The Secret Things of God and the Revealed Things
Deuteronomy 29:29 The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children for ever, that we may follow all the words of this law.
In this chapter God is reminding the people that they are in covenant with him. He is their God and they are his people, and that knowledge brings in its wake tremendous responsibilities. For example, he warns them about worshipping the gods of the other nations (v.18) and about persisting in doing things their own way (v.19). Such behaviour will bring disaster upon them. He tells them, ‘All the curses of God will fall upon you because you have received such blessings, and yet you’ve disdained the Lord. The whole land will become like Sodom and Gomorrah’ (v.23). There will be occasions when the people will cry out ‘Why? Why has the Lord done this?’ (v.24). The answer is plain; it is their disobedience. They have sowed a wind and hence they’ve reaped this whirlwind. The judgments of God are not a secret; they are no mystery. The warnings have been made spectacularly clear. In the great Day of Judgment lying before all of us no one will be perplexed. No one will say, ‘But we didn’t know.’ God has written the things of his law on the hearts of every man. But mysteries do abound. Why should this person fall away? Why should he or she embrace error? Why should this church collapse? Why should the Puritan movement become Unitarian? Why should suffering enter this life but not that life? We don’t know. Those questions have secret answers that belong today to the Lord our God.
However, we may not collapse in sorrow that God keeps things to himself. There is much glorious truth plainly revealed to us. The Lord Jesus has told us that it is life eternal to know the true God, and Jesus Christ whom God has sent. This knowledge of God is ours because God has chosen to reveal himself to us. God had drawn aside the veil which obscures his own glory. He has let us know something of the deepest intentions of his own heart and the innermost purposes of his mind. Not only is heaven a world of knowledge but the kingdom of God here below is a kingdom of knowledge. Now we know – through the prophets and through Jesus Christ the Son of God – that God has graciously given us a rich revelation, an unveiling and a disclosure of his character and nature, his achievements, his redemptive love to men and women, and his own purposes for this cosmos.
The revelation we have is in the Bible and it is one which is full of profundities. It plumbs the depths, and it reaches the heavens. It stretches the human intellect and in many ways it informs fully the human mind, and it informs it to the utmost of its capacity. Yet it is also possible to stand before that revelation and ask it questions which it is not in a position to answer. It is, on the one hand, a comprehensive revelation, adequate for all God’s purposes, adequate for our salvation and adequate for our being conformed to the image of Christ, and yet it is not an exhaustive revelation. It doesn’t tell us everything about God. It doesn’t answer even all those questions which we are able to formulate. And even as we say that we know that there must be many questions which we cannot even formulate. Now a great lesson stands behind this text. It tells us above all that we men and women possess a true and reliable divine revelation, and that it is an adequate revelation for all we need during our lives. We know that the wages of sin is death. We know that the Bible can fully equip us for all the good works we are required to do during our lives. Yet Moses also tells us that that revelation from God has its limitations; there are secret things that God chooses not to reveal to us now, either temporarily, until the new heavens and earth or perhaps for eternity. Let me remind you of the secret things which belong to the Lord. Knowing about them will save us from worry, frustration and needless speculation.
1. HOW EVIL COULD HAVE ORIGINATED IS HIDDEN FROM US
i] No answer is given in Scripture to the question of how sin originated. It began in heaven, in the heart of Satan, and he was an angel created by God, of superhuman moral and spiritual strength. Yet, at the heart of that perfection sin began. The Lord Christ was there. He was a witness of the rebellion; he was the Judge that condemned the rebel angels to be cast out of heaven and reserved in everlasting darkness for the day of judgment, but he said nothing about it when he was on earth. In none of the four gospel does he make any reference to the event.
