The Sovereignty Of God In Providence
God Punishes The Very People He Uses
To Accomplish His Purposes
This fourth principle is one of the most difficult. God actually punishes the very people that He used to accomplish His plan when those people do what they did with a wrong motive and with no thought of God.
Look again at Isaiah ten:
"When the Lord has finished all his work against Mount Zion and Jerusalem, he will say, "I will punish the King of Assyria for the willful pride of his heart and the haughty look in his eye. For he says, `By the strength of my hand I have done this, and by my wisdom, because I have understanding. I removed the boundaries of the nations; I plundered their treasures; like a mighty one I subdued their kings.'" Isa. 10:12,13
You can feel the arrogant unbelief and self-sufficiency of the Assyrian. He really believes that he has accomplished everything by his own wisdom and strength. He has no thought of God nor does he acknowledge God in any way. If we were to tell him the truth of what was happening, he would probably burst out laughing, and then kill us for daring to infer there was a Person stronger than himself. The next verse really shows his conceit:
"As one reaches into a nest, so my hands reached for the wealth of the nations; as men gathered abandoned eggs, so I gathered all the countries; not one flapped a wing or opened its mouth to chirp." Isa. 10:14
Here the pompous king compares himself to a man robbing the nests of helpless birds. He can laugh at the armies and navies of any and all nations because of his superior strength. Everyone is too afraid to even open his mouth and protest, let alone actually try to stop him. Ah, but wait a moment and listen to Someone else speaking. Listen to God tell why the invasion of Israel took place and what is now going to happen to the Assyrian. In verses 5 and 6 God said He would use the Assyrian to punish Israel. In verse 12 God repeats that He had indeed used the Assyrian, but then God adds, "I will punish the King of Assyria for the wilful pride of his heart..." God will now deal with the Assyrian for what he did! Verse 15 tells us why God is angry with the Assyrian, even though the Assyrian has just (unknowingly) completed a job that has been assigned by God. Let these words sink into your mind and heart regardless of what they do to your sentimental theology:
Does the ax raise itself above him who swings it [Who is the ax, and who is swinging the ax in these verses?], or the saw boast against him that uses it [Who is the saw and who is doing the sawing]? As if a rod [the Assyrian] were to wield him who lifts it up [Can the Assyrian control God or alter His purposes?], or a club brandish him who is not wood! [Does a man use, control, or in any way thwart God's actions or purposes?] Isa. 10:15
Cut that verse any way you want and it always comes out the same way. God moved and used the Assyrian to accomplish His plans of judgment, and then He punished the Assyrian for what he did simply because he did it with the wrong motive and with no thought of God at all. Does it sound unfair for God to use people and then punish them for what they do? The failure to see this truth is one of the primary reasons that untaught Christians have such difficulty in believing the absolute sovereignty of God. They totally confuse the so-called "free will" of man with the Biblical doctrine of the "free agency" of man. In their confused minds they think there are only two choices. (1) Either man is totally free [even God's power is limited by man's sovereign will], or else (2) man is a robot [God's sovereignty somehow (?) eliminates man's need to make right choices] and therefore cannot be held responsible for his actions.
God is Sovereign - Man is Responsible
These passages of Scripture that we are discussing will help you realize that both of the above options are false. The Word of God, from beginning to end, teaches that God is absolutely sovereign and controls everybody and everything as He works out His own foreordained purpose and plan. However, the same Bible also teaches that every human being is 100 percent responsible for every one of his actions. Our little pea-brains may balk at that and say, "This is a contradiction!" but the Scripture declares both of these things to be true. Whether I understand either, both, or neither of these Biblical facts, they are still both true simply because God revealed them both in His Word. God is absolutely sovereign and will accomplish every part of His ordained plan; and man is totally responsible for every thought, word, and deed.
