The Antecedence of God's Sovereign Grace in our Hearts
“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13).
I assume that most of you believe that God is sovereign over all of natural creation: over the stars above and the clouds and the rain and lightning and thunder and over every species of animal upon the earth.
But what about us? What of the human spirit? Does God exert control over our hearts? Or do we escape his sovereignty? It’s one thing for God to direct the path of the wind or to shut the mouth of the lion. But we are shaped in his image and are the crown jewel of his creative design.
Nothing is quite so unpredictable as the human heart, or so it would seem. Its leanings and loves, its likes and dislikes, seem so random and free, subject to none but their owner. That God should rule over inanimate matter or creatures of instinct is easy to embrace. But what about us?
Paul speaks to the point not only here in Philippians 2 but also in 2 Corinthians 8:16-17. “But thanks be to God,” says the apostle, “who put into the heart of Titus the same earnest care I have for you. For he not only accepted our appeal, but being himself very earnest he is going to you of his own accord.”
Titus and Paul were very close. It would have been easy and understandable for this young man to have taken offence at the way the Corinthians treated Paul. He knew of their slander and suspicion. He saw firsthand their disrespect and doubts. When Paul hurt, he hurt. The apostle’s tears were shared by this trusted friend.
If he was to love them and feel an “earnest care” for their lives, God would have to overcome the obstacles in his heart. Titus could easily have yielded to indifference, perhaps even anger and disdain as he reflected on how unjustly the Corinthians had treated Paul. Given their history, Titus might well have nurtured a grudge against them. He probably thought often of the pain Paul endured.
Yet God worked in Titus to overcome these feelings of ill will. If God were to put “into the heart of Titus the same earnest care” that Paul felt for them, he would have to exert a sovereign influence in the depths of his soul to turn him to sincere devotion and a commitment to their welfare.
But wouldn’t this require that God violate the integrity of Titus’ will? How can Titus still go to Corinth “of his own accord” (v. 17) if it is God who is at work in him “both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13)? Here we see the marvelous mystery of divine sovereignty and human accountability.
Don’t overlook the fact that Paul thanked God for the choice Titus made in going to Corinth. Titus was filled with earnest and sincere love, for which Paul praises God! God and God alone is ultimately responsible for the choice Titus made, yet Titus made it “of his own accord”!
Although we may not be able to explain it, we must accept it: God’s sovereignty did not undermine the virtue in Titus’ decision. Ultimate credit goes to God, but Titus will be rewarded for his moral excellence.
Is not “the king’s heart” a “stream of water in the hand of the Lord” who “turns it wherever he will” (Prov. 21:1; cf. Ezra 6:22; 7:27)?
Was David asking for something God couldn’t do when he prayed that he “keep forever such purposes and thoughts in the hearts” of Solomon and all his people and that God “direct their hearts” toward him (1 Chron. 29:18)?
We should not be at all surprised, therefore, that God can put love and earnest desire for the Corinthians into the heart of Titus. Nor we should be at all surprised that he is the one who equips us with everything good that we may “do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen” (Heb. 13:21).
So when you find yourself loving the unlovely, thank God for the miracle he has performed. Each time you choose what is righteous, thank God for the miracle he has performed. When you experience strength to resist sin, thank God for the miracle he has performed. When you show mercy to the weak, compassion to the hurting, and are generous to the needy, thank God for the miracle he has performed. When you put aside selfish ambition and treat others as more significant than yourself, thank God for the miracle he has performed. Go, therefore, and act the miracle!