Love’s Redeeming Work

I’ve hinted that I am working on a new book, and the time has come to reveal a working title, the theme, and little bit of cover art.

Once again, I am compelled to write on theology. My passion is to study God’s Word, to live it out as best I can, and to teach it to others (Ezra 7:10).

In that vein, I have taken to writing a theological treatise on salvation, the so-called ordo salutis in particular. The ordo salutis is the “order of salvation” as described by theologians. How is salvation applied to an individual, and is there an “order” (chronological or logical) by which we may understand the application of redemption? This is the topic covered in the “Applied” half of John Murray’s 1955 work, Redemption Accomplished and Applied.

My working title is Love’s Redeeming Work, and the subtitle is Treasuring Our Savior and His Great Salvation. There’s also a sub-sub-title: The Ordo Salutis for Everyone. My goal is to make the various elements of our salvation understandable to the everyday reader.

The ordo salutis (order of salvation) is a recounting of the steps by which God saves a sinner. In the classic Reformed sense, the order follows this sequence: Election, Calling, Regeneration, Conversion (Faith and Repentance), Justification, Adoption, Sanctification, Perseverance, Glorification. These topics are massive and weighty and worthy of our study.

My purpose is not merely the didactic, the teaching of doctrine. Beyond that, a deeper understanding of the doctrines ought to ignite a fire within us. A fire that causes us to treasure and savor all that God has done to apply redemption to our lives. The deeper we go into these waters, the more precious his grace is to us. My purpose is to be a catalyst for your treasuring of his great gift.

I have been prompted by the warning question of Hebrews 2:3 – “How shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?” Planned by God the Father, purchased by Jesus Christ, declared to us by holy prophets and apostles, and applied to us by the Holy Spirit, this salvation is of such weight that we dare not miss it. To our peril we neglect it. How might we neglect this great salvation? John Piper has penned these words in answer to this question:

Don’t neglect being loved by God. Don’t neglect being forgiven and accepted and protected and strengthened and guided by Almighty God. Don’t neglect the sacrifice of the Christ’s life on the cross. Don’t neglect the free gift of righteousness imputed by faith. Don’t neglect the removal of God’s wrath and the reconciled smile of God. Don’t neglect the indwelling Holy Spirit and the fellowship and friendship of the living Christ. Don’t neglect the radiance of God’s glory in the face of Jesus. Don’t neglect the free access to the throne of grace. Don’t neglect the inexhaustible treasure of God’s promises.

John Piper

Even those who have been redeemed by God’s great salvation need reminders of the preciousness of what God has done and is doing in our lives. The mundane crowds out the sacred. The sense of wonder is lost, even among those who serve God well. This book is being written to call us to the quiet, to call us to savor, to call us to love.

Would you be in prayer as I complete the composition of this work? I am hoping to be able to publish in the first quarter of 2022. Pray that my research and study will bear fruit. Pray that I don’t get “stuck” in the writing process. Pray as I consider publishing options. Above all, pray that believers are strengthened and God is glorified.

Was the atonement necessary?

In conducting some theological research, I came across a summary of Arminianism written by Roger Nicole in Baker’s Dictionary of Theolgoy. In it, Nicole delineates 24 “commonly held” tenets of Arminianism, where Arminianism has become characterized by “increasing differences from the traditional Reformed faith.”

One of those tenets surprised me: “10. The atonement was not absolutely necessary, but represents merely one way which God chose among many to manifest his love without prejudice to his righteousness.”

It didn’t surprise me that anyone would hold to this; I’ve encountered this line of thought before. I just hadn’t tied it to Arminian theology before.

Let’s unpack this: “The atonement was not absolutely necessary.” By “atonement,” we are referring to Christ’s work on the cross whereby he paid the debt of wrath that sinners owe, and reconciled men to God, so that we are “at-one” with God. Was it not absolutely necessary? By itself, this statement is true; God, having seen his human creation disobey and fall in the Garden, was not required to offer an atonement for sins. God could have blasted Adam and Eve right then and there. He could have simply allowed humanity to play itself out without hope, and face only wrath and judgment in the end. So, in this sense, it is correct to say that the atonement was not absolutely necessary.

