The Seventh Law: What God Starts, He Finishes
April 14, 2002
We begin with the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor whose opposition to Adolph Hitler during World War II finally landed him in jail. Shortly before the end of the war, the Nazis put him to death. His best-known writings include The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together. At one point he pondered what it means to live in wartime while still believing in the promises of God. These are his words: “There remains for us only the very narrow way, often extremely difficult to find, of living every day as though it were our last, and yet living in faith and responsibility as though there were to be a great future.” This week I have pondered the paradox of his words. On one hand the Christian is to live each day knowing it might be his last. That’s always good advice, but there are moments in history when it is literally the only way we can live.
Do you recognize the name Peggy Noonan? If you don’t read Peggy Noonan, you should. Each week she writes an essay (available online for free) for the Wall Street Journal. This week she wrote about the worsening crisis in the Middle East in a column called “The Hard Way.” She begins by pointing out that for a long time, most of us tried not to worry much about the Middle East. We knew the various parties to the conflict didn’t like each other, but we had faith that someone, somewhere would work out a peace deal to keep the lid on so it wouldn’t blow up and start World War III. Recent events have destroyed that sort of naÃ¯ve optimism. The situation has deteriorated so badly that this time no one has the answer. Not even Secretary of State Colin Powell can bring the Palestinians and the Israelis together. In some ways it seems ironic that in a world of such amazing technological advance, we seem utterly unable to bring an end to this ancient hostility. Noonan points out that all we can do, all we are really trying to do, is to buy time, to push back the inevitable so that no one detonates a nuclear bomb and wipes out the other side. One Catholic theologian calls the Middle East the vortex of history. This is where history started and this is where it will ultimately end. When God speaks to mankind, he speaks to us from the Middle East. And his message to us right now is: You are all in a heap of trouble. The column ends with a call to prayer. Why pray? Because it’s always easier to fight than to pray. Fighting is hard enough but prayer is much harder because it means giving up the certainty that you have all the answers. When you pray, you are confessing that there is a realm outside this world, and that God who dwells in eternity can affect what happens in time. Prayer may be our last, best and only hope in these troubled times.
The Red Heifer
That’s part of what Bonhoeffer meant by living each day as if it were our last. But that’s not the whole story. The Christian faith demands that we live in hope because we believe in the promises of God. We cannot become pessimists and give up. To do so is to deny what we say we believe. There is always a reason for hope. So where will we find hope in these troubled times? There are many answers to that question, but I find hope in the recent birth of a red heifer in Israel. According to www.israelnationalnews.com, a red heifer was born about a month ago. Bible students will recall that according to Numbers 19, a red heifer is required as part of the purification process for priests who served in the Temple in Jerusalem. For most of us, that’s merely an ancient law that has no relevance since A) we are Christians, and B) the Temple was destroyed 2,000 years ago. But many of the ultra-Orthodox Jews believe that the Temple must eventually be rebuilt on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. For over a generation, they have been gathering the required sacrificial implements and training young Jewish men to serve as priests in the yet-to-be-rebuilt Temple. They view the recent birth of a red heifer as a sign that the “Messianic Age” is about to begin. Many Christians (myself included) believe that some form of the Temple must be rebuilt in the closing days before Christ comes at the end of the Tribulation period. Now I have no idea if this red heifer has any connection to Bible prophecy. Only time will tell. But I take encouragement from the larger truth that God often uses the weak and unlikely things of this world to confound the high and mighty and powerful. He uses weak things (a widow with a pitcher of oil, for instance) to demonstrate his mighty power. And since he owns the cattle on a thousand hills, why should it surprise us that the birth of a red heifer makes the news?
If God is For Us
We have come to the seventh and final law of the spiritual life. In case you have forgotten them, here are the first six laws:
Law 1: He’s God and We’re Not.
Law 2: God Doesn’t Need Us But We Desperately Need Him.
Law 3: What God Demands, He Supplies.
Law 4: What You Seek, You Find.
Law 5: Active Faith Releases God’s Power.
Law 6: There is No Growth Without Struggle.
