Sunday, April 3, 2016

Perseverance, or Preservation: Addendum

I do want to make it clear, that, despite my commentary on the neo-Puritan movement known as Lordship Salvation, I do not and would not advocate for a position of no-lorship salvation.  Implicit in any plea for mercy is the idea that the person to whom the plea is directed is in a position to dispense or to withhold mercy.  That is, the person to whom the plea is directed is in authority.  While I believe that the call to commitment salvation is unbiblical and exchanges the gift of salvation for the yoke of legalism, I also believe that implicit in placing our faith and trust in Christ is the recognition that Christ is worthy of our worship and that He is Lord; if He were not, He would not have the authority to put away our sin and rescue us from damnation.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Perseverance, or Preservation?

The fifth and final petal of the Calvinist TULIP is one of the most visible and most debated aspects of reformed theology today, in terms of its influence on the Church. The doctrine of Perseverance of the Saints is the "so what?" of the TULIP, in terms of practical application of the other four petals of this system of theology. One of the difficulties in analyzing and discussing this petal is that there is considerable disagreement, even within Reformed circles, as to what it is and what it looks like.

At one end of the spectrum are those who maintain that Perseverance of the Saints is simply an expression of Christ's promise that:

"...I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father’s hand." (John10:28-19)

In other words, for some, this doctrine simply represents nothing more than the assurance that the believer will kept by the power of the Holy Spirit from falling completely out of faith in our Lord and Savior, and thus kept for the day of salvation. While there is ample Scriptural support for the idea that those who are Christ's need never fear final condemnation, the support for the idea that the mechanism of this security is preservation of the faith of the believer is somewhat in question. There are at least a few examples of men in Scripture that are held up as examples of faith and yet do not appear to have finished well, in terms of their faith walk. Gideon and Solomon are two of the more well-known:

Then Gideon made it into an ephod and set it up in his city, Ophrah. And all Israel played the harlot with it there. It became a snare to Gideon and to his house. (Judges 8:27)

Gideon apparently fell into idolatry in his later days (or fell under the spell of pride in his own prowess and made a monument to himself). Yet he is mentioned alongside the other giants of the faith in Hebrews 11.

Similarly, 1Kings 11 records Solomon's fall into idolatry as a result of his self-indulgent lifestyle; yet Scripture gives no indication that Solomon was condemned to eternity in Hell.

From a practical perspective, the debate over perseverance vs. preservation as described above matters very little: we dare not offer assurance to a former believer who has renounced faith in Christ, since we cannot see into their heart to know whether their former confession was genuine; nor can we see into their future to see whether they will fall under judgment. We must take those who have renounced faith at their word and approach them afresh with the Gospel as we would any unbeliever.

More troubling than the simple idea of preservation of the faith of a believer described above is the recent revival of the Puritan understanding of Perseverance of the Saints under the label "Lordship Salvation." The essential tenet of the Lordship Salvationist movement's understanding of Perseverance is that, not only will a truly saved person persevere in their faith until their end, but also that that faith will be manifest in terms of inward and outward changes in the individual - in other words, a truly saved person will not fail to have works to point to to affirm the reality of their faith. The idea is commonly phrased thusly:

"Man is saved by faith alone, but faith that saves is never alone."

"Saving faith is changing faith."

Though there are non-Reformed denominations that have taken up the Lordship Salvation banner, the idea above has its roots in the Dortian Calvinist / Westminster Confessional understanding of the workings of salvation. Since, according to the Reformed understanding, salvation is wholly the work of God (See the previous installments on Unconditional Election and Irresistible Grace), and since none who are chosen by God will fail to be saved, it also follows that none who are chosen by God will fail to manifest good works, as sanctification is also wholly accomplished by God, requiring neither man's assent nor cooperation.

On the surface, the above belief might seem relatively innocuous. After all, who can imagine being indwelled by the Holy Spirit not having an impact on the believer? It is in the application of this idea that the Church runs into trouble - and the results have been disastrous. In practical terms, the issues arise as the presence of works becomes the basis of assurance of salvation (many will object to this characterization, but the simple fact is; if works are the only assurance of the reality of one's faith and if salvation is through faith, then it follows that the presence of works is required for assurance of salvation, even if not for salvation itself). The consequences of this kind of thinking have had a profound impact in turning congregations away from the cross. I'll try to summarize the damaging impact of this cancerous theology in a few short paragraphs:

1. Lordship Salvation minimizes the importance of the cross (despite the vigorous claims of Lordship Salvationist's claims to the contrary). An inevitable result of a theology that places emphasis on works as "proof" of one's faith as that the eyes of the system's adherents are turned downward and inward, rather than outward and upward. This is the opposite of what Christ commanded and promised:

And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:14-15)

Jesus referred His hearers to Numbers 21, in which a bronze serpent was raised on a staff by Moses, that whoever was bitten by the poisonous snakes could look up to it and be cured. The constant refrain of Scripture is that we are saved, and then strengthened, not by looking down and in, constantly evaluating and attempting to better ourselves (or "believe harder"), but by looking out and up to the cross.

