Friday, December 28, 2007

Gordan Takes Another Shot at John 5:40

Some of you may remember a short debate I had with Gordan from over at Reformed Mafia concerning the implications of John 5:40 with regards to the Calvinist understanding of the ordo salutis [Gordan Gives Me Props And Rebukes At Reformed Mafia]. Well, it seems that since the first “hit” was unsuccessful; Gordan has reloaded his Tommy-Gun for another go at me. He fires off plenty of rounds but still manages to miss his intended target (probably because he is too busy repeatedly shooting himself in the foot). Below is his latest unsuccessful attempt to wack me out.

His comments are in quotations:

"Recently, I was in a discussion with a friend (who claims to hate me, in a good natured- way, of course) who proposed that John 5:40 is the death knell of Calvinistic soteriology. I mentioned this claim in an earlier post."

I did not say that John 5:40 was the death knell of Calvinism. I do believe that it is one of many passages which destroy the Reformed view of the ordo salutis. The question being addressed is whether the Calvinist claim that regeneration precedes faith is Biblical or not.

"[For the record, I do not hate Ben (Kangeroodort) although I do have a big, big problem with his anti-biblical soteriology, and I in fact pity him for his choice of NFL teams.]"

For the record, I do not hate Gordan either. In fact, I think I have told him that I love him on more than one occasion (as a brother in Christ of course). Likewise, I obviously have a problem with his approach to soteriology and find it to be based more on the necessary implications of a theological system than on sound exegesis. As for the football comment, all I need to say is that both the Steelers and Cowboys have 5 championships to their credit (though it took the Steelers less trips to the Superbowl to gain theirs); the Steelers are 2-1 against the Cowboys in the Superbowl, beat the Cowboys the last time they played each other (with a rookie Ben Roethlisberger at the helm), and have a more recent championship to their credit….‘nough said.

Here is the verse in the NKJV: “But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life.” (This is Jesus speaking to the Jews who sought to kill Him.)

"Ben says this proves Calvinism is wrong. He is fairly certain that the “life” mentioned there must necessarily include Regeneration. He thinks that if I would simply read the text, I’d see that as an inescapable conclusion.

Spiritually dead people have to come to Jesus (i.e. believe in Him) in order to be regenerated. Ben sees that as straightforward, if only we Calvinists would read what the Bible says there.

But after pondering this for some time, both during and since our discussion at his blog, I am left where my objection began. That is, what is the textual evidence for the notion that the “life” of John 5:40 includes Regeneration? (And right here is where we may need a whole ‘nother discussion on what constitutes evidence…)

There are other options for what “life” might mean. It may be synonymous with “salvation,” which I think is not uncommon in John’s writings. Or, it may have to do specifically with “eternal life,” the glorified life post-resurrection.

In fact, I’d propose that this latter idea is suggested strongly by the context of the rest of John 5. (See especially verses 24-26, and 29.) In fact, in the verse right before the one in question (v. 39), it is “eternal life” that is expressly mentioned as that which the Jews have missed in their rejection of the Scriptures teachings about Jesus.

This does no harm to Calvinism. Every Calvinist would say that a person has to believe in Jesus in order to have eternal life."

There is a lot to deal with here. Gordan has been fair enough in representing my view that the “life” spoken of in John 5:40 must at least [if not primarily] include regeneration. Let’s take a look at the passages that Gordan cites in defense of his claims. It should be noted that I was the first one to refer to these passages in our discussion because I believed they further supported my interpretation. Gordan now brings them up as an attempt to bolster his own view.

Before looking at these passages (5:24-26 and 29), something must be said concerning his comment that, “[life] may be synonymous with ‘salvation,’ which is not uncommon in John’s writings”. I agree completely. This is probably the biggest difference in our views. Arminians do not see regeneration as a means to an end (the ability to put faith in Christ), but as the ends itself. Regeneration is the beginning of the new life (which is the eternal life that is found in Christ alone). It is, therefore, the beginning of “salvation”, which Gordan admits is synonymous with “eternal life”. For Calvinists, the purpose of regeneration is to enable (more properly, “cause”) faith in the individual which leads to salvation (i.e. eternal life). The Calvinist, then, sees things like this: life--> faith--> life [eternal life, salvation]. The Arminian sees things like this: faith--> life [eternal life, salvation, which begins at regeneration].

The text in question says, “But you are unwilling to come to Me that you may have life.” Gordan believes that there must be another “life” hidden in between the “unwilling” and “come”. The “unwilling” necessitates a need for “life” so that one can “come” to have “life”. For him we should understand Jesus to really mean: “Because you do not have life, you are unwilling to come to Me that you may have life”. I am arguing that Jesus has given us enough information without needing to insert a separate sort of “life” in between the “unwilling” and “come”. I think that Jesus is quite plainly telling the Jews that they must come to Him in order to have “life” (which begins at regeneration).

An important question, then, resolves around whether or not the “life” spoken of in 5:40 has any reference to regeneration (the new birth where life begins). I believe that it must, and found evidence for this in the same passages Gordan now refers us to (John 5:24-26, and 29):

“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.” (verse 24)

Look at that last phrase, “but has passed out of death into life”. Doesn’t that sound like the language of regeneration to you? A transition from death to life is a perfect way to describe regeneration, and many Calvinist have described regeneration with that exact same language. Another favorite metaphor for regeneration is “spiritual resurrection” which is just another way of saying that one has passed from [spiritual] death to [spiritual] life. This is the imagery that Jesus now turns to in describing the life spoken of in this context:

“Truly, truly, an hour is coming and now is, when the dead shall hear the Son of God, and those who hear shall live.”

Here Christ speaks of a spiritual resurrection for those who hear the voice of the Son of God. The previous verse [24] reminds us that hearing unto life includes believing, “…and believes Him who sent Me”. So what have these passages taught us? They have taught us that Jesus is describing the need for these spiritually dead Jews to experience a transition from death to life: a spiritual resurrection! Well what about verses 28-29? Don’t they have reference to the final resurrection? Yes they do, but we must let the context determine Christ’s purpose in looking forward to the resurrection event.

Jesus anticipates that the Jews will object that He has the power to grant new life. Jesus tells them plainly that He does have this power (verse 21, 24, 26) and that not only can He bring about a spiritual resurrection in those who believe in Him, but He will one day call the dead from their graves as well. However, Jesus is speaking not of a specific resurrection to life of believers in verses 28-29, but the general resurrection of the dead. The point Christ is making is that they should not be surprised at His claims to be able to grant life to those who believe since He will one day raise all of creation from the dead in order to judge them (verses 28-29). If He has been given the authority to do that, then surely He has been given the authority to give spiritual life to those who come to Him in faith.

Therefore, I think it is self evident that the context Gordan mentions actually argues against his position while lending further weight to my initial interpretation of the passage in question. Gordan has much more to say on this issue, however, so let’s hear him out:

"But Ben’s contention is that regeneration must be included in that concept because it is the starting point of eternal life. Can’t have the everlasting life in heaven without first being regenerated, after all. So, then, you have to come to Jesus to be regenerated, since it is the beginning point of eternal life."

[A few quick points here before moving on. Gordan has now correlated “eternal life” with “the glorified life post-resurrection” and “everlasting life in heaven”. While these are not improper ways to understand “eternal life”, the gospel of John does not view eternal life primarily in an eschatological sense. John primarily sees and describes “eternal life” as the present possession of those who are “believing”. This is true of John’s epistles as well (see especially 1 John 5:11-13 which is tremendously helpful in understanding how John uses “life” and “eternal life” interchangeably as a present possession). Perhaps he is uncomfortable with how this passage could favor my interpretation if eternal life is viewed as a present possession for those who believe, and therefore opts to define “eternal life” in a way rarely used by John.]

"A couple of problems with that:

1. It still doesn’t answer the question, Who will come to Jesus to be regenerated? How does a spiritually dead person decide to get resurrected? Ben believes in the doctrine of Total Depravity. I think he’d say, no spiritually dead person would choose to believe. But as an Arminian, Ben believes in Prevenient Grace. According to this doctrine, before any sinner may savingly believe in Christ, God must first grant a gift of grace that allows that sinner to overcome his totally depraved nature and make that decision from something like neutral ground.

In short, Arminian Ben sees the same dilemma the Calvinist does, in that no carnal man will or can receive the things of the Spirit (specifically, the Gospel of Christ.) Where the Calvinist solves this dilemma with the doctrine of Regeneration, the Arminian solves it with resistible Prevenient Grace. The two doctrines accomplish the same thing: they allow the sinner to obey the demands of the Gospel.

Now, here’s the catch for Ben. If John 5:40’s “life” must include Calvinistic regeneration (since that is the starting point of life in Christ) then why does Prevenient Grace get a pass? Doesn’t the Arminian process of receiving eternal life in Christ begin with Prevenient Grace? If so, then it is just as rightly included in the “life” of John 5:40 as the Calvinist’s doctrine of Regeneration. That is, they both stand at the beginning of the sinner’s experience of new life in Christ.

So, if John 5:40 means that you have to come to Christ to be regenerated, then it must also mean that you have to come to Christ to receive Prevenient Grace."

