The Counsel of His Own Will

martynlloydjonesdrawing_thumbDr. Martyn Lloyd Jones:

Listen to the original sermon who first trusted in Christ. In whom ye also trusted, after that ye heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation: in whom also after that ye believed, ye were sealed with that holy Spirit of promise, which is the earnest of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, unto the praise of his glory.’ – Ephesians 1:11–14

We continue our discussion of the Apostle’s great statement. He has announced that the great secret which God has revealed concerning His purpose is that in this present age, and in Christ, He has reunited the discordant parts, the separate parts, into which sin has divided the world and the whole cosmos. God is restoring the original harmony, in heaven and on earth, and He is doing so in and through our Lord Jesus Christ. In the dispensation of the fulness of times it is His purpose that He might ‘gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth, even in him.’ In these verses we are considering the ways in which God is doing this, and have already given attention to the first, and indeed in many senses the chief way, namely, the formation and the growth of the Christian Church. The Church is the new Israel, the spiritual Israel, the true seed of Abraham, and she consists of Jews and Gentiles. But the unity is established, as we have seen, by making these different people Christians, and the Apostle incidentally tells us a number of things about the Christian. We have already considered two of them.

Now we come to consider, in the third place, the way in which all this has happened to us, how this has ever become true of us, knowing ourselves as we do. How does anyone become a Christian? How does anyone enter into this position in which he is ‘in Christ’ and a ‘joint-heir’ with Christ? Fortunately the Apostle deals with that subject also. He is not content with saying that this is true of us, he tells us how it has become true. And he does so, of course, because this was something at which he never ceased to wonder. As we proceed we find Paul using a number of terms which we have already encountered. We met them in verses 4 and 5. They include certain great terms and phrases which are to be found throughout the New Testament, terms which are absolutely essential to a true and ultimate understanding of the Gospel: ‘In whom also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will.’ In verses 4 and 5 we find: ‘According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love: having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself.’ Such are the terms. We are here face to face with high doctrine, with some of the great profundities of the Christian faith and the Christian messages. Someone may ask: Why does the Apostle repeat these terms here, having already used them in verses 4 and 5? The explanation is not only simple but very important. In verses 4 and 5 the Apostle was taking a general view of God’s purpose, he was looking at it, as it were, from that eternal standpoint. Now he is not merely looking at it in general, but also in its particular application to us. There, it was the great scheme itself; here, it is the scheme as applied to us. But he still uses the same terms as he used there. They apply not only to the thought but also to the application.

Many Christian people never study these terms, never dwell on them, never turn them over in their minds. Let me prove that contention by asking a question. How often have you heard anyone going slowly, and term by term, through this great chapter? Or, how often have you read them yourself in this way? Are we not in danger of avoiding these great terms because of certain associations which they have? This is something of which we, as Christian people, need to be very wary at this present hour, for certain aspects of New Testament truth are just not being considered at all because of an element of controversy attached to them. Large numbers of Christian people are totally ignorant of prophetic truth, for instance, because their attitude to it is determined by the fact that it leads to argument and wrangling about various theories. They imagine that that is a wise and sound position to take up. But what they are actually doing is deliberately to ignore God’s Word; they are deliberately by-passing certain aspects and elements of God’s revealed Truth. God means us to study and to face everything in His word whether it is difficult or simple, whether involved in controversy of otherwise. To say ‘peace at any price’ at the expense of God’s revealed truth is surely an insult to God. These matters have to be faced, whether it is the truth concerning prophecy of whether it be the truth concerning these high matters of doctrine which the Apostle puts before us in these verses, as he has already done in verses 4 and 5.

How, then, do we approach the truth? First of all without prejudice. We all start with prejudices; we take up positions, and having taken them up, we argue for them and we defend them. We say ‘I have always said this; my parents said it before me; I have always been taught to believe this; therefore I stand …’ So it often happens that we have never really considered the Scripture teaching concerning these matters. We may never have read a book on the subjects, or considered what those whom God has called and appointed as leaders in the Church throughout the centuries have said and taught concerning it. We start with a prejudice and we hold on to it, and feel that it is a part of our personality. We must defend it! Our minds are so shut and closed that we do not even consider the question. It is surely unnecessary to point out that that is a totally un-Christian attitude. Nothing is further removed from the Christian position. This was the attitude of the Pharisees, and it was the reason why they hated our Lord and His teaching. It was the same attitude opposed the Apostles wherever they went to preach. This new theory, this new idea and teaching offended people’s prejudices. May God give us grace to rid ourselves of the prejudices to which we are all liable, and to which we are subject as the result of sin.

