Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counsellor?’ ‘Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?’ For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory for ever! Amen.
Romans 11:34-36

One of the things that the Apostle Paul is saying to us at the conclusion of Romans 11 is that God’s plan of redemption should move us to doxology, to cry out loud, “To God be glory for ever and ever! Amen!” Paul is also saying that even when God refuses to answer some of our questions we still praise him. We would say what the old Scottish covenanter in prison said as soldiers entered his stinking cell and turned a sack upside down and at his feet tumbled out the head and hands of his son, “It is the Lord who can never wrong me nor mine, but has caused goodness and mercy to follow me all the days of my life.”

Why have some things happened as they have? Why the suffering? Why the tragedy? God’s reply is this, that now many of his judgments are unsearchable. They are kept there hidden away in the depths of God, and in vain the first born seraph tries sound those depths, but they are there, like our lives, hidden away in God. The grievous providences  are also from him, through him, and to him, and so be assured that there’s a purpose to them. What happened to you was not because of bad luck, or the workings of the devil, or that God wasn’t there. Why this should have happened to you in particular, in this groaning world of sin and death, until this moment remains hidden in the depths of the wisdom and the knowledge of God. So I’m saying that our response is to gather up every bit of faith we have and praise God for all the wonderful and saving truths he has made known to us. We know that Jesus Christ is in charge of our lives; we know that nothing can separate us from his love, and we know that all things will work together for the good of them that are called and chosen by God. But also we’re to praise God for what we don’t know yet, but which we will know much more about hereafter when we see him face to face. I do not believe that God has an obligation to explain and justify everything to us. My duty is not to fretfully inquire. The only obligation God has is to be God to us, and to be his own interpreter and to make everything more plain. “‘Tis mercy all, let earth adore; let angel minds inquire no more.” So there are great and practical lessons that we learn from this verse, but they are not the main thing.

Behind a mere lesson about us, and about how we should behave is something far greater. There is God. There is the majesty and power of God. We are being reminded of the greatness of the living God, the bigness of his plans, and that puts every single one of our little problems in perspective. You know that there are times when we go the Scriptures or to the Sunday sermon looking for something that we can describe as ‘relevant’, something that will speak to us practically about today. You may sometimes wish that you had that introduction at the beginning of the Gideon Bibles always at hand but dealing with every subject you can think of. It gives verses where we can find peace, and forgiveness, and faith, and so on. But generally our greatest need is a clearer, wider, more glorious view of God himself. We need to appropriate the living God, and then we will have some standard by which to compare our increasingly small problems.

Remember what Dr. Lloyd-Jones said to the theological students preparing for the ministry at Westminster Seminary; “I can forgive a man for a bad sermon. I can forgive the preacher almost everything if he gives me a sense of God, if he gives me something for my soul, if he gives me the sense that, though he is inadequate himself, he is handling something which is very great and very glorious, if he gives me some dim glimpse of the majesty and glory of God, the love of Christ my Saviour, and the magnificence of the gospel. If he does this I am his debtor, and I am profoundly grateful to him” (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers, Hodder, 1971, p.98).

So instead of some “How to . . .” sermons about coping, or praying, or staying married, the preacher often needs to go to the Scriptures and get lost in the greatness of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and see afresh the vastness of the divine power and the divine plan for God’s creation and for his people, and realize that we have been caught up into union with this God in Christ, and we have fallen into the depths of this grace. God has a grand design, and it is going to be accomplished; it’s not going to fail. Sometimes we just need to be lost in wonder, love, and praise. We can go to the Scripture, with the hope that we will stumble across a verse, a little psalm, a neat promise which we can swallow like an aspirin and the pain will go. But in the mercy of the Lord we find much more than that; we find a sense of awe at the glory of God’s power and grace. You may have come with me through Romans chapter 11 looking for a specific answer to such a question as “the land of Israel and the future of the Jews,” and then, after studying Romans 11, the answer to that is not much clearer to you, but what you’ve gained – the insights you’ve received in this chapter – are far more important. How mighty and majestic God is, his utter grandeur and omnipotence and unflappability, and how great his grace is to us.

