What True Presbyterians Believe: Soli Deo Gloria
November 19, 2006 | PROVIDENCE Presbyterian Church | Ephesians 1:3-10
For four generations now, members of my family have served in the ministry of the Presbyterian Church. For nearly forty years now, I have given my life to the service of Christ through the Presbyterian Church. I love the Presbyterian Church. However, over the last 15 years particularly, many within the Presbyterian Church have begun to devalue and diminish the great beliefs upon which the Presbyterian Church was built. I am not one of them. Therefore, over these next several weeks, I wish to focus upon the core beliefs, the essential tenets of our great Presbyterian/Reformed faith in the hope that you will join me in standing firm for “What True Presbyterians Believe. ” Today I focus upon Soli Deo Gloria—TO GOD ALONE BE THE GLORY.
The town of St. Andrews, Scotland is known far and wide for its golf, for its woolens, and for the movie, “Chariots of Fire”—but it is also known for some other things not quite so pleasant. St. Andrews is perhaps the most beautiful town in Scotland—but some terribly ugly things have happened there. You see, for many years St. Andrews was the religious capital of Scotland, and within the boundaries of that lovely place, much blood was shed and that blood was used, figuratively speaking, to write the basic beliefs of our Presbyterian faith.
During the years before the Protestant Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland had become very corrupt. A Scotsman named Patrick Hamilton set out to cleanse and correct the church. He was invited to come to St. Andrews to debate the issues of his concern with the Cardinal of Scotland, a man named James Beaton. When Hamilton arrived, Cardinal Beaton had him arrested, and several days later, had him burned at the stake. It was a particularly awful death. You see, in those days when they burned someone at the stake, they tied little bags of gunpowder around the victim’s neck so that when the flames reached a certain height, they would be put out of their misery more immediately. Well the day they burned Patrick Hamilton was a rainy day. The gunpowder got wet, and so his death was slow and excruciating to the extreme. The place where he was burned is marked on the sidewalk in St. Andrews to this very day. Later on, a man named George Wishart took up Patrick Hamilton’s cause. By this time, James Beaton’s nephew, a man named David Beaton, had become the Cardinal of Scotland. He invited Wishart to come to St. Andrews to meet with him—and he did to George Wishart what his uncle had done to Patrick Hamilton. He had him burned at the stake. Only he moved the site of the execution 30 yards away from where Hamilton had been put to death. Why? Because he wanted to sit in his castle window and have an unobstructed view of the whole sorry spectacle. Well, the death of George Wishart set off an uprising in Scotland and a group of Wishart’s followers broke into the castle at St. Andrews, captured Cardinal Beaton, killed him, and hanged his body out of the same window from which the Cardinal had watched George Wishart die. As I said, St. Andrews is a lovely town, but some very ugly things have happened there.
Ultimately, the group, who attacked the castle and killed the cardinal, were arrested by the military authorities. One of that group was a young man named John Knox. For his involvement in the rebellion, he was sentenced to spend the rest of his life as a galley slave on a merchant ship. Some years later, somehow—we don’t know how—but somehow John Knox escaped from his slavery and fled to Switzerland. There he came under the influence of John Calvin and learned from his teachings. Later John Knox returned to Scotland, won Scotland to the Protestant faith, and formulated the great beliefs of our Presbyterian heritage. It was John Knox who taught that the sovereignty of God is the foundational belief for all of our Presbyterian Reformed Doctrines. God is in firm and absolute control of the universe and the world and everything in it including your life and mine. That wondrous belief is captured for me in that simple Latin phrase I frequently employ: Soli Deo Gloria—to God alone be the glory. Today, I wish to ask you to consider with me first the definition of that doctrine and then the declaration from that doctrine. Take them, please, one at a time …
First, the definition of the doctrine.
Once upon a time J. B. Phillips wrote a book entitled Your God Is too Small. In that book, he declared that many of us have failed to permit ourselves “to be grasped by a God who is big enough to account for all of life, big enough to transcend this scientific age, big enough to command our highest respect and admiration, and therefore our willing cooperation.” I think that’s true. We like to make God into what we want Him to be. We do not like to have a God who disagrees with us. We prefer to have a nice little God we can control—a God who sees things the same way we do, a God with whom we can be comfortable. And I would suggest to you that that is precisely what put Jesus on His cross: the fact that He came talking about a God too big to be controlled. The political and religious leaders of the day—and even the pew sitters in the congregations—couldn’t stand that kind of talk. When Jesus said these things in Nazareth, they ran Him out of town. When He said these things in Jerusalem, they sought to do Him in.
In recent years, the religious leaders in our own denomination have all too often imitated the thinking of religious leaders in Jesus’ day. They have tried to whittle God down so that God becomes nothing more than an endorser of their own thoughts, feelings, and opinions, and a God who baptizes the realities of the society around us. But, dear friends, that stands in stark contrast to the great belief of true Presbyterians throughout our history; namely, the belief in a sovereign and all-powerful God. In fact, I would suggest that the most quoted description or definition of God is that which is found in our own Presbyterian Book of Confessions, specifically The Westminster Shorter Catechism: “God is a Spirit—infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in His being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.” That is the noblest definition of God ever written, yet it is altogether inadequate. It says that “God is a spirit.” That’s true, but the Bible says God is also Father and Son. It says that “God is infinite,” and that’s true, but the word, “infinite,” appears in Scripture only three times, and I doubt if any finite human mind can fully grasp what infinite means. It says that “God is eternal,” yet with our human limitations, we cannot think in terms which are beyond the boundaries of space and time. Understand, please, that I am not making light of the Catechism definition, quite the contrary. I say it again, it is the noblest definition of God ever written, but it is still inadequate. And if that noble expression is inadequate, then how much more inadequate, is it for us to try to define or describe God in terms of our own thoughts and ideas, our own values and prejudices, our own likes and dislikes? It cannot be done! Our God is way too big for that, and true Presbyterians know that to be true.
