Stephen Crosby’s blog post earlier today To Lead or Not to Lead? That is the Question not only blessed me (How much longer before we “get” this?), but inspired me to dig into some old files for a research paper I delivered over a decade ago at a theological seminary in Cape Town. I found it, and thought I’ll add my voice to Stephen’s.
The Difference Between Christian and Secular Leadership
I know of few Christians who would question the implied proposition above. The church of Jesus Christ is generally in agreement that there is a marked difference between Christian and non-Christian methods of leadership. Yet, when questioned, many believers struggle to explain what these differences are. Christian leaders themselves don’t fare much better, a fact which becomes especially evident when we survey much of the so-called Christian leadership literature doing the rounds in evangelical circles today. Oftentimes these are little more than a rehash of conventional secular wisdom, sprinkled with Bible verses so as to sanctify and legitimise their use.
If there is a difference between secular and Christian leadership styles, then what is it? Furthermore, how big is this difference? Is Christian leadership complimentary to secular leadership, or does it present an alternative to secular leadership? To put it in picture form: Is it the roofrack of the vehicle, or is it another vehicle altogether?
It is my conviction, and the thesis of this paper, that the difference between secular and Christian leadership is the very difference separating the Kingdom of God from the fallen empires of this world. It is, in other words, that difference that contrasts light and darkness, life and death, Christ and Satan. To put the two together as though they are variants of the same species won’t do. They stand unalterably antithetical, and so they will remain until the day of the Lord.
The Worldliness of Secular Leadership
If the above sounds like an unnecessarily harsh assessment, let us consider for a moment the adjective we employ to describe the type of leadership that is not ‘Christian’. The word ‘secular’ is derived from the Latin saeculum, which is one of the Latin words for world. It refers to our existence as material beings in the material cosmos. Secular leadership is really nothing but worldly leadership. As such it is not merely practiced by ‘worldly’ people, but it has the world as both its beginning and end. Its philosophical premises and presuppositions are thoroughly worldly and so also their logical conclusions. Ideas have consequences, or ‘legs’ as Francis Schaeffer used to say, which means that ideas go places. And the places they go are more often than not determined by the places they come from. Ideas that begin with the world are doomed to end with the world, both in the philosophical and eschatological sense.
Christian leadership, on the other hand, is a leadership away from the world. It is not utopian, has no business with social engineering, and certainly does not believe that politics presents the answer to the ailments of society, the worldview expressed in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s maxim ‘the state is the agency of emancipation’ (Cited in Colson 1999: 171). Rather, it longs for a better country – a heavenly one, and it does so in true Hebrews 11 fashion. This type of non-secular leadership is best exemplified by the image of Moses leading the Israelites away from Egypt in search of a land promised and ruled by God.
The Influence Leadership Vision has on Leadership Style
One might wonder what this has to with the actual how-to of leading. Do the different visions of the church and the world influence their leadership methodology, ultimately necessitating different leadership styles? In other words, has leadership anything to do with the particular policies of the leader, or is it purely neutral? And if it has, to what extent?
We have all heard it said that Hitler was an excellent leader. By this it is usually meant that he had great charisma and even greater powers of conviction. He managed to lead thousands, and so we conclude that he was a great leader. The fact that he led them to destruction is besides the point. It makes him a poor theorist, perhaps, but not a poor leader. He could get people to follow him, and this is the litmus test of leadership. As I once heard a Christian leadership guru put it: “If no one is following, you are not leading, but merely taking a walk.” We could turn that around to mean that as long as people are following, you are definitely leading.
Of course not everyone is comfortable with such a pragmatic view of leadership. Stephen Covey’s ‘Principle Centered Leadership’ (1992) is a case in point. According to this school leadership is more than the sum of certain morally neutral traits that are both inborn and acquired, and have produced military and political leaders stretching from before Alexander the Great through Napoleon and Hitler to modern leaders like Bill Clinton. “We need to place character back in leadership”, its proponents say; “we need to live by the compass rather than the map.” In spite of the inward focus and oftentimes spiritual emphasis of this school (Covey is a Mormon), we are not offered any insight into the difference between Christian and secular leadership, due to a lack of any religious homogeneity amongst its advocates. Furthermore, we are offered no answer to the question of whether the different visions of the church and the world have any bearing on their leadership methodology and style.
