The Mysteries of God
February 2nd, 1964 @ 10:50 AM
THE MYSTERIES OF GOD
Dr. W.A. Criswell
2-2-64 10:50 a.m.
On the television and on radio you are sharing the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. This is the pastor bringing the 11:00 o’clock morning message entitled The Mysteries of God. It is a sermon concerning the inscrutable nature of the Lord God Almighty, not as an exposition, more as an illustration. I read the concluding three or four verses of the eleventh chapter of Paul’s letter to the church of Rome. Paul has been discussing in chapters 9, 10, and 11 the elective purpose of God, the election of God [Romans 9-11], and he closes that discussion with an exclamation:
O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are His judgments, and His ways past tracing out!
For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been His counselor?
Or who hath first given to Him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again?
For of Him, and through Him, and to Him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen.
This is just another way of saying, “I cannot understand the providences, and the elective purposes, and the sovereignty, and the choices, and the ways of Almighty God.” After Paul had done his best to write out here in those three chapters in the Book of Romans the election of God, he finally concludes with an exclamation, “I cannot enter into it. O the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments, and His ways past tracing out! Who hath known the mind of God? Or who hath been His counselor?” [Romans 11:33-34]. Who hath told God anything? “Who hath first given to Him, that it might be recompensed to him?” [Romans 11:35]. Who loans anything to God that God would be in debt to any man?
Now the sermon today concerns our inability, our inability to enter into the full revelation, and character, and ways, and understanding of God. This is an introductory sermon, one of several I’ve been preaching, as we turn our faces to the things God does, and what God says, and what God is. There’s an inscrutable side to the character, and person, and ways, and choices of Almighty God for several reasons, and the first is because of our finite understanding, because of our limited minds.
It is impossible that the infinitude of God could be encompassed in our limited understanding. There is an incomprehensibleness about the divine nature and actions that is ever present in whatever we say, or write, or think [Isaiah 55:8-9; Romans 11:33]. For example Job in the eleventh chapter of this incomparable poem writes:
Canst thou by searching find out God? Canst thou find out the Almighty unto perfection?
It is high as heaven; what canst thou do? deeper than hell; what canst thou know?
The measure thereof is longer than the earth, and broader than the sea.
If He shut up, if He cut off, if He gather together, who is it that can hinder Him?
There is an inscrutableness and incomprehensibleness about God that is past our understanding. Consequently, there is an inexplicable, there is an inexplicable side to every doctrine. And consequently in the truth that is revealed to us and that we can see and understand about God—though we can understand it maybe as it is revealed singly—yet, when it is compared with other truths that are revealed about God, they enter a realm of baffling mystery. They are irreconcilable! [Job 11:7].
For example one of the great truths that is revealed about God is that He elects [Romans 11:5-7]. He predestines. There is a purposive sovereignty about God that runs this universe, and yet there is another truth that is revealed about God, and that is that the man, you, are absolutely free moral agents and are responsible for what you do [Romans 11:20-23]. There’s not a mind that ever lived, there’s not a philosopher who ever metaphysasized who could ever reconcile those two irreconcilable truths; the election, the sovereignty of God [Romans 8:29-30], and the absolute liberty and free moral agency of man [Revelation 22:17; Luke 13:34-35].
Same way about what we see God do. “God is love” [1 John 4:8] we are taught in the Bible. God is all grace, and helpfulness, and forgiveness, and mercy, and kindness, and longsuffering. “God is love,” and yet the world that I see is still a riot of sin, and storm, and trial, and every indescribable kind of horror and despair. How do you reconcile those two things, if God runs this universe and we say, “He is a God of love?” Or could the man, you; take the man made out of dust in a house of clay, yet that man is not clay and not dust—he’s spirit and immortality.
Yesterday afternoon I went to see one of the sainted members of our church, a godly man; got home and the telephone rang and the hospital calling saying he has just died. What is that difference? When I visited he was on the road to recovery. He was optimistic and far better than I’d seen him in weeks past, and in a moment he’s a corpse! What is that? The union of spirit and matter; no man can understand. That is like the divine and the human nature of the Lord Christ, born here as a babe, God in the flesh, born in Bethlehem [Matthew 1:20-2:1], God in heaven—the divine nature of Christ, the deity of the Son of God here in a manger [Luke 2:16], and yet the Lord still reigning on His throne in heaven [John 1:1-3]. They are irreconcilable truths to us because of our finite understanding. We are not able to see the whole facet of the character of Almighty God; nor of what God does.
