January 1, 2023
The transition from one year into another gives us an opportunity to reflect on what we believe, to consider why it matters, and to think Christianly about all of life. From selected Bible passages, Alistair Begg considers three “But God…” statements, examining the doctrine of providence in Joseph’s life, the doctrine of judgment in the parable of the rich fool, and the hope of salvation offered in Romans 5. All who hear God’s voice are called not to delay but to trust today in Christ, who seeks us out in our brokenness and gives us new life in Him.
Sermon Transcript: Print
I invite you to turn with me to Romans and to chapter 5. This contains a verse which is one of three brief passages to which we will give our attention in a moment or two. But I’m going to read from the first verse of Romans 5 through to the eleventh verse.
And Paul writes,
“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”
I invite you just to turn, if you would, to Genesis chapter 50, and you can just have it there in readiness.
I found myself coming to the end of the year saying, “How should I think properly about the new year?”—not just today or last night, although definitely about last night and today. But how should I think? And the answer, of course, is that I should think Christianly. I should think about everything as a Christian thinks, because, like many of you, I have affirmed the truths that we have said this morning, both in the creed and then secondly in the catechism.
And I recognize also, as do you, that the things that we think about and the things that we believe matter entirely. I had an illustration of it earlier this year, towards into the autumn, when I was visiting in Shrewsbury with one of my sisters on my way to Newcastle. And as we walked around a place that I’m fairly familiar with, I came on a brass plate identifying the fact that since 1689, this had been the old parsonage or the manse of the minister. And as I read it, I was fascinated to find out that George I established this and established a school subsequently that would be for the provision of nontrinitarian education. Nontrinitarian education. In other words, it would be a Unitarian school. It would be a Unitarian pastor and a Unitarian school.
“Well,” I thought, “well, that’s a bad deal.” And then I read down further: “Charles Darwin, along with his sister, were pupils here in 1817.” And I said to myself, “There you go. If he had been in a church that affirmed the Apostles’ Creed, if he had been in a church where it was taught to him—the Bible—‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,’ he may not just have been as likely to have so drastically deviated from course as he did in his subsequent investigations.”
So, it is that kind of thinking that’s in my mind, and it is added to by the nature of the transition from one year to another. For some, it is just extravagant revelry. There are all kinds of places that you can go to really, really have a good time. The Wall Street had the top nine places to spend the night of December thirty-first; Reykjavik made it, but Cleveland wasn’t in it. I hope you had a good evening.
Not everybody is engaging in merriment and revelry. For some, it is an occasion of deep-seated melancholy. That reflection becomes rumination; rumination gives way to depression. And while it’s an overstatement to suggest that our lives are marked by quiet and sometimes not so quiet desperation, we recognize that we’re not immune to the sadness of loss, to the reality of unachieved ambition, when we get what we want only to find that it doesn’t satisfy, or even to a debilitating sense of loneliness.
In his book Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cure, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who was first a medical doctor and then a theologian and a pastor, encourages the readers of that book to talk to themselves. And this is what he says: “Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you’re listening to yourself [rather than] talking to yourself?” It’s a very helpful book. It talks about how when you wake up in the morning, where do those thoughts come from? And you didn’t induce them, but they’re there. And he says, “If you’re going simply to listen to yourself, there is no saying where you may end up. Therefore, let’s talk to yourself.”
It’s that kind of thing that’s in my mind. And because of that, I want to tackle with you three “But God…” statements. Three “But God…” statements.
And the first of these statements is here in Genesis chapter 50. You’re familiar with it. In fact, you’re familiar with all of them. I make no apology for the familiarity. And you will find that in the conversation between Joseph and his brothers, “Joseph said to them”—verse 19—“‘Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.’ [And] thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.”
