Sovereign Compassion

Carl R. Trueman
Friday, February 28th 2014
Mar/Apr 2014

Hyper-Calvinism, like so many "ism" words, is hard to define. It is sometimes said that a fundamentalist is that person on the Christian spectrum who is slightly to the right of you. Thus "hyper-Calvinist" is often used as a pejorative by those who are just a tad more Calvinistic than the one using the epithet.

At a more technical level, hyper-Calvinism typically refers to those who emphasize one aspect of the Calvinist system to the detriment of the others. This produces a theological imbalance. Perhaps most typically this has been manifested in an emphasis on limited atonement or total depravity, stressed in such a way that the free offer of the gospel or the need for evangelism is denied. When Spurgeon criticized "hypers," it was typically this kind of theology he had in mind.

In recent years, however, it has become arguable that a new kind of hyper-Calvinism has emerged, one that does not so much impact evangelism, but does lead to some strange statements and conclusions. This is the emphasis on God's sovereignty in the face of suffering to the exclusion or radical relativizing of everything else.

We need to parse this issue carefully. Clearly, God is sovereign and nothing therefore happens outside of his will or in such a way that his will is frustrated. Yet there is a pastoral dimension to this truth that is often missing. Many of us have experienced some dark moment in our lives where the response of a well-meaning Christian friend has simply been, "Well, it is God's will." At the national level, there have been a number of natural disasters over recent years that have elicited similar responses from evangelicals, sometimes even on Twitter.

Now the complexities of evil in a fallen world are scarcely susceptible to adequate discussion within the character limits of a tweet. Moreover, they cannot be adequately addressed simply by a blunt assertion that God is sovereign. Such a response ignores the richness of biblical teaching on God.

Take, for example, the later chapters of the book of Job. Elihu, the young comforter, steps forward and offers a quite brilliant assessment of God's sovereignty and transcendence. Yet God still has to speak after he has finished, and while not criticizing him as he does the other three, he does supplement Elihu's argument by pointing to his very personal and active control over the forces of evil, personified in the Behemoth and the Leviathan. True, God comes twice in the whirlwind to Job, and whirlwinds are typically signs of judgment in the Old Testament; but, first, this is God and not a human being who speaks. For God to declare his sovereignty is one thing; too often we can declare God's sovereignty as a trite, simple answer. More important, God's speeches offer more than a mere reassertion of his blunt sovereignty. Elihu simply declares that God is metaphysically sovereign, so deal with it. God himself has somewhat more to say to his servant, bringing to the fore the majestic power of God in specific examples.

We see the complexity of the relationship between God and suffering even more clearly in the Psalms. The Psalms were the hymnbook of ancient Israel. In them, the Lord provided his people with a language that allows for full human lamentation, for the laying bare of the agony of the soul before God

That God is sovereign did not apparently prevent him from inspiring men to compose poems of great beauty and emotional complexity as they wrestle with the disconnections between their knowledge of who God is and what they experience.

Then, throughout scriptural narrative, we see how God acknowledges the legitimacy of lament and how his servants do not simply respond by pointing sufferers to God's overarching will. Take, for example, the Shunammite in 2 Kings 4. She throws herself at the feet of the prophet; he does not rebuke her in any way at all; rather, he acts to help her. Then, perhaps supremely, we have Christ standing outside the tomb of Lazarus and weeping. Christ knows about the resurrection to come; he also knows about the miracle he is about to perform; he even alludes to the fact that Lazarus had been allowed to die in order to show the glory of God. Yet still he weeps. Divine sovereignty does not negate the emotion of the moment, nor does it relativize the agony of death or lead Christ to spout aloof and trite platitudes at a moment of devastation for Lazarus's family. Yes, he cites the glory of God; but he also weeps. Here, sovereignty is not allowed to swallow up compassion. God's glory is ultimately demonstrated by passing through tragedy to resurrection, not by denying the reality of the tragic. His sovereignty is revealed eschatologically, which relativizes but does not eliminate the agonizing pain of the present.

The next time there is a human catastrophe or natural disaster, beware of those who think they can answer the problem in 140 characters or less. They cannot. Those who simply assert that it is all part of God's will give such a small part of the truth as to be misleading. And that is what hyper-Calvinism is but one example of: a small part of the glorious truth of God's sovereignty, presented in such a way as to hide or obscure the true riches of the biblical teaching on God.

Friday, February 28th 2014

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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