6-2 The Limitation of God
I recall how impressed I was when I first heard the phrase ‘Divine ecology’. The idea is that all aspects of God’s purpose somehow work together for good, even if in the short term it seems there is something not in order or out of balance in the way God is working. If we over analyse one aspect of God’s purpose or workings with men, we can get an unbalanced picture; God may seem, e.g., too soft, or too hard. We need to see the different parts of His purpose in the wider picture and how they all work together to achieve the complete fulfilment of His purpose in us. Because we are too finite to comprehend the whole complex system, there are some aspects of His ways which appear to us unbalanced, but ultimately, this is not the case. I say all this because I want to focus on just one aspect of God’s dealings with us: the way in which He gives us unlimited freewill to serve Him.
We need to understand this within the context of predestination; the sovereign will of God at work to achieve His will without the input of any man. We learn, I suggest, the fact that many things we do which seem to advance God’s purpose, e.g. preaching and prayer, are primarily for our benefit, rather than being absolutely essential for the fulfilment of God’s will. Consider, in a preaching context, how the faithful overcome by the blood of the lamb- by what is done for them- and also by the word of their preaching, as if the act of preaching and witnessing against a hostile persecuting system was what helped maintain their faith (Rev. 12:11). And because of this, Paul encouraged Timothy to take heed “to thy teaching…for in doing this [i.e. preaching] thou shalt save both thyself, and them that hear thee” (1 Tim. 4:16 RV). Having true doctrine is related to “speaking the truth”, “dealing truly” (Eph. 4:13-15 RVmg.) with each other- as if the sensitive, heartfelt preaching of truth should result in our own truthfulness. We continue professing / confessing our hope “that it waver not” (Heb. 10:23 RV). It doesn’t waver for us, exactly because we preach it.
Paul Tournier in The Meaning Of Persons perceptively comments: “We become fully conscious only of what we are able to express to someone else. We may already have had a certain intuition about it, but it must remain vague so long as it is unformulated” (1). This is why anyone involved in preaching, public speaking, writing or personal explanation of the Gospel to someone else will know that they have gained so much from having to state in so many words what they already ‘know’. And in the course of making the expression, our own understanding is deepened, our personal consciousness of what we believe is strengthened, and thereby our potential for a real faith is enhanced. Tournier’s observation is validated by considering the record of the healed blind man in Jn. 9. Initially he says that he doesn’t know whether or not Jesus is a sinner, all he knows is that Jesus healed him. But the Jews force him to testify further, and in the course of his witness, the man explains to them that God doesn’t hear sinners, and so for Jesus to have asked God for his healing and been heard…surely proved that Jesus wasn’t a sinner. He was sinless. The man was as it were thinking out loud, coming to conclusions himself, as he made his bold witness (Jn. 9:31,33).
The parable of the sower leaves us begging the question: ‘So how can we be good ground?’. Mark’s record goes straight on to record that the Lord right then said that a candle is lit so as to publicly give light and not to be hidden. He is speaking of how our conversion is in order to witness to others. But He says this in the context of being good ground. To respond to the word ourselves, our light must be spreading to all. The only way for the candle of our faith to burn is for it to be out in the open air. Hidden under the bucket of embarrassment or shyness or an inconsistent life, it will go out. We will lose our faith if we don’t in some sense witness to it. Witnessing is in that sense for our benefit. When the disciples ask how ever they can accomplish the standards which the Lord set them, He replied by saying that a city set on a hill cannot be hid (Mt. 5:14). He meant that the open exhibition of the Truth by us will help us in the life of personal obedience to Him.
This said, let me outline the thesis: God can do anything, He is omnipotent. But He chooses to limit His omnipotence in order to allow man total freewill. Therefore effectively, how far God will fulfil His purpose depends upon how far we are obedient to Him. Of course, God can act quite independently of us; He has the sovereign right and ability to act as He likes, and achieve His objectives how He likes. But it seems that God chooses to limit His ability to do this. We have complete freewill, and God works with us individually in proportion as we work with Him. We have genuine choice, not only as to whether to serve God, but how and on what level and to what extent we serve Him, within the salvation we experience in Christ. Indeed, the world has no freedom; men are slaves to sin, mastered by their own pride and lies. In Christ, we have experienced the gift of freedom (Rom. 5:15-18); “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there the heart is free” (2 Cor. 3:17). Indeed, the extent of our liberty is such that we must use it carefully lest we offend others (1 Cor. 8:8- e.g. the kind of thing we spend our money on, how far we indulge in ‘relaxation’...). This “liberty” in which the NT so frequently exults (Lk. 4:18; 1 Cor. 10:29; Gal. 2:4; 5:13; James 1:25; 2:12; 1 Pet. 2:16) will be fully revealed in the freedom of the Kingdom: “the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21). As it will be then, so now: we will not be free to do what we like morally, but within the context of God’s covenant, we are free, totally and utterly free, in our service of Him. God doesn’t see us as robots serving their maker; He sees us as His partners, His sons, His friends, even the willing, freely persuaded bride of His Son (2). But as the Master Chess player He builds our limitations into His total game plan. For example, God uses our weaknesses and experience of moral failure for the furtherance of His purpose. Thus a man’s marriage out of the Faith is sometimes used to bring a woman to the Faith (not that this justifies it). Somehow God is never beaten; man can do nothing against the Truth, only for it (2 Cor. 13:8). He wasn’t beaten when Moses failed to sanctify Him; He sanctified Himself through His judgment of that failure: “Ye believed me not, to sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore ye shall not bring this congregation into the land which I have given them. This is the water of Meribah; because the children of Israel strove with the LORD, and he was sanctified in them” (Num. 20:12,13). Somehow God’s word never returns unto Him void, somehow the lost sheep is always found. These are not just expressions of the essential hopefulness of the Father and Son (although this in itself is something to be truly inspired by); these are statements which reflect the way in which within God’s scheme of working, everything works out to His glory.
The final judgment will be of our works, not because works justify us, but because our use of the freedom we have had and exercised in our lives is the basis of the future reward we will be given. Salvation itself is not on the basis of our works (Rom. 11:6; Gal. 2:16; Tit. 3:5); indeed, the free gift of salvation by pure grace is contrasted with the wages paid by sin (Rom. 4:4; 6:23). And yet at the judgment, the preacher receives wages for what he did (Jn. 4:36), the labourers receive hire (s.w. wages) for their work in the vineyard (Mt. 20:8; 1 Cor. 3:8). There is a reward (s.w. wages) for those who rise to the level of loving the totally unresponsive (Mt. 5:46), or preaching in situations quite against their natural inclination (1 Cor. 9:18). Salvation itself isn’t given on this basis of works; but the nature of our eternal existence in the Kingdom will be a reflection of our use of the gift of freedom in this life. In that sense the judgment will be of our works.
(1) Paul Tournier, The Meaning Of Persons (New York: Harper & Row, 1957) p. 22.
(2) This is the thesis of Karl Barth, The Gift Of Freedom (John Knox Press, 1960) pp. 74-79.