Thursday, January 12, 2012

God's Sovereignty

N.T. Wright stated something in his book Simply Jesus that I thought was quite profound. Christians talk about how Jesus is Lord, how God is in control and sovereign, but there is plenty of evidence in the world that seems to point to the contrary. "If Jesus is Lord and God is control," the skeptic might ask, "then why Katrina? Why AIDS? Why genocide? The world sure doesn't look like a place where God is King."
The story of Jesus's resurrection and his going into "heaven" are only the beginning of something new, something that will be completed one day, but that none of the early Christians supposed had been fully accomplished yet.

The early Christians were, after all, a small minority, staking their daring and apparently crazy claim about Jesus from a position of great weakness and vulnerability. They were a threat to the established order.... But their threat to the present world was not of the usual kind. They were not ordinary revolutionaries, ready to take up arms to overthrow an existing regime and establish their own instead. Celebrating Jesus as the world's rightful king...was indeed a way of posing a challenge to Caesar and all other earthly "lords." But it was a different sort of challenge. It was not only the announcement of Jesus as the true king, albeit still the king-in-waiting, but the announcement of him as the true sort of king. Addressing the ambitious pair James and John, he put it like this: "Pagan rulers...lord it over their subjects. ...But that's not how it's to be with you" (Matt. 20:25-26). And, as he said to Pilate, the kingdoms that are characteristic of "this world" make their way by violence, but his sort of kingdom doesn't do that (John 18:36). We all know the irony of empires that offer people peace, prosperity, freedom, and justice--and kill tens of thousands of people to make the point. Jesus's kingdom isn't like that. With him, the irony works the other way round. Jesus's death and his followers' suffering are the means by which his peace, freedom, and justice come to birth on earth as in heaven.

Jesus's kingdom must come, then, by the means that correspond to the message. It's no good announcing love and peace if you make angry, violent war to achieve it!
That's a long quote, but he's saying simply this: The cross of Jesus characterizes the rule of Jesus. His rule and reign is spread, not through violence or war, but through proclamation and agape love. In fact, Christianity grows best when it is oppressed and persecuted--in other words, when the powers of the world do to his followers what they did to Jesus.

Now, here's the point I want to make, and this applies to many Christians, particularly to those who are Reformed. The cross of Jesus replaces everything we thought we knew about what it means for God to be "sovereign" and "in control". The iron scepter that Isaiah talked about, the one by which the Messiah would rule, turned out to be the two wooden beams on which the Messiah was crucified. The sovereignty of God is most clearly visible at the cross, where the Son of God was murdered by Roman soldiers under the command of the Roman Governor, Pilate, and at the behest of the Jewish leaders. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians, the strength of God looks like weakness to human eyes.

If you don't perceive God's sovereignty through the lens of the cross, then you fail to perceive it at all. God does not rule with an iron fist, like a great army general; he rules like a sacrificial lamb. The rule and reign of Jesus the King is extended, on earth, through the same means by which it was inaugurated--self-giving, life-losing love. That love, the agape love of the cross, is the one force on earth that no king or general or president can ever stamp out!


Jacob said...

I agree that the kingdom of God is spread through the proclamation of the gospel and the self-sacrificing love of Jesus' disciples. I also agree that the authority of the kingdom of God is manifest in the world through service and self-sacrifice. I would probably take issue with the idea that Isaiah's rod of iron turned out to be two wooden beams, since there very much appears to be a "not yet" aspect to that - Rev. 2:27; Rev. 12:5; Rev 19:15.

However, that doesn't fully address the question of what way it is true to say that God is sovereign and in control of all things. If I tried to come up with an answer, it would probably end up sounding something like this (I realize that I expose myself to all sorts of ridicule in doing this, but it's hard to be much more concise and well-stated):

"3.I. God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.

3.II. Although God knows whatsoever may or can come to pass upon all supposed conditions; yet has He not decreed anything because He foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions.

3.III. By the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life; and others foreordained to everlasting death.

3.IV. These angels and men, thus predestinated, and foreordained, are particularly and unchangeably designed, and their number so certain and definite, that it cannot be either increased or diminished.

3.V. Those of mankind that are predestinated unto life, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to His eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of His will, has chosen, in Christ, unto everlasting glory, out of His mere free grace and love, without any foresight of faith, or good works, or perseverance in either of them, or any other thing in the creature, as conditions, or causes moving Him thereunto; and all to the praise of His glorious grace.

3.VI. As God has appointed the elect unto glory, so has He, by the eternal and most free purpose of His will, foreordained all the means thereunto. Wherefore, they who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ, are effectually called unto faith in Christ by His Spirit working in due season, are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by His power, through faith, unto salvation. Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only.

3.VII. The rest of mankind God was pleased, according to the unsearchable counsel of His own will, whereby He extends or withholds mercy, as He pleases, for the glory of His sovereign power over His creatures, to pass by; and to ordain them to dishonor and wrath for their sin, to the praise of His glorious justice.

3.VIII. The doctrine of this high mystery of predestination is to be handled with special prudence and care, that men, attending the will of God revealed in His Word, and yielding obedience thereunto, may, from the certainty of their effectual vocation, be assured of their eternal election. So shall this doctrine afford matter of praise, reverence, and admiration of God; and of humility, diligence, and abundant consolation to all that sincerely obey the Gospel."
(WCF 3.1-8)

Jacob said...

And also (I promise that's the last time :-), I don't want to troll your blog, but it is an important question)...

"5.I. God the great Creator of all things does uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by His most wise and holy providence, according to His infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of His own will, to the praise of the glory of His wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy.

5.II. Although, in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first Cause, all things come to pass immutably, and infallibly; yet, by the same providence, He orders them to fall out, according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently.

5.III. God, in His ordinary providence, makes use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them, at His pleasure.

5.IV. The almighty power, unsearchable wisdom, and infinite goodness of God so far manifest themselves in His providence, that it extends itself even to the first fall, and all other sins of angels and men; and that not by a bare permission, but such as has joined with it a most wise and powerful bounding, and otherwise ordering, and governing of them, in a manifold dispensation, to His own holy ends; yet so, as the sinfulness thereof proceeds only from the creature, and not from God, who, being most holy and righteous, neither is nor can be the author or approver of sin.

5.V. The most wise, righteous, and gracious God does oftentimes leave, for a season, His own children to manifold temptations, and the corruption of their own hearts, to chastise them for their former sins, or to discover unto them the hidden strength of corruption and deceitfulness of their hearts, that they may be humbled; and, to raise them to a more close and constant dependence for their support upon Himself, and to make them more watchful against all future occasions of sin, and for sundry other just and holy ends.

5.VI. As for those wicked and ungodly men whom God, as a righteous Judge, for former sins, does blind and harden, from them He not only withholds His grace whereby they might have been enlightened in their understandings, and wrought upon in their hearts; but sometimes also withdraws the gifts which they had, and exposes them to such objects as their corruption makes occasion of sin; and, withal, gives them over to their own lusts, the temptations of the world, and the power of Satan, whereby it comes to pass that they harden themselves, even under those means which God uses for the softening of others.

5.VII. As the providence of God does, in general, reach to all creatures; so, after a most special manner, it takes care of His Church, and disposes all things to the good thereof."
(WCF 5.1-7)