(These are from the lecture notes for a course I am teaching at The Master’s College
Digression: The Lord our Rock
In this matter of making disciples, you will be overwhelmed; you will be crushed; you will be made weak: so that Christ will alone be seen as strong. You must know this to be true. If your faith is all second-hand, you will not be able to either exhibit a life or faith, nor will you be able to even speak of faith with confidence.
When someone comes in with a trial, your “Well, trust Jesus” will sound like empty air, sounds without meaning — unless you know for a fact that Jesus will never leave you nor forsake you. Hebrews 13:5.
If you do not look and live like one who knows these things to be true, your life will contradict your doctrine. 1 Timothy 4:16
1 I love you, O Lord, my strength.
2 The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer,
my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge,
my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.
Psalm 18:1–2 (ESV)
These words may very well sound pretty but false for someone in a brutal marriage, someone betrayed, someone dying of a hideous disease. Read these words to someone who has just buried her child; or someone who has just confessed to adultery. There are times when it simply sounds false to say “The Lord is my rock”.
In these circumstances, we must either conclude that David was wrong — or that our understanding of God’s deliverance is wrong. How then is the Lord our Rock?
How can we say that the Lord is our Rock when we seem to be crushed in this life?
What is the Claim of Salvation?
One way to “solve” the problem is simply to make God’s claim small enough to match our experience. This is similar to the “openness of God” defense to the problem of evil. When we ask, “Why do bad things happen?” The answer is “God can’t/won’t stop it, because God doesn’t know what is going to happen (God is “open” to the future, so as to guarantee human freedom). Yet, as we will see, God and the saints claim quite the opposite.
The Scripture is a book of Salvation
James Hamilton Jr. wrote an entire book which details the theme of “God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment”. Immediately after the sin of Adam promises salvation (Genesis 3:15). God saves Noah through the flood. God saves Jacob & Joseph. God saves all Israel. God saves Daniel and David.
68 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has visited and redeemed his people
69 and has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David,
70 as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
71 that we should be saved from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us;
Luke 1:68–71 (ESV).
“I am saved from my enemies” (Psalm 18:3). “You have given me relief when I was in my distress” (Psalm 4:1). “He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again” (2 Corinthians 1:10). It is the claim of the saints that God has saved them. Now is a peculiar matter which will have to examine more, because David was chased about Saul, and Paul certainly doesn’t sound like a man who was saved from anything:
23 Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. 24 Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. 2 Corinthians 11:23–27 (ESV)
His Name is Savior
The people of God not only claimed to have been saved by God, but God calls himself “Savior”,
3 For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
I give Egypt as your ransom,
Cush and Seba in exchange for you.
Isaiah 43:3. God knows of no other savior:
4 But I am the Lord your God
from the land of Egypt;
you know no God but me,
and besides me there is no savior.
Hosea 13:4 (ESV)
It is the testimony of the people of God that God is savior: “God my savior” (Luke 1:47). He is the savior “of those who seek refuge” (Psalm 17:7). Jesus has been given as our savior, “A Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11). God has made Christ the Savior (Acts 5:31); and we are to address as “Our God and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:1).
He has the Power to Save
To claim a power and yet have no power is a deceitful boast (Proverbs 13:7). Gaal boasted that he could “remove Abimelech”, but the story ends with “And Abimelech chased him, and he fled before him” (Judges 9:40). But there is no such empty boast in God.
First, God has absolute power as Creator (Genesis 1:1; John 1:3). Second, has power to sustain and does sustain and uphold the universe (Colossians 1:17; Hebrews 1:3). If God withholds his power, there is death (Psalm 104:29). Third, God has power over all nature as seen in the plagues of Egypt. Fourth, God has power over the hearts of men. Thus, God says of Pharaoh, “I will harden his heart” (Exodus 4:21).
The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord;
he turns it wherever he will.
Proverbs 21:1 (ESV).
God Answers Prayer and Does Save
4 I cried aloud to the Lord,
and he answered me from his holy hill. Selah
Psalm 3:4 (ESV)
6 In my distress I called upon the Lord;
to my God I cried for help.
From his temple he heard my voice,
and my cry to him reached his ears.
Psalm 18:6 (ESV). Not only did God answer, but God delivered David:
16 He sent from on high, he took me;
he drew me out of many waters.
17 He rescued me from my strong enemy
and from those who hated me,
for they were too mighty for me.
Psalm 18:16–17 (ESV) .
The Problem Restated
God has the power to save; God claims to save; the people of God claim God hears and does save. Yet, how can we say this when we look into our lives and see actual trouble. The trouble comes because we merely think that “salvation” means that we will be comfortable in this world. Yet, God nowhere makes such a promise:
33 I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
John 16:33. The promise is not that there will be no trouble: it is that this world will not have the last word. Our current trouble is not contrary to our salvation: “Through many tribulations we must enter into the Kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).