Then we come to these verses at the end of the enormous doctrinal and theological section of Romans and many of us find ourselves spontaneously joining the apostle Paul in praising Almighty God for what he is and what we’ve seen about him, but we also worship the Lord also for what he has chosen not to reveal to us. This is his grand prerogative. I am not going to tell you all my thoughts about you and everyone else. I will not be more of a blabbermouth than I am, and how much more is God going to keep secret things to himself. We’re glad that we don’t know everything. Haven’t there been events in your life, and you’ve had to go through them, and as you’ve looked back you’ve said, “Almighty God, thank you for not revealing to me beforehand all you were calling me to experience. I couldn’t have borne such knowledge. It would have been too awesome for me.” He tells us much; he tells us everything we need for a life of godliness and service, but then he bids us to bless his great and holy name also for what we don’t know and in the verses before us he will give us good reasons for doing that.


Here is the first of two quotations from the Old Testament. It is perhaps that there were some Jews on the fringes of the congregation in Rome who weren’t wholly persuaded that Paul had got God’s plan for the Jews right. They wouldn’t take something simply on the strength of what he’d said about it, but those same Jews did accept everything that was written in the Old Testament. So perhaps to persuade them Paul quotes from Isaiah chapter 40 and verse 13, “Who has understood the mind of the LORD, or instructed him as his counsellor?” He quotes Scripture because the Book settles it all – “to the law and to the testimony!” Paul is quoting from Isaiah, in order to confirm your mind and your affections that what he says is true. It’s one thing to say these things, but it’s another thing to believe them and be strengthened by them.

So the Old Testament question that Paul quotes is this, was there anyone whom God turned to for advice when he decided to create the universe, when he made mankind in his image, when he formed an innumerable company of angels? Who was there to warn the Creator when he decided not to make men or angels temptation-proof? No one. The planning was his. The decisions were all his. The accomplishment was uniquely his. There simply was no one and nothing else to consult. There was God alone. He couldn’t go across and speak to another god on Mount Olympus and say to him, “I just been thinking . . . let me bounce a few ideas off you . . .” No one was God’s counsellor; no one instructed God. He determined to create man and put him in a place of probation, and he decided to allow the devil in the form of a serpent to tempt Adam and Eve. God permitted them to fall. They sinned; they rebelled; they did it their way, but God was the one who allowed it to happen. Why? The sole answer in Scripture is that God’s judgments are unsearchable and his ways past finding out, but whatever answers we try to give we’re right to believe that ultimately it would all be to his glory, and that through Christ we would receive greater blessings than our father Adam lost.

So here is the question; “‘Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counsellor?” (v. 34), and the answer is “No one.” Nobody has known the infinite mind of God with its exhaustive knowledge of all the possible ramifications for any decision God takes. So all of you need counsel from God, and you acknowledge that by being here with open hearts and open minds each Sunday, listening to God’s word. You would be horrified to try to tell God what to do. In other words, all the people of our town, from the smartest to the dunces, need to come here Sunday morning and Sunday evening and listen intently to the word of God and then act upon it. If they don’t do that then they are in trouble now, and in trouble tomorrow, and the deepest woe for ever and ever.

Of course no one is utterly ignorant of the God who is and is not silent. We all know something of the mind of God because of divine revelation. The heavens declare his glory! “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse” (Roms. 1:20). We are all surrounded by the eternal power and divine nature of God every day of our lives from birth to death. God has also given each of us a conscience. God has given us a special revelation of his grace in the Scriptures. Even in this one letter Paul has given us 11 chapters of the mind of God. It is not all easy, but God has also given to the church gifted preachers to explain it and the Holy Spirit can enlighten the darkest mind. We are meant to understand it. We are not to say in fake humility, “Well, who can know?” You are meant to know. When your husband or wife says to you, “I love you,” then you are meant to know and believe that she loves you and to respond to it with wonder and love. So too now, go to God! What man, woman or child has asked God, “Help me understand the Word of God?” and God has not helped him? Not one. But, knowing the mind of God exhaustively is something else. No one save the Son of God alone knows the Father, and the Father alone knows the Son. They are both infinite in their omniscience. No man can become God’s counselor. There is no high flyer at the University here who can give God his counsel.

