The Church of No Anticipation (Part 2)

MonkeyThe price for the exhilaration of anticipation is a high one. When we indulge our desires by creating a Jesus that promises to fulfill some or other expectation, we do so at the expense of our commitment to the real Jesus. We pay for banana fever with lettuce leaves.

The reason for the trade-off is simple: The rush that we experience has nothing to do with the divine nature of God, or the power of the Spirit, and everything with the strong emotions that accompany expectations. As such it is not a valid portrayal of the life-giving capacity of the object or ideal that we are focused on, but an entirely subjective emotion forged by our belief that it will impart life.

The Anatomy of False Faith

This explains why the enchantment of anticipation offers such a viable alternative to real faith. Anticipation is, in fact, a form of faith, and here lies the subtlety. It sounds like faith, it looks like faith and it feels like faith. To make matters worse, it is globally proclaimed as faith.

But of course it is not faith, at least not as the Bible defines it. This should be obvious from the very emotions that we are discussing. True faith does not produce sensual feelings, for its object cannot be detected by the senses. As such it is wholly indifferent to that which appeals to the senses. It is moved by reliance on God alone, regardless of any experience (or lack of it). In fact, the Greek word for faith, pistis, can be better translated as “trust,” i.e. a strong reliance on the person and character of God, rather than mere “belief” which carries the connotation of simply believing in the existence of God.

Faith means I believe without having to see, smell or taste. It means I trust before I partake. The character of God is primary, the experience secondary. It is only the believing who get to be nourished in the end. The rest are disqualified.

And so, for faith to remain faith, its experience must of necessity be wholly different to the experience afforded by images that stir up the sensuality of desire and anticipation. Faith is the only antidote for the human irresistibility to desire, for it is in fact unfallen desire – desire pure and uncontaminated. Faith is desire under the governance of trust. It endears the believer to the Giver, not to his gifts. Faith is desire as love, not as lust.

False faith is something entirely different. It tells us that the lettuce will turn into bananas if we believe hard enough. It is an extension of our own delusions, not the antidote. It feeds on and furthers the greed that got us into our predicament in the first place, rather than challenges it. It reduces God to the status of a cosmic genie whose powers can be harnessed if we follow the correct formula.

To use Bonhoeffer’s term, false faith is a “wish dream.”

With the above in mind, it becomes clear why the banana trick is counterproductive. When we use the charm of sensual excitement as a means to motivate people for God, we are in fact messing with their perceptions. Faith is then no longer seeing the unseen, in the sense of that which is invisible to the naked eye, but seeing the unobtained, namely that which is visible in other people’s lives but invisible in mine.

This explains the trade-off. When we sensitise people to that which is visible and tangible, we desensitise them to that which is spiritual. When we teach them to live by banana excitement, we rob them of their capacity to live by lettuce. Sensual desire and faith are like God and Mammon. You cannot have both. They are mutually exclusive.

Mediation, all over again…

When we try and engineer the excitement of religious commitment, we are in fact suggesting that there is some experience that eludes our hearers. The only way we can make people lust after life is to question the validity of the life presently available to them.

The irony is that once we stir up desire and anticipation, we effectively create a gap between life and its partakers, for how can we desire and anticipate something unless it is first established that we do not have it? By promising that God is going to show up, we suggest that he is not present at the moment, and so we undermine the very essence of what the New Covenant is all about.

Our obsession with experience is nothing but a new type of mediation, and we are every bit as enslaved to it as our forebears were with priests murmuring in Latin. The packaging has changed, but it is the same old content. It is still guruism, albeit in a postmodern form. And here lies the difference: The new gurus are the guys who can best stir up expectation.

A simple visit to the Bestsellers section of your local Christian bookstore should reveal this quite clearly. Note how many of those books follow the famous formula of the television commercial:

  1. This is where you are.
  2. This is where you want to be.
  3. This is how you can get there.

The relief and bliss that one experience when reading these types of books have little to do with God, his power or his peace, and much with the absence of unwanted emotions – emotions that are temporarily suppressed by the intrusion of expectation.

Like a big drug company, our business has become the tranquilisation of the masses. The problem is that we have created a generation of addicts – people who no longer know how to use their primary resources to cope with the disillusionments that are so much part of this world. Our faith is no longer resource based, it has become vision based. And here I am not talking about the resurrection and the new earth.

The way in which this has come about is all too clear. The quickest and most efficient way to deal with a grumpy monkey is to repeat the banana trick – to use a new round of anticipation as therapy for the disillusioned and disenchanted, or, if we are really clever, for the potentially disillusioned, that is, to repeat the trick before reality hits home. We tell them that 2018 is the year of breakthrough before they have had a chance to wonder why the breakthrough eluded them in 2017.

The point is that the wish dream has penetrated our churches at an alarming rate, and that the masses have become enslaved to a type of enchantment that is entirely reliant on expectation. This year is the year of breakthrough. The revival is around the corner. God is doing a new thing. We are about to enter the realm of the miraculous.

On and on it goes. Where it will stop, nobody knows…

The Cost of it All

Again, all of this comes with a price. As Proverbs grimly reminds us, hope deferred makes the heart grow sick. There are limits to our capacity for anticipatory excitement. Sooner or later we realize that we are on a fast train heading nowhere, and that swopping stations makes no difference. Inevitably, the day will arrive when we will have not only lost our taste for lettuce, but also our capacity to dream about bananas.

It has been my experience, both as a professional pastor for many years and in my present post-institutional Christian life, that hearts sickened by deferred hope is the new epidemic that is sweeping the ecclesiastical landscape like the Bubonic plague. Its victims are countless, and their final words before breathing their last always follow this line in some or other way: Why didn’t it work out like I was promised?

We are, it seems, picking up the tab for the hysteria that we have been inducing with our vain promises over the past few decades.

Some of us have been wondering about the new type of Christianity for a long time, and have finally reached a point where we make every effort to stay out of its way. It has, in fact, become entirely impossible for us to derive any comfort whatsoever from any form of Christian prediction, except that God knows what we need and that he will provide it as and when he wishes to (terms and conditions apply), that the believing dead will be raised incorruptibly and that this beautiful earth will be restored in all of its splendor.

So did Jesus ever say anything about all of this stuff? In Part 3 we will address this question.

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The Church of No Anticipation (Part 1)

MonkeyIn the late 1920’s, a researcher with a name reminiscent of a character from a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale – Otto Tinklepaugh – conducted a series of experiments at the University of California at Berkeley. Tinklepaugh’s subjects were macaque monkeys. He wanted to see what they would “learn” in a variety of settings.

In one experiment, a monkey was put on a chair. A piece of lettuce was placed under one of two empty cups on the floor while the monkey was watching. The monkey was removed from the room. After a few minutes, it was returned and released.

Here is an excerpt from Tinklepaugh’s notes:

Subject rushes to proper cup and picks it up. Seizes lettuce. Rushes away with lettuce in his mouth, paying no attention to other cup or to setting. Time, 3-4 seconds.

Tinklepaugh repeated the experiment using bananas, with the same result. There was a difference, though: The monkeys showed greater enthusiasm when uncovering the banana.

It should come as no surprise that monkeys love lettuce, but that they love bananas even more. Most people know this. What is surprising is the monkeys’ response to a slight alteration of the banana version of the experiment. Once the monkey was removed from the room, Tinklepaugh did something sinister: He exchanged the banana with a piece of lettuce.

Here is his record of what happened next:

Subject rushes to proper cup and picks it up. Extends hand towards lettuce. Stops. Looks around on floor. Looks in, under, around cup. Glances at other cup. Looks back at screen. Looks under and around self. Looks and shrieks at any observer present. Walks away, leaving lettuce untouched on floor. Time, 10-33 seconds.

