Why the Strange Ways of God?
“But arise, and stand upon thy feet: for to this end have I appeared unto thee, to appoint thee a minister and a witness both of the things wherein thou hast seen me, and of the things wherein I will appear unto thee” (Acts 26:16).
“But the Lord said unto him, Go thy way: for he is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles and kings, and the children of Israel: for I will show him how many things he must suffer for my name’s sake.” “…if so be I press on, if so be that I may lay hold on that for which also I was laid hold on by Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:12).
It is not my intention to speak at length on these passages, but to take out of them some things that are implied or embodied in them as principles. They resolve themselves into a matter of cause and effect. “For to this end have I appeared unto thee…” “I will show him how many things he must suffer for my name’s sake” (Acts 9:15-16). “…that I may lay hold on that for which also I was laid hold on by Christ Jesus.” “…that for which…”: “…to this end…”
Sovereign Purpose Governs Our Salvation
The first aspect of that is clearly one of sovereign purpose. Purpose is the positive and governing aspect of salvation. It is that unto which we are saved. Of course, it would not be wholly right to say that that from which we are saved is the negative aspect of salvation, but it is the negative aspect compared with this other. It is not the ‘from’ but the ‘unto’ or the ‘for’ which is really the positive thing in salvation. Stagnation had no place even in the unfallen creation. God did not just make everything and put man in charge and set fixed bounds to the possibilities of man and creation. The potentialities were immense; and when Adam failed, he lost not only what was, but also what could have been. It is said that Adam was “a figure of him that was to come”. (Rom. 5:14). Figures are always less than that which they represent. Adam was intended for something more than he was. Christ is that something more – infinitely more – and when Christ redeemed, He not only redeemed what was before Adam sinned, but also all that Adam never possessed or inherited but which was intended for him. Purpose governed creation, and we know, as a part of the very gospel itself, that the purpose of God was missed by Adam, and is missed by the Adam race. Moreover, the whole purpose of God is never possessed and entered into in experience the moment we are born again.
I said that stagnation is no feature of God’s creation even when it is unfallen; but for any to be born again, and thus to begin to know the good of redemption, and then to fail to recognize that they are saved not only from something, but unto something immense, means that stagnation sets in and they are always dating everything by the past; whereas those who have apprehended the fact of purpose are always occupied with the future, with something beyond.
Sovereign purpose, we have said, is the positive and the governing factor of salvation. You have heard that many times, but I do want to emphasize it again. Perhaps you have not grasped it. There are still many Christians who are just glad they are Christians: they know Christ as their Saviour and they are seeking day by day to live as Christians: but they are not conscious of any great, powerful, dominating motive of sovereign purpose in their salvation. They are not drawn on by an enlarging vision and apprehension of that sovereign purpose. Those little statements which we noted earlier, such as “…that for which I was apprehended…”, “…to this end have I appeared unto thee”, mean little or nothing to them. But to us, as to Paul, the Lord would say, ‘Not just to save you, not just to deliver you from perdition, not just for your escape from judgment have I appeared unto you, but I have a great revelation to give you of that unto which I have saved you’. That is the effect of His words to Paul, and they are true for us also, as Paul makes clear in his letters. You need to be sure that you are really gripped in your innermost being by such a consciousness, by this sense of being apprehended by and for sovereign purpose, so that it is dominating your life – something which eliminates the element of time, so that you are not limited by the idea of just living as good a Christian life as you can until you die. This outbounds our life here, and we know it well.
That is all I want to say about the first thing. But I want to be sure that you are really in the grip and control of this that the early Christians felt so much and which the Apostles (especially Paul) took such pains to bring home to the Church. Sovereign purpose governs God’s activities in the life of every child of His, and that sense and fact of purpose, as related to our salvation, is after all the main part of our salvation, the positive aspect.
God’s Ways Determined by His Purpose
Then, of course, there follow quite naturally the sovereign ways of God with us in relation to His sovereign purpose. The only thing I will say now about that is this, that God’s ways with us will be, and must be, consistent with His sovereign purpose. Here is where we need to be really intelligent and alive. We must look to see how our ways correspond to God’s purpose under His sovereign control. It is a part of our education, and of our heart gratification when we are able to discern it, to observe how our experience and our history tally with God’s object and with the principles which govern His purpose. From time to time it will be well for us if we just stand still and say, ‘Now, this is what is revealed as God’s purpose, and we are called according to His purpose. Does my spiritual experience and history give me heart-assurance that God is taking the only way by which that purpose can be fulfilled?’
