spelled out in Christ praying for all his people, “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me, because you loved me before the creation of the world” (Jn.17:23&24). Our future is going to end in our own involvement – subject to our own limitations as creatures – in the love of the Father for the Son and the love of the Son for the Father. Our hope and longing is that we redeemed sinners will be drawn into the eternal fellowship of God with God. God is one and God is three but exactly how that is so is a secret thing that belongs to God.
HOW CAN YOU RECONCILE THE FACT THAT JESUS CHRIST IS PERFECT MAN WITH THE FACT THAT HE IS ALSO PERFECT GOD?
The Bible makes it clear that Jesus Christ was in the beginning and he was God. He had the names of God, Jehovah Jesus, Elohim Jesus, El Shaddai Jesus, Jesus Tzidkenu, and that he also had all the prerogatives of God, to create and sustain and save and judge. He was the glory of God, and then we are told that he became flesh. It was not the divine nature that became incarnate. It was not deity that was made flesh. It was not the Father who suffered. It was not divinity that died. It was the Word who was God and was with God. And John did not write that the Word ‘took’ frail flesh but that he became it. The second person of the Godhead, the Son of God added flesh to his deity while not ceasing to be divine. It was a real addition and a real transformation. The creator became created; the omnipotent became weak; the sustainer of all things became dependent; the changeless changed; the eternal one entered time and became subject to it. Paul writes in Philippians 2 that Christ took the form of a servant – he who had been in the form of God, took the form of servant. John and Paul are telling us in the different ways that the eternal Word entered into a fully human mode and form of existence. He took humanness in all the implications of that humanness.
At one level he took on a human physical constitution, a constitution that was available and open to the senses. The apostle John could say that his eyes had seen him; his ears had heard him; his hands had handled the word of life. He rested his head on the bosom of the Word made flesh. Jesus had taken a true body with a chemical composition, and an anatomical structure, a physiological constitution, a body which had its own genetic programme inherited to a certain degree from his mother. He was joined by the umbilical cord to his ancestors, to David, to Abraham, to Adam. He had a foetal existence; he was born in the normal way through the birth canal. He entered into this world and breathed its air and was subject to the pattern of daylight and darkness, work and rest, eating food and evacuating the waste products. And at that point Jesus was vulnerable; he experienced infantile vulnerability; he was subject to the contradiction of sinners against him, to misunderstanding, to the excruciating pain of torture, to the taste of death. God had given him no built-in analgesics when he prepared a body for his Son. Through his whole lifetime he was subject to the same laws of dependence and stress and frailty as we ourselves know today.
Then the incarnation was more than that. It wasn’t only physical. It was surely that Jesus also had a fully psychological existence. On the one hand a true body, and on the other hand a reasonable soul. That meant surely that the Lord entered upon a full human emotional life, for example, the emotion of sorrow and the emotion of fear. “My soul is exceeding sorrowful . . . he began to be amazed and very heavy.” We also know that he formed very close ties of human affection with particular individuals in a kind of David and Jonathan friendship where there is affinity between one human being and another. We are told of David and Jonathan that their souls were knit together, and wasn’t it like that between Jesus and John? They were bosom friends. One of the most moving utterances of the New Testament is surely that Jesus chose twelve in order that they would be with him. There could be no more eloquent pointer to his own emotional need than that. We are told that he took three of them into the agony of Gethsemane and they were there with him for that precise purpose, “Watch with me.” There is real pathos in those words; it is almost pathetic. The God-man needs them, “I just want you to be with me. I just want to know that you’re there, I just want to know that you are listening and watching with me in this moment of agony.” And it is the greatest indictment on those men that at that point they failed him; “Couldn’t you watch with me one hour?” So I am saying that he entered into full physical identity with us men and women, bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh, that he was hungry and thirsty and weary and he slept on a cushion in a boat, and he suffered and died, but also that he knew a fully emotional existence, loving friends and weeping with them when they grieved over the death of a brother. In every pang that rends the heart the Man of Sorrows had a part.
God the Son also had a fully human intellectual existence. We are told that he grew in wisdom as in stature. He learned by observing and studying and asking questions. He learned to speak Aramaic and then Greek. The human mind of Christ developed through childhood and adolescence and manhood. We find him growing in understanding by asking people questions like, “Who touched me? . . . Where have you laid him?” His human mind did not know everything. There was so much that had not been revealed to his human mind, as a man he had a creature’s knowledge; but as God the Creator he knew everything. Think of the parallel with his omnipotence as God; the winds and waves obeyed him; he had power over disease and death. He was omnipotent as God, but as a man he experienced weakness, hunger and thirst.
