True Accomplishment Through Faith Alone
A sermon on Habakkuk 2:12-14 by Coty Pinckney, Community Bible Church, Williamstown, MA 5/27/01
On a hot, sultry August day in Williamstown, 195 years ago, five young men gathered for prayer near the Hoosic River. Samuel Mills, a freshman at the college, was the organizer – he gathered a group together to pray twice a week. As Mills arrives, dark clouds begin to form in the west, and the group hears the sound of distant thunder. Retreating uphill towards West College, Mills notices an elevated haystack, and suggests that they crawl underneath to pray there. They do so – and the clouds split open with a tremendous downpour. But Mills takes this strange opportunity to bare his heart for the unsaved around the world. Describing the situation facing the lost in Asia, Mills encourages all present to commit themselves to going as missionaries. When they feel overwhelmed by the task ahead, he cries out, “We can do it if we will!”
This little meeting of five undergraduates 1.5 miles from where we meet today was the beginning of the foreign missionary movement in this country. This gathering led directly to the founding of the first mission society that, less than six years later, sent Adoniram Judson and others overseas. Mills himself lived for only 12 years after the Haystack prayer meeting, dying at the age of 35 in 1818. But in those twelve years his accomplishments were massive. In addition to serving as an urban missionary in New York, traveling to Africa, and taking two missions trips to what was then the wild west of this country – St Louis and New Orleans – Mills proved to be an organizational genius, becoming the driving force not only behind the first foreign missionary society, but also behind the formation of the American Bible Society.
In addition, we sitting here today have a personal stake in Mill’s work; recall that in 1821 the president of Williams decided this valley was too remote for a successful college; he marched most of the faculty, staff, students, and library over the mountain and founded Amherst. In those dark days, the college’s trustees turned to a prominent preacher and evangelist, Edwin Dorr Griffin, asking him to assume the presidency. Griffin said yes – primarily because of the college’s association with Samuel Mills. And Griffin saved Williams. So it is not farfetched to say that were it not for Samuel Mills, there would be no Williams College today. And were it not for Williams College, would there be a Community Bible Church today?
So how do you respond to this story? Is your response: “Wow! What accomplishments! What a great man!” Is that the right response?
We’ll come back to Samuel Mills at the close of the message. For his life is a great example of today’s topic: our attitude toward accomplishments. Recall that we are making our way through the second chapter of Habakkuk. We have considered the famous fourth verse of this chapter, “the righteous shall live by faith.” The remainder of the chapter provides us with five “woes” pronounced on “the proud one,” the one who does not live by faith. While these woes are especially applicable to the Babylonians, they also apply to everyone as negative examples of living by faith. For each of the five woes, we have seen that the proud one pursues a good, God-given objective, but twists the objective or tries to attain it by evil means. God then pronounces an appropriate punishment on the proud one, providing us with valuable lessons about living by faith.
Today we consider Habakkuk 2:12-14. Let’s read these verses together:
12 "Woe to him who builds a city with bloodshed And founds a town with violence! 13 "Is it not indeed from the LORD of hosts That peoples toil for fire, And nations grow weary for nothing? 14 "For the earth will be filled With the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, As the waters cover the sea.
The proud one wants to build a city or found a town. (This second expression can also be translated, “establishes a city” – the Hebrew word does not connote a smaller city than the word used in the first expression). The relevance of this to us is not immediately obvious; I doubt that any of us here this morning plan to found a city!
But all of us want do want to accomplish something.
Is this a good desire? Should we want to make an impact, to leave our mark on the world?
Yes! Indeed, God commands us to have an impact on our world:
So the desire for accomplishment is God-given. Like the desires for satisfaction and security, there is nothing wrong with this desire itself. Instead, the problem comes from where one seeks accomplishment, and how one tries to achieve it.
How does the proud one go about achieving his objective? What means does he use? Verse 12 tells us he builds his city with bloodshed, with violence. More generally, he is trying to have an impact on the world at the expense of others.
Question: Do the good works God prepares in advance for us to do end up hurting others? Do the commands to fill, subdue, and rule over the earth lead to harmful impacts on other people? No! Rather, when we work in accordance with God’s plan, we will assist others, helping them. So the methods of the proud one are clearly wrong.
But not only are his methods evil – the very power he depends upon is wrong. Instead of trying to accomplish God’s plans by God’s power, the proud one seeks his own ends, by his own power.
Look again at verse 13, where God prescribes the appropriate punishment:
13 "Is it not indeed from the LORD of hosts That peoples toil for fire, And nations grow weary for nothing?
