A Close Look at “Soli Deo Gloria” (Part1)

January 29, 2006 | Speaker: Bro Jurem Ramos

  We now come to the last of the 5 great solas of the Reformation period. Once more the five solas are: sola Scriptura (Scripture alone), solus Christus (Christ alone), sola gratia (grace alone), sola fide (faith alone) and the fifth and the last, soli Deo gloria (glory to God alone). These five Latin phrases are terms that were used to express the great doctrines of the gospel that Christians today need to recover.   The first four solas naturally lead to the soli Deo gloria. But at the same time a grasp of the doctrine of soli Deo gloria leads to a good grasp of the first four solas. The ultimate reason for the church’s loss of Scripture alone, Christ alone, grace alone, and faith alone is because it has lost its concern for God glory alone. This truth is expressed well by the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, a group of Christian leaders who have banded together for the purpose of calling the church to repent of its worldliness, and to recover and confess the truth of God’s Word as did the Reformers, and to see that truth applied in doctrine, worship and life. Here is what they said:   Whenever in the church biblical authority has been lost, Christ has been displaced, the gospel has been distorted, or faith has been perverted, it has always been for one reason: our interests have displaced God’s and we are doing His work in our way. The loss of God’s centrality in the life of today’s church is common and lamentable. It is this loss that allows us to transform worship into entertainment, gospel preaching into marketing, believing into technique, being good into feeling good about ourselves, and faithfulness into being successful. As a result, God, Christ and the Bible have come to mean too little to us and rest too inconsequentially upon us.   The most important Biblical passage that has served as the foundation of the doctrine of soli Deo gloria is Romans 11:33-36. And so now let us have a close look at soli Deo gloria. Before looking into the details of this text, let us first look at the context or the position it occupies in the book of Romans.

Context

  The letter to the Romans contains Paul’s most systematic presentation of the gospel. After his introduction Paul states the theme of his letter in chapter 1:16,17 which is the righteousness from God.” the phrase “righteousness from God” means a righteousness that comes from and is bestowed by God. This “righteousness from God” is the opposite of the “righteousness of men” or efforts of men to put themselves in a right relationship with God. The righteousness from God is the righteousness which Christ has procured by his perfect obedience to God’s will and sacrificial death. This righteousness is something which God imputes on sinners by grace alone through faith in Christ alone. This righteousness brings forgiveness and puts the sinner in a right relationship with God.   After Paul’s states his theme, he first shows why all mankind need this righteousness. He shows why God’s wrath is upon all Gentiles and Jews and he concludes by stating that all men are under sin and there is no one righteous, not even one. This is found in 1:18—3:20.   Next, Paul shows that God did not leave mankind in this condition. God provided salvation (or righteousness) through Jesus Christ and His redemptive work on the cross. This is a gracious provision that is received by faith alone in Christ alone. Paul expounds this in 3:21—5:21.   In the next section, chapters 6 and 7 Paul deals with questions that Paul anticipated would be raised against the doctrine of justification. In 6:1 he anticipates one objection by saying, “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?” In 6:15 he asks, “What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace?” In 7:7 He asks, “what shall we say, then? Is the law sin?”   After refuting the objections he comes to chapter 8 in order to show the certainty of salvation to all believers. He begins this chapter by saying, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” and ends it with the assurance that “nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”   With the eighth chapter, Paul’s discussion of justification by grace alone received by faith alone in Christ alone was brought to a close. Now in chapters 9 to 11 Paul addresses some "unfinished business." He shows that God’s purposes for Israel have not been frustrated. He is still actively doing something in world history. God is using the rejection of Jesus by the Jews to bring the gospel to the Gentiles and one day He will yet work among the Jews as a people. In the end, God is found faithful to his covenant promises in spite of the unfaithfulness of Israel.   After Paul contemplates the doctrines which he had covered[1]—the doctrines of God’s wrath against sinful mankind (1:18–3:20); of justification by faith alone (3:21–4:25); addressing the objections against the doctrine of justification (chaps. 6–7); the doctrine of assurance of salvation (ch. 8) the doctrine of sovereign election (chap. 9); and the vindication of God’s action towards the Jews and the Gentiles (chap. 10,11)—after all those grand doctrines, Paul ends with a doxology in which he pours forth his praise as he marvels at the unfathomable knowledge and wisdom of God. Paul declares in Ro 11:33-36:   33 Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!   How unsearchable his judgments,   and his paths beyond tracing out! 34 Who has known the mind of the Lord?   Or who has been his counselor?"  35 Who has ever given to God,   that God should repay him?"  36 For from him and through him and to him are all things.   To him be the glory forever! Amen.   There are other portions of Scripture that talk about giving glory to God alone but many commentators consider this text as taking the first place in expressing that truth.   Now let us come to the details of this passage. The main ideas that are found in this passage are the following:  
  1. God’s unfathomable character and ways (v. 33).
  2. God’s absolute independence (vv. 34, 35)
  3. God’s all-encompassing sovereignty (v. 36a)
  4. God’s eternal due (v.36b)
 