I am emphasising the humanity of the Word made flesh, and I am saying that he had a human intellect and a man’s way of deciding what to do, and a human way of making choices, of learning, and applying what he had learned to what he chose to do in a decision process and the agony of decision-making. “What shall I pray? Take this cup from me? But for this reason I came into the world.” The decisions of the man Christ Jesus were real, and that is why the temptations at every point were real, and the agony in the Garden was real.
So here is the mystery of two nature Christology. On the one hand he is fully divine, as if he were not human, and on the other hand he is fully human, as if he were not divine. Yet here he is as one Jesus Christ. He is never ‘we’; always ‘I’, “but I say unto you . . . I am the way and the truth and the life.” All the qualities of humanness are the qualities of this person Christ Jesus, and all the qualities of divineness are the qualities of this person Christ Jesus, and that union between the human and the divine has been irreversibly forged and it can henceforth never ever be broken. It is an indissoluble union of God and man in him alone. He is at this moment God and man, two natures are permanently joined. He is in the midst of the throne as fully human as he was at the moment of the manger of Bethlehem and in the darkness of crucifixion on Golgotha. That is how he is today, as we love singing Joseph Hart’s hymn on these occasions;
“A man there is, a real man, with wounds still gaping wide,
From which rich streams of blood once ran in hands, and feet and side.
‘Tis no wild fancy of our brains, no metaphor we speak;
The same dear man in heaven now reigns that suffered for our sake.”
He is as much God as the Father is God, and as the Spirit is God, and he is not a half man; he is totally human, physically, psychologically, intellectually and emotionally. And now he is in heaven; he is there as the pledge that we shall be saved to the uttermost, that where he is we also shall be, but when we see him we shall be like him. Yet how he can possibly be divine and human in one person for ever is a secret thing known only to God.
HOW CAN YOU RECONCILE THE TWO GREAT TRUTHS OF HUMAN RESPONSIBILITY AND DIVINE FOREORDINATION?
We read in Scripture the apostle Paul writing by the Holy Spirit in the ninth chapter of Romans of the foreordination of God; “before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad” (Roms 9:11) God has assigned the one to salvation – to be transformed into the image of Christ, and God had passed by the other – treating Esau with scrupulous justice. “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy; I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (Roms 9:15). That is the divine foreordination, and you remember Paul imagining the objector, and this man complains, “Why then does God still blame us? For who resists his will?” (Roms.9:19). Who can go against what God has decided? Who can defy the determinate purposes of God? “Why then does God hold us responsible? Why does he apportion blame? Why does he condemn if in fact he has foreordained whatsoever comes to pass?”
What the apostle Paul says is this, “But who are you, O man, to talk back to God?” (Roms.9:20), and that seems to me to be the total Biblical philosophy this great issue of reconciling these two. We have to affirm with all our might the foreordination of God. We preach it because it is a great Biblical proclamation. We affirm it because it enshrines that whole principle of the graciousness and invincibleness of God’s application of redemption. We are dead in sins with hearts of enmity against God and left to ourselves we would all be with those angels who rebelled against God, in chains of darkness awaiting judgment. But God purposed that a multitude of men and women as many as the sands on the seashores would turn from their sins and trust in the saving work of Jesus. We affirm that to be a saving act of a loving God. We affirm it because it is a precondition of the intelligibility and the comprehensibility and logicalness of the universe in which we live. It is in Christ that all things cohere. Our Lord is behind and above and beneath all things. God works all things after the counsel of his own will.
Notice that Paul nowhere modifies his commitment to foreordination. He doesn’t face the man raising the objection to say to him, “Oh! . . . then let me qualify foreordination.” He lets it stand, that foreordination that comprehends every physical movement in the universe. It comprehends the movement of every galaxy; it comprehends the movement of every atom. It lies behind the fall of the sparrow. It lies behind every good human decision. It lies behind the decision of the brothers to sell their brother Joseph into slavery in Egypt, in other words, behind every sinful human decision, so that Joseph could say to them, “It was not you who sent me here but God.” It is an utterly comprehensive foreordination. We do not solve the problem of God’s sovereignty over our lives and over this cosmos by diluting it so that we have effectively denied it.
Yet equally we affirm the responsibility of man. “You sold me into slavery,” Joseph said to his brothers. It was not God who did it, but his own brothers. Peter says to the men whom God had determined beforehand would crucify his Son, both the Romans and the Jews, that they with their wicked hands had taken and slain him. Neither Peter nor Paul says that God doesn’t find fault with Joseph’s brothers or with Caiaphas and Pilate and the mob. Paul lets God’s sovereignty stand. All things are foreordained and yet God finds fault. There is God’s sovereignty and there is also human responsibility, and there is within responsibility that element of freedom which responsibility demands, and if we are loyal to the teaching of the Bible then we will take both of those elements. We affirm the foreordination of God and the responsibility and freedom of man. You might hear the claim that, “Calvinism affirms the divine sovereignty while Arminianism affirms human responsibility.” That is a gross over-simplification. Every Christian is called upon to look at all the Bible, and to seek to understand what all Scripture teaches because it is all given by inspiration of God. It contains no booby traps, and no embarrassments.
