Homosexuality Is Ruining Traditional Marriage (And So Is Heterosexuality)

Gay marriage.

Two people who love each other, want to spend the rest of their lives together, and bring out the best in each other, who are both male or both female.

It’s a simple concept, really, but one that’s become perhaps the most hot-button issue in the U.S. because it clashes with evangelical Christianity, which pervades public consciousness and shapes policy despite the nominal separation of church and state.

The uproar from conservative voices is that gay marriage is a threat to traditional marriage.

They’re not wrong. They’re just not completely right either…because straight marriage, as it exists in our culture, is just as much of a threat to traditional marriage.

What is “traditional marriage”? The nuclear-family dynamic of the 1950s? The institution as carried through church history, therefore predominantly by Roman Catholicism? “Biblical” marriage? Images of Biblical marriage have made their way around Facebook for years now. Here’s one:

Biblical marriage.

I shouldn’t need to comb through the Scriptures like I did in my last series to convince you that there’s no such thing as “Biblical marriage”, or that if there is, it frequently looks nothing like “traditional marriage” between a man and a woman. That’s one problem with grounding a definition of marriage in our ancient sacred text. The other problem is cultural; the history of marriage, within the history of civilized humanity, is patriarchal and androcentric. Marriage, by tradition, is about a man acquiring a wife (or wives) for himself for the purposes of procreation, social acceptance/advancement, homemaking, and/or just because it’s part of the culture. Grow up, get a wife. That’s what you do. The woman has little to no say about whether she wants to marry the man. The remnants of this androcentrism are visible in the fact that, even today, most women take their husband’s last name at marriage, symbolizing a transfer from her family into his – never the other way around, because patriarchy means that it’s always the husband and father whose name carries the legacy. This is perfectly exemplified in the panel above labeled “Rapist + his victim”, which combines androcentrism (the raped virgin is obligated to marry her assailant – won’t that be a happy and enduring relationship? – and the man may never divorce her; a woman divorcing her husband was unheard of in this culture) and women-as-property (the rapist had to pay his victim’s father in cash for his new wife).

If not the Bible, where did we acquire this concept of “traditional” marriage? Like most enduring facets of Christianity, we got it from…the Romans. Some quick research on Wikipedia reveals the progression of the concept of “marriage”. Beginning with the nomads and extending to ancient Israel, a wife generally had her own private area in which to live, and was expected to perform wifely duties like sewing, cooking and farming. The husband’s responsibility was basically to care for her with food and shelter and not neglect her. Neither stated nor implied is any hint of love or romance – or consent or choice. The ancient Greeks had no wedding ceremony, simply allowing any two consenting parties (presumably heterosexual) to enter into marriage by mutual agreement. Yet this model preserved patriarchy: “Married Greek women had few rights”, and “Inheritance was more important than feelings” – even to the point that a married woman whose father died without having a son could be forced to divorce her husband and marry her closest male relative to preserve the family line. Then once we hit ancient Rome, we get a form of marriage called conventio in manum which required a ceremony to establish (or dissolve), made the woman legally separated from her family and part of her husband’s, and placed the woman under her husband’s authority. That, with some cultural tweaks, more or less reflects our concept of “traditional marriage” today.

But again, such ancient traditions of marriage viewed the institution as contractual, legal, social – not necessarily emotional, romantic, and consensual. No longer do we live in a culture with dowries, betrothals, and explicit patriarchal transaction of women as property. In our culture, men and women are free to pursue and reject one another, to date and court, to explore their “hearts” and search for their “soulmate”, their “true love”. A woman is not simply sold or given away by her father to a suitor; she is free to decide for herself whom she will marry. This is novel; this is radical; this is wonderful; but this is a far cry from any “traditional” concept of marriage. Our modern culture of gender equality, romantic love, mutual consent, and free choice has already undermined “traditional marriage”. It’s not homosexuality that’s ruining traditional marriage – it’s sexuality.

You know what ruins marriage?  Divorce. Adultery. Pornography. Financial irresponsibility. Abuse – physical, emotional, and psychological. Greed. Selfishness. Laziness. Plenty of things.

But two human beings loving each other and wanting to commit their lives to each other? Ruining marriage? That shouldn’t be on the list. Homosexuals aren’t ruining marriage, they’re assimilating it, adopting it, enhancing it, and honoring it – the same way heterosexuals have been doing for centuries as they transformed it within their culture.

On the Absurdity of Calvinism, part 7 of 7: Unanswered Questions

part 6, Theological Unsavoriness.

We have reached the foreordained conclusion of my anti-Calvinistic heptalogy. We’ve covered a lot of territory – scriptural, intellectual, philosophical, evangelical. Our last stop is another philosophical piece of the puzzle, in which I will argue that Calvinism provides a weak worldview and inadequate answers to some cosmic questions about life, the universe, and everything.

Let’s start with this whole salvation thing. [20] Why was the death of Christ required for a sovereign God to effect salvation? This is a question that Christians of every flavor have struggled with at some point. I don’t even know if I have a satisfactory answer to it. But Calvinism definitely doesn’t. If God foreknew and selected before the beginning of time which individuals He would effectively save, then He didn’t need to jump through any hoops or employ any mechanism to enable that to happen. It’s not as if God went “Okay, these are the people I’m going to save, but…*sigh* they’re not perfect, so I can’t just bring them into My presence…looks like I’ll have to provide an atoning sacrifice for them.” The only purpose of God’s action in choosing His people, sending Christ to die for them, and then raising Christ from the dead would be purely spectacle, which seems rather silly and arbitrary.

Of course, the chosen ones still have to know and understand this spectacle in order to cross the threshold of salvation. Which begs another question: [21] Why is knowledge of the death of Christ required for a sovereign God to effect salvation? Again, it’s not clear how this fits into a predestination-plus-atonement view of salvation. So God chooses who to save, but their sin acts as a barrier to their salvation. For whatever reason, God has to offer Jesus as a sacrifice (to…Himself?) in order to remove that sin barrier. Okay, Jesus dies and rises, and the sin barrier is removed. Now God is able to save those sinful people He chose. But I guess it wouldn’t be very glorifying for God if He saved people without them understanding all the love and thought that went into it, so He requires them to learn about it through the proclamation of the gospel before His salvation really kicks into gear. (Well, unless you die as a baby, in which case Calvinists differ on whether predestination applies or whether babies unilaterally go to heaven/hell.) Of course, the Calvinist will respond that part of God’s sovereign choice is the sovereign provision of times and opportunity to hear and respond to the gospel. That makes sense, within their framework, but it answers a different question than the one I’m asking. Imagine a remote island tribe, far removed from Mesopotamia, in the third century A.D., with no chance of hearing the gospel. Is God unable to save them? Or are they out on that island because God predestined them to be there and never intended to save them? And if that hypothetical is too far removed from reality, just think about pre-Columbian America instead. Millions of Cherokee, Nez Perce, Lakota, Inca, and Aztec people never caught a whiff of the life, death, and resurrection of a Galilean peasant named Yeshua. Were they all predestined for damnation? Was there never any hope for them? Did Jesus not die for them?

The life of a Christian is generally thought of in terms of pre-salvation and post-salvation (which may or may not assume that “salvation” is a single event occurring at a distinct time – but that’s another dialogue). But in the Calvinist framework in which salvation is wholly the work of the Lord, it’s not clear how I should behave in my post-salvation state. I know that I should worship God, that I should strive to obey Him, that I should tell others about Him and what He has (sovereignly) done for me, and I know what the Bible says. What I don’t know is why. [22] Why should I praise a God who sovereignly chose to save only some? Why does my praise matter? What do my actions matter to a God who’s going to accomplish His purposes anyway? This is where Calvinists lean on verses like “work out your salvation with fear and trembling”, the presumed implication of which is that, if you have an attitude like the one I’m describing, you may not really be saved. Well, that may be, but whoops – that was never my choice anyway. Guess there’s nothing I can do about it. But let’s assume for the moment that I am “really saved”, that I am one of God’s elect. I should praise Him, but if I don’t, He’ll still let me into heaven. I should obey Him, but if I screw up, He’s already forgiven me. I should spread the gospel, but if I don’t, He’ll still work things out so that those He intends to hear it will. Calvinism may not necessarily lead to determinism, but it’s not far enough away to make any difference. If all the power is God’s, then really, all of my choices are pretty meaningless. It’s a wonder Calvinists don’t have Ecclesiastes highlighted in their Bible alongside Romans 9 and Ephesians 1-2.

Lastly, let’s ask the big questions of origins, starting with [23] Why did God create sinners? God created people that He then had to save, knowing He would have to save them. He couldn’t have folded that into one action and just created saved people? And, if He had to, unsaved people as well? There’s no argument that, in the Calvinist framework (and most other Christian frameworks), sin was inevitable. But for the Calvinist, there’s really no room for distinguishing between humanity’s responsibility in sinning and God’s responsibility in creating a sinful humanity. He knew what He was doing. If you throw an egg at a wall, you can’t act surprised when it breaks. And this applies whether you’re a literal-creationist (Eve ate the wrong fruit and everything went to crap) or a non-literalist (humanity royally screwed up at some point in their history); either way, people failed to follow God’s plan for them, and He knew they would before they ever did. Somehow, it had to be glorifying to God to allow humanity to suffer in its depravity, and then to swoop in and intervene with His plan of atonement and salvation. But if the groups were decided before the beginning of time, it just seems like He could have saved us all some trouble by just skipping this interim life-living part. Which really gets us into the final, grandest cosmic question a theist can ask: [24] Why did God create anything at all? Calvinism posits that God, from the moment the idea for Creation came into His mind, knew that He would end up with a group of people being purified and brought into His presence for eternity and a group of people being tainted and cast out of His presence for eternity. That’s the best He could do? That’s the most glorifying thing He could come up with? Why would a loving God knowingly create a world in which billions of people’s lives are infuriating to Him and totally wasted in the end? Why would a wrathful God bother saving any of His creation, instead of just letting them all writhe in their misery? Why should we imagine that a perfect God is an entity which somehow straddles the fence between these extremes?