A Life Lesson

Tinklepaugh’s experiment reveals something disturbing about the dark enchantment of anticipation, which is insightful for those of us who are interested in the present state of Christianity.

Note the setting of this experiment: A creature of God is exposed to the life that comes from God alone, and then given access to it – a life that is intended to fill, satisfy, nourish and sustain the creature.

But note something else: The single factor that has the potential of seriously undermining a perfectly natural and organic process, is the prospect of a type of life that is more appealing than the provided life. Furthermore, when the anticipated “higher” life fails to appear, the effect of the resulting disappointment is so intense that it overrides the creature’s normal appetite for life sources that appear less exhilarating, no matter how accessible or nutritious they may be.

Thus, there is a correlation between the excitement stirred up by anticipation (I’m gonna get me a banana!) and the eventual absence of life (Lettuce sucks!). The irony is obvious: Those who are most passionate about receiving life are oftentimes those who go away most hungry.

Note that that the only thing that trumps that which is most valuable and desired, is an improved version of the same thing – not another thing altogether. This explains why Satan does not appear to his minions as a red horned goat-man with a sulphurous body odour, but as an “angel” (or “messenger”) of light.

If it is life that we seek, then the greatest temptation is not to discard life, but to become greedy for it – to want more of it than that which is proper, available and timeous. Satan knows this, which is why he uses it so effectively to deceive people who are looking for God.

None of this should come as a surprise. The first three chapters of Genesis reads like a version of Tinklepaugh’s experiment, except that the subjects are human: Life provided, life eclipsed by higher life, life lost.

The very thing that God intended for his creation, conformity to his image and likeness, was flashed by Satan: “…you will be like God.” The appeal offered a shortcut to the destination that they were heading to, yet without the disciplinary restraint of the growth process and its comparatively humdrum nutritional requirements. The result, according to the Genesis author, was “desire”[1] – a sense of anticipation gone out of control, a feverish enchantment stirred up by the prospect of arrival without sacrifice.

The New Testament authors understood this dark magic well, and identified it as the core problem of humanity. According to them, both the “old self” and the “world” are corrupt because of one reason only: Deceitful desire.[2]

Furthermore, they understood the gospel and cross of Christ as uniquely designed to counter this force. Paul tells us that those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires,[3] and that they are uniquely free to live a life void of the momentum generated by desire and anticipation.

They live by faith, which means they are immune to the lusts of the eyes. They trust in the provision of their master, and bananas no longer mesmerise them. They understand that life comes from above, and stones turning into bread seem boring in comparison.

Our Present State

If we understand this, we would rightfully become suspicious of life-offerings that are out of reach, but that promise to become accessible based on some or other precondition. We would be skeptical of any form of energy, excitement or momentum that is generated as a result of anticipation. We would understand that idolatry has very little to do with the objects of our desires, and everything with the rule of desire in our hearts. We would understand that the single greatest potential idol in all of the world is Jesus Christ, and that he becomes so when commitment to him (along with its benefits) is presented as some or other ideal to be fulfilled, rather than as an immediately accessible reality through faith, regardless of whether it is accompanied by bells and whistles.

In short, we will stop believing in the type of Christianity that requires words like “dream,” “vision,” “destiny” and “best life” to sell itself, for we shall see it for what it is: A cheap trick designed to make Christ desirable to people who have never been liberated from the governance of desire in the first place.

The problem is that the desirable Jesus is never there when we get to him, and he has not been for there two thousand years. The even bigger problem is that we have responded to his absence not by questioning whether his anticipated form was real to begin with, but by creating a church machine designed to deal with grumpy monkeys.

Our counseling rooms are emergency wards for the disappointed. Our prayers are pleas for the evasive breakthrough to manifest. Our revival services are designed to churn out newer and better versions of the banana Jesus, forever hoping to maintain the levels of excitement that were stirred up by our initial idolatrous depictions of him. Our worship services are choreographed to incite anticipation. Our evangelism strategies are aimed at the needs of the seekers. Our books are saturated with jargon that promises deliverance, healing, prosperity, a better tomorrow and everything conceivable that we do not have but want.

And, of course, all of it is cloaked in religious rhetoric. We truly believe we have turned from the world to Christ.

We have created a monster, and we are working feverishly for him, thinking that we are working for God.

(End of Part 1. Part 2 will deal with the solution to our predicament.)

[1] Genesis 3:6

[2] See Ephesians 4:22 and 2 Peter 1:4

[3] Galatians 5:24

Goodbye, Mr Cauvin

Screen Shot 2016-06-10 at 8.01.26 PMHere’s a scenario…

It’s the year 96, and John is on Patmos. He’s had a second vision, and it is extremely disturbing. He is told not to disclose it, which relieves him greatly. The vision is dark and absurd beyond anything he could ever have imagined, and he is convinced no one would believe it.

In the vision he is shown a strange type of rectangular scroll, one that glows and that can be unrolled by pressing a circle on it. It contains a discussion amongst followers of Christ during the start of the great apostasy.

The discussion is about something called Neo-Jehanism. Turns out a man by the name of Jehan is going to become a big name amongst the saints centuries into the future, and gather millions of followers behind him. But not everyone will find him or his teaching appealing, and so another saint by the name of Zoonhermans would rise up and oppose him, also gathering millions of followers behind him.

 Ultimately the schism would become so absurd that it would be be narrowed down to something called the Five Statements of Jehan, composed to refute the arguments of Zoonhermans’ followers. During the times of the end, the Five Statements would be summarized by a set of letters that would serve as a type of code for determining whether one is a “Jehanist” or a “Zoonhermian.”

 The befuddling thing about the vision is that saints from all over the world would feel the need to place themselves into one of these two categories, and provide reasons for doing so.

 To make matters worse, each group would be severely divided amongst themselves: The Jehanists would be made up from hundreds of strange named clan-types who would constantly be bickering and arguing amongst themselves: The Elders, the English, some from the Immersers, and so on. The Zoonhermians would be made up of clans like the Method Makers, the Festival Goers, the Gift Receivers, many from the Immersers, and so on…

It’s winter here in South Africa. A friend gave Revien and I a truckload of wood last week, and so the two of us spent the best part of Saturday sipping Cappucinos and listening to the crackling of a blazing fireplace and some great music.

That was the nice part.

But then I began to fiddle on my Ipad, and stumbled onto a five year old Classic iMonk post with almost three hundred comments. The Calvinists and Arminians were at it again, and of course I felt obliged to follow the whole thing and ride it out. Right to its very end.

But it left me feeling strangely empty and fatigued. And wondering what on earth the point was of it all, and what Paul and Peter and John and the others would have had to say about it.

To make matters worse, I spent the previous Thursday doing research for a project that involved tracing the origins of Calvinism’s famous TULIP acronym, only to be reminded that it never existed before the twentieth century.

For those who are interested: Its first known use was in 1905, when the American Presbyterian minister and hymn writer, Dr. Cleland Boyd McAfee, was heard using it at the Presbyterian Union Of Newark New Jersey.

And even then it was not fully developed. McAfee’s “U” stood for Universal Sovereignty, not Unconditional Election.

Of course it is said that the so-called Five Points are much older than that, dating from 1619 and the famous Synod of Dordt, where they were stated in response to the Five Articles of the Arminian Remonstrants. But even that does not solve the problem of TULIP’s relative late arrival at the Calvinistic party. Not all Calvinists are wildly excited about the acronym, or convinced that it faithfully represents Dordt. As Kenneth Stewart put it in  The Points of Calvinism: Retrospect and Prospect:

There is the striking fact that twentieth-century writing on behalf of TULIP has only very infrequently engaged with the actual Canons of Dordt of which the acronym purports to be a paraphrase or summary. This meant, and means that writers have been implying the fidelity of the acronym as a rendering of Dordt’s meaning without ever being pressed to demonstrate that this fidelity exists in fact. To call the paraphrasing of Dordt by TULIP a ‘broad brush’ approach, is arguably too kind! Why has there been no inquiry as to whether there is actually a true correspondence between this alleged paraphrase of Dordt, and the actual intention of the Canons – widely available in English? We may well be overdue for a revisiting of the Canons of Dordt themselves – even to the point of quoting them, or making a fresh compressed summary of their actual contents.