But, when the statement goes on to affirm that the atonement represents merely one way, it is clear that we have moved on from a raw necessity to one that assumes that God has desired to save and atone for sin. This Arminian idea is that of the hypothetical necessity view, the idea that God, being infinite, could have found any number of ways to redeem his elect. But he chose this one as the best way to accomplish his purpose.

Continuing on: [the atonement] represents merely one way which God chose among many to manifest his love without prejudice to his righteousness.” So much to unpack here. Was God in the atonement trying to manifest his love? Well, yes. “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). This issue is not the love that Jesus manifested; at issue is if you believe this was the entirety of what he was doing at the cross. For many Christians, especially in mainline churches, Jesus’ death was only the ultimate act of love and self-sacrifice. It becomes a moral example for us to follow and earn our favor from God. However, the key words of the verse just referenced is “Christ died for us.” This speaks of the substitutionary nature of Jesus death, when he took our deserved punishment and appeased the wrath of God.

Over against this line of thinking stands what has been called the consequent absolute necessity view: God did not have to save anyone, but consequent to his determination to do so, redemption must be accomplished through atonement. Let’s not get bogged down in the terminology as if we’re merely defending a theological system. Let’s look at the biblical evidence for this.

First of all, God’s promise in the Garden was that “the day you eat of it [the tree of the knowledge of good and evil], you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:16-17). Now, we know that they didn’t physically die that very day, being covered by God’s gracious provision of animal skins. But they were immediately spiritually dead, and physical death was an inevitability. So then, death was the rightful punishment for sin and rebellion. This is a strong indicator that if there were ever to be “at-one-ment” with God, there would have to be a substitutionary, wrath-satisfying death.

Secondly, we come to Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, on the night he was arrested: “And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matt. 26:39). Would the Father have denied his only Son’s prayer if another way were possible? It is scarcely thinkable that the Father would have subjected his Beloved Son to such a horrible and shameful incarnation and death by crucifixion on the cross if there had been another way. We are given this prayer to show this explicitly.

Finally, after Jesus was raised from the dead, he met with two disciples on the road to Emmaus. He calmed their distress over the events of the weekend with the words, “‘Was is not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:26-27). Oh, to have been in that Bible study, with Jesus, explaining from the Scriptures, why it was necessary for the Messiah to die. Notice that he taught this before it was revealed to them that it was the risen Jesus himself who was teaching! So before the message even got to the hope of his resurrection, he assured them that the events of the past weekend were necessary and foretold. Let not your hearts be troubled!

To affirm that the atonement could have been accomplished in any other way than the cross, is to belittle the cross and Jesus’ suffering on our behalf. Oh, may that never be! May we be deepened in our understanding of the greatness of the sin that made the atonement necessary and the magnitude of the sacrifice given for us.

Dragged kicking and screaming into the Kingdom?

In the doctrines of grace, the concept of “irresistible grace” is often caricatured and disparaged.

Now, I don’t like it when biblical doctrine is misrepresented, caricaturized, trivialized, straw-manned, mocked and ridiculed.

It is caricatured in that many people picture God as dragging unwilling sinners kicking and screaming into the Kingdom. Election has set things in stone, and God’s going to get his way by sheer power. “God has chosen you, and you’re going to heaven whether you like it not!” Worse, and more disturbing is the idea that there would be this poor sinner, grasping desperately for the gates of heaven, but being rejected because “you’re not one of the elect.”