With that, I will end my critique of the doctrine of Calvinism. Some may look at several of these points and see them as issues with Christianity in general, not just Calvinism. They’re probably right. I’m very critical of many tenets of Christianity. But I don’t want anyone to imagine that I’m not a Christian. My faith has taken me on a long road, and I’m far from the place I set out from, yet not as far as I’ll end up. Faith is not a stagnant entity for me. I’m humble enough to allow God to reshape it regularly so that I can understand Him better. God may not change, but times change, and people change, and cultures change, and with that the ways people relate to God and understand God can and must change as well. Too many believers have a fragile faith that cannot withstand the “attacks” (real or perceived) of science, atheism, postmodernism, relativism, et cetera. I have a faith that absorbs these criticisms, considers them, and then if I find there are problems in my faith or understanding, I don’t blame God for it and assume He must not exist; instead, I assume there were problems with my understanding of Him, and I seek a new understanding. I will never fully understand God as long as I live; but with that established, I am free to pursue my understanding of Him in whatever direction that leads me. I will not be bogged down in one place by human doctrine or theology, because that is but one understanding of God. Faith is a journey, not a destination, and with an attitude of humility, it can be a deeply exciting and rewarding journey. Thanks for taking the time to read this series, and I wish you blessings in your own journey, wherever it leads you.

On the Absurdity of Calvinism, part 6 of 7: Theological Unsavoriness

part 5, Evangelical Doublethink.

Few would argue that Calvinism is something of an “acquired taste”. Many Calvinists admit to being put off by the doctrine at first, until they explored it further and became convinced of it. I can’t see how anyone could read the Bible and find Calvinism independently of external theological influence (see part 4). Personally, it’s a flavor I just can’t appreciate, like cilantro. Every time I chew it, the taste it leaves in my mouth in just awful.

Ultimately, it all boils down to limited atonement. Packer states in his essay that Owen’s book, on the surface, appears to be just a defense of this doctrinal point (though he assures the reader it is truly much more than that). And, as we all agree, the simple fact of five-point Calvinism is that all five points are really the same thing (or come from the same root). But, inasmuch as is possible, let’s hone in on this middle one. [15] Limited atonement is disgusting. There’s really no other way for me to put it. I find it unscriptural, offensive to the character of God, antithetical to the open call of the Gospel, and philosophically necessitating other ugly consequences.

Scripture is, as usual, divided on the subject. We can claim plenty of verses to support the concept, like Matthew 26:28 (Jesus’s blood is “poured out for many”, not all!), Mark 10:45 (Jesus’s life is “a ransom for many”, not all!), and Ephesians 5:25 (Jesus gave Himself for the church, not the world!), among others. But we can also see plenty of verses pointing to the openness of atonement, such as John 1:29 (the Lamb of God “takes away the sin of the world”), 2 Corinthians 5:14 (“Christ died for all”, not many!), 1 Timothy 2:6 (Jesus “gave himself as a ransom for all”, not many!), and of course 1 John 2:2 (Jesus is the atoning sacrifice “not only for our sins but also for the whole world”). How then can we reconcile these conflicting passages? If we assume limited atonement, the latter verses become rather convoluted to explain away. But if we assume unlimited atonement, the former verses still retain a clear meaning, if we consider them in terms of practical effect. If Jesus died for the sins of everyone, but we know that not everyone will come to salvation through this act, then it is still true that His blood is a ransom for “many”, particularly, the church as the whole of all believers throughout time. Beyond that, the entire semantic discussion of “many” versus “all” is essentially rendered moot by Paul in Romans 5:12-19, in which he uses the two interchangeably. In verse 15, “the many died through the transgression of the one man”, but in verse 18, “condemnation for all people came through one transgression”; in verse 19, “many will be made righteous”, but in verse 18, “righteousness leading to life for all people” has come.

For other scriptural rebuttals, click again back to part 4 and read the paragraphs about believers falling away; if the atonement is limited because it must be effectual, then it would look pretty bad if that atonement were rendered impotent. But for one last Biblical glance, take a look at Hebrews 10:26-27, which states that “if we deliberately keep on sinning after receiving the knowledge of the truth, no further sacrifice for sins is left for us, but only a certain fearful expectation of judgment and a fury of fire that will consume God’s enemies.” The end makes it clear that the author is referring to the prospect of separation from God, yet the discourse is about individuals who give up their faith and their portion in Christ’s sacrifice; there is no further sacrifice for them because the sacrifice of Jesus is the only one necessary. This language makes it seem clear enough that the atonement covers these people, even with the possibility that they will be consumed in God’s fiery fury.

The offensiveness of limited atonement mostly overlaps with things I’ve discussed in previous posts. If God wants everyone to be saved, why would He only provide atonement for some? If the Gospel is to be preached to all people, why is it completely false for a large portion of the population? You can’t tell people Jesus died for their sins unless He really died for everyone’s sins. Furthermore, [16] reprobation, or “double predestination”, is a natural corollary of limited atonement. There is no Lutheran-style cop-out of “single predestination”; it simply doesn’t exist. If you believe that 1) God chose whom He will sovereignly save, and 2) the only two possibilities are salvation and damnation, then it follows that those who are not saved are damned. There is no excuse, no way to dance around that. To say “God has chosen to save some and not to save others” is identical to saying “God has chosen to damn some and not to damn others.” They are the same sentence (in terms of their result, if not their character). What does this say about God? It leads to a piece of mathematical nonsense that I like to call “the divine proportion”. [17] If God is perfect, and He sovereignly chose to save some of humankind and not others for the purpose of glorifying Himself, then there is a “divine proportion” that optimizes the amount of glory God would receive, and He chose exactly this proportion of people to save. Let’s throw out a number: 20% (0.2, for my mathematicians who will remind me that a proportion lies between 0 and 1). If the ultimate purpose of God is God’s glory, and He saved 20% of all humans over all history, then we must believe that it would not have been as glorifying to God for Him to save 25%, or 10%, or (more importantly) 100%. Why wouldn’t God save everyone? Well, it must not be as glorifying. Sure, that makes sense. If everyone is saved, what’s the point? What’s the consequence of sin? What’s the purpose of Christ? And so on. But…why not 99%? Why not any other number? Why does the world exist anyway? The concept collapses from its ridiculousness.

We should be aware that the discussion here is not really about the limitedness of the atonement, since both sides actually believe the atonement in limited in some capacity. Calvinists believe the atonement is limited in scope but not effect; bundled up in the atonement is the complete effectual work of salvation, which must therefore mean it is only for the elect who will be saved by it. Non-Calvinists believe the atonement is limited in effect but not scope; the atonement made salvation possible but did not actually accomplish it, and therefore freely applies to everyone. (To believe that the atonement was unlimited in scope AND effect would result in a flavor of universalism, which is a defensible theory, but I won’t wander down that path here.) Calvinism, ever fixated with depth over breadth, contends that the latter is more offensive to God’s character. I argue that [18] limiting the breadth of the atonement is a far more damaging blow to the power of God than limiting its effectiveness. The truth is, the non-Calvinist position does not limit the power of the atonement. It is still the power of Christ’s death and resurrection that saves sinners.

Let’s use another analogy to help us understand. Imagine a very, very wealthy woman wants to do some good for some less fortunate people. She wants to help underprivileged children get a college education. Here’s two ways she could do that. On the one hand, she could select a handful of high school kids and say “I’m going to make sure you get into college, and I’m going to completely pay for it. Tuition, room, board, books, everything. It’s on me.” That’s really fantastic!…for those kids. On the other hand, this lady could set up a scholarship foundation of sorts open to all, and kids could apply to have their college paid for, and every single person who applied would be accepted – the über-rich woman would totally pay for all their college bills. In the first case, some kids are guaranteed to get the full ride through college, but all the rest are out of luck. In the second case, nobody is guaranteed, but there’s no limit on who could get the full ride – and you have to believe that once word got around, people would start taking her up on the offer.

Which makes more sense? Which is really the more generous, the more merciful, the more powerful view of philanthropy? And surely you can see how the question directly relates to your view of the atonement. Whose “limited” atonement is really more powerful?

Coming from a different direction, it is important to note that there are alternate perspectives of the cross that downplay the entire concept of “satisfactionary atonement”, such as the Christus Victor view. This sees the purpose of the death and resurrection of Christ as bringing victory over the enslaving powers of sin and death, and not simply satisfying the wrath of God. And before you write that off as some  heterodox new-age interpretation, realize that this was the predominant view of the Church for ten centuries, whereas penal substitution was formulated by Anselm in the 11th century and only fully developed during the Protestant Reformation. Scripture has some beautiful verses aligned with Christus Victor, including Colossians 1:13 (God transferred us from the power of darkness to the Kingdom of the Son), Colossians 2:15 (Christ disarmed, disgraced, and triumphed over the rulers and authorities in the cross), Hebrews 2:14 (Christ’s death destroyed the devil who holds the power of death), and 1 John 3:8 (the purpose of Christ was to destroy the works of the devil). Naturally, one could point to several verses affirming the satisfactionary view as well, but at the very least we can agree that this view cannot be the whole story. For a more in-depth exploration and contrast of these views, check out this series of posts which explains things very well. (I may not agree with it 100%, but it still does a wonderful job.) My point is, “limited” versus “unlimited” atonement presupposes the satisfactionary view; [19] if one holds even partially to Christus Victor, the idea of atonement-as-defeat-of-evil-powers being “limited” is nonsense. Did Christ defeat the powers of sin and death only for the elect? Such a statement is meaningless. These powers exist apart from individual people, elect or non-elect, so the scope of salvation has no bearing on their destruction. To believe only Christus Victor and still hold on to limited atonement is impossible; to believe that both penal substitution and Christus Victor are valid and give weight to both views, a Calvinist would have to say the cross defeated the powers of sin and death in the world yet only effectually brought salvation for the elect, which is a strange hybrid of limited and unlimited effect – not impossible, just quite a convoluted blend of ideas.

On the Absurdity of Calvinism, part 5 of 7: Evangelical Doublethink

part 4, Scriptural Inconsistencies.

We’re going to cut right to the chase on this one. [14] It is disingenuous to call people to accept the gospel while maintaining that they have no part in doing so. Phrased another way, the Calvinist cannot talk about evangelism while remaining a Calvinist. Whenever a Calvinist speaks of spreading the gospel, the person inevitably begins to use language completely antithetical to the doctrine they profess to believe. Bruxy Cavey (see part 1c) shares a humorous anecdote in one of his sermons about guest-preaching to a youth group at a Calvinistic church in which he did a sort of evangelical “altar call” at the end and was met with dumbfounded looks from the other teachers! If one genuinely believes that conversion is wholly the work of God, then evangelism becomes nonsense and discussion of it becomes gibberish.

Even J. I. Packer is not immune to this phenomenon. He labors against Arminianism, free will, and human choice for over half his essay, and then instantly undoes all his work as soon as begins to speak of evangelism. We have already seen a few instances of it since they overlapped with previous posts. As he defines what “preaching the gospel” looks like for the Calvinist, he outlines four points. In the first point, “all men are sinners, and cannot do anything to save themselves”; yet in the fourth point, “God has made repentance and faith a duty,” required “of every man who hears the gospel”. The elect believer must accept that Christ is “able to deliver and save … them that come to God by him,” that is, “every soul that shall freely give up themselves unto him for that end.” Are you tracking with me here? I’m not making this up. He actually quotes the phrase “freely give up”. Could anything be further from the Calvinist concept of salvation? Again, shortly below, Packer says that Christ offers Himself “as Saviour to all who truly turn to Him.” This is active language, not passive. Even when Packer backs off a little by saying the responsibility of the potential believer “is simply to exercise faith” (which has been given by God), the exercising of faith is a personal choice. What of an elect person who does not exercise their faith?

