PHIL: John, from time to time we have these conversations about theological topics, and today I want to talk to you about the doctrine of providence. Might be unfamiliar to some people. Even that word, they think, “Providence, Rhode Island?” No, providence is the doctrine that talks about God’s care and governance for everything that happens. We quote Romans 8:28, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God,” which implies strongly that God is working in everything that happens. So talk about this doctrine of providence. How important is it?
JOHN: Well, I think it all goes back to the reality that before anything was created, only God existed—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—and He, then, is the source of everything. And either He made everything and walked away and said, “Let’s watch and see what happens,” which is the old deist idea—
PHIL: Yeah, that’s what the deists teach.
JOHN: Yeah, that God got it started, and He’s not responsible for anything good, bad, or indifferent after that. That’s unacceptable, because by definition God is the sovereign one. The God who creates has to be the God who orders all the factors of that creation toward its end and its purpose. And the Bible says that. Isaiah says that, that, “I’ve told the beginning to the end.”
JOHN: “I’ve ordained My purpose.” And nothing’s going to stop it, nothing’s going to alter it, nothing’s going to change it. I mean, it’s bound up in God’s sovereignty. The sovereign God—think about it this way—could design anything He wanted to design, any way He wanted to design it. But because He had purposes that were the end and the goal of all His creation, He had to design in a way that He could control everything to bring it to its ultimate end. And we know what that ultimate end is, it’s the redemption of redeemed people out of the fallen humanity, and it’s the exaltation of His Son the Lord Jesus Christ in human history, and then in all eternity, and the throne of the Father. So because God ordained the end—and this is so important—if God doesn’t ordain the end and prewrite the end and have something in mind for the end of history, then we could accept the fact that He just created and said, “Here’s a bunch of things I’ve made; let’s see what they turn out to be.”
But we know the Scripture clearly writes in detail the creation account, and in detail the end is recorded. In the Old Testament prophets you have details of it; in the Olivet discourse of Jesus, His own preaching on His own Second Coming; and in particular, the book of Revelation, details about the end. And the goal of God in all of it is for His eternal glory. You might say that He might redeem sinners, bring them to glory to put His grace and mercy on display before the angels and before the redeemed. So the goal that God had in the end assumes His control over everything through the process.
PHIL: In fact, you’ve given that definition. I’m going by memory here, but I know in one of your books you defined providence this way: You say, “It’s God’s governance over every detail of everything He’s created to ensure that everything He has made achieves His chosen end.” So He’s doing that. He is superintending everything that happens to make sure that His chosen end is ultimately fulfilled.
JOHN: Yeah, and all through Scripture you have that, even things like, “Have not I made the blind and the lame and the halt.” God orders everything. Everything is within His purpose, down to the most minute detail. This is, in my judgment, for a believer, the most comforting of all doctrines because what it means is nothing can go wrong.
PHIL: Right, and it’s a supremely important doctrine, too. It ought to really govern the way we see everything and think about everything, right?
JOHN: Everything. I think probably in my own life I am more, more blessed and encouraged by divine providence than anything else. I said to somebody the other day, “The most contented I can be is to be in a situation where I don’t know the outcome, but I know that the Lord knows the outcome.” This is a thrilling way to live your life because I don’t—you know me well enough—I don’t try to orchestrate the end.
PHIL: That’s right.
JOHN: I don’t try to orchestrate outcomes. I want to live a faithful, Christ-honoring life, and the people around me doing that. And then just put ourselves in God’s hand and just watch the flow of providence on a day-to-day basis as God orchestrates everything.
PHIL: Yeah, that’s not easy for most of us. But I would say that’s true about you, as I watch you. You have an uncanny ability to remain calm and unperturbed even in the most difficult trials. So it goes back to this doctrine, right?
JOHN: It goes back to the fact that I know God is working everything to His end, and I know that it for me is good, because that’s what Romans 8 says, “For those that love God and are called according to His purpose”—which means they’re called to salvation—“it’s all working out to good,” no matter what it is. I mean, we can go through the most difficult situations, and if you don’t trust God’s purpose and power and wisdom and sovereignty, life gets very, very chaotic. But I rest in the fact that whether it’s a good situation, a bad situation, a challenging one, difficult, can’t see the end, don’t know the remedy’s going to be, there’s a certain settled peace in my heart because I know God’s going to do His work and His way and His will; and I want to see it unfold.
