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Home Worship, April 26, 2020 | Grace Reformed Church

The Sovereignty of God
Isaiah 45:1-13
Romans 11:33-36
Date: 
Sunday, April 26, 2020

Preperatory: Psalm 139

O Lord, you have searched me and known me!
2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
    you discern my thoughts from afar.
3 You search out my path and my lying down
    and are acquainted with all my ways.
4 Even before a word is on my tongue,
    behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.
5 You hem me in, behind and before,
    and lay your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
    it is high; I cannot attain it.

7 Where shall I go from your Spirit?
    Or where shall I flee from your presence?
8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
    If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
9 If I take the wings of the morning
    and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
    and your right hand shall hold me.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
    and the light about me be night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
    the night is bright as the day,
    for darkness is as light with you.

13 For you formed my inward parts;
    you knitted me together in my mother's womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
    my soul knows it very well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
    intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
in your book were written, every one of them,
    the days that were formed for me,
    when as yet there was none of them.

17 How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!
    How vast is the sum of them!
18 If I would count them, they are more than the sand.
    I awake, and I am still with you.

19 Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God!
    O men of blood, depart from me!
20 They speak against you with malicious intent;
    your enemies take your name in vain.
21 Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?
    And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
22 I hate them with complete hatred;
    I count them my enemies.

23 Search me, O God, and know my heart!
    Try me and know my thoughts!
24 And see if there be any grievous way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting!

 

Prayer

Almighty God, who was and is and is to come,
Holy God, our Alpha and Omega, our beginning and our end.
We pray for the Church, the bride of the Lamb,
We pray for her joy,
                Her delight in the Lamb,
                Her faithfulness to him,
                Her purity and spotlessness in the world,

We pray for the Christian Church throughout the land,
                That it be true and faithful.

Almighty God, our Alpha and Omega, our beginning and our end,
                Who brought Israel out of Egypt,
                And sent your infant Son with Mary and Joseph
                Down into Egypt, and gave them refuge
                In the days of King Herod.
We pray for the leaders of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church,
                Support them in their ministries of encouragement
                In this nation and throughout the world,
                Particularly those who are supporting Christians
                Under persecution in the world.

Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come,
                Who has promised us a new heaven and a new earth,
We pray for our own land, faced with a pandemic.
Grant to us as a people comfort in our loneliness,

                A heart at peace with separations that have arisen,
                A heart of generosity for those who are suffering,
                In so many ways.

Almighty God, who was and is and is to come,
                King of Kings and Lord of Lords,
                To whom in the end all authority belongs,
We pray for the kings of this earth,
                The leaders of our nation
                The leaders of many other nations,
                Who this day face enormous challenges
                And fateful decisions.
Grant that the rulers of the lands
                Might provide justice among their people.

Lord God, Almighty, Everlasting, Eternal,
                Who was and is and is to come,
                In whose presence every tear will be wiped away,
                Death will be no more,
                And there will be no more mourning,
                No crying, nor pain,
                For all things will have passed away.
We pray your blessing on those who mourn,
                On those who are alone,
                On those who live in hope,
                On those who wander,
                On those who are homeless.

To you we make our prayers, Holy, Holy, Holy God,
                Who was and is and is to come,
                Claiming the intercession of him
                Who is at your right hand,
                Jesus Christ, the righteous,
Amen.

Confession: Shorter Catechism, Q&A 23-26

Q. 23. What offices doth Christ execute as our redeemer?
A. Christ, as our redeemer, executeth the offices of a prophet, of a priest, and of a king, both in his estate of humiliation and exaltation.

Q. 24. How doth Christ execute the office of a prophet?
A. Christ executeth the office of a prophet, in revealing to us, by his word and Spirit, the will of God for our salvation.

Q. 25. How doth Christ execute the office of a priest?
A. Christ executeth the office of a priest, in his once offering up of himself a sacrifice to satisfy divine justice, and reconcile us to God; and in making continual intercession for us.

Q. 26. How doth Christ execute the office of a king?
A. Christ executeth the office of a king, in subduing us to himself, in ruling and defending us, and in restraining and conquering all his and our enemies.

Hymn

 

Sermon full-text

Good morning. Lord willing this will be the last morning that we need to meet like this, through screens, and we can once again be together. I know that we’re all longing for it. There is good news to be found in the world for how the recovery is progressing, so let’s continue to be in prayer for that, and for the difficult times that are yet to come. Let’s go to the Lord in prayer as we come to his Word this morning.

Our heavenly Father, we beseech you, since all fullness of wisdom and light is found in you, that you in your mercy enlighten us by your Holy Spirit to a true understanding of your Word, and give us grace to receive it in true fear and humility. May we be taught by the Word to place our trust only in you and to serve and honor you as we ought, so that we may glorify your holy name in all our living and edify our neighbor by our good example, rendering to you the love and the obedience which faithful servants owe their masters, and children their parents, since it has pleased you graciously to receive us among the number of your servants and children. Amen.

