His Eye Is On the Sparrow: The Doctrine of God’s Omniscience
February 16, 1997
“If the Lord be with us, we have no cause of fear. His eye is upon us, His arm over us, His ear open to our prayer—His grace sufficient, His promise unchangeable.” John Newton
This week I was involved in three different discussions regarding one of the thorniest issues of Christian theology—predestination and free will. One took place on Tuesday, one on Wednesday and one on Thursday. The one on Thursday was particularly interesting because it was a debate between two men in a Bible study group. I was not really a participant; I was basically the referee. Both men energetically argued their positions. Perhaps I should say they passionately argued their positions. That word should not surprise you since no doctrine arouses quite as much passion as the doctrine of predestination and its relationship to human free will. If God knows all things, and if as the Westminster Confession of Faith says, he “ordains whatsoever comes to pass,” then are we not reduced to the level of robots? How can we have free will if God has already decided everything in advance? On the other hand, if we truly have free will, how can it be said that God ordains all things?
These are truly vexing questions that have troubled thoughtful Christians down through the centuries. At the end of the debate on Thursday I’m not sure any minds were changed. My own evaluation is that both of my friends were partly right and both were partly wrong. That shouldn’t surprise us because any time we discuss the ways of God we are certain to be partly right and partly wrong. At the very least, our knowledge will be very incomplete.
What God Knows
With that as background we turn to consider the doctrine of God’s omniscience. The word itself is a bit of a mystery, so let’s break it down. “Omni” means “all” and “science” in its original sense means “knowing.” So omniscience means “all-knowing.” In classical theology the doctrine of God’s omniscience means that God knows all things, past, present and future, real and potential, and he knows them all at the same time. He not only knows what was, and what is, he also knows what will be. More than that, he knows everything that could be but is not.
If we are looking for scriptural proof, it isn’t hard to find. In fact, we may confidently say that few doctrines are so explicitly taught as the doctrine of God’s omniscience. Consider the following statements of Scripture:
1 Samuel 2:3 … the Lord is a God who knows …
1 John 3:20 God … knows everything.
Psalms 147:5 Great is our Lord … his understanding has no limit.
Hebrews 4:13 Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.
But that only scratches the surface. The Bible in many places sets forth the implications of God’s unlimited knowledge. Consider further the following statements:
He numbers the hairs on your head. Luke 12:7
He knows your words before you speak them. Psalm 139:4
He knows your thoughts before you think them. Psalm 139:2
He knows your prayers before you pray them. Matthew 6:8
He knows when you get up in the morning and when you go to bed at night. Psalm 139:2-3
He knows everything you are going to do tomorrow, next week, next month, next year, and every moment of every day until the moment of your death. Psalm 139:16
He records every word you say and will some day call you to account for every careless, thoughtless, unkind and unchristian comment. Matthew 12:36
He sees everything you do in secret—both the good and the bad. Matthew 6:4
He hears every whispered word and will one day shout them from the housetops. Luke 12:3
No wonder David exclaimed as he pondered how much God knew about him, “You hem me in—behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me” (Psalm 139:5). He felt trapped by God’s knowledge of his every word and deed.
Little Ole Me and Great Big God
This is at the heart of our problem with predestination and free will. To speak of God knowing every detail of our lives is bad enough, but then to add that somehow he predestines everything that happens to us, that thought is so overwhelming as to be spiritually claustrophobic.
This week someone in our congregation sent me a very thoughtful e-mail on this subject. Listen to how she phrases it:
I have always had difficulty accepting that predestination within God’s plan can occur simultaneously with free will that I believe God has granted to us. This seems paradoxical to me.
If everything that occurs in the universe is in accordance with God’s plan, how can we have free will? Also, if my life is predestined to be a certain way, why should I take responsibility for my actions, choices, thoughts, beliefs … anything?
And all this talk about how God does everything and I can do nothing has left me feeling somewhat trivialized. What motivation do I have to try?
I believe in a good, all-knowing, powerful, but infinitely loving God. I believe he does care about me, my questions, my feelings, my desire to do good things. But, I always have difficulty reconciling the little ole me with that great big God.
I love the last sentence because it expresses the way a lot of people feel when they think about who we are versus who God is. How do you reconcile “little ole me with that great big God?” The answer of course is, you don’t. He’s God and you’re not. If you feel small and tiny and even unworthy in his presence, then you have grasped one important fact about who God is.
God’s Knowledge and Ours
Let’s move on to consider God’s knowledge and ours. There are some important contrasts we need to think about. First, God’s knowledge is independent, ours is dependent. No one has ever taught God anything because his knowledge is complete from the beginning. But our knowledge is dependent in that we must learn what we know.
Second, God’s knowledge is infinite, our is partial. He knows everything that could be known, we know a tiny fragment of what could be known. When I was preaching in Kentucky several years ago, I heard a Southern gospel song on the radio. It had a most unusual title: “Has it ever occurred to you that nothing has ever occurred to God?” That sounds odd at first because things occur to us all the time, but it’s true: Nothing has ever “occurred” to God. He never wakes up and says, “A great idea just occurred to me.” In the first place, he never sleeps, therefore he never wakes up. In the second place, all his ideas are great. In the third place, nothing ever occurs to him. He knows all the great ideas all the time from the beginning of time.
