Russell Moore serves as Dean of the School of Theology, Senior Vice President for Academic Administration, and Associate Professor of Christian Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He is the author of The Kingdom of Christ: The New Evangelical Perspective and co-editor of Why I Am a Baptist. He has written articles for various publications including Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and SBC Life.
“The Sovereignty of God and the Miracle of Conversion”
Text: 1 Samuel 28:3-28
The gates of hell can prevail quite easily over a movement, over an institution, over a political party, over a parachurch ministry, but over the Church, the gates of hell cannot prevail. I am glad to be a part of this True Church Conference that is centered on the Church.
Apparently it is difficult to share the name of a famous man, even more so of two famous men. Story- Intervention of Hank Williams III. There are so many people that are in a pattern of life that they cannot see where they are going or what they are doing, but this is not unique. The idea of a false consciousness is common to every single man and woman who is outside of Christ. There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.
So often we think conversion is about information. We assume that the people we are seeking to evangelize simply lack information. We believe that if we give them the missing information, that it will be enough. The Bible says that the issue is not lack of information; it is far deeper. It is a grid of reality to see all of life. Men fly away from God and they seek to find reasons to justify their reality.
Sovereignty is not an abstract concept. The mind of the unbelievers are blinded because there is an ancient, cosmic conspiracy that is real and personal. The Scriptures says that unless you see and understand the nature and reality of what is going on behind the scenes, you will never be able to make sense of what is going on in life.
In this text you see a man from whom the Spirit of God has departed, a man rejected by God, a man seeking to lead through the arm of the flesh. What you see is a picture of the lostness of the mind, of one who is seeking what is right unto him but only leads to death. If we are going to understand what it means to reach the next generation for Christ, we must understand what this lostness looks like.
First, let’s look at the fear of conversion. Notice how the text begins (v. 3-5). It is quite striking that a man who is called to lead the armies of Israel is troubled, afraid, and trembled greatly. The issue is not fear, but who he is fearing. He is interpreting reality according to his own powerful might, his own political calculations. What he does not fear is the rejection of God or the judgment of God. Saul fears being humiliated, but does not fear the all-searching eye of God. This is precisely the problem of the lost man. This is the evidence of unbelief, of the refusal to fear God and the consequences of judgment. The lost man is captured by the fear of death. People are terrified of judgment, and simply want to keep death, dying, and judgment away from their minds.
You have the king of Israel who no longer recognizes that he is rejected by God. Saul has to be reminded by a witch of the task he was supposed to do! Saul laid the fear of God aside to follow his appetites, his instincts, his telling himself what is right… This is the case of every man, woman and child outside of Christ. Every one of them is shaking with fear in the face of death. Every single one of them refuses to fear God.
Saul is seeking a diversion from his fear. This is what people are moving toward to fill the voice inside them that tells them they are heading to judgment. Saul, when he is confronted with the enemies of God, does not seek after God; instead, he is led right to the witch’s door. This is a real witch, a real sorceress. Fakes appear as though they have power, but Saul is actually facing a witch. He comes to her in fear to seek wisdom without realizing that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. This is exactly what the man and woman did in the garden. They sought reality apart from the authority of God. It leads, in both cases, to death because they do not fear the wrath of God.
The sovereignty of God in conversion means that left to ourselves, we will not be able to find peace. Many men in our churches are involved with pornography. Some are plagued with guilt and are seeking to relieve that guilt. The scary truth is that the guilt will go away and the sin will become more intense. Although the guilt may leave, they are moving further into a Satanic conspiracy to destroy us. Saul is trembling, but he is trembling before his enemies and is seeking wisdom from a witch. What he does not recognize is that wisdom is not a thing. Power is not a thing. Wisdom has a name. Power has a name. The person of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Second, you have here a rebellion at conversion. There is no revelation in that day, and Saul uses that as an excuse. Saul is doing exactly what Adam did, in blaming God for his sin. God has already given him a word, a promise, and a command, and he is moving away from this and is seeking something else. He is showing that not everything is under his feet. He is not faithfully carrying out his calling. He is pretending that he is not king, thinking he can gain power through deceit and hiddenness. Everyone hides and cowers in the shadows and uses deceit in order to somehow get around judgment, to escape the scrutiny of God.
