Tuesday, February 18, 2003

Mail Call

I received this email. I have removed the sender's name.

Dear Sir,

I've been an off-again, on-again reader of your weblog for a few months now, and you seem to have a pretty good handle on Christian theology, and Calvinism in particular. So perhaps you can help me with a difficult (but probably often heard) question that I've been struggling with.

A bit of background might help you understand my situation better. I'll state up front that I am not a Christian at this time. I have been raised in a Christian home (I'm currently 20 yrs old) - my parents were missionaries, and then my father entered the pastorate for some years. I think if really pressed, I'd have to say that I've always believed the Christian message, and I think I possess a fairly good understanding of the basic concepts. However, it's never been more than an intellectual understanding, and even though lately I've been more interested in Christianity than I was in the past, it doesn't seem to get beyond this level.

I've spoken with both my father and the minister at the church he currently attends about this question, and both come from quite a solid Reformed perspective; I've never gotten a satisfying answer.

Here's my question - if I can't choose God (Total depravity), and if I can only be drawn by the Spirit of God (Irresistible grace), how do I have any choice in whether or not I am saved? I don't see that I have this choice. And I realize this reduces into a kind of fatalism, which the Christian message is not supposed to be about, but that seems to be the logical conclusion to me. My father often speaks of the wonderful hope that the Christian message has, but I really can't agree. For the Christian, who God has chosen before time, there's great hope. But for the non-believer, who can't come to God of his own free will (and one of your latest posts -- Feb 5 -- emphasizes this quite strongly), and who has been excluded from God's mercy - where's the hope in eternal torment?

I met with the minister last week and spoke with him about this, and he said that he thought I was searching, but if I go by Reformed doctrine, this is an impossibility. When I talked with my father about this, he admitted in the end that the Calvinist position is in effect fatalism, and that he didn't have a good answer to my question - the portions of the Bible where man's responsibility is emphasized vs the portions where God's choice is emphasized form a paradox. I call it an absurdity though.

I don't really mind that the Bible doesn't clearly explain other paradoxes like the Trinity for example, because while this is an important part of the Christian faith, not understanding it isn't an issue of life and death. But the whole basis of salvation is surrendering one's self to God. And I'm told on the one hand that I have a personal responsibility if I don't do it, and yet on the other hand I'm told that I couldn't come to God even if I wanted to. So while my father and my minister both exhort me to turn to God, I keep thinking there's nothing I can do about it anyways.

I apologize for the length of this letter; I didn't expect it to turn out so long. Please let me know if I've misunderstood key parts of either Christianity in general or Calvinism - I don't claim to be an expert on either, though I think I have a fairly good idea about what they are about. I'm hoping that you might be able to shine some light on this issue where others have failed.

Dear Reader,

I doubt I can shed any additional light on this issue, but I’ll tell you what I think.

The most important part of my answer is this: I might be wrong. I can only tell you what I believe the Bible teaches:

  • Man has free will, and man is a responsible moral agent.

  • Natural (unregenerated) man is in such depraved state that he will never choose God. He has a free will, but the desires which control his choices are so utterly corrupted that his will never leads him to seek God, at most he desires only the things God has to offer. For a few scripture references, see the depressing table in this post.

  • Man must be born again, placing his faith in Christ, in order to be saved.

  • Salvation is of grace, not of works (Eph. 2:8).

This puts us in a world of hurt, since we are in effect required to do something that we cannot do.

The only way out of this conundrum is if God does everything. He saves us when we are not even seeking Him. He saves us not for anything good we have done, but to show mercy. He changes our heart, which is to say our desires, then we, from our newly formed will, freely choose Him.

For whom does He offer this unspeakable gift of regeneration? From my reading of scripture, it is an elect chosen before the foundation of time (2 Tim 1:9, Rom. 9:22-24) , and not for anything good that God foresaw they would do, but just for His pleasure.

The Bible teaches that the elect were chosen, not picked at random; it says that God loved them (Rom 9:11). Why? I don’t know. Why doesn’t God love everyone in this way? Again, I don’t know.

This works both ways: if you are of the elect, you will inevitably come to believe the gospel, and you will most likely hear the gospel from a Christian witness, quite likely one who doesn’t believe in predestination. And if you do accept the gospel, then you are of the elect. There is no possibility that you will do your part by accepting the gospel only to find out to your dismay you are not in the club. If you believe, then you are of the elect, not matter how vehemently you deny the doctrine of unconditional election.

There is fatalism here. It is senseless to deny it. Without the fatalism, we would all be lost, for none of us would choose God. For every single person, I believe that either God chose them long ago or He didn’t, and that determines their ultimate destination.

