This is a copy of a sermon I recently delivered at my church.
- Isaiah 46:8-13
- Romans 9:10-24
- 2 Timothy 1:8-12
All Bible quotations are taken from the NKJV.
Quick show of hands – how many of you are disturbed hearing these passages? How many of you feel strong emotion?
In the wake of the Nepal troubles, and the wider crisis of the Middle East, we find ourselves asking, “Where is God in all this?” In conversations with unbelievers, the question of suffering frequently comes up. And, if we are honest, we are often troubled by this. In seeking to provide an answer, we find ourselves struggling with a number of concerns: we do not wish to impute evil to God; we do not wish to put people off with emotionless clichés; we do not wish to undermine the doctrine of God’s sovereignty. How do we reconcile all these things? “Free will” seems so much of a cliché nowadays, and it is often not fully explored – do we really know what we mean by it?
During my doctrinal interview at [excerpted], I was asked if we have complete free will. Many Christians would boldly say, “Yes!” in answer to that question, but I did not. I was troubled for a moment and took a pause to think on the matter. The answer I came to was, “No.” We are not permitted complete free will in our lives: God intervenes in history to prevent us from destroying ourselves – His purpose will stand. Even on a more mundane level, we take away free will from people when we imprison them to punish them for their crimes and prevent them from committing more. If this troubles you, then that is a good sign: it means you are alive. When we contemplate God’s sovereignty we are impressed with a sense of awe, we see how much greater He is than anyone or anything we could possibly imagine. This is how it should be, a god we could fully grasp would be no god at all. Only a god as great as the God of the Bible is worthy of worship.
We may not understand everything God does or permits. We have only brief glimpses of the end as He has revealed it to us in Holy Scripture, but the vision is sufficient. We must learn to “walk by faith and not by sight”, as the Apostle Paul says. This is why issues like the Second Coming and the Last Judgement held such an important place in the teaching of the Early Church. Today we seem to be split between those who obsess about them and those who want to ignore them altogether, but we must steer a middle course. The Second Coming matters because it represents the restoration of all things. When Christ comes He will put right all the evils we endure now. All those “Why?” moments we experience are answered at the Cross and the Second Coming. When the Lord raises us from the dead by His glorious life-giving power, He will wipe away every tear from our eyes. Now we say, “It is well with my soul” by faith; then we will say it by experience. Even so, “Come, Lord Jesus!”
We are God’s Elect. God chose us before the foundation of the world. In His great, unfailing love, He purposed to grant us mercy, and that His purpose might stand, He made it by election and not by works. We can do nothing to merit our salvation. You may think that Paul labours this point a great deal – but it is worth labouring. God’s glory is great. Who is like Him, sending His own precious Son to save sinners and granting them a portion of Jesus’ inheritance?
But let’s back up a moment. Show of hands – how many here find Paul difficult to understand? He is hard to understand at times. You’re not alone in thinking this – St Peter himself said the same thing. So let’s try and approach this issue step-by-step. Let’s start with works. When someone works for something, they earn their reward. They are worthy of it. What they get is payment. Likewise, any glory they receive is just, because they have laboured – it is by their skill and effort that the result has been produced.
Now let’s look at grace. Grace is unmerited favour. Grace is doing something good for someone when they have done nothing to deserve it. Our salvation falls under this category; this is how Paul talks about it. We did nothing to deserve God sending Jesus to die for us: He did it because He loves us. By rights we should be in Hell, receiving punishment for our sins. We have not earned our salvation: on the one hand, we have done evil that necessitates punishment; on the other hand, so much of the good we think we do is done for the wrong reasons.
God would not permit our salvation to be by works. If it were by works, even assuming we could achieve it, we would have the right to boast in His presence, saying “I saved myself.” Instead, God ordained salvation to be by grace. This way, God demonstrates the vastness of His love for us, because He sent His Son to die for people who did not deserve His mercy. Not only that, but glory is reserved for Jesus, who alone is worthy, because He alone worked to produce our salvation – no one else accomplished it.
Now how do God’s sovereignty and election fit into this picture? First of all, we need to understand that our salvation lay solely in God’s power and choice. We could do nothing to make Him save us and we couldn’t achieve salvation for ourselves. The only way it was going to happen was if God chose to save us and used His perfect power to achieve that result. But you might say, “Okay, but we chose to accept that salvation; receiving salvation ultimately comes down to human free will.” It is certainly true that there are verses in Scripture that make mention of us turning to God and asking for salvation. Two spring immediately to mind:
- Joel 2:32 “whoever calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved.”
- John 3:16 “that whoever believes on Him might not perish but inherit eternal life.”
But it is also true that there are verses that make mention of the fact that God chose us. Here are a few examples:
- John 6:44 “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day.”
- 1 Cor. 1:27 “But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty”
- Col. 3:12 “Therefore, as the chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering”
- 2 Thess. 2:13 “But we are bound to give thanks to God always for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God from the beginning chose you for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth”
Now let’s put this all together again and think about the implications. God chose us before the world was made to receive His salvation. He made His salvation available by grace, and not by works, in order that He might show His love for us and that Jesus might be glorified. We can trust God to perform what He has purposed to do. He is sovereign. Whatever we are going through in our lives, because our salvation is dependent on God’s grace and choice, and not on our works, we can trust Him to finish what He started and to perform all that He has purposed.
When we think about salvation and what God has done for us, Jesus should always be at the centre. He did the work necessary to save us: He who knew no sin became sin that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. Nobody forced Him to do it: He willingly chose to die in our place that we might live, and He graciously allotted us a share in His inheritance, even though we had done nothing to deserve it. That is how we should think about God’s glory: we have contributed nothing; all the glory goes to Him for proving His love to us and choosing us to receive His mercy.
So, what can you take away from this sermon? Hopefully a greater sense of Jesus’ glory and His love for us. Also, a sense of perspective on how we stand before God: He is sovereign, and His purpose of saving us stands; He is almighty to bring it to completion. You are safe in God’s loving hands. Though we don’t always understand God’s ways, by His Spirit we can know that He loves us and that He takes care of us. By faith, you must look to the restoration of all things, when Jesus reigns over all the earth.