Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 03/13/1994
Thy word have I hid in my heart that I might not sin against thee.
Though God has a Law that is holy, perfect, absolute, universally valid, and completely obligatory, the Christian life is not primarily a set of rules that we try to follow. It is a relationship with God received by faith alone in his grace, his unmerited favor, alone. And what applies to salvation applies equally to the Christian life. We neither get saved in the first place nor do we live the Christian life afterwards by our efforts to keep the Law, but by faith. The Law still serves us as a moral guide and as a reminder of our need for grace, but it is not the focus of the Christian life. Christ is. And the Christian life in its essence is not a game where points are rewarded for keeping the rules, but a relationship. The only way we ever find ourselves keeping the Law at all is not by our efforts to do so but by a daily walk with the Lord that involves daily, hourly, step by step surrender to Christ and dependence on Him.
Now, all of this most of us already recognize as true, and some of us understand it indeed very well. But we still find it more easily said than done. Why? For one reason, because we have a great Enemy who is constantly trying to break up that walk, that intimacy between the believer and his Lord. This is known as “temptation.” How do we keep him from being successful in this? A big part of the answer to that question in found in Psalm 119:11. “Thy word have I hid in my heart that I might not sin against thee.” Our ammunition in our personal war against the Devil is the Word of God. But how do we use it? Understanding and memorizing Scripture, making it part of you, is obviously an important key, as the Psalmist says. But just because you memorize lots of Scripture does not guarantee victory in and of itself. So what I want to do in the next couple of weeks is to try to help us learn to use this weapon God has given us more strategically. To accomplish this goal, we have to begin by understanding Satan’s tactics in his campaign against us.
From the very beginning of his dealing with the human race, a central part of Satan’s design has been to attack two specific truths about God which are the very foundation of our obedience and our devotion. They are God’s sovereignty and his goodness. If Satan cannot get us to deny them, he will try to get us to affirm one without the other. He wasted no time getting started in the Garden of Eden. You remember his ploys with Eve very well; you don’t even have to turn there. “Yea, hath God really said you can’t eat from all the trees? The reason for that is that if you do you will be like him, knowing Good and Evil.” What is God holding back from you? That is the question Satan is really asking, with the implication that God is keeping back something of Good. Good—all of it anyway—is obviously something that has to be pursued outside God’s will. “Ye shall not surely die.” What is this but a soft-pedaling of God’s sovereignty? He’s not completely in control of everything! Therefore, there is a chance you can get away with this act of disobedience you are contemplating.
It is no accident that these two attributes of God are the ones Satan most wants us to ignore or deny or soft-pedal. He is foolish but not stupid, and his strategy is very well thought out indeed. For one must deny or at least ignore precisely these two truths in order to follow Satan or self rather than the Lord. It is simply not possible to do so otherwise. Why these? Just think about them. God is sovereign: He has an absolute right to your obedience as your Creator and King. God is good: You can trust him with that kind of absolute obedience as your heavenly Father. Every act of sin, every impulse toward sin, entails a failure of faith at precisely these two points. That is why Scripture teaches us that “Whatever is not of faith is sin.” To understand these truths and see their relevance is to realize that it simply could not be otherwise.
Satan as we know is the Father of Lies, and his attacks on these two propositions, the sovereignty of God and the goodness of God, are his two favorite lies. And so our current problem is threefold. Not only are Satan’s lies most cleverly chosen, but, second, ever since the Fall of Adam our very nature has been insidiously inclined to believe them. And in the third place, the very separation from God, the source of all Goodness, that results from our sin also creates conditions all around us that seem on the surface to support these lies. It is no accident that what philosophers call “The Problem of Evil” is recognized by both atheists and by Christian apologists as the biggest gun in the atheist arsenal. By cutting ourselves off from God’s goodness we have created a world in which the still abundant evidence for it is obscured, made ambiguous, and compromised. These two lies then are the foundation of all faithlessness, the root of all rebellion, the source of all sin. If we are going to counteract them, in our own lives and in our ministry to others, we have to be as strategic about it as the Enemy is himself.
How do we do that? Paul tells us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom. 12:2). And how are they to be renewed? That’s where Psalm 119:11 comes in: “Thy word have I hid in my heart that I might not sin against thee.” If we are wise, we will fortify ourselves with Scripture. And if we are really wise, we will highlight in that fortification those Scriptures that deal most profoundly and most clearly with the two truths Satan is most concerned to blind us to: The sovereignty of God and the goodness of God. In other words, we need to reprogram our thinking, deliberately and consciously, by constantly beating into our heads these two ideas: God is sovereign; God is good. I want to begin that beating in process today with sovereignty and continue it next week by focusing on goodness. My method will be to overwhelm you with just a small sample of the biblical material on these topics, in the hope that you will take down the references and begin a long process of meditating on them in context, memorizing them, and acting on the basis of them to the glory of God and his Son Jesus Christ. That is precisely what you must do if you are serious. Merely listening to this sermon will not be enough. And so, let’s begin.
