Last Sunday I began a sermon series on the doctrines of grace. We began by thinking about God’s sovereignty in general, and the benefits that are ours from this glorious reality. A PDF of the sermon can be found here. Audio can be found on the Pear Orchard website.
A dear saint of Pear Orchard Presbyterian Church died last night. She was 98 years old. I had the privilege of meeting her this past December, and she was filled with a joy in Christ and a yearning for heaven. I hope that I live 98 years or longer, and I hope that my trust in Christ is as deep and firm as this sweet lady’s was. Yet I know that if the Lord sustains me physically for that long, it will not be painless. Growing old is not easy. Yet post-fall, it is a reality. So how are we to think Biblically about aging? What does the Holy Spirit say through His Word about growing old?
I. The Spirit says that old age is not something to be denied. We tend to tiptoe around the question of age, fearing to ask how old people are, acting like the world in thinking that growing older is categorically a bad thing. Yet in Titus 2:2ff., Paul doesn’t shy away from calling some people in the congregation “older men”, and calling some “older women.” He clearly has no qualms about calling some people “older,” and indeed he affirms that God has a special calling in their lives. But when do you become “older”? We could say that old is as old feels and does; we can speak of aging chronologically or functionally; it’s a matter not only of the body’s aging but also of a person’s attitude and abilities. But the word used in Titus was in common use among the Greeks, and had a chronological reference – Hippocrates, of the Hippocratic Oath fame, used it refer to age 50-56, Philo used it to refer to those over the ago of 60. I suppose, in a sense, it’s a bit arbitrary, and relative to the specific culture or specific congregation. I am 39 years old: to my children and their peers, I am an older man; to some churches I would be either a peer or a younger man. At my first church, where we had several saints in their late eighties, brothers and sisters in their sixties were viewed as spring chickens! The point is that at some time, you will fall into this category of “older,” and you shouldn’t deny it. Don’t get offended by Paul’s use of language. Older men and older women should embrace the title and to be about the business that Paul sets forth for them in Titus 2:2ff. If everyone is trying to stay in the young category, then the church loses something invaluable from its corporate life.
II. The Spirit says that old age is something to be thankful for. Throughout the Bible, length of days is seen as God’s reward, God’s blessing. “My son, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments; for length of days and years of life and peace they will add to you” (Prov. 3:1-2). “A gray head is a crown of glory; it is found in the way of righteousness” (Prov. 16:31). “The glory of young men is their strength, and the honor of old men is their gray hair” (Prov. 20:29). To Eli, God’s curse was that an old man would not be in his house forever (I Sam. 2:32). And to David in Psalm 34, life and length of days was a reward of God, His blessing upon a life lived in the fear of Him. Of course, dying young is not automatically a sign of God’s curse, and the unrighteous often live long and prosper (see Job 21:7; Psalm 73:3-4). And yes, the Bible balances the goodness of old age with the difficulty of old age because of the fall. Indeed, the only reason we “age” at all, in a qualitative sense, is because sin brought death into the world (Rom. 8). But don’t let the hardness of old age prevent you from seeing the blessing of old age; don’t let the supreme goodness of departing this body to be with Christ keep you from seeing the goodness of life on this earth. You see something of this tension in the book of Genesis. When Joseph brought his father Jacob before Pharaoh, Pharaoh asked him, “How old are you?” Jacob replied, “The years of my sojourning are one hundred and thirty; few and unpleasant have been the years of my life, nor have they attained the years that my fathers lived during the days of their sojourning” (Gen. 47:9). Joseph is referring to Abraham, who lived to be 175; when Abraham died Moses recorded, “He died in a good old age, an old man and satisfied with life” (Gen. 25:8). Be thankful for old age, for the privilege of seeing your children’s children’s children, of having more time to get to know God and get to serve others.
III. The Spirit says that old age is something to be respected. The fifth commandment doesn’t merely refer to one’s biological parents; the ten commandments are pegs for a whole variety of duties, they contain within them a whole lot of other commands. In the case of the fifth commandment, as the Westminster Larger Catechism 124 so helpfully reminds us: “By father and mother are meant, not only natural parents, but all superiors in age and gifts; and especially such as, by God’s ordinance, are over us in place of authority, whether in family, church, or commonwealth.” And so we read in Leviticus, “You shall rise up before the grayheaded and honor the aged, and you shall revere your God; I am the LORD” (Lev. 19:32). Paul tells Timothy (and by implication Titus as well, since he seems to be a younger man like Timothy), “Do not sharply rebuke an older man, but rather appeal to him as a father… to the older women as mothers…” (I Tim. 5:1-2). Fearing God means respecting those who are older than we are, even by a tangible sign of respect like standing up when they enter the room. Speak respectfully to those who are older and about those who are older; seek the counsel of those who are older; cultivate a culture in your home of giving honor to those who are older. It is not merely a coincidence that the promised reward of keeping the fifth commandment is that your days will be prolonged in the earth. God blesses those who respect old age with old age.
