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The Glory of the Forest of the Lord,
and the Nature of Sovereignty
My wife recently received as a Christmas present, a gloriously beautiful and arresting disc, a series of recordings from select, remote, varied deep inner bush sites, at dawn, dusk or atmospheric times, of many birds. They speak in their tones and their overtones, echoing in the hush of dawn, their paeans of articulation arising in stark contrast to the witch-like incantations of the crow, at times sounding its horrid base. There is a sepulchral feeling, a quietness and a concentration, with jackasses roaring in incredibly rambunctious laughter, as if in almost unbelievably large assemblies, like choristers, magpies warbling to break the heart with astonishing clarity and liquid force, and most numerous select symphonies of avine artists, now jabbering with enthusiasms, twittering with intimacy, conversing with close communication, as if it were at times not a forest, not deep bush, but a cathedral of sound, or a congregation after church.
The forest is so deep, or the bush, and one can imagine the sort of solitude where such freedom allows the vigour, the vitality and the strength of liberty which now roars, now instils, now chatters, now twitters, now converses with resonance and then releases sounds of such majestic symphony that it seems nature is exploding with uncontainable relish.
It is like that in the knowledge of the Lord. There is a certain hush, as at pre-dawn and as the light first begins to arise; there are thresholds into innermost graces, there is beauty that can only be discerned when the soul is quiet, and the heart ready. From Him are released symphonies of grace, realities of goodness, streams of liberality, communications of wisdom, exuberances of gracious thoughtfulness, cadenzas of mercy, bass notes of warning, laughter at fear and scorn of mere obstacle, times of tender lovingkindness and solace, choruses like the sound of many waters, in which the sheer majesty of the Lord makes test and challenge on this earth, like an incident in the eternity which speaks beyond it, echoing with profundity, moving with majesty.
How can one not love such a Being! and since He is the Creator of one's life, body and soul, how rich is the fellowship, and how sacred the allowance, that one should not merely meet Him, as if at the Queen's Garden Party, but know Him, and have His life in the small, simple and plain house which is one's own, as if it were some weighty matter! (Colossians 1:27).
The Lord humbles Himself to behold the things of man, His need, to care and be concerned; and though we are in one sense like old and battered cars, because of the sin which was not absent from the first (Psalm 51), since selfishness was inherent, too small a globe the focus and too little an understanding the career, yet by His Creator's concern, coach's eye, Father's heart, He pities and succours, moulds and chisels, the former what is more plastic, then the latter acting with what has no other mode of improvement. In all this, purity and love are co-partners; for His passion is to give, to complete the creation, to remove the sin, cover the shame, induce the wonders of life which are implicit, but need His own abiding, to pardon error, overcome evil and bring exuberant beauty for ashes.
Though there are crows of evil cawing, jawing their odious litanies, as if mourning without joy for what they will do, yet the beauty of holiness remains untouchable, but not inaccessible; for its deep joys are for the heart the Lord has moved, renewed and now renews further, in the giant reconstuctions of grace, ascents of power and intimacies of grace.
What a sovereign is this! The word 'sovereign' has more reference to His absolute control of His creation; but it must never be divorced from WHO He is and HOW He is working. If you say that a driver is sovereign of his car, you do not say much. He may be skilful or bucolic, thoughtful or inanely aggressive, gentle or drugged. It all depends on who he is, what is his state and how he has been brought up and into what he has brought himself.
The sovereignty of God is sometimes spoken of, as with Calvin with his decretum horribile*1, and other unbiblical aspects (despite the sheer excellence of his basic five points), as if there were some lapse in His love, some mysterious entity within Him, which moves Him if not to the irrational, at least to the movement from that love which HE IS, according to I John 4, and from which He does not turn.
To be sure, the Lord hates evil, and when the soul becomes finally enmeshed with it, and inveterately conjoined to it, then the wicked are as chaff before Him, indeed; and there is an immortal shame which becomes like the exhaust of a diesel truck, floating on the air, and seeping about with acrid aridity.
Love does not dictate.
Freedom does not lack.
The sovereignty of God does not snatch in order to impose, nor does it lack grace, in order to expose what might be gained. God is not dealing with mechano sets, in man, but with beings in His own image, and hence answerable, responsible and gifted with an independence, not absolute, but actual, which both invests life with meaning and life with pregnancy for the future. That future can when irretrievably caught in solaced sin, become a horrid exhaust; but what will not abide is indeed to be cast out. What insists on being waste gas, is not retained.