The final law brings us back to God as the source and end of our faith:
Law 7: What God Starts, He Finishes.
This law gives us hope in hard times and keeps us going when we would rather quit. It’s the law that inspired believers to be faithful under persecution and gave Moses the strength to reject the treasures of Egypt in favor of the unseen riches of the invisible God. This law reminds us that in the end, everything we give up for the Lord will seem like no sacrifice at all. And when life tumbles in around us, and others have given up their faith, we stand firm because we know that what we see is not all there is. The best is yet to come.
As I have pondered this truth, the words of Romans 8:31 have been ringing in my mind: “What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us?” This is the question that the people of the world want answered. Is there a God, and if there is a God, is he for us or against us? When Paul says if God is for us, he’s not saying maybe he is and maybe he isn’t. It can be translated “Since God is for us” or “Because God is for us.” There is no truth more fundamental in all of God’s Word than this truth: God is for us. God is not against us. God is not neutral toward us. Because of Jesus Christ, once and for all the question is settled. God is for us. All that God is, all that God has and all that God does, he does on behalf of his people. Even those times when God seems to be acting against us, if we could only look behind the veil, we would understand that God is for us.
Name the enemies of the people of God. Can the devil stand against us? No, because he has been defeated. Can the world stand against us? No, because Jesus has overcome the world. Can the flesh destroy us? No, because in Jesus Christ we overcome the pull of the flesh. Therefore, let the people of God be bold. Who dares to stand against us if God be for us?
I. Three Truths You Can Depend On
The truth of the Seventh Law depends on several important attributes of God. First, God is faithful. That means he does not lie, does not change in his essential character, and he acts in time and space to ensure that his purposes are carried out. He perseveres until that which he has ordained comes to fruition. There are no gaps and no performance failures with the Lord. He is faithful to himself, to his Word, and to all his creatures. In the end, all things in the universe will be seen to have served God’s purposes. No detail will be missing, nothing will be out of place, and there will be no “accidents.” Even the tragedies of life will fit into God’s eternal plan. The fact that we cannot see how this could be true simply demonstrates the First Law: He’s God and We’re Not. God is faithful whether we see it or not, and he is faithful whether we believe it or not. Second, God is good. This attribute tells us that God is “for” us and not “against” us. He intends to bless us beyond our expectations and he desires to even bless those who rebel against him. “You are good, and what you do is good” (Psalm 119:68). Because God is faithful and because he is good, we can be confident that what God starts, he finishes. Sooner or later, his Word will be proved true, his justice will be vindicated, his wisdom will be plainly displayed, and the magnificence of his grace will be placarded from one end of the universe to the other. His Name will be glorified and we will be satisfied.
As we work and wait and hope for that day to come, here are three truths you can depend on.
A. All God’s Promises Will Eventually be Fulfilled.
The key word here is “eventually.” While reading through Joshua recently, I came across these verses that serve as a summary of God’s faithfulness to his people. They come at the end of the section where the Jews have defeated their enemies and taken possession of the Promised Land. It had been a hard fight that meant some people died in the process. It took blood, sweat and tears to conquer the land and drive the pagan people out. But at last the work was done, the tribes had received their allotment, and the nation was ready to settle down and live in peace. Against that background, Joshua offers this assessment: “Thus the Lord gave to Israel all the land that he swore to give to their fathers. And they took possession of it, and they settled there. And the Lord gave them rest on every side just as he had sworn to their fathers. Not one of all their enemies had withstood them, for the Lord had given all their enemies into their hands. Not one word of all the good promises that the Lord had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass” (Joshua 21:43-45 ESV). Note that although the Lord “gave” them the land, they still had to fight for it. The “rest” came only after long years of warfare. They had to go into battle over and over again, and no doubt some soldiers had to die, and blood had to be shed, in order for God’s promises to come true. It’s not as if the Jews “claimed” the promise and simply moved in with no opposition. They had to fight to win what God had promised them.