Does Isaiah 10:5,6,12 explicitly say that God controlled and sent the Assyrian to invade and punish Israel? Do verses 7-11,15 declare that the Assyrian did what he did out of his own wicked heart and arrogant pride? Do verses 12 and 15 emphatically teach that God is going to deliberately punish the Assyrian for what he did in spite of the fact that what the Assyrian did was ordained and brought to pass by God's power and control?
Let us look at some other texts that teach this same truth. Acts 2:23 is a classic verse that brings together the decrees of a sovereign God and the free acts of responsible creatures. In verse 22 Peter reminds the Jews that Christ had all of the credentials to prove that He was indeed the promised Messiah. Then we read these words: "Him, being delivered by the determinate council and foreknowledge of God.... Acts 2:23a
The N.I.V. puts it like this:
"This man was handed over to you by God's set purpose and foreknowledge..."
Can you imagine some of the very Jews that several weeks before had cried out, "Crucify Him, crucify Him!" hearing Peter attribute the whole event of Calvary to God's absolute sovereign purposes? Those men would have been ready to heave a sigh of relief and say, "We thought that we were guilty and responsible for the death of Jesus, but now we realize that we are not. It was God and not us." They would love to get the monkey of responsibility for that awful event off their backs. Unfortunately, that is exactly what Arminian theology would allow them to do. However, notice the rest of the verse:
". . . ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain [Him]. . ." Acts 2:23b
Peter says, "True, it was God's sovereign purpose to have Christ crucified, but that in no way excuses you! You acted out of the hatred of your hearts and His blood is on your heads!" My dear reader, words cannot be more clear. The verse shows that God used wicked men to accomplish His sovereign decrees, and then held those very men responsible for their wicked deeds. We may not understand how these two things can both be true, but we cannot deny that the Word of God declares them both to be true. Hyper-Calvinism may deny the one and Arminianism may deny the other, but we will believe and preach them both.
God's Decrees and Man's "free-will"
Let me give you this truth in a classic statement from one of the Puritans. "What God sovereignly decrees in eternity, man will always demand in time." Man's "free will" will always freely choose the very thing that God has sovereignly ordained and God's purpose will be fulfilled; just as surely, man will be responsible for his every act of sin. I know of no passage that sets forth this truth as clearly as Matthew 27. The whole chapter is loaded with vain attempts by men to deny personal responsibility. First, Judas tried to deny his responsibility for the death of Christ by pleading Christ's innocence and giving the thirty pieces of silver back to the chief priests and elders. They, in turn, replied, "What is that to us? That was your responsibility." Was it not their duty to be certain that Christ was, indeed, guilty and worthy of death? Certainly it was!
The story of Jesus before Pilate portrays one of the worst wimps in history. Pilate knew beyond question that Jesus was innocent and yet he deliberately distorted and destroyed law and justice in punishing Him. He then tried to absolve himself from responsibility. However, Matthew makes it clear that this whole event took place because Pilate went along with the "free will" choice of the crowd. Remember, they had the power and authority to choose anybody that they wanted to choose to be released. It was entirely up to them. Notice carefully the words of the text:
"Now at that feast the Governor was wont to release unto the people a prisoner, whom they would." Mt. 27:15 (The N.I.V. says, ". . . a prisoner chosen by the crowd.")
The choice was left entirely up to the "free-will" of the crowd, and the crowd knowingly and deliberately chose a guilty, "notorious" criminal named Barabbas. Over the protests of his wife, his conscience, and both Roman and Hebrew law, Pilate refused to stop the injustice. He caved in to the cry of the mob. When asked what they wanted done with "Jesus who is called Christ," the crowd screamed in unison, "Crucify Him!" Pilate tried every trick in the book to get the crowd to change its mind, but he only managed to make them shout louder, "Crucify him!"
Guilty Because Totally "Free"
Finally Pilate tried to deny his personal responsibility by washing his hands in front of the crowd. He said, "I am innocent of this man's blood. It is your responsibility." The people responded without hesitation and gladly took responsibility for the whole thing. They answered in defiance, "Let his blood be on us and on our children!" Could anybody be guiltier and more responsible for their acts, than that crowd was? Did anyone ever fulfill in more detail (although totally unknowingly) the secret purposes of God, better than Pilate and that mob did?