The second matter which I would emphasize is that we must submit ourselves and our minds entirely to the Scripture. We must make a positive effort to ensure that we come to the Scripture as if we knew nothing, and that we allow the Scripture to speak to us, instead of reading our thoughts into the Scripture. This is an extremely difficult matter for all of us, because we all have preconceived notions which tend to become spectacles through which we look at Scripture. But we must submit ourselves to the Scripture.

I emphasize this negatively by saying that we must not come to these matters in terms of philosophy. We all tend to start with original or inherited ideas as to what God should do, and what it is right for God to do, and if God does not behave in that way, then we may even impute unfairness to Him. This is philosophy; this is an example of a philosopher pitting his mind against God’s revelation. Nothing is more dangerous. Because they behave in such a manner many people show themselves to be most un-Christian. They say, ‘I cannot understand this idea of the Incarnation—two natures in one person’—and so they reject it. The insistence on understanding is a part of philosophy. They do not understand the Atonement, they say, and therefore do not believe it. Most people who reject the gospel of salvation do so simply because they say they cannot understand it. Technically they are not philosophers; nevertheless they are speaking philosophically.

I emphasize therefore that it is of vital importance that we submit our minds to the Scriptures and their revelation and that we cease to think philosophically. In other words we must realize that we are face to face with something which we cannot understand. I will go further, it is something that we are not meant to understand before we believe. We recall how the Apostle deals with the position of a man who puts up his objection in this way. The Apostle simply replies by saying, ‘Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God?’ (Roman 9:20). This truth is not to be understood, says Paul in effect, it is to be received. This is what God Himself has told us, and if you imagine that you can understand and span the mind of the Lord you are simply betraying the fact that your whole idea of God is wrong. That is ultimately the real trouble with all unbelievers; their thinking about God is all wrong. ‘Who hath known the mind of the Lord, or who hath been his counsellor?‘ This is the question asked by (Isaiah 40:13) and quoted in the New Testament (Romans 11:34). We are face to face here with the mystery of God’s eternal mind: and it is so high above us that we should not even begin to try to understand it. We must come humbly to it and look at it and receive it. If you try to have a final understanding of these matters, or hope to be able to reconcile certain things intellectually, you are not only doomed to failure, but you are guilty of trying to do something which the Apostle rebukes in the strongest and clearest manner in the ninth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans. Further rebukes are found in the second chapter of his First Epistle to the Corinthians, for example: ‘The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God.’

We are now able to approach these great matters in the right manner. The words of our text convey a truth meant for Christian people only; it is not a truth to be preached in an evangelistic service. It is a truth for the children, it is a truth for those who have been let into the secret; for those who have been given the Holy Spirit, who enlightens the mind and who gives understanding. It is not for the natural man who does not understand any part of salvation, and least of all this. But it is a truth which the children of God throughout the centuries have always found to be most consoling, most encouraging and most reassuring. The right way to approach it is by remembering that the controlling element in these matters is always the glory of God. ‘That we should be to the praise of his glory, who first trusted in Christ’; again, ‘which is the earnest of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, unto the praise of his glory.’ The paragraph started with the words, ‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ You must start there and end there. We found it again in verse 6: ‘to the praise of the glory of his grace wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved.’

In every view of salvation the place given in it to the glory of God provides the ultimate test. The proof that it is truly scriptural is that it gives all the glory to God. None must be reserved for ourselves or for anyone else. The Apostle keeps on repeating it—‘to the glory of God’, ‘the glory of his grace’, ‘to his glory.’ Elsewhere he writes, ‘But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom and righteousness and sanctification and redemption; that, according as it is written, He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord’ (1 Corinthians 1:30–31). My view of the way in which I have become a Christian must satisfy the test that it promotes and ministers to the glory of God. Salvation comes to us in spite of ourselves; we are nothing. We are not Christians because of our particular character or because of anything that we have done. It is all of God. The Apostle emphasizes this in the second chapter of this Epistle when he writes: ‘For by grace are ye saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not of works lest any man should boast’ (v. 8). There is to be no self-glorying; no man must glory in himself.