Yet this is the one thing that sinners presume most often to give God: counsel! They don’t offer love or delight or faith or hope to him. They offer God advice. They tell God outright or by implication: “If I ruled the world every day would be the first day of spring, not all this Welsh rain!” They say to him, “Would it spoil some great eternal plan if I were a wealthy man, not a guy with all these debts?” They’re telling him, “I don’t like the way you’re running the world; I think you should do it like this.” A woman called Pam whom I have known with her husband for years spoke to me at the Conference. She was on a bus journey and a woman got on board a half empty bus and chose to sit next to her, to her momentary annoyance. Soon she turned to Pam and she said to her, “I could wring the neck of God.” Those were her opening words, and so Pam opened up to her and began to get her story and began to speak to her about the living God whom this bus passenger knew . . . about as well as she knows the president of North Korea. Our town is filled with God-advisers. The one thing Paul explicitly says we cannot give, and dare not give, is what the self-righteous woman and the ignorant man most often do offer: they tell God how he should run the world, and what he is doing wrong, and warn him that if he doesn’t run it their way they’ll reject him. You won’t see them in church on Sundays. Let me compare their folly to a diabetic child saying to his paediatrician: “Don’t give me any more injections. And if you stick that insulin needle into me one more time, I’m never coming back.” People dismiss the living God and think their words are a threat to him! He that dwelleth in the heavens laughs them to scorn. The Lord will have them in derision. Don’t advise God. Don’t threaten God. You trust him. You trust him always, with all your hearts and you never lean on your own understanding. All else is suicide.

So Paul’s point is two-fold. His first being this, that we can’t know all the things that God knows. God’s mind is filled with every bit of information and insight that there can possibly be. It’s exhaustive; there are the sheer riches of his wisdom and knowledge, and men come to dump on him their sixpenny worth. Do we seriously think that we can make our contribution to him? “If I were doing this then I’d be doing it this way.” Paul’s second point is this. Since none of us knows the infinite mind of the Lord, who among us, with our very limited understanding, is in the position of giving God advice? There’s a line right across this congregation and Paul is saying, “Up in the gallery sits everybody who knows what’s in the mind of the Lord” and in the gallery every seat is empty. “Downstairs, are all who acknowledge that they don’t have the mind of the Lord. They are ignorant because they are creatures and they are also sinners.” And every pew is full of self-acknowledged men and women who say that they don’t know, but they trust the God who does. There is nobody who knows the things that the Lord knows. There is nobody that knows the mind of the Lord. Therefore there is not one person who is in the position of giving God advice, yet men so often dream. “Lord, we’d have done it better if we’d had your power.”

Even the Greek pagans, brilliant philosophers that they were, understood this somewhat. They had a famous saying, “Whom the gods would destroy, they give what people ask for.” What does that mean? It means that men and women don’t know what’s best for them. It’s not good for you to marry that particular person. It is better for you to want what you don’t have than to have what you don’t want. Often the things that we crave would destroy us. God knows everything and in his wisdom he causes all things to work toward his good. We are undone people if there should exist even one proud speck somewhere in the universe truly boasting, “Ha, ha, ha, ha! God is ignorant of me! He doesn’t know about me!” Then God is not omniscient, and so . . . what else might one day appear, bursting out on us and destroying us? No! We’re trusting him when we cry “Oh the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God.” When we pray we say, “If it’s your will . . . is it possible for this cup to pass from me, nevertheless not my will but Thine be done.” So Paul is practically saying, “Look, if God is possessed of all knowledge and wisdom and we are not, shouldn’t we close our mouths when tempted to complain against him? If we’re not in the position to advise him because we don’t know his mind, and we can’t counsel God, then shouldn’t we make ourselves very, very small, realising that we are specks of dust while he is infinite in his might, and omniscient with unbounded wisdom and understanding?” When we finally meet God will any of us say to him that Anthony Hopkins boasts he’s going to ask God, “What was all that about?” He knows like all of you know that it is all about loving and fearing the God whose Son Jesus Christ is offered to be our Saviour. In that day every mouth will be stopped before him. You realize that the God who made heaven and earth is love, and that he spared not his Son because he loved all who repented and obeyed his gospel and he was determined that we would be in heaven with him, as redeemed and forgiven men and women. So Paul isn’t just asking us to survive the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Paul’s climax in this chapter is not a call to grit your teeth and endure God’s sovereignty. He is asking you to bow down, and humble yourselves and worship the God of exhaustive knowledge and wisdom, trusting him with all your hearts.

