The Sovereignty of God and the Christian Mission
The doctrine of the absolute sovereignty of God, particularly as it finds expression in his predetermination of the events concerning redemption, and his unconditional election of men to salvation, has often encountered the objection that it is a deterrent to evangelism and missions. Unfortunately, this objection has sometimes been legitimate: Christians holding to a Calvinistic or predeterministic theology have sometimes drawn the inappropriate conclusion that personal evangelism is unnecessary because the elect will certainly come to Christ in any case. Consider, for example, the well-known story of how John Ryland is said to have responded to William Carey's desire to bring the gospel to the heathen in India with the quip, â€œSit down, young man; when God wants to convert the heathen, he'll do it without your help and mineâ€[i]. Of course, this attitude is inconsistent with the true biblical understanding of God's sovereignty as predetermining the means of gospel proclamation as well as the end of the conversion of the elect, and completely ignores the major biblical motif of the obligation of Christians to take the gospel message to the ends of the earth. The common Calvinistic response to this objection against predeterminism is formulated along these lines, that is, by showing how the hyper-Calvinistic disavowal of missions does not follow from the biblical teaching on God's absolute sovereignty, and demonstrating that the bible both demands the means of evangelism and promises the end of the conversion of the elect[ii]. This article, however, will take another tack, and attempt to show from a fuller-orbed perspective how the absolute sovereignty of God is so far from being a hindrance to the cause of the Christian mission that it is actually its non-negotiable foundation, both in its ultimate goal and its mediate accomplishment. To do this, I will first propose some preliminary considerations on the purpose of redemption and, by extension, the purpose of the Christian mission; second, discuss the display of God's sovereignty in redemptive history at large; third, discuss God's sovereignty in the climax of redemptive history, at the cross; and finally, draw some conclusions concerning the sovereignty of God and the Christian mission.
In his influential treatise on The Trinity, twentieth-century theologian Karl Rahner proposed an axiom, which has since been known simply as â€œRahner's Ruleâ€: â€œThe economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity and the immanent Trinity is the economic Trinityâ€[iii]. Although this axiom has received its share of criticism, which it is not the purpose of this paper to evaluate, it is still insightful enough to serve as a starting point, in a modified form, of the quest to uncover the relationship between God's sovereignty and the Christian mission. The modification I propose is this: The economic Trinity is principally where the ontological Trinity becomes immanent; or in other words, the triune God may be seen nowhere so clearly as in his formulating, accomplishing, and applying the work of redemption.
This proposed rule is basically just asserting that God's primary purpose in all of redemptive history is self-revelatory. The divine plan of redemption was not just a response to the exigencies created by man's fall; on the contrary, the Lamb was slain before the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8), the subjects of redemption were chosen before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4), and in fact, all of God's works were known and designed before the foundation of the world (Acts 15:17-18[iv]). Another way of expressing this truth is that, the plan of redemption is ultimately doxological; that is, it is designed to display the nature of the all-glorious God. Any theology of the Christian mission that begins with man's need is therefore inadequate.
The scriptures that support this assertion are legion. From the earliest pages of the bible, the truth is everywhere proclaimed that what God does, especially as he steps into human history to redeem a people, he does so that the world, and especially his people, might know who he is.
Consider, for example, the redemptive accomplishment par excellence of the Old Testament: the Exodus. Before God ever delivers his people from the land of Egypt, he declares to Moses that he will harden Pharaoh's heart, so that he might show his wonders in the land (Ex. 3:19-20; 4:21); and the ultimate purpose of this design, in hardening Pharaoh's heart and pouring out fearsome judgments and signs, is so that his people, whom he is redeeming, might â€œknow that I am Yahweh your God, who brings you out from under the burdens of the Egyptiansâ€ (Ex. 6:6-7)[v]. From the beginning, then, God is purposing through his accomplishment of redemption to display his terrible judgments, as exemplified by his plagues against Egypt; he is doing so in order to magnify the greatness of his covenant-faithfulness and unfailing mercy to his people; and in this conjunction of sovereignly-expressed wrath and free, unstoppable mercy, he is intending ultimately to make himself known to his people. He is Yahweh: and to be Yahweh is to be one who hardens sinners and pours out his wrath upon the ungodly, but who, in this very wrath-bearing, works a great salvation for those whom he has called to be his people. In other words, God is basically declaring to Moses that the purpose of his redemptive plan is â€œto show forth his wrath and to make known his power [by bearing] with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, and to make known the riches of his glory in the vessels of mercy prepared ahead of time for gloryâ€ (Rom. 9:22-23).
