BY JOHN DANIEL JONES
The Lord reigneth; let the earth rejoice (Psalm 97:1). The Lord reigneth; let the people tremble (Psalm 99:1).
THE GREAT NEED of our day is not the discovery of new truths but the vitalization of old ones. The man of the hour would be he who could breathe new life into certain simple, elementary truths that have been in the church’s possession throughout her history.
We have quite enough articles in our creed. What we want is sincerely to believe in them, for every truth that we honestly believe in becomes an energy in our life. Every genuine belief is a force.
But many of the beliefs we profess to hold are as void of life and power as the dry bones in the valley of the prophet’s vision. Some of the primary truths of our Christian faith would come upon us with all the surprise of new revelations if we once really felt their power.
Among the truths that need to be vitalized and restored to potency and influence among us is the great and blessed truth of the sovereignty of God. It is a primary article in our creeds, but to a large extent it has passed out of the category of effective beliefs. It has ceased to be an energizing faith. It is not today a force in our lives.
Yet there is nothing which, in the interests of a deep, virile, serious religion, we need more than to know the power of the truth that “the Lord reigneth;” that our God is not a dead God, not an inert God, not an absentee God; but a living God, a Sovereign God, a present God, a working God who is actively engaged in directing, overruling, and shaping the affairs of nations and of men.
Sovereignty and Calvinism
Now, there was a time when the sovereignty of God was a great, influential truth–a time when men had a subduing, almost overwhelming sense of the ruling and shaping will of God. Those were the days when Calvinism was at the height of its influence.
Happily, we have arrived now at the time when the fires of the old controversy between Calvinists and Arminians have died down, and there is not a spark left in the ashes. Therefore, without the risk of misunderstanding, we can recognize and appreciate the truths for which each party stood.
The sovereignty of God was the central doctrine of the Calvinistic system–the vital truth for which Calvinism stood. I agree that there was much that was stern and forbidding and even repulsive in the Calvinistic creed. Some of its repulsiveness was due to the pitiless and remorseless logic with which the
doctrine of the sovereignty of God was pushed to its most extreme consequences. As a result, man seemed to be a helpless puppet and God an irresponsible tyrant, saving some and damning others out of His mere good pleasure.
However, when we speak with contempt and scorn of Calvinism and the Calvinists, we show ourselves both ignorant and foolish. We are ignorant because whatever else Calvinism may be, it is a mighty and reasoned system; it is a sublime creation of the human intellect.
The world has perhaps never produced two subtler thinkers, two men who have exercised a greater mastery over the human mind, than those two great exponents of the Calvinistic creed John Calvin of Geneva, and Jonathan Edwards of America.
We show ourselves foolish, because this Calvinism, of which we speak so contemptuously, produced some of the greatest and most heroic men the world has ever known. Merely to mention the fact that Calvinism gave to the world William the Silent of Holland, Admiral Coligny of France, John Knox of Scotland, and Oliver Cromwell of England, ought to make gibes at Calvinism impossible and ought to make us realize that the world owes to it a debt it can never repay.
We may repudiate, and we do, the extreme Calvinistic dogmas, but let us frankly acknowledge what was great and noble in it. It was an iron creed, but it made iron men, so that the world never knew braver or stronger men than those Calvinism produced.
This humbling creed, which laid a man prostrate before his Maker, made holy men, so that the world numbers among its choicest saints John Bunyan, Richard Baxter, Samuel Rutherford, and Jonathan Edwards. This ennobling creed, which made a man feel he was the instrument and messenger of Almighty God, made mighty men, men who would neither bend nor bow, who feared none but God, and who with splendid courage crashed against all sorts of tyrannies and wrongs.
Listen to what J. A. Froude (not a prejudiced witness) says in one of the volumes of his short essays about the Calvinists:
They attracted to themselves every man in Europe that “hated a lie.” They were crushed down, but they rose again. They were splintered and torn, but no power could melt or bend them. They abhorred, as no body of men ever more abhorred, all conscious mendacity, all impurity, all moral wrong of every kind
so far as they could recognize it. Whatever exists at this moment in England and Scotland of conscientious fear of wrongdoing is the remnant of the convictions which were branded by the Calvinists into the people’s hearts.
