The Enabling Mercy of God
April 14th, 1985 @ 8:15 AM
THE ENABLING MERCY OF GOD
Dr. W. A. Criswell
4-14-85 8:15 a.m.
Thank you young people. And welcome the throngs of you, uncounted numbers, who share this hour with us on radio. This is the First Baptist Church in Dallas, and this is the pastor bringing the message entitled The Enabling Mercy of God. In our study through the Book of Ezekiel, in the eighteenth chapter, beginning in the middle of the thirtieth verse, Ezekiel chapter 18, beginning in the middle of the verse 30:
Repent, and turn yourselves from all your transgressions; so iniquity shall not be your ruin.
Cast away from you all your transgressions, whereby ye have transgressed; and make you a new heart and a new spirit: for why will ye die, O house of Israel?
For I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth, saith the Lord God: wherefore turn yourselves, and live.
Now are you not amazed at this appeal of the Lord God through the prophet to His people? “Make you a new heart and a new spirit” [Ezekiel 18:31]. You do it. But I thought that creation and re-creation were the prerogative of God alone. It is only He that can create. It is only He that can re-create. And yet in the appeal of the Lord to the people, He says, “You, you make you a new heart, and you make you a new spirit” [Ezekiel 18:31].
The irreconcilables in theology and in the revelation of God in the Bible is apparent through all the centuries. And no man has ever been able to reconcile the two. The sovereignty of God and the free moral agency of man; both exist, side by side.
When we speak of God, we use a nomenclature, “up there in heaven.” When we talk about God, we talk about almightiness and sovereignty. We talk about purpose, about foreknowledge and foreordination, about election and predestination. These are words, “up there in heaven,” and they belong to God and to God alone. But when we talk about us down here in this world, we use an altogether different vocabulary. We talk about free moral agency, and we talk about choice, and we talk about repentance and about faith and about confession. And as long as we keep those two nomenclatures separate, we’ll never have any trouble. But when you begin to apply those words that belong to God down here to us, you’re going to have all kinds of trouble.
Both of them are true. God has a nomenclature: the sovereign almightiness of the Lord God. And down here: the free choice, the free spirit of a man. We’re that way; God is that way. As long as we keep them separate, we’ll never have any trouble.
All of us, when we look back over our lives, are Calvinists; all of us. A missionary on a foreign field, a preacher in the pulpit, when he looks back upon his life, he is an ardent Calvinist. By the grace of God am I here. By God’s loving overtures did He seek me, and find me, and save me, and call me, and send me. Any man of God, when he looks back over his life, is a Calvinist. I am a product of the grace of the Lord. But when we look at ourselves now, we’re all Arminians. I can choose, and my destiny is in my hands. And according to the light that I have, so I pursue the days of my life. It’s a remarkable thing how both of them are true in every one of our lives.
Spurgeon, whom I read all the time, Spurgeon closed one of the greatest services I suppose the world has ever seen, with a marvelous peroration. As you know, he was a strict Calvinist. This greatest preacher that ever lived, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, and to a throng of over twelve thousand people, the service ended in shouts and songs of praise and glory as Spurgeon said, preaching on Matthew 8:11, “Many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of God.” Then Spurgeon preaches:
Oh how I love God’s “shalls” and “wills.” There is nothing comparable to them. Let a man say “shall.” What is it good for? ”I will” says a man. And he never performs it. ”I shall” says he. And he breaks his promise.
But it is not so with God’s “shalls.” If God says, “Shall,” it shall be. When God says, “will,” it will be. Now He has said here, “Many shall come.” The devil says, “They shall not come,” but they shall come. You say, “We won’t come.” God says, “You shall come.”
Yes! There are some here who are laughing at salvation, who scoff at Christ and mock at the gospel; but I tell you, some of you shall come yet. ”What?” you say, “can God make me become a Christian?” I tell you yes, for herein rests the power of the gospel. It does not ask your consent; it gets it. You say: “I do not want to be saved”; Christ says: “You shall be.” He makes your will turn and you cry, “Lord, save me, or I perish.” God changes your will and makes you willing in the day of His power.
They shall come. They shall come. You may laugh; you may despise us; but Jesus Christ shall not die for nothing. If some of you reject Him, there are some that will receive Him. If there are some that are not saved, others shall be.
Christ shall see His seed. He shall prolong His days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in His hand. They shall come! They shall come. And naught in heaven, nor in hell, nor in the earth can stop them from coming.
[from “Heaven and Hell,” Charles Haddon Spurgeon]
That is Calvinism. And I am a Calvinist. God has a people and Christ shall not die for nothing. God has given Him a people, and He calls them and they come.
Now, the other side of this. Spurgeon is preaching this time, and all of his sermons end in a great appeal to the people:
“Give diligence to make your calling and election sure” [2 Peter 1:10]—
now he says—
There are some of you who cannot make your calling and election sure, for you have not been called, and you have no right to believe that you are elected.
