Wednesday, March 9, 2016

"Can I Be Gay and Be a Christian?"




This is a question that a friend of mine asked me not long ago. That friend happens to be a Christian and struggles with same-sex attraction, so I knew this question was not asked out of a desire for theological debate, but from a place of deep personal turmoil. Back in the 90's during Bill Clinton's scandal with Monica Lewinski, in answer to a grand jury question about whether there "is no sex of any kind" between himself and Ms. Lewisnki as his legal counsel had stated, then-president Clinton famously answered, "That depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is." Of course, that was a cop-out, a lawyer's trick to hide his guilt. But regarding my friend's question, the answer really does depend on what your definition of "to be" is.

Here's the problem: western culture tells people that if they experience a sexual attraction towards the same sex that they "are gay" (or at least bi-sexual, queer, etc.). Modern society defines a person's identity based on their feelings—especially sexual feelings—however consistent or inconsistent those feelings may be. The sad part is that the Christian Church has pretty much swallowed this definition without thinking twice. We have taken up secular culture's belief that what we "feel" is the truest part of who we are. So my response to my friend who asked me this question was that, just because you experience same-sex attraction, that doesn't mean you "are gay". You have the wrong definition of "is".

The book of James states, "...each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death." (Jas. 1:14-15) We have bought into the current lie that to feel is to be, that our feelings define us. But do they? And if so, which feelings define us? After all, we feel many conflicting things throughout the day: from a desire to murder our jerk-of-a-boss (perhaps multiple times over) to a desire to sacrifice our own comfort and resources in order to help someone who is down on their luck. But how can these conflicting feelings simultaneously define who we are? Perhaps James has greater insight than we imagine when he relegates our feelings to simply this: a choice that is set before us, a temptation.

The story of Christ's life also tells us that He was tempted to abandon the Father's plan and short-cut His way to glory. In the desert when He had not eaten for forty days and Satan came tempting Him to turn stones to bread, surely He "felt an attraction" to that option. After all, He was not only the Son of God, but also 100% human and He was hungry! But that's the point of temptation—if there is no attraction, there is no temptation. And yet, temptation is also not the same thing as sin. This is clear from the life of the Savior who, though He was tempted in every way as we are, remained sinless. Let me draw the conclusion here as clearly as possible: your temptation does not define you.

Sadly, we Christians have shot ourselves in the foot by adopting the culture's terms and definitions. The Bible says that our identity is not defined by our various temptations, but by our position in Christ. We have been made children of God through faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus. That is the truest thing about us. Will we experience temptations that contradict God's will for our lives? Many. But that does not define us; Christ does.

So in answer to my friend's original question, "Can you be gay and a Christian?", that depends on if you've bought into the culture's definitions or not. If we mean, "Can a person be born-again and experience regular temptation in the form of same-sex attraction?", the answer is, "yes!" In the exact same way, we can be born-again and experience regular temptation towards any number of sins. Homosexuality is not in some completely different category. All sin is sin. Any temptation is temptation. But none of it defines us as Christians. Neither our battles with it, nor even our failures.

Even asking the question in the way my friend did shows that the issue has been muddled for many of us by an unbiblical way of thinking. At first it would seem that the question is about whether we can struggle with a particular sin and still be saved—which, yes, we can and do and will until we see Christ face to face and our entire nature is transformed into His glorious image. But in reality, it is a question of identity, of definition. Can you "be" gay and "be" a Christian? No. That is to say, your primary identity can only be defined by one thing, and that is either by the Son of God who has loved you and made you His own or by the feelings of temptation that your flesh and the devil conspire to tell you is who you are. That's because they want you to doubt who the grace of God has made you—His child. Rooting our identity in sin (of whatever form) is incompatible with our identity in Christ. So for those Christians like my friend who who have felt condemned days without count, for those who have doubted if they can actually be saved because they deal with same-sex attraction—rejoice! It is your temptation, but it is not who you are! The truest thing about you is not the temptation you struggle with—that is just a fading shadow. Rather, your identity is who Jesus has made you by His grace: a child of God. In the words of Paul the Apostle, "So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me." (Rom. 7:17) This is no cop-out. It is a vital recognition of who we are in Christ, regardless of the temptation we struggle with. Our truest self is the one that Jesus has created anew in His own image.

   

Monday, August 17, 2015

A Rant to the Christian Alarmist

(Warning: here follows an epic rant...)

I'm more than a little annoyed and vexed by Christians who cite passages like Mt. 24 and list instances of local, insignificant weather phenomena and minor military skirmishes (in the grand scheme of things) and draw the conclusion that this must be the fulfillment of said prophecies about "wars and rumors of war", about "earthquakes and pestilence", about the end of the world, etc.

Consider: The world is bigger than your particular region. Even if you are in a zone where there is some catastrophe, that doesn't mean the sky is falling all over the planet. Additionally, thanks to the advent of the information age and the instant, global availability to know of every little catastrophe, it may seem to you like these things are manifestly more frequent now, when in reality it's only that you now have the ability to know about every corner of the globe immediately whereas you didn't before.

Society (globally) is not "more godless than it ever has been". In fact, it is actually more Christian than it ever has been. Africa was virtually an unreached, pagan continent 150 years ago whereas today the sub-Saharan part is predominately Christian (no comment on the health or sincerity of said Christians, but nevertheless...) China has over 100 million Christians, the majority of which are more sincere than your average "Christian" in lands where Christianity has been the default religion until late, and the Chinese church continues to grow. The countries where the church is growing at the fastest rates are places like Iran, Afghanistan, and the like.

Consider: In the days of the early church, the emperors married their sisters/mothers and also castrated boys and married them as "wives". Prostitution was a duty, pedophilia was acceptable, and literally throwing unwanted babies on the trash heap to be eaten by dogs was standard practice. Are you sure society is "worse than at any point in history"? Consider that the rate of military deaths over the last 15 years is at an all time historical low relative to the world population. Are you sure that "there are more wars/violence than ever"? Lastly, consider the promise of Christ in which He declares "I will build my church and the gates of hell will NOT prevail against it."

Dear Christian, before spewing your next panicky, doomsday rant (on Facebook or anywhere else), consider that the Church is bigger than your particular country and that its history is bigger than your current generation. Consider that the Church has always gone through hardship and persecution and that if you are not in this situation currently, you are the exception, not the rule. Consider that, while modern western culture has plenty of problems, it is certainly not worse than the Roman empire in which the early Church lived and thrived. Consider that, as Tertullian wrote, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church," and that the death of lukewarm "Christendom" can only be a good thing. Consider these things and stop your alarmist panicking which makes us all look bad and fails to understand the history of the global Church or take seriously the promises of Christ. Thank you.

End rant.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Anxiety and the Peace of God


Jesus said a lot of challenging things in the Sermon on the Mount: love your enemies, don't be angry, don't judge, don't lust. But right in the middle of Jesus' most famous discourse, He says what might be the most difficult command of the whole sermon, “Do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” (Mt. 6:34) We are faced with the temptation to anxiety daily if not constantly. To be clear, Jesus is not saying that we should just drop out of school, live moment to moment and not think or plan for the future. That’s not spirituality; it's irresponsibility. Jesus Himself thought about the future, made plans, and yet he did not “worry”. What He's warning us against is something more sinister. 

