On the 24th of August, I preached a sermon at Jubilee during our summer series on some famous psalms. I took Psalm 121, which served as a starting point for me to share some of the most important planks of my personal doctrinal framework—a framework that has sustained me through hard times.
As blogging around here at least begins to return to normal—if there is such a thing at adrianwarnock.com—I thought I’d share both the audio to download and a condensed version of the message below. You can also listen right here:
Psalm 121 is A Song of Hope in a world without hope. Today we see how true it is that unbelievers are well described as “having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12).
Christians should be characterized by hope, and as a result, should live in such a way that brings up questions in other’s minds. “In your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect . . .” (1 Peter 3:15).
The question is, how do we obtain such a hope and how do we live in the good of it?
Hope requires a biblical outlook — You will not find real hope anywhere else, other than in the Bible, where we find help to live, help to rescue us, help to have hope.
Hope requires a lifted head — we must first be lowered, and God graciously sends trouble our way to teach us we cannot help ourselves.
Despair of self. Self-help is no help at all. Our solution is not found on earth. It’s found in heaven. Many people expect that their problem is based around what they’re experiencing. And they say something like this, “If only I could find a husband or a wife, then I’d be okay.” Or, “If only I had a different husband or wife, then I’d be okay.” Or, “If only God changed him, then I’d be okay.” Or, “Perhaps I need a new job, then I’d be okay.” “I need to be healed, then I’d be okay.” All of those things are secondary—our help comes from heaven. Our help comes from God. For you to have hope, you have to lift your head. You have to look up. And there’s something about the body language involved in doing that—looking up and praying with your head raised to God, saying, “Help me!”
Many people think Christianity is “Do this! Do that!” Rules. “If I just try harder, I can please God.” None of that counts for anything. There is nothing you can do to make God happy with you in your own strength—nothing! You really are helpless. You really are hopeless. You’re weak, I’m weak. We’re all the same. Don’t we say it sometimes? “I just couldn’t help myself.” Have you ever said that? “I’m so sorry for what I just did to you to hurt you, to upset you. I just couldn’t help myself,” you say. There’s never a truer word said than that.
“The preacher’s work is to throw sinners down in utter helplessness that they may be compelled to look up to Him who alone can help them” (Spurgeon).
Hope requires a God who is in control — a God who really is in control and a God who can therefore help us. It’s very important that we understand that. Help comes from God, not from other people. Others can help you a bit, but the way in which they’ll help you is simply this: by pointing you to God and by strengthening you in God.
For example, in 1 Samuel 23:16 — “Jonathan strengthened David’s hand in God.”
Any leader will let you down because he is not God. He can’t be there all the time. You’ll try and ring him one day and his phone will be switched off or engaged. You’ll find that God’s phone is never switched off.
But it must be the right sort of God who we can believe in. Some people just say, “Well, I believe in God. Isn’t that enough?” No, we need to understand some things about God. It’s no good, for example, if God is as clueless as the rest of us, is it really? And some people believe in a God like that. But it’s not true. God is the God of all comfort. “He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others who are suffering afflictions with the comfort with which we ourselves have been comforted by God.” ( 1 Corinthians 1)
This is God’s description of himself in Isaiah 46: “I am God.” And YOU are not, by the way. He is, but you’re not. And neither am I. “I am God and there is no other. I am God and there is none like me. Declaring the end from the beginning.” In other words, he knows the end of time from the very beginning of time. He knows everything that will ever happen. “And from ancient times, things not yet done, saying this, “My counsel shall stand and I will accomplish all my purposes. I have spoken and I will bring it to pass. I have purposed and I will do it.”
That’s the God we worship. There are some people who say that God is surprised by things. They say, well, you know, there are some things that are unknowable and that until something happens, even God doesn’t know what will happen. I’m sorry. That’s not the God of the Bible. The God of the Bible knows the end from the beginning. He’s not surprised by anything. And it’s so important because when you’re counseling somebody, you have to bring them to that God, not to some kind of weak God who is surprised. I once heard of a situation—this is a true story apparently, and I think I read it in a book somewhere. (If anyone remembers the reference for this, I would appreciate knowing that.) A lovely young lady married a guy who was also a Christian (they were both Christians). Everything looked fine. And then after a while this guy basically did the dirty on her and went off with somebody else and the relationship broke up and they got divorced. And this woman’s pastor (shame on him) said this: “Well, when God guided you to that marriage, he had no more idea than you did what would happen. He was as surprised and as shocked and as hurt and as disappointed as you by what happened.” Now that might seem cute, but it doesn’t give me any hope. Does it give you hope? If God was like that, I think I’d rather not be a Christian. No, God is not like that. He knows the end from the beginning. He knows what will happen. He will accomplish all his purposes. There is no plan B with God.