But do not ask whether you are elected first, but ask whether you are called. Go to God’s house; bend your knee in prayer. And may God, in His infinite mercy, call you! If any of you can say, “Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling,” if any of you, abjuring your self-righteousness, can now come to Christ and take Him to be your all-in-all, you are called and you are elected.
[from “Particular Election”; C. H. Spurgeon, March 22, 1857]
The two always go together; you cannot escape it. No matter how Calvinistic you are and how you believe in God’s sovereign grace and election and predestination, you also in presenting the gospel will be Arminian. “Come, make the choice [Mark 1:15]. Do it now. Bend the knee. Love the Lord. Confess your sins [1 John 1:9]. Ask Him to forgive you. Let Him write your name in the Book of Life” [Revelation 20:12, 15, 21:27; Luke 10:20]. They always go together; always.
Now in the Word of God, they stand side by side, all through the Word of the Lord. For example, the thirteenth chapter of the Book of Acts, ”When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad, and glorified the word of the Lord: and as many as were ordained, as many as were ordained to eternal life believed” [Acts 13:48]. That is Calvinism. Ordained, tassō, appointed, called, elected; “As many as were ordained to eternal life believed” [Acts 13:48]. But, right up here the verse before, “Paul and Barnabas waxed bold, and said, It was necessary that the word of God should first have been spoken to you: but seeing ye put it from you”—apōtheō , put it from you, thrust it aside, repel it, push it away—“and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, lo, we turn to the Gentiles” [Acts 13:46]. There they are, side by side [Acts 13:48, 46]. These afraid to accept or reject, these receive—they were ordained of God.
It’s a remarkable thing. Let me show you just one other. We could spend the rest of our lives looking at it. In the ninth chapter of the Book of Romans:
What shall we say then? God forbid that there be unrighteousness in Him.
For He saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on him whom I will have compassion.
So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy.
Therefore hath He mercy on whom He will have mercy, and whom He will He hardeneth.
[Romans 9:14-16, 18]
That’s one. All right, I turn the page and here we are:
If thou shalt confess with thy mouth Jesus is Lord, and believe in thine heart that God hath raised Him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart one believeth unto a God kind of righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.
On one page God chooses, and the next page it depends on you; all of them, side by side. It is a remarkable thing, but if we can put it together, as the Bible does, side by side, if we can put them together, we have a whole marvelous panorama of God’s grace and His salvation. God has a part and I have a part, and the two make possible our salvation.
There’s a philosophical reason why I have to have a part. If I am a robot, if I am a pawn, then I am not accountable. I am accountable; therefore, I have a choice. I must have a choice in order to be accountable. God’s sovereign grace is extended toward me. But I must respond; I must have a choice in answering to the call of God. And my salvation is not a matter of God’s willingness; it’s a matter of my response to it. God is always willing. He is presented here in the Book of Ezekiel again and again. “As I live, saith the Lord, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn . . . turn ye . . . for why will ye die?” [Ezekiel 33:11]. God is ever willing. He willeth that all men shall come to repentance [2 Peter 3:9]. My salvation depends not upon the willingness or the eagerness of God, but it depends upon my response. When I respond God enables me, in His mercy and grace, to find salvation.
There’s no more accurate or poignant presentation of that great fact than the first chapter of the Book of John:
He came unto His own, and His own received Him not.
But as many as received Him, to them gave He power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on His name:
Who were born, not of blood, nor the will of the flesh, nor the will of man, but of God.
“But as many as received Him, to them He” exousia—authority, privilege, rights, standing—“as many as received Him, to them gave He the power, the ability, the privilege, the right, the authority to become the children of God” [John 1:12]. When I respond, God responds. The instruments of salvation God hath placed in our hands. We have them.
If you’ve ever—and I guess all of you have—flown across the ocean in an airplane, there are many, many things they do in that airplane to assure your safety. The pilot is in contact with all the other planes that are flying at the same time. Pilots are in contact with all the ships. The pilot is in contact with all the bases. And the stewardess will stand up there before you, and she’ll show you how to use the lifejacket, then explain to you that a raft is underneath the seat, then point out the exit doors so that if the plane comes down to the water—taking about thirty minutes before it’ll sink—you have time to crawl out, put on the lifejacket, get in the raft, and wait for somebody to save you; now all that goes on every time you get in a plane to cross the ocean.
Can you imagine the enormity and the idiocy of anybody who, if they face a tragedy like that, refuse to use the life jacket, refuse to use the life raft? Those things are just not possible to a sane mind. The very fact that they are there precludes the idea that it would be foolish for us to use them. They are there to be used. So it is with us. God always provides a way of salvation and escape for us. He has done that through the centuries, and through the millennia, and through the whole history of the human race. God provides a way of salvation, always.