We will continue this morning in this topical series giving an overview of Reformed Theology. If we call ourselves Reformed, we really should know what that word means. Last week we set the whole thing up by looking at one of the controlling things about this theology, and that is one of the solas, specifically sola scriptura. And that is to say that the reformers did and we continue to ourselves, use scripture, and scripture alone as our path to true knowledge of God and his wisdom. That’s all we’re ever going to use, and it’s important that that be true. Though there may be many “theologies” out there that men have described and codified, there is, in actuality, only one real theology to be had that is truly true, and it is the safe and wise thing for us to use only the means that God has provided us by which to know him to build our theology, which is to summarize, to distill what he says about himself into creeds and confessions.

So at the root of it, sometimes I actually get a little frustrated with the label “reformed theology,” or “Calvinist,” because it can put in some people’s minds the idea that this is one man’s, or a narrow group’s interpretation of scripture that we adhere to, when really it is the result of a relentless pursuit of interpreting all scripture in light of everything that scripture says itself, not one man’s opinion. So really I proclaim my theology to be reformed not because I follow a specific man or denomination, but because I am convinced through my own study of scripture that this reformed tradition, summarized the reformed creeds, that this tradition is nearer than any other, to the true knowledge of God as he has revealed himself in scripture. So I submit to you that this is not a theology centered on a person or an opinion, but it is a thoroughly biblical theology, because it is simply telling us what God says about himself.

And I also made the point last week that when we come to these truths in scripture, when we come to a truth that is clearly laid out in scripture, our opinions don’t matter. If God says something, it’s true. It overrides our sensibilities, our opinions, the opinions of the culture, even our broken concepts of fairness or justice. And I get that concept back in our minds purposely, to prepare us to consider the next point in this study, the sovereignty of God. To approach that topic, let’s read our scripture for today. We’ll begin with an Old Testament passage from the prophet Isaiah. This is Isaiah chapter 45, verses 1-13. I’ll give you a second to get there, Isaiah 45, verses 1-13. Listen, this is God’s Holy Word:

Isaiah 45:1-13

Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus,

    whose right hand I have grasped,

to subdue nations before him

    and to loose the belts of kings,

to open doors before him

    that gates may not be closed:

2 “I will go before you

    and level the exalted places,

I will break in pieces the doors of bronze

    and cut through the bars of iron,

3 I will give you the treasures of darkness

    and the hoards in secret places,

that you may know that it is I, the Lord,

    the God of Israel, who call you by your name.

4 For the sake of my servant Jacob,

    and Israel my chosen,

I call you by your name,

    I name you, though you do not know me.

5 I am the Lord, and there is no other,

    besides me there is no God;

    I equip you, though you do not know me,

6 that people may know, from the rising of the sun

    and from the west, that there is none besides me;

    I am the Lord, and there is no other.

7 I form light and create darkness;

    I make well-being and create calamity;

    I am the Lord, who does all these things.

8 “Shower, O heavens, from above,

    and let the clouds rain down righteousness;

let the earth open, that salvation and righteousness may bear fruit;

    let the earth cause them both to sprout;

    I the Lord have created it.

9 “Woe to him who strives with him who formed him,

    a pot among earthen pots!

Does the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’

    or ‘Your work has no handles’?

10 Woe to him who says to a father, ‘What are you begetting?’

    or to a woman, ‘With what are you in labor?’”

11 Thus says the Lord,

    the Holy One of Israel, and the one who formed him:

“Ask me of things to come;

    will you command me concerning my children and the work of my hands?

12 I made the earth

    and created man on it;

it was my hands that stretched out the heavens,

    and I commanded all their host.

13 I have stirred him up in righteousness,

    and I will make all his ways level;

he shall build my city

    and set my exiles free,

not for price or reward,”

    says the Lord of hosts.

And from the New Testament, and our primary text for today, from the book of Romans, chapter 11, verses 33-36. Romans 11:33-36.

Romans 11:33-36

33 Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!

34 “For who has known the mind of the Lord,

    or who has been his counselor?”

35 “Or who has given a gift to him

    that he might be repaid?”

36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.

Thanks be to God for his Word.

I’ll tell you, when I laid out this series and wrote down titles for the various sermons, I wouldn’t say it was easy, because I wanted to get the sequence right, so that each doctrine flowed naturally from the one before. But in a way, it was easy, because there are some major points of reformed theology, some succinct summaries of the doctrine that are easy to lay down. The most familiar of them are the five solas and the acronym TULIP. (And I apologize that we’re not walking through either of those five-point summaries specifically, kind of jumbling them up with each other, actually.) But all that is to say it was easy for me, several weeks ago, to write down the title for this sermon and move on. The Sovereignty of God. But as I dug down, and read, and studied, and thought about how I would bring that topic to the church today, I was struck with an extreme sense of humility. Because when you really think about the sovereignty of God, what that really means and what it entails, it can leave you feeling pretty small.