I. God’s Unfathomable Character and Ways (v. 33).

  (NIV Footnote): 33 Oh, the depth of the riches [and] the wisdom and [the] knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!   The word “riches” means wealth, abundance of property; more than is necessary to the supply of our needs. Hence, it means also anything that may promote our comfort or happiness. Here, the word denotes the abundant blessings and mercies which had been conferred on sinful people by the gospel as it is the means of our highest enjoyment, and eternal welfare. Wisdom” is the choice of the best means to accomplish the best ends. “Knowledge” speaks of the omniscience of God. God knew exactly what man is and his needs. He knew exactly what solution to apply that would address mans’ problem. He knew exactly the time and circumstances in which it would be best to introduce his solution. He knew exactly the effect of the rejection of the Jews, and of the preaching of the gospel among the Gentiles. His “judgments” God’s plans or His decisions or what He has designed to do. Sometimes it even means His laws. At other time it refers to the inflictions of his justice. In this context Paul could be referring to God’s plan of salvation. His “paths” refers to God’s manner of doing things. Paul is perhaps referring particularly to his way of bringing all nations within the reach of his mercy in the gospel. Beyond tracing out - Literally, which cannot be tracked or traced. God’s footsteps cannot be followed. As if His path were in the sea Ps 77:19, and the waves closed immediately, leaving no track, it cannot be followed or sought out. It is known that he has passed, but there is no way of tracing his goings. This is a beautiful and striking figure. It denotes that God’s plans are deep, and beyond our comprehension. We can see the proofs that he is everywhere; but how it is, we cannot comprehend. We are permitted to see the vast movements around us; but the invisible hand we cannot see, nor trace the footsteps of that mighty God who performs his wonders on the ocean and on the land,   I think there is no simpler way to explain this passage than to compare it with other translations:  
  • (BBE) O how deep is the wealth of the wisdom and knowledge of God! no one is able to make discovery of his decisions, and his ways may not be searched out.
  • (CEV) Who can measure the wealth and wisdom and knowledge of God? Who can understand his decisions or explain what he does?
  • (GNB) How great are God's riches! How deep are his wisdom and knowledge! Who can explain his decisions? Who can understand his ways?
  • (GW) God's riches, wisdom, and knowledge are so deep that it is impossible to explain his decisions or to understand his ways.
  • (ISV) O how deep are God's riches, wisdom, and knowledge! How impossible to explain his judgments or to understand his ways!
  • (MSG) Have you ever come on anything quite like this extravagant generosity of God, this deep, deep wisdom? It's way over our heads. We'll never figure it out.
  • (NET) Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how fathomless his ways!
 

