New Horizons: January 2003
Also in this issue
by J. I. Packer
by Derek Thomas
by John Flavel
by Anthony A. Hoekema
What is the greatest problem with which we as Christians struggle? Is it not wanting our own way, being unwilling to wait upon the Lord?
Wanting our own way is not necessarily selfish. Often it means that we are not pleased with the way things are going. We wish that things would be "better than they are." Wanting our own way can even mean, in fact, that we want God's revealed willperfect righteousnessto come about here and now in all its fullness. In other words, we can be quite discontent that things are not as God has said that he desires them to be (Pss. 37 and 73).
We might wish that our remaining sin did not have the grip on us that it does, that all our friends and relatives were walking with the Lord, that there were no war looming on the horizon, and that the world were not such a wicked place. Is not each of these things desirable? Should we not earnestly pray for the Lord to break the power of sin in us, to bring our lost loved ones to himself, to allow nations to resolve their conflicts short of war, and to have his will done on earth as it is in heaven? Indeed, it is proper for us to pray for and eagerly desire these things to come to pass (Matt. 6:10). God has told us that it is his will that such things should come to pass.
But if it is God's will that righteousness should prevail, why is there so much unrighteousness in the world? If God has all power in heaven and on earth, and has declared his hatred of all unrighteousness in his Word, why does he permit so much evil in the world?
The answer is that we must distinguish between God's revealed will (the Bible) and his secret will (his eternal decrees) (see Deut. 29:29). God has revealed to us that he is opposed to sin. So to account for the sin in the world, there must be some aspect of God's will that is not revealed.
We know that God has a "secret" will because he wills everything that comes to pass (Eph. 1:11). But the Bible also teaches us, as does our observation of the world, that not all that comes to pass is in accord with his revealed will (which is that we not sin). And this is our problem. Christians would love to see the reign of righteousnessthe bringing to pass of that which God declares in his revealed willbut so often instead we see wickedness. We are often troubled by the gap between God's revealed will and what we see coming to pass as the realization of his secret will.
So, then, our problem is discontentment (Phil. 2:14-15). We are not happy with what is happening. We wish that something else were happening. We may wish for money or success or power. Or we may simply wish for heaven on earth now. Whatever it is that we desire, though, we are discontent with what we have.
Beneath our discontentment, our lack of joy, our unhappiness with life, I would argue, is an unhappiness with God. We are not happy with the way he is running the world, the way in which he is unfolding and manifesting his secret will. In short, we question whether or not God is really wise (1 Tim. 1:17).
Our discontentment calls into question the wisdom of God. We might suppose that discontentment stems from questioning the greatness and/or goodness of God. To be sure, discontentment does derive, in some measure, from such questioning. The serpent in the garden (Gen. 3) did indeed call God's greatness into question ("You shall not surely die," implying that God lacked power to effect his will). He also called God's goodness into question ("Has God indeed said?" and "You will be like God," implying that God was lying and holding out on Adam and Eve, to keep them subjugated to him). Had Adam and Eve continued to walk in the gratitude that was fitting for them in their state of perfect union and communion with God and each other, they would never have sinned. But somehow discontentment and ingratitude developed in them and in no small measure constituted their ungrateful rebellion. Instead of being thankful for all that God had given them and regarding that as quite enough, their restless hearts yearned for something that God was not pleased then and there to give them.
At the bottom of this ingratitude and discontentment is a calling into question of God's wisdom. If God is all-wise, then surely he knows what is best. When God told Adam and Eve not to eat of the fruit of a certain tree, any temptation to the contrary should have been met with the bold and unashamed assertion, "Father knows best." Instead, Adam and Eve denied that God knows best when they ate of the forbidden fruit. If they had truly believed that God was wise, they would have refrained from eating. Their very act of eating was a statement that while God may have spoken, they knew better than God. By their act of rebellion, they demonstrated that they regarded themselves, and not God, as wise. And in thinking themselves to be wise, they became fools, involving themselves in that horrible slippery slope, that diabolical dynamic of sin, described so pointedly in Romans 1:18-32.
Job also questioned the wisdom of God. Job's problem was not so much with God's greatness or goodness as it was with his wisdom. Job acknowledged that God has all power and that, in theory at least, God is good (I do not dispute that God's goodness was an issue for Job). But most narrowly, Job's question was: Does God know what he is doing? Job kept wondering how what had happened to him could possibly reflect wisdom on God's part. And it is this very struggle that so often afflicts us as Christians. What do you say to someone who has just lost his family in a car accident? Very little, hopefully, because only God understands all the whys and wherefores of such events. We do not. Even Job's friends sat with him for a week before opening their mouths.