An astronomer looking out into space will see these far-flung spheres floating in their predetermined orbits by the fiat of Almighty God. And as he sees those spheres swirling in their universes, he will say, “Here is a centripetal force pulling to the center of the curve.” Then he’ll look again, and he will say, “And there is a centrifugal force that flings out into the distance that pulls away from the center.” And they are exact and diametric opposites, the centripetal pulling into the center, and the centrifugal flinging out from the center, and as a man looks at it he says, “There are two forces there,” when actually, if we could understand the infinitude of God, they would be just one and the same force, though to us they’re opposite.
We are guilty of a mental and a spiritual astigmatism that can see one thing but not two. We can comprehend one thing but not two. So it is with the divine truth. The mountain of God’s nature, and God’s being, and God’s work is so vast, incomparably infinite that all a man can do it just see and try to comprehend one small part of it. For example, chemistry; there’s not a man that lives that can even begin to know all of the field of that one science, chemistry. Or medicine; so vast and increasingly vast is the field of medicine that men specialize in one tiny part of it. This is the greatness, and the almightiness, and the immeasurableness of Almighty God that a man cannot contain in his limited mind.
God is at the center of the universe. God is centric, and the whole orb of truth circles around Him. The man is eccentric, always on the side, and he just sees a part of it, a piece of it. It is only God that can see it all. That is why when we come to study God and to listen to the voice of God that is why you must prepare yourself, your mind, you must prepare yourself to receive diametric and intellectually irreconcilable truths, at the same time holding them in your mind. This is the sovereignty of God. I believe that. I accept that. This is the absolute free, free choice and responsibility of a man and accept that. And put them side by side, this is God in the flesh walking among men! [John 1:14; 1 Timothy 3:16]. This is also a man, human like you’re human. I cannot understand, I cannot reconcile them, it’s just that the truth lies in the union of the two. That’s the first thing; why we cannot enter into the infinitude of God.
All right, the second thing: we are limited by the medium through which truth is made known unto us. We are limited by the inaccuracy of language; language is finite, language is human, language changes. Our language changes, and it is an imperfect medium through which truth is revealed. But it’s the only way truth can be mediated. It is the only way a truth can be formulated. It’s by speech. It’s by language. And when speech, when language is inaccurate and finite, it is not able to bear the weight of the infinitude of the revelation!
Time and again you’ll find the Scriptures complaining about the inability of language to bear the burden of the revelation of God. In the second chapter of 1 Corinthians, Paul will say, “Which things we speak, not in the words of man’s wisdom, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual” [1 Corinthians 2:13]. There is a language of the soul. There is a language of truth that you can’t encompass in the mere words of human speech.
Or take again, Paul will write in the second Corinthian letter, “Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the Spirit; for the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life” [2 Corinthians 3:6]. Cold print, the pronunciation of a word cannot bear the weight of the infinitude of the revelation. And if you go by the cold word itself, it will kill! How many times can you attend a service and the man will be doctrinally correct. His language and his sentence will be perfectly orthodox, but he is dead, and the service is dead, and the spirit of the meeting is dead simply because it is not by sentence, or language, or cold pronunciation of syllables that the truth of God is to be found, but it is in the Spirit of God! And the Lord is just using syllables and using words to try to mediate to us the great and infinite revelation. You have a discussion of that on the part of the apostle Paul in the closing of the incomparable thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians, “Now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face” [1 Corinthians 13:12].
Now to us a glass is a melted sand; it’s crystal. Well, they didn’t have the art. There was no art of silvering glass to make a mirror out of it until the thirteenth century. And Paul uses there the word, esoptron, a burnished piece of metal. That was the only looking glass they had in that day. And he says, dia, “by means of,” esoptron, this burnished piece of mirror. We see in ainigmati, you took that word bodily out of the Greek and put it in the English, enigma. We see dimly, distortedly, vaguely; but then face to face. Or let’s put it like of our Lord. Now we see our Lord in language as it is mediated to us, as a mother will teach a child, as we read it from the Scriptures, as we listen to it from the voice of a preacher. Now we see Christ mediated through language which is not full, and accurate, and complete. The image is dim and sometimes distorted and obscure, but then we shall see without an inaccurate medium, without language. We shall see face to face! Every spiritual truth is like that. Now we discuss it. We philosophize about it. We try to understand the language of it. And it is a faulty vehicle, but someday we shall see and know without that inaccurate and finite medium; face to face [1 Corinthians 13:12].
