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.

5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Raleigh
    May 11, 2012 @ 13:44:23

    I really appreciate that you attempt to break down our often dogmatic understandings of God. We do tend to see Him as unchanging, static and box him in based on some Platonian philosophy.

    I think the church needs to re-invision God by letting go of systematic understandings of the Bible and of His nature. Seeing God as omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent and all the other -ents is an attempt to gain a better sense of “who God is”, but these qualities that we create do not hold up scripturally and their widespread acceptance has been damaging to the faith.


  2. Trackback: On the Absurdity of Calvinism, part 5 of 7: Evangelical Doublethink « Not By Hands
  3. Trackback: On the Absurdity of Calvinism, part 6 of 7: Theological Unsavoriness « Not By Hands
  4. Arthur Fisher
    Nov 12, 2012 @ 18:57:23

    Outstanding article. And I was laughing so hard at the random puppy photo that I had tears in my eyes! Good doctrine, good sense of humor.


  5. Trackback: On The Absurdity Of Calvinism, part 1 of 7: Introduction | Not By Hands

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