God is NOT surprised by anything!
Hope requires a God who is loving — he’s the God who cares for you. If God was all-sovereign and all-powerful and all-knowing, but actually was a bit of an evil, capricious God who hated you, then well, the world would not be a very good place, would it?
But the Bible is very clear. It says that God is love (1 John 4:16).
Romans 5:8 says, “But God shows his love for us in this; that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” So if Jesus died for us, if he would come from heaven to earth, live as a man, the great invincible God becoming a little baby and then living as a man, and then dying a cruel death in our place that we might know God, do you not think that this demonstrates that he loves us?
Paul makes this argument in Romans 8:32 when he says, “He who did not spare his own son, but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” If we’re coming to God and say, “Oh, well, God, you know. I’m not sure if you really love me or not,” we’re making God into a liar and we’re just despising the cross. Jesus loved us enough to die for us. That should be enough to give us hope. Hope that this sovereign God is for you, and that this God is in control and knows the future; that he will make sure things map out for your good.
Romans 8 continues: “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good” (verse 28). So if you love God, God will work out everything for your good.
He keeps you. He will not let your foot be moved. It says “He keeps you” six times in this psalm. He’s your keeper. He’s your watchman. He watches over you. He doesn’t sleep.
Hope requires a God-centered gospel — some people say, “Well, you know, God is lucky to have me.” There is a sense in which God is knocking at the door. But people can say it sometimes as though Jesus is the needy one; as if he’s a bit lonely and he needs another worshipper or feels insecure or needs a relationship or needs his ego boosted a bit. No, God isn’t like that. God is the eternal one who out of his self-sufficiency and his joy of being eternally one with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, eternally a community, lavishes love on us through grace. Through unmerited favor. Through his all-sufficiency.
There are five aspects of the gospel that I think give us a stable foundation. It says in this psalm that God keeps our foot from being moved. It also says in another psalm that God put our foot on a rock. People sometimes call these five points the five points of Calvinism. I would rather just say they’re the five points of a stable view of the gospel, which enables us to have hope. Sometimes people use these points under the acronym TULIP. So if you like acronyms, you can use TULIP to help you remember them.
But sometimes our Christianity is like another flower. I don’t know if, in other countries, people do this, but English children very often find a nice daisy in the lawn, pick it, and usually thinking about a boyfriend or girlfriend, they remove one petal at a time. “He loves me, he loves me not, he loves me, he loves me not, he loves me, he loves me not. Oh no! He loves me not!”
Some of us approach God like that — if I’m doing well, God loves me. If I’ve just sinned, he doesn’t love me anymore. If I make a commitment to him and follow him, then he’ll love me. But if I backslide, then he won’t love me anymore and I won’t be a Christian anymore. I don’t believe that gives us a stable foundation for hope. So what are these five points? I’ll go through them quite quickly.
T — Total Depravity of Man
Now most people actually have very little problem believing this. I think there are very few Christians who don’t believe this. There are a few who say, “Oh no, people are basically good.” But I don’t think any of them are parents. I’ve got a 16 month old child. We don’t have to train him to hit his brother and sister; to steal from his brother and sister; to scream if we give his brother and sister something and don’t give it to him. And he has already learned how to bite. He’s 16 months! But people say that human beings are born good. They’re not born good. They’re born with a sinful nature. We are born with a bias towards sin, as the Puritans used to say. So basically, if you don’t believe in the total depravity of man, if you don’t believe that we have a sinful nature, then I would suggest that you borrow a two year old for an hour. That’s all you need.
But let’s look at the Scriptures. The Scripture is what we stand on. The Scripture is very clear about this in Ephesians 2: “And you were dead in trespasses and sins . . .” Dead people can’t help themselves. If we’re dead without Christ, we need him to make us alive.