In order to answer this question, we need to turn to the communication sciences, and to one person in particular: Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian professor who became famous for his aphorism, “the medium is the message”. According to McLuhan, any chosen medium selected for the purposes of communication serves not only as a carrier for such communication, but actually dictates the content of the communication. Neil Postman illustrates this by his story of American Indians communicating via smoke signals, yet finding it impossible to discuss deep philosophy this way. ‘Its form excludes the content’, Postman points out. (Postman 1985: 7).
In the same way styles of leadership, which are forms of discourse, regulate the content issuing from such styles. The leadership style of Scottish freedom fighter William Wallace made it possible for him to convey a message to the masses that many of his contemporaries could not convey. It is no coincidence that the Hollywood version of his life was dubbed Braveheart, for in this title we find the reason behind his uncanny ability to call his people to bravery. Perhaps the best shorthand summary of this principle is to be found in a statement attributed to Oscar Wilde: “Who you are speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you say.”
Particular forms of leadership, in other words, favour particular kinds of content, or, to change McCluhan’s adage slightly: The leader is the message. This is true in any context, even where the message is of such a nature that it makes little demands on the medium of leadership, for instance in the case of the Senior Bookkeeper whose expertise is limited to the world of accountancy. Her subordinates expect no bravery from her, knowing full well that even great cowards can make great bookkeepers. Her authority is derived from what is called ‘expert power’ (Lund & Henderson 1994: 12), and rightly so, for this is what her particular environment demands. However, in the political arena expert power is not sufficient to rise to a position of leadership. Here ‘personal power’ becomes a requirement, namely that ‘mystical combination of attributes that marks some people as born leaders’. (Lund & Henderson 1994: 13). Different settings demand different forms of communication, which in turn demand different leadership styles.
With this in mind, it becomes clear that the radically different message of Christianity demands and necessitates a radically different leadership style in order to be conveyed. Where we are heading will therefore determine how we lead, and it is this truism that disengages Christian from secular leadership.
The Strangeness of Christian Leadership
When we turn to Scripture we find that the God of the Bible assumed a connection between the medium and the message long before McCluhan did. This is evident from the gospel of John, where we read that a particular message from God, simply called “the Word”, demanded a particular medium for its effective conveyance, simply called “the flesh”. The “Word became flesh” means that the message became the medium, and that the two are inseparably linked. Reading further into the gospels we are struck by God’s condemnation of people who ignored this principle by preaching the gospel without living it (Matt 23:1-4). Believers are referred to as living epistles, and one can only wonder why John wrote “I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink.” Did the spiritual nature of his message perhaps demand a different medium of discourse, namely talking ‘face to face’? (3 John 13-14).
Christianity, in other words, is to be lived in order to be proclaimed. The word must become flesh, and the formation of that flesh must be determined by the content of the word. This is especially true in the case of Christian leadership, which is nothing but an extension and disclosure of the Christian message. True Christian leadership can only be so if it embodies and exemplifies the profound gap between the Christian and secular worldviews.
With this in mind, it becomes apparent that Christianity turns the worldly concept of leadership upside down. The stark contrast between Christian and secular leadership is drawn by Christ himself in Matt. 20:25-28, in response to his followers who seemingly noted no distinction between the two: “You know that the rulers of the gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave…” It cannot be stated clearer than this. Christian leadership is not an exercise of authority, but an abdication of it. In this it stands opposed to ‘gentile’ forms of leadership and authority.
Yet not only secular, but also religious forms of authority are challenged by the Christian paradigm of leadership. The era of the Spirit, according to Jeremiah, signifies not only the end of the law but also the end of human mediation: “No longer will a man teach his neighbour…”, the prophet says, “because they will all know me, from the least to the greatest.” (Jer 31:34). In 1John 2:27 we read: “…the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you.” (1 John 2: 27). The Christian message implies that with the advent of the Holy Spirit came a subjective authority hitherto unknown to humanity, resulting in an independence from traditional forms of authority, both secular and religious.