PHIL: And to us in our fallen state, that’s not a natural way of thinking. It seems to me that the default position for fallen creatures is to think like a deist: that things are out of control; “I don’t know where this is going.” You know, certain circumstances you look at, and you think, “This can’t possibly work out for good.” And yet, for the Christian, if he understands the doctrine of divine providence, can say, “This will work out for good even though I can’t understand how.”
JOHN: No, and that’s magnified. That’s absolutely true, and it’s magnified if you’re in a position we’re in because I don’t have to just work things out in my own life, I’ve got to make sure we’re working things out or we’re following the Lord’s leading for thousands of lives, as a pastor and as a shepherd with all the people. And we have, what, over a thousand employees in the multiple ministries we’re involved in. So it would be easy for someone who struggled with the issues of his own life to completely lose joy if he felt that he had to orchestrate everybody. I mean, that’s just too complicated.
JOHN: So the wonderful reality is that when you just say, “The Lord is going to build His kingdom; He’s going to build His church. The gates of hell won’t prevail against it,” I just need to be faithful. I need to be in the way that the Lord can lead. I need to be loving the Lord, serving the Lord, living my life in a godly way; and I can watch God orchestrate everything. And I’ve had a front row seat for, well, over 80 years, and this is the most fulfilling and joyous part of the Christian life, to sit back and say, “I don’t know how this is going to work, but I know God knows, and I’m going to watch and see what He does to prove Himself.”
PHIL: Your friend R. C. Sproul used to talk about the sovereignty of God, and he would say things like this: that if there’s one rogue molecule anywhere in the universe that’s not under God’s control, then He’s not truly sovereign. And you think about that and the magnitude of the universe and the number of molecules there are, much less the number of individual people that God is caring for—to understand providence, you have to know that God’s wisdom is unfathomable; it’s inconceivable to us.
JOHN: Yeah, on that macro level it’s beyond comprehension. I mean, you have all the DNA and all the living cells, and there’s trillions of cells in one human being, and all of that information in all those living cells is put there by God—
PHIL: And He knows it all.
JOHN: And He knows it all, and He knows it all in every case. And then He takes all of that out of one person and then millions and millions of people, and they collide in life, and all kinds of other things happen; and all of it is being orchestrated. Though God doesn’t do evil, He’s allowed evil so that He might put His grace and mercy and compassion and forgiveness and salvation on display. But God orders it all. God controls it all for His ends. And I think the thing that you have to come up eventually to face is that God ordains suffering, because there’s His providence in that suffering. Jesus said, “In the world you’ll have tribulation.”
PHIL: Yeah, you touch on one of my questions there I wanted to ask about evil. Is God equally in control over evil things as He is over everything else?
JOHN: Well of course; He controls everything. He’s in complete control of evil. The devil is God’s devil; he’s totally controlled by God. The world is controlled by God. Every single movement, as R. C. said, of every molecule is controlled by God, and a whole lot of it is evil. But if He didn’t control that, then it wouldn’t do any good to control only the good part because you’d be overwhelmed by the evil.
PHIL: Right. That’s what I always say to people who are troubled by this idea, is that if you don’t believe God is in control over evil, it’s outside His control, that’s a frightening thought to me. On the other hand, to say He is in control over it, that’s a problem for theologians. How do you exonerate God’s righteousness and at the same time say He is in control over evil?
JOHN: I think God, in putting Himself on display for His own glory, necessarily had to allow for evil, or a whole aspect of His nature would never have been manifest. It would never have been known, and He would never have been praised for it. And that is this: If there’s no sin, then there’s no redemption on the one hand, and there’s no judgment on the other hand. It’s only when you have sin, it’s only when you have fallen people that God can show His wrath—which is an essential part of His nature for which we give Him glory—and God can show His mercy and His compassion and His grace.
So if you have God only existing in a righteous environment all the time with nothing but righteousness, which I suppose for a very brief time when He created the angels was that kind of situation, there was no opportunity for God to demonstrate this massive part of His nature that we exalt: His compassion, His love, His mercy, His grace, His lovingkindness, His forgiveness, His tender-heartedness. All of those things, to be put on display so that God could be eternally glorified, had to permit evil; otherwise, those things would never have been manifest.
PHIL: Right. Now Scripture says, “God is not the author of confusion.” And we confess that God is not the author of evil, and yet we also confess that He’s in absolute control over it, and none of it escapes His notice or governance. How do you reconcile? Is it easy to reconcile those ideas?
JOHN: Well, I think yeah, it’s easy to say God can allow something that He doesn’t actually do. He doesn’t actually act in any evil way ever; He cannot do that.