2. Lordship Salvation can lead to false assurance. This may seem ironic, given that the Lordship Salvation movement arose in response to what it's modern proponents viewed as the false assurance of so-called "easy believism," but the reality is that the problem of false assurance is not solved at all by Lordship Salvation. Lordship Salvationists can frequently be seen quoting Matthew 7:21: 

Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven, 

but they often quote it without the important context of the following verses: 

Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?
And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity. (Matthew 7:22-23).

So here we have people that call Jesus "Lord, Lord" and who have done many wonderful - even miraculous - works in Jesus' name, yet Jesus says He never knew them. Why? Because they are relying on their works as evidence that they are in God's favor.  Also, they are missing the answer to a key question posed by the Jews of Jesus: 

Then they said to Him, “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?”
Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent.” (John 6:28-29)

For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. This is the will of the Father who sent Me, that of all He has given Me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up at the last day. And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day. (John 6:38-40)

We see a similar situation in Jesus' account of the Pharisee and the publican in Luke 18:

Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican.

The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.

And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.

I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted. (Luke 18:10-14).

Note from this passage that the Pharisee actually thanked and credited God for his personal growth and holiness, but this false humility was to be his undoing. His assurance rested in his purportedly God-given ability to live in holiness; rather than in God's infinite mercy. How is this materially any different from the Calvinist Lordship Salvationist who boasts in the changes God has wrought in his life as evidence his faith is real? I tell you the truth; there are thousands, perhaps millions of adherents to Lordship soteriology that are in the same situation as the Pharisee in Luke 18 - self-assured of their salvation because of their "changed lives" and yet actually on their way to eternal condemnation. The publican, on the other hand, approached the altar deeply convinced of his own unworth and with a simple plea for mercy; and it was the "easy-believing" publican that went away justified.

3. Lordship Salvation stokes feelings of pride and exclusivity and promotes comparison of ourselves with others, rather than with the impossible standard of holiness set by Christ. When we question another's faith, based on some external evidence (or lack of evidence) that we perceive, yet claim to have assurance of salvation ourselves, what are we really saying? What we are really saying, once we strip away the thin veneer of praise to God is this: "If that person were just a little more like me, I would believe their faith is real." Again - this is the error of the Pharisee above, of which Christ warned: the proud shall be abased (brought down), while the humble shall be exalted (lifted up).

4. Lordship Salvation saps believers of their strength and burdens them with fear, reducing their effectiveness as witnesses for Christ. When the Judaisers (a.k.a first-century Lordship Salvationists) attempted to force a standard of law-keeping upon their new gentile brethren, Peter passionately spoke up:

So God, who knows the heart, acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us, and made no distinction between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they. (Acts 15:8-11)

John MacArthur (who is the acknowledged champion of the system known as Lordship Salvation) and other Lordship Salvationist teachers preach what they preach, because they believe they are "helping" professed believers to avoid taking grace lightly and to maintain an appropriate fear of God and His judgment. Peter warns that this is not "helping" believers, but needlessly burdening them and tearing them down. In fact he warns that those who try to mix the message of grace with a works requirement for assurance are "testing God" - that is, risking bringing God's wrath upon themselves!

5. They are disobeying Christ's instructions for the Church:

Another parable He put forth to them, saying: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field; but while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat and went his way. But when the grain had sprouted and produced a crop, then the tares also appeared. So the servants of the owner came and said to him, ‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have tares?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The servants said to him, ‘Do you want us then to go and gather them up?’ But he said, ‘No, lest while you gather up the tares you also uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, “First gather together the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them, but gather the wheat into my barn.”’” (Matthew 13:24-30)

Believers are not to try to separate the wheat (true believers) from the tares (fakers / look-alikes), because they are unequipped to judge the heart, and because, in trying to pull the weeds (tares), they will also uproot the wheat.  This is happening in countless churches across the world, as Christians, encouraged to look critically at themselves and one another, find themselves agonizing over some unresolved sin issue or other in their lives, doubting the reality of their faith (and therefore their salvation), and, in many cases, ultimately giving up, unable to bear the burden the Israelites could not bear.

So, we can see that the (mis)application of Lordship theology can turn churches away from God and bring them into disobedience, but what about the basis for Lordship Salvation theology?  Surely the proponents of this doctrine / system did not pull it out of thin air?

Lordship Salvationists tend to draw primary support for their theology from the book of James (especially James 2:14-26), also with citations from 1 John and the Gospel accounts of the Sermon on the Mount.  John MacArthur has been quoted as saying that James 2 is the clearest presentation of the Gospel in the Scriptures.  

What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” And he was called the friend of God. You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.

Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?