Packer provides a large quote from the work of John Owen in which Owen suggests what the message of Jesus should be to the “unconverted”. This includes such phrasing as “why will ye not have compassion on your own souls?” (So it is my lack of self-pity that prevents me from being one of the saved?) “Look unto me, and be saved; come unto me … Come, I entreat you … put me off no more; eternity lies at the door”. (Though Packer later scoffs at the idea of Jesus “tapping forlornly at the door of the human heart”.) “Do not so hate me that you will rather perish than accept of deliverance by me.” (My self-hatred is more powerful than God’s saving love?) And then Packer calls these invitations “universal” and “real”, as though Jesus begs each person to accept Him and would gladly allow them to do so, while sovereignly knowing that many, even most, are in no way capable of doing so because He has not chosen them. Yet everyone should believe and accept this personal invitation! Indeed, “God commands all to repent and believe”, which to the Calvinist ought to sound as silly as the incumbent united states president commanding every citizen to vote for him, or Alexander Graham Bell commanding everyone in the world to give him a call minutes after inventing the telephone.

The pinnacle of Packer’s doublethink is unquestionably the following section, which I will quote in full: “[T]he old gospel, while stressing that faith is man’s duty, stresses also that faith is not in man’s power, but that God must give what He commands. It announces, not merely that men must come to Christ for salvation, but also that they cannot come unless Christ Himself draws them. Thus it labours to overthrow self-confidence, to convince sinners that their salvation is altogether out of their hands, and to shut them up to a self-despairing dependence on the glorious grace of a sovereign Saviour, not only for their righteousness but for their faith too.” Here Packer fully acknowledges that God demands an impossible task, and that the gospel convinces sinners that they can do absolutely nothing to contribute to their salvation while at the same time beckons them to freely come and accept it.

Packer then constructs a straw man out of the phrase “deciding for Christ”, as if salvation were as simple as saying “yeah sure, I’d like that.” (Note that the Bible itself often uses just such simple language, i.e. Romans 10:9.) For him, “It is not at all obvious that deciding for Christ is the same as coming to Him and resting on Him and turning from sin and self-effort”. Personally, I think it’s not at all obvious that that isn’t the case. Of course deciding for Christ carries connotations of some life change based on this decision, if it is any real decision at all. Also, how am I to turn from sin and self-effort without, um, self-effort?

Finally, the rubber hits the road, and Packer gives his practical answer to the question “what must I do to be saved?” If he were honest with his Calvinism, his response would have to be “Nothing; just let God save you. Or not. His choice.” But no, he betrays his doctrine and offers the following string of imperatives: believe on Jesus; know yourself to be a sinner; abandon your ideas; cast yourself on Jesus; exchange your sinfulness for gratefulness; look to Christ, speak to Christ, cry to Christ; confess your sin; again, cast yourself on His mercy; ask Him for a new heart and new behaviors; turn to Him and trust Him “as best you can” (!!!); pray for grace; use that grace; seek to draw near to Him; watch, pray, read, and hear God’s word; worship and commune with God’s people; continue until you are absolutely sure that you are saved. By my count, that’s twenty-three actions I can take to move toward salvation, which seems like an awful lot for someone who doesn’t believe you can do anything to save yourself.

On the Absurdity of Calvinism, part 4 of 7: Scriptural Inconsistencies

part 3, Logical Contradictions.

All right, now we’re getting to the good part. If you’re still following along after I turned the traditional conservative view of the Bible on its ear, then I welcome you to a quick and broad journey through that same Bible. (You should read this post either with a Bible in front of you or a tab open to NET Bible, from which I will be pulling all my quotes – I’ll be referencing a lot of verses and passages without fully quoting them.) I love the Bible. It’s an incredible, rich, diverse, exciting work of literature spanning multiple genres: history, novel, poetry, biography, lore, prophecy, maybe even theology. The Bible has a lot to teach us, especially when viewed with proper respect as what it is. An appropriately humble approach to the Bible will allow its voices to live, breathe, and coexist, without immediately seeking to force a single system onto its diverse texts.

The first sign that you’re forcing a system onto the Bible is that the discourse about the content of the Bible shifts to a highly unbiblical set of words. Calvinism is the theological system most guilty of this, though certainly not the only one. [9] Calvinism structures itself around a language completely foreign to Scripture, including words like “soteriology”, “Christology”, and a lot of other -ologies and -isms. Such a framework makes systematic theology appealing to intellectuals, but impractical to common folk, for (and largely by) whom the Bible was written! Faith and God can be easily understood without encasing them in fancy terminology.

One of those big Calvinist buzzwords – although, to be fair, a Biblical one – is “sovereignty”. Calvinism presents itself as being built around a high view of God’s sovereignty. Packer claims that God is “sovereign everywhere”, and that non-Calvinistic theology “denies God’s sovereignty.” No one can debate that God is “sovereign”. The question then becomes, what does that sovereignty entail? To the Calvinist, God’s “sovereignty” seems to imply that He makes the decisions, without regard to (or input from) humans, and that His will always comes to fruition. What God wants is what happens, and humans just have to accept it. As Job says to God in Job 42:2, “I know that you can do all things; no purpose of yours can be thwarted.” This coincides heavily with the previous discussion of monergism vs. synergism; Calvinism views God as monergistic in His sovereignty, acting alone to accomplish whatever He wants. Yet Calvinism’s “high” view is in fact more of a medium-high view, since if God were truly sovereign in acting over everything, this would lead to a deterministic worldview in which every event is controlled by the will of God and nothing can be done apart from that. Calvinism tries to balance delicately in this middle ground, where God is sovereign over everything, but not really. (Throw that on the pile of “logical contradictions”.) But logical difficulty aside, let’s look at what God has to say about His own sovereignty in the Bible. I’ve tried to roughly sort these passages into categories, which I will define by six questions. The single overarching question is about the nature of God’s sovereignty and plans: Does God ever suspend or limit His sovereignty to allow human input, influence, or interference?

1. Does God present humans with opportunities to make their own choices?

If we start reading through the Bible with the idea that God is “sovereign everywhere”, we don’t get very far before that starts to break down. In the third chapter of Genesis, a mysterious serpent is suddenly trying to convince humans to defy God’s will right under His sovereign nose. In the fourth chapter, we see God make this incredible statement to Cain: “Is it not true that if you do what is right, you will be fine? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at the door. It desires to dominate you, but you must subdue it.” Sin, an animated entity here, has a will of its own contrary to God’s – and it is up to Cain to choose the right path. God does not sovereignly protect Cain from sin, nor does He sovereignly decree that sin will dominate him. (If you want to argue that the latter is what really happens, just realize that you have to do so completely outside the scope of the Bible.)

Israel as a people is famously presented with a choice at crucial moments in its history. As Moses is affirming Israel’s covenant relationship with God in Deuteronomy 11, he exhorts them multiple times to choose to follow God’s commands and thus receive His blessing. Indeed, the heart of the matter is stated plainly in verses 26-28: “Take note – I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: the blessing if you take to heart the commandments of the Lord your God that I am giving you today, and the curse if you pay no attention to his commandments and turn from the way I am setting before you today to pursue other gods you have not known.” A short while later, after Joshua has taken over the leadership of the tribe, he offers the same option in Joshua 24:15: “If you have no desire to worship the Lord, choose today whom you will worship,whether it be the gods whom your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living. But I and my family will worship the Lord!” In each case, the choice to serve God or not is wholly up to the people.

An amusing variety of examples can be found in the history books. In 2 Samuel 24:11-16, God almost toys with David by allowing him to choose between three forms of punishment for his people. In 1 Kings 3:5, God appears to Solomon in a dream and offers him the wide-open choice of…well, anything: “Tell me what I should give you.” And in 1 Chronicles 28:9, the two come together as David urges Solomon to choose to follow God: “If you seek him, he will let you find him, but if you abandon him, he will reject you permanently.” Nice verbose language there as David states “he will let you find him”. Another example of synergism, in my view. Solomon must choose to seek God, but that choice is necessary but not sufficient for finding him; God must also allow himself to be found. Still, God’s choice is clearly conditional on Solomon’s choice.

Psalm 81:8-14 poetically hears the voice of God calling to His people: “O Israel, if only you would obey me!” If God is sovereign, why must He long for human cooperation?

Isaiah 1:18-20 is beautifully phrased in the NET translation: ““Come, let’s consider your options,” says the Lord.” Israel has options! They can “have a willing attitude and obey”, or they can “refuse and rebel”, and God will respond according to their decision. Another of my favorite passages demonstrating the synergism of God’s sovereignty and man’s free will also comes from Isaiah (one of my favorite books of the Bible). Take a look at the opening verses of chapter 59: “Look, the Lord’s hand is not too weak to deliver you; his ear is not too deaf to hear you.” Definitely a sovereign God, in that He has the power to hear and deliver…but wait: “But your sinful acts have alienated you from your God; your sins have caused him to reject you and not listen to your prayers.” Israel’s sinful acts (detailed in the subsequent verses) create a rift between them and God, muting God’s sovereign power! In Isaiah 65:12, God “assigns” (or “predestines”!) those who abandon Him to death, because “I called to you, and you did not respond, I spoke and you did not listen” and “you chose to do what displeases me.” This is an archetype of Israel throughout the Old Testament, not at all unique to this late Isaiah chapter.

Jeremiah echoes the need for Israel to choose to follow God. In Jeremiah 7:5, he urges them: “You must change the way you have been living” and lists a multitude of issues with their behavior as a people. Then in verse 7 the condition is offered: “If you stop doing these things, I will allow you to continue to live in this land”.

Two separate passages in Ezekiel carry the identical message that God’s judgment is entirely conditional on human action. In Ezekiel 18:30, we read “I will judge each person according to his conduct, O house of Israel, declares the sovereign Lord” and, two verses later, “I take no delight in the death of anyone, declares the sovereign Lord. Repent and live!” Then we skip down to chapter 33 and get verses like this: “Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but prefer that the wicked change his behavior and live. Turn back, turn back from your evil deeds! Why should you die, O house of Israel?’” Did you catch that? God “prefers” something! The subsequent verses are a big wet blanket for the idea of “perseverance of the saints”, also. It seems God really is concerned with human behavior and decisions!

