Sovereignty Can Be Taxing

Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.
~ Romans 13:7

. . . At least to the brain anyway.

By sovereignty, I mean God’s supremacy in power and purpose over all his creation. We can produce various well-known passages that attest to the fact (Psalm 115:3; 135:6; Isaiah 46:10-11; Daniel 4:35; Ephesians 1:11). The bare assertion of God’s sovereignty doesn’t evoke many complaints among a lot of professing Christians. However, when we begin to press implications of it, people start moaning. When we bring human responsibility alongside it, there is generally weeping and gnashing of teeth.

The “problem” of reconciling God’s sovereignty with human responsibility is not a new one. The oldest book in the Bible is the book of Job and it wrestles with these questions throughout. Every preacher, theologian, professor, and pew-sitter has wrestled with this question. History has produced a lot of words on the subject. We tend to think the question ought to be settled by now or else it cannot be this side of eternity. I don’t think it really is the problem it’s made out to be. I’m not being flippant, so let me explain.

It is not a problem

Let’s get the problem before us. Since God is sovereign and works all things according to his own will, then he has willed all things concerning me. He has willed my birth, death, and all the happy or unhappy business in between. How then can I be responsible and accountable to him? Since God has sovereignly chosen from before the foundation of the world all those who will be saved (Ephesians 1:4-6, 11-12; Romans 8:28-30; 9:11-16; Acts 13:48), how can he hold accountable those who are lost? And why should we then preach the Gospel to every creature? There are other questions along this line, but the problem is thus far sufficiently represented.

This problem though is not a problem theologically or exegetically. By theology, I mean the summarizing and systematizing of the Bible’s teaching on a given subject. We do this when we speak of the doctrine of the atonement, or the doctrine of regeneration, etc. We can summarize and systematize the Bible’s teaching on God’s sovereignty. Doing so produces no internal inconsistencies within the category. The Bible teaches in whole that God is absolutely sovereign, does as he wills, cannot be thwarted, and is under no obligations to his creation. We can also summarize and systematize the Bible’s teaching on the responsibility and accountability of man toward God. The Bible teaches in whole that man is responsible to acknowledge God as God, worship God as God, and to obey God as God. The Bible also teaches in whole that man is accountable to God for his failure, neglect, or refusal to acknowledge, worship, and obey God. This summary of Bible teaching produces no internal inconsistencies in the category. This is why I say there is no problem with God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility theologically.

There is also no problem exegetically. By exegesis, I mean the proper interpretation of a passage of Scripture according to context, grammar, setting, etc. Any individual passage we properly interpret will teach God is sovereign. Likewise, any individual passage we properly interpret will teach man is responsible and accountable to God. There is no passage properly interpreted that says God is not sovereign or man is not responsible. We cannot find any two passages that contradict each other on this subject when they are properly interpreted. This is why I say there is no exegetical problem.

It is a problem

If it is not a problem in the Bible, then why all the fuss and bother? I grant there is a lot of fuss and bother. There are a couple of ways the problem is a problem. It is a problem philosophically. When we think on the two teachings and try to bring them together in our minds, we have a problem. Every Christian wrestles with this problem at some point if they think about it at all. However, if anyone comes to an existential crisis over it, I assure you, it’s all in your head.

I realize that could be a fantastically rude thing to say to somebody in anguish over this problem, so let me illustrate my point to show you it isn’t really a problem. All Americans know April 15th is “Tax Day.” This is the deadline for filing state and federal income taxes. I assume my readers are law-abiding citizens who filed their taxes by the deadline. Bear with me a little in my folly here, but what is involved in filing taxes? You know the routine. You have to scrounge around under the floor mats of the car, between the cushions on the couch, and behind the desk to find all your receipts. You have to access your records. You have to assemble them in some order, fill in the forms, and file them electronically or by mail. You may also hire someone to do the last part, but you still have to do the first part.

So, why did you do it? Some will say, “It’s the law. I have to do it.” Yes, yes, but why did you yourself do all the work that is involved in filing taxes? Why didn’t you just leave off all that work and worry because if God willed for your taxes to be done they would be done and you wouldn’t have to worry about it or do anything? Is there anyone who struggled with their taxes and came to a crisis because you wanted to do your taxes but weren’t sure if God willed for your taxes to be done and you didn’t want to violate his will?

You probably dislike doing taxes and may have grumbled in many ways, but you didn’t have a problem doing your taxes because of the sovereignty of God. This is why I say the problem of sovereignty and responsibility is all in your head and isn’t a real problem. Does anyone wake up the morning and remain motionless in bed because if God willed for you to go to work, that will happen whether you did anything to that end or not? No, you don’t do that and I don’t do that. Neither one of us then has a real problem with sovereignty and responsibility.