And though there may be a little of Froude’s rhetoric in that glowing passage, this witness is substantially true.
Our Puritan Heritage
We are fond, on such occasions as these, of boasting of our descent from the Puritans. Surely this is a lineage upon which we may well pride ourselves. On the whole the Puritan is the noblest and most heroic figure upon the pages of our English history. It was the Puritan who broke the back of tyranny in the
state; it was the Puritan who preserved personal and vital religion.
And it was Calvinism that made the Puritan. The Puritan’s fundamental belief was his belief in the sovereignty of God. He had a overmastering sense of the presence of God; he regarded himself as but the instrument of the divine will.
It was that sense of God as sovereign that produced the humbling consciousness of sin which you find, for instance, in John Bunyan’s Grace Abounding. It was that same sense of God as sovereign that gave the Puritan his resistless strength.
“Deus vult, Deus vult,” cried the crowd of princes, barons, and knights who listened to Urban’s fiery advocacy of a crusade to rescue the tomb of Christ from the hands of the infidel: “God wills it, God wills it.”
“Deus vult” might have been taken by the Puritans for their motto, “God wills it, God wills it.” For that is exactly how they regarded themselves as agents of the divine purposes, instruments of the divine will.
And there you have the secret of their pertinacity, their strength, their indomitable courage. The man who believes he is sent, that he has a mission, that back of his own will is the divine and almighty will, is always a terrible person.
What wonder that Rupert’s cavaliers were scattered, like chaff before the wind, before that terrific onset of Cromwell’s Ironsides? What chance had men whose inspiration was loyalty to a prince when brought into collision with men who believed themselves to be the instruments of the divine will? What wonder
that those gallant soldiers who sang their joyous songs as they rode into battle were as stubble to the swords of men who shouted as they swept to the charge, “The sword of the Lord and of Gideon”!
It was in virtue of this central faith in the sovereignty of God that the Puritan lived his strenuous life and accomplished his mighty work. He lived as ever “in the great Taskmaster’s eye.” His one and absorbing aim was to bring himself into line with that holy and perfect and acceptable will of God, which he saw working out its purposes in the world.
The Soft Church
Calvinism is almost a reproach and a byword and a hissing amongst us in these days. Yet we are faced by the fact that never did this land of ours possess men so great and strong and God-fearing as she did when this iron creed was at the height of its influence. The day of the supremacy of this doctrine of
the sovereignty of God was also the day when English piety come to its consummate flower.
I am profoundly convinced that if we want to recover that deep, serious, masculine religion which characterized the Puritan, we must recover this doctrine of the sovereignty of God. We must restore it to its proper place of influence and power.
I do not suggest that we should commit ourselves to all that the Calvinists believed about election and reprobation and the divine decrees. In all these things they were the victims of their own logic, and they spoke of God the things that were not right.
But life will never be great and dignified, and religion will never be deep and serious until we realize God as they did–as the living, present, sovereign God. Until we are subdued and possessed and mastered by the sense of His presence; until we regard ourselves as the agents of His purposes and the instruments of His will, we will not experience these realities.
We are living in a rather limp and flaccid time. The intellectual temper of our day is that of a genial humanitarianism. Our manners are soft, and our beliefs invertebrate.
And the church’s condition corresponds somewhat to the condition of the age. For years now we have been bemoaning our ineffectiveness and lack of power. The fact is, a genial humanitarianism will never carry a church to victory.
What we need is a new vision of God–the Mighty God. Men have called the Puritan religion, “the Hard Church.” But is it not time, as Professor Peabody says, to face the perils of “the Soft Church”?
That is our peril today–the peril of the Soft Church. We want a breath of the Puritan’s bracing faith. For churches and for men it remains eternally true “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Ps. 111:10).
