When I lived and did ministry in Durham, I remember being one of two pastors sitting in a meeting with eleven or twelve of our deacons. The issue of money was brought up because giving had gone down since the retirement of the ‘lead’ pastor. I love these men to death, so if anyone knows them please understand that I use this illustration not to condemn anyone or to complain about anyone, but to illuminate the condition of the human heart. Everyone, it seemed, had input and everyone, it seemed, had a solution to the problem. Cut staff wages. Decrease the funds going to one ministry or another. Fire the janitor! He was one of the hardest working men that I knew and I am convinced that no one could do better. I saw how much he accomplished daily and how efficient he was. I, as timid as I was being the young youth pastor, raised my hand knowing that everyone in the room had more life experience than I did. The room got quiet. The chairman of the deacons, surprised, asked what I had to say. My voice shaking, I asked why we hadn’t prayed about finances before having this discussion. After all, didn’t God, having the entire universe at His disposal, have deeper pockets than any person?
We have a great tendency to, in our minds, make people out to be big and God out to be small. God’s providence becomes a way for us to merely deal with heartache, but I wonder if we have considered what God’s providence actually entails. We believe that God provides, but to what extent does He provide?
I speak the truth in Christ — I am not lying; my conscience is testifying to me with the Holy Spirit — that I have intense sorrow and continual anguish in my heart. For I could almost wish to be cursed and cut off from the Messiah for the benefit of my brothers, my own flesh and blood. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the temple service, and the promises. The ancestors are theirs, and from them, by physical descent, came the Messiah, who is God over all, praised forever. Amen.
But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Neither are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants. On the contrary, your offspring will be traced through Isaac. That is, it is not the children by physical descent who are God’s children, but the children of the promise are considered to be the offspring. For this is the statement of the promise: At this time I will come, and Sarah will have a son. And not only that, but also Rebekah received a promise when she became pregnant by one man, our ancestor Isaac. For though her sons had not been born yet or done anything good or bad, so that God’s purpose according to election might stand — not from works but from the One who calls — she was told: The older will serve the younger. As it is written: I have loved Jacob, but I have hated Esau.
God and failure
Paul has, at this point, devoted a considerable amount of time to explaining the Law and the Law’s purpose. The purpose of the Law, as a point of reminder, was to show people that their works were insufficient and to draw people into grace. Paul recognizes that the Law was given to the Jews, but the Jews were the very people rejecting grace. The Law had not fulfilled its purpose in them. This causes anguish in Paul’s heart because he knows this means that many of his kinsmen will be under condemnation because they have been slaves to sin. He is in so much anguish over the condition of his fellow Jews that he states that he would almost wish to be cursed and cut off from the Messiah for the benefit of his own brothers. If only that could help them believe in the Messiah and bring them from under the Law into grace! I wonder if our hearts are this broken for those in our own communities, families, schools, work-places, and in the midst of our own churches who are not under grace.
Why were so many Jews rejecting the Messiah who had been foretold by the prophets and even by Moses? The Jews were the ones to whom the promise was made. They were the ones to whom the promise of adoption belonged (or pertained depending on the English translation). The Jews were the ones who had the covenants, the Law, the temple services, and the promises of God. The ancestors, or the fathers of the faith, were their own. The Messiah came through the Jews. Why was God’s promise to the Jews failing? Had God failed to redeem His chosen people, the Jews? This is the very question that Paul is asking. Is God capable of failure? The Jews did not take hold of His promise…
Since he is writing a letter and there is no one immediately to respond to his question, Paul answers it for his audience in verses 6-8:
“But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Neither are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants. On the contrary, your offspring will be traced through Isaac. That is, it is not the children by physical descent who are God’s children, but the children of the promise are considered to be the offspring.”
There are some who imagine that God created the world one way. When things didn’t go as planned, God had to come up with another plan to correct a mistake. This is the very idea that Paul is debunking. Because we tend to have such a low view of God, we imagine, for some reason, that God doing damage control. This has caused us to misunderstand who God is. There are thousands of Christians who, in their eschatology, imagine that God will, in the end, have a place in glory for all of national Israel. Paul is clear, here. Not all physical Israel will be saved. The true children of Isaac are children of the promise: those who have been gifted faith and imputed with the righteousness of Christ. People aren’t off the hook because of their physical ancestors. Only those in Christ will be saved. Even in John 15, we read of how some of the physical branches (who are Jews) will be cut off and thrown into the fire because they are not truly in Christ. Christ is the one pruning the branches. It’s not as though God is surprised. In Ephesians, we even read that God chose those who are in Him, those who would be called saints, before the foundation of the world, so that we would be predestined to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ according to the kind intention of His will (Ephesians 1:3-4).
God has not failed! In fact, He could not fail. All of this stuff that He is working out, He has been working out from before the foundation of the world according to the intention of His own will. To say anything else is heresy and contrary to the revelation of God in Scripture.
If God could fail, I would have no reason to have confidence in Him. This is why our faith is in God alone, not merely in Andrew Cannon, not merely in any pastor or elder, not in any deacon, not in any Sunday School teacher, not in any ministry leader, not in anyone other than God. The truth is this: I can fail. I am fallible. God, God is not. Because God does not fail and God gifts faith and imputes righteousness, I can have great confidence in His people because of who He is, not what they have done or failed to do. Grace is so beautiful and it means so much even as we consider the way we measure those who, by God’s grace alone, lead us in Christ alone. I guess this means that the primary reason there is a lacking of confidence in leadership today is that there is no confidence in God, who works all things together. Why do we make so little of who God is? Why is our faith so small?
God cannot fail.