The trouble of this world all springs from sin: death, affliction, sorrow, oppression all come from sin. But sin has been overcome in the life, death, burial & resurrection of Jesus Christ. Mark 10:45, 2 Corinthians 5:21, 1 Timothy 2:6, 1 Peter 1:18.
And death has been overcome:
1 Corinthians 15:50–58 (ESV)
50 I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. 53 For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. 54 When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
55 “O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”
56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
58 Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.
In this Life
Our trials and tribulations cannot ruin us in this life. Our trials must work for good
“And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” Romans 8:28
See here the wisdom of God, who can make the worst things imaginable, turn to the good of the saints. He can by a divine chemistry—extract gold out of dross! God
enriches by impoverishing; He causes the augmentation of grace by the diminution of an estate. When the creature goes further from us, it is that Christ may come nearer to us. God works strangely. He brings order out of confusion, and harmony out of discord. God often helps when there is least hope, and saves His people in that way which they think will destroy. He made use of the high priest’s malice and Judas’ treason—to redeem the world.
We are apt to find fault with God’s dealings with us—which is as if an illiterate man should censure learning, or a blind man find fault with the work in a landscape. “Vain man would be wise” (Job 11:12). Silly men will be calling the wisdom of God to the bar of human reason. God’s waysare “past finding out” (Romans 9:33). They are rather to be admired than fathomed.
How stupendous and infinite is that wisdom, that makes the most adverse dispensations work for the good of His children!
Thomas Watson, A Divine Cordial.
That is the promise of Scripture. We are even called upon to rejoice in our trials:
- Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. Romans 5:1–5 (ESV)
Thus, in this life, our trials do not gain victory, because God turns trials in hope.
When you fall into [trials], as into a pit and snare, and so they falling round about you; so as you have nothing to stand or lean upon, but all about you fails with you and under you, so as in all outward appearance ye are sunk and overwhelmed with the ruins. In this case to ‘count it all joy,’ to shout as men in harvest, or that have gotten great spoils; when their miseries are so great that they cannot be endured, that yet their joy must be so great as more cannot be expressed; this is the hardest duty that ever was required of the distressed hearts of men. And yet God would not require it if it were not attainable; and it is attainable by no other principles but of Christianity. And argues that our Christian religion, which is the only true wisdom, [James 1:5], hath so spiritful and sovereign a virtue in it that it is able to raise spirits up unto thus high and glorious a pitch and perfection in this life.
Thomas Goodwin, Patience and Its Perfect Work.
Thus, God makes trials to be no trials — not because they lose their immediate pain, but rather because God alters their ultimate end. A surgery may produce great pain and yet bring about good. We do not measure the surgery by the pain but by the results. Why should we be harsher judges of God’s work?
In the Age to Come
The trials and afflictions of this life are not the end of the story. By the chemistry of God’s wisdom and power, trials are transformed into honor and glory:
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5 who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 8 Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, 9 obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
1 Peter 1:3–9. When the Lord comes, our faithful endurance will result in “praise, glory and honor.” What greater salvation could obtain?
16 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
2 Corinthians 4:16–18.
Thus, the resolution of the problem lies with our misapprehension of “salvation”. We wrongly define “salvation” as the immediate absence of discomfort, which is the gravest foolishness possible.
Whither go ye? The good that you love is from Him; but it is good and pleasant through reference to Him, and justly shall it be embittered, because unjustly is any thing loved which is from Him, if He be forsaken for it. To what end then would ye still and still walk these difficult and toilsome ways? There is no rest, where ye seek it. Seek what ye seek; but it is not there where ye seek. Ye seek a blessed life in the land of death; it is not there. For how should there be a blessed life where life itself is not?
Saint Augustine Bishop of Hippo, The Confessions of St. Augustine, 4.12, trans. E. B. Pusey (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1996).
We falsely look at this land of death, this land of vanity and think that there will be good here. The reason why we don’t “feel” that God saves us here is because we have the wrong expectation of salvation: we want a different good than God has ever offered:
[Those in Christ] are all predestinated to a conformity to Christ their head, as in grace and glory, so in abasement, Rom. 8:29. Neither is it a wonder for those that are born soldiers to meet with conflicts, for travellers to meet with hard usage, for seamen to meet with storms, for strangers in a strange country, especially amongst their enemies, to meet with strange entertainment.
A Christian is a man of another world, and here from home, which he would forget, if he were not exercised here, and would take his passage for his country. But though all Christians agree and meet in this, that ‘through many afflictions we must enter into heaven,’ Acts 14:22, yet according to the diversity of place, parts, and grace, there is a different cup measured to every one.
Richard Sibbes, The Complete Works of Richard Sibbes, ed. Alexander Balloch Grosart, vol. 1 (Edinburgh; London; Dublin: James Nichol; James Nisbet and Co.; W. Robertson, 1862), 132–133 (“The Soul’s Conflict With Itself”).