A pair of parables in Luke’s narrative shed some more light on the idea of God sovereignly choosing whom He will save. The “Great Banquet” (14:15-24), which somewhat mirrors my own parable in part 3, tells of a man inviting “many guests” to his shindig. When he sends his servant to collect the guests, several of them “make excuses”, rejecting the invitation. The irritated master sends his servant back out to gather the social outcasts instead, and then once more to gather anybody at all who will accept the invitation. So here we see three distinct waves of the master’s will; first he invites his chosen guest list, then he invites outcasts, then he invites everybody else. What is set in stone is the banquet; the guest list is in constant flux! The master did not force the originally invited guests to come to the feast, nor did he force them to stay away; they made their own foolish excuses. Similarly, the third wave of guests are not coerced, but “urged” to come join the party. If any group is brought in without their choice, it would have to be only the second group. The master’s final declaration, that the original invitees will not come, should be read as confirmation rather than reprobation. Those guests have already made their choice not to come; the master is simply saying “Fine, don’t come!”

Down in chapter 15, verses 11 through 32, we get the amazing and famous parable of the prodigal son. I could easily write a long diatribe on this passage, but there’s no need for that right now. It suffices to point out that the son realizes the error of his ways – verse 17 uses the idiom “he came to himself” – and takes the initiative to return to the father, where he receives unexpected grace. The father even says “this son of mine was dead, and is alive again”!

Lastly, a Pauline example. 2 Corinthians 3, which is a bit challenging to work through, compares understanding God to having a veil over one’s face, as Moses did. It says that unbelievers (perhaps only Jewish ones) cannot understand the covenant because of their own veil, but “when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed” (verse 16). The veil may be in place because of God’s sovereign choice, but it is removed because of the individual’s choice to turn to the Lord.

2. Does God acknowledge that humans have the power to affect Him or His plans?

The narrative of the Tower of Babel certainly suggests so. In Genesis 11:6, God gets nervous: “If as one people all sharing a common language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be beyond them.” Is God seriously threatened by the prospect of collective humanity building a tower to heaven? Of course not, and there’s a lot more than meets the eye to this story. But at a surface level, God is definitely conceding that humans have impressive power. Later in Genesis, Jacob wrestles with “a man” who is actually God himself, or an angel from God, or something pretty close to God. But however divine this entity is, Genesis 32:25 informs us that he realizes “he could not defeat Jacob” and, rather than kicking him in the nuts as any normal human would when overpowered, simply dislocates Jacob’s hip. But that’s not even all! After that, when the “man” tries to depart, Jacob says “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” I will not let you go! Even with a hip out of socket, Jacob’s got all the leverage in this struggle!

In Numbers 25, God gets ticked at Israel (what else is new?) for gallivanting with Moabite women and drifting off to follow their gods. (Implicitly somewhere in here, God begins to spread a plague throughout Israel.) When Phinehas sees one of his fellow Israelites doing this, he gets righteously ticked too, and spears the man and woman with a javelin. God responds by telling Moses “Hey, I like this guy. He’s got the right idea. I’m gonna go ahead and stop that plague now.” It was Phinehas’s act of zeal that turned God’s wrath away from Israel. On a lesser scale, in 1 Kings 21:21-29, God informs King Ahab that his dynasty is about to get royally screwed (get it? royally? because he’s a ki…yeah, you get it). This depresses Ahab, who by the way was a total scumbag, so much that he actually does the whole robe-tearing, sackcloth-wearing, fasting thing. This display of sorrow impresses God so much that He tells Elijah He’s actually going to hold off that judgment until Ahab dies, so that he (a total scumbag) won’t have to suffer it personally.

Isaiah 30 contains another example. The Lord begins by saying “The rebellious children are as good as dead” (this has another implication for later, too). In verse 9, He again says “For these are rebellious people – they are lying children, children unwilling to obey the Lord’s law.” The children are unwilling, not the Lord. This unwillingness is an obstacle to God’s deliverance: “If you repented and patiently waited for me, you would be delivered; if you calmly trusted in me you would find strength, but you are unwilling” (verse 15). In verse 18, Israel is assured that God “sits on his throne, ready to have compassion on you” and that “the Lord is a just God; all who wait for him in faith will be blessed.” God’s compassion and deliverance are there, but Israel’s behavior precludes their effect.

Even the New Testament church is not immune to such problems. Paul, when speaking to the Ephesian elders at Miletus (Acts 20:18-35), warned them strongly about the difficulties they would face. Take verse 28: “Watch out for yourselves and for all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son.” And verse 30: “Even from among your own group men will arise, teaching perversions of the truth to draw the disciples away after them.” These don’t sound like the words of someone confident in the effectiveness of the “obtaining” of the church which God brought about.

3. Is God ever persuaded by humans to change His plans?

Everybody should be able to name at least one instance of this in Scripture. Let’s start in Genesis 18, where Abraham and God negotiate how many righteous people it would take for God not to destroy Sodom. Abraham starts God at fifty, then dares to haggle Him down to 45, 40, 30, 20, and 10 in successive inquisitions. (One could argue that nothing is effectively being done here, though, because God already knows that there aren’t even ten people in Sodom worth saving. Interestingly, though, God doesn’t ever actually mention what He plans to do with the city if it is found to be wicked, and He does say that He needs to go look to find out how wicked it really is.)

The exodus narrative begins with God coming to the rescue of His people, simply because they asked for it. God says in Exodus 3:7 “I have heard their cry”, and in verse 8, “I have come down to deliver them”. In the next chapter, God entrusts Moses to be the leader and spokesman for Israel – but Moses bucks at this command, forcing God to bring Aaron into the equation to be Moses’s public voice.  Clearly, this wasn’t His original intention; Moses behaves like a petulant child whose dad eventually gives in just to shut him up. Perhaps still infuriated at Moses’s decision, God shows up later (Exodus 4:24-26) in the middle of night to kill him. Moses’s wife Zipporah saves the day by circumcising their child, causing God to not kill Moses after all. (It’s hard to make heads or tails of the details of that story, but the point is there: God was going to kill Moses, and Zipporah’s action changed His plan.)

When Israel creates and worship the golden calf in Exodus 32, you know God starts seeing red. He actually tells Moses that He’s going to totally wipe out Israel and start a new nation from scratch beginning with Moses! But Moses (he of the un-eloquent tongue) convinces God that this is a bad idea, and inconsistent with His promises to Abraham. God agrees, and decides not to carry out this genocide. (Moses recaps this episode, as well as others, in Deuteronomy 9.) Yet still, in verse 33, God informs Moses that the sinners of Israel will be “wiped out” (or “blotted out”) from His book. Whatever that book might actually be, it is clear that you can only “wipe out” or “blot out” something that’s already been written.

Moses convinces God to refrain from destruction again in Numbers 14. Actually, he takes it a step further. God again threatens Israel with a pestilence and says He will reboot His people with Moses, but Moses convinces Him not only to hold off on the plague but to forgive the sins of the people! It works, and God actually does it. But He still changes a previous plan by decreeing that virtually none of the Israelites who came out of Egypt will make it into the land they were promised.

As Israel reconfirms their covenant in Deuteronomy 29, they are warned that disobedience will result in forfeiture of the covenant blessing, and that “the Lord will be unwilling to forgive” the one who strays.

In 1 Samuel 8, God relinquishes His rule over Israel to an earthly monarchy, telling Samuel that Israel has rejected God as their king. Sovereign God, rejected by His people! Absolute reign of an individual was never God’s plan for Israel; Moses led Israel, but never in the capacity of a king, and then once the nation grew, he set up leaders over smaller communities within the tribes (Deuteronomy 1:15). Israel’s demand for a king was not only a rejection of God’s sovereign reign, but of His intentions for them in general.

2 Chronicles 12 sees Rehoboam’s Israel being overtaken by an Shishak’s Egypt, as God’s punishment for their wickedness. And yet, when wicked Israel repents and humbles itself, God changes His mind once more: “They have humbled themselves, so I will not destroy them. I will deliver them soon. My anger will not be unleashed against Jerusalem through Shishak.”

Another popularly known occurrence of God being swayed by human influence comes in the story of Hezekiah’s final days. In Isaiah 38:1-5, the prophet informs Hezekiah that his end is near; Hezekiah pleads and weeps, and God changes His mind and adds fifteen years to Hezekiah’s life. Later in the book of Isaiah, the prophet revisits Israel’s history to remind us once again that Israel’s rebellion and stubbornness transformed God from friend to foe. Isiaah 63:10 says “they rebelled and offended his holy Spirit, so he turned into an enemy and fought against them.” He was not an enemy, but “turned into” one at Israel’s provocation.

Jeremiah throws his hat into the ring with the well-known potter-and-clay teaching. I say “well-known”, when really, I think most Christians who could recite the gist of this metaphor would find themselves unable to supply the idea of the verses following it. The better-known part is in Jeremiah 18:6, where God says to Jeremiah, “In my hands, you, O nation of Israel, are just like the clay in this potter’s hand.” Obviously, clay is inanimate, so God must be the one doing all the shaping. End of st…wait, what’s this? “There are times, Jeremiah,when I threaten to uproot, tear down, and destroy a nation or kingdom. But if that nation I threatened stops doing wrong, I will cancel the destruction I intended to do to it. And there are times when I promise to build up and establish a nation or kingdom. But if that nation does what displeases me and does not obey me, then I will cancel the good I promised to do to it.” That’s verses 7 through 10. Let that sink in for a minute. Clearly we’ve stretched this metaphor too far, as the “clay” is far from inanimate. God has plans, but if nations or people change their ways, God will change His plans! This exact concept is applied in Jeremiah 26:1-6, where Jeremiah is sent to prophesy conditional doom to Judah, and again in 36:1-3, where God has Jeremiah record His plans but is willing to change them if Judah repents. In 26:13 and 26:19, Jeremiah affirms that God’s threatened destruction is conditional, invoking the case of King Hezekiah as an example.

Minor prophets also know well the Lord’s willingness to alter his plans. Joel describes Him as “often relenting from calamitous punishment” in 2:13 of his book. Amos talks God out a pair of harsh judgments in chapter 7 of his book. And in Jonah’s story, Nineveh repents in the face of certain condemnation, which causes God to relent from His prophesied punishment. A frustrated Jonah echoes Joel’s sentiment, basically telling God “I knew you would do that. It’s such a YOU thing to do.”