But fatalism, or something close to it, is present in non-Calvinistic (Arminian) theology as well. Most trivially I had no say in where I was born. It was fate. If I must hear the gospel message and accept it by my choice, then if my fate was to be born in a place that has never been reached with the gospel, and even today there are many such places, then my fate has doomed me. In fact, no matter where I am, if I have to choose God then one must allow that I arrive at a point where a positive response is possible largely due to circumstances beyond my control, including family background, friends, natural ability, personality, education, and many other external factors.

My advice to you is to set aside, for now, questions of predestination vs. free will. Concentrate on the simple gospel message which, given your background, I am sure you know quite well: you are a sinner in desperate need of a savior. Christ alone can fill that role, having humbled himself as a man, lived a sinless life, suffered and died in your place. Once you accept Christ, you can return to the question, which boils down to this: Did you choose Him and then He changed you, or, did He change you and then you chose Him. Interesting to say the least, but it is not important for now.

Tuesday, February 11, 2003

On Travel

On travel to the Left Coast this week-- probably no time for a blog. Back next week.

Thursday, February 06, 2003

Justification (1)

In John Piper’s new book Counted Righteous in Christ (Crossway Books, 2002) he looks at modern attacks on the traditional Protestant view of justification. He mentions several such attacks, including the so-called "new perspective on Paul", but looks at in-depth only one: attacks on the doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. This is of course the belief that we are justified, forensically, by an alien (Christ’s) righteousness, that we are permitted to claim, in a legal sense, as our own.

This is in contrast to the Roman Catholic doctrine of infused righteousness, in which Christ’s righteousness is truly internalized within; in effect we become righteous—though the source of this transformation is always (ultimately) attributed to Jesus.

I will be looking at this in the days to come, essentially summarizing Piper’s book.

How important is this? That is always a thorny question. How important are any of these theological debates? I really don’t know. Somehow those issues that effect the basic gospel message are critical, but it is not always easy to ascertain whether a particular debate qualifies.

Personally, I think this one does. There is an inevitable outcome when one weakens the doctrine of imputation: namely justification and sanctification, which Paul clearly teaches as distinct, become intertwined or even reversed.

We are justified by an instantaneous declaration by God, who asserts that He will accept Christ’s righteousness on our behalf. We then, already saved, and with the help of the Spirit, go through the process of gradual sanctification.

A doctrine of infused righteousness tends to look at the infusion as a sanctifying process. Then, when one utilizes this gift of real, infused righteousness to do good works (though attributed to Christ), one is entering the justification process. As I said, these aspects tend to get mixed or reversed.

Piper points out that the famous British abolitionist William Wilberforce, a politician not a theologian, had a keen insight when it comes to justification. Wilberforce wrote (quoted in Piper)
(Christian errors). . . RESULT FROM THE MISTAKEN CONCEPTION ENTERTAINED OF THE FUNDAMENTAL PRINCIPLES OF CHRISTIANITY. They consider not that Christianity is a scheme "for justifying the ungodly" [Romans 4:5], by Christ’s dying for them “when yet sinners” [Romans 5:6-8], a scheme "for reconciling us to God—when enemies" [Romans 5:10]; and for making the fruits of holiness the effects, not the cause, of our being justified and reconciled.
Wilberforce correctly pointed out the problem that arises from an incorrect view of justification: we mix up the cause and effect of our salvation.

Wednesday, February 05, 2003

You Still Can't Choose God

Those who believe that it is actually possible for fallen man to choose God are advised to ponder this familiar passage from the Gospel of John:

34 Then they said to Him, "Lord, always give us this bread."
35 Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst.
36 "But I said to you that you have seen Me, and yet do not believe.
37 "All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out.
38 "For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.
39 "This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day. (John 6:34-39, NASB)

Verses 37-39 are often used by Calvinists to support their position. Indeed, they rather irrefutably proclaim the perfect Sovereignty of God, Irresistible Grace and Perseverance (Preservation) of the saints.

But the Calvinist should always include verses 34-36. They add richness to the exegesis. In verse 34 it appears that some are seeking Christ, but in truth they are not. They are seeking not God but the favor of God, the benefits of God, the gifts of God. They seek the manna, not He who provides the bread.

The fact that some appear to be seeking God is a common argument against the reformed position. For if some seek God, and God withholds Himself because they are not of the elect, then surely this casts aspersions on God’s character. But God is true to his word. All who seek Him shall find Him. But not those who merely seek the benefits of God. Any pagan would surely desire the rewards God promises to His chosen (although he would just as surely balk at the promised trials and pruning), and he would seek them from any god or man who could provide.

In verse 36 we see anew the utter hopelessness that man can make a choice of his natural will. We see total depravity at work. For Christ tells them “…you have seen Me and yet you do not believe.” If men, in the very presence of God, the Creator of the universe, cannot believe, using their unregenerate will, how then can any man who does not enjoy such an incalculable advantage of seeing Christ in the flesh? It makes the mind reel.