What is anxiety?

The original word implies being pulled in different directions, being distracted and divided. And that’s exactly what anxiety does: it divides our attention, our thoughts, and our heart so that we are living neither fully in the present nor in the future. Anxiety sets you against yourself. It keeps you from being whole. Psychologists define it as “a negative emotional state of uncertainty because of real or potential future problems or challenges.” Again, this is not just thinking about the future, but allowing the uncertainty and potential difficulties of the future to distract and even paralyze you.

There are a number of reasons why we experience anxiety. Some of those are tied with survival and provision. Jesus prefaced His anti-anxiety call with those very examples: “
Do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?” Tied closely with this is the anxiety we experience over our performance. This goes beyond mere physical provision. We tend to latch a sense of our own worth onto our accomplishments. It's not just about not starving but, “Am I successful? Have I proven myself capable? Have I 'made it'?” This kind of anxiety comes in both personal and professional flavors—relating to family as well as career. Some of our reasons for anxiety are more existential. We worry about if our life has meaning and what meaning it has. We worry about our own unavoidable, impending death. We deal with a sense of anxiety over being good enough, and feel guilt for not meeting up to our own standards, whatever they may be. Some of our anxiety is social. "Will he like me? Will she accept me? Will those people respect and love me? Will they judge me and exclude me?" It's more than likely that we've all dealt with some of these—and probably on a recurring basis.

In light of all the possible grounds for anxiety, Jesus’ words “do not worry about tomorrow” seem more like an impossible challenge than any real comfort. But it's worth asking why the Bible calls us not to worry. To begin with, God desires our blessing and anxiety is contradictory to that, dividing us and pulling us apart. But there is another reason. In reality, anxiety is an act of pride, and that in at least a couple ways. First, anxiety is always future-oriented. It's kind of a prophecy about the future—usually a false prophecy. The truth is we don’t actually know the future. When we allow ourselves to be consumed by worry, we are basically living in a future that we’ve created in our own minds. But that’s the problem: only God can make the future. And in that sense, our anxiety sets us up in the role of God. Not surprisingly, it turns out horribly. Secondly, 
anxiety is a result of pride because it occurs when we calculate our own resources and abilities to overcome potential problems and then somewhere deep down we realize: we are insufficient. It is the result of exhausted self-reliance.

Why we cannot free ourselves from anxiety

Anxiety is in itself an unpleasant experience, and so people are naturally uncomfortable staying in that state. We try to end our worry, to get free of it in one of two basic ways.

The first is to try to change the equation. If we worry about being successful enough, we set about working harder. If we worry about finding a mate, we set about making ourselves more attractive. Just consider how much advertising is geared toward this idea! If we worry about our abilities not being enough to meet a challenge, we seek to enhance those abilities. Of course, to some degree that’s okay. If you’re worried about failing your math test, you may just need to study harder and then you’ll be less worried. However, the problem is there are some things—many things actually—that we cannot change. Sometimes people will seek to shortcut the reality of our inability to change the equation. We try to convince ourselves that we’ve changed the equation when in reality we haven’t. We hurl self-aggrandizing embellishments at our anxiety like pebbles at an angry bear about to devour us. We tells ourselves pleasant lies about how we are successful and important—though this may not actually any basis in reality. And sooner or later there comes a time of crisis when these lies we tell ourselves begin to crumble. All of a sudden our fictitious ego-stroking runs into the jolting reality of our own insufficiency. It's at that point that people often turn to the second attempt to avoid anxiety.

We hide. We attempt to distract ourselves with other activities, with excessive amounts of entertainment, social interaction, food, drink, sleep, sex or drugs. In a word, we try to suffocate our anxiety under a pillow of amusement, but it tenaciously refuses to die. We are just putting off the inevitable and when our anxiety comes back, it’s all the more vicious for our attempts to kill it.

The problem is that both of these ways of “coping” with anxiety misunderstand what causes it in the first place. Both methods do not work because they have the same root as anxiety itself: self-reliance. Anxiety comes in the first place when we consider potential future problems and realizes that our current resources aren’t enough. But then our attempt to overcome the resultant anxiety are just further based on self-reliance! Either we try to squeeze more out of self, convincing ourselves that our resources are actually enough, or we simply run from the problems because we've realized that our resources are not enough.  In short, the whole problem of anxiety begins with being locked in the vicious cycle of self-reliance, and this is why we can never get free from it by continuing to look to ourselves. We need someone else to break the cycle.

What frees us from anxiety

The answer is that what frees us from worry is not a what but a Who. Peter says in his first epistle, "Cast your anxieties on Him, because He cares for you." (
1 Pet. 5:7) We are freed from anxiety not because we know something, but because we know Someone—Jesus. Our anxiety is based on not knowing the future and our inability to deal with it's challenges. But the reality is that we don’t need to know the future; we just need to know the One who holds the future. Freedom from anxiety is not about seeing the path of life in front of us, but about knowing the 
One who holds our hand as we walk on that path, even if we cannot see the next step forward.

In the midst of great suffering and before his own martyrdom, not knowing at the time if he’d be killed or not, the apostle Paul wrote, “I know whom I have believed and am confident that He is able to keep what I have committed to Him until that Day.” (2 Tim. 1:12) He didn’t say “I know what’s going to happen” or “I know I can handle it”. Rather, though the future was ominous and Paul knew that martyrdom was a challenge he didn’t have resources for, he still had confidence. He knew in Whom he had believed—in Christ—and he knew that Christ had the resources to make sure everything worked out in the end, in “that Day”. 


During his first imprisonment, Paul wrote the following in
Php. 4:6-7, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” Paul repeats the frequent Scriptural call not to live in anxiety, but rather to entrust our circumstances to God, to His resources. And here’s the promise Paul notes: peace which surpasses understanding. He does not promise peace that comes from understanding. Paul is not saying, “Just pray and God will explain everything.” He’s not saying, “God will show you the full plan for how He’s going to work it out.” No! If God did do that, we’d just trust our understanding. Instead, the peace God gives us is a peace which surpasses understanding, not based on information or calculation, but on trusting the heart of God. We walk by faith, not by sight.


The reason we can be freed from anxiety is not because we see the future, but because we see Jesus. He also stood on the brink of the unknown—on the edge of the grave. Yes, He had the promises of the Bible as we do, but as a man He had to trust His Father in the darkness. However unlike us, Christ was forsaken in the darkness. The Father let go of His hand on the cross so that He could take our hand and never let go. Christ was cut off from the resources of the Father so that we might always have access to His resources. And yet, the Father did not leave Him forever. He rose Him up in glory just as He had promised. Jesus went through the dark night of death, loss, shame, guilt, failure—and came out into the dawn of glory and eternal blessedness. The resurrection is proof that whatever we go through, as those who love God, really will work out for good. It's proof that He really does care for us. He has dealt with our death and guilt, He has given our life meaning, He has proven our worth in giving His life for ours, He has accepted us, does not judge us for our crimes but loves us with an everlasting love. And when we see Him, His heart, what He did for us on the cross—our anxiety melts away like frost before the relentless spring sun. We might not see what is down the road, we realize fully that our resources will not be enough, but we know that He cares for us, Has cared for us in giving Himself for us. That is the peace that surpasses understanding.