II. God’s Absolute Independence (vv. 34, 35)

  34 Who has known the mind of the Lord?  Or who has been his counselor?"   This verse is a quotation, with a slight change, from Isa 40:13, “Who has understood the mind of the LORD, or instructed him as his counselor?” This verse confirms what is said in verse 33. Who has known the “mind” of the Lord, i.e., God’s “judgments”, what He has designed to do, and the reasons of his decrees? And, who has “counseled” him as to His “paths”, the way He will execute his decrees?  
  • (GNB) As the scripture says, "Who knows the mind of the Lord? Who is able to give him advice?
  • (MSG) Is there anyone around who can explain God? Anyone smart enough to tell him what to do?
  God needs no counselor in the work of creation or redemption. Earthly kings have counselors whom they may consult in times of crisis or danger. But God has no such counselors. He sits alone; He does not need to call in any of his creatures to advise him. All created beings are not qualified to contribute anything to enlighten or to direct him.   35 Who has ever given to God,   that God should repay him?"   The Contemporary English Version renders this verse this way: “Has anyone loaned something to the Lord that must be repaid?" This idea in this verse is found substantially in Job 41:11: “Who has a claim against me that I must pay?” The idea is that the creature can do nothing to place God under obligation. Job adds, “Everything under heaven belongs to me.”   Charles Hodge: How appropriate is this thought in reference to the doctrines which Paul had been teaching. Men are justified, not on the ground of their own merit, but of the merit of Christ; they are sanctified, not by the power of their own good purposes, and the strength of their own will, but by the Spirit of God; they are chosen and called to eternal life, not on the ground of anything in them, but according to the purpose of him who works all things after the counsel of his own will. God, therefore, is the Alpha and the Omega of salvation. The creature has neither merit nor power. His hopes must rest on sovereign mercy alone.  

III. God’s All-Encompassing Sovereignty (v. 36a)

  36 For from him and through him and to him are all things.   Someone said, “Here we have the grand truth which lies at the foundation of all religion. The prepositions indicate that God is the source, the constantly working cause, and end of all things.” “From him” affirms that God is the original source of all things; The design of this verse is to show that no creature has any claim on God. Jews and Gentiles must alike receive salvation on the ground of his mercy. So far from having a claim on God, the apostle here affirms that all things have come from him. Nothing has been produced by chance; nothing by created skill or might. All has been formed by God; and therefore he has a right to dispose of all. “Through Him” declares that all are by God, or through him, as their immediate cause. God is not merely the planner; he is also the agent. By the direct exertion of his power he creates, directs, bestows, controls. God does not need the aid of man; and he did not call in that aid in the creation and government of the world. He is the independent Creator and Lord, and on him none can have a claim. “To him” denotes the final cause, the reason or end for which all things were formed. It is to promote God’s honor and glory. It is to manifest his praise, or to give a proper putting forth of the glorious attributes of God. “All things” applies to the universe; the creation, or still more particularly, the things of which Paul is discoursing. Secularists look at the whole expanse of the universe and see nothing but stars, planets and space, and more galaxies and space. Most people see that the chief end of man is accumulation of wealth, getting what you want, and doing what makes you happy. But the Scriptures consistently declare that the glory of God is the ultimate object of all that takes place throughout the universe.   Let me just focus on three things where we need to think through the meaning of verse 36 that all things are from God, through Him and to Him: first is God and creation; second, God and the gospel, finally, God and you.  

