What If All FB’ers Lived in The Kingdom of God?

In rewatching Dallas Willard’s teaching on the Beatitudes, in which he explores the nature of the Kingdom of God, and the nature of those that live there, I was once again struck by just how far away from goodness we really are.

To understand the chasm we’re dealing with, we need to know the nature of the Kingdom, and particularly its citizens, at least as explained by Willard.

First, Willard presents his thesis in response to answering two ancient philosophical questions: 1) Who is well off, and; 2) Who is a good person?  Historically we’ve tended to answer the first as those who have money, those who have health, those who are pretty/handsome, those who have a good job, those who have good marriages, those who have children they love, etc.

The purpose of the Beatitudes is to reject these common perceptions, and instead highlight that those lacking are blessed.  Christ here is actually teaching an example of his “inversion” message.  He’s saying that to God, everybody is blessed, by Him.  He’s telling us that within His Kingdom of blessing, God’s purpose is to extend His love through His blessing to all.

Jesus’ answer to the second question is those who recognize God’s intention with respect to His Kingdom and seek to join in it.  In other words, those that want more than anything to join in the love expressed within that Kingdom.  These are not people who simply want to follow some rules leading to approval by men of their actions.

Jesus makes it pretty clear that just acting as if you are a member of this Kingdom community isn’t going to get it done.  Here (Mt. 5:20) he makes the statement about the ir-righteouness of the scribes and the Pharisees – referring to their behavior of strutting around appearing to be those whose hearts are right with God, when in fact their intention is only “to be seen by men” (Mt. 6:1, Mt. 23:1-12).  So, He explains, our righteousness has to “exceed” theirs, which actually isn’t a tall order when you understand their hypocrisy.

What Jesus was teaching on the mount that day was that if you wanted to enter the Kingdom He had established, you were to humble yourself, and change your thinking and character so that the good of others was no less your interest than your own good.  He wasn’t looking for behavior modification.  He was looking for heart modification.  He didn’t and doesn’t need our occasional acts of self-conscious kindness or public professions of empathy or love.  He needs our hearts changed (through the indwelling of His Spirit) so that our normal reaction to life’s events is the same as His would be, if He were living our lives for us.  He’s looking for living, breathing conduits for His love to operate through to work its good within His creation.

So that’s Willard’s message.  And it got me thinking: “What would become of Facebook if all of its members were citizens of the Kingdom of God?”  (I concede that this is a trivialization of the larger question concerning society and culture as a whole.)

Well, first, I would imagine that 90% of the political “news” sites that feed people’s timelines would quickly evaporate.  They’re all based on pandering to our human pride, contempt of those we may not agree with, and various weaknesses “of the flesh”, as they say. (If you’re not a male, you may not have been fed this garbage, but rest assured all who are are fed a constant diet of it.)

Who are you going to sell your contempt and demeaning characterizations to if everybody wants what is best for those on the other side of issues with which they may not agree?

Next, I would imagine that all of the political tit-for-tat that takes place between “friends” and consumes countless FB servers would die a natural death too.  Civil discussions, of course, would continue, including things like the friendly back-and-forth between fans of competing sports teams.  But snarky jabs and demeaning commentary would vanish.

Would Zuckerberg still be a Gillionaire?  I suspect probably yes. But would that be a better Facebook (and world)?  You decide.

Redeem the Time

I recently watched this message from Dallas Willard delivered to an audience at Westmont College in 2011.  Most of what Willard has to say in all of his books and talks rivets my attention.  But this one particularly grabbed me.  It is definitely worth submitting it to careful review, particularly as we commemorate this Easter week.

He starts out by essentially challenging the traditional Christian understanding of salvation as that thing that happens to believers in Christ when they die.  However, he says, that’s not the entirety of God’s plan for those who believe.  Here he cites Rom 5:

Rom 5:8-10 [8] but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. [9] Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath [of God]. [10] For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.

Willard notes that modern translations of the Bible have added the words “of God” after the word “wrath” in v9.  The reason for this seems to be that the Greek “3709. ὀργή órgē” was (incorrectly) translated “wrath” in the first place!  The word’s primary meaning is “desire” or “excitement of the mind”.  Paul began this section of his address to the Romans by saying “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace through our Lord Jesus Christ.”  So here in v9 he’s simply reaffirming this message; that those in Christ won’t be overcome by worldly desires for things of the world, but they will have peace – contentment, assurance, satisfaction because Christ has saved us from such desires.

Willard then explains that salvation means deliverance, from all kinds of things; in this case deliverance from worthless desires.  And, he points out, Paul assures the Romans that we “much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by His life.”  Wait.  I thought we were “saved” by his death and resurrection.  We’re saved by His life?  Having set the stage by showing one example of what we’ve been delivered from (“desire”), Willard then goes on to articulate what we’ve been delivered “to”.  In other words, what does it look like to live “in Christ”?

Paul has lots to say about this.  The principle point Willard wants to draw out Paul mentions in Eph 5.

Eph 5:8-9 (ESV) [8] for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light [9] (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), [10] and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord.

Eph 5:15-17 (ESV) [15] Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, [16] [making the best use of the time (ESV)]/[redeeming the time (KJV)], because the days are evil. [17] Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.

Here Paul exhorts his listeners to walk as children of the light, because the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true.  Everything that is good and right and true is a fruit of the light, Christ.  So it stands to reason that we should walk carefully, persistently focusing our minds on these things where Christ is.

OK, fine.  But how do you do that, practically speaking?  Willard says you must exert effort to see the fruit of the light in your common, everyday experiences.  He says a good starting place is simply to give thanks, whatever your circumstance.  Why?  Because whatever is before you is there at God’s direction.  He is in it.  It’s our job to transform our minds (with the aid of the Holy Spirit) to see Him in it.  As Paul taught in Rom 12:2

[2]  Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Paul himself was perhaps the poster child for this transformation as he was able to write, when he wasn’t singing hymns of praise, from his stinking, rotting jail cell in Rome to the Philippians:

Phil 4:8 (ESV) [8] Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Willard implores us to fill our lives with God by constantly submitting where you are to love; to joy; to peace.  That’s how you redeem (buy back) your time from being wasted apart from God to being for the things of God, and see His glory, His goodness, His truth in the things all around you in your life.

The world is designed to waste your time – to distract you and pull your attention away from Him.  When you don’t let it, you redeem your time so that you live in God’s Kingdom and display the fruit of His spirit: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control (Gal 5:22-23)

The saved life is a life devoted to beauty, truth and goodness, in the power of the risen Christ who is with you in all you do.  Oh yeah, and going to heaven when you die.

Rethinking Calvinism

1.     Introduction

Against my better judgment, I feel compelled to do my best to try to expose the deception that is the Calvinist/Reformed Christian theology.  I say “against my better judgment” for two reasons.   1) I have many dear friends who wholeheartedly accept these doctrines, and I don’t want to impugn their honest faith or daily walk in following the Lord at all.  And; 2) the doctrine itself, as it has developed its arguments over the centuries, has developed a very tightly interwoven set of pat explanations designed to disarm any logical criticism.  I’m taking up this cause purely as a defense of, and an act of love for, God whose character is attacked and demeaned by this confused, man-made theological slight-of-hand.  My argument is not “man-centered” in the sense of man as some approximation of God.  I am not one to assert man’s goodness or intrinsic value or any other virtue, other than that his Creator is God.  My exclusive concern is that the Calvinist/Reformed man-made dogma demeans the unfathomable magnificence of God and casts Him in a role that is perceived by many as immoral, and that perception should not be left to stand.

2.     The Issues

There are many errors in the Calvinist/Reformed set of doctrines that besmirch God.  Some do substantially more violence to Him than others.

2.1.  Calvinist/Reformed Doctrine

John Calvin was a French protestant theologian in the 1500’s who was “reformed” from his Roman Catholic upbringing and training.  Following his conversion, Calvin continued to hold some Roman Catholic, and simply un-Christian beliefs (e.g. from minor issues like transubstantiation, to God as the initiator of sin and evil), while demonstrating some distinctly un-Christian behaviors.  Not least of these was his seven-year vendetta against fellow theologian Michael Servetus, ultimately leading to Servetus’ trial as a heretic, conviction and death by burning, for which Calvin was uniquely responsible.  At issue were some theological positions Servetus held that Calvin could not persuade him to abandon.  So he had him killed.

Calvin documented his theology in a set of books entitled “Institutes of Christian Religion”.  From these writings, followers were able to excerpt his key, interlocking doctrines, which were eventually abstracted into a summary known by the acrostic “TULIP”.

