God is sovereign, and we are not machines

In the years that I have believed in the Reformed doctrines of grace, I have come to believe that what sets “Calvinistic” thinkers apart from others is the ability to embrace mystery. (A short video with John Piper helped start me on that understanding.) It is the Calvinist’s ability to exegete Scripture to say what it says without necessarily explaining the tensions contained therein.

So, for example, when we read in Acts 2:23, “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men,” we have no problem holding in tandem the idea that an event occurred that the Sovereign God ordained for which wicked men are held accountable. It’s a mystery (not a contradiction) that we can’t reconcile; yet we affirm both truths because the Bible affirms both truths. And we let the mystery stand.

It’s only when we start to philosophically explain these truths-in-tension that we fall short. “God can’t control everything,” we say, “because that would go against free will and human responsibility.” I always find it amazing (maybe I don’t, really) that when we attempt to reconcile these truths, it’s always the greatness and glory of God that gets mitigated and softened, while we make human free will absolute.

Yet, even sometimes, Calvinists make the mistake of absolutizing sovereign grace truths to the point of becoming unbiblical in our expressions and emphases. We say things like, “I did thus and so because it was predestined,” as if we are afraid to speak naturally and just say, “I did it because I wanted to.” The Bible speaks naturally. It affirms that God “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11), yet never speaks as if we are puppets or, in the words of Francis Schaeffer, “machines.”

Let’s look at a couple of Calvinistic truisms and how they can become distortions of biblical thought.

“Faith is a gift of God”

That the faith itself that we exercise in Christ unto salvation is a gift of God is a cherished truth of sovereign grace doctrine. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). And while I cannot say that “this” and “it” grammatically point back to the word “faith” as their antecedent, I do believe that this verse clearly teaches that the whole of salvation (including our faith) is the gift of God.

Paul says in 2 Timothy 2:25, “God may grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth.” So it’s true that God completely eliminates any basis for self-determined boasting in our repentance and faith.

But sometimes, Calvinists have a hard time saying something as simple as “I believed.” We want to give God the glory for his work in salvation and to take no credit for ourselves. We forget that in giving faith as a gift, God doesn’t believe for us; we are not machines. We believe.

And sometimes we have a difficult time calling men to faith and repentance. What do we ask them to do if our emphasis is on God’s doing? The apostles’ call to sinners was clear: Believe! Repent! (as if it were their doing). There is no tension here. Paul has no problem telling us that “God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19), and imploring men to “be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20). Acts 13:48 holds these in tandem: “as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.” God appointed; they believed! Even as ultimately a gift of God, we exercise faith in Christ. We are not machines.

“No one seeks for God”

It’s hard to call this a truism, because it’s directly in the Bible (Psalms, Romans). Coming out of our understanding of the fallen and depraved state of mankind, we affirm that no one seeks God on his own. Indeed, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44).

But sometimes in our zeal for doctrinal purity, we again make ourselves to be machines. A new, young Christian giving her testimony shares how she was “seeking the truth,” and we pounce on her theological imprecision – “NO! You weren’t seeking truth!” Poor girl.

While affirming that no one seeks for God who has not been first sought by God, it’s OK to recognize that there’s a kind of seeking that men do that may eventually lead them to God. After all, we don’t know how long the Father sovereignly draws an individual to himself, and that too is not in a machine-like way. It can be a seeking for God. Paul himself used those words in Acts 17, when he told of God determining times and places for mankind “that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him” (17:27).

So then, let us hold fast to the great doctinal truths that affirm both God’s sovereignty and man’s humanity in a biblical way.

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