This teaching is not confined to the Epistle to the Ephesians; it is to be found everywhere in Scripture. It runs as a great theme throughout the New Testament, perhaps most clearly of all in the Gospel of John. This particular aspect of truth is found most clearly on the lips of our blessed Lord and Saviour Himself as seen in the sixth chapter and the tenth chapter of John’s Gospel. It is found likewise in the high priestly prayer in the seventeenth chapter. But it is equally true to say that it is the outstanding doctrine of the Old Testament also. It alone explains why Israel was the chosen race, why the Jews were the chosen people. It was not because of anything in them. Indeed, someone has said—and I believe there is a great deal of justification for so saying—that God chose them in order to show that if He could make something of such people He could do so with anyone. Consider their story as found in the Old Testament; nothing could be more miserable or hopeless. Their salvation was of God, and God says so, and says so specifically to them. He tells them plainly and repeatedly that He had not chosen them because there was anything meritorious in them, but for His own Name’s sake, and that His glory might be manifested. The entire story in the Old Testament from the call of Abraham onwards is of God. ‘You only have I known of all the families of the earth,’ He says through the prophet Amos (Amos 3:2).

That is the over-all aspect of the truth, but Paul breaks it up into its component parts. The first thing he tells us is that God has ‘purposed’ all this. ‘In whom also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated according to the purpose of Him …’ This word ‘purpose’ emphasizes the fact that the original idea, the thought in its very inception, was something that had God for its author. The eternal God devised the purpose of restoring this unity, this harmony, and of doing so in terms of certain people ‘before the foundation of the world.’ But then the Apostle adds to that by saying, ‘… according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will.’ This most important phrase, ‘the counsel of his own will’, is added, it seems to me, to safeguard the previous idea that the purpose is entirely and only God’s; for which reason the Apostle has already said the same thing before. He did so in verse 5: ‘Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will.’ Again in verse 9: ‘Having made known unto us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure which he hath purposed in himself.’ The repetition is the Apostle’s way of saying that this purpose which God has conceived was not suggested to God by anyone else. I quote again the question of the fortieth chapter of Isaiah: ‘Who hath directed the Spirit of the Lord, or being his counsellor hath taught him?’ (v. 13). All is ‘according to the counsel of God’s own will.’

No-one suggested to God that it might be good to do this or that. It was not only not suggested to Him by anyone else, it was not even suggested to God, as some have supposed, by reason of His foreknowledge whereby He saw that certain people were going to think and do certain things, in consequence of which His own thoughts were determined. Such an idea is a complete denial of what the Apostle teaches here. Everything is according to the counsel of His own will. He thought with Himself, He deliberated and mediated with Himself. The whole plan of salvation from beginning to end is exclusively of God, with nothing at all from the outside. Everything originates in God, everything comes out from God, I said at the beginning that we were considering high doctrine. There is nothing more glorious than this, that God should have been pleased to reveal these things to us. That is why we should constantly thank God for the Bible and its teachings, which emphasize the application of God’s grand design to you and me.

We are not considering some abstract truth. Before time, before the creation of the world, God purposed, according to the counsel of His own will, to restore harmony to the whole of the cosmos; and in particular He has purposed that you and I should have a part and place in it—‘In whom also we have obtained an inheritance.’ We have this part and place because God predestinated us to it according to the purpose which He purposed according to the counsel of His own will. The result is that you and I are sharing in this, and have tasted of the heavenly gift. You and I know something about the ‘firstfruits’ of everlasting bliss and glory. you and I are what we are for the reason that God purposed according to the counsel of His own will that we should be in it and should be sharers of it.

‘Predestinated’ means ‘pre-determined.’ What can be greater or more staggering than this, that God thought of me, thought of you there in the counsel of His own will! He not only conceived the plan, he saw us in it. ‘We,’ says Paul—‘we Jews, who first trusted in Christ were predestinated, and you Gentiles also have a part in this inheritance. God has pre-determined that we should both be in it, Jews and Gentiles. We are not only in the mind and the heart of God; we were always there. We are there now because we were there before the foundation of the world.’

It is God also who works out this purpose. This is the most amazing and the most consoling and comforting truth we can ever know. It is the whole basis of my assurance at this present moment; it is also the guarantee of my future. It is God Himself who put me where I am, and ‘He which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ’ (Philippians 1:6). I am in this plan of God, and I am what I am in spite of my sin, in spite of all that is so true of me, in spite of the fact that I was, with others, ‘dead in trespasses and sins.’ ‘Being predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things according to the counsel of his own will.’