2.1.1.    ‘T’otal Depravity

Total depravity (or, for some, “total inability”) is a doctrine that says that man, because of the sinful nature he inherited through fallen Adam, is unable to respond to God.  He can see God’s general revelation in the Creation all about him, but is unable to acknowledge or credit God, let alone seek him.  Importantly, he is unable even to ask God for mercy and redemption.  To the Calvinist, if someone finds himself asking God for forgiveness and redemption, it is because God directed him to do so.

The main error here is that the Bible doesn’t say this about the effects of Adam’s sin.  You can read God’s judgment for yourself in Gen 3:16-19.  There is nothing there, or anywhere else, about making humanity unable to seek or respond to God.  So this is an man-created assumption, based only on inference, not the word of the Bible.  Wouldn’t you think if this was, in fact, God’s judgment that He might have at least mentioned it to the recipients of His curse, starting with Adam and Eve?

Instead, the Reformed use verses like Rom 3:12[1] to claim this imagined judgment by God.  I think everybody knows that human nature is intrinsically sinful.  But, biblically speaking, you’re not allowed to infer more than what is said, and then call it the word of God, which is exactly what the Calvinist/Reformed do.  The thing to hold onto here is that this is a man-made invention unsubstantiated by the Bible.

2.1.2.    ‘U’nconditional Election

This belief says that God chose the individuals who would be saved from his judgement (as deserving of eternal punishment for their sins “before the foundation of the world”), quite apart from anything they would think or do[2] (unconditionally).  This is the foundation of the Calvinist system, as it has some Biblical verses that have been interpreted to support it.  (See Eph 1:4-5, Mk 13:20[3], Rom 8:28-30[4], Rom 9:11-13[5])   The Reformed position is that since God “predestined” some for salvation, He did this irrespective of anything they do or think, as if God was disdainful of His Creation.  They are committed to the concept that God exclusively decides who does and who does not receive His grace and mercy in bringing them to saving faith in Christ.  I agree.

What I disagree with is that God does this in some sort of vacuum, uninformed by the lives people will lead.  Why would the reformed pound the table that God is omniscient – knows precisely the details of every person’s life down to the smallest detail, and at the same time say “He didn’t elect those for salvation based on anything they would think or do, but based only on “His good pleasure” (essentially a biblical phrase adopted by them to mean “for no reason remotely related to the behavior, including repentance, of His created people”).  Why do they say this?

They say this because to them God’s sovereignty – His ability to accomplish everything He wills independent of anything or anyone else – is preeminent.  And, just as significant, man’s inability to choose to follow God, is total.  Thus, to them, this is the only possible interpretation of “predestined”.  To the Reformed mind it is crucially important to rest in the assurance that of the world of debauched sinners, God, for His own reasons, chooses only some for salvation – mainly them — totally independent of anything those debauched sinners might think or do.  This is their definition of “sovereign”.

What makes some of them a bit uncomfortable is that this position unavoidably implies a negative corollary: God, for His own reasons, predestined most of humanity to eternal damnation irrespective of anything they might think or do.  We might ultimately find ourselves unable to go on and fall on our knees to beg God for redemption by His mercy.  Doesn’t matter.  At the Creation He elected some for His good purposes, whatever they may have been.  But to the Calvinist/Reformed, those good purposes can have nothing whatever to do with anything about us.  If you’re not elected to His salvation by His grace, then you can be certain that you have been elected for His eternal damnation, which is nothing more than what you justly deserve, given the depravity of the entire race, as the default judgment on a sinful humanity.

Whose God damns the majority of His creation to eternal suffering based only on “His good pleasure”?  The answer is, Calvinists.

What do they say when confronted by other biblical evidence that they’re wrong?  What about, for example, 1 Tim 2:4 “ [3] This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, [4] who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. “  If God desires all people to be saved, why is it that He “predestines” most for damnation?  Their answer is” God has two wills; His moral will, which this verse describes, and His sovereign will.  His moral will describes what God would, in His perfect goodness, wish would be the case.  His sovereign will, however, describes how He actually will deal with His creation.  This diagram depicts the relation of God’s overarching sovereign will to both His moral will and how they impact humanity.


The intersecting area between “Us” and “Moral Will” represents the elect.  The “Us” outside of that overlapping area represent those assigned to eternal damnation.  Calvinist/Reformed say that God’s moral will is His revealed (in the Bible) will, while his sovereign will is “hidden”.  It just is.  (More below.)

Similarly, in responding to verses in the Bible in which God seems to call all mankind to repentance and belief[6], Calvinist/Reformed claim God has two flavors of “call”: general and effectual.  They say God extends His general call to all mankind.  But, of course, He doesn’t provide the ability to respond to it.  So it is disingenuous; He doesn’t really mean it.  The only call He means is His effectual call, which is the call that He extends to His elect.  Once again, the Bible says nothing about types of call.  This is purely an invention of men to make their interpretation of salvation fit the conflicting biblical texts and remain logically self-consistent.

Can you imagine anything more cruel, more diabolical than God predestining the majority of his human creation for eternal damnation, but going out of His way to make it plain to them that what He really wishes is that they all would be saved from that same damnation[7], while He offers no possibility of that?  This image simply fails to describe, let alone honor, a perfect, holy, gracious and loving Creator, and therefore, for me, fails of its own weight.  However, there is more here that needs resolution.  See 3.2 below.

2.1.3      Limited Atonement

This doctrine says that Christ died only for those who God the Father had elected for salvation before the beginning.  It too is wrong, but for reasons already enumerated.

Christ died so that those that believed in Him would be saved from God’s judgment (Jn 3:16).  He doesn’t withhold His mercy.  He simply honors our decision.  The problem Calvinists have with believing that Christ died for the sins of all is that it violates the will of God which, to them, is that only the elect will ultimately be saved.  If Christ would have died to remove from His Father’s view the sins of all, then He would have been in some sense disobedient to His father.  If His sacrifice was on behalf of unbelievers then they would be shielded from judgment, and we know that’s not the case.

What this doctrine underscores is that the Biblically attested basis of salvation is not simply Christ’s sacrifice for us, but our resultant faith in Him that He is the Son of God and died for our sins.  To them, God unilaterally bestows this belief and faith irrespective of the heart of the receiving sinner, and He does so just to His elect sinners.  This is the error in this part of the Calvinist doctrine – that belief, faith and redemption are forced on or into the recipient; not that only some will ultimately be saved.

It’s worth noting there is some biblical support for the idea that Christ’s sacrifice was on behalf of everyone.  1 John 2:2, for example, says: “[2] He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. “  The word “whole” (holos) here means the entirety of something – nothing is left out.  Calvinists explain that this verse is a reference to the inclusion of Gentiles (not just Jews) in the covenant of salvation, thus to John the “whole world” of peoples.

2.1.4        Irresistible Grace

This part of the doctrine is the proposition that God’s grace extends only to His elect and, having been extended, cannot be refused.  It’s not an offer.  It is a destiny.  Therefore one could argue that it doesn’t have the character of a gift at all [8],[9].  The Bible never says that God offers grace to some but withholds it from others.  What it does say is: “Acts 2:21 (ESV) [21] And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”  Of course to the Calvinist, the only ones who have the ability to call upon the Lord are His elect.

2.1.5        Perseverance of the Saints

Once saved, always saved.  In a nutshell, that is the meaning of this part of the Calvinist doctrine.  And while there are some who would argue the point claiming that one can lose his salvation, the Bible doesn’t say that[10].  We can sin after having been granted salvation, even as Ananias and Sophira did in front of Peter.  But if they had saving faith before their little scheme was revealed, they had it forever.

3              A Little  History

It may come as a surprise, even to some Calvinist/Reformed, that Calvin’s inspiration for his theology was Augustine of Hippo, a 4th century convert to Catholicism from his previous Gnostic Manichaeist beliefs.  Prior to Augustine, in the previous 300 years of Christian teaching, nothing remotely resembling Augustine’s trademark determinism was ever promoted by the Church.  No previous church father who wrote on the subject – Justin Martyr (100-165AD), Irenaeus (130-200AD), Athenagoras (150-190AD), Clement of Alexandria (150-200AD), Bardesanes (154-222), Tertullian (155-225AD), Origin (184-253AD), Archelaus (250-300AD), Methodius (260-315AD), Cyril (312-386AD), John Chrysostum (349–407AD) – held the beliefs later espoused by Augustine.  Historians hold that Augustine borrowed the Gnostic Manichaean philosophies of determinism, and adapted them to the Christian context.