This article is based on an excerpt from my sermon "Anxiety and the Peace of God", available in Russian here. If you enjoyed this article and want to catch future posts, don't forget to subscribe to the blog.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Palm Sunday and False Worship


It was Sunday before the Passover. The crowds had come out from Jerusalem in throngs to worship Jesus as the promised Messiah. They laid their own clothes on the road before Him in a costly gesture of recognition. He rode upon a donkey just as the prophesies foretold. They cried out “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” But—Jesus wept. He cried over Jerusalem which stood before Him, mourning the fact that the city didn’t recognize Him, didn’t recognize this day. But here’s the strange part: the crowd worshiping Him, waiving palm branches—they had come out from Jerusalem. So what does Jesus mean that they didn’t recognize Him?

There’s a hint in the words the crowd declared. The phrase, “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” is taken from Ps. 118. This was a Psalm that the Jews traditionally sang as they went up to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles. This was a feast that pre-figured the coming Kingdom of God. It was a celebration of harvest and joy. They would also use palm branches in their worship on the Feast of Tabernacles. But that’s the problem: Jesus wasn’t coming to Jerusalem on the Feast of Tabernacles. He was coming for Passover, for the sacrifice of the Lamb.

Jesus wept because He knew the crowd didn’t recognize Him for who he was and what He really came for. He knew they didn’t worship Him for who He was, but rather for what they could get out of Him. They were more than happy to worship a Messiah who was going to establish God’s Kingdom and reign over Israel in peace and prosperity, kick out the occupying Romans and generally make life great. But that’s not exactly what happened. When Jesus didn’t come and set Himself up as the new Ruler over Israel, didn’t drive out the Roman, the crowd’s tune changed. In fact, we read that many in Jerusalem just days later joined in the cry before Pilate, “Crucify Him!” That only showed that most of them weren’t worshiping Jesus in the first place, only what they could get from Him.

Too often those who claim to worship Jesus have a similar approach. We are happy to worship as long as things are going smoothly, as long as we think that Jesus will give us what we want from Him. We look to Him as a means to our various ends of improvement, comfort, prosperity, etc. But what about when that doesn’t happen? What about when sickness is not met with healing but with death? What about when things go from bad to worse? What about when following Jesus means that our family turns away from us, that we lose a job, that we suffer? We’re all for the feast of joy and happy to worship Jesus when we think He’s come to give it to us right now. But what about when what’s actually coming is slaughter? The truth is, sometimes Jesus doesn’t give us what we hoped for or expected. When that’s the case, what is our reaction? Will our cries turn from, “Blessed is He…” to “Crucify Him!”? Do we get bitter, resentful, even hateful towards God? If so, we show that we weren’t really worshiping Jesus in the first place, only what He could give us. Like the consumeristic crowd outside of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, our worship is often false because we see Jesus as a means rather than the End in Himself. He is worthy of our worship not because of what He gives us, but because He has given us Himself.

This article is based on an excerpt from my sermon on Palm Sunday 2015, available in Russian here. If you enjoyed this article and want to catch future posts, don't forget to subscribe to the blog.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Negative Holiness


Holiness—this word has been twisted and misunderstood more than many in the biblical lexicon. Modern society finds the concept of “holiness” unsavory at best—something akin to lima beans: you realize it might theoretically be good for you, but it still triggers your gag reflex. If the term is used at all, it’s usually only as an accusation or an insult. “Oh, he's so holy!” is not generally a compliment on someone’s spiritual maturity, but rather intended as an indictment against an obnoxiously self-righteous person.  Sadly, when we hear the word “holiness", we’re more likely to picture the Pharisees than Jesus. Even as Christians, the word often carries for us a vague feeling of burden and drudgery. And to be honest, most of the reason holiness has gained this distasteful reputation is probably the fault of Christians. 

Beginning in the 19th century, the so-called “holiness movement” started gaining popularity among certain groups of believers. Of course, Christianity has always had an ascetic fringe. But in modern society, it is largely this movement that has led to the association of the word “holiness” with moral prudishness, extreme and extra-biblical rules, a fixation on “avoiding the world”, and making oneself “perfect”. It’s important to note a couple things about these “holiness clubs”. First, they were born out of a theological underpinning which believed that man could, through rigorous moral effort, actually attain a state of sinless perfection—“total sanctification”. The power of the Holy Spirit in our lives can and should make significant changes. But a movement that says we can attain a state of sinlessness in the present life essentially denies the total depravity of man and claims for its proponents a level of spirituality that event the Apostle Paul did not ascribe to himself. (Php. 3:12)

Second, these holiness societies often demanded complete abstinence from even moderate alcohol use, tobacco, dancing, playing cards, the theatre and other “worldly” forms of entertainment. Of course, the fact that the Bible knows no such prohibitions didn’t dissuade the “holiness” advocates from insisting on them. They, apparently, wanted to be holier than God Himself—an endeavor which never works out well. And as with the Pharisees of old, it has ultimately done more to push people away from God than bring them near. Despite their misguided methods, the earliest groups were generally motivated by a desire for a deeper experience of God. But the modern residue of this movement—which still lives on in quite a few fundamentalist and Evangelical groups—clings to the self-imposed prohibitions yet with little real thirst to experience God. In addition, it’s notable that the “sins” these groups focused on were usually the more visible and “carnal” sins, rather than things like pride, gossip and unforgiveness which the Bible condemns at least as much as the others.

This is all tragic because, though the Bible calls us to holiness, this sort of pharisaic prudishness is not at all what God invites us to. Scripture speaks of the “beauty of holiness” but too often Christians have turned it into something grotesque. The word “holiness” in Scripture literally means to be “separated” or “set apart”.  We tend to think of this as being separated from sin, from the world, from fleshly habits, etc.  There certainly is that aspect to true holiness.  But it would be better to understand the meaning of holiness as “dedication”.  Scripture presents the “separation” of holiness not as primarily separation from something, but separation to something—or to Someone in the case of the Christian.  Holiness as the Bible defines it is, first and foremost, being wholly given to God, and only separated from those things which would hinder our intimacy with Him. 

Many Christians see holiness like celibacy: primarily concerned with what you abstain from. No wonder holiness seems so unattractive to modern society! But the picture of biblical holiness is that of a marriage, not of celibacy. Yes, the holiness of a marriage does include vows to separate yourself, to “abstain” from all other lovers, but the point of marriage is not in abstaining from something. The purpose of marriage is to fully devote yourself to your spouse—to cleave to them exclusively, to delight in one another and be one with them.

