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…

 

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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.