It is also disparaged because irresistible grace doesn’t seem to jibe with experience. We have all heard people testify of their faith story and tell of extended time resisting the gospel call before finally coming to faith in Christ. Indeed, even pre-conversion Paul (as Saul) is told by the Lord, “Why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads” (Acts 26:14). Apparently, even as dramatic as Saul’s conversion was, there was some time before when God was drawing him, convicting him, and Saul was fighting it like a stubborn ox would kick against the cattle prods used to drive it.

I suppose for this reason, I have tended to avoid using the word “irresistible grace” and instead have employed “effectual grace” – meaning that God’s operating grace toward his elect ultimately has its desired effect. However, interestingly enough, the debate at the Synod of Dort (1618) – where the ideas of Jacobus Arminius were put forward and ultimately rejected – centered around the very verbiage of “resistible”/”irresistible.”

To Arminius and his followers, the Remonstrants, God’s operational grace is necessary for salvation but not sufficient. “Regenerate man cannot, apart from the prevenient or assisting, awakening, consequent and cooperative grace, think, will or do the good…All good works or activities which can be conceived must be ascribed to the grace of God in Christ” (The Remonstrance of 1610, appendix C). But the document goes on to say, “But with respect to the mode of this grace, it is not irresistible, since it is written concerning many that they resisted the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:51) and elsewhere in many places.”

In Arminian theology, there is a sense in which a person may be regenerated by the grace of God but may still resist the Holy Spirit and in the end, reject salvation.

What shall we make of Acts 7:51, where Stephen cried out, “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit”? Is this evidence of a regenerated person still being able to resist the gospel call and reject salvation? I think not. Yes, they were resisting the Holy Spirit, but that doesn’t mean they had first been regenerated. Stephen calls them “uncircumcised in heart and ears.” These people were not the recipients of God’s special grace; they were still in their sins.

There is a ministry of the Holy Spirit that falls short of regeneration, whereby he convicts sinners. “And when he [the Holy Spirit] comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgement” (John 16:8). This conviction is accomplished through the preaching of the gospel (which includes God’s law and its demands). Sinners may feel a subjective sense of conviction. This is the work of the Spirit in the Word and the gospel. This, of course, may be resisted. Stephen indicates as much when he accuses them of being like their fathers, who rejected every prophet. This is Saul’s story, who “kicked against the goads” of the Scriptures he knew so well. This is anyone’s story, who fought against the gospel they heard preached before finally coming to faith.

In the Reformed view, this general gospel call is accompanied by the special call of the Holy Spirit to God’s elect. Within the preaching of the Word, the Spirit calls to the elect and says, “Come.” And just as Jesus’ call to Lazarus – “Come forth!” – created life in his dead bones, so too does the Holy Spirit regenerate the soul, so that the person is made alive and made willing to believe.

This work is “effectual,” meaning, it effects the change for which it is intended. “Those whom he called he also justified” (Rom. 8:30). In that sense, it is not resistible; it is an effectual work of God. Now, this leads us to the image of the sinner being dragged against his will to God. This is not the case. When a sinner is regenerated by God, he is given life whereby he willingly trusts in Christ.

The Canons of Dort affirmed this in strong terms: “All in whose heart God works in this marvelous manner are certainly, infallibly, and effectually regenerated, and do actually believe. Whereupon the will thus renewed is not only actuated and influenced by God, but in consequence of this influence becomes itself active. Wherefore also man himself is rightly said to believe and repent by virtue of that grace received.”

I certainly understand that historically, the debate centered around the terms “irresistible” and “resistible.” Because these words are subject to misunderstanding and caricature, it is perhaps best to substitute “effectual.” But we do not need to shy away from the biblical teaching that when God calls his elect, they are “certainly, infallibly, and effectually” made alive and brought to faith in Christ.

To God be the glory, forever and ever. Amen!

