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Divine Sovereignty + Personal Responsibility = Calvinistic Salvation?

April 24, 2016 Leave a comment

divine-sovereigntyA recent comment from a Calvinist friend caused me to pause:

“Our salvation is a combination of divine sovereignty and our responsibility.”

Hmmm. That doesn’t sound like irresistible grace as advocated by ardent Calvinists i.e.:

http://www.calvinistcorner.com/tulip.htm

When God calls his elect into salvation, they cannot resist (emphasis mine). God offers to all people the gospel message. This is called the external call. But to the elect, God extends an internal call and it cannot be resisted (emphasis mine).

So, when I asked my friend if he accepts Calvin’s teaching on irresistible grace, he responded:

Yes, but [I’d refer to it as] initial sanctification based on 2 Thess 2:13; 1 Peter 1:1-2; Gal 1:11-17, Acts 16:14. Could Lydia have responded if God didn’t open her heart? The rub is that [God does this] only for the elect.

To me, all of Calvinism rises or falls on unconditional election. Irresistible grace, along with the other parts of TULIP raise secondary questions. But with my interest piqued as to something new relating to irresistible grace, I looked at the provided references. My $0.02 worth follows:

2 Thess 2:13

But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers loved by the Lord, because from the beginning God chose (emphasis mine) you to be saved through (emphasis mine) the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through (emphasis mine) belief in the truth.

Three key elements:

  • God chose you to be saved
  • Through the sanctifying work of the Spirit
  • And through belief

Chose is obviously the past tense of the word choose and per Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (c1983) means to select freely or to decide on. The way I understand this verse (and many similar verses i.e. Eph 1:4) is that God decided (past tense) that salvation would come through a two-fold process:

1) The sanctifying work of the spirit

2) Belief in the truth

As such, God decided the manner in which we would receive salvation and initiated a “two-part” plan wherein (1 – his part) God cleanses us of our sins and (2 – our part) is to simply believe. Therefore, election, simply put, is conditional on faith in Christ. That is, we’re “chosen” because we already have faith and believe. I don’t see this verse advocating God predetermining from the “foundations of the earth” who would be saved, and correspondingly, who would not be saved. To which, I recognize our responsibility to believe. However, I don’t see this verse supporting irresistible grace.

1 Pet 1:1-2

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to God’s elect, exiles scattered throughout the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, 2 who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God (emphasis mine) the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to be obedient to Jesus Christ and sprinkled with his blood: Grace and peace be yours in abundance.

Lots of little “catch-phrases” and questions arise: Who are the elect? Who has been chosen? What is the foreknowledge of God? What is the sanctifying work of the Spirit?

1st Peter clearly says, “Who have been chosen.” However, what follows is vitally important – “According to the foreknowledge of God.” I would argue that God, being omniscient, knows in advance who’ll accept his grace. It seems to me, therefore, that Calvinists confuse foreknowledge with predestination and subsequently believe that God decrees and otherwise determines whatever happens. To Calvinists, then, foreknowledge is God’s decree. I believe Romans 8:28-29 confirms my thoughts on this matter:

And we know that in all things God works for good of those who love him and have been called, according to his purpose. For whom God foreknew, (emphasis mine) he also predestined (after they accepted by faith – my interpretation) to be conformed to the likeness of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brothers.

God set up his plan. And for those individuals who would receive his grace by faith, God had already determined that they would be conformed to the likeness of his son. Simply put, God knows the future. Therefore, God knows who will believe in Jesus. Those folks (the believers) are the elected individuals. I would submit that God’s election is because of his foreknowledge of who would come to believe and not the cause of it. Again, I recognize and agree that we have a responsibility to believe. However, I don’t see this verse supporting irresistible grace.

Gal 1:11-17

11 I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. 12 I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation (emphasis mine) from Jesus Christ. 13 For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. 14 I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. 15 But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased 16 to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being. 17 I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus.

