3. A Question of Sovereignty

Lessons in Growth  Meditations: 3. A Question of Sovereignty

Mark 2:14  As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.

An Imaginary Conversation: I have more than a few times, as I have written these studies, thought how easily we either read or hear words without taking in the reality of what is being conveyed. I mean, take the verse above. Here is Levi a tax collector and Jesus walks up and says “Follow me,” and so he leaves his booth and goes. Too easy! If I was writing a novel I would want to enlarge what happened:

“Hullo, I’m Jesus.”

“Yes, I know I’ve heard all about you.”

“OK, well I’m looking for a band of men to train up to take over my work when I’m gone so I want you to come with me.”

“But I’ve got a job.”

“This will be a better one. Come with me.”

“Where are you going?”

“You’ll find out as you follow me.”

“What are we going to do?

“You’ll find out as you follow me.”

“When will I be fit enough to take over your job?”

“You’ll find out when you follow me.”

Varied Experiences: Maybe it was like that, maybe it was just as simple as the text shows. I find that people’s experiences of coming to Christ are like that. I had a friend who argued his way into a corner over several months before he surrendered to Christ. I have come across others who just seemed to hear the call and in all simplicity said yes. We’re all different but whether we realise it or not, we all respond to the same call.

Simplicity of Experience: If my own experience is anything to go by, it frequently isn’t a neat, concise experience but one that may have a dramatic moment, lacking by some, but even then the realities of it take a while to sink in. I had heard the gospel from the mouth of the greatest evangelist of the twentieth century and had gone home to make a decision. The extent, the depth, or the shallowness of my prayer that night is not, I believe, a measure of what was coming, but then perhaps it was. I simply prayed, never having prayed before and not knowing what one should say, “Well, God, I’ve heard it tonight and although I suspect I don’t understand half of it, all I know is if you want my life, I will say I believe in Jesus, and here is my life if you want it. Please take it. Amen.”  Or words very much like that – it is now fifty years ago! With that I climbed into bed and fell asleep.

All I can tell you is that when I woke next morning I was a totally different person. That day I was visiting a cousin and spent the day trying to convert him – with almost zero knowledge! I started going to church each Sunday, I bought a Bible and started reading it, I became involved with a youth outreach team which necessitated me moving. Within two years, somehow or other I was leading seven Bible studies a week, my desire was to share what happened with whoever would listen, and along the way I found a wonderful Christian girl who became my wife. A transformed life and it has carried on changing, as I say, for fifty years. Later this morning, I am going out for the first time to help set up a soup kitchen for the homeless. What tomorrow holds, I don’t know.

When I look back on that first prayer, the words that I do remember clearly were, “here is my life if you want it.” It was a radical surrender and, regardless of the words, we use, I believe that is at the heart of every conversion, that willingness to say, I believe, I surrender to you, please save me and take and lead my life, for all of that was in that little part of the prayer I’ve just recounted.

Who Rules? Now you may wonder where this fits in with this series. Well, in the two starting ‘studies’ I suggested that the first phase of the Christian life destined to grow, is death. We die to our old lives and at the heart of that, as my heading today indicates, it is all a matter of sovereignty – who rules, me or Him?  Now I wish it was as simple as that – and don’t believe any preacher who says it is! But it isn’t. On that night, all those years ago, my commitment was real. I had been moved, I had been convicted and all I knew was that I had to surrender – whatever that meant? – and give God my life and put my life in His hands – whatever that meant? We can only act and respond in the measure of the knowledge we have at the time. So, yes, I believe there will be this one-off initiating surrender and God knows the reality of it and impart His Holy Spirit and we are ‘born again’, but that is just the start.

I suspect there are countless times when we come to a fresh place of surrender where, one way or another, we say, “All right Lord, you win, I give in,” and that may be on a requirement to forgive, a need to give, a need to let go, or a whole range of other possibilities.  Each time we face a new challenge from the Lord or from His word, this same thing will take place; we will face the confrontation: “Follow me.” “But what will happen?” “Leave it with me.” “How will I be able to do it?” “I will enable you.”

My Need to Die: It is indeed a case of dying to my self-sovereignty. If I am to grow, it has to die, again and again and again. Now again, if my experience is anything to go by, don’t think that such decisions are split second, momentary things. I think the reality is that sometimes the Lord works on us for weeks or even years to bring changes about, and the amazing thing is that He is patient and loving – and persevering! He will get His way, because He IS sovereign. Whether it is arguing at a burning bush with a Moses, or wrestling with a Jacob through the night or re-equipping a fallen Peter, He will persevere when He sees the potential that you and I cannot see in ourselves.

