************ Sermon on Canons of Dort, Head III-IV, Article 13 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on January 19, 2014
Canons, Head III,IV Article 13
Mark 8 has the delightful account of the blind man healed by Jesus in the Bible's only two stage miracle. After stage one Jesus asked the man what he saw. The man looked up and said, "I see people; they look like trees walking around" (Mk 8:24).
This kind of problem is typical for newly sighted people who have been blind from birth. Basic concepts of space, motion, and shape are incomprehensible at first. It may require up to four weeks of training for these people to learn to distinguish between round, square, and triangular shapes. One patient mistook an apple for a key, a loaf of bread for a hand. Another, grasping for some clue to please her teacher, seized on color. She learned that a match box was yellow; from then on she called every yellow object a match box, whether it was an apple, a banana, or a box of cereal.
God is as incomprehensible to believers as concepts of space, motion, and shape are to those who are newly sighted.
I The Incomprehensibility of God
A There are many things that we know about God. The reason is simple: God has revealed Himself to us. He has revealed Himself to us in Creation. It tells us there is a God, that He is almighty, that He is wise, that He is imaginative. He has revealed Himself to us in His Word, which tells us all sorts of things we don't know from Creation: that He is just, merciful, loving, that He has an eternal plan of salvation, that He controls all things through His providence, that He has sent His Son to earth to take on human flesh and to suffer and die as an atoning sacrifice for our sins, that His Son arose from the grave and now reigns in heaven above and someday will return as Judge.
Though God has revealed Himself, we must never forget that we don't know everything there is to know about God. Furthermore, we can't know everything there is to know about God. For, as I already said, God is incomprehensible.
What do I mean when I say God is incomprehensible? To say God is incomprehensible is to say there is much about Him that is mysterious. As we trace His footsteps in this world, we see only the fringes of His ways and touch but the hem of His garment. Listen to the words of Isaiah:
(Isaiah 55:8) "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways," declares the LORD. God is beyond our comprehension.
B When we turn to our Scripture reading from Romans we see the same thought affirmed. God is way beyond our comprehension:
(Romans 11:33-34) Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! (34) "Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?"
Think of what Paul says here. He talks of the "depth" of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God. There are a number of deep places or depths of which Paul can be thinking: the bottom of the Dead Sea, the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea, or the bottom of the ocean which in places goes down more than five miles. The wisdom and knowledge of God is deeper than all of these.
Paul talks of how "unsearchable" God's judgments are. We can't find them on our own. We don't know and can't understand God's mind. God's judgments are like Nebuchadnezzar's dream – beyond our ability to figure out. None of us are His advisor or counselor. This reminds me of the YouTube clip which shows a mouse in a maze with a big piece of cheese in the middle. The mouse smells the cheese and is wandering through the maze trying to find it. That is us when it comes to God's judgments. We find ourselves in a maze – and unlike the mouse we can never quite find our way.
Listen again to what Paul, inspired by the Spirit, writes in our Scripture reading:
(Romans 11:33) Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!Now, when Paul says this, when Paul speaks here about the incomprehensibility of God, He is talking about what God has revealed. We usually don't think of this. We usually think that Paul is speaking here in Romans 11 about the incomprehensibility of God's secret, unrevealed counsel. And, yes, what God has not revealed is beyond our comprehension. Yet, it is what God has revealed that Paul speaks of as being incomprehensible!
What sort of mysteries are to be found in what God has revealed? What sort of things is Paul talking about? Let me list some of them. For instance, who can really understand an eternal, self-existent God, without beginning or end? I can't. Or, who can understand the infinity of God, that He is beyond and above space, in another dimension, and yet is fully present everywhere? I can't. Or, who can understand the might of God, that there is nothing He cannot do? I can't.
Look at the Apostles', Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds. Much is written in them summing up what the Bible says about the trinity of God and Christ's two natures. Yet, how can we really comprehend one God Who exists in three persons? Or, who can really explain how the human and divine are united and bound in the one person, Jesus Christ?
Do you know what else is a mystery? It is a mystery that God can be in full control and yet man is still responsible and held accountable for all his actions, thoughts, and words. It is a great mystery why God would love us so much that the second person of the Triune Godhead took to Himself a human nature in order to die the shameful death of the cross. I have always wondered why an almighty, all-knowing, all-seeing God would create the forbidden fruit, let Satan tempt the woman, allow the woman to stretch forth her hand, and permit all of mankind to be plunged into ruin and misery. And, why did God create Satan? This, too, is a great mystery!
In talking of the incomprehensibility of God, Paul is especially talking of the subject he has just dealt with in 4 chapters: election and reprobation. We are told so much, and yet it is way beyond our understanding. Why, for instance, does God love Jacob but hate Esau (Rom 9:13)? As I have said in my Genesis series, there is very little lovable about Jacob; he is wily, deceitful, scheming, and a known liar. Why does God love the elect? Why does He hate the reprobate?
