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 realisation, 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 symbolised 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 realised.

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.

singapore 3I 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 centre for not only the gospel in Asia, but in the whole world.

billmuehlenberg.com/1999/04/08/end-times-and-christian-responsibility/
www.straitstimes.com/news/singapore/courts-crime/story/court-appeal-rules-section-377a-criminalises-sex-between-men-const

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9 Replies to “God, Divine Purposes, and Conditionality”

  1. It seems to me that God is Goal focused, whereas we are Time focused – look at all the books written about when the Lord could return, how the timetable of Revelation will pan out etc.

    In relation to Nineveh, God taught Jonah that He wanted them to repent, as He takes no delight in the death of the wicked but prefers repentance, and a holy people. But poor old Jonah was time focused – “40 days, and you get what’s coming to you, you wicked Ninevites!”

  2. A well balanced article full of wisdom and superb insight. Love it Bill!

  3. Amen and thank you. It is difficult to say more because you end up casting pearls before swine but you are absolutely correct. It is in God’s nature to give people choice and not only humans but all creatures; especially those with a soul. Sometimes the choice is allowed simply so that people can prove to themselves the errors in their thinking. Things need to be proven in this world, not for God’s benefit but for ours. The obvious problem, as God defined in Genesis, is that if you give people the choice to rebel and the understanding of this and they do rebel then the inevitable, unavoidable result is destruction… but yes, if you weren’t concerned for the criticism you (but probably not I) could fill volumes.

    One thing that may help here is the thing that is a fault in us but in God, it is an absolute right and that is jealousy. It is described to us using this term so that we can understand but the more you learn of God the more you realise that it is simple, unavoidable and completely moral. The rebels don’t see it that way though.

    Keep up the good work.

  4. Interesting to hear how different things are in Singapore where homosexuality remains a criminal offence. Would you support the recriminalisation of homosexuality throughout the west, Bill? Last year India recriminalised it so no reason why other countries can’t.

  5. Thanks Derek. The law can either prohibit, permit, or promote. If things could be left at stage two I would not mind so much. But invariably when states permit homosexuality they quickly move into hardcore promotion of it. So that is a real worry.

    And given that governments crack down on other harmful behaviours such as cigarette smoking, a case could be made for going back to some sort of restrictions on this high risk and deadly lifestyle.

  6. Bill, it’s surprising to see you start with an apology – nearly three whole paragraphs – don’t waste your words.
    God’s actions are definitely influenced by our response and activity. The whole plan of redemption was only because we chose to sin. Jesus was not averse to saying “what would you have me do?” Good fathers listen to the desires of their children and respond with wisdom and love.

  7. It is good to think through this Bill and well said. It was explained one time to myself that God’s overall plan is fixed and His purposes are certain for a new Heaven and new Earth. Until realized and in His manifold wisdom, He sees all the possibilities and all the free decisions we can make and He does permit them – the good and bad choices and the Lord even allowing Satan to seek to thwart the establishment of His Kingdom. ‘Nevertheless, God’s firm foundation stands’ both remembering God’s sovereignty and the human responsibility to ‘depart from iniquity’ cf – 2 Tim 2:19. While we have limited time in this life, the Lord in eternity desires us to freely seek Him and His ways. Elements of conditionality? Perhaps better to say He is longsuffering, merciful, kind and good in His dealings with us.

  8. Thanks for this article Bill. There seems to be encouraging things coming out of this trip of yours to Singapore. Encouraging for your supporters that you are getting some level of recognition there.

    I’m interested to get your response on the following. You said that Singapore is only five or so years behind the West regarding homosexuality. What are the factors in your thinking on this? South Australia was the first Australian State to decriminalize homosexuality in 1975. The other states followed quickly afterwards. That’s nearly 40 years ago. Why do you think Singapore may move so much more quickly? I can appreciate that they may move more quickly, but what are the social factors that make you think they are only 5 years behind? Is it international pressures?

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