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.

The relationship between calling and regeneration in the ordo salutis

I am in the midst of writing a new book on the “ordo salutis,” or order of salvation. Please enjoy this excerpt as I discuss how calling and regeneration are related.

The order of salvation is a way to discern and teach various aspects of God’s saving work, but it is one work. We enumerate and separate these facets only as a didactic exercise, but all of these aspects equally apply to every elect person. The same individuals who were chosen by God before the foundation of the world are the same people who are ultimately glorified in the end. One work, one people.

But it is helpful (or else, why this book?) to consider each of these concepts separately for the sake of our understanding. And yet, we must recognize that we cannot completely separate one from another like a surgeon might remove an intact organ from the body. There is a symbiotic relationship in these concepts that do not allow such isolation.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the link between calling and regeneration.

In a sense, the relationship of all of these aspects of the ordo salutis is logical rather than temporal. Calling, regeneration, conversion, justification, and adoption happen concurrently in the experience of a believer. But more than simply occurring at the same time, calling and regeneration have a stronger link – namely, the calling creates new life (regeneration).

The best way that I can think to illustrate this is to give you a word picture, one that is supplied for us in John 11 with the story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead.

Lazarus, along with his sisters Mary and Martha, were close friends of Jesus. Eventually Lazarus falls sick, and the sisters send for Jesus. But Jesus bides his time, and Lazarus then succumbs to his illness and dies. When Jesus arrives, Lazarus has been dead for four days. Both Martha and Mary say at different times to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus assures them that he is the resurrection and the life – one of the great deity claims in the Gospels – and asks to be led to the tomb. Moved with great emotion, Jesus asks them to remove the stone. When they protest because of the smell, he says, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” (11:40). After praying to his Father, he calls out to the dead man, “Lazarus, come out.” Lazarus, now returned to life, comes out, and Jesus instructs the people to unbind him from his grave clothes. What a miracle, causing some to believe and others to plot his death.

There is, in this story, both a calling and a regeneration. Jesus calls out to a dead man (this is instructive), “Come out!” Now, a dead person is incapable of not only coming out but of even hearing such a call. Therefore, there must be a regeneration, a new life. When did this happen? It happened when Jesus called, for the call created new life. Jesus’ command, in the words of a prayer by Augustine, granted what he commanded. When Jesus calls a person, his summons creates what it commands.

So then, the concepts of calling and regeneration are inseparably linked. We can only isolate them (partially) in our minds, and even then, we are not able to completely disentangle these two aspects of God’s redeeming work.

Love’s Redeeming Work: Treasuring our Savior and His Great Salvation (The “ordo salutis” for everyone) is currently being researched and written. I am working toward a summer 2022 release. Stay tuned for more excerpts and details…Mark

D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones on theological systems

I’ve been in dialog with a reader on some of my former posts, and his challenges and questions have been helpful to my thought process. I hope I have also given him something to think about. This graphic contains a powerful quotation from expositor extraordinaire, the late D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, from his Romans: Exposition of Chapter 7:1-8:4, The Law: It’s Functions and Limits. It should give us all something to think about in regard to our theological positions.

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.

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.

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!

What do you mean by sovereignty?, part 4

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.

We began this series in part 1 discussing how the sovereignty of God is commonly conceived by most Christians. In this, God’s rule over his creation is spoken of in terms of his pre-knowledge of what will happen, his permission allowing certain things to happen, or his eventual conquest of his enemies so that ultimately his will is accomplished. He is seen much like a good and powerful earthly king who uses his might when necessary to achieve his ends, but is not directly controlling events and people. Commonly conceived, God’s sovereignty is a passive rule.

In part 2, we looked at several songs that allude to a verse in Genesis in some of their lyrics. The songs seem to affirm a biblical understanding of God’s sovereignty, but fail with a critical mis-quoting of what Joseph actually said. Instead, they all end up affirming the same passive view of God’s rule over us.

Finally, in part 3, we looked at some Scripture verses that portray God’s active rule over his creation. Rather than seeing these texts as “problem texts” that need to be explained away, we should take them at face value as indicative of the comprehensive teaching of Scripture about the sovereignty of God.