For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also. (James 2:14-26)

Without any additional context, this passage seems to indicate that faith must be accompanied by works, in order to be saving faith.  This is certainly the meaning extracted by John MacArthur, Paul Washer, and other proponents of the Lordship Salvation position.  But there are several problems with such an interpretation, and with its inevitable application in practical Christian living:

1. The passage is acknowledged as controversial and its meaning is disputed.  Martin Luther is said to have wanted to tear the book from his Bible.  One of the rules of sound Biblical hermeneutics is that controversial or unclear (perhaps because of context or grammar) passages should be interpreted in the light of passages that are uncontroversial and simpler (e.g. unambiguous from the standpoint of grammar or contact), rather than the other way around.  One such passage, whose meaning is relatively undisputed is Romans 4:5:

But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness,

Romans 4:5 clearly acknowledges the possibility of a believer that does not work, and clearly indicates that such a believer would be justified.  Since God does not contradict Himself, this should alert the Bible student to the possibility that the meaning of James 2 might not be as clear-cut as the Lordship Salvationist would lead us to believe.  There is at least some dispute as to where the hypothetical conversation actually ends and James' commentary begins (the quotes do not appear in the Greek to set off the conversation).  There is also a question of what kind  of salvation (the Greek word could also be translated "deliverance") is in view.  Some argue, that since Paul's letters state rather emphatically that salvation is through faith alone, the delivery / salvation spoken of in James 2 must refer to a temporal salvation.  For the record, I find the idea that the word "salvation" in the same context as the word "faith" refers to temporal, rather than eternal deliverance to be somewhat of a stretch.  Having said that, I still do not believe this passage to be a defense of Lordship Salvation for the reasons below.

2. The Lordship Salvationist interpretation of this passage ignores the context of the passage.  While Paul in the book of Romans is clearly speaking of justification before the Father, the main point of James seems to be our witness and justification before men.  The hypothetical conversation above is between two men - each debating the question of faith and works and how they fit together.  We do not show our faith to God by our works - God alone sees and judges the heart.   

3. Just as important to this argument as what James does say in this passage is what he does not say.  He does not say "I show my salvation by my works. Much is made of James' rhetorical question "Can [such] faith save?"  The answer here is obviously "no," but what is under discussion is the condition of a person's faith in the present.  As we saw from the account of Peter's famous walk on the Sea of Galilee, faith may ebb and flow over the life of a believer.  Lot's faith led to action, as did that of Abraham, David, Solomon, Gideon, and others.  Yet, just as Peter became distracted and sank into the waves, Lot fell almost immediately into sin following his rescue.  Gideon is recorded as having fallen into (been snared by) idolatry, taking his family and all Israel with him.  David's reign was marred by adultery that he attempted to cover with a murder.  Abraham slept with Hagar and twice allowed his wife to be brought into the king's harem.  In each of these cases, the faith of the Bible hero did result in some initial decision or action, but the notion that such works must continue unabated throughout the life of the believer for his faith to be real is plainly refuted by Scripture.  Similarly, the oft-quoted James 2:19 does not say that demons believe in Jesus.  It says, they believe that God is one (they believe there is one God).  So do Muslims, Jehovah's witnesses, unsaved Jews and many others outside the Christian faith.  Again, the point missed is not necessarily the quality or size of one's faith, but also the object of one's faith.

4. This passage is often abused by adding observation the Law of Sinai as a sign of true faith.  Note that in their discussion of "true saving faith" these teachers seem almost obsessively to relate the "works" of James 2 back to Jesus' exposition of the Law of Sinai in the Sermon on the Mount (especially with regard to lust and other forms of covetousness),  but James is not in disagreement with his contemporary, Paul, concerning the Law.  In his letter, James cites the Law of Liberty,  which finds itself, not on the stone tablets of Moses (the "slave woman"), but in Jesus' finished work of redemption (the "free woman").  Under the Law of Liberty, believers do good works, not because they must, in order to avoid hell or to prove their faith genuine, but because they can, secure in the assurance that if they fail, they are already forgiven.  Note that none of the "signs" of faith referred to by James in this passage (caring for the needy, taming our tongue of gossip, turning away from favoritism, protecting our brothers and sisters from harm) seem to be the signs most looked for and discussed by Lordship Salvationists.

In fact, we find so little real support in the Bible for the claims of Lordship Salvationists, that the Lordship Salvationists are forced to invent meanings and twist Scriptures to fit their doctrine.   A key to the Lordship Salvationist argument is the definition of faith they offer.  Drawing from the passage in James 2 above, Lordship Salvationists have redefined faith as commitment.   In the Lordship Salvationist church, you will not find the simple message of hope given to the Philippian jailor by Paul and Silas: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.”  Instead you will find an offer to "commit to Christ," or "commit your life to Christ."  Now, this would not be so terrible a thing, if the teachers using these terms had in mind the idea of committing oneself into Christ's hands (e.g. for safekeeping), but this is clearly not the case.  In this case, the idea of commitment carries with it the promise or intent to live a life of obedience.  But would this not render the gift an exchange, rather than a gift? An yet, over and over again in Scripture, we find salvation described as a gift - and a free gift at that.

I believe God anticipated the arguments, as well as the educated, lofty-sounding words men would use to burden His people with the assurance that the Greek meaning of key words like faith "is so much deeper, so much more all-encompassing" than their English renderings, when He caused Hebrews 11:1 to be penned:

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
Here we see faith distilled down to the very meaning that any speaker of the language would understand it to convey: believing in something we cannot see.

