May 3, 2020
God’s inscrutability doesn’t imply that faith is a leap in the dark. Rather, we ought to consider the evidence of Scripture with reasoned trust. Although by nature we tend to suppress the truth, our minds are indispensable, teaches Alistair Begg. Through faith, God opens our hearts and minds to consider all that He reveals and points us toward Jesus, our incomparable Savior, Shepherd, and Friend.
Sermon Transcript: Print
We’re going to read from the New Testament, in Philippians and in chapter 2 and reading from the first verse. Philippians 2:1:
“So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
As we turn to the Bible, I want us to pray using what was Calvin’s traditional prayer before he expounded the Scriptures in Geneva. So we come to God now: “Let us cast ourselves down before the majesty of our good God, asking him to forgive our sins and renew us in the image of Christ, and to fulfill all his purposes in us and through us. Amen.”
I had given a friend a loan of a book some time ago. It was a book of prayers, and in returning it to me—we were actually traveling together; he was in the next door in the hotel in which we were staying—and he came out in the morning, and he handed the book back to me, and he said thank you for it, and then he made just one comment: he said, “There’s not much Jesus in it.” And I was immediately struck by that, and I’ve thought of it many a day. And it actually occurred to me again this week, in that the same might actually be said of some of our statements—and when I say “our,” I mean beyond just the immediacy of ourselves—but some of the statements being made in response to the virus crisis, which continues with no obvious end in sight. The laments of the psalmist, combined with the searchings of Solomon and a little help from Habakkuk, have been, I hope, spiritually nutritious. I have a sense that they have served us well. But somewhere along the line in the past week, again that phrase came to me. And it was a challenge to me. I wonder if it might be said of what we’re doing that there’s not much Jesus in this. And so I thought, “Well, I must deal with that.”
Along with that, as a member of the 3 a.m. club, which some of you are a part of, when I wake in the night, I have a number of ways in endeavoring to return to sleep, and one of them is that I work through the alphabet, seeking to use the opening line of hymns. So, for example, “All the Way My Savior Leads Me,” “Behold the Amazing Gift of Love,” “Come, Let Us to the Lord Our God Return,” “Dear Savior, Thou Art Mine,” and so on. I usually make it all the way to Z. And this week I stopped on O, because the verse that I fastened on begins,
O soul, are you weary and troubled?
No light in the darkness you see?
[There is] light for a look at the Savior,
And life more abundant and free!
And then the chorus:
Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in his wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of his glory and grace.
May I just say in passing, it is vitally important what we sing and what we sing with our children. At this vintage point of my life, the only way I’m able to turn to those hymns is because of my upbringing, and for that I’m immensely thankful.
The words of that song are sweet, and I actually can hear somebody saying, “Well, wait a minute. That sounds to me just like a form of escapism, especially in the middle of the night, or an expression of weak emotionalism.” Well, I suppose it could be regarded in that way, but it needn’t be—not any more than we would, in dealing with the song that Habakkuk was singing through his pain, dismiss it as nothing more than a kind of deluded optimism. But you will perhaps remember, if you’ve been working through with us, that we referred to his response as one of theological realism. And this has remained with me as a theme in my thinking through this time, and I want to sort of follow that along.
Nobody should be put off by the word theology. Everybody has a theology. Everybody knows what it is to think about God. Essentially, we could use as a definition that theology is simply the study of God and the study of God’s relationship to the world. If you’re listening as an atheist, I want you to know that even your rejection of God is in itself a theological statement.
And so, although we’re not working our way consecutively, expositionally, through a book at the moment—although 1 Samuel awaits us—I hope that there is at least some sense of continuity in the topical studies in which we’re engaged. And so, in keeping with the idea of maintaining continuity, I want to remind you of where we ended last time. And where we ended last time is essentially my first point of this morning, and it is simply this: that God’s ways are inscrutable. You may recall that we ended last time with Paul’s doxology at the end of Romans chapter 11, where he writes, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable [are] his ways!”
