Friday, May 29, 2009

Revisiting the "Doctrines of Grace" -- Irresistible Grace

(Articles of Faith, 9)

Where is the Holy Spirit in this system of theology? True to its Calvinistic formulation, the work of the Spirit is to "efficaciously" call the elect sinner from his or her sinful darkness to faith and life in Christ. The Holy Spirit never fails to bring to salvation those whom God the Father has called to faith. He applies saving power and transformation to effectually save all of the elect of God. The Westminster Confession of Faith states it this way: "All those whom God has predestinated unto life, and those only, he is pleased, in his appointed and accepted time, effectually to call, by his word and Spirit, out of that state of sin and death in which they are by nature, to grace and salvation by Jesus Christ . . ." (Chapter X, Section 1). "Effectual" is an older word which indicates two things: (1) the Spirit's work in the sinner's heart and life cannot be thwarted or refused; and, (2) the Spirit never fails to bring these sinners to a saving knowledge of Christ.

Biblical Basis
It is a fundamental Scriptural truth that without God the Holy Spirit and His work in our lives, salvation and the benefits of Christian faith cannot be ours. Children of God are those "led by the Spirit of God" (Romans 8:14). Salvation is "in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God" (1 Corinthians 6:11). Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again (or from above)" (John 3:3) We are not saved by our deeds or good intentions but "by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit" (Titus 3:5). The Holy Spirit makes sinners whom He draws "new creation" (2 Corinthians 5:17, 18; cf. Galatians 6:15; Ezekiel 36:26, 27). The Holy Spirit is the operative source of saving and sanctifying faith.

While the gospel invitation is given to all without distinction, only those specifically "called" by God Himself can and will come to faith. "Those whom he predestined, he also called; and those he called he also justified . . ." (Romans 8:30). The "call" of God is particular (Galatians 1:15, 16; Ephesians 4:4; Hebrews 9:15; Jude 1; 1 Peter 2:9) and not everyone is "called" in this divine and effectual sense. "So it depends not upon man's will or exertion, but upon God's mercy" (Romans 9:16). "As many as were ordained to eternal life believed" (Acts 13:48).

The "irresistible" part of this truth flows from the fact that " all that the Father gives me will come to me . . . No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him . . ." (John 6:37ff) God's word and work in a person's life cannot falter or fail. An illustration is often given of Jesus "calling" Lazarus from death to life. Just as Jesus spoke life to his body, so Jesus speaks life to our spiritual bodies, with the immediate and effectual result that we "come forth" from death to life (cf. John 11:43).

Solving the Problems
Again, many have problems with such a teaching. The first is its "discriminatory" nature. If not everyone is given a chance to accept or reject Jesus Christ, then we are but puppets. Our free will is violated, many would say. This objection has been dealt with in the preceding blogs on this subject. And, everyone HAS been given a chance through our progenitor, Adam, and IS given a chance through the call of the gospel to "all who will believe." The "catch" is that only those given the ability or power to believe from God actually believe!

The second has to do with the "irresistibility" of the work of the Holy Spirit to come to faith. Can't we, in fact, "resist" the Spirit (cf. Acts 7:51) The Westminster Confession says that all those effectually drawn by the Spirit to Christ "come most freely, being made willing by his grace." WE still responsibly choose to come to Christ for eternal life, yet the "drawing force" is God the Holy Spirit enlightening, changing, transforming and moving us to Christ. The other way to look at this is to ask one who has been "born again" if he or she did not finally WANT to come to Christ for faith and life. Yes, for some this was a "struggle" with internal and external forces and temptations, but for all, once they came to Christ, they were overjoyed and celebrated their new life.

The essential struggle with this and other Calvinistic teachings has been the much vaunted "free will" of humankind. And, the Bible does indeed talk about making "choices" for or against God and being "willing" or not to come to God. One of my seminary professors explained it this way: There are two parallel tracks that appear to run concurrently here on earth, one being God's sovereign will and the other man's choices. Sometimes the one outpaces the other. It might appear that man is able to choose or not choose what God wants, and sometimes it appears that God decidedly is calling the shots in one's life. It is only in heaven that we will be able to see the tracks cross and make sense of this. Or, as the Apostle Paul says, "continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and act according to his good purpose" (Philippians 2:12, 13).