Drawing upon the forced meanings of words like faith, and drawing upon the other four tenets of the Calvinist TULIP, we find another startling revelation often given in Lordship Salvationist circles:  It is not enough to come to Christ out of fear of eternal punishment.  We must come to Christ out of love.  

In "What is Reformed Theology?" R.C. Sproul puts it like this: 

"In our fallen condition, we desire the benefits that only God can give, but we do not want him.  We want the gifts without the Giver, the benefits without the Benefactor"

The implication is that motivation to come to Christ for eternal life, or out of fear of damnation results somehow in a counterfeit faith - a faith that is inadequate to save, because it is the result, not of regeneration, but of carnal fear and self-interest.  I wonder what Sproul and others would make of righteous Lot, whose conscience was singed by the things he experienced in Sodom, according to Scripture (2 Peter 2:7), and yet remained unmotivated to leave that evil place until faced with certain destruction?  What would they make of the words of the disciples: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life." (John 6:68)?

The Bible instructs us that the “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Proverbs 9:10).   This does not mean fear is the place to stay, but it certainly means that fear is a legitimate, even good, place to start.

The Calvinist Lordship Salvationist believes he is justified in exchanging the simple call to believe in Jesus for a call to commitment, because he believes that faith comes from regeneration (and thus should encompass the attributes of mature faith at the outset), in spite of the Bible's admonishment that "faith comes from hearing, and hearing from the Word about Christ" (Romans 10:17).  

Now, do not get me wrong.  I believe that every Christian is called to be committed to Christ and to Christ's work.  But this comes with discipleship and maturity. Faith and commitment are not the gift spoken of in Ephesians 2:8-9, salvation is the gift. 

Faith can also be considered a gift, in that we see that it comes from hearing God's word.  Hebrews 4:12 promises that the Word is like a sword - cutting to the dividing of soul and spirit.  Does this mean that everyone  who hears the word is saved? No, but it does mean that everyone who hears the word is cut to the quick and must choose how they would respond.  Look around when the true Gospel is being preached.  You will see one of two reactions: joy at the good news, or hostility at the implication that we might need a savior.

So we find the modern interpretation of the doctrine Perseverance to be lacking in terms of Biblical support for its conclusions, as well as its application.  If you are a believer finding yourself beset by and burdened with the leaven of Lordship Salvationists today, I pray this post will bring you a measure of peace and assurance.  If you are a Lordship Salvationist, I pray it will cause to to reflect on where your faith lies.  Is it assurance in the unseen Christ, or our own fallible experiences?  If you are an unbeliever, do not wait until you are ready, or until your motivation is "pure" to reach for the lifeline offered by Christ.  Today is the day of salvation.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Shame on Us

The danger in trying to systematize theology is that, when we believe that we have found the system that ties all of God's revelation together, we are tempted to "fill in the gaps" when we fail to encounter Scripture that adequately supports the propositions of our theology, or, even worse, when we encounter scriptures that seem to be in opposition to our theological ideas.

One way we do this is by redefining words so that they expand to fill the “gaps” in Scripture, or so that they no longer seem juxtaposed to our theological positions.

Words like “sovereignty” are redefined in terms of absolute control, rather than of power or authority. 

Words like “faith” are redefined in terms of commitment and perseverance, rather than of assurance and conviction.

Words like “grace” are redefined in terms of inevitability, rather than of favor, mercy, or goodwill.

Another way we do this is by inventing new concepts to fill in the “gaps” in Scriptures that seem to contradict our deeply held convictions.

When God’s expressed will that all men be saved contradicts our notions of His sovereign will in election, we invent the concept of a “secret” will that seems opposed to, but is really in harmony with God’s expressed will.

When God’s assertion that “many are called, but few are chosen” seems to disagree with our deeply held idea that all whom God calls are chosen, we invent the notion of a “secret inward call,” distinct from the outward call of the preached Gospel, and given only to a select few chosen out from before time.

Shame on us!

Shame on us for not taking God at His Word and believing that he really does want our wretched neighbor, boss, or sister to be saved!

Shame on us for convincing ourselves that election means that preaching the Gospel doesn’t matter, when God says that it does.

Shame on us for subordinating God’s Holy Word to the fallible precepts of men.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Faith and Works, Part 1: What is the Place of Works with Respect to Salvation?

I have been confronted a number of times in recent weeks concerning the question of the place of works in determining the quality of one's faith, and (more to the point) in determining whether or not a professing believer is actually saved at all.  I jotted down the points below in hopes that it would help me to commit to my own memory an organized and thoughtful response to some of the arguments and questions commonly raised regarding this issue, and in hopes that it may help others who are struggling with the same questions.

1. We are saved by faith alone. The Bible makes this very clear. Romans 4:5-8 specifically tells us that work is not a requirement for salvation:

"But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness, just as David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works:

"Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven,
And whose sins are covered;
Blessed is the man to whom the Lord shall not impute sin."

Note that Paul quotes David in specifically excluding lawkeeping as a requirement for salvation and indicating that God justifies us if we believe in Him, even though we commit deeds of lawlessness.