We began, I think, last Sunday morning, from recollection, with the hymn “Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!” reminding ourselves at the very beginning of our praise that God is Trinity—that is, one God in three persons. And far from this being a piece of theological lumber to be stored in our attic or in a barn, it is absolutely foundational to theological truth. Because when we turn to the Bible, we discover that from eternity, one God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—existed in mutuality, in a mutuality of both love and joy. And when God made man, when God made Adam and Eve and set them in the garden, he made them in order that they and all that followed him might enjoy this same mutuality, this fellowship with him, that they might be friends of God. And you will remember from the opening parts of the Bible that God walked with them in the cool of the day and the pleasure of the relationship that existed. But it all went wrong, because sin made this mutuality, this fellowship, this friendship, impossible. And Adam and Eve doubted God’s goodness, rejected his wisdom, and rebelled against his authority. And the wonder of the story, of course, is not that God cast off his creation but that God came, that God came in person. As Jim Packer puts it, the second person, sent by the first person and empowered by the third person, came to save us. This is biblical theology.
And so, in the Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—we are given the records, or the record, of the historical events as Jesus, as we read in Philippians 2, took “the form of a servant.” He shared in the limitations of human life on earth. And so, when we read the Gospels, we find him as a baby in Bethlehem, dependent upon the care of his earthly father and his mother. Not only as a baby but as a boy in the temple. We see him as a teacher of vast crowds. We see him sweating, as it were, “great drops of blood” in Gethsemane. We find him there, described dying on Calvary and lying dead in Joseph’s tomb. All of that is there, as historical record, in the Gospels for us to read. And the Gospels are written in such a way that we could apply our minds to them and think about this, what an amazing mystery it is. And on top of all of that, what we discover is that simultaneously, while all that was, if you like, going on, he was, says the writer of the Hebrews, upholding the universe by the word of his power. He, upholding the universe by the word of his power.
Now, you see, for the Christian believer, this is along the lines of what Paul is referring to when he writes to Timothy about “the mystery of godliness.” It is for us an unfathomable mystery. Why would we be surprised that there is mystery? It would be strange if there were no mystery. For our unbelieving friends, it’s not a mystery; it is largely an absurdity.
Some of us have Jewish friends and Muslim neighbors and friends, and when we have occasion to talk with them, there is much that we share in our perspective on the world and in terms of many, many different things. But when it comes to the Christian believer declaring this unfathomable mystery, it’s at that point that my Jewish and Muslim friends get off the bus. Because the idea of the Christian faith declaring that in Jesus we find God is just rejected. The New Atheists, Richard Dawkins and his friends, view the whole thing as a delusion. People who are not as strident in their response as that actually have determined that the Christian faith is just a kind of wishful thinking. There’s a lot of this around at the moment. People who have no real conviction about anything will trot out these kind of sentiments. Wishful thinking: the kind of hoping that something is true when you don’t have any good reason to believe that it actually is.
Now, why is it that mankind, created by God and for God for a relationship with God, should respond in this way? Well, the Bible, again, explains this. It tells us that by our nature we suppress the truth, that our rejection of God is a choice, that our design for a world that leaves him off the page is part of our suppression of a truth which is borne into our lives and is established in our thinking. God has set eternity, as we saw last time, in our hearts. As a result of that, we repress the truth as it impacts our minds and our emotions and our wills. And consequently, we do not and we cannot know God by nature.
Now, this, of course, is what we were saying last time: that this great, unfathomable dimension of God’s work is actually beyond our capacity. As my good friend David Wells puts it in a memorable phrase, God in this respect is beyond “the range of our intuitive radar.” I love that picture: that we cannot simply engage him in our own time and in our own way, that God is the one who takes the initiative.
And added to this is the fact that the darkness that we sing about and about which we’re aware is actually not on the outside, but it’s on the inside. And so man finds himself—I use “man” qua man—finds himself lost, as if he’s lost the car keys to his existence, that he doesn’t really know where his home is, that he has no explanation for his beginning and he has no concept at all about his end.
But here’s the good news: God, seeing us in our ability to know him and to love him, certainly to understand him and to serve him, has revealed himself, and he has done so in act, in creation; he has done so in word, in his Scriptures; and he has done so in person, in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ.
And to encapsulate all of this and to come to the end of this first point, the Bible, then, is the record of that revelation, the revelation of God. And the purpose of that record being left to us in Scripture is, says Paul in 2 Timothy 3, “to make you wise for salvation through faith in [Jesus Christ].” “To make you wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.” Now, we won’t delay on this, but you’ll remember that the psalmist says, “It is the fool who has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” That is not a comment on intellectual capacity. There are many, many, many very, very clever people who disregard what we’re saying now. The real issue is that God’s wisdom is revealed in God’s Son and is established strikingly in the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, which, says Paul when he writes to the Corinthians, is regarded as the saving power to those who believe, but to those who are unbelieving, it’s absolute foolishness.