I love the verse in Deuteronomy where it says that God is like “an eagle stirring up its nest.” Here’s the picture. The eagle always builds its nest high on a rocky ledge. There it lays its eggs. After the eggs are hatched the young eaglets are permitted to remain in the nest only for a short time. Then the eagle removes the young from the nest and pushes the nest over the ledge—that’s to keep the young from becoming too dependent on the nest. Now the eagle encourages the young ones to try their wings in flight. If perchance one of them is not willing to try to fly, then the eagle will actually push that eaglet off the ledge so that he is forced to try his wings. If for some reason the wings do not support the eaglet in flight that first time, the eagle swoops down beneath the falling bird, spreads its wings, catches it on its back, and lifts it back up to the ledge again where the whole process begins over once more. That’s the picture of our God. He is a God who is stirring up His nest. He will not let us be comfortable in Him. He will not let us take Him for granted. He is constantly challenging us to fly higher and higher in our understanding of Him. He is constantly demanding more and more of us, demanding that we learn more and more of Him, demanding that we give more and more of ourselves to Him. And if in the process we should stumble and fall, then like that great eagle, God swoops down and spreads His wings, catches us, and bears us up. That’s the picture of the God of the Bible—the God of our Lord Jesus Christ. He is the God who commands us to grow up in Him and to let the knowledge of Him grow up in us. True Presbyterians have always believed in the great, sovereign, all-powerful God who controls everything, including our lives. Soli Deo Gloria—to God alone be the glory.
Now, the declaration from that doctrine.
This Presbyterian core belief in the sovereignty of God actually becomes the greatest assurance we could ever have in this life. For this belief declares that what God in His sovereign mercy has done, we cannot, even with our worse sins, undo! That’s what Jesus meant when He said in the Gospels, “I am the good shepherd. My sheep hear my voice, and they come to me, and no one can take my sheep away from me.” Once again, listen to the way our great Presbyterian Confessions of faith put it, this time The Westminster Larger Catechism: “True believers, by reason of the unchangeable love of God, and His decree and covenant to give them perseverance, their inseparable union with Christ, His continual intercession for them, and the spirit and seed of God abiding in them, can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace, but are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation.” Oh, this is so important! I have so many people who say to me in one way or another, “How can I be sure I’m going to Heaven?” I encounter so many people, at the time of death, who question their assurance of eternal life. My beloved, I not only want you to die being sure of Heaven, I want you to live i to live every day—being sure of Heaven as well. Here is the promise. Write it on your heart. You cannot take the sheep from the Shepherd.
That’s precisely our confidence as Presbyterians and as Christians. We may be entrapped by evil in the world; we may have yielded to some temptation in life; we may find ourselves unbelieving in some moment of crisis; we may be worried about our own faith—or the lack of it; or we may be worried about some other people who seemed to have wandered from the faith. Maybe we worry about someone who died in terrible pain and whose pain caused them to curse God; maybe we worry about a child who grows like some wild shoot and seems to turn away from what we know they were taught and believed as a little one; maybe we worry about someone who in the desperation of their despair took their own life—someone who stood in the church and was baptized and came to the Lord’s table and claimed the faith, but who then, in some cataclysm of heartache, believed that the only thing left to do was to die and so they killed themselves; maybe we worry about someone who faces one setback after another in life and who then says, “I want no part of a God who would let these things happen.” Yes, we may find ourselves confronting these kinds of situations, but here is what is still true: If those people ever in anyway reached out to embrace Christ as Savior and Lord; if they, in any way and under any terms, gave themselves to Jesus Christ then, no matter what happens to them later, their salvation is assured.
My beloved, I’m not speaking to you today out of some dusty book of doctrine. I am speaking to you out of this book, the Bible. I am not speaking to you as some sterile, theological scholar. I am speaking to you out of 40 years in the ministry in the name of Jesus Christ. I know that sometimes, for whatever reason, Christians may lose their grip on God, but God never loses His grip on them. True Presbyterians understand that. Because of the sovereign power of Almighty God, Christians are—here’s a great Presbyterian word for you—predestined to Heaven without fail. I want you to think about that. I beg you to mull it over in your mind and in your heart. I plead with you to remember it every day that you live. I call you to claim it in the moment that you die. From before the dawn of creation, the sovereign God has declared, “Those who have love for my Son, will not be lost from my Son.” Once you are Christ’s then always you are Christ’s! That is why at the end of each service here, I invite you to embrace Jesus Christ in faith—and I do that with great urgency because I want you to know, I want you to be assured, I want you never to doubt—even when your ship comes in with broken mast and torn sails, even when sorrows fall upon you like heavy rain, even when troubles slash about you like lightning in a stormy sky = I want you to know that your eternal destiny is secure. This is our most blessed assurance. Never, ever forget it. You can’t take the sheep from the Shepherd!
Soli Deo Gloria.
To God alone be the glory.
Amen and amen.