I would hold today, in the present climate – or as the BBC newsreaders say at the end of their news report from London, “ . . . and now to where you are . . .” – where Wales is just now is gripped by a most dangerous mentality. We are bringing into behaviour science, and into sociology, and into criminology, and into education a great stress on determinism. In other words, men and women are all being encouraged to believe that they are victims. They are the prisoners of their backgrounds, and the prisoners of their circumstances, and prisoners of the heredity and their DNA, and prisoners of their environment, and prisoners of their education. They are all victims. They are not responsible for how they live and the choices they make. I would say that in a climate of this kind the gospel pulpit needs to be emphasizing unmistakably both these truths, that our God reigns and he does according to his will amongst the armies of heaven and here on earth. Yes! But that we also emphasize the Bible’s declaration of human responsibility, that man does answer to God, whatever his background, whatever his DNA, whatever the laws of psychology. Man has that freedom from his genetic make-up, and from his education, and from his own character, and from his sexual desires, and even from his parents’ abuse. Man has a true freedom in all those directions that leaves him answerable to God for the choices he makes, and the words he says, and the deeds he does. In many ways it is just because God is sovereign that man is responsible; the creature answers to his Creator. Man who lives and moves and has his being in God must answer to that God.
My concern today is that we have no right to solve the problem of how we reconcile divine sovereignty with human responsibility by dissolving the problem, by denying on the one hand God’s foreordination, or denying on the other hand man’s responsibility. Both of these elements stand on their own independent evidence. Each is a great affirmation of God’s revelation in Scripture. We must let them both stand. But when we come to asking how do you reconcile them, well the Dutch may have their theories, and the Scots have their suggestions, and the Americans their philosophies, and there may be schools of opinions and theological arguments as men look at the question, but no man has the right to stand and say, “Here is the theology of the relationship between God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility” because no such theology exists. There may be theories but there cannot be a theology because that reconciliation is a secret thing that belongs to God. There is no way it can be found out.
4. HOW CAN YOU RECONCILE THE UNIVERSAL LOVE OF GOD WHICH DESIRES ALL MEN TO BE SAVED WITH GOD’S DECREE OF ELECTION?
We know from the Bible that God is a choosing God. He is certainly not a choosy God or he would never have set his love on the chief of sinners, or us, or the foolish things, the weak things and the lowly things of the world. If God were choosy he’d have chosen the righteous, but Jesus Christ came into the world in order to save sinners. In the Old Testament we meet a choosing God, one who chose both individuals and an entire nation. God chose Abraham, didn’t he, and brought him from Ur of the Chaldees to the Promised Land? He chose Isaac, and not Ishmael. He chose Jacob, and not Esau. He chose Ephraim, and not Manasseh. God also chose a nation, the nation of Israel, the Old Testament ‘Chosen People of God,’ not the Egyptians, not the Philistines, not the Syrians, not the Assyrians, not the Babylonians, not the Medes and the Persians, but the Jews God chose.
Why did God do that? Well, when he was giving them a reason for this in Deuteronomy 7, and verse 6, God said this: “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession. The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples; it was because the Lord loved you.” So God chose them because he loved them. We can go back beyond the choosing to the loving, but we cannot go back beyond the loving to anything more rational or more God-like. The love of God is the bedrock; the love of God is the fountain-head. God is love. He chose us because he loved us, but why in the world he could have have loved us is a secret thing belonging to God.
Is it different in the New Testament? No, God’s choice is emphasized there even more. Consider these statements of our Lord Jesus Christ: Matthew 22:14, “Many are called, but few are chosen.” John 6:37; “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and this is the will of Him who sent me that I shall lose none of all that He has given me.” John 15:16, “You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you.” This teaching continues in the Acts of the Apostles and in the Epistles; Acts 13:48, “All who were appointed for eternal life believed,” Romans 8:33, “Who shall bring any charge against those God has chosen”. Ephesians 1:4,“He chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world.” 2 Thessalonians 2:13 “…from the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth.”1 John 4:19, “We love him because he first loved us”
That’s a selection of some Scriptures. There are many more. You might look up such words as ‘chose’ or ‘elect’ or ‘predestined’ in your concordance. They are God’s words not mine. We have to conclude that God’s Word does indeed teach that God is sovereign in his gracious choosing of many men and women, as numerous as the sands on the seashore. His choice of us is a saving work. Left to ourselves we would continue to be at enmity against him, dead in our trespasses and sins, but he took the initiative and determined to save all these sinners.