So, there we leave it. That was where we ended last time, that is where we have begun now, with the fact that God’s ways are inscrutable.
Now what are we to do about that? Well, in a short order, in one word: think. Think. And here’s my second point: not only are God’s ways inscrutable, but our minds are indispensable. Our minds are indispensable.
It wouldn’t be difficult to find some people who wanted to so strongly make clear that we were incapable of knowing God in this way so as to suggest that, really, we should just do nothing about it at all, and there would be no need for us to apply our minds to these things. Well, in actual fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The rationality of God’s revelation is revealed in creation, it is revealed in the way the Scriptures are given, and it is revealed in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. Rather than spend a long time on this, in light of our time frame, let me give you a recommendation of a book—a short book—and a quote. The book was penned and published in 1972 by John Stott, and it is simply entitled Your Mind Matters. Your Mind Matters. And he very, very helpfully addresses this whole question.
The quote comes from Gresham Machen, onetime of Westminster Seminary, who wrote The Christian Faith in the Modern World and published it in 1936. Well, it actually was the modern world, largely, in ’36, not the postmodern world in which we have been living. And in that book, he says this. Now, you understand what we’re saying? The ways of God are inscrutable; our minds are indispensable. Here’s the quote:
There must be the mysterious work of the Spirit of God in the new birth. Without that, all our arguments are quite useless. But because argument is insufficient, it does not follow that it is unnecessary. What the Holy Spirit does in the new birth is not to make a man [or a woman] a Christian regardless of the evidence, but on the contrary to clear away the mists from their eyes and enable [them] to attend to the evidence.
I find that wonderfully helpful. I hope you do too.
And some of you may actually be living this right now. You have begun to read the Bible in a way that you hadn’t been reading it before. It has been very, very difficult for you to understand. But somehow, in a way that is inexplicable to you, the mist is beginning to clear, and you discover now that as you are beginning to think these things through, some of it, at least, is making sense and is pointing you forward to Jesus, is dispelling the idea that genuine Christian faith is simply a leap in the dark: that you disengage your thinking faculties, you embrace your emotion, you discard reason, you move into the realm of wishful thinking, and when you get in there, then it all becomes cozy and plain.
No, you could never come to that as a result of reading the Bible. It is far more daunting than that. It’s not a leap in the dark. It is, if you like, reasoned trust. Coming to an understanding of God’s wisdom expressed in Jesus, confronting us with our need of Jesus and the wonder of his love for us, is not like solving a mathematical equation but is rather more like embracing a person. As in marriage, there comes a moment of commitment. Calvin tells us that all that Christ has done for us is of no value to us so long as we remain outside of Christ. We might put it like this: that God’s message brings no benefit until it meets with faith in the hearers.
So, God’s ways are inscrutable. Our minds, briefly, are indispensable. And my third and final point, which was really the point with which I began—and have taken a long time to get there, I confess—is that Jesus is incomparable. Jesus is incomparable.
This brings me to what we have read in Philippians 2, but it also is testimony to the fact that, again, going back to my 3 a.m. alphabetical journey, brings me in the letter H to the hymn which begins,
How sweet the name of Jesus sounds
In a believer’s ear!
It soothes his sorrows, heals his wounds,
And drives away his fear.
Now, I don’t know what night it was or what morning it was. It doesn’t really matter. But I remember lying there and thinking to myself, “Surely, this is a wonderful message for the present time.” For if we listen carefully, there are many sorrows that need to be soothed; there are many wounds, not least of all in relationships and brokenness, that need to be healed; and there are many fears that are to be driven away.
Of course, the writer of this hymn was not writing in psychological terms. He was not, actually, writing in social terms. He was writing, as you would expect me to say, in theological terms. John Newton, better known for “Amazing Grace,” was part of the company of theological realists. And so he understood what we need to understand, and that is that when Paul writes of Jesus here in Philippians chapter 2, and when he declares that “every tongue” will “confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father,” he writes in the awareness of what the prophets had said of God. And we had it read for us earlier this morning:
Turn to me and be saved,
all the ends of the earth!