Christian leadership, therefore, is in reality a form of anti-leadership. It’s aim is not to gather a following, but to challenge the herd mentality so basic to human nature. Christian leadership is never the emperor parading before the masses, but always the little boy crying out “The emperor is naked!” It is strangely subversive and radically countercultural. It is a leadership of liberation, freeing the captives and prisoners from their enslavement to the ideologies of this world, and setting them on a narrow road where no one has gone before, for which no maps are available, and where progress is only possible by following the guidance of God’s Spirit.
This means that Christian leadership is ultimately self destructive. Once it has challenged the status quo, it points to another power and authority altogether and removes itself from the platform. Nowhere is this strange type of leadership better illustrated than in the ministry of John the Baptist, and nowhere better put than in his own words: ‘He must become greater; I must become less.’ (John 3:30) Ministers and Christian leaders would do well to look in the mirror from time to time and say out loud with the prophet: ‘I am not the Christ but am send ahead of him.’ (John 3:27). Indeed, preparing the way for Christ is what Christian leadership is all about.
Some Practical Considerations
How does the above work itself out in practice? Much can be said about this, but for the purposes of this paper I will restrict myself to a few remarks made by Christ and Paul, and some more recent comments of Eugene Peterson.
Christ washed feet (John 13:1-17) and spoke about children (Matt 18:15) and servants (Matt 20:26, Matt 23:11) in order to illustrate what greatness means in the Kingdom of God. Like Jeremiah he challenged the notion of human mediation (See Matt 23:8-10), which is in reality nothing but a worldly model of leadership that subjects and enslaves the masses to an elite inner circle of spiritually enlightened pundits. As Os Guinness has noted: “…the dominance of the expert means the dependency of the client.” (Guinness 1993: 71). Indeed, religious punditocracy came to an end the day that the new covenant came into effect and all believers were made kings and priests. Titles reserved for traditional religious leaders were now bestowed on the laity, and for no other reason than the fact that external forms of authority were internalised through the indwelling of God’s Spirit.
The apostle Paul calls the Christian church to humility, and instructs them to have the same attitude as Christ, who “did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant.”(Phil 2:-7). His famous statement “Be ye followers of me, even as I also am Of Christ.” (1 Cor 11:1 in the KJV), can easily be interpreted as “Do not follow me, but follow Christ”, an interpretation that seems to be confirmed by his earlier rebuke of the Corinthians for their “I follow Paul…I follow Apollos.” (1 Cor 3:4). This particular rebuke he concludes with the assertion that both he and Apollos are mere “servants through whom you came to believe.” (v5). Indeed, his argument reminds strongly of John the Baptist’s. It is a leadership that says: “I am only here to point you to Christ.” In his second letter to the Corinthians he actually states this conviction: “For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.” (2 Cor 4:5).
In line with this thinking, Paul presents the Christian church with a list of leadership traits that totally contradicts conventional secular wisdom. In the place of intelligence, initiative, self-assurance, determination, visionary capacity, ability to influence, ability to see the big picture and so on, he lists traits like humility, holiness, hospitality, and being free from the love of money, as conditions for Christian leadership (See 1 Tim 3 and Tit 1).
Eugene Peterson has pointed out that Paul’s list is “clearly more a matter of character than of skill” (Dawn & Peterson 2000: 202), and anyone would be foolish to disagree. He quotes Henri Nouwen in this regard: “I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self. That is the way Jesus came to reveal God’s love.” (p 190). Peterson goes on to say: “What we call the ability to lead has almost nothing to do with it. If we want to develop community in Christ, we have to scrap most of what we are told today about leadership.” (p 203). He concludes his remarks by saying that we should recognise the sphere of leadership among the “poor in Spirit” (p 203), and that it is “almost always a mistake to recruit exceptional people for leadership” (p 204).
I could not agree more. CEO leadership is the worst imaginable model of leadership that the Christian church can choose to follow.
The thesis of this paper is that a spiritual message cannot be conveyed by an unspiritual medium anymore than deep philosophical ideas can be conveyed by smoke signals. The form of secular leadership excludes the spiritual content of the gospel message, and is therefore an unfit medium of conveyance. True spiritual leadership is the servant leadership of Jesus Christ and Paul. It has as its source not expert power or personal power, nor resource power or positional power (See Lund & Henderson 1994: 6), but spiritual power. This power favours no particular personality types and more often than not displays itself in weakness, leaving no doubt as to where it comes from. (We are offered a vast array of testimonies throughout both Bible and church history of highly unlikely characters who were greatly used of God in leading capacities.)