{This is roughly the halfway point of this post, in both size and content, as we’ve been mostly looking at OT verses and we’re about to shift toward more NT verses. Now would be a great time to go grab some water, do some yoga, walk the dog, or take a nap. Come back when you’re ready for more – this post will still be here. Also, you’re probably getting bored of all this text, so here’s a basketful of puppies.}

{Aaaaaaand we’re back.}

4. Are God’s plans ever thwarted by human resistance?

Wait, doesn’t this overlap with God’s plans changing as a result of human influence? Yeah, kind of. I’m trying to distinguish them in my head, but I’m not going to pretend I’ve done that perfectly. Many of the previous cases were of humans convincing God not to do something bad, while most of these are instances of human resistance preventing God from doing something good (with “bad” and “good” used loosely and from a very anthropocentric perspective).

When the Lord answers Jeremiah’s prayer in Jeremiah 32:26-44, He reiterates the wickedness of Israel several times, and laments that “I tried over and over again to instruct them, but they did not listen and respond to correction” (verse 33). Sovereign God, for whom “There is, indeed, nothing too difficult” (verse 26), still finds Himself powerless to correct His stubborn and rebellious children, despite repeated attempts. This is referenced again in 2 Chronicles 36:15, where God is said to feel compassion for His children and warns them repeatedly through the prophets. But it is their mockery and rejection of His message that leads to their judgment.

Jesus feels His Father’s pain, as in Matthew 23:37, He laments over Jerusalem: “How often I have longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you would have none of it!” We see a different angle of this in Luke 19:41-42, where Jesus mourns the fact that Jerusalem missed the Messiah’s ministry, “the things that make for peace”, saying “but now they are hidden from your eyes.” They could have seen it, but they failed; now it has become too late.

In Luke 7:30, the narrator tells us in a parenthetical comment that the Pharisees and experts in the law “rejected God’s purpose for themselves”! God had a purpose, a plan, for them – and they rejected it! And Stephen, in His ultimate sermon in Acts 7, accuses the council of “always resisting the Holy Spirit, like your ancestors did!” So either the Holy Spirit can be resisted, which presents a problem for Calvinistic sovereignty, or the Holy Spirit is trying to work on people who have no choice but to resist, which is awfully pointless behavior for such an entity. This same issue arises in Acts 13:46, where Paul and Barnabas say that “it was necessary” to preach the Gospel to the Jews, but since they are rejecting it, the Gospel will then be preached to the Gentiles. Were they preaching the Gospel knowing the Jews would reject it? Were the Jews freely able to accept or reject it? The latter seems true, as we see at the beginning of chapter 14 that some Jews in Iconium believed the Gospel, but others rejected it. There doesn’t seem to be a blanket rejection here, just a multitude of individual cases. Paul hits on the issue a bit in Romans 2, where in verses 4 and 5 he claims some “have contempt” for God’s kindness and are stubborn and unrepentant. And in 1 Thessalonians 4:8, Paul writes that those who reject his teaching are rejecting God and His Holy Spirit. If the Holy Spirit can be resisted, and God doesn’t seem willing to override human behavior in some situations, we must consider that in our discussion of sovereignty.

5. Does God ever express regret over how His plans unfolded or uncertainty over how they will unfold?

This would be interesting indeed, because a sovereign, omnipotent and omniscient God should be able to prepare perfect plans and know how to fulfill them. And of course, one such plan is a major theme of the Bible – God’s plan to conquer sin and death through the life, death, and resurrection of His Son Jesus. But not all His plans seem to work out that way.

For example, His plan to, oh, create anything at all. Or at least living things. By the time we get to Genesis 6, humans, animals, sons of God, and Nephilim have screwed everything up. Verse 6 says God “regretted” or “was grieved” that He made humankind. That’s pretty substantial. In verse 7, He resolves to completely annihilate this aspect of His Creation, which one has to think was not His original idea when He made it.

In Exodus 13, when Israel is finally being led out of Egypt, God decides not to lead them through the land of the Philistines, because He thought they might change their minds and return to Egypt if they experienced war. Read that again. This is God making the decisions here; a whole spectrum of possibilities is open to Him. He could have wiped out the Philistines Himself. He could have led the Israelites into battle and assured them of victory. He could have protected them from battle and steeled their resolve so they would not turn back. But no, the Lord, uncertain of what might happen if He leads them toward Philistia, simply chooses to avoid that problem. And that’s fine, that’s His sovereign choice, but it’s still an odd depiction. But hey, how can we expect God to have that kind of handle on His people when He can’t even control Himself? Yeah, flip over to Exodus 33, right after the infamous golden calf, everybody-kill-your-brother episode. God is seriously angry about this, but He and Moses have tried to straighten things out. God sends the people on their way, on toward the promised land. His angel will clear the path before them. But God declines to join them on the journey, because “you are a stiff-necked people, and I might destroy you on the way.” An alternate reading says “lest I destroy you”. Have you ever been so mad at someone that you can’t even be around them because you might lose control? Now, imagine that emotion dwelling in God. Yahweh Himself, unable to control His wrath. That’s interesting, as well as really, really scary. God may be Love, but you don’t want to get on His bad side.

A bit later, we see in 1 Samuel 15 that Saul has abused his kingship and not followed the path God laid out for him. God tells Samuel: “I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned away from me and has not done what I told him to do.” This is restated in verse 35. (In between, though, Samuel makes the bold claim that “The Preeminent One of Israel does not go back on his word or change his mind, for he is not a human being who changes his mind.” Sure thing, Samuel. By the way, have you read the rest of the Bible?)

6. Can true believers “fall away” or “lose their faith”?

This is different territory than the other questions, but ties in nicely to our Calvinism-focused discussion because, according to the doctrines of election and perseverance, this should be impossible. If God sovereignly elects, saves, sanctifies, and whatever other words you want to put on it, then falling away would indicate a change in God’s plan for that individual. One should not be able to resist or reject these gifts from God. And yet…

When Jesus speaks to His disciples about the “end of the age” in Matthew 24, He warns that “many will be led into sin” (can also be translated “will fall away”) and “false prophets will appear and deceive many” (or “lead many astray”). Such imagery hearkens back to the parable of the sower, where some people receive the seed of the Gospel and allow it to take root, but it is choked by external forces.

Most of the examples and warnings regarding apostasy appear in the Epistles. Paul is astonished that the Galatians are “deserting the one who called [them] by the grace of Christ” (1:6). My commentary indicates “the one who called you” as a reference to God, yet the Galatians are straying from that call. Later, Paul says those who are still seeking righteousness by the law “have fallen away from grace” (5:4). Ephesians 4:30 indicates that those “sealed [by the Holy Spirit] for the day of redemption” are still capable of grieving that Spirit, whatever that entails. He warns Timothy that some have rejected “faith and a good conscience” and “have suffered shipwreck in regard to the faith” (1 Timothy 1:19) – quite a potent metaphor! Later, in chapter 4, he claims that “the Spirit explicitly says that in the later times some will desert the faith and occupy themselves with deceiving spirits and demonic teachings”. Perhaps this desertion is not equivalent to a loss of salvation, but nonetheless, why would an elect and regenerate believer be susceptible to this? The second half of the famous saying in 1 Timothy 6:10 is also relevant. “For the love of money is the root of all evils”, says the writer; but it continues: “Some people in reaching for it have strayed from the faith and stabbed themselves with many pains.” Ouch. And later, in verse 21, some who have professed knowledge “have strayed from the faith” as well.

The writer of Hebrews emphasizes multiple times the danger of believers falling away. In 2:1-3, we are told salvation can be neglected, and believers can drift away. In 3:12-13, believers are warned to take care that they may not be “hardened by sin’s deception”, having “an evil, unbelieving heart that forsakes the living God.” In 4:1-11, God’s “rest” is exposited, but we are warned that we can “come short of it” and that we must “make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall”. And in 6:4-6, the most comprehensively damning scripture for those who cling to the security of salvation, the author spares no term for true, genuine converts: “those who have once been enlightened, tasted the heavenly gift, become partakers of the Holy Spirit, tasted the good word of God and the miracles of the coming age” – if they’re not “real Christians” then we’re all screwed. And yet, in verse 6, some of these same people can commit apostasy, irrevocably falling away from the faith, losing the enlightenment, forsaking the Holy Spirit, spitting out the good word of God. We find this again in 10:26-31, where the author condemns one who “profanes the blood of the covenant that made him holy”. So the blood did indeed make this person holy, and yet they have profaned it by remaining in sin.

Peter describes the process of salvation and sanctification as hard work requiring much effort in 2 Peter 1:5-11. He later (2:20-22) echoes the sentiment of the Hebrews author, describing individuals who accept and then later reject “the way of righteousness” as dogs returning to their vomit. These people, according to Peter, “have escaped the filthy things of the world through the rich knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” but then “again get entangled in them and succumb to them” such that “their last state has become worse for them than their first.” Not only do these believers, saved through the rich knowledge of Christ, fall away, they end up worse than they were before ever finding Jesus! And getting back to God’s will, Peter provides us with a classic contra-Calvinism verse in 3:9, where he tells us that God is being patient because “he does not wish for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” That word “wish”, while not the usual Greek word for “will”, is still defined as “will deliberately” or “have a purpose”. It is God’s will, wish, purpose – take your pick – that all should come to repentance. Calvinist or not, we can agree that NOT everyone has come to repentance in the past two millennia. God, despite His sovereignty, appears not to be getting His wish. And in the closing of his second epistle, Peter again cautions believers: “be on your guard that you do not get led astray by the error of these unprincipled men and fall from your firm grasp on the truth.”

These six questions refined what were originally going to be two points, which were [10] God’s sovereignty is not consistently exercised in Scripture the way Calvinism claims, and [11] God doesn’t always get what He wants. I think I’ll just keep them that way.

2 Peter 3:9 is a nice transition point for this post, as we’re now going to move (quickly) to a different Biblical issue. Calvinism claims to be the theology that makes perfect sense of everything in the Bible without jumping through any hoops or dancing around any problems – if you just read the Bible clearly, Calvinism’s right there! But the truth is that [12] Calvinism plays just as many semantic/linguistic games as any other systematic theology, particularly with the words “world” and “all”. If you dig into it, Calvinism has this dualistic idea of the words “world” and “all” such that sometimes they apply to “all” of the elect in the whole “world”, and other times they actually apply to everybody in the whole world. Admittedly, there are certain times when “all” has a limited scope. If I say “they all went to the movies”, you can infer from context that I mean “all” of a certain group and not everybody in the world. This happens in the Bible too – just not nearly as much as Calvinists would like to think. “World”, on the other hand, actually means “world” – there’s no getting around that. Sometimes, it even means not just all the people in the world, but the actual whole world! Let’s also throw “who(so)ever” into the mix, as that is equally relevant in the context of salvation. Not surprisingly, the bulk of these verses come from the New Testament, because the Old Testament was focused solely on Israel, and decidedly not on the “world” – up until some prophets started seeing God’s plan as stretching beyond the boundaries of His chosen nation.