This motif, that God's ultimate purpose in redeeming a people is the display of his glory through judging the enemies of himself and his people, and so showcasing his free mercy in greater relief, continues throughout the Old Testament. A thorough survey would be far beyond the scope of this paper, but mention may at least be made of the rich Isaianic suffering servant passages; there, a common refrain is that, â€œI, [only] I am Yahweh; and there is no Savior besides meâ€ (Isa. 43:11); â€œI, [only] I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sakeâ€ (Isa. 43:25); â€œTurn unto me and be saved, all the ends of the earth; because I am God, and there is none otherâ€ (Isa. 45:22); and in sum, â€œBring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth, everyone [of whom] who is called by my Name; I created him for my glory, and I formed him, and I made himâ€ (Isa. 43:6-7). In the design of redemption, God here makes it emphatically clear that he will not give his glory to another (Isa 42:5-8; 48:9-11). A similar refrain is found numerous times throughout the prophecies of Ezekiel: there, every act of God which relates to the accomplishment of his redemptive design is done for this purpose alone: so that all the world might â€œknow that I am Yahwehâ€[vi].
So then, the ultimate purpose of God's economy of redemption is the revelation of himself as the only triune God. Of course, this design of God's self-revelation through redemption is centered on Christ. Thus, when God first promises to redeem a people for himself, after the fall of our first father, Adam, he solemnly asseverates that he will do so through a Seed of the woman; which is the first and foundational indication that God will reveal his nature to mankind by becoming a man, and as a man bringing his fellow men back to himself (Gen. 3:15). From this point on, throughout the Old Testament, we find no unmediated revelation of God: all of God's self-revelation comes through Christ, who, as a foretaste and pledge of what he will finally do in the fullness of times by taking on human flesh, reveals the triune God to his people in types and shadows. To go back to our example of the Exodus, we must note that God's first act of self-revelation to Moses came at the burning bush, which was a lowly plant springing up from the dry ground, as the Messiah should be (Ex. 3; compare also Isa. 53:1-2), and which burned as if with all the wrath of God, and yet was unconsumed (even as the Christ should be made to drink all the fiery wrath of God, and yet would rise again to eternal life). In this event also, he reveals himself as the Angel of the Lord (see Ex. 3:2), who throughout the Old Testament would receive worship as God, and yet converse with God as a distinct person (Gen. 16:7-14; 22:11-12; Jud. 2:1-4; 6:11-24; 13:21-22; Zech. 1:12-14; 3:6-7; 12:8), and who at the climactic act of judgment against Egypt would bear the death penalty against the firstborn (Ex. 12:29); and yet at the same time, he would be presented before the people in the type of the Passover Lamb, who should bear in his own body the wrath that he himself held forth against all sinners, and so redeem those who fed upon him in faith (Ex. 12:1-14). Then, in the Isaianic and Ezekielan passages we have already observed, Christ is everywhere promised to the people in the clearest of terms, and in conjunction with the overarching motif of God's self-revelation through redemption. Such passages as Isaiah 42:1-8; 52:13-53:12; and Ezekiel 34 make clear beyond cavil that God will proclaim his glory and make known his Name to his people above all in the salvation that he would accomplish through his Christ.
So then, the purpose of redemptive history is the self-revelation of God; the culmination of this self-revelation takes place in the person and work of Christ; and, as I shall now demonstrate, the extent of this self-revelation is so broad in scope as to be nearly paradoxical. The glories of God are so rich and manifold that it is a wonder almost beyond conception that they should all exist without contradiction in the same person; and the history of redemption is meticulously designed to display this harmonious diversity of excellence, climactically in Christ. Consider the culminative revelation of God to the premier prophet in Israel's history, in the account of Moses' being hidden in the cleft of the Rock, as the back parts of God's glory passed by. In that event, God revealed himself as â€œYahweh, Yahweh, a God merciful and gracious, longsuffering and great in covenant loyalty and faithfulness, keeping covenant loyalty to thousands [of generations], forgiving iniquity and transgression and sinâ€; but at the same time, â€œwho will not at all clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and upon the children's children, unto the third and the fourth [generations]â€ (Ex. 34:6-7). This paradox of God as freely merciful and faithful to forgive, and yet unwilling to justify the ungodly by any means, exists at the very heart of the Old Testament, and is only relieved in the expectation of a coming Messiah, who will perfectly reveal God to men, and bring them back into his presence. Thus, the days of the Messiah are anticipated as days in which paradoxical glories co-exist, days when â€œcovenant loyalty and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each otherâ€. In the days of the Messiah, God's loyalty and faithfulness to his promised blessings will co-exist without contradiction with his righteousness and unwillingness to overlook sin. Redemption is designed to display the nature of the God who is diversely excellent; and therefore, the culmination of redemption is in the Christ, who will reveal the diverse glory of the godhead through his own diverse excellence. In Christ, at once the perfect man and eternal God, are met together all the â€œlionlikeâ€ attributes of glory and majesty, strength and dominion; and all the â€œlamblikeâ€ attributes of humility and gentleness, condescension and mercy[vii]. And the climax of Christ's redemptive work is the cross, which paradoxically displays all the diverse glory of God; at the cross, God's righteousness and wrath against sin are displayed as fully as his willingness to forgive sin at no expense to the sinner; his faithfulness is displayed as clearly as his implacable fury; his free salvation is displayed as clearly as his righteous retribution.