So it is for you and me. We must fight the good fight, put on the whole armor of God, and be good soldiers for the Lord. That means enduring long days and longer nights, facing fears within and foes without, being misunderstood by the world and sometimes by our best friends, living by radically different standards than the people around us, and claiming dual allegiance to two nations—one on earth and the other in heaven. Living for Christ means hard times, bearing the cross, despising the shame, denying ourselves, following him wherever he leads, judging all things by the values of the Kingdom, putting others above our own interests, yielding our rights, refusing to give in to anger and rage, forgiving when we’d rather get even, loving our enemies, laying down our lives for others, bearing one another’s burdens, washing dirty feet, taking on the role of a servant, and sometimes being regarded as fools, “seed-pickers,” and the scum of the earth. Sometimes we will be opposed, sometimes hated, sometimes mocked, sometimes persecuted, and sometimes the followers of Christ will be put to death. It happens.
The point is, being a Christian does not exempt you from the problems of life. Coming to Christ solves some problems and creates others. The problems solved include salvation, eternal life, forgiveness, removal of guilt, provision of a brand-new life, new desires, and new power to serve God. And it means a home in heaven and abundant life while you live on earth. So it’s not a bad deal. Not at all. And the “problems” you gain are rather small in comparison but they are problems nonetheless. Being a follower of Christ is a wonderful life, it’s the best life there is, and it’s really the only life there is. Apart from Christ there is no life at all. But it doesn’t mean that things will be easy or simple or that life will be a bed of roses. Or maybe it will be a bed of roses but all those roses will have thorns.
The good news is that God fully intends to keep his promises to you. What he did for Israel so long ago, he does for his people today. As we trust and obey, as we fight and pray, as we stand up for righteousness and shine the light in a darkened world, one by one by one the promises are kept. And in the end (and not until then) we will look back and say, “The Lord did it. Not one of his good promises failed. All came to pass.”
B. The Lord Will Complete His Work in Us.
Psalm 138:8 says this plainly. “The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever” (ESV). The argument here is very simple. Because the Lord’s love endures forever, his purposes for us will endure forever. If God’s love could somehow fail, then perhaps we could doubt his purposes. But since his love reflects his eternal character, we can be sure that God will do whatever it takes to accomplish whatever he wants to accomplish in us.
C. The Entire Work of Salvation is Guaranteed by God.
Consider Romans 8:29-30. “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.” I want you to circle or underline five words in this text:
Those five words make up the golden chain of your salvation. It is a golden chain of five links. These five words comprehend the entire work of God on your behalf. No other statement in the Bible so comprehensively contains what God is doing to accomplish your salvation. He begins in eternity past and finishes in eternity future. To say it another way, your salvation begins in heaven, comes to earth, and ends up in heaven.
Your salvation begins with the first link—foreknowledge. That’s the link that starts in heaven. Then we come to predestination. That’s the link that brings salvation down to earth. Then we come to calling. That’s the link where you are hooked onto the chain. Justification is the link that ensures your righteous standing before the Lord. Glorification is the link that secures your eternal place in heaven. Those five things are the five links in the chain of your salvation. They are true of every believer. They are true only of believers. If you are a believer, these five links in the chain explain God’s plan from eternity past to eternity future to accomplish your salvation.
Notice the tense of the five key words: Foreknew, Predestined, Called, Justified, Glorified. They are all in the past tense. But how can “glorified” be in the past tense when our glorification is in the future? How can God speak of our future glorification in the past tense if it hasn’t even happened yet? The answer is this: It is so certain that God speaks of it as past tense even though it is still future to us. In God’s mind past, present, future are all the same. In some sense we can’t fathom, our glorification has already happened. It’s so certain that God can speak of it in the past tense.
Let me illustrate: If God foreknew 100 people, then he predestined 100. If God predestined 100, he called 100. If God called 100, he justified 100. If God justified 100, then he glorified 100. It’s not as if God starts out with 1500 people but loses some in the process. It not as if he foreknows 1500, then he predestines 1200, then he calls 800, then he justifies 400, and only has about 60 or 70 left to finally take to heaven. It’s not a declining number. The number is exactly the same throughout. As many as he foreknew in the beginning, exactly that many will he glorify in the end. So let’s suppose the Lord is in heaven counting his sheep: “94 … 95 … 96 … 97 … 98 … 99 … Pritchard, where’s Pritchard? I can’t find him!” No, it’s not like that. Everyone he foreknows, everyone he predestines, everyone he calls, everyone he justifies—all of them will eventually be glorified. No one will be lost in the process.