A. God and Creation

  Charles Spurgeon   [This great principle is manifest in the whole range of God’s works in creation and providence.] There was a period when God dwelt alone and creatures were not. In that time before all time, when there was no day but “The Ancient of Days,” when matter and created mind were alike unborn, and even space was not, God, the great I Am, was as perfect, glorious, and blessed as he is now. There was no sun, and yet Jehovah dwelt in light ineffable; there was no earth, and yet his throne stood fast and firm; there were no heavens, and yet his glory was unbounded. God inhabited eternity in the infinite majesty and happiness of his self-contained greatness. If the Lord, thus abiding in awful solitude, should choose to create anything, the first thought and idea must come of him, for there was no other to think or suggest. All things must be of him in design. With whom can he take counsel? Who shall instruct him? There existed not another to come into the council-chamber, even if such an assistance could be supposable with the Most High. In the beginning of his way before his works of old, eternal wisdom brought forth from its own mind the perfect plan of future creations, and every line and mark therein must clearly have been of the Lord alone. He ordained the pathway of every planet, and the abode of every fixed star. He appointed the bounds of the sea, and settled the course of the winds. As to the earth, the Lord alone planned its foundations, and stretched his line upon it. He formed in his own mind the mould of all his creatures and found for them a dwelling and a service. He appointed the degree of strength with which he would endow each creature, settled its months of life, its hour of death, its coming and its going. Divine wisdom mapped this earth, its flowing rivers and foaming seas, the towering mountains, and the laughing valleys. The divine Architect fixed the gates of the morning and the doors of the shadow of death. Nothing could have been suggested by any other, for there was no other to suggest. It was in his power to have made a universe very different from this, if he had so pleased; and that he has made it what it is, must have been merely because in his wisdom and prudence he saw fit to do so. When the plan was all laid down, and the Almighty had ordered his purpose, this was not enough. “Through him,” must all things be. There was no raw material ready to the Creator’s hand; he must create the universe out of nothing. He calls not for aid—he needs it not, and besides, there is none to help him. There is no rough matter which he may fashion between his palms and launch forth as stars. He did not need a mine of unquarried matter which he might melt and purify in the furnace of his power, and then hammer out upon the anvil of his skill: no, there was nothing to begin with in that day of Jehovah’s work; from the womb of omnipotence all things must be born. He speaks, and the heavens leap into existence. He speaks again, and worlds are born with all the varied forms of life so filled with divine wisdom and matchless skill. Through him were all things, from the high archangel who sings his praises in celestial notes, down to the cricket chirping on the fireside. The same finger paints the rainbow and the wing of the butterfly. He who dyes the garments of evening in all the colors of heaven, and lit up the glowworm’s lamp. From yonder ponderous mountain, piercing the clouds, down to that minute grain of dust in the summer’s threshingfloor—all things through him are. Let but God withdraw the emanations of his divine power, and everything would melt away as the foam upon the sea melts into the wave which bore it. [See Col 1;17; Heb 1:3] Nothing could stand an instant if the divine foundations were removed. If he should shake the pillars of the world, the whole temple of creation falls to ruin, and its very dust is blown away. A lifeless waste, a silent emptiness, a voiceless wilderness is all which remains if God withdraw his power. That nature is as it is, is through the energy of the present God. If the sun rises every morning, and the moon walks in her brightness at night, it is through him. Those Men are wrong who think that God has wound up the world as if it were a clock, and has gone away, leaving it to work by itself apart from his present hand. God is present everywhere—not merely present when we tremble because his thunder shakes the solid earth, and sets the heavens in a blaze with lightnings, but just as much so in the calm summer’s eve, when the air so gently fans the flowers, and gnats dance up and down in the last gleams of sunlight. Men try to forget the divine presence by calling its energy by strange names. They speak of the power of gravitation; but what is the power of gravitation? We know what it does, but what is it? Gravitation is God’s own power. They tell us of mysterious laws—of electricity, and I know not what. We know the laws, and let them wear the names they have; but laws cannot operate without power. What is the force of nature? It is a constant emanation from the great Fountain of power, the constant outflowing of God himself, the perpetual going forth of beams of light from him who is “the great Father of Lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow.” Tread softly, be reverent, for God is here, O mortal, as truly as he is in heaven. Wherever thou art, and whatever thou lookest upon, thou art in God’s workshop, where every wheel is turned by his hand. Everything is not God, but God is in everything, and nothing works, or even exists, except by his present power and might. “from him and through him, are all things.” Beloved, the great glory of all is that in the work of creation everything is to him. God designed that all of His creation should praise Him. This is God’s ultimate motive, and there can be no higher motive conceivable than his own glory. When there was no creature but himself, and no being but himself, God could not have taken as a motive a creature which did not exist. His motive must be himself. His own glory is his highest aim. God carefully considers the good of his creatures; but even the good of his creatures is but a means to the main end, the promotion of his glory. All things then are for his pleasure, and for his glory they daily work. Tell me that the world is marred by sin but yet, even this shall speak of the glory of God. We shall see, dear friends, one day in the clear light of heaven, that every page in human history, however stained by human sin, hath nevertheless something of God’s glory in it; and that the calamities of nations, the falling of dynasties, the devastations of pestilence, plagues, famines, wars, and earthquakes, have all worked out the eternal purpose and glorified the Most High. [See Act 2:23; 4:28] From the first human prayer to the last mortal sigh, from the first note of finite praise onward to the everlasting hallelujah, all things have worked together for the glory of God, and have served his purposes. All things are of him, and through him, and to him. When the enemy whispers in your ears this note—“God is overcome; his plans are spoiled; his gospel is thrust back; the honor of his Son is stained;” tell the enemy, “No, it is not so; to God are all things.” God’s defeats are victories. God’s weakness is stronger than man, and even the foolishness of the Most High is wiser than man’s wisdom, and at the last we shall see most clearly that it is so. Hallelujah!  