2. While the Scriptures do indicate that believers will bear some fruit (James 2, John 15), nowhere in Scripture do we read that this fruit must be continual or represent a "lifestyle change," nor do we read that such works actually provide proof of salvation - they only provide an indication of the current state of one's faith (and that only in the context of a correct testimony concerning Christ). Most of the specific examples of "works" given in Scripture represent isolated actions demonstrating the faith of the individual - in many cases, individuals whose lives were otherwise marked by immorality - sometimes even what we would call gross immorality (Samson, who largely dedicated his life to the pursuit of pleasure; Gideon, who fell into idolatry; Lot, who was so twisted by the culture in which he chose to make his home that he offered his daughters up to a mob of rapists; Rahab the harlot, whose "work" was to lie to the government to protect the Israelite spies, David, who fell into adultery and murder; even Abraham who gave his wife into a harem to protect his own skin - not once, but twice!). In fact, the Bible tells us that while believers should be bearing fruit, the presence or quantity of such fruit in no way constitutes assurance of salvation:

"Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’"

3. The Bible specifically excludes lawkeeping as an avenue to or proof of salvation:

"Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin." Romans 3:20

"Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law." Romans 3:28

"knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified." Galatians 2:16

"But that no one is justified by the law in the sight of God is evident, for "the just shall live by faith." Galatians 3:11

Furthermore, the Bible specifically warns us not to try and prove our justification by deeds of the Law:

"You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace." (Galatians 5:4)

4. We must be careful to interpret the Scriptures both in their immediate context and the context of the entire Bible. For example, if I read Romans 2:13 in isolation: "(for not the hearers of the law are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be justified," I might come away with the notion that we must keep the law to be justified, but when we read on, we find Paul explaining that there actually are no doers of the Law - those who think they are lawkeepers are deluded - which leads to Paul's conclusion in the following chapter that " deeds of the Law no flesh shall be justified."

5. While the Sermon on the Mount contains much of the Gospel (specifically the good news that Christ fulfilled the Law: Matthew 5:17), much of the sermon should be viewed as a presentation of the "bad news" of the standard by which we will be judged as unbelievers, not as a primer on how to "do" the Gospel. This is why Christ warns repeatedly throughout the sermon that God judges our inward thoughts and intentions (Matthew 5:21-30, 6:1-18), that many "do-gooders" will be dismayed to find that Christ never knew them (Matthew 7:22-23), that our righteousness must exceed that of the most righteous people we can possibly think of, if we want to hope (in vain) of earning our way into heaven (Matthew 5:20), and that we should refrain from judging others, as to their eternal state (Matthew 7:1-5).

A note on Matthew 5:18: Those who cite this verse as evidence that we are still under the Law do not understand the Gospel. The preceding verse tells us that Christ came to fulfill the Law. On the cross, Christ uttered the words "it is finished." We don't fulfill the Law, Christ already did that.

6. When we presume to judge the eternal state of other professing believers, we are actually putting ourselves in the place of God. We are clearly and specifically admonished in Scripture that it is God's place to judge between the saved and unsaved, and the job of His angels to separate them (Matthew 13:24-30). This parable also illustrates that unbelievers and believers often look alike, so that the task of judging between them is really beyond our abilities. So, when we attempt to judge whether a person is saved by anything other than their testimony about Christ, we are being disobedient to God's instruction and we are arrogantly presuming that we have God's authority and power to judge the inner heart of man. This is not to say that we cannot be motivated out of genuine concern for a person who is visibly in rebellion toward God to approach them and make sure they have heard the a clear presentation of the Gospel; but I believe that when a person confesses Christ as Lord and Savior we must take that at face value and exhort them to good works out of thanksgiving, rather than judging them and trying to make them obey out of fear.

I pray this helps those who are confused by all of the conflicting teaching out there on this issue.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Can Grace be Irresistible and Still be Grace?

The fourth petal of the Calvinist TULIP is perhaps the most difficult to understand, or to debate.  The difficulty lies in the fact that the doctrine is based almost entirely on inference from Scriptures dealing with other matters (for example: the resurrection of Lazarus), and upon a logical progression from the other tenets of Reformed theology.   Add to this the fact that the doctrine, as with many matters of the faith, is often described in terms that seem to echo the truth of Scripture, leading many to confusion as to what the “I” in the TULIP, Irresistible Grace, actually proposes.  Further compounding the issue is the fact that not all Reformed theologians are in complete agreement concerning what Irresistible Grace is and how it works.  In fact, Sproul devotes an entire chapter to the subject in his book What is Reformed Theology? without ever actually defining the term (though one can pull the definition from the context and from the many quotes offered by Sproul on the subject)!  I will therefore attempt to provide a fair and concise statement of the doctrine here:

The doctrine Irresistible Grace states that God, in His sovereignty, causes all whom He has predestined to salvation to be irresistibly drawn to Christ, so that none of those whom He elected before the foundation of the world shall fail to exercise faith in the Savior and be lost.