Gordan is really reaching here. His argument simply does not follow and seems to be based on a gross misunderstanding of how Arminians view prevenient grace. I do not believe that prevenient grace must be included in “life” as he contends. The new life cannot be given until one exercises the God ordained condition of faith. This is the order presented to us by Jesus in John 5:40. The “come” of 5:40 is synonymous with faith, just as the “come” of John 6:44 is synonymous with faith. Jesus is therefore saying that one gains life through faith. Prevenient grace comes before saving faith and therefore cannot be part of the “life” that results from faith. Prevenient grace is described in John 6:44 as a drawing. The Arminian then sees the ordo salutis as: draw [prevenient grace] --> come [in faith] --> life [regeneration, i.e. the beginning of eternal life and salvation]. This order is supported by comparing John 5:40 with John 6:44 [which is what initially provoked this debate]. The fact that one must first come before one can attain life in John 5:40 makes it impossible for us to understand the drawing of John 6:44 as regeneration. It must, therefore, have reference to prevenient grace as Arminians have always contended. Gordan has done nothing to prove otherwise. He has only succeeded in strengthening the Arminian interpretation by drawing (no pun intended) our attention to John 5:21-24, and 26.

Prevenient grace does indeed “stand at the beginning of the sinner’s experience of new life in Christ”, but that grace is not the same as regeneration. Prevenient grace enables the sinner to believe unto life. John 5:40 tells us that coming must precede life, and John 6:44 tells us that drawing must precede coming. That is exactly what Arminians believe concerning the ordo salutis and Gordan’s statement that, “…if John 5:40 means that you have to come to Christ to be regenerated, then it must also mean that you have to come to Christ to receive Prevenient grace” is a painfully obvious case of non-sequintur.

"2. Another problem with saying that Regeneration has to be included in any thought of eternal life, is this: why stop there? I mean, why not go back farther? You have to be alive in the flesh before you can be alive in the Spirit, right? So why not include fleshly life in the “life” of John 5:40? You can’t enter into eternal life by faith while you’re physically dead any more than you can believe without being regenerated. So, surely physical life stands just as vitally at the starting point of life in Christ as Regeneration does. Why include one and not the other, aside from the fact that it seems to help your argument?"

And I thought Gordan was reaching with his last comments. This argument barely deserves an answer. All we need to do is look at the context to understand what kind of life Jesus is referring to in John 5:40. We have done that above, and I am confident that any unbiased reading of the text would reveal that Jesus is speaking of a transition from spiritual death to spiritual life: a spiritual resurrection [i.e. regeneration]. Trying to bring physical life into the text is a desperate attempt to salvage an indefensible interpretation.

"Or why not go all the way back to God’s foreordination before the foundation of the world?"

And now Gordan has really given up the ghost.

"Calvinists would say Regeneration only happens because Predestination has already happened long ago, so why not extend the line back to the real, genuine beginning of life in Christ? So then, Jesus would be saying, “You refuse to come to Me, that you may be predestined.”"

Is Gordan really contending that “real” and “genuine” regeneration in Christ begins at some eternal decree? Wouldn’t that make the elect eternally regenerated? Is this really where Gordan is willing to take us in order to preserve his doctrine? Look at this statement again and let the absurd implications sink in:

“Calvinists would say that Regeneration only happens because Predestination has already happened long ago, so why not extend the line back to the real, genuine beginning of life in Christ?”

Surely Gordan misspoke and didn’t think very carefully about what he was saying since I am quite confident that he doesn’t believe the elect have been regenerated from eternity. I think that it is only fair that we give him the benefit of the doubt on this one.

While Gordan’s statement is plainly and painfully ridiculous, he is actually on to something very important when he says, “life in Christ”. It is undisputable that spiritual life resides only in the person of Jesus Christ (John. 1:4; 5:26; 6:35; 11:25; 14:6; 1 John. 1:2; 5:11; Col. 3:3, 4). It is just as certain that we come to be in union with Christ through faith (Eph. 1:13; 3:17). The born again believer is truly a “new creature”, but only “in Christ” (2 Cor. 5:17). Gordan’s belief that regeneration precedes faith puts him into the absurd theological position of explaining how someone can be given new life outside of union with the only source of life- Jesus Christ. He must also affirm that a holy God can give life to sinners before the blood of Christ has been applied, since he believes that regeneration precedes justification. His theology forces him to accept the unbiblical view that one can be born again before being forgiven (which is part of what it means to be justified). For more on this please see my post: Does Regeneration Precede Faith?

"So this is what I see as the conclusion of the matter, though I am certain others will disagree with me."

…including, I think, most Calvinists.

"As a Calvinist, nothing that John 5:40 says conflicts at all with what I believe is Biblical soteriology."

…which only further demonstrates that his theology controls his exegesis and not the other way around.

"I believe you must come to Jesus to have life. And, ta-da! I remain a five pointer."

…albeit a theologically confused and inconsistent five-pointer.

"The only way this text is a challenge to Calvinism is if you force two things into the text: First, you must force it to include Regeneration when it speaks of eternal life."

No need to force it, just allow the text to speak for itself as has been demonstrated above.

The problem is that there is no good reason to force it that way, and no reason to stop there and not include earlier necessities like Predestination. It can be read in a perfectly harmonious, straightforward manner without that. Second, I think you must conflate Regeneration and Justification. If the two are separate things, this supposed hurdle for Calvinism proves to only be about ankle-high.

The only one who is forcing things into the text is Gordan. The fact that Gordan has to resort to statements about including physical life in the context of John 5 and the absurd idea of eternal regeneration is sufficient proof of that. There is, furthermore, no hint of conflating regeneration and justification in anything I have said. It is true, however, theologically speaking, that justification must precede regeneration. If that were not the case we would have sinners enjoying the new life prior to being forgiven. This may not be the “death knell” of Calvinism, but it should certainly be the “death knell” of the Calvinist doctrine that regeneration precedes faith.

I appreciate the fact that Gordan and I may never see eye to eye on this subject, but I hope that he will at least admit that his initial charge that my understanding of John 5:40 was not based on sound exegesis was without foundation.

Recommended for further reading:

Does Regeneration Precede Faith?

Does John 6:44 teach Irresistible Grace?

Does Jesus Teach That Regeneration Precedes Faith In John 3:3, 6?

Fletcher on Being Dead in Sin: Part 1 and Part 2

The Order of Faith And Election in John’s Gospel: You Do Not Believe Because You Are Not My Sheep [off site]

Tuesday, December 18, 2007


I will be away from the computer for the Christmas break so there won't be any new posts at least until I return (sorry Nick). After the holidays I hope to finish up the series on perseverance with a look at Heb. 6 and 10. I also want to take a closer look at the provisional nature of the atonement.

I wanted to say "Merry Christmas" to all my readers and a general thank you to all of you who have taken the time to read this blog and interact on it. I wish I had more time to devote to it because it has been a source of learning as well as [hopefully] an opportunity for some sound Biblical teaching from an Arminian perspective.

God Bless,

Monday, December 17, 2007

Theological Question To Chew On

Studying the atonement can be mind numbing. We all generally believe that Christ died for our sins. That is the common ground. The difficulties reside in the details. How does Christ's death translate into forgiveness of sinners? Why did the Father accept the Son's sacrifice in our stead? What exactly was accomplished at the cross? Did Christ literally "pay the price" for our sins in a quantitative way? Was Christ truly "punished" for our sins, or did He just "suffer" for them? Was anyone actually saved at the cross, or did the cross provide for salvation?

We could add many other questions. I personally believe that the penal satisfaction view of the atonement has the most explanatory power. That does mean that it perfectly represents the Biblical revelation of Christ's atoning work. It would appear to be quite arrogant to believe that a certain view of the atonement perfectly captures all that the Bible has to say on the subject.

Some Calvinists believe that Arminians cannot consistently hold to a penal satisfaction view of the atonement. I believe that such an assertion is due to a misunderstanding of Arminian theology and I will deal more with that subject in a future post.

The purpose of this post is to get a little discussion over a teaching that has often attached itself to the penal satisfaction view. Did God the Father turn His back on the Son at the cross? Was Jesus literally separated from the Father when the sins of the world were laid on Him? When Jesus cried out "My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?" was he truly forsaken at that point?

I have heard many claim that Christ was truly separated from the Father at this time and that this separation was a necessary part of the atonement process. F. Leroy Forlines makes the interesting claim that the temporary separation of an infinite being [like Christ] from the Father was compensatory to the eternal suffering of finite beings. In other words, humans owe an eternal debt because we have offended an eternal God. Since we are finite, the only way to pay an eternal debt is to pay for it forever [hence the doctrine of eternal punishment in hell]. Christ perfectly suffered in our stead on the account of His eternal nature. For the eternal Son to suffer separation from the Father [if even for a moment] serves as a substitute for the eternal suffering of finite beings who owe the debt of sin to an eternal God. This is a very interesting way to look at it.

Forlines, however, never stops to ask or answer the very important question: "Can there ever be real separation within the triune God?". This is the question which I think cannot allow for this type of understanding of penal satisfaction. I cannot at this time accept any interpretation of the atonement that would cause a rift in the trinity. I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Truth and Consequences

In our recent discussion with Triablogue, we debated the issue of the possibility of a true saint falling away and several warning passages in scripture addressed specifically to the saints that warn against the same (from Matthew 5, Hebrews 4, Revelation 22, and to a smaller extent Romans 11). Paul Manata's articles got exceedingly lengthy, and took on a rather odd and insulting tone, but didn't prove very difficult to deal with. Steve Hays attempted to intervene and made at least an intelligible case for the warnings in scripture being only hypothetical, but hits other problems with the questions this concept raises. Listed are the challenge and our latest posts, some of which I quote below.