PHIL: He’s not the proximate cause of it, is how a philosopher would say.
JOHN: No, that’s right. It’s a matter of Him allowing it, but it is not something that God does. I mean, that’s the best we can say.
PHIL: Yeah. In fact, we go even further. The Westminster Confession says when God allows evil, it’s not a bare permission. In other words, it’s not an unwilling permission. He not only allows it, He decreed it. He intended for this to happen, but not in a way that makes Him the author or cause of evil. These are hard concepts, right?
JOHN: Well, they are. But God distances Himself always from—
PHIL: Yes, He’s light, and there’s no darkness in Him at all.
JOHN: Right. And He’s holy, holy, holy.
JOHN: And He cannot lie. And Jesus is holy, harmless, undefiled, and separate from sinners, and He’s God. So yeah, that is—the problem of theodicy is, theologians talk about it, is always sort of the ultimate problem that people come to when they talk about the problems in the world: “Why did God allow this? Why did He allow it?” And all we can say is without being culpable in any sense, He decreed that evil would exist, and that He would manage that evil for His own eternal glory.
PHIL: Right, and I don’t want to drag you too far down that trail for this discussion. But for listeners who might want to know more of what you’d have to say about it, I think you cover that issue. Theodicy, you mentioned that name; that’s the effort that theologians make to explain how God can be in control over evil and yet not blameworthy because of it. You deal with all of that in your book on the love of God.
JOHN: Yeah. That’s maybe a little bit of an oxymoron to write a book on the love of God, and what you’re really dealing with there is the deep issue of God’s allowing for evil.
PHIL: Right. And you could see how they’re connected. The typical atheist will say, “If God is good and He’s a God of love, why is there evil?” That is the question that often gets raised.
JOHN: Well, that question kept being posed to me over and over and over again by Larry King. When I used to go on CNN with Larry King, he would say, “Look, if God is good, then why is there all this trouble in the world?” The only answer to him was that God wasn’t powerful. Either God is not powerful or not good; but if He’s good, and all-powerful and all good, how can He allow evil? I think that was for him, that was his hiding place as an agnostic—
JOHN: —in that kind of notion. But the Bible tells us God is good, and God did decree evil for His own glory.
PHIL: So just to sum up that idea: What we believe is that God is good. He’s holy, righteous; there’s no darkness in Him at all. His purposes are good, and He works everything for good. And yet in the process of working everything for good, He sometimes uses the evil intentions that evil agents do, and their evil acts.
JOHN: Well, the very fact that He has to work—
JOHN: —to get to His purpose means He’s got to deal with issues, and evil, of course, is one of them.
JOHN: And I like to point out to people that the classic and ultimate example of that is the crucifixion of Christ—
JOHN: Yeah, sure, the cross, right.
PHIL: —which was ordained by God, and yet carried out, Scripture says, by the hands of evil men.
JOHN: Yeah, and that is absolutely explicitly stated in the book of Acts: that God sent His Son to the cross, but by the hands of evil, wicked men.
JOHN: So wickedness was at its pinnacle in the crucifixion of Christ, and God’s goodness was at its pinnacle in that very same event. And that’s a microcosm of how good and evil combine throughout life. I mean, even in our lives—our sins, God has to deal with. Even in using us for His glory in ministry, God has to work with our failures to bring us to usefulness.
PHIL: It’s an important doctrine, too. You’re talking now about how we believe and teach that God is at work in everything that happens, no matter what. We’re often accused, I think, by charismatics of not believing that God is working in the world today because we question manufactured miracles and fake signs and wonders and all that. “Well, don’t you believe God is at work?” I believe God’s at work in everything. Talk about the distinction between when God works through a miracle and when He works in providence.
JOHN: Well yes, when you have a miracle you have a suspension of natural law. A miracle: An axe-head floats. A miracle: Somebody was raised from the dead. A miracle: Jesus gives sight to a blind man; He creates eyes. That is a complete interruption, suspension of natural law and a supernatural intervention.
PHIL: Right. And in Scripture all the miracles that Christ did, all the miracles that are described, are visible like that. They’re the sort of thing that you see it, and you can’t deny it. Even Jesus’ enemies could not deny His miracles. These weren’t invisible healings; these weren’t straightenings of legs and things like that.