When He drove the first parents out of the garden of Eden [Genesis 3:22-23], He placed there the cherubim [Genesis 3:24]. And the cherubim were there to teach the man how to approach God, namely with a sacrifice, how to come before the Lord. In the day of Egypt, when the death angel passed over the land, God showed them a way out, putting blood on the doorposts and the lintel in the form of a cross, “And when I see the blood, I will pass over,” no death will enter that house [Exodus 12:7, 13, 22-23]. He always does that. When the people were bitten of serpents [Numbers 21:6], He had them raise a brazen serpent in the midst of the camp and whosoever looked, will live [Numbers 21:8-9]. God always does that; always does that. Why would anybody refuse the simple and humble appeals of the Lord? “Do this and thou shalt live! [Deuteronomy 4:1]. Trust and be saved [Acts 16:30-31]. Look and live” [John 3:14-15; Numbers 21:8-9].
I think of Naaman who came to see Elisha the prophet, great man, head of the armies of Syria, but he was a leper [2 Kings 5:1]. And Elisha didn’t even come out to see him. He sent his servant Gehazi and said you go tell him to get down in the Jordan River and dip himself—Septuagint says baptize himself—seven times. And his flesh will come back, like the flesh of a little child, and he would be clean [2 Kings 5:9-10]. And Naaman was wroth, and said, “I thought he would come out in some dramatic gesture, call on the name of his God, and strike his hand over the place of the leprosy. And here I am to go down to that muddy Jordan. Are not Abana and Pharpar rivers of Damascus better than all the waters of Israel? Can’t I, can’t I wash in them, and be clean?” And he drove away in a rage [2 Kings 5:11-12].
And his servant, who is standing by him in a chariot, touched him and said, “My father, if the [prophet] had bid thee do some great and mighty thing, if he bid thee to conquer Egypt or conquer Parthia, if he’d bid thee build a great temple to your god, would you have done it? How much rather then, when he saith, Wash, and be clean?” [2 Kings 5:13]. And Naaman pulled up his chariot steeds and turned around and went down into the muddy Jordan, and when he dipped himself the seventh time, he came up clean!” [2 Kings 5:14].
God always has a simple way for us to be saved; always. And it’s unthinkable in our minds that we would turn aside from the simplicity of God in order that we might be lost in the complexity of man. What a wonderful thing the Lord hath done for us! It just depends upon my response. The enabling mercy of God, if I do this, God says you’ll be saved [Acts 16:31].
In this last some odd years, there’s one of the most unusual cases that I could ever think for that came before the Supreme Court of the United States. Over there in the East, in a state like Pennsylvania, there was a man who was in death row, waiting to be electrocuted. And the governor pardoned him. And the man said, “I don’t want the pardon. I want to die.” And it posited a legal question. This man is condemned to death and waiting there for the electrocution, but the governor’s pardoned him and he refuses the pardon. What shall we do? And the case went to the Supreme Court of the United States. And the Supreme Court of the United States said, “A pardon is not a pardon until it is accepted.” You remember that? “A pardon is not a pardon unless it is accepted.” And the man must die, if he refuses the pardon, he must die.
All of us are like that. When I turn, God turns; when I change, God changes. When I repent, God repents. That’s what it says in the Book of Jonah [Jonah 3:1-10]. When God saw the Ninevites repented, He repented of the judgment that He said, “I will bring upon this erring and transgressing and iniquitous people” [Jonah 3:10]. It depends upon our response! The commandments of God carry with them an enabling ability to carry them out, to obey; always. God never asks us of anything, ever, that we cannot do. Just look at that through the years, God’s enabling mercy. When the Lord said to the man, “See all this garden? Simple: you may eat of every tree in the garden except this one” [Genesis 2:16-17]. You could not think of a simpler commandment than that.
Don’t you sometimes wonder, “Why didn’t Adam and Eve eat of the tree of life [Genesis 2:9], instead of the tree of the knowledge of evil? [Exodus 2:17]. We don’t know. Why do we do as we do? It’s explicable; we’re just a fallen family. But the commandment was easy to obey [Genesis 2:17]. God’s commands are always easy to respond to; always.
When God said to Noah, “I am going to destroy this evil world with a flood,” God gave him one hundred twenty years in which to build that ark, one hundred twenty years, a hundred twenty years. God gave him time to build his ark [Genesis 6:3, 12-22]. God always does that. He always does that.
When the Lord God said to Moses, “Tell the children of Israel to march” [Exodus 14:15], man, that meant into the sea! One side was the mountains; one side was the endless desert, and back of them was the Egyptian army, telling them to go forward into the sea! Well, anybody whose mobile, anybody can get up and go, get up and move, that’s all God asked of them. It was His prerogative to open the sea, to open the passage, to make the waters pile up on either side like a wall [Exodus 14:21-31]. You go and leave the rest to God! He does it; the almightiness of God does it!