Amazingly, however, Augustine’s theology of God’s specific predestination to election or hell became the orthodoxy of the Catholic Church, and eleven centuries later of his Protestant followers (and members of his order), John Calvin and Martin Luther.

4              Arguments

4.1        The Calvinist/Reformed Fortress

Before delving into some of the arguments traditionally brought against the Calvinist doctrine, it’s worthwhile to get an idea of their defenses.  And they are formidable.  A theological fortress has been constructed around their beliefs that to them is impenetrable.  Therein lies some of its appeal and staying power.  One can study the doctrines and their supporting Biblical passages; study the arguments and biblical references used to refute it, and build a toolkit of arguments that tightly interlock and allow their advocate to withstand virtually any attack.  I have learned this first hand.  I have not yet found an argument for which they do not have a ready defense, even if it is only intellectual invention.

For example, let’s take everybody’s favorite concise statement of the gospel message, John 3:16:

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only (begotten) Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”

How does the Calvinist respond to this verse?  Two ways.  First he says that belief in Christ is not something a human can do.  It is only given to him by God.  And once given it serves as a credential proving that he was elected for salvation by God.

Secondly they refer to the Greek tense of “believes” (πιστεύω pisteuō) to conclude that this statement isn’t an invitation at all, but a mere statement of fact.  A near-literal translation (Young’s) of the verse reads:

 [16] for God did so love the world, that His Son–the only begotten–He gave, that every one who is believing in him may not perish, but may have life age-during.

So, you see, the Calvinist would argue, Jesus is here simply stating that those the Father made to believe in Him, Jesus, are protected from death and have eternal life.  Rest assured, every verse you can site that implies an arrangement at odds with the Calvinist/Reformed system, its defender has a ready-made argument to dispatch.  So exclusively Biblical arguments (the traditional ‘battle of verses’) is essentially futile.

4.2        Conflicting Wills

Understanding the issue of the two wills of God (moral and sovereign) promoted by Calvinists requires understanding their perspective on the implications of God having only one all-sufficient divine will.  If God only has a sovereign will, then morality has no basis and everything we do, be it good, evil or indifferent, is at God’s direction, making Him the author of our evil (not us through our sin against His moral will)[11].  However, you can’t have the Bible attesting to God’s goodness and righteousness and love, and His hate of sin and unrighteousness, and support a proposition that would have God essentially orchestrating all the evil in the world.

If He only has a moral will, but we choose to violate it through our sin behaviors (and we see that lots of people reject belief in Christ), then He is not sovereignly in control of His creation, and Calvinists reject that possibility.

So for them the answer is: “two wills”[12].

This issue exposes the far larger and more powerful concept that animates all of Calvinism, even beyond the TULIP ideas – God’s exclusive and complete control over every detail in His creation – His “sovereignty”.  Some refer to this behavior of God as “divine determinism”, or “meticulous providence”.  This is really the heart of the matter.

4.3        Human Irrelevance

A corollary (to God’s sovereignty) of the Calvinist’s worldview is the absolute irrelevance of human action.  It’s not just that we’re sinful and incapable of approaching or even appealing to God.  It’s that to the Calvinist, humans have no worth to God.  To them He detests us because of our sin.  We are only devices by which, through His saving grace, He can demonstrate His merciful glory.  The following quote from a Calvinist website (listing a kind of catechism) demonstrates the depth of man’s perceived irrelevance.

  1. I believe that God has all life, glory, goodness, and blessedness, in and of Himself; and is alone in and unto Himself all-sufficient, not standing in need of me, or deriving any glory from me, but only manifesting His own glory in, by, unto, and upon me in Christ Jesus; and that He has most sovereign dominion over me, to do by me, for me, or upon me whatsoever He pleases.

I highlighted (in italics) what for me is a red flag: “or deriving any glory from me”.  That’s not what the Bible says.  Isaiah tells us that those He calls His children were created for His glory:

Isa 43:6-7 Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”

It is important for the Calvinist to presume the worthlessness of man to magnify the sovereignty of the Lord.  It is simply incompatible with their worldview to ascribe any worth to (sinful) mankind.  This verse states as clearly as it can be stated that God made us for His glory.  Something mankind is, or something he does or will do is going to glorify God in the context of His plan for having created us in the first place.

At this point I should say that I am not one of those who defends the intrinsic value of humanity on its own terms.  After all, we’re a pretty selfish, self-absorbed lot, as most recognize, and hopelessly seduced when it comes to “the things of the world”.  However, I am also not one to brush off a declarative statement of God and instead somehow assume that He didn’t really mean it.  (“Let God be true and every man a liar.”)  If He can somehow be glorified by a people as flawed as us, truly, more power to Him.

4.4        A Small, Predictable, Manageable God

The Calvinists/Reformed postulate a God who conforms quite easily (though with some attendant profound problems) into their limited view.  Ironically, their whole worldview is one focused on magnifying God – extolling His power and righteousness – and giving Him glory.  Remember that Calvinism (and all other systematic theories of the nature of God and His relationship with His creation) are conceptions of perfection by imperfect men.  Their resultant God, sadly, is small – containable in our minds as knowable, predictable – well-ordered and conforming to our ‘rationality’, and manageable in that we (they) can sit back and write down a short series of tenets that describe infinite power, perfection and love.  This is perhaps the belief’s most serious error, but in which its followers have 100% unquestioning confidence.

4.5        An Unjust God

Now we come to the principle error of Calvinism (to my, and many other critics’, mind) and that is the condemnation, from before the beginning, of those He does not elect to salvation, to eternal damnation, sometimes called “double predestination”.  Does a sovereign God have the right and ability to do this?  Of course.  But to have us believe this we have to disbelieve the testaments in His Word of His nature that claim His righteousness and love.  Why?  Because in the Calvinist system the folks He destines for eternal damnation have no awareness of their condition, let alone the ability appeal to Him of whom they have no awareness. Yet He specifically didn’t elect them for salvation and thus did elect them for its antithesis.

Calvinists (not all, but most) are fine with this[13].  And, they are fine with it due to their complete deference to their notion of God’s complete sovereignty (by which they mean absolute, finite direction of all things) over His creation.  (This is an important distinction:  I believe God is sovereignly in total control, as in nothing that happens He did not provide for in His Plan [see , 4.3 below].  They, on the other hand, would say nothing happens that He doesn’t dictate.  This distinction is profound.)  He can do what He wants “for His good pleasure”.

But is creating the majority of humanity destined for damnation without them even knowing what’s happening to them “His good pleasure”?  OK, it is justified for Him to do.  But is this the plan?  The Word of God doesn’t think so, as pointed out by Ezekiel:

Ezekiel 18:23: “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign Lord. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?”

So we (those who the Calvinists would have adopt belief in their ideas) have a problem here.  And if it’s not His plan to damn most everyone for eternity, what is?

5         God’s Plan For Glory

5.1        Who Can Reach Out to God?

As we’ve seen, an axiom of the Calvinist/Reformed doctrines is that man is, in his sinful, depraved state, unable to reach out to God.  Indeed, he has absolutely no ability to do so, even to ask for mercy.  But this doesn’t seem to be the Apostle Paul’s understanding of the situation:

Romans 1:18 (ESV) [18] For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. [19] For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. [20] For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. [21] For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.

Not only do we know God, we are without excuse if we refuse to humbly come to Him, thank Him and repent.  The fact that we are without excuse strongly implies that we have a choice in seeking Him or not.  Why would we need an excuse for a lifelong rejection of Him if we didn’t have the ability to not reject Him?  Quite a different situation than Calvinists would have us believe (though they likely use this verse to substantiate their theory of a “general call” of God, distinct from His effectual call).

Then there’s Jesus famous admonition to seek.  While the object of the search is not explicitly stated, the relationship between man and God is hard to miss:

Mat 7:7 (ESV)[7]  “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. [8] For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. [9] Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? [10] Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? [11] If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”

The important thing to grasp here is that Jesus is not addressing a group of Christians.  This passage of Matthew is traditionally part of His ‘Sermon on the Mount’.  The audience is a crowd of Galilean Jews that were attracted by stories that had spread about Jesus’ ministry and so gathered to hear Christ speak in person.  This message and the Beatitudes and everything that both preceded and followed it, was intended for common people irrespective of their salvation status[14].  He is giving them confidence that God not only hears their pleas, but will respond to them with “good things” — like His Son.

