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God Rules! - Part 1

Tom Pennington James 4:13-17


Well I invite you to take your Bibles this morning and turn back to the letter of James, the twelve tribes scattered abroad. James has been a wonderful study for me, I trust for you as well. And this morning we come to the fourth, the end of the fourth chapter of this letter.

This week I was thinking about the fact that it is amazing really, the profundity of the Holy Spirit, how in a simple phrase that at first glance seem so clear and obvious and so basic there can be such great depth and profundity. One such phrase to me is in Romans 12:2 where almost in passing Paul gives us this profound exhortation. He says, "Do not be conformed to this world." There are a lot of fascinating Greek words in that command. Literally, what the apostle says is this, "Don't allow the mindset of your age to conform you to its mold." Don't allow the mindset, the way of thinking of the time period in which you live to force you into its mold. The Apostle Paul was deeply concerned that the thinking of the culture in which we live would influence our own.

You see there is a constant battle going on for our minds. God the Holy Spirit using His word according to Romans 12 wants to renew our thinking. And in the renewed thinking we will experience a "metamorphosis", that's the Greek word he uses, a radical transformation as our thinking is changed. Unfortunately, we are all too influenced by the thinking or the mindset of the world in which we live, and we need the Scripture to renew our minds. We hear the world's thinking and its mindset from our youth, and we're assaulted by it every day, and so often we're influenced by it. It's a very real problem. One clear example of this concerns the issue of what causes the events and circumstances of our lives? What lies behind our decisions and our actions? You may not even be aware of this, but you have probably been influenced by one or more of the common philosophies of our age and you may not even be aware of it, but it's still a reality.

Let me see if I can illustrate it for you. You see when it comes to explaining what lies behind our decisions and our actions, our circumstances, there are four primary perspectives in the world today. Four primary philosophies of exactly how our decisions and how our actions occur.

The first is called "naturalistic determinism, naturalistic determinism". This philosophy says we do what we do because of natural processes. Nature or the laws of nature determine what happens to us. You're probably familiar with the name B F Skinner. B F Skinner wrote that "all human behavior is completely controlled by genetic and environmental factors." In other words, we are simply the product of our genetic code and of the circumstance, or the atmosphere, or the environment in which we live. Out of this philosophy you'll hear things like this. Oh listen, he can't help it that's just the way he is. You'll hear, well you know his environment caused him to be the way he is. It's his home that he grew up in, that shaped him, and he can't help who he has become as a result of that shaping influence in his life.

A second common philosophy of why we do what we do and why the circumstances of our lives are the way they are is "fatalism or determinism". This says that all of the events and circumstances in our lives come from fate. Every event including human thinking and action is determined by an unbroken chain of prior events. In other words, you would say this. All of the actions that occurred in the past (before us) have unalterably determined every detail about our lives and there's absolutely nothing you and I can do to change it. We are a product of the past. This philosophy too permeates our culture. It's most popular expression as in the vulgar expression pasted on bumpers and T-shirts. Expressions like, "expletive happens" or "Life is an expletive, and then you die." Basically, this is a philosophy that says you're locked into this path you're on by past events, and there's nothing you can do to change or correct it.

A third philosophy that permeates the culture today is called "causalism". This philosophy says that the circumstances of our lives happen by random chance. My life is the result of random events strung together only by mere mathematical probability. Life is inherently random. You remember that for a number of years in the past (after some strange event occurred) it was common to hear somebody say, "Well that was random." This is an old philosophy; it's certainly not a new one. In fact, if you go all the way back to 1 Samuel 6 you discover that the Philistines bought into this philosophy. You remember, they'd captured the ark, and because they'd captured the ark there was a plague that had come upon them and they're trying to determine whether there's any connection between the plague and having the ark of Israel in their midst. And so, they concoct this plan, they say alright, let's put the ark on a new cart pulled by two cows, let it go, and see what happens. First Samuel 6:9, they say,

"Watch, if it goes up by the way of its own territory then the Lord has done us this great evil." [Yahweh has.] "But if not, then we will know that it was not His hand that struck us; it happened to us by chance."