IV. The Spirit says that old age is something to be prepared for. As the saying goes, “Growing Old is Not for Sissies.” There are difficulties and trials that are peculiar to old age – go read Ecclesiastes 12! These difficulties are especially physical and mental. Jay Adams, in his excellent little book, Wrinkled But Not Ruined: Counsel for the Elderly, gives a great definition of aging: it is a process of loss.
- A loss of strength (Ps. 71:9) and health – decay is already happening (II Cor. 4); we fear future decaying; there is increased frailty, feebleness, clumsiness, loss of muscle, loss of skills/abilities, fatigue, bad decisions, falling, more easily injured, slow healing, aches and pains, sleepless nights, incontinence, sleeping more during day, hearing loss.
- A loss of stamina – we experience weariness, temptation to give up, no desire to undertake or complete projects, no energy for ministry, loss of alertness.
- A loss of companions and friends – our spouse dies, we move away from friends, it’s hard to make new friends.
- A loss of independence – we can’t do the little things, we become embarrassed to ask for help, it may be hard to hear the telephone, we may lose the ability to drive, we may be in a wheelchair, we may be a burden to family, we may be a financial burden.
- A loss of a job – we were made to work, so when we all of a sudden get lots of time on our hands, we may struggle to be productive; we do little with our lives or just sit around watching TV or surfing the web.
- A loss of finances – there is an uncertainty about future, a fear of catastrophic illness or chronic illness, medical bills.
- Loss of life – we may become preoccupied with though of death but not know how to prepare for it.
And in the face of all these losses, sin is still indwelling the believer; new temptations arise. The tendency is to hang up the gloves when you hit a certain age, to either feel like you’re useless, or to feel like you can retire from discipleship and ministry. Yet as we grow old, we can and we must still grow in grace, and we can and we must still be one of God’s tools in His toolbox. Now, you might not feel like the sharpest chisel in the set, but a dull chisel has just as many uses, if not more, than a sharp one! I love Psalm 92:12ff. “The righteous man will flourish like the palm tree, he will grow like a cedar in Lebanon. Planted in the house of the LORD, they will flourish in the courts of our God. They will still yield fruit in old age; they shall be full of sap and very green, to declare that the LORD is upright; He is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in Him.” That is what we should be aiming for as we grow older, still to bear fruit in our old age. And by God’s mercy, that is what we will experience. May the Lord enable us to grow old with grace and in grace.
“You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things forever. The whole point of ‘seeing through’ something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too?… A wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.” (The Abolition of Man)
If there is anything that is constant in this life, it is life’s inconstancy. Change and decay are ever-present realities. Whether it’s children growing up, fortunes made and lost, job relocations, aging parents, friends growing more distant, your favorite restaurant closing, the death of a spouse – we live in a world that is mutable. The Scriptures declare that the earth and the heavens “will perish…and all of them will wear out like a garment; like clothing God will change them and they will be changed” (Psalm 102:26). Change is hard. It’s painful. So why does God ordain it for us?
Moses Drury Hoge pastored Second Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Virginia, for nearly fifty-four years, from 1845-1898; it was the only church he ever pastored. In a sermon on Hebrews 1:10-12, Hoge shows “that the very fluctuations of our present state of being, that what we call the accidents that befall men; that the crosses and disappointments which are so common, as well as the blessings that fill the heart with gratitude and joy – these are so many instrumentalities by which God shapes and moulds human character, and by which he teaches men how so to use this present life as to be prepared for life eternal.”
What are “the ethics of change, the moral uses of vicissitudes”? Hoge gives four ways that God uses change in our lives, four reasons why we can be thankful that change is a reality for us.
1. “[One] answer is that God has placed us in the midst of these perturbations to keep our life from becoming stagnant. If there was no change we would all become imbecile. I say if there was no change in the intellectual world, men would, by and by, drivel into impotence. Change is necessary to stir up and quicken and freshen life, just as thunder and storm are necessary to purify the sultry, stifling air. If it were not for these vicissitudes there would be no intellectual and no spiritual development. Change is God’s benediction to humanity. No man knows what he can do until he is put in a new situation that calls forth his energies. No man knows the resources that slumber within himself until the exigency comes that wakes them into efficiency. So God puts adversity and prosperity in the world to balance each other and to discipline and develop what is best in man.”