For too many Christians, the focus of “holiness” is in giving things up, avoiding this, or not doing that. They define holiness in almost completely negative terms.  But that’s not the point of holiness. Biblical holiness is not about self-denial for its own sake.  Biblical holiness is about complete union with Christ, cleaving to Him. And only as a consequence of the primary purpose do we deny those things that hinder our closeness with Him.  Holiness is not about what you give up, it’s about what you gain: intimacy with Christ. 

Defining holiness as avoiding sin is like defining marriage as avoiding adultery. While a marriage cannot be healthy when either spouse is involved in adultery, the lack of adultery in a marriage is no guarantee of a good marriage. There are plenty of marriages that, while no adultery is present, are still cold and loveless. Fidelity is a necessary condition for a good marriage, but it is not sufficient by itself to ensure a good marriage. And just as a good marriage is more than avoiding adultery, true holiness is more than avoiding sin—never less, but definitely more. This is the mistake of the Christian who defines holiness as primarily what he avoids, rather than Whom he enjoys.

We need to learn to see holiness not so much as a state of behavior, but as a state of relationship. The truth is that some Christians are so interested in “holiness” that they care nothing for Jesus. That is, their “holiness” consists primarily in looking at themselves and making sure they are up to par, rather than looking at Christ and delighting in Him. All of their “holiness” amounts to little more than glorified navel-gazing. This is like the husband who is fixated on being a good husband. He wants so much to have a good marriage—if only his wife would get out of the way and quit messing it up! Of course, the truly good husband is the one who is not hung up on how good of a husband he is, but who is fixated on loving, serving and being one with his wife. Similarly, the truly holy Christian is the one who thinks very little about his achievements in holiness, but thinks a great deal about loving and enjoying Jesus.

Of course, there are things we must deny in pursuing intimacy with God.  That is part of holiness, just as forsaking old lovers is part of marriage.  Jesus said in Mk. 8:34, “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.”  There is an obvious element of self-denial in these words. But the end of the phrase is the point of everything that comes before it: to follow Jesus, to be with Him. We must realize that anytime the Lord calls us to “deny self”, it is not so He can deprive us of something, but so He can give us something so much better—Himself.  He asks us to let go of the stone in our hand only so He can fill it with bread. 

So let’s stop defining holiness primarily by what we give up and realize that the essence of true holiness is intimacy with Christ. If we have made the keeping of rules the measure of holiness—especially extra-biblical, self-imposed rules—let us repent of neglecting our Bridegroom. May we begin to define holiness not in terms of what we avoid, but of Whom we enjoy.

This article is based on an excerpt from my sermon on 1 Peter 1:13-16 “Holiness vs. Religion” available in Russian here. If you enjoyed this article and want to catch future posts, don't forget to subscribe to the blog.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Good News of God's Foreknowledge


This is the fifth and final article in my series on man's free will and God's foreknowledge.
If you missed them, check out part 1part 2part 3, and part 4

If you enjoyed this series and want to catch future posts, 
don't forget to subscribe to the blog.

God’s foreknowledge is at the root of our election. (1 Pet. 1:2) But the question remains: what does that mean? We saw in the last article that God’s foreknowledge is not merely something He sees, but something He does. Yet that still doesn't tell us exactly what it is. In this final article in the series, I want to lay out a thorough definition of God’s foreknowledge from Scripture itself so we can see why it is such good news.

How “foreknowledge” is used in Scripture

The word is only used twice as a noun (prognosis - foreknowledge) and five times as a verb (proginosko - to foreknow) in the New Testament. These occurrences are, generally speaking, fairly spread out. But interestingly, two of the seven uses are found in chapter one of 1 Peter. The first mention of the term there is in the verse referenced at the beginning of this article, which says that we are “elect according to the foreknowledge of God.” (1 Pet. 1:2) The other use is in 1 Pet. 1:20, “[Christ] indeed was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you…” Did you catch it? Peter is speaking of Christ and using the same word in the original text (prognosis) that is used of our election. But here it’s translated as “foreordained”—and with good reason. (ESV is consistent in translating it “He was foreknown…”) This verse obviously does not just mean that the Father “knew Christ’s autonomous decisions ahead of time.” Rather, it is speaking about the fact that Christ was “known” and ordained—appointed from eternity past in God’s redemptive plan as the Savior of all. This use of the term already shows clearly that God’s “foreknowledge” (prognosis) is more than His passive observation of the future. 

Another important passage for understanding the concept of “foreknowledge” in the New Testament is Acts 2:23, in which Peter says of Christ, “Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death…” (emph. mine) Let me rephrase that so we catch the importance and full impact of this statement. Peter says, “God’s set plan and foreknowledge delivered Jesus over to you, and you took Him and killed and crucified Him with lawless hands.” God’s foreknowledge and “set plan” were something that ordained and led to the crucifixion of Christ, though it was indeed the hands of lawless men who carried this out and bear the guilt for it. 

Now, to be fair, there are two places in the New Testament where the word prognosis is used in the sense of simply knowing something ahead of time or from the beginning. However, these two uses concern man’s “knowing from the beginning”, not God’s. When it is used of God, foreknowledge implies not simply a passive observation of future events, but rather some activity on the part of God that leads to the accomplishment of His will. In the apocryphal book of Judith the word “foreknowledge” is also used in this way. Praying to God, there is a line where Judith says, “You have designed the things that are now and those that are to come. Yea, the things you intended came to pass, and the things you decided presented themselves and said, ‘Lo, we are here'; for all your ways are prepared in advance, and your judgment is with foreknowledge.” That is, God’s foreknowledge is here again tied with God’s determined plan. They are nearly synonyms. While this book is not part of Scripture, it does give us further insight into the way they word was used and understood at that time.

In Rom. 8:29, concerning God’s election of Christians, Paul says, “For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren.” This “foreknowing” is not merely to “know in advance”. We can see that clearly because Paul uses this term again about God's election of Israel in Rom. 11:2, saying, “God has not cast away His people whom He foreknew…” God “foreknew” His people Israel. The context emphasizes that His foreknowledge and sovereign election of Israel is the grounds of His continued faithfulness to them. If foreknowledge was merely seeing the future in advance, surely God would’ve seen that Israel as a whole would turn away from Him and reject Christ. If it were only about foreseeing, God would likely not have elected them! God's election of Israel was not based on “future faith” since, as a whole, that faith in Christ was lacking on the part of Israel. The context again clearly shows that foreknowledge is more than just knowing the future.

Why call it “foreknowledge”?

If “foreknowledge” is not simply knowledge about the future, why call it “foreknowledge”? Here it is important also to understand what “know” means in this case. There are actually a number of Greek words that are translated “know” in our English Bibles, though each has its own unique emphasis. The word “foreknowledge” (prognosis), comes from the Greek word gnosis, or “to know”. This particular Greek word primarily speaks of an experiential and personal knowledge, not just theory or information. Gnosis is the same word that is used of when a man “knew” his wife and they bore a child. Obviously this does not mean he just passively obtained information about her! To say you “know” (ginosko) someone implies a relationship, not just knowledge about someone.