All right, the third thing, why it is that we are limited in our understanding, our cognoscente, our encompassing the character and truth of the great Almighty? Third: because of our sinful and fallen natures. It is only the perfect in affection and life that could ever enter perfectly into the full revelation of God. Sin mars the picture. Sin separates from God [Isaiah 59:2]. Sin distorts the image. Sin separates, pushes us apart from the Lord, and finally the image of God is lost almost altogether; for example, in the twenty-eighth chapter of 1 Samuel, “When Saul inquired of the Lord, the Lord answered him not, neither by dreams, nor by Urim—the stone of the high priests breasts—nor by prophets” [1 Samuel 28:6]. Saul had so given himself apathetically to the will of God [1 Samuel 22:6-19], until the Lord wouldn’t be inquired of him, separated from him [1 Samuel 28:6].
Now in that same chapter when Saul asked for Samuel to be raised up [1 Samuel 28:11], and Samuel comes, Samuel says, “Why hast thou disquieted me?” And Saul answered, “I am sore distressed; God is departed from me, and answereth me no more” [1 Samuel 28:15]. The image of God becomes less and less and less as we become fallen and sinful in our natures until finally we can’t see God at all. We can’t hear God at all. That’s true all through the history of the race [Romans 3:9-23].
Adam walked with God in the garden as a man would walk with his friend, talked with God as a man would talk to a beloved friend [Genesis 3:8]. But when sin came and Adam fell [Genesis 3:1-6], there was a separation, and the man was driven out from the face of God [Genesis 3:23]. Sin separated, and his fallen nature dimmed the vision.
Moses was interdicted from entering the Promised Land because of his rage in distorting one of God’s holy types [Numbers 20:8, 11-12]. In the typology and the symbolism of the Mosaic ritual, a man who had a defect could not be a high priest [Leviticus 21:17-23]. If he had a scar on the lobe of his ear, if he was in any ways mutilated or maimed or halt, he could not be a high priest. For the man that entered into the Holy of Holies of God must be a perfectly sound man!
David could not build God’s house because he was a man of blood and murder and war [1 Chronicles 22:8, 28:3]. The rich young ruler could not follow the Lord, he couldn’t see the reward that Jesus had for him because he was blinded by the glitter and the empty rewards of this world, loving the wrong world [Luke 18:18-23]. So it is with our fallen natures. We cannot enter into, we cannot understand because we are sinful people. “Except a man be born again, be regenerated, he cannot see the kingdom of God” [John 3:3].
Spiritual strength is like any other strength. Its strength depends upon its ultimate purity. Like Tennyson wrote of Sir Galahad, the knight who found the holy grail, the cup out of which the Lord took the Lord’s Supper, remember it? The first stanza:
My good blade carves the casques of men,
My tough lance thrusteth sure,
My strength is as the strength of ten,
Because my heart is pure.
[“Sir Galahad,” Alfred, Lord Tennyson,]
Sir Galahad, sir anybody, it is the purity of heart that enables us to see the vision of God. Our fallen natures contravene [Isaiah 59:2].
Last, why it is that a man cannot enter into the comprehension of the greatness and almightiness of Almighty God? First: because of the finiteness of our minds; we can’t encompass the infinitude of God in our limited intellectual apprehension. We cannot do it [Isaiah 55:8-9]. Second: we are limited by the inadequacy of the medium of revelation: speech, language [1 Corinthians 2:13]. Third: we are limited because of our fallen natures. Sin beclouds the vision, separates us [Isaiah 59:2].
Last: we are limited because of the silences of the revelation. There are some things that God does not tell us. There are some things that God does not reveal to us. And they belong to the inscrutable secrets hidden in the heart of the Almighty. For example, in the twenty-ninth chapter of the Book of Deuteronomy, the Mosaic lawgiver wrote this sentence that closes the chapter, “The secret things belong unto the Lord our God” [Deuteronomy 29:29]. The secret things, there are secret things that are hidden in God. “The things which are revealed belong to us and to our children for ever” [Deuteronomy 29:29]. There are some things that God hath told us. There are some things He has made plain to us. There are instructions that we can easily comprehend, but there are also infinite mysteries, and secrets, and enigmas that belong to the purposes and character of God into which a man can never enter, never, not this side of the river.