Sovereignty and Godly Awe
The texts I read out at the beginning of my sermon are from the royal Psalms. The main subject of these Psalms, from Psalm 93 on, is the sovereignty of God. And I have chosen my two texts just because they set forth a double result that will follow upon a realization of the truth of the sovereignty of God.
First, we will gain a new sense of awe. “The Lord reigneth; let the people tremble.” There was a note of seriousness and solemnity about the religion of the Puritan that is all too often lacking in the religion of today. It was born of his sense of the sovereignty of God. It has passed away because, to a large extent, that doctrine has lost its hold upon us.
The characteristic of the teaching about God of the past 25 or perhaps 50 years has been the stress and emphasis on the Fatherhood. We have emphasized what is tender and gracious and benign in the divine character.
This has been partly, no doubt, a reaction against the harsher views that previously prevailed. Now, lest there be any misunderstanding, let me at once say that I too rejoice in the Fatherhood of God. I delight to proclaim God’s tenderness and compassion and infinite love. But, as so often happens in our reaction from one extreme, we have swung right across to the other.
If our fathers emphasized God’s “awful purity” at the expense of His love, we have emphasized His love at the expense of His “awful purity.” We delight in these days to say, “Gentle, gentle, gentle, is the God and Father.” We have almost forgotten that cherubim and seraphim, with veiled faces, continually cry,
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts.”
In our absorption in the thought of God as Father, we have almost lost sight of the fact that He is the Holy Sovereign, ruling the world in righteousness. The result has been that to a large extent we have lost the sense of religious awe, of reverence, and of godly fear. There is a verse in a hymn in which the writer says:
Oh, how I fear Thee, living God, With deepest, tenderest fears; And worship Thee with trembling hope,
And penitential tears.
That verse, I have often thought, is almost foreign to our modern religious experience. We do not “fear” God. We do not “tremble” in His presence. We do not worship Him with “penitential tears.” We have lost our sense of God’s holy sovereignty, and the awe has passed out of our religion.
God has become to many of us an easy-going, good natured, indulgent parent who can be coaxed and wheedled and cajoled by His children, and who can deny them nothing–le bon Dieu of the Frenchman.
We have become “familiar” with God; we are on “easy terms” with Him; we speak to Him and about Him as we would to and about our next-door neighbor. We scarcely know what it means to worship God acceptably “with reverence and godly awe.” And with our shallow and emasculated ideas of God we get a shallowness and superficiality and flippancy in our religious life. The seriousness and the solemnity have gone out of it. There is no depth of earth.
To make our religious life deep and strong we need to recover that lost sense of awe. We need to be taught afresh the fear of the Lord. And to recover that lost sense of awe, to create within us the feeling of reverence, we need a new vision of God as the Holy Sovereign. “The Lord reigneth; let the people
If you will look at the Psalm from which this text is taken, you will notice that it is divided into three stanzas, and the last line in each stanza supplies the reason why the thought of the sovereignty of God should fill us with holy fear.
“The Lord reigneth; let the people tremble.” Why? “Holy is He,” answers the first stanza. “Holy is He,” answers the second stanza. “For the Lord our God is holy,” answers the third stanza. Put the two statements together, “The Lord reigneth . . . the Lord our God is holy,” and what do you get? You get holiness upon the throne.
We have only to realize that God is the Holy Sovereign, and the awe is bound to come back. “The Lord reigneth. Holy is He. Let the people tremble.” The Lord reigneth, a Holy God is on the throne, therefore let us fear.
To believe that an Almighty God is on the throne, working out His own holy and perfect and acceptable will, maintaining and asserting the eternal law of righteousness is there not enough in that to fill the hearts of sinful men with “godly fear”? Is there not enough in that to make us “tremble”?
The Puritan’s religion was a serious religion. He was afraid of God–afraid of Him in a worthy sense. He conceived of God as with him and about him always, and he was afraid of sinning against His holiness.