A religious movement started over a decade ago and it is called ‘Open Theism.’ It opposes all that I’ve been saying about the riches of the wisdom and the knowledge of God. One of its proponents says, “God experiences the events of the world he’s made as they happen rather than all at once in some timeless, eternal perception. Not even God knows the future in all its details.” What do they mean when they say that? They say, “We actually create the future with the decisions that we make, and so God can’t know the future because we’re the ones who do that. It doesn’t exist yet; what kind of futures lie before this world are our decisions.” Then they say, “Isn’t this really comforting, because just as we have uncertainties in life, God also has to face uncertainties.”

Men and women, that is the least comforting thing that I’ve ever heard. The Open Theists go on to say that, “Because God does not know the future, by our praying we can actually change God’s mind; we can actually create the future by what we do and by what we say to God.” That is the most unsettling belief Christians can know because it challenges God himself. You consider the most hypocritical heart in this congregation, and maybe that hypocritical heart is mine. I don’t want God to let my desperately cunning heart determine the course of the future. You’re all in trouble if I’m determining the course of the future, and you all want the God and Father of our Lord Jesus to be determining your future, not me. It is precisely this reality – “Oh the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God” – that enables us not only to trust him, but also to worship him. Then the second point very briefly, in verse 35.


Paul asks, “‘Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?’” (v.35), and here he again shelters behind another truth of the Scriptures as he quotes those words from Job chapter 41 and verses 11 where God adds these words, “Whatever is under the whole heaven is mine.” Is it under the heavens? Yes. Can you see it, or touch it, or smell it, or hear it, or taste it? Then it comes from God; it is his by right of creation – God owns all things, and we can never give him anything that’s not already his. God gave to Job health, and he gave him family, and he gave him prosperity. None of those things did Job deserve. He’d forfeited his right to have them through the sin of his father Adam and by his own sin. But God in grace is the one who gave everything he has to him. Then God the benefactor also has the right to take them all from him, and Job’s response was to recognize this, “The Lord has given, and the Lord has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord,” and those are our final whispered words when God takes from us the ones we love the most. No one else had the right to do that, but our holy Creator has that right.

Everything has first come to us from God. You remember the great words of Paul to the church in Corinth, “For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you didn’t receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” (I Cor. 4:7). “Lord, I have given you my heart!” “I first gave that heart to you.” “Lord, I’ve given you my energy and I work for you.” “Where did that energy come from? You owe your breath and every beat of your heart and your whole life to me.” “Lord, I will use my brain for you.” “Who gave you your brain? Who is the one who determined you would not have Down’s Syndrome or get dementia? I gave you your mind, and long life, and health, and your creativity and your thought processes.” “Lord, I’ll give you a tithe of all I earn.” God says, “But I need nothing. Whatever is under heaven is mine.” We don’t do God a favour by giving him an hour and fifteen minutes on a Sunday morning, or a couple of pounds in the collection box, or anything at all. We never make God our debtor. There is absolutely no negotiating with God. We have no bargaining position. We bring nothing to the table. We are squatters on his territory. Even the breath we breathe is his gift to us. Every virtue we posses is through his grace. Paul tell the Athenian philosophers, “God is not served by human hands as though he needed anything, for he himself gives to all men life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:25).

