Plans and the Providence of God – Rom. 15:23-33
It is right to make plans. Isn’t this what the Proverbs point us to when they call us to consider the ant (Prov. 6:6-11). In some sense, a lack of planning can be a manifestation of laziness as well as a lack of wisdom, and that in itself is sin. We have no right to use God’s sovereignty as an excuse not to prepare or make plans or to exercise careful forethought about our future. The Bible commends planning for the future, although it condemns anxiety about the future (the KJV translation in Mat. 6, “take no thought for your life…” should be translated, “take no anxious thought…”). In other words, we are again confronted with the necessity of balancing both the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man.
Now I believe the Bible. And that means that I believe that God has foreordained whatsoever comes to pass. However, some will take the necessity of careful preparation as an evidence against the fact that God has foreordained all that comes to pass. But those who do so have assumed that I can’t make meaningful decisions if my decisions are foreordained by God. But this is exactly what the Scriptures teach. For example, God foreordained that Cyrus would make a decision to allow the Israelites to return to their own land (cf. Isa. 45-46), and that did not make Cyrus any the less free or make his decision any the less meaningful. God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and at the same time Pharaoh hardened his own heart. Those are compatible statements, even if we cannot understand them. (And, by the way, it is a false solution to say that Pharaoh hardened his own heart and God only hardened Pharaoh’s heart in response. Nowhere is that taught in the Exodus account, and in fact the very opposite can be demonstrated from the text.) God takes the hearts of kings, the most free and sovereign people in the ancient world, and turns them as rivers of waters, wherever he wills (Prov. 21:1).
On the other hand, the fact that God’s plan is all-encompassing does not mean that I can sit on my haunches and wait for life to happen. It does not mean that when bad things happen to me because of mismanagement on my part or because of sin or because of laziness that God is to blame (cf. Jam. 1:13-15). My bad choices can lead me into bad health, financial ruin, broken relationships, and spiritual barrenness, and this is not God’s fault, it’s mine. What then are we to do? One way to avoid this is to plan carefully in accordance with Biblical principles. For example, if you aren’t reading your Bible, you should have a Bible-reading plan. If you don’t, you are probably not going to read your Bible consistently.
This last point should be emphasized. There are all sorts of books out there that counsel people to plan. We are told how to plan for our future in a multitude of ways. We are told how to plan for a spouse, how to plan for a family, how to plan for financial security, and so on. But most of these books say little or nothing about God and the gospel. The reality is that you can plan in all the wrong ways. Planning is good, but if you plan wrongly, it can lead to real spiritual catastrophe.
Here’s a Biblical example of what I’m talking about. In Luke 12:13-21 our Lord tells the Parable of the Rich Fool. But here’s the deal: this was a man who knew how to plan. When his crops did well and he had an overabundance, he planned to store it up so he would have plenty for the future. But our Lord was not holding this man up as an example to emulate! For there was a serious problem with his decision-making: it did not include God. This was because this man was all about this life and did not take care about the next. He was the perfect example of the secular man. He is also the perfect example of a man whose plans are ultimately meaningless and eternally ruinous.
Now what does this all have to do with our text? In these verses, it’s clear that the apostle is discussing his travel plans with the Roman Christians. But in making these plans, he again gives us an example of what it means to do this as a Christian, as someone who is consciously under the authority and sovereignty of God. Paul believes that God is sovereign. He believes in trusting him for the future. And he believes in taking careful preparation about the future and making decisions about the future even as he trusts in God who holds the future in his hands.
And what plans! There are three destinations that the apostle mentions here: Jerusalem, Rome, and Spain. He is writing from Corinth, and talks about traveling from there to Jerusalem to bring a monetary contribution from the Christians in that part of the world to help alleviate the ills that had resulted from a long and serious famine in Judea (25-27). This in itself was a trip of around 800 miles. A lot of planning had to go into it, not just in terms of the traveling but also in terms of how to transport the gifts in a way that protected Paul’s integrity. He also talks about traveling from Jerusalem to Rome (24, 28-29), a trip of about 1500 miles. Finally, there is the trip from Rome to Spain (24, 28), which was about 700 miles. Altogether, the apostle is planning on traveling a total of 3000 miles or so, a very ambitious road trip, especially in the ancient world when people would often plan their wills before leaving on extended travel!
