“ QUESTIONS ABOUT THE CHARACTER OF GOD & THE GOSPEL”
For the past two weeks, we have been examining the sovereign control of God in salvation. We are studying this issue briefly to prepare us for Romans 8:30 and later on, chapter nine. These sections make a strong argument for (among other things) the fact that God sovereignly chooses those whom He wants to save. That it is HE, not the sinner who has ultimate control of a person’s ultimate destiny. This is obviously an involved and controversial area we are entering and so we are laying the groundwork so that we might have an understanding of the gospel and the God of the gospel that is consistent with Paul. The motive behind this is so that when we come to some of the hard texts which lie ahead we will have a basis of understanding that will enable us to delight in God’s control, not wrestle against it. This week, we will address some of the commonly asked questions raised in connection with this issue. On question which will wait for next week is the question, “how does this teaching of God’s choosing only certain people to be saved fit with other texts which indicate that He desires that ALL people be saved.” That is an important question and it will fit well next week when we go into our study of Romans 8:30.
One of the more common questions relating to the issue of God’s sovereign control in salvation has to do with the issue of fairness. The questions often sound something like this, “If it is God who ultimately determines who is saved, then how can He hold those He has NOT chosen responsible for their sin? This cannot be fair because they had no real chance to be saved. Doesn’t this reduce people to robots who move according to God’s predetermined programming?” The question has many forms, but it generally comes out sounding something like that. The issue is really how the sovereignty of God relates to human responsibility. How can God hold people responsible for their sin when ultimately HE decides who is saved? The first thing to be said is that God NEVER in Scripture says that people are not saved because they were not elected. He puts the blame squarely on the person who refuses to believe. In John 5:40, Christ tells the Pharisees the reason they did not have eternal life was because “ you REFUSE to come to me to have life.” Without a doubt, God holds people responsible for not believing. That must be said up front.
People are clearly responsible for the choices they make with respect to Christ. However, for the past two weeks, we have been making the case that God is in control of salvation and deciding who is saved. Now, let’s briefly look at a couple of texts which indicate, NOT only that God is sovereign in salvation but that He, at one and the same time, does hold people responsible for their sinful actions. The reason we do this is to emphasize that the Bible does indeed teach BOTH the sovereign control of God and the responsibility of humanity.
Let’s look first at Luke 22:22. Jesus is celebrating the Last Supper with the disciples and is looking ahead to his crucifixion. He says, “The Son of Man will go as it has been decreed, but woe to that man who betrays him.” Here you have in one verse the truths both of God’s sovereign control over the death of His Son and the genuine responsibility Judas bears for his act of betrayal. We know God was sovereignly controlling the events to ensure that Jesus would go to the cross. The biblical record forces us to see that God the Father intended the death of Jesus and that intention is first revealed as far back as Genesis three. He didn’t just KNOW that it would take place, He PLANNED that it would take place. The destiny of Christ was to die on the cross according to God’s plan. Yet, in spite of this inescapable outcome, Jesus curses Judas for his sin. He says, “…but woe to that man who betrays him.” On the one hand, we see the sovereignly controlled event of the crucifixion, but on the other, Judas is clearly held responsible for his free will choice to betray Jesus Christ and these two truths are presented alongside each other! Notice Jesus doesn’t have a problem with these truths cohabiting with each other. He doesn’t qualify the statement, making it easier to understand by minimizing either God’s control or Judas’ free will. He just lays both of them out there without apology or explanation. We see the same dynamic in the preaching of Peter at Pentecost.
In Acts 2:23, Peter is preaching and in speaking of Jesus says to the crowd, “This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” Once again, we see these truths stacked next to each other. Christ went to the cross as a result of “God’s set purpose and foreknowledge.” This was God’s plan and He executed His plan. But Peter points the finger at these people for crucifying Jesus. They were held responsible for this. And we know they felt responsible for it because of what is said later. In verse 36, Peter says, “Let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” Here, Peter pins the crucifixion of Christ, NOT on God’s plan, but on these people and notice their reaction to this in verse 37, “When the people heard this [this charge of murdering the Messiah], they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter’s audience knew they were responsible for the most heinous crime in history and they are desperate to know what they could possibly do in response to this.