With the above in mind it is clear that the church would do well to rethink the issue of Christian leadership. Ours is a situation not unlike that of Israel who demanded a king at a time where God was to be their King, and perhaps we should ask ourselves if we have not fallen into the same trap through our over-reliance on human leadership.
Colson, C & Pearcy, N 1999. How Now Shall We Live? Wheaton: Tyndale
Covey, S R 1992. Principle Centered Leadership. London: Simon & Schuster
Dawn, M & Peterson, E 2000. The Unnecessary Pastor. Vancouver: Regent College Publishing
Guinness, O 1994. Dining with the Devil. Grand Rapids: Baker
Lund, B & Henderson, E 1994. Leading Your Team, Book 10 of Managing Health Services. The Open University
Postman, N 1985. Amusing Ourselves to Death. London: Methuen.
Picture of Christ & Hitler: http://abstract.desktopnexus.com/wallpaper/871800/
You can subject someone to your tyranny by portraying your wisdom as an indispensable factor for the flight from tyranny.
One of the best places to hide is behind the future. The future holds more promise than the present or the past, and so it lends itself to magical thinking. The promise of the serpent is always a promise of the future, and so Satan himself hides behind it. There is no smokescreen quite so effective as the future. We can hide our true selves behind it, and we can hypnotise people with it.
The way of deliverance is to understand that God exists in the present, and that he wishes to interact with us in the present. The cure for hypocrisy is through an engagement with the present. It is very difficult to lie in the presence of the present, for the present is real. He who lives in the present is not easily fooled by others, and least of all by himself. The person of the present is honest. He sees the world as it is, not as it can be.
What about the future then? What about the hope of the Christian, both for his work in this world and his rest in the world beyond?
The answer is simple. The true future lies in the present, and it is beheld through the present. When the future is beheld apart from the present, as Eve did when she blotted the eternal and ever-present word of God out of her mind, it is on the same par as the illusion of the magician. The appearance of magic depends on the disappearance of that which is present and real. Herein lies the secret of magic. You can only show it to those whose eyes you have first blinded. Detract from the real and present, and the illusion will take its place.
When the present is beheld, the future becomes its child and not its enemy. The only people who have some sense of mastery over their future, such as the wise man of Proverbs who works his land, are those who have the firmest grasp of the present. But the fool of Proverbs is the one who chases fantasies, and who will have his fill of poverty. He is the one who has made the present a child of the future, and in the process he has forfeited both the present and the future. To tranquilise oneself through dreaming is to become blind and numb to the demands of the present.
Satan blinds us to the present, for God is in the present. What distinguishes Christianity from other religions is the arrival of a kingdom that remains out of reach for all other religious pilgrims. God is with us, and he is so in the now, not the tomorrow. The Christian’s pilgrimage is a walk with Christ, not one towards Christ. And so Christ was the greatest proponent of the present. “Do not worry about tomorrow”, he said, and likened such concerns with the world of the gentiles. Whilst Philip was asking for and anticipating a view of the Father, Christ was teaching Philip that he was busy looking at the Father. I am not in your future, Philip, but in your present.
In fact, the very word “presence” is derived from the present. It is not possible to be present and anticipated at the same time. For Christ to be “with us” is to no longer wait for him, or anticipate him in some idealised future setting. This is why Christ answered: “The kingdom is in your midst”, when asked “when” the kingdom of God would come. (I am not referring here to the Lord’s return, the new heavens and earth, and our anticipation thereof. Such an expectation is entirely legitimate, even compulsory. My focus above is on the presence of Christ in the here and now, and the present reality of the Kingdom of God.)
This explains the prohibition of images in the Bible. The image compensates for the absence of the real, and so it magnifies that absence. To make an image of God is to declare that God is not with us, and that we should at least have the freedom to interact with a projection of him. Of course the lure of the image has to do with the anticipation that the projection would at some stage be replaced by the real, that the image would become alive as it were, and so the image becomes our link to the future and our escape from the present.