Yet every metaphysician, and every amateur theologian, and every thinking Christian student is going to ask, ‘Why?’ How was it possible for such an angel to sin? How could sin begin in heaven? How could it begin among the sons of God – those great and glorious beings? How? It is utterly irrational; it is anomalous; there is no coherence in this fact at all. It came from nowhere. It has no logic. It makes no sense. It is a black hole, and the Lord Jesus was silent about it. We do not know how it could happen. Certainly it was not because of anything God did or failed to do. Elihu says, ‘Far be it from God that he should do wickedness, and from the Almighty that he should do wrong’ (Job 34:10).
ii] Or again, how did sin come into the human race? It came into the Garden of Eden. It began in the heart of Eve and then speedily in the heart of Adam also. They were perfectly upright; they were made in the image of God, temptation-proof in theory. Everyone seeing them on that fateful day when Satan came in the form of a serpent and began to speak to Eve would have said, ‘It’s O.K. they will never sin.’ We all would have said that. The angels looking down from heaven would have said that. They were so pure, godly, biased in favour of holiness, contented, blessed, deeply in love with God. They were a pure and blessed couple. When God looked at them he saw a flawless image of himself. ‘They will never listen to a talking Serpent and defy the glorious loving God.’
But he came and began to talk to Eve, asking her a few direct questions, and in less than five minutes her resistance and the resistance of her husband was broken, and sin began in our world, in the Garden of Eden, in the heart of spotless purity which God had created in that context. How could it have happened? Certainly it was not because of God. Moses says, ‘His work is perfect; for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and right is he’ (Deut. 32:4).
iii] Or again, why do you, a justified, pardoned, adopted child of God, living your life in union with Jesus Christ, sin? You are a new creation; you have a new heart; you have limitless access to an indwelling Saviour; greater is he that is in you than he that is in the world and you sin. Here is something equally astonishing; it defies logic; it defies explanation, but isn’t it the case than everyone thinks that sin in the Christian is the most understandable, explicable action, that we all do it, and we shrug . . . Yet the whole thing is monstrous. Remember how John starts the second chapter of his letter, ‘My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin.’ He is writing to men full of the Holy Spirit, indwelt by God, seated in the heavenlies in Christ Jesus, partakers of the divine nature, and they could be sinning people! It is utterly unthinkable. What is fornication? Paul tells the Corinthian congregation that it is to take the members of Christ and make them members of a harlot. How shocking! And we need in moments of temptation to bring this fact powerfully to our own consciences – as Joseph did in Potiphar’s house: ‘How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?’ (Gen. 39:9). This is written for us, so that we will not sin. We would be doing the unimaginable, the absurd, the impossible, the thing that cannot be when we sin. There is no explanation for the origin of sin in heaven, or sin in Eden, or sin in my life. We often bear testimony to our sense of shock at such sin as we say to one another, ‘he’s the last person we’d imagine sinning like that . . .’ Let us vow to be the very last person to sin.
2. WHY OUR LIVES SHOULD EXPERIENCE GRIEF IS HIDDEN FROM US
There are Christians here who are asking ‘Why?’ They have been walking through a dark valley. They have fallen into a fearful pit. They are being overwhelmed with trials and tribulations and they are not coping very well with them, but they are coping much better than I would if I were experiencing the pain of their providences. I am thinking of child abduction, a car accident, cancer, a genetic illness, a birth deformity, the violence of wicked men, war and religious persecution, the death of our loved ones. Months of anguish, years of crippling weakness, long times of crushing, loneliness and despondency. We have read of the difficulties that some eminent servants of God have passed through. Consider the two major traumas that Horatio Spafford passed through. The first was the great Chicago fire of October 1871 which ruined him financially, and shortly after, when crossing the Atlantic, all four of his daughters died when the ship they were sailing on collided with another ship. His wife Anna survived and sent him a telegram with two words on it, ‘Saved alone.’ Several weeks later he sailed across the Atlantic and on that voyage wrote his famous hymn,
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
and sorrows like sea-billows roll,
Whatever my lot Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.
Most of us have heard of that grief, and other similar difficulties that eminent servants of God have passed through. We have listened to older Christians mentioning the trials they have known, the struggles and falls, and we have wondered whether the Christian life could possibly be all that arduous.
There is another side to this, of course. There are great days and years, there are highs; there are mountain tops; there is joy unspeakable and full of glory. There is the possibility of being content always and in all things. There is melody in our hearts. We can say, ‘Every day will I bless Thee and I will praise Thy name for ever and ever.’ There is the promise God makes that his grace is sufficient for us, that his strength is most perfectly experienced when we have no strength ourselves and simply fall onto his outstretched arms.