Paul wants us to conclude that God is incomprehensible. Even in what has been revealed to us, God is beyond our knowledge and our thought.
C God is incomprehensible. We can try to describe Him; yet, in the final analysis, He is indescribable. We can try to speak of Him; yet, in the final analysis, He is unspeakable. We can try to understand Him; yet, in the final analysis, He is beyond our human understanding.
Try to picture in words how a fish swims. Fish swim by exerting force against the surrounding water. This is achieved by flexing their bodies and tail back and forth. Fish stretch or expand their muscles on one side of their body, while relaxing the muscles on the other side. This motion moves them forward through the water. Having said this, I have to admit my description is woefully inadequate. I can't really describe a fish swimming. And, I cannot convey to you the beauty and majesty of its movement.
To describe God is harder, much harder, than trying to describe for you a fish moving through the water. God is incomprehensible. He outstrips all human categories, language, and terms. This means we must be modest and humble in our God-talk. We can't fully say Who or What God is. We can't fully describe Him. We can't understand Him in all His fullness, majesty, and glory. When it comes right down to it, what do you and I really know about God? The answer is: not much. He is infinitely beyond the grasp of the imagination and the senses. We can't picture Him, or explain His treatment of us.
Do you know what God wants? God wants to be believed instead of understood. He wants to be obeyed instead of imagined. He wants to be worshiped instead of explained.
D The Canons use the phrase "In this life." "In this life believers cannot fully understand ..." The fact of the matter, though, is that we shall never be able to fully understand God and His works. Certainly it is true that now "I know in part" (1 Cor 13:12). And in the future, says Paul, "I shall know fully, even as I am fully known" (1 Cor 13:12). But this does not mean that I will know all things about God. This means that in the future I shall know and understand far better than I do now. But our knowledge shall forever be a creaturely knowledge, and shall forever fall short of full comprehension. I shall always be man and God shall always be God, He will always be the Creator and I will always be a creature, and the difference between the two is so great that I cannot possibly know and understand all things about the Almighty.
II The Incomprehensibility of Regeneration
A Not only is God incomprehensible, but His work of regeneration is incomprehensible too. "In this life," says the Canons, "believers cannot fully understand the way this work occurs."
What do the Canons mean by this statement? First, we need to acknowledge that there is much that we do know about rebirth or regeneration. We know from Scripture that it is a work of God. We know that it results in a complete and radical change – the change from sinner to saint. We know that it activates the human will so that the sinner repents and believes.
B At the same time, we have to admit there is much about regeneration we do not understand. But if we could understand God's works, then we could understand God Himself. We don't know exactly how the Spirit makes us born-again. We may know and experience the result of the Spirit's work, we may judge the "before" and "after" of a man who is born-again, but we cannot say for sure what takes place in the inmost heart when a man is born-again. Neither can we say exactly when this work takes place; we cannot determine the exact moment of rebirth.
C Believers, then, cannot fully understand the work of God in them. But, says the Canons, they don't need to be disturbed by this. You don't need to understand something in order to enjoy it. Take a TV, for instance. Very few people are able to explain the process by which signals in the air or cable are transformed into pictures on the screen. Yet, they are able to enjoy programs on their TV anyway. Very few people understand how telephones or computers work, yet they are able to use and enjoy these instruments anyway. In the same way, even though we may not fully understand the Spirit's work of regeneration, we may still enjoy its comfort by knowing and experiencing its fruit of faith and love.
As I already said, we need to be careful and modest and humble in our God-talk. We can't understand Him in all His fullness, majesty, and glory. Nor can we even pretend to do so.
There was a little boy at the beach who dug a hole, ran to the ocean, filled his pail with water, and hurried back to pour it into the hole he had pawed into the sand. The little fellow went back for more water and then some more water and then some more ...Sometimes our questions and our talk about God is like the little boy with the bucket: we are trying to contain what cannot be contained because God and His ways are incomprehensible.
Someone watching the boy finally asked, "What are you trying to do?"
"I'm trying to put the ocean into this hole."
We may not like this, but this is the way it is and the way it has to be. You see, if God is NOT incomprehensible then He wouldn't be God.
In our Scripture reading Paul thinks about God, His being, His attributes, His ways, His revealed counsel or will. He realizes how great and mysterious God really is. He realizes that God is so much more than we know or can possibly imagine. And, he breaks out in a song of praise to God: "To him be the glory forever! Amen."
This should be our response as well. In fact, all of our God-talk should always end up in praise to God. All talk about God, all sermons on God, all books about God, all study of God – His being, His character, His attributes – miss the mark if they do not help us to praise God.
So with Paul we say, "To God be the glory forever! Amen."
You can e-mail our pastor at: Pastor, Trinity United Reformed Church
Back to Index of Sermons Page