17 November 2008

Good news for who?

There is an exceedingly popular and influential branch of theology which teaches, among other things:

  • (I) God has predestined a small minority of people, “the elect”, for eternal bliss. These people have no choice; they cannot reject the gift.
  • (U) God has predestined everyone else, “the damned” (or perhaps “the lost”), for eternal torment. These people also have no choice, and no hope. They were doomed since before creation.
  • (L) The sacrifice of Jesus Christ was only sufficient to atone for the sins of the elect. He was either unwilling or incapable of atoning for the sins of the damned.

I have personally known many faithful and devoted Christians, intelligent people whose wisdom I admire, who hold to these beliefs. Frankly, I find this baffling.

Gospel

The gospel message, in a nutshell, is this:

  1. All people are sinful, deserving eternal separation from their righteous Creator. (Rom 3:10,23; 6:23)
  2. Jesus Christ died once and for all to take the punishment for our sin; and was resurrected, defeating once and for all the power of sin and death. (Rom 6:9-10)
  3. Anyone who chooses to do so can find forgiveness for sin and reconciliation with God the Father, by trusting in the Son and accepting his atoning sacrifice. (Rom 10:9-11)

The word gospel means, literally, “good news”. But good news for who?

IUL theologians would have us believe the good news is only for a select few, and for the rest there is only damnation. Yet the gospel message of Scripture is that God desires for everyone to be saved. For instance:

He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. (1Jn 2:2, NIV)

This is good and pleases God our Savior, for he wants everyone to be saved and to understand the truth. (1Tim 2:3-4)

For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. (Tit 2:11)

He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” (Mk 16:15-16)

He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. … The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world. (Jn 1:7,9)

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (Jn 3:16-17)

Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. (Rom 5:18)

But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. (Heb 2:9)

(Also: Ez 18:32; Mt 18:12-14; Ac 2:17-21; 2Cor 5:14-15; Col 1:18-20; 2Pet 3:9; Rev 5:9;7:9;14:6.)

This universal message of salvation is integral to the entire Scriptures. To deny it is to hamstring the gospel.

Choice

Open the Bible to any random page. There you will find a teaching that demands a response, a choice, on the part of the reader or listener. The concept of choice is likewise integral to the entire Bible and the gospel. For instance:

He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God. (Jn 1:11-12)

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. (Mt 7:13)

That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved. As the Scripture says, “Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” (Rom 10:9-11)

Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. (Jam 4:7-8)

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!”And let him who hears say, “Come!” Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life. (Rev 22:17)

(Also: Jos 24:15; Mk 16:15-16; Lk 13:24; Jn 5:24; Ac 16:31; Gal 3:6-7; Rev 3:20.)

If everyone is predestined one way or the other, incapable of choosing, it is foolish and perverse of God to keep insisting that people make a choice.

Questions that demand answers

A few key questions have haunted humanity since the time of the incarnation, if not before. I personally struggled with them at length before I could put my faith in Jesus. These questions demand answers.

Fortunately, the answers are there, in the Scriptures. And yet, IUL denies these answers. In fact, IUL has no answers to offer. For instance:

Q: How can a loving God condemn people to eternal hell?

A: He doesn't. He gives everyone a choice whether to spend eternity with him (heaven) or without him (hell).

Q: Why did God create people with the ability to sin, instead of making everyone completely good?

A: God desires a relationship with the people he created. He wants to know us as his children, not as slaves or automatons. He had to give us the choice whether or not to follow him, so that our relationship with him would have meaning. (Gal 4:4-7)

Q: If God is all-loving and all-powerful, why is there so much pain and suffering in the world?

A: I cannot begin to do justice to this question in one short paragraph. It starts with the answer to the previous question. For our good actions to mean anything, we had to have the ability to choose evil; when we do so, people get hurt. But that doesn't explain earthquakes and famines. For these, we have to go back to a choice made long ago, when God offered Adam and Eve the opportunity to remain forever in paradise, or to choose hardship, suffering and death. What we see now are the results of their decision. (Gen 3:17)

The answers to all of these questions depend on God's decision to grant people free will, a choice. Otherwise, God is either imperfect in love or imperfect in power.