SINCE however God would have all to come to a knowledge of the truth, and to repent, it is best to believe Him, His motivation and the quality of His love; and since this is seen in the context that there is ONE GOD (the divine is there as such) and ONE MEDIATOR (the channel of communication and comeliness is there) between God and man, the man Jesus Christ, and it is in this cohesive and celestial coverage that He directs our minds to recognise that He would have all to come to the knowledge of the truth, it is useless to talk of some decretum horribilis (I Timothy 2). There is NOTHING horrible about God, nor about His decrees. The former dictates the latter.
Has He not in Christ faced the cross, and in this is it not as Titus tells us, because of His kindness to mankind; and is it not the world which He so loved that He sent His only begotten Son*2, and is it not pleasing in His sight, that having made peace by the blood of the Cross, to reconcile all things, yes all in heaven or on earth, to Himself by this means (Colossians 1)!
What is horrible about that ? What contrary and contrary decree is this which is imagined which proceeds from some unknown sovereign whose sovereignty is to compel God against His passion, His statements and His express motivation!
It is rather like speaking of the horrible decision of an employer, who having built one a house, and given one superannuation, and enquired solicitously about one's well-being and offered a salary rise, then resolves to dismiss one because one burnt down the office block. What is horrible about that! It is the burning which was horrible.
The result, in the circumstances is merely the judgment which follows mercy minimised, not by the employer, but by man. So when the mercy of God is minimised by man, is man to call a decree of final exclusion horrible, or instead speak not of a decretum horribilis divine, but a decadence into appalling horror of man.
Sovereignty in the end is the expression of what a thing is, or a person, to the extent it has independence and volition and scope, to express what it is. When it is of God that one speaks, then the sovereignty is the expression of WHO He is and the NATURE which He has in dealing with what He has created, with the decisions allied in His integrity; for all that is not God IS His creation. He does not foozle, or fumble, but knows His own mind. If this is sovereignty, what could possibly be mysterious about it. It ensures His goodness and sublimely benevolent motivation is executed with rigour. It is the decree marvellous, the decretum mirabile. In this, it is staggering, that you cannot enter hell except over Christ's dead body; and this means that He has done all with open heart, and though knowing all, has not failed to put all to the test, and to invest even what is infested with His drawing, and none is excluded except on the stated ground, known to God in its manner and cited by God in HIS manner, of John 3:19.
One must moreover always remember that it would be hell for the reprobate to enter heaven, since it is precisely their darkness preference which would then be violated!
If then you know God, then all things are in order. You can see why He dismisses some because He TELLS you; it is because the light has come, in Christ, and men have preferred darkness. Horrible, yes but exactly the opposite in the matter of God.
Does He who DECLARES HIS WILL and is almighty, then, have to suffer such language from man, when NONE can by any means fail to come to Him, who may be found, since all power and desire mixed are in operation from His sovereign hand ? Is the power inadequate ? are the words untrue ? and if this is said, is slander to become the weapon against the mercy and truth of God, under the pretence or parallel of interpretation!
There is the crow of condemnation, cawing its lugubrious song, but sovereignty is not the basis, nor any mysterious exclusion zone; for that is defined biblically. Mystery is not to be found in the love of God, except in its liberality and its grandeur. There is mystery, how it is so pure, so fervent, so patient, so deep and so discerning, equipped with such infinite wisdom, never forcing, always finding where the love rests, the ones it seeks (cf. Ephesians 3:15-20).
The idea of an induced anaesthesia which prevents man from finding God, in an orphanage where divine mercy restrains itself, even if in the befouled, sin be the inner name, as if God either lacked heart or had no hands: this is so contrary to the compassion of the Bible, that it is like some mysterious reading from some cabal of powers unknown.
To suggest a mysterious exclusion in the name of this tiresome oddity called 'sovereignty', misdefined to mean limited love acting as an exclusive agent on those not included, is to speak of something so unakin to the lustrous and amazing love of God as to make one wonder from what book the idea has come. When God, knowing those who desire Him, even when their own hearts are awry and beyond all human hand, or innate deliverance, or even those who might be found, finds them with the same diligence which sent His Son, then all constructions of exclusion zones for His love, other than what is the explicit negative preference of man in the face of His divine light, a thing read in eternity and known to infinity, whether or not known to man: this is so foreign to the Bible as to render the mystery how the idea was invented, and why (John 3:15,17,19).
To the entirety of the pleadings and principles of the Bible, which declares that God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that he should turn from his evil way and live (Ezekiel 33:11); in which Christ is seen to weep even at the judgment to come of what His love would not violate, it being enough that He had visited and solicited (Luke 19:42ff.); in His excursions into labouring for His name's sake to deliver from wrath because of foolish human inventions in the sad litanies of sin (Psalm 106 has a virtual chant of His actions to delay deserved ruin to Israel): to each part and to all of this there is no answer but to concoct a novel, and to ignore the necessities of love. Love never fails. It does not tyrannise over its objects, but neither does it fail.
