Asking the right questions

Part of learning, especially when it comes to difficult theological subjects, is the asking of clarifying questions. We want to make sure we’re understanding what the Bible is teaching, and questions can help us get there.

And then there are those inquiries that aren’t raised to clarify understanding, but to challenge the point being made. Querys keep being made because the questioner doesn’t like the answer.

A clarifying question can let the teacher know if the listener is missing the point. “No, that’s not what I mean. Let me try again.” But occasionally, the questioner demonstrates by his interrogatory that he totally gets the point. The teacher at this point wouldn’t retract anything but double down on his assertion.

This happens a couple of times in Paul’s writing as he anticipates his readers’ questions.

One such occasion is in Romans 6:1. Paul has been talking about the gospel, and in particular, that where sin increased, grace abounds all the more.

This leads to the query: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?”

This question demonstrates an accurate understanding of the gospel points that Paul has been making: that “one is justified by faith apart from works” (Rom. 3:28).

Paul doesn’t at this point back off his point as if his readers misunderstand. Instead, the question asked reveal a clarity of comprehension.

The gospel is shocking. That the most heinous of sinners can receive forgiveness and justification without earning them is a most jarring thought when encountered fully. It leads naturally to the question of Romans 6:1. The query demonstrates that the hearer “got it.”

We see this also in Romans 9. Paul is discussing God’s sovereign freedom to dispense mercy as he pleases – “He has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills” (Rom. 9:18).

Then comes the anticipated objection: “You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?'” (9:19).

Paul at this point doesn’t say, “Wait a minute. That’s not what I meant.” In fact, he goes all in on his statements (vv. 20-21), affirming God’s sovereign freedom and grace.

I’ll take it one step further. In this topic, which is full of mysteries which cannot be reconciled in our finite minds, we must get to the unanswerable question. If you’ve come to the place where you have “settled” these truths and questions like Paul raises don’t grab you, then perhaps you have not penetrated to the heart of the matter.

Paul not only doesn’t directly answer the objection, he also doesn’t hedge his statement. Instead, he turns the objection back on his readers to accuse them of “answering back to God.” He gives his answer: you’re in rebellion against God’s revelation.

Paul’s response to this objection accuses them of continuing to question God’s revealed sovereignty and right as the Divine Potter over the clay of his creation.

Paul understands the heart that drives this objection; it is a recalcitrant heart that does not submit to the God who dispenses mercy as he pleases.

This is a hard teaching to think about. But the revelation is clear at this point. God is sovereignly gracious to whom he pleases. Objecting to this teaching reveals far more about the heart and mind that won’t submit to this revealed truth than it does about the difficulty of the doctrine.

Objecting to this teaching [of God’s sovereign grace] reveals far more about the heart and mind that won’t submit to this revealed truth than it does about the difficulty of the doctrine.

The problem is not the questioning. The problem is that the questions keep being asked even after revelation has been given.

The question rightly asked demonstrates clarity of perception. The same question repeatedly asked demonstrates contrariness of posture.

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.

What do you mean by sovereignty?, part 2

To say that God is sovereign over all is a given among Bible-believing Christians. What is not a given is what we mean by that. Dig deeper and you’ll find that there are differences in what various teachers mean when they affirm God’s sovereignty.

In part 1 of this series, I wrote about how God’s sovereignty is commonly conceived by the typical Christian – that nothing happens unless God allows it to happen, that God knows what will happen before it does, or that in the end God’s ultimate will will prevail as he triumphs over his foes.

All these are true to a point, but suffer from the same flaw. They portray God as ruling in a kind of passive and reactive way. In this post, I’d like to show how this viewpoint has shown up in a couple of songs from recent contemporary Christian music.

The first song is Sovereign Over Us by Aaron Keyes. This is a poignant, encouraging anthem of great comfort to those who sing it. The second is See a Victory from Elevation Worship, a somewhat repetitious declaration of triumph over our battles. A third song is For My Good by R&B artist Todd Galbreath. I don’t believe this was designed as a corporate worship song, but is worth considering here.

All three of these songs have some lyrics that are so similar that the teaching in those common lyrics points to a similar shared understanding of God’s sovereignty as regularly conceived. Namely –

Sovereign Over Us – “Even what the enemy means for evil, you turn it for our good, you turn it for our good and your glory.”

See A Victory – “You take what the enemy meant for evil, and you turn it for good, you turn it for good.”

For My Good – “And what the enemy meant for evil, God has worked it out for my good.”

These lines make an allusion to the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis, when Joseph’s brothers took him captive to kill him and decided to sell him into slavery instead. In time, Joseph rose to a position of power and influence. When his brothers came before him to beg for food during a famine, not knowing he was their long-lost brother, Joseph was able to provide for and save his family (and thus the nation). Later, the brothers feared Joseph’s reprisals for the wrongs they had done to him. But Joseph, in one of the great personal declarations of God’s sovereignty in all of Scripture, calmed their fears and said, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive” (Genesis 50:20).

There is a subtle, yet critical difference between Joseph’s statement and the lyrics of the three songs I quoted above. Did you catch it?

The songsActs meant for evilGod turns (or worked) for good
The BibleActs meant for evilGod meant for good

This is a simple distinction that makes all the difference. In the song lyrics, God is responding to the prior act of the enemy and “turning” it to good (“worked” in the third song). In these songs, God is regarded as the responder to our situation. This implies a passivity prior to his stepping in to turn things around for us. In other word, life gave us lemons, and God makes lemonade out of it.

But in Joseph’s statement, it’s, “you meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” Same word used. Grammatically, equal agency. Theologically, God has prior agency. “Before you intended to harm me, God intended for me to be harmed.” God is the sovereign worker here. This is not simply semantics; this is a critical statement. Do not gloss over this.