Monday, May 18, 2009

Revisiting the "Doctrines of Grace"-- Limited Atonement

(Articles of Faith, 8)

There is perhaps no greater misunderstanding and controversy in the evangelical world than on the historic teaching of "limited atonement," or particular redemption. Most evangelicals in the Western world adamantly deny this doctrine. One particular preacher in a town in which I served a beginning church said publicly that this doctrine "came from the pit of hell!" A number of detractors maintain that such a teaching denies the "free will" of humankind and makes the free offer of the gospel to all a joke or a hoax. If Christ died on the cross for only those whom God the Father has sovereignly elected to salvation, then we truly are only puppets and all attempts to offer the Good News to all peoples are not only doomed to failure but in vain. Others go to such passages as John 3:16 and point out that God's world-embracing love is offered to "all who believe." Still others point to 1 Timothy 2:3-6, in speaking about prayer for all, "This is good and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men . . ."

Some have sought in the history of theology to blunt the force of The Synod of Dort's declaration on this matter. They have wanted to side-step it with what is called "Amyrauldianism," a theory of "hypothetical universalism" in which Moise Amyraut (1596-1664), following in the footsteps of his mentor, John Cameron in the School of Saumur in France, maintained that God has a "double will" related to humankind. On the basis of the distinction between God's particular and God's universal will, Amyraut went on to teach that predestination as universal and conditional was a part of providence. It was a part of what are really “two counsels" in God that He took because of the fall. According to this universal and conditional will, God wills the salvation of all men and promises salvation to all upon the condition of faith. It is only because God knows that man is not able of himself to believe that God also wills particularly and unconditionally to save the elect. This teaching supposedly harkens back to what John Calvin himself taught, but most students of historical theology find this interpretation wanting.

Biblical Basis
In order to secure the redemption of those chosen by God the Father, Christ the Son had to redeem them. Jesus Christ thus came into the world, took upon himself human nature, identified himself with His people and acted as the legal representative or substitute before God for their redemption. Christ's perfect righteousness is credited to all who truly believe. They are saved, not on the basis of their faith or what they have done, but solely on the grounds of Christ's redeeming work on the cross.

Christ's redemption is definite both in its design and its accomplishment. Christ actually secured salvation for His people, the elect of God, upon the cross. As David Steele and Curtis Thomas noted in their manual, The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, Documented (Presbyterian and Reformed Pub., 1965, p. 39)--"The salvation which Christ earned for His people includes everything involved in bringing them to a right relationship with God, including the gifts of faith and repentance." Calvinists thus maintain that Christ's death and resurrection definitely saved people, while Arminians maintain that Christ's death only made salvation possible for all, and effectual to only those those believe. The emphasis is on the belief, not on God's sovereign and gracious action.

At first blush, the Bible seems to deny this teaching. However, many verses point to its truthfulness. First, Jesus Christ died to actually save people -- Luke 19:10 -- "The Son of man came to seek and save that which was lost." "Who gave himself for us to redeem us from all iniquity . . ." (Titus 2:14). "For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God . . ." (1 Peter 3:18). We were reconciled to God "by the death of his Son" (Romans 5:10). "They are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus" (Romans 3:24, 25). "he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit, which he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior" (Titus 3:5,6).

Then, Jesus died for those the Father had appointed to salvation -- "All that the Father gives me will come to me, and him who comes to me I will not cast out" (John 6:35-40). "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep . . . I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father . . .The works I do in my Father's name, they bear witness to me; but you do not believe because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me and I give them eternal life and they shall never perish . . ." (John 10:11ff). God the Father's eternal choice of people to be saved is done through the Son-- "He destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will . . ." (Ephesians 1:3ff).

There are Scriptural texts that speak of the "definiteness" of Christ's sacrifice -- "he will save his people from their sins" (Matthew 1:21). "The Son of man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many" (Matthew 20:28) "The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep" (John10:11). "he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance. . ." (Hebrews 9:15) "Christ, having been offered to bear the sins of many" (Hebrews 9:18 with Isaiah 53:10, 11).