God said to Joshua, “You march around the wall of the city of Jericho. Just march around it six days. On the seventh day, march seven times, and then leave the rest to Me” [Joshua 6:2-5]. Always the commandments of God are simple, and they carry with them the ability to carry them out, always. It’s God’s part to open the sea [Exodus 14:21]. It’s God’s part to make the walls fall down [Joshua 6:5]. It’s just our part to be obedient [Romans 1:5].
Just look at Simon Peter when the angel smote him on the side and said “Simon Peter, stand up and go! God has a mission for you out there, preaching the gospel. Stand up and go.” Simon Peter could have said, “But listen and look. There’s a great iron door standing between me and the outside street.” Forget about it, God said, “Arise and go.” And when Simon Peter stood up and got to the iron door, it opened of itself [Acts 12:7-10]. That’s God; that’s the Lord God.
When the Lord Jesus, the omnipotent Lord in human flesh, when the Lord Jesus said to that paralytic man, “Arise, take up your bed, and walk” [John 5:8]; man, what’s the matter with You, Jesus? This man has been that way all of his life. He can’t walk! Who is it who is going to say to Jesus, when Jesus says, “Arise and walk,” who’s going to say to Jesus, “He can’t do it! He’s never risen; he’s never walked.” When Jesus says, “You will be given strength,” who am I to say, “There will be no strength given?” When I say, “There’s no hope,” who am I to say there’s no hope, when Jesus is the hope of the heart, and the hope of the soul, and the hope of the world? Always the commands of God are accompanied by the ability to carry them out. And when the Lord Jesus said to this paralytic, “Stand up, pick up your bed, and walk” [John 5:8], that meant God gave him the ability to do it. And the man stood up—paralyzed all of his life—stood up, took his pallet, and walked home whole [John 5:9]. That’s the Lord Jesus. Which just is to say, my part—in the omnipotence of God, in the almightiness of God—my part is to listen to His voice and to obey and to follow after, and His part is to open the door, is to make a pathway through the sea; His part is to raise from the dead [John 11:43-44]. By an act of sin, we die [Romans 5:12]; by an act of repentance and acceptance and faith, we live [Romans 5:1, 21]. In transgression we are dead [Ephesians 2:5]; in confession, and coming to Jesus, and trusting in Him, and looking to Him, we are saved [Ephesians 2:8]. God does not judge us on the basis of our past transgressions [Hebrews 10:17]; He judges us on the basis of our present obedience—answering the call of God, and it’s that answer to the call of God that makes the difference.
Could I point out just one poignant illustration of that? And then we’re going to sing us a song of appeal. The sweetest story in the Bible is the story of the prodigal boy [Luke 15:11-32]. Father so blessed, the home so precious, and he’s out there in a hog pen, so hungry that he fain would fill his stomach—King James Version says, “his belly” [Luke 15:16]—with that slop and husks that the hogs did eat; just as low as he could descend. And while he was there, feeding the hogs and tempted by his hunger to eat the slop the hogs were feeding on, the Bible says, “He came to himself and said, I will arise and go back to my father and home” [Luke 15:17-18]. And it was that avowal of change, of turn, of arising, of going, that made the difference; “I will arise and go” [Luke 15:18].
And that’s the way we are, estranged from God; our transgressions separating between Him and us [Isaiah 59:2]. The bridge over that chasm of separation is found in my willingness to cross over and take His hand, my willingness to give Him my heart and life [Romans 10:9-10], my willingness to go back to Father and home [Luke 15:18], my willingness to confess, to turn, to ask God’s mercy [1 John 1:9]—and when I do, God does the rest. I can’t recreate my heart, I can’t recreate my soul, but He can! And that is the enabling mercy of God.
When I do this, God does that. And He made it plain and simple so that a child wouldn’t misunderstand. How could I have been saved as a child if it had deep theological repercussions; if it had astute and recondite propositions? “Why sir, I was but ten years old.” How could I have been saved had it not been? It was plain and simple that a child could respond to [Matthew 18:3]. God’s ways are always that, always that. His heart and His arms are outstretched ever toward us. It is just for us to accept, to respond. And God remakes us, gives us a new heart, gives us a new spirit, gives us a new love, gives us a new life [2 Corinthians 5:17]. It’s a new day in Him. And that’s our appeal to you. Taking the Lord Jesus as your Savior today [Romans 10:9-10], or putting your life with us in this precious church, or coming into the fellowship of God’s dear people, bring your family, all of you come. Or just you, as the Spirit shall call, as God shall press the appeal, answer with your life. Do it now; make it now, while we stand and while we sing, while we sing.