Today the most far reaching example of this philosophy is the "theory of evolution". It's random, it just happened by a set of random unlikely mathematical probabilities. But folks, chance can do nothing. It cannot cause anything because it doesn't exist. Chance is only mathematical probability. It has no power to do anything.

There's a fourth philosophy that deals with the question of the cause of events and circumstances in our lives, and it's by far the most common and the most popular today. It is "self-determinism, self-determinism". This philosophy says my life is solely the result of my own will and my own decisions. I am in control. I am the master of my destiny. I am the captain of my faith. The mantra of this philosophy (and you hear it so often everywhere in every context) is "you can be whatever you want to be." To will it is to make it so. In this world view, self-confidence is the greatest virtue. If you believe enough in yourself, if you have sufficient self-esteem then there's no limit to your potential. You can be whatever you want to be.

Culture preaches this at us day after day after day and by nature this last perspective is what most people want to believe; because we want to be or at least we want to seem to be to believe to be in control of our lives and our circumstances. But it's dead wrong. And it's this common philosophy of self determinism, this sad elusion that you and I really are in control that James unmasks in the last five verses of the fourth chapter of his letter. Let me read you these verses; you follow along, James 4:13.

Come now, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make profit." Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. Instead, you ought to say, "If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that." But as it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil. Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin."

Now the theme of those five verses is acknowledging and submitting to God's control over our lives. It is a recognition of the supremacy of God in the details of life. You see Scripture thunders against all pagan philosophies with the declaration that there is a God in heaven who rules over the affairs and circumstances of men. You see instead of by nature, or by fate, or by chance or by your own will Scripture teaches that the events and circumstances of my life and yours come to us by order from the throne of God. God is in control. Although I'm responsible for the decisions I make and for the sins that I choose to commit, my life and every detail of it is under the control of a sovereign God.

And that is the response that is so foundational to the Christian life and experience. In fact, it is a foundational Christian response to acknowledge and to submit to God's rule over the circumstances of life, and that is the very response that James' is calling for here in these verses: to acknowledge God's control over every facet of your life and to gladly willingly accept what He brings.

Now to help us understand the key issues in this text and to make sure that we respond appropriately what I want us do this morning and Lord willing next Sunday morning, is I want us to break James' exhortation here into three components, or three parts.

The first component, and the one that I want us to examine today is this. Let's look at the underlying truth of God's rule; the underlying truth of God's rule. You see James is writing these words, these five verses to a group of Jewish Christians that he knew and that he knew very well. In fact, he had been their pastor for at least ten years before the persecution of Acts 12 arose and they'd been driven out of their homes into Asia Minor.

And so, for all of those years, for that ten-year period at least, he had taught these people the Old Testament. Remember James, the book we're studying was probably the first book in our New Testament that was written, so James (as the pastor of the church in Jerusalem) taught them the Old Testament through the lens of what he had learned from his older brother and his Lord, Jesus Christ. And this is very important to understand when we come to these verses today because James knows what these people know.

And because he knows what they know, he doesn't need to cover that ground again. He can simply pick up with his application which is essentially what he does in these five verses. But behind this paragraph is a huge body of Old Testament doctrine which James doesn't directly teach because his readers already knew it. They had already been taught. They already understood it.

We, on the other hand, cannot assume that we have the same knowledge or the same field of experience that they did. So, we need instead to carefully look at the Old Testament truths that lie behind and inform James' comments in these verses. We're not ready to come to his application until we understand the teaching that lies behind it.

You see in this paragraph there are two great principles. Two great truths that are work their way out in the Old Testament and that these people would have known. Truth number one is you are not in control. And truth number two is God is. God is in control of absolutely every circumstance in our lives. By the way as we'll learn more next week, this is not an excuse for sin, this is not an excuse for laziness or complacency. God holds us responsible to be wise to make good decisions, to refuse sin and to pursue righteousness. But none of that in any way changes this core reality. God rules.