That explains something I have often wondered about, namely why many Dutch Reformed dominees here in South Africa have never even heard of TULIP.

Thinking of all this, my cheery Saturday morning mood dampened, and in its place memories arose from over a decade ago. That was my post-Pentecostal period, during which I, too, earnestly tried to become a Calvinist.

The thing that I could not wrap my head around at the time (perhaps I should say heart) was double predestination, a term derived from John Calvin’s assertion that the decree of election is symmetrical with the decree of reprobation. In plain English, it means that the God whom I had come to know as the ultimate source of love had chosen to damn some to the very extent that he had chosen to save others.

Some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation; and, accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that he has been predestinated to life or to death. (Institutes iii, xxi, 5)

To make matters worse, the “eternally damned” weren’t mere stats on some theological pie chart, but a significant portion of the very broken children, teens and widows that I had been ministering to for years as a pastor and shepherd. God chose the majority of them to be damned forever and no one shall stand in his way? Has God then become my opponent in the ministry? Was Jesus even aware of this? Would he be angry if he found out?

These were the crazy thoughts that haunted me. And so I devised a plan: I would become a four-point Calvinist. I would not limit the atonement, and my acronym would simply be TUIP. That would allow me to have the best of both worlds. I could still listen to MacArthur, and distribute recordings of Sproul’s The Insanity of Luther, and read Piper’s The Pleasures of God, and introduce a younger generation to Francis Schaeffer’s Trilogy, and collect Pink’s books, and dislike TBN.

I could have all of this without the nagging thought that there was something darkly terrifying about God, that perhaps he did not love my children as much as I did but hated them, that perhaps the whole unfolding nightmare would drive me to a place of such insanity that I would want to escape from this terrifying God, revealing myself to be one of the reprobate after all, and ultimately suffer the inevitable fate of joining the rest of them in a cosmic concentration camp where we would suffer forever without the merciful prospect of death by gassing or gun or suffocating under a pile of corpses – all of this so that God’s perfect sovereignty and justice would prevail.

I figured that I would never have to worry about any of this again. Calvin’s reference to a “secret decree” under the guise of God’s loving exterior would never give me another sleepless night, and I would never even have to wonder whether the decree was still secret after Calvin caused it to leak out.

All of this would magically vanish through a simple subtraction!

Which brings me to the flashback. I had to test my plan, and so I presented it to one of the brethren of my newfound Reformed community. The man had a formidable intellect, and was regarded as one of the more mature men in the group. I told him that I had made peace with the fact that I am a four-point Calvinist, and asked him for his opinion. His response was immediate and to the point: “We have a name for four-point Calvinists. We call them…ARMINIANS!”

Pop. That was it. There was no way out.

During that time another brother, whom I had grown to respect and love, proved to be somewhat more gentle in his approach. He used the term “inescapable conclusion” in reference to TULIP’s L.

And then there was the discussion where all of this was applied to the hopeless fate of non-elect children dying in infancy, which was perhaps the single most disturbing experience of them all.

I’ll spare you the rest. In the end, it all became too much and my effort to morph into a follower of a dead Frenchman by the name of Jehan Cauvin failed spectacularly. Which, in the long run, turned out to be one of the best things that had ever happened to me.

I put it all behind me, and conceded that my reasons for wanting to become a Calvinist (Cauvinist?) were infinitely stupid in the first place. It really had nothing to do with a desire to rethink my view of God, grace, election, free will, the atonement or anything else. These questions had been settled in my heart and mind years before, as a result of the teaching of the Bible, prayer, study, contemplation, fellowship, and simply walking with Jesus Christ through the thick and thin of life for two decades.

No, the reasons why I was attracted to Calvinism were all circumstantial. I can list them, but it is really unnecessary as the late Michael Spencer himself has already done a wonderful job in another one of his classic posts: Why Calvin is cool: An infomercial for Calvinism.

Note that Spencer starts the updated post with the words “Even though I am no longer a Calvinist, a lot of this essay is still true…”

Here’s some extracts from the post, providing us with a synopsis of Spencer’s reasons for calling Calvin cool, and perhaps providing some penetrating insights into the real reasons for Calvinism’s recent resurgence. Ironically, none of them has anything to do with the stuff that almost drove me batty over a decade ago, and ALL of them are to be found in other expressions of Christianity. (If one would only look!)

“Calvinists have their problems, but going the openness route or denying the authority of Scripture are not dangers in the near future…Calvinism is fired up about missions…Calvinism is the strongest resistance to the excesses and errors of the church growth movement…Calvinism is warmly God-centered…Calvinism is contending for the Gospel…Calvinism is evangelistic, when practiced and not just debated… Calvinism has a wonderful reverence for history… Calvinism has the best approach to cultural issues… Calvinism isn’t detoured into fads (Jabez, Left Behind etc.)… Calvinists are great apologists… Calvinists aren’t on television…”

Those things were all true, and wonderful, and available without having to become a double predestinationist! (or whatever it is called).

And so, in the end, I was happy to write a dear John letter to Mr. Cauvin. The whole thing was just a bad affair. I was attracted to him for the wrong reasons, which blinded me to his dark side and simultaneously ruined any possibility of other, more wholesome relationships.

These were the memories that surfaced on Saturday. And the, for a moment, I felt like phoning my old friend who had trashed my dreams of becoming a four-point Calvinist. I wanted to ask him: “How could you? How could you use a novel and questionable doctrinal construct, not a century old at the time and a babe in comparison with the doctrine of the rapture that you so despise, to bully people into a category of your own making and subject them to a ridiculous stereotype that flatly ignores their personal histories of following the Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching of Scripture to the best of their abilities?”

But of course it would be useless. I realized how little effect humanitarian considerations have on Calvinists when I read John Piper’s response to Thomas Talbott’s On Predestination, Reprobation, and the Love of God: A Polemic.

In fact, I reread it just now, and experienced a near irresistible temptation to get back in the fight and tell the whole world why Piper is wrong, and how both Scripture and common sense contradict him at every point, and why it is not okay to pray for your children thinking that they may be reprobates, and…

But then I’ll just go back there, and I’m not sure I want to do that.

Bye bye, John…

 

Confessions of a Charismatic Cessationist

IcefireIn the South African spring of 1999 I left the Charismatic fold. The timing was not intentional, but it coincided beautifully with what was going on in my heart. My ecclesiastical winter had finally passed. The cognitive dissonance caused by reading authors like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, CS Lewis and Watchman Nee, whilst enduring an outbreak of the Toronto Blessing in the denomination that had ordained me into the professional pastorhood, was something of the past.

I had discovered a new world, lush with expository sermons and void of emotional excess. I began devouring anything anti-Charismatic I could lay my hands on and was more than proud to call myself a Cessationist. And, of course, I told everyone in hearing distance to read the final, conclusive word on the Charismatic movement: John MacArthur’s Charismatic Chaos.

Nearly two decades of inner turmoil had left me seething with anger, and so, quite predictably, my rant soon became condescending, judgmental and pharisaical. I eventually realised that I needed to repent, but it wasn’t easy. There were people like David Wilkerson and Lee Grady, I had to remind myself. Pentecostals who did not fit the image of the stereotypical charismaniacs that I had created in my mind. And then there was a disturbing intellectual arrogance amongst some of my new found non-charismatic friends, something that made me feel at times that we were worshiping an icy cosmic computer who would freeze every single time that we got the TULIP code wrong.