There was no doubt these people FELT their responsibility in crucifying Christ. They were cut to the heart by their awareness of what they had done of their own free wills. Notice, they did NOT say, “Hey, it wasn’t our fault, Peter. You just said it was God’s plan. We didn’t have a real choice. We were just robots, mindlessly and unknowingly following God’s plan. We had no chance—it wasn’t fair—How can God blame us for this if it was part of His plan anyway?” No. These first converts were able to accept that their human responsibility was in no way muted by God’s sovereign decree. They didn’t develop migraines trying to figure out how God could legitimately hold someone responsible for their involvement in His sovereignly controlled plan. They just accepted both truths.
There IS one text in the New Testament which DOES raise the question of how God could possibly hold someone responsible for their choices when they were part of His sovereign plan. In Romans nine, Paul brings up Pharaoh as we have seen before. God has just said that in using Pharaoh He, at one and the same time, hardened his heart against obeying His command AND also held Him responsible for his actions. Paul summarizes God’s dealings with Pharaoh in verse 18, “Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.” In the next verse Paul says in response to God’s dealings with Pharaoh, “One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us” For who resists his will?”
Here, unlike the case of Judas or the first converts, the question IS raised, “How can God hold someone responsible if they are somehow part of his sovereignly decreed plan?” They obviously did not have robots in Paul’s day, but when he asks the question, “For who resists his will?” He is addressing the issue of robots who have no chance to resist their programming. In response to this intellectual query, Paul gives the question the kind of “deep,” “nuanced,” “comprehensive” response [at least in God’s mind] such a question deserves. He says, “But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, `Why did you make me like this? Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?”
The Holy Spirit’s sentiment is well captured in Eugene Peterson’s translation, “The Message.” 20Who in the world do you think you are to second-guess God? Do you for one moment suppose any of us knows enough to call God into question? Clay doesn't talk back to the fingers that mold it, saying, "Why did you shape me like this?" 21Isn't it obvious that a potter has a perfect right to shape one lump of clay into a vase for holding flowers and another into a pot for cooking beans? In response to this question about the fairness of God in holding people responsible in the midst of His sovereign plan, he says in essence, “It is arrogant to ask such a question because it assumes that you have a right to question God’s way of conducting Himself—a clay pot would never do that to its maker, why do you feel the freedom to do this to YOUR Maker?” We must admit that this answer Paul gives here simply does not satisfy many people in an age where we have solved the mystery of sending someone to the moon and curing small pox. Paul does not intend that this answer will solve the dilemma posed by the question. What Paul says here is clear. That is, this is one question, this is one mystery, we are not even to ask about. Why not?
J.I Packer in His book “Evangelism and The Sovereignty of God” says the reason is because this question, when you boil it down, has to do with how God relates to Himself. What is meant by that is this. This question touches upon how God can, at one and the same time, be the King who is omnipotent and who sovereignly, absolutely controls the universe and the Judge who is perfectly just and who holds people responsible for the choices they make. How God relates to Himself as Judge when He is King and vice versa is His business. God says we have no place there. We can be fairly certain that this information, which so many wish they possessed, would be far beyond our ability to comprehend. The finite cannot apprehend the infinite.
We must remember the truth, “How unsearchable his judgments and his paths beyond tracing out! Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been His counselor?” God says in Isaiah, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord” We must remember that God is infinite and we are finite and if, in our finiteness, we cannot solve the mystery of how the sovereign will of God in salvation and the free will of man relate to one another, that should not surprise us. This has to do with the internal workings of God’s Person and in order to understand that, we would, in some sense have to be equal with God and we are not.
God is incomprehensible. That is one of his divine attributes. The old preacher had it right, “you cannot unscrew the inscrutable.” Spurgeon was asked if he could reconcile these two truths with each other and he said, “I wouldn’t try, I never reconcile friends.” In our minds, these two concepts may seem at cross purposes and require reconciliation, but in God’s mind they are friends. We must never assume that every difficult issue in the Bible is a mystery, (most are NOT) but when the Bible itself affirms that something is beyond our understanding, it is always best to agree with the sacred text and embrace our ignorance. What is amazing is NOT that we have unanswerable questions about God and how the most complex philosophical tensions are ultimately resolved in His Person. The amazing thing is that, in His mercy, God has given us feeble minded mortals so much insight into His Person.