Now, how does this lay the groundwork for our discussion of the Christian mission, and specifically, our discussion of the sovereignty of God within the Christian mission? In order to answer this question, we must note the organic connection between the accomplishment of redemption and the Christian mission. In John 17, Jesus offers up for his disciples what has been called his â€œhigh-priestly prayerâ€; and in this prayer, he indicates that the mission for which he himself was consecrated is foundational to the mission for which he was then consecrating his disciples (John 17:18-19). The mission and work of Christ was to bring eternal life, which is nothing but the knowledge of the only true God, and the Christ whom he had sent (John 17:2-3); and Jesus had done that by making known the Father's name to those whom the Father had given him (John 17:6). But now, he was sending his followers out on a similar mission, to display to the world who God is, so that all might believe that Jesus is in the Father, and the Father in Jesus (John 17:20-23). Just as Jesus suffered to reveal the nature of God, now his disciples would suffer to bring that ultimate self-revelation to the rest of the world. He had suffered to accomplish redemption, which is summed up in the knowledge of the triune God; now they would suffer to spread the knowledge of that redemption. Thus, Paul rejoices to fill up in his body that which was still lacking in the sufferings of the body of Christ (Col. 1:23-29). Although Christ has suffered all that is necessary for the accomplishment of redemption in his physical body, and has thereby accomplished a paradoxical victory; yet he still must suffer in his spiritual body for the spread of redemption, and so win a paradoxical victory in his saints, who will conquer the Enemy by their own blood and faithfulness unto death (Rev. 12:11).
This has far-reaching implications for how the Christian mission must be pursued. Just as Christ accomplished redemption paradoxically, becoming victorious by humble submission and overcoming by giving himself up, so the missionary may only be successful in his endeavor in the same way; giving himself up freely to the reproaches of the Enemy, and through his own life of gentle, unavenging forgiveness displaying the paradox of God's great glory as in a mirror that reflects the image of Christ. To quote the Church father Tertullian, â€œThe blood of the martyrs is the seed of the churchâ€viii.
Throughout the rest of this paper, I will relate these foundational principles to the specific question of God's sovereignty in redemption, and show how the manifestation of divine sovereignty in redemption must shape the pursuance of the Christian mission, which simply seeks to spread the effects of God's redemption to the ends of the earth.
The Sovereignty of God in Redemptive History
As we have already noted, redemptive history is designed to display the nature of the glorious God: it is doxological and self-revelatory. Now, let us trace redemptive history with an eye for how it displays God's sovereignty as a specific facet of his glory.
From the first pages of the bible, the God whom we meet and who has revealed himself by his works is patently a sovereign God. His word will not fail to have its intended effect; he speaks, and so it becomes. He says, â€œlet there be light,â€ and there is light. He does according to his will, and all creation leaps up to do his bidding. But then, after his â€œvery goodâ€ creation is complete, and the man whom he formed in his own image is ruling over his world in righteousness, something very unexpected happens: he speaks, and man disobeys. He says, â€œDo no eat,â€ and man eats. What is happening here? Is God's sovereignty now limited? Does this account teach that God is sovereign over most of his creation, but his sovereignty has an end when creatures with free moral agency come into play? At first glance, this is the conclusion that we might be tempted to draw: but then, in God's next act, we see our first hint that things are not what they appear. God's plan has not been thwarted by this rebellion, but in fact, it is actually an opportunity for an even greater and more surprising display of sovereignty. God had previously shown his sovereignty in mighty ways: at his all-powerful word, great things happened, and worlds sprang into existence; but as any rational creature instinctively knows, it is only to be expected that a powerful, creative God would take pleasure in exercising his sovereignty to create good things. So creation has already shown that his sovereignty is powerful enough to do what is good in expected ways; but it has done nothing to show that it is powerful enough to do good in unexpected and enigmatical ways.