We often speak of this reality with the word "sovereignty". Sovereignty is a great word. But like any word we use often, if we're not careful we can sort of lose a grip on what it really means. It can sort of muddy out and become a floating fog in our minds as to what the word itself means. When we say that God is sovereign, we mean that God exercises absolute control. Or we could put it this way, God's control of your life and mine is perfect, total, comprehensive, exhaustive, undiluted, unqualified, unquestioned, unhampered, unlimited, autocratic, supreme, ultimate, infinite. That's what we mean when we say God is sovereign. He is King. He is Master. He is Lord. And the readers of James' letter would have understood these truths because the Old Testament rehearses this perspective of God's sovereign control over His creation over and over again.

In Psalm 103:19 we read, "The Lord has established His throne in the heavens, and His sovereignty rules over all." Psalm 115:3, "Our God is in the heavens and He does whatever He pleases." Psalm 135:6, "Whatever the Lord pleases, He does, in heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deeps." Isaiah in his prophecy in 46:10-11 says,

… "My purpose will be established, And I will accomplish all My good pleasure; … Truly I have spoken; truly I will bring it to pass. I have planned it, surely I will do it."

Listen do you understand how important this truth of God's absolute control over human activity really is? You see the Old Testament saw this as the very cornerstone of the person and character of God. This is at the heart of what it means to be God. The doctrine of God's sovereignty (or His providence) is foundational because if God isn't in charge then He isn't God. To be God is by definition to be in control, to be sovereign. And if He is God then the Westminster Divines correctly understood the Scripture when they wrote this shortly after the Reformation. "God from all eternity did by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will freely and unchangeably ordained whatsoever comes to pass." That's exactly what the Scriptures teach.

Now when we speak of sovereignty there's another nuance that's closely related. Closely related to sovereignty is "providence". Sovereign is what God is. Providence is what He does. Sovereignty argues that He's absolutely in control and providence tells us how that absolute rule works itself out in your life and in mine in every circumstance and every event. You see the readers of James would have understood this, that in the Old Testament they learned that God controls everything to ensure that all the purposes for which He created them are, in fact, accomplished.

Turn with me to Isaiah 14. And all of this as you understand is preliminary for our really looking in detail in James 4:13 - 17 next week. But you need to understand what they understood, and that's where I'm taking you today. Isaiah 14, here Isaiah issues a prophecy against the great nation Assyria, the empire of Assyria. In verse 24 it says this,

The LORD of hosts has sworn saying, "Surely, just as I have intended so it has happened, and just as I have planned so it will stand," [then he goes on to describe what he's going to do; he says I'm going] "to break Assyria in My land, and I will trample him on My mountains. Then his yoke will be removed from them and his burden removed from their shoulder."

He's saying, (I'm going to deal), I let Assyria deal with the northern tribes, take them into captivity, but I'm going to deal with Assyria in My way and in My time. Verse 26,

"This is the plan devised against the whole earth;" [Here He broadens His perspective not merely to the judgment on Assyria, but to the reality that there is a coming judgment against the entire earth.] "and this is the hand that is stretched out against all the nations." [ Now watch verse 27] "For the LORD of armies has planned, and who can frustrate it? And as for His stretched-out hand, who can turn it back?"

God wants us to understand and to know that He will accomplish His purposes in the earth. Nebuchadnezzar came to this understanding in Daniel 4:35, he said, "… [God] does according to His will in the host of heaven And among the inhabitants of earth; and no one can ward off His hand Or say to Him, 'What have you done?'"

We understand this in our lives. There are many circumstances that we have faced that are clearly out of our control brought upon us by the hand of providence. But how, specifically, does God's providence intersect with our individual lives? That's a question I want us to answer in the few minutes that we have remaining. How specifically does God's providence intersect with our individual lives? What would the readers of James' letter have understood?

Well let me just give you a little sketch, very briefly. First of all, God's providence directs our birth, our death and all the circumstances of life between. You remember Job of course and the horrific circumstances that God brought to bear in his life. He lost his family, he lost his health, he lost his wealth and all that he had amassed over many years and all he had left was his wife, and he probably wished at times God would have taken her too. And in Job 23 listen to what Job says, Job 23:13, he says,

"But … [God] is unique and who can turn Him? And what His soul desires, that He does." [And now he applies it directly to his circumstances.] "For He" [That is God] "performs what is appointed for me, And many such decrees are with Him."