And that is precisely what is happening here to Paul in the book of Romans, at the end of chapter 11. In a way we’re approaching reformed theology from a top-down sort of structure. For Paul, this three-verse doxology (since that’s really what it is) comes at the end of an eleven-chapter exposition of theological exposition. He spent the first four chapters of the book explaining how God provided for our justification, chapters 5-8 looking at how God provides for our sanctification, and then chapters 9-11 looking at how God has worked all of that out in human history. And at the end of all that, Paul looks back at what he’s written so far in the letter he’s writing to the Romans, and he marvels. He says, “wow, look at what God has done” and more than that, he recognizes that not only is not the way that he would have done it, but it is beyond what he can even comprehend. And so he looks back at this story of history and plan of salvation that he’s just explained and he bursts into doxology, saying:

 33 Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!

He can’t help it! And in his doxology, he does more than just say “wow,” he actually pulls together a number of attributes of God that are seen throughout scripture, and puts them in one sentence. How rich and deep, he says, are God’s wisdom, and God’s knowledge. How unsearchable are his judgements and ways, or more precisely his decrees and plans. If Paul is driven to humbly marvel at all this, we certainly are too.

But this is also why I intentionally started this way, top-down like I mentioned before, or starting with the end. I’m sure you’ve seen in books, movies, or especially episodes of TV shows where they use this device to tell a story. They will start with a scene that shows some dramatic event, and it’s a little puzzling, and then they jump back in time to eight hours before and you get to see the specifics of how the story got to that place, all of the specifics that produce that situation that leads to that dramatic event. That’s kind of what we’re doing here in Romans, how I decided to go about this—start with the ending, and then look at the specifics.

So last week, I said let’s start in the right place by saying that scripture is it, that that is the only place we’re going to look for truth about God. And then looking at the end of Paul’s argument in Romans here, what he summarizes that is reflected throughout scripture, is that God is God. He is sovereign. Because if we can get on the same page on those two things—one, that scripture is the Word of God and is the only thing that can be trusted, and two, that it is clear in scripture that God is sovereign—with those two things, all of the specific reformed doctrines flow naturally and logically out of that.

You might say, good grief, Zach, of course we believe those things. We share that with just about everyone who calls themselves a Christian, don’t we? And you’re right. Many, many, many Christians, all real Protestants would affirm those two things, that scripture is true and God is sovereign. I love the way R.C. Sproul dealt with that in one of his lectures on reformed theology. He said that the doctrine of the sovereignty of God is both something common to all evangelical theologies—Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, what have you—it is common to all of them, but the doctrine is a distinctive of reformed theology. That doesn’t make sense, how can it be a part of all of those doctrines too, but be something unique in reformed theology?

It is distinctive in biblical reformed theology because reformed theology puts the sovereignty of God where it belongs, where scripture puts it. It is not a doctrine alongside other doctrines—God is loving, God is just, God is merciful, and down the line, God is sovereign—it is not just one of many doctrines, it is the controlling doctrine. And it is the controlling doctrine, because God makes it clear that he is sovereign. He is not sovereign only to a point, or sovereign over some things and chooses not to exercise sovereignty over others. Like I said, if we get this right, everything else flows naturally, it’s just details. If we can agree that God is truly sovereign over all things, if we not only acknowledge the attributes of God but also the implications of those attributes, then everything falls into place. So we have to ask ourselves, from scripture, is this a God who exercises sovereignty over all things, or is he not?

What does Paul say about God here in Romans? Is this a God who is absolutely sovereign or not? Paul says several things, identifies several attributes of God. He says that God’s knowledge is infinite. We talk of this as God’s omniscience. There is no limit to what God knows, because he is the author of it all, the creator of everything. Nothing is hidden from him. He is even the author of time, so he has known and does know all things perfectly and at the same time. There are numerous passages we can point to that support this statement by Paul, but they all stretch back to Genesis 1:1. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. He created it all.

I was watching a documentary the other day on the planets, and they were discussing each of them in turn, starting with Mercury and Venus. I’ve watched several things about planets over the years, and I’m struck by how little we actually know about them. The voiceover goes something like this: “For years, scientists assumed X about the planet, but then we sent this probe or satellite, and they were stunned to find Y and Z, and it completely upended all of the theories that the scientists had!” I think every science documentary has that line in it, many times, because there is so much that we don’t know, no matter how much we strut about and make it look like we do.