But after the fall, God does the unexpected. He had said, â€œIn the day you eat, you shall surely dieâ€ (2:17); now he says â€œthe Seed of the woman shall crush the head of the Serpent who tempted her to sinâ€ (paraphrased from Gen. 3:15). He had shown his sovereignty over the world by creating it with a word; but now, he is showing that his sovereignty can be surprisingly, paradoxically good; for with a sovereign word, he promises grace and life to those who not only do not deserve it, but manifestly deserve the opposite. If the sovereign power of God's word to do what is good is displayed in creation, how much more mightily is it displayed in this first unilateral promise of redemption? So even at the beginning, the fall of humankind does not teach that God has limited his sovereignty to accommodate man's freedom; on the contrary, it teaches that, enigmatically, through man's freedom to rebel, he has purposed to showcase an even more remarkable and surprising sovereignty. He has purposed to use not just the good things to show his power to do good, but now even sin and rebellion he will wrest to his purposes, to show his power to do a deeper and greater good. He is already the sovereign God with the absolute power to do the expected good, creative things; but now he becomes the sovereign God with the greater power to bring good to the guilty and to turn the deepest evil to his righteous designs. He is wondrously powerful in creation; but he is astoundingly, enigmatically, and almost paradoxically powerful in redemption; and we see this truth very strongly insinuated in the very first chapters of Genesis.
Now, this unanticipated promise of grace to our parent rebels, displaying God's deep and surprising sovereignty, already indicates that all has transpired, even the evil of disobedience to God's word, according to his pre-existent plan. If this event shows God's sovereignty to do good in a greater way even even creation had shown, then it cannot have transpired as a breach of his sovereignty. In other words, Adam's fall cannot have been an unfortunate accident, to which God then responded the best he could. It was evil, yes. Adam cannot be exonerated because his sin was a part of God's divine purpose to show his greater sovereignty. But in the mystery of divine grace, this great evil, for which he was eminently culpable, was part of an eternal plan to bring about good, and to display God's power.
But not only does this event anticipate God's purpose to show his sovereignty in being merciful and giving grace; it also shows forth at the same time his sovereignty to judge evil and punish sin; for first of all, God lays a fearful curse upon Adam according to his sovereign pleasure, and is not at all moved by excuses or pleas for leniency. He notes exactly what has been done and exacts an earth-shaking penalty at his will. And second, he requires a punishment of utter destruction and defeat for the serpent, sovereignly passing this terrible sentence without even giving the serpent a hearing. He is God, he does what he will, and he will certainly destroy his enemies without fail.
But in this twofold display of God's absolute sovereignty â€“ his sovereignty to punish as he will and to give grace as he will â€“ we encounter a deeper paradox, that exists at the very heart of the promised redemption; and that is, that God's sovereignty not only exacts righteous retribution and promises undeserved favor; but it also accomplishes this twofold goodness through the very evil which it overcomes and sets aright. God is sovereign to overcome the evil of sin, and give free grace to Adam; he is sovereign to set aright the evil of sin by meting out a righteous punishment upon the serpent, and devoting him to eternal punishment; but how does he do those two things? Through the means of the very wickedness that this serpent would commit. Notice the wording of the curse on the serpent; God himself would place an enmity between it and the woman's Seed, and it would furiously and very wickedly rage against the Seed, and manage to inflict a terrible wound on him â€“ a bruising of the heel as it were; but this very act of ultimate evil would prove to be the utter destruction of the serpent â€“ a crushing of the head â€“ and would thus accomplish God's sovereignly promised righteous retribution; and in this righteous destruction would be the promised victory of Adam, and thus the securing of the sovereignly-given grace. Hence, God's sovereignty is not taken surprise by evil; but rather, evil is the very tool he uses to accomplish his sovereign purposes of righteous wrath and free mercy.