A question that is sometimes asked is whether or not the apostle ever made it to Spain. We will never know with certainty. We do know that the apostle did make it to Jerusalem and then to Rome – though not in exactly the manner he intended. He went to Rome, not as a free man but as a prisoner. And when the book of Acts ends, it ends with Paul under house arrest in Rome. According to Eusebius, Paul was released from this first imprisonment, after which he continued to minister for a time until he was re-arrested, whereupon he was executed. It is possible, therefore, that between his first and second arrests, he was able to fulfill this ambition to preach the gospel in Spain. There is a further testimony in Clement of Rome’s epistle to the Corinthians, in which he testifies that Paul was able to go to the limits of the West. Was this a cryptic reference to Spain? Again, we will never know for sure.
Here then, we have the example of Paul’s plans. But again, they are instructive. They show us how we should look at our future and how we should make our plans. In particular, they show us that we should make plans that prioritize the kingdom of God, that submit to the will of God, and that include the people of God.
In our plans we should seek first the kingdom of God
Paul did this and the text illustrates it. His whole being is bent on putting the interests of God’s kingdom first. He has been striving to preach the gospel, as he has been speaking in the previous verses, and the point he is making in these is that he wants to continue this. His purpose in coming to Rome was at least partly to enlist their support for his Spanish mission. All of Paul’s plans were about extending the kingdom of God. It was about advancing it through sending aid to the churches in Judea. It was about bringing the gospel to new places, like Spain. Paul’s plans were a practical illustration of what Jesus exhorted his disciples to do: “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Mt. 6:33).
But what does it mean for you and me to seek first the kingdom of God? Must we be, like the apostle, engaged in full-time ministry? Who are able to say they are seeking first God’s kingdom? What does this look like when I’m not a preacher or a missionary?
Well, consider the context of the statement of our Lord in Matthew, in the Sermon on the Mount. It is a bookend of sorts. At the beginning of the section of which verse 33 concludes, our Lord reminds his followers that they cannot serve God and mammon, and that they are not to be laying up treasures upon earth but in heaven. We cannot serve two masters (Mt. 6:19-24). Then in verse 33 we are exhorted to seek first God’s kingdom. What is in between? In verses 25-32, we have an extended exhortation to not worry about the things of this life, like food and clothing. He sums it all up in verses 31-32: “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.”
What does this imply? It means that we are to live in such a way as to show to others that our trust is in God, that we have a heavenly Father who will take care of us. We are not anxious because we trust in a God who can and will provide for our needs. That is the mindset we are to have. You don’t have to be a preacher or a missionary to live that kind of lifestyle. It is the kind of lifestyle that invites questions, like, “Why do you live like that?” And then you can tell them about the hope that lies within you. That is at least partly what it means to seek first the kingdom of God.
Or consider what our Lord said in an earlier part of that sermon. He talks about us being the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Why? “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Mt. 5:17). But you’re not going to live that way if what is important to you are the things of the world. You cannot be light or salt if you look and live like those who have no faith in Christ. Be different. Don’t prioritize making money; prioritize holiness and faith and God’s word in your life. Don’t spend your life on this world, but spend it on the next. We are to live what we profess to believe: that there is a heaven and that this is where we will spend eternity – in the presence of God Almighty and holy. Do you live like that?
And surely this works its way out in the plans that we make. We are all constantly making plans, plans about what to wear for the day, about the next meal, about what we are going to do in our daily tasks, where we might go on vacation, what we are going to do with our money, and on and on. When we are making our plans, whether short term or long term, where does the kingdom of God figure in? Our Lord said that we are to seek first God’s kingdom. It’s not second or third, but first. Does that describe you and me? Well, look at your plans, and see.
We are not throwing our lives away when we prioritize the concerns of God’s kingdom above short term pleasures and earthly security. We are throwing our lives away when we do the opposite. Luther’s hymn puts it exactly right when it says: “Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; the body they may kill, God truth abideth still, his kingdom is forever.” Live for something that is forever and your life is not in vain. But put your effort into something that will evaporate in a few years, and what have you done? Let me remind you of Jim Elliot’s famous dictum: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” Don’t be a fool! Gain what you cannot lose!
In our plans we should be guided by the revealed will of God
There is an important distinction we should make with reference to God’s will. There is God’s revealed will and there is God’s secret will (also called the decretive will of God, or God’s will of purpose). This is not a distinction made up by theologians with too much time on their hands: it finds expression in Scripture. For example, in Deut. 29:29, we read, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” In other words, we don’t plan by trying to discern God’s secret will, his eternal purpose. Rather, we plan by looking to see what the Bible has to say. For the Israelites that meant the words of the Law. For us, it means everything from Genesis to Revelation.
What does this have to do with Paul? For Paul, the revealed will of God came to him directly from Christ who appeared to him to make him an apostle. And what was this will? The apostle spells it out for us. He tells us how Jesus told him, “I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles – to whom I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:16-18). Now isn’t this what the apostle had been doing? And is this not what determined his plans for the future? He was obeying the explicit and revealed will of God for him.
