When God is determined to save
By John Hooper
For perhaps he therefore departed for a season, that thou shouldest receive him for ever; Not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved (Philemon 15,16).
When out hill-walking it is often the case that the best views are the ones behind us. Turning around, the vantage point of higher ground gives us a far better appreciation of the path that we have just walked. We are now able to trace its twists and turns through the valley and up the hillside and understand it so much better than when all we could see were the stones beneath our feet.
Life is very similar, isn’t it? As children we see just the path beneath our feet. When we are teenagers we may be able to see a little more but the way is hazy and unclear. We hardly know where we are heading or which direction to take next. But from the vantage point of later years we are able to look back and the reasons for the meanderings of our course become so much clearer. We begin to see that the winding route that so perplexed us had a purpose. Circumstances that we found puzzling and unhelpful at the time, not at all what we would have chosen, now take on a far greater significance as we see the direction in which they were leading us. Even so, we will not understand everything. It is not possible because we do not plot our own course. “Man’s goings are of the LORD; how can a man then understand his own way?” (Proverbs 20:24). “O LORD, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps” (Jeremiah 10:23). We do the walking but we don’t plan the route.
The most significant event in the life of a Christian is the moment of first trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ. No doubt those who are brought into the kingdom in later years are able to look back over the course of life and identify many providences that seemed so insignificant at the time, perhaps even perverse, but now their purpose has become clear. Maybe we even intended them for evil, for fleeing the gospel, for sinking ever deeper into sin and the attractions of this world, but God meant them for good. They were vital steps in God’s plan to bring us to the right place and the right time for a life-changing encounter with the gospel whereby the Lord would draw us to Himself and save us for eternity.
In verse 15 of his little letter to Philemon the apostle Paul looks back over recent events in the life of Philemon’s erstwhile slave, Onesimus. He suggests to Philemon that the whole baffling episode of Onesimus’ running away had a purpose – a glorious purpose. Onesimus had fled and undertaken the long journey from Colossae to Rome for the very purpose under God that he might there hear the gospel and be converted. He ran away a servant and a rebel so that he might be received back a brother in Christ. He ran away for a time so that he might be received back for ever. It is as though Paul is saying, “Philemon – I want you to consider for a moment this possibility.”
We should not overlook the word “therefore” in the middle of the verse lest we fail to see its significance. The inspired apostle is suggesting that Onesimus departed for a season for this very purpose, “that thou shouldest receive him for ever.” Notice, too, the word “departed.” It sounds rather matter of fact, as though the decision was wholly under the control of Onesimus. It was purely of his volition, his leaving, his “departing.” Of course in the sense of it being his responsibility that is exactly right, it was his choice, but that is not the only consideration. There was another hand at work, an unseen hand whereby Onesimus was separated from Philemon. It was a hand that with careful purpose and deliberation separated Onesimus from his master in order that Philemon might now receive him back for ever … as a brother in Christ! It was not only the case that Onesimus had departed and gone to Rome of his own accord, which he most certainly did at a human level, it was also true that he was sent! Although neither Philemon nor Onesimus had an inkling of it at the time, the invisible hand of Divine providence was firmly upon Onesimus. It was a hand that would protect him, lead him, and never let him go as it brought him all the way to Rome and to the hearing of the gospel from the lips of Paul, gospel preaching that would bring Him to Christ.
Notice also the carefulness with which Paul chooses His words, guided by the Spirit of God of course. “Perhaps” this was God’s purpose. Perhaps! The apostle is not going to be presumptuous, as though professing to know the unknowable and venturing upon the secret counsels of the Almighty. It may be that God had some other purpose in mind for Onesimus, such as that Onesimus would return to Rome to join the apostle. Or alternatively it may be “that thou shouldest receive him for ever…” Paul would not dare to presume upon the secret will of God and neither should we.
Neither should we imagine that God was in any way responsible for Onesimus’ sin. Human responsibility can never be negated by Divine foreordination (cf. Acts 4:23-28), so the guilt rested squarely on Onesimus. But what Paul is suggesting here is the possibility that in the will of God these seemingly contrary events would bring Onesimus to the last place that he would have chosen: the place of repentance and faith in the living Saviour. Our all-wise God has not only determined who will be saved to make up His church but also the how and the when and the where. He brings His chosen people to the right time and the right place in the right way for the accomplishment of His saving work in their lives, and while His ways are past finding out, they are also perfect.
Think for a moment of Onesimus. There he is, an unbelieving servant in a believing household, the household of a man whom Paul describes as “dearly beloved” and a “fellowlabourer” in the work of the gospel, a man highly esteemed by the apostle. Philemon’s household was one that worshipped God, loved the Lord Jesus Christ, read the Holy Scriptures and honoured the Lord’s Day. In short, it was a household governed by the principles of the Word of God, surrounding Onesimus on all sides with high gospel privileges.
But what was his response to those wonderful privileges? Did he rejoice in them and thank God for them? On the contrary, he ran away from them. He rejected them and fled. In the sovereign purposes of God it was not those that would bring him to salvation, or at least not directly. This behaviour of Onesimus should not surprise us, knowing as we do the hardness and perverseness of the natural human heart, but surely it provides us too with an encouraging application. What we see here is all too familiar to some Christian families. The children grow up with many gospel privileges all around them but they resist them and can hardly wait to be rid of them and so they run away from them, and in so doing they imagine that they are running away from God Himself.
