Last night (as I am writing) the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley cup. And the streets of Pittsburgh, particularly on the South Side, were flooded with fans celebrating the victory. And as usual, the reverie of the City of Champions was not marred by violence, looting or rioting, as is too often the case in other cities. But as I listen to sports radio this morning I am thinking back to a pre-salvation night in June of 1992. And I am pondering the Stanley Cup and the sovereignty of God.
Now I don’t mean God’s sovereignty over who wins or loses any given game, series or championship. While I wholeheartedly affirm God’s absolute sovereignty over all of creation, and that by implication includes even things as unimportant as who wins professional sports championships, what I have been pondering is God’s sovereignty over human lives and destinies.
You see on that June night so many years ago, after watching the Penguins complete their sweep of the Chicago Blackhawks, I along with two friends, piled into one of their cars and headed downtown with the intention of celebrating the victory at Point State Park. But under the direction of then mayor Sophie Masloff no traffic was allowed downtown, so with a wink and a smile the Pittsburgh police funneled all of the celebratory traffic onto the Southside’s East Carson Street, the cities venerable “party” district.
And quite a party was going on, and we joined in the impromptu parade. The female member of our trio climbed through the sunroof and stripped off her top, the driver drove honking the horn, and I sat in the passenger seat manning the stereo, tuning it to the synchronized broadcasts of “we are the champions” and other appropriate celebratory tunes that the lay-parade was blaring from car windows. I was also handling the acceptance and distribution of all of the alcohol and what not that was being handed through the car’s windows. In other words, I was one of three worldlings in that car taking the occasion to engage in unrestrained pursuit of what rebels against God want to do.
And truth be told, in virtually every way I was the worst of the lot. You probably wouldn’t have wanted to know me them. I would probably cross the street if I saw the 1992 version of me coming down the sidewalk towards me. I was a real Genesis 6:5 type of guy, the thoughts and intentions of my heart were only evil all of the time.
Yet of the three in that car, one has stepped into eternity (as far as I know) without ever repenting and believing the gospel, one is enmeshed in neopaganism, and one went to work in the study of a church this morning, tired from preaching yesterday and from staying up too late watching hockey and the Penguins skate the Cup.
What gives? Did I decide my life was on the wrong track or somehow “clean up my act?” No! I grew worse and worse, progressively more misanthropic and more debauched, until one-day God stopped me in my tracks. The short version of what happened is that God sovereignly caused me to pick up a Bible I had on my shelf, to read it at a voracious pace because what I found was markedly different than what anybody told me was in it, and by the time I got to the Gospel of Mark about 48 hours after I started at Genesis 1, I knew I was a sinner in desperate need of a savior and when I read the confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees over the denarius in Mark 12:13-17, knowing that I was made in the image of God and that I was a rebel against my creator and that my only hope was the messiah, I crawled under my desk and wept, crying out for forgiveness and salvation.
If there was ever anyone who felt like 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 was written just for and about them, it is me.
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. – 1 Corinthians 6:9-11
I understand the passives in that passage, I was washed, I was sanctified, and I was justified, it had nothing at all to do with me. I was careening toward destruction. God sovereignly took me off of the broad road that leads to destruction and placed on the narrow way that leads to the narrow gate and life (Matt 7:13-14).
Although I had no idea at the time, this was all according to the eternal plan of God. He chose me in Christ before the foundation of the world (Eph1:4), he brought me from death to life (Eph 2:1-5), and most bafflingly He, having redeemed, adopted, and renewed my mind, gave me, a slave won to his service when Christ conquered sin and death, as a gift to the church (Eph 4:8-12).
Knowing all of this, there is simply no room for spiritual pride. One of my favorite professors in seminary drove this home to me when he pulled aside, and asked me “Do you know why you were called to ministry?”
I replied “no.”
And fixing me with a serious, penetrating, yet sympathetic gaze, he placed a hand on my shoulder and said “Because you were the worst available!” And as he walked away, although it was meant as a light hearted pride killing lesson, I thought he was exactly right. Apart from God’s sovereign grace, I would have been checking most, maybe all, of the boxes in the sin list of 1 Corinthians 6:9. And I would have had absolutely no place, let alone an inheritance, in the Kingdom of God.
I was no different from any of the others in that car that June night so many years ago. I could easily be in hell right now, or headed there full steam ahead, if not for the sovereign intervention of God.
What set me apart from my boon companions? Nothing but God’s sovereign grace. Why me? I don’t know, only God does. As Paul wrote to the Romans, God has mercy on whom He has Mercy (Rom 9:15) and the potter has complete freedom to make what He will from the clay. Objects for destruction and vessels for mercy (Rom 9:19-23) both are made from the same clay and come from the same wheel.
When we understand the grace of God all of our pride is utterly crushed. When we understand that all we are is up to Him, how can there be room for spiritual pride. Yet in some corners of the reformed world even though the doctrines of grace are affirmed many act as if they are the doctrines of just deserts. And pride follows. Knowledge can puff up (1 Cor 8:1). But is shouldn’t. The more we understand the enormity of God’s sovereign grace in our lives, the less room in our hearts there should be for pride.
Your fleshly parade may have looked different than the one I was riding in that June night, but you were at some point on the same road to perdition. And if you have turned from that road, it is because God turned you. And as you grow in your understanding of the doctrines of grace, live in light of them, and kill any and all spiritual pride.