How many times has someone told you some story of a narrow escape, a near-accident, a nearly-fatal disease, and concluded with words to this effect: "Someone up there must like me"?
Often it's given as a bit of a sop to their religious-fanatic friend (i.e. you). It's meant to say, "Yeah, I'm religious too, in my own way."
And no doubt they have a point. In fact, they have more of a point than they know. No doubt the fact that they've survived 17, 27, 87 summers does bespeak scores of divine deliverances. They're just clueless about most of them. Every single "near-miss" they noticed probably stands for scores that they didn't.
What is of interest is the interpretation they put on the event. Deliverance is interpreted as approval. If God didn't like them, He'd have let them die. He didn't, so everything must be basically A-OK between them and The Big Guy, The Man Upstairs, "Somebody"this Agnostos Theos (Unknown God) of theirs.
And what they credit as unknown, we should proclaim to them (cf. Acts 17:23). They're right to discern deliverance; they're wrong in their interpretation of it.
My thoughts were stirred this way again by an almost offhand remark of John Owen's, in part two, chapter three, digression two of Commuion with God. Speaking of the nature of Christ's patience, long-suffering and forbearance towards sinners, he asks and answers:
What is there in that forbearance which out of Christ is revealed? Merely a not immediate punishing upon the offense, and, withal, giving and continuing temporal mercies; such things as men are prone to abuse, and may perish with their bosoms full of them to eternity.R. K. Law updates Owen's language thus:
A sinner out of Christ thinks that because God does not at once punish sin, God will never call him to account. So he perishes full of faith in God's forbearance. [From his abridgement of Owen's Communion with God (Banner of Truth: 1991), p. 84.]What an image: having experienced God's patience all his life, and having interpreted that as a sign of Divine favor, he dies, assuming that this forbearance will last forever. But forbearance is not approval. Forbearance is a delay, a rescheduling of the court date. It is not acquittal, it is not dismissal, it is not cancellation.
But surely I'm getting ahead of myself. Is the man right in his interpretation, or is he wrong? From what we see, we have no idea, no clue whatever. Maybe he's right. Maybe his neighbor dies, and he lives, because the latter's works were evil and his good. (So when he ultimately diesand the odds that he will die one day are pretty impressivewill that signal God's displeasure?)
We really can't tell. We have no way to tell. We'd need God Himself to disclose the truth of the matter.
Here's where a Christian has an opportunity for a witnessassuming that his grasp of the Gospel goes beyond the Four Spiritual Laws. It could be as subtle as planting a seed of self-doubt, by asking, "How can you be sure?", or "Is there another possibility?"
The truth is, God has told us what we can't see. Hear Him:
Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? 5 But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed (Romans 2:4-5)There it is: "forebearance," anoche, holding back, a temporary respite and delay of judgment in this case. These deliverance are real, and they do signal something about God. And they are a kindness. But they do not signal approval. They signal mercy, patience, generosityforbearance. They are a temporary delay of judgment.
Can the "lucky" man know this about himself? Certainly he can. Bring out the law of God, bring out the holiness of God. Show him how to measure himself by that standard. Tell him of the judgment and wrath of God hanging over his head even now (John 3:18, 36). Bid him to flee from that wrath, and tell him how.
But let's not leave him in the position of misunderstanding God's forbearance, and thus piling yet higher the storehouse of wrath that awaits him.