The doctrine flows from the dual pillars of Unconditional Election and Total Depravity.  For election to be truly unconditional, the Calvinist argues, then grace cannot be resistible; otherwise election would actually be conditioned upon the faith response of the believer.  Since we know, the Calvinist continues, that the unregenerate is dead in his sins (as dead as was Lazarus in the tomb), and therefore as unable to respond to the Gospel as a corpse would be, the unbeliever must be made alive by a sovereign act of God before believing in Christ.

At the heart of the doctrine is the mystical idea that before the elect can believe in Christ, the Holy Spirit must replace that person’s heart, will, and thought processes with a new heart, will and thoughts attuned to and receptive to the Gospel of Christ.  This process is variously described as “quickening,”  “making alive,” or “regeneration unto faith.”

In explaining this, Sproul recounts a the story of a lesson given by John Orr that stunned young John Gerstner and changed his way of thinking about the Christian faith:

During one lecture Orr wrote on the blackboard in large letters: Regeneration precedes faith. These words stunned Gerstner.  He was sure his professor had made a mistake and unintentionally reversed the order of the words.  Did not every Christian know that faith is a necessary prerequisite for regeneration, that one must believe in Christ to be born again? (Sproul, What is Reformed Theology, P. 179)

What a pity that Gerstner was ultimately swayed by the persuasive arguments of his professor!  For he had hit upon an issue that Calvinists to this day have failed to satisfactorily explain:  How can one be reborn before believing when the agent of that rebirth is given only to believers?  Calvinists and non-Calvinists alike agree and the Scriptures affirm that the agent of rebirth is God Himself, in the person of the Holy Spirit:

John 3:1-5 (NKJV)

1 There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.”
3 Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
4 Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”
5 Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.

When Nicodemus asks of Jesus “How can a man be born again?” Jesus responds that the new birth can only be accomplished by the Sprit.  Reformed and non-Reformed theologians alike affirm that the Spirit in question here is none other than the Holy Spirit, for only God can grant new life (See Titus 3:5). And yet, what does the Scripture have to say concerning receipt of this wonderful gift of the Holy Spirit?

John 7:39 (NKJV)

39 But this He spoke concerning the Spirit, whom those believing in Him would receive; for the Holy Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.

Ephesians 1:13 (NKJV)

13 In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise,

Acts 2:38 (NKJV)

38 Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

All of the passages above, when read impartially, indicate that the Holy Spirit is a gift given to believers, making faith, properly placed, a precondition for receipt.  Ephesians 1:13 in particular, makes it abundantly clear that faith placed in Christ logically, if not temporally, precedes the gift.  Sproul and others attempt to explain away this apparent contradiction between the progression described by the Calvinist petal of Irresistible Grace and the progression of hearing, believing, and receiving new life in the Spirit described in Scripture by explaining that the progression described by Calvinism (receiving new life, hearing, believing) is only a logical progression, and that in reality these things happen simultaneously (Sproul, What is Reformed Theology, P. 95).  This is an unsatisfactory explanation, as an unbiased reading of passages like Ephesians 1 clearly indicate a reverse logical order to that proposed by the Calvinist system.

One of the core issues with doctrine of irresistible grace is that the doctrine necessarily minimizes the importance of correctly apprehending and transmitting the Gospel.  Calvinist apologists will vehemently disagree with this assertion but the Scriptures speak of the new birth, regeneration, and being made alive as tantamount to eternal salvation.  Christ told Nicodemus that one must be reborn to see the Kingdom of God.  Ephesians 2:1 contrasts being dead in our trespasses with being made alive in Christ.  In the Calvinist system, the new birth must logically precede understanding and receiving the Gospel. We might well ask, “if a person has already been reborn, made alive in Christ (and in fact must be, before understanding the Gospel), then transmission of the Gospel becomes rather incidental to receipt of the Spirit or eternal life, doesn’t it?”  Yet the Scriptures assert faithful transmission of the Gospel to be essential.  Jude, Paul, John devoted a fair amount of their writings to this very subject (see Romans 10, Galatians, 1 John, Jude).  The Scriptures make it clear that without apprehending and receiving the Gospel (and not just any Gospel), there is no Spirit; hence, no life. Acts 19 provides a perfect illustration of this principle:

Acts 19 (NKJV)

And it happened, while Apollos was at Corinth, that Paul, having passed through the upper regions, came to Ephesus. And finding some disciples he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”
So they said to him, “We have not so much as heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.”
And he said to them, “Into what then were you baptized?”
So they said, “Into John’s baptism.”
Then Paul said, “John indeed baptized with a baptism of repentance, saying to the people that they should believe on Him who would come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus.”
When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke with tongues and prophesied. Now the men were about twelve in all.

When Paul questioned the Ephesian elders, he asked them whether they had received the Holy Spirit when they had believed.  When they answered “no,” Paul immediately perceived that something was amiss and got right to the heart of the matter:  Into what were you baptized?  The elders had not received the Spirit, because the Gospel they had heard was incomplete – they had not heard that the one for whom John was preparing the way had already come and fulfilled the Law and the Prophets.  Nowhere do the Scriptures indicate that faith and regeneration are granted in a mystical pre-conversion experience.  Instead Paul exhorts us in Romans 10 that faith comes from hearing, and hearing from the Word.  We know Paul believed this to be true, because we read how he spent week after week reasoning with his listeners from the Scripture (Acts 17) and persuading them of the truth of the Gospel (Acts 18).