My friend Jack Wyrtzen used to say it this way: “I’m as sure of heaven as if I’d already been there 10,000 years.” Why? Because it doesn’t rest on me. It doesn’t rest on you. It rests on the word of the eternal God. If God has said he’s going to do it, he will do it. You can book it, you can take it to the bank. What God says he will do, he will do. All of God’s sheep will make it. That’s good news for all us unruly sheep. Some of God’s sheep are sick and weak and some are unruly and a few are downright rebellious. And some of the sheep have been messing around with the goats too much and they look more like goats than like sheep. But fear not. The Lord knows his own, he knows how to find his own, and when the time comes, all of God’s sheep will make it into the fold. Not one will be lost. Not one.
II. Seven Ways to Apply the Seventh Law
Let’s wrap up this study by looking at a few ways we can apply this great truth that what God starts, he always finishes.
A. We can be certain of our salvation.
1 John 5:12-13 tell us that eternal life is only to be found in Jesus Christ and that those who believe in him may “know” that they have eternal life. In this world of so much uncertainty, here is something God says you can know. That’s hugely important. Do you want to go to heaven? You can. Do you want to know you’re going to heaven? You can. Many people, even many Christians, say, “I hope I’m going to heaven,” but that is not the language of the Bible. For those who truly trust Christ, there is a certainty that does not depend on them or their works, but on the promise of God who cannot lie. Because salvation is God’s work, when we trust Christ, we can know that we are saved, that our sins are forgiven, that we are right with God, and that should we die tonight, we will go to heaven.
B. We can be confident of God’s purposes for us.
This is one of those “long-range” truths that helps us when we are down and discouraged and wonder if we’re all that we were truly meant to be. Philippians 1:6 reminds us that “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” All that God intends to do in us and through us, he will do. Even when we are faithless, he is faithful still (see II Timothy 2:13).
C. We can have comfort in the midst of confusing circum-stances.
So many things in life confuse and perplex us. Things happen, both good and bad, in such seemingly random sequence, that most of the time we can’t begin to understand the big picture. Not long ago the roommate of one of my sons learned that his father had an inoperable brain tumor. It seemed to happen suddenly, without warning, and without any apparent reason. The father’s last few days were very difficult as the tumor invaded new areas of the brain. A few nights ago the suffering ended and he went home to be with the Lord. Mark wrote an e-mail about how hard it was to see his roommate deal with his father’s death. He ended with these words: “All of this is to an end … It will be good … God will be shown through all of this, God is good.” There is a profound truth underlying what he wrote. “It will be good.” It isn’t “good” right now. At least it doesn’t seem good or feel good. Any good that is there must be seen and felt and taken by faith. Death is still the last enemy of the people of God. But death isn’t the end of the story. God will be glorified even through things that seem senseless and even evil to us. We won’t always see how this works out in history, but it is true nonetheless. “For we know,” Paul says. Not “we think” or “we hope” or “we dream,” but “we know,” as if to state a settled fact, that “all things,” not “some things” or “most things” or even “the things that make sense to us” work together for good, to those who love God, who are called according to his purpose (see Romans 8:28 KJV). Because God is good, “it will be good,” and we will see that goodness somewhere down the road, if not in this life, then in eternity. All will be well and God will be glorified.
D. We can remain calm when the world is in turmoil.
I suppose that I would not have made this particular application a year ago. But now, after September 11, after anthrax and the threat of bioterrorism, after Afghanistan, and after heightened airport security, and in the midst of all the bloodshed in the Middle East, this application seems urgent. Many of the experts believe that further acts of terrorism in the U.S. are not only likely, they are inevitable. Clearly, there are people out there who would blow us up and walk away laughing if they could. Perhaps you’ve seen the picture of the man attending an anti-Israel rally in Berlin who dressed his young daughter up as a suicide bomber by wrapping fake dynamite around her waist. As Jonah Goldberg says, “This is insanity and it is evil.” (“Arguing with the Insane,” National Review Online, April 15, 2002). President Bush told a group of Christian leaders that peace is hard to come by because the leaders on both sides hate each other so much. On the night of September 11, during a special prayer meeting, I commented that terrorism had come close to us and will come closer yet in the future. That statement seems truer today than it did then.
