In the course of my ministry, over the past decade or so, I have made mention on several occasions of a personally life-impacting book by David Wells titled, God in the Wasteland. In this work, Wells speaks of what he calls “the weightlessness of God.” Writing from a North American perspective, Wells notes that, in the average evangelical church, God is seen as peripheral. He is acknowledged, yet ignored. His “weight” is not “felt” when it comes to how to “do church,” how to worship, and how to live. He writes,
God now rests too inconsequentially upon the church. . . . His Christ, if he is seen at all, is impoverished, thin, pale, and scarcely capable of inspiring awe, and his riches are entirely searchable. . . . It is God that the church needs most—God in his grace and truth, God in his awesome and holy presence.
Our light is dim and our salt is not salty. We pour more and more of it in a multitude of new churches and professions, and society tastes the same. Recently, I was at the airport dealing with a claim for damaged baggage. While I was there, some of the airport staff were striking, and the man dealing with me apologised profusely for the inconvenience. He complained that, in contemporary South Africa, everything is about money. Not knowing that I am a pastor, he added, “Even churches are all about money!” He told me about the area in which he lives, and how churches are frequently started with the goal of making money. When I told him that I am a pastor, he said, “Well, that’s fine, but it’s still true!”
Sadly, he is right in many cases. There are a multitude of churches that have lost sight of the glory of God. Many churches could well be labelled “Ichabod”—“the glory has departed” (1 Samuel 4:19-22). Unfortunately, unlike Eli’s daughter, many in such churches don’t even notice!
So what is, at root, the problem, and what is the solution?
The problem is that the evangelical church has lost sight of the glory of God and of our purpose: to live for the glory of God alone—in every sphere and every place.
I have a friend who was sent from our church to pastor a church in another country in Southern Africa. When I first met him years ago, living in a suburb close to our church, he had a sign hanging outside the front door of his house, which read, “Soli Deo Gloria”—“to God alone be all the glory.” After being a member of our church for several years, he was sent as a missionary to a country in Northeast Africa, and when I visited him there, he had the same sign outside his front door. After a few years of ministry there, he was invited to minister in a very rural part of another African country, in which Christians are severely persecuted. When I visited him there, he had carried his sign with him. Today, the same sign hangs outside the front door of his house in his present country of ministry.
Having known him well for many years now, I can testify that it is more than a mere slogan to him. He is a man who genuinely believes that his purpose is to live for the glory of God alone in every sphere and in every place, and he lives accordingly. This is an understanding that has been lost by many in evangelical churches today, and needs to be recovered.
The question, then, is, what is the solution? And the answer to that is a recovery of the five solas of the Reformation. That is, if we embrace God-centred doctrine and practice—a God-centred approach to life—we will “feel” God’s weight, the weight of glory.
Isaiah experienced the weight of glory and was different and made a difference. Peter felt the weight of glory and was different and made a difference. Calvin, Luther, Edwards, Spurgeon, and a myriad of others made a difference when they felt the weight of glory. Paul was one of those, and his experience of the weight of glory bursts forth in our text.
Motivated to Live for God’s Glory
What led to Paul’s experience of, and commitment to live to, the glory of God? What will lead to us and our people living to the glory of God alone?
Doctrine Led to Doxology
Scripture alone informed Paul that salvation was by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. The culmination of this conviction was the proclamation, “To God alone be the glory!”
Our text is a glorious one, in which Paul bursts into praise following a lengthy exposition of the biblical doctrine of salvation. Paul spends some eleven chapters detailing what it means to be a recipient of God’s grace, and as he reaches the conclusion of this exposition, he cannot contain himself. He must burst into praise.
Charles Hodge says of our present text: “Few passages, even in the Scriptures, are to be compared with this, in the force in which it presents the idea that God is all, and man is nothing.” John Murray adds,
It is a mistake, however, to think that God’s incomprehensibility applies only to his secret, unrevealed counsel. What God has not revealed does not come within the compass of our knowledge; it is inapprehensible. But the most significant aspect of incomprehensibility is that it applies to what God has revealed. It is this truth which is conspicuous in this passage. What constrains the doxology is the revealed counsel, particularly that of verse 32.
Leon Morris writes, “Paul is not breaking into praise because he has been able to give a final and complete solution to some difficult problems. He has certainly given some of the answers, but to some very important questions the answer is still not revealed. But it is Paul’s conviction that there is a solution and that that solution is in God’s hands. Therefore he breaks out into this doxology.”
Paul’s doctrine (1:1—11:32) led to doxology (11:33-36). J. I. Packer has said, “The test of a theology is the kind of devotion it produces.”
One evidence that much of the contemporary church has lost appreciation of the glory of God is in the worship music that is often produced. The great hymns of the faith are filled with deep doctrine and, consequently, reverent praise, while much of today’s Christian music is, as Albert Mohler has quipped, “one word, two chords, three hours.” This is not to say that older is automatically better. I have personally removed many older hymns from our church’s repertoire, and we conversely make use of a good number of contemporary songs in our worship. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that much of what is produced today under the banner of “worship music” is devoid of any real reverence for Christ.