Now, consider how poignantly redemptive history as a whole displays these same realities: a perfect example may be found in the case of Joseph, who was betrayed by his brothers' wickedness, but only so that God in his mercy might deliver them; even as he famously observed in Gen. 50:20, â€œNow, you purposed evil against me, but God purposed it for good, in order to make it as it is today, to preserve the life of many peopleâ€. In the case of the Exodus, as has already been noted, God hardened Pharaoh's heart to evil, in order to show the power of his wrath, and at the same time to work a mighty victory for his people (Ex. 3:19-20; 4:21; 6:1-8). In the book of Job, God gives Satan over to working evil in the life of his servant, in order to defeat him in his impudent accusations by showcasing the genuineness of Job's righteousness. In the end, Job has been vindicated in his integrity and Satan has been defeated in his assault on his character, and this dual triumph has come about precisely through the evil actions of Satan, which test and prove Job. In the book of Esther, God's people are gloriously delivered in the end, when their arch-enemy Haman is hanged on the gallows, and thus righteously destroyed; but this twofold working of merciful deliverance for God's people and just recompense for their enemy is accomplished by Haman's very wickedness in building a gallows on which to hang Mordecai, God's champion. In the same way, God's people are delivered and their enemy destroyed by the giant's own evilly-wielded sword, in the case of David and Goliath (1 Sam. 17). In these examples and many others throughout the Old Testament, God uses evil for his own good purposes of sovereignly meting out retribution to his enemies and granting free deliverance to his people. Evil is so far from being an exception to the rule of God's sovereignty, that it is actually its greatest display. And hence, we are not taken by surprise when we reach the second psalm, and find confirmed what we have been suggesting, that Adam's fall was not an unfortunate exigency to which God responded, but was instead a really evil but divinely superintended step in bringing about a plan that had been formulated in the eternal council of the godhead: a plan for the Son to redeem a people whom the Father had given him by divine decree, and to crush his enemies beneath his throne.
The Sovereignty of God in the Crucifixion
At the beginning of this paper, I posited that redemptive history is designed with the doxological intent of displaying God's character; and that it is accomplished exclusively through the Christ. There is no unmediated revelation of God, but all of it comes through the second person of the Trinity, who reveals God to man in many ways, but finally and climactically in his taking on human flesh and providing their redemption. Then, I showed how the Old Testament history of redemption, in many poignant ways, displays God's absolute sovereignty to superintend evil and use it for his own good purposes of righteous retribution against his enemies and the free deliverance of his people. Now, I will show how this motif, too, finds its climactic display and ultimate expression in the Christ, particularly as he enters human history to save a people for his name.
In the gospel of John, there is perhaps no more central and often emphasized theme than God's absolute sovereignty in the accomplishment of redemption; its subjects are particularly chosen by the Father, given to the Son, and regenerated by the Spirit, all before they can ever come to God or believe in him (see John 1:12-13; 3:3-8, 21; 6:37, 44, 63-65; 10:27-29; 17:2, 6, 9, 11, 12, 24), and all others are hardened and blinded, no matter how many outward advantages they may possess (John 8:42-46; 10:26; 12:37-41); but another dominant theme is the paradoxical nature of Christ's accomplishment. As a case in point, he tells Nicodemus, in John 3:14-15, that he must be lifted up as the serpent in the wilderness, so that all who look to him might find life. The serpent, of course, was the beast that first tempted man to sin, and in the account to which Jesus is referring in Numbers 21:1-9, serpents were also used as the agents of God's punishment for the sin of the people. Hence, to be lifted up as a serpent would immediately have had a very negative and shameful connotation. It was as much as if to say, â€œI must be lifted up as the worst of sinners, and as the outpouring of God's fiery judgment against those sinnersâ€. Certainly, this could not have struck Nicodemus as a glorious end at all to which Jesus was looking forward; and yet, in Jesus' precise wording, that he must be â€œlifted up,â€ and not merely â€œset forth as a spectacle,â€ or â€œmade a public display,â€ he was already hinting that this most ignominious of tasks would also be something which, in some inexplicable way, would glorify and exalt him. In the same way, just before he goes to the cross, he tells the Greeks who had come to seek him, â€œNow is the judgment of this world, now the ruler of this world will be cast out; and I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all to myselfâ€ (John 12:31-32). Here, he makes the paradox even more brilliant, and forecasts the dual end of victory over this world's cruel ruler and deliverance for all who were his, under the rubric of his being â€œlifted up,â€ or exalted; but at the same time, it is manifest that it is the cruel and shameful lifting up on a cruel Roman cross that he is speaking of. His great accomplishment will not take place until he dies and is buried in the ground, just as a grain of wheat cannot be fruitful until it dies.
In light of this dominant motif, it is a compelling observation that John ties his prologue in so clearly to the creation account of Genesis. In John 1:1, echoing Genesis 1:1, the evangelist begins, â€œIn the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God...all things came into existence through him...in him was life, and the life was the light of menâ€ (John1:1-4). Here, we see a clear allusion to God's creative act in Genesis, when his word causes light to spring forth, and effects the immediate existence of everything that was made. But now, it is not just the word of God through which all things are created, but the eternal Word through whom springs the light of life-giving redemption. When God said, â€œLet there be light,â€ light sprang up and the worlds were made through the agency of the Son[ix]. But shortly after that, and repeatedly throughout history God had also said, â€œI will be merciful to whom I will be merciful, I will send a deliverer, I will redeem a peopleâ€; and what John is implying is that just as certainly now, through the Son of God who is the Word, the light of redemption is springing up. God said â€œlet there be light,â€ and through Christ there was light; and God said, â€œlet there be redemption,â€ and the light of the knowledge of the glorious and merciful God sprang to being in the face of Jesus Christ[x].