How will we maintain our sense of balance in a world like this? Psalm 46 points us back to God who is our refuge and strength, a very present help in time of trouble. The word “help” means that he will be for us whatever we need, whenever we need it. He is the supernatural resource when our strength has come to an end. “Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea” (v. 2). It is hard to read that verse without remembering the Twin Towers suddenly crumbling to the ground. “Nations are in uproar” (v. 6). What a fitting description for the current crisis in the Middle East. What shall the believers do in days of uncertainty? Will we give in to fear and desperation? “Be still, and know that I am God” (v. 10). Be still. Those who know God remain calm even under threat of Armageddon. We know that God is in control. “The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress” (v. 11). As believers, we do not claim any special insight into politics or military matters. And we don’t claim to know what will happen to Mr. Arafat or Mr. Sharon. But we know this much: Our God is in control. Therefore we will not fear. We will be still and know the Lord is God.
E. We can have hope when our progress seems so slow.
All of us, if we are honest, wonder from time to time why we seem to make so little spiritual progress. We “conquer” a sin today and then commit the same sin tomorrow. Or we “conquer” a sin today and commit four new ones tomorrow. Sometimes the Christian life seems agonizingly slow: three steps forward, two steps back. Why can’t we make 20 steps forward, take a breath, and make 20 more? Why must the Christian life seem so slow in terms of real life change? There are many answers to that question, including the fact that struggle actually makes us grow stronger. We generally do not appreciate victories that come at no cost. What we fight for, we value highly. And even our “defeats” and setbacks and our backsliding teaches us to rely on the Lord alone for everything, and not at all on ourselves. I Thessalonians 5:23-24 tells us that one day we will stand before the Lord and be holy through and through. In that day we will be “blameless” before the Lord, deeply and radically cleansed of sin and profoundly renewed by the grace of God. No part of our being will be untouched. In that day, we will be holy and pure in body, soul and spirit. Most of us have a long way to go and we may despair of ever reaching that happy condition. But “the one who calls you is faithful and he will do it” (v. 24). Our hope rests in the Lord. He called us, he is faithful, and he will do it. Your current struggles cannot cancel God’s faithfulness. He will finish his work in you.
F. We can encourage others who are faltering.
Hebrews 10:24-25 points us to a crucial ministry of encouragement in light of the Lord’s return: “Think of ways to encourage one another to outbursts of love and good deeds. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage and warn each other, especially now that the day of his coming back again is drawing near” (NLT). Eugene Peterson translates the first phrase of verse 24 as “Let’s see how inventive we can be.” Other translations speak of “spurring” other believers on to spiritual growth. How? By a kind word. By a phone call. By a note or an e-mail. By a friendly smile. By a kind word of thanks. And especially by meeting together—in Sunday School and in small groups and in fellowship meetings and at the Lord’s Table and in Sunday worship services. Don’t be a Lone Ranger Christian. He’s coming back! The signs are all around us. You can encourage other believers by showing up on Sunday morning instead of staying in bed or playing golf or watching TV or walking your dog. Do that some other time. In these “end of the world” days, when we see “The Big Day” approaching, let’s make sure we come together to worship and to encourage each other. Take time to lift up a fallen brother. Say hello to a discouraged sister. Lift up the arms that have fallen. When a friend falls, pick him up and help him get back in the race for God (Hebrews 12:12-13).
