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The Lord Is in Control

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Date October 12, 2012

Judas Iscariot seems a most unlikely choice to be one of the disciples. He turned out to be a thief, the betrayer of the Lord Jesus, and a graceless man. But Jesus made no mistake; he did not act in ignorance; indeed we are told that he ‘needed not that any should testify of man: for he knew what was in man’ (John 2:25). So he knew what was in this man; he knew that Judas would turn out a thief; he knew that Judas would betray him; he knew that Judas had never been born again. As J C Ryle comments on the passage in Luke 6 which records the appointment of the disciples, ‘we cannot for a moment doubt that, in choosing Judas Iscariot, our Lord Jesus knew well what he was doing. He who could read hearts, certainly knew from the beginning that, notwithstanding his profession of piety, Judas was a graceless man and would one day betray him . . . Like everything which our Lord did, it was done advisedly, deliberately and with deep wisdom.’

Among the lessons which Ryle draws from the calling of Judas is this: It ‘was meant to teach ministers humility. They are not to suppose that ordination necessarily conveys grace, or that once ordained they cannot err. On the contrary, they are to remember that one ordained by Christ himself was a wretched hypocrite. Let the minister who thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall.’ And, in one of his remarks on the corresponding passage in Matthew 10, David Brown exclaims, ‘How terrible is the warning which the case of Judas holds forth, to the ministers of Christ, not to trust in any gifts, any offices, any services, any success, as sure evidence of divine acceptance, apart from that “holiness without which no man shall see the Lord”!’

We probably think it more strange that the twelve disciples, whom Christ chose personally and sent out to call sinners to repentance, should include an unconverted man than that there should be unconverted preachers in pulpits today. Yet Christ is still the head of his Church; he is still ruling over everything that happens, and God has ‘foreordained whatsoever comes to pass’ (Shorter Catechism, Ans. 7).

These words were written by the Westminster Divines on the basis of such scriptures as Ephesians 1:11, which declares that God ‘worketh all things after the counsel of his own will’. These men fully recognised the depths of the mystery involved in this doctrine, for they quote Romans 11:33, where Paul makes clear that God’s ‘ways [are] past finding out’; finite human minds cannot expect to be able to plumb the depths of God’s infinite purposes as they are put into effect ‘, to show that God is clear from human sin in the fulfilment of his purposes. So, while ‘the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God’ was involved, not only in the crucifixion of Christ, but also in all the events that led up to it – including the choice of Judas as a disciple, and his betrayal of his Master – yet, throughout these events, the sin was entirely human.

It should be clear to us that Christ himself was in control of all these events. No matter how vicious or devilish the opposition he encountered during his time in this world, never did events begin to spiral out of control. And however difficult it may be for us to recognise the fact, everything happened for the glory of God. Supremely we see God glorified in the provision of redemption for sinful human beings in a way that perfectly satisfied divine justice.

When Matthew Henry comments on the passage already referred to in the first Gospel, he draws a rather different lesson: ‘Christ took [Judas] among the apostles that it might not be a surprise and discouragement to his Church if, at any time, the vilest scandals should break out in the best societies’. It would be natural for the early Christians to have expected the initial success of the gospel to continue and that the preachers of the Word would always be as diligent and faithful as were, for instance, Peter, Paul and Timothy. We too might wonder why the early Church did not continue to expand at the initial rate of progress, when on one day there were 3000 converts. Even if that day’s spiritual harvest was exceptional, the Lord continued to add ‘to the Church daily such as should be saved’ (Acts 2:47).

There is little we can say in answer to that question except to point to the certainty that the subsequent declension in the Church was according to God’s eternal purpose and that his glory will at last be seen in connection with the whole history of the Church when it is all taken together. Further, we can be certain that there never was, and never will be, a moment when the King of Kings is not in control of all events. Had it been the divine will to have ordered a period of uninterrupted expansion in the Church of God from the beginning until our time, that is exactly what would have happened.

But it was not so, and Paul was inspired to put in writing a warning to the believers in Thessalonica about particular events to take place in the history of the world before Christ’s second coming. ‘That day shall not come,’ he told them, ‘except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition; who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God’ (2 Thess. 2:3, 4). Matthew Poole is unusually full in expounding this passage. He notes that the ‘apostasy’ described here is ‘gradual’, and from within the Church of God. ‘And this man of sin is not a single person, but a company, order and succession of men.’ In common with other Reformed expositors of the time, he is rightly convinced that Paul is referring to the Antichrist, ‘the bishop of Rome’ – the Papacy.

This tremendous declension gathered increasing power over the centuries as the Roman Church departed further and further from the truth. That the Lord should have allowed it – and indeed foreordained it – seems, at first glance, most unlikely. But it is worth requoting Ryle: ‘Like everything which our Lord did, it was done advisedly, deliberately and with deep wisdom’. Clearly it provided the context for a display of God’s power and grace at the time of the Reformation, and we can see – however limited our understanding of God’s providence – that God was indeed glorified in that time of spiritual revival and reform.

Our age follows a long period of tremendous spiritual declension in Britain and many other countries. The level to which the authority of the Bible is rejected in many Protestant denominations is truly startling. The men (and women – and they necessarily reject the Bible’s command, ‘Let your women keep silence in the churches’) who fill many of the pulpits preach a message very different from that revealed in Scripture – to the extent that the sermon still plays a significant part in what passes for the worship of God. We may ask, Why has he allowed such a dire situation to develop? Why have false religions expanded as much as they have? Why has secularism virtually become the national religion in the UK?

We ought to be clear that the situation is not out of control as far as God is concerned. He is still ruling; he is still working out his eternal purposes for his own glory, as surely as when the Saviour was personally in this world. As the waters of the flood carried Noah’s Ark hither and thither, it might have seemed that everything was out of control. But Noah and his family were safe; God was in complete control of the waters. It is still true today that ‘the Lord sitteth upon the flood; yea, the Lord sitteth King for ever’ (Psa. 29:10) – whether we consider the flood of worldliness or heresy or false religion. And God’s children have every reason to trust him to act wisely as he rules over everything in the Church and in the wider world. Let them say with Isaiah, as they view the current moral and spiritual situation: ‘I will trust, and not be afraid’ (Isa. 12:2). God’s promises cannot fail.

Kenneth D. Macleod is pastor of the Free Presbyterian Church in Leverburgh on the Isle of Harris. He is the editor of The Free Presbyterian Magazine, from the October 2012 issue of which the above editorial has been taken with permission.

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