In fact, we even retain this difference in English to some extent. It’s one thing to know about a person, and another to know that person. When referring to people, to say you “know” someone implies relationship with them. So when we read that God “elected us according to foreknowledge”, we must understand that it’s not merely speaking of information that God obtained by passive observance of some future choice. Rather, it speaks of God’s choice to enter into loving relationship—to love us from before the foundation of the world. It is important also to see that Scripture never speaks of unbelievers as being “foreknown”. Think about this: if God’s foreknowledge only means His seeing the future, it would be equally proper to say He “foreknew” unbelievers just as He does believers. But the word is never used like that in Scripture. It is always exclusively the elect who are “foreknown” by God. In fact, it is not even said that our decisions are foreknown—as if foreknowledge were informational—but rather that we ourselves are foreknown.

This understanding of knowledge as personal relationship is clear in the OT as well. God says to Jeremiah in Jer. 1:5, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; before you were born I sanctified you; I ordained you a prophet to the nations.” In other words, God had known, chosen and loved Jeremiah before he was even born. In Amos 3:2 God says of Israel, “You only have I known of all the families of the earth…” Now, does that mean God lacks information about other nations? Of course not. The knowledge God speaks of here is a personal, intimate knowledge—a choice on God’s part to enter into covenant relationship with His elect people Israel. In the New Testament in similar fashion, Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount tells of those who come to Him at the last day and say, “Lord, Lord, didn’t we do all these good deeds in your name?” Jesus answers, “I never knew you.” (Mt. 7:23) Does that mean that Christ did not see them or have information about them? No, it means these people were busy being religious, but never received Christ’s love, never had a personal relationship.

So, let’s summarize the definition of foreknowledge in the Bible. That God has “foreknown” the elect does not mean that He merely looked down the corridor of time to see the future, libertarian choice of those who will respond in faith to the Gospel and elected those. God’s foreknowledge is not just a passive observation of future decisions, and we are not the source of our election. As we saw, there are many problems with that view. Rather, God’s foreknowledge is His gracious choice to love His people, His elect—to “know” them before the foundation of the world and enter into covenant with them. It is not that we chose Him and then He elected us in response. Rather, as John says, “We love Him because He first loved us.” (1 Jn. 4:19) God’s foreknowledge is His active love—His will to enter into covenant relationship with us. And here we can already begin to understand why God’s foreknowledge is such good news.

The good news of God’s foreknowledge

The good news of God’s foreknowledge is that He has chosen to love us from eternity past. He has chosen to bring us into relationship with Himself and He is the one who draws us. The rest of 1 Peter 1:2 hashes out what exactly this election leads to, “…elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace be multiplied.” We are chosen by God because He has loved us from all eternity. He foreknew us, and desired to enter into relationship with us as His own people. The Father is the source of our election. The second phrase speaks of the outworking of our election: by the sanctification of the Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit who works in our hearts to bring us to God. It is He who convicts, draws and regenerates us and makes us holy by the grace of God. But how does He do this? By bringing us “to obedience and the sprinkling of the blood of Christ.” It is the blood of Christ that washes us from sin and makes us holy. The Spirit applies the sacrifice of Christ to us. The Father initiates our acceptance of that sacrifice by His electing love. The whole triune God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—have collaborated together to make us His own people! How glorious! The obedience that it speaks of here is the obedience of faith in the Gospel. The Holy Spirit, sent by the Father who foreknew us, draws us to Christ and reveals the Gospel to us that we may obey and submit to it.

Make no mistake; this is real obedience and submission. Man’s natural tendency is to rely on his own strength, to try and prove himself, to make himself good enough. It was Martin Luther who taught that self-righteousness is the default mode of the human heart. Therefore, we must indeed submit to the Gospel and not resist God’s grace. We must let go of our self-confidence and place all our confidence in Christ. We must not look to any of our own works for salvation, but only to His work for us on the cross. We must obey the message of grace that He has done it all, that it is finished, and all we must do is receive. 

At this point it's likely someone would argue that I am implying something I'm not. While I do believe that God’s election is unconditional, based on His own choice to love us, I do not believe this means that the grace of God is “irresistible”. One might ask, “But how can that be if our election is from God?” I have no idea! But as I mentioned in my previous article on logic vs. Scripture, it is not our job to reconcile all points of Scripture with our fallen reasoning. Our job is to assert what Scripture does and Scripture asserts the good news of God’s foreknowledge, as well as the danger of resisting His call. In God’s election of us, in the Father’s foreknowledge of us as His children, in the Holy Spirit’s work in our hearts to make us His own, and in being washed by the blood of Christ and submitting to the good news of the Gospel—we are filled with grace and peace. They are multiplied and spill over as we grasp more and more this wonderful salvation which is all of grace—and that is truly good news! Let us rejoice then in God’s foreknowledge, by which he has chosen to love us and make us His own and give all the glory to God alone.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Basis of God's Election


This article is the fourth in a series on man's free will and God's foreknowledge.
If you missed them, check out part 1part 2 and part 3.
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You are not the basis for your election. And it's a good thing—because if you were, you'd never have been elected in the first place. In the last articlewe saw that God’s perfect knowledge of the future implies that the future is determined. But I left this question unanswered: on what basis is the future determined? Or, to give it a more blatantly soteriological flavor: what is the basis for your election as God's child? Answer: NOT YOU. Yet some Christians would explain it this way: “God looks down the corridor of time with His perfect knowledge of the future, sees those who will respond with faith to the Gospel, and elects them.” A more modern analogy is that God has “watched a movie of the future” and based His election on what He sees. In other words, they think that our being “elect according to the foreknowledge of God” (1 Pet. 1:2) means nothing more than that God knows the future perfectly and bases His election of us on our own future decisions. To put it in theological categories, this is an Arminian understanding of God’s election known as “conditional election”. They contend that God’s election of believers is based on His seeing in advance who will have faith when presented with the Gospel and then He elects those. Besides the fact that the real, biblical meaning of "foreknowledge" is more than just knowledge of the future (which we'll get to in the next article), there are a couple big problems with this understanding.

First, it makes man the fountainhead and foundation of his own election. It essentially implies that those who are just a little more spiritually open, more spiritually insightful or sensitive, etc.—these are the ones whom God chooses. But the Bible says that God elected us “according to the good pleasure of His will” (Eph. 1:4-5), not “according to His ability to see our future choice and spiritual openness on a celestial movie screen.” God also said to Israel through Moses in Deut 7:7-8, “The Lord did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any other people, for you were the least of all peoples; but because the Lord loves you…” In other words: "You are elect not because of anything in yourselves. If that were the case, you wouldn't be elect because... well, you're not that great! But you have been chosen because God has loved you. God loves you because He loves you." The same goes for us as Christians. God says that His own love is the source of our election, not anything in us. His goodness, not ours, is the basis of our identity as His children. 

