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Soli Deo Glorio: The Heartbeat of the Reformation

Sermon by Derek Thomas on Oct 31, 2004

Romans 11:33-36

The Lord's Day Evening

October 31, 2004
Romans 11:33-36
Soli Deo Gloria: The Heartbeat of the Reformation”
Dr. Derek W.H. Thomas

Turn with me now, if you would, to the Epistle of Paul to the Romans, and to the eleventh chapter, and we're going to read together from verse thirty-three to the end of the chapter. Romans, chapter eleven, beginning at verse thirty-three. Before we read this passage together, let's come before God once again in prayer.

O Lord, our God, we bow in Your presence. We are unworthy of the least of Your mercies. We are poor and wretched and miserable; blind and naked before You, and we are in need of Your sovereign word of revelation to instruct us, to empower us, to equip us, to motivate us, to challenge us. Holy Spirit of God, come, we pray, and shine Your illuminating light upon this Your word, and grant that we, Your redeemed creatures, might be fitted and equipped to better life and glorify You. Hear us, Lord, for Jesus’ sake we ask it. Amen.

This is God's holy and inerrant word.

“Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor? Or who has first given to Him that it might be paid back to him again? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.”

May God add His blessing to the reading of His holy word.

In Geneva, of all places, in 1815, it was the beginning of the year. Several young men gathered together at first in a public park in Geneva, and then in someone's home, and for a period of two weeks set about examining a portion of Scripture. Among them were Robert Haldane, Merle D’ Aubigne, Fredric Monod, and Caesar Malan–words that may not be household names to you, perhaps, but they are all of them in their own way giants in the Reformed faith in Europe and France, and in Scotland. God, in this two-week period, converted these young men through a study of a portion of Scripture, and that portion of Scripture is the one that I just read to you this evening. It's a huge text. It's one of the great texts of Scripture, and in some ways summarizes the Reformation, what the Reformation was about. It summarizes the contribution of Martin Luther, and Ulrich Zwingli, and John Calvin, and Theodore Beza and others.

I think this evening of B. B. Warfield's summarization of the Reformation and its theology: “an apprehension of God in majesty.” That's what the Reformation essentially was. It was a rediscovery of the greatness and glory and magnitude and the majesty of God, in a world and in a church that had become thoroughly man-centered in its approach to worship. The Reformation called a halt to all of that which drew attention to man, and instead said “God is great. God is to be glorified. God, the sovereign God of the Scriptures, the God who made the heavens and the earth, He is to be exalted in all of His majesty.

In many ways, I suppose that would define what's wrong with the church today, that in many respects the church has lost sight of the majesty, the greatness, of God. And I want us this evening, as we are thinking together about the contribution of God in His providence of the Reformation, and in particular this evening the contribution of John Calvin, and the church and other reformers in Geneva and in Switzerland, to the cause and spread of the Reformation to Scotland. And you know, in some ways–as I was contemplating last evening - I was thinking, you know, there would not be a First Presbyterian Church had there not been a Reformation. There would not have been the pilgrim fathers had there not been a Reformation. Had the likes of John Knox and Cranmer and others not been influenced by what went on in Geneva, there would not be a United States in the form and shape that you and I recognize it to be this evening.

And with that in mind, I want us to go to this particular passage, and I want us to see three principle things, and they are, in the first place, a vision of an incomprehensible God; in the second place, a vision of a sovereign God; and in the third place, a vision of a glorious God.

I. A Vision of an incomprehensible God.

You notice how the Apostle Paul begins this section that we're looking at this evening: “Oh, the depths both of the wisdom and knowledge of God.” His ways are past finding out. This is the Apostle Paul who is saying this. “Oh, the depths of Almighty God!” And he's saying this, you understand, in some respects as a conclusion to the Epistle to the Romans, the greatest epistle that he ever wrote, the most majestic of the epistles that he ever wrote; the most intensely theological epistle that he ever wrote, and he's saying by way of conclusion, there are depths here; there are immensities here; there are infinities here. Paul had a remarkable mind. He had a remarkable education under the tutelage of Gamaliel. You remember the Apostle Peter says of some of the things that Paul writes, that “some of them are hard to be understood”; that some of the things that Peter may well have been thinking about when he said that was possibly some of the very things that he has written in this epistle, and perhaps in the chapters immediately preceding this section–chapters nine, ten, and eleven.

