We are all by nature Pelagians. Like the heretical monk Pelagius, we like to think in our hearts, even should our lips profess otherwise, that we are basically good. Defeating this temptation is one of the great blessings that comes from embracing that biblical system of thought known as Reformed theology. Now we understand not only that we are in ourselves only evil, but that God is sovereign over all things.
However, this shift in our thinking, in itself another gift from God, doesn’t send the devil scurrying for cover. Embracing Reformed theology doesn’t make one immune to sin. Indeed, when we embrace sound, biblical thinking with respect to God’s sovereignty, we find ourselves walking a peculiar tightrope. On the one hand, it is rather a short, but dangerous step from, “God ordained whatsoever comes to pass” to “I know why God did this.” I once read a sermon from a Puritan that was a classic example of this error. It seems that the parson came into the meeting house one day and found there in the corner the tattered remains of the Book of Common Prayer, the very symbol of the Romish tendencies the Puritans wanted to purify out of the church. It seems a mouse had gotten to the book, and he chewed it to pieces. The pastor, rightly, expounded at great length on how God’s sovereignty descends down to such details. God, from all eternity, determined that that mouse would find that book on that day, and that the mouse would tear it to shreds. So far so good. Then the pastor went on to explain that God brought this to pass to show us how evil the Book of Common Prayer is. Had I been there that Sunday I would have loved to ask the pastor: “Isn’t it possible, pastor, that God had this happen so we might learn that even the mice are sensible enough to feed upon the wisdom in the Book of Common Prayer?” We need, when trying to interpret history, to remember the wisdom of Calvin who said, “When the Almighty has determined to close his holy lips, I will desist from inquiry.”
There is, however, an equal and opposite temptation. We rightly affirm that God not only controls all things, but that He planned whatsoever comes to pass from before the beginning of time. God’s celestial plan, down to the color of my socks, was down in stone before God even said, “Let there be light.” Again, so far so good. The error is when we take one small step from affirming that it’s all decided to affirming, at least in our hearts, if not in our lips, that God doesn’t act in history. Too many Reformed people are practical deists. We rightly believe that God is the ultimate cause of all things, and then wrongly believe that He is the proximate cause of no things. God did indeed write the grand screenplay that is history. But He likewise wrote a rather large role therein for Himself.
The history books of the Bible, thankfully, practice exactly the right balance here. God is not passively watching, while man determines the future, as the Pelagians would have us believe. Neither is He providing easy-to-read captions beneath each of His actions so that we might know what it means. And neither still is He passively watching because He did the hard work of setting up the dominoes long ago. God is actively bringing to pass that which He planned from the beginning. Sometimes He tells us how, and sometimes He doesn’t.
As I write, the gulf coast region of the country is reeling from what insurance adjusters wisely call “an act of God.” Hurricane Katrina has hit our shores in fury. When the destruction is that dramatic, it is easy to see the hand of God. And when what He hit is a collection of gambling casinos and strip clubs, it’s hard not to play the Puritan pastor. That strip of playground that runs from Biloxi to New Orleans wouldn’t be confused by anyone with the Bible belt. The same God who sent fire and brimstone upon Sodom and Gomorrah is the God who sent Katrina. What He hasn’t sent, however, is an authoritative message telling us why He has done so. Katrina wasn’t just another domino. Neither was she a random collision of ions and precipitates. She was sent by God. He is acting in our history. His motive most certainly could have been to smite the immoral. Or His motive might instead have been to give His people an opportunity to give water in His name. His motives could have been both, or a thousand other mysterious ways. We just don’t know.
What we know is this. God has three great goals as He acts in history. There are three certainties that have been planned from the beginning. First, He will gather a bride for His Son. There are precious few acts of God in space and time more precious than when He gives life to the living dead, when His Spirit quickens those chosen before all time. Second, He will destroy all His enemies. Psalm 110 tells us that Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father until all His enemies are made a footstool. We serve a God of vengeance and destruction, to the praise of His name. He destroyed the Canaanites, and He still destroys His enemies. And third (of this we can be sure), He is about the business of purifying His bride. He acts in history so that history can reach its end, the marriage feast of the Lamb, when we will appear, without blot or blemish, and we, because we will see Him as He is, will be like Him.