But we must not only think of it in a personal sense. This purpose conceived in the eternal mind of God, beyond the particular reference to you and to me, has in mind also the ‘fulness of the Gentiles’ and the ‘fulness of the Jews.’ That will constitute the great kingdom, the people, the family of God, gathered in that way, and being gathered throughout the centuries. Such is God’s plan.

In describing how this plan actually finds fulfilment, how it actually comes to us, how it begins to operate, the Apostle uses the word ‘worketh’—‘In whom also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will.’ This is the Apostle’s way of saying that God is not only entirely responsible for the initiation and the conception of the purpose, He is equally responsible for carrying it out. This, again, is of the very essence of the teaching of the Bible. It is indeed, in many ways, the whole story of the Bible. When man fell God immediately revealed His purpose. Man had listened to the devil, had sinned, had fallen; and in doing so had dragged the whole of humanity down with him. The earth itself had been cursed, and the harmony of God’s cosmos had given place to strife and trouble.

God announced His plan, His purpose, by saying that the seed of the woman would bruise the serpent’s head. As we read through the Old Testament we see God working out that plan. He is the worker, the one who does all. ‘We are his workmanship.’ Nothing is of us—‘Not of works, lest any man should boast’ (Ephesians 2:9). As we read the history we see God bringing about the Flood yet saving a remnant, just one family—eight souls, Noah and his family. It was He who told them what to do to save themselves; He put them into the ark. We come later to the call of Abraham. This is all a part of the working out of God’s great purpose. He was preparing for the coming of His Son, the Messiah, in whom the plan centered. But the preparation was necessary; and the preparation was entirely the work of God. He looked at Abraham in his pagan surroundings and He called him out from them. That was another vital step in the working out of the plan. He turned that man into a nation. Then come the patriarchs and their descendants, the children of Israel. We soon see them as slaves in Egypt and in an apparently hopeless situation. But God delivers them out of Egypt and leads them into Canaan. Constantly they sin and go astray, and He sends them prophets to warn them. Eventually they are carried away into captivity in Babylon; but He brings a remnant back into Canaan. Had the plan of God been dependent upon the Jews it would have foundered. But it was God Himself who was working it out.

Then, ‘when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons’ (Galatians 4:4–5). God is now working out His plan through His Son. The Son came to work out our salvation. he obeyed the law, gave manifestations of His glory, and bore the sins of His own people in His own body on the tree, thereby making an atonement for our sins. Then He rose from the grave and ascended to heaven and sent down the Holy Spirit. It is all God’s work; it is God working out His own purpose in all things ‘according to the counsel of his own will.’ And it is being worked out in us as well. Were it not so, not one of us would be a Christian. He quickens us, He convicts us, He regenerates us, and gives us His Spirit to dwell within us.

But someone may ask, What of the injunction, ‘Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling’? The answer is: ‘It is God who worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure’ (Philippians 2:13). It is God who has given us ‘the Spirit that searcheth all things, yea the deep things of God’, otherwise we would never understand these things at all. From beginning to end God is working out His great scheme and purpose. In the eighth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans the Apostle says in verse 28: ‘We know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them that are the called according to his purpose.’ We note there the same terms—‘purpose’, ‘called’, ‘work.’ The Paul continues: ‘For whom he did foreknow he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover, whom he did predestinate, them he also called, and whom he called, them he also justified; and whom he justified, them he also glorified.’ It is God who works it all, from the beginning to the very end—‘He’! ‘He’! ‘He’!

But that is not the end of the story: it is only the beginning. It explains to us why and how we have become Christians. It explains why we are interested in these things, and enjoy public workship, and why we are not still living a worldly life as so many others do. It is nothing special or exceptional in us; it is not that we are different from or better than others by nature. We are no better than the world, any more than Jacob was better than Esau. Indeed in might well be that the reverse was the case. As a natural man Esau seems to have been a much better and finer and nicer type than Jacob. Salvation is based upon nothing in us. It is the fruit of God’s purpose, ‘according to the counsel of his own will.’ It is the out-working by himself of what He has predestinated, pre-determined.

We shall go on to consider the means God uses in order to do this, the way in which God works it out, and what He asks of us in the working out of His own great and glorious purpose. But we have started, as we must, where the Apostle begins, because what must ever be most prominent is the glory of God. ‘That we might be to the praise of his glory, who first trusted in Christ.’