At the time I was reminded of an air-conditioning advert that I had once seen in a Time magazine: A man holding a fire in one hand and a block of ice in the other. That pretty much summarised my experience. I did not want either of the two, and I did not know how to bring them together.

But thankfully I was also reminded of something else, a lesson that the Lord had taught me many years before: Christianity is about the person of Christ, not about an ideology. In Him all things meet and hold together, even if we cannot figure out how this actually works.

And so I rediscovered my first love: The Lord Jesus Christ. I repented, and resolved to walk with him again, which happens to be the best decision I have ever made.

As I did, I was reminded that there exists no tension in Christ, that he truly “is our peace”. Not only does he reconcile us with one another, as the famous passage in Ephesians tells us, but he also reconciles our impossible theological dichotomies in himself. There are times when he sounds like a Charismatic (“…you do not know the power of God…”) and times when he sounds like a Reformed theologian (“…you do not know the Scriptures…”). We are clearly dealing with two realities of the person of Christ here, each of which will become corrupt and antagonistic towards the other when separated into its own little corner.

Perhaps this explains something of the sad divisions amongst us as Christians. Our Lord is so huge, so rich, so multi-dimensional, that one can find an aspect of almost anything somewhere in him. And so it is no big feat to do so and to enlist that part of him as an apologist for our particular theological crusade, making it appear that we are indeed his truest representatives.

No, the real challenge is much bigger. It is to deny that part in us that are peculiarly attracted to a part in Christ, and to allow all of him to consume us. Only then will we see the fullness of the Father in the face of Christ.

“I will”, said the Turkey.

2TurkeysB

I am indebted to Nassim Nicholas Taleb for the turkey analogy. Taleb borrowed it from the philosopher Bertrand Russel and used it in his provocative book The Black Swan to illustrate the folly of predicting the future by using the past as a point of reference. Along with scholars such as Daniel Kahneman (Fast and Slow Thinking) and Daniel Gilbert (Stumbling on Happiness) Taleb points out that humans are outrageously irrational when they try their hand at forecasting the future.

The topic intrigues me. As you may know, humans are most egotistical and idolatrous when they imagine what their own futures are going to look like. It is not our photo albums or mirrors that inspire self-worship, but our projections of an idealised future self. Our past and present selves are simply too real to be worthy of deification, and so we use the future to shape and mould the image of I.

All of this becomes rather interesting if we consider that the first motivational speaker in the history of the universe was a serpent. He convinced Eve that she could be more than what she was. He managed to divert her gaze from what she was and had in God to what she could have and be in herself, and thus from the present to the future. “Eve, you can maximise your potential. Eve, you can fulfil your destiny.”

Ever noticed that God identifies himself as “I am”, even in His self-declaration in Christ, but that Satan identifies himself as “I will”? Note the contrast:

I am who I am. Exodus 3:14
I am the bread of life John 6: 35, 48
I am the light of the world John 8: 12, 9:5
Before Abraham was, I am John 8: 58
I am the door John 10:9
I am the good shepherd John 10:11
I am the resurrection and the life John 11:25
I am the way, the truth, and the life John 14:6
I am the true vine John 15:1

“How you are fallen from heaven,
O Day Star, son of Dawn!
How you are cut down to the ground,
you who laid the nations low!
You said in your heart,
I will ascend to heaven;
above the stars of God
I will set my throne on high;
I will sit on the mount of assembly
in the far reaches of the north;
I will ascend above the heights of the clouds;
I will make myself like the Most High.’
But you are brought down to Sheol,
to the far reaches of the pit. Isaiah 14:12-15

Reading Isaiah 14, it is clear why John tells us that “the devil has been sinning from the beginning” (1 John 3:8). The seed of the serpent was forged in eternity before time, when the contentment and perfection of “I am” was replaced with the desire of “I will”. And so “being” was replaced with “becoming”, beholding with visioneering, the Creator with the creature, rest with striving, contentment with anticipation, the now with the then, the “thank you” with “if only”, the treasure of having with the emptiness of wanting.

Of course there was only one way in which the toxic seed of the serpent could be injected into God’s creatures, made in his image and likeness, birthed into his rest, partaking of his identity of life, enjoying the abundance of his provision. They too were to utter the venomous “I will…”

And so the serpent whispered to them: “You will… be as God.”

The moment they believed the promise, and acted on their newfound faith, they too were brought down to Sheol. Note that the first sin was in fact the second sin, but that it was like the first sin.

The enmity between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent began here. The “I will” became a collective in Genesis 11, when an entire nation aspired to penetrate the heavens and found a name and identity for themselves. “I will” became “we will”, and so the seed of the serpent that had become the seed of humanity became the seed of the kingdoms of this world.

Two Seeds, Two Births, Two Confessions

The enmity continues throughout Scripture and finds its ultimate manifestation in two births. The first came into the world and restored our understanding of the “I am” identity, the partaking in that which is and cannot become, for how can perfection be more than what it is?

This was the one who defied the arrogance of the serpent and his offspring, by saying “not my will, but yours be done.” This was the one who defined divinity in his “I am” statements, quoted above. This was the one of whom was said that he, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.” In each and every way he contradicted the aspirations of the serpent and his offspring.

Of course the serpent tempted him in the traditional, tried and tested way that had successfully led the whole word astray: “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”

Note the underlying transactional and graceless philosophy that has governed all human relationships and marriages since the fall: “I will, if you will.”

But Christ resisted. As he would later say: “For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.” In the same manner, he taught us to pray “your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

The first birth manifested the seed from heaven, and revealed its nature as that which is and cannot become, which has and cannot want, which beholds and does not imagine.

If the first birth was God’s Messiah and a revelation of his perfection, then the second birth is Satan’s messiah and a revelation of his imperfection and subsequent striving to “become”. As the seed of the woman brought Christ into the world, the seed of the serpent brought forth the exact opposite and antithesis of Christ, aptly referred to as “Antichrist”.

Naturally, the Antichrist is the incarnation of the human will and its striving, and so, in accordance with the first and second sin, and all the sins since then, he is made manifest in one way only: “He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God” (2 Thessaloninas 2:4). Naturally, for his coming “will be in accordance with how Satan works” (verse 9).

These insights reveal why it is futile and sinful to obsess about “tomorrow”, and why God has a habit of only providing enough manna for “today”. A focus on tomorrow is an inevitable invitation to idolatry, and so we are warned:

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. James 4:13-16

Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring. Proverbs 27:1

So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. Matthew 6:31-34

Give us today our daily bread. Matthew 6:11

Then the Lord said to Moses, “I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day. In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions… The Israelites did as they were told; some gathered much, some little. And when they measured it by the omer, the one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little. Everyone had gathered just as much as they needed. Then Moses said to them, “No one is to keep any of it until morning.” However, some of them paid no attention to Moses; they kept part of it until morning, but it was full of maggots and began to smell. So Moses was angry with them. Exodus 16:4, 17-20

Needless to say, the above insights have made me not only highly suspicious of the motivational revolution of the last few decades, but especially of its recent infiltration into the church world. A quick visit to the Google Ngram Viewer (an online phrase-usage graphing tool indicating usage of words and phrases in more than 5 million prominent publications) reveals the following disturbing trend:

Screen Shot 2014-10-29 at 6.13.30 PM

All of this has prompted me to rethink the contemporary hallowed usage of the word “destiny” amongst Christians. Wondering if the word is actually used in the Bible as it is currently being used on the covers of Christian bestsellers, I went to my concordance. This is what I found:

But as for you who forsake the Lord and forget my holy mountain, who spread a table for Fortune and fill bowls of mixed wine for Destiny, I will destine you for the sword… Isaiah 65:11-12

Oops…

Correct me if I am wrong, but it would appear that even the great apostasy is no longer in the future, but in the present.