JOHN: No, no, no. The kind of false miracles today were in no way to be compared with what Jesus did. There was no time lapse, like Jesus: “I healed you, but in a few weeks you’ll get better.” If He healed them, it was evident and obvious. The whole point of His miracles was to manifest His glory and to point to Him as the Messiah. And then the miracles even done at the hands of the apostles were to point to them as the true preachers of the true Messiah. So the miracles had to be inexplicable any other way.
PHIL: And they are by definition extraordinary, they’re not commonplace.
JOHN: Extraordinary, yeah. Very, very rare even in the Old Testament. There were occasional miracles that happened during the lives of a few prophets here and there, but there was not in the Old Testament a massive kind of outbreak of miracles in any point of redemptive history until you get to Jesus. And then it happens in the apostolic era, and then it begins to disappear. And even Paul toward the end of his ministry is telling Timothy to do something for his stomach problem, and he’s leaving somebody ill because he’s not healing him.
So it had an explosion during the ministry of Christ, because how else would you identify Him as the true Messiah and the preachers of Christ as those who preached the truth, because there were so many false teachers. But once that era passes, even in the book of Acts miracles begin to subside. And now, if you think a miracle is an amazing thing, you haven’t thought much about providence. It is far more complicated than a miracle. Why do I say that?
PHIL: And yet God ordinarily works by providence, right?
JOHN: Providence is constant. Look, for God to say, “OK, I’m going to let this person rise from the dead,” that’s one act in one moment of time that God creates life. For God to order all the circumstances, all the endless contingencies, all the acts of will and thought and motion, and bring them all together in a complex that’s incomprehensible, to accomplish exactly His purposes, is a far greater miracle, far greater miracle. And that’s why I say I would never ever trade the age of miracles for the age of providence.
JOHN: It’s fine to see God raise a dead person, heal somebody. That doesn’t necessarily have any sort of encouraging impact on me, because I would much rather believe that God was ordering every single molecule in the universe than that once in a while He heals somebody—because that’s just too isolated. You can see His power there, His creative power there, and you can see His compassion there. But if you want to see sovereign power you have to look at providence, where God takes—
I look at my own life, and every day of my life, every single day I live in a flow of providence that has no human explanation. Might be a phone call, might be a contact with a person, it might be somebody stepping into my life telling me something that connects perfectly with something I need to know over here. God orders all kinds of things. Day in, day out, I live in the flow of this sovereign providence. And again, to think that because I don’t believe in miracles—I don’t believe God heals sick people and all of that instantaneously as Jesus did—that I don’t believe in the power of God is a statement that demonstrates ignorance.
PHIL: Well in fact, it’s not that you don’t believe in healing, it’s that you believe at any time, anyone is healed, it was God who did it.
PHIL: And He normally works through providence. So if you came down with COVID, we would pray for your recovery; and if you recovered, it wouldn’t necessarily take a miracle for that.
JOHN: How about when your wife flips a car, and it lands on its roof, and she breaks her neck.
JOHN: Fractures C2 and C3; has happened to Patricia. Who was ordaining in the midst of that flipping Honda? Who was ordaining her future? There’s no explanation for how you break your neck at C3—
JOHN: —in an explosion fracture, and you walk away from that. And Melinda also, my daughter, was in the car. And the subsequent realities of Patricia’s life and ministry after recovering from that are testimony to the fact that God brought her through that, cared for her to accomplish only what He wanted to accomplish and nothing more. And when you look back on it, we saw the hand of God in that accident and even in her injuries in incredible ways, working on all kinds of levels and all kinds of fronts, calling our church to prayer and deepening affections.
PHIL: Yes, I remember. What I remember about that is her injury was severe, so severe that they said if it had been a millimeter more it would have killed her.
PHIL: So what you’re saying is it’s God who governs whether that injury is a millimeter more or less.
JOHN: Well, and anybody who knows me knows that the subsequent, what, almost 30 years since that accident, my life and ministry wouldn’t be what it is or anywhere near what it is. My children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren would have lost maybe the—you know, one of the most remarkable people that would ever be in their lives. And again, I have to believe that God orders all of these things and controls them down to the smallest detail because of the fact, as I said at the beginning, that He’s ordained the end of everything; and that means He has to ordain all the pieces that come together to create that final end.
PHIL: Right. And it’s important to say as well that divine providence doesn’t always keep us from every calamity. You could point to our friend Joni Eareckson Tada, who broke her neck in a swimming accident, and she would say the same thing: that it was the providence of God that that happened, and that her life and ministry would not have been what they are apart from that.