The clear implication here is that we can, of our own God-created will, seek and choose God, or not.  This is certainly consistent with the entire Old Testament which recounts episode after episode of God appealing to His people Israel to repent of their worshiping of foreign idols and sexual immorality, and return to obedience to Him, their God.  It’s also consistent with the testimony of the New Testament, starting with John’s voice crying in the wilderness to “repent”.  Why would God choose to not only make these appeals, but see to their communication to us down through the millennia in the scriptures if they were of no possible effectuseless?

5.2        God as Sovereign and Exclusive Chooser

In the battle of perspectives, Calvinists will cite Romans 9 to justify their claim that it is God, and only God, who establishes through His “effectual call” a saving relationship with man, or not:

[14] What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! [15] For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” [16] So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. [17] For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” [18] So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.

[19] You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” [20] But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” [21] Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? [22] What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, [23] in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— [24] even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?

What Paul is explaining here is how it could possibly be that (some) Gentiles were recipients of God’s mercy, and not just Jews, who considered themselves covered by the Promise to Abraham and chosen by God for blessing.  He also anticipates the incredulity of the unbelieving Jews at their exclusion from God’s mercy by challenging their attitude of being treated unjustly and, in fact, being created as vessels “prepared for destruction.”

It is hard to overestimate the shock to the observant but unfaithful Jew’s sensibility that this message would have carried.  “What do you mean I’m not included in the Lord’s covenant of faith through Abraham?  Abraham is my father.  I’m his child.  I share in his inheritance.  I’ve worked hard all my life to follow the Laws of Moses.  Surely God will uphold His covenant with His people Israel and bless me.”  So it is understandable that Paul, in communicating this message, has to take the gloves off, asserting that Israel, the people group, was not the object of His (future) blessing to the decendants of Abraham, but to those who had faith in and were obedient to Him, be they Jews or Gentiles, just as Abraham had.  From this misunderstanding of context, Calvinists then extrapolate to their doctrine of a God who unilaterally picks winners and losers “for His good pleasure” (as if any process God decreed that resulted in Him extending grace to those who loved Him wouldn’t give Him pleasure), when in fact all he’s saying here is that “God will bless gentiles if He wants to.”  It is actually quite ironic that they would use this passage to justify their belief (despite the fact Paul here doesn’t completely spell out the “why” of his argument, as he does elsewhere [“Know therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the sons of Abraham” (Gal 3:7)]).  The irony is their belief is based on God’s reward of those who express faith in Him, not simply belong to Israel, and His judgment against those who don’t.

Now I want to clarify again that I am not arguing here that man has any ability to convey on himself salvation, either by works or even by begging God for redemption in repentance.  God gives salvation to men, by His Grace.  I am simply saying that He doesn’t do so for no reason.

5.3        Rethinking a Perfect, All-Powerful, Righteous God

At this point perhaps we need to step away a bit, and reflect on the fact that we’re talking about a God who is perfect, all-powerful, loving of the Creation He has made and, above all, righteous and holy.  In stepping away, let’s do our best to abandon our penchant to view God as some glorified human-like leader, implicitly shackled by human-like limitations.

He is not.  He’s other.  His capabilities are unimaginable to our finite minds.  And, importantly, the Bible does not say how – on what basis – God chooses.  So Calvinist/Reformed, or those from any theological camp, should be circumspect and more than a little humble about making claims that their idea is “truth”.  (The Reformed are noted for claiming their interpretation as “the truth”, “what the Word of God says”, and disparaging any other viewpoint as human-glorifying, or just plain error.  I have never, ever heard them express humility in admitting “this is my/our interpretation of what is true”.)

So how might a God with the capabilities the Bible ascribes to Him approach the implementation of His plan for Creation?  Can we even imagine how infinite justice, holiness and love might proceed?

One popular argument is that God, being outside of time, knew in advance what each person He created would do and so those demonstrating faith in Him He chose for salvation, and the majority, who ignored or disparaged Him, He chose for damnation.  To understand this argument it’s important to realize that time itself is a product of Creation.  Therefore, by definition, God is “outside of” (i.e. not subject to) something He created.  This argument has some appeal, as it takes God off the hook for the unilateral condemnation of billions.  But if you think about it for more than a moment, it’s a just bit too pat.

A little reflection leads one to the realization that every action (in this case one’s appeal to God for saving, or not) leads to an entire hierarchy of dependent events over which God must have, in His Creation plan, had sway.  For example, if you, say at age 25, express saving faith in Christ, and as a result go to a church where you meet your future spouse, marry and have children, we see that your one decision, while easily seen by God before the creation, has led to new members of His creation, about which He also must have knowledge.  Had you not come to Christ, either at all, or later in life, it’s likely your children resulting from your marriage at age 25 would not have come to exist.  Here we have two decisions leading to two entirely different hierarchies of dependent events.

So any theory (and that’s all it can be) of how God deals with His creation that accommodates man’s will has to come to grips with this issue of a cascading sequence of events based on prior discrete decisions and actions of those who do exist (so-called chains of causation or “causal chains”).

But should this complexity daunt an all-powerful, all-knowing God?  No. Why should it?  Couldn’t God’s plan anticipate all contingencies?  Of course it could.  In fact, why should we expect anything less?  There are only a finite number of people who will ever live, and therefore only a finite number of decisions they will take, or actions they will perform, leading to a finite number of possible contingent people and events.  Is it impossible for an infinitely capable God to accommodate all of these in His plan?  Not at all.  It might have been challenging for Augustine, and later Calvin, to come to this realization.  But that doesn’t detract from its plausibility, or, indeed, probability, in the least.

To digress for a moment, consider the capabilities of God.  Starting from exactly nothing, He creates all the energy, and a fraction of a second later, matter, that will ever exist.   He then assembles His 1080 sub-atomic particles He created (and that exist in today’s universe) into atoms, molecules, stars, galaxies, planets, and the first people.  14.7 billion years after the event, there you sit, comprised of some fraction of those sub-atomic particles, reading this as one who God both planned for sitting there reading this, and in His divine foreknowledge, knew intimately, before He created.

Not to pop your bubble, but He also knew intimately about any number of trillions of outcomes in which you (or I) would not be sitting here, but others would be.  And, for all of these outcomes, God had insured through His plan that He would be glorified.  So His provision for you sitting there, and me here, might be better characterized as provisional, or “divinely provided for”, rather than our Western concept of a discrete plan.  We were planned for.  We weren’t required elements of the plan.

What this realization does is remove the necessity of insisting that a Sovereign God’s plan cannot be voided by man’s action. It’s true, man’s action can’t void God’s plan.  But because of the elaborate intricacy and complexity of the plan, God has a priori insured that whatever decisions are taken by whomever at whatever time, He will be glorified through it.  It certainly also removes the Calvinist-required absence of the exercise of will on the part of those He created when it comes to asking God for His mercy and salvation.

What, then, do we have here?  We have a sovereign God whose plan for His creation is that man, in his sinful state, is desired by Him to recognize Him (Rom 1:20), recognize his own sinfulness (e.g. Achan in Jos 7:20, David in 2 Sam 12:13 and Ps 51, Paul in Rom 7:15), repent and place their faith and trust in their Lord God and His only Son, Jesus.

What does Jesus have to do with it?  Absolutely everything He has to do with it in the Calvinist’s system.  He is the Lamb; He is the propitiation; He is the conqueror of death; He is the God that formulated and executed the plan – that He be glorified.  In this arrangement, as in all that are honest to the Word and to the Faith, Christ is the centerpiece, the foundation stone, the author of salvation.

Men don’t save themselves by choosing to fall at the feet of Jesus.  This is a heresy promoted by arguments used by the Reformed and others.  It is Christ who saves.  All men do is ask, beg, plead.  It is Christ who answers their sincere petition, by Grace, and deems them righteous, just as Abraham was deemed righteous.

5.4        Exceptional Cases

We must remember that we’re talking here about the Existent One, the All in All, the Alpha and the Omega, the Creator God. He isn’t limited by whatever rules we would intellectually theorize for Him.  So we wouldn’t be honest if we didn’t assume this, and explore, if briefly, some exceptional cases to the basic framework of this theory of His creative plan.

There are seemingly unilateral decisions made by God for some.  The Apostle Paul is perhaps the classic example.  Paul didn’t ask, beg or plead for God’s mercy.  God knocked him off his donkey on the road to Damascus on his way to imprison and kill followers of Christ.  And what emerged was the greatest champion for Christ the world has ever known.  Others tell the story of being called to Jesus straight out of a hell of drugs or crime or simply profound ignorance of any notion of a God or His Christ.  If one minute a person expresses either no knowledge or awareness of God, and the next he is totally convinced of the truth of God and His saving Son, then it would seem that God in His immanence has intervened in His plan for that person, for His own purposes.  Similarly, if a person’s mind and heart are raging against God, sometimes for years, yet suddenly they find themselves in awe of Him and at His feet, this too would seem to be God’s direct intervention, quite apart from any decision on their part.