Jesus says in Matthew 10:32-33 that whomever acknowledges Him on earth, He will acknowledge before God in heaven, and whomever doesn’t He won’t. In 11:28, Jesus Himself invites “all you who are weary and burdened” to come and receive His rest. In 12:50, He defines His family as “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven”. In 16:25, He states that “whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Then in Mark’s version of the great commission, the resurrected Jesus orders His followers to “preach the gospel to every creature” and affirms that “the one who believes and is baptized will be saved, but the one who does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:15-16).

John’s gospel repeatedly stresses the universality of God’s call and Jesus’s mission. John the Baptist, seeing Jesus, beautifully proclaims “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29) How, exactly, could that mean anything but “the world”? John 3:16, which I shouldn’t have to quote, offers “eternal life” to “everyone who believes in” God’s one and only son. This image is reiterated by Jesus to the Samaritan woman at the well, to whom He says that “whoever drinks some of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again” (4:14). Many of this woman’s fellow townspeople come to understand Jesus’s message, realizing “this one really is the Savior of the world” (4:42). (Samaritans, remember, are Gentiles!) In chapter 6, Jesus claims that “the bread of God is the one who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” Yes, the world, so that “the one who comes to me will never go hungry, and the one who believes in me will never be thirsty.” Indeed, according to Jesus’s word, the will of God is “for everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him to have eternal life”. Again, in 7:37, Jesus offers an open call: “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.” In 12:32, Jesus says “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” How about that for universal scope? In 12:46, Jesus reminds us that He has come “as a light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in darkness.”

Moving to Acts, we can look at the public response to Peter’s sermon in chapter 2. Peter exhorts his listeners to repent and be baptized, “For the promise is for you and your children, and for all who are far away, as many as the Lord our God will call to himself.” Oh, look! “As many as God will call to himself”! Obviously, that means the elect! Yeah, that would make sense, if the gamut of Scripture didn’t stand directly in the way of that interpretation. Other verses make it pretty clear that the call is universal, and that God is calling everyone to Himself (recall Jesus’s words in John 12:32 above!). Peter later preaches in 10:43 that the prophets speak of Jesus, “that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

Two verses in Acts are linked by a common verb, and therefore interesting to examine together. When Peter speaks to the Jerusalem church in chapter 11, he succeeds in convincing them that “God gave (edoken) them (Gentiles) the same gift as he also gave us (Jews)”. They agree that “God has granted (edoken) the repentance that leads to life even to the Gentiles.” All the Gentiles? Did all the Gentiles repent? No. The verse is saying that the process of salvation, the ability to repent, is now open to all Gentiles – that is the gift of God. Now look back to Acts 5:31, where Peter tells of God giving the same gift to Israel originally: “God exalted him (Jesus) to his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give (dounai, same root as edoken) repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.” Did all of Israel repent and receive forgiveness? No. Again, the process of salvation is open – to Jews and Gentiles alike – but forgiveness is dependent on individual faith and repentance!

Paul states that the gospel “is God’s power for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). And in Romans 10:43, he quotes Joel 2:32, saying “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Romans 11 offers some interesting points, and is too dense to fully expound here, but Paul seems to express hope in verses 12-15 that the ultimate result of God’s plan will be the total restoration of the world, in a capacity greater than what has already been revealed.

An incredible verse is 1 Corinthians 15:22, in which Paul really drives home the universality of salvation, saying that “just as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.” No one is arguing that not everyone dies. Adam’s death, metaphorically, certainly applies to everyone. That’s the scope Paul places on the new life of Christ! (Aside: Calvinists and non-Calvinists will kick back at this point, wary that it leads to universalism. I’m not the least bit worried about that. In fact, I’m hopeful for it. As ardent believers in the power and love of God, we shouldn’t want anyone to suffer in hell for all eternity, and we have no reason not to hope that somewhere in God’s mysterious plan there is a provision that will make that possible. Universal reconciliation is far from the worst thing in the world.) 2 Corinthians 5:14-21 states that “Christ died for all; therefore all have died”, and then goes on to describe our ministry as believers in a beautifully synergistic way: “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting people’s trespasses against them, and he has given us the message of reconciliation. Therefore we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making His plea through us.” We are messengers, ambassadors, of the reconciliation of Christ! But to whom? To the elect? “Christ died for all”, and “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself”, so it seems to me that this message is for all the world! This sentiment is echoed in Colossians 1:20, where Paul poetically proclaims that God through Christ in reconciling “all things to himself”.

In Titus 2:11, we read that “the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all people.” So either all people are saved (the plain reading), or “all” doesn’t mean “all” (pretty odd), or “bringing salvation” doesn’t mean “causing salvation”. It makes sense to me to read this as the grace of God making salvation freely available to all people. Hebrews 2:9 states that Jesus experienced death “on behalf of everyone”, and in 7:27 states that Jesus offered Himself as a sacrifice “once for all.” John, in 1 John 2:2, emphatically writes that Jesus “is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for our sins but also for the whole world.” Don’t know how you can argue with that one. And at the conclusion of Scripture as we know it, Revelation 22:17 proclaims an open call for anyone who is thirsty to come and “take the water of life free of charge.”

The general picture the Bible paints of faith, belief, and salvation is one of active involvement, not passive. The reader is called to have faith, to believe, to accept salvation. The language relentlessly emphasizes this. If these things are entirely the work of God, then the fact that Scripture is written quite contrarily is very strange.

The last word I want to look at is the word “if”. Obviously, there are far, far too many occurrences of this word in Scripture to look at them all. We’ll only scratch the surface in terms of examples. But this ties back to the original point about God’s sovereignty in terms of decision-making; if God makes all the decisions, then anywhere that the Bible says “If you do X, God will do Y” is nonsensical. We’ve already seen several examples of passages like this. Here are a few more, provided with minimal commentary because the point of each is the same.

The entire history of Israel is littered with God’s conditional promises to them. He always offers blessings on the condition of obedience, and judgment if they fail to obey. A scattered few examples of this include Exodus 15:26, 19:5, and 20:5-6; Numbers 33:55; Deuteronomy 6:18-19, 7:9-15, 8:19-20, 28:1-2, 28:9-14, and 30:9-14; 1 Kings 3:14; and Jeremiah 4:1-4.

For some New Testament examples of conditionality, look up Matthew 6:14-15, 17:20, and 18:3 (“unless” – same principle); Mark 8:38; John 6:51, 8:31-32, 8:51, 12:26, 13:17, 13:35, 14:23, and 15:4-14; Romans 10:9 and 11:22-23; Ephesians 6:8; 1 Thessalonians 3:8; 1 John 1:6-10, 2:3, 2:15, and 4:12-15; and Revelation 2:5, 2:22, 3:3, and 3:20.

It could not be clearer in Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, that [13] God’s choices are often conditioned on human decisions. Does that affect His sovereignty? If you maintain a “high” view of it, then yes, it does. But God’s sovereignty can still have meaning even if it doesn’t mean that God calls all the shots. After all, why would God make humans with free will if He didn’t plan on giving them opportunities to use it? And I don’t just mean free will in the sense of choosing salvation, obviously – I mean in the grand scheme of things. Either God decides everything and thus the world is deterministic, or humans have some free will that factors into the equation. Even Calvinists (usually) agree the latter is true. So worship the Lord in all His glory and power and splendor, and respect that He has the power to do whatever He wants, but don’t try to force an unbiblical view of God’s sovereignty onto Scripture and into doctrine.

On the Absurdity of Calvinism, part 3 of 7: Logical Contradictions

part 2, Discourse Issues.

This might be the shortest and most scattered of the posts in this series, because there is a lot of overlap between the content here and what I plan to further develop in parts 4-6, and several things I want to point out without really getting too detailed. So let’s just dive in and see where it goes.

Let’s start by alienating most evangelical Christians, Calvinist and otherwise. Packer, in his essay, states that Calvinism is “the theology of the Bible viewed from the perspective of the Bible”; “the natural theology written on the heart of the new man in Christ”; “theism, religion, and evangelicalism, all in their purest and most highly developed form”. Wow. First of all, if there is a single, natural, perfect theology that unifies the whole Bible, [4] it is quite arrogant to assume that we’ve got it figured out. It is especially odd that Packer calls Calvinism “natural” and (in the same sentence) deems Arminianism “an intellectual sin”, when Calvinism takes far and away the most intellectual approach to Scripture and theology. Indeed, defenders of Calvinism might say that belief in free will is the “natural” line of thinking for a believer until they take a more intellectual approach to Scripture and discover the Calvinist doctrine therein.

But more than that, [5] it is naive to assume that there is a single, unified theology or perspective spanning the entire Bible. This is quite a rabbit hole, I admit, and fully developing this idea would take its own series of posts. (Or you could just read “Come Out, My People” by Wes Howard-Brook – which you really, really should.) Let me try to be brief – I’m not suggesting there are multiple “Gods” in the Bible. I’m not suggesting the Bible is “wrong”, entirely or partially. I am, however, indicating a movement away from belief in inerrancy. For too long, the church has feared that deviation from inerrancy leads to a critical, faithless approach toward Scripture that is dangerous at best and heretical at worst. But this paranoid attitude is just as dangerous, as the blinders of hyper-faith often cause people to miss out on particular edifying and beautiful insights.

The conservative church tends to believe that the Bible must be 100% correct and true, because if it is not, then all of Christianity collapses in on itself. Yet this is false, as well as patently idolatrous. We don’t worship the Father, Son, and Holy Bible! Believing that the Bible is a single, inseparably unified entity does injustice to the texts, devaluing them and their individual contributions to the story of God’s relationship with His people. The Bible is a collection of diverse stories which all show parts of the single story of God’s relationship with humanity. The Bible is indeed unified and coherent, but not in the strict sense of mutual dependency, such that we must treat each piece of the Scriptures as exactly the same in terms of validity and importance as all the rest. Tradition views the Bible as a photograph – one image containing a perfect representation of God’s relationship with humanity. I view Scripture as a series of divinely commissioned paintings. When an artist is commissioned to paint a portrait, the final product has the touches and character and style of the artist more so than the one who commissioned it; imagine the Bible as God commissioning many of His children to paint the portrait of His relationship with them. The portrait painted by a king will differ, perhaps greatly, from that of a prophet, or a fisherman, or a scribe; and not a single one of them will capture the glory and greatness that is the true Image of God Himself. But the Bible is not one perfect photograph in which we can see an exact likeness; it is a collection of imperfect paintings, by many artists with many different styles and media, in which we can see certain aspects and features of the Image God intends to show us, and only by looking at each image can we move toward deeper understanding of what the real Image looks like.