One thing is certain, we are NOT free to reject the plain reading of Romans nine in favor of an interpretation which attempts to take the mystery out of the self evident mystery. Neither are we free to interpret this text in a way which attempts to make the character of God more palatable or user-friendly to us. So many attempts to preach these hard truths about God are nothing more than attempts to shrink the Lord of the Universe into tasty, bite size pieces. Such attempts often leave us with a picture, NOT of the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, but of a defanged, declawed house cat—a pathetic and often blasphemous caricature of the Almighty. God does not need us to twist His word so as to apologize for Him or make excuses for those aspects of His personality which make the world and even segments of a self centered church a bit squeamish. The hymn writer had it right,“God is God and therefore King!” When it comes to the fairness question in this context, we must remember from last week that God would be perfectly fair in not saving anyone. He is under obligation to show mercy to NO ONE.
A second question with respect to this truth is often stated something like this, “If God has everything all planned out, then why should I do anything about it? Why should I pray for my neighbor or evangelize my son or daughter—its all decided anyway—why bother?” First, let’s point out that this question, so quick to leap into our minds, is not an inevitable one for those who take Romans nine literally. The founders of the modern missions movement, people like William Carey believed strongly in the sovereign control of God in salvation. It was no contradiction for them to, on the one hand believe in God’s sovereign control in grace and on the other, devote their blood, sweat and lives to missions and evangelism. The same could be said of David Brainerd, whose biography detailing his missionary work to the native Americans in the 1700’s has served as an inspiration for countless other missionaries like Jim Elliot. This fatalistic, “why bother” application of this truth is not something mandated by the facts, but is rather ASSUMED to be a natural implication of them. It is not.
One reason why the sovereign control of God in salvation does not release us from our responsibility to evangelize is found in a truth revealed in Deuteronomy 29. Moses has laid down the law and the curses which come from not following the law and says in verse 29, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.” In other words, there are secret things—God’s timing in his actions, why He does certain things in the way He does them, the identity of those He has predestined to save and those He has not. Those are the secret things of God. We cannot know them and they are therefore irrelevant to us in this life. He has predetermined who the elect will be so that when we see Him, we will glorify Him by seeing that all He has decreed has indeed happened, all those He had called were saved. His sovereign control over all things will be gloriously revealed at that time, but these questions are in this sense meaningless to us now, because we cannot know those things.
If we are living God centered lives for the glory of God, we will never ask the question, “Why bother to pray or evangelize?” The reason is because, though we delight in the fact that God will be glorified in the future fulfillment of every element of His sovereign plan in salvation, we can bring glory to Him NOW by praying and proclaiming and being an active, vital part of His plan. When someone asks the question, “Why bother?” they are assuming the only important issue to God in the salvation of the elect is the end result that His elect people are saved. “The important thing (people getting saved) is going to happen whether I do anything or not.” So the thinking goes. But to God, the salvation of the person is no more important, no more glorifying to Him than the process He sets in motion as His church obeys His command to pray for and evangelize the lost. And this process is NOT a secret. It is revealed in the Word and we will be responsible for doing our part to pray and witness to the lost.
This we know. God calls us to love our neighbor and at the pinnacle of that command is the obligation to pray for their salvation and reach them with the gospel in any way God directs. If we ask the question, “Why bother?” we are admitting we don’t love our neighbor—we are dismissing out of hand what Jesus called the second great commandment upon which hangs all the law and all the prophets. This we know also. Evangelism and prayer are NECESSARY for people to get saved. Those are God’s chosen methods to draw people to himself. Paul, in Romans 10:14-15 says, “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news.”