And the Apostle Paul is saying there are depths here. He's been expounding theology. He's been expounding the revelation of God in the gospel. He has been pontificating on the immensities and the infinities of the faith. He had plumbed the depths! He had, as it were, gone into the deepest recesses of the mind and will and purposes of God, but like Augustine commenting on the doctrine of the Trinity, it is as though the Apostle Paul is saying here, ‘I see the depths, but I cannot see the bottom. I see the depths,’ as though he were looking out of a boat and into the depths of the waters below, and he could see it going down and down and down and down, but he couldn't see the bottom. We need to remember that, you and I. We need to remember that one of the things that God intends by revealing Himself and disclosing Himself, and by giving to us the Scriptures, is that the arrogance and the native Adamic pride which is part of our fallen natures should be addressed, and we ought to remember that even the great Apostle Paul exclaims, “Oh, the depths of the wisdom and knowledge of God!”

I remember someone remarking to me after I had done a dissertation on John Calvin, and he said to me, “You’re an expert on John Calvin now.” But I knew in the very way that he had said it, and in the tone in which it was said, that there was not a little irony in what he was saying; because he realized, as I realized, that the more you study anything the more ignorant you realize yourself to be. And the apostle is saying here, I have seen immensities, and I have seen infinities, but there are depths here that my mind cannot fathom or comprehend.

And you notice that the Apostle Paul is actually citing here in verse 34 from the prophet Isaiah, and from the fortieth chapter: “’To whom then shall you liken Me, or shall I be equal?’ says the Holy One.” Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been His counselor? And the apostle is saying, as he perhaps had been reflecting on the fortieth chapter of Isaiah, that there are issues and aspects and realities in the mind and being of God that you and I as creatures can never understand, and can never fathom. And though we give thanks to God for that which He has revealed, for that which He has disclosed in the Scriptures, and even some of those things are hard to be understood, yet you and I should realize only too well this evening that there is more to God and more to the being of God, and more to the attributes of God and the character of God, and the ways of God than you and I can ever understand. “The secret things belong unto the Lord our God, but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children,” Moses said.

In 1554, beginning in February and through until the following year, 1555, into mid-April or so, about fourteen months, John Calvin embarked on an exposition of the Book of Job. Calvin, I think, was at his prime intellectually, and he preached 159 sermons expounding the Book of Job, beginning in the first verse right through to the end of the book. And one of the things that John Calvin said in the very opening sermon, as though he was giving to us a key by which to understand the Book of Job, he said, “It is a good thing, a great thing, a wonderful thing to be subject to the majesty of God.” And in a sense, that's what the Book of Job essentially is about: learning in the midst of trials and difficulties to be subject, to be subject to the majesty of God, to the immensity of God.

Now notice that the apostle here seems to ponder the incomprehensibility of God along four lines of thought. He speaks first of all of God's knowledge: “Oh, the depths of the riches of the... knowledge of God.” God knows everything. God knows everything. He knows Himself. He knows the intricacies of His own being. There are no secret recesses or corners of His own being that are unknown to God. He knows Himself fully. He has a perfect integrated knowledge of Himself, and He knows all that is outside of Himself. He knows the entirety of creation. He knows the answer to every question. There are no imponderables. There are no secrets. There is no fact, no detail that is unknown to God. He knows the future. He knows those things that as yet have not come into being. The future will not catch God by surprise, because of the infinite-ness of His knowledge. He knows everything. “Oh, the depths of the ...knowledge of God!”

And not only the knowledge of God, but the wisdom of God: “Oh, the depths both of the wisdom and knowledge of God!” Or, as some of your translations might have it, “riches”...but “wisdom” is a better translation, I think. And you understand the difference between wisdom and knowledge: it's one thing to know something, but to be wise you need to know how to use that knowledge, how to achieve that good end. And God has perfect wisdom; He knows how to achieve all of His purposes so as to bring good out of every situation. Imagine it! Imagine how complicated it would be to trace all of the details of history in order to insure that you would be found in this pew in this building on this day. Imagine that! Just for you, let alone anyone else! And God holds all of that together because of His immense wisdom.

And not only His wisdom, but His judgments. God's decrees, what God has determined, what Paul is talking about when he says in his Epistle to the Ephesians that his intent was that now “through the church the manifold wisdom of God might be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly place, according to His eternal purpose which He accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.” The eternal purpose of Almighty God, God's plan–God's plan to bring about the salvation of His people...there are depths to that plan. There are depths to God's knowledge, there are depths to God's wisdom, there are depths to God's judgment, and there are depths to God's ways.