The Key to Hebrews 6:4-6

Falling25:12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, 13 for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. 14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. 6:1 Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, 2 and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. 3 And this we will do if God permits. 4 For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. Hebrews 5:12-6:6

I recently contributed to a discussion on verses 4 to 6 above, and thought it would be helpful to share some of my thoughts here for those who are interested.

As you may know, these verses have proven to be a major stumbling block for many believers. They seem to suggest that it is impossible to repent and come back to the Lord after having “fallen away”. This is an obvious problem for those who have “backslidden” at some or other stage of their Christian walk, and who are trying to come back to the Lord.

It is also, and especially, a problem for those who have come back to the Lord after a period of backsliding, and who are haunted by the possibility that the Lord has not accepted them back or fully forgiven them.

Theologians generally try and escape the severity of these verses by going one of two routes:
1. They argue that the term “fall away” implies a total apostasy and denial of the faith, and not just a falling into sin.
2. They argue that the people referred to by the author were not really saved to begin with, and that they rejected the fullness of the revelation or enlightenment intended to bring them to salvation. If you reject the conviction of the Holy Spirit at such a level, then there remains nothing else that will convince you, hence the “impossibility”.

A Third Approach

However, there is a third way to approach these verses, and that is to look at the “big picture” of Hebrews. When we interpret the passage against the backdrop of the entire letter, especially with due consideration to the immediate context of verses 4 to 6 (beginning in 5:12), we find a message that is immensely positive and encouraging, and actually means the exact opposite of the above interpretations.

Let me start by pointing out that the error of both interpretations is the failure to interpret verses 4 to 6 in the light of verse 1. Does it not strike us as odd that the re-repentance that is prohibited in verse 1 is suddenly portrayed as a desirable but unattainable ideal in verse 6? In verse 1 we are told that repentance should not be repeated. In verses 4 to 6 we are told that repentance cannot be repeated. The author seems to be telling his readers that they are trying to do something that cannot be done, and that it cannot be done because it should not be done. Herein is the solution to the dilemma, as we will see in a moment.

“Once” and “Again”

To understand this, we need to understand the way in which the author juxtaposes the words “once” and “again” throughout the letter (e.g. 9:25-10:14). “Again” signifies the imperfection of the Old Covenant sacrifice, and “once” the perfection of Christ’s.

Keep in mind that the recipients of this letter were Hebrews, i.e. Jewish Christians. Also keep in mind that the Jewish nation as a whole rejected Christ due to the fact that they could not make sense of Christ’s Messiahship against the backdrop of their own religious traditions. The very shadows and types of the Old Testament that were intended to prepare the way for the Messiah actually blinded them to the Messiah. Jewishness, if not correctly understood, can prove to be a handicap in one’s grasp of New Covenant truths. It would appear that this was the problem addressed in the letter to the Hebrews.

To view the cross through an Old Covenant “lens” is to underestimate the finality of it. It is to see it as a sacrifice that should ideally be repeated regularly, in line with all the other sacrifices of that dispensation. This view would, quite obviously, manifest as an understanding of repentance as an associated act that also needs to be repeated again and again (repentance being the subjective response to the objective act of sacrifice).

And so the Hebrew Christians were not advancing towards maturity as they were laying again and again a “foundation of repentance from dead works” (verse 1, boldfaced in the text), in line with their understanding of a sacrifice as something that needed to be repeated again and again. This manifested itself as a need to have the “basic principles” taught to them “again” (5:12) which is, according to the Hebrews author, tantamount to feeding on milk, i.e. the first step associated with growth.

The impossibility of “repenting again” (6:4-6) is stated to emphasise the doctrinal absurdity of the idea, as unthinkable and impractical as “crucifying once again the Son of God” (6:6; 9:25-26). It is NOT stated as something that needs to happen but is now prohibited by an angry God who has run out of grace. In the New Covenant the repentance of regeneration happens once, because it is not the effortful turning of a human being, but rather the “perfecting for all time those who are being sanctified” 10:14. (This type of foundational repentance should not be confused with daily and ongoing “repentance”, which is legitimate and necessary, and not referred to in these verses.)

This is confirmed by the words in verse 1 “let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works”. Thus the entire passage speaks against re-repentance, and identifies it as the cause of the Hebrews’ spiritual immaturity. The “impossibility” of verse 4 is intended to reinforce this truth, revealing that the New Covenant was never intended to provide an opportunity for re-repentance (Also see 10:26). In fact, this is not merely undesirable but impossible as we are no longer the ones overseeing the act of sacrifice. This Lamb was provided by God, and he only provided one.

The reason for a single sacrifice, resulting in a single repentance, is simple, and clearly stated in other passages in Hebrews:

Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own,for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. (10:25-26)

He entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. (9:12)

And the clincher:

Since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins. But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins… And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. (10:1-4, 10)

Note that Christ came to not only forgive our sins, but to “put away sin”, to secure an “eternal redemption”, and to sanctify us “once for all”. Also note that the Old Covenant sacrifices could not provide any of this. If they did, two things would have happened:
1. They would have stopped being offered. In other words, the “repetitious” cycle would have ceased.
2. The worshipers would no longer have any “consciousness of sin”.

Clearly the Hebrews never understood this. The absence of both these elements in their (Old Covenantal) understanding of the cross manifested itself in a constant need to re-repent. Indeed, the need for repentance flows from a consciousness of sin. If the sin is not “put away”, the effects of the repentance would be short-lived.

The superiority of Christ’s sacrifice is thus best expressed in a new type of repentance that mirrors the completion and perfection of Christ’s sacrifice. The repentance on earth is what the sacrifice is in heaven. It reflects the perfection thereof, and thus it cannot be repeated.

The point is that these “problematic” verses of chapter 6 are intended to liberate, not condemn. They have nothing to do with the unpardonable sin, and everything with the glorious reality that to fall into sin is not to entirely undo the benefits of the cross, calling for a ritualistic repetition thereof. All that is needed is to get up and carry on, mindful of a secure salvation that has perfected us, even though we stumble and fall regularly.

In Conclusion

Much of my early Christian life was spent around believers who regularly ended up on the carpet between the front pew and the pulpit of the church, crying and begging for forgiveness. Sundays were mostly “repentance day”. We were evangelized. And then we were evangelized again, and again, and again. I think part of it had to do with the revival culture of the denomination, and the romance of tent evangelism, and the sovereignty of the altar call, and the centrality and supremacy of the sinner’s prayer, and so on.

As a kid I was given a little red Gideon’s New Testament containing a neat blue line on the back page where you were supposed to enter your “salvation date”. I changed that date so many times that I eventually lost track.

Strangely, in the midst of all the feverish activity there was a severe lack of spiritual maturity, both in my life and the lives of many others.

I could never understand this strange dichotomy, until I discovered the letter to the Hebrews. And then it became clear. We were like a man who got stuck in a revolving door. We were running, yes, but we were running in circles. We kept on repeating our entrance, and we never got anywhere. The very thing that was intended to make our spirituality “take off”, anchored it to the ground in a devastating way.

And oh boy, were we ever “conscious of sin”!

The letter to the Hebrews blew my mind. It provided a blue print for spiritual growth, and taught me that faith is to grasp the reality and finality of my own salvation. It showed me that humans once were the active agents in the ritual of sacrifice, but that God took over from us with one final, perfect sacrifice. We were now at rest, for God had finished his work. And it was so perfect that even the very thought of trying to repeat it bordered on blasphemy.