“But God meant it for good.” Joseph, without question, came from what we would refer to as a dysfunctional family. He was spoiled by his father, and he was hated by his brothers. We can’t rehearse the whole story, although I’d love to, but I commend it to you. If you’re going to read Genesis, you’ll get to it eventually. And certainly, when you get to chapter 37, you can imagine this young fellow, the youngest of the group, coming down in the morning and saying, “You know, I dreamt a lot last night.” “Oh,” the brothers said, “and what did you dream about now?” And he said, “Well, I dreamt that the sheaves were there—the sheaves of grain.” And
“We were [all] binding sheaves in the field, and behold, my sheaf arose and [it] stood upright. And behold, your sheaves [all] gathered around … and bowed down to my sheaf.” [And] his brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Or are you indeed to rule over us?” So they hated him even more for his dreams and for his words.
And as a result of that, you will know, as the story goes on, they sold him into slavery. And part of the reason for selling him into slavery was to make sure that what he said in that dream did not actually happen. And in their cruel and evil actions, for which they were responsible, God was actually at work in and through their evil, without being the initiator of it, raising Joseph to the very place that was necessary for the salvation of those not only of the family of Jacob but for more people besides. And that’s why he was able, then, to say, “Don’t fear. As for you, you meant it evil, but God meant it for good.”
If in those circumstances—when he was taken away, when he was thrown in the pit, when he was stripped naked and sold as a slave, when he was taken into the house of Potiphar and so on—if he had simply been saying to himself when he ended up in the jail, again, if he had simply said, “I wonder why this has happened to me?”—if he’d simply asked that question—he would never have had the perspective that is given to us in 50:20.
And when the brothers eventually have been reinstated with him and when their father has died, they immediately decide, “Well, maybe Joseph will hate us. Maybe he will pay us back for all the evil that we did to him. Maybe he’s only been acting this way while our father is alive, and now that he has died…” It’s the kind of question you get sometimes in the reading of a will: “Now that the patriarch is gone, I wonder if the recriminations and the accusations and the debilitations of family interaction will come to the fore once again.” That’s the kind of thing that’s in their mind.
But they underestimated Joseph. Because he actually looked beyond their actions, he looked beyond their reactions, and he looked to the hand of God in both his affliction and also in his benefits. You see, in short order, it was Joseph’s dependence upon the providence of God that enabled him to live as he lived, that enabled him to endure trials without complaint and enabled him, in his great elevation and in his encouragements, to receive them as with a humble heart.
Now, it would be very easy just to stay with this one “But God…” I can’t do that. I need to move on. But let me commend to you again the reading of the story of Joseph—and along with that, as we think of providence, in the reading of Esther and in the reading also of Ruth. All of them will help us in that way.
You see, God not only has created those which he has made, but by his divine energy, he has preserved, as the Bible tells us, all who he has made, and he is directing all that comes to pass in the world to the end that he has appointed it. In 1773, on January the first, Newton was preaching to his congregation, and he urged his congregation to recall their own experiences of God’s providential care. He says, “Here let us look back … His providential care preserving us from a thousand seen, millions of unseen dangers, when we knew him not.” We’re able to affirm, as David did, that “through many dangers, toils, and snares” we “have already come.” And in the same sermon he reminds his congregation, “The Lord bestows many blessings upon his people, but unless he likewise gives them a thankful heart, they lose much of the comfort they might have in them.”
How will our confidence in God’s providential dealings work out in our lives? Well, that’s a sermon on its own. But it will mean at least this: gratitude for the benefits that we enjoy; humility in any successes that we experience; security in the face of unfolding chaos; forgiveness towards those who have injured us or wronged us. Whatever grudge, lack of forgiveness, we may hold on to as a new year dawns, God forgive us for doing so. But if we do: Are you feeling that way because somebody sold you into a pit? Because somebody tried to remove your life from you? Because you were in that predicament? No, not for a moment! And not only forgiveness towards those who have wronged us but freedom from worry about the future.
You see, the doctrine of providence is mysterious, and we’re not pausing on it, as I say. Calvin, who wrote of it a lot, said he wrote not by way of explanation but by way of confession. It’s a very important distinction. He was able to say, “I understand this, and I understand that, but I don’t write concerning the mysterious work of God in providence by way of explanation but rather by way of confession.” And in a commentary on Calvin’s Institutes, David Calhoun makes this amazing statement: he says this doctrine “does not answer all our questions, but it enables us to live without answers until the time comes when we will live without questions.” The doctrine of providence “enables us to live without answers until the time comes when we will live without questions.” For then we will see him, and we will know him, even as we are known.