Many Calvinists have used these verses to justify their belief in a predetermined election. Part of the continuing struggle I have with Calvinism is that many people have many different interpretations. Unfortunately, to a degree, arguments can often get reduced to ‘opinions’. And for me, my opinion is that the phrase, “I received [the gospel] by revelations”, to me, underscores one’s free will as to spiritual things wherein Paul 1) was told about the gospel, 2) Believed the gospel and then 3) accepted the gospel. And again, I recognize our responsibility to believe. But again, I don’t see this verse supporting irresistible grace.

Acts 16:14

One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.

Bob George, author of Classic Christianity has stated that the same sun which hardens clay also softens wax. Some people’s hearts become tender and turn towards God while those with hearts of stone turn away from God. I believe God’s Spirit is at work in all peoples’ hearts trying to soften them to acknowledge him and walk in his ways. Perhaps some would call this “prevenient grace”. In that light, Lydia was already a worshiper of God and, I would guess, a keeper of the law. Subsequently, as she came to a full understanding of God’s grace and forgiveness through Christ, the Lord was able to do an amazing work.

With the Holy Spirit moving in the lives of all people, trying to prepare their hearts to receive the gospel and inherit eternal life, it seems apparent that there’re times when God sees those hell-bent on their own abject defiance and rejection of him to the point that God withdraws his Spirit (in reaction to the individuals defiance) and hardens those hearts by giving them up to their own desires (Rom 1:26). Pharaoh is an example that immediately comes to mind.

Similarly, then, John 10:26-27 doesn’t infer that from the “foundation of the world” some were “his sheep” meaning that God had already determined who was to be saved. Rather, Jesus was saying that at that specific time, some were “his sheep” because they believed. Others, who didn’t believe, were therefore “not his sheep”.

As people submit, their hearts and minds are opened to the truth. (2 Cor 3:16) Whenever anyone turns to the Lord the veil is taken away. Coming to Christ is a process. Some have more tender and receptive hearts. For others, difficult experiences and circumstances may help to soften a heart. Unfortunately, there are those who will never accept God’s grace. Much as our lives are transformed after we believe (2 Cor 3:18), “And we [with unveiled faces] are being transformed into his image.” To which, I recognize our responsibility to believe, but do not see Gal 1:11-17 as supporting irresistible grace.

So, to bring this to a close – although I find it sometimes difficult to effectively argue against Calvinist doctrines, I remain unconvinced in a predetermined election as well as the concept of irresistible grace. The verses listed above don’t convince me otherwise. Much of my fundamental disagreement to Calvinist doctrine relates to definitions and implied meanings of words. Or, put another way – opinions. And, too, I can’t fathom a holy God determining who will (and also who will not) be saved any more than I can intentionally ‘cast off’ one of my own kids. The story of the prodigal son comes to mind and I believe that we, as his creation, do have free will. And whenever we, of our own volition, turn to God, he rejoices.

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Knowing God’s Will (Finding Guidance for Personal Decisions) by M. Blaine Smith

April 7, 2016 Leave a comment

blaine-smithA number of years ago I read Garry Friesen’s book, Decision Making and the Will of God and found it incredibly liberating. No longer did I have to seek, as Friesen calls it, “the dot” – or “the center of God’s will”. In part, the “traditional approach” to seeking God’s will was ever troubling to me if for no other reason than there seemed to be as many ways to seek God’s will as there were people seeking God’s will. Friesen’s approach to use wisdom in guiding decision-making, although perhaps not as “spiritual-sounding”, is obviously more pragmatic and, to me, logical. Friesen’s “methodology” intuitively made more sense.

With that in mind, I was recently given a copy of M. Blaine Smith’s book, Finding God’s Will, in which there’s an appendix challenging Friesen’s premise. There appears to be a subtle jab at Friesen when Smith writes,

Christians are more inclined to raise questions [as to whether or not the notion of God’s personal will for every believer] is an elaborate straw man than they were when I wrote [Knowing God’s Will] [because] Friesen’s [book] was published about a year after my own book.

Is Smith upset at having lost revenue from reduced book sales? Or perhaps Smith is frustrated with more people comparing and contrasting both books? Maybe both?

In any event, Smith’s critique of Friesen’s Decision Making at best seems muted when Smith himself states [pg 239],

I agree [with Friesen’s] biblical analysis – especially [Friesen’s] observation that Christians in New Testament times generally made their decisions through a rational process.