These things happen.  But if we’re honest, we would have to agree that they are quite rare.  Some of these folks go on to be fervent advocates for Christ, sometimes in pulpits.  Should we be surprised?  No, of course not.  But should we formulate a systematic theology based on these exceptional cases?  I don’t think so.  And we surely shouldn’t do violence to the glory of God by assuming that these cases represent the exclusive “truth” of God and His work of salvation.

5.5        Searching the Scriptures

At this point the proper thing to do is to review the Bible and see if anything I have postulated here is in conflict with what it says.  Not how some who read it through the filter of a dogmatic theology like Calvinism reads it.  But simply what it says.  The object is to find a conflict that would render my interpretation suspect or, potentially, invalid. (1 Th 5:20-21 [20] Do not despise prophecies, [21] but test everything; hold fast what is good.)

I don’t want to presume to do this for you.  But it’s worth looking, perhaps, at a few “proof texts” used by the Calvinist/Reformed to substantiate their claims to see if any of them invalidate this view of God’s plan for salvation.

Let’s start with Isaiah 46:9-10

[9] remember the former things of old;

for I am God, and there is no other;

I am God, and there is none like me,

[10] declaring the end from the beginning

and from ancient times things not yet done,

saying, ‘My counsel shall stand,

and I will accomplish all my purpose,’

Here Isaiah is simply pointing out that God is supreme and sovereign: ‘My counsel will stand and I will accomplish my purpose,’.  Certainly that’s what I am asserting here.  Every outcome within God’s plan, irrespective of the falleness of its initiator, has been anticipated by God and planned for to yield a result that glorifies Him.

Next let’s review Rom 9 which we looked at earlier (see 4.2).  Here much is made of Rom 9:10-13 in which Paul is arguing for not only God’s sovereignty but also His omniscience.

[10] And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, [11] though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— [12] she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” [13] As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

This is but one of many, many verses where God provides a prophetic revelation of things to come to His people.  What’s somewhat unique about it is that Paul explains that God’s favor of Jacob over Esau occurred “in order that God’s purpose of election might continue.”  Paul’s saying God elected Jacob to become the heir of Isaac from whom his elect people Israel would issue, even though Jacob was not Isaac’s firstborn.

So indeed this story illustrates God’s ability to override what man thinks should be the just outcome of a situation, and provide His own resolution.  But it provides little support to the idea that God dictates all salvation resolutions.  Paul’s whole argument here to the Jews in his audience is that God can bless Gentiles if He wants to, and they (the Jews) have no right to complain about on whom God has mercy (they think it should be them) and on whom He does not (who the Jews think should be the Gentiles).

Now let’s look at Ephesians 4.

Ephesians 4:17 (ESV) [17] Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. [18] They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. [19] They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. [20] But that is not the way you learned Christ!—

This passage is used by the Calvinist/Reformed to support man’s depravity and inability to choose God.  However, Paul here is not claiming God has been the one who forced the Gentiles to lead lives “alienated” from Him, or the one who created “their hardness of heart”.  What we see all throughout the Word of God is that people don’t naturally want to have a Lord of their lives and follow His leading and instruction, precisely because they are sinful.  That they are sinful at God’s direction and therefore are unable to beg Him for a way out is not the point Paul is making here.

Paul has just finished exhorting the believing Ephesians to build up each other (the Church) in love: “[15] Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,”.   Here he continues in encouraging them to not continue to live like those who have not been similarly redeemed in Christ.  All I read here is an admonition to a group of new Christians to behave as Christians, rather than a profound argument supporting the doctrine of general inability.

However, we must humbly acknowledge and submit ourselves to the fact that God can and has “hardened” hearts when it serves His greater purpose.  We read (Ex 7:3,13, 8:15, etc.) about a classic example of this in God hardening the heart of Pharaoh to resist Moses’ pleas to release his people, thus setting God up to demonstrate to Israel the power of His commitment to them.  We have no reason, however, to extrapolate a few specific examples into a general doctrine of God universally hiding Himself from His people, particularly when many verses say the exact opposite (see above).

Importantly, Romans 8:29-30 deserves some attention:

[29] For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. [30] And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

Paul is here talking about those with faith in God (v24).  He says God foreknew them before the beginning.  Check.  He says He predestined them (those that believe) to be conformed to the image of Christ.  The Calvinist/Reformed position is that Paul here means each individual who was destined to believe.  The text could as easily mean the class of people who would believe, in which case we can obviously agree.  However, even if Paul had in mind that God predestined the enumerated list of all those who would eventually have faith in God to, having believed, be conformed to the likeness of Christ, there’s still no problem.  Remember, in the framework I’m suggesting, the main difference with traditional views is that God’s plan allows for man to respond to God’s call, or not.  In any framework of Creation, however, it is impossible for God as Omniscient to not know exactly who makes what decision ultimately.

Paul here is addressing those who love God, and he’s trying to give them encouragement that even if they suffer, the Holy Spirit will aid them and be in constant communication with the Father (the One searching hearts, v27) on their behalf, even when the circumstances prompting the communication are so tortured that they can only be expressed as “groaning”.  He says that for believers that God foreknew them.  This, I believe, has a deeper meaning than “knew of beforehand”.  In the Bible “knowing” is typically a much more intimate condition than conscious awareness.  I think it is expressing that having come to belief in and love for God, God’s plan was to shower His own love on the believing soul in an intimate communion with him– from before the beginning.

Paul is giving those who believe the assurance that despite their sufferings (some unspeakable), God has implemented His plan to ensure that they are a) conformed to the likeness of His Son (by which, as His spiritual children, much of the suffering is inherited); b) as a result of their belief, they are called to be heirs with Christ; c) they are also justified before God as righteous and therefore free from his judgement, and d) because of their belief and status as righteous, they are glorified.  All of these are present tense, not future.  These things are already true of those that believe.  They are all outcomes assured by God’s plan.

Again, what we don’t see here is any evidence of God as the decision maker regarding the believer’s salvation.  We don’t see a formulaic prescription for God’s salvific actions, as the Calvinists have interpreted them.  What we do see is His assurance to those that have come to believe that He will be with them in their inevitable sufferings, and the assurance that ultimately they will be found guiltless and experience glory.

And finally, a note on John 6:44 where Jesus says:

[44] No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.

Calvinists love this verse because the definition of the Greek word interpreted here as ‘draws’ (ἑλκύω – helkō) is “to drag”.  They interpret the meaning to be, then, that since to them all people are only capable of rebellion against God, after picking out His elect, He has to figuratively drag them to His Son against their natural wishes.

The context of the verse is that Jesus is addressing a gathering of Jews who are “grumbling” after hearing Jesus pronounce of Himself: “I am the bread that came down from heaven.”  They disbelieve Him.  They know His father and mother.  How ridiculous, then, that He says He came from heaven?

So at the very least, Jesus’ statement is addressed specifically at them and their unbelief.  From Jesus’ perspective, the only way these people are going to “get it” is if His Father drags them to Him.

But the statement isn’t equivocal.  It doesn’t say “You cannot come to me”, or “Some cannot come to me”.  It says “No one can come to me”.  But a student of Jesus will also be quick to recognize that He was fond of using hyperbole, as for example: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14.26), and other verses re: plucking out your eye, cutting off your hand, etc.  Given the rejection of his life-saving message here, it’s entirely likely that Jesus was simply adding force to His conclusion that these people were so incredulous and disbelieving that it was going to take His Father dragging them to Him for them to partake of the life He was offering.

Jesus himself offers an alternate explanation a little latter on:

[64] But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) [65] And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”

Jesus here is talking about Judas, his betrayer, and possibly other unbelievers in His audience.  The reason Judas was allowed companionship with Jesus despite his unbelief was that it was ordained by the Father.  And notice here too, in paraphrasing His own statement, Jesus now uses a different term, “granted him” (meaning to bestow on, give to), rather than “drags”.

So because of the contexts of this passage, it seems unlikely that Jesus was abruptly, in the middle of pronouncing Himself as the Son of God, also introducing a new universal truth.  To paraphrase, I think He is saying: “You guys have heard and seen, and still you don’t believe.  It’s going to take something really overpowering to turn your disbelief around.”

There are several other such Calvinist “proof-texts” listed here that I encourage you to analyze in the context of God’s comprehensive plan I’m proposing to see if the Bible actually says what they would have you believe it says.