Original Challenge

Even more cheap insults by Paul Manata

Address on the admonitions in scripture by Hays

My reply to Manata and Hays

Let's look at the practical implications of Hays' argument first. While perhaps explaining a warning being given, the explanation can't fully account for the consequences listed in the warning passages of scripture. Hays writes,

Suppose, though, the libertarian will object that while, as a matter of fact, no driver disregarded the sign, that unless a driver was free to disregard the sign, then the sign would be pointless.

But how does that follow in the least? Suppose the drivers have been brainwashed. Their psychological conditioning is so overpowering that every time they see a warning sign, they take the warning to heart. They are unable to resist their conditioning.

Even if, for the sake of argument, we assume that the warning sign has this coercively deterrent effect on the drivers, how would that render the stimulus pointless?

Translation: The warnings are divine shock value, their consequences mere coercion. I'd already factored in this defense into the challenge, concerning which I point out an obvious problem,

All inherent problems aside, even if this were the case and God were simply 'putting us on,' so to speak, for the sake of our living righteously, then is it not better to take the Lord at His word? If God's purpose in giving such warnings was to make us live holy unto Him by indicating that if we walk away from Him, He will cast us away, yet you teach a doctrine that states He would never under any circumstance actually do such a thing, then have you not undone the holy fear which God's word was meant to instill in the hearts of His people and again made it of no effect?

In my latest reply, I add,

The view that the members of Triablogue espouse puts them in a rather awkward position, as when God states 'heed or I shall revoke your part in my kingdom,' their reply is, 'Therefore having our part in God's kingdom revoked is not actually possible under any circumstance by virtue of the fact that God has threatened to do that very thing.' Perhaps as Hays' parallel of stimulus suggests, God preserves the saints by fear of falling away. But if such fear or coercion is His intended purpose in these warnings, then why do Calvinists teach a doctrine that goes directly against any such fear or coercion, which tries to reduce it to no effect in stating that it is not possible for the saints to fall away? I agree that God does indeed spur we who are His on to glory with warnings, but not with hollow threats of Him committing things He would never actually do based on things He won't let happen.

So if God's purpose in issuing warnings with the worst possible consequences is to be compared to bogus, yet highly effective road signs, then how is saying 'Don't worry, those signs are feigned, they're just made to scare you, it's not actually possible for you to fall in' not going against that purpose? Thus even if fear and coercion unto holiness were the sole intent of the consequences in God's warnings to the saints, the teaching of a doctrine that absolutely no saint can fall away directly contradicts such an intent.

Hays tries to defend his view logically,

Even in this case, the sign is still meaningful. Indeed, what the sign says is true. If you were in a position to disregard the sign, and you did so, you would suffer the stated consequences. Conditional statements can be true statements, even if they’re counterfactual statements.

The fact that a hypothetical may never be realized hardly renders it either unintelligible or pointless. Indeed, counterfactuals are a basic feature of moral deliberation. It’s because a hypothetical course of action has certain consequences that we avoid it.

While the logic concerning conditionals is sound, his defense cannot deal with the ends being used to justify such means, since the possibility of lapse from grace is in the estimation of most Calvinists, a serious doctrinal error which they would equate with unfaithfulness on God's part in preserving us. As I'd also stated in the original challenge,

If even the suggestion that a believer could fall from God's grace is a 'false doctrine' or 'Pelagian error', then why does God's holy word testify to that very possibility?

and added in the response to Triablogue,

The very fact that being cut off from Christ is listed as a consequence for not abiding in Him (which is not an obvious impossibility) suggests its possibility; so if scripture makes it so plain that our perseverance is not dependent upon us in the least, and God cannot fail to uphold His end, then why would scripture even bring up the contingency of His failure or unfaithfulness? Why tack on a consequence that plainly constitutes 'heresy?' That is quite beyond incredulity. Are we to seriously believe that God's holy word is touting false and misleading doctrine for the sake of our good practice?

God isn't mumbling crazy impossibilities, heresy, or idle threats into the air to keep us secure. His warnings are true and their consequences are real, for His word is truth (John 17:17). One need only look at the admonitions in scripture to see what the apostles taught concerning security in Christ; to those engrafted Paul writes,

"For if God did not spare the natural branches, He may not spare you either." (Romans 11:21)

But by Triablogue's logic (Triablogic?), folks like us now some kind of false teachers for plainly stating that very thing: "Yes, if you as a saint don't abide, God can and will cut you off!", instead of trying to explain it away with, "Well, while that conditional statement is true, He technically won't ever really cut you off, God's just saying that to deter you...." Apparently, warning actual saints against the possibility of falling away is gospel truth when the apostles proclaim it, but now our affirming the viability of that same truth constitutes deep doctrinal error.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Enjoying The Good News Of Christ's Birth From An Arminian Perspective

Calvinists often argue that God’s love has failed if Christ’s atonement was made for all and yet not all are saved. I find it strange that Calvinists, who are so quick to criticize Arminians for holding to a man centered religion, argue that unless man responds to God’s love in saving faith, then His love for them has somehow failed. How is it that they feel comfortable equating the success or failure of God’s love with man’s response to that love? Is the nature or validity of God’s love dependant on man’s response? Doesn’t that seem a little man centered?

I personally believe that God loves and gives according to the goodness of His nature and that His love for mankind would in no way be diminished if every single person on the planet rejected that love. The cross is so much more beautiful to me when I consider that Christ willingly laid down His life even for those who would forever reject Him. I cannot think of a more powerful demonstration of perfect love. That most of mankind rejects that love and provision cannot diminish its significance in the slightest.

In the same way the incarnation demonstrates the love and humility of an amazing God.

As Paul so beautifully wrote:

“Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death- even death on a cross!” [Philippians 2:5-8]

What an amazing story that God would leave His throne and become a man out of love for a fallen race. Paul tells us that our attitude should reflect Christ’s humility and love. Does that mean that if someone does not return our love that we have somehow failed to emulate our Redeemer? Of course not! And neither is Christ’s love rendered void when a sinner rejects His gracious and loving provision.

An angel of the Lord appeared to some lowly shepherds on that greatest of days and said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people.”

Did you hear that? Good news of great joy for all people! What does that mean to you? How could such a message be true in light of Calvinism? How could Christ’s coming possibly be good news of great joy to one who has been denied any part in Christ’s atoning work by way of an irrevocable decree? Does it really make sense to suggest that the angel only meant, “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for relatively few unconditionally elect people from among all the people of the world”?

I am so glad that I don’t have to understand the angel’s proclamation in such a strange way. How good it is to remember at this holiday season that Christ’s coming was intended to bring joy to all of mankind because all of mankind was loved by God in Christ. The Lord came not for a few but for all just as His love extends to all. That so many reject that love is a tragedy, but they forfeit the joy that could be theirs of their own accord. That so many reject that good news takes nothing from the joy and goodness of the message. If, however, that message of good news and great joy was not intended for them, then the joyous message of the Lord’s angel rings hollow at best.

How good it is this Christmas season to rejoice in Christ’s birth from an Arminian perspective. May God use us to share the good news with someone this Christmas season. I hope you will feel the freedom to say to any sinner, without constraint, that Christ’s coming is truly good news for them.

God Bless and Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Does Self-abasement Please God?

Check out this excellent post at Theology and Snack. While some may equate self-abasement with humility [partcularly in Calvinist theology], Oswald Chambers puts things in proper perspective.

Sacrifice And The Nature Of Human Freedom

The word of God commands people to submit and surrender their wills to the will of God. This is inherent in the nature of sacrifice. Paul tells us to offer ourselves to God as a living sacrifice. What does this mean?

My Pastor used to put it this way: “When our will comes in conflict with God’s will, our will dies.”
We can see a vivid illustration of this in the garden of Gethsemane where Christ says, “Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done.” Here Christ surrendered His will to the will of the Father. This directly correlates to the cross and the impending sacrifice He would make there.

It seems to me that if we have no will of our own [i.e. no real control of our will], then it could not be considered sacrificial to surrender it to God. We would not even be capable of surrendering our will, because the nature of surrender implies that we have control over that thing which we surrender. If God ultimately controls our will, then it is nonsensical to speak of surrendering our wills to God. In other words, sacrifice implies the ability to surrender our will to God, and the ability to surrender our will implies that we have control over our wills. I think that self-determinism is also implied in the commands to deny self. We can only deny ourselves by surrendering our will to the will of God.

I think that the Arminian account of human will makes better sense of God’s commands to live sacrificially. I have a hard time understanding how we could truly surrender our wills to God if we understand human will within the Calvinistic context of determinism or compatibilism.

What do think?

Sunday, December 2, 2007

I See Your Triablogue Colors Shining Through

A little background: After a post I made here on Arminian Perspectives about Prevenient Grace and Libertarian Free Will, there was a rebuttal to it posted on a reformed blog called Triablogue. I responded back and forth with Bernabe Belvedere for a few posts on my site, during which I said that if he or any of the other Triabloggers would like to have a debate, then I had just the thing for them: my Challenge to their perseverance of the saints doctrine. Paul Manata took up answering the challenge, but by the second round his writing became very abrasive.

He finally went way over the top with a post that went beyond ridiculous, stating that my doctrines 'aren't associated with the teachings of jesus,' because I had written, 'I prefer not to associate my doctrinal beliefs with the name of a mortal man' (my reason for calling myself a 'Synergist' rather than 'Arminian'). He cites, 'Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures' as evidence, but apparently didn't recognize that though Christ was dead, He affirms His present and future immortality in saying, "I am He that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death." (Revelation 1:18)

Despite his rather obvious blunder, he continues to press his point, only bushwhacking himself again in the process. Here's the list of links in our debates so far.