2. “Another reason why we are placed in such a world of change is to keep us from presuming on the future. You remember the description that one of evangelists gives us of the world’s fool of the first magnitude – the greatest fool whose biography has been written – who said, ‘Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years, eat, drink and be merry,’ as if the soul could be nourished by what grows in the vineyard and the field. The foot uttered a soliloquy, but there were two voices. It was a dialogue; another speaker broke in and said, ‘This night,’ not in some future year, but ‘this night, thy soul shall be required of thee.'”
3. “Again, life’s changes teach us to avoid the perils of both prosperity and adversity. Do you know the danger of too much success, of a life of uninterrupted prosperity? You say, selfishness and indifference to the interests and happiness of others. It is all that, but another danger of too much prosperity is discontent…The danger of adversity is doubt – doubt of God’s providence, and finally a denial that there is any providence – until at last the person says, ‘I am no worse than other people, but God seems to think so. he afflicts me, and I do not have anything but trouble. I doubt whether there is any providence at all.'”
4. “When we come to inquire into the moral uses of vicissitudes, and what is the grand purpose for which God has placed us in a world of such mutation, we can give briefly, in closing, this answer: it is that we may fix our thoughts and hopes upon something that is both permanent and satisfying…Experience and revelation unite in teaching that the soul must have some foundation on which to build and rest secure, which is not subject to mutation; something as enduring as its own immortality, and as satisfying as its capacities for happiness. But this it cannot find either in the material or intellectual creations of men – not in the noblest or most enduring of them; it cannot find it in human love, however pure and constant; it cannot find it in wealth or fame or power; it cannot find it in nature, whose well-ordered harmonies seem sweet and unvarying as the song of the morning stars. Where, then, is the foundation on which the deathless soul may erect its immortal hopes and find its eternal rest and peace and blessedness? The answer comes, all else must change and pass away, ‘but thou remainest.’ God is the soul’s infinite necessity, the soul’s eternal satisfaction. He alone is immutable…One way, then, by which the soul learns to know God is through its own great necessities which he alone can satisfy.”
(from “The Changing World and the Unchanging God,” by Moses Drury Hoge, in Southern Presbyterian Pulpit, 24ff.)
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We in the 21st century can sometimes get short-sighted, thinking that sound Biblical theology as we understand it today did not arise in the church until Geerhardus Vos, O. Palmer Robertson, and Ed Clowney in the 20th century. Yet the 19th century, based upon a solid Westminsterian foundation, had a robust understanding of the covenants of promise, the unity of the Testaments, and the one story of redemption running through the entire Bible (see, for example, Stuart Robinson’s Discourses of Redemption).
James Henley Thornwell, the most influential Southern Presbyterian theologian, demonstrates his Biblical theological sensitivities in a sermon preached in 1854 entitled, “Christ Tempted as the Second Adam.” It’s a short piece worthy of 15-30 minutes of your time, but here’s the richest section:
The bitterness and intensity of [Christ’s temptation] may be seen from comparing it with the trial of Adam:
- The place. Adam’s was in the garden of Eden – this in the wilderness. Adam’s, with a companion to relieve his solitude – Christ alone. Adam’s, with the beasts tamed and in harmonious subjection to his authority – Christ among the beasts, wild and savage. Adam’s, in the midst of plenty and abundance – Christ struggle with hunger. How differently were the two placed! How favourable the circumstances in one case! How unfavourable in the other!
- The extent of the trial – that is, the points at which both might be assailed. The test to Adam was condensed into a simple precept involving comparatively no self-denial. He could not fall as long as he abstained from the one tree of the garden. Christ was open to assaults upon all points. Every appetite, every impulse, every active principle of human nature might be plied with arguments, and success at any point would have been ruinous. There was but one sin against which Adam in the first instance was not absolutely guarded. Christ must rely upon His integrity to preserve Him from all. Behold, therefore, the severity of the conflict by which men have been redeemed and angels confirmed!
- The thing to be tested in both trials was allegiance to God [Thornwell earlier had written, “It did turn upon the same principles with the Adamic trial, which was essentially the test of obedience through impulses intrinsically lawful…”], and the mode of attack is adapted to the different circumstances of the parties. Adam was only a man, and the insinuation to him was that he was a god in capacity, and had only to put the thing to the proof. Christ was the Son of God, and the insinuation to Him was that He was only a man, and He was challenged to put to the proof His claims to being considered as anything more.
This, then, is the light in which the whole case is to be regarded – as the second probation of the world. Christ is the second Adam – the head of a family consisting alike of angels and of men.