Problem Passages
Most of these Scriptural passages use the term "world" or "all." One striking passage is 1 Timothy 2:3-6 -- "This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men . . ." Again, the context is the key to all biblical interpretation. As many biblical Greek scholars will say, Paul's point was to ensure that the gospel of truth goes to all kinds or types of people, not just Jews. So, Christ died for all without distinction NOT without exception. The New Testament writers were not universalists in the sense that everyone was going to be saved, but they promoted gospel universalism, that is the Good News goes to all peoples, not just a select few based on nationality or heritage. The Baptist preacher, Charles Spurgeon, whom many revere on all sides of the question, said that "Christ so died that he infallibly secured the salvation of a multitude that no man can number, who through Christ's death not only may be saved, but are saved and cannot by any possibility run the hazard of being anything but saved." (Quoted from J.I. Packer, John Owen: The Death of Death in the Death of Christ)

What This Does NOT Mean
The teaching of particular redemption never limits God or anyone who proclaims God's Good News. The limiting factor is God's business, not ours. We are told to give the gospel to everyone and everywhere. We are not to limit our presentation to "religious" people, or "nice" people, or "potential" Christian people. "God saves sinners" is the cry of all true, biblical people. The selective process is in God's hands, God's counsels, God's decrees and God's business!

This teaching does not mean that anyone can determine beforehand who is worthy to be saved, or who deserves to be saved, or who can be saved. God saves sinners is the only message we really know and can proclaim with full assurance.

This teaching is not merely a logical extension of the doctrine of unconditional election. People who offer this objection to limited atonement fail to note the definiteness and selectivity already referred to above in the biblical text. Sometimes people will say, "I just read the simple Bible which tells me God loves everyone and Jesus died for all. I don't try to 'theologize' the Bible." To read the Bible simply does not and should not mean "simplistically." What makes "common sense" is often not Scriptural sense.

Others say this teaching kills evangelism. Really?!! If I know that God has ordained that a multitude that no one can number will some day most assuredly stand in glory before him singing his praises, then I have full confidence that my witnessing or outreach efforts are never in vain. Those for whom Christ died WILL MOST DEFINITELY be saved, in God's time, at God's call, and in God's plans. I may be an instrument in their eternal salvation--and I don't want to miss that!!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Revisiting the "Doctrines of Grace"-- Unconditional Election

(Articles of Faith, 7)

Because of humankind's sinful, fallen and irrevocable state (total depravity), God out of His own mercy, grace and sovereignty decided to save many, not because anyone is worthy of His love and grace, but due solely to His astounding and transformational love and power. This is what is called "election" or "predestination." While most Bible students agree that "election" is taught in the Scriptures, there are a number of differences in theological interpretation. The Remonstrants disputed the commonly accepted viewpoint of the Reformers, positing that divine election or predestination to saving grace is conditional upon the free will decision of any man or woman. God foresees this faith response and on that basis "chooses" such people to salvation. This faith response of the sinner is not generated by God, but freely given by the person's "unconstrained" will or choice. In more popular terms, God gets a vote, Satan gets a vote but we cast the deciding ballot!

The historical Synod of Dort in 1619 turned back this viewpoint with the declaration that God's election to salvation is totally "unconditional." God's predestinating grace is given to people not on the basis of any foreseen faith in them or by them, but solely on the basis of God's self-determined choice and pleasure. God gives faith and repentance to each individual He selects. Thus, God's choice of the sinner, not the sinner's choice of God, is the deciding factor and ultimate cause of salvation. The Calvinistic scholar, Loraine Boettner (The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination) puts it this way: "It [unconditional election] was taught not only by Calvin, but by Luther, Zwingli, Melancthon (although Melancthon later retreated toward the Semi-Pelagian position), by Bullinger, Bucer, and all of the outstanding leaders in the Reformation. While differing on some other points they agreed on this doctrine of Predestination and taught it with emphasis."

Such is the strength of the biblical evidence for "election" that non-Calvinists usually maintain that the passages cited in the Old Testament and in the New Testament, such as in Romans 9-11, refer to Jewish national election by God, not to God's choice of anyone to saving faith, inclusive of both Jews and Gentiles. Thus, these interpreters believe they can hold to the Scriptural teaching yet maintain an Arminian-based theology and not interfere with the "free will" of humankind. It is exegetically questionable whether their arguments can stand in the context or weight of the whole Bible on this topic.