Idolatry is always intended as an escape, and so it relies on images to make the ideal concrete. The image captures the imagination’s flight and forces it from an idea into a reality. It subjects the evasive God to our power and control, and turns the future from the unknown to the known. In its final analysis, idolatry denies the sufficiency of God, the perfection of his provision and the completion of his works.
Of course there is one other way to escape from the present, and that is through the past. Here, too, Satan is the guide on the journey. If he cannot get us to join him in constructing an idolatrous future, he incites us to dwell on the past. This he does through accusation, and oftentimes through nostalgia, but that is another story for another day.
Last week I stumbled upon a “tribal chart” compiled by a leading Neo-Calvinist of the Young, Restless and Reformed variety. It aimed to delineate the differences between the major tribes of evangelicalism.
As one would expect from a visionary “tribal chief” (the compiler’s term for the leaders of the packs, including himself), the clarion call was to understand and learn from each others’ tribal preferences, avoid disagreements about trivialities and work together with those who agree on the primary issues of the faith.
Whilst momentarily enjoying the weirdness of seeing the names of Joel Osteen, John MacArthur, Scot McKnight, Joyce Meyer, Al Mohler and T.D. Jakes all on one page, I became aware of a strange sense of unease.
I was mystified. Surely this passionate call to Christian unity is an extremely noble and worthy one? Why was I feeling uneasy? But then it dawned on me. There was no category for those who had left the tribes. I wasn’t on the page, and neither were any of my non-tribal brothers and sisters.
Don’t get me wrong. My unease was not inspired by being ignored or dismissed. Where I find my spiritual home anonymity is highly regarded, and so offense had nothing to do with it.
No, it was the message underlying the omission that got to me.
The tribes were encouraged to intermingle, not to question the legitimacy of their tribal identities. It was okay to follow Cephas, as long as we appreciated and learned from the Appolians and Paulines. It was fine to follow Paul, as long as we gained a healthy working relationship with the Cephasites. It was fine to have tribal chiefs and a tribal identity, as long as we acknowledged the rights of others to have the same.
The problem with this type of thinking is that it turns the order of the body upside down. “From Him, the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work”, Paul wrote to the Ephesians.
Note the words “from Him.” They tell us that the body members discover their working relationship with one another through their connection with the head. They don’t discover the intention of the head by being joined to one another.
The difference is monumental. You don’t make a functioning head by sewing body parts together. You make Frankenstein’s monster that way.
I know, I know. How dare I suggest that you are not connected to the head because you are proudly wearing a tribal badge? Well, I’m not really. I’m just slightly befuddled that you define your connection to the head through your connection to something that is infinitely inferior to it. Does Apollos contain Christ, or does Christ contain Apollos? Who defines who here?
And no, I don’t really buy the “I love soccer and Man United is my team” line, as though it is entirely legitimate for believers to be united in their passion but divided in its expression. Christianity is no contest. Allow your body parts to compete with one another and you may end up looking like a cross between a Giraffe and a T Rex, with a neck that is twenty times the length of your arms.
The soccer analogy is only honest when you consider that all believers belong to one team, and that the call to unity is embedded in a single name that defines the entire team as well as its individual members. (Man United – just in case you missed it.) And so, if we stick to the analogy, a whole lot of ecclesiastical attitudes out there would be better expressed in statements like: “Of course I submit to my coach and honor the team, but I’m going fishing if anyone takes my ball.”
The point is that the game plan was developed for a single team, and that there is no real game to be played once you exit the team. Unless you cross over to the other side, of course. But who wants to do that?
As for the snooty attitude underlying the exit, I understand it well. It defined me for many years as I travelled through the tribes, determined to find the perfect one. I went from Dutch Reformed to Classic Pentecostal to Renewal to Charismatic to Baptist to Reformed Baptist.
In the process I discovered my own wicked heart, but I also discovered something else: Inevitably, I made many wonderful friends along the way. Inevitably, old friends would sometimes meet new ones. Inevitably, I learned much during those meetings.