Switching gears and going back to Packer’s essay, let’s look a couple of other statements he makes that don’t seem to jive with his presentation of Calvinism at all. If God is sovereign in this whole process of conversion, salvation, sanctification, and so on, then what He chose to sovereignly do is rather mysterious. God’s irresistible grace, says Packer, “destroys the disposition to resist”. [6] Yet it does not destroy the disposition to sin. Why not? How is it glorifying to God for the so-called “regenerate” to remain sinners? What level of “effectiveness” does the blood of Christ have when it can be claimed to save and renew the believer but not change them so completely that their disposition toward evil is eradicated? (Sidenote: why would God allow the elect regenerate to develop Arminian theology? Why not destroy their disposition toward believing in free will?) Thus, internal to the high view of God’s sovereignty, there is contained a necessary restriction of that sovereignty. (We’ll touch on the very idea of sovereignty more completely in part 4.)

A Calvinist may come back at this point and state that regeneration, and the departure from sinfulness, is a process, and that this is what is meant by Peter’s petition that each believer should “make every effort to be sure of your calling and election” (2 Peter 1:10). To this I simply reply, what happens to an elect believer who fails to do that? The elect are the elect – they cannot fall away, according to Calvinism. It is up to God to sanctify them and save them; the role of human effort is vehemently decried. But perhaps, rather than being decried, it is actually shifted, such that the role of human effort is relevant only after “conversion”, to ensure that the conversion was not a false one. But again, it cycles back around to not really mattering; if God has chosen a person, she will bear fruit, using the effort inspired by God; if not, oh well, nothing can be done about it.

Somewhat tied in to that, another illogical point is that Packer calls repentance and faith the “duty” of the elect believer, and that God will cause that repentance and faith to occur in “every soul that shall freely give up themselves unto him”. Whoa, there, Packer! [7] You’re starting to sound like you believe in free will! Is God sovereign in who He saves? Or does He save those who “freely give up themselves unto him”? You can’t have it both ways. (Plenty more points like this to come in part 5.)

How about this one – Packer has the balls to claim that invitations to salvation are universal (his italics!) despite the atonement of Christ being for the elect only. [8] How can a Calvinist believer tell non-believers that Christ died for their sins and can save them without having his fingers crossed behind his back? For if Christ’s death was for the elect, and he happens to be speaking to someone God did not choose, then he is lying to their face! A parable: a man threw a big party. A wedding party, let’s say. He wrote up a specific, strict guest list; only those on this list would be allowed into the party. Not only that, he even arranged for private limousines to pick up each person on his guest list. Then he wrote up invitations for everybody in the world, and had his servants deliver every last invitation, so that everybody received one. When a servant gave out an invitation, he always said, “my master would love for you to be there! he’ll even send a private car to pick you up.” Since the servants hadn’t seen the guest list, they had no way of knowing whether or not the person would really be picked up and allowed to come in. On the day of the party, the man sent out his limousine fleet to pick up his guests; everyone on his guest list got in their ride and came to the party. And, amazingly, none of the people who weren’t on the guest list even wanted to come.

I think I’ve been pretty fair in painting the Calvinist idea of salvation there. So tell me – why did the master send invitations to the people who weren’t on the guest list? In doing so, he made himself and his servants liars – albeit with no noticeable consequence. But really, doesn’t that just seem totally bizarre?

The Thing about Mountains

What then shall we say to these things? If our God is for us, who can be against us? –Romans 8:31

God is passionatly seeking every moment of our little existence. Desiring His sons and daughters to come to fruition. He has a great plan for us. It may not be our plan for us. Most likely it will be incredibably different than our will. But His will is incredibly devine and often difficult. If God’s ways where for us to be victorious in mundane earthly wants He would never have promised us the Holy Ghost. If His ways were to be comfortable there would never be a need for a Comfortor. If His will was ours then we would not need the Savior. He is not an absentee father or a distant benevolence or a well meaning but often forgetful politician. He is for us. EVERY. STEP. OF. THE. WAY. Cheering us on and many a times picking us up. He is not a crutch we lean on but a Physician who teaches you how to walk. He fights like a husband for a wayward bride, from a position of victory, from intimacy. He is an active voice in a world of white noise and pychological fallicies.

This is a joyous conclusion to a lifetime of failures. And even in moments of our own achievements the arduous task of succession begins again. A never ending climb of plateaus and mountains. The thing about mountains is when you climb one there is another one on the other side. The thing about mountains is there is never just a one and done, they come in ranges. But with God the mountains melt like wax- they are ripped up from there deep sedimentary roots and thrown into a deep sea of mercy- so that when we are at our weakest moments, out of breath, dying of thirst, there is a tidal wave of grace that sweeps us away in transcendent love.

…nor hieght nor depth, nor anything in all creation will be able to seperate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 8:39

With a God like that who needs the present when we have all the victory in the beauty of His presence. I have climbed a few mountains in the past. I remember on our way to climb St. Helena and Enchanted Rock (a megalith) people would be at the top doing yoga or praying. Even though my wife and I marveled at the beauty of Gods workmanship we were never any closer to Him than we were in the car. Be thankful in every circumstance because God is for you.Image

On The Absurdity Of Calvinism, part 2 of 7: Discourse Issues

part 1, Introduction. part 1b, More Introduction. part 1c, Last Introduction.

Welcome back! Thanks for reading. (Thanks especially for sticking around through all those introductions.)

As stated in the previous posts, I am specifically writing against J.I. Packer’s Introductory Essay to John Owen’s “The Death of Death in the Death of Christ”. This post will deal with a few issues, not regarding Calvinism in general, but regarding the specific angle of Packer in this essay.

First, a question: are you a Democrat? No? Well, then, you’re obviously a Republican, and thus…I’m sorry, what’s that? You’re not a Republican either? Well…but…that doesn’t make any sense…

Packer’s argument for Calvinism is exactly one against Arminianism. This is the theological dichotomy underlying most Calvinistic debates: if not Calvinism, then Arminianism. But this dichotomy covers about as much of the theological spectrum as the two parties named above cover of the political spectrum. To reduce politics to Republican vs. Democrat is to ignore the voices of the Libertarian, the Socialist, the Communist, the Constitutionalist, the Anarchist, and so on – regardless of how valid those voices are, one must acknowledge they exist. Similarly, presenting Calvinism as a polemic to Arminianism ignores the existence of Free Will Theism, Open Theism, Universalism, Moral Agency, and so on – again, it doesn’t matter at this point what the content of those theologies is, only that they be given a place to speak. The universe of discourse in Packer’s essay is very constrained, because [1] Arminianism is not the only alternative to Calvinism. (I might again direct the reader to an old post, linked to in part 1, in which I develop Calvinism, free-will theism, and universalism as three contrasting ideas each justifiable depending on your particular scriptural lens.)

Of particular relevance is the fact that both Calvinism and Arminianism (as presented by Packer) are monergistic theologies (mono, “one” + ergos, “work” = monergism, “one worker”); that is, they assert that salvation is completely the work of one entity. For Calvinism, that entity is God; for Arminianism, it is the individual. Calvinism says you’re totally helpless by yourself, but if God has chosen you, then He has saved you, but nothing you do has any impact on His decision. Arminianism says God would really like to save you, so much that He bought your ability to be saved and all you have to do is take it, but He’s done all He can; His hands are tied, and it’s all up to you now. I’m paraphrasing, of course, but that’s the gist of it. Usually when there are two polar opposite sides in an argument, the best solution lies somewhere in the middle; this case is no exception for me. From Scripture, reason, and common sense, it seems clear to me that [2] Synergism makes a lot more sense than either side of monergism. Synergism (syn, “together” + ergos, “work” = synergism, “working together”) is simply the idea that salvation is a cooperative process. Neither side can (or will) accomplish the work of salvation alone. Man, independently of Christ’s sacrifice and call and God’s openness to receive, cannot save or justify himself. God, despite His removal of the roadblock of sin through the atonement of Christ, cannot or will not force salvation on certain people while withholding it from others. Calvinist reasoning says that the issue is black and white, that salvation must be ALL God’s work or NOT God’s work at all; synergistic theology understands that this is not the case.

Packer only briefly mentions synergism at all, stating that it is difficult to believe the gospel if “our thoughts are caught in the toils of synergism”. He goes on to elaborate a bit, implying that synergism is “a bewildering kind of double-think about salvation”, since its adherents must attempt to simultaneously believe that salvation is entirely the work of God and entirely the work of man. Of course, this is a poor way to formulate the concept. It is similarly poor to imagine salvation as 50% God’s work and 50% man’s work, or 60/40 or any other such split. It is helpful to ponder other instances of synergism-esque things in our theology, such as the Trinity (is it all God? all Jesus? all the Holy Spirit? 33.3333% each?) and Jesus Himself (100% God, but 100% human? 50% God, 50% human?). These are difficult concepts, but we have adopted a sort of “faithful agnosticism” toward them, believing that they make perfect sense even if we can’t make perfect sense of them. This, I believe, is the best attitude to take toward a synergistic view of salvation; it’s God’s work, and it’s my work, and I don’t fully get that, but I don’t need to.

Throughout Scripture, the picture of the relationship between God and humanity is one of effectual work on both sides. God frequently presents people with choices, leading to mixed results of obedience and disobedience. God sometimes intervenes and causes things to happen in a particular way for His purposes; other times, He allows humanity to sort things out for themselves; sometimes, we are even told He changes His plans based on human deeds. But the overarching thrust of Scripture is a communal interaction between God and humans – not a one-sided one. There’s no reason to believe salvation should deviate from this paradigm. Isaiah 64:5 speaks of God “assisting those who delight in doing what is right” – a God who assists people, not who controls and coerces them. In Mark 9:24, the father of a demon-possessed boy cries out to Jesus “I believe; help my unbelief!” The man has some faith, and still needs help – that very assistance of which Isaiah spoke. The imagery of the vine in John 15 is one of mutuality; Jesus says, “Remain in me, and I will remain in you.” In Paul’s sermon before the Areopagus in Acts 17, He states that God set things up in the world (His sovereign choice and effort) “so that [people] would search for God and perhaps grope around for him and find him” (human effort); and that He commands “all people everywhere to repent” (more human effort). Indeed, the author of Hebrews reminds us that we must have faith that God “rewards those who seek Him” (Hebrews 11:6). And it’s too much to quote, but look at 1 John 4:7-19 and ask yourself – who’s doing the work there? Who’s the “first mover”? The language almost seems intentionally synergistic – if we love, then we are from God, but we love because we are from God, but if we love, the love is perfected…it’s a beautiful, loving mess. Just the way it should be.