In fact, numerous passages of Scripture exhorting us to “choose whom we will serve,” (Joshua 24), repent (change your mind - Acts 2), and believe (Acts 16, many passages in John and elsewhere) fail to make any sense in the context of Irresistible Grace.  If  regeneration precedes faith, then the elect need no persuasion or exhortation; furthermore, no amount of persuasion will sway the unregenerate.  Yet God repeatedly commands man to choose:

Deuteronomy 30:15-19 (NKJV)

15 “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil, 16 in that I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments, His statutes, and His judgments, that you may live and multiply; and the Lord your God will bless you in the land which you go to possess. 17 But if your heart turns away so that you do not hear, and are drawn away, and worship other gods and serve them, 18 I announce to you today that you shall surely perish; you shall not prolong your days in the land which you cross over the Jordan to go in and possess. 19 I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live;

Joshua 24:14-15 (NKJV)

14 “Now therefore, fear the Lord, serve Him in sincerity and in truth, and put away the gods which your fathers served on the other side of the River and in Egypt. Serve the Lord! 15 And if it seems evil to you to serve the Lord, choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

When God spoke to the children through his servants Moses and Joshua, He placed before them choices– one with incomparable rewards; one with terrible consequences. 

Was this choice merely an illusion?  Is God a mean trickster, holding out hope of salvation and calling “come and get it” to a world full of hog-tied sinners?  And if some before the fulfillment of the Promise would resolve to  love God and follow His commands (albeit far from perfectly), is it really so impossible that those fortunate enough to be born in the age of grace would of themselves choose simply to believe and trust in Christ?

Calvinists will, of course, respond that the “Gospel is foolishness to those who are perishing…” but this is a cop-out.  If Reformed apologists make this argument, it is incumbent upon them to prove that the propositions of Calvinism really are the Gospel.

A few of the more common arguments levied against those who deny the doctrine of Irresistible Grace are presented with short rebuttals below:

Denying Irresistible Grace is denying the sovereignty of God.

As has been discussed in an earlier installment of this blog, denying Irresistible Grace denies only the Calvinist definition of sovereignty – a rather unique definition found nowhere in the realms of political science or philosophy and expressed nowhere in Scripture.  The Scriptures are clear that God declares the end from the beginning, that He arranges events according to His will, and that He accomplishes what He purposes (Isaiah 46).  What the Scriptures do not assert is that God decrees, ordains, and causes every last event in every person’s life; yet this and nothing less, the Calvinist insists, is the definition of divine sovereignty.

Denying Irresistible Grace is denying the work of God in salvation.

It is difficult to see how this could be the case, when many who would deny the doctrine of Irresistible Grace (as defined by regeneration preceding faith) would affirm without hesitation that:
  • Only Christ lived the sinless life we could not live (2 Corinthians 5:21),
  • Only Christ could atone for the sins of the world (1 John 2:2),
  • God Himself provided the testimony about Christ (2 Timothy 3:16), and
  • God blessed the Scriptures with the power to change hearts and minds (Romans 1:16, Hebrews 4:12)

Would we say of a juror that became convinced by well-prepared, well-reasoned arguments of a lawyer that he helped the lawyer win the case?  And yet the juror was free to accept or reject the reasoned arguments of the lawyer.  The Bible is clear on the distinction between faith and works (of the Law - Romans 3:28, or otherwise – Romans 4:5), and that they are not the same thing.  Why then, does the Reformed apologist insist upon treating faith as if it were a work of cooperation, unless irresistibly forced upon the elect by God, in the context of this argument?
What about Ephesians 2:8-9?  Isn’t faith a gift from God?

Ephesians 2:8-9 (NKJV)

8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, 9 not of works, lest anyone should boast.

The English renderings of Ephesians 2:8-9 have an unfortunate structure that makes it seem as if the word faith in Verse 8 is the noun referred to by the pronoun this in Verse 9.  A number of teachers have latched onto this structure and incorrectly asserted that this passage proves Irresistible Grace.  A survey of the modern apologists for Calvinism, though, reveals that they shy away from this verse as a proof-text for Irresistible Grace.  Why?  It has been shown by grammatical analysis of the Greek, that the neuter pronoun form rendered “this” cannot possibly refer to the words “faith” or “grace,” both being feminine.  “This,” therefore, must refer to the noun salvation, or to the general process of salvation by grace through faith.  MacArthur tacitly acknowledges this in his study commentary without acknowledging the grammatical contradiction, in trying to keep the verse as a (weak) argument for Calvinist theology:

“This” refers to the entire process of salvation, not only the grace but the faith.  Although men are required to believe for salvation, even that faith is part of the gift of God, which saves and cannot be exercised by one’s own power. (John MacArthur, MacArthur Study Bible, Commentary on Ephesians 2:8)

Notice how MacArthur’s argument is constructed to make it appear that if one disagrees with the doctrine Irresistible Grace, he must be claiming that humans are saved by their own power.  This brings us to the next common argument:

Men can choose to have faith?  Isn’t that Pelagianism?