Paul knew his Old Testament. He was reminded of David’s words in I Chronicles 29 and verse14 when the old king said, “All things come from you. O Lord, and from your hand we have given to you.” In other words, David is saying there was no sacrifice that he could make to God that God’s hand hadn’t first given him. None of us can put God under obligation. None of us can ever say, “God, you owe me for what I’ve done for you. You are indebted to me,” because concerning nothing I possess am I able to say to God, “What are you doing? Take your hand off that. It is mine!” Everything I have and everything I am belongs to God. He is the sole proprietor of the universe.


i] From God are all things. As I’ve often said to you, we Christians must always go back to the First Cause, and that is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. I take this to mean that the ultimate origin or the ultimate cause or the ultimately decisive reason for everything that has happened from the fall of man until this moment is Almighty God. Everything that exists depends for its existence on God—at its beginning and all the way along (from God and through God). It was something that was very important to Hudson Taylor as he was a pioneer missionary in China. There was persecution, and martyrdom, and illness, and extreme poverty, and Christians were asking why. Why had this been allowed to come into their lives at that time and with that effect? Always go back to the First Cause, was the counsel of Hudson Taylor. Don’t be blaming it on circumstances, or your past, or bad advice you got, or unhelpful influences from pathetic people. They are all responsible for what they have done and they will answer to God, but God is the one who had permitted everything to happen. It is ultimately from God that all things come.

Paul puts it like this: “[God] works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephs. 1:11), and again like this: “So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Roms. 9:16).  Solomon in Proverbs 16 and verse 33 puts it like this, “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.” So “all things are from God” means that there is no explanation for what happens that is deeper or more decisive than our loving wise and kind heavenly Father. You can’t go beyond the will of God to something more rational or something more omnipotent or something more moral. This is what we mean when we say that God is absolutely sovereign.

Think of Paul’s word reminding us that we strive against principalities and powers and the rulers of the darkness of this world and spiritual wickedness in high places. We’ve got a fight on our hands but the devil who tempts and tests us is not co-eternal with God. There are not two gods; there is no dualism, and Satan is not ultimately independent of God. The devil is a fallen angel and the devil was once created by God and is sustained by God. He doesn’t have some independent life-support system. He is chained to God in all he does. Should he get too close to a child of God then God yanks the chain. His existence and all that comes from it—so much of the evil in the world—depends on God’s willing him to exist and allowing him moment by moment to do what he does. God sees it coming and God permits it to happen. God is not surprised by the activities of Satan, and since the devil does nothing aimlessly or capriciously, there is always a purpose for what he causes to happen. God must make his Son a sacrificial Lamb dying for our sins. God allows the devil to do this dirty work for him. So in that sense we can say that even the biggest picture of all, of the evil that there is in the world, and all its calamities, all that is from God. You must go back to our Great First Cause, “All things are from him and through him.”

“What of sin?” you ask, “and everything that comes from the world system that defies and hates God? Aren’t we commanded in John’s first letter 1 John 2:15-16, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world” (I Jn. 2:15&16). John says plainly enough that “the desires of the flesh” and “the desires of the eyes” and the “pride in possessions” is “not from God.” So in one sense “all things” are “from God.” But in another sense these evil things are not from God.

It means God did not create sin, or support sin, or tempt anyone to sin. Sin never came from God’s nature. That is, it’s not an extension or the inevitable result of God’s character or God creating material things. God is holy, and there is no unholiness in him. God is light, and in him is no darkness. The darkness and unholiness of sin don’t arise as part of God’s nature or God’s character. Sin doesn’t come from him in that sense. Sin never comes from what he made because he looked at it all and pronounced it “very good.” God willed and permitted sin to exist, without himself sinning. It is not a sin when God, with infinite wisdom and holiness, ordains that sin should exist. Let me say it like this, that sin is “from him” as the one who ordained it, but “not from him” as an expression of his nature.