Again, for us that means looking into Scripture. Here we have God’s will for us. Here we have something that will make us mature, that will make us complete (2 Tim. 3:16-17). So many people make plans based on what feels good. But that is not the baseline for the Christian. The baseline for us is: what saith the Lord? What does the Bible say? It doesn’t matter in the end how I feel about it – what matters is what God’s word has to say about it, and I simply need to obey it. We will never go wrong if we are seeking to obey the Bible.
In our plans we are to be submissive to eternal purpose of God
Now I said a minute ago that we are not to seek to guide our decisions by God’s eternal decree, which we do not know. True. I am not to expend energy trying to discern that – it’s none of my business. If God wanted me to know it, he would have revealed it! However, this does not mean that God’s secret will has nothing to do with our plans. On the contrary, our plans cannot be properly made without a due consideration of God’s decretive will.
How do we relate our plans to God’s eternal and unchangeable plan? In this way: by understanding that God is sovereign over all, we recognize that our plans are not ultimate, no matter how well-intentioned or Bible-based. God’s plans are ultimate. And it is a matter of faith and humility to recognize that. We are not sovereign; God is. It means that we submit all our plans to God and be willing for him to make them or break them. It means that we follow our Lord’s own example when he prayed, “Not my will, but yours be done” (Mt. 26:39). It means that we pray how our Lord taught his disciples to pray: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, as in heaven so in earth” (Mt. 6:10). It means we hold with open hand all our dreams and plans, knowing that our Father knows what is best for us. As it has been put, God is too wise to err and too good to be unkind. And we submit our plans to him.
This is what the apostle Paul means when he asks them to “strive together in your prayers to God on my behalf . . . so that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company” (30, 32). This is what the apostle James was getting at in his epistle: “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’ – yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’ As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil” (Jam. 4:13-16). Paul was doing what James was commanding. It’s not a matter of knowing God’s decree, but it is a matter of submitting to it.
But this leads to an important point. Why make plans which may never come to pass? We know that part of Paul’s plans didn’t happen the way he envisioned them, and perhaps he never made it to Spain. Why go to all the effort of making something that can fall apart? If my plans must submit to God’s plans, why make plans at all?
There are several reasons planning is still important, even when they don’t come to pass the way we imagined they would. One is that God commands us to plan in faith. Second, God can use our broken plans as a way to fulfill his purposes through us. Calvin is a tremendous example of this. His plan was initially to go to Basel to spend his life in quiet, contemplative study. But on the way, he had to pass through Geneva, and the rest is history. But here’s the point: if Calvin had not made his plans to go to Basel, he would never have made it to Geneva – which is apparently where God wanted him to be!
In our plans we should include the people of God
The final thing I want to say is this: our plans should always include God’s people. I think it is instructive that when Paul thought about going to Spain, we wanted to go through Rome first to enlist the help of the believers there. He didn’t want to go it alone. And I don’t think he was simply looking for a handout. It is very possible that he was looking for folks to go with him on his trip. And he was also looking forward to the fellowship and the personal strengthening that he would receive as a result of being with them (cf. 15:24, 33; 1:12). He includes them in his plans so that they can pray with him (30-33).
But it’s not just the Roman Christians who were important to Paul. So important was the unity of the church that he was willing to postpone Rome to travel in the opposite direction to Jerusalem!
We are not apostles. None of us have the gifts that the apostle. So if Paul felt this kind of need for the fellowship of the saints, how much more should we! We need each other in our lives. We need other believers to show us our blind spots, to keep us balanced, to encourage us when we get discouraged. And they can keep us from making really bad choices. We need the gifts of other Christians. It should, in fact, be normal for us to gravitate towards other believers, and to include them in our lives (“by the love inspired by the Spirit,” ver. 30).
Now this is true for us individually. But these principles are also true for us collectively. It is true for us as a church. How do we plan for the future of this church? Well, we should plan in these ways. We should plan so that Shiloh is a part of the advance of God’s kingdom in this world. We should plan so that God’s word is honored. We should plan so that the people of God are encouraged, convicted, and are growing together. And we should plan in reverent faith and humility, submitting all to God’s will and purpose.
Let our plans reflect our faith and hope in God. Let them reflect the priorities of the gospel. Let them show others the goodness and faithfulness and trustworthiness of our gracious Father. Let them point others to Jesus Christ, our only hope in life and death.
 See William Hendriksen, Romans (Baker: 1980), p. 492.