In concocting novels, it is better not to attribute them to the Lord, whose name is inviolate, whose mind is His own, and whose word is stringent. His entire perfection suffers no mischiefs with His word. This merely obstructs traffic, moved by His love, and reminds one. at least in direction, of Luke 11:52.
Nor is there some racial limit. It was the world which God so loved. It is MAN as other party to God who is in view in I Timothy 2, and it is ALL THINGS in Colossians 1, which is the body concerned with the divine desire for reconciliation, even IN TERMS of the blood of the cross. Neither the scope nor the depth is in question; it is only answer!
To be sure, covenantal love, like marriage, permits a liberty and a grandeur of devotion; but it does not drain the divine reservoir of its grace and concern for all.
That grace alone is the basis of salvation is sure (Ephesians 2); that man is incapable, of in and by and of himself, making the selection of the living God is explicit (I Cor. 2:14), for however godly he would like to be, the actualities of knowing God are not to be gained from the sovereignty of sin, which is a real exclusion zone and which distorts the desire and dynamises error.
But that this is to be pushed into the very midst of express, repeated and passionate divine statement and correlative action, is the real mystery in the matter. It is God who selects, but man, not a clay model which is selected.
It is man who lacks any ground for selection in merit; but it is God who selects, not on merit in man but in the Saviour whose merits are inexhaustible. This is divinely wrought in a knowing grace which neither defoliates the reality of man in His own image, nor depends on man's ability. Love goes where it may, and seeks from God, for all. Where God sees that mercy would violate what is sought, even beyond the impelling dynamic of sin and the pathology of its mere presence, He may weep; but He does not act. It is, as Paul so sublimely states, a matter of WHOM HE FOREKNEW, those He predestinated, not vice versa. First, before all time, God who is wholly unlimited to human condition, foreknows the people who are His own. These He then sovereignly selects, since the knowledge has already taken care of the case (John 6:;65, 15:16, Romans 9:16).
Proof against all illicit appeals, as Romans makes so clear in 9:1-6, God is not proof to His own will (Romans 9:22) and contrary to His own statement; and if man seeks to oppose Him, He is demoted to ignorance. If however man would reason together, and listen and learn, the result as in Isaiah 1, moving to 1:18, is beautiful.
Sovereignty is not first; it is second, in terms of selection. Divine KNOWLEDGE is first, and the Lord knows who are His (II Timothy 2:19 cf. SMR pp. 638). However He foreknew, it is He who did it, and readily indeed can it be envisaged, though in God alone is the knowledge of its exact procedure. It is however the principle which matters, which scripture dictates and the wise must receive.
God who IS love has selected IN love, love to man as He states, to the world as He declares; and the discordant exclusive agent, on which condemnation anyway is based, when that resolution is sadly reached, that is no mystery. It is a preference, divinely discerned and indeed perceived, for ultimately impenetrable darkness (cf. Ezekiel 47:1, 10-11), amid the qualities of that illumination which is love, even in the presence of light does not obscure what it is.
Love does not impel itself where it is detested in spirit, to the ultimate; nor does it enforce itself where reciprocity is eternally excluded; nor does force make a nest for itself with robots, selected indifferently to what they are. God did not select blanks, but people. It is people whom He foreknew. Where the relevance of human preference at the final and God-discerned point is excluded, then scripture is excluded with it, since this is the stated CRITERION of exclusion. Inoperable is the human will in sin at this divine level; but it is not irrelevant to God at HIS level. Hence His citations, exhortations, lamentations and dissertations in accord with these (cf. Psalm 106, Deuteronomy 32).
It is not the character of the non-elect which deters divine salvation, nor the knowledge nor the power nor the merit; for all these things would preclude them by events over which they may have no control, and there is neither test nor hope, nor scope nor place for love in a systematic manner which would make a mockery of the divine invitations, assertions, asseverations and tender entreaties, as if He were either insincere or not sovereign, mouthing what is irrelevant and even grossly unseemly. It is scripturally, with that magnificent and unfailing precision and consistency which is found there as in no other word, the PREFERENCE of man which, being divinely assessed, is in the independence realm and that consignable to condemnation.
What then of the contrariness of contradiction of the word of God, which limits and even delimits the love of God ? Who is a man to invent another ground and talk of mystery when the actual ground is divinely declared in a way so far from mystery that the whole motivation and scope of the Cross is in view!
That Arminian formulations are also wrong is true, that meritoriously assessable human choices are explicitly excluded is true no less, that it is all of divine grace without meritorious additive or ground in the spirit of man for superiority of any kind to any other, this is no less affirmed; that the Armylandian idea of an "IF" which determines is astray is equally sure.