Thornwell reminds us why it’s so vital for us to contend today for the historicity of Adam and the historicity of the fall of Adam: because if he did not exist, if he did not fall as the representative of the human race, then the significance of Christ as the second Adam is nullified. But most importantly, Thornwell’s exposition of the temptation should cause your love for Christ to abound in worship – Christ sustained the devil’s temptations for us and for our salvation!
William Swan Plumer was a 19th century Southern Presbyterian theologian, pastor and preacher. He wrote commentaries on Romans, Hebrews and the Psalms (for more of his life and work, see this site). In preparation for my upcoming sermon on the sovereignty of God, here’s a slice of his comments on Romans 9:11.
God is sovereign and his sovereignty is perfect, Romans 9:11. He is a King, the great King; a Judge, the Judge of all the earth; a Governor, the Governor among the nations. Chrysostom: “All the Israelites worshipped the calf; yet some had mercy shown them, and others had not.” God is so perfect and supreme a Judge that he is fit to decide in his own cause. He has always exercised his own sovereignty. Did not Jesse make all his sons pass before Samuel, and did not Samuel say, The Lord hath not chosen then, until the youngest, David, appeared? I Sam. 16:6-13. God asserts such sovereignty in its most absolute form in several parts of Romans 9, particularly vss. 15 and 18.
Calvin: “In his gratuitous election the Lord is free and exempt from the necessity of imparting equally the same grace to all; but, on the contrary, he passes by whom he wills, and whom he wills he chooses.” How independently God acts of human plans, desires and efforts is well stated by Clarke: “Abraham judged that the blessing ought, and he willed, desired, that it might be given to Ishmael; and Isaac also willed, designed it for his first-born, Esau; and Esau wishing and hoping that it might be his readily went, ran a hunting for venison, that he might have it regularly conveyed to him: but they were all disappointed: Abraham and Isaac who willed and Esau who ran.”
Every day we see God’s sovereignty displayed a thousand ways. He not only does his will in the armies of heaven, but also among the inhabitants of the earth. He kills and he makes alive. He exalts one and abases another.
As some worthy and pious people have real difficulties on this subject, it may be well to state that in the scriptural doctrine of God’s sovereignty there is nothing impairing or impugning the following clear principles:
- The Lord is no seducer. He tempts no man, James 1:13.
- The Lord is sincere in all his calls, offers, warnings and expostulations. He mocks no one with delusory proposals, Ezekiel 18:23, 32; 33:11.
- Though God sees nothing in man’s will, worth, or endeavors to decide his choice of one rather than another, and though he has not revealed to us and may never reveal to us why he does some things, yet he acts not capriciously, but in all cases has good cause for whatever he purposes, says and does. In a future world we shall understand much that is dark to us here; but neither our happiness nor our duty will require us to know all that is now mysterious. In heaven they adore on account of mysteries, Revelation 15:3.
- To understand God’s treatment of men aright, we must never forget that they are sinners by nature; that his wrath is kindled against them as transgressors, not as men; that his sovereign choice of any of them to eternal life is wholly of mere love, grace and pity. Beza: “Mercy presupposes misery and sin, or the voluntary corruption of the human race; and this corruption presupposes a creation in purity and uprightness.”
- Some ask, Is God’s sovereignty arbitrary? The word arbitrary is used in two senses very different. Originally it meant voluntary. In this sense God’s whole government is of course according to the counsel of his own will, or his good pleasure. So say the scriptures, Ephesians 1:5, 11; Philippians 2:13. But in popular use the word arbitrary has come to be equivalent to harsh, unjust or cruel. God’s sovereignty is at the greatest possible remove from any such attribute.
- Like remarks may be made concerning the word absolute. If by it is meant free, certain, complete, positive, without any other restriction or limitation; then God’s sovereignty is beyond doubt free, certain, complete, positive, and without any other restriction or limitation than that which arises from the infinite perfection and glory of his nature, such as this, he cannot lie, he cannot deceive, he cannot do any wrong.
- God’s sovereignty is universal, extending over all causes, all creatures, all effects, all agents, all results, all worlds, Psalm 103:19. Chalmers: “It seems hard to deny him either a prescience over all the futurities, or a sovereignty over all the events of that universe which himself did create; or that, sitting as we conceive him to do on a throne of omnipotence, there should be so much as one department of his vast empire, where his power does not fix all, and his intelligence does not foresee all. It greatly enhances this argument when the department in question happens to be far the highest and noblest in creation.” If mind cannot be governed, it matters little whether matter is controlled or not.