B. God and the Gospel

  James Montgomery Boice   The second area in which we need to think through the meaning of Romans 11:36 concerns the gospel. Lie the first, this too is obvious—though in a different way. The first is obvious because “all things” clearly includes the whole of the physical creation. The second point is obvious because is the gospel of salvation by God’s grace that Paul has been writing about in Romans. In this context we cannot miss that salvation is also from God, though God and for God’s glory. Salvation is from God, first, for He has planned it all. Who else could have planned it? No priest. No rabbi. No shaman. No guru. Only God could have planned a way of salvation that meets the strict requirements of his justice and yet also justifies sinners. Only God could have planned a salvation that is apart from human merit or good works—it is all of grace—and yet be able to transform those who are saved so that they achieve a level of righteousness and produce good works that surpass the righteousness and good works of those who are trying to be saved by them. The accomplishment of our salvation was also through God, that is, through what Jesus Christ has done. Salvation is not achieved through anything you or I have done or can do. On the contrary, it is what we have done that is the problem, not the solution. As far as salvation goes, we can do nothing. This is what the Protestant Reformers were expressing when they joined the word sola to the core doctrines of the gospel. When the Reformers wrote about sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) their concern was with authority. They meant that the Bible alone is our ultimate authority—not the pope, not the church, not the traditions of the church or church councils, or subjective feelings. These other sources of authority are sometimes useful and may have a place, but Scriptures alone is ultimate. Therefore, if any of these other authorities differ from Scripture, they are to be judged by the Bible and rejected, rather than being the other way around. It was the intention of the Reformer, in affirming this, to give glory to God alone. When the Reformers spoke about solus Christus (Christ alone) they were saying that salvation has been achieved for us by Jesus alone and that this has been accomplished entirely outside of us, apart form anything we have done or might do. His death on the Cross has made a perfect atonement for our sins; nothing we do can make or continue to contribute to that atonement. Moreover, in salvation Christ’s righteousness is applied to us by the Father, and this is the sole ground of our justification… Luther spoke of this as an “alien righteousness,” that is, a righteousness entirely outside of ourselves. It is from Jesus only. When the Reformers spoke about Christ alone they did so in order to give glory to God alone. The Reformers also spoke of sola gratia (grace alone). Here, they were insisting that sinners have no claim upon God, that God owes them nothing but punishment for their sins, and that, if he saves them in spite of their sins, it is only because it pleases Him to do so. They taught that salvation is by grace only. By affirming grace alone they were giving glory to God alone. When the Reformer spoke about sola fide (faith alone) they were concerned with the purity of the gospel, affirming that the believer is justified by God through faith entirely apart from any works he might do. Justification by faith alone became the chief doctrine of the Reformation. This too means that God alone is given glory. In other words, each of the other solas leads to the last and final sola, which is “to God alone be the glory,” the final point of Romans 11:36 which concludes with the words: “to him be the glory for ever! Amen.” When we ask why that should be, the first part of the verse is the answer. It is because all things really are “from him and through Him and to Him.”[2]  