Second, this theory of conditional election is really an attempt to leave some semblance of man's libertarian freedom in tact. It's as though God at some point before creation looked into a (non-existent) hypothetical future where men have libertarian freedom to choose God in their own power and then God chose the elect on the basis of this fiction. A person who upholds conditional election may very well agree that at the present time the future is set and cannot be changed. But their concept of God's election implies that it was based on a libertarian future which God supposedly saw in eternity past. The claim is that at least this way the “responsibility” is on man for his election, even if it is now determined.

But there’s a problem: The reality where man's will is not fallen and has libertarian freedom does not exist. If God's election were based on viewing some such hypothetical world, then He would be electing fictional characters instead of real people. But if God knows the actual future perfectly and precisely, then He also knew that we would NOT choose Him apart from His own, gracious drawing. As I laid out in my previous article on free will, man’s will is unable to desire God and, moreover, to believe in the Gospel unless God should initiate a work in his heart by grace. So, if God deals in reality rather than fiction (which I believe He does), there would be nothing positive in the elect to foresee that He Himself didn't graciously bring about. And if He merely foresees a person's "free choice"—the unrestricted expression of their fallen will—then there is nothing to foresee except sin and rebellion against the Gospel. And hence, no one would be elect. This is why the idea that our election flows from ourselves while God is a passive observer cannot hold up under scrutiny. 

The Bible clearly says that man is not the source of his own election. He cannot even desire to be elect without God’s supernatural work on his heart. Man’s will is not “free” in the sense that he could, in his own power, want God. Nevertheless, man does bear responsibility for his own sin. Why? Because he chooses it without any influence from God. That is, as I mentioned before, man does have a limited kind of “freedom”. We are free to choose what we want, and so we bear responsibility for our choice. The problem is, in our fallen will, we want sin. And because sin is what we want, we are responsible for it. While the Bible clearly points to God as the source of our gracious election, it just as clearly points to man as the source of his own sin and consequent damnation. Some might try to argue that, “logically”, if God predestines the elect for salvation, He must predestine the reprobate for damnation. While we might tend to reason in this way, the Bible knows of no such doctrine. Again, we must follow Scripture over our natural reasoning. We are in need of God’s gracious intervention to be saved. We don’t need any help in damning ourselves—we can manage that one on our own. It was Charles Spurgeon who wrote: "Damnation is all of man, from top to bottom, and salvation is all of grace, from first to last. He that perishes chooses to perish; but he that is saved is saved because God has chosen to save him."

So what does all this mean for the fact that God elects us “according to His foreknowledge”? It implies that God’s “foreknowledge” must be something more than simple, passive observation of our choice in advance. Our choice, by itself, is always wrong. Foreknowledge must imply not merely something that God sees, but something that God does to overcome the natural inclination of our fallen will. So what is God’s foreknowledge? This is what I’ll look at in the next and final article in this series.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

If God Knows the Future...


This article is the third in a series on man's free will and God's foreknowledge.
If you missed them, check out part 1 and part 2.
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“…elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father…” 1 Peter 1:2

It’s no coincidence that Peter begins his first epistle to the suffering church with God’s election. He does so because God’s benevolent sovereignty towards us as believers should be a source of great joy and comfort, particularly in times of serious trial. How tragic it is that (apparently for some Christians) God’s gracious election of us as His children should be more a cause for argument and contention than it is for worship and joy. Nevertheless, the question of how God’s election works has haunted the church for centuries and cannot be sidestepped. A large part of the debate centers around the word “foreknowledge”, which I will be looking at in-depth in this and the next couple of posts. The greatest difficulty in understanding the Bible’s teaching on foreknowledge is in developing an accurate definition of the term. But before we come to a full-fledged, biblical definition, we need to deal with some of our assumptions about the word.

We read the English word “foreknowledge” and probably just assume that it means to know something before it happens. In other words, we think foreknowledge is a kind of synonym for prophecy. We talk as though God’s foreknowledge is just part of His omniscience. That is, because He knows everything, He must know the future as well. The Greek word used in the New Testament for “foreknowledge” is prognosis, from which we get the modern English word. But in English, a prognosis is really more of an educated guess, a forecast about the future, rather than any kind of sure knowledge. Doctors give prognoses of a disease—but sometimes they're correct, and sometimes they're not. I will show in a following article that the biblical concept of foreknowledge, or prognosis in the NT, does not refer merely God’s knowledge of the future. Nevertheless, we can at least start from the fact that God does know the future. The Bible states this clearly and there are some important consequences of God's knowledge of the future which relate to the question at hand.

First, the Bible plainly declares that God does not just guess about the future. We read in Isa. 46:9-10, “For I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like Me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things that are not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will do all My pleasure.’” God is unequivocal about His exact knowledge of future events. God does not just offer “prognoses” about the future, but knows the future with certainty. If He did not, prophecy of any kind would be impossible. In fact, God knows the future with such detail, that David writes in Ps. 139:4,16, “There is not a word on my tongue, but behold, O Lord, You know it altogether… in Your book they all were written, the days fashioned for me, when as yet there were none of them.” God’s knows the future “altogether” as the Psalmist says. He knows the future without error and completely—and not just the big events, but in minute detail. The future which God knows meticulously is guaranteed to take place. Every day of your life, David says, is written in God’s book even before you are born. Let this blow your mind for a second: God already knows and already knew from eternity every thought you will think, every word you will say, every decision you will make, every breath you will breathe until the day you die! There is nothing hidden before Him, “but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account.” (Heb. 4:13)

Open Theism: Right Problem, Wrong Conclusion

Most orthodox Christians agree on the fact that God knows the future. But there are a few Christians out there who believe in what is called “open theism”. Basically, open theism says that God does not know the future because it is contingent on our decisions which haven’t been made yet and is therefore unknowable in principle. The future, they say, is “open” for any number of alternate possibilities—hence the name “open theism”. Of course, this directly contradicts Scripture which says, for example, in 1 Jn. 3, “God is greater than our heart, and knows all things.”  “All things” would include the future as well.

So why does the open theist affirm that God doesn’t know the future? Because they correctly realize the dilemma: if God does know the future perfectly and with absolute certainty, then the future cannot be other than what God knows it to be. That implies that the future is “closed”, rather than “open”. There are no other “possible futures” than the one God knows to exist. Further, they argue that then there would be no “real free will”. If God knows the future, that means we cannot actually choose anything that would be contrary to that future which God knows will take place. Confused yet?

If you’ve seen The Matrix trilogy, perhaps this illustration will help. There is a character called “the Oracle” who can see the future. In one scene, s
he asks Neo (the hero of the story) if he wants some candy. Neo asks her in return, “Do you already know if I'm going to take it?” She answers, “I wouldn’t be much of an oracle if I didn’t.” And he replies, “But if you already know, how can I make a choice?” That’s exactly the problem that open theism realizes. What they are saying is, “God’s perfect knowledge of future events would destroy human libertarian free will. Things could not be other than He knows them to be. You cannot choose other than He knows you will.”