God’s sovereign plan in salvation must be seen NOT ONLY as the end result of who is the elect, but as all of the component parts of that plan. He is glorified in each step of the plan, not just when the person finally accepts Christ. And part of his beautiful plan are the beautiful feet He has commissioned to send His word to the unsaved. For a person to apply God’s sovereign control in salvation in some sort of fatalistic way only reveals that they don’t know God very well at all. They may mistakenly THINK they know doctrine well, but they don’t know the heart of God at all. Woe be unto those who stand before God, having done nothing to win the lost with the excuse on their lips, “Because You were sovereign, you didn’t need me to be obedient to your word.” We are called to delight in God’s sovereign plan and we are also to delight in the fact that God would USE US to be PART of bringing fulfillment of His sovereign plan in the lives of His people. That is glorious!! For a person to apply this teaching by saying, “Why bother!” is to deny their responsibility in carrying out their part in the gospel. And as we have seen, God’s sovereignty does not exempt people from their responsibility, either the lost or the church that is called to reach the lost.
In truth, the response “why bother?” with respect to evangelism and missions is in one sense a perfectly appropriate response for the person whose theology forces them to depend ultimately on an unsaved person’s willingness to choose Jesus Christ. THAT is a futile plan. As Packer says, “The sovereignty of God in grace gives us our only hope of success in evangelism….[it] is the one thing that prevents evangelism from being pointless. For it creates the possibility—indeed, the certainty—that evangelism will be fruitful.” We have discussed before the fact that fallen man can never choose Christ independently. He is “dead in trespasses and sins.” First Corinthians two says this about the sinner, “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.” The sinner just doesn’t have the spiritual equipment to accept the word of God and be saved. Unless there is someone outside himself operating on him, there is no hope. But if the person has been acted on by God through His call and regenerating power, then He can and will respond to the gospel. The preaching of the gospel raises from the dead those who called of God and enables them to become Christians.
This understanding leaves the burden to save people where it belongs, on the power of God, not the eloquence of the message or the method of evangelism utilized. And this understanding provides that God and God alone will get all the glory for this miraculous work of making dead men, live. It is as we come to a person with the possibility that they are called that we can come with great boldness in our evangelism. We can in love present the truth, the whole truth—the need for repentance and a changed life and give the results to God. If however, we are trusting in the eloquence or cleverness of our presentation, then we will walk away from our “unsuccessful” evangelistic encounters punishing ourselves for all the things we “should” have said so the lost person would have responded.
A similar question is answered along a very similar line of thought. Some people ask the question, “What good does it do me to desire God and to serve God if I am not one of those chosen by God to be saved?” Some people are deathly afraid they will spend their lives seeking after Christ and find to their horror that they were not elect and it was all a complete waste of time. Again, we must see what the Scripture SAYS rather than draw FALSE IMPLICATION from a biblical truth. The Bible NEVER says that seeking after God is futile or a waste of time or ever could be. Jesus said in John 6:37, “whoever comes to me, I will never drive away.” That’s His word and it cannot be broken. We must remember that God’s sovereignty does not cancel out His faithfulness to His word. His attributes are not at war with each other! And we can claim this and many other promises that He will not turn away those who are honestly seeking Him. Bank on it and understand that God’s sovereign control will never interfere with someone seeking after God, but will actually be facilitating it.
That does not address all the questions in relationship to this topic. If you have more, I will try (or ask Pastor Joel—why should I have all the fun!?) to respond to them. As I close this question-answering time, let me pose some questions. First, is Your God absolutely sovereign, in control of all things including the salvation of the lost? Is our trust when we pray for someone to come to know Christ and be transformed in that lost person’s depraved will to somehow decide to invite Christ into their life? Or is it ultimately in God’s transforming power? What is the highest priority for your God, protecting the so called “free will” of a person or showing forth His own glory in His absolute sovereignty.
If you are one who finds some part of this teaching repugnant, how do YOU explain the difficult texts of Romans eight and nine and other texts which clearly point to the fact that our God, before the foundation of the earth elected those who would be saved? If we believe that every word of the Scripture is inspired by God and there are no direct contradictions in the Bible, then it is our responsibility to come to a solid understanding of what we DO believe about these texts. It shows no integrity to simply state what we do NOT believe, especially when this teaching, which may seem repugnant to us was what Luther, Calvin and the rest of the Reformers, not to mention some of the other most brilliant theologians in church history have unflinchingly taught. May God give us the grace to know what we believe and to act on it for God’s glory.
Page last modified on 1/1/2002
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