Tuesday, May 18, 2010

God's Use of Means

It's been asked more than once: "If God has ordained everything that comes to pass, and nothing can thwart his will, then why do we still need to pray? What real difference do our prayers make?" This is a great question. If we believe that God simply reacts, waiting for our prayers to guide him in his responses, this won't present a puzzle. If we believe that God is dependent on us--on our weak and faltering efforts--to accomplish his will, then we probably won't even have considered this question. But if, through our reading of the Scriptures and our own suffering we've gained a higher view of God and of his word, then this at some point becomes of great interest. Why does a sovereign, all-powerful God ordain that his people should pray for what he's already determined will come to pass?

The reason is that God, for his own glory and purposes, chooses to use means to accomplish his will. ("Means" are not ill-tempered, cranky people!) Means, rather, are the ordained ways by which God fulfills his preordained purposes.

For example, we know that Christ has purposed to return some day. He will return no matter what. All that he has ordained to come to pass between now and then (missions, the preaching of the gospel, the perseverance of the church, the "fullness of the Gentiles" being brought in, etc.) will also come to pass, no matter what. Yet he has told us to pray for his return ("pray like this... 'Let your kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.'") He told us to pray for all that comes in between. We are to beseech the Father to send laborers into the harvest (missionaries, church planters, teachers and preachers) and to pray for the church, for her success in proclaiming and living out the gospel in the world, and to pray and work for our own sanctification, even though "it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (Philippians 2:12-13).

In his wonderful little book The Bruised Reed, Richard Sibbes offers this helpful illustration, showing that the use of means is a principle taken for granted even in civic matters: "For who, if he knew before that it would be a fruitful year, would therefore hang up his plough and neglect tillage?" In other words, if a framer could somehow see ahead and know that harvest time will bring a rich crop, he would still get his plow out in the spring to till up the ground and plant the seed. His plow and his effort and the seed are the ordained means to the certain, coming bounty.

So God, in the unsearchable riches of his wisdom and ways, has ordained that all his sovereign purposes will surely come to pass, and that they will not come to pass apart from the prayers and labors of the saints. Again in the words of Richard Sibbes, "The means that God has set apart for the effecting of any thing are included in the purpose that he has to bring that thing to pass." We can be sure that in whatever he has decreed, he will also provide the means--whether prayer, or the preaching of the gospel, or any other ordained means--to accomplish those purposes.

photos here and here

Monday, May 3, 2010

Always the Scriptures

How we need to do away with false divisions in our thinking between the work of the Spirit and the use of the Scriptures. The Lord Jesus elevated the Scriptures! Here's one example; here's how he partnered the most shivery, spine-tingling, exciting spiritual experience of all history (his resurrection!) with the use of his written testimony, the Scriptures.

After he was raised from the dead, the Lord met up with two sad and disturbed disciples of his on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-49). He asked them, "What is this conversation that you are holding with each other as you walk?" (as if he didn't know). As they sadly explained, he had a firm plan and purpose; he was about to open their minds and hearts to the very thing they had lacked in their understanding all the events they had seen so far. He was about to open up the Scriptures to them.

"Oh foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!" he began. Then, beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them "in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself." Later, after he had broken bread with them and had revealed to them who he was, they exclaimed to one another, "Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?" Tumbling over themselves with excitement they hurried to Jerusalem and Peter and the other disciples to report all these things, and when Jesus appeared to them there, their fearful disbelief melted into (ahem) joyous disbelief as they touched his real body and watched him eat real food. And these observable proofs were not what convinced. The Lord Jesus told them as their eyes were taking all this in:

"These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled." Then, the text says, "he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, 'Thus it is written...'" (Luke 24:44-46a). This was the the thing they had lacked.

It is always the Scriptures.

What our eyes have seen will never be enough. In the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), Abraham tells the rich man, suffering torment in hell, that sending Lazarus from Paradise to warn his brothers would not convince them. "They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them... if they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead" (Luke 17:29, 31). Jesus told doubtful Thomas after he had touched his resurrected body, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed" (John 20:29).

Always the Scriptures.

"Faith comes through hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ" (Romans 10:17). The Lord Jesus had disclosed that the Holy Spirit would glorify him because he would "take what is mine and declare it to you" (John 16:14). He had told them that this Holy Spirit would "not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak" (John 16:13). He told them that the Holy Spirit will be the Helper sent by the Father in Jesus' name who will "bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you." And this is just what happened after the Lord ascended; the Holy Spirit came and powerfully opened up the truth and the interpretation of Jesus' words to his disciples, so that they wrote them down into living, life-giving words. Now the Spirit does the work done by the Lord Jesus himself on the Emmaus road and with the gathered disciples: he opens up the minds and hearts of those who read and hear to understand.

Always the Scriptures!

"You have exalted above all things your name and your word" (Psalm 138:2).