That is how it was with Onesimus. Perhaps he went down to the coast, jumped on the first ship he could find to take him across the Mediterranean, came ashore in Italy and persuaded himself that his escape was complete. He was far away from Philemon and his God. But how wrong he was! To borrow words from the poet Francis Thompson, The Hound of Heaven was on his tracks. Taken up with God’s pursuit of a human soul the poem begins,
I fled Him down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him down the arches of the years;
I fled Him down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him …”
That is what sinners try to do. They try to hide from God. But there is no hiding place. When God is “determined to save,” to borrow words from John Newton, a sinner can go to the ends of the earth but he will never find a hiding place from God. And so Onesimus fled but he could not hide.
Perhaps you have children whom you have brought up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. You have provided them with a safe, secure and loving Christian home, an environment where life is governed by the Word of God, but having grown up they have turned their backs on all those precious privileges and fled. Well, here is encouragement! It is not unknown for youngsters brought up in Christian homes to come to faith in later years when God brings them under the influence of a faithful ministry far from the family home. When God is determined to save, they cannot hide!
When God comes in mercy, there is no hiding place. He comes to seek out and to save those that are lost like a mountain shepherd who has lost his sheep. He searches until He finds. There is no lost sheep whom the Good Shepherd will not seek out and find and bring home. He comes to the sinner in sovereign grace and mighty power, turning the sinner’s “I won’t” into “I will,” his hatred into love, his rebellion into submission, his unbelief into faith, and his lawlessness into obedience.
In later years Onesimus would have been able to look back over the course his life and trace with joy the providential hand of God as it worked even his sin for his eternal good. He would have been able to cast his mind back to the day when he left the home of Philemon to seek his fortune in the great city of Rome. It was a decision he would now acknowledge to have been wicked but he would rejoice that God had meant it for good. A strange providence indeed, but a precious one. Onesimus would recognise now and confess that God had been gracious to him even before he knew it, and that his flight to Rome was but a flight into the arms of Christ. There he found a true place of escape. There he found a hiding place from sin, from judgment and from the wrath of God. From that moment he would live his life not trying to run from the gospel, but in its joyful service.
As we look back over the course of our own lives we too can trace the ways of providence by which God led us to Himself, ways that perhaps we thought strange and inexplicable at the time, perverse providences, but now we see that none was incidental. There was a purpose in every one of them for they were but steps by which the Lord brought us to Himself. It was not incidental that the Ethiopian eunuch crossed the path of Philip. It was not incidental that the keeper of the prison in Philippi should have Paul and Silas under his charge. It was not incidental that at the very time Onesimus set foot in Rome, perhaps thinking he was finally rid of the gospel and the spiritual influence of his master’s house, the apostle Paul was in Rome preaching that very same gospel. Onesimus could not hide! Can you imagine what he must have thought at first? – “Oh, no! Is there no escape? Is there no hiding place?”
Neither was it incidental that you and I should have encountered the gospel in the way that we did at the time that we did and in the place that we did. Some of us were born into Christian families, brought up in Christian households under Godly Christian parents, and that was not incidental. Those family privileges may have been the means under God to bring us to Himself at a very early age, perhaps even before we can remember, or they may not. John Flavel of Dartmouth wrote in The Mystery of Providence,
How great a mercy was it that we had parents who carefully instilled the good knowledge of God into our souls in our tender years? … They knew a parting time would come between them and us, and did strive to make it as easy and comfortable to them as they could, by leaving us in Christ and within the blessed bond of His covenant.
But for some parents the parting time comes and the children are still out of Christ. Perhaps it is when they leave home for university, work or marriage, or they simply want to get away from parental constraints, as they see them, only to squander their birthright in riotous living (Luke 15:13). Naturally such partings are accompanied with great sorrow but believing parents should never lose confidence in God and His promises. Their role is to pray for their children unceasingly, setting before them a Godly example at all times and trusting in the Lord to work. While such parents have no ground to expect all their children to be saved, they can take heart in the knowledge that all whom God has determined to save He will save. To use the language of the apostle, perhaps they have departed for a season for the very purpose under God that in His good time they might be received back for ever as a brother or sister beloved, in Christ. When God is determined to save, there is nowhere that He will not go to seek out His elect but lost and wandering child.
I am sure we are all able to think of believers’ children who have come to faith as prodigals well into adulthood. They are now able to look back and marvel at the way in which the Lord has dealt with them. Just when they thought they had finally escaped from God, He came to them in saving love and mercy. His eye and His hand had been upon them all of the time.
Determined to save,
He watched o’er my path,
When, Satan’s blind slave,
I sported with death. (Newton)
In some cases the parting comes at death as parents are called home to glory with children still unsaved and possibly no-one left to pray for them. But past years of prayers and tears are not in vain and the dispensing of grace is sovereign in its timing, and none of us may presume to know better than God. There will be wonderful reunions in heaven with great praise and glory rendered to God as faithful, interceding fathers and mothers receive forever the children they did not live to see come to Christ on earth. And God Himself shall wipe away the tears of their joy.