Third, God knows us better than we know ourselves. Specifically, he knows what is in the human heart. That is why David prayed, “Search me, O God, and know my heart” (Psalm 139:23). God knows things about us we don’t know about ourselves. Psalm 19:12 says, “Who can discern his errors? Forgive my hidden faults.” Psalm 90:8 declares, “You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence.”
Writing over 100 years ago, the great London preacher Charles Spurgeon used a powerful word to describe God’s knowledge of our hearts. He said that everything in the heart is “transparent” to God. Nothing is hidden, everything is clearly seen.
Again, consider the words of God: “The Lord searches every heart and understands every motive behind the thoughts” (1 Chronicles 28:9).
“The eyes of the Lord are everywhere, keeping watch on the wicked and the good” (Proverbs 15:3).
All these truths should give us pause the next time we are tempted to think that no one can hear what we are saying or no one knows what we are thinking. How wrong we are! One day you will give account for every careless word and every unspoken thought. Not only that, you will answer for the motives behind your thoughts.
Before you speak, think. Before you think, remember. It is said that Jewish men wear the traditional yarmulke on their heads because it represents the hand of God pressing down on them. It reminds the wearer that he always lives in the presence of God.
Implications of Omniscience
It has been well said that God’s omniscience is a comfort to believers and a terror to unbelievers. The comfort is easy to see. If he truly knows all things and if he ordains all things, then everything that happens to me or to those I love must happen as part of his plan. F. B. Meyer has written, “It is in proportion as we see God’s will in the various events of life and surrender ourselves either to bear it or do it, that we shall find earth’s bitter circumstances becoming sweet and its hard things easy.”
I received a message this week from someone who had never written me before. Suffice it to say that this person’s family is going through a terribly difficult time and there is no end in sight. The trial may continue for some time to come. This is what she had to say:
I have known the truth of Romans 8:28 in my head for many years, but only over the last month have the words had a meaning for my heart. I am convinced that this whole situation has a purpose, but I am still struggling with the “What?” Without the promises of God, I am sure that I would be unable to carry on, going to work and supporting my kids.
If this letter sounds disjointed, it is just how my thoughts have been over the past several weeks. But I have continued to hold on to something you wrote in your book…(to paraphrase) Don’t worry about 2 or 3 weeks from now, because God has already been there. I know that he continues to hold our entire family in the palm of His hand and that He is directing this to its own end and to His glory. I know that since He cares for the sparrows, He surely is caring for us.
That’s a wonderful statement by a believer who, though struggling to understand her own situation, has rested her faith on the fact of God’s sovereignty over the details of life. Somewhere this week I ran across a wonderful statement of what sovereignty really means. God’s sovereignty means “He knows what He is doing, and He is doing it.” That sums it up, doesn’t it?
Many of you recognize the name Andrew Murray. Although he lived almost 100 years ago, many of his books are still in print, including the classic With Christ in the School of Prayer. During a low period in his own life, he wrote the following words: “He brought me here. He will keep me here. He will make this trial a blessing. He will bring me out again. Therefore, I am here by God’s appointment, in His keeping, under His training, for His time.”
We often hear it said that “disappointment is His appointment.” But that can only be true if God is in charge of the details of life.
Every Decision Is a Free Choice
That leads me to give you my personal understanding of predestination and free will. I confess that I struggled with this whole question for many years, and did my share of arguing late into the night. Eventually I came to an understanding that has freed me from the necessity to argue anymore. It basically consists of three points. First, from our human standpoint, we are completely free. When you wake up in the morning, you have a choice to get out of bed or to stay in bed. You can put on a red dress or a blue one. When you get in your car, you are free to drive to work or you can drive to St. Louis if you like. Every decision you make is a free choice. By that I simply mean that you do not feel constrained by some divine power that forces you to eat at Wendy’s instead of McDonald’s. As far as you are concerned, you “pay your money and you make your choices.”
That leads to the second point: God sees and knows everything you do. He hears everything you say. He will someday judge you for all of it. Nothing escapes him. Everything is transparent before his eyes. Yes, you have free will but you are 100% responsible for every choice you make—that includes the choices you make in the words you say and the thoughts you think. He won’t just judge the “big” things; he’s going to judge the “little” ones, too.
What, then, is predestination? That’s the third point. Predestination simply means that God works in, with, through, and sometimes in spite of your decisions to accomplish His will for your life. He controls both the circumstances, the environment, and the thoughts of your heart. Everything that happens to you is part of his plan for your life. There are no accidents with God. He doesn’t roll dice.
That’s why Joseph could say, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20, KJV). Even the evil that men do serves his purposes, often in ways we cannot see and would not understand even if he told us.