I have also found it often to be a problem of convenience. When men want to rationalize their disobedience, say to the commission to evangelize for example, they attribute their lack of doing it to a great respect for God’s sovereignty and their desire to not go against his will. I call foul. The Bible unambiguously and consistently teaches men are responsible to obey every word of God and will be held accountable for not doing it. This includes the command to preach the Gospel to every creature (Matthew 28:16-20; Mark 16:15; Luke 24:45-49; John 20:21-23; Acts 1:8).

The Sky is Not Empty

Who coverest thyself with light as with a garment: who stretchest out the heavens like a curtain. ~ Psalm 104:2

Who coverest thyself with light as with a garment: who stretchest out the heavens like a curtain. ~ Psalm 104:2

God is in Heaven, and that’s good for us.

Bless the LORD, O my soul. O LORD my God thou art very great; thou are clothed with honour and majesty.
– Psalm 104:1

Like the Bible in Genesis 1, Psalm 104 starts with the reality of God. There is no proof, defense, explanation, or justification–God is. He revealed himself to Moses as the “I am” (Exodus 3:14). He explained himself as “I am that I am”–unlike any other. He is self-existent, uncreated, and unending.

He revealed himself to the prophet Isaiah as unlike any other (Isaiah 42:8; 48:11). The Book of Isaiah reveals a God of majesty and power. He is the one who stretched out the heavens like a curtain and measured the oceans in His hand. His judgments are fierce and His wisdom silences all. Though He thunders, He also gathers His people as little lambs and carries them in His arms. He comforts them as a mother comforts her small child. He also atones for the sins of His people through the offering of His suffering servant and He pardons and washes as white as snow.

God is revealing himself and inviting us to know Him. God is there and He is not silent.

How does God reveal himself?

He reveals himself in His creation (Psalm 19:1-6) and in His word (Psalm 19:7-11). Psalm 104:1-35 shows how the order and constancy of life and the world testify of God. All of His works reflect His glory. He reveals himself specially in His word and in His Son (Hebrews 1:1-3; John 1:1-18). Only through His Son, Jesus, can we know God savingly (Matthew 11:27).

What is revealed of God?

God reveals himself to those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. He reveals that He is the creator and sustainer of the universe. He is supremely sovereign. He is supremely holy. He is supremely knowing and wise. He is supremely righteous. He is supremely just. He is supremely true. He is supremely loving.

God is God. He is self-existent. He is alone worthy of praise and worship. He is greater and higher than all His creation.

How do we get it wrong?

God is the greatest reality. He is ultimate reality. He has revealed himself but we fail when we don’t acknowledge Him or we distort His reality. The Bible identifies at least six worldviews that fail because they are wrong about God.

  1. The fool thinks there is no God (Psalm 14:1; 53:1). He makes man the highest being and survival-of-the-fittest is his ethos. The fool thinks that whatever he has the power to do, he can do. There is no fearful looking for judgment with him, because there is no one to judge.
  2. The rich, worldly man doesn’t think of God (James 4:13-17). God may be there, or He may not be there to the worldly minded. It doesn’t matter to him, because he takes no account of God in his daily life.
  3. Pharaoh thinks God has no right or authority over him (Exodus 5:2). He judges the truth of God’s claims and can receive or refuse at his own discretion. He is deluded into thinking he can mediate his own reality. He was postmodern before it was cool. The man-on-the-street way of saying it is, “That may be true or right for you, but it is not true for me.”
  4. The wicked think that God is like them or like a man (Psalm 50:16-23). God may object to their thoughts and ways, but He can do nothing but thunder in the distance. If He objected to them, He should have spoken or forever hold His peace.
  5. Nebuchadnezzar thought that God was beside him (Daniel 4:29-37). He thought he could make his own way and maybe even that God owed him prosperity. He was an early prosperity preacher who made God a means to an end in order to get a little more comfort during his vaporous appearance on earth.
  6. False professors think God is their imaginary god (Matthew 7:21-23). They live their lives using God’s name, but they have actually put God’s name on the craft of their own minds and ultimately do not know Him at all.

We don’t overstate the case to say that knowing God is a life-and-death reality. God’s existence is the greatest truth, greatest reality there is. We come now to our last question.

How is God’s existence good for us?

If God is who He says He is and who He shows himself to be, how is that good for us? Or, what are we profited by it? God’s existence is good for believers and unbelievers. Let me explain.

Good for believers

God being there for believers means that daily you have answers to the questions of life. It doesn’t mean that you know everything, but you can know some things for certain. Being a believer means that God has specially revealed himself to you and you know truth that the greatest human mind cannot find out on its own.

God’s existence means you have purpose and meaning to life. You’re not left to drift and wander aimlessly. You have no need to question why you exist or futilely pursue fulfillment.You are set to pursue His righteousness and His kingdom. You have a purpose.

You can make some sense of suffering because God is there. You don’t know how it all works together or why one thing comes to one and not another. You know suffering isn’t pointless.

You have comfort for the sorrow of death. Death is a painful separation and a reminder of frailty. In death, you do have hope, though it is washed with tears.

