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.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Limited Atonement, or Boundless Grace?

Five-Point Reformed Theology is distinguished in part by the doctrine of Limited Atonement. Of the five points of the Calvinist TULIP, this idea remains the most controversial among Reformed believers. A number of otherwise staunch Calvinists have embraced the remaining four doctrines of Reformed Theology while rejecting the doctrine of Limited Atonement, giving rise to the term "Four-Point Calvinist."  Many others, however, maintain rightly that this doctrine follows from the remaining four points; and that to reject the "L" in the TULIP is ultimately a rejection of the Calvinist view of the sovereignty of God and, therefore, Calvinism itself.

Just what is the doctrine of Limited Atonement, and how was it derived?  Stated simply, the doctrine of Limited Atonement is the belief that Christ died, not for the sins of all of mankind, but that, instead, He died for the sins of all whom the Father predestined to salvation. As we will see, this idea is not derived through an unbiased exegesis of Scripture, but is rather read into passages that would otherwise clearly refute the idea, primarily because it logically follows from the other points of Reformed Theology, particularly from the doctrines of Unconditional Election and Irresistible Grace. The logic behind the doctrine seems to hinge largely on a couple of points:

1)    If a person for whom Christ died goes to Hell, God has collected two payments for sin; Christ's atoning blood and the eternal suffering of the individual. Thus, the Calvinist argues, the belief that Christ died for the sins of all men (though clearly taught in Scripture) must lead either to a corresponding belief that all men, believers and unbelievers alike, are saved from damnation (universalism); or the belief that God compromises His justice by punishing redeemed sinners. This argument is summarized by R.C. Sproul as follows:  "When we speak of the sufficiency of the atonement, however, we must ask the question, Is it a sufficient satisfaction of divine justice? If it is sufficient to satisfy the demands of God's justice, then no one needs to worry about future punishment.  If God accepts payment of one person's moral debt from another, will he then exact payment of the same debt later by the person himself?" (Sproul, What is Reformed Theology, pp. 166-167). This argument may seem soundly reasoned, but is rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of the workings of God's grace and of His justice. At the core of this argument lies the misconception that unbelieving sinners go to eternal punishment for their sins under the Law. This is not what the Bible teaches. We read in John 3:18 that unbelievers are condemned, not on the basis of their sins under the Law, but because they have rejected the only begotten Son of God. Similarly, we read in the Book of Hebrews that the Israelites could not enter the promised land, a picture of the coming Kingdom of Christ, not because of sins committed in the wilderness, but because of unbelief (Hebrews 3:19). In fact, The Lord had forgiven the grumbling, the carnality (Exodus 32:6, 1 Corinthians 10:7); even the idolatry of His people - and was prepared to lead them into Canaan, according to His promise to Abraham and to Jacob, but did not, because of Israel's stubborn refusal to believe that He could do so, even after the numerous miracles He had performed in their midst (Numbers 14).  In Paul's letter to the Galatians we read that no one has ever been, nor ever will be, justified by the Law.  Thus, the sinner goes to Hell, not because of sins under the Law already paid for by Christ, but because they, like the false teachers in 2 Peter 2, have denied The Lord who bought them.  Now, let me ask you something:  If the Lord only died for (bought) a limited number of elect persons, how is it that He also bought false teachers headed for destruction?

2)    If a person for whom Christ died goes to Hell, Christ's blood is spilled in vain and rendered ineffective. This, according to Calvinist reasoning, represents an assault on the sovereignty of God. This argument may readily be dismissed for two reasons: first, as detailed above, the fact that a person for whom Christ died may spend eternity in Hell does not render Christ's sacrifice ineffective. As we have noted above, unbelievers are actually condemned on the basis of their unbelief. Even were this not the case, we can reason that Christ's sacrifice did indeed represent full payment for the sins of the unbeliever, but that the unbeliever, in rejecting (refusing to believe in) Christ, forfeits the benefits of His atoning sacrifice, because there is no other sacrifice for sin (Hebrews 10:26). The writer to the Hebrews was warning his readers of the folly of trying to take a dual track toward salvation - belief in Christ, plus continued maintenance of the system of Laws and animal sacrifices under which they had been raised (effectively trampling on the blood of Christ - see v. 29).  To put this argument in perspective, imagine a scenario in which a wealthy stranger writes a debtor a check for enough money to pay his debts in full. The debtor throws the check away, choosing instead to try and work off his debt in debtors' prison. The check has lost none of its value, but the debtor has squandered (and trampled on) the precious gift in his prideful rejection of the payment.