God's ways are not our ways. God's providence, the unfolding of God's will in the details and intricacies of our individual lives...how this plan of God impinges upon us...there are depths to it! Depths which cause some of us to cry out to Him from time to time for an explanation of what it is that He's doing. Intricacies so beyond our understanding that sometimes we doubt. Isn't that so? Sometimes we doubt whether He knows what He's doing. And Paul is saying, “Oh, the depths....!”

Do you understand, my friend, little wonder that we don't understand the ways of God in our lives, because there are depths to the ways of God? There are intricacies to the ways of God. There and immensities to the ways of God, so that the apostle is saying here, as he has scanned the purpose of God as it unfolds in the revelation of the gospel, God is beyond our understanding. That there is a sense in which God is incomprehensible to us.

II. A vision of a sovereign God.

But in the second place, not only a vision of the incomprehensible God, but a vision of a sovereign God. A vision of a sovereign God. Do you notice now in verse 35 he quotes (it's actually a quotation from the Book of Job, and it comes from the end of the Book of Job, from Job 41:11), “Who has given a gift to Him, that he might be repaid?” “Who has given a gift to Him that he might be repaid?”

Do you understand what it is that the apostle is doing in citing this verse? This verse in the Book of Job is the conclusion to the Book of Job, and Job, you remember, has been asking for an explanation of what it is that has been happening in his life. And God has been silent. And God has said nothing. And Job has come before God and demanded that God give him an explanation, as though God owes us an explanation! And one of the things that Job learns at the end of that trial is that in actual fact, God owes us nothing at all. He owes us nothing at all.

As we were hearing in fact this morning, our salvation is by grace through faith, and that not of our works, lest any man should boast; and that the gospel is a gospel that reveals the grace of God. It follows in some ways as Paul cites this verse from the latter chapters of the Book of Job, emphasizing as the verse does the sovereignty of God. It is perhaps all the more pertinent that this verse should be cited here, especially after what the Apostle Paul has written in the preceding chapters, in chapters nine, ten, and eleven: chapters that have expounded the intricacies of the doctrine of election and predestination, and found its climactic statement in chapter nine and verse thirteen: “Jacob have I loved and Esau have I hated.” And the stark reality of that proclamation of Almighty God emphasizing, as perhaps few other verses in the Bible emphasize, the sheer sovereignty of God in the administration of His grace. “Jacob have I loved and Esau have I hated.”

And it may be that you and I might have said, “I can understand if it had been the other way around, because in many ways Esau was a more likable person than the wily, conniving Jacob.” And yet, in the sovereignty of God, He reveals His purpose and says that there is a purpose of God according to the election of grace, and that there is a purpose of God which leads to reprobation; and we might be tempted, you and I, to say, “But that isn't fair! That isn't fair!”

And you see now why the Apostle Paul is citing this verse from the Book of Job, because fairness has nothing to do with it! Because there is none righteous, no not one; for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God, and not one of us has given to God that He might repay us. Emphasizing, do you see, the sheer sovereignty of God in the administration of grace.

But it may not be the doctrines of election or reprobation that cause us in fact to question the sovereignty of God. It may be what God is doing in providence. It may be what God is doing in our lives. I was thinking again this afternoon of the life of Elizabeth Elliot, missionary as she was to the Quichua Indians in the jungles of Ecuador, and working with two other women to reduce that language so as to produce a readable, practical knowledge of the Scriptures; and God providing in answer to her prayer, Macario, who was promptly murdered; and then, shortly after that, all of the manuscripts being stolen and never recovered; and then, marrying, as you recall, Jim Elliot, who within months of marriage, barely twenty-seven months of marriage, was murdered; and then, marrying yet again, the President of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, who, within a few months of marriage contracted cancer and died; and the question coming into her mind, as it may well come into your mind in relation to events in your life, what is God doing? What is God doing in my life? And seeing once again that the way of pilgrimage and the way of servanthood is the way of acknowledging the sovereignty of God in all of our affairs, that

“God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform.

He plants His footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines of never-failing skill,

He treasures up His bright designs and works His sovereign will.

Blind unbelief is sure to err, and scan His work in vain.

God is His own interpreter, and He will make it plain.”

And so, what we see in this passage is a vision of the incomprehensibility of God. There are depths to the knowledge and wisdom of God. And we see in this passage a vision of the sovereignty of God.