C. God and You

  James Montgomery Boice   If the entire creation is “from” God, and “through” God, and “to” God, and if the way of salvation is likewise “from Him and through Him and to Him,” then you, as a part of God’s redeemed creation, are also “from Him and through Him and to Him.” In other words, you also exist for God’s glory and must give it to Him. Start with your natural endowments. Where does that inquiring mind of yours come from? That winsome personality? That attractive appearance and gracious disposition? That smile? They come from God. They have been designed for you by God’s sovereign decree and imparted to you by His working. They are for His glory; for your yours. The Corinthians were a particularly vain people, boasting of their superiority to other people. Paul called them arrogant. But he asked the, “Who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” (1Co 4:7). Glorify God by you talents. The plan of salvation was conceived by God, accomplished through the life and death of Jesus Christ, and the ultimate goal of it is God’s glory. If that is so, you should abandon the arrogant assumption that getting saved was your idea or that it was deserved or accomplished by you, even in part, or that it is meant to honor you. It is not for your honor, but for God’s glory. The Bible says, “He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of His mercy” (Tit 3:5). Have you had any longings after God? Do you pray? Do you find that you want to read God’s Word and come to understand it better? Do you seek to worship God? If those things are true of you, they are not from you. In yourself you have no true aspirations after God. The apostle Paul told the Romans that in our unregenerated state “there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God” (Ro 3:11). Holy desires come from a holy God, and are created in you only through the working of God’s Spirit. They are for His glory. Therefore, glorify God by your spiritual aspirations. Praise God for them. What about victory over temptation? We live in a world in which sin and evil bombard us constantly and in every conceivable way. We are attacked even by the powers of evil themselves. What keeps you from falling? What enables you to stand your ground against Satan’s forcers? It is God alone. The Bible says, “God is faithful; He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, He will also provide a way out so that can stand up under it” (1Co 10:13). It is God alone who preserves you. Therefore, glorify God. Think also about your work, particularly you work for God as a Christian. How can you achieve anything except through Him? Even the ability to plan a secular project or the strength to dig a ditch comes form God. But if that is true of even secular efforts, how much more true must it be of Christian work. Spiritual work must be accomplished through God’s Spirit. So it is not you or I who stir up a revival, build a church, or convert even a single soul. Rather, it is as we are blessed in the work by God that by the power of His Holy Spirit converts and sanctifies those He chooses to call to faith.[3]  

IV. God’s Eternal Due (v. 36b)

  To him be the glory forever! Amen.   This expresses the deep desire or wish of a godly man who knows and has experienced the work of God. The more one knows and understands his experiences, the greater also will be his desire to praise God. The greater is his desire that all glory, all praise and honor be given to God. And this desire is not merely some passing feeling, but something he feels and does till eternity.   Charles Spurgeon   “To whom be glory for ever.” This should be the single desire of the Christian. He may desire to see his family well brought up, but only that “To God may be glory for ever.” He may wish for prosperity in his business, but only so far as it may help him to promote this- “ To whom be glory for ever.” He may desire to attain more gifts and more graces, but it should only be that “To him may be glory for ever.” This one thing I know, Christian, you are not acting as you ought to do when you are moved by any other motive than the one motive of your Lord’s glory. This should also be the constant desire of the Christian, “To him be glory.” When I wake up in the morning, O, let my soul salute her God with gratitude. At my work behind the counter, let me be looking out to see how I may glorify him. If I be walking in the fields, let my desire be that the trees may clap their hands in his praise. May the sun shine out the Master’s glory, and the stars reflect his praise. Never be silent when there are opportunities, and there will never be a lack of opportunities. At night as you close your eyes let your last thought be to praise Him. In afflictions praise him; on the sickbed extol him; dying, let him have your sweetest notes. Let this, then, be your constant thought- “To him be glory for ever.” If you really glorify God, take care to do it not with lip-service, but with heartfelt practice in daily life. Praise him by your patience in pain, by your perseverance in duty, by your generosity in his cause, by your boldness in testimony, by your consecration to his work; praise him, my dear friends, not only this morning in what you do for him in your offerings, but praise him every day by doing something for God in all sorts of ways, according to the manner in which he has been pleased to bless you. [1] “Like a traveler who has reached the summit of an Alpine ascent, the apostle turns and contemplates. Depths are at his feet, but waves of light illumine them, and there spreads all around an immense horizon which his eye commands” (Godet). [2] James Montgomery Boice, Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace? (Carlisle, Cumbria, UK: Paternoster Lifestyle, 2002), pp. 156-158.   [3] Ibid., pp. 159-161.