Now I will look at several historic Church creeds that affirm what the Bible teaches. Rather than these statements being the heretical statements of fringe Christians, they are the consistent testimony of the Church for centuries, even from the beginning.

The Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) puts it this way: “God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass” (3:1).

The London Baptist Confession (1689) similarly says, “God hath decreed in himself, from all eternity, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely and unchangeably, all things, whatsoever comes to pass” (3:1).

The Belgic Confession of 1561 reads, “We believe that the same God, after he had created all things, did not forsake them, or give them up to fortune or chance, but that he rules and governs them according to his holy will, so that nothing happens in this world without his appointment” (13).

All of these statements are simply systematizing what is said in Eph. 1:11 – God works all things according to the counsel of his will. Each of these statements is notable for affirming a sovereignty that is not passive but rather active. “Ordain, decree, rule, and appoint” would be the active verbs in use.

Now these statements, in all three cases are immediately followed with qualifiers:

  • WCF: “…yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.”
  • LBC: “…yet so as thereby is God neither the author of sin nor hath fellowship with any therein; nor is violence offered to the will of the creature, nor yet is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.”
  • BC: “…nevertheless, God neither is the author of, nor can be charged with, the sins which are committed. For his power and goodness are so great and incomprehensible, that he orders and executes his work in the most excellent and just manner, even then, when devils and wicked men act unjustly.”

Simply put, the Confessions all assert that (1) God ordains whatever comes to pass, and (2) God is not the author of sin, and (3) violence is not done to the agency of men.

Now, how can we reasonably hold these seemingly contrary statements together? It’s because the Bible holds them all as true. All of those statements are backed by Scripture. How can we reconcile them? In our finite minds, we cannot. We start to get in trouble when we attempt to explain or reconcile these assertions; that is when we fail and when we create a theology that is not biblical.

If you are in a place where you feel you “can’t figure it out,” good! That is where you must be. There is mystery here, as is always the case when we approach closely to the nature of God. How can three persons be God, and yet there is only one God? As soon as you attempt to explain the Trinity or offer a meek analogy, you diverge in some way from the biblical teaching. And so we embrace the mystery of the Godhead.

How can infinite-eternal God come to earth in the flesh in the second Person of the Trinity, so that Jesus is fully God AND fully man in one person? Terms like “hypostatic union” sound profound, but don’t really help us understand how it could be. Again, we embrace mystery here and accept what the Bible unflinchingly teaches, that Jesus is eternally God, the Word who became flesh (John 1:14) and dwelt among us.

So should it also be when we consider the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man. We ought to accept the mystery as something that God has not chosen to explain to us fully or not equipped our minds to grasp. This is as it always must be when considering the Godhead. “As you do not know the path of the wind, or how the body is formed in a mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the maker of all things” (Ecclesiastes 11:5).

In his book The Five Points of Calvinism, Edwin H. Palmer points out two inadequate attempts to solve the problem of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility – Arminianism and Hyper-Calvinism. Both groups, while holding to the Bible to a point, come to a place where rationalism takes over. The Arminian, Palmer says, “holds to man’s freedom and restricts God’s sovereignty.” The hyper-Calvinist “sees the clear Biblical statements concerning God’s foreordination and holds firmly to that. But being logically unable to reconcile it with man’s responsibility, he denies the latter” (p.84-85). He goes on to state, “Thus the Arminian and the hyper-Calvinist, although poles apart, are really very close together in their rationalism.”

Instead, Palmer writes, “Over against these humanistic views, the Calvinist accepts both sides of the antimony….[and] holds to two apparently contradictory positions. [Footnote: It should be emphasized that the contradiction is only apparent and not real. Man cannot harmonize the two apparently contradictory positions, but God can.]” (p.85).

So, rather than seeing the teaching of God’s active sovereignty as an aberration of Christian theology, one that is to be ignored as “obviously” wrong or dismissed as Satanic (as some have said), we see through the confessions that this has been the creed of the historic Church for centuries – yes, even to the beginnings of the Church and beyond throughout all of the Bible.

To God alone be the glory!