We have seen that the one who plunders others will be plundered himself; the one who tries to gain security for his house at the expense of others will lose all security – indeed, his very house will cry out against him. Here we see that the one who strives to accomplish much outside the will of God will achieve nothing; in the end there will be nothing to see, nothing to hold on to – his accomplishments will be as ephemeral as fire; he will toil and toil yet produce nothing that lasts.
This prophecy was fulfilled in part in the person of Nebuchadnezzer, king of Babylon. As we have noted, about twenty years after Habakkuk writes this book, Nebuchadnezzer destroys Jerusalem. But then about twenty years later, the events recorded in Daniel 4 take place. Nebuchadnezzer is standing on a high place in his capital city; verse 30 reads:
"The king reflected and said, 'Is this not Babylon the great, which I myself have built as a royal residence by the might of my power and for the glory of my majesty?'
Do you see the parallels with our passage? He has achieved so much, he believes, by his own power – and he takes all the glory to himself.
Do you recall what does God do to him? He makes Nebuchadnezzer go mad. For seven years, he eats grass like a wild animal. As verse 32 records, this will continue:
until you recognize that the Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind and bestows it on whomever He wishes.
In that state, Nebuchadnezzer’s accomplishments meant nothing. He didn’t care for his city – all he wanted was some tasty grass.
Verse 14 is a break from the pattern we’ve seen in the first two woes. God actually provides us with the lesson Himself.
14 "For the earth will be filled With the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, As the waters cover the sea.
What is the “knowledge of the glory of the Lord”? Glory refers to the display of God’s essential character, what He is like. He displays this both in His actions, and in His presence with His people. Psalm 19 begins:
The heavens are telling of the glory of God; And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands.
God shows his character in His creation, the work of His hands. But God also shows His glory through His presence. When the Israelites completed the tabernacle:
Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.
So for the earth to be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, what must happen? All must know God; all must bow down and worship Him; all must acknowledge His splendor, His majesty, His power, His might, His goodness, His wisdom. As the water in the oceans fills every nook and cranny, no matter how small, just so all the earth will acknowledge God as God. And furthermore, His presence will be clearly manifest throughout the world.
So what does this have to do with accomplishment? Everything! Do you see? What is the greatest accomplishment imaginable? Towards what is all creation heading? God is filling the earth with His glory! This is the entire purpose of creation! God is displaying what He is like – and you are a key player in bringing that purpose about! As God speaks through Isaiah:
Bring My sons from afar And My daughters from the ends of the earth, 7 Everyone who is called by My name, And whom I have created for My glory (Isaiah 43:6-7)
Everyone who belongs to Him was created for His glory. This is your purpose, your calling, your reason for existence. Furthermore, all that we do, even the most routine acts of everyday life, can serve this purpose. Paul writes:
Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. 1 Corinthians 10:31.
So your whole life is concerned with this one purpose: to bring about God’s plan to fill the earth with his glory. This is where you will find fulfillment, where you will find accomplishment; this is the meaning of your life. All other accomplishments fade, and are like fire: But this will last forever.
Note that this is not only referring to specifically “religious” work: Whatever we do – our jobs, our home life, our recreation – all can be, and must be done to the glory of God.
So what lessons can we draw for ourselves from this? Consider three wrong attitudes towards our efforts in this world:
(1) “I’ve worked hard; I’ve tried and tried and tried to serve God; and there is no impact. I have accomplished nothing. Therefore, my work was pointless and worthless.”
Sometimes circumstances may seem to warrant such a conclusion. Many times God does not let us see the impact of our work. But as Christians, we must never evaluate ourselves on the basis of results. We evaluate ourselves instead on faithfulness to God’s calling, faithfulness to His word.
Do you recall Anna and Simeon, the two elderly Jews who prayed for decades for the coming of the Messiah? In their old age, after all these faithful prayers, God gave them the great privilege of seeing His Son. They could look back and believe that their lives of prayer had made a difference.
But how many other faithful Jews prayed for the coming of the Messiah during the 400 years between the completion of the Old Testament and the coming of Jesus? How many prayed for decades, for their entire lives – and never saw the Messiah? Were all those prayers in vain? Should those people at the end of lives have said, “Well, I’m dying and the Messiah hasn’t come. I guess I wasted a lot of time praying!”
Or what about all those who for the last 2000 years have responded to Jesus’ promise, “I am coming soon!” with the prayer, “Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!” Have their prayers been in vain?
By no means! From God’s perspective – that is, from the perspective of truth – all those who built great cities, all those who established great empires and founded great movements and achieved great fame – Genghis Khan, Napoleon, name your favorite historical figure – all those accomplished nothing, compared to the impact of those who prayed for Christ’s return.