For I am God, and there is no other. …
“To me every knee shall bow,
every tongue shall swear allegiance.”
Now, Paul was brought up as a Jew, and he knew that that would be true. He rejected the idea that was being proclaimed by these strange followers of Jesus that it had anything at all to do with Jesus. How could it possibly have anything to do with Jesus? After all, there is only one God! And, of course, it was going to take the opening of his eyes, the clearing of the mists, even in his blindness on that Damascus Road, to discover what is meant. And so, when he writes to the Philippians, he is describing how Jesus stepped down to share our humanity, and how in turn he’s been exalted to the place of highest honor.
Now, this again is part of the great mystery to which we referred at the beginning: this mutuality which existed in eternity between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. If you doubt that, then read your Bible. And you may read, for example, in Christ’s High Priestly Prayer in John chapter 17. I just quote briefly from it, around verse 4. Jesus is speaking now to his Father, in the prospect of all that awaits him in Calvary. And he says, speaking in a kind of prophetic past tense, “[Father,] I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.”
I say again, the idea to dismiss genuine Christian faith as some triviality testifies to the fact that men have never considered the claims of the Christian faith. So when Paul picks this notion up, if you like, out of his understanding of the Old Testament, when he says that we declare that “Jesus Christ is Lord,” that is not an expression of the devotion of the declarer. It is an expression as to the identity of Jesus—that the word that is used there, kurios, which in the Septuagint, in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, thousands of times it is the word that is used for Yahweh, for God. So Paul knows exactly what he’s doing. The prophet said that God is the only Savior. And Paul says, “And you need to know that Jesus is that Savior. Jesus is that Savior.”
Now, you see, this was the testimony of the writer of the hymn. And it was not his testimony at the beginning of his life. He wrote the memorable words, “I once was lost, [and] now [I’m] found; was blind, but now I see.” So something happened along the journey of John Newton’s life to revolutionize his entire perspective.
Actually, that is what is involved in becoming a Christian. I don’t mind whether you were brought up in a Christian home or whether you have been living afar from these things; everything eventually brings us to one place—namely, to the cross of Jesus Christ—brings us to an inescapable encounter with Jesus. Jesus is actually unavoidable. He is to the believer the stone, the rock upon which we take our stand. He is to the believer a stone over which men and women trip, a nuisance in the journey of life, something to be avoided, to be kicked aside.
John Owen, the great English theologian, in a wonderful couple of sentences—or maybe one sentence—says, “It is the soul’s estimate of Christ as a person that is the crucial test to discover how a person stands before God.” “The soul’s estimate of Christ as a person.” So, may I ask you, what is your estimate of Christ? Are you able to say, “I know Jesus; he is my Savior”?
I love reading about the ’60s and the great movement of God on the West Coast, with all the hippies telling one another about their discovery of Jesus. And in the little that I’ve read and watched concerning that, their story was pretty simple. Their encounter with one another was straightforward. They would say to one another things like “You know, I have made a wonderful new friend. I would love to introduce you to him.” And they would say, “And who is that?” And they’d say, “Well, it is Jesus.” And they would say, “Well, what is he to you?” They would say, “He is my Savior.”
You see, the real question, then: Is that your testimony and mine today? The details of individual conversion vary. For Saul of Tarsus, it was dramatic. For Lydia—prosperous, respectable, prayerful, worshipful lady—it was quieter, a river scene. And what happened to her? She began to think. Because the Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what Paul was saying to her. What was Paul saying to her? He was saying this to her! He was saying, “Jesus is the Savior!” And the wonder of it all is, of course, that God opens our hearts to think, to consider. Has he been clearing the mist for you?
And Newton himself—what an amazing story of his conversion! We have no time for it now. But it is fantastic, isn’t it? His mother dies, at the age of seven; she nurtured him at her knee and at her Bible. And he finds himself in a dramatic storm and cries out, “O God, save me!” If you’ve managed to get to the church in Olney where he was a minster eventually, you will have seen the obituary which he planned for himself, which is up there on the wall. I won’t read it all, but it reads as follows: “John Newton, clerk,” born 1725, died 1807. He obviously didn’t write the “1807” part. “Once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa, was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the faith he had long laboured to destroy.” “Amazing grace! How sweet the sound.” “How sweet the name of Jesus.”
