As a father and former youth “pastor” this one from Pastor Voddie really hit home (no pun intended) on many different levels.
As we have been examining the doctrine of total inability, or simply stated man’s inability in his natural state to choose God, or otherwise determine his own salvation, we have looked at several common objections. First with Matthew 11:28-30, then Deuteronomy 30:19 and now with perhaps the most familiar verse of the objections, Joshua 24:15 the majority of which we hear summarized as, “choose this day whom you will serve… But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” Just as we saw with the previous objections, there is more here for us to understand in context than simply a coffee mug or T-shirt passage divorced from its larger meaning in Scripture. The entirety of verses 14 and 15 are below:
14 “Now therefore fear the Lord and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. 15 And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
As with the previous objections, we would be well served to look at this passage in it’s larger context, but there is a clue in verse 15 that weakens the Arminian usage of this verse as a passage defending man’s free will against God’s sovereignty. Before examining that clue, allow me to again point out that man’s will is not free in the sense that it is so often used, but is instead corrupted by sin such that his desires would never lead him to choose God of his own volition. He is not simply stuck neutral with regard to his desires and is waiting for the slightest push to get him rolling in the direction of God. He is under the power and dominion of sin. God, in His sovereignty changes man’s desires by giving him a new heart thereby regenerating the will, severing the bondage to sin, and setting man’s desires now toward God. Man then chooses to submit Himself to God through repentance and faith in Christ.
With that in mind, look again at Joshua 24:14-15, “14 “Now therefore fear the Lord and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. 15 And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
Joshua says “now therefore” to show that what he is about to state is linked to what he has previously said, that occurs in verses 1-13 and in general, it is a summary of all that God has done for Israel extending to them redemption from Egypt and showing them kindness for years, despite the stiff-necked ways of their hearts. Here in verse 14, we see that Israel is again tending towards idolatry, “Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord.” So they are already in a state of idolatry before Joshua says anything about choosing. Next, he states, “And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord.” This is key because Joshua is here shining a light on the spiritual condition of the Israelite hearts, as though what is right is wrong and what is wrong is right. The clear distorting nature of sin.
Then we come to the famous choice, “choose this day whom you will serve.” Following Joshua’s sermon, he has just told the people to put away the idolatry of their fathers; he has framed the choice by saying if you think it’s evil to serve the Lord, then choose. Choose what? God vs. Not God? That is the common understanding of the passage, that Joshua has laid before them the choice to leave their idolatry and choose to serve God. But that is NOT what the passage says. The choice that is laid before the people is to choose whom they will serve, “whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell.” The choice is not between God and Not God, but between “Idol #1 and Idol #2”, i.e. Not God vs. Not God. How then could this verse even begin to be championed as a defense for man’s free will to choose God out of his own free-will, apart from any divine enablement, when the choice that is laid before the people is between their various idolatries. Joshua is the one, because he is a God-fearing, regenerate believer, who declares, “But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord”. That should always be the declaration of the believer in Christ, regardless of the idolatrous decisions that others, even self-professed believers, might make.
Continuing on in the passage:
16 Then the people answered, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods, 17 for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our fathers up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight and preserved us in all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed. 18 And the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.”
By way of the reminder of what Joshua had just spoken, the people now seem convinced that they will abandon their idolatry, not choosing between their idols but deciding to serve the Lord. Now notice Joshua’s response.
19 But Joshua said to the people, “You are not able to serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. 20 If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm and consume you, after having done you good.”
What would cause Joshua to say that they were unable to serve the Lord? Simply put, this was a declaration stating that he knew the people were unable out of their own moral fortitude to serve the Lord. He offers them a stark warning of their decision, lest out of haste they have decided to serve the Lord out of insincerity.
21 And the people said to Joshua, “No, but we will serve the Lord.” 22 Then Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord, to serve him.” And they said, “We are witnesses.” 23 He said, “Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your heart to the Lord, the God of Israel.” 24 And the people said to Joshua, “The Lord our God we will serve, and his voice we will obey.” 25 So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and put in place statutes and rules for them at Shechem. 26 And Joshua wrote these words in the Book of the Law of God. And he took a large stone and set it up there under the terebinth that was by the sanctuary of the Lord. 27 And Joshua said to all the people, “Behold, this stone shall be a witness against us, for it has heard all the words of the Lord that he spoke to us. Therefore it shall be a witness against you, lest you deal falsely with your God.” 28 So Joshua sent the people away, every man to his inheritance.
As we conclude, verse 31 of this chapter tells us that the people actually did serve the Lord for the remainder of Joshua’s days. However, immediately after his death, we read of apostasy and idolatry again on behalf of Israel, Judges 2:1-6.
The doctrine of total inability rightly stated does not deny man’s ability to make choices. It does not deny that man is free, in the sense that his choices are his own. However, it does assert that man is dead in his trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1). That he is a slave to sin (Romans 6:16, 20), following after the prince of the power of the air (Eph. 2:2). And that by living “in the passions of [the] flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind” (Eph. 2:3) those desires and affections are never, indeed cannot, be set on God apart from the divine enablement of His Spirit to remove the heart of stone with all of its evil, sinful, and worldly desires, and give man a heart of flesh with new desires to submit to God, love Him, and obey Him. There is simply no other way. Salvation is of the Lord and it is all a work of grace. For that we should be ever thankful and worship our Great God.