JOHN: Oh, we can assume that we would never have the treasure that she is if she hadn’t dove into the Chesapeake Bay and broken her neck. And in God’s plan, that was ordained for the advance of His kingdom in ways that are just staggering.
So yeah, and I was thrown out of a car when I was 17 or 18.
PHIL: That’s right. You might not be a preacher today if you hadn’t gone through that.
JOHN: No. And that’s what I was saying earlier: that we have to accept the dark sides of providence. We have to accept the suffering that comes in providence. We have to accept the loss. But it’s hard to do that.
I remember some years ago—there’s a charismatic church near us, and a lot of the staff family started coming to Grace out of this charismatic church. And I met with them; we met in one of the rooms at Grace Church. And I don’t know, there might have been 40 people there, husbands and wives who were part of the staff of that church. And I said, “What’s this about?” and they said, “We cannot any longer live under the sovereignty of Satan.” And then they began to unpack the fact that the devil makes you sick, and the devil messes with your job, and the devil messes with your children, and demons are coming into your house. And they had reached a point where they were so terrorized by this.
Somebody had given them a message I preached on the sovereignty of God, and it was as if the dawn broke—
JOHN: —and the light was on, and they fled to the sovereignty of God. That is the safe place. That’s where you want to be. You want to belong to the Lord and have the knowledge that He works everything in your life for your good and His glory.
PHIL: Yeah, I’m glad you brought that up. At the Strange Fire conference years ago, one of the messages I gave was on the doctrine of divine providence. And I said at the time that I think an understanding of what Scripture teaches about God’s providence would cure everything that’s wrong with the Charismatic movement.
JOHN: Absolutely true, because the Charismatic movement assumes that God works only in miraculous ways. I mean, that’s the tacit assumption.
JOHN: And if you don’t believe He does that, then you’re the barrier to Him doing it.
PHIL: It also opens the door for this idea that Satan has this power to cause trouble for you.
JOHN: Yeah, it’s rampant in the movement because they underestimate God’s power; and that’s a horrible thing to do.
PHIL: Scripture anticipates that error though, and it’s corrected for us by the book of Job, and the incident where Jesus told Peter that he was going to fail, and He said, “Satan has asked to have you that he might sift you as wheat.” Those are little insights that tell us that even the devil can’t do anything without God’s expressed permission.
JOHN: Well, that’s one of the purposes of the book of Job.
JOHN: It’s just so you know that the devil is God’s devil, and he can only go as far as God allows. And in Job’s case, providence was agonizing, providence was horrendous, because he lost everything—he lost his children, and he lost his health, and all he had left was a wife telling him to curse God and die. But in the end when it all came to a culmination, you remember those famous words in chapter 42: “I had heard of You with the hearing of my ear, but now my eye sees You, and I repent in dust and ashes.” He repented of ever questioning anything.
JOHN: Job arrived at a place where he believed God was in control of everything; and that’s what he was repenting of. He was repenting of failing to understand that God was ordering everything.
PHIL: Exactly. In fact, that’s an important point, and I’m glad you brought it up because I’ve said at times it is actually sinful not to recognize the sovereignty of God in everything that happens to us. And James says the same thing in James chapter 4, where he says, “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we’ll go into such and such a city and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.’” And then James says, “You don’t know what your life will be like tomorrow. You’re just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we’ll live and also do this or that.’ But as it is,” he says, “you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil.”
So he names it as a sin, and then the very next verse is the one that says, “To the one who knows to do good and doesn’t do it, it’s a sin.” He’s talking specifically there about our recognition of God’s providence in everything. He’s saying it’s a sin not to recognize that. It’s a sin to live your life as if God’s not in control.
JOHN: Yeah. And you know, if you talk about worship, I don’t know any doctrine that fuels worship more than the doctrine of providence, and I’ll tell you why. You could say, “Obviously worship comes from what the Lord did for me at the cross,” but that’s a past event. “I worship the Lord for what He did in the Resurrection. I worship God for all kinds of things that He’s done in the past, granting me the Holy Spirit,” and et cetera, et cetera. But my current worship is fueled by what is going on as God providentially orders all the issues of my life. And since I know that’s going on all the time, and I see it, when there is something that I maybe kind of planned on but it didn’t work out, there’s no remorse on my part, there’s no sorrow on my part. There’s no eagerness to fix it, to adjust it, to force it to happen. I’m content to say, “OK, in the providence of God, God had something better than that.”