Job personalizes it. And he says God's sovereignty is involved in this circumstance, in all of these things that have come upon me. This was appointed for me. My wealth and my family was appointed for me and the loss of them were appointed as well.

Turn with me to Psalm 139. You're familiar with this great psalm that rehearses God's omniscience as well as His omnipresence. In Psalm 139:13, David recounts the amazing reality that God formed us in our mother's wombs. So, verse 14,

"… [I'll] give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; …" Notice verse 15, "My frame was not hidden from You, when I was made in secret and skillfully wrought in the depths of the earth;" [ He said You were involved in this whole process, literally my bones were not hidden.] Verse 16, here's the crux, "Your eyes have seen my unformed substance;" [In other words, God You saw when I was still in an embryonic form when I was still in my mother's womb and You didn't just see, but You were working and directing and knitting me together and making me the person that I am and then notice what he says.] "And in Your book were all written the days that were ordained for me, when as yet there was not one of them."

The application of this is almost certainly to say, David was saying to the Lord, God You knew when I would be formed, You knew the day of my birth, You knew the day of my death and You mapped out every day between before I was ever born. God is in control of our birth, our death and all of the circumstances of life.

Secondly, we can say that God and this is really not completely separate from the first point, it's more detailed than the first point. We can say that God's providence directs our successes and our failures; our successes and our failures. Turn back to Genesis 39. You see this in the life of Joseph. It's so easy to misunderstand why things happen in the live in the lives of men like Joseph. But notice what Moses tells us in Genesis 39, of course Joseph has been sold by his brothers into Egypt. He's there under Potiphar, an Egyptian officer of Pharaoh the Captain of the bodyguard. And in verse 2 we're told, "The Lord was with Joseph, so that he became a successful man."

Did you see the "so". The LORD was with Joseph with the result that he became a successful man. Why do you think Joseph prospered in Egypt? Do you think it was because he was a really sharp and bright up and comer, and that's why Potiphar just had to notice that? Well obviously, God used the skills and gifts that he'd given Joseph, but in the end, he could have been skilled and gifted and had spent his whole life rotting in some Egyptian prison. But instead it says in verse 3, "Now his master saw that the LORD was with him and how the LORD caused all that he did to prosper in his hand."

Notice verse 21 of the same chapter. Now Joseph finds himself in prison you remember because of the interaction of Potiphar's wife, he refused her advances. Verse 21,

"But the LORD was with Joseph and extended kindness to him, and gave him favor in the sight of the chief jailer. The chief jailer commits everything to Joseph's charge all the prisoners so that whatever was done there, he was responsible for it. The chief jailer did not supervise anything under Joseph's charge because the LORD was with him; and whatever he did, the LORD made to prosper."

Do you understand this reality in your own life, that our successes and failures are in the hand of God? In Deuteronomy 8, Moses is talking to the new generation of the children of Israel gathered on the east of the Jordan ready to go take the Promised Land, and he says this to them in Deuteronomy 8:11, he says, "Beware that you do not forget the LORD your God by not keeping His commandments and His ordinances … which I am commanding you today;" Skip down to verse 17. "Otherwise you may say in your heart, 'My power and the strength of my hand made me this wealth.'"

You ever tempted to look at whatever successes you've enjoyed in life, whether it's position or wealth or prosperity or whatever it is, intelligence and to give yourself credit for it? Listen, to whatever extent you have had success in this life, it comes from the hand of God. And He could just as easily have caused the opposite to occur. He's sovereign over our successes and failures. In Proverbs 21:30, the writer of Proverbs says,

There is no wisdom and no understanding And no counsel against the LORD . [He says listen, go ahead come up with your greatest and best plan, have the greatest wisdom in how you approach the problem. It will not stand against the LORD's counsel. And then he gives an illustration in verse 31 of Proverbs 21.] He says, The horse is prepared for the day of battle, [ Now you've got to understand what that means in the ancient context. In the ancient world, this was the latest and greatest technology war horses, chariots, war chariots drawn by war horses. If you had that, then you were at the cutting edge of technology. Those were the F18's of their day. These were the weapons that gave you the great advantage over your enemy. And the writer of Proverbs says,] The horse is prepared for the day of battle, [ It seems like a great advantage,] but victory belongs to the LORD. [ That advantage in and of itself does not guarantee you victory. God is the One who grants success.]

