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.

Thoughts on Christ’s effective work on the cross

When Jesus Christ died on the cross, he ACCOMPLISHED what the Father had sent him to do, namely secure the redemption of his people. “Tetelestai.” “It is finished (brought to completion).” He did not merely make redemption a POSSIBLE outcome; he actually secured it for his chosen people.

If, as many believe, he only made salvation possible and subject to the “free will” of men as the determining factor, then we must recognize the possibility that no one would be saved. In fact, knowing the depths of the depravity of the human heart, it is more certain that, if left up to the corrupt will of unregenerate man, no one would be saved.

If the redemption that Jesus purchased with his blood only made salvation possible, then on what basis could it truthfully and confidently be sung in heaven, “by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth”? (Revelation 5:9-10)

To God be the glory; great things he has DONE!

Is God unjust to save only some?

Whenever the topic of God’s saving of some while condemning others to hell comes up, the accusation is soon made that God is unjust to only save some and not all. Particularly if we look at salvation rightly as the sovereign work of God, we wonder, Why not all?

But, is it unjust to save only some? To have mercy on some and not all? How can God be just and save anyone for that matter? Let’s consider some of these issues.

1 God is not subject to our sense of justice.

As Sovereign Creator, God is not to be judged on our sense what is just. He himself is his own standard for justice, and our insight is both creaturely and fallen. God has revealed himself to be just (Deut. 43:4; Gen. 18:25), but rather than measure up to our understanding of what that means, we see in Scripture his revelation of how God is right and just. We can only begin to grasp it, but we are reminded that “my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9)

2 God is just to condemn sinners.

When Adam sinned, he plunged the entire human race into death (Romans 5:12). As a result there is not, nor has there ever been, nor will there ever be, a single human being who does not deserve death, condemnation, and hell (the one exception would be Jesus Christ, the perfect God-Man). If God had decided to save none of humanity but instead send us all to hell, he would be just. Habbakuk describes God as, “You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong” (1:13). A holy God is just to condemn sinners.

3 God in his mercy saves some.

God, for his glory and by his own good pleasure, ordained that he would save some out of a fallen humanity. Many would call this unjust. But rather than an injustice on God’s part, it is out of his mercy that he saves.

“What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who has mercy.”

Romans 9:14-15

Mercy, by definition, is undeserved. And those whom God shows mercy are not the objects of mercy because they have earned it. This goes against our “fairness” grain. We want to ask, why this one and not that one? There is no answer to that question. “It depends not on human will or exertions, but on God who has mercy.” People assume that we think ourselves special by being a “chosen one.” Those whom God has chosen and saved are special, but not in the sense that they’ve done anything to merit salvation. Being a chosen child of God is not a cause for pride but a catalyst for humility.

4 When God saves, he does not forego his justice.

A simple (but erroneous) understanding of salvation is that God saves by simply forgiving and forgeting the sins of man. If this were the case, then indeed salvation of some would be unjust. But salvation is provided by the death of Jesus Christ, who took the punishment that we deserved in our place. God’s righteous justice is carried out in Jesus for those who believe, thus saving us from wrath. This is the biblical idea of propitiation [wrath satisfied] and it is at the heart of the gospel message.

“All [who believe] are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This…was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

Romans 3:24, 25a, 26

Just and the justifier. This is how a holy God accepts the ungodly. Not through a spiritual wave of the forgiveness wand, but through enacting his just wrath on Jesus Christ in our place.

When I consider that I am a recipient of God’s sovereign mercy, and that the price of that was the death of his Son in my place, I am left aghast. I often think, why me? And I have no response but, Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift! (2 Corinthians 9:15)

Embrace mystery: thoughts on Ephesians 1:3-14

The following is a portion of a chapter I have written on Ephesians 1:3-14. It is a part of a book I am writing: Framework: Passages That Teach Theology (working title).

There is mystery in these verses; embrace it! Whenever I discuss the issue of the sovereignty of God with other believers, invariably objections are raised. If God has predestined us for salvation, then what about free will? Why should we share the gospel? Why should I even pray? These are all good questions, but I urge you to pump the brakes a little on those questions and simply meditate on the truths that are plainly stated. “The words speak of a mystery, but words could not be plainer.”

All too often, believers look at a passage like this and immediately go in to denial-mode. “Since I know this is true, then that can’t mean…” And what ends up happening in our thoughts is that the truths about God we see plainly stated are mitigated and softened. And before you know it, we’ve created a mental picture of God that we can be comfortable with but is a distortion of what the Bible reveals.

The closer we come to truths about God, the more mystery there is. We will not be able to “figure it out.” If you can’t reconcile God’s sovereignty with mankind’s being held responsible for their sins, then you’re in a good place! Don’t try to reconcile two irreconcilable truths. Embrace the mystery.

Thoughts on the Sovereign Sender

What follows is part of an ongoing series of articles that discuss places in Scripture where the sovereign plan and working of God are clearly seen to intersect with time.  Rather than trying to fit these descriptions into a pre-determined theological understanding, I aim to let these revealed descriptions stand for themselves. See other articles in this series here.