That’s a divine tranquilizer. That takes all the fear, all the worry, all the anxiety out of you thinking you need to orchestrate everything for the outcome that is good, when God knows far better what is the best outcome; and He’s already doing it.
PHIL: Now, we talked about how this would affect charismatic theology; and I don’t want to single out our charismatic friends and pick on them. The truth is, a better understanding of this doctrine would change the way a lot of churches and a lot of Christian think and do business.
For example, Christians and some churches who tend to be so agitated about the political situation, the next election, all of that; if they better understood the providence of God, I think we might focus our energies more on preaching the gospel and a little less on electioneering.
JOHN: Yeah. Well, that reminds me of the apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians, where he says to the Lord, “I’ve got this thorn in the flesh. Three times I asked You to remove it.” And I believe that he defines that as a messenger from Satan. And a messenger is an angelos from Satan; that’s a demon. So there was a demon I think was tearing up the church in Corinth, and Paul is asking God to stop him because this is a church he loves and poured his life into. And the Lord says, “No. No. Because of all the revelations you’ve had, I need to humble you.”
“You mean God would actually allow a demon to do damage in a church to humble a pastor who might otherwise be exalted?” That’s exactly what Paul said there. And then he goes on to say, “Look, I rejoice in my suffering because when I’m weak, then I’m strong.”
So I think it’s alien to most Christians to think that God would use Satan. But that’s exactly what you just said. He used Satan in Job’s life. He used Satan in Peter’s life. And Peter might have said, “Well, You’re not going to let that happen”; and the Lord said, “I am.” And then He used an emissary of Satan in Paul’s life. So the idea that God is trying to keep us away from Satan may not be the full picture, right? It’s not the picture in Job.
JOHN: So God allows what He allows, but the end is always the purpose: our good and His glory.
PHIL: Yeah, that’s an important point that Christians today by and large don’t really embrace as we should, and I think prosperity doctrine has conditioned people to think wrongly. You said that God uses Satan; God doesn’t try to keep us away from Satan. God doesn’t try to keep us away from trouble in general; we suffer. And Jesus said, “In this world you’ll have tribulation.” That is part of God’s plan.
JOHN: Well, and that’s—I was getting to the point of your question: that we have the world that we have, and it’s going to come after us incessantly and constantly. And if you start to fight the world politically, or whatever avenue you want to use, you really have tackled the wrong enemy because “we don’t wrestle against flesh and blood—
JOHN: —but against principalities and powers and the spiritual wickedness in the heavenly places.” You have to fight the spiritual war, and that leads me to 2 Corinthians 10: “The weapons of our warfare are not fleshly, they’re not carnal; they’re mighty to the pulling down of strongholds.” What does that mean? Well, strongholds are fortresses—massive stone fortresses, that Greek word means.
So spiritual warfare is not chasing Satan, it’s not chasing demons, it’s not fighting the Democrats, it’s not fighting Hollywood or whatever; it is fighting the spiritual battle at the one level that we can fight, and it is simply this: the truth, the truth.
People live in fortresses; that’s what Paul is saying there. We smash those fortresses. What are those fortresses? It’s every ideology raised up against the knowledge of God. Any ungodly idea, any unbiblical idea, any lie, any deception, any anti-God, anti-Christ idea—that’s where the battle has to be fought. And who do we fight that? We fight it with the truth. We fight it with the truth.
It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t vote. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t support the police. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to have your schools teach your kids the things they ought to know. I mean, that’s part of living in the world, like you grow grass on your lawn to have a nice lawn. But the war, the real war is fought on the spiritual level, and the only weapon that we have against all lies is the truth.
JOHN: So we have to be the people of the truth.
PHIL: So Satan is going to come after us, and he is going to try to cause us harm. Scripture says, “Resist the devil and he’ll flee from you.” How do we resist him? I mean, if he’s the father of lies, then it seems like the truth is a good weapon to resist him with.
JOHN: Well yeah, that’s how you resist him because he’s a liar from the beginning, and everything he spouts is lies. And you resist him with the truth. And this sounds, I guess in a sense, simple, but it’s not. It’s complicated because you have to know the truth. It doesn’t do you any good to get into the spiritual battle if you don’t know the principles of the Word of God that defend you at a given point. The sword of the Spirit is the Word of God, right? It’s the weapon we have to fight the enemy.
But you can own a Bible and not be able to wield the sword. To be able to use the sword, you have to be like Jesus; you have to say—when Jesus was tempted—“I’m quoting Scripture at you,” right? Every temptation that Satan threw at Jesus, He answered with a passage of Scripture.