The sovereignty of God in conversion reveals that the first thing that takes place is disclosure. We are born again by “the word of truth” in which all things are brought to light and are disclosed. Saul is hiding and seeking to use deceit, because in his rebellion against God, he is giving excuses for the purposes of God. What is God doing when he takes the Kingship away from Saul to David? He is preparing the way through his meticulous plan to bring to us Christ Jesus. Saul fights against that, and when he is fighting against David, he is fighting against the anointed one of God- against Jesus. And those who stand against God’s anointed, it does not matter–they will be swept away. This is what the arm of the flesh looks like. The first thing the sovereign act of God does in changing people is to root out rebellion. The rebellion in your heart is as the sin of witchcraft, and Saul finds himself in the house of a witch. What we assume is hidden in the eyes of God cries out in judgment.
Sometimes we can take rebellion and package it in such a way in order to present the gospel. There is an entire industry (many youth ministries) that takes a rebelliousness, a dismissal and condescension, and packages it in such a way to reach rebellious people. That is not the working of the Holy Spirit. You can see this in the youth ministry strategies today. The rebellion that is at the heart of Saul is a rebellion that must not be accommodated but must be crucified. The way we are going to see the sovereign act of God is when we stop fearing the people in our community and start loving them by preaching the truth.
Notice also, you have a picture of God’s sovereign hand in conversion. Saul is seeing that the word of the Lord does not come back void, that it accomplishes that which it is sent to do. A God that is holy is holy; a God that is a Judge will judge. One of the reasons we are so ineffective in preaching the gospel- why discipleship has disappeared in most of our churches- is precisely because we do not see the purposes of God in the big picture and the small picture in our lives. The people are living a storyline, a grid through which they see reality. What the sovereign hand of God does is remove that storyline and grid and replaces it with the Lord Jesus Christ. We see life through Jesus Christ.
We believe that evangelism starts somewhere else and works its way to Jesus. For instance, there are some missionaries in Muslim contexts who will begin with the Koran and work their way to Jesus. Nobody in our communities, outside of Christ, is honest. Why are you celebrating your 50th anniversary if you are a Darwinist? It makes no sense; it is irrational. The way we get people in touch with reality is showing them Jesus Christ. If you are outside of Christ, you will be swept away.
We must communicate God’s purposes in Christ not just to unbelievers but to believers. God knows exactly what it takes to conform you into the image of Christ. When I am standing there in mistrust, the problem is not that I don’t know what is going on, it is that I am standing against God’s ultimate purpose in Jesus Christ. Saul is given over (Romans 1) to exactly what he wants. He is sitting down at the table, receiving the food of a witch. He walks out into the night, away from the purposes of God in Christ. The problem of people in our communities is not that they don’t have enough information or that we are not relevant enough, but that we don’t understand that the power of God and the wisdom of God is found in Jesus Christ. Unless they see the face of God in Jesus Christ, they will never be brought by the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit away from the trajectory of death and hell toward Christ and his inheritance. The way is not to live moral lives or to be less confrontational, but to realize that we are living in the midst of a conspiracy in a land of enemy-occupied territory where there are churches that are a lot less giddy and on their knees. How often do we sit in our churches a cry, “O God, work sovereignly through the word of Your truth?”
Saul moves away, walks out into the night, into his just condemnation, away from the purposes of God in Christ. The issue of evangelism is not finding something that will sell or that will convince. The issue is understanding that there are principalities and powers who have taken hostages, and the way I confront this is not by trembling at their faces but recognizing there is one face before Whom I must tremble- One Sovereign before whom I must kneel. And when we proclaim that name, it is spiritual warfare. The sovereignty of God is a reminder that there is a power present in the gospel that tears down strongholds, wipes away blindness, moves through every obstacle, and tears it down because God has a purpose and plan in mind. It is Christ!