In fact, the entire story of Joseph is a testimony to God’s sovereign work. When Pharaoh dreams disturbing and confusing dreams, Joseph is able to interpret them. He begins by saying, “God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do” (Gen. 41:25, emphasis mine). Not only is the selling of Joseph into slavery by his evil brothers intended and planned by God, but the famine itself is part of God’s sovereign design.

If we as believers are to have any hope that God will work all things for our good (Rom. 8:28), then it must be on the basis of his sovereign intentions over all things. Indeed, the promise of Romans 8:28 is based on his prior decisive acts of foreknowing his people, predestining them to be conformed to Christ, calling them by the gospel, justifying them, and glorifying them.

Whatever we go through in this life, it will not do to only be able to say, “This was meant for evil, but God will turn it for good.” That would be a God of limited, passive, responsive sovereignty. It is ultimately an empty promise.

But to be able to say with confidence, “This was meant for evil, but God designed it, ordained it, intended it, meant it for good” is to proclaim a sure promise based on the character of an actively sovereign God. This is the God of Joseph, the God of the Bible. This is our God.

In my subsequent posts, I will discuss some of the clear biblical evidences of God’s active sovereignty as well as how the various Confessions stated the doctrine of the sovereignty of God.

What do you mean by sovereignty?, part 1

To say that God is sovereign over all is a given among Bible-believing Christians. What is not a given is what we mean by that. Dig deeper and you’ll find that there are differences in what various teachers mean when they affirm God’s sovereignty.

A.W. Tozer wrote, “God’s sovereignty is the attribute by which He rules His entire creation, and to be sovereign God must be all-knowing, all-powerful, and absolutely free.” So far, so good. To the average Christian, to say God is sovereign is to reference that all-powerful rule over his creation.

The question then becomes, how does he exercise his rule over creation?

I believe that for most Christians, this rule is envisioned much as one would envision an authoritative, benevolent earthly king. This king rules with a kindly governance that oversees but does not dictate. For the most part, he has put things in place to ensure the smooth operation of his kingdom but is not hands-on in the day-to-day of his people. Occasionally, he may bring his force to bear when it suits his needs to achieve desired ends. This force may be a gentle persuasion, or at times it may require the full range of his might to subdue his enemies. But as to the dictating of his peoples’ everyday actions, this is beyond the scope of his chosen means of rule, for his people live and move and breathe freely. This king sees to it, however, that his desired end is achieved.

This is God’s sovereignty, commonly conceived.

This is where Tozer, in his otherwise excellent Knowledge of the Holy (quoted earlier) lands in his attempt to reconcile the idea of God’s sovereignty with the will of man. He gives a “homely” (his word) illustration of an ocean liner that the captain steers to its final destination, but within the ship, the people move freely about. Tozer bases this on his statement, “the eternal decree decided not which choice the man should make but that he should be free to make it” (p. 111). In other words, God is sovereign over the end but not the particulars of the meantime. The passengers on God’s ship do as they please within the bounds of the boat and the Eternal Captain steers them to his desired end.

In this view, God’s sovereignty is viewed in a passive and limited sense. God is not decreeing each and everything that happens, but he works with what happens to turn it to good and to finally in the end see his plan come to fruition. While A.W. Tozer has been something of a spiritual hero and mentor to me through his prolific writing, he is wrong here. For one thing, there is no Scriptural basis for his claim that God has only decreed that man should be free to make choices. Neither does his analogy fit with the Bible, as we will see.

I believe that most Christians, however, are satisfied with this explanation. To them the sovereignty of God may mean that nothing happens unless God allows it to happen, or that he knows what will happen before it does. It may simply mean that no matter what happens, in the end God will have the last word (see Tabletalk magazine, March 2017, p. 30).

This kind of understand ultimately fails because to see God’s sovereignty as limited or passive in this way is to deny his sovereignty at all! To quote R.C. Sproul, “if there is one molecule in the universe running loose, outside of the control of God’s sovereignty, what I like to call ‘one maverick molecule,’ then the practical implication for us as Christians is that we have no guarantee whatsoever that any future promise God has made to His people will come to pass” (Chosen by God, Lecture 2: God’s Sovereignty). Namely, there’s no guarantee the ocean liner will make it to harbor!

We will have more to say on the biblical view of God’s sovereignty later. In my next post, I want to delve into a couple of modern Christian examples from our worship music on how this passive view has manifested itself.

Bowing at the idol of free will

Most Christians recoil in horror at any teaching about the sovereignty of God. Without any attempt to explain the Scriptures that are explicit in their teaching (Romans 8:29-30; 9:11, 16, 19-20; Ephesians 1:4-5, 11; etc.), they know that sovereign grace can’t be true because, you know, “free will.” This one-word retort (yes, I know that that’s technically two words, but it’s spoken as one term) is all the evidence they need.

In the mystery that encompasses God’s sovereign choice of his elect on the one hand and the agency and responsibility of humanity on the other, it is always God’s dominion that is softened and mitigated, and it is always free will that is held as absolute.

This is the objection that is voiced in Romans 9:19 – “You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault? [human responsibility] For who can resist his will? [human free will]'” We must protect our ultimate, autonomous, unadulterated, precious free will. And to this protectionist complaint, Paul doesn’t answer the question, because he knows the wicked heart from which it proceeds. This is not an honest question of a mysterious truth; it is a rebellious heart cry of substituting God’s reign for our own. And Paul responds appropriately in verse 20 – “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?

When we “answer back to God,” we are following in the footsteps of our First Adam, who followed the lie of “Has God said…?” We are bowing at the golden calf of our autonomous free will as we reject the tablets of God’s revealed truth.

Oh may God rid us of this heinous rejection of his Word!

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 in the next breath 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 effectual 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.