PHIL: Yeah, that’s right.
JOHN: And He’s using a direct text of Scripture to parry the blow of that particular temptation.
PHIL: Interesting. And Satan quoted Scripture as well, but he used it out—he took it out of context and twisted it.
JOHN: Always misquotes, right.
JOHN: Always misinterprets it. But again, you have the model of Jesus fighting temptation by the knowledge of a specific Scripture that speaks to that temptation.
PHIL: Right, and it’s the truth of that Scripture. You’ve often said, “You don’t really have the Bible unless you have a proper understanding of it.”
JOHN: Right, exactly. And you know how to wield the truth.
PHIL: Right. That’s good. So at the end of the day, with the doctrine of divine providence, in order to affirm this and really let it transform your thinking, you have to be convinced of the goodness and righteousness of God because if you just look at circumstances, the way providence works so often, you might not feel that goodness. You might not sense it or see it, right?
JOHN: Well, it comes back to trust. I mean, we live by faith, we don’t live by sight. I can’t see the end of things. When my son has a brain tumor, I don’t know where that’s going to go. Patricia breaks her neck, I don’t know where that’s going to go. Issues at Grace Church or in the ministry, I don’t know what the end’s going to be. I can’t know that. But I don’t walk by sight, I walk by faith. And I’ll tell you this: I trust God’s sovereignty. This is the most important doctrine of all doctrines: that God is sovereign. And it works its way out in providence more than it does in any other area because providence is every single molecule, all the time, being under God’s controlling power.
So I have to live by this faith; and it’s strong. I mean, it’s a strong faith. In fact, I believe your faith is tested—Peter says this—by your suffering. When you go through suffering and your faith holds, you know it’s the real deal. Then you go through suffering and it holds again, and again, and again, and again; this is what Peter says is God giving you the assurance of faith—that your faith is the real thing—by testing it and testing it.
I’ve had enough issues that I’ve had to face in my life, and my faith holds, which means it’s a gift from God. That faith is a gift from God. It’s the real saving faith because it holds under all kinds of attacks and assaults. So I just look at those assaults, and I say, “Every time things were difficult, my faith held. Thank You, Lord, for a real saving faith that You granted me, not something I mustered up.”
So I trust the Lord the next time something comes up because I’ve seen my faith tested in the past, and I’ve seen Him act. So it actually becomes to me—trouble, difficulties, challenges become to me a kind of exciting moment because I know I’m going to see God’s hand unfold.
PHIL: I wish we could all have that perspective. I dread trouble; I’ll be honest with you. I don’t look forward to those things and don’t find them exciting. But as I look back on my life, I have to say the most difficult trials I’ve ever been through were also the genesis of some of the greatest blessings God ever gave me. And so I trust Him on that basis; I still don’t enjoy the trials.
JOHN: Well, you don’t have to enjoy the trial, but you trust the outcome.
PHIL: Of course.
JOHN: But I do remind myself all the time that I’m not the only person here.
JOHN: And whatever the Lord may be doing in my life may seem big to me, but it’s incidental as it’s connected to somebody else in some other way.
JOHN: We’re all connected, in God’s providence, that nobody is isolated, nobody’s just out there and as if God is saying, “I’m doing this to you. I’m doing this for you in some isolated way.” I just think we’re like an aspen forest in a sense; that’s the largest living thing in the world, you know.
PHIL: I didn’t know that.
JOHN: An aspen forest, because it has a single root system.
JOHN: And I think as we think about life as believers, we forget that the roots are all grounded and all tied together, and all that life is surging up through all of these different trees; and it’s all ordained by God, and we’re all somehow connected. So God is working us all together in His purpose.
PHIL: Just that thought makes the providence of God even more stunning to think about. It’s just, the wisdom of God is unfathomable.
PHIL: Well, we started with Romans 8:28; let’s go back there because there are, I’m sure, people listening to us who are struggling with horrible trials, unthinkable trials—family problems or tragedies, financial disasters, disease, death, all sorts of—I mean, this world is filled with trouble, and Scripture recognizes that. What would you say to those people, based on Romans 8:28, which if you just quote that it might seem superficial? Unpack that for us.
JOHN: No, but that’s the ultimate promise that you hold to: “My God will supply all your needs.” OK, you know that; that’s also a promise. But God is also working together for good everything that’s happening in your life—and for good, for your good, to fulfill His divine purpose.