The implications of God’s perfect knowledge of the future are rightly understood by the open theists. God’s perfect knowledge of the future does destroy what is called “libertarian free will”—the possibility of a future other than the one God knows. The problem with open theism is not that they realize the contradiction of libertarian free will and God’s perfect knowledge of the future, but that they make the wrong conclusion. They would rather cling to free will and deny that God perfectly and precisely knows the future, even though “He wouldn’t be much of a God if He didn’t.” They are happy to sacrifice God's omniscience on the altar of their autonomy. This is sad, but not surprising. Man has wanted to be in the place of God ever since the Garden of Eden. We want to be the ones to determine the future. We want to put God on our level—or rather, put ourselves on His level. Despite their erroneous conclusion, open theism correctly understands what God’s perfect knowledge of the future implies.

So, before we go further in the discussion of God’s “foreknowledge”, we need to understand this: If God knows the future precisely and perfectly, then that future must take place. It cannot be other than it is. It is determined. Otherwise, God couldn’t actually know the future or at least may be mistaken about it. Therefore, God’s perfect knowledge of the future and the foreordination of that future are inextricably linked. They are two sides of the same theological coin. If God knows the future, then it must be determined.  And if it is not determined, then God cannot know it.  Of course, it’s one thing to say that the future is determined. But that does not answer the question of the basis on which it is determined. This is the question I will look at in the next post as we work towards a biblical definition of God's foreknowledge.


Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Lines in the Doctrinal Sand: Logic vs. Scripture


This article is the second in a series on man's free will and God's foreknowledge.  Read part 1 here.
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“The five points of Calvinism stand or fall together!”  You may have heard that polarizing statement before (as have I) from both those who would reject all five points as well as from those who accept all five points.  But I'm going to have to cry foul for a very simple reason: I accept some points, but not others.  And there is an ever-increasing number of four-point Calvinists out there, as well as Lutherans who accept at least two of the points. Even classical Arminians accept one of the five.  So the facts show that many believers do not hold the five together.  This question has important implications for how we relate logic and Scripture to each other.  

When a person argues that the five points of Calvinism stand or fall together, what they most likely mean is that the five points of Calvinism are a whole, logical set.  One can at least see how the points do work together logically, but that doesn’t mean it’s all or none.  Why not?  To understand, we have to push a bit further.  One might continue the line of reasoning and say that the five points of Calvinism also logically imply the lack of necessity to evangelize, or the supralapsarian position (a minority position among Reformed believers that the logical order of God’s decrees first chose the non-elect for damnation and then ordained the fall to accomplish this, thereby implicating God in a sort of “cookies-made-to-burn” theology.)  These are positions more often associated with what might be called hyper-Calvinism.  They are also positions which an overwhelming majority of Reformed believers would reject.  We would do well to remember that, in engaging with believers of other persuasions, we must learn to interact with what they actually claim to believe, not with what we think their position implies.  Anything less is dishonest and only leads to division and accusation, rather than healthy discussion.

If you wanted to press this logical progression, you might argue like this: “Well, IF, as the Calvinist says, God’s grace is irresistible, then it is impossible that any of the elect should fail to receive Christ.  Therefore, it is unnecessary to evangelize.”  Now, we might say that this is a solid, logical progression.  But it is obviously not biblical, as Christ called us to preach the Gospel to the whole world (Mk. 16:15).  At the end of the day, our goal is to be ruled by Scripture, not human logic.  This is true for the Reformed believer as well as the non-Reformed.  Aside from the rare hyper-Calvinist (who traditional Calvinists usually have little patience for), you will not find a Reformed believer who thinks that evangelism is futile and unnecessary.  The Reformed believer also draws his line in the doctrinal sand at some point and says, “I can see how it might be considered logical, but it is not biblical and that settles it.”  The difference between the Reformed and non-Reformed believer is where we think that line ought to be drawn, not the basis on which it should be drawn—Scripture.  

For example, one can see how the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement is a logical consequence of the other four points.  It is claimed, “If Christ’s death truly did pay for the sins of all those for whom He died, then He must have died only for the elect, since God would be unjust to punish those sins for which Christ already bore the penalty.”  Is that a logical argument?  Sure. The problem is, in my evaluation, it is not biblical.  Clear passages like 1 Jn. 2:2 say that, “And He [Christ] Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.”  Our job is not to find a logical reconciliation for everything taught in Scripture, but rather to hold everything that Scripture teaches in faith, whether we can exhaustively explain it or not.  Sure, we try to make the best sense of it we can, but ultimately we have to humble ourselves and admit with Paul, “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!” (Rom. 11:33)

We have generally learned to practice this kind of biblically faithful humility when it comes to the being of God Himself.  For example, we might concede that there is a certain humanly-logical consistency to the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ view of God.  Their reasoning would go, “The Bible says clearly that there is one God.  God is a personal being, not an impersonal force.  The essence of a personal being is his personality.  And if there is one God only, then it stands to reason that God is uni-personal.  To state that God has multiple personalities is to state that there are multiple gods, which is heresy.”  Is their argument logical?  Sure, to a degree (we won’t get into the incorrect assumptions this argument makes here).  But is it biblical?  Absolutely not!  The Bible states that there is One God, eternally existent in three distinct persons.  Is that “logical”?  Well, I haven’t yet met a person who has fully wrapped their head around that one.  But is it biblical?  Absolutely.  At the end of the day, we need to draw our lines in the doctrinal sand not according to the dictates of supposed human logic, but in submission to the inspired and infallible text of the Bible.  We tend to have more of a humility about this when it comes to the ineffable being of God, realizing that we finite mortals shouldn’t actually be able to fully comprehend Him.  But we ought to also realize that the principle is the same when it comes to salvation.  After all, if “salvation is of the Lord” (Jon. 2:9) as Scripture says, why would we assume that we should be able to completely figure it out any more than we could figure out the being of God?

Does this mean that God is not logical?  No, it simply means that our logic, along with the rest of our being, was distorted and broken at the Fall.  Theologians speak of the noetic effects of the Fall—that our thoughts and reason are also impaired as a result of sin.  If we cannot square the truths of Scripture with our understanding of logic, surely the problem is with our own sin-broken mind, not the Word of God.  But that means that we will likely run into Scriptural truths that defy our deficient human logic.

Returning to the original question of why the logical consistency of the five points of Calvinism doesn’t mean that they “must stand of fall together”, the answer is this: logic is not the final authority; Scripture is.  I, for one, hold that man is entirely fallen and unable of himself to come to Christ “unless the Father draws him.” (Jn. 6:44)  I also hold that we ourselves are not the cause of God’s election, but rather His own love and good will towards us is the source of His election (more on this in the next article). (Eph. 1:4-5)  But I would also say that doctrines like limited atonement or irresistible grace (the L and I of Calvinism’s TULIP), while perhaps having a measure of logical consistency, are not consistent with the biblical text. (I Tim. 4:10, Lk. 7:30 respectively.) Can I exhaustively harmonize all this?  No.  Fortunately, that's not my job.  My task—and the task of every Christian—is to hold what Scripture teaches as best I am able.  My own soteriological middle-road position (and that of many others) is proof that the five points do not have to stand or fall together. Whatever stands must stand on Scripture, not mere logic.  