U — Unconditional Election
In other words, God chooses us; we don’t choose him. Ephesians 1:4—he chose us in him before the foundation of the world that we should be holy and blameless before him. John 15:16—You did not choose me (says Jesus) but I chose you. Terry Virgo likes to say he imagines somebody in the congregation saying, “Hang on. But haven’t I got a free will?” And Terry says this, “Yeah, but God’s is freer.” The truth is this: actually we do have a free will, but we all freely choose to reject God. It’s only as God intervenes and woos us and changes our hearts and sends out his grace on us that we actually can be saved.
L — Limited Atonement
This is one that causes a bit of controversy and a lot of disagreement, but it’s mostly about a misunderstanding. I think all Christians will agree with two things about this. The first is this—that everything that Jesus did on the cross, the good of it, the full goodness of it, the eternal value of it, only gets applied to those who are Christians. Obviously, in order to benefit from Jesus’s death, you need to be a Christian, so in that sense it is a limited atonement. It is especially for the believer. It is especially for us. Jesus said this, “He laid down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). There’s a sense in which the death of Jesus was specific to certain individuals.
The second thing that we all can agree on is this: that actually Jesus’ death does have some benefit to everybody, and that the offer of the gospel is available to everybody as well. And it’s an honest gospel that says that if you are willing to repent of your sins and follow God, then you will be saved. So I think we need to be very careful in what we say about this. 1 Timothy 4:10 to me, sums this up, “We have set our hope on the living God who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe.” So the very fact that the world is sustained at all and that Jesus didn’t just wipe it out the second that somebody first sinned is because of Jesus’s death. So everybody lives in the good of the cross all the time actually, and the offer of the gospel is a genuine offer to everybody, but the full benefits of the cross are only ever applied to those who are truly saved. I think sometimes this one is expressed in a way in which I would not agree.
I — Irresistible Grace
Jesus said “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:44). When God sets his mind on you, when God sets his grace on you, your resistance is futile. You can run, but you can’t hide. And there may be some of you reading this who have been running. You’ve been fighting. And God is saying, “Stop fighting. I’m here. Now is the time to surrender.”
P — Perseverance of the Saints
I prefer to state it in this way: the persistence of God. “And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:39-50).
Now, we all know people who appeared to be Christians and drifted away. The thing is this—it is appointed for man to die once and after that comes judgment (Hebrews 9:27). I believe the balance of Scripture is very clear on this, that there are actually three possible verdicts on that day.
The first verdict is this—You’re not a Christian; you never were a Christian, and that means an eternity without God. It means hell. We do believe in hell. That’s one verdict. The s
econd verdict is what I call a “well done” Christian. What I mean is this. When God looks at you and says, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You’ve followed me. You’ve served me. I’m pleased with what you’ve done.” And that’s what I pray for each of us. The third possible verdict is one that I call the “skin of the teeth” Christian. 1 Corinthians 3 talks about it like this: “As one saved through fire.” All your good works get burned up, but somehow, because of God’s grace, you somehow scrape in.
Now I would say that the difference between the slightly “scraping in” Christian and the person who is not a Christian at all is not one that we can sometimes easily discern. And that’s why we need to make sure really, brothers and sisters, that we are following after God. Because we don’t want to be those who miss it.
So, for those who have appeared to backslide, it may be that they were never Christians. It may be that actually they will be among that “skin of the teeth” brigade, or it may be actually—and this is what we should pray—that God will bring them back because God is in the business of restoring people. God is in the business of bringing people back, people we thought would never ever do it. And God says, “No. I will do it. I will do it. I will bring them back. I will complete the work I started.” And that’s the way to pray. Say, “God, you promised that you would complete the work that you started. I remember what you did in that person . . .”
Hebrews 3:14 actually says something interesting about this idea of perseverance. Because it really isn’t just the idea of “once saved, always saved” in a very simplistic way. You think if you go forward at a crusade that’s it. No! What it’s saying is that we’re expecting God to preserve our faith and keep us until the end. It says this in Hebrews 3:14—For we have come to share in Christ (and that’s the past tense—it has happened to us in the past) if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.” So we should expect that God will sustain us to the end, and at the end of our lives, to be able to look back on a lifetime of trusting God.
I don’t want any of us to drift away. Please don’t play fast and loose with God because he’s not mocked. It is appointed once for man to die and afterwards to face judgment.
