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.

Sovereignty on the back end needs sovereignty on the front end

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 posts in this series here and here.

A number of us were conversing, and someone noted that God had worked some good things in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. I asked, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, if it also wasn’t true that God had worked to bring the pandemic. As usual, they rolled their eyes and sighed at my theological intrusion. “The same God who has worked good from the pandemic is the same God who could have prevented it, but didn’t,” said I.

We often look at various disasters as bad things, and something about our mindset will not allow us to attribute those to the divine Hand of Providence. We recoil at saying that God brings disaster. But the Bible does not. Amos 3:6 says, “Does disaster come to a city, unless the LORD has done it?” Such directness is hard for us, who may want to soften the blow by affirming that God may “allow” such disaster but not actively cause it.

We tend to speak in terms of God doing good things, and allowing bad things, all the while retaining for ourselves the right to define what’s good and what’s bad. We even take a promise such as Romans 8:28 (“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”) to mean something like, “here’s this bad thing, and God turns it into good.” Kind of a lemons-lemonade dynamic.

Again, this is not the biblical perspective. One of the greatest examples of a biblical understanding is found in the life of Joseph, whom his brothers planned to murder, sold into slavery instead, and then years later were rescued from starvation by this very brother. In the end, they worried that Joseph, now Pharaoh’s #2 in Egypt, would exact vengeance on them for past wrongs. Instead Joseph said, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Genesis 50:20). Not, “you meant evil, God turned it to good.” But, “you meant evil, God meant good.” Equal agency. In fact, I would say that God was the primary agent. The God who orchestrated Joseph’s rise to power in order to save people from famine could have ordained that there was no famine to be saved from.

All this to say that God is sovereign over and ordains all that comes to pass (Ephesians 1:11). The greatest sin ever perpetrated in human history was the crucifixion of Jesus, “crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men,” yet the Bible is clear that he was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23). It would be completely unbiblical to say that God only “allowed” the crucifixion of Jesus, and then turned it into something good.

We love the promises and provision of God in the midst of trials, but the sovereign care that comes in trial has been there all along, even over the occurance of the trial. If God is to work all things for good for his people, it is necessary that he be sovereign over all things. Sovereignty on the back end requires sovereignty on the front end.* May we affirm this; may we trust this.

*This is an expression that I’m pretty sure I heard from John Piper. I cannot locate the source.

John MacArthur on COVID-19, church closures, NT Wright, God’s sovereignty in pestilence

There is a fair amount of posturing and hysteria online these days. As usual, pastor John MacArthur has a biblical, measured response (originally posted 4/23/20) on the issues facing the Church and Christians in these days. Fair warning – there is a small tipping of his pre-Tribulational views. If you don’t buy into that, don’t let that keep you from this excellent analysis. The first 15 minutes or so covers the questions surrounding the closing of churches on the recommendation/mandate of the State. Theological and pastoral.

Thinking Biblically About the COVID-19 Pandemic: An Interview with John MacArthur

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?

When God’s sovereignty intersects with time

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by Mark Knox

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.

“…this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” – Acts 2:23 ESV

Acts 2:23 contains one of the clearest expressions of God’s sovereign working in history, yet ascribes guilt and responsibility to those committing those actions. As we let this passage speak for itself, what exactly is being said?

  1. It was God’s eternal plan to deliver his Son Jesus to be crucified. “…according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.” By pairing these two powerful nouns (“plan” and “foreknowledge”), we know that the writer is not referring to a simple fore-seeing by God of what will take place, but is referencing his sovereign plan and determination of what will take place. This comes out clearly in other places in the book of Acts as well, notably 4:28.
  2. Those who, in time, committed these acts are held as responsible and guilty for them. “this Jesus…you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” This is an indictment on both the Jews (represented by their leaders) and the Roman authorities (“lawless men”). If you read the context in the early chapters of Acts, you will take note of this recurring theme in the Apostles’ preaching. It is highly accusatory, though not for the sake of stirring up guilt for guilt’s sake, but to bring them to the realization of their sin and Jesus’ status as the Anointed Messiah, so that they would repent and believe.

So then, this could lead us to a very perplexing question. How could a just God lay blame and pronounce judgment on men for an event that he pre-determined would happen?

What I find most interesting is that the passage doesn’t attempt to answer that question at all.  It simply moves on with the narrative, leaving the tension unanswered.

And I think that is the key to how we should treat passages such as this. Let the Bible speak, even as it affirms truths that are difficult for us to reconcile.

Later, Paul addresses this very question in the book of Romans, but even there, does not give an intellectually reconciling answer. After a discussion on the electing choice of God, he raises this objection,

“You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault (human responsibility)? For who can resist his will (human choice)?’”

And then notice Paul’s response to these questions:

“But who are you, O man, to answer back to God?” – Romans 9:19-20a

In other words, let God be God! The correct, humble response to tensions like this in Scripture is to let the Bible speak for itself. The fact that there is tension in our understanding should drive us to our knees in humble submission before the God whose ways and thoughts are higher than ours.