Original post on Arminian Perspectives

Critique by Bernabe Belvedere

My response to Belvedere

Belvedere's reply

Final post on initial critique

My challenge

Paul Manata's answer to the challenge

Response to Paul Manata

Manata's reply

Cheap-shot at Triablogue

Second response to Paul Manata

Manata trying to justify his error

In the latest display of the reasoning he employs, Manata replies,

Now let's recall why he made the initial claim. He was responding to someone asking if he was an Arminian. He said that he doesn't want to associate his beliefs with those of mortal men. I then pointed out that Jesus died, receiving mortal wounds. His comeback is to point out that the resurrected Jesus is "alive for evermore." Well, assuming that Thibodaux doesn't believe Arminianism is damnable heresy, then he probably believes that Jacob Arminius is in heaven right now. he will "live for evermore." He has everlasting life and will never die. If that's the case, then what's the problem with "associating" your beliefs with Arminius?

Unfortunately, he's actually serious -- he even has Steve Hays showing his support by tossing atta' boys in the combox. If they really need to have it spelled out, Arminius isn't the firstfruits from the dead: he's still in his grave due to his acute mortality and has not as of yet been changed or glorified, just like Paul, Peter, Irenaeus, Clement, Augustine, Spurgeon, Wesley, and everyone else that's died so far. Any teachings that were of their own began and ended in mortality; not so with Christ. Even concerning the words He did speak while in the flesh, He stated,

"Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on My own initiative, but the Father abiding in Me does His works." (John 14:10)

But Mr. Manata can't give up on trying to show me up,

Thibodaux used the "mortal man" comment as a reason he won't do so. But that was negated with Jesus' death. To escape my response by saying that Jesus is "alive for evermore" just lets Arminius right back into the equation and shows Thibodaux didn't think through the moves far enough in advance.

Actually, I had already calculated that such an objection could be raised by one determined to smear someone else regardless of the accusation's truthfulness, and left it as a booby-trap to see if he would continue in his superficial derision, thus driving another nail into his proverbial coffin. I didn't expect him to actually take the bait.... Other possible objections for those who lack ability to discern context could include: "Well what about when Arminius IS raised up??", or possibly, "Hey, there's Elijah and Enoch too!", but any reasonable and objective thinker should be able to grasp the point by now.

It is in posts like this that certain members of Triablogue show forth their inability to handle fair and intelligent discussion. Their petty insults and misrepresentations that would make any self-respecting fifth grader roll his eyes serve only to demonstrate that they have no desire to engage in meaningful dialogue. Their tactics are doubtless popular with the crowd that believes that a thorough refutation involves insulting the opposing party's mother, but here in the adult world, it's well-recognized that people who resort to third-rate slander are simply trying to hide and compensate for the fact that they can't keep pace in a real discussion. Triablogue couldn't have trumpeted its defeat more loudly if they'd gone to the rooftops with a megaphone.

By resorting to such pretentious and cheap attacks, they've put themselves in a bind: either they're being dishonest in their assessment of the scriptural evidence they cited, or in blind haste to discredit someone who disagrees with them have committed a blunder that even a novice student of the Bible shouldn't have missed. Regardless of which is true, they've effectively lowered themselves from the arena of intelligent and honest debate, and into the cages with the howler monkeys.

As an outsider to Triablogue, the impression that I get is that it is degenerating somewhat into a group less concerned with teaching on doctrinal issues, and more so with using the promotion of their beliefs as an excuse to be obnoxious and insulting to other Christians. Such behavior is shameful and unfitting for those who name the name of Christ. I'd be embarrassed at an Arminian or Synergist who acted towards Calvinists in the manner that Triablogue has behaved in our discussion. What if I returned insult for insult with some dumb headline like: "Triablogue affirms that Jesus is still only mortal!!"? That would be stupid. I know what they believe and am not going to be dishonest about representing it to tarnish their names with some juvenile personal attack. By engaging in such impetuous underhandedness as these impugnments, they've now disgraced themselves and thoroughly shot any semblence of credibility they might have had. A rather unfortunate show of their true colors.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Gordan Gives Me Props And Rebukes At Reformed Mafia

Gordan from Reformed Mafia has been kind enough to devote an entire post to some comments I made in a combox at Triablogue. I thought I would return the favor by devoting a post to addressing his concerns. Gordan’s comments are in quotations. I made some spelling corrections in my original comments that Gordan quotes.

"I lifted this from the meta of a post over at Triablogue. Our sometime commenter/fomenter of dischord, Kangeroodort, a/k/a Ben left it there. I don't know that they'll answer it (although I may already be wrong about that) because it is off-topic, so I thought I'd interact with it a bit. The blue font below is all Ben's stuff."

I asked the following comment which has so far been ignored directly, but answered indirectly by saint and sinner:

In the meantime, I have a quick question for you regarding John 6:44. Do you believe that one can "come" prior to regeneration? If not, then I suspect you see the drawing of John 6:44 as a reference to irresistible regeneration. Is that the case?

Would you object to an interpretive translation along these lines:"No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me first regenerates them [gives them life]"?

S&S later said [concerning the contention that John 6:44 had reference to resistible prevenient grac]: "This is a basic exegetical error in interpreting John 6. The problem with this interpretation is that Jesus is quoting the Prophet Isaiah. The quote comes from Is. 54:13, which is in the midst of a passage on the renewed creation and covenant. Like other passages in the prophets (Jeremiah 31:33-34 and Ezekiel 36:26-27), it is thus speaking about regeneration, not a preaching of the gospel which we must then decide upon. Thus, those who are "taught of God" are the regenerate."

So it would seem that the drawing of John 6:44 refers to regeneration in the Calvinist scheme. To say it refers to something less is to concede prevenient grace, which the Calvinist will not do. So it is quite reasonable to understand Jn. 6:44, in Calvinism, as saying: No one can come to be unless the Father who sent Me regenerates them [i.e. first gives them life].

I assume that S&S would also equate "come" with "believe" as most Calvinists do. So we could further define the passage as:No one can believe in Me unless the Father who sent Me regenerates them [i.e. first gives them life]. We could then simplify the teaching by saying, "no one can come unless the Father first gives them life."Therefore, the giving of life, according to Calvinism, must precede coming or believing. I dare say that no Calvinist would object at this point.

What then did Jesus mean when He said in John 5:40:" are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life. "Here Jesus plainly says that "coming" precedes the giving of life. This flatly contradicts the Calvinists interpretation of John 6:44 and renders such an interpretation impossible. In view of John 5:40, the drawing of John 6:44 can have no reference to regeneration.

God Bless,

"First, let me give Ben some props here for having a grasp on the Calvinist interpretation he seeks to argue with. I would state things a little differently than he has above, but not all that much. So, yes, it is the standard Calvinist interpretation of John 6:44, that it teaches that regeneration precedes faith."

Thanks for the concession and the “props”!

"See what a nice Calvinist I am, Ben. I gave you some props. In fact, I'll go ahead and give you some more. You have proven to me that you are a thoughtful Christian man who is zealous in the pursuit of truth."

I get props and I get called a thoughtful Christian man. Thanks Gordan, now I know you care.

"But, sadly, those last props come in spite of what you've written in this comment, and not because of it. After reading what you've written, I stubbornly refuse to believe that this is really how you go about studying the Scripture. I choose to believe better of you, in spite of the current lack of evidence. (I'm a hopeless fideist...)"

Oh, so much for the good feelings.

"1. It looks like what you've done here is this: recognized that the Calvinistic take on John 6 is all about who comes to Jesus and why, and you've seen it has something to do with the new life of regeneration. Then, you took some of those key words, specifically "come" and "life" and you've looked with your concordance for other places where the two terms occur in close proximity."

Actually I noticed this while studying all the relevant passages in John 5, 6, 8, and 10 where Jesus has similar discussions with the Jews. Believe it or not, I actually read the chapters. During this study I found some very interesting parallels which I believe render the standard Calvinist interpretation of these passages untenable [as proof texts for unconditional election, etc.]. I appreciate the attempt at mind reading though. What am I thinking now?

"Having found a place like that (John 5:40,) you've compared the way that place speaks of life and coming to Jesus and the way John 6 speaks of life and coming to Jesus. And, lo and behold, we see that you prefer the way that John 5 puts it, and have thus determined that the view you don't like, from John 6, must be wrong."

Actually, I was trying to harmonize the passages and not discard one in favor of the other. Thanks again for trying to read my mind. It is not about what view I like or dislike, but what view is accurate. I suppose Gordan would deny that Calvinists bring a lot of theological bias to the text of John 6.

"2. Let me illustrate why this is a truly horrible way to study the Bible. Let's say, as a Calvinist, I don't like the insistence that John 3:16 shows that God loves every individual in the world. And so, I hunt around in my Bible for other places that speak of the world, until I come to 1 John 2:15, where it says, "If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.""Eureka!" I shout. "Now I've got all those synergists dead to rights! They'll never overcome this challenge from Scriptural fact, for I have proven that love for the world is really the opposite of God's attitude!"Does it not immediately occur to you why that would be really dumb?"

It is as dumb as it is irrelevant to the passages in John referring to coming to Christ, as we shall soon see.

"I'm sure it does, Ben, but for our readers let me spell it out: To do that would be to ignore simple considerations of context. Any synergist would be totally correct to then come and rebuke me for being too stupid to see immediately that the passages are not talking about the same things. And that's true, even though John 3:16 and 1 John 2:15 use the same key words, like "God" and "love.""