There is terrible evil, terrible suffering, terrible pain in this sin-cursed world, and it really hurts. Loss hurts. The suffering and death of those we love hurt. Our own pain and impending death hurt. This is an important part of the message of the book of Job. And so is the struggle, and failure, of Job and his friends to make sense of his suffering. Job simply could not fathom what God was doing in all the vicissitudes of his life. He was truly perplexed as to why God afflicted him so. Job did, at long last, come to acknowledge that God knew what he was doing. He finally recognized that God was the Creator, Redeemer, and Consummator, and that Job was a mere creature. He could not fathom what only God could fathom. Job did not understand all that was happening to him, because he was not God, who alone knows all of his purposes, which are hidden in the counsels of his own (secret) will (Job 42:1-6). Job ultimately came to rest in that, but it was an arduous journey getting there.
When we or those we love are suffering greatly, sometimes well-meaning, but misguided folk may tell us that suffering is a punishment for sin. Or they may glibly assure us that all things work together for good. But only the surrender of the heart to the only-wise God will furnish the needed balm for our tortured souls.
Our greatest temptation in our misery and in our burden for those about us is to imagine that there is "no one at the wheel"not in the sense that no one is driving at all, but in the sense that no one is driving in a manner that we find acceptable. We sense, in other words, that the car is out of control. And when we feel that way, we are tempted to become backseat drivers, urging the driver to swerve or brake as we see fit. We need instead to trust God and let him do the driving, because he knows how to drive and we really do not (Isa. 40).
God is wise. And his wisdom consists in his knowing what promotes his own glory and our own good. God is always glorified, even in the perdition of the reprobate (Rom. 9:22-23). But with his elect, his glory and our good combine. In any single act, and in every one of those acts, God is achieving his maximum glory and working for the greatest good of every one of his children. We see this even in our own liveshow discrete acts, events, and circumstances are used differently in the lives of the people that they touch. In accordance with God's purpose, these things accomplish precisely what each of these people need in their lives. No act is for the good of some of his children and to the detriment of others. Rather, each act is for the good of all, as suits each particular case, in any given circumstance and in every circumstance of life. This is wisdom without equal.
Nowhere is God's wisdom more evident than at Calvary. There we see that God is so great and so good that he not only defeats evil, but uses it to bring about the greatest good in the most extraordinary display of his wisdom. In the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, God gains the greatest glory and lays the foundation for bringing his people to glorification, a state better than that of Adam before the Fall, a state in which we are not able to sin. Truly we gain more in Christ than we ever lost in Adam. This is wisdom without equal: breathtaking in its beauty and grandeur, staggering in its scope and reach. We could never conceive of such a plan, but God has the wisdom to conceive it and carry it out.
As 1 Timothy 1:17 puts it, God alone is wise with this kind of wisdom. God is matchless in his wisdom. We will never have the comprehensive wisdom of all things that he does. He alone has decreed all that comes to pass, and he executes those decrees perfectly. While it is true that we will know far more truly and fully in the new heavens and new earth than we do here, we will never have the comprehensive understanding that God does of all things, because he alone is the Creator and we are forever the creature, even in the world to come. But we who are made in his image can gain wisdom. We are told, in fact, that if we lack wisdom, we ought to ask for it and expect God to give it to us freely (Jas. 1:5). We lack wisdom because we are creatures and because we are fallen. We will ever be growing in wisdom in the coming age, because we will still be finite (though not sinful). And the wisdom that we lack we find only in Christ, in whom is hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col. 2:3; 1 Cor. 1-2).
As we are perplexed, troubled, discontent, and murmuring while we live the kingdom life in a fallen world, we receive the rest and even the wisdom that we need when we come to Christ as babesnot wise and prudent, but needy and heavy-laden (Matt. 11:25-30). And we come to him and receive of him as we attend to the public means of grace (preaching, the sacraments, and prayer, including the communion of the saints) and as we exercise the private duties of religion (personal and family prayer and Bible reading). It is only in him, our treasure chest of wisdom, that we can make sense of it all. If he who was God in the flesh had to suffer for our eternal salvation, does it not make sense that we too should suffer (Heb. 5:8)?
As we contemplate it all, we acknowledge that we will never fathom God's way, but we know that his way is the only way of wisdom. Only in this way can all of the sighing and groaning of this vale of tears give way to doxologyweakly down here, to be sure, but brought to perfection in the coming age. So in praise of God's unparalleled wisdom we join the apostle in doxology: "Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out! 'For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has become His counselor?' 'Or who has first given to Him and it shall be repaid to him?' For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen" (Rom. 11:33-36 NKJV).
The author, an OP minister, teaches at Mid-America Reformed Seminary. Reprinted from New Horizons, January 2003.
New Horizons: January 2003
Also in this issue
by J. I. Packer
by Derek Thomas
by John Flavel
by Anthony A. Hoekema
© 2021 The Orthodox Presbyterian Church