Does God merely watch a sin taking place in the world and then "use" that for good, or are even the worst of sins predestined and designed by Him? In a weekend seminar, preacher John Piper dealt with the complex issue of God's providence.
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Piper spoke about God's sovereignty during the Saturday morning session of the seminar titled "The Pleasures of God," organized by the Desiring God ministry and held at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minn., where he has served as pastor for over three decades.
The 66-year-old preacher underlined that God has total control over everything, quoting verses from the Bible.
Ephesians 1: 11 says, "...Having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will." Daniel 4:35 states, "No one can hold back his hand or say to him: 'What have you done?'" Amos 3:6-7 says, "If a trumpet is blown in a city will not the people tremble? If a calamity occurs in a city has not the Lord done it?"
He went on to quote Proverbs 16:9: "The mind of man plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps." Proverbs 19:21: "Many are the plans in a man's heart, but it is the LORD's purpose that prevails. Proverbs 16:33: "The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD."
"So every spin of the roulette wheel ... you know Las Vegas ... every roll of the dice in your family board game, every reaching of the hand for the scramble of the letter, is determined by God," Piper said.
He quoted Joseph as saying to his brothers after they had sold him into slavery, as recorded in Genesis 50:20: "As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive."
Piper said he had often heard this text misquoted. Some Christians think Joseph's brothers meant evil as they sold him into slavery to get rid of him, which was evil, a sin, but God used that incident for good. "That's not what it says, and there's a big difference," he said.
"God didn't watch it happen, and say, 'What am I going to do with this. Oh, I will make him vice president of Egypt; we'll turn it all around.' God never watches anything merely; He is always sustaining, acting. So He meant it," Piper said, quoting from Psalms 105, which says that God sent Joseph to Egypt to keep alive a people. "God had a plan to keep alive a people, and that is the way sin works."
Piper added that Acts 4:27-28 is perhaps the most crucial crux-like statement of God's sovereignty in the Bible "because what is being spoken about is the death of Christ." The two verses state: "Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen."
Herod's mockery, Pilate's expediency, the Gentiles driving the nails, and the people of Israel shouting, "Crucify Him, crucify Him," is all sin, Piper said, adding it was all "predestined, designed by God, scripted in the Old Testament, including Judas [Iscariot]."
Piper also talked about the Fall in the Garden of Eden. He said God meant that to happen. Redemption, he explained, was planned by the death of the lamb before there was any sin to redeem from. "All who dwell on the earth will worship him, everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who has been slain." (Revelation 13:8)
This is the kind of paradox that we must come to terms with to make sense of the Bible, he said. God's sovereignty ordains things to pass that from the human standpoint are willed as evil, and from God's standpoint willed as absolutely good for His final purposes, he added.
Now here, the Reformed theologian said, the complexity of God's emotional life is humanly beyond comprehension. "And by beyond comprehension, I do not mean that you cannot understand anything about it. I mean full comprehension belongs to Him, not our finite minds," he clarified.
How to see that in light of the fact that God takes pleasure in all that He does? The Pleasures of God: Meditations on God's Delight in Being God, is the title of one of Piper's books.
"'Do I have any pleasure in the death of the wicked,' declares the Lord GOD, 'rather than that he should turn from his ways and live?'" (Ezekiel 18:23) "Now that seems to contradict my thesis," Piper remarked.
But on the other hand, God says to the same people, Piper pointed out, quoting Deuteronomy 28:63: "It shall come about that as the LORD delighted over you to prosper you, and multiply you, so the LORD will delight over you to make you perish and destroy you; and you will be torn from the land where you are entering to possess it."
God is righteous who feels indignation every day, he added. God is angry every day, all day, all the time. Ephesians 4:30 says, "Do not grieve the Holy Spirit." "That's happening every day and every moment. Some Christian somewhere is acting in a way that grieves His Spirit," he said.
But on the other hand, God takes pleasure in His people; He adorns the humble with salvation. "I think that's happening every day. Some wonderful saint somewhere in the world right now is doing something that pleases God. God looks upon that person ... Maybe 1,000, maybe 10,000, God is looking upon ... So God is happy, totally happy all the time."
There will be rejoicing in heaven when one person repents, Piper reminded. It won't be an exaggeration that someone is getting saved every hour, or maybe every minute, he said.
So heaven is grieving all the time, partying all the time.
"God has levels of willing and delighting," Piper explained. "He wills and delights in things in different ways so that approval and disapproval can coexist without being contradictory, without canceling each other out. I am making the case here for infinite complexity."
We are told to rejoice, but we are also told to weep with those who weep, Piper went on to say. "This means they must coexist," he added, quoting 2 Corinthians 6:10: "As sorrowful yet always rejoicing, as poor yet making many rich, as having nothing yet possessing all things."
That's a mystery of the Christian life. Piper said the most memorable moment for him was when his mother was killed in a bus accident. He was 28 years old then, and it was an emotionally "supercharged experience of this complexity." He cried for about two hours but he was also happy for all the 28 years she was with him, "for all the letters she wrote while I was in Germany." He called it the complexity of the human heart to have seemingly contradictory emotions at the very same time.
Piper said God is sovereign over the greatest things of the world, "but no, He doesn't feel the same about each one. Not all of them come from the center of His heart; they come from aspects of His character that serve His heart. So a judge may say 'guilty,' and love his justice and in turn weep because this is his son ... He knows he's doing the right thing; he feels good about the right thing ... but weeps his eyes out back in the room."