Back to the snide remarks about me thumbing through the concordance.

"A very simple, surface reading would show me, if I had bothered enough to check, that different things are in view. Again, that's true even though the same author uses the same key words: He's still talking about different things. The only reason I would possibly fail to see that is if I was so ideologically blinded that I was willing to deal fast-and-loose with the Word of God so long as I got to prove my point with it. And shame on me."

All this is very interesting. I agree that the context is very important as well as the meaning of words. I appreciate your illustration.

"3. Apprapos 1 and 2, you try to make your point here by citing a place where the same author uses the same key words, and you've simply assumed that the two different discussions are talking about the same thing."

Actually, I paid attention to context and the meaning of words just like you have so kindly recommended.

"4. But is the assumption of 3 above warranted? The discussion in John 6 is about why some come to Jesus in faith and are saved, and some do not. The matter at hand in John 5 is the sin of the Jewish leaders, who had refused to listen to any of the witnesses that God sent to them. Though they both have in common the presence of sinful unbelief, they really are two different conversations. In John 6, Jesus is explaining to His disciples the "why" of faith, and in John 5, Jesus is rebuking the Jews for the fact of their unbelief."

This is where it might have helped Gordan to carefully read the accounts. Oops, I should be careful not to engage in the same mind reading tactics that Gordan seems so fond of, so I will assume that he did read the accounts but just came to different conclusions. Since I am the one on trial here, I guess it is up to me to demonstrate that I did pay attention to context and the meaning of words.

Gordan is quite right that these are two different conversations. That does not mean that there are not important parallels. In John 5 Jesus is in dialogue with unbelieving Jews. The same is true in John 6. In John 5 Jesus is addressing the unbelief of these Jews. The same is true of John 6. In John 5:33 Jesus tells these unbelieving Jews that His words are intended to save them. This is an important part of the conversation:

“But the testimony that I receive is not from man, but I say these things so that you may be saved.”

Jesus actually desires the salvation of these unbelieving Jews. He wants them to have life in Him. This is the beginning of the dialogue which will eventually lead us to the passage in question. He tells them in verse 38:

“You do not have His word abiding in you, for you do not believe Him whom He sent.”

The reason these Jews will not accept Jesus is because they are not in right relationship with the Father. They have not accepted the testimony of Scripture and are, therefore, unable to accept the living Word. Because they have rejected the Father, they cannot recognize the perfect revelation of the Father in Christ. Jesus further explains this in verses 44-47. The passage in dispute, however, is John 5:40:

“…and you are unwilling to come to me so that you may have life.”

Gordan will admit that “come” in this passage is synonymous with “believe” but takes issue with “life” having any reference to regeneration [see his comments below].

The passage in its immediate context reads:

“You do not have His word abiding in you, for you do not believe Him whom He sent. You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life.” [John 5:38-40]

It is clear from verse 38 that these Jews are in a state of rejection and unbelief. They must, therefore, be spiritually dead. Jesus then tells them that the Scriptures they study will not give them the eternal life they desire and need because they refuse to come to the One of whom those Scriptures testify. The “life” of verse 40 must be the “eternal life” of verse 39. These Jews are dead in their sins and in need of life. Jesus is telling them that in order for them to have life they must come to [believe in] Him.

This is the same theme being discussed in John 6:44. The one’s who come to Christ are those who have learned from the teaching of the Father [John 6:45]. The Jews in John 6 had not learned from God and were therefore not in right relation to Him. Just like the Jews in John 5 who had read the Scriptures but not submitted to them, they were unable to recognize Christ. Had they been in right relation with the Father, they would have responded to the drawing of Christ’s words and came to Him in faith. They could not hear Christ’s words because they had not listened to the Father [compare John 8 and 10]. They rejected the Son because they first rejected the Father who sent Him. Had they known the Father, they would have known the Son and been given to Him.

Gordan continues:

"In addition, I would grant that the "coming" of both passages is a metaphor for faith in Christ. But it is truly a stretch to assume that the "life" the Jews were actively refusing in John 5 is the new spiritual life of regeneration. Can you not see in the passage itself that there are different sorts of "life?" I mean, the Jews were certainly "alive" in one sense, and yet had refused another sort of life. How you conclude that they were refusing regeneration specifically, and neither the spirit-life of faith in Christ (as in Romans 8) nor eternal life with Him in heaven is beyond me. Regeneration is certainly not the focus in John 5: faith in Christ is."

I admit that I have difficulty understanding what Gordan is trying to say here. He is quite right that the Jews were alive in some sense [physically], but because they were spiritually dead, it was spiritual life that they needed. Theologians are in general agreement in calling the beginning of this spiritual life “regeneration”. Gordan seems to think that there is a spiritual life that one can have without first being regenerated. He refers us to Rom. 8 for clarification, apparently forgetting his previous stern rebuke concerning comparing unrelated passages. As He himself admits, Rom. 8 is dealing with the Spirit walk of the believer, and not the topic of conversion from death to life. John 5 is dealing with the need for conversion and the life that comes from an initial faith response. I wonder when Gordan believes the spirit life of Rom. 8 begins? How about the eternal life of John 5:39? Should we not assume that it begins at regeneration? Does not regeneration have reference to the beginning of new life? This is exactly what Jesus is addressing in John chapter 5. The unbelieving Jews cannot begin to experience life until they put faith in [come to] Jesus Christ.

Despite all of this, Gordan then makes the very bold claim: “Regeneration is certainly not the focus in John 5: faith in Christ is.” Gordan is right that faith is part of the focus of this passage, but it is just as true that the result of that faith is in focus as well. All one has to do is read the words Jesus uses and the context of the passage to see this. No concordance necessary.

While I appreciate Gordan trying to educate me in proper exegesis, I think I will stick to the my own method.

Gordan concludes his thoughtful treatment with the following:

"5. And many such things you (synergists, generally) do. Use a passage that isn't about why some believe and some don't in order to argue with the grammatical-historical exegesis of a passage that plainly is. Another example of this sort of argumentation is the resort to John 12 to blunt the force of John 6. (Hey, they both mention a drawing of men to Christ: It has to be the same...except that it's obviously different. But still, the one in John 12 is more likeable, so let's go with that one.)"

I would invite Gordan to read the post I wrote concerning the drawing of John 12:32 compared with the drawing of John 6:44. I would especially like to see him grapple with the theological absurdities I exposed in his position that regeneration precedes faith in my post “Does Regeneration Precede Faith?”.

Till then…

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Prevenient Grace and Libertarian Free Will

Several of Ben's posts lately concerning free will have caused quite a stir among the Determinist crowd, mostly due to his defense of the concept of libertarian free will. Many Calvinists we have conversed with point to such concepts as total depravity and bondage of the will to make the case that the will is not free, but don't realize that they hit cleanly beside the point in that we agree that the human will is by nature enslaved to sin.

One cannot correctly understand the Arminian/Synergist view of libertarian free will without first understanding prevenient grace. Reformed theologians are correct in saying that the human will is in bondage to sin stemming from the sin of Adam,

Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. (Romans 8:7)

Thus by nature, human beings are blind and hard-hearted towards the gospel and cannot believe in Christ of their own accord. To overcome the power of the sinful nature, something stronger than sin must enter into the equation, which can only come from God. Jesus said in John 6:44,

"No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day."

By what means then does God draw us unto Christ despite our depraved tendencies? What can be stronger than sin and death? Words? Ideas? Emotions? Arguments? None of those can break through to a heart practiced in evil, and are by themselves futile efforts. God's work against the power of the sinful nature must of necessity be much more than any device man can muster; which Luke mentions as the means by which one believes in the book of Acts:

When Apollos wanted to go to Achaia, the brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples there to welcome him. On arriving, he was a great help to those who by grace had believed. (Acts 18:27)

This grace which can overcome the innate sinful desires of men and allow them to receive the gospel message and believe in Christ as Savior is sometimes called 'preventing grace' or 'prevenient grace;' literally, grace that precedes our faith and conversion. This is a prime tenet of Arminianism and has been so since its early days as a theological system.

"That this grace of God is the beginning, continuance, and accomplishment of all good, even to this extent, that the regenerate man himself, without prevenient or assisting, awakening, following and cooperative grace, can neither think, will, nor do good, nor withstand any temptations to evil; so that all good deeds or movements, that can be conceived, must be ascribed to the grace of God in Christ, but respects the mode of the operation of this grace, it is not irresistible; inasmuch as it is written concerning many, that they have resisted the Holy Ghost. Acts 7, and elsewhere in many places." (Article 4 of the Remonstrance)

The article of the Remonstrance above rightly states that God's grace is not only the beginning of salvation, but what sustains it and accomplishes it as well. Left to our own devices our hearts would remain willfully closed forever to the good news; and left with only our own powers and diligence, there would be none who could endure to the end. But the grace of God changes all of that, for to even the worst of sinners it may be said,

For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age... (Titus 2:11-12)

and the very weakest of saints have power far greater than that of their sins working in them,

...for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure. (Phillipians 2:13)

Working also in those who love Him to understand His will,

Now a certain woman named Lydia heard us. She was a seller of purple from the city of Thyatira, who worshiped God. The Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul. (Acts 16:14)

And it is for this reason that we espouse libertarian free will, for while man does inherently have a sinful nature bent only on evil, the presence and power of God's grace which has appeared throughout the world gives us a different path and possibility to follow -- a contrary choice to make between the goodness of God and the sinful ways of the world. Thus it must be noted that the exercise of the will towards good does not and cannot exist apart from the grace of God, for without grace there would be nought to pick but our own choice between devilish poisons. This, hopefully, will clear up some of the misconceptions about free will; but to cover all bases, let's take a look at what the Arminian/Synergist view of libertarian free will is and is not.