And is there not enough in the mere realization of the fact that a Holy God sits upon the throne, a God who is actively and unceasingly asserting His holiness–is there not enough in that one fact to make us, who are so prone to sin, serious and fearful?
We are constantly deploring our lack of the sense of sin. Is that because we have obscured God’s holiness? Sometimes I wonder whether the very emphasis we have laid on the tenderness and gentleness and patience of God’s fatherly love has made it easy for men to sin. We have made God’s forgiveness so cheap that sin has come to appear a light and trivial matter.
If that is so, let us this day remind ourselves of the holiness of God; let us lift up our eyes to the shining peaks of the “awful purity.” Let us remind ourselves that this Holy God is on the throne that He is on the throne to maintain purity and righteousness. The will that rules is a holy will. The power that governs is a holy power.
All who sin bring themselves into collision with the sovereign will and power of the universe. Wherefore our Lord said, “Whosoever shall fall on this stone shall be broken, but on whomsoever it shall fall, it will scatter him as dust” (Matt. 21:44). “The Lord reigneth. Holy is He. Let the people tremble.”
Sovereignty and Happy Confidence
If the realization that a Holy God is sovereign fills us sinful men and women with awe and godly fear, that same realization of God as sovereign ought to fill those of us who love goodness and long for the triumph of Christ with a happy confidence.
“The Lord reigneth; let the earth rejoice.” “God’s in His heaven,” sang Pippa as she passed along the streets of Asolo, “all’s right with the world.” “In His heaven,” that is, not as being absent from the earth, but as being in the place of supreme power and dominion. Anybody who believes that–who believes
in the sovereignty of God, in God’s actual rule and government–can add in happy trust, “All’s right with the world.”
“The Lord reigneth; let the earth rejoice.” Here is the real ground of our confidence in the coming of a better day–“The Lord reigneth.” There are many things in the condition of modern society to depress and sadden us. The touching faith men had in the natural and inevitable ” progress” of the race has received many a shattering blow.
Society seems to be turning toward barbarism rather than away from it. The one thing that will keep our faith in the coming of the new earth, where righteousness dwells undimmed, is to believe in the sovereignty of God.
The destinies of the world are not, for instance, at the mercy of fleets and armies the Lord reigneth. We want a new grip on this mighty fact, for the whole world seems to be subscribing to the atheism of force and fear. Nations seek their safety in a multiplication of guns and battleships. Here in England we are spending more on munitions of war than we have ever done in our history.
But it is not armies and alliances that settle the destinies of people. “The Lord reigneth.” It is God who decides the fate of nations. He makes low and raises up, and none can usurp His power. And in that thought, let us be glad. “The Lord reigneth; let the earth rejoice.”
To believe in the active sovereignty of God is to believe in the strength and supremacy of righteousness. The man who looks out on the world and can see only kings and emperors, scheming politicians, and armies and fleets all ready at the first signal to deal out death and destruction may well fall into
distraction and something like despair. But the man who believes in and recognizes the sovereignty of God can be happy and confident.
When the Northern States of America braced themselves up for that gigantic struggle on behalf of the freedom of the slave, there were plenty of people and among them many Englishmen–to prophesy defeat. But there were some men, like Ward Beecher, Whittier, Lowell, and the great Lincoln himself, who contemplated the issue with confidence. They believed they were on God’s side and that God
would not belie His own character by permitting the triumph of iniquity and wrong.
At first, it seemed as if the prophecies of those who foretold defeat were all going to come true. Things went badly for the North, and after one fierce engagement in which victory rested with the South, the hearts of the bravest failed them.
It happened that a meeting was being held in Washington at the time the news of the defeat arrived. Frederick Douglas, the slave orator, was speaking. The news was brought to the platform, and when he heard it, Frederick Douglas gave way to despair and burst into tears. The news passed from seat to seat
through the hall, and as they heard it, the hearts of the people stood still with fear.
But there was one old black woman sitting way in the back gallery whom temporary defeat could not dishearten. When she saw the meeting falling into something like a panic–with even Douglas in despair–she cried out with a shade of reproach in her tone, Frederick Douglas, God is not dead.”