Thus it is divine knowledge, which has no human axis in view. It is a divine-human interchange, if not in words, then in principle, which is implied in John 3:15-19 as in all the other cases where divine implorings are met with human rejection. It is not this, "I will save you if you are willing!", since at this level, God KNOWS whose is the negative preference, and discerns past sequential investigation. The ISSUE is there, but the action is divine.
Is then the pauper superior who accepts the coin, to the one who does not ? Might not the latter have more self-reliance, independence, manliness, determination ? Yes, he might; but you do not get the coin if you fling it back in the giver's face. Could not the Lord have made all hearts so that they would never under any circumstances fling back the coin of mercy ? It would, to the contrary, have been a mere contradiction in terms.
Why is this so ? If you craft souls to a program, then they are not human, not in God's image, but projections of His will. In that case, such a being, not God but an imaginary god, would become Lord of evil, Author of iniquity and Drafter of defiance. It is merely scandalous to relate any such contrivance to the God of the Bible, since its contradiction of His revealed will, character and nature is total.
He has not so crafted hearts, nor has He planned to create a situation which is of this kind for any heart, let alone so to treat billions born in sin, for the same reason, that He deals with what despite defilement, is by nature in His image; and because His word continually pounds principles to the contrary into the mind of man, fallen though he be.
God has sliced through the tissue of the man-invented mysteries about why some are excluded from heaven, in a very decisive manner.
Firstly, He would have all; secondly, this is so in view of the blood of the cross; thirdly He would have all reconciled to Himself; fourthly, the propitiation is SUFFICIENT for all (I John 2:2), as the Bible Presbyterian Church correctly asserted when it was founded. There is no lag or lack. Fifthly, the ground of condemnation is not divine indifference or mystery, but such a view exists despite the opposite clarity from God, His so loving the world, His kindness to mankind, His reconciling movement toward "all things". Finally, so far from this being a mere algebraic type exercise, it is one adorned with weeping, lament, and appeal and exhortation to the uttermost, whether for Israel or Moab (Matthew 23:37, Jeremiah 48:35ff.).
It is one no less equipped with an exploratory, an explosive, a zestfully seeking zeal (as in Matthew 22:9ff.), where the uttermost endeavour with the greatest scope is as clear as is the limited nature of those to be found!
In what precise way God avails Himself of the final knowledge where past all contribution of man, as it would be if the thing were analytically surveyed for each person in abstraction from sin, as if an Adam: this is a matter for divine knowledge. That the answer is simple in principle is obvious, but how it is wrought in practical, in technical facility, this is not germane to our task, beyond supplying the scripturally consonant answer. This, however, is not a problem in kind, merely a question of in what precise manner God acted in foreknowing. It would be without any limits, since He has none, and time and space impose limits; and without any superiorities on the part of those chosen, since where sin is not yet present, nothing is deficient in itself, to be superior or inferior. The purpose of God in election is fulfilled apart from works of any kind, including personality contributions from its interstices and its nature (Romans 9).
It is best to be content with the word of the God who, as in the vast and appealing bushlands, fraught with liberty and beauty, expresses Himself in His inner reaches; and not to bring the tractors of philosophical convenience or imperious desire where the heart of God is. There is only one who knows it, and as to Him, vast and magnificent as He is, He has expressed it in words which are as clear as the laughter of the kookaburras, the cheeping of the parrot, the hauntingly beautiful trills of the wagtail.
He has spoken, and in His love which is immeasurable, uncontainable, but seemly and not self-assertive, He has acted. Small wonder David wanted but one thing of the Lord, that He might dwell all the days of His life in the house of the Lord, to enquire of the Lord in His temple, and to behold the beauty of the Lord...
Our Temple is Christ (Revelation 21:22, cf. I Peter 2:4ff., Hebrews 7-9), in Him the law, the offeror and the offering, from Him the light,. That any should imagine Him as some wryly contort, and so not visit the bushlands of His wonder, this would be tragic. The bushland has no fence, its inner sanctuaries are varied, with the sylvan and the splendid, having a hush behind the voices, and a splendour no building possesses. When judgment is spent, and all complete, then, and it is for a lament, then there is a wall.
The God of creation and of salvation, who sent Jesus Christ, He is to be worshipped as one alien to every dictator, more liberal than any person, people or nation, more dependable than any human construction or angelic pageantry, who loves in the heartland if you will, of the divine forest with the dawn beauty which is not soiled, and the exquisite echoes which nothing invades.
See Christ's Ineffable Peace and Grace ... Ch. 2.
The Glow of Predestination ...
Beauty of Holiness 2;
Outrageous Outages Ch 9,