Free will is:

It is, through God's grace, the ability to heed and obey the gospel, or in the resistance of grace, to disbelieve it.

It is the power to act under the grace of God to do righteously in faith, or to reject the influence of grace and follow after the old nature.

Free will is not:

It is not the power to do whatever you want, whenever you want, without any kind of restriction or influence. Some confuse the term 'Libertarian' to mean 'completely unrestrained and uninfluenced,' a better name for that kind of mythical human freedom would be 'Anarchist free will' (or perhaps just 'volitional chaos'). The term Libertarian simply denotes that the creature is actually free to make its own choices between influences, as opposed to Compatibilist free will, which maintains that all 'free' choices are actually pre-determined or caused.

It is not man's complete sovereignty over himself. While God does delegate men power and freedom of the will to an extent, He still ultimately retains control of body, soul, and spirit.

The concept of this type of free will, that is to say, the ability to abide in or reject grace is clearly inferred throughout scripture, which strictly warns us in numerous places against falling short of the grace of God (Hebrews 12:15), spiting the Spirit of grace (Hebrews 10:29), and falling from grace (Galatians 5:4); while at the same time encouraging us to continue in grace (Acts 13:43), abound in it (2 Corinthians 8:6), and grow therein (2 Peter 3:18).

So while we do acknowledge that libertarian free will does play a key role in salvation, there can be no willing obedience to the gospel apart from God's grace, for salvation and saving faith can't be wrought by force of an already enslaved will,

So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy. (Romans 9:16)

This fact renders even the power of the will concerning the choice to fear and serve the Lord wholly contingent on God's preceding grace, making grace of first and primary importance for our salvation. Not as some overriding and irresistible force that automatically installs a new heart and will into the sinner as one would a new Operating System on a computer. No, but rather a subtle, yet still incredibly powerful grace, a still small voice that can move barriers in the heart that dwarf mountains; a grace that can reach across the chasm of spiritual death to draw a sinner unto life in the Son of God, a truly gentle and beautiful kind of grace that can bring even the most wicked and unregenerate of wretches willingly to the foot of the cross...that kind of grace is truly amazing.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Perseverance Of The Saints Part 4: Again Entagled In Corruption

We will now examine 2 Pet. 2:20-22:

[20] “For if after they have escaped the defilements of the world by the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and are overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. [21] For it would be better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn away from the holy command delivered to them. [22] It has happened to them according to the true proverb, ‘A dog returns to its own vomit,” and, “A sow, after washing, returns to wallowing in the mire.’” [NASB]

Peter may be further describing the apostasy of the false teachers who are the subjects of verses 1-17. The language of these verses strongly suggests that these false teachers had been true believers before their full submission to their sinful nature and defection from the faith. The Lord had “bought them” (2:1, cf. 1 Cor. 6:20; 7:22, 23). They denied His Lordship by submitting to their sinful nature (vss. 1-22). They have “left the straight way” and “gone astray” (vs. 15). Jude describes these same false teachers who “turn the grace of God into licentiousness” as “twice dead” (vs. 12) suggesting that they had once experienced spiritual life.

Peter may also be describing the awful state of those who have been led astray by these false teachers. In verses 18 and 19 we find that these false teachers were deceiving those who had just barely escaped “the ones who live in error”. In either case, the important point is that Peter is describing apostates, and that Peter understands these apostates to have been truly saved before becoming “again entangled” in the corruption from which they had previously escaped. Peter makes it clear that this “escape” came by way of “the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ”. There is every reason to believe that when Peter refers to these apostates as ones who had come to this “knowledge” of “Christ” that he means that this knowledge resulted in salvation. To say otherwise would suggest that there are means other than the shed blood of Jesus Christ by which a sinner may escape the corruption in the world. Such a concept is alien to the entire NT and is certainly alien to the inspired Apostle.

It is further significant that the Greek word for “knowledge” used in this passage is epignosis. This Greek word is predominately used by NT writers with reference to a full and complete knowledge, in contrast to an investigative or superficial knowledge (gnosis). Strong says of epignosis, “full discernment” [Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance, #1922]. Kittel says, “The compound epignosis can take on almost a technical sense for conversion to Christianity” [Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 121]. Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words says of gnosis, “primarily a seeking to know, an enquiry, investigation”, and of epignosis- “denotes exact or full knowledge, discernment, recognition, and is a strengthened form of No. 1 [gnosis], expressing a fuller or a full knowledge, a greater participation by the knower of the object known, thus more powerfully influencing him” [pg. 631]. The NASB renders epignosis as “real knowledge” in Phil. 1:9, and “true knowledge” in 2 Pet. 1:3, 8. In Col. 1:9 epignosis has reference to “all spiritual wisdom and understanding” and “a spirit of wisdom and revelation” in Eph. 1:17 (also see Philemon 4-6). Especially consider the salvation language of 1 Tim. 2:3, 4, “This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and come to the knowledge [epignosis] of the truth”. It would seem that if the inspired writer meant to convey only superficial knowledge, as opposed to a full and saving knowledge, he would have chosen a Greek word (like gnosis) which would better convey that meaning. Peter’s choice of epignosis gives us further reason to identify these apostates as having been truly saved prior to their defection.

Peter’s deliberate use of parallel language in 2:20-22 with that used in 1:1-4 is even more striking. In 1:1-4 Peter describes his readers as those having a “faith…the same kind as ours” who have received the gift of “life” and “godliness” through the “knowledge of Him who has called us by His own glory and excellence”. He tells them that it is by these gifts of life, godliness, and knowledge that they have “become partakers of the divine nature” and have “escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust”. The parallels with those described in 2:20-22 are remarkable:

“Through our knowledge of him...participate in the divine nature” and “escaped the corruption in the world…” (1:3, 4)

“…escaped the corruption in the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ…” (2:20)

There is every reason to think that Peter is describing believers in both 1:1-4 and in 2:20. It is extremely strained exegesis to insist that those who “participate in the divine nature” and “escaped the corruption in the world” are of a different sort then those who “escaped the corruption in the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ”.

Some will say that those described in 2:20-22 only “appeared” to have escaped from the corruption in the world. There is no contextual warrant for this assumption. If these apostates had only “appeared” to escape the corruption in the world, then what sense does it make to say that they have become “again entangled” in these corruptions?

John Goodwin wrote of those who would be so bold as to claim that these “apostates” were:

“…all this while most damnable hypocrites and dissemblers. Now that the Holy Ghost should say, that unbelievers, persons inwardly full of wickedness and filthiness, most vile hypocrites and dissemblers, have ‘escaped the pollutions of the world,’ especially ‘through the knowledge’ (or rather acknowledgment), en epignosei ‘of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,’ is to me, and I think to all other impartially considering men, the first-born of incredibilities. Can a man be said to escape his enemies when he still remains under their power, and is in greater danger of suffering mischiefs from them than ever before? Or is not he, who being enlightened, retains the truth in unrighteousness, remains inwardly full of malice and wickedness, only garbing himself with a hypocritical outside, or mere profession of holiness, as much or more under the power and command of sin, as likely to perish everlastingly for sin, as ever he was, or could be before his illumination?” [Redemption Redeemed, ed., John Wagner, pg. 115]

Some look to avoid the implications of this passage by laying great stress on the nature of the animals described in the proverb given in verse 22, “It has happened to them according to the true proverb, ‘A dog returns to its own vomit,” and, “A sow, after washing, returns to wallowing in the mire.’” They say that the ones described in verses 20-21 must be only hypocrites and false converts because Peter would never describe them as “dogs” and “pigs” had they at one time been Christ’s “sheep”. Since Peter describes them as dogs and pigs, we should rest assured that their natures had never been changed by true conversion and regeneration.

Robert Shank rightly notes that:

“Many have contended that the men of whom Peter wrote never were truly saved. They appeal to the metaphors in verse 22. God’s children, say they, cannot be referred to as dogs or sows. But they who assume that Peter’s reference to apostates as ‘dogs’ or ‘sows’ proves that they never were actually under grace do not likewise assume that Jeremiah’s reference to the children of Israel in Judah as “a wild ass” proves that they never were ‘the sheep of his pasture.’ The shameful epithet was applied by Jeremiah (2:4) only after the people had forsaken the Lord (2:13; 17:13) and turned aside in iniquity and idolatry. Likewise, it is only after they ‘have forsaken the right way and are gone astray’ that Peter likens apostates to dogs and sows. He could well have referred to them as “wild asses.’ But there were familiar proverbs about dogs and sows which so aptly illustrated their case. Let us accept the record at face value. To ignore the obvious meaning of Peter’s statements by resorting to arbitrary assumptions concerning his use of metaphors is, to say the least, unwise.” [Life In The Son, pp. 175, 176]

The early Methodist theologian John Fletcher made the following observations concerning the contention that the Lord’s “sheep” can never cease to be anything other than “sheep”:

“Multitudes, who live in open sin, build their hopes of heaven upon a similar mistake; I mean, upon the unscriptural idea which they fix to the Scriptural word sheep. “Once I heard the Shepherd’s voice,” says one of these Laodicean souls; “I followed him, and therefore I was one of his sheep; and now, though I follow the voice of a stranger, who leads me into all manner of sins, into adultery and murder, I am undoubtedly a sheep still: for it was never heard that a sheep became a goat.” Such persons do not observe, that our Lord calls “sheep” those who hear his voice, and “goats” those who follow that of the tempter. Nor do they consider that if Saul, a grievous wolf, “breathing slaughter” against Christ’s sheep, and “making havoc” of his little flock, could in a short time be changed both into a sheep and a shepherd; David, a harmless sheep, could, in as short a time, commence a goat with Bathsheba, and prove a wolf in sheep’s clothing to her husband.