In fact, I began studying the book of Hebrews so much that I believe I have found a most likely candidate for authorship, but that is another story for another day…

(Please note that this short explanation merely scratches the surface and obviously does not deal with any of the questions that will/may arise from it. Yet it provides a basis from where one can do your own study. But feel free to ask questions. I’ll gladly respond.)

Five Reasons to Embrace Conditional Election

Calvin(Please Note: I did not intend to publish this post today, and I never intended it to be a response to anything or anyone. It was meant as a mere continuing reflection of the issue under discussion here, and quite coincidentally happened to touch on the secondary issue of “election”, “predestination”, “Calvinism” or whatever you may wish to call it.

However, John Piper published his “Five Reasons to Embrace Unconditional Election” yesterday, and so I thought it would be appropriate to hasten the publishing of this article so as to provide another angle to the whole discussion.

The title is tongue-in-cheeck, but the five numbered paragraphs below does indeed provide five distinct Scriptural reasons why election does not take place in a vacuum and cannot be portrayed as “unconditional”.

If the length bothers you, approach it like the proverbial elephant: One piece at a time!)

Most of the last few posts on this blog have been dedicated to exploring the mystery of denominationalism. How can it be that one body, functioning under the authority of one head, constantly divides itself in the name of that head, and (as unbelievable as this may sound) as an expression of its allegiance to that head?

If you have been following the series you will remember that this question arose from another one: What does it mean to be “simple” or “organic” in our understanding and expression of the church of Jesus Christ?

Whilst these terms may mean different things to different people, they are pretty unambiguous as far as one basic principle is concerned: The life that animates the body (and that includes the body of Christ) is not something complicated. It is not a thing engineered or driven by contemporary sources of authority, such as psychology, or motivational theory, or the management sciences, or marketing strategies.

Neither is it a type of social dynamic, such as you may experience at a Red Hot Chili Peppers concert, or at the local retirement village’s bowling green on a sunny Saturday.

No. This life is a life of its own. It is natural. It emanates from God himself and is sustained by him. It transcends reason (although it certainly does not exclude it), and is not subject to a particular “doctrinal” understanding in order to be experienced. (If this statement makes your hair stand up, keep on reading.)

As C.S. Lewis famously wrote in Mere Christianity: “People ate their dinners and felt better long before the theory of vitamins was ever heard have: and if the theory of vitamins is some day abandoned they will go on eating their dinners just the same. Theories about Christ’s death are not Christianity: they are explanations about how it works . . . I think they would probably admit that no explanation will ever be quite adequate to the reality . . . You may ask what good it will be to us if we do not understand it. But that is easily answered. A man can eat his dinner without understanding exactly how food nourishes him. A man can accept what Christ has done without knowing how it works: indeed, he certainly would not know how it works until he has accepted it.”

Turn First, Then See

Of course Lewis is not giving us a license for heresy here. And neither did Jesus Christ when he said: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life… yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.”

The point behind both these quotes is that the powers of the intellect cannot produce life, no mater how diligently they are applied. Rather, life is experienced through an active participation in some or other source of life (“…come to me that you may have life”), preceded by a seeming voluntary commitment to do so (“yet you refuse…”).We’ll say more about that little word “voluntary” in a moment.

Once this happens, “understanding” becomes a possibility. “He certainly would not know how it works until he has accepted it”, Lewis says, sounding a bit like Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians: “For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.”

The “turning” is primary, the understanding secondary. You first come to Jesus, who is life, and then you understand the Scriptures. Commitment precedes interpretation. In fact, commitment determines interpretation. (See my post On Faith and Reason for further clarity on this issue.)

Remember Jesus’ words at the Feast of Booths, spoken in response to the question of his learning without ever having studied? “Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own.” The message cannot be clearer. You first choose to submit to God’s will, and then you develop an uncanny ability to discern God’s truth.

If you remain unconvinced, think about theses words of Jesus: “Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him.” Allegiance precedes revelation, in other words.

The Mystery of Election

The principle runs like a golden thread through the Bible. There are many more verses that highlight this fundamental truth of Scripture. When understood correctly, they shed a most amazing light on one of the church’s greatest controversies, namely the issue of “election” or “predestination.”

I do not wish to elaborate on this here, as this would require a separate series of blog posts. Yet the issue is relevant to the current series of posts as far as the “determinism” of the human will is concerned, and so I will offer at least a synopsis.

Proponents of the so-called TULIP theology, usually referred to as “Calvinists”, are quick to point out that the human will is in bondage and that it requires the life-giving grace of God to be set free in order to choose for God. Verses like the following ones are oftentimes used to support this idea:

One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. Acts 16:14

No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. John 6:44

And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. Matthew 13:11

And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed. Acts 13:48

Though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad — in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls… Romans 9:11-12

No one can argue with these verses. At first glance it would indeed appear that our wills are in bondage and that God sovereignly chooses which wills to liberate (graciously) and which wills to leave in bondage (justifiably).

However, a careful reading of the above passages reveal that the “determinism” implied in them are preceded by something else, namely a commitment of sorts on the side of the people who eventually became the recipients of God’s sovereign grace.

1. A Tale of Two God-Fearers

Lydia, for instance, was already a “worshiper of God” before God opened her heart to the preaching of the gospel. Similarly, Acts 10 tells the story of Cornelius on whom the Holy Spirit fell (quite sovereignly, I would say) whilst he and his household were listening to Peter’s preaching of the gospel.

But, as with Lydia, this divine intervention was preceded by something else. Before Cornelius or his family had even heard of the gospel or Peter’s existence, we read that he was “a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people and prayed continually to God.”

Is this coincidence? Whilst the ability to hear, understand and respond to the gospel was clearly one sovereignly given by God to Cornelius and Lydia, there is not a single verse implying that their pre-Christian commitment to God was also sovereignly handed to them. On the contrary, both these narratives paint a picture of a general, basic and fundamental commitment to God that was rewarded by a specific and special revelation of him. The first commitment was free, the second determined and irresistible.

2. No one can come to ME unless…

This sheds some much-needed light on the “problematic” second verse quoted above. Do the words “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” mean “no one who is not a Jew or a Christian can sincerely fear and worship the unknown God that is perceived in nature and through conscience unless the Father draws them to do so?“ Not necessarily. The Bible nowhere speaks of such a double-drawing.

Of course Calvinists would argue that Lydia and Cornelius’ God-fearing traits were symptomatic of their already existing calling, and not causal to it. But the Bible nowhere says this. The Bible introduces them as God fearers whose hearts were opened by God once they heard the gospel of Jesus Christ, and not before. As Peter said to the apostles and elders at the Jerusalem Council: “And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us.”

If this is true, then it means that the ones drawn by the Father to the Son are not drawn randomly because of God’s elective purposes, but because of their inner willingness to submit to God, regardless of their level of religious or theological understanding. (I’ll get to Jacob and Esau, in case they have just popped into your mind.)

This is no place to debate how such a willingness may manifest itself, or whether it is always as evident and pronounced as was the case with Cornelius and Lydia, and so I will not touch on this issue here. Suffice it to say that this particular verse only refers to a coming to Christ (hence the capitalized “me” in the caption above), and does not infer anything regarding an inability of the “pagan” or “gentile” who is confronted with God’s “general revelation” and an accompanying option (or absence thereof) to worship and fear the “unknown God”. On the contrary, the very next verse sheds some light on the fact that the “drawing” of the Father does not take place in a vacuum, but is preceded by an active participation on the part of the believer, exactly as was the case with Cornelius and Lydia. We will return to verse 45 towards the end of this article.

3. The Secrets of the Kingdom

This brings us to our third verse. The words “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given”, sound pretty conclusive, don’t they? Not if you read the rest of the passage.