I do not want to just beat you over the head with the mere fact of God’s sovereignty. You know that already, and our Enemy will be quite content to let you affirm it if he can get you at the same time to change God subtly into a big Bully in the sky who can do what he wants just because nobody can stop him. I want rather to try something that I hope will be more insightful and helpful, and talk about the basis of God’s sovereignty. Scripture affirms not only God’s ability to rule but also his right to rule, and gives at least four good reasons why He should have that right. As I meditate on the sovereignty of God myself, I have found it most helpful, most moving toward my own faithfulness as his loyal subject, to do it in these terms. So here is how I suggest we think of it. God has the absolute right to rule the universe because of . . .
I urge you to ponder the proposition that it is not only important to include this reason; it is important to put it first. Too often we start with the omnipotence of God, as if that were simply synonymous with his sovereignty. But while He is in fact omnipotent and can therefore do whatever He pleases, to start with that fact is just to play right into the Enemy’s hands. The schoolyard bully’s size and strength give him the ability to rule the playground, but it does not give him the right. If Satan can get us to affirm the sovereignty of God in such a way that we think of him as a cosmic Bully—or get us to teach it in such a way that we tempt others to—he has won a significant victory. There is no foundation there for anything but rebellion, hopeless though it may be. Unless we start with who God is, with the excellence of his character, the doctrine of his omnipotence must be nothing but bad news. But if we start here, then it becomes good news indeed.
So I want to begin in Shakespeare’s play with Kent looking at King Lear, who wants to know why Kent is applying to be in his service, and responding, “There is that in thy countenance that I would fain call master.” All right, what is it that we see in the face of Christ as the perfect representative of God the Father? We see one who is best described as “I AM THAT I AM” (Exodus 3:14), which Christ echoed by saying that “before Abraham was, I AM” (John 8:58). His first attribute is existence; he just exists without needing to depend on anyone or anything else. He is the irrepressible Fountain of existence: of life and light and all that is positive and affirming and good. (This interpretation of the implications of his Name will be confirmed by the other passages we will see.) He is about creating, not destroying; about building, not tearing down; about life, not death. In these matters Satan is his great opposite. Choose ye this day whom ye shall serve!
I will just give you the next passages almost without comment: “The Moses said, ‘I pray thee, show me thy glory.’ And He said, ‘I myself will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the Name of the Lord before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will show compassion on whom I will show compassion.’ But He said, ‘You cannot see my face, for no man can see Me and live’” (Exodus 33:18-20). Goodness; glory; so great we cannot even handle it. “Hear O Israel! The Lord your God, the Lord is One! And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut. 6:405). “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of thy throne; lovingkindness and truth go before thee” (Psalm 89:14). Note the foundation of his throne, the basis of his right to rule! “In the year that king Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, with the train of his robe filling the temple. Seraphim stood above him, each having six wings . . . and one called to another and said, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory’” (Isaiah 6:1-3). Holiness is here connected specifically with God’s throne, the symbol of his sovereignty. The God who is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has a right to rule the universe because of the perfect excellence of his character.
It is an almost self evident principle that creation confers ownership rights. If I make something, that gives me the right to determine its use. This is the foundation of all property. The worker who contributes to the construction of a car owns part of that car by virtue of having helped to make it. The company buys back his ownership in the form of a salary and benefits so it can sell the car to you. This is the foundation of all economic exchange. Our ownership rights are never absolute because we had to get the materials from somewhere. Our creativity is never the sole cause for the existence of what we have made. But what if we apply these principles to God? “In the beginning, God made the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). Out of what? Out of nothing. So God’s ownership rights are absolute, with no limitations—and rightly and justly so. Having laid down the general principle in its very first verse, Scripture then goes on to apply it to every individual thing that exists, lest we miss the point. “Who made man’s mouth? Is it not I, the Lord?” (Exodus 4:11). “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me if you have understanding. Who set its measurements, since you know? Or who stretched the line on it? On what were its bases sunk? Or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (Job 38:4-7). “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it” (Psalm 24:1). The God who is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has a right to rule the universe because of His ownership of it by right of creation.