He then offers the following “ridiculous soliloquy” to “…show the absurdity and danger of resting weighty doctrines upon so sandy a foundation as the particular sense which some good men give to a few Scriptural expressions”:

“Those very Jews whom the Baptist and our Lord called ‘a brood of vipers and serpents,’ were soon after compared to ‘chickens,’ which Christ wanted ‘to gather as a hen does her brood.’ What a wonderful change was here! The vipers became chickens! Now, as it was never heard that chickens became vipers, I conclude that those Jews, even when they came about our Lord like ‘fat bulls of Bashan,’ like ‘ramping and roaring lions,’ were true chickens still. And indeed, why should not they have been as true chickens as David was a true sheep when he murdered Uriah? I abhor the doctrine which maintains that a man may be a chick or a sheep today, and a viper or a goat to-morrow."

“But I am a little embarrassed. If none go to hell but goats, and none to heaven but sheep, where shall the chickens go? Where ‘the wolves in Sheep’s clothing?’ And in what limbus of heaven or hell shall we put that ‘fox Herod,’ the dogs who ‘return to their vomit,’ and the swine, before whom we must ‘not cast our pearls?’ Are they all species of goats, or some particular kind of sheep? “My difficulties increase! The Church is called a dove, and Ephraim a silly dove. Shall the silly dove be admitted among the sheep? Her case seems rather doubtful. The hair of the spouse in the Canticles is likewise said to be like ‘a flock of goats,’ and Christ’s shepherd are represented as ‘feeding kids, or young goats, beside their tents.’ I wonder if those young goats became young sheep, or if they were all doomed to continue reprobates! But what puzzles me most is, that the Babylonians are in the same verse compared to ‘lambs, rams, and goats.’ Were they mongrel elect, or mongrel reprobates, or some of Elisha Coles’ spiritual monsters?” [Works of Fletcher Vol. 1, pp. 197-199, Wesleyan Heritage Collection CD]

Robert Picirilli concludes his treatment of 2 Pet. 2:22 with the following observation:

“Those who attempt to mitigate Peter’s teaching by suggesting that the real nature of the sow or the dog had not been changed, and that this implies that these apostate false teachers were never regenerated, are pressing the illustrations beyond what they are intended to convey. Indeed, the proverb must be interpreted by the clearer words that precede them and not the other way around. The previous paragraphs express precisely what the proverbs were contended to convey” [Grace, Faith, Free Will, pg. 232]

Picirilli is quite right that we need to look to the clear language of the passages that precede this descriptive proverb in order to properly understand Peter’s intended meaning. It is desperate exegesis to make assumptions based on the nature of the animals described in the proverb and then try to read them back into the plain teaching of verses 20 and 21. The claim that these “dogs” and “pigs” could only refer to those who had never truly been sheep ignores the context of the entire chapter. It foolishly trivializes the fact that Peter describes these apostates as having truly “escaped” the corruption in the world through “the knowledge [epignosis] of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” before becoming “again entangled” in this corruption. It further ignores the exegetical relevance of the parallel description in 2 Pet. 1:1-4 which uses nearly identical language to describe those of “like faith” who are “partakers of the divine nature”. The use of the proverb was to further illustrate the apostates' return to corruption. That is quite the opposite of demonstrating that they had never escaped corruption. Just as a dog returns to that from which it had been purged, and a washed pig returns to the mire, so have these apostates, after having escaped from corruption, returned again to those defilements.

Still others might acknowledge that these apostates were once truly regenerated while insisting that they shall only lose heavenly rewards and not salvation. How then could Peter say of them that “it would be better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn away from the holy command delivered to them”? How could it possibly be better to have never known the way of righteousness, and perish forever, than to have known the way of righteousness only to lose some heavenly rewards? Do the advocates of this position truly believe that those who enter the joys of Heaven with considerably less rewards are worse off than those who will eternally suffer in Hell?

Despite the efforts of some to rescue their theology from the plain teaching of 2 Pet. 2:20-22, these passages serve as a stark reminder that those who have come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ may yet return to a lifestyle of sin ,abandon their faith, and perish in that hopeless state.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Got Free Will?

My recent post [Struggling with Regrets] has caused quite a stir. Many have chimed in to attack the notion that man can have the God given power of self-determination. I am, quite honestly, surprised by the amount of interest this subject has generated. I am also surprised by the lack of answers to the questions posed in my post. Not a single advocate of determinism has yet to answer the question: How do you make sense of regrets in a deterministic world view? To be fair, one person made an attempt, but did not bother to defend his position when challenged.

It is one thing to attack libertarian freewill. It is quite another to defend determinism. JC and I have been defending our position against several attacks. I would now like to issue a bit of a challenge for those who are so convinced that libertarian free will is a myth, and that determinism is the Biblical doctrine. Until you answer the following questions, I would ask that you refrain from attacking the contrary position. To the determinist I ask:

1) How do you make sense of regrets if you do not have the power of contrary choice? Why does your conscience bother you when you sin, if you could not have avoided that sin?

2) If God causes all things, then how can you claim that God does not cause sin?

3) Where did the first impulse to sin come from in both Satan and Adam?

Note: Appeals to mystery are inadmissible. Appeals to "second" causes, etc. must be explained in such a way that they actually get God off the hook for causing sin. It does not help to say that we choose according to our desires, and therefore God is not responsible. If God causes all things, then He also causes our desires. If God is the only true actor in the universe, then all creatures are but passive instruments. If we are but passive creatures with no power of self-determination, then all our actions must be directly attributed to God.

Anyone commenting on Struggling With Regrets will be asked to address these questions before expecting any answers from either JC or myself.

Since it has become clear that this is such a sensitive issue, I will do a series on the difficulties of the determinist position. I will not be able to tackle this issue, however, until I complete my series on perseverance, which has been difficult due to the interaction generated by recent posts. In the meantime I direct any readers to Classical Arminianism where Billy is doing a series on how Arminius viewed free will.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Owen's Death of Death...

Dan is doing a nice series on Owen's arguments in The Death of Death in the Death of Christ over at Arminian Chronicles.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Enjoying Consistent Calvinism

I have recently been accused of being an inconsistent Arminian because I reject Open Theism. I find it interesting that Calvinists are so concerned with consistency seeing as how they both affirm that God causes all things and is yet somehow not the author of sin.

I admit that I love consistency. I reject Calvinism primarily because I find no support for it in the pages of Scripture, and secondarily because it is so internally inconsistent. I admire Calvinists who are not afraid to "take it in the face", so to speak, and call God the author of sin. "Traditional" Calvinists call these types "hyper" Calvinists, but in the spirit of my recent conversation, I think it is more accurate to just call them "consistent" Calvinists.

Vincent Young is an example of such a bravely consistent Calvinistic fellow, and I direct my Calvinist readers to his blog to enjoy his consistency. I especially recommend The Author of Sin, Compatibilist Freedom, and Confusion in Calvinism . Enjoy.

For more fun with inconsitency within Calvinism, I recommend Objections to Calvinism As It Is.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Struggling With Regrets

Do you sometimes struggle with regrets? I certainly do.

Part of the glory of Christianity is the forgiveness we have in Christ Jesus. We should never cease to rejoice in the fact that the blood of Christ has cleansed us from the stain of past sins [2 Pet. 1:9]. This forgiveness does not, however, always alleviate consequences from the poor decisions we made prior to trusting in Christ, nor does it always relieve us of the consequences of sinful decisions that we make after conversion.

David is a stunning example. God forgave David for his sin with Bathsheba, and against Uriah, but he still had to suffer tremendous consequences for that sin. His child died, and his son, Absalom, rose up against him, and was killed as a result [2 Sam. 12; 15-18]. I would bet that David had regrets. He suffered the scars of his decisions for the rest of his life. Sin is devastating and regrets can be crippling.

While we all have regrets, we must not dwell on the past to the point of preventing us from growing. We cannot change the past, but we can still effect our future. We must learn from our mistakes and move on in the grace of God.

It would seem that regrets can only make sense, however, if we hold to a libertarian view of free will. Regrets are nonsensical if we believe that all of our actions are determined by decree and circumstances which are beyond our control. There is no point feeling regret for something you could not possibly have done otherwise; yet we still feel regret.

Do Calvinists feel regret? How do they work such feelings into their worldview? Do they temporally shelve their worldview when confronted with the experiences of daily human life? Do they somehow train themselves to have no regrets so as to conform their feelings with their belief in determinism? I am curious to know.

I used to enjoy listening to Calvinist Greg Bahnsen's lectures on apologetics. His approach was presuppositional and he used this approach to demonstrate the incoherence of materialistic atheist thought. He would often point out that atheists do not live in harmony with the world view that they claim. They believe we are merely animals, for instance, yet honor their dead as if they have value beyond that which we would assign to animals. They deny absolute truths, yet are quite certain about their own belief systems, and very critical of others, etc. The atheist lives according to presuppositions that reveal the very God he or she denies.