So, if you are guilty of trying to caricaturize Reformed believers (or Arminians for that matter), claiming that they must believe what we think are the logical implications of their position, stop.  It is neither honest nor gracious nor productive.  Plus, it actually just makes us look ignorant of the other person's position.  We must realize that Reformed and non-Reformed Christians alike are drawing a line in the doctrinal sand where they believe the Bible to draw that line.  Granted, we draw the lines in somewhat different places, but we all hopefully acknowledge that we must be ruled by the Scriptural text, not our own understanding of logic.  This gracious acknowledgement will leave room for discussion between Reformed and non-Reformed brothers and sisters on the common foundation of Scripture.  And hopefully it will help us to stop wrongfully ascribing extreme positions to those who do not hold them.

Second, we must beware of the trap of our own fallen logic.  The Scripture is our guide to truth, not our reasoning and implications from it.  Any one doctrinal position pushed ad absurdum to its logical end will lead to imbalance and even heresy (as in the example of God’s oneness noted above.)  We must be willing to be honest with ourselves and ask if some of our doctrines aren’t built more on logic than on Scripture.  The truth is that as soon as we think we have the mysteries of the divine boxed into our own broken logic, it’s probably a good sign that we’ve got something wrong.


Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Why You Don’t Believe in Free Will


This article is the first in a series on man's free will and God's foreknowledge.
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One of the big issues in discussing soteriology (how salvation works) is the question of man’s “free will”.  Let me start right out with this plea: please stop saying that people have free will!  Not because you’re a Calvinist, but because you’re a Christian and you don’t really believe in “free will”.  Let me explain why.  During the Reformation era, a group of theologians formally made this statement:
“Man has not saving grace of himself, nor of the energy of his free will, inasmuch as he, in the state of apostasy and sin, can of and by himself neither think, will, nor do anything that is truly good (such as having faith eminently is); but it is needful that he be born again of God in Christ, through his Holy Spirit, and renewed in understanding, inclination, or will, and all his powers, in order that he may rightly understand, think, will, and effect what is truly good, according to the word of Christ, John xv. 5: "Without me ye can do nothing." 
This grace of God is the beginning, continuance, and accomplishment of a good, even to this extent, that the regenerate man himself, without that prevenient or assisting, awakening, following, and co-operative 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.”
You might be thinking, “What extreme, Calvinist theologians laid out these words denying the free will of man and his innate ability to believe in the Gospel?”  Answer: the followers of Jacob Arminius.  That’s right, these words were laid out in the third and fourth Articles of Remonstrance, which became the foundational statement for the soteriological system we call Arminianism.

So first, realize that when a Christian says that we have “free will”, not only would the Calvinist adamantly disagree, but any self-respecting Arminian would as well, and so should everyone in between (which is where my own position falls.)  The problem is the term “free”.  The dictionary defines “free” as “unfettered, unrestrained, the state of not being enslaved.”  Is that what we believe? That we are not enslaved?  Jesus said that we are slaves to sin. (Jn. 8:34) Do we really believe that our will was unaffected by the fall, such that we are able to come to God on our own?  Again, Jesus counters, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him.” (Jn. 6:44) In other words, man’s will is not free to choose God in its own strength.

In the history of the Christian Church, there was a man who promoted the idea that humans have free will.  His name was Pelagius and he was justly condemned as a heretic in the 5th century.  He taught that man, in his own natural ability, has the power to attain moral perfection and choose to obey God, thus attaining salvation.  A later revision called semi-Pelagianism (also condemned as heresy in the 6th century) stated that while man could not attain perfection without the addition of God’s grace, he was yet capable of making the first steps towards God in his own power.  The Apostle Paul takes exception to this, saying, “There is none righteous, no, not one; there is none who understands; there is none who seeks after God.” (Rom. 3:10-11) No man, in his own strength, seeks for God or wills to come to Him.  Rather, God must graciously initiate and draw us to Christ, or we simply will not come. 

I remember reading Martin Luther’s Bondage of the Will a number of years ago.  What struck me was the problem of terms.  I had heard many Christians defend “free will”, but as I read, I recognized that the “free will” Luther was arguing against was something most Evangelical believers would also reject.  Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to hear Christians today affirm that man has “free will”.  In all honesty, I’ve heard a number of pastors from my own tribe say this, though I doubt they really mean what the term implies.  As we have just defined it, we don’t actually believe in “free will”.  My guess is the majority of Christians who say they believe in “free will” don’t really believe that man can come to God on his own, or be the initiator of his own salvation.  I believe that when many Christians speak of  “free will”, they mean “real will”.  We do have a will.  It is real, but it is not free.  It is in the bondage of sin.  And, left to itself, it never chooses God.  For that we need the work of grace, the drawing of the Father upon our will to lead us to Christ.  That does not mean that the will is unimportant, but that it has no ability of its own unless God imparts it.

When the Reformed believer hears a non-Reformed believer talk about “free will”, he likely thinks we mean what’s called libertarian free will.  That is, absolute, innate freedom and power to make any possible choice, including coming to God.  It should then be no surprise that all our careless talk of “free will” makes the Reformed believer concerned that we are in serious, Pelagian-style error.  That would be a serious problem if we actually believed it!  But chances are we simply mean that we have a real will, that our will, enabled and illuminated only by the effective working of God’s grace, must respond to God’s call.  It would be helpful if we just said that, rather than tossing about the misleading term of “free will”.  While the Reformed and non-Reformed brother or sister would still likely disagree as to the exact nature of the gracious work God must do in drawing us to Himself, at least both would clearly understand that no one is promoting the heretical position of semi-Pelagianism.  We do possess a real will, but without God’s interference it will always exert itself in opposition to God.  As the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said, “Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.”  Our wills are only “free” to act in accordance with their nature, but that nature is fallen and our will cannot choose what it ought (to come to God) without His initiative.    

So first, let’s realize that the differences between Reformed and non-Reformed brothers are probably not as great as we often make them seem by using improper terms.  Realize that when you say, “I believe in free will,” the Reformed believer hears “man is not completely fallen”.  And when the Reformed believer says, “Man does not have free will”, you probably hear something scary like fatalism where man’s will is completely unimportant or violated.  Don’t.  Because that’s not what either side means.  Stop speaking like semi-Pelagians, since that’s not really what you mean.  Even Arminius would scold you for affirming “free will”.*   

In reality, it is the unbelieving world that is essentially Pelagian.  Modern, western culture tells us that man is basically good and “you can do anything if you put your mind to it”.  I wonder if the modern church in the west hasn’t let its terms be dictated more by our culture than Scripture.  And if we have indeed begun to attribute any small part of our coming to God to our own ability, spiritual openness or insightfulness, rather than to God’s patient and relentless drawing of our hardened hearts to Himself—let us repent and return to a position where God gets all the glory, for He alone is the Author of salvation.

*Note: Some have suggested using the term "freed will" instead of "free will" to clarify this important distinction that man's will must be graciously acted upon by God to be free.  This term, while not clarifying exactly to whom and how that action of God applies, is still a significant improvement.