The Reformers and sola gratia

We often think of the Protestant Reformation, begun by Luther in 1517 when he nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Church, as being only about justification by faith. Sola fide, faith alone. This principle stood over against the works-righteousness that the Church had slidden into. However, as J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnston argue,

The doctrine of justification by faith was important to them [early Reformers] because it safeguarded the principle of sovereign grace; but it actually expressed for them only one aspect of this principle, and that not its deepest aspect. The sovereignty of grace found expression in their thinking at a profounder level still, in the doctrine of monergistic regeneration….To the Reformers, the crucial question was not simply, whether God justifies believers without works of law. It was the broader question, whether sinners are wholly helpless in their sin, and whether God is to be thought of as saving them by free, unconditional, invincible grace, not only justifying them for Christ’s sake when they come to faith, but also raising them from the death of sin by His quickening Spirit in order to bring them to faith.
J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnston, “Historical and Theological Introduction” in Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will, p. 58-59

Indeed, the Reformation was not only about sola fide (faith alone), but more foundationally sola gratia (grace alone).

We often think of grace as a descriptive principle, merely describing salvation as a gracious and free gift that we don’t deserve. But biblically, grace is seen as an operative principle, a word that describes God’s operative work in saving people.

We commonly view the term “grace” in a merely descriptive sense. We often define grace as God’s unmerited favor, and so think of “salvation by grace” as expressing the idea of it being underserved and unmerited. This is certainly true, but it doesn’t go far enough.

When we read in Ephesian 2:8, “by grace you have been saved through faith,” Paul is not simply employing the word “grace” in a descriptive sense. The grammatical structure of this statement points to grace as being the active agent in salvation. “You have been saved” is in the passive sense, turning the focus on the recipient of the action (saving). “Through faith” points us to the means by which salvation is appropriated, but faith is not the basis for salvation. That short phrase “by grace” identifies for us the basis and the active agent in salvation. If we turned the sentence around to an active sense, it would rightly read, “Grace has saved you through faith.”

In this context, Paul’s use of the word “grace” is a kind of short hand for the work of God he describes in 1:3-14, that great doxology of God’s sovereign, saving work. This redeeming work is proclaimed “to the praise of his glorious grace” (v. 6), which he “lavished upon us” (v. 8) in Christ, in whom we have “redemption through his blood” (v. 7). Paul is using the term grace in an operative sense, not just a descriptive sense.

He does this also even more explicitly in Titus 2:11-12: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions.” Here we see grace active and personified, “bringing salvation” and “teaching us.”

We speak of grace in this way when we talk of it as an enabling power. We talk of “dying grace,” that enables us to remain faithful and calm when facing imminent death. “He gives more grace” (James 4:6). “He giveth more grace when the burdens grow greater,” we sing, echoing this gospel truth. In so doing, we are speaking of grace in its operative sense, the same sense by which grace saves us.

So then, the Reformers sought to return the Church to the biblical teaching of the necessity of God’s sovereign work in salvation. Salvation by grace alone (sola gratia).

The crux of the matter is this: is fallen humanity capable of self-generating a free-will choice of salvation that could be described as an undeserved gift? Or, are we in such dire need of God’s grace operatively working in us, that we are utterly hopeless unless God sovereignly works? As Packer and Johnston ask, “Is our salvation wholly of God, or does it ultimately depend on something that we do for ourselves?”

The problem with Semi-Pelagianism (and therefore Arminianism) is that the onus of a person being saved is on the person himself. In this way, it is easy to see how we might regard faith as meritorious and not much different from the Roman Catholic understanding that the Reformers fought against. They recognized this and lived and taught and suffered that they might convince the Church of these truths.

Take Root, Bear Fruit summer sale!

Are you looking to take your Bible study deeper? Summer is a great time to invest your thoughts into the deeper truths of God’s Word. My book, Take Root Bear Fruit, can help you do that, with 9 chapters of study in some of the most theologically-rich passages in all the Bible.

This is a short book (less than 100 pages of text), but you’ll want to take your time and savor these dear doctrines of the faith. Study along with your Bible open and multiple color pens handy!