I remember a very serious Pentecostal friend who laughed uncontrollably when he heard that I had become a Baptist. I remember a Charismatic friend and outstanding worship leader who helped out with the music in the church I pastored during my Reformed Baptist years, and how no one knew where to find the words for the spontaneous “new song” that he began singing whilst leading worship.
I remember many other things.
I also remember sitting in a coffee shop and mistaking the little decorative white stones in the center of the table for sugar cubes. I remember stirring, and stirring, and stirring….
Some things just don’t mix, no matter how hard we try. That’s a dear lesson I learned during my ecclesiastical wanderings.
Egos are like that. They don’t mix, unless they are first pulverized. The day that I understood this, I understood why the temple was built on a threshing floor. You can never be part of God’s building process unless you have ceased to exist.
Only when your own identity perishes, and that includes your extended “tribal” identity, can you become known by a name that is bigger than your own.
On the appointed day Herod, wearing his royal robes, sat on his throne and delivered a public address to the people. They shouted, “This is the voice of a god, not of a man.” Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died. (Acts 12:21-23)
Nelson Mandela, the “father” of the country I live in, has died.
He died because he was a mere man. An extraordinary man, but a mere man.
As I watched the footage covering his life and death, I was reminded of the passage above. Have you noticed that the error of deifying a mortal was committed by the people and not by Herod? The passage never suggests that Herod thought of himself as a god. It was the people who committed the sin of idolatry.
Herod’s sin was not one of commission, but of omission. He failed to correct the people’s error.
The passage stands in stark contrast to a similar incident recorded in the book of Acts, but with a very different outcome:
When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!” Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker. The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them. But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting: “Friends, why are you doing this? We too are only human, like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them. (Acts 14:11-16)
Us humans have a long history of getting our gods and heroes mixed up. It’s a silly idea that was first suggested by a serpent, but we bought into it and allowed it to determine most of our religious development throughout the ages. Frazer’s The Golden Bough does an excellent job of documenting our follies in this regard, especially when it comes to those who rule over us. (See his Incarnate Human Gods to find out more about the elephant headed god Gunputty and Queen Victoria’s divinity. And please ignore his conclusions about Jesus Christ. Frazer is an excellent historian but a poor theologian.)
As Montaigne famously quipped: We do not know how to make a maggot, but we create gods by the dozens.
It is noteworthy that the passage from Acts never disputes Herod’s greatness. It was the origin of that greatness that was at stake. Similarly, Paul and Barnabas’ abilities were not downplayed. Rather, the passage directs the attention away from them and to God as the source of life and goodness.
This is the lesson, and we shall do well to take note of it in the aftermath of Nelson Mandela’s passing.
Was he a “great man”, according to human standards? Certainly. In fact, he was one of the greatest, and so shall he be remembered.
Did his greatness originate in himself? Certainly not, and we dare not remember him as though it did.
Perhaps you find it disturbing to imagine that Nelson Mandela was a mere mortal that was greatly gifted by God to do what he had done. Perhaps his accomplishments were slightly too “unspiritual” for you to draw such a conclusion. I mean, he did not even confess Jesus Christ as Lord. Why would God allow a man to be filled with power, wisdom and humility without bringing such a man to his knees and publicly declare Christ as Lord?
If you struggle with such questions (and many Christians do), then I wish to remind you of a passage from the Bible that deals with the “calling” of a man who did not worship God:
This is what the Lord says to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of to subdue nations before him and to strip kings of their armor, to open doors before him so that gates will not be shut: I will go before you and will level the mountains; I will break down gates of bronze and cut through bars of iron. I will give you hidden treasures, riches stored in secret places, so that you may know that I am the Lord, the God of Israel, who summons you by name. For the sake of Jacob my servant, of Israel my chosen, I summon you by name and bestow on you a title of honor, though you do not acknowledge me. I am the Lord, and there is no other; apart from me there is no God. I will strengthen you, though you have not acknowledged me, so that from the rising of the sun to the place of its setting people may know there is none besides me. I am the Lord, and there is no other. I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things. (Isaiah 45:1-7)
Cyrus II of Persia, like Herod, was known as “the great”. At the time of his reign he created the largest empire the world had ever seen, and his other accomplishments were numerous and legendary. His Biblical significance had to do with his conquest of Babylon in 539 BC.