Anyway, they were talking about Venus, and because that planet has such a terrible, inhospitable environment—it has an atmosphere almost entirely carbon dioxide that sits at 864 degrees all the time, and the clouds that cover the planet are made of sulfuric acid. Nice, right? Well, the Soviets, in the late seventies and early eighties landed six probes on the surface, the most successful lasting just over two hours on the surface before dying, and through those landings we have a few grainy pictures of the surface of Venus. Amazing, to see rocks on a different world! We, in all of our human knowledge, have a few grainy pictures of that world. Yet God knows and has known every single rock, every piece of dirt, every molecule of matter on that planet, exactly where it is and how it’s being blown around. He knows. And that’s just the brightest thing in our sky. What about every other star in every other galaxy. His knowledge is infinite.

We could marvel all day at his knowledge of the physical world, but he also knows every thought that every person has or will have. Psalm 139, which I included in this service is one of the clearest expressions of the depths of God’s knowledge of us.

1 O Lord, you have searched me and known me!

2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up;

    you discern my thoughts from afar.

3 You search out my path and my lying down

    and are acquainted with all my ways.

4 Even before a word is on my tongue,

    behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.

5 You hem me in, behind and before,

    and lay your hand upon me.

And after that, after beautifully reflecting on the completeness of God’s knowledge, he puts himself in his place:

6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;

    it is high; I cannot attain it.

If reflecting on the perfect knowledge of God doesn’t produce humility in us, maybe nothing will!

I like the way Arthur Pink wrote about God’s knowledge:

“He knows everything; everything possible, everything actual; all events, all creatures, of the past, the present, and the future. He is perfectly acquainted with every detail in the life of every being in heaven, in earth, and in hell…. Nothing escapes his notice, nothing can be hidden from him, nothing is forgotten by him.”

And to add to it, just as Paul does in our passage, A. W. Tozer made the point:

“God cannot learn. Could God at any time or in any manner receive into his mind knowledge that he did not possess and had not possessed from eternity, he would be imperfect and less than himself.”

It’s just what Paul says in Romans 11:34, in our passage: “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” God cannot receive counsel, or learn something, or passively watch the world go by wondering what’s going to happen next. There is nothing about the creation, or the story of history, that is dependent on us, on his creatures. He said as much in the passage from Isaiah that we read:

I call you by your name,

    I name you, though you do not know me.

5 I am the Lord, and there is no other,

    besides me there is no God;

    I equip you, though you do not know me,

6 that people may know, from the rising of the sun

    and from the west, that there is none besides me;

    I am the Lord, and there is no other.

We could go on for days exploring passages that show the perfection and completeness of God’s knowledge, and since we can, and since it’s biblical, it is a truth that we must accept, with all of its consequences. Nothing happens without his direction, without his plan, without his will. The perfect knowledge of God expressed by Paul leads right to the rest of the attributes he lists. Not only is God’s knowledge perfect and infinite, so is his wisdom. And because his wisdom is perfect, his decrees are perfect, and his plans are perfect. And because his plans are perfect, we are blessed to have the confidence that “all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

Many are willing to say, and do say that God is sovereign, but he chooses for some things, not to exercise his sovereignty, specifically my free will. I submit to you that that is impossible, because then God would not be God, and his promises would not be promises. R. C. Sproul said it this way:

“If there is one molecule in the universe running loos, outside of the control of God’s sovereignty, one maverick molecule, then we have guarantee whatsoever that any future promise God has made to his people will come to pass.”

If anything in the future is dependent on me, on my will, if the story only progresses where I, and each one of us leads, we can’t depend on God’s promises. Thankfully, everything we read here in Romans and the rest of scripture tells us that God is sovereign, he is working everything according to his will, how he planned it before time, a product of his infinite wisdom.

The Westminster Confession says it beautifully and succinctly in chapter three, titled Of God’s Eternal Decree:

“God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass.”

That statement is the necessary conclusion of rightly understanding and confessing that God is sovereign, that God ordained, before time began, the entire story. So it’s not our place to question that, it’s our place to marvel at it, to let it bow our heads, to let that truth produce in us the humility it should. How big is your God? Have we traded in our minds an idea of God as he is for an idea of something lesser? If so, we should change our minds, so that we can confess with Paul, that

“from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.”

Let’s pray.

Heavenly Father,

Words fail. How unsearchable is your purpose, your will, your knowledge. We can try to bring you glory with our words, but you are truly indescribable, which makes it all the more amazing, and humbling, that you would stoop to us, pluck our dead bodies out of the mire of our sin and breathe new life in us. Thank you for revealing yourself as completely sovereign, because we know that if we were actually sovereign over any parts of our lives, there would be no hope for us. Help us to always and ever pray as Jesus taught us that not ours, but your will be done, because it is a perfect will. Thank you for the precious gift of your Son, in whose name we pray, amen.

 

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