So, that is the first “But God…”: the doctrine of providence, providing a soft pillow for all who place their heads there.
From that we move from comfort to challenge, and I invite you to turn to Luke and to chapter 12. And Luke chapter 12 and beginning to read at verse 13:
“Someone in the crowd said to him”—that is, to Jesus—“‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.’ But he said to him, ‘Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?’ And he said to them, ‘Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.’ And he told them a parable, saying, ‘The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, “What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?” And he said, “I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’” But God…’” “‘But God said to him, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward[s] God.’”
“But God said …, ‘Fool!’”—not an expression of a lack of intellectual capacity but an expression concerning the moral response of an individual to all that God had provided.
The context in which Jesus tells this parable—and it is one of about thirty-five parables that Jesus has given us that are recorded in the Scriptures—the context, as you will see, is an approach by someone in the crowd asking for Jesus to intervene on his behalf on a matter of inheritance. We’re back to kind of the will thing again: “I’m not getting what I should get. Could you please get into this for me and speak on my behalf?” Jesus says, “No, I’m not going to do that. No, that’s not why I came. I didn’t come here to make those kind of judgment calls.” But then he said to them, “But I have a warning for you: take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” Covetousness is just idolatry. It is a form of finding our desires in something other than God. What is actually our default desire, the thing we long for, will ultimately be the focus of our worship—will be our god, if you like, with a small g.
So, he issues that warning, and then, to bring it home, he tells this story; he tells this parable. There was a man. He was a rich man; that’s okay. He was a rich man, and he’d had a bumper year. His crops were overflowing. He was successful; that’s not a problem either. We’re told that the reason for his success is on account of the fact that the land of the rich man had produced plentifully. All right? He hadn’t come up with a great idea for IT. He hadn’t done something that could be attributed, ultimately, to his initiative and his ingenuity—which, of course, would be another matter for consideration under God’s care. Leave that aside for the moment. But rather, it was the land that had produced plentifully.
Now, anybody listening to the parable says, “Well, of course! One can plant, and another can water, but only God can make things grow.” So look what has happened here: God has provided in abundance through what the man has done by way of the sowing of his crops and so on. And the people who were listening to the story would be aware of the fact that that was something for which to be thankful to God.
And yet, what happens? Well, “he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’” Apparently, he had no plan for profit sharing, he wasn’t particularly interested in a distribution strategy, and clearly, he wasn’t particularly interested in simply adding to what he had. Notice what the text says: “No,” he says, “I’m not just going to add another little bit here; I’m going to tear the whole operation down. This is an amazing opportunity. This is a chance for me to just build it up again. Everyone in the community will be able to say, ‘My, my! What a year he’s had! What an amazing job he has done!’ No, I’ll be able to do this. This is absolutely tremendous. I’ll tear down my barns. I’ll build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain, all my goods, all my everything.”
“And I will talk to myself.” You say, “Well, you just started this morning telling us we’re supposed to talk to ourselves.” Yes, we are, said Lloyd-Jones. But we’re supposed to talk sense to ourselves. We’re supposed to talk truth to ourselves. He talks to himself; he talks nonsense to himself: “And I will say to my soul, the epicenter of my existence, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years. You’ve got it covered now. This takes care of the future. There’s no more need for industry and endeavor. You can relax. You can go to Florida. You can fossilize down in Florida. You can do whatever you choose to do. Now you have succeeded.’” Here is the American Dream before there was an American Dream: “To think I did all that, and may I say, not in a shy way.” “I did it. I did it. Look at what I’ve done. Have you seen my new property? Have you seen the new things that I have?”