The passages of Scripture refuting the idea that Christ's atonement is limited to a select few predestined for salvation are too numerous to list here in their entirety, but a small sampling is provided below:

2 Peter 2:1: But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction.

As asked above, how is it that Jesus "bought" those of whom the Bible says they denied Him, and who, according to the scriptures, are bringing swift destruction upon themselves? The only logical explanation is that Jesus actually paid the penalty for their sins, but that somehow these people rejected Him in favor of man-centered false teaching.

1 Timothy 2:3-4:  Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence.  For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

Does it make any sense that a God who truly wished that all men be saved would provide atonement only for a select few, chosen before the foundations of time? Yet, as noted in a previous installment, leading Reformed apologists like John F. MacArthur go out of their way to read meaning into this text that simply is not present, thus forcing the invention of a double-minded God who has two wills - one of decree, and a permissive will, or will of desire:

"The Greek word for “desires” is not that which normally expresses God’s will of decree (his eternal purpose), but God’s will of desire. There is a distinction between God’s desire and his eternal saving purpose, which must transcend his desires." (MacArthur Study Bible, Note on 1 Timothy 2:4)

What a tragedy it is when we let man-made doctrine take such firm root in our hearts that we are willing to slander the character of God in order to force Scripture to fit our preconceptions!  The Lord condemns double-mindedness in His Word in no uncertain terms (James 1:8, 4:8).

2 Peter 3:8-9: But, beloved, do not forget this one thing, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.

Again, in order to harmonize this passage of Scripture with Reformed theology, Reformed apologists must insert meaning not present in the original text to explain how "any" in this context must refer only to "any of the elect, whom God has chosen for salvation:"

"...not wishing that any should perish. The “any” must refer to those whom the Lord has chosen and will call to complete the redeemed, i.e., the “you.” Since the whole passage is about God’s destroying the wicked, his patience is not so he can save all of them, but so that he can receive all his own." (MacArthur Study Bible, Note on 2 Peter 3:8-9)

Nothing in the immediate context of the passage (a warning that, despite the words of scoffers who ridicule the notion of Christ's return, He is coming back - and this time to to judge the world, rather than save it) gives any indication that the word "any" refers to a preselected few.  In fact, a fresh, unbiased reading of the passage would naturally lead the reader to the conclusion that God is delaying judgement in order to give as many the opportunity to respond to the Gospel in faith as possible; not that it is a surprise to Him who will or won't, but that in His infinite mercy and grace He desires to give all the (actual) opportunity to believe in or to reject Christ.

1 John 2:2: And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.

Here we have a letter, clearly written to believers whose sins are forgiven (1 John 2:12) and who know Christ (1 John 2:13), and the apostle tells them what?  That Christ paid, not for their sins only, but for the sins of the whole world.  It is worth mentioning that the same word for world is used in the same letter to describe those who do not know Christ or Christians (1 John 3:1), who hate and persecute Christians (1 John 3:13), from whom Christians should distance themselves, in terms of lifestyle (1 John 2:15), and who lie in wickedness (1 John 5:19).  Once again, witness the lengths to which the Reformed apologist will go to narrow the term "world" to a select few elect:

"...for the sins of the whole world. This is a generic term, referring not to every single individual, but to mankind in general. Christ actually paid the penalty only for those who would repent and believe. A number of Scriptures indicate that Christ died for the world (John 1:29; 3:16; 6:51; 1 Tim. 2:6; Heb. 2:9). Most of the world will be eternally condemned to hell to pay for their own sins, so they could not have been paid for by Christ. The passages that speak of Christ’s dying for the whole world must be understood to refer to mankind in general (as in Titus 2:3–4). “World” indicates the sphere, the beings toward whom God seeks reconciliation and has provided propitiation."  (MacArthur Study Bible, Note on 1 John 2:2)

Unfortunately, MacArthur here falls into the same false logic concerning double-payment as does Sproul.  While it is true that the Greek word (kosmos) used here is used variously to describe people, the universe, and the world system or sphere, only the first of those meanings makes any sense in the context of this passage.  Christ died for a sphere?  For a system?  No!  He died for people - many who will reject His kind and sincere offer of eternal life, and some who will joyfully receive it. 

If you are wondering whether Christ's offer of eternal life applies to you; it does.  If you are wondering whether it is sincere; it is.  May God's Word cause you to trust in Him today.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Is Election Unconditional?

When I first came to the Christian faith as a young boy, my understanding of the Gospel was quite simple: I knew I wasn’t really a good boy; I snuck cookies when I thought I could get away with it.  I told lies to avoid punishment.  I was mean to my little sister.  In short, I was bad – sometimes very bad.  I understood that bad people go to this place where they are tortured forever, like burning to death without dying.  I was scared of where I would go if I died.  I liked to read the Bible, though.  It was filled with all sorts of exciting stories and adventures.  One of those stories was about a man who somehow was really God.  This man did all kinds of miracles – even raising people from the dead.  This Man died for my sins, and if I would just believe and trust in Him with my life, He would take me to heaven, even if I did bad things.  This man loved children like me and didn’t want to see me go to Hell.  His name was Jesus.