III. A vision of a glorious God.

And we see, in the third place, a vision of a glorious God. “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be glory forever,” Paul says. And one of the five sola's, one of the five only's of the Reformation is, as you well recall, the one that Ligon alluded to this morning on the front cover of your bulletin: “To the glory of God alone.” To the glory of God alone. And what is it that the apostle has been drawn to, as he has pulled together the threads of all that God has been revealing in creation and providence in the unfolding of the revelation of the gospel of Jesus Christ? What is it that the Apostle Paul has been drawn to but simply this: that all things–that all things–must tend to the glory of God. To the glory of God, because from Him and through Him and to Him are all things.

From Him are all things. He created all that is. Everything that has being, everything that has existence comes because God has brought it into being. He spoke the word, ex nihilo, out of nothing it came by the creative fiat of Almighty God. From Him are all things.

And through Him are all things. The God, the God of Scripture is not the God of the deist, who having made creation then goes off to snooze; but He's intimately involved in every facet of creation and providence. All things are sustained by Him.

Did you see it? Did you go out–was it Tuesday evening?–that lunar eclipse, in all of its brilliance and all of its magnificence? As you stood there looking up, perhaps with a pair of binoculars, looking once again at the wonder of creation, being reminded surely that these great planetary events are brought about through the intervention and the sustaining power of Almighty God, because “of Him are all things, and through Him are all things, and unto Him are all things.” Because at the end of the day, and it's what the Reformation signaled most clearly, the great end and purpose of God in creation and redemption in saving us and rescuing us and bringing us into union with Christ is to say to us, you and me, ‘Your chief end is to glorify Me and to enjoy Me forever.’

It's not insignificant, I think, that John Calvin's personal motto was “I offer my heart, promptly and sincerely.” I offer my heart, promptly and sincerely. That's the goal of everything that God is doing in our lives, and I wonder this evening, my friend, have you been so humbled as the Apostle Paul was so humbled to be brought to that point of bowing the knee and acknowledging “to God be the glory, great things He hath done. So loved He the world that He gave us His Son...” That's the heart of the Reformation, it's the heart of the Scriptures, and it's the very heart of the gospel, and it's the very heart of God Himself.

Let's come now to God in prayer, and with some of those thoughts echoing in our minds and hearts, let's bow in His presence and bring before Him our worship and our praise, our adoration and confession, and supplication and thanksgiving. Let's pray.

O Lord God, You have made everything that is: the heavens and the earth, and the sea and all it contains. The whole of creation is the work of Your hands. You rule among the armies of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth, and do what pleases Yourself. You've shown a glimpse of Your goodness and Your grace to us in the gospel of Jesus Christ, and our hearts are overwhelmed as we consider what it is that You have disclosed to us: that we poor, wretched, miserable, unworthy sinners as we are by nature–the fallen sons of Adam–have been brought by sovereign redeeming grace through the energy of the Holy Spirit into union and communion with Your dear Son, our Savior Jesus Christ. We thank You that now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when He shall appear we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him even as He is.

We come, O Lord, as those who are a needy people. We come with large petitions upon our hearts and upon our lips: petitions with regards to ourselves, that we might find that peace that passes all understanding, that guards and garrisons our hearts in the knowledge of Jesus Christ as we are tossed to and fro; as we find ourselves buffeted by the winds and the waves; as we feel our feet sink into those waters and we cry, “Lord, help us and rescue us.” So come, O Lord, and wrap Your loving arms around us and draw us to Yourself, and reassure us once again of the promises of the gospel that are yea and amen in Jesus Christ.

Our God and our Father, we pray for one another. We pray for our brothers and sisters. We thank you for them. We thank You for the communion of saints. We bless You this evening for this wonderful gift of the Sabbath Day, the Lord's Day, one day in seven set apart, different from all of the rest, that we might gather together with the Lord's people and sing Your praises and read Your word, and come before You as penitents to receive Your assurance of absolution through faith in Jesus Christ.

Our Father, we pray for the state in which we live in Your providence; for the election on Tuesday; for Your good hand to be upon us as a nation, to give to us not what we deserve, but that in wrath You would remember to have mercy. Grant to us, O Lord, a prayerful stance as we anticipate these mighty events in the work of our land and nation, remembering that there is One who sits upon a throne and all the nation of the world are as but a drop in a bucket.

Our God and our Father, we come before You. We pray for the backslider whose heart is cold and whose spirit is listless; for those who have ceased attending regularly and whose lives have become worldly; for those who are succumbing to sin and temptation, whose resolve in mortification has abated; for those who know with pain the fellowship of Christ's sufferings, that they may especially know the power of the resurrection.

And teach us, O Lord, to pray as You taught Your disciples to pray, saying

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name.

Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth,

As it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread,

And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil;

For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.

Amen.

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