G. We can wait patiently because we know the end of the story.
A well-known Gospel song says, “I’ve read the end of the Book and we win!” The title says it all. If you’ve read Revelation, you know it’s true. Jesus wins in the end, and he wins big! And everyone joined by faith with Jesus wins because he is the Captain of our Salvation. When the Captain wins, the whole team wins. The forces of evil cannot stand against him. He speaks the word and they are banished forever. Read it for yourself. Jesus wins! The devil loses! And all those on the devil’s side lose with him. That includes the demons and every worker of iniquity and all the various ranks of evil spirits and all those who have wittingly or unwittingly done the devil’s bidding on the earth.
The problem is, right now we’re living in an “in-between” time when Christ’s victory has been secured by his resurrection from the dead, but it has not yet been fully exercised on the earth. The devil fights on even though he is a thoroughly defeated foe. Death still reigns. Christians still suffer and die. And little babies sometimes die. Early one morning I received a call saying that a baby had died in the night and would I please come to the hospital? The baby had been born four months premature and weighed about a pound and a half. He lived 12 days. When I arrived at the hospital, the parents held their precious baby in their arms. Through her tears, the mother said, “There must be a reason for this. God would not do this without a reason.” There is a reason but the final answer is hidden in the heart and mind of God. But the faith that leads her to say, “There must be a reason,” is truly biblical faith. Even through our tears and when our hearts are broken, we still believe, and because we still believe, we wait patiently for the end of the story to be revealed. James 5:7 instructs us to be patient until the Lord’s coming. Verse 8 says “be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near.” How precious that truth seems to me as I type these words and think about that little baby who slipped away from us in the middle of the night. Waiting in such circumstances is almost unbearably difficult, but it is infinitely preferable to the alternative, which is to say that there is nothing to wait for, that little babies die for no reason and we will never see them again because death ends all. I for one refuse to embrace such a hopeless philosophy of life. I want a religion that answers the problem of death. Thank God, we have a hope that goes beyond the grave, a hope that reaches beyond this life to connect us with the life that will never end. That hope is found in Jesus Christ. Therefore, as Paul said, we do not sorrow as those who have no hope (I Thessalonians 4:13). And we do not lose heart because the momentary trials of life (what faith it takes to say such a thing!) are far outweighed by the glory that will be revealed in us. The only thing left for us in times of incredible sorrow is to fix our eyes on unseen realities. The undertaker will not have the last word. Better days are coming, and they aren’t far away (II Corinthians 4:14-16).
“I Am Persuaded”
As we wrap up this series on the Seven Laws of the Spiritual Life, it’s good to remember what we know and what we don’t know. In this life many things remain a mystery to us, especially the troubling issues of personal loss, sudden death, and unexplained suffering. At the end of the day, after all our thoughts and prayers and meditations, and even after our deep study of the Word of God, we simply don’t know why some things happen the way they do. Certainly we could imagine that things might turn out differently if we were in charge of the universe. But that observation leads us right back to the First Law: He’s God and We’re Not. It’s amazing how often we come face to face with that reality. But the First Law is basic to all the rest. If God is God, he must do many things that are far beyond our understanding. That truth does not answer all our questions, but perhaps it will enable us to quiet our hearts and to sleep at night when otherwise we wouldn’t be able to sleep at all.
And the things we know are all-important. Nothing is wasted with the Lord. Even the parts of life that make no sense to us today will be seen in the light of eternity to have fulfilled God’s eternal purpose. Between now and then, we march onward and upward, moving toward the light that shines brighter and brighter. We march on with faith, hope and love, with deep confidence in the God who made us and who loved us enough to die for us so that we could be with him. As Paul said in Romans 8:38-39, we are persuaded, we truly believe, we are finally convinced that neither life nor death, nor angels or principalities or powers, and nothing above or below and or anything else we can encounter in all creation, nothing, absolutely nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. This we believe. On this truth we have staked our lives. For this we live and for this we will die. In Jesus we have become more than conquerors. Paul said, “I am persuaded.” I say to you that I am persuaded. Are you persuaded? Paul was convinced. I am convinced. Are you convinced? Can you truly say, “I no longer have any doubts? I know that God will keep me safe to the very end?” If you are not certain, it is because you are looking to yourself and not to the Lord. Take a good look at Jesus and you will be convinced. I am persuaded and I am glad that I am. What about you?