I may not tell you from the day you become a Christian, ‘From now on everything’s coming up roses.’ I may not hide from you sober realities. Many a day the road is rough, and I know the paradox that it is rough by God’s own ordering: ‘For he commands and forth in haste the stormy tempest flies;’ that is how the psalmist saw it. We have known some stormy tempests in our congregations, and in our families and in our own personal lives. There are days when the church cries out (as the Old Testament church cried), ‘Can there be knowledge in God of things below?’ Does God know what he is doing? Is he aware of the pain of all this? Does he know of the shame that is being brought on the name of Christ? Where is there light in this darkness? There are humble believers today who are close to God and they are perplexed. They are holy men and women and their hearts are broken; their hopes are shattered, their worst fears realised; they are bruised and broken. They don’t know why God has done it this way, and we don’t know. It is a secret matter known only to God; it is past finding out, and we have to live our lives within the framework of that limitation. Often the Lord has to say to us what he said to Peter, ‘You do not realise now what I am doing, but later you will understand’ (John 13:7). John Flavel famously said, ‘God’s providences, like the Hebrew letters, are to be read backwards.’ Certainly from the perspective of glory we shall understand our griefs. All things will become clear when we pass into the region of light.
Heaven is a world of knowledge. It is not a place of eternal perplexity. Now we see through a glass darkly but there we shall know to our eternal satisfaction why God has been dealing with us as he has. The voice of trust says, ‘Later I will understand.’
Blind unbelief is sure to err
and scan God’s work in vain.
God is his own interpreter
and he will make it plain.
This world is not in the grip of chance and fate or under the control of the devil. God has the whole wide world in his hands. When the tower of Siloam fell on 18 people and killed them some people were thinking that they were worse than the men in the tower who’d been spared. Some thought that that is why they had been killed, because they were particularly wicked. It was their karma. But Jesus said to them, ‘I tell you no! But unless you repent you too will all perish’ (Luke13:4). We do not know why some are struck down and others spared, but we do know this – that unless we show repentance towards God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ we are all going to perish. Why particular Christians experience particular suffering we do not know. It is a secret thing belonging to the Lord.
I was listening to the testimony of Joni Eareckson Tada speaking of her initial suicidal despair when she realised as an 18 year old that she was paralyzed from the neck down for life. She longed for a friend to help her commit suicide, and then one day a fellow teenager came and sat with her. His name was Steve and later he went to the same theological seminary that I went to. She asked him why God had done this to her if God were all powerful and all loving. Imagine as a 19 year old being asked by a paralyzed, beautiful, despairing girl that question. But God helped Steve to answer her. He spoke to her of the cross of Calvary where the Son of God was nailed. He also couldn’t move. God allowed wicked men to do that to his Son, and out of it God brought deliverance and eternal life to billions. Steve planted those seeds in Joni’s anguished mind and said no more. God gave him that wisdom. We know, many years later, that out of Joni’s life multitudes have received hope and blessing. Her example and teaching have been life-transforming. But why her in particular? . . . why you in particular? . . . is a secret thing.
3. THE DATE OF THE SECOND COMING IS HIDDEN FROM US
We cannot know the time of the end of the world. It is a secret thing. It is not that our minds couldn’t cope with it. It is that God has deliberately kept that information to himself. The Lord Jesus himself has said, ‘No-one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father’ (Mark 13:32). He has kept the knowledge of the times and seasons in his own power, and yet time and again the mind of the church, and the curiosity of God’s people has had the audacity to pit itself against that declared limit on the part of God’s revelation.