6         Objections

Calvinist/Reformed adherents will dismiss my arguments essentially out of hand.  They’re quite effective at contemptuously dismissing views that in any way assail their view of God’s sovereignty, claiming those views come from naïve or prideful humanist intentions. They have to reject all of it to preserve their previously described tightly interwoven collection of theories on the entire range of God-man relations.  So allow me to try to address a couple of the more predictable in advance.

6.1        God’s Comprehensive Plan Is Not Biblically Attested

Well, it is true that you won’t find causal chains discussed in the Bible.  Nor will you find quantum entanglement or dark matter or any of a number of other real aspects of God’s Creation there.  However, we have at least some evidence that God’s sovereignty over a comprehensive plan is attested in Rom 8:28

[28] And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.

The implication here is that, for those who love God, all things work together for good because God has seen to it through His plan that they will.  If you acknowledge that people make decisions prone to error/wrong, leading to outcomes less than good, let alone optimal for God’s glory, then you are left with the conclusion that He must have not only provided for the people coming to love Him, but for all of their subsequent errors and wrongs such that they lead not only to good for Him, but good for them as well.  The point is He can do that.  It’s not beyond His capability.  It’s beyond our capability to comprehend how this is accomplished.  What this says is that someone who loves God and loses his job, or suffers through cancer, or gets raped or beaten, or dies at a young age leaving an abandoned spouse and children, results in a fully prepared God working out all of these situations for His and their ultimate good.

It doesn’t take a huge stretch of the imagination to extend this situation to people’s choice of following God or not.  But Calvinist/Reformed proponents, as with their doctrinal priest Calvin, simply won’t make that stretch, as any change in anyone of its tenets leads to logical inconsistency across the rest.  So their concept of a linear, deterministic God must be maintained at all costs.

6.2        People’s Ability to Seek and Find God Not Biblically Attested

Calvinist/Reformed cite Rom 3:10-12 to substantiate their theory of man’s inability[15]:

[10] as it is written:

“None is righteous, no, not one;

[11] no one understands;

no one seeks for God.

[12] All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;

no one does good,

not even one.”

Paul quotes here David (Ps 14) who is railing against those who besiege his people, who he calls “fools” (נָבָל nābāl, from a root meaning stupid, wicked; vile).  David wasn’t making a general statement about humanity but about those people of this type.  None of them were seeking God.

In Acts 17:25-30 Paul, in explaining God to the Athenians, says:

And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, 27 that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, 28 for

“‘In him we live and move and have our being’;[b]

as even some of your own poets have said,

“‘For we are indeed his offspring.’[c]

29 Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. 30 The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent,

This NT verse (as well as others), plus the entire OT narrative, where God Himself appeals for His people to repent and turn to Him, disclaims this objection.

7         Conclusion

God is in fact the Sovereign of the Universe, in complete control of outcomes of His Creation, ultimately leading to a God-glorifying resolution.  He has executed His plan for Creation that, irrespective of each individual’s belief in or love for Him, results in His will being done for His glory.  He is not so small or limited in His capabilities as to have to enforce a scripted, linear plan specifying which individuals in His Creation He elects for eternal life with Him and which He elects for eternal damnation irrespective of their lives.  The viewpoint that He does is man-made, constructed with man-made ideas of a man-sized God in response to some Biblical verses largely misinterpreted to support those ideas.  Of course these ideas are accepted by men since they’ve been constructed inside men’s minds. God is not limited by men’s minds.

There can be no mistaking the fact that God “elects” (selects, etc.) some of us for salvation.  The entire question is “on what basis?”  The Bible is silent on this, other than to say “for His good pleasure”.  What it is that leads God to His “good pleasure” is unstated.  But it is a perversion of God to espouse the belief that He obtains “good pleasure” from condemning vast multitudes of His humanity to eternal damnation for a condition over which they are utterly helpless, or even aware, and from which they are powerless to appeal.

It is also clear that God’s plan includes the offer of His grace to those that believe.  God is under no specific obligation to offer salvation to anybody, let alone everybody.  However, He must remain true to His character – His righteousness and holiness.  And we know that this is His desire (1 Tim 2:4), and that He does save those who give themselves to Christ.  When He does, it is an expression of His grace that is enabled by Christ’s sacrifice.

God’s comprehensive plan laid out every event possible within His will.  Some of these events He had to dictate in order for His plan to achieve His ultimate purpose (e.g. Adam, Abram, Moses leading the Hebrews out of Egypt; Jesus’ ministry and death; Judas; Paul’s conversion, and on and on).  What He could not unilaterally dictate was who would refuse His call, thus condemning them to separation from Him into darkness and damnation forever.  That act would violate His justness and His love (remember, they would be powerless in the matter — for good or bad).  He can only be true to His character of love and justice if He allows His created ones to make their choice.  If they don’t want life in God, they won’t get it and are, truly, “without excuse.”

The Calvinist/Reformed worldview errs from the beginning in seeing Adam’s fall as terminal.  God never says this.  They would have you believe that Adam’s disobedience (of the one and only rule he was given to follow) came as a some kind of surprise to God and His plan.  Because of God’s upset at this disobedience, He condemns the entire human race was to everlasting separation from Him and suffering, except those He selected based on absolutely nothing they would think or do.

They completely miss the fact that Adam’s disobedience was God’s plan from the beginning.  It cannot be otherwise and God be God.  The propagation of a sinful, unrighteous race of humans who would somehow glorify Him was God’s plan from the beginning.  But why?  The Calvinist/Reformed would have you believe that it is so that God can demonstrate His righteousness and thereby be glorified both by condemning them all to eternal, suffering oblivion, and saving the few He picks for salvation.

That they have convinced themselves of this is quite amazing in itself (though I would doubt that many folks who attend their local Presbyterian or Lutheran or Reformed church actually understand the underlying soteriological beliefs of their denomination).  But, some do.  And its popularity is, perhaps surprisingly, now growing in the US.  It’s important to understand that this theology is not without its attractions for people.  As I’ve tried to point out, it is tightly integrated; it has the weight of historic Christian belief on its side, certainly since the reformation; and it has its own formulaic interpretations of every verse in the Bible, and so is able to address all questions.  So it presents the new Christian with something solid, dependable and reliable.  This alone offers great comfort to Christians looking for stability in their lives, particularly when their church leaders encourage them by disparaging all other views.

But unfortunately, it is wrong.  And the reason to resist it is the deep insult it hurls on our magnificent Lord.  Calvinist/Reformed are fully invested in their worldview/theology, so proselytizing them to change their view is largely a waste of time.  But if you haven’t yet formed your theology, you need to know that there are God-honoring and Biblically faithful options that are not some man-centered fiction invented by humanist heretics, but simply rational interpretations of the Bible texts based on the characteristics of God to which it attests, interpreted through prayerful reflection.

In this regard, it is worth examining how Jesus responded to challenges brought to Him by the defenders of the manmade religious traditions in His day – the Pharisees and Sadducees.  We read in Mark 7:

[5] And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” [6] And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,

 “‘This people honors me with their lips,

but their heart is far from me;

[7] in vain do they worship me,

teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’

[8] You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”

[9] And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!”

God tells us He created us for His glory, in His image.  We must then confront this question:  Would God be more glorified by imposing His unilateral decision of those He would summon to salvation and those He would cast into eternal suffering based on precisely nothing they would ever think or do?  Or is He more glorified by allowing and encouraging the humanity He created, steeped as it is in its sin, to choose to live with and for Him (enabled by Christ’s sacrifice on their behalf), or not.  I, for one, see a clear and biblically defensible winner.

[1] Romans 3:12 (ESV)[12] All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”

[2] Ephesians 1:4 (ESV) [4] even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love [5] he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will,

[3]Mark 13:20 (ESV)[20] And if the Lord had not cut short the days, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he shortened the days.

[4] Romans 8:28-30 (ESV)[28] And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. [29] For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. [30] And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

[5] Romans 9:11 (ESV)[11] though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— [12] she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” [13] As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

[6] Luke 3:2-4 (ESV)[2] during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. [3] And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. [4] As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet,

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:

‘Prepare the way of the Lord,

make his paths straight.

[7] 2 Peter 3:9 (ESV)[9] The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.

[8] Romans 3:23 (ESV)[23] for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, [24] and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,

[9] Romans 5:15 (ESV)[15] But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many.

[10] 1 Peter 1:3 (ESV) [3] Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, [4] to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, [5] who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

[11] However, this problem didn’t bother Calvin in the least.  He was perfectly happy with God orchestrating evil, as this excerpt from his Institutes makes plain.