What do we mean by that? Let us cite a point or two that might illustrate it. Here we open up something very vast, and we can only just stand and look at it from the outside.
The Purpose – The Expression of a Testimony
(a) Life in the Midst of Death
“The testimony of Jesus” is a phrase that sums up a very great deal in the book of the Revelation. Indeed, it sums up the whole Bible. Now supposing, for argument’s sake, that the object of the Church’s calling is a testimony to Divine life. (It is no supposition, though, but a reality. “In him was life” (John 1:4): “I came that they may have life” (John 10:10):that is the testimony of Jesus.) Supposing then the testimony of Jesus is the testimony of Divine life: what is necessary in order that our experience and history should tally with Divine purpose? It is that we should have a setting in which we are assailed continually by death. Life becomes a very real thing when death is all around and very active. So, if the purpose is the manifestation of Divine life, then those who are called according to that purpose will have to have a history of conflict with death. That is simple and obvious. If, therefore, you and I have such a history and such an experience, are we to stand back and say, ‘Oh, this is all wrong! Would that we could get out of this!’? We should rather say, ‘This is in accordance with the object in view, there is a consistency about God’s ways with us.’
The mystery of life is one of the supreme features, if not the supreme feature, of the whole record in Scripture. I am not attempting to deal with it exhaustively here, but only to bring out the point that immediately concerns us. What is the mystery of Christ? Many men besides Jesus Christ were brought up in Nazareth. Stand them all in a row. Can you discriminate between them other than by purely natural features? No. And yet there is a difference between Jesus and the rest. What is the difference? While outwardly He looks like the rest, there is a mystery about Him, there is something there, He is not the same. People tried to deal with Him as they dealt with other men, but they found they were dealing with someone unique, in whom there was something different. “The mystery of Christ” (Eph. 3:4), who Christ really was!
The mystery of life. “Called according to his purpose.” Supposing then that the Church is to be a manifestation of the life, a testimony to Divine life, then the Church will be set all through its history in scenes of death, with the forces of death raging against it.
(b) Light in the Midst of Darkness
The same is true of light. “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12). But there was no glow about Him, no halo round His head, nothing outward that said to men, ‘This is the light of the world’. But vital union with Him by the Spirit later meant that those in union had a wonderful illumination in their own spirits. In that way, not physically, they became luminaries for those who were seeking the light. There was a mystery still about it. No one could discern it except in a spiritual way. Supposing then the calling is this – to manifest the light. Then we shall be placed in darkness again and again for the testimony’s sake.
“He is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles and kings, and the children of Israel: for I will show him how many things he must suffer for my name’s sake”. He must suffer in order that the Name may come out in all its glory. The cause of all is to be found in the calling and election, and the effect of the calling is to be seen in suffering, a setting that brings out the reality of this calling. “…to this end…” Have you yourself a sense of this? Then check up as you go along and see if the ways of the Lord with you are not after all perfectly consistent with the thing that He is after.
(c) Heavenliness in the World
You say that a principle of the Church’s life is heavenliness, other-worldliness, detachment from this world spiritually. Very well, the Church and the individuals in it will often find themselves in a position where, if heaven does not intervene for them, everything here is at an end, and you will not have this world on your side with its favour and applause. Will you begin to grumble and say you are having a hard time? The truth is, your experience is consistent with the principles of your calling.
It may be helpful to make a suggestion. When you feel you must give up because the way is too hard and too difficult, or you feel tempted to think that everything is wrong and ought not to be like this, just ask the question – ‘After all, does not this way show God’s perfect consistency with His Divine principles and with the object in view unto which He has chosen us?’ And so often we have to say, ‘After all, the consistency is patent; He could not do it in any other way; this is the only way.’
First published in “A Witness and A Testimony” magazine, Jan-Feb 1952, Vol 30-1