I prayed fervently for this Jesus to come into my heart and rescue me from Hell, where I knew I was going.  I also prayed He would help me to be a better boy, so my parents wouldn’t be mad at me so much.  My understanding of the faith as a 1st-grade youth was pretty simple, but I am convinced it was enough – and that when I understood about Jesus and prayed that prayer, my eternal destiny was changed forever.

A few years later, I came to, ahem, “understand” that the faith was more complex than I had understood as a boy.  Some people taught that, even though we are saved from our sins by faith in Jesus, we could lose our salvation if we sinned enough or decided to stop believing in Him.  These people were called Armenians.  I wasn’t sure what all this had to do with a little country that I had only heard of in association with gypsy culture, but I figured, maybe Armenianism had started as some kind of regional movement.  On the other hand, these other guys, called Calvinists, believed that you couldn’t lose your salvation by sinning, because that would be like saying we had to earn our salvation through works.  I decided I must be a Calvinist.

It was only much later that I came to understand who Calvin and Arminius were, and that the argument between Calvinists and Arminians went much deeper than the issue of whether one could lose his or her salvation, and that I did not have to be either an Arminian or a Calvinist in order to be a Christian.

At the heart of the argument between Calvinists and Arminians (and others who would not categorize themselves as either) is their respective understanding of the terms Predestination and Election.

In short the Reformed doctrine of election (or rather predestination, which encompasses both election and non-election) is the belief that:

“From all of eternity God decided to save some members of the human race and to let the rest of the human race perish.  God made a choice – he chose some individuals to be saved unto everlasting blessedness in heaven, and he chose others to pass over, allowing them to suffer the consequences of their sins, eternal punishment in hell.” (Sproul, What is Reformed Theology, P 141)

So the Reformed position on salvation is that human will and free choice play no role whatsoever in the salvation of their soul.  While we might feel as if we freely chose to believe in Christ or to reject the Gospel, free will is really an illusion and the elect are elect simply and only because God chose to regenerate them unto belief while passing over their unbelieving friends and family (more on this in the future installment on Irresistible Grace).  Sproul takes great pains to explain that this choice is in no way related to God’s foreknowledge of those who would receive the Gospel and believe in Christ, despite the fact that the most oft-cited verse in Scripture dealing with predestination clearly refers to such foreknowledge:

For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.” (Romans 8:29-30, NKJV)

Sproul goes on to explain that the doctrine of election is borne out by the fact that in this passage the word predestined precedes the word called, yet somehow, according to Sproul’s convoluted logic, that fact that foreknew precedes predestined in Romans 8 is not semantically important. 

The crux of Sproul’s argument hinges on the assertion that, though the word all does not appear in this passage, the passage should be read as if it does, so that all He called, He also justified.  Once we do this, of course, we are forced to infer (invent) a mystical internal call that some receive while others do not, as it is readily apparent that there are some who hear the external call of Gospel preaching while continuing to reject Christ. The problem with this idea is that the Bible does not speak of such a call.  In fact, in this very same letter to the Romans, Paul asserts that “faith comes from hearing, and hearing from the Word” (Romans 10), and uses this argument to underscore the importance of going out and preaching the Gospel to all men.  Even in the miraculous accounts of Scripture, we see that God calls His prophets and heroes, not through some mystical, internal feeling, but by appealing to their senses of sight, hearing and touch – by spoken word, in visions, by appearing as a burning bush, or a cloud of fire, by striking men blind, and so on.

We should reject Sproul’s argument for election / predestination for at least three reasons:

First, it is dangerous to assert hidden language in Scripture.  The essence of this argument is to suggest that somehow God’s words were imperfectly transmitted to and recorded by His chosen authors – an approach that sounds eerily similar to the tactics the serpent used to deceive Eve in the Garden of Eden ( Genesis 3:1: “Did God really say…?”).

Second, it is unfathomable to me how anyone who is not God could dismiss out of hand the role God’s omniscience and omnipresence might have played in His decision to create the universe as He did, and might play into His dealings with mankind and with individual men and women.  When we consider that God is not bound by time (John 8:58, and that there is not a single thought that goes through our heads or a single word we speak that God didn’t know about before we were born (Psalm 139), it seems rather foolish to try and describe His sovereignty apart from these attributes.

Lastly (for now), the Reformed line of reasoning on this issue fails to take into account the clear expression in Scripture of God’s desire that, not some, but all men be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9).  The doctrine forces upon its adherents a God who is double-minded and says one thing while doing another – an attribute I would be very hesitant to ascribe to the Almighty.