This year the peace of the evangelical church was shattered by the pronouncement of a 90 year old Californian named Harold Camping that on Saturday May 21st 2011 believers would be raptured to heaven and a giant earthquake would bring destruction to those left behind. Millions would die. Harold Camping is a well-known figure in America, the president of Family Radio International. He grew up in the Christian Reformed Church of Louis Berkhof. For years he has had a daily radio broadcast in which he answers listeners’ questions, and most of the time he gives good advice, but now for the second time he’d announced a date for the end of the world. Millions were spent on the publicity. One man, Robert Fitzpatrick, gave his life savings of $140,000 paying for adverts all over America. When I was travelling on the New York subway at the end of May, a week after the predicted event, I happened to sit under one of the adverts and saw people coming in looking at it and smiling at one another. People did not get married; they gave up their jobs, they did not have children, stopped paying their mortgages, went around the country driving vehicles announcing the end of the world on May 21, and the day came and went and life went on. Now Harold Camping announces that it is going to happen on October 21 – incidentally my mother’s birthday.
The Lord says, ‘nobody knows.’ It is past finding out. It is absolutely impossible for any sinner to announce that this date is the day of the return of the Lord of glory. We have to live with that limitation. We have to submit to it. The great argument of the New Testament with regard to that fact is that ‘in such an hour as you think not the Son of Man comes.’ Our preparedness and alertness is not a response to any definite knowledge of the time of his return; it is in fact a response to the total uncertainty of his return. You don’t know when he’s going to come, and because of that the church must keep itself in a state of constant preparedness. Our loins are girt about and our lamps are lit. We are ready for the appearing of the Bridegroom by being good and faithful servants regarding our families and children. Be wise and truthful with what God has entrusted to you. Our Lord desires fruitfulness and increase; this brings glory to God. Stay faithful to the Lord as your first love. Never be ashamed of his gospel. Stay devoted to him.
4. WHETHER GOD HAS CHOSEN US IN ETERNITY TO BE HIS CHILDREN IS HIDDEN FROM US UNTIL WE TRUST IN HIM
Some people get so perplexed over the question, ‘Am I elect? Has God chosen me? Am I numbered amongst that great company which is as vast as the grains of sand on a beach?’ Sometimes people have become very interested in the gospel and are on the threshold of faith pondering whether to follow Jesus and then they start to say, ‘But what if God has not chosen me? Have I got any right to come to Christ?’ They get tormented by this question, ‘Am I elect?’
There is no way before you put your trust in Jesus Christ that you or any single person can know whether he’s a believer, or that he’d been numbered amongst the elect. We cannot look into the Lamb’s Book of Life and see if our names are recorded there. It is a totally inaccessible list. We cannot look into the depths of the divine heart and see whether our names are written there in marks of indelible grace. To try to look for it is a futile undertaking. We don’t know if it is there before we come to Jesus Christ, and put our trust in him. We know in saving faith, because our faith in Christ alone is the sign of our election. Or we can say it like this, that Christ is a sign of our election. If I have Christ as my Lord and Saviour, if he is my teacher, my great High Priest and my Shepherd King then and only then will I know that I am elect. If I can say from my heart, ‘I am trusting Thee Lord Jesus, trusting only Thee,’ then I can know that God chose me from before the foundation of the world. That is the order you get at the opening of the letter to the Ephesians; first, ‘Paul to the faithful in Christ Jesus’ (v.1), that is, to those whose faith is in Christ Jesus: ‘he chose us in him before the creation of the world’ (v.4), that is, to the chosen ones. You trust and then you know that, wonder of wonders, he chose you in Christ before the creation of the world.
Let me ask you what is a sinner’s warrant to come right up to Jesus Christ and trust in him as Lord and Saviour? What right do we have to receive him as our God? Do we come because we know we are elect? Did any single soul come because he knew before his conversion that he was an elect person? No. He came because he was invited to come and commanded to come. He came because there is an universal offer of God in the gospel. We came because to every sinner of mankind ““ to every such soul – God says ‘Come!’ All of you labouring and heavy laden, all of you stand within the orbit of God’s offer of his Son to become your Saviour. It doesn’t matter who you are. We all have all kinds of disabilities and disadvantages. We all possess all kinds of excuses. We are so sinful. We are so hypocritical. We have all left it too late. We are so unconvinced and unprepared. We are different from other people. We are unusual people. We are all willing to find some point at which by our own uniqueness we are disqualified from coming to Christ.
