A sermon by Dr Donald T. Williams - donaldtwilliams.com
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Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 08/11/96
As we follow Pharaoh through the plagues, we keep wanting to ask, "Come on, guy--what is it going to take?" It is almost as hard as trying to get through to your own kids! Then you realize: Pharaoh is just an extreme case of a tendency present in all of us. It is our stubborn self will, our tendency to relapse when relief comes, our ability to lie to ourselves, that we see in him. Today we want to look at two more traits of Pharaoh's hard heart, and then consider the grace of God in a storm of hail.I. THE FOLLY OF PHARAOH
What is Pharaoh's problem? Even he finally gets the point (or seems to) and repents, but then his "repentance" doesn't stick. We've all had the frustrating experience of dealing with people who, like the seed sowed on the rocky ground or among the thorns, seem to turn to Christ only to fade away back into the woodwork very quickly or else stay in a spiritual rut beyond which they never grow or bear fruit. Pharaoh in this passage is the patron saint--or, at least, paradigmatic biblical figure--of people like that. His repentance manifests two spiritual flaws that are excellent indicators of a problematic repentance that will probably be only for a time, not the real change of direction for life that comes from saving faith.
The first of these flaws is that he minimized his guilt (vs.. 27). What does he mean, "I have sinned this time"? What about all the other times? Who is he trying to kid? Real repentance accepts God's sentence of condemnation against us, agrees with it, and does not try to evade it or minimize our guilt or make excuses for it. The true penitent knows himself to be worthy of Hell and completely dependent on God's grace, his unmerited favor. Anything less is mere rationalization and will have no staying power.
Just think of the repentance of the great heroes of the faith--contrast their language with Pharaoh's, and the difference becomes plain immediately. Listen to Jacob in Gen. 32:10--"I am unworthy of all the lovingkindness and of all the faithfulness which thou hast shown to thy servant." Or hear the words of David in Psalm 25--"For thy name's sake, oh Lord, pardon my iniquity, for it is great." Isaiah said, "Woe is me, for I am undone! For I am a man of unclean lips" (6:5). Paul acknowledged that Christ came into the world to save sinners, "among whom I am the foremost of all" (1 Tim. 1:15). And the publican, held out by our Lord as a model for repentance and saving faith, would not even lift up his eyes unto heaven, but beat his breast and said, "God be merciful to me, a sinner" (Lk. 18:13-14).
Now, doesn't this all seem a wee bit theatrical? Doesn't their language sound a bit exaggerated to you? A bit overdone? Well, it is biblical! These men understood the biblical doctrine of sin. They understood the contrast between the goodness, the righteousness, the holiness of God and their own deeds, their rebellion, their very natures. They saw themselves as ungrateful, despicable, and inexcusable rebels against their good and gracious king. Why? Because they had met God! The person who minimizes his guilt shows that he has not. For there is no such thing as a trivial sin if sin is an offense against God.
The person who minimizes his guilt is not serious. The alcoholic who says, "well, maybe I had a few too many" has no hope of dealing with his problem. He is never going to get any better. But when he goes to an AA meeting and says, "I am So-and-So, and I am an alcoholic"--then there is hope. And not until. In the same way, I must come into the presence of God--or of his people--and say, "I'm Don Williams, and I'm a sinner." As long as I know that and confess it to God and men, there is forgiveness. As long as I know that and confess it to God and men, there is hope of victory over sin. As long as I refuse to admit what the real problem is, I cannot possibly have more than a shallow and temporary repentance; I cannot claim to have saving faith. Therefore, do not minimize sin; maximize grace! Do not say, "I have sinned this time." Say, "I am a sinner; may God have mercy on my soul!" And do not tell people they are saved until they are willing to say something like that with meaning and understanding. Until then, they are like Pharaoh--just playing games.