You have forgiveness and cleansing from sin. Apart from God there is no atonement and no covering righteousness. Though you fail everyday, the blood of Jesus Christ washes your sins white as snow.

You have help. You are not alone, though there be no human beside you. You do not have to live and do of your own strength or wisdom.

You have guidance. Life can be a confusing maze at times and our way is one of the easiest things to lose. You have sure counsel from God.

You have hope. Everyday you live a life filled with hope. You have something to live for and something to die for. You have something to look forward to that outweighs all grief and pain now.

Good for unbelievers

It might seem odd to suggest that God’s existence is good for unbelievers because that means their condemnation is sure. Many deny His existence rather than face such reality. However, if you are not a believer, I’m glad you are reading this and I assure you God’s existence is good for you.

God’s existence means there is ultimate meaning to life. If there is no God, then all is random, chaotic, and meaningless. I know you are taught that continually but no one lives their life consistently with that view. You probably show kindness to others and care deeply about social justice. You likely want to help the hurting and relieve as much suffering as you can. If life was truly random and meaningless, why would you do any of those things? God’s existence is the foundation for all good things and makes life meaningful.

God’s existence assures you of personal worth and dignity because you are created in the image of God. The questions: Who am I? Why am I here?, have answers because God exists. You are a living soul worth more than the whole world (Matthew 16:26). You are not a waste nor an accident. You have been fearfully and wonderfully made by a wise and loving creator.

God’s existence means that God himself and truth can be known. You are not left to wander in a void. You are not left to doubt and fear with no comfort or sure knowledge. God can be known because He has given you witness of himself.

God’s existence means you can have eternal life. You can live forever in a new heaven and a new earth where sin will never enter and all is true, good, and beautiful.

God is there. God is not silent. God is good for us. Look to His creation. Look to His word. Look to His Son.

Missionary Sparrows

Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? ~ Matthew 6:26

Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? ~ Matthew 6:26

Why did Jesus point His disciples to the sparrows for comfort in the face of persecution?

Matthew chapter 10 recounts how Jesus instructed, warned, and comforted His disciples before sending them out on a disciple-making mission. He did not hide or soften the reality. He told them plainly what things they could expect on mission.

He told them to be careful with rulers and those in power. They were to expect trouble with the worldly authorities, including persecution and imprisonment. He warned them about the treachery and disloyalty they would encounter, even among family members. He prepared them to expect to be hated by those whom they tried to reach. They were to expect persecution and even being run out of town. He warned them about the slander they would face. He also told them that some would be killed for the testimony of Christ and His Gospel.

Jesus was always very open about the costs for following Him. It caused many to rethink and depart. This is quite a contrast from the message from so many corners today: “God loves you just the way you are and has a wonderful plan for your life, if you will only just accept Him.” That was not Jesus’ message. It is not the message of the Bible, and it should not be our message today. But I digress. Now to the sparrows.

Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? And one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows.

~ Matthew 10:29-31

In the midst of these plain and terrifying warnings, Jesus directed the disciples to consider the sparrows. In fact, He did this immediately after raising the prospect of martyrdom. Why? How were the sparrows to help and comfort them in the face of such persecutions? I believe there are two primary reasons.

God’s Fatherhood
Jesus pointed out the sparrows relatively little worth: “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing?” He also pointed out the care “your Father” has for them. This is an argument from the lesser to the greater as Jesus concluded, “Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows.”

The lesson is plain. We go on mission in Jesus’ name and we have the care of our heavenly Father. He cares intimately about the insignificant creatures of creation. He is our Father and we are more valuable to Him than many such creatures. We should not then presume we have lost His care because we come into persecution for His name.

This is both comforting and encouraging. But Jesus had another reason for pointing His disciples to the sparrows.

God’s Sovereignty
Jesus said, “And one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father.” Some would understand this to say that not a sparrow dies without the notice and care of God. That doesn’t quite capture the full picture.

The Bible is clear that God is sovereign over His creation. He ordains life and death. He appoints the times, seasons, and bounds of habitation. This is true of the sparrow and the worm and the king on his throne. The Psalmist paints the manifest wisdom of God’s sovereignty over His creation this way:

These wait all upon thee;
That thou mayest give them their meat in due season.
That thou givest them they gather:
Thou openest thine hand,
They are filled with good.
Thou hidest thy face,
They are troubled:
Thou takest away their breath,
They die,
And return to their dust.
~ Psalm 104:27-29

What is the lesson? When a sparrow falls to the ground, it is ordained of God. Likewise, when we come into persecution, it is ordained of God. He has permitted it and He has purpose in it. Even Jesus said as much to Pilate when facing His own death, “Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above.” (John 19:11)

Take comfort and find courage in the mission of the Gospel in the world. Nothing will befall us that is beyond God’s control. Whatever may come will be for our good and ultimately for God’s glory.

And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.

~ Romans 8:28

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