Put simply, Cyrus was raised up by God and made “great” to be an instrument for delivering God’s people from their captivity in Babylon. All his other feats were circumstantial to this one great purpose of his life.
Was it necessary for him to be a converted Jew in order to obey this calling? Not at all. God had a purpose with Cyrus and that purpose was fulfilled in and through Cyrus’ life. Cyrus was great because God made him great, and God made him great for God, not for Cyrus.
None of this should sound strange. In Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome (note that this was Rome) he wrote: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves” (Romans 13:1-4). He goes on to call the authorities “God’s servants” and “agents”.
If you are looking for a historic example of a deeply spiritual human government, please skip Rome. If ever a government embodied the spirit of the Antichrist, Rome was it. Yet they were there because God established them, and he did so for his own purposes.
So why on earth would God raise up a “great” man at the southern tip of Africa to guide a country through democratic elections and prohibit a bloody civil war? To tell you the honest truth, I don’t think anyone has a clue. Maybe one day we will know, but I do not believe that we do at the moment. My best guess is that it is either because of past prayers or future plans that God may have for this country. Or perhaps a bit of both. But I cannot say for certain, and I don’t believe anybody else can.
You may suggest that it was to deliver the oppressed masses, but I don’t think that was the only reason. “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place”, Jesus said to Pilate.
God is not in the business of freedom fighting. He is not on the side of the ANC, or, for that matter, on the side of any government. He has established them for his own purposes, but that says no more about his affections for them than it does about his feelings for Rome during the time of their governance.
Of course God is on the side of the oppressed. But his delivery of them is much greater and more inclusive than what we have seen in South Africa. South Africa is not quite the Kingdom of God, and it will never be. Furthermore, many oppressed worldwide will remain oppressed until the coming of Christ. That does not mean that we should be apathetic about their lot, but simply that we should not confuse our humanitarian efforts with the sum total of God’s agenda.
Nelson Mandela was great because God made him great, and he did so for his own purposes. If anyone should get the glory, praise and honour for Mandela’s greatness, then it is God.
Let us not fall into the same error as the crowd in Herod’s day. Let us give praise where praise is due.
And let us not fall into Herod’s error and be quiet about the crowd’s error.
Frank Viola’s post yesterday, Strange Fire: A Refutation – Part I, inspired me to take my dusty copy of John MacArthur’s Charismatic Chaos off the shelf.
On the inside of the back flap, at the bottom of a page filled with pencil scribbled references and comments, I found a note I made on the day I finished the book: “Excellent! I do believe, however, that God still speaks to the individual concerning personal matters, as well as spiritual matters – of course within the framework of scriptural revelation. 8 January 1993.”
These words took me down memory lane, and reminded me of the liberation I experienced whilst reading the book. I was a young Pentecostal pastor at the time, disturbed and confused by my denomination’s insistence that only those who speak in tongues can claim the “baptism in the Spirit.” For over a decade I had felt like the ugly duckling. I didn’t understand the emotional reactions, the laughing in the Spirit (the Toronto blessing started here in South Africa, believe it or not!), the falling over, the thunderous preaching, the seeming openness to everything prosperity and Word Faith, and so on.
I tried to, believe me, but I could not. I resonated with Watchman Nee, Brother Lawrence and Andrew Murray, but not with my own church’s doctrine.
Chapter 8 of the book changed it all for me. It showed me that the “doctrine of subsequence” had no basis in Biblical theology, and prepared me for my flight from everything Charismatic some years later. I realized the book was somewhat one-sided and perhaps a bit reactionary, but I felt that I could identify with so many of the excesses mentioned by MacArthur that it did not bother me.
I did, however, disagree with the view that God does not speak to individuals in any way other than through the Bible. But this did not bother me much. It represented a certain understanding of revelation, well represented across the Reformed landscape, and did not detract from the book’s weight.
MacArthur had opened a non-Charismatic world for me, and I appreciated him for that.
Some of my richest years in ministry followed my departure from my old denomination. I became a Baptist, a Cessationist, an aspiring 5 point Calvinist (I failed dismally in the end. See my previous post.), a collector of Banner of Truth books, and a lot of other interesting things.