“My grain,” “my goods,” “many years.” He thought he could control everything, but he couldn’t control his lifespan. His thinking was shortsighted. This man never saw beyond himself, and he never saw beyond this world. Never saw beyond himself, never saw beyond this world. He forgot about God, and he ignored the reality of death. He acts as if he is immortal, and he fails to recognize that he is accountable.
It’s not an unfamiliar story. I was intrigued, because I sat at my desk in the middle of the week singing, “I, me, me, mine,” which was a song written by George Harrison in 1970. I didn’t realize that it was the last song ever recorded by the Beatles. If you watched Let It Be, you’ll remember there’s a kind of waltz tune to it at the beginning, and John Lennon and Yoko Ono are waltzing around the studios. They eventually leave the country, and the other three record this song. How fascinating that the last song ever recorded by these fellows in the face of their breakup was “I, me, me, mine”! “All through the day, … all through the night, … I, me, me, mine; I, me, me, mine.” And George Harrison, admittedly from a different theological framework, from a different religious perspective, was acknowledging that the fact that they were disbanding from one another was directly related to the fact they couldn’t see beyond themselves as individuals. They had lost it.
Now, I know some of you are involved in business and in accounting and in planning and in estate planning. Do you want to know the biggest mistake anyone ever makes in estate planning? It is this: not preparing to meet God. Not preparing to meet God. I have a will. You have a will. There are eventualities that are represented in it. But the great reality is that it will only be read because I have gone to meet God. And you will meet God.
“But God said… ‘Fool!’” He thought he had forever. “‘[Tonight] your soul [will be] required of you.’” Remember Jesus said, “What profit shall it be for a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” The timing thing is important. I think that’s why it’s on my mind on the first.
There’s an old story—I think I learned it first in a Barclay commentary years ago—where the devil is being approached by some of his subordinate devils, if you like, and they’re going to go out to do their evil business and to dissuade people from trusting in God. And the first devil comes—the apprentice comes—and he says, “You know, I am going to go, and I’m going to tell people that there is no God.” And the devil says, “That will never work, because everyone knows there is a God”—Romans chapter 1: creation, conscience. The second fellow comes and says, “Well, I’m going to go and tell people that there is no judgment.” And the devil says, “And that won’t work either, because the conscience of every man and woman knows that they are accountable to someone other than themselves, and ultimately to God.” And the third fellow said, “I will go and tell them, ‘There is no hurry.’” “There is no hurry.” And the devil says, “Go, and you will do amazing damage.” Here we are, the first of the year. Are you going to sit in response to the truth of the Bible and say, “Well, I got another whole year in front of me”? “But God said, ‘Tonight…’”
That brings me to the third “But God…,” which takes us back to Romans chapter 5. And you will have already identified where it’s to be found. Verse 8: “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
You know, that question is a good question: If you were to die tonight, and God were to say, “Why should I let you into my heaven?” what would you say? What would I say? Would I plead philanthropy or morality: “I did a really good job; certainly, towards the end, I really cleaned up good”? No, the only answer is the answer here in 5:8: “There is no reason, Almighty God, save for the fact that Christ died for the ungodly.”
I mentioned Newton in 1773. You say, “Well, where do you pull this from?” Well, Newton used to write hymns out of his sermons on January 1. And in January 1, 1773, he preached from Chronicles and the great statement made by David, “But who am I, O God, that you have done all these things for me? How amazing, that you would care for me, provide for me, do these things for me, given all of my checkered past and everything!” And so he introduced, two hundred and fifty years ago today, “Amazing Grace—how sweet the sound—that saved a wretch like me!” In the Library of Congress, apparently, they have over three thousand recordings done by different people over many years of this hymn. How do we account for its lasting value? Well, for some it’s just a tune played by Scottish bagpipers—which should be left alone, really.
But for others it’s an expression of the reality of this “But God…” dimension: “But God, looking down upon me, loved me, gave his Son for me, wooed me, won me. When I was deaf to his voice, the Spirit gave me life.” The secret work of the Spirit of God: “My mom gave me a Bible,” “The lady next door gave me a book,” “Somebody invited me to a Bible study,” “I heard a sermon,” whatever it might be. “And I could always hear the external voice. I could see it in the page. I could hear it in the sound of words. But then your Spirit gave me life. I had no ears to hear your voice.” You see, that’s what I always say to you: “Today, if you hear his voice”—his voice!—“do not harden your hearts.” I assume you can hear my voice, unless you have earplugs in. His voice. That was what Newton gave to his congregation.