The point that Sproul and others seem to miss in their exegesis of Romans 8:29-30 is that these verses appear, not in the midst of a dissertation on God’s sovereignty, but in the context of a message of hope to believers who were suffering cruelly at the hands of their pagan rulers.  The point of the passage is not that God arbitrarily saves some while passing over others, but that God is a God who makes good on His promises, and that the suffering we endure, whether at the hands of our cruel neighbors or as a result of our own sinful behavior, pales when compared to the glory we will witness and the reward we will receive when our Lord welcomes us into the eternal Kingdom.

In their argument against any possibility that human free choice plays any part in their salvation, Reformed apologists often present yet another false dichotomy in defense of their flawed theology:  If you do not believe in the Calvinist position on election, you must be a Pelagian or a Semi-Pelagian.  Pelagius was a 4th century philosopher who argued against the doctrine that original sin has tainted the human race and asserted that it was possible, however difficult, to lead a sin-free life – an idea clearly refuted in Scripture (See Romans 5).  Semi-Pelagians are defined as those who believe that, though all are tainted by sin, it is possible to initiate one’s own salvation by seeking God - even before God seeks us – again an idea refuted by Scripture (see Romans 3:11).  So, according to the Reformed argument, one must either believe that man has no choice whatsoever as to whether to believe in Christ; or one must believe that man initiates his own faith in Christ, rather than responding to Christ initiating a call to us.  There is no room for the possibility that God seeks us out while giving us the freedom to receive or to reject His gracious offer of salvation.

To illustrate the ridiculousness of this false dichotomy, and of the Reformed position on election in general, allow me to paint a scene for you:

You are a poor working class person in a small town.  You have a vague notion that other - perhaps even wonderful - places exist outside your small world, but the concerns of day-to-day living have eliminated the possibility of ever visiting any of these places from your consciousness.

One day, a close friend confides in you that he or she has been saving money away and now has enough to go and see Europe! Not only that, but your friend has enough to take two people and would like for you to come along!

Suddenly, the possibility of seeing new things opens up before your eyes. After a few moments’ consideration, you wonder why you are even hesitating and you joyfully accept your friend’s gracious offer.

Now, according to Reformed theologians, this scene (as applied to soteriology) could not possibly play out this way.  Either you are a Pelagian or Semi-Pelagian, in which case the only ways the scene could have played out is with your either saving your own money to go to Europe (actually never making it), or with you finding out your friend is going to Europe and begging him or her to take you there.  On the other hand, if you are rightly Reformed in your thinking, the scene would have played out with your friend kidnapping you and dragging you to Europe, whether you wished to go or not (or perhaps would express the fond wish that you could go, but then purposely schedule the trip at a time when you could not possibly make it).

Acceptance of the Calvinist doctrine of election leads us to another scary possibility – one that has been acknowledged by well–respected Reformed scholars, such as Sproul and J.I. Packer.  Since we cannot know for certain we are elect, we must acknowledge the possibility that we may think we have saving faith in Christ, when in reality, we do not, and are under a deluding influence that will hold us blind to our predicament until we face the throne of judgment and it is too late.  The only way to have at least some assurance in this life, according to Reformed theology, is to manifest the visible signs of conversion – typically described in terms of service to Christ and obedience to the moral Law of God.  Since none of us do this perfectly, none can have perfect assurance of their salvation (more on this in the future installment on Perseverance of the Saints – the “P” in the TULIP).

My friends, you do not have to go through life worrying about whether you are one of the elect or whether you are just a fake believer.  The Bible offers simple assurance to those who wish to spend eternity in the presence of the Lord:

When the Philippian jailer became aware that his sinful actions had incurred God’s wrath, he fell on his face and asked the question of Paul and Silas “Sirs; what must I do to be saved?”  They replied “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved, you and your household.” (Acts 16).  Peter offered the same simple formula to the Jews who had realized that they had crucified their own Messiah.  The letter to the Hebrews defines faith very simply as “assurance of things not seen.”

If you are here reading this today, chances are that you already recognize that you are an imperfect sinner.  This is a part of repentance, but not the whole thing.  We can resolve to do better in the future – to avoid sin and live better.  This is a form of repentance, but it is not the repentance of which Peter spoke in Acts 2.  True repentance involves recognizing that we are really sinful inside and out, and that we cannot be good enough to earn a place in heaven.  True repentance involves changing our mind about our own goodness and recognizing that we need a savior.  True repentance involves changing our mind about who Christ is and recognizing that He is Lord and Savior – and placing our trust completely in Him and our eternal destiny in His hands alone.  If we have done this, Christ Himself says that we already have eternal life (John 3:16, 5:24).