The quotation, of course, is taken from the famous “Parable of the Sower.” Whilst most Christians know this parable, many of us are unaware of its central message. It is in this message that we will find a startling revelation regarding the so-called tension between “God’s sovereignty” and “human responsibility”.

The parable appears in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. The three accounts do not differ much, although Mark and Luke contain a statement that is not found in Matthew. This statement is essential for our understanding of the parable. Mark presents it at the end of the parable, and as its conclusion and practical application. The passage in its entirety reads as follows:

Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, multiplying thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times.”
Then Jesus said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, “‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’”
Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable? The farmer sows the word. Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them. Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—thirty, sixty or even a hundred times what was sown.”
He said to them, “Do you bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed? Instead, don’t you put it on its stand? For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open. If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.”
“Consider carefully what you hear,” he continued. “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you—and even more. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.”

Before we discuss this statement, as contained in the last paragraph above, let us note that the parable is about a sower, his seed and the ground on which it falls. Although there is only one sower and one type of seed, there are six different outcomes. Of these three are negative and three positive. It is the aim of the parable to illustrate why the effect of the seed differ so vastly, in spite of it being the same seed sown by the same sower.

Negative

Path – no fruit
Rocks – no fruit
Thorns – no fruit

Positive

Good soil – 30 fold
Good soil – 60 fold
Good soil – 100 fold

The seed is identified as the “word” in Mark and “the word of God” in Luke. The path, the rocky ground, the thorns and the good soil are identified as the various locations where the recipients of the word are. These locations determine, in each case, how the word is received after it has been “heard”. It is important to note that all “hear” the word and that this is the only common denominator between them. The effect that the word has on them, however, is fully determined by the particular place they are at in their lives at the time of hearing.

The statement found at the end of Mark’s account, and also in Luke 8:18, is pivotal for understanding the parable. Note the words “more” and “taken away”. In Luke we read “Take care then how you hear, for to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he thinks that he has will be taken away”. Mark adds: “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you—and even more.”

Here is the solution to the predicament: The different outcomes depend on the way in which the word is “heard”. Those who “consider carefully” what they hear fill up their measure and so qualify themselves for receiving more. They are contrasted with those who hear but allow Satan to take away the word that was sown in them (the seed along the path), those who hear the word but have no root (the seed sown on rocky places) and those who hear but allow the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things to come in and choke the word (the seed among the thorns).

In summary then, three groups hear the word intently and receive more of the same word, whilst three groups hear the word carelessly and has it taken away from them. But let us note something else. The responsibility of humans and the sovereignty of God are not at odds here. They co-exist. It is the responsibility of humans to “take care” how they hear, and it is God who “gives more” or “take away”. We choose whether we will hear or not. God chooses whether he will give more or take away. His sovereign intervention in the process does not take place in a vacuum. It is based on the way in which we hear.

If any doubt remains, look at our quoted verse again: “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables” (Matthew’s version says “the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven…”). The disciples are living examples of those to whom more has been given. They understand the secrets of the kingdom. Those “on the outside” don’t. Parables are secrets to them. They see but do not perceive, they hear but do not understand.

It is clear that God is the one giving the “knowledge of the secrets”. The disciples cannot do this, no matter how hard they try. Yet God’s sovereign gift of revelation is not independent from their responsibility. They cannot force the revelation, and God does not force their hearing.

There is a last principle that we need to note. Mark’s words “‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’” are expanded upon in Matthew, where we read: “Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand. In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: “You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’

Note that Isaiah predicted a future judgment of deafness and blindness on the people. But also note that this grim forecast was preceded by something else. The people first closed their own eyes. God’s judgment was not something that came out of the blue. It was an intensifying of a condition that the people had already succumbed to quite willingly. The callousness of their hearts preceded the ultimate deafness of their ears and blindness of their eyes. God merely gave them over to that which they had already chosen. And so Isaiah becomes the ideal commentator to clarify Jesus’ teaching as set out in the parable of the sower.

One can hardly read this without being reminded of a rather scary passage in 2 Thessalonians: “The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.” Note: These people refused to love and believe the truth, and God then sends the delusion.

Again, God’s sovereignty and humanity’s responsibility are not at odds. They co-exist, and the one never functions at the expense of the other.

Let us summarise. The people in the parable, the disciples themselves and the individuals referred to by Isaiah and Paul all provide us with the same message: Humans are responsible at a very basic level. What they do with this responsibility will determine the way in which God will intervene in their lives. They first “turn”, and then they “see”. As I said at the beginning of this post: Commitment precedes interpretation. In fact, commitment determines interpretation. It is as simple as that.

God Finds, and Then Chooses

If we only had the parable of the sower we may have wanted to debate this conclusion. But we don’t. The principle is evident all over Scripture. In fact, it is overwhelming.

Before we look at our last two verses, let us consider an important implication of the conclusion above. The parable of the sower is about seeing and hearing, but it is more than that. It is about two types of seeing and hearing. The one takes place at a basic level and is the responsibility of humans. The other takes place at an advanced level and is the responsibility of God. The first is the prerequisite of the second. It is the qualification, if you wish. There seems to be a “general revelation” accessible to all people, and a “special revelation” accessible to a select few.

The first has to do with a faith-commitment of sorts, the second with a God-given understanding. Those who work well with the first are granted access to the second. The first depends on the heart, and so Abel, Enoch, Noah and Abram had access to it, even though their theological understanding was “pagan” by Jewish or Christian theological standards. (For instance, Abram could “believe” and receive an accreditation of righteousness without ever having read the Old or New Testament.) The second has to do with a peculiar and specific understanding of God, such as the revelation given to Noah about the coming judgment, or the prophetic insights of Enoch, or the calling of Abram.

On that last point: Years ago I asked a Calvinistic believer if he thought Abram had to “qualify” in any way to be called by God. Naturally, the dear brother was shocked by the very suggestion. According to his theological system the insinuation bordered on blasphemy. I told him about the pattern that runs throughout Scripture, namely that a particular calling and/or revelation of God always seems to be preceded by some or other condition of the heart. I then showed him a verse in Nehemiah 9 that he had never considered: “You are the LORD, the God who chose Abram and brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans and gave him the name Abraham. You found his heart faithful before you, and made with him the covenant to give to his offspring the land…” Interestingly, God did two things: He found, and he chose. Never is it stated that Abram’s faithful heart was sovereignly created by God. God “found” it like that, and then he chose Abram as an instrument for both revelation and service.

This accords with the “election” of David. During the legendary lineup that preceded God’s choice of Israel’s king, God whispered to Samuel: “…the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” Clearly David had the heart God was looking for, as the rest of the narrative reveals. This fact is confirmed in Acts 13 where we read “he raised up David to be their king, of whom he testified and said, ‘I have found in David the son of Jesse a man after my heart, who will do all my will.’” God found, and then he raised up. The pattern is clear.

It would appear that the disciples understood this pattern. At the end of Acts 1 we read: “And they prayed and said, “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” Yet again: God knows the heart, and then he chooses.

After sharing these verses, my friend responded angrily: “That is nonsense. God creates the heart!” Yes, he does. But nowhere is it stated that he sovereignly creates the heart with a deterministic bent and then pretends to “find” it like that.

The Progressive Nature of Revelation

One thing that is clear from this is that revelation is progressive, and that the relationship between human responsibility and God’s sovereignty seems to change in line with this progression. Like the seed used to symbolise God’s word, our understanding of God and his kingdom begins small and grows towards maturity. But the more it grows, the smaller we become.

Our responsibility has to with the quality of the soil and with planting and watering. God’s part has to do with the growing of the seed. Our will plays a huge role at the outset, but God’s will becomes more prominent as we grow up in him.

As John the Baptist declared: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” And as Jesus said to Peter: “I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.”