The second flaw in Pharaoh's repentance is that he tried to retain control. In verse 28, if God will stop the hail, "I will let you go." He is still trying to bargain with God, as if he had anything to bargain with! And then there is that other absurd little statement--"There's been enough hail." Oh, really? And who is Pharaoh to decide that? If he were truly repentant, he would simply release the Israelites without conditions, and leave it up to God to decide when there had been enough hail. He would have said, "The people are yours--take them--I have nothing to say about the matter but 'thy will be done.' And though we clearly deserve this hail, and deserve for it to continue indefinitely, we ask you to be merciful with us of your grace."
Do you see the difference? Do you see the difference it makes in your own approach to the Christian life? I have heard well-meaning people refer to our giving as "God's tithe and our offerings." That sounds a bit too much like Pharaoh to me. Is it our money, our time, so that we decide how much of it to give back to God? Or is it all his money and his time, so that we are asking how he wants us to use it? It is the difference between those people who are spiritually serious and those who are just playing games, tithing to assuage their consciences but not yet relating to God as God. I am afraid that too many of us are too like Pharaoh for comfort. It is no surprise, once we are onto the game he is playing, that as soon as the hail quit he went back to his old ways. He is exactly like an awful lot of the "conversions" that we see in American evangelicalism today. And they do not "stick" either, for precisely the same reasons. What do we expect when we have made the Gospel into a message of self fulfillment rather than the proclamation that Jesus is Lord?
Pharaoh's hardness of heart and the superficiality of his apparent repentance set off by contrast . . .II. THE GRACE OF GOD IN HIS JUDGMENTS
Pharaoh certainly deserved what God had promised him in verse 15, to be cut off from the earth. But he has not been--yet--and still will not be, even after going back on his "repentance." Why not? Because of God's purpose revealed in verse 16, to show his power in all the earth and thus to proclaim his name in all the earth. Pharaoh has been given more than a reasonable chance for repentance because of God's grace. This is true in the obvious sense that Pharaoh's doom is delayed, but also in the less obvious sense of verse 16. You see, God is the greatest Good, period, and therefore the greatest Good for all of mankind, including Pharaoh. Therefore, the greatest imaginable act of love, benevolence, kindness, and grace that God can perform is to communicate himself to men and women. Even when Pharaoh rejects him, even when he plays games with him with his hypocritical sham repentance, God keeps on revealing himself. You see, if God really is the greatest Good, then it is better for men to know him even in judgment than for them not to know him at all. Those who refuse his Love will therefore at least see his Power. Pharaoh is granted to chose the kind of revelation it will be, but he will not be permitted to escape what he has chosen. If he chooses to be like the Dwarfs hiding in their "stable" in C. S. Lewis's The Last Battle, God will give him what he can receive. If not love, if not mercy, well, then, power and judgment. It is certainly true that the plagues are God's punitive judgment against Pharaoh; but it is also true that they are his mercy, not just to Israel, whom they liberate, but even to Pharaoh and the whole earth. For they will at least see his Power and know it as flowing from his Name. And they will be given opportunities to know more than this that are more than needful by anyone's standards. They get not one second chance, but ten--when even one would be grace, unmerited favor. Blessed be He.CONCLUSION
Let's get it straight. God does not owe us anything; we owe him everything. And yet he has given everything in his Son to those who were guilty of withholding everything. That, my friends, is Grace. It is the apex of his attributes, the crown of his character, the pinnacle of his perfections, and the greatest glimpse of his glory; and it will be manifested, blazoned forth, and set off, even when in its rejection God responds to the hardness of our hearts with the exercise of his justice, his wrath, and his judgment. How excellent is his name, how matchless his grace! Let us be sure that we do not respond to him with a shallow repentance that cheapens that grace by minimizing our own guilt or demeans his glory by trying to retain control in despite of his sovereignty. Let us be sure that we do not preach a Gospel that makes it easy for others to do so either. Amen.
Here endeth the lesson. Dr. Donald T. Williams