It was a simple word, but it brought the courage back to the hearts of all, because it reminded them of Him in whose hand the destinies of nations are, and by whom kings rule and princes decree justice. The Northern cause was a righteous cause; the event in time showed that “God was not dead.”
“God is not dead.” This is the truth we need for our good hope to realize today. He is not dead and He has not abdicated His throne. “The Lord reigneth; let the earth rejoice.” To know that God rules to realize His sovereignty–is to be delivered from fear and despair. His ways often transcend our feeble range of sight; clouds and thick darkness are often round about Him.
But to know that God rules, is to know in spite of all anarchism and militarism, that the kingdoms shall become the kingdoms of our God and of His Christ. “Fret not thyself because of evil-doers.” “The Lord reigneth,” and “He shall make righteousness to go forth as the light, and justice as the noonday”
(Ps. 37:1, 6).
Triumph of the Church
“The Lord reigneth.” This is the ground of our confidence in the triumph of the church. The church has not, in recent years, been in a triumphant frame of mind. She has been depressed, nervous, harassed, and anxious. She has talked continually about “reaction” and “arrest.” She has been conscious of strained resources and inadequate powers.
My brethren, what we want for a recovery of our courage and confidence is the recovery of our faith in the sovereignty of God. In Dr. Paterson’s book The Rule of Faith, there is a sentence that I commend to the serious consideration of my brethren.
Here it is: “The value of a religion depends on the truth and sufficiency of its idea of God.” Not only on the truth of it, you notice, but on the sufficiency of it as well. If we start with a little God, we shall have a little peddling religion, utterly insufficient to meet the greater needs and wants of man.
For the idea of God is the ground plan in religion. If the ground plan is cramped and meager, the building erected upon it is bound to be cramped and meager too. You cannot build a bigger building than your base will safely carry. On a narrow base, a big building would simply topple over. And in exactly the
same way, you can never build a big religion upon a little God.
A great religion demands a great God for its starting point. Whatever else our Christian gospel claims to be, it claims to be a great religion. It claims the world for its province, and it preaches a salvation that reaches down to the last and the least.
But to make this Christian religion of ours, with its worldwide redemption–its universal salvation even credible, we need a mighty conception of God. If we are to believe that it will win its way to the ends of the earth, we must start with a great idea of God.
And perhaps that is what we need for a revival of our faith and courage–an enlarged conception of God.
Our doubts and timidities and despairs arise from the fact that we have made Him altogether like ourselves.
If that’s all He were, we might well despair. For no magnified and glorified man is equal to the great salvation of which our gospel speaks. But our God is a great God and a great King above all gods. The Lord reigneth–that is our confidence.
We need a vision of the sovereign Lord. The triumph of the church does not depend on us, but on Him. It is He–the mighty God–who has said, “Ask of Me, and I will give thee the heathen for shine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession” (Ps. 2:8). It is He who has said, “I will yet
set my King upon my holy hill of Zion” (Ps. 2:6). Whatever God, the Almighty God, said, shall He not do it? Whatever He has spoken, will He not make it good?
We have lingered perhaps too long among the gentleness of God; we need today the bracing vision of His majesty and power. Perhaps we have dwelt overmuch on the meek and lowly Jesus; the vision we need to see today is that of the glorified Christ, with His sword upon His thigh, marching on prosperously
because of truth and righteousness, the mighty to save. The vision of the Throned Lord is the antidote to fear.
Do you remember that antithesis at the close of Mark’s gospel? “Then the Lord was received up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went . . . everywhere” (16:19, 20). The Lord on the throne the servants out in the field. The Lord in the place of power–the disciples flinging themselves
with resistless dash and courage on all the strongholds of heathenism. A true vision of the King produces exactly the same effect today.
“Do you expect to convert China?” asked the captain of the ship in which Robert Morrison sailed. “No,” replied that indomitable missionary, going out alone to claim China for Christ, “but I expect God will.” That is the secret of courage! The Lord reigneth; let His church rejoice!