The Wall Street Journal—and with this I’ve got to draw to a close—the Wall Street Journal in its Saturday essay had “For the New Year, Figuring Out What Matters Most.” And it provided us with five strategies to help us think more clearly about things. And the first of the five strategies was “Try a thought experiment.” “Try a thought experiment.” I said, “Well, there you go.” You see? Try thinking. Try thinking. How do you think Christianly? How do I think about what the Wall Street Journal wrote down here? And the thought experiment was, you know, simple stuff, like “Imagine that your house is burning down. What do you go back in for? Do you go for your dog first? Do you go for your laptop? Presumably, you take your wife or your husband out with you. But what do you go back for? What matters most?” And then they just applied it along those lines. There’s no mention, really, of eternal values, because there won’t be. Only the Bible calls us to that.
And in the course of the article, the writer says, you know, most people are just muddling through life with only a vague idea of what matters most and why it even matters. Just muddling through life: “I got enough.” Do you know one of the phrases that has become so contemporary that explains… It answers the question of paying eighty-five dollars for an Uber ride or committing adultery? People say, “It is what it is.” “It is what it is.” It’s a shrug. It’s bravado. It is what it is. And that “is” is addressed by the prevailing love of God who comes to seek us out.
The diagnosis of our world is that we are, you know, dysfunctional, we have neuroses, we have incapacities, but don’t worry: help is on the way. Well, I’m now into my seventy-first year. I have found help in no one and in nothing else save in the help that is found in the third “But God…” “But God, … rich in mercy”—Ephesians 2—has “raised us up with [Christ].”
I wonder: Is that your story this morning? Have you ever come to God and admitted that you’re a rebel, that you’re spiritually dead, that you can’t get out of it? And have you found in Jesus a Savior?
“But God meant it for good.” A soft pillow: the doctrine of providence. “But God said …, ‘Fool!’” A severe warning: the doctrine of judgment. “But God shows his love [towards] us.” A song of salvation.
Father, thank you for this morning hour. Thank you for the truth of your Word. Thank you for the love with which you love us, even when we were running from you and disinterested in you. And as we look out on this year, affirming our faith, saying that we want to live for you, and immediately saying to ourselves, “I’m not sure I am capable of this,” we remind ourselves again of your Word: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who [is at work] in you, both to will and to [do of] his good pleasure.” Ultimately, it’s not ourselves but Christ. And to him alone we look, and in his name we pray. Amen.
 John 1:1 (ESV).
 Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cure (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), 20.
 Genesis 37:7–8 (ESV).
 John Newton, “Amazing Grace” (1779).
 John Newton, quoted in Marylynn Rouse, “Amazing Grace Still Has Power to Inspire,” The Times, December 31, 2022, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/amazing-grace-still-has-power-to-inspire-mcfxwbckc.
 David B. Calhoun, Knowing God and Ourselves: Reading Calvin’s Institutes Devotionally (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2016), 73.
 See 1 Corinthians 13:12.
 See 1 Corinthians 3:6–7.
 Paul Anka, “My Way” (1969).
 George Harrison, “I Me Mine” (1970).
 Mark 8:36; Matthew 16:26; Luke 9:25 (paraphrased).
 1 Chronicles 17:16–19 (paraphrased).
 Newton, “Amazing Grace.”
 Psalm 95:7–8; Hebrews 3:7–8, 15; 4:7 (ESV).
 Valerie Tiberius, “For the New Year, Figuring Out What Matters Most,” Wall Street Journal, December 30, 2022, https://www.wsj.com/articles/for-the-new-year-figuring-out-what-matters-most-11672415574.
 Ephesians 2:4, 6 (ESV).
 Philippians 2:12–13 (ESV).
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.