Smith, however, clarifies his own belief that the early Christians’ “rational process” gives testimony to the way they went about discovering God’s specific and personal will. So far as I can determine, nowhere within Scripture is there a defined “process” indicating how believers should go about finding God’s personal and specific will. Honestly, many folks seem to make the stuff up as they go – selectively pulling individual verses that may lend themselves to some semblance of a “process”. This is unfortunate as in my opinion believers of a personal will of God are making the Bible teach something that the Bible doesn’t actually teach.

Smith states, [pg 238]

Scripture gives us the basis for embracing the full level of human freedom in decision making [without] letting go of the cherished concept (emphasis mine) of a personal will of God.

Honestly, if a book dedicated to knowing God’s specific will and finding guidance for personal decisions can be distilled down to a “cherished concept”, then the author lacks the conviction of what he’s put forth in the 248 pages of this book.

Smith writes in numerous places as to an “individual will” in God’s guidance all the while seeking a wise decision. For example:

[pg 103] First, we should study Scripture [for then] we have a responsibility to use our reason to make a logical choice about God’s will, as opposed to looking for supernatural indications or purely intuitive impressions of his guidance.

[pg 115] Human reason was the channel through which God’s will was normally known. In most cases discerning his will boiled down to a matter of making a sound, logical choice.

[pg 123] For Paul, discerning God’s will was mainly a matter of making sound, logical judgments, in light of what course appeared most glorifying to God

In light of these comments, and because Smith’s book was published prior to Friesen’s book, an inquiring mind wonders whether or not Smith feels that Friesen is more than a little guilty of plagiarism?

As to supernatural guidance, Smith seems to sum up well the reality that,

We cannot always judge the authenticity of such an experience merely by looking at its psychological nature [because sometimes] we do have a good basis for believing an episode has been purely hallucinatory. [pg 137]

Eventually, Smith surmises that we can authenticate supernatural guidance against scripture. If that guidance is outside of God’s moral will, then we can rest assure that that guidance was not from God. I would agree! As does Friesen! Any decision outside of God’s moral will (law) is not acceptable to God. To which, and this is what Friesen would advocate, I can have confidence that any decision I make which does not violate God’s moral will (his laws) is therefore acceptable (and I would go so far as to say even pleasing) to God.

A couple of quotes caught my attention as I was reading Knowing God’s Will:

Within certain boundaries, however, God allows us the adventure of seeking his will, the privilege of being partners with Christ in his work and the possibility of success or failure in the whole process. [pg 88]

So, have I got this right? According to Smith, God specifically leads and directs some to fail? As I’ve noted in earlier posts, this is Calvinistic thinking at its best – God chooses to save some and conversely he chooses to damn some. In a like manner, God chooses some to succeed and for others to fail. Simply put, if I’m made in God’s image, then I’m truly hard-pressed to desire and intentionally direct or otherwise lead any of my own kids to failure. It makes no sense.

According to Smith, when making a major decision, [pg 109] we should spend some additional time reading portions of scripture that relate directly to the decision. On the face of it, this is a no-brainer. So, let’s refer to Smith’s own experience in wanting to marry a particular young gal [pg37]. In a sub-chapter entitled, “When Visions Fail”, a 25 year-old Smith is pondering his future and begins to focus on a particular young woman. As Smith states,

  • He was attracted to her. He was certain that God gave him a vision of what it would be like to be married to her. Smith “cherished the belief” that he’d seen God’s future for him.
  • However, feelings were apparently not mutual and in due time this young lady became engaged to someone else.
  • Then Smith began to think that he’d taken more guidance from those thoughts and feelings than God had perhaps intended and sums up his experience, “These feelings [might indicated that I should take some action] or they might simply be feelings and nothing more.”