We have no right before God to do that. We don’t know whether we are elect. No one knows whether he is elect, but we do know that we are bidden. We do know that God is beseeching us to come to Jesus Christ. The Lord has given all men a warrant to come to him. It’s in the invitation he makes to all who labour and are heavy laden. If today you are able to understand the most elementary invitation then you respond to it. When Daddy or Mummy says to you, ‘Come here for a moment my lovely girl,’ then you can understand what they are saying, and you should honour them by obeying. You go to them. You are only 3 years of age but you know what your parents are saying and you respond to that invitation. When you start to walk to them, then they don’t say, ‘What are you doing? Who gave you the right to come to me?’ They’d never say that would they? You’d rightly be so hurt if they said that, and you’d cry and protest, ‘. . . but you asked me to come to you. I am only obeying your invitation.’ So it is when Jesus says to you, ‘Come to me,’ then he is giving you the right to come, and he is urging on you the response of obedience. So if you are so old that you know that you are a sinner, then you need a Saviour from your sins, and that Saviour says to you, ‘Come to me and I will give you rest from your convicted conscience, and rest from the burden of your guilt, and rest from having to walk through life alone. Take my yoke upon you and learn of me for I am meek and lowly of heart, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.’
Maybe you have lived for long years right to old age without God, often hearing the gospel, and always saying no. I am saying that you still have the right to come to him. He has not taken it away. It is still a day of grace. His mandate, his invitation is still sincere. Come to him, just as you are. If you tarry till you’re better you will never come at all, not the righteous, sinners Jesus came to call.
I find it useful to distinguish between two great words, a Christ who is offered to all, and a salvation that is promised to believers. The two words are ‘offer’ and ‘promise.’ I do not promise salvation to everyone in this distinguished congregation today. I don’t say to every one of you, ‘I promise each one of you heaven and the fulness of joy at God’s right hand for evermore. I want to guarantee this for everyone here.’ I cannot preach that. I can say to every single one who trusts in Christ, ‘I promise you salvation. I guarantee you salvation. If you have mustard seed faith . . . if it is as fine as a spider’s thread, if it is lodged in Jesus, then I promise you that Jesus Christ keeps his word and that every one who believes in him will not perish but will have everlasting life. That is the guarantee of the gospel, no matter how immature, and how hesitant and how backslidden and inconsistent your faith might be. If it is there, and if it is in the Lord Jesus . . . if you say I shall live and die trusting in Jesus . . . then I promise you salvation.
But I don’t promise salvation to all. I offer salvation to all. I have good news for every sinner. I can go to the worst man in the town and I can say to him, ‘I have a Saviour here for you; I have a teacher who will tell you what you must do to be saved and how you should live; I have a great high priest whose atoning blood can make the foulest clean, who ever lives to make intercession for us; I have a Shepherd here who will guide and provide for you all through your life and will not leave you when you walk through the valley of the shadow of death, and he is for you. I offer this full salvation to you, from condemnation to glory, an infallible and effectual salvation, an utterly free salvation to be taken without money and without price, the free offer of this divine salvation accomplished by Jesus Christ, and it is here and it is being offered to you now and to every one here. I don’t know if you’re elect, and you don’t know if you’re elect, but you know that you are called by Jesus Christ to come to him. So often you’ve had the invitations of God’s gospel and that it is a sincere and unembarrassed divine offer to every single soul. God desires you to hear and believe it and come to his Son. In that offer there is no more to find out. There is no small print that says only for those who have the tingle factor, only those who know they are elect. No. There is nothing at all like that. Then don’t let’s trifle with our soul’s salvation over the decree of election. Such a decree exists but you may not wrest it to your own destruction by demanding from God that you know first of all that he has chosen you before you will trust in his Son, because no one has ever known whether or not they are elect before they trust in Christ. Not one. What we know is this, that at this moment God’s desire is that you become his child, that you become saved from sin through the cross of his Son.
We know that we are called by God to come to Jesus, and we know that God is calling us to him now. There is nothing secret about that; it is revealed to us and to our children that we come to the Saviour as he pleads with us to come. We drop every argument now for our refusal to come, and we come just as we are. You come to him now. Every one here who is not a Christian (and you know who you are) and you come to Jesus Christ and be saved.
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