God, Divine Purposes, and Conditionality
I am reluctant to pen this piece for the simple reason that various die-hard armchair theologians of different persuasions may miss the point of what I am trying to say here, and seek to push their particular theological wheelbarrow instead.
And I know full well that when you want to discuss hardcore theological themes, you will not even begin to scratch the surface in a mere 1400 words or so. And to dare to write about such biblical biggees as divine sovereignty and human responsibility, when entire libraries have not even come close to properly discussing all this, makes this piece risky indeed.
So if you are ready to slam me theologically, perhaps stop reading now. I simply want to offer a simple thesis, but not one that should cause WWIII. My thesis is simple: there may (notice the word ‘may’) well be a very real element of conditionality to God’s divine purposes, and even the divine timeline.
What God wants to accomplish on earth may to an extent be at least delayed or hastened by our responses. But hear me out from the outset: am I denying that God is sovereign and can do as he pleases? No. Am I claiming that mere man can hinder God from accomplishing his overall purposes? No.
I am simply saying that much of what God tells us in terms of what he wants to do is conditional, that is, based to some extent on our responses. The Bible makes this clear at many points. God has good intentions and purposes for individuals and for nations. But they may not always come to realization, at least right away.
For example, obviously Yahweh always had great plans and purposes for ancient Israel. Their constant rebellion, sin and idolatry however so often meant that instead of blessing, there was a divine curse. Jesus could speak in a similar way about Israel (as symbolized by Jerusalem) in Luke 13:34:
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” His longing was for the good of Israel, but they were not willing. So his longings and desires, in a sense, were not fully realized.
And of course I know that there are still future claims on Israel, as we find in Romans 9-11. A sort of reversed example of this is found in the book of Jonah. There God said that in 40 days Nineveh would fall. Jonah preached this warning to them – albeit rather reluctantly – and they repented, thus averting judgment.
So meeting certain conditions resulted in a change – not so much in God, but in his timeline for the nations. Thus judgment was at least deferred or delayed. Of course as we read in the book of Nahum, more divine warnings of judgment were given, and sure enough, in 612BC Nineveh fell.
One can even look at a momentous divine plan such as the parousia in these terms. But since I have discussed that elsewhere, let me just offer what I have written earlier:
The return of the Lord may in a sense be conditional on what we do here on earth. For example, in 2 Pet. 3, Peter discusses the return of Christ. After listing some of the cataclysmic events preceding the advent, he says in verses 11 and 12, ‘considering that all this is to happen, what sort of people ought you to be?’ He says our three responses should be: holiness of life, worship of God and service to man. This, he says, will “hasten on” the Lord’s return. This implies to me that we can also impede or slow up his return. The timing of the second coming, then, is dependent somewhat on us.
Jesus implied a similar thing in Mat. 24:14 when he said that the gospel must first be preached to all creatures, then the end will come. The end times, in other words, are partly determined by how faithful we are to do his work. (See also Mark 13:10)
Moreover, what did Jesus mean when he asked us to pray for his Kingdom to come? In Mat. 6:9,10 he says, “This, then, is how you should pray: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’.” See also Luke 11:2.
Or what did Peter mean by these words?: “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that he may send the Christ, who has been appointed for you–even Jesus. He must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.” (Acts 3:19-21) The implication seems to be that repentance and obedience are also elements that will determine when Christ returns.
So again we see elements of conditionality in the great purposes of God. And as I say, there is an interplay between divine sovereignty and human responsibility – one which we will never fully comprehend this side of eternity. God will certainly accomplish his purposes, and he never becomes less than God, but he does grant us the ability to make choices, and we can perhaps delay or hasten certain things God wants to accomplish.
I say all this because I am now in Singapore, a very strategic and important city-state. And many people speak of a word given to this place – originally by Billy Graham in 1978 – that Singapore is the Antioch of Asia. Just as Antioch was such a key hub and flashpoint for the spread of the gospel 2000 years ago, Singapore may well play a similar role in Asia today.
All throughout this week as I have been speaking, I have been saying that the way in which Christians in Singapore react to what God wants to do here will determine to a real extent if that word fully comes to pass. I have been saying that from my vantage point, Singapore is perhaps 4 or 5 years behind the West.
It is still a socially conservative nation, and its Christians have had a healthy impact on the land. But as things really begin to hot up, including the increasing push by the homosexual activists, we will soon learn if Singapore stands strong, or simply follows the West down the tubes.
Just over a month ago Section 377a of the Penal Code was upheld by a high-up appeals court, keeping homosexuality in check – for now at least. But as I have been warning, the activists never sleep, and will of course keep chipping away. It is always a war of attrition, and whoever has the most resolve, stamina and perseverance will ultimately win.
The other side will certainly not give up. The question is, will the Christians? I have met many great Christian leaders and activists here so far, and they give me real hope. But a handful of champions may not suffice. The real question is, will the Christian churches stand strong on this and other key issues, or will they capitulate and compromise as so many Western churches have?
If they can hold the line and put Jesus Christ and faithful and sacrificial obedience to him at the very top of their priority list, we may well see this Antioch word come to real and powerful fruition. But in many ways it is conditional upon the responses of the believers here.
Pray for the church in Singapore. There is much good happening here, but like in so many places, there are also some real problems. Pray that the divine purposes for this land are indeed fulfilled, and that it does play out its role as a key and strategic center for not only the gospel in Asia, but in the whole world.
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