Our Lord one time said to His disciples, “I have many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now” [John 16:12]. “You’re not able. You’re not able. If I were to say them, you couldn’t comprehend them. If I were to reveal them, you couldn’t understand them; many things but you cannot bear them now.” And there are things that our comprehension could receive in our present fallen nature, but for the disciplines of life God hides their reason and their purposes.
One of the marks of the inspiration of the apostle Paul was his refusal to enter into speculative things over which he must have brooded for the years of his Christian apostleship. Let me give you one, just as an example. Paul says in the twelfth chapter of the second Corinthian letter, Paul says, “I knew a man,” and he is talking about himself:
I knew a man . . . that about fourteen years ago,
(whether in the body or out of the body, I cannot know,)
but such a man caught up into Paradise,
(whether in the body or out of the body, I cannot know; God knoweth;)
such a one heard words which are unspeakable, which is not lawful for a man to speak, for a man to utter.
[2 Corinthians 12:2-4]
Well, what an amazing thing! What an amazing thing! Paul was transported up to heaven, up to glory, up to Paradise, whether he was in the body or out of the body, just a spirit, he doesn’t say, he doesn’t know, says God only knows. “But up there I heard words unspeakable, which is not lawful for a man to utter” [2 Corinthians 12:4]. Why not utter them? Why not write them down, Paul, these things you saw and you heard in Paradise. Because it is not the purpose of God that they be said, that they be revealed, that we know them.
In this passage that we read in the tenth chapter of the Book of Revelation, the seven thunders uttered their voices, and John says, “And I was about to write down the seven thunders, what they said, and God said, ‘Write it not. Seal it up!’” [Revelation 10:4] And to this day the voices of those seven thunders belong to the infinite mysteries of the secrets that God hath hidden in His nature. So all revelation is like that. There are mysteries and secrets that are kept in the heart of God that we could never know, never shall know, never understand.
For example in the thirteenth chapter of the Book of Luke, a hearer listening to the Lord got the impression that, “Well, I don’t believe many people are going to be saved. I don’t believe many people are going to be regenerated. I don’t believe many people are going to heaven.” So that hearer asked the Lord, “Lord, are there few that be saved?” [Luke 13:23] “Will there be very many going to heaven?” I could not tell you the number of times I’ve been asked that question. “Pastor, do you think many people will be saved? Do you think many people be in heaven? Do you think practically everybody is going to be lost? Pastor, is there a few that are going to be saved?” Didn’t the Lord answer that question? No, no. He just turned to that inquirer and said, “You, you, you strive to enter in at the strait and the narrow gate” [Luke 13:24]; never answered it at all.
And that is so typical of our Lord. He was in heaven at the revolt of the angels led by Lucifer [Revelation 12:3-4]. Yet the Lord never mentions it, never refers to it. The Lord was at the creation of this universe. It was made through Him [John 1:1-3; Colossians 1:16], yet He never discusses it. The Lord was in the garden of Eden [Genesis 3:8-19], but He didn’t describe anything about it, didn’t say anything about it. The Lord was the great Redeemer Savior who welcomed into heaven all of the souls that died before He came into this earth [Revelation 13:8], and yet the Lord in the days of His flesh never discussed it, hardly discussed it at all.
These secrets that lie in the infinitude of the purposes of God, we’ll never know them, never. If I had time, and I don’t because I’m going to conclude, we would name some of the mysteries of God that a man shall never understand. I’m going to name a few. The mystery of evil, of iniquity, the phrase used in the second Thessalonian letter, the mystery of iniquity [2 Thessalonians 2:7]; why does God allow sin, and death, and waste in this earth, why? And where did it come from? I recognize sin in my life. I inherited it from my father and mother. Where did they get it? From their father and mother. Where did they get it? They inherited it from their four parents. Where did they get it? From their four parents. And back, and back, and back, and back I can trace it to Adam [Genesis 3:1-6].
But sin never began in Adam. It never began in the garden of Eden when the Lord God made the man and placed him in the garden of Eden [Genesis 2:8], there was also there, at the same time, another sinister character whom we are told, of whom we are told. This is that old dragon, the serpent, the devil and Satan [Genesis 3:1]. All right, my sin, my parents, their parents, their parents, their parents back to Adam; it didn’t start in Adam. Beyond Adam there is another, and his name is Lucifer and Satan [Isaiah 28:15].
I am one of those that believes that the fourteenth chapter of Isaiah and the twenty-eighth chapter of Ezekiel describe the fall of Lucifer [Isaiah 14:3-17; Ezekiel 28:1-19], but I am at that same question again with them, “Lord, how is it God allowed Satan to fall, made him so he could tempt spirits and bring death and woe into all our world. Why?” You’ll never know, never, not this side of the great divide, the mystery of iniquity [2 Thessalonians 2:7]. You can go on almost endlessly.
The Trinity, the Trinity [Matthew 28:19]; are there three Gods? God forbid! We are not polytheists. We are monotheists. There is one God, hear, O Israel. “The Lord thy God is one God” [Deuteronomy 6:4]. But we know Him as our Father, we know Him as our Savior, we know Him as the Holy Spirit. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all. Amen” [2 Corinthians 13:14]. “Baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” [Matthew 28:19]. Who can enter into the mystery of the Trinity? No man shall ever this side of the great divide.
The mystery of atonement! [Romans 5:25]. How the cross washes away our sins [1 John 1:7; Revelation 1:5]; atonement, expiation, satisfaction? [1 John 2:2]. When I did my doctorate in the seminary, I took a course. One of the courses that I took as minor was the atonement, the atonement [Romans 5:25]. And for several years we studied the atonement of God, and yet when I got through with the years of that studying, and reading, and writing, and passing examination on it, when I came to the end of that course, I still had in my heart that same denial of understanding as I had at the beginning. With all of the theories that had been offered, and all of explanations, and all of the books in libraries that are written about it, there is something unreachable and infinitely incomprehensible about the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord [1 John 4:10]. and the washing away of our sins [1 John 2:2]. I don’t know a better way to express it than that by Isaac Watts when he wrote centuries ago:
Was it for crimes that I have done
He groaned upon the tree?
Amazing pity, grace unknown
And love beyond degree.
[“At the Cross,” Isaac Watts]
I don’t know. I don’t understand. The atonement of Christ for our sins lies in a mystery of infinitude beyond what my limited and finite mind can encompass.
I hasten just one other and then I close. I am baffled with the increasing bewilderment at the intrusion of death. I have been a pastor over thirty-five years, been a preacher over thirty-six years. I began this ministry when I was seventeen years of age. And when I was a teenage preacher and pastor, the intrusion of death astonished me, bewildered me, confused me. Stand up as a boy, as a youth, before my little congregation, there seated was a sister to the mother, or an auntie or a grandmother, holding in her arms a little baby. And I am burying the mother in that casket. All I could do then—and after thirty-five years, all I can do now is look and weep. I don’t understand.
There is an inscrutable, incomprehensibleness in the elective purposes, and nature, and character of God that is beyond what a finite mind can understand. Therefore, therefore, it is of faith. It is of trust. It is of acceptance and godly, spiritual assurance, for the intellectual ability of a mere man cannot enter into the secrets God hath reserved for Himself.
So we rest our souls in the goodness of God. So I go on not knowing. I would not know if I might. I had rather walk with Christ in the dark than to walk by myself in the light [Colossians 2:6]. We shall trust God and someday, someday look to Him on the other side of the river to make it plain, to understand. That was the exclamation of the apostle Paul, “O the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! His ways past finding out! But of Him, and through Him, and to Him are all things: to whom be glory forever. Amen” [Romans 11:33, 36], and amen.
Now while we sing our invitation hymn, somebody you, give your heart to Jesus. A family you, put your life in the fellowship of the church. Whatever the Spirit of God would lead, make it now. “Here, Lord, by faith, by trust, by commitment of life, I do come [Ephesians 2:8]. Here I am. Pastor, I give you my hand. I give my heart to Jesus.” Or, “Pastor, this is my wife and these are our children. All of us are coming this day, looking to Him, looking to Him.” Make it now, while we stand and while we sing.