When we discuss the sovereignty of God in salvation, an objection is usually quickly raised. “If God has determined who will be saved, why should we bother to evangelize and preach the gospel, if it’s going to happen anyway?” Such a question, while understandable, exhibits a deficient knowledge of both the Bible’s teaching and the doctrine of sovereignty itself.

As the 1689 London Baptist Confession states, “As God hath appointed the elect unto glory, so He hath, by the eternal and most free purpose of His will, foreordained all the means thereunto.” (Chapter 3, “Of God’s Decree,” paragraph 6, emphasis added) God has ordained that he will save the elect by the preaching of the gospel, and not apart from it. We read in Romans 10: 14-15a, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?”

Paul final question in that series takes the sovereign work of God back to the very sending of the messenger. We don’t often ponder this, that the Sovereign Lord is working not only in the calling and saving of the elect, but also in the sending of those through whom the gospel is proclaimed.

When Jesus saw the crowds that his preaching and healing were drawing, he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” (Matthew 9:37) I’ve often found this fascinating. Why didn’t Jesus just say that the workers are few, so GO! Why did he instruct them to pray for the Lord of the harvest to SEND workers? As I considered this recently, it became clear to me that the emphasis here is that God is the Sovereign Lord of the harvest, and this includes not only the reaping of elect souls but also the very sending of the messengers.

Paul echoes these thoughts in 1 Corinthians 3:5: “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each.” The Sovereign Lord has not only chosen his elect but also assigned those through whom the Word is preached.

This is an amazing truth and so necessary for our thinking. It is only in this way – that God is sovereign over every step in the chain of redemption – that we can maintain the glory going to Christ. If we only understand the ends being foreordained but not the means, then we rob God of his glory. And God will not share his glory with another. (Isaiah 42:8)

So ponder these truths. Praise the Sovereign Sender, who in his grace appointed the preachers, the parents, the Sunday School teachers, the youth pastors, the friends who would boldly proclaim the gospel to you and reap the harvest.

Question: Who in your life was instrumental in bringing the gospel to you? Have you thanked them? Have you thanked God for them?

Why are new Calvinists so…enthusiastic?

 

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Comic by Adam Ford. Used by permission

Calvinism has been on the ascendance in the last couple of decades of American Christianity. More and more young pastors are part of a group of “new Calvinists.” Reformed theology has taken hold of more and more evangelical seminaries as professors have taught the “doctrines of grace.” Almost 10 years ago, even Time Magazine took notice.

One of the anecdotal results of this has been the rise of the sometimes-tongue-in-cheek identification and designation of a “Cage Stage Calvinist.” This is supposedly the phenomenon of a believer who has come to grips for the first time with the ideas of human depravity, God’s sovereign choice, and Christ’s atoning work for his people. Enamored with these new-found discoveries, and arrayed in his favorite Depraved Wretch t-shirt, he proceeds to badger every poor believer he encounters to proselytize them into affirming these once-hidden, now-obvious truths. And since his understanding is not nuanced at all, he comes across like a sledgehammer. Older, wiser Calvinists roll their eyes and quietly wish they could assign him to a cage for a couple years until he settles down.depraved

There is something that happens during this learning process that excites the mind and causes one to want to share this knowledge with others. What is it?

I was Reformed before Reformed was cool, and I don’t recall any cage stage in my life. But I do remember the growth in knowledge as I studied the Scriptures in my journey toward the doctrines of grace.  Over the years I’ve come to realize in a meta-cognitive way what these truths have meant to my understanding. My theology was deepened in 3 significant ways.

God

 “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.” (Psalm 115:3)

Perhaps most foundational to my thinking was the emphasis on God being God. I suppose to some degree I related to God as if he and I were in some sort of partnership in my life and salvation. Encountering God as sovereign lifted my understanding of him to heights previously unknown. “Let God be God” has become my mantra as I promote the doctrines of grace.

Myself

 “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.” Romans 3:10-11

When one realizes the radical nature of sin that has affected everyone, there’s no room for pride and ability – ever. Where my testimony might have once hinged on “my decision” to follow Jesus, it now glorifies the God who saved me not only when I couldn’t save myself but when I couldn’t even know I needed saving, and wouldn’t want it if I did.

Grace and Christ’s work on the cross

 “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:8)

I memorized that verse as a child, long before embracing the doctrines of grace. But “it is the gift of God” took on a much deeper meaning as I realized that I was incapable of generating my own faith apart from his definitive work for me as a chosen child of God. If there is to be any salvation for me, it must be because of his gracious gift.

Obviously, these are things to get excited about. And when one’s doctrine causes a deeper understanding and appreciation of these truths, it’s bound to result in some enthusiastic bubbling over. So, forgive the Cage Stage Calvinist; just hand him a Charles Spurgeon bobblehead and tell him to sit in the corner. He’ll calm down after a while.