Soli Deo Gloria
It isn’t difficult to find out what’s going on with the latest virus fear spreading around the world. Several years ago, fears were being spread (via the media) about the Bird Flu, SARS, West Nile, Swine Flu, etc. Now, it’s 24/7 coverage of Ebola and to a lesser yet significant extent the Enterovirus. These are legitimate virus’ and there is a continual legitimacy to contracting them or any of those previously mentioned, or the common cold, or the flu, or rabies, or cancer, or even getting hit by a bus or struck by lightning. While the odds may not be equal between those, there nevertheless remains a possibility. The problem with turning to the news for information concerning the latest virus to spread is that they can only report and speculate, they cannot control. We can turn to any major news station right now and get the latest headlines on the treatment of those who are stricken with Ebola, the strategies for how to contain it, the blame for not doing enough or doing the wrong things. Watching this, it would be easy to reach the conclusion that Ebola was spinning out of control on its own self-wrought plan to bring civilization to a crippling halt and cease existence as we know it. The problem with that…? Ebola is not in control, nor has it ever been. Neither is, nor has any other virus or for that matter molecule. While we may be able to turn to the news to find out whether this latest virus is spreading to a neighborhood near us and perhaps even the precautions we can take to avoid getting it, we will not hear, dare I say never hear, that Christ reigns supreme over the entire universe, including the spread of Ebola and that it does not operate outside of His sovereign authority. For that we turn not to the media, but to the pages of Scripture that magnify the supremacy of Christ. In that, and in that alone we can rest our fears.
Our sinful natures are naturally bent towards unbelief and one symptom of doubt is fear. The over-information and speculation of the news media simply stokes the coals of doubt and fear that are already existent and causes us to lose focus on Who it is that is in control and upon Whom we should set our trust.
In Hebrews 1:3 we get a glimpse of the supremacy of Christ over the universe, “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.” Of particular interest is the phrase, “He upholds the universe by the word of His power”. What does this mean exactly? I take it to mean that Christ “upholds the universe by the word of His power.” Simple enough. The universe is an all-encompassing statement, such that the extent of Christ’s power is unlimited. Throughout the Gospels we get insight into the supremacy of Christ over nature, the spiritual realm, diseases, and even death. In other words, His supremacy extends throughout the entirety of the universe.
Supremacy over Demons: Mark 1:21-28; 1:37-39; 5:1-20; 7:24-30; 9:14-29
Supremacy over Disease: Mark 1:29-31 (fever); 1:40-45 (leprosy); 2:1-5 (paralysis); 3:1-6 (withered hand); 5:25-34 (issue of blood); 6:53-56 (healings in Gennersaret); 7:31-37 (deafness); 8:22-26 (blindness); 10:46-52 (blindness- Bartimaeus)
Supremacy over Death: Mark 5:35-43 (Jairus’s daughter)
Supremacy over Nature: Mark 4:35-41 (calms the storm/seas); 6:30-44 (feeds the 5000); 6:45-52 (walks on water); 8:1-10 (feeds the 4000);
When we read these passages yet continue in fear, doubting the supremacy of Christ over any aspect of life, we are in sin. Just yesterday I was contemplating the spread of Ebola in light of how God has used pestilence in Scripture and in history as well. I came upon an article discussing the Bubonic Plague that ravished much of London in 1665-66. Of note in this article was the Puritan Thomas Vincent whose congregation was suffering under the grip of the plague. The article stated that 68,000 people had died in the city of London, including seven in Mr. Vincent’s own house as he cared for them and ministered alongside them as they suffered. Yet in all his exposure, the Lord sovereignly protected him every step of the way. The author of the article is quick to point out that Vincent had no guarantee from God that he would not contract the disease, yet he entrusted himself into the sovereign care of God under no obligation that his life would be spared. In his book The True Christian’s Love to the Unseen Christ Vincent writes:
“If you have but little love to Christ, you will be apt to faint in the day of adversity, to shrink when you are called to take up His cross and suffer for His sake. Lesser sufferings will decompose you, greater sufferings will frighten you and amaze you, and you will be in danger of turning into fearful apostates in time of great trials. There is need of great love to Christ, as well as great faith, to carry you through sufferings with courage that you may persevere unto the end” (p. 33).
As in Vincent’s day, Christ’s reigns supreme even now. Like the pestilence in Scripture and the Bubonic Plague in the 1600’s, Ebola is not a rouge virus that is running rampant unchecked in the universe. It is within the sovereignty of Christ. It neither afflicts nor is avoided without Christ’s sovereign ordination. That should be a great comfort for the believer and should put to rest any fears and doubts that may arise, whether stirred up by the media or others. If Christ is so concerned with the details that neither a sparrow falling from the sky nor a hair turning black or white escapes notice, will not He also supremely rule over the most vicious of viruses? Should believers contract it, as the missionary workers in Liberia, we can know that the virus will not run its course nor take a life apart from Christ’s sovereign decree. Should it take a believer’s life, what great consolation there is in knowing that there is therefore now no condemnation in Christ and that upon the conclusion of their suffering, they are ushered into the glorious presence of the Majesty on High to rule and reign with Him for eternity. Does that sound like a worthy prize for the temporal suffering that a virus might bring? I should hope so.
If you are an unbeliever, take special notice. Though Christ is supreme, His arm is not shortened preventing Him from bringing any affliction He desires upon you for the purpose of bringing you to repentance or resigning you to judgment.
Christ will use means, such as Ebola, getting hit by a bus while crossing the street, or simply old age, to either usher believers into the presence of His glory or resign unbelievers to the place of eternal suffering, apart from His glory. Through His death on the cross and resurrection on the 3rd day, He has defeated death. Subsequently, all those who are united to Him by faith will likewise defeat death upon their resurrection. The question is not when or by what method, but who. Who is your faith in? Are you united to Him by faith, or apart from Him by rebellion and unbelief. In either case, Christ reigns supreme and He will get glory out of both the vessels of wrath and the vessels of mercy, but rest assured there is nothing rogue or outside of His dominion. All authority in heaven and on earth is His.