And, because I want to get this book into your hands (and off my shelf), I’ve lowered the price for the month of July…from $16 to $12. So order now! As they say, these prices can’t last forever! (Well, they could, but I’m trying to create a sense of urgency here.)

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Writing for laypersons?

Meme by Dennis Bills, http://www.Reformingwv.org

As I begin the research and writing on my next book (Title TBD), I am struck by how much research is required in order to do justice to the topic (to be announced at a later date).

My first book, Take Root Bear Fruit, involved a modicum of inquiry into commentaries and tomes of theology, but I was largely writing from heart and mind things that had been simmering for some time. Perhaps that is the way of many first books. Certainly I felt that I was writing for myself even as I wrote to influence and persuade others.

Writing for a blog is a whole ‘nother thing. In blog writing, you are trying to be succinct. There’s a rule of thumb of “500 words or less” (I fail often). But in pursuing concision, I often am constrained from fully developing and defending a line of thought.

I recently found this meme created by Presbyterian pastor and author Dennis Bills. It literally made me LOL. Even in its humor, it pulls me away from the tendency to be pithy (and lazy) and pushes me to delving into the depths of the topic at hand.

Yes, this new work is not meant to be overly scholastic. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be scholarly. I may be writing for the layperson, but my passion for church people is that they engage their Bibles with their minds. This will necessarily involve some academic pursuit into deeper waters.

So, where before, I may have finished a paragraph ready to move on to another sub-heading, I now find myself realizing that I just opened a can of worms, and I need to explain it more fully. Back to research. I don’t want to short-change my explanation.

Far too much writing in the Christian market today is aimed at the lowest common denominator. It moves too quickly from doctrinal content (if any) to life lessons and morality instruction. If it quotes Scripture at all, it does so in a proof-text fashion with no systematic instruction. Lord willing, I will not do that.

May I not be academically lazy in my writing in the name of “writing for the layperson.”

New book – research begun

I’ve begun the research and writing for a new book, hopefully to release this year, but it may take me into 2022. I’m not ready to reveal the content or title yet, but I’ve pictured some of the books I’m researching for this project. Oh, and I should have included the Bible in my research as well.

Please pray for this endeavor. I am hoping that through this work, believers will treasure God’s great salvation more greatly.

And my first book, Take Root Bear Fruit, is still available. You can order it here.

Aren’t we all breaking bad?

This post contains spoilers…of a show that finished airing nearly 8 years ago.

I recently finished my…what…third time watching through the TV show Breaking Bad.

For those that don’t know, Breaking Bad tells the story of Walter White, a non-descript high school science teacher, a family man, who “breaks bad” after being diagnosed with lung cancer, and who starts to manufacture and distribute crystal meth. He does this to provide for his family after he’s gone, but it turns out he’s pretty good at it. This leads to various dealings with elements of the criminal underworld, and over time we see Walt turn several pages and cross several Rubicons in his descent to wickedness.

So why would I choose an entertainment vehicle that glories in wickedness? Why would one who follows biblical Christianity, with its mandate to think on things that are “true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, worthy of praise” (Phil. 4:8), spend time with a story that has seemingly none of those features?

Well, for one, it’s compelling drama. It’s not preachy. There’s no cheesy moralizing about how certain choices are bad when we can see the consequences of those choices on full display. And I’m not sure that it could rightly be said that it “glories” in wickedness. In fact, there’s no riding into the sunset here. Walt gets what’s coming to him. [Even Jesse, Walt’s partner, who drives off at the end of Breaking Bad, is destined for further adventure in the El Camino movie that follows. And even as Jesse sets to take up a new life in Alaska, is there any one of us who doesn’t think that he’s still carrying his primary problem – himself – with him?] Rather than romanticizing and applauding evil, Breaking Bad presents it in all its unvarnished “badness.” There is a primitive sense of justice here, even if it’s not carried out through the courts and jails.