[12] Actually this is a later invention having been introduced long after Augustine and even Calvin.  They approached the conflict between God’s moral and demonstrated wills as simply a mystery, without resolution. The following quote from Book One, Ch 18 of Calvin’s Institutes is illustrative:

“the will of God is not at variance with itself. It undergoes no change. He makes no pretence of not willing what he wills, but while in himself the will is one and undivided, to us it appears manifold, because, from the feebleness of our intellect, we cannot comprehend how, though after a different manner, he wills and wills not the very same thing.”

[13] The subject of human will and its irrelevance in God’s plan to Calvinists is a subject that some in their camp have twisted into a kind of philosophical pretzel.  Here we find something called “compatibilism”.  This says that man does make his own choices, but that God dictates what man will desire to choose.  Their choice is just a second-order effect.  The payoff for Calvinists is that a) God is still in absolute control, and b) God is off the hook for man’s bad decisions since he, as decider, is the one responsible for making them.  Seriously.

[14] Calvinist/Reformed try to side step this passage by saying that since Jesus uses the phrase “your Father who is in heaven”, he’s talking to “believers”, as if any Jew on the hillside that day didn’t think of YWHY as his Father in heaven.

[15] The source of this Calvinist/Reformed error concerning man’s inability to seek, find and call out to God seems to come out of their correct understanding that man has no ability to save himself from God’s judgment.  Eph 2:8-9 (ESV) “[8] For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, [9] not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”)

Christianity in the Age of ‘Whatever?’

Lots of people write blogs.  Very few people actually read them. So why this one?

Recently I’ve been absolutely stunned by the power of the delusion our society is suffering regarding truth, good and evil.  In this perverse worldview, people who elect to strap on explosives and detonate them, or fire automatic weapons at unsuspecting innocents aren’t really “wrong”.  In this worldview they are just reacting to our evil.  What is also remarkable is the popularity of this view.  We’re all familiar with the phenomena of ‘political correctness’, in which what most people once agreed was simple, honest, common sense has been suppressed in favor of this alternate reality by a kind of Orwellian ‘group think’.  I’ve called this phenomenon “New Think”, though it’s not all that new[1].

The tenants of New Think (NT) include a rejection of society’s past sins, ranging from slavery to paternalism, to oppression of various sub-groups; an idealistic egalitarianism; and a concerted and quite obsessive ‘tolerance’, ‘acceptance’ and ‘inclusiveness’ toward any of those previously shunned or persecuted by society, and against those perpetrating it.  So far, so good.  However, it doesn’t stop there.

What started out 50 or so years ago as an act of conscience against past societal wrongs has morphed into a near total rejection of all that society and its previous cultures have stood for and upheld.  (“If it’s old, it’s wrong.”)  But New Thinkers don’t merely reject their parent’s values.  They reject the very idea that there is any such thing as a value, any moral ‘good’, anything to acknowledge as virtue.  This worldview sees egalitarianism of thought and behavior as the pinnacle of human development.  “Your thoughts and beliefs aren’t ‘better’ than mine.  There is no meaning to the concept ‘better’.  Just different.”  This, I’m afraid, is the empty wasteland of the post-modern mind.

This thinking has had the effect of substantially resetting the values of our culture over the past 50 or so years, and not all for the worse I might add.  As a society we have been generally receptive to its ‘acceptance, not hate’ mantra, and thus have become gradually more tolerant of differences in people.  However, many have bought into its corollary idea that people have no responsibility for their actions; that they are simply innocent organisms reacting to their hostile, oppressive environment.  Hear no evil, see no evil because, well, there isn’t any.

What’s also laudable about the New Think is that it expresses compassion and concern for our fellows, but in some directions previously ill-addressed.  Of course, kindness and compassion are from God.  But they have been perverted and twisted of late into badges of selfish, public pride.  NT adherents express a faux compassion consisting of making proclamations, holding up signs and signing petitions, but not actually doing anything to help.  Once upon a time, the bases for acclaim in our society were the broadly shared ideas of virtue or accomplishment.  Now, however, it’s one who claims a grievance from the injustice of his oppressor, and those who self-identify with the victim.

This is what I find most disturbing about the main goal of NT’s adherents.  If you look just slightly below the surface, their purpose seems to be to feel good about themselves – morally superior, if you will – to buttress their self-validation.  In fact, nothing floats the New Thinker’s boat more than the act of professing outrage at society’s current or past ‘wrongs’ within earshot of others, so that their “righteousness” can be seen and heard by all.  Such public indignation must be quite an adrenalin rush for them.  A skeptic might label this ‘sanctimony’, as that’s what it feels and sounds like.  If you doubt this, have a look at the vitriol in social media posts from members of this group that you may know.

Perhaps predictably in this environment, the one remaining ‘evil’ to the New Thinker is the people who still separate good from bad, virtue from decadence, truth from falsehood and right from wrong.  I admit bias, but it seems to me that the majority of this animas is directed at those calling themselves ‘Christian’.  (I should note that there are many who identify as ‘Christian’ who also wholeheartedly embrace New Think.  So it’s not quite as black-and-white as you may think.)  New Think devotees in general seem to dismiss Christians as ignorant, backward and, not infrequently, “hateful”.  Ironically, it’s apparent that these New Think devotees themselves clearly “hate” those they identify as “haters”. So, same human play; different act.

It’s one thing to profess a wish for the best for economically or socially needy people.  It’s quite another to elevate these beliefs and the corollary hatred of those who don’t share them to the status of a religion, with all its accompanying fervor.  Here I’m thinking mainly of the absolutely shocking reactions to the recent mass shooting atrocities where the perpetrators are excused from blame.  What they did wasn’t ‘evil’; they were just ‘ignorant’ or ‘lonely(?)’[2].  In fact, the implication is that they themselves were just victims of some injustice wrought by ‘us’ – you know, we evil oppressors in the West.

What?  On hearing something like this, one is left speechless. Where, one puzzles, did this bizarre thinking come from?  How did we so quickly break loose of our long-held moorings?

Most would agree the three main sources of the communication of morality and values from one generation to the next are: 1) families; 2) churches/synagogues, and 3) schools.  It’s well known that the institution of the family has been under extreme stress for decades, as measured by statistics like divorce rate, single parent households, abuse rates, etc.  It should not be surprising, then, that in families experiencing these stresses, the chance of passing along a foundation of positive values, let alone Christian ones, is significantly diminished.[3], [4] Churches by and large seem to have increasingly abandoned the basic Christian message, since, they apparently think, such an ‘uncomfortable’ message jeopardizes their membership numbers: a serious problem in an increasingly church-averse population[5]  And public schools in this country haven’t communicated a moral or Christian-based values message to young minds in over a hundred years.  On the contrary.  They are at the very forefront of promulgating the new humanist religion – the New Think — and extremely proud of it.

So we have whole generations of Westerners steeped in this kind of societal self-hate.  Emboldened by political correctness, if you should assert anything to the contrary you’re committing a heresy that deserves quick and sure condemnation.  Of course, the human psyche being what it is, the possibility that their ideas are in any way flawed is unthinkable.  As Robert Wright notes[6]:

“One might think that, being rational creatures, we would eventually grow suspicious of our uncannily long string of rectitude, our unerring knack for being on the right side of any dispute… Nope. Time and again — whether arguing over a place in line, a promotion we never got, or which car hit which — we are shocked at the blindness of people who dare suggest that our outrage isn’t warranted.”

After several decades of developing their philosophy, today’s adherents seem to have elevated their dogma, in their minds at least, to the level of ‘love’ for their perceived victim.  Love, of course, is not a political or philosophical position, or some talking point.[7] Whatever else this may be, it is not authentic love.

Love isn’t acceptance or tolerance because the loved is virtuous, but precisely despite the fact he isn’t.  Universal acceptance — into the ‘body of Christ’[8],[9] — is taught in the Bible; Christ’s message was the definition of inclusiveness – “Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy-laden.”  But His purpose for this indiscriminate invitation was precisely to rescue “sinners[10], all of us who lack what He, in love, offers us to “fix” in us what is broken – what is wrong.   He didn’t, and doesn’t, accept the wrong or, more to the point, deny that it is wrong.  He offered, rather, to lift us up out of it.  In other words, He sought what was best for us, that which was in our best interest.

True love is a commitment expressed in devoted action to build up and care for the loved.  Authentic love stems from this thoughtful commitment to our fellow, not some blind emotion, philosophy or catch-phrase.  One does not, in any authentic understanding of the term, ‘love’ a class of persons, oppressed or otherwise.  Those who express true love seek the good of the loved to at least the degree, if not more so, than they seek it for themselves.  And in seeking the best for the loved, we encourage the loved to make decisions for himself that are best for him, whether he currently agrees with our counsel or not.  Love is not a boastful profession of compassion; it is a vocation of selfless action on behalf of the other.