As Paul meditated on and worked through the doctrine of the gospel he saw something of the glory of God. This is what will characterise a truly Word-based church. One of the more contemporary songs that we use in our church is Mark Altrogge’s “In the Presence.” One line of the chorus reads, “and I am changed in the presence of a holy God.” When we feel the weight of God’s glory, we ought to be changed.
Listen to the record of Moses’ experience with the glory of God:
Now the LORD descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD. And the LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation.” So Moses made haste and bowed his head toward the earth, and worshiped.
Moses experienced God’s glory by God’s exposition of His Word.
By way of application, let me say that we must preach and practice sola Scriptura. That is, the Word must shape our worship. In our church, we make a deliberate effort to get to the Word as quickly as possible in our worship. The call to worship is issued from a psalm, and the public reading of the Word, more often than not, takes place before any hymns are sung. We want to hear from God as quickly as we can.
The better we know God, the more apt we will be to praise and to glorify Him. How else can you explain the conduct of Paul—or, for that matter, Jesus? If all of God’s glory will increasingly be manifested in all parts of the earth then His Word—His gospel, His doctrine—must increasingly be proclaimed in all the earth.
God be merciful to us and bless us, and cause His face to shine upon us, (Selah) that Your way may be known on earth, Your salvation among all nations. Let the peoples praise You, O God; let all the peoples praise You. Oh, let the nations be glad and sing for joy! For You shall judge the people righteously, and govern the nations on earth. (Selah) Let the peoples praise You, O God; let all the peoples praise You. Then the earth shall yield her increase; God, our own God, shall bless us. God shall bless us, and all the ends of the earth shall fear Him.
Grounded in the Gospel
We must constantly be grounded in the gospel. The gospel reveals the glory of God. That is why the Bible frequently refers to the gospel as “the gospel of God” (Romans 1:1; 15:16; 2 Corinthians 11:7; 1 Thessalonians 2:2, 8-9; 1 Peter 4:17).
God’s sovereign grace produced the awe of vv. 33-36. I can well remember how our church was spiritually strengthened as we spent some six to seven years together in Romans during our Sunday night services. I can likewise remember the personal impact on my life of J. I. Packer’s little book, Today’s Gospel: Synthetic or Authentic. It gave me a greater appreciation for God’s glory and strengthened my walk with Him.
I recently had the great privilege of attending the South African Together for Adoption Conference, hosted by a church in Pretoria. Once particular session—titled “Why We Adopted”—was preached by a man who has personally adopted babies in difficult situations. When he was asked to preach, he tried to decline, assuring the organisers that he was not the right man for the job. Nevertheless, he eventually agreed to preach, and it turned out to be one of the most memorable messages that I have ever personally sat under.
As he preached, he spoke very transparently and very biblically about some of the difficulties that they have faced over the years in the adoption process. As he preached about why they adopted these children and what God had taught him in the process, it all came back to the gospel. There was a reverent hush over the entire congregation as this man shared his heart from a thoroughly gospel-centred perspective.
When he finished preaching, I went to him and expressed my gratitude that he had not managed to talk his way out of preaching. As he pointed us to the gospel truth, it was an experience of true, deep worship. As we are grounded in the truth that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, according to Scripture alone, we will surely give all the glory to God alone.
If the gospel that we preach does not lead to such a (doxological) response then we’ve missed something. God’s wisdom is incomprehensible. God’s work is indescribable—if not for His grace! The gospel is weighty, and we must help one another to feel its weight. The gospel, properly understood, leads to faith alone in Christ alone.
Growing Appreciation for God’s Glory
The gospel—as exemplified in the solas—leads to a higher view of God and therefore to a growing God-centred worldview. We must see that the gospel is for all of life. A biblical understanding of the glory of God alone will result in several things.
A Comprehensive Worldview
First, it will give us a comprehensive, cohesive worldview. We will come to see that everything is under the rule of God, and this will produce a thoroughly God-centred worldview.
Consider, as an illustration, Peter’s words to his readers in 1 Peter 1:13-16: “Therefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and rest your hope fully upon the grace that is to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ; as obedient children, not conforming yourselves to the former lusts, as in your ignorance; but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, 16 because it is written, “Be holy, for I am holy.’”
You may be aware that Peter lifts these words directly from Leviticus 19, which describes the holiness to which God called Israel in very practical terms. Leviticus 19 deals with such practical issues as reverence for parents, proper observation of the Sabbath, avoidance of idolatry, generosity and sexual purity. God was concerned about all of these issues and more. When we appreciate the glory of God, it will impact every area of life: home, society and sanctuary.
We must teach this worldview to our children. The instruction of Deuteronomy 6:5-9 is clear: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
A Constructive Purpose
Second, an appreciation of God’s glory will produce in us a constructive purpose in the world—that is, to glorify and enjoy God forever. This will be our purpose whether in vocation or on vacation.