That confidence in the end allows you, I think, to deal with the issues. But let me tell you how to deal with the issue. I go back to Paul. Paul prayed; that’s the first thing he did. So when he had this thorn in the flesh that was just torturing him, he prayed. He went to the Lord three times.
So I think there’s a message there. I think one thing that trouble does in our lives, and it should do, is drive us to the Lord. When we have no possibility to fix things, it drives us to the Lord. I think about when I found out my son Mark had that brain tumor; I couldn’t do anything about it. So what did I do? I began to fast and pray. And it was so intense. The communion with the Lord was so intense that I poured out my heart to the Lord. And I think that was one of the sweetest times of fellowship in my life, even though I didn’t know the outcome or what it would be in his case. All that time fasting and praying before the Lord was a sweet, sweet communion to the Lord, and a tremendous lesson. I think that that’s planned into our trouble to drive us to the Lord, to drive us to our knees, to open up the channel of prayer at an intense level that is beyond what we would normally do.
I think also these kinds of sufferings are to cast us on Him. It’s not just the intimate communion of prayer, it’s the fact that I’m helpless. And like Paul, he doesn’t get the help he asks for. The Lord doesn’t stop this; He doesn’t remove the thorn. And then Paul begins to do an inventory, and he finds that all of a sudden the Lord says to him, “My grace is sufficient.”
So what happens in suffering is first, I’m driven to prayer, and that’s good—communion with the Lord, sweet communion with the Lord. And then I experience His grace as He begins to pour out grace in the midst of that suffering. That grace comes at most kind of unusual times, like peace, joy, gratitude even in the midst of suffering. And then I realize I can’t do anything about this, so, like Paul, he decides, “When I’m weak, then I’m really strong because my strength—my weakness becomes Your strength.”
So I just think that’s the picture of what you do when you’re in the dire circumstance that’s very hard. It drives you to prayer; it gives God an opportunity to pour out grace; it shows your weakness and lets Him put His strength on display. And if you approach them that way, the outcome spiritually—whatever the outcome—is in God’s plan; the outcome spiritually, from the experience you have with God, is going to enrich you.
PHIL: Yeah, I know you’ve said many times that Paul is kind of a model and a mentor to you, and so that’s important. You’re talking about the thorn in his side, that’s 2 Corinthians 12. That is preceded immediately by 2 Corinthians 11, where Paul gives that catalog of all the difficulties he went through—imprisonments, beatings, shipwrecks. I mean, it’s a long five verses’ worth of suffering. It’s as if his entire life was filled with that kind of suffering. And yet when he writes to the Philippians, who were also suffering, his theme is joy.
JOHN: Yeah. Well and not only did he suffer all those physical things, but at the end of that passage he says, “Beyond that, the care of the churches—”
JOHN: “—because who sins and I don’t feel the pain?”
PHIL: Right, right.
JOHN: So he’s got such massive disappointment in the churches, right? He’s writing all these letters to fix all these churches he’s poured his life into. It’s little wonder that the Lord gave Him Romans 8:28, because how would a guy survive all of that? Well, look at the disaffection at the end of his life. He comes to the end of his life; he comes to the end of his life, and he says, “Nobody’s with me.”
JOHN: “Everybody’s forsaken me, except—”
JOHN: Yeah, “Luke is with me. And Demas has forsaken me, having loved the present world.” And he even asks if he can—if Timothy can bring him a coat because he’s cold. “All in Asia, forsaken me.” I mean, this is a hard life. And I think in his case, he needed the confidence that God was completely in control of everything and that it was all working together for His divine purpose.
PHIL: Well, thank you for that, John. You want to close us in prayer?
JOHN: Sure. Father, we thank You that You have power over everything, that when we say You are powerful and You are sovereign, we mean over everything—every atom in this created universe, every thought, every idea, every attitude, every entity. You are sovereign and in control of them all, and You’re bringing everything to the purpose that You designed before the world began. You chose us before the world began; You wrote our names down before the world began, and You’re concluding Your redemption, bringing us to the final end of what You planned from the beginning. And as our Lord Jesus said, no one will be lost. All that You give the Son, the Son receives and will raise in that day.
So we thank You for ordaining the end, for choosing us, electing us in time, justifying us, sanctifying us, and one day bringing us to glory. Help us to trust You, and help us to redeem the time that we have in this world by using not the weapons of carnality, but the weapons of heavenly power—the truth of Your Word. And may we know it, and may we proclaim it, and may we live it; and may Your church experience Your power in this world. For Your glory we pray. Amen.
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