A second wrong attitude is the opposite of the first:
(2) “I’ve worked hard, and look at all that I’ve done! My, isn’t God lucky to have me on His side!” Alternately, if the person speaking is not a believer, he will say with Nebuchadnezzer, “Look how great I am!”
Perhaps few of us here this morning are quite so blatant. But in more subtle ways, probably each of us has fallen into this temptation at one time or another. I suggest we do so:
You might ask, “Why is this a wrong attitude, Coty? Didn’t you just say that God calls us to this most important task of bringing glory to Him? Don’t we want to work hard and see results, see Him glorified?” Yes we do. But our attitude towards those results makes all the difference.
Consider this illustration. Back in the early nineties, I was a reasonably fast runner. One year in the Williamstown Fun Run, I pushed baby Matthew in a stroller for two miles – and we were the first persons to cross the finish line. Imagine that Matthew was able to speak at that time. We finish the race, and he calls out, “I won! I won!”
Was he the first across the line? Yes! But who did the work?
Just so with us. Whatever we accomplish, God is the one who does the work. And He is the one who should get the glory.
Remember, Jesus doesn’t say to us, “Apart from me, you can do a few things.” No. He says, “Apart from me, you can do nothing.” Similarly, Paul writes:
What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it? (1 Corinthians 4:7)
And David says:
Both riches and honor come from You, . . . and it lies in Your hand to make great and to strengthen everyone. (1 Chronicles 29:12)
So Christians must never evaluate the effectiveness of themselves, their church, or their God on the basis of visible results – either positively or negatively. Instead, we ask ourselves, “Am I being faithful to God’s commands? Am I living a life worthy of His calling? Am I living by faith, and not by sight?” And we leave the results to God. He, after all is the final judge, and He is the One from whom we hope to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant!”
A third wrong attitude takes the truths we have been discussing and twists them to draw a wrong conclusion:
(3) I need not work. God’s plan is certain to happen – God’s glory will fill the earth as water covers the sea, regardless of my efforts. So I might as well do nothing.
Specifically in our situation you might think: “Coty and Beth don’t need to go to Cameroon – if God has ordained for those pastors to be trained, it will happen! And I don’t need to give for the building, or to share the gospel with my neighbor – if God wants it to be completed, or to save my neighbor, it will happen!”
If you’re beginning to think this way, let me ask you a question: Did God ordain that you would come to church clean and washed this morning? If so, then why didn’t you lie in bed and say, “OK God, if you want me to go to church without body odor, take it all away without my taking a shower!” God might have replied, “I ordain that you will take a shower to become clean. So do it!”
The key point here is to see that God ordains means as well as ends. He chooses to bring about his purposes through our faithfulness to His commands. And we must obey for His purposes to be fulfilled. So obey! But obey by His power, and acknowledge Him as the power behind whatever you accomplish.
Let’s return to Samuel Mills. Recall he said at the Haystack Prayer Meeting, “We can do it if we will!” He lived out William Carey’s dictum: “Attempt great things! Expect great things!”
He did accomplish tremendous things. But what was his attitude toward his goals?
Listen to what Mills wrote his father in November 1817, seven months before his own death:
“Our prospects are at present fair, but we know not what a day may bring forth. God moves in a mysterious way in bringing about his great and glorious designs. He sometimes puts our faith to a severe test. When his church is about to make some great effort for the promotion of his glory, he not infrequently removes some of the most prominent and apparently most important aids, lest vain man should glory in himself and not in the Lord. I hope we shall always be prepared to say, the will of the Lord be done. . . My companion and myself engage in this mission in perfect cheerfulness. . . Unless the Lord is with us all is in vain. If the . . . plan be of God, sooner or later it will prosper; if not approved by him, let it fail.
Samuel Mills maintained this perfect balance. A biographer wrote of him, “If he prayed as though all depended on God, he worked as though everything depended on his own labors.”
Mills accomplished everything we remember him for in 12 short years, 1806 to 1818. Most of us here this morning have many more than 12 years remaining on this earth, unless the Lord returns before then. What will you do with the next dozen years? Will you work toward to goal of attaining a comfortable life? Will you work to find happiness?
Mills was a 23 year old college undergraduate in 1806 – and over the next 12 years accomplished an incredible amount for God’s glory. By God’s power, you can use the next 12 years as effectively as he did. Will you attempt it? Do you expect God to work?
God’s glory will fill the earth as the waters cover the sea. He made you for the very purpose of being a part of the fulfillment of this plan. Will you play your role?
This sermon was preached at Community Bible Church in Williamstown, MA on 5/27/01. The quotes are taken from Thomas C. Richards, Samuel J. Mills: Missionary Pathfinder, Pioneer, and Promoter (Boston: Pilgrim Press, 1906); the letter to Mills’ father is found on page 202.
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