- It is but a decent modesty to admit that in God’s sovereignty are many things inscrutable. The unwillingness to admit much to be unknowable has led to many painful thoughts, and fruitless exertions. This difficulty is not confined to the simple plebian. It has vastly exercised those, who thought themselves wise and great. To Erasmus Luther said: “Mere human reason can never comprehend how God is good and merciful, and, therefore, you make to yourself a god of your own fancy, who hardens nobody, condemns nobody, pities everybody. You cannot comprehend how a just God can condemn those who are born in sin, and cannot help themselves, but must, by a necessity of their natural constitution, continue in sin, and remain children of wrath. The answer is, God is incomprehensible throughout, and, therefore, his justice, as well as his other attributes, must be incomprehensible.”
- There is nothing in the scriptural doctrine of the divine sovereignty to weaken the strength of motives to exertion. The essential freedom of the will, without which there is no moral agency, is unimpaired by it, yea is established by it. For if God is not sovereign, man cannot be free, but must be the subject of a blind fortuity, or of the sway of devils, or of some cause or causes not understood, perhaps not even named among men. Chalmers: “Although God is the primary, the overruling cause of every one event, whether in the world of mind or of matter, this does not supersede the proximate and the instrumental causes which come immediately before it. Although he worketh all in all, yet if it be by means that he worketh, the application of these means is still indispensable.” Therefore the whole doctrine and matter of second causes is left precisely where scripture and reason have left them, whether we accept or reject the sovereignty of God.
- Nor does ever so firm a belief in the scriptural doctrine of God’s sovereignty in the slightest degree modify the awards of conscience respecting the moral acts of ourselves or of our fellow-men. Remorse for personal sins and displacency for turpitude in others cannot be stronger in any case than they are in those who believe that God’s kingdom ruleth over all. Witness the convictions of the converts on the day of Pentecost. Peter demonstrated to them that they had fulfilled the divine purposes in the death of Christ, and that in so doing they were heinously guilty, Acts 2:23. They admitted the fairness of his argument, and cried out, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” As long as one is free from constraint and violence, his moral sense gives him prompt and infallible evidence of his responsibility (unless his conscience is seared) and this no less when he is persuaded that the Lord God omnipotent reigneth, than when his views are quite erratic on this point.
- In all the examples of known and terrible judgments on individuals or communities, fully stated in scripture, it is clear that God long displayed forbearance and patience – even the patience of a God. Neither man nor angel would have so long forborne to strike the stroke, when insult was so perversely and heinously multiplied. With a breath or a nod God could ease himself of his adversaries, and cut short their power in a moment; but see how he bore with Pharaoh, with the old world, with Sodom and Gomorrah. See how he bears with the wicked in our day. Some of them have heard the gospel for thirty, forty or fifty years, yet how hardened they still are, how they forget God, reject his Son and grieve his Spirit.
- But this longsuffering is not connivance at sin. O no! Some persuade themselves that God’s sovereignty is controlled by an easy good nature, which differs not materially from indifference to moral character. But the scripture makes a very different impression. “Vengeance is mine; I will repay saith the Lord,” Romans 12:19. Men may say that they have too good an opinion of God to suppose that he will damn them for anything, but if they die without repentance they will find that “he that made them will not have mercy on them, and he that formed them will shew them no favor,” Isaiah 27:11. Such will find the truth of what God here [in Romans 9] declares, “that he has endured sin in the world for the very purpose of glorifying himself in its punishment.”
- Nor is there anything in the divine sovereignty, nor in the scriptural doctrine thereof that should cause one moment’s delay or hesitation in any man in accepting the gracious offers of mercy. That is a prime and pressing duty. It is obvious and indispensable. If men would begin here at a plain and known duty, many difficulties would give way before them. The offers made are from heaven, and in heaven’s kindest and most urgent tones they are pressed on men’s acceptance. Blessed is he, who has wisdom to give them a cordial welcome.
- We should be very careful lest in making but a feeble adherence to the doctrine of God’s glorious sovereignty, we but feebly adhere to the other doctrines of scripture, especially such as have commonly been regarded as intimately connected therewith, especially depravity, the work of Christ, and the work of the Spirit. History sounds notes of alarm on that subject.
- Nor is it possible for us to adhere too closely to the word of God in the statement and defense of this and kindred doctrines. If they cannot be defended on solid grounds, let them be given up altogether. Mere abstract reasoning on such matters will lead no one safely, if God’s word give not the clue and the gist of thought. Let us humbly implore divine guidance, and submit our understandings as we do our hearts and lives to the all-wise and all-good control of him, who never errs.