Thirdly, we could say that not only does God's providence intersect with all the circumstances of our life from birth to death; not only our successes and failures, but thirdly our free actions and decisions. You understand this? Proverbs 16:9 says, "The mind of man plans his way," The word "way" there singular probably refers to your entire life. You remember (maybe some of you are at this point now, but some of you who are older you remember) a time when you sort of mapped out your life, you had it all cast in your mind, you planned your way. The proverb goes on to say, "but the Lord directs his steps." The word "steps" there plural implies the little moment by moment decisions and actions that we take. God is sovereign even over our free actions and decisions.

Proverbs 19:21, "Many plans are in a man's heart," [ It's right to plan, we should plan, many plans are in a man's heart,] "but the counsel of the Lord will stand." Understand that only as our plans mesh with the great plan of God do our free decisions and actions stand. God directs our steps in such a way that His sovereign purpose is laid out for us. As Shakespeare said, "There is a divinity that shapes our ends, rough hew them how we may."

Proverbs 21:1 speaks of the most powerful men in the ancient world, the kings, the monarchs, and it says, "The king's heart is in the hand of the Lord and He turns it wherever He chooses." The imagery behind that verse by the way is of irrigation canals, irrigation ditches. In Israel if you wanted something to grow, you had to somehow direct water to that place because there wasn't enough natural rainfall, just as we're experiencing this summer, to keep everything watered. We have to have our sprinklers, and in the ancient world they had to have irrigation canals and ditches. And to direct the water through that series of channels and canals there were gates that could be closed, and the water would be re-directed. God's saying that's how I do the kings heart. I open this gate, and I shut this gate, and I direct his heart wherever I choose. It flows down if you will whatever channel I choose. God is sovereign even over our decisions.

Finally, He's sovereign over our sins. You know it's easy to accept the fact that circumstances beyond our control are directed by God; cancer comes, death of a loved one. It's easy to say, "oh that's from God." We encounter incredible health difficulties, it's easy to say, "that's God." We can even accept the clear teaching of Scripture that God is involved in the small things, the seemingly accidental things like the flight of an arrow. One example from the Old Testament that struck the divide of the kings armor you remember in that story, or the casting of lots or to use a modern illustration, when a stop light turns. We understand all of that.

But it's hard for us to understand and to accept that God's providence intersects with our sin. This is exactly what the Bible teaches. God determined to allow sin, not to hinder the sinful choices of His creatures for His own purposes. God doesn't cause sin. He is not the author of sin. He doesn't tempt us to sin; James 1 makes that very clear. But our sin becomes part of the eternal plan of God. As one writer puts it, "Man's sinful acts do not frustrate the eternal plan of God. But neither is God the author of them. All acts including sinful acts conform to the eternal plan of God, but He is not directly the author of all such acts."

You see God takes no responsibility for our sinful choices; we get the responsibility because we make those choices. But in a miracle of divine providence, God directs, He controls the results of our sinful choices often to ends that we could not have foreseen and that were unintended. The most powerful Old Testament illustration of this is in the life of Joseph as well.

Turn back to Genesis 45. You, of course, remember the story; Joseph finally does make it to Prime Minister of Egypt and in chapter 45 he first encounters his brothers who sold him into slavery. Notice verse 4, I've often wondered what went through the hearts of these men when this happened. Verse 4,

Then Joseph said to his brothers, "Please come closer to me." And they came closer. And he said, "I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt." [Wow, what a moment that must have been. Then he says I want to tell you something. I have a theology lesson for you, listen carefully.] "Do not be grieved or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here," [ He says, "You did it, you're responsible."] "for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are still five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvesting. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant in the earth, and to keep you alive by a great deliverance." [Here's the point, verse 8] "Now, therefore, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh and lord of all his household and ruler over all the land of Egypt."