So then, in the gospel of John we learn from the outset that God's act of redemption mirrors in a more compelling and glorious way the act of creation; that creation and redemption alike were accomplished through the agency of the Son; that this act of redemption displayed the absolute sovereign power of God's word in bringing his people to life while hardening and condemning all others; and that this sovereign power, displayed ultimately in Christ, would find its highly paradoxical climax at the cross.
The apostle Paul later picks up on the theme of the cross as the culminative act of redemption that displays the glory of God perfectly and paradoxically. While it was the most shameful act in all of history, and is even now a stumblingblock and foolishness to the world who seeks after wisdom and power, in the enigma of the gospel it is the very wisdom and power of God, which confounds the wisdom of the wise (1 Cor. 1:18-25). The cross on which Satan raged against Christ and slew him is the very instrument by which Christ destroyed the devil, putting him to an open shame, and through which he freed his people from his righteous law which was opposed to them, because they had broken it (Col. 2:14-15). At the cross, Jesus showed the highest regard for God's honor and the justice of his law; but even when he was utterly upholding God's justice, God was pleased to crush him; and yet in this, strangely enough, he was actually glorifying the Son (John 12:23, 27-28; 17:1). At the cross, God perfectly displayed his wrath against sin, when because of imputed sin he forsook his Son; but he was also climactically displaying his free forgiveness of sinners, whom he embraces openly at the foot of the cross. At the cross, Jesus is never so meek and passive, humbly submitting to an unjust death; and yet it is there that he fought his greatest battle and was victorious in his most difficult struggle. At the cross, Christ suffered what appeared to be the most stunning defeat, but that defeat was actually his greatest victory, eternally glorifying himself, saving his people, and defeating his enemies. In short, the cross is the final, climactic display and vindication of the sovereign and paradoxical power of God which he first hinted at in the Garden, when he unilaterally promised to deliver his people and destroy their enemy, all through his very act of wicked opposition to the Seed of the woman.
In light of all this, it is very instructive to consider the way in which the event of Calvary was described by the first apostles to speak of it after the resurrection and the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost. In his sermon at Pentecost, when Peter is first explaining the significance of this greatest redemptive act of history that had just been accomplished, he speaks of it thus: â€œhim (Jesus of Nazareth), being delivered over by the determinate decree and foreknowledge of God, you nailed up and slew by the hand of the lawlessâ€ (Acts 2:23). Clearly, he saw Calvary as the greatest display of God's sovereign power, in that he accomplished his eternal, determinate plan through the acts of evil men. It was by wicked hands that Christ was killed, but this, too, was an outworking of God's sovereignty, and paradoxically provided the free forgiveness of those who had done the crime. Along the same lines, a little later, the early Christians rejoice because â€œin truth, there were gathered together in this city, against your holy child Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, to do whatever your hand and decree foreordained to take placeâ€ (Acts 4:27-28). Even through the greatest act of evil in the history of the world, in which all people, Jews and Gentiles, rulers and rabble are implicated, God was accomplishing all of his determinate, sovereign, foreordained counsel; and he was thereby destroying all his enemies and saving all his people through their own wicked act. So then, the paradox of absolute divine sovereignty over the wicked acts of men, and God's foreordained determination to have mercy upon some and destroy others, is most perfectly and poignantly displayed in the cross, to spread the good news of which is the sole purpose of the Christian mission.
Final Propositions concerning the Sovereignty of God and the Christian Mission
Now that a solid biblical theological foundation is in place, we are able to address our initial concern, that the utter sovereignty of God, especially as it relates to his unconstrained choice of some and not others for salvation, is a deterrent to a passionate pursuit of Christian missionary endeavors. In response, I would protest that God's sovereignty is so far from being a hindrance to evangelism that it is its necessary foundation, both in its ultimate goal and mediate accomplishment, through the following propositions:
1. Missions exists to display the utter and paradoxical sovereignty of God.
If the climactic event in redemptive history served to display God's sovereignty to work through the greatest wickedness in order to secure the severest judgment against sin, Satan, and reprobate sinners, and the freest deliverance of the subjects of mercy whom God had chosen in eternity past, as the words of Peter in Acts 2:23 so clearly demonstrate, then the doctrine of God's sovereignty is not just of instrumental necessity in the completion of the Great Commission to take the preaching of the cross to the ends of the earth, but it retains a necessity of a different and nobler kind, as part of the goal itself. God's sovereignty is not just required as a means to the end of the salvation of sinners, it is also required as an essential part of a more fundamental end yet, which is the perfect display of the character of the God who is sovereign over evil.