But not only does he declare him, in his hymn, a Savior but also a “shepherd.” Perfect, isn’t it? There’s so much of this in the Old Testament. Again, the picture of God as gently leading those who have young. Jesus looking out on the crowd and being moved with compassion, seeing them as sheep without a shepherd. Identifying himself as the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. Describing the story—to the rapt attention, doubtless, of his listeners—who said, “And there was a man, and he had a hundred sheep, and he had ninety-nine of them, and they were all safe and sound. But there was one that wasn’t there, and he went out on the hills. And far away this sheep, from the fold of God, lacking direction, wandering, but sought out by the shepherd.”
Some of you will have read the wonderful little book on the shepherd’s life in the Lake District in England. And you will have doubtless noted the things that were striking to you, but here’s just a couple of sentences. And I love this book for various reasons. My paternal grandfather was a shepherd in the Highlands of Scotland. And the shepherd is writing about his ewes and his lambs. And he says,
In the eight weeks since I brought them [up] here I have not seen many of them. … So I am anxious to see them again, keen to [check] that they are alive and well. Above all I am interested to see how much my lambs have grown … I brought them up [here] when they were just a month old in May.
Oh, what a wonderful picture that is! “For you were once like sheep,” says Peter to his readers, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.”
Savior, Shepherd, Friend. A friend of tax collectors and sinners. As Justin reminded us in preparation for our prayers, “I have called you friends,” says Jesus. He lays down his life so that we who by nature are distanced and enemies of God, we may be reconciled to the Father by the sacrifice of the Son. Surely, his followers remain his servants. But he says, “I want now to refer to you as friends”—friends who will do what friends do: introduce others to the one who loved them first.
Loved before the dawn of time,
Chosen by my Maker,
Hidden in my Savior:
I am his … he is mine,
Cherished for eternity. …
All the chains of Satan’s curse
Lifted through his offering,
Satisfied through suffering;
All the blessings he deserve[d]
Poured on my unworthy soul.
So, the ways of God are inscrutable. Come, let us worship and bow down. Our minds are indispensable. So then, let us consider and think. And Jesus is incomparable. So let us ask him to be our Savior, Shepherd, and Friend.
Let us pray. And as we used Calvin before, we use him afterwards:
We call upon you, our good God and Father, beseeching you, since all the fullness of wisdom and light is found in you, in your mercy to enlighten us by the Holy Spirit in the true understanding of the Word. Teach us by your Word to place our trust in you and to serve and honor you as we ought, so that we may glorify your holy name in all our living and edify our neighbors by our good example. May we render to you, O God, the love and obedience which children owe to their parents, since it has pleased you graciously to receive us in Christ as your children.
For you are our Savior, Shepherd, and Friend. Amen.
 Helen Howarth Lemmel, “Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus” (1922).
 Romans 11:33 (ESV).
 Reginald Heber, “Holy, Holy, Holy” (1826).
 See Genesis 3:8.
 See Luke 2:41–51.
 Luke 22:44 (ESV).
 See Matthew 27:57–60; Mark 15:43, 45–46; Luke 23:50–53; John 19:38–42.
 See Hebrews 1:3.
 1 Timothy 3:16 (ESV).
 See Romans 1:18.
 See Ecclesiastes 3:11.
 David Wells, What Is the Trinity? (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2012), 11.
 2 Timothy 3:15 (ESV).
 Psalm 14:1; 53:1 (paraphrased).
 See 1 Corinthians 1:18.
 J. Gresham Machen, The Christian Faith in the Modern World (New York: Macmillan, 1936), 63.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.1.1.
 See Hebrews 4:2.
 John Newton, “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds” (1779). Lyrics lightly altered.
 Isaiah 45:22–23 (ESV).
 John Newton, “Amazing Grace” (1779).
 See 1 Corinthians 1:23.
 See Acts 9:1–19.
 See Acts 16:11–15.
 Newton, “Amazing Grace.”
 See Isaiah 40:11.
 See Matthew 9:36; Mark 6:34.
 See John 10:11.
 Luke 15:3–7 (paraphrased).
 James Rebanks, The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape (New York: Flatiron, 2015), 24.
 1 Peter 2:25 (paraphrased).
 See, for example, Luke 7:34.
 John 15:15 (ESV).
 Stuart Townend and Andrew Small, “Loved before the Dawn of Time (Salvation’s Song)” (2007).
 See Psalm 95:6.
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.