My last issue with Packer’s discourse is that he repeatedly characterizes a God who is unable (or unwilling) to completely do the work of salvation on His own as “weak”, “pitiable”, “impotent”, and “pathetic”. But don’t take my word for it, here are some direct quotes:

“Our minds have been conditioned to think of […] God’s love as a weak affection which cannot keep anyone from hell without help…”
“The pitiable Saviour and the pathetic God of modern pulpits are unknown to the old gospel.”
“… it reduces God’s love to an impotent wish and turns the whole economy of “saving” grace […] into a monumental divine failure.”
“…it compels us to misunderstand the significance of the gracious invitations of Christ in the gospel of which we have been speaking; for we now have to read them, not as expressions of the tender patience of a mighty sovereign, but as the pathetic pleadings of impotent desire; and so the enthroned Lord is suddenly metamorphosed into a weak, futile figure tapping forlornly at the door of the human heart, which He is powerless to open.”

“…we depict the Father and the Son, not as sovereignly active in drawing sinners to themselves, but as waiting in quiet impotence “at the door of our hearts” for us to let them in.”

Clearly, I have left out exact contexts and referents for these quotes, but you can read that for yourself by searching for them in Packer’s article (see link above). My purpose was just to show the general pejorative attitude toward a not-fully-saving God.

In response to that, particularly the last two quotes, I offer Revelation 3:20, in which Jesus states: “Listen! I am standing at the door and knocking! If anyone hears my voice and opens the door I will come into his home and share a meal with him, and he with me.” In no way is one out-of-context verse the be-all-end-all of salvation discussion; I will never attempt to use any single verse that way in this series. However, I find it odd that Packer rejects and diminishes the imagery of the Lord standing at the door and knocking, waiting for the door to be opened, when it is imagery attributed to the voice of Christ Himself in His Word!

Other Biblical refutations of certain ideas above will be addressed in a later post. But I would like to close by suggesting that, in general, [3] the attribution of “weakness” to God, and more importantly to Christ, is neither a deplorable nor radical idea. Jesus came as the suffering servant, did He not, as the poetic prophecy of Isaiah 53 suggests? And yet in both the suffering and the servitude there is a measure of what might be deemed “weakness”. Packer’s Calvinism would make Jesus into a grand king, though it is precisely this role that Jesus shied away from during His ministry. His birth was lowly, in a stable surrounded by barnyard animals and their accompanying filth. Even by being born, taking on human form, God in Jesus subjects Himself to the inherent weaknesses of humanity. This man Jesus is “impotent” in His inability to perform miracles in His faithless hometown (Mark 6:5); “pathetic” in His homelessness (Matthew 8:20); “pitiable” in His emotional distress at the grave of Lazarus (John 11:33) and the outskirts of Jerusalem (Luke 19:41); “weak” in His anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane, to the point that His sweat became as drops of blood (Matthew 26:36ff; Mark 14:32ff;  Luke 22:44). And no verses need be cited regarding His weakness during His passion and crucifixion, the ultimate display of subjection. Indeed, Paul summarizes it in 2 Corinthians 13:4, which states Jesus “was crucified by reason of weakness”. This is our Savior, our Lord; does He look afraid or ashamed of weakness? I grant you, joyfully, that He now reigns in strength and power; no argument there. Yet He is no stranger to these conditions Packer so ardently vilifies.

On the Absurdity of Calvinism, part 1c of 7: Last Introduction, Seriously

Okay, sorry, I know this is getting ridiculous. But I keep having “introductory” thoughts I want to share. I know we’re all very excited to get past the introductory remarks and into the real body of work, but I can’t continue without just a couple more things. I’ll keep it very brief.

First, I will be citing a plethora of Scripture verses which stand in contrast to Calvinistic thought. (P.S. all my direct citations will be from the NET Bible, which is a phenomenal translation and study tool.) I’ve been combing Scripture for a week now in search of such verses, to make my argument as Biblically comprehensive as possible in such a brief period of time. Lo and behold, I’ve also come across plenty of verses whose plain reading stands solidly in favor of Calvinist ideals. For me to deny the existence of such verses would be as silly as a Calvinist denying the existence of their own Scriptural problems. But here is exactly why I have chosen a destructive rather than constructive approach in my writing: any theology which must systematically force the entire Bible to fit into a single well-defined framework will inevitably be met with resistance from Scripture itself. I do not advocate such a theology because I don’t have one. I defy Calvinism because it is one. It is better for us as Christians to live with the tension of Scripture – and still apply it to our lives, behavior, and mission as the Church – than to expend needless energy and conduct intellectual gymnastics to force Scripture to fit a mold it simply refuses to. It’s perfectly okay for a Christian to not fully understand the Bible, even to question it; as Wes Howard-Brook says, “Living in the questions is much less certain, but full of life.”

That said, if you are irrepressibly bothered by the fact that I am not offering a specific alternative to Calvinism – if you simply must have a contrasting option to latch onto – you should leave this blog, not bother reading the rest of this series, and head over here to listen to the incredible Bruxy Cavey‘s sermon series on Calvinism. In seven comprehensive and well-designed sermons, Bruxy replaces “TULIP” with “GRACE” and exegetes a fantastic alternative structure for understanding these ideas we’re discussing. Bruxy calls his position “Arminian”, but it’s not Arminian in a traditional sense, specifically in the sense that Packer criticizes Arminianism (see part 2). Most importantly, it is Anabaptist – the third branch of Christianity, besides Catholicism and Protestantism – and emphasizes the fact that this whole debate is irrelevant anyway. Now, I don’t necessarily agree with every little thing he says, but I certainly favor a lot of it, and his sermons and notes have provided me with some excellent notes above and beyond those I came up with. So if you read these posts AND check out the sermons, you’ll definitely notice some overlap. Additionally, even if you don’t check out the sermons, you should click that link to Bruxy’s website and read his seven blog posts called “What’s the Word on Scripture?” He really explains the purpose of the Bible and our approach to it in a beautiful way. Hat tip to my brother in Christ who pointed me to Bruxy’s sermons. Thanks!

Oh, and by the way…you might ask why I’m not structuring my series as an attack on TULIP. Two reasons. One, I’m structuring it as a response to Packer’s essay, which is not based on TULIP; and two, as any good Calvinist will tell you (Packer included), TULIP isn’t really five points, it’s five consequences of one point (“God’s sovereignty”). If any one point fails, essentially all five do. So it’s not really worthwhile to try to discredit each of the five separately. Besides, it’ll come about naturally as we go; I will note often when verses or points apply to one or more specific aspects of TULIP.

Now, as promised – on to part 2.

On the Absurdity of Calvinism, part 1b of 7: More Introduction

That got exciting quickly.

Since the posting of part 1, there has been lots of feedback, positive, negative, and indifferent. I wanted to address a couple of things that have come up before moving on with the series.

First, my friend Dustin, who blogs over here, has decided to make this a genuine dialogue rather than a one-sided diatribe. You might remember him from when he blogged a response to my post on Jonah a while a back. That’s basically what’s going to happen here, except we’ll share thoughts and drafts with each other before each subsequent part, and then post our critique and response at the same time so that people get two biased perspectives rather than one. I welcome this dialogue, and am excited to see how it proceeds.

Second, I got substantial push-back even from people who are on “my side” of the argument about my choice of words and attitude. Most obviously, the contention was with the following phrasing: “I will shamelessly point and laugh as Packer trips over his own feet and falls into his own trap” (regarding the topic of evangelism). A few people lovingly suggested I should change that wording. I’m not going to, for three reasons. First, it’s honest, and I want to be honest with my readers. While reading Packer’s essay, I really did laugh out loud at the evangelistic paragraphs. It’s those passages as much as anything that helped me settle on using the word “absurdity” in the title of my posts – “absurd” being a combination of irrational and comical. Second, it’s already been seen by a bunch of people. I never like redacting history. For better or worse, I said it. You know I said it (if you didn’t, now you do). I’m not going to sheepishly pretend I never said it. Third, because I’m writing about it now, I might as well keep it there for posterity. (That kinda overlaps with the previous point).

Here’s what I’ll admit though: it wasn’t particularly graceful or loving. And it definitely undermined my claimed intent of wanting to promote dialogue and discussion. For that, I need to take a step back and realize that my tactlessness was less than appropriate. If I offended or caused anyone to stumble, I’m sorry.

Lastly, and most importantly, I want to revisit the question of why I’m writing this in the first place. This is really a discussion specific to my church community (so if you’re reading this from elsewhere on the internet, this may not be relevant). I specified that my purpose is destructive and not constructive. I want to maintain a certain level of freedom and fluidity in our community’s theology. We’ve done incredible things as a church for several years without doctrinal issues such as Reformed-vs-not theology coming up at all. But the more we gravitate toward that pole (or any pole), the more constrained our doctrinal focus is, the more importance we place on doctrine, and thus the less importance we place on praxis. Indeed, I believe that doctrine is only a good thing inasmuch as it directly affects praxis. If we, as a church or as individuals, pursue theology to the point that it becomes more important than actively living out the Kingdom of God, then theology – even correct theology – is a bad thing. Furthermore, the particular pole of Reformed theology often brings with it a lot of church structure ideas that I find dangerous and misguided, and fear our church heading down that road. Also, gravitating toward a specific theological pole threatens both to alienate current members who don’t hold that particular belief set (or don’t hold strongly to any particular belief set) and to render the church inaccessible to future members of this same sort. Where would our church be now if it had chosen to be more doctrinally strict two years ago?

All that said, it’s still tough for me to justify this. I’ve been part of a couple of good churches that happen to have Reformed beliefs. New Song Community Church, in nearby Sandtown, has been doing the work of the Kingdom in incredible ways for more than twenty years. If the Garden suddenly or gradually becomes a “Reformed” church, do I think that will prevent us from doing great things for God in the city of Baltimore? No, not really. But I still believe it would be better for us to maintain a lack of doctrinal absolutism in favor of a broad variety of theological viewpoints that are able to be perpetually in discussion and conversation.

Additionally, and I want to be very careful how I write this paragraph…I believe it is never right, in any church, regardless of doctrine, for the pastor to have a monopoly on theology. I believe that it is important for each member of the congregation to be led and taught not only by the pastor, but by small groups, by each other, by books, by blogs, and most importantly by the Holy Spirit. I am not saying this because of any personal problem with our pastor! Please understand that. I love the man and consider him a close friend. But I also regard him as a brother in Christ on equal footing with me. No congregation should blindly accept what its pastor teaches. A good pastor wouldn’t want that; I don’t think our pastor wants that. Again – that doesn’t mean that I think he’s generally wrong. It just means that I want to reserve the right for myself and any of us to disagree with him.

I hope that clarified some things and puts us all in a better position to continue this discussion, on this blog (use the comments section!) and in person.

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