2. Missions is empowered by the utter and paradoxical sovereignty of God.
If there is one thing that the history of redemption displays, it is that God's design to save a people is something that would require a greater power than mere humans could muster. We may see this in every feature of the Old Testament story of redemption that we have already examined: when Adam and Eve were promised deliverance, it was just when they were utterly helpless and powerless before God. When Joseph was delivered from the pit, it was when he was helpless to deliver himself. When Israel was freed from Egypt, it took the astounding power of God to do so. Against influential Haman and mighty Goliath, the weakness of the human deliverers magnified God's own power. Indeed, throughout redemptive history, the impotence of the subjects of redemption formed the backdrop to God's surprising and indispensable sovereign power.
If this much is true in the accomplishment of redemption, it must also be true in the application of redemption. All the subjects of redemption were at one time unable to come to God, unwilling to seek him, and so constrained by their evil desires that they could not choose him (John 6:44, 65; 1 Cor. 2:14; Rom. 3:10-11); but God sovereignly chose to save some, and so his illimitable power overcame their desperate weakness in the realm of choice and seeking. Similarly, all the subjects of redemption were guilty before God and indebted to his justice so fully that they could never pay their own way â€“ they could never redeem themselves; but when they were weak, Jesus Christ showed his strength and freely redeemed those who could not redeem themselves (Rom. 5:6). Now, as it touches upon the question of the Christian mission, the same truth must be as rigorously applied: the Christian mission is nothing less than the task of taking the message of redemption to the ends of the earth, and calling out a people who will trust in the Lord and be forgiven; but all those who will trust in Christ were at one time dead in sins, blinded in their hearts, captive to the devil, and unable to believe in the Savior (Eph. 2:1-3; 4:17-19; John 8:43-45); nevertheless, against this backdrop of weakness the Spirit works powerfully to give a new heart of flesh that will believe in and embrace the promise of God in Christ (Ezek. 36:26-27). Far from being a deterrent to missions, then, God's sovereignty in applying redemption to certain, elect persons is the necessary foundation for any hope of success at all. God's sovereignty is thus necessary to the Christian mission both in its ultimate goal and in its mediate accomplishment.
Moreover, the book of Acts, which gives the account of the beginnings of the Christian mission, displays this mediate necessity of God's utter sovereignty in manifold ways. What those twelve ragamuffin disciples were about to do was so utterly impossible as to be absurd in the face of it. They were opposed by all the might of Rome, the establishment of religious experts and authorities, the Jews, the Gentiles, the devil, and in brief, the whole world. But because God was in it and God is sovereign, they were inexplicably triumphant and unstoppable. Prison doors came open of their own accord, impostors were struck dead, believers were resurrected, and, most stunning of all, hard hearts were opened by the power of God so that they might believe what the apostles were teaching. Surely, had the apostle Paul not believed in the absolute sovereignty of God, he would have faltered in immense despair; but on the contrary, when he was weak, then he was strong, for he trusted that the power of God would work through him (2 Cor. 12:9-10; 1 Cor. 1:25-27); and so, he was guided by the sovereign will of God in every step that he took, whether it was the decision to turn aside from Asia and go to Macedonia (Acts 16:6-10), or the calm confidence to keep speaking the word of God to the household of Caesar, when in prison in Rome (Phil. 1:12-20); and he was comforted by the sovereign will of God, and in particular by the knowledge that God had many elect sinners who had not yet turned to him, whenever he was opposed and resisted (Acts 18:9-11). The objection that a hearty adherence to God's absolute sovereignty, especially as it touches the subjects of salvation, must tend to a minimization of missions turns the example of the apostles on its head, and thoroughly discredits the necessity of God's power for the completion of the Great Commission. If we knew only that salvation is impossible with man, we would be beside ourselves with despair; but we rejoice in hope and press on in faith simply because we believe that what is impossible with men is possible with God (Luke 18:26-27).