Meritorious Self-Faith

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I was a believer in Jesus before I knew about the doctrines of grace and God’s sovereign hand in my salvation. That was something that, over time, I grew into. So it is helpful to me to remember that many who are not in step with me doctrinally are in fact, brothers and sisters in Christ, even though we don’t share similar theological persuasions, no matter how foundational those doctrinal truths have come to be in my thinking.

Specifically, I recognize that my Arminian/free-will friends affirm, like me, that salvation is by grace through faith, apart from works, and that there is nothing meritorious about our great salvation.

The difference between us, of course, is in our understanding of faith and the role of the will in believing in Christ. My understanding is that apart from Christ we are dead in sin (Eph. 2:1), unable to respond to God with anything other than rebellion, and that before we can believe, we must be made alive (Eph. 2:4-5), and thus it can be said that the entire process, including our response of faith, is a gift from God (Eph. 2:8-10).

Now, an Arminian doesn’t cut this passage from his Bible; he just sees it differently. His understanding is that before Christ, we have the innate ability to believe in Jesus, to freely “choose” or reject Christ. Some men believe, some don’t, but this believing is a result of that individual making a free choice of his own accord, apart from any efficacious drawing by God.

This understanding of autonomous faith or choosing of God leads me to ask, if this is so, why do some believe and others don’t? And if the faith comes from the unfettered “free will” of the individual, how is it not considered meritorious?

While an Arminian evangelical would never consider the exercise of his free will in believing in Jesus as a meritorious act, it’s difficult to see it as anything but that when you consider it more deeply. [I owe a debt to author John Samson in his book, Twelve What Abouts: Answering Common Objections Concerning God’s Sovereignty in Election, for these thoughts.]

If self-generated faith, apart from God’s sovereign quickening activity on the heart of spiritually dead sinners, were possible, then the believer could claim some measure of superiority over non-believers, and this could lead to meritorious thinking.

  1. Meritorious intelligence – A believer could think himself to have more “intelligence (that we somehow worked out who Jesus was for ourselves)” (Samson, p.28).
  2. Meritorious humility – A believer would have more “humility (we having conquered our own pride, were able to humble ourselves to be able to respond in faith to the Gospel)” (Samson, p.28). In self-humility, the believer would, of his own free will, be able to give up all self-effort.
  3. Meritorious submission – Having once been hostile in mind toward God (Rom. 8:7), the believer would be able to turn that enmity by himself into surrender, which is impossible (vs.7-8).
  4. Meritorious love for God – If autonomous faith were possible, a person could, of his own ability, take what was despised and rejected and instead desire and treasure Christ as Savior.

So my question becomes, if divine regeneration is not a sovereign act of God leading to repentance and faith as a gift (2 Tim. 2:25; Eph. 2:8-10), how is autonomous free will not meritorious?

While my so-called “Free Will” brothers and sisters would never consider that they have earned their salvation in any way, I encourage them to think about how their doctrine might somehow subtly lead them into a measure of pride and merit (that they were smarter, more humble, more submissive, more loving than one who does not choose Jesus). I encourage them to think deeply about the implications of their doctrine, and to “watch your life and doctrine closely” (1 Tim. 4:16 NIV).

So what makes a Calvinist?

My last blog postCalv_Arm Divide posts small lead me to think about what it would take in someone’s belief system for me to consider them in the Reformed/Calvinistic/sovereign grace camp (Oh, how I dislike the labels, necessary though they sometimes may be).

I suppose most Christians I’ve known have affirmed the doctrine of Eternal Security, and I could probably get tacit approval of Total Depravity (but not affirmation of the full implications of it). Effectual Grace and Particular Redemption are normally the last points to be affirmed. But when someone comes face to face with the realization that before the foundation of the world, God chose his elect, not as a result of foreseeing any action on their part, but because he did so unconditionally according to his own good pleasure, then that person is well on his way to affirming sovereign grace doctrine. So, if you affirm Unconditional Election vis a vis Conditional Election, you are at the very least, a budding Calvinist.

What think ye?

 

My Sin, My Sin – O Savior!

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Poetry by Mark Knox

My Sin, My Sin – O Savior!

My sin, my sin – O Savior!
Is not a trifling thing;
My sin is vile rebellion
Against my rightful King.
The holy God is justified
To banish me from him
And wrath is stored against me
For all my wretched sin.

My sin, my sin – O Savior!
Caused not my God to hold
His love forever from me,
His mercies to withhold.
He sent his Son, now emptied
Of glory, as a child,
And raised him up to seek and save
One such as I, defiled.

My sin, my sin – O Savior!
Sent Jesus to the cross.
Submitted to the bitter cup;
Sustained the crushing loss,
Until, the Father satisfied,
He cried out, “It is done!”
And with his final dying breath
Declared salvation won.

My faith, my faith – O Savior!
This cross I now embrace.
Enabled by the Spirit,
I’m saved by sovereign grace.
He overcame my waywardness,
Subdued my heart so wild,
And drew this former enemy
Who now is reconciled.

What words, what words – O Savior!
Could I justly bring
To aptly praise my Jesus,
Adore my glorious King?
Rejoice in God through Jesus Christ
Through sufferings untold;
With certain love he’ll carry me
Safely into the fold.