Biblical Basis
The Scriptural basis for the doctrine of unconditional election can be found in both the Old and New Testaments. It is obvious in the Old Testament Scriptures that God literally chose a certain people to salvation, as seen in Deuteronomy 10:14, 15 -- "the Lord set his heart in love upon your fathers and chose their descendants after them, you above all peoples, as at this day." Israel is often noted as God's chosen people (Psalm 33:12; 106:5; Haggai 2:23, etc). Jesus affirmed the Father's sovereign choice in such places as Matthew 11:27 -- "no one knows the Father except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him." "All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away" (John 6:37). Jesus Himself notes that there are "sheep" and "non-sheep" -- "I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me--just as the Father knows me and I know the Father--and I lay my life down for the sheep." "He [the good shepherd] calls his own sheep by name and leads them out" (John 10:3). And, the classic passage is found in Romans 8:28-30, called the Golden Chain of Redemption, "For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son . . .and those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified." God's choice was made before the creation of the earth -- "He chose us in him before the foundation of the world. . ." (Ephesians 1:4). Rather than "foreseen faith," faith is the result of God's choice and power -- "as many as were ordained to eternal life believed" (Acts 13:48).

What This DOESN'T Mean
Unconditional election does NOT mean that God, like a Robot, mechanically selects a few people to be with Him eternally. That is a distortion on a number of fronts. First, divine election always flows from God's amazing LOVE and compassion for sinful mankind. Second, it is sheer mercy that ANY of us are saved, or are chosen by God to be with Him. We DESERVE eternal death and separation from God (SEE the last post on "Total Depravity"). Third, the NUMBER of the elect, according to the book of Revelation, is immense and to our finite minds, uncountable (Revelation 5:9; 7:9ff).

Unconditional election does NOT mean that God damns those unchosen to hell. This is "hyper-Calvinism," a logical, but unbiblical, extension of the teaching of election. The non-elect themselves choose their fate by continuing in their rebellion and hatred of God. They are "left to themselves" in other words.

Unconditional election does NOT save anyone. It is crucial to salvation, but it is by faith and resultant good works that a person confirms his calling and election by God (1 Peter 1:5-11; Acts 13:48; 2 Timothy 2:10). Election is part of the divine process but it is not the end-all of salvation.

What this DOES Mean
The teaching of unconditional election is a precious and wonderful doctrine to the Christian. It gives the believer great hope and security and peace in knowing that God the Father and Jesus the Son have loved us with an everlasting love. Jesus died for us and through the Holy Spirit gives us that wonderful promise of eternal life. Unconditional election never allows us to "pre-judge" anyone. No one knows the elect except God. Unconditional election actually propels the believer to share his or her faith since we know God HAS definitely chosen many to enjoy and experience His saving power. They WILL respond favorably to the gospel presentation and message.

No, this is not a "cruel" doctrine or teaching. It is God's gift to humanity.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Revisiting the "Doctrines of Grace"-- Total Depravity

(Articles of Faith, 6)

"Total depravity" sounds like an unwelcome and antiquated teaching that reminds people of really BAD people and awful human history, like the Holocaust. This first of what are called the "five points of Calvinism" has anchored the remainder of the truths of this system. Without a right and deep understanding of this teaching, there is no real need for unconditional election, the certainly of atonement through the death of Christ, the need for sovereign, Holy Spirit given and irresistible grace and the surety of final perseverance to the end of life. Many people discount the sinfulness of anyone. It is not fashionable, even in conservative, Christian, Bible-believing circles to talk about the extent and depth of human sinfulness. People want to believe they are a bit "defective" but not really damned and doomed sinners without hope, and without heaven as a final end. We always want to believe "the best" about ourselves and therefore hate John Newton's line in the song, Amazing Grace, "that saved a wretch like me." But, that is what we are biblically.