The theologians use an interesting phrase to describe this truth. They say that God ordains whatsoever comes to pass in the sense that he “participates” in every human decision. Yet he does so without being the author of sin. Precisely how this can be is a mystery our small minds simply cannot fathom. No one is totally “free” from God. That includes both the missionary laboring in Albania and the serial killer who brutalizes young women. The choices of both are “free” from the human point of view, yet God works in both instances to accomplish his will. And both will be judged—one to be rewarded for sacrificial service, the other to be punished for unspeakable crimes.
Even as I write the last paragraph I am deeply conscious that we are all much more comfortable with the notion of God working through the good that people do. How God works through evil stretches the mind and challenges the heart. Yet both sides of this question are true and both must be believed if we are to be truly biblical in our thinking.
Salvation is of the Lord
Let’s apply this truth of free will and predestination to your salvation. Several years ago I spent an hour with two friends who couldn’t believe in predestination. So I asked them if they freely chose to come to Christ. Yes, they said. Did you feel pressured or coerced by God? No, not at all. Was it a free choice to accept Christ? Yes, absolutely. When I got them far enough out on a limb, I sawed it off behind them. I asked a very simple question: As you look back now, are you conscious that Someone was drawing you to Jesus? They paused for a moment and both answered yes. That Someone is the Holy Spirit who draws unbelievers to Christ (see John 16:8-11).
What does it mean? When you came to Christ, you made a decision of your will. You chose him. Predestination simply means, God chose you first and if he didn’t choose you first, you would never have chosen him. To say it another way, God so arranged the circumstances that when the moment was right, my two friends literally had no other choice but to freely choose Jesus. They weren’t aware of it at the time, but in looking back, they could see the invisible hand of God drawing them to Christ.
So it is for all of us. Salvation is of the Lord. It is a work of God from beginning to end. Our choice is a free choice, but it is made possible only by God’s Spirit enabling us to believe and be saved.
Someone has illustrated the truth this way. Think of the gate of heaven, and above it is a large sign, “Whosoever will may come.” As you pass through the gate, you look back and from the inside the sign reads, “Chosen from the foundation of the world.”
Or to say it yet another way: “He doesn’t make you go against your will, he just makes you willing to go.” I have often said that God will not force anyone to believe. He is a perfect gentleman. But that is only part of the story. When the moment comes, God so arranges the circumstances that you are irresistibly drawn to Jesus Christ. He gives you a new heart and a new desire and from that new desire you freely choose the Lord.
Bad News for Sinners
One final word and I am done. This doctrine of God’s omniscience should strike terror into the heart of every unbeliever. Jesus said, “Men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken” (Matthew 12:36). God’s omniscience is the basis of his judgment. This is not good news for sinners.
We cannot hide anything. He knows all our works and thoughts and bring them all into judgment. The wicked man says, “God has forgotten; he covers his face and never sees” (Psalm 10:11). Wrong!
Who knows? God knows!
Job 34:21 “His eyes are on the ways of men; he sees their every step.
Jeremiah 16:17 “My eyes are on all their ways; they are not hidden from me, nor is their sin concealed from my eyes.”
Omniscience means that God will take into account every word and every deed. Nothing will escape his penetrating gaze in the last great day. Galatians 6:7 says, “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.”
You can sin and go to Hell if you desire. No one is going to fool God. No one is going to escape judgment.
Come, Ye Sinners
But here is the good news for sinners. No one has to go to Hell. If you go, it won’t be because you were predestined for Hell. It will be because you rejected God’s gift of salvation.
Earlier I said that no one can be saved unless God calls him. That thought may trouble you, but it shouldn’t. How do you know if God is calling you? If you have the slightest desire, then God is calling you. If you want to be saved, then God is calling you. It truly is as simple as that.
If God is calling you, then come running to the Cross of Christ. Fling yourself upon God’s mercy. Hold fast to the bloody Cross as your only hope. If you want to be saved, you can be saved and you will be saved. That is the promise of God to you. No one will ever be lost who truly wanted to be saved. No one will be in hell who truly wanted to go to heaven by faith in the blood of Jesus Christ.
“Whosoever will may come” is still the gospel message. When we finally get to heaven, we will look back and discover that we were indeed “chosen from the foundation of the world.” It’s true that I don’t claim to understand it all, but that’s okay, because I’m just little ole me and he’s a great big God.
Come, Ye Sinners
Over 235 years ago Joseph Hart wrote one of the grandest gospel hymns ever composed: Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy. It’s set to a musical style that is sometimes called Sacred Harp music. Every verse contains wonderful truth, but none is greater than the third verse:
Let not conscience make you linger, nor of fitness fondly dream;
All the fitness he requireth, is to feel your need of him.
But listen to the fourth verse:
Come ye weary, heavy laden, lost and ruined by the fall;
If you tarry till you’re better, you will never at all.
And the chorus is the sinner’s answer to the gospel invitation:
I will arise and go to Jesus, He will embrace me in his arms;
In the arms of my dear Savior, O, there are ten thousand charms.
If you are still without Christ may he make you restless in your heart until you find your rest in him. If you are a believer, may you find comfort and joy in believing both now and in the days to come. Amen.