Joseph says, listen I want you to understand, you were acting. You were sinfully choosing to sell me into slavery. You sinned against me and against God, but you weren't the only one acting through that decision. God was acting through it as well to send me here to accomplish His purpose. This is the amazing thing about divine providence. Even sinful acts are under divine control. They occur only by divine permission and according to God's ultimate purpose.

So, as you can see, everything in our lives from beginning to end is under God's control. When you examine what the Scriptures teach you can understand why Charles Hodge wrote, "The circumstances of every mans birth, life and death are ordered by God whether we are born in a pagan or Christian land, whether weak or strong with many or few talents. Whether we are prosperous or afflicted, whether we live longer or shorter time are not matters determined by chance or by the unintelligent sequence of events but by the will of God."

But if you're like me the question that comes to your mind is "how". How does God do this? He does it by what theologians call concurrence. Let me explain it to you. Essentially it says this: God is the first and greatest cause, but He uses secondary causes. You see providence and sovereignty doesn't deny that men really do act, we really do make decisions, nor does it deny that God has established natural laws in the universe. But these secondary causes, the acts and the decisions of men the working of natural laws are superintended by God to absolutely guarantee that they fulfill His great eternal plan.

And of course, the best illustration of this in all the Scripture is the death of Jesus Christ. You remember in Acts 2, Peter says to them there, "This Man, [that is Jesus] delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death." They were making a terrible sinful choice to kill Christ and yet they were only fulfilling, God was directing their sinful choices to ends they could have never foreseen or never anticipated. That's the amazing reality of our God. He is sovereign.

What I've taught you this morning is a great dividing point. You see Christians love and find help and comfort in the truth of God's sovereign providence. I was reminded of that this past week through two tragic circumstances. On Wednesday Sheila and I had a visitor. Peggy, a good friend of ours, came to visit. It was last June that Peggy's husband died; you may remember I went to California to do the funeral. John and Peggy were always the best of friends. They even worked long hours together in the family business. Now here's Peggy left with no husband, no children and the family business to run seemingly a tragic circumstance.

And then on Friday night Sheila and I got home to discover an e-mail from a close friend, another troubling note. Chas is a friend of ours who is in the Air Force nearing retirement currently stationed in Colorado Springs. Recently he was told by his commanding officers that they want him to spend some of the last months he has in the Air Force, sixteen months, in Afghanistan in a high-level position that would make him a pretty serious target. And as he and his wife, Patty were trying to adjust to that news, Chas's doctor called him and said I'm very concerned about a growth on your vocal chords, so last week Chas had surgery to remove that tumor, his vocal chords were injured perhaps permanently. He probably has cancer that may eventually end up with his losing all of his vocal chords. So, he's an elder now who can't teach, he's a lieutenant colonel who can't lead, and when I spoke to Patty last night, Sheila and I on the phone, she said with everything considered they're doing great. They find their confidence in the goodness and the kindness of their God.

Guess where all three of these good friends told us that they have found their greatest comfort and health. It's in the knowledge of God's sovereign control of every detail of life. But on the other hand, unbelievers find this truth absolutely offensive. Charles Spurgeon wrote, "No doctrine is more hated by unbelievers. No truth of which they have made such a football as the great, stupendous but yet most certain doctrine of the sovereignty of the infinite Jehovah. Men will allow God to be everywhere except on His throne." Like it or not, God is on His throne. And there's not even a single stray molecule anywhere in the vast reaches of His universe. That is without question what both Old and New Testaments teach, and that is the underlying truth that lies behind James 4:13 - 17 which we'll examine together next week.

Let's pray.

Father, we thank You for the truth of Your Word. We thank You for the wonderful confidence we can have that You are in absolute control.

Help us to live like those who have a renewed mind and not like pagans.

We pray in Jesus' name. Amen.


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Prayer For All Seasons - Part 2

Tom Pennington James 5:13-18

Prayer For All Seasons - Part 3

Tom Pennington James 5:13-18

Search & Rescue: Every Believer's Mission

Tom Pennington James 5:19-20