To realize that God is King will change our sobs into shouts of triumph. A new faith in the sovereignty of God will send us back to our tasks with the assurance born of a mighty faith. What if obstacles are great and enemies are many? Greater is He that is with us than all that are against us. The Lord reigneth, and He will not fail or be discouraged until He has brought forth justice unto victory.
Sovereignty and Personal Peace
I finish with this personal word. “The Lord reigneth,”-it is just the realization that God is sovereign that will bring us calm and peace amid the varied experiences of our individual lives. Horace Bushnell has a sermon on the text, “I girded thee, though thou hast not known Me” (Isa. 45:5), and to the sermon he gives the title, “Every Man’s Life, a Plan of God.”
I know the difficulty there is in reconciling this with our faith in human freedom. I am not going to try to solve the antinomy. I believe that man is free, and I also humbly believe that every man’s life is a plan of God.
God compasses our path; He is acquainted with all our ways; He orders our steps. The temptations, the trails, the joys, the sorrows of our lives they are all of His ordaining. The niche we occupy, the sphere we try to fill, the work we seek to do–they are of His appointment.
“The Lord reigneth.” In this fact let us rejoice. For this Lord who reigns who girds us though we do not know it–is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. I have said that He is the holy God. But He is also the loving God. “Holy Father.” That is His full and perfect name.
This is one of the commonplaces of our religion, but it is one of those commonplaces that sorely needs to be revitalized. When we come to account for our trials and difficulties and hardships if we believe in the living God at all–we come ultimately to this: they happen to us because they are God’s will for us. But that will is a loving will, a perfect will. Once we realize that, we shall arrive at Paul’s sunny faith that all things work together for good to them that love God (Rom. 8:28).
Our lives get broken and harassed just because we forget that it is the Lord who reigns. “Be still,” says one of the psalmists, “and know that I am God” (46:10). Once we realize that He who gave His Son for us all is on the throne, we shall find it easier, amid life’s manifold perplexities, to be still.
Life is not easy for any one of us. It brings its burdens, its cares, its sorrows. Perhaps I am speaking to some burdened and sorrowful hearts. You have been laboring in a hard place; you have had grievous disappointment to bear; you have had sickness in the home; you have perhaps seen a dear one go down to the gates of death.
What have I–what has anyone to say in the face of these things? Just this: “The Lord reigneth.” And that Lord gave His Son. Holy love is sovereign. Love girds us though we may not know it.
To believe this is to possess that deep and central calm which neither sorrow nor pain nor trouble nor even death can disturb, for we shall know that underneath us are the everlasting arms. We shall be able to make those familiar lines of Whittier our own and say:
I know not what the future hath
Of marvel or surprise,
Assured alone that life and death
His mercy underlies.
I know not where His islands lift
Their fronded palms in air,
I only know I cannot drift
Beyond His love and care.
“The Lord reigneth; let the earth rejoice.”
John Daniel Jones (1865-1942), “Jones of Bournemouth,” was one of England’s best-known preachers and denominational leaders. Ordained in 1889, Jones pastored in Lincoln and then became a New Testament lecturer in the Nottingham Theological Institute. In 1898 he went to Richmond Hill Congregational Church, Bournemouth, where he ministered with distinction for 40 years. He published
many books of sermons, but perhaps his best work is his Commentary on Mark. “The Sovereignty of God” is from The Gospel of the Sovereignty and Other Sermons, published by Hodder and Stoughton.
THE ABOVE MATERIAL WAS TAKEN FROM CLASSIC SERMONS ON THE ATTRIBUTES OF GOD AND PUBLISHED BY HENDRICKSON PUBLISHERS, INC., BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT WITH AND PERMISSION OF KREGEL PUBLICATIONS, 1989, PAGES 40-55. THIS MATERIAL IS
COPYRIGHTED AND MAY BE USED FOR STUDY & RESEARCH PURPOSES ONLY.