God and providence
This means everything regarding God’s ability to provide. We say that God provides, usually because saying that helps us to deal with heartache or with financial struggles. Scripture is clear on this topic. If God cannot fail and He is the one who works all things together, He not only provides what we need in our time of need, but He has provided that time of need, and He has provided the time before that for our good. God doesn’t merely provide when we are desperate and cry out to Him, but He really is working together all things. God cannot fail at the things He is working together. God has all providence!
He was even working all things through national Israel so that His promise would be fulfilled in true Israel: those who have been adopted by grace. Paul cites evidence from the book of Genesis. Jacob and Esau were not even born, not even having the chance to try and earn God’s favor, and God had decided that the older would serve the younger. Esau would serve Jacob. Why does God do this? So that His purpose according to election might stand (v. 11). God was choosing for Himself a spiritual people, a true people, not primarily a national people by physical descent or by works. We can even consider the remainder of chapter nine:
- God will have mercy on whom He will have mercy (v. 15).
- God’s mercy (particularly in the giving of faith and the imputation of His righteousness) does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs. God’s work is completely independent of the inward desire and the outward action of people (v. 16).
- Paul quotes from Exodus 9:16, insisting that God even raised Pharaoh to power in order to demonstrate His own power (v. 17).
- God has mercy on and hardens whom He desires (v. 18).
- The potter has the right over the clay, to make one vessel for honorable use and another for common or dishonorable use (v. 19-21).
- God patiently endures vessels of wrath, which have been prepared for destruction, so that vessels of mercy, from among the Jews and Gentiles whom He prepared beforehand for glory, would know the riches of His glory (v. 22-24).
- Paul quoted the prophets Hosea and Isaiah, who prophesied that not all of Israel would be God’s true people and that many gentiles would be adopted (v. 25-27).
- The Lord is the one who is executing His own word thoroughly and quickly in all of this (v. 28).
- Unless the Lord preserves, people perish (v. 29).
Are we beginning to understand the breadth of God’s providential hand? He is not merely responding to immediate needs and He is not constantly forming backup plans so that He can make corrections where things have gone wrong. God has truly and sovereignly worked and is working all things together. This is the God in whom our faith is placed. This is the God who can truly take care of His people. This is the God in whom we rest. This is the God we celebrate, not for merely providing my immediate needs, but for working all things together for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.
God provides all things.
God’s providence and us
This means something desperate for us. Consider what the prophet, Jeremiah, said:
Woe to me because of my brokenness —
I am severely wounded!
I exclaimed, “This is my intense suffering,
but I must bear it.”
My tent is destroyed;
all my tent cords are snapped.
My sons have departed from me and are no more.
I have no one to pitch my tent again
or to hang up my curtains.
For the shepherds are stupid:
they don’t seek the Lord.
Therefore they have not prospered,
and their whole flock is scattered.
Listen! A noise — it is coming —
a great commotion from the land to the north.
The cities of Judah will be made desolate,
a jackals’ den.
I know, Lord,
that a man’s way of life is not his own;
no one who walks determines his own steps (Jeremiah 10:19-23).
God’s provision doesn’t simply mean that I will receive food tomorrow or that I will be kept safe on a long journey. There’s a reason Jesus said that man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God (Matthew 4:4). Everything is worked together by God’s providential hand. No one who walks determines his own steps. No person’s life is his or her own.
When terrible things happen, then, our hope is not merely in a God who wants to make things better. Our hope is in God, who actually works all things together. This terrible thing that has happened is not outside of God’s providential authority. This means that all of the terrible things that happen are being worked together for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose. Sometimes we feel like all hope is lost when terrible things happen. All is not lost. God has always been in control. That doesn’t mean that we aren’t hurt. It does mean that we have a great hope and an understanding that it is God who provides all things and works together all things for good.
We may have friends or family members who don’t know Jesus and who don’t know what it is to know the life that we have in Christ. They don’t know what it means to live by real faith or to have the righteousness of Christ imputed as a gift. This is anguish for us as it was for Paul. In fact, this is precisely what Paul was dealing with in the text! Though there was anguish for Paul, he recognized honestly that God would not save everyone he knew. Since God is working all things together for His glory and the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose, he could trust God to have mercy on whom He would have mercy and to accomplish His purpose rightly.
When we struggle with sin, that struggle is not outside of God’s providential work and He is working that struggle together for His glory and our good.
When we are around people we don’t like or when things are being done that we don’t like, those circumstances are not outside of God’s providential authority.
What does this mean for the operation of the local church? God cannot fail and He provides all things! His pockets are deep and His affection is great. The local church that is abiding by God’s word and who is following God rightly, I am convinced, will never fail. Everything for which God has purposed a local church will be accomplished. God provides all things!
There is much encouragement, here, for us. The Gospel is good news! I have to wonder, again, why we have made God out to be so small. Why, in popular religion and in the way that most churches operate and most people live, is God made out to be more like Santa Clause than like the one who has all providence? You better watch out. Don’t cry. He knows when you are sleeping and He knows when you’re awake. He’s making a list and checking it twice! God is not so petty and He is not so reactive. He is truly working together all things. He is lovingly and intimately and sovereignly involved from before the foundation of the world, guiding the world to His desired outcome. Our God is big! He provides all things. I am small. I do not determine my own steps. I am good at convincing myself that I do, and as a result, I only experience frustration when my plans don’t work out. My plans don’t often work out because I am not the determiner of my steps. God is working all things together for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. There is great comfort in this. It seems that only those who think too highly of themselves would be offended by such a notion. This is great news because it means that we have a reason to place all of our confidence in the providential God! Jehovah Jireh (יהוה will provide)!
Therefore, I have a great hope.
God cannot fail.
God provides all things.
Therefore, I have a great hope.