I also drew a cartoon that I cherish to this day:
Then, seven years ago, I stepped out of my new denomination and entered the weird and wonderful world of simple, non-institutional Christianity. The people that I met here were such an inspiration to my spirituality that I (temporarily) decided to overlook those things that I had been fervently crusading against for many years. You guessed it: I ended up loving them more than my commitment to everything anti-Charismatic.
And, in spite of their non-cessationist tendencies, they did not seem nearly as weird as the ones I had run away from in the late nineties.
And so my worn out pendulum (did I mention that I grew up Dutch Reformed?) swung back and silently came to rest in a green meadow besides still waters. The last thing it ever said, before breathing its last, was a gentle “Blessed are the balanced.”
What strikes me about this adventure was that my last big theological shift (I am no longer a Cessationist, as you may have gathered) was heavily influenced by something that had been a non-factor up to that point: Relationships. I discovered, in the context of the true ekklesia, that it was okay to love someone passionately whilst disagreeing with some of his or her views. But I also discovered that it was okay to adjust some of your own views in order for this to happen.
This may sound heretical to some, and extremely dangerous. But trust me: It’s not. The good Lord has built his church in such way that it allows for great relationships between people with different opinions (my wife believes in the rapture), but with an inbuilt proviso that such differences do not compromise our common life in Christ.
This shapes our theology more than mere “understanding”, and means that the blessings of real fellowship between believers with different opinions can only occur where Jesus Christ is the true life of the church. This is no cliché, but the reality of a common birth, a common Father, a common inheritance, a common passion. I have still to meet someone who shares all of these things with me but who is theologically so haywire that I feel I cannot have fellowship with them.
Interestingly, I have found that when people do cross God’s doctrinal boundaries (for the lack of a better term), the magic of the relationship dissipates. True heretics make bad prayer partners. You do not need to review Grudem’s Systematic Theology to arrive at this conclusion. You FEEL it, and you do so because God is faithful and he loves his church.
If I had read Charismatic Chaos later on in life, I may not have given it the glowing Amazon review that I did way back then. I think it helped a lot of people in my situation, and I will always appreciate it for that. But nowadays I tend to view truth somewhat differently. I believe it is not merely shaped cognitively, but also (and especially) relationally. The way in which John deals with “The Charismatics” (as the book was originally called) does not do relational justice to many dear sincere brothers and sisters in the Lord who merely hold to a different pneumatology than the rest of us.
As I once explained it:
Christianity is a relationship, and it should be approached as one. As with any romance, you learn as you go along. The main ingredients are desire, passion, intimacy, time spent together, willingness to learn, willingness to submit to the interests of the other, and so on. As a most intimate encounter of the life of another, it is something that can never be transferred merely cognitively. “Knowing the Lord” cannot be taught, as Jeremiah stated explicitly in his description of the terms and conditions of the New Covenant. It must be caught.
A young couple experiencing their first kiss gains a different type of knowledge than a monk reading about the biological processes accompanying a first kiss. We get a glimpse of this knowledge in the Old Testament statement “Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain.” This type of covenant knowing can only take place when the knower’s life is dissolved in the encountered life — when the two become one. It is a knowledge that transcends all mental processes, although the memory thereof is preserved mentally, and can be discussed mentally.
This means that such a discussion is only fruitful between those who can relate to the experience. It’s like saying “So that is what your first kiss was like. Let me tell you about mine!” Cognition is not ruled out, but it is subject to an encounter that brings with it a revelation.
And so Christianity is not blind mysticism, nor is it extra-Biblical. Rather, it is an experience that becomes increasingly informed through practice and discussion. Of course such information can find its way into poetry, and lend itself to analysis. But it always remains subject to a living encounter between the lover and the beloved.
True church life is the collective experience of the above, and the inevitable celebration associated with it. It is one new humanity encountering Christ. It is the bride meeting her Groom. It is covenant knowledge experienced communally. It is to feast on the tree of life and share the experience of resurrection and growth. It also happens to be an experience of oneness with one another that transcends mutuality by far.
What do you think?
(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.
Path – no fruit
Rocks – no fruit
Thorns – no fruit
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.
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.