Most of the time, I enjoy stories of noble triumph. I grew up with Saturday kiddie shows at the local theater, watching Johnny Weissmuller defeat various iterations of bad guys as Tarzan the Ape Man. I’m old enough to remember when Star Wars hit, and we suddenly had one of those epic tales of good vs. evil, and it was clear who the guys in the white hats were. I’ve read at least half a dozen times the most epic tale of them all – Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings – and have been inspired by Gandalf’s sage counsel, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” We are drawn to such displays of nobility.

Breaking Bad shows no such nobility. It is of the gritty and realistic style of story telling where even the heroes have flaws and the villains hold a measure of understandable pathos. No, check that. There are no heroes in Breaking Bad. There is a “protagonist,” but that does not mean “the good guy.” There is no one who is noble.

And perhaps that is why I can bear to watch Breaking Bad – it confirms my world view of the depravity of humanity. It is the book of Ecclesiastes of television. All is vanity. If there were a biblical sub-title to Breaking Bad, it would be “none righteous, no, not one.”

In a sense, Breaking Bad tells my story, and yours too. There is not one of us who, without the restraining hand of God, would not follow the same path to destruction as Walter White. I can’t watch this show and think, “Oh I’d never do that.” Breaking Bad doesn’t allow me that.

If I watch a tale of epic triumph such as Lord of the Rings, I am able to identify with any number of noble and good characters. I can’t do that with Breaking Bad. If I identify with any of those characters, I am tagged with their wickedness.

In the Christian world-view, this is healthy. Our first step in our redemption is recognition of our need for it. We are all, as my pastor recently said, “wretched little black heart sinners.” We are all breaking bad. It is when we come to the end of our own righteousness, our own nobility, our own sufficiency that we see our need for grace, for Christ.

This is what the law does to us. It tells us how we should love and serve God, mirrors back to us our failure to do so, and directs us to Jesus, the only answer for our unrighteousness. “But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe” (Gal. 3:22).

As long as we think that we are noble heroes in our personal epic adventure, there is no salvation for us. But just as when we see the story of Breaking Bad and recognize that there is no nobility there, we also look at our own tale and see the same. And in this way – seeing the vanity of life apart from God – we seek out the One Righteous Man in the story of mankind, Jesus Christ.

Breaking Bad couldn’t give us the answer. The Bible, telling the story of Jesus, does.

Stuff people say…

I recently saw a bumper sticker on a car that said “Unbelief is OK.” Another sticker seemed to indicate that the owner of the car proclaimed to be a Christian.

What kind of world is it where a Christian (a “believer”), would say that unbelief is OK?

I suppose it might be helpful to say during a church gathering something like, “If you’re not a believer, that’s OK; we want you to be here.” Context. A welcoming message to believer and unbeliever alike.

Or, I might say to a friend, “You’re not a believer, that’s OK; I still want to be your friend.”

Or, it could rightly be said that we all have times of doubt and uncertainty, even as believers. In this context, I might say, “That’s OK; we all have times of unbelief.” Again, context.

Or I might, in crying out to God, say something like, “Lord I believe; help my unbelief!” recognizing that my faith is not as pure or as strong as it might be. And God would accept my weak expression of faith.

But a bald, unqualified statement like “Unbelief is OK” sends an erroneous and dangerous message. Unbelief is not OK. To not have faith in God or his Son Jesus Christ is eternally devastating.

The writer to the Hebrews, using the time of the wandering in the desert by the followers of Moses as an example, said that they were not able to enter the Promised Land (God’s rest) because of unbelief. “So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief” (Hebrews 3:19). It serves as a warning that unbelief will keep a person from entering God’s ultimate rest in his presence.

Now is not the time to deceive yourself with false hope by saying that unbelief is OK. Nor is it time for so-called Christians to offer such a hope. There is no hope in unbelief. Now is the time of salvation! “Take care, brothers and sisters, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:12-13).