More than Shallow Emotion: I’ve lost count of the number of times I have sat listening to preachers calling for “surrender” or “commitment” and I find it frustrating because unless the Holy Spirit is convicting us, it will just be an emotional response to please the preacher.  In general terms, I don’t know what it means to ‘surrender’ or ‘be committed’ (don’t be shocked). All I know is that there are times when He confronts me with a “Follow me,” and it becomes an issue, and somehow, with His grace even, I have to come to a point of conviction and saying, “OK,” and that’s it. We move on. I change. He relentlessly pursues His purposes for me and blessing follows.

You see, it took a lot of years, but I have become convinced (why did it take so long, it’s clearly there in His word???) that He has plans and purposes that perfectly fit me and they are for good – mine and for people around me – because He’s like that. When He says, “Follow me,” my intellect says, yes, that’s a good thing, but I know the truth – it’s often through a struggle and ultimately that truth is summed up in, “Will I die to my desire to be lord of my life, and let Him be instead, because He’s so much better at it than I am?” Enough!

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4. Who will respond?

Meditating on the Will of God: 4:  Who will respond?

2Pet 3:9    The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

You may be slightly surprised at the tone or direction of this set of studies on the will of God because we have been very much focusing on how people respond to God, but note that, it is how they ‘respond’ which implies that God initiates, and of course this is what the Bible shows us is the case. God is the initiator, the One who starts everything off, whether it be the act of Creation or the chase after your heart.

We have also been verging on the conversation about the sovereignty of God and whether we have free will and just how much He ‘makes’ or ‘brings about’ His desires. Our suggestion has been that He limits His desires and works within what He knows He can bring about within the human heart. In the previous study we saw that He just hardened the already hard heart of Pharaoh and confirmed him in his role as a foolish immovable sinner who was bringing about his own destruction, which he could have easily avoided.

But we would emphasise what we have just said that the Lord limits His desires and works within what He knows He can bring about within the human heart. To deny this is to deny the meaning of the words so clearly seen in Scripture. For instance, to take our verse above, observe the latter half of it: “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” This is the reason, says the apostle Peter, that the Lord appears slow in bringing judgment on sinners, because He wants to give them every opportunity to repent. As we saw in the Ezekiel verses He takes no pleasure in the death of man but would much rather they repented and were saved. But here is the point: not every sinner is saved and many go to hell when they die.

Just a quick aside here. Those who would say that God chooses who is saved by simple divine random choice imply therefore that some HAVE to be saved and others HAVE to be lost, or to take it logically further, those who go to hell, go there because God stops them coming to repentance (because they say [and we’ll look at this in a later study] repentance is a gift from God).  Now here is my problem with that. The Bible declares God IS love and in that word it implies God always wants the good, the best for every person. A God who actively stops people coming to salvation cannot be a God of love. A God who allows people to choose their destiny, even though He speaks again and again to them, is indeed a God demonstrating love.

So the truth is that not every sinner is saved, even though God would much prefer that they were, but implicit in salvation as we see it in Scripture is the need for the individual to repent, because without repentance they cannot (with their backs turned to Him) receive all His goodness. It is just logically impossible. Note this, that it is not because God doesn’t want to bless them but they refuse to receive His blessing. Just as Pharaoh refused to heed Moses’ warnings and turn to God, so the unrepentant sinner keeps his back to God and refuses the hand that is held out.

But then we come back to this matter of the Lord knowing what He can achieve with the individual. Consider the case of Nebuchadnezzar that we mentioned before. Here is an ungodly, unrighteous, self-centred sinner set in his ways. He is (unwittingly) being used by the Lord, as the prophets amply reveal, to discipline both Israel and the surrounding nations, but the Lord still holds Him accountable for his attitudes. Now the Lord could have simply had him destroyed (as had happened to Sennacherib king of Assyria – Isa 37, esp. v.37,38) but instead He does something else. The king receives a dream and Daniel interprets it: “this is the decree the Most High has issued against my lord the king: You will be driven away from people and will live with the wild animals; you will eat grass like cattle and be drenched with the dew of heaven. Seven times will pass by for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes.” (Dan4:24,25) A year later this was fulfilled: “He was driven away from people and ate grass like cattle. His body was drenched with the dew of heaven until his hair grew like the feathers of an eagle and his nails like the claws of a bird.” (Dan 4:33) His sanity was taken from him and for seven years he was an outcast until, “At the end of that time, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored. Then I praised the Most High; I honored and glorified him who lives forever.” (Dan 4:34)

The outcome of this experience was a redeemed sinner and he is able to declare, “Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humble.” (Dan 4:37)  What an amazing story! Here was a man who was every bit as violent and powerful as Pharaoh, but the Lord saw and knew the possibility with this man. Yes, God put pressure on both men but only the one repented. The Lord knows exactly what will bring us to our senses but, and the verse from 2 Peter 3 confirms this, not every one will repent. So is the gift of repentance from God the key to it? We’ll consider that in the next study. For the time being, marvel and wonder at the Lord who knows and works to bring people to Himself, and worship Him.