Listen very carefully to two simple questions and their clear answers from the verses in Matthew 27. (1) Exactly what did God Almighty eternally decree would happen to His Son? That He would be crucified! Exactly what did that mad crowd vehemently demand to take place? The crucifixion of Christ! What God sovereignly decrees in eternity, man will freely choose in time. (2) What is the only thing that will satisfy the character of a holy God? The shed blood of Jesus Christ! What is the only thing that would satisfy the hate and passion of that crowd? The shed blood of Jesus Christ! What God sovereignly ordains in eternity, man will choose by his own free will in time.
Perhaps an illustration will help us to understand this point. A switchman for the railroad is responsible for throwing a switch that changes the tracks upon which two trains are running. Suppose he got drunk, went to sleep and did not throw the switch when he was supposed to and the two trains collided and over 100 people were killed. Could the man justly be accused of murder? I think we would all agree. However, suppose, totally unbeknown to the drunken man, a flash flood had washed out a bridge. Now, because the man was drunk and did not throw the switch, and also because the bridge was washed out, a terrible train crash was avoided. Would it now be just to reward the man for being drunk and not throwing the switch since his behaviour averted an accident?
Now think clearly. Which time was the switchman the most guilty? When his sinful action caused a wreck or when the same action averted a wreck? The answer is simple. If you judged the man solely on the ground of his duty, or responsibility, then he was just as guilty both times. God may use the worst of sins to accomplish great good, but He still holds the individual responsible for the sin. The Chaldeans, the Assyrians, and the rebels who crucified Christ are proof of this fact. We are not responsible for the results of what God does with our acts; we are totally responsible for the acts themselves. That, and that alone, will be the basis upon which God will deal with us.
Before going on to the next principle, let me emphasize the practical effect that the point under discussion should have in our personal life. We must never feel that we are "pawns" or "victims" of the ungodly. We should always see the hand of our heavenly Father controlling all things. If the wicked prevail, it is only because God has purposed to use it for His own glory and for our good.
In the forty years that I have been in the ministry, I have nearly always been able to get along with the leaders with whom I have worked. Until recently, there was only one exception to that. I worked with one particular deacon that literally hated me; I think he would have killed me if he could have gotten away with it. I used to call him "Shimei" (but only when my wife and I were talking). I am sure you remember Shimei. As David was fleeing for his life after Absalom had taken over the kingdom, Shimei cursed David and said, "You bloody man, you are getting what you deserve." One of David's men wanted to "silence Shimei's tongue forever," but David said, "If God wants me to be cursed, so be it." David recognized the hand of God.
My deacon friend was like Shimei. When he was on the board of deacons, he would magnify every single bad thing and overlook every good thing. He hounded me to death. The strange part is that he did more to help me be a better pastor than any other deacon with whom I ever served. You see, when he was on the board, I always made sure that I did everything (down to the smallest detail) that I was supposed to do. I have a tendency to leave things until the last minute and then I miss some "small details." I didn't miss anything when "Shimei" was on the board. I came to the place that I could honestly thank God for that man. I believe God knew that I needed some "help", and he sent Shimei along to "help" me be a better pastor. I also knew that God was going to punish that man for all the "help" that he gave me!
Punished for "helping God"
Do you see the point? All that the man did, he did out of hatred for me. He was not motivated by love to God or true concern for the church. He was after me! However, God used him to help me, by the very fact that he forced me to take care of details. As believers, we can be sure that everyone is under God's control. When we pray for Him to teach us something, He often answers by sending the people into our lives that can accomplish that task. If we rebel against His "teachers," then we are really rebelling against God. Far too often we would like to pick both the teacher and the study course; but when we do, we never learn the lessons which are necessary. God sends the people that do the job.