Biblical Basis
The Scriptural basis for the doctrine of total depravity is vast and pervasive. The remarkable statement of God Himself to Noah and the few saved through the flood is astounding -- "Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood" (Genesis 8:21). Spiritual death is the result of the fall of mankind through Adam and Eve (Genesis 2:16, 17; Romans 5:12). Ephesians 2:1-3 tells us that conversion to Christ gives us life from the dead -- "As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins . . ." (cf. Colossians 2:13) Psalm 51:5 tells us this condition is from conception -- "Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me." Ecclesiastes 9:3 tells us "the hearts of men, moreover, are full of evil and there is madness in their hearts while they live . . ." and Jeremiah 17:9 proclaims, "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?" The death knell is given in Romans 3:23, "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." Many other verses can be cited, but the evidence is irrefutable--humankind without a savior is intensively and extensively in rebellion against God, since that is the essential meaning of "sin." It's not a mistaken condition caused by our circumstances, not an unfortunate set of bad parents or siblings, not a misstep caused by Satan or some other enemy of our soul. It is our settled condition as sons and daughters of Adam and Eve.

What This DOESN'T Mean
Total depravity does NOT mean humankind is as bad as it can be. It does not mean that people cannot do, in theirs and others viewpoints, kind and respectable acts. It does NOT mean that people will always act out their "worst sides." But, consistent with this teaching is the doctrine of "common grace." The rain that falls, for instance, falls on the "righteous and unrighteous" (Matthew 5:45). The sun that shines, the food we eat and so on and so forth comes from a perfect and loving heavenly Father without discrimination of a person's faith stance. These are still "gifts" but "common" to all and thus instances of "common grace."

What this DOES Mean
The teaching of total depravity, properly understood and accepted, drives one to realize he or she cannot "earn" or "merit" of "deserve" God's kindness and His salvation. We are intrinsically sinful. We are not sinful merely because we sin. The death-knell to a "merit-based" or "works-based" approach to being right with God rests right here. Everyone who is right with God through faith in Jesus Christ got there purely and exclusively by God's unmerited favor and kindness. If "saved," we are still sinners saved by grace, always to be aware of Bunyan's precious saying, "There, but for the grace of God, go I!" Any other way of looking at gaining God's favor is humanly devised and humanly based.

Depravity Includes Total Inability
The genius of the Reformers was to understand that this depravity is truly TOTAL. Every thought, action, word, deed, desire, motivation and inward longing, apart from an external spiritual renovation, has been permeated, not merely affected, by this sinful nature and reality. We CANNOT choose good over evil by ourselves. Like the leopard which cannot change its spots, the sinful man or woman cannot change his or her nature (Jeremiah 13:23). Jesus Himself said that a "bad tree cannot bear good fruit" (Matthew 7:16-18; 12:33). He said, "no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him . . ." (John 6:44, 65). The ability and power to see and do good in God's sight is a gift from God (1 Corinthians 4:7).

The immediate and rather violent, at times, rejection of this aspect of depravity or the extent of human sinfulness is that man has a will that is free. What that means is that this will remains "unaffected" by the depravity that permeates our beings. Clearly, this cannot be the case. There is not a separate "compartment" in our being where a "neutral" will resides waiting to choose between good and evil. We will default to evil, if left to ourselves and our choices without divine intervention. Humankind's will is in bondage to depravity by nature and by choice.

To get around this obvious problem of inability, some theologies have posited a "prevenient" kind of grace that God has given to every person as a result of the saving atonement of Christ.(cf. Wesleyanism) "Christ died for everyone" means, therefore, that God has given to everyone in the world that has or will ever exist enough of undeserved favor that the will is made able to choose right from wrong and eternal good from evil. Such a position cannot be directly proven from the Bible. It has to be "inferred" from a theory that lack of human freedom means and is equivalent to lack of human responsibility. But, responsibility does not need freedom to be valid.

Is humankind then merely "robots" set on a world stage with God as the Grand Puppeteer? Does man actually have a "choice?" Proponents of total depravity decidedly say, "of course." We can freely choose that which is in accord with our nature! God will not "force" us to choose evil, for that would make Him the author of evil. WE freely and responsibly choose what we want. It is the "want" that is the problem. We do NOT naturally want what God wants.

The only HOPE is divine intervention outside of our natures and outside of our possibilities. That brings us to the second point of the Synod of Dort's declaration -- "unconditional election."