For those of us who are believers, there is an added reason why God has a right to reign over our lives as sovereign king: He has redeemed us out of the kingdom of darkness at the price of the precious Blood of his only begotten Son. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of he land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Exodus 20:1). Therefore, here are the Ten Commandments, which, note, I have just stated the basis of my right to require of you. “Ye are not your own; ye are brought with a price. Therefore glorify God with your bodies” (1 Cor. 6:20). This alone should make us not only willing to be God’s faithful subjects, it should make us earnestly desire and deeply long to obey Him. The God who is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has a right to rule the universe in general, and us in particular, because of His double ownership by right of redemption.
I mention this last because without the other three it would not necessarily amount to anything more than tyranny. But I do mention it because it is a part of the picture and needs to be reckoned with. And it needs to be seen in connection with the other reasons to be properly understood. It is because God is the One who Is, the Fountain of Existence, that He is as unlimited in his power as He is in his wisdom and goodness. It is because He created everything else that exists that there is nothing that could ever thwart his sovereign decrees. Thus we should never see his omnipotence or his sovereignty as separate from his goodness. But neither should we ever underestimate the power of the Light side. “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” (Gen. 18:14a). “For if by now I had put forth my hand and struck your people with pestilence, you would have been cut off from the earth. But indeed, for this cause I have allowed you to remain, in order to show you my power and in order to proclaim my name through all the earth” (Exodus 9:15-16). “See now that I, I am He, and there is no god besides me. It is I who put to death and give life. I have wounded, and it is I who heal; and there is no one who can deliver from my hand” (Deut. 32:39). Add to these references Psalm 33:6-12, Psalm 135:5-6, and Isaiah 40:21-26. But let us end with Romans 9:21. “Does not the Potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use?” Why don’t we experience victory in the Christian life? Because most of us do not yet believe down to the very marrow of our bones that the Potter has any rights over the clay. We would prefer that he have to ask the clay’s permission. If Romans 9 still bothers you, you need—like me—the spiritual discipline of Psalm 119:11. “Thy word have I hid in my heart that I might not sin against thee.” We get over this problem with God’s sovereignty precisely by coming to see Romans 9 as the climax of the whole thread of teaching I have been laying out for you today: that the God who is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has a right to rule the universe because of the perfect excellence of his character, because of his ownership by right of creation, because of his double ownership by right of redemption, and then because of his raw omnipotent power. Only as we begin seeing the whole Scriptural picture will we begin to be content to let him be the Potter, content to be ourselves the clay.
Even with the fuller context I’ve been trying to give it, all the above might still seem somewhat threatening to some of us. Therefore, let me close not simply by reminding you that God’s sovereignty must be seen in the light of His goodness, which we will not fully study until next week, but by reminding you of the last and most important thing that needs to be said about the sovereignty of God itself. The primary expression of the sovereignty of God is the Lordship of Jesus Christ! Remember the wise and noble words of Kent: “There is that in thy countenance that I would fain call master.” The doctrine of the sovereignty of God, like every other doctrine of Scripture, is not finally seen rightly until we are gazing into the face of Jesus. And what do we see there? We see the One who is utterly worthy to be our Lord and Sovereign, who pulls all the threads of doctrine we have been seeing today together in one portrait of glory and grace. It is the face of the One who taught with authority, not as the scribes. It is the face of the One who had the authority to forgive sins on earth. It is the face of the One who said, “All things are handed over to me by my Father.” It is the face of the One who said, “All power and authority is given unto me in heaven and in earth.” It is also the face of the One of whom it is said, “Although he existed in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking on the form of a servant. And being found in the likeness of men, he humbled himself by becoming obedient even unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow . . . and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:6-11). It is the face of the One to whom celestial beings sing, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing” (Rev. 5:9). It is the face of the One of whom it will be said, when the seventh and final trump of doom is sounded, “The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” (Rev. 11:15).
So let the Hallelujah Chorus ring in your ears! Go home this afternoon and put it on the stereo! For that is the ultimate expression and the ultimate meaning and the ultimate fulfillment of this grand and majestic biblical theme of the sovereignty of God. Jesus Christ is Lord! Jesus Christ is King! Are you his loyal subject? The final reason why the sovereignty of God is a blessing and not a curse is the vision of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Are you his loyal subject? He will exalt you. Are you a rebel? Lay down your arms and bow before him even now and he will extend grace and pardon to you, he will accept you. Persist in you rebellion and he will crush you. Above all, if you are a child of God here today, receive the first of our two magazines of ammunition against the lies of Satan and load it into your chamber. God is sovereign: He has an absolute right to your obedience as your Creator and King. And he is our good and gracious king, as we will see more fully next time. And he shall reign forever and ever. Hallelujah! Amen.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams