The Compassionate Sovereignty of God
May 28th, 1978 @ 7:30 PM
COMPASSIONATE SOVEREIGNTY OF THE LORD
Dr. W. A. Criswell
5-28-78 7:30 p.m.
Along with the many visitors who are here in the sanctuary of the Lord tonight, we welcome the thousands of uncounted thousands of you who are sharing this hour with us on the great radio station of the Southwest, KRLD, and on the radio station of our Bible Institute, KCBI. This is the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas bringing the message entitled The Compassionate Sovereignty of God. It is a message, an exposition, of a central part of the fifteenth chapter of the Book of Acts. In our preaching through the Book of Acts, we are in chapter 15. And this is an exposition of its central part.
Now with me, turn to the fifteenth chapter of the Book of Acts, and we are going to read out loud verses 13 through 19. Acts 15:13-19, and share your Bible with your neighbor, and there is a pew Bible in front of you. And let us all read it out loud together. Acts 15:13-19, together:
And after they had held their peace, James answered, saying, Men and brethren, hearken unto me:
Simeon hath declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for His name.
And to this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written,
After this I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up:
That the residue of men might seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles, upon whom My name is called, saith the Lord, who doeth all these things.
Known unto God are all His works from the beginning of the world.
It is so long between times, in these recent days, since I have followed through with my preaching in the Book of Acts—baccalaureates and commencements and other things—that we need just a moment of review. Why it is that James, the pastor of the church in Jerusalem, is giving a final answer to the problem that was brought to the elders and the leaders of the mother church in the Holy City?
What happened, briefly, was this. Up until the tenth chapter of the Book of Acts, all of the message of the Lord had been directed toward a Jew or a Jewish proselyte. It had never occurred to any of the Jewish people who comprised the church in Jerusalem that the gospel message would ever be delivered to anyone who was not a Jew, either one by birth or one as a proselyte.
Now in the eleventh chapter of the Book of Acts, these Hellenists from Jerusalem who had been hounded out of the city in the persecution that arose around Stephen [Acts 11:19]—these Hellenists, these Greek-speaking, foreign-born Jews, came to Antioch and preached the gospel of the grace of the Son of God to Greek idolaters—to out-and-out heathen. And to the amazement of the Christian community, those Greek idolaters, those heathen turned to the Lord. They were wonderfully saved [Acts 11:19-21]. Now what do you do with them? And as though that were not enough, God’s Holy Spirit called Barnabas and Saul on a missionary tour [Acts 13:2-3], and they went to the central part of Asia Minor, what is called in the Book of Galatians “the churches of Galatia” [Galatians 1:1]. And there they preached the gospel again to out-and-out, downright heathen idolaters, and they turned and accepted the Lord as their Savior and were wondrously saved [Acts 13:1-14:28]. What do you do with them? That was the problem that arose in Jerusalem. What do you do with these heathen idolaters who have confessed their faith in the Lord Jesus and have been saved? What do you do with them? [Acts 15:1-35].
Well, the Judaizers, they said, “These men cannot be saved just by trusting the Lord. They must be circumcised, and they must be taught to keep all of the Mosaic legislation. And if they are not circumcised, and if they are not taught to keep the law of Moses, then they cannot be saved” [Acts 15:1, 5]. And Silas, and Paul, and Barnabas and all of those Hellenists with them said, “Not so; a man is not saved by trusting Jesus and anything you can name, but he is saved just by trusting the Lord. He is saved by faith” [Acts 15:7-11]. Now that was the question that was brought to the council in Jerusalem. How is a man saved? Just by faith, or by keeping ordinances and rituals and ceremonies and rites and all of the Mosaic legislation? [Acts 15:1, 5]. Now that was the sermon, the last one that I preached here a few Sundays ago.
Now after they had “no small disputation,” James [Acts 15:2], the pastor of the church in Jerusalem and the great towering personality of that first Christian century, James gives a final verdict [Acts 15:13-21]. Not Simon Peter, not John; it is James the Lord’s brother who delivers that ultimate and final decision. And this is what he says: “James answered saying, Men and brethren, hearken unto me: Simeon”—that’s the Hebrew name for Simon, Cephas, Peter—“Simeon hath declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles. At the first”— referring to the pouring out of the Spirit of the Lord at Caesarea [Acts 10:44-48]—“at the first did visit the Gentiles to take out of them a people for His name” [Acts 15:13-14].
Now let’s look at that carefully what the pastor and the presiding officer of the council is avowing. This is something that God has done. This is not of men. It is not by decree of us; it is not by decision on our part. It is something God has done. And that gave rise to the title of the sermon tonight, The Compassionate Sovereignty of God. And look how he does it: in the English sentence you don’t see it, but the word here for “Gentiles,” and the word here for “a people,” in the Greek sentence are side by side—ethnōn laon. Here, in the English sentence, it is separated: “God did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for His name” [Acts 15:14]. But in the Greek sentence, James puts them side by side—ethnōn laon—these idolatrous heathen and the people of the Lord [Acts 15:14].
Now the reason for that lies in these Judiazers who are saying that these idolaters cannot be saved just by trusting the Lord Jesus; they have to be Jews before they can be saved [Acts 15:1, 5]. They must be Jews first, and then they can accept the Lord Jesus as Savior. And this is their avowal. They said, “We are the people. We are God’s people. We are the chosen people.” And that’s the way that word is used there. “We are the accepted of God,” said the Judaizers. “We are the people.” Then the obverse and the concomitant, the inevitable corollary: everyone else is a heathen. He’s a Gentile. He is a pagan. He belongs to the nations. And these heathen, these Gentiles, these pagans cannot be the people, because we are the people. And if they are going to be the people, they must also be circumcised and become Jews. Now that is what James is saying here: this is something that God has done. God has taken out of the Gentiles, He has taken out of the heathen a people [Acts 15:13-18]. And they are as much a people of God as Israel ever was. And this new marvelous grace and compassionate sovereignty of the Lord, this “called-out, is the ekklēsia—the people, the church of the living God [Acts 15:30].
And he says here several things about that. Number one: he says this is something God has done [Acts 15:17]. And do you notice when you read this fifteenth chapter how many times is this thing spoken of as a work of God? In verse 8, it is “God, who knoweth the hearts, and who giveth the Holy Spirit unto these Gentiles” [Acts 15:8]. And again, it is God who, “puts no difference between them and us”—between the Jew and the Gentile [Acts 15:9]. Look again, it is “God who at the first did visit the Gentiles” [Acts 15:14]. And then again, it is “God who hath chosen to take out of them a people” [Acts 15:14]. Then again, “Known unto God are all of His works from the beginning” [Acts 15:18]. This is something that God has done. Then James bolsters that decision with an avowal of what Simeon has declared. Now what Simeon declared at the conference was that God made choice among them, and he was chosen of the Lord to open the door to the Gentiles, to the heathen of the world [Acts 15:7]. And he did that in the tenth chapter of the Book of Acts at Caesarea [Acts 10:1-48].
The Holy Spirit of God fell upon Cornelius, that Roman centurion, and upon all of his household: the soldiers and the servants in the Praetorium. The Holy Spirit of God was poured out upon them [Acts 10:44-48], just as the Holy Spirit of God was poured out upon the Jew in Jerusalem, at Pentecost [Acts 2:1-4]. God, in His mercy and His compassionate sovereignty, has included them. They also are a people; chosen, delighted in, accepted, saved, loved by the Lord [Acts 15:14].
And then, he has one other avowal. He says, “To this agree all of the prophets,” plural [Acts 15:15]. He uses the word prophets, plural, and he quotes just one, Amos 9:11-12. I think he could have quoted Scripture for all of the distance of the conference discussion, about how God intended that His people should be made up not only of the Jew, but also of the heathen of the world, the Gentiles of the world. He could have quoted the second chapter of Isaiah:
It shall come to pass . . . that the mount of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountain, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it.
And many people shall come and say . . . Let us go up to the mount of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and He will teach us His ways, and we will walk in His paths.
[Isaiah 2:2, 3]
He could have quoted the glorious eleventh chapter of the Book of Isaiah:
They shall not hurt nor destroy in all of My holy mountain: for the earth—
the whole earth—
shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.
And in that day there shall be a Root of Jesse—
the blessed Lord Jesus—
who shall stand for an ensign of the people—
and it shall be for a sign—
to which the Gentiles seek: and His rest—
His salvation, His benedictory blessing—
shall be glorious.
He could have quoted the last chapter, the sixty-sixth chapter of Isaiah:
It shall come to pass, that from one New Moon to another, and from one Sabbath to another, all flesh shall come to worship before Me, saith the Lord.
It was never the intention that the grace and the mercy of God should be in that small area, known only to the Jew; but it was the purpose of God that the whole earth know the Lord, be a people of the Lord, be saved by the grace and mercy, the sovereign compassion of goodness of the Lord God.
And that is the Jerusalem conference. And that is the benedictory decision that was finally made [Acts 15:5-21]. And the book says, in the fifteenth chapter, that when the people heard it, they were glad and rejoiced in the goodness and grace of the Lord [Acts 15:31]. Now dear people, that is our rejoicing today; that the goodness and the sovereign, compassionate mercies of the Lord have come even unto us. For we are Gentiles. We are not Jewish people. We do not belong to the family of Abraham. We are not of the seed of Isaac and Jacob. We are not Israelites. We are the ethnē. We are the Gentiles. We are the nations. We are the heathen. And to us has the compassionate mercies of God been extended by the Holy Spirit that He shed abroad in our hearts and in this world [Romans 5:5].
Now may I speak of that briefly? Left to itself, the human race is abjectly and abysmally and tragically lost. The whole tendency of the human heart is to lower itself, to go downward. I see that in every area of life. I will show you one. I was reminded of it yesterday in the little group as I listened to them talk together. You let people start telling jokes, and it is not long until they will descend into an off-color one. It will never fail. The human heart in all of its life tends to lower. You have a picture show, and you let it go on, and it isn’t long until the pictures that are shown on the screen are of all things promiscuous and immoral, “X-rated” they call them. The whole tendency of humanity is downward. It seems that there is a drive of damnation in sin that seizes every nation, and every family, and every heart. “The heart is . . . desperately wicked,” God says, “who can know it?” [Jeremiah 17:9]. Even the imaginations of the soul are vile.
Now in the lostness of the nations and peoples of the world, there are two things in the sovereign, compassionate grace of God. Number one: He always intervenes, always. God always intervenes. There is no time in the story, sordid and sinful, of humanity in which God does not intervene. He just does. In His compassionate mercy, looking upon the lost of the human race, God does something. His heart is moved. He is like us; when He sees us so pitifully undone in sin, God intervenes. He always does. When our first parents fell [Genesis 3:1-6], He covered their shame with a sacrifice; shed the blood of an innocent animal and clothed their nakedness with the skins thereof [Genesis 3:21]. God did it. It’s the work of the Lord. In the days of the antediluvian, when the earth was filled with blood and violence [Genesis 6:5-7], God intervened. And He saved Noah and His family [Genesis 7:1, 13, 23] and taught him how to build the ark to the saving of his house [Hebrews 11:7]. In the days of universal idolatry, God called out Abraham [Genesis 12:1-13; Joshua 24:2-3]. He always intervenes. In a time when the people of the Lord were to be crushed by the iron hand of Pharaoh, God intervened and He raised up Moses ”to deliver My people” [Exodus 3:7-10]. In the days of universal apostasy, God raised up Elijah [1 Kings 17-2 Kings 2]. It’s a story through all of the centuries. God always intervenes. He is moved by the lostness of the human race, our sadness in sin, and God always interferes, intervenes. He never fails.
Now a second thing that God does: not only does He intervene in the lostness of the human family in His mercy and grace, but also in that intervention He is always inclusive in His love, and in His attitude, and in His mercies. We have in the Bible the story of the coming of the Messiah through a family, the children of Israel. But we are sometimes persuaded, or we sometimes fall into the error, that because the story of the Bible is confined to the Israelite, to the children of Abraham, that God therein has excluded out of His mind and His love and His grace all of the other families of the earth. Nothing could be further from the truth. And I want to show it to you in the moment that remains. Not only does God intervene in the lostness of the human family, and the human race, but He also is inclusive, all-inclusive, in the outpouring of His love and grace.
Now you look: Well, I turned over in my mind—just exactly what should I do about this? First, Rahab; the Bible calls Rahab a harlot [Joshua 2:1]. She was an innkeeper. Her name is “broad.” And when you listen to vulgar people, they will refer to a woman as a “broad.” Isn’t that a sight? Her name is “broad.” She is one of those broads that they talk about in a bar, in an underworld, in a sorry discussion. She is one of them; Rahab, Rahab. Well, what about Rahab? She is one of the progenitors of our Lord Messiah. She is the great-great grandmother of David, God’s king, and she is in the genealogy of our blessed Lord in the first chapter of Matthew [Matthew 1:5]. The goodness and grace and sovereign mercy of God extended to Rahab, the broad—as the underworld, as the sinful world, as the bar world, as the drunken world, as the harlotry world calls it; isn’t that an amazing thing? Out of her darkness of life, she also is included in the family of God.
Ruth was a Moabitess; she was not of the seed of Israel, she was a Moabitess [Ruth 1:4]. And I challenge you in human literature, I mean all literature—Greek literature, Roman literature, English literature, French literature, anywhere men have ever written down the things that concern human life—I challenge you to find a more beautiful pastoral story than you will find in the story of Ruth. She is the [great-] grandmother of David and a progenitor of the Lord Jesus Christ [Matthew 1:5-6], and she is a Moabitess. She is not a Jew. She is a Moabitess. And the beautiful story is there in the Bible [Ruth 1:1-4:22]—the inclusiveness of the love and grace of God.
And as though that were not enough, you listen to this. The Assyrian was to the Jew a veritable odor. Five times in the life of Isaiah alone did the bitter, hasty, ruthless, merciless Assyrian invade Judah. It was the Assyrian that destroyed the Northern Kingdom—destroyed Samaria, took into captivity the northern ten tribes [2 Kings 17:18]. And the hatred and the bitterness of the Jew toward Assyria was impossible for us to describe. We couldn’t enter into it. And upon a day, the Lord God said to Jonah, “Arise and preach the gospel of redemption to Assyria, to Nineveh” [Jonah 1:1]. And I can understand, “I won’t do it!” And he went down, and bought him a ticket, and fled in the other direction [Jonah 1:3], and I can understand why. Preach the gospel of grace to that ruthless and merciless Assyrian? Never! Never! Never! Well, you know the rest of the story. God prepared a great big fish [Jonah 1:17]. He didn’t prepare a whale—that’s just somebody put that in the New Testament. He prepared a fish. My, my, what God prepared in that fish. It had wall-to-wall carpeting. It had all kinds of modern appliances. It had a feather bed. It had a TV and the antenna went from the gill to the tail. It just had everything. God prepared a fish and put old Jonah in it. And finally when he got right with the Lord, he came to Nineveh. And brother, did he preach; and he preached just as a Jew would like to have preached it, “Yet forty days, yet forty days, and God is going to damn every Ninevite in hell.” That’s what he preached. “Yet forty days, and God is going to destroy this city. Yet forty days, and God is going to put every one of you Ninevites and every one of you Assyrians in a burning hell. Yet forty days” [Jonah 3:4]. Ah, he liked that. He liked that. He’s going to preach to the Ninevites? Then let’s preach hell and damnation to them. You’re going to preach to the Ninevites? Then let God damn them forever and judge them forever. He liked that. “Forty days and every one of you is going to fall into hell.”
And you know what happened? From the king down to the most menial servant, they repented. They sat in sackcloth and in ashes. They even took sackcloth and covered their beasts of burden. And they cried unto the Lord and asked God to forgive their sins. And God looked down from heaven and heard it. And the Lord God repented Him [Jonah 3:5-10]. Isn’t that an amazing way? God changed His heart. God changed His mind. When Nineveh repented, God repented. When Nineveh changed, God changed. Isn’t that an unbelievable thing? You see the character of God doesn’t change. God is unchanging in the sense that His character doesn’t change. His heart doesn’t change. His love and His mercy never change. He is the same forever [Malachi 3:8]. But when a man changes, God changes. Here is a man going down a road that leads straight to damnation and to hell. And if that man will turn around and change, God will bless His life with everlasting grace and goodness. And that’s what happened in Nineveh. When they changed, the Lord saw it in mercy, forgave them, included them—the inclusiveness of God. The Assyrian, the hated, merciless, ruthless Assyrian, God saved him—the whole city. And of course, Jonah, got him a vine on a hillside and pouted. “Lord, Lord. Lord, Lord. Isn’t that what I said when I didn’t want to go to Nineveh? I knew You were a God of mercy. And You forgive. And You do not damn these people to hell. You have forgiven them, and they are all saved, and they are all going to heaven.”
He was angry and pouted [Jonah 4:1-3]. And the Lord said to him, “Jonah, Jonah, why aren’t you happy? Why aren’t you glad that they have changed? Why aren’t you rejoicing in your spirit that these heathen got right with God? Why aren’t you? Beside,” God said to Jonah, “there are one hundred twenty thousand children in the city of Nineveh that don’t even know their right hand from their left [Jonah 4:11]. And you sit up here on the side of the hill and pout because the damnation and the fire and the brimstone of God has not fallen upon them.”
You know, I have said all of my life—and I believe it more with every passing day—a man ought to preach the whole counsels of God. He ought to preach about judgment. He ought to preach about damnation. He ought to preach about hell. He ought to preach about the great assize when men stand before God. And he ought to warn men of the awfulness of falling into eternal perdition. But I have something to say, and that’s this: when a man preaches about hell, he ought not to do it as though he were glad people were going there, or he was rejoicing in the damnation of the lost. But when a man preaches about hell, he ought to spend five times the times that ordinarily he would on his knees. And when he preaches about damnation and hell, he ought to do it with a broken heart.
We are not rejoicing that people are damned. We are not rejoicing that people are lost. We are not rejoicing that people are on the way to perdition. God help us, Jesus died to save you [1 Corinthians 15:3; Galatians 2:20; Revelation 1:5]. And He has sent us as witnesses in the world to point the way of life everlasting [Romans 10:13-15].
And that’s the Spirit of God. Always the Spirit of the Lord is one of inclusiveness. It includes you, and it includes you, and it includes you, and it includes the whole world [1 John 2:2]. Some of them are yellow; Jesus died for them. Some of them are black; Jesus died for them. Some of them are red; Jesus died for them. It will surprise you what a minority they are. Some of them are white, and Jesus died for them. But the sovereign compassion of God is poured out upon all men everywhere [Acts 17:30]. And to belong to a kingdom like that, and to preach a gospel like that, is the most precious and enriching of all of the revelations to be found in this Holy Book. There are no exclusive ones now in the presence of the Lord, but all of us are sinners alike [Romans 3:23]. And all of us can be saved alike [Romans 10:8-13]. And all of us are dear alike in the presence of the Lord Jesus who died to save us [1 Corinthians 15:3; Galatians 2:20; Revelation 1:5]. And that is the gospel that they affirmed in this first Jerusalem council [Acts 15:5-21]. And that is the gospel they delivered to the churches of Judea [Acts 8:5-12:25] and Galatia and Macedonia and Achaia [Acts 13:1-14:28, 16:1-21:14].
And that is the gospel that is delivered unto us today. All men everywhere are invited to come, to take the water of life freely [Revelation 22:17]; to eat the manna from heaven [John 6:51-55]; to be fellow heirs in the kingdom of our Savior [Romans 8:17]. And that’s why we are Christians today.
There were missionaries in the generations past that preached the gospel to those white savages in Ireland, and in Scotland, and in England, our forefathers. And there were pioneer preachers who crossed the Alleghenies and preached the gospel to my people who were in West Texas. And in one of those revival meetings, my father, who was a cowpoke in West Texas, twenty-seven years of age, my father was converted. And as a little child, I can remember the messages of those pioneer preachers; uneducated, but strong in the faith and in the Word of God and eminently, preeminently evangelistic; calling men to repentance and faith in the blessed Jesus [Acts 20:21]. And in one of those services, I was saved. That’s the Lord. There is an all-inclusiveness about the love of God that is immeasurable. Even these that to us are so low and vile and in the gutter, dirty and filthy, the Lord Jesus died for them. And the whole world is in His grace, in His sovereign, compassionate love, and that includes us [John 3:16]. Bless His name! God be praised that His love reached even me.
And that’s our invitation to your heart tonight; you, you, and you; somebody for whom Christ died. A family you, building your home in the love and circumference of the goodness and grace of God; rearing your children in the love and nurture of the Lord [Ephesians 6:4]; pilgrimaging with us in this dear church from earth to heaven; make that decision for God in your heart, and come forward, down here to the front. “Pastor, I give you my hand. I have given my heart to the Lord Jesus and here I am” [Romans 10:8-13]. “Pastor, I’m bringing my family, we’re all coming tonight. These are my children. This is my wife. All of us, we are here tonight.” Or just one somebody you, in the balcony round, there is time and to spare; on this lower floor, into one of these aisles, and down to the front. “Here I am, preacher, I’m on the way.” May God bless you, the Spirit attend you, angels follow you as you come, while we stand and while we sing.
COMPASSIONATE SOVEREIGNTY OF GOD
to tenth chapter of Acts, message of Lord directed to Jew or Jewish proselyte
from Jerusalem preach gospel in Antioch to heathen
Saul and Barnabas go on missionary tour to churches of Galatia
conference – what to do with heathen idolaters who have confessed faith in Jesus
Man saved just by faith, or by keeping Mosaic legislation?
II. James gives a final verdict
A. The way he states it(Acts 15:14)
B. This is something
God has done(Acts 15:8-9, 13, 18)
1. The record and
testimony of Simeon(Acts 10, 11, 15:7-11)
by the prophets(Amos 9:11-12, Isaiah
2:2-3, 11:9-10, 66:23)
C. People rejoiced(Acts 15:22, 31)
III. We are the Gentiles to whom
compassionate mercy has been extended
A. Human race left to
itself is abjectly and tragically lost(Jeremiah
B. The intervention of
C. God is always
inclusive in His love, attitude and mercies
1. Rahab a harlot
2. Ruth a
3. Jonah sent to
Nineveh(Jonah 1:1, 3:4)
compassion of God is poured out upon all men everywhere