A disturbing trend among Calvinist apologists is the tendency to smear those who disagree with their position by naming them Pelagians or semi-Pelagians.  Pelagius was an early church philosopher who proposed the very humanistic view that people are not born tainted by sin, but are born with the ability to keep the Law of God, should they so choose.  Pelagianism and the later semi-Pelagianism, which proposed that man may seek God, unaided by grace, thereby initiating and cooperating in salvation, are both rightly condemned as heresy (See Romans 3:11, 1 Corinthians 15:21, Romans 5:12-21).  Many Bible teachers opposed to the Calvinist system of theology agree that the spirit is responsible for "quickening" the heart via the inspired Word (see Romans 1:16, Romans 10), but that people are nevertheless given freedom to harden their hearts against the Word. Those who believe the Word and receive Christ are regenerated - given a new nature.  God gets the credit for the elect, while the blame for rejecting Christ falls squarely on those who hardened their hearts against the Word, as it should.  In short:

  • The Word is given by God
  • The Living Word is God, in the person of Christ
  • The work of redemption was finished by Living Word

Therefore the "credit" for salvation goes to God.  There is no reason why freely receiving and believing the testimony given by God about God means that God must share the credit with us for our salvation (or why God should get the "credit" (blame) for those who reject the Word).

Perhaps the most damaging aspect of the doctrine of Irresistible Grace lies in the way it has been used to support and defend the twisting of the simple good news of salvation by grace alone through faith alone into bad news of salvation through faith, plus sincere commitment to a life of perseverance in obedience and good works and a willingness to forsake all (family, friends, money, country) for Christ.  Though Calvinists readily concede that such commitment is impossible for the unregenerate, they maintain that the call to faith so-defined is appropriate in the light of the “revealed truth” that men are regenerated unto faith by God.  More on this in our next installment…

A final word about Irresistible Grace:

Many testimonies, including that of famed preacher and evangelist Charles Spurgeon, allude to the fact that the converted heard the Gospel many times before, but it was only at the time of their conversion that it felt like the "light came on" and they were irresistibly drawn to receive Christ.  While there is no doubt that these testimonies are true, the idea that the Spirit was somehow present at the time of conversion and absent at other times is very subjective.  

In the first place, there are many areas of study and debate in which the holder of a position may have been exposed to an opposite view 10, 50, 100 times before some final bit of evidence or information clicks into place for the debator to cause him to change his mind.  Spurgeon himself relates that it wasn't until hearing the Gospel preached that the Word came alive for him in a way that would soften his heart to the calling of the Lord (Charles H. Spurgeon, My Conversion, P. 32).

In the second place, the Lord promises that, wherever two or three are gathered in His name, He is there (Matthew 18:20), so we can be assured that the Holy Spirit is present and working whenever and wherever the Gospel is being faithfully preached.  This means, of course, the Holy Spirit is at work in the conversion of the believer, but this is very different from saying the Holy Spirit regenerates some unto faith apart from hearing, while leaving others to eternal condemnation.

In the third place, there is no denying that the Lord arranges circumstances to suit His own purposes, and that those who come to the Lord in the grip of such circumstances feel that they were irresistibly drawn.  If this is what is meant by Irresistible Grace, then we cheerfully acknowledge this doctrine as Biblically sound.  But this is very different from saying that the Lord replaces the heart of the unbeliever to make him a believer.  The Bible does not promise a new heart to unbelievers that He has chosen from before time; rather God promises to replace the heart of all who believe and trust Him.  In Ezekiel, the Lord foretells that He will give Israel a new heart, not for her sake, but for the sake of His own name.  And yet when we examine who will receive a new heart and when, we see that it is only when they return to the land and cast away the detestable things (beliefs), and only promised to those who cast away those abominable beliefs.  When we read Romans 11, we see the mechanism of this restoration:

Romans 11:11-15 (NKJV)

Israel’s Rejection Not Final

11 I say then, have they stumbled that they should fall? Certainly not! But through their fall, to provoke them to jealousy, salvation has come to the Gentiles. 12 Now if their fall is riches for the world, and their failure riches for the Gentiles, how much more their fullness!
13 For I speak to you Gentiles; inasmuch as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry, 14 if by any means I may provoke to jealousy those who are my flesh and save some of them. 15 For if their being cast away is the reconciling of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?

In the final analysis, God's grace is indeed irresistible to those who have come to a real understanding of their plight, and of the salvation freely offered by Christ.  When those who have come to understand their awful disobedience and the penalty that comes with it hear the Gospel and grasp desperately for this lifeline, we can indeed speak of a collision of the Word and the Spirit in the heart of the converted, but this is very different from speaking of a forced regeneration apart from the willingness of the unbeliever and apart from the conviction of God's Holy Word.