I am convinced that many of us have been trained to create what is often an unhelpful dichotomy between the “secular” and the “sacred.” That is, we have been trained to think that some things fall under the banner of “religion” while other things ought to have nothing to do with “religion.” God may speak to the “sacred” things in our life, but not to the “secular.” And so God may have weight on a Sunday at church, but He is left in the church building when we go to work on Monday.
When we grasp the reality of God’s glory, our devotion will move beyond corporate worship to comprehensive worship. We will live all of life to the glory of God. I can well remember when one of my daughters came home from university after just beginning to further her studies in mathematics. She was so excited about what she was learning and how it revealed to her more of God’s glory. She just could not understand how anyone could study maths and not see God’s glory in it. I cannot hope to have the grasp of maths that she has, but I am thrilled that she understands the concept of all of God’s glory for all of life.
The Eric Liddell is well-known. When he was pursuing his passion for athletics, even after having committed his life to missions, his sister was somewhat distraught at what she perceived to be a distraction from his calling. When she expressed her concern to him, he told he that he was aware that God had made him for missions, and added, “but He also made me fast.” Whether on the mission field—and he eventually did go to China as a missionary and died in a Japanese concentration camp—or on the athletic track, he understood that he was meant to live for God’s glory.
I have already made reference to Deuteronomy 6:5-9, which speaks of the fact that we must talk of the things of God “when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up.” This covers every area of life. We need to be done with artificial compartmentalising of our lives into sacred and secular. We need to help one another to feel the weight of glory in all they do.
The Practical Implications of the Gospel
Third, an appreciation of God’s glory helps us to see that the gospel has practical implications. Several years ago, Jerry Bridges spoke at our church at a couple of midweek meetings. During that time, he made the comment on several occasions that, as believers, we must daily preach the gospel to ourselves. Believers need a gospel-driven life, and when we do we will see the practical implications of the gospel in every area of life.
Churches like our own often exhibit a needless fear of the “social gospel.” I am not suggesting that a genuine embracing of the social gospel is insignificant. I am suggesting that what sometimes passes as “social gospel” is not, in fact, social gospel. Just because the church is concerned about social issues does not mean that it has embraced the social gospel. The gospel will certainly drive a church to be involved in “social” issues (prolife activism, adoption, etc.) without that church necessarily embracing a social gospel.
If you remain faithful to the five solas then the gospel will be well-protected in all you do. There is a sense in which we can hide behind the gospel as an excuse for doing nothing. But as one of my fellow elders has said, those who hide behind God’s sovereignty are in trouble; those who hide in it are safe.
John Calvin, a man consumed with the sovereignty of God, was responsible for the design and placement of an intricate sewerage system in Geneva. William Wilberforce was driven by the gospel in his opposition to slavery. The church throughout the ages has been at the forefront of founding hospitals and orphanages and saving abandoned children.
In our own church, there has recently been something of a reformation with regard to ministries of mercy. In a very practical way, our church has come to understand and embrace the truth of James 1:27: “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.” This has resulted in a newfound passion for prolife activism, adoption, and benevolence initiatives within and without the church.
There is always the danger of pietistically refusing to be involved in society and choosing instead to preach the gospel. On the flip side, there is the danger of militantly and hatefully opposing everything we perceive to be unbiblical without a commitment to impacting society with the gospel. We must avoid these dangers by instead being actively involved in the practical outworking of the gospel in society.
Fourth, an appreciation of the glory of God in all areas of life empowers us to take Romans 8:28ff seriously. That is, those who understand the reality of the glory of God will embrace the truth that “all things” are designed by God for our sanctification and eventual glorification—to the glory of God alone.
Deliverance from Fear of Man
A soli Deo gloria worldview will deliver us from the fear of men. Paul wrote elsewhere, “And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance; for you serve the Lord Christ” (Colossians 3:23-24).
We must preach the gospel as it is to others as they are. We have already considered the subject of sola Scriptura, and it is in Scripture alone that the gospel is contained as it is. We need, therefore, to preach Scripture alone to sinners as they are.
We need to be delivered from the fear of man if we will apply these five solas to our daily living and in our mission as a local church.
John Piper has said, “Few things bring me more satisfaction than seeing a culture of adoption flourish at our church. . . . It means our people are looking to their heavenly Father for their joy rather than rejecting the stress and cost of children in order to maximize their freedom and comfort.” If we are passionate for the glory of God alone then we will be willing to leave our comfort zones.
So, why is this final sola so important? I would say for at least for the following reasons.
First, it drives us back to “Scripture alone,” which is where we discover how to glorify God. “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29:29).
Second, it informs and empowers us to preach grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. It was in the context of faithfulness to Scripture alone that Paul wrote, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing” (2 Timothy 4:7-8).
Paul’s faithfulness to the five solas resulted in much of God’s glory being made known among many parts of the world. By God’s sovereign grace may we be used to see all of His glory in all the world.