4. Appointed to Eternal Life?

Our second last verse quoted above reads as follows: “And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.”

I have oftentimes heard this verse quoted in my discussions with Calvinists (many of whom are dear friends, just in case you wondered). After many years of contemplating this issue, I began to see the pattern described above, namely that God’s sovereign intervention in the lives of people (especially in regards to the revelation of his Son) is preceded by a certain predisposition of the heart that is portrayed in the Bible as the responsibility of the individual. As mentioned above, the New Testament sometimes refers to such people as “God-fearers”.

With this in mind, I found myself staring at Acts 13:48 one day. It was a strange verse, I had to admit. Some of the Antiochians were “appointed to eternal life” and, accordingly, responded to the gospel message. Clearly others were not appointed to eternal life, and did not respond. How does that work?

But then I thought about the pattern of Scripture: If there is a clearly stated divine and sovereign intervention by God, it was usually preceded by some or other reference to the “heart” or to “fearing God”. A sudden expectation welled up in me as my eyes began skimming the page. The next moment I read: “Brothers, sons of the family of Abraham, and those among you who fear God, to us has been sent the message of this salvation.” This was verse 26 and it preceded verse 48! Furthermore, verse 16 recounts Paul’s opening statement to the Antiochians: “Men of Israel and you who fear God, listen.”

These words were spoken during Paul’s first Sabbath in Antioch, in the synagogue and to the Jews, and was understood at the time as being exclusively Jewish in their application. But then Paul and Barnabas explicitly “turn to the gentiles” (verse 46) and the true application of those words become clear. The “gentiles” were not a third group besides “the family of Abraham” and the “God-fearers”, but included in the latter. The “God-fearers” were not simply an official group of proselytized gentiles, but anyone who had a basic fear and respect for God. These were the ones to whom God graciously granted the revelation of his son. The pattern manifested itself yet again!

As Solomon stated famously, wisely and prophetically: The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge.

5. Jacob and Esau

Romans 9 is oftentimes used as the trump card of Calvinism. As John Piper wrote:

“All my objections to unconditional election collapsed when I could no longer explain away Romans 9… So to illustrate the point of God’s unconditional election, Paul uses the analogy of Jacob and Esau: “Though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad — in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls — [Rebekah] was told, ‘The older will serve the younger’” (verses 11–12). In other words, God’s original purpose in choosing individuals for himself out of Israel — and all the nations! (Revelation 5:9) — was not based on any conditions that they would meet. It was an unconditional election. And thus he says, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (verse 15; see verses 16–18; Romans 11:5–7).”

However, the purpose of Romans 9 is not to explain why Johnny next door was predetermined to eternal wrath whilst Suzy across the road was predetermined to eternal glory. No, the chapter itself provides the purpose: It is to explain why “the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it whilst the people of Israel, who pursued the law as the way of righteousness, have not attained their goal.” (v 30-31).

In other words, the metaphor had to express how those of whom is said “Theirs is the adoption to sonship; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises…” (verse 4) could have “stumbled over the stumbling stone” (verse 32), whilst those who were not God’s people could be called God’s people, and those who were not God’s loved one could be called God’s loved one (verse 25). This uncanny reversal of these two people groups is the issue, and it raises the question: Where can one find a more fitting analogy than a physical portrayal of the “older serving the younger”, and the firstborn’s rights being handed to the second born, than the story of Jacob and Esau?

Romans 9 has nothing to do with individual election and everything with the unexpected inclusion of the gentiles into God’s plan of salvation. Paul’s point is that God is God and that he can embrace and accept a foreign people, based on his mercy, whilst he may resist his own people in spite of their works. Indeed, “It does not, therefore, depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy” (verse 16). The contrast is not between reprobate Johnny and predestined Suzy, but between the mercy of the New Covenant, extended to the gentiles who did not have the works of the law, and an incorrect works-based hermeneutic upheld by Israel.

As I once explained it: ‘I can choose who I want’ is not the statement of a father to all his children after he has chosen only the oldest brother to accompany him on a fishing trip, but rather the statement of the father to the older brother after he has chosen the smaller brothers to accompany the two of them on their next fishing trip.

This, and this alone, is the potter’s lesson. To read more into Romans 9 is to speculate dangerously.

In Closing

This post has now become unfashionably long and I have to land, even though we have only scratched the surface of an amazing doctrine of Scripture.

The main thesis of this article is astoundingly simple: We are completely responsible and God is completely sovereign. However, our responsibility and God’s sovereignty are to be found at different intersections on the highway of God’s progressive revelation, and so even though they co-exist they do not do so in a mysterious and frustrating tension that is inconceivable to our grey matter and that necessitates some dark background with lists of names that are engraved in concrete as far as their owner’s eternal destiny is concerned.

Humans have a basic responsibility, and that is to fear God. It is a responsibility given to all people everywhere and they are accountable in this regard. No human can escape this and all humans have a sufficient grasp of eternity in their hearts to respond in this way to God. Depending on their free and chosen response to this, God will progressively make himself known to these individuals. It is as simple as that. Likewise, the “measure of light” in people’s lives (for the lack of a better term) will one day constitute the criteria for their ultimate judgment.

The revelation that Jesus Christ is the son of the Living God is indeed one that cannot be facilitated by a human, or freely considered and then voluntarily accepted or rejected. No, it is a God-given miracle of enlightenment, and in this sense all Calvinists are spot-on and should be saluted. Yet this revelation does not take place in a vacuum, and here they are incorrect. Such revelation is the logical conclusion and manifestation of a life that has already subjected itself to God, albeit in a basic, mysterious and even theologically ignorant way.

To try and define the terms and conditions of such “submission” would be sheer idiocy, and should be avoided at all costs. Perhaps we can dare to say that an immoral drunkard may have more of this basic matter in his heart than an upright religious man. However, such interaction between a person and his/her God is intimate and mysterious beyond description, and thus can never be defined.

And so all the verses that appear to speak of an “election” in the New Testament, based on their suggestion that to come to Christ is not a voluntary act but an involuntary one, need not make us hysterical. Using the “pattern” above, I will conclude with a number of them, as well as some others that display the same pattern:

Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from him comes to me. John 6: 45
(Note that the responsibility of hearing and learning from the Father precedes the “coming” to Jesus. Also note that this verse follows our second verse discussed above, namely “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.”)

If God were your Father, you would love me… John 8:42
(Need I say anything else?)

He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God. John 8:47
(Here Jesus is referring to people hearing his own words. The same pattern emerges. “Belonging” to God precedes hearing the words of Jesus. The first is voluntary, the second determined.)

Everyone on the side of truth listens to me. John 18:37
(Same pattern. “Siding with the truth” precedes listening to Jesus, and appears to be a free and voluntary act.)

The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. John 10:25-27
(As above. Faith in Christ is determined and preceded by being part of his “sheep”, but nothing indicates that he has sovereignly made some into sheep and others not. In this context, sheep are those who have learned to follow the voice of the shepherd before his actual appearance. John 6: 45 above applies yet again.)

There are many other examples, but these will suffice. My only intention here is to indicate that the so-called determinism in salvation seems to be linked to coming to Christ, and never to the basic underlying condition of “siding with the truth”, “listening to the Father”, and so on. These appear to be the responsibility of the individual, and so “election” can never be represented as something “unconditional”.

Lastly, the implicit horror of Calvinism (apologies to my Calvinistic brothers and sisters, but that is the way many of us perceive a doctrine that teaches that Jesus Christ did not die for all people, and that billions of souls were created for an eternal torment about which they can do absolutely nothing) is completely neutralized when approached from the standpoint above. In this scheme, both our responsibility and God’s sovereignty remain intact.

May the God who loves the whole world, and that includes every single solitary soul, bless you and keep you.