3. Missions is advanced through a paradoxical victory in defeat, which demonstrates the utter sovereignty of God.
As we approach the Christian mission, we must never forget the relationship between our mission of spreading redemption and Christ's mission of providing redemption. Jesus suffered on the cross and delivered himself up freely for us all, and through that willing submission, he wrought our eternal redemption. But even though that redemption has been fully accomplished, it has not yet been fully effective in bringing all of its subjects into the Kingdom of God's dear Son. For that, Jesus is now suffering in his mystical body, the Church, until this willing and patient suffering has had its full effect in the completion of the Great Commission. In other words, Christian missionaries will not be successful merely by proclaiming the gospel with their lips when they are unwilling to portray the gospel in their lives of patient suffering. But when a believer suffers for his testimony to Christ, and willingly gives up his body to be tortured and killed, and still rejoices and freely forgives his enemies, then they see that even in death and defeat he has not been defeated at all. God's paradoxical sovereignty is put on display, and through that bloody witness, the enemy is turned into a brother, and the Kingdom of God thrives in the midst of terrible persecution and violence. This has always been God's design for the spread of his Kingdom. In the Old Testament, the Church was persecuted and labored as a woman in birthpangs until the Christ was brought forth (Rev. 12:1-5); and in the New Testament, Paul, and likewise the other apostles and Christians after them, were in birthpangs until Christ was formed in those to whom they were spreading the gospel (Gal. 4:19; cp. also 1 Cor. 4:15). In other words, the manner in which Christian witness becomes effective is through a humble and willing passivity, that finally conquers by refusing to resist, and so portrays in living colors the Christ who conquered by giving himself up to the lash and the cross.
Thus in a threefold way, the Christian Mission is founded upon the utter sovereignty of God: God's sovereignty is necessary as an integral part of the very goal of missions, which is ultimately to display the nature of the sovereign God; it is necessary as a means by which missions becomes effective, God sovereignly directing his witnesses, protecting and sustaining them through impossible opposition, and opening the blind and hardened hearts of those who hear the gospel; and it is necessary as a manner in which the content of the gospel is portrayed visibly and powerfully, the Christian martyr giving up his body for the sake of Christ, but paradoxically overcoming thereby through the sovereign power of God. Where God is not sovereign over the hearts of men, in and through both the evil and the good, missions does not happen. And this is a most fitting reality, because the very purpose of missions is to call out men and women from all over the earth who will worship God when they see his glory in the face of Jesus Christ; and his glory is the glory of a God who is utterly sovereign to do the greatest good in the most amazing and paradoxical ways.
[i] This story may well be apocryphal; at any rate, I have come across no convincing documentation of its authenticity. However, it well represents the attitude which the Calvinistic understanding of the sovereignty of God is said by non-predeterminationists to be subject to, and which has, in cases of true hyper-Calvinism, actually come about. The purpose of including this anecdote is simply to illustrate a common objection, and not to comment upon the story's authenticity.
[ii] For example, William Carey's own essay, â€œAn Enquiry Into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens,â€ originally published in 1792, and republished by Kessinger Publishing, 2004.
[iii] This treatise is available in English as The Trinity (London: Continuum, 2001).
[iv] The Byzantine manuscripts of Acts 15:18 read, â€œKnown unto God are all his works from the age [i.e., from the beginning]â€; but, the critical text of Nestle/Aland (27th edition), following codex Sinaiticus and others, reads simply, â€œthe Lord who makes these things known from the age [i.e. the beginning]â€. However, in either variant, the point remains that the plan of redemption was designed long before its actual accomplishment in history; it was not a series of responses to exigencies created by human rebellion, but unfolded in time according to a previously existing master plan. This is the same point that is made in Isaiah 45:21, from which Acts 15:18 is taken.
[v] Here and following, all translation of the scriptures is the author's own.
[vi] This refrain, with minor variations, appears in Ezek. 6:7, 10, 13, 14; 7:4, 9, 27; 11:10, 12; 12:15, 16, 20; 13:9, 14, 21, 23; 14:8; 15:7; 16:62; 20:12, 20, 26, 38, 42, 44; 22:16; 23:49; 24:24, 27; 25:5, 7, 11, 17; 26:6; 28:22, 23, 24, 26; 29:6, 9, 16, 21; 30:8, 19, 25, 26; 32:15; 33:29; 34:27; 35:4, 9, 12, 15; 36:11, 23, 38; 37:6, 13; 38:23; 39:6, 7, 22, 28.
[vii] For a fuller treatment of this theme, see Jonathan Edwards, â€œThe Excellency of Jesus Christ,â€ The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume 1 (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2005), pp. 680-689.
[viii] Tertullian, â€œApology,â€ Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 3 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004), p. 55.
[ix] Cp. Col. 1:16-20, which likewise connects the agency of the Son in the works of creation and redemption, and strongly indicates that the latter is a more glorious and powerful accomplishment which the former only foreshadowed and prepared for.
[x] Cp. 2 Cor. 4:6, where the light created by the word of God on the first day of creation is compared to the light of the knowledge of himself which God speaks into the heart of fallen man through the Word who reveals himself perfectly, that is, Jesus Christ.