Hope requires eternal security, but it is not passive — we don’t just say, “Oh well. I’m okay now. Let me sit back and put my feet up and coast to heaven.” 2 Peter 1:3—His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him, who called us by his own glory and goodness. Therefore my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure. But if you do these things, you will never fall. And you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.” Why not aim for a rich welcome?
Hope also requires a resurrection — Paul puts it this way in 1 Corinthians 15:19 where he says, “If in this life only we have hoped in Christ we are of all people most to be pitied.” Because actually, eventually it will seem as if God has let us down because we’ll die and evil will, in fact, touch us. Well, the truth is this, eternally these words are always true— God will keep our lives. God will keep evil from ultimately harming us. There is a glorious day coming. Jesus promised, “In this world you will have trouble.” I don’t see very many people naming and claiming that promise! And Jesus does keep his promises. But he also said this: “Take heart. I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
So we need to know this—death is coming. We can’t stop it. We can fight it and we can try to delay it, but we must remember that the timing is ultimately in God’s hands. But it’s also okay to walk in faith and obedience, trying to follow God faithfully, because actually, even under the New Testament, God does sometimes terminate somebody’s life early. Look at Ananias and Sapphira. We can pray for healing, and rightly so when someone gets sick. We can eat in a healthy manner. We can try to keep that weight down. We can stop smoking. It’s like playing Russian roulette with your life. Three holes, one bullet—a “one in three” chance of dying early—not a good idea. We can exercise. We can see doctors. But the point is this. Our hope goes beyond the grave because death is coming, even if we do all those things.
One day we will see him face-to-face. And what does that say? It tells me that we will still have a face. It’s not that we’re going to be some sort of ethereal spirit floating in heaven. We will know each other. We will be able to recognize each other. We have a hope that goes beyond the grave, And we will meet our departed brothers and sisters again one day. We will see them. And together we will see God.
Notice this: it says that he will keep our life, and he will also keep our going out and coming in. To me, that’s a physical thing. You don’t go out and come in if you’re a spirit floating ethereally, not even knowing if you’re you. You will be you. Hope requires that there is a resurrection. Hope requires that there is eternal security, and that God will keep us, but it’s not passive in that knowledge. Hope requires that God sends his gospel. Hope requires a God who is loving. Hope requires a God who is in control. Hope requires a lifted head. Hope requires a biblical outlook.
Hope requires an alert God. It requires a God who is keeping us and a God who is not sleeping. God never sleeps so that you can sleep. He’s watching over you. When you’re in the desert and you’re worried about wild animals coming to eat you, one of you needs to stay awake. You don’t all need to stay awake. You just need one to stay awake. One that’s trustworthy. God would say this to you—”I am trustworthy. Cast your anxieties on me. Don’t you realize that I care for you, and that I don’t sleep so that you can sleep?”
God doesn’t sleep when somebody dies. He doesn’t sleep when somebody gets news that they may die. And he doesn’t sleep when somebody gets news that someone they love may die. He’s never asleep. He is aware of all those things and he can meet you in all those settings. He is your keeper. He will protect you through all those things.
God wasn’t sleeping when your name came up in the tally in heaven as to who’s going to get married and who’s not, and how we’re going to sort that out. You weren’t one he missed. He’s controlling your life. He is guiding your steps. And he will guide you, either to the perfect mate or to actually feeling content in the midst of your situation.
We think we can hide our sin from God. We’re fools. We think the darkness will hide it. Maybe we think that if we come out at night we can do certain things that no one else will see, and therefore sometimes God won’t see. But he never sleeps. He doesn’t slumber. He sees everything you’ve ever done, everything you’ve ever said, and everything you’ve ever thought.
He didn’t see all these things with a view to condemning you, saying you’re useless, and telling you deserve hell (although that’s true). He did it so that you might be forgiven. And he wants to highlight that to you right now. Your sin is worse than you think it is. But this is also true—God is better than you think he is, and he’s more gracious than you think he is. He chose David, an adulterer and a murderer, and said, “This is a man after my own heart.”
God can take the shame that you feel, the hurt you may feel, the dirtiness you feel. Jesus carried our shame on the cross that you might be full of hope, tha
t you might be able to stand firm before God, aware of him, and fully in love with Jesus, fully secure in hope.