It’s also not hard to see that today New Think attitudes have become modern society’s new idols – our new gods.  Many worship at their altar, slavishly carry out their ‘laws’, and chastise the apostate.  There are lots of reasons for this kind of confused thinking, most of which we’ve already mentioned: education (we’ve been taught this ‘religion’ in schools for decades), fragmented families that don’t have or don’t communicate values to their children, low expectations all around, cynicism about all authority, etc.  However, a crucial cause, and the premise of this blog, is that as a society we’ve lost our awareness of, interest in and the involvement in our lives of, God.  This is the natural result of our self-absorption: we, and our ideas, have become our own gods.

The fact of the matter is that the majority of Americans (and nearly all Europeans) have abandoned Christian belief as the foundation of their lives, and replaced it with the ‘religion’ of secular humanism that, taken to its recent extremes, has had the effect not only of disdaining the very idea of God, but simultaneously professing a near universal agnosticism of right and wrong[11].  One of my very favorite Christian authors, Dallas Willard, probes into a defense held by this mindset:

‘The powerful though vague and unsubstantiated presumption is that something has been found out that renders a spiritual understanding of reality in the manner of Jesus simply foolish to those who are “in the know”.  But when it comes time to say exactly what it is that has been found out, nothing of substance is forthcoming.’[12]

There is profound confusion today among many that abet classifying Christ’s message, to the extent they are even aware of it, as “nice” but irrelevant.  (You know, something ‘nice’ like Buddhism, Hinduism – ‘those kinds’ of things.)  This confusion shows itself in (post-modern) ideas like there is no such thing as truth, only equally valid opinions; that God is a myth, invented by ancients to explain nature; that empiricism is the only valid way of acquiring knowledge and understanding (‘whatever those are’); and that Christianity consists of occasionally sitting in a church, and trying to be “good”.  These attitudes clutter the modern mind, serving as built-in defenses against unfamiliar or challenging ideas, further promoting an insular, muddled thinking.

The uncomfortable, and thus rejected, truth is that there is evil in the world, and behaviors animated by it.  Good Lord, we’re swimming in it!  It’s far too depressing to list here all the aberrant stuff that qualifies.  Historically, we’ve been taught this truth by philosophers, authors, religious leaders, and (way back in the day) even school teachers, but particularly by Christians and the Bible.  However, many spokespeople identifying themselves as Christian, particularly in our contemporary culture, haven’t done an effective job either of explaining the true message Christ brought (and why it is the best answer to this evil we see all around us), or of modeling lives that reflect His message.  And people are extremely skilled at detecting hypocrisy.

I’ve been bothered by this downward spiral for a long time.  So much so that I feel an ache with each new revelation of it.  And the pain is increasing.  For me, it’s heartbreaking, a kind of profound regret that so many have been led so far from realizing the glorious reality of the God that is there and accessible all around them.  So, understanding that most people today have little understanding of who or what Christ is, I have spent a lot of time studying the Bible and the Christian message from many authorities.  And, despite the testimony of history — that preachers and expositors and apologists who truly “get it” have been, and continue to be ignored on a vast scale — I figured: “What the heck?  I’ll give it a try.”

Post-modern worldviews like New Think are products of our assumption that we’re in charge; that what we see around us is actual reality, and we have to ‘fix’ it, based on our own ideas of right and wrong. This is simply not the case.  You see, there is a hidden, true reality by which the one with which you’ve become all too familiar pales.  Our worldly pseudo-reality is but a very faint reflection of this real thing.  However, our day-to-day reality is perfectly capable of convincing us that there is no other – that it is all there is.  The true reality is the one the Creator established and inhabits, and has made accessible to all of us. Within it, however, our facsimile reality operates as a kind of pedestrian and superficial subset.  Most of us go through life not having any idea that the larger, deeper, more beautiful, more accepting, more loving reality even exists.  That’s why the message is so important – to alert us that there is an authentic, pure reality that, while accessible, is well camouflaged showing us only that which we have been enabled to see.  Our job in this exercise, then, is to try to gain at least a glimpse of it.

In trying to explain it, I want to try to explain not only why it’s believable, but why you should, if you’re thinking or have thought about it at all, believe it, and why it’s the only real answer.  We’ll do this by looking at the theological, historical and scientific (yes, scientific) framework in which it makes perfect sense.  But don’t worry.  This isn’t some pointy-headed study for which you need some kind of academic background.  It’s mostly simple explanation and a little common sense concerning things you either may have overlooked, or perhaps may have never really explored.

In doing this I will use common language, and stay away as much as possible from “Christian speak” – the little idioms and phrases that Christians use when talking to each other or that you hear out of them on the radio and TV.  My goal is to look at Christianity and God from the perspective of one who may have tried it and said “no thanks”; or one who simply fell away from it later in life; someone who knows just enough to know they don’t know; or, indeed, somebody who’s never really heard it laid out at all – but instead just the typical sound bites.  The other candidate audience to be served is those who equate “Christian” with “right-wing, evangelical fanatic/nut job”, based at least in part on media-promoted stereotypes.  I’m not saying there are no right-wing nut jobs that call themselves ‘Christian’; only that it’s quite doubtful that they actually are.

If you’re reading this and you are already deep in faith, hopefully there may be some new insight for you, though my way of looking at things may seem very unconventional to you, to put it politely.  Hopefully I won’t subject you to too many heresies. 😉

There’s a method to the use of common language.  First, many of these Christian phrases are shorthand for something much deeper than the phrase conveys.  So if you’re not familiar with these deeper meanings, you miss a lot.  Second, for many, these phrases trigger an immediate turnoff – a little like fingernails on a chalkboard, due perhaps to earlier bad experiences with a person or church.  I’d prefer not to shut the door before you ever get up to it.  And last, it seems to me that in order to explain challenging concepts, if you have to resort to coded or ‘insider’s’ language, it’s quite likely you don’t really fully understand it yourself.  So it’s a stretch to think you’ll explain it properly to anyone else using those same terms.  I will, however, continue to use biblical references where they help make a point.

I’m under no illusion here.  The Christian message is, well, unnatural — so much so that many people who have studied it and become versed in it think it’s just beyond reach — just too much for the average person to take seriously.  And as outlined above, today it is thought to be culturally passé.  Those who claim identification with it are, for the most part, thought to be unenlightened — or worse; “haters”.  So explaining it and its profound beauty to an audience that is, at the very least skeptical, if not outright hostile, presents certain challenges.  But I’m not worried.  The message itself contains its own power to overcome (1 Cor 1:18).

My explanation likely isn’t “the” or “your” definitive answer.  With the Christian message, as in perhaps no other topic known to man, one adherent’s “answer” is another person’s absurdity.  A lot of this is by design – if the hearer doesn’t sincerely want to receive and accept it, he just won’t[13].  And, perhaps regrettably, Christians themselves have many different variations of beliefs once you get past the most basic.  (There’s a reason there are, according to Wiki, some 41,000 Christian denominations.)  So to the extent that something in what I say makes some sense to you — resonates, if you will — and perhaps triggers some other curiosity and exploration on your part, I will have achieved my purpose.

First up, we need to explore the Christian message and its relationship to God’s larger story.

[1] In all honesty, the seeds of this ideology were planted in the philosophy of the Renaissance.  It’s just that today, we are living in the final, aggressive stages of it.

[2] Brooklyn Residents Blame GOP Not Islam For Orlando

[3] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-w-whitehead/the-breakdown-of-the-trad_b_675444.html

[4] http://familyfacts.org/charts/marriage-and-family

[5] http://www.churchleaders.com/pastors/pastor-articles/139575-7-startling-facts-an-up-close-look-at-church-attendance-in-america.html

[6] Wright, Robert. The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology. Vintage Books: 1995, p281

[7] 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 ( ESV ) 4Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant  5or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.  7Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

[8] Galatians 3:28 ( ESV ) 28There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave£ nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

[9] Romans 15:7 ( ESV ) 7Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.

[10] Luke 5:31-32 ( ESV ) 31And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.  32I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”

[11] http://www.christianpost.com/news/faith-rising-in-east-setting-in-west-europe-and-christianity-113757/

[12] Willard, Dallas. The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God. San Francisco: Harper, 1998, p92

[13] 1 Corinthians 2:14 ( ESV ) 14The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.