Trust your feelings? Wow! There’s some high-level spiritual discourse. Honestly, what guy in his 20’s doesn’t have “feelings” regarding marriage? Really, I’m not criticizing Smith for those feelings if only because I’m convinced that those feelings are God given. However, it’s interesting to look at Paul’s thoughts regarding marriage. So far as I know, 1 Cor 7:1-40 is the longest passage of scripture dealing with marriage and if one is contemplating marriage, this would be a good place to look for guidance. Paul instructs that it would be better to remain unmarried. But if you are married, then do not seek a divorce. The chapter goes on about the advantages of being unmarried and being able to more fully serve God. Of interest to me within this passage is that at no point does Paul indicate any manner to discerning whether it’s God’s will to marry or not. Paul explains that if one isn’t able to control himself (sexual temptation, I presume) then “it’s better to marry than to burn”. This, to me, isn’t discerning God’s will. Rather, this is simply a matter of wisdom. To which, I find it astonishing that throughout these 40 verses, Paul never mentions or indicates through the entire passage anything related to a specific, personal or individual will? It’s as though – maybe – we get to decide for ourselves.

With regard to getting married, how come Smith didn’t put out a fleece (Judges 6) or roll the dice (Prov 16:33)? These things are in the Bible. And yet, I know of no one who’s ever “fleeced” or “rolled the dice” in the course of any decisions. Think of the godly focus (I say this facetiously) that would occur in people’s lives if when looking at a prospective spouse, the respective parties tossed dice. Or a coin. Heads I win and get the pretty one. Tails I lose – and, well, I lose.

Smith does discuss the putting out of a fleece [pg 132, pg 156] and believes that

Scripture points us away from fleecing as a healthy approach to knowing God’s will. [pg 157] I would agree. What Smith does not discuss, however, is the obvious inference from the passage in Judges 6 that Gideon KNEW exactly what God wanted him to do. Gideon, according to scripture, was one of those rare individuals who received direct revelation from God. Gideon was being disobedient to what God had instructed him to do. I can only surmise that it appears as though God “played along” Gideon and perhaps even “messed” with him by way of keeping the ground dry but the fleece wet.

The study of scripture, according to Smith, brings about five things: [pg 105]

  1. Deepens our consciousness of God
  2. Brings us into contact with God
  3. Informs us of God’s principles
  4. May inspire or conform [us] to a particular decision
  5. Invaluable aid in praying for guidance

I have no doubt as to these statements – particularly in relation to decision making. And I would submit that the more Christ-like we become, the more our decisions will reflect his nature and not our own.

I’ve heard many reference Rom 8:28 that God’s intention for an individual will is paramount to understand his love and care for his creation. However, I would submit that this verse, and others used in similar ways don’t diminish God’s love and care. Instead, these verses are more oriented to God’s sovereign will. If anything, it seems to make more sense to realize that God doesn’t stipulate an individual will in order to sovereignly work out his purposes in the life of a believer (Matt 6:25-34). Furthermore, there are many passages related to Paul making a decision without any indication of a seeking-out of God’s specific will. For instance, twice in 1 Thess 3 Paul makes decisions:

(vs 1) So when we could stand it no longer, we thought it best (emphasis mine) to be left by ourselves in Athens.

(vs 5) For this reason, when I could stand it no longer, I sent to find out (emphasis mine) about your faith.

If, as Smith says, one applies Scripture and wisdom to every decision, the end result will resolve in sound decision-making. What Smith calls God’s individual will, Friesen calls godly and wise decision-making. The terminology, I believe, is paramount to whether or not one accepts responsibility for decision-making or is more inclined to “be the victim” and otherwise “blame someone else” (i.e. God) when things don’t go as well as might be hoped.

In conclusion, then, I find Smith’s Knowing God’s Will (as I find so many other books on the subject of determining God’s personal and specific will) confusing and ultimately not helpful. For every methodology Smith discusses or otherwise outlines on how we ought to discover God’s will, there’s a corresponding caution on using that methodology. This leads me to think that Smith is playing with theological constructs trying to prove something that, at least in my opinion, is either a) unknowable, or b) easily changeable to accommodate personal whims and desires. Ultimately, then, I think it best to focus my attention on that which is knowable; God’s moral will. Let God be God. Let God deal with that which is sovereign to him. Let me focus on the joy that inevitably comes by way of the fruits of the spirit when I live my life in holiness according to God’s moral will.