But there is another truth about God in Scripture and it appears to contradict that truth. It is an apparent antinomy! It is this, the sincere desire in the heart of God that all men should be saved. For example in this book of Deuteronomy hear God’s longing as he speaks tenderly of them in the fifth chapter and verse 29, “Oh, that their hearts would be inclined to fear me and keep all my commands always, so that it might go well with them and their children for ever!” Here in the depths of the Old Testament God is expressing his longing that the hearts of the children of Israel would be inclined to fear and obey him. Again in Deuteronomy 32:29 he repeats that longing, “If only they were wise and would understand this and discern what their end will be!” I can speak in the name of God and with all his loving authority say to you that he longs that you show wisdom to understand and discern that you are going to live as long as God. What a momentous eternity lies before you, and Oh that it might be well in your future and not ill. Or again God speaks expressing the same concern in Psalm 81 and verse 14, “If my people would but listen to me.” God wants every single one of you, and all the people of Aberystwyth to listen and to hear of his love in Jesus Christ!
Or again consider the words of Jesus speaking to the people of Jerusalem, the city he had visited three times a year at the feasts for thirty years, the place whose citizens he knew so well, in the precincts of whose temple he often preached urging Jerusalem sinners to come to him and drink of the waters of life. He said to them, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing” (Matt. 23:37). He is speaking to every single person in Jerusalem, to the Jews and Romans, to the corrupt chief priests and to the Sanhedrin, to the lame and blind, the prisoners and their guards. There is no one in the city that he is ignoring, and he says, “How often I have longed to gather you together . . . but you were not willing.” Didn’t he weep over them in his grief at seeing their obduracy and their resistance to his invitations, protesting, “I would protect you from the enemy of your souls. Come to me for safety and security”? He tells his disciples that he longed to gather to himself the whole population of Jerusalem. That is the spirit he would see in all of them. Jesus is speaking as the God-man. He is not speaking simply as a Jew to his fellow-Jews. Behold the incarnate God, and he is showing us his heart and his longing to see all men saved.
Jesus is reflecting that earlier passionate prophet who was also filled with the Spirit of the Messiah and he too addressed the people of God in Jerusalem. I am thinking of Ezekiel and how he cried to the people, “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” (Ez. 18:23). He repeats it more than once saying on the second occasion, “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ez. 33:11). The Lord tells us that he has no delight in the destruction of the wicked. He does not at all desire the destruction of Judas, of Pilate, or of the mob that shouted, “Crucify him!” Their judgment gives him no joy at all. What he wants is to see them turn from their ways and live. He pleads with them “Turn!” he cries, and again, “Turn from your evil way!” He expostulates with them, “Why will you die?” Why would they choose death when he was urging them to live? I can say today with all the authority God has given me that he desires every one of you to turn from your unbelief and come to him. He takes no pleasure in your destruction. He sincerely pleads with you to take him as your Lord and Saviour. God desires to become your Sovereign Protector and have you safe under his wings.
What does God say through Isaiah, “Look unto me and be saved all the ends of the earth for I am God and there is none else” (Isa. 45:22)? Here is an invitation. It is also a command. It is absolutely universal. No one is exempt from the invitation or the command to be saved in any part of the world. Peter in the New Testament says the same thing, that God, “is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). You say that you believe in his decree to elect a great number of people to be saved. I too believe that for that is what the Bible teaches. “Then,” you say, “that must rule out his universal longing for all to come to him.” No! You don’t appreciate the fulness and richness of the divine character. You must believe both these truths though they cannot be reconciled. That is a secret thing belonging to the Lord, but your life and the life of your church must function in terms of both, for humble looking to the God who loved you and chose you, and also this same God who desires all the people who live where you live to turn and come to know the Lord for themselves. I am saying to you that God has an ardent desire that all men and women, boys and girls here, should turn from their sins and entrust themselves to him. He pleads with them sincerely to do so and offers them his Son to be their Saviour. You are not to use God’s eternal decrees as an excuse to refuse to come to him. You come to him.
No one possesses a biblical theory that reconciles God’s decree to save his elect with his longing that all should be saved. That theory does not exist. It is a secret thing that belongs to God. We believe them both, and as we offer Christ to all men and women we believe that those on whom God’s favour rests will most certainly put their trust in him. God’s word will not return to him void. I refuse to impose some logical system or some human philosophy or man made theology on these two truths. I will not deny either one of them. I have no idea how these apparent contrary truths can be reconciled. I do not need to know the answer to that apparent antinomy, but both of them are a constant source of comfort and strength to the church and will be for ever and ever.
7th August 2011 GEOFF THOMAS