Even foreseeing is foreordaining

The “U” of the Calvinistic acronym “TULIP” stands for unconditional election. This is the idea that for those that God chose to be his own, there was no conditional reason in them that caused him to choose them and not others. No merit, no inherent value, no perceived future action on their part. Just God, for his own good pleasure and his own sovereign purpose, choosing an elect people made up of those he set his heart upon.

This is not to say that God’s choice of his people is arbitrary. Rather, the reasons are unknown to us but are hidden in the eternal counsel of his will.

On the other hand, those of a more Arminian viewpoint take a different tack when it comes to God’s election.

First of all, no biblical Christian denies that God has chosen and predestined his people. After all, these are biblical terms that cannot be denied (Rom. 8:29-30; Eph. 1:4, 5, 11; 1 Peter 1:1-2). The difference comes in how God elected people to be saved.

Based on Romans 8:29-30 (“For whom he did foreknow he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified”) and 1 Peter 1:1-2 (“Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who are elect…according to the foreknowledge of God the Father”), the Arminian builds his understanding on the idea that election is based on foreknowledge. This is biblical and true, but it is how he defines “foreknowledge” that is the key to his understanding.

As we have said, God’s sovereignty commonly conceived may consist only in affirming that God knows what will happen before it does. This is the Arminian understanding of foreknowledge when it comes to God’s election. Foreknowledge is foreseeing, and God elects based on that kind of knowledge.

It is often expressed this way – In eternity past, having decided that he would offer salvation to fallen humanity, God looked down through the corridors of time to see which individuals would respond positively to the gospel message. He “foresees” Joe and Mary and Steve and Chloe and countless others freely placing their trust in Jesus. Based on that “foreknowledge,” he then elects them unto salvation and predestines them to conformity with Jesus (Rom. 8:29) and to adoption (Eph. 1:5). This is “elect according to the foreknowledge of God” according to the Arminian understanding.

This solves the problem of election and free will in the mind of these theologians, because God’s election does not violate the free choice of those chosen. In fact, his election is based on the free will choice of those who will believe. The problem, they believe, with a sovereign grace understanding is that in unconditional election, God chooses people first, rendering it certain that they come to faith, and this is without regard to their free will and choice. Choice and free will become meaningless, because in sovereign grace teaching, humans necessarily become puppets.

I will address in a later post the issue of whether this is the proper understanding of the term “foreknowledge” as applied to God. But for now, let’s grant the assumption that foreknowledge is merely foreseeing what will happen, and ask the question, does this really solve the problem for the Arminian line of thought?

I believe it does not. It simply moves the problem to a different spot in the “equation.”

If God chooses people based solely on what he foresees they will autonomously do, doesn’t that still render it certain? Anything that God foresees will happen, will happen, and this is just as certain and locked in as if he directly foreordains that it will come to pass. And if it is certain, wouldn’t that render void the “free choice” of the person? For when the time comes, the person responds positively to the gospel in faith, as God has foreseen, and since it was foreseen, does he really have any choice?

As John MacArthur has somewhere said, “There is really no difference between what God foresees, what God allows, and what God ordains.” Even foreseeing is foreordaining. So the Arminian still has a problem in his mind with the certainty of God’s sovereign will and what he thinks about man’s free will.

In reality, there is no problem to be solved. We must simply affirm those things that the Bible affirms and hold them in tension if necessary without trying to explain or reconcile the irreconcilable. I have said before that nowhere does the Bible treat us like machines, like puppets. We are implored, commanded, and invited to believe the gospel. This is how God has ordained to call his elect to faith and repentance. We can hold in tandem God’s sovereign choice and our responsibility to respond.

And so we return to the affirmations we have made before (which the confessions have declared), that God decrees or ordains whatever comes to pass, but that God is not thereby the author of sin, nor is violence done to the agency or responsibility of humanity. We affirm these without trying to reconcile them, for they are only reconciled in the mind of eternal God, to him be all glory!