Monday, November 26, 2018

The Old Testament, Evangelism, and Sovereignty (Remix)

There are times (less frequent) when I have neglect the Old Testament. I usually don't know that I am neglecting it—and I am always prepared, with an air of righteous superiority, to admonish those Marcion-esque Christians who mistakenly think that it can be set aside. But I usually don't look at it with the same critical eye that I look at the New Testament. The Old Testament is full of really cool stories of prophets and battles and fatso kings receiving a razor sharp "message from God" in their ample gut, but the New Testament, so I imagined, was where God’s sovereignty in salvation was fully revealed.

Now, in truth I knew that there were famous passages in the Old Testament that unambiguously teach of God’s sovereign election. In fact, probably no single verse summarizes the doctrine better than Exodus 33:19 when God proclaims that He will have mercy on whom he will have mercy and compassion on whom he will have compassion. (Them's the rules, take it or leave it.) Nevertheless, such passages, I always believed, were isolated nuggets compared to the unceasing proclamation of God’s sovereignty in election found in the gospels (especially John’s) and the Pauline corpus (especially the theological tome known as the epistle to the Romans.)

Of course this is simply not true.

In systematically going through the Old Testament one finds the strong, Calvinistic view of God’s sovereignty appearing all over the place, typically in verses that, in the past, I tended to gloss over because they were inconvenient for a superficial explanation of the complete passage.

For example, consider the boy Samuel and his first encounter with the voice of God, after his mother Hannah placed him in the service of the priest Eli at the temple. We pick up the action as Samuel (just a boy) is preparing for bed.
6And the Lord called again, “Samuel!” and Samuel arose and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” 7Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. 8 And the Lord called Samuel again the third time. And he arose and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the young man.9Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down, and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant hears.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. (1 Sam 3:6-9)
The usual explanation of this passage is this: Samuel heard God speaking, but he thought it was his surrogate father, the priest Eli. After Eli told him that it was God calling, then Samuel was prepared to accept that the voice was God’s.

Like in most cases when the causal role of God’s sovereignty is neglected, we end of interpreting everything backwards.

The key to this passage is the glossed-over verse seven: Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. This verse explains why Samuel did not recognize God’s voice: not because he hadn’t prepared himself, and not because Eli hadn’t yet advised him, but because God hadn’t yet opened Samuel’s eyes.

This is the perfect model/paradigm for evangelism. Eli instructed/evangelized (as he should). God used Eli's evangelism to give Samuel context for what He (God) was about to do with or without Eli. Samuel's testimony would likely credit Eli (in human terms) and God (in theological terms.)

God ordains the ends and the means. Just like, although we know better, we often talk about someone or some event that led us to Christ, Samuel (especially as a boy) might well have believed that it was Eli’s instruction that opened his eyes. It wasn’t. Sometime after God’s third call to Samuel, maybe even at the instant Eli instructed him, God opened Samuels eyes—at that moment the LORD was revealed.

Why not just open Samuel’s eyes without employing Eli? Well, part of the reason is that it surely pleases God to use men (in their free will) to carry out pieces of His plan. That is why, even as fiercely Calvinistic Christians, we are to evangelize with the zeal of the Arminians. But a wise lady in our church once pointed out another (though not entirely unrelated) reason: it was for Eli’s benefit. Eli was much more inclined to accept Samuel’s subsequent prophecy given the chain of events, as opposed to the boy Samuel coming to him out of the blue with the news that God had been chatting with him at bedtime. (That’s especially true given that Samuel’s first prophecy was devastating to Eli and his house.)

This symmetric-benefit also applies to everyday evangelism. If we evangelize someone who accepts Christ, how much greater is the bond, how much better, I ask rhetorically, the chance for carrying out the great commission and discipling the convert? (The Great Commission calls on us to be pediatricians, not obstetricians.)

In the New Testament we find a very similar passage when the risen Jesus encounters two disciples on the road to Emmaus:
13 That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14 and they were talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. 16 But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. (Luke 24:13-16)
Once we start looking for it, God’s sovereignty is apparent just about everywhere in scripture. We don’t really (and truly) hear God’s call unless He first enables our eyes and ears. Just to finish the story of the two disciples and how our knowing God requires not dedication from us but a divine act, we read later in the same chapter of Luke
28 So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He acted as if he were going farther, 29 but they [the two disciples] urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. 31 And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight. (Luke 24:28-31)
The story of Samuel and the story of the two disciples are microcosms of the gospel. We cannot convince ourselves that we need to repent and accept Christ, and only then receive the gift of a new heart and eternal life—no we must receive the gift first—without which we are as clueless as the boy Samuel and the two disciples.

In terms of internet evangelizing, especially in the scientific community, one often encounters the view (from the atheist):

I have studied the bible, and it is utter nonsense. Only the weak-minded could accept such a load of crap.

Now of course the real explanation is:

God has not revealed Himself to you, therefore you will continue and perhaps even prosper in your arrogance and ignorance.

In truth, we must agree that both explanations (the atheist’s and the Calvinist’s) fit the data. A third (Arminian Christian) explanation is the one that is somewhat muddled:

You (not God) have not yet done “something” to yourself. Exactly what is not entirely clear, but it involves the impossibilities of accepting something you don’t believe, and repenting from things for which you have no desire to repent. You must do these impossible things, on your own, at least to a certain imprecisely defined degree, and then God will act upon you.

Anyway, that’s how I see it.

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