Here’s an imperfect illustration of John Piper that attempts to explain the difference. He says that you can get a black eye in two ways. You can be hit in the eye with a white snowball, and your eye will turn black. Or you can be injected above your eye with a hypodermic needle full of black dye, and your eye will turn black. In the second case the darkness comes from the nature of the dye. In the first case the darkness does not come from any darkness in the snowball. “All I want you to see from that illustration is that there are two different ways of thinking about something being ‘from God.’ All things are from God in the sense that he ordains all that comes to pass. But all sinful acts are not from God as an expression of his nature. The practical upshot of this is that we are ultimately dependent on God for all things, for our crosses and losses, for the thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan that tries us so painfully – all such things come from God one hundred per cent, but that we are also utterly responsible and guilty for the evil in our own hearts and our actions, one hundred per cent. 100% + 100% = 100%. The effect this should have is deep submission to the secret things that belong to God and deep thankfulness that we know of God’s sovereignty in what he has told us.

ii] Through God are All Things. God is the agent, the instrument and supplier of all things. How did all the wonderful things that you most treasure and love come to you? By luck? You say “I’ve been very lucky.” Is that all? That it’s your karma? I tell you that you are wrong to think like that. Through God are all the grandest experiences and gifts you’ve ever known. All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above. God had planned out every detail of your life from the beginning, from the very second of your birth into that happy family, and on to that moment when your eyes met the eyes of the one you married. There was that tiny moment, significant only to the two of you, when you knew that this was the real thing. But that tiny event occurred on this planet and in this solar system and in our galaxy of the Milky Way, and every event in that galaxy from your eyes meeting and the thought in your mind that you were going to marry that person right out and out and out to the movement of the planets and the galaxies in their orbits – everything in the universe and beyond it is all through God. Scientists tell us that every year the movement of the sun and the moon and the comets and the planets are all exactly on time, down to the millisecond, day after day, year after year. Hundreds of years from now if the Lord tarries, it will still be precise, and the reason for all that is not because our God is an approximate God, he is an exact God, a detailed God, a precise God. He has planned out your life not just to the years, or the months, or the days, but down to the very second. Through him come meetings and providences and untold blessings. In your future God has determined moment by moment where time and eternity are going to come together, and you will be at the right place and the right time for the things he has ordained to occur. Through him are all things. Scripture says that before you were born even then God knew you. He knew every one of your days before they ever took shape.

Think of Joseph and how he arrived in Dothan at that moment when his brothers were filled with anger towards him. How was it when they were abandoning him to die in a deep and steep cistern that at that moment the Midianite slave-traders were going past and heading for Egypt, and that in the slave market the person to buy him was Potiphar, and that he has a lustful wife, and that Joseph was kept pure, and even in prison he was kept through his years there, and that the butler and baker dreamed, and the butler forgot all about Joseph until Pharaoh dreamed a troubled dream, and he remembered, and told Pharaoh. Joseph was sent for and he did understand the significance of the king’s dream and he was elevated to be prime minister of Egypt, and so he could protect his brothers when they came to the land from their famine to buy grain. Were all those mere coincidences? Did they say, “Wasn’t it such astonishing luck?” Or did Joseph see the hand of God in it all? Didn’t he rather say to them, “You meant it for evil but God meant it for good?” And so hasn’t it been like this for all you followers of Jesus Christ today? It is through God the Son, Jesus Christ, that all your blessings have come to you.

iii] To God are all things. Every Christian knows his goal in life is the living God. He sings, “Our God is the end of the journey.” Every child of God will find his purpose and fulfilment in him, for our chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him for ever. We exist to magnify the glory of God. Rebel sinners also are not going to rob God of his glory. They are going to glorify him in hell as vessels of judgment before prepared for condemnation. All of creation and all of history is designed by God to be a completed canvas that displays in the most glorious way possible the greatness and beauty of God. We love the fact that Jesus Christ came into the world to vindicate the righteousness of God and to repair the injury that man had done to the reputation of the glory of God. Don’t you love the fact that you personally exist to make the Lord appear as he really is . . . happy and glorious, long to reign over us, our Saviour God? Our salvation as mere Christians will put the glory of God’s grace on display. That’s what we pray for. That is why God created the universe. That is why he ordained history. That is why he sent his Son; that is why you exist, for ever to see and savour and display the glory of Christ who is the image of God. Do you embrace this vocation? Is this your treasure and your joy?

18th August 2013  GEOFF THOMAS