I wonder that Greg Bahnsen seemed oblivious to such inconsistency in his own Calvinistic world view. I wonder what Greg Bahnsen thought of regrets. That we have regrets should tell us something about our presuppositions. I firmly believe that if we are honest with these presuppositions we will discover that only an Arminian account of free will and responsibility can make sense of the universal human experience of regret.

I am an Arminian primarily because I believe the word of God reveals the basic theological assumptions of Arminian theology. My convictions are based foremost on what I consider to be a more responsible exegesis of the Biblical data on salvation. That is not to say that our personal experiences have no worth or bearing on how we understand God's word. Paul taught that men are accountable to God because creation is an undeniable testimony to his existence [Rom. 1:18-22]. Bahnsen rightly noted that unbelievers actively repress this knowledge [Rom. 1:18].

I remember playing in my pool as a child and enjoying holding an air filled ball under water. I would hold it down as far as I could and then release it. I was amused by the way the ball would quickly rise to the surface and explode out of the water. I think that is what unbelievers do. They hold down the truth of God's revelation. Every now and then they lose their grip and God's truth explodes up into their face. When this happens, they can either respond to that revelation or quickly submerge the truth again.

I wonder how Calvinists can hold to their worldview without constantly struggling to re submerge the ball of reality that confronts them in everyday practical life. I believe that regrets are just one facet of reality that Calvinists should honestly deal with and examine.

I have many regrets. I regret that I turned from the Lord as a young teenager and was useless to him during that stage in my life. I regret that I never shared the truth with those who later took their lives during that time of rebellion in my life. I regret that I have often been disobedient to my Lord as a believer, and have often thwarted His efforts to use me and sanctify me. I regret when I have failed to restrain my tongue; or spoke before thinking, and allowed the words that passed from my lips to harm another human being. I regret that I did not boldly share the gospel with the strangers I sat next to at the laundry mat yesterday afternoon. I have many regrets. I do not focus on them to the point of being unhealthy, but I cannot help but to have them. I have them because I know that I am to blame for my actions, and should have done otherwise than I did.

I cannot get around the logical implication that "should have" implies "could have". We can develop a philosophy that says otherwise, but I do not know how we can keep the ball from ever coming to the surface again. If Calvinistic determinism be true, then I simply should not have regrets. All that I have done is just as God intended and decreed. Why should I regret that?

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Perseverance Of The Saints Part 3: The Ancient Olive Tree

This passage is very similar in meaning and application as the passage previously discussed from Christ’s discourse in John 15. It may well be that Paul was familiar with Christ’s teaching on the Vine and the branches, and had His discourse in mind while writing about the olive tree in Rom. 11:15-24:

[15] For if their rejection [the Jews] be the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? [16] And if the first piece of dough be holy, the lump is also; and if the root be holy, the branches are too. [17] But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive were grafted among them and became partakers with them of the rich root of the olive tree, [18] do not be arrogant toward the branches; but if you are arrogant, remember that it is not you who supports the root, but the root supports you. [19] You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” [20] Quite right, they were broken off for their unbelief, but you stand by faith. Do not be conceited, but fear; [21] for if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will He spare you. [22] Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God’s kindness, if you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off. [23] And they also, if they do not continue in there unbelief, will be grafted in; for God is able to graft them in again. [24] For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more shall these who are natural branches be grafted into their own olive tree. [NASB]

This passage of Scripture is problematic for Calvinism on multiple levels. Paul is discussing the present state of Israel throughout chapters 9-11. Calvinists find Rom. 9:6-24 to be a primary text for their doctrines of unconditional particular election and irrevocable reprobation. It is not difficult to come to such an understanding of the text when the rest of the context of Romans 9-11 is ignored. This has been the usual practice of many Calvinist exegetes. James White completely ignores Romans 9:30-33 and 11:15-32 in his exegesis of Romans 9 in The Potter’s Freedom. This is strange behavior, especially when we consider that Rom. 9:30-33 represents Paul’s conclusion to his preliminary argument in Rom. 9:1-29. Likewise, Piper [The Justification Of God] and Schreiner [Still Sovereign] neglect to give Rom. 11:15-32 any exegetical treatment in their respective works on Rom. 9 and election.

Paul has not changed subjects in Romans 11:15-24. He is still discussing the reprobated Jews described earlier in Rom. 9:6-24. What he says concerning these Jews is troubling to the Calvinist interpretation of unconditional election and irrevocable reprobation. Paul speaks in terms of an ancient olive tree. This tree represents the true Israel of God. It is the election of God’s people in Christ. The tree cannot represent national Israel due to the fact that many of the branches [Jews] were “broken off”. Paul is speaking of the spiritual descendants of Abraham; those who have received the promise by faith. [Rom. 4:13-25].

The unbelieving Jews have been “broken off” from the true Israel and are estranged from the promise of God’s salvation in Christ. Paul, however, holds out hope for these broken off Jews. He plainly states that they can yet be grafted in again if they do not persist in their unbelief. This truth clashes with the Calvinist belief that these unbelieving Jews have been reprobated due to an eternal and irrevocable decree. If Paul had really been teaching such a concept of reprobation in Romans 9, then he could not hold out hope for these Jews in Romans 11:23 and 11:30-32.

The further difficulty this passage poses to Calvinism is Paul’s plain declaration that those who now stand by faith may yet be broken off through unbelief:

[19] You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” [20] Quite right, they were broken off for their unbelief, but you stand by faith. Do not be conceited, but fear; [21] for if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will He spare you. [22] Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God’s kindness, if you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off.

Calvinists have traditionally tried to resolve the difficulty in one of two ways. The first way is to say that the branches do not represent individuals, but nations. The broken off branches represent the nation of Israel, and the engrafted branches represent the Gentiles as a people group. The problem with this interpretation is that Paul is speaking of individual branches that have been broken off and grafted in to the true Israel of God. The branches clearly represent individual Jews, for the entire nation has not been rejected. There are believing Jews [the remnant] who have remained in the olive tree. The grafted in branches represent individual Gentiles as only believing Gentiles have come to enjoy the favor and election of God. It is only believing Gentiles that can be called spiritual descendants of Abraham, and it is beyond argument that not all Gentiles have embraced Christ.

Joseph R. Dongell provides an excellent summary:

Paul distinguishes the irrevocable call of the nation of Israel as a whole from the fate of individual Israelites. While the final destination of the people of God is absolutely certain, the future of any given individual is determined by his or her continued faith and trust in God. Gentiles who believe are grafted into the ancient tree, whereas Jews who fall into unbelief are broken off. Since faith is the sole condition for remaining engrafted, Paul issues both warning and hope. On the one hand, those Gentiles who have recently been grafted into the ancient tree through faith must humbly guard against falling into unbelief, since they too would then be severed from the tree. On the other hand, the natural branches lying on the ground can “be grafted into their own olive tree” if “they do not persist in unbelief” (Rom. 11:23-24). In other words, the destiny of God’s people as a whole is unchanged throughout the ages, though each individual branch participates in this salvation only if he or she remains engrafted by faith (cf. Jn.15:5-6). As Paul Achtemeier explains, Paul teaches destiny without teaching individual determinism. [Walls and Dongell, Why I Am Not A Calvinist, page 87]

It would seem that the interpretation of the text that would rule out the individuality of the branches is very difficult to sustain.

The second Calvinist explanation is the usual explanation that the broken off branches could only represent false converts and hypocrites who never had saving faith to begin with. This interpretation is impossible to sustain due to the fact that Paul speaks of these branches as presently standing by faith. If it is a faith that makes them “stand” then it must be genuine. It is because of their present faith that they can be said to be in the elect olive tree. Paul further confirms this when he threatens these Gentiles, who have been grafted in by faith, that they can yet be broken off from this tree if they do not “continue in His kindness”. They remain among the elect body so long as they continue in faith. If they should not continue, then God will treat them the same as the unbelieving Jews who were broken off before them. They too will be cut off “for there is no partiality with God”. If the branches that Paul threatens represented false converts, then they would have never been in the tree in the first place. How then could they be broken off?

Perhaps we should add a third interpretation. Perhaps some will say that Paul is merely presenting a hypothetical construct and threatening these branches with impossibilities. What possible effect could such a threat carry for those who could not possibly fall prey to the consequences of it? If the branches stand by faith, and those who begin in faith will inevitably continue in faith [according to Calvinism], then why warn them to continue with the threat of being cut off? If God causes believers to continue in saving faith, then to warn believers to continue is nonsensical. If God infallibly preserves the believer, and faith is a gift that we cannot help but to continue in; then to warn someone to continue in the faith would be as useless as warning someone who is hooked to a respirator to “keep breathing”.

Some will say that the warnings are God’s means by which He ensures the perseverance of His saints. Where then is the doctrine of eternal security? Can we truly be convinced that we are eternally secure, and also take the warnings of falling away seriously? If we are eternally secure then there is no danger of being cut off from the true Israel of God. If the danger is real, then there is no unconditional security. If we went to our mailbox and found a note on the door that read, “Do not open this mailbox, else a 600 pound tiger will emerge and devour you”, would we take such a warning seriously? Would such an impossible consequence truly worry us and prevent us from getting our mail?

It would seem then, that Calvinism fails to offer a valid solution to the clear teaching of Rom. 11:15-24 that those who stand by faith may yet be broken off to their own eternal ruin. Let us heed Paul’s emphatic warning: “Do not be conceited, but fear; for if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will He spare you. Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God’s kindness, if you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off.