The Lost

The Scriptures do refer to “the lost”, those in “darkness”. However, the message is one of repentance and hope, not condemnation. There is no Biblical concept of “the damned” this side of the grave. For instance:

For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost. (Lk 19:10)

The people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned. (Mt 4:16)

I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness. (Jn 12:46)

I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me. (Ac 26:17-18)

Again I ask: Did they stumble so as to fall beyond recovery? Not at all! Rather, because of their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious. (Rom 11:11)

For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light. (Eph 5:8)

For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves. (Col 1:13)

(Also: Mt 10:6-7; 18:14; Lk 1:76-79; 15; 1Pet 2:9.)

“The lost” include both Jews and Gentiles — and the Son of Man came to seek and save us all.

The Elect

The Bible also refers to “the elect”, those whom God “foreknew” and “predestined”. It must be recognized, however, that these passages have to be understood in the context of the entire Bible. If one passage, or even a handful of passages, are interpreted to teach a message that contradicts the rest of Scripture, then there is something wrong with the interpretation.

As demonstrated above, the Scriptures teach emphatically and repeatedly:

  1. God provides good news of salvation to all people.
  2. God offers each person the choice of whether to accept him.
  3. No one is beyond saving.
Any interpretation which contradicts these basic, central truths of Scripture must be challenged.

Before addressing these passages, I must offer a disclaimer: My interpretation may also be wrong. These are theologically difficult passages, and I have no special insight int how they should be interpreted. However, I know that they cannot contradict the rest of Scripture, and so I seek to discover the meaning that the author intended. If anyone can show how my interpretation is inconsistent with other Scripture, or provide an interpretation that better reflects the overall message of Scripture, I will be grateful.

Protection / providence

For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now — and never to be equaled again. If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened. At that time if anyone says to you, “Look, here is the Christ!” or, “There he is!” do not believe it. For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect — if that were possible. … At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other. (Mt 24:21-24,30-31; also Mk 13:1-31)

This passage refers to a time of great suffering that will precede Christ's return. “The elect” simply refers to those who are his, without addressing how they came to be his. The passage emphasizes that Christ will protect his own, preventing them from being physically destroyed or lured away by false prophets.

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? … For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:28-30,38)

This passage builds on the theme of protection. “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. … If God is for us, who can be against us?” It takes the theme even further, however, with the idea of predestination. Not only does God protect us now by his providence, but he has arranged events since the very dawn of time for our benefit.

Note that no mention is made of another class of people who are damned. The point is not that some are predestined for heaven and others for hell, but that those who God knows, he protects. There is no support here for any of the IUL doctrines.

Foreknowledge

The words translated foreknew and foreknowledge are used seven times in the New Testament, five times in relation to God (Ac 2:23; Rom 8:29; 11:2; 1Pet 1:2,20), and twice in relation to humans (Ac 26:5; 2Pet 3:17). There is nothing intrinsically supernatural about the concept, as the last two passages show.

One other occurrence closely parallels the Romans passage.

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to God's elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, who have been chosen [elect] according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood: Grace and peace be yours in abundance. (1Pet 1:1-2)

Note that in both Rom 8:29 and 1Pet 1:2, foreknowledge comes first, before predestination or election. So, what does this mean?

Arminians get points over IUL theologians for a more straightforward, literal interpretation of the Scripture: God knew ahead of time which people were going to accept his call, and predestined them accordingly. This interpretation is consistent with the most natural translation of the Greek term as “to know previously” of some fact, as in, “I already knew the train was going to be late.”

However, this word can also have a relational meaning, akin to the English, “I had (already) known him for three years.” By this meaning, God predestined those with whom he already had a preexisting relationship. This is puzzling if we think in terms of linear time — how could anything preexist predestination? But it makes perfect sense when we realize that God is outside of our concept of space-time, perceiving all of creation as here and now. From his perspective, he already has a relationship with everyone who will ever come to know him, and it's perfectly reasonable that he would therefore be orchestrating events for their good. Since the term is used here with people rather than events or facts, I would lean toward this relational interpretation.

Regardless of the precise meaning of foreknowledge, the key point here is that foreknowledge precedes election, not the other way around. God elects and predestines those he already knows; he does not come to know them because he has predestined them.

Sealed

For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will — to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. … In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit. (Eph 1:4-6,11-13)

This passage, more than any other, makes it sound as if God arbitrarily chose the speaker to be blessed before the creation of the world. However, we must interpret the passage in a manner that is consistent with the other Scriptures. It should be readily apparent that it is also perfectly consistent with the previous passages we looked at — that God chose someone he foreknew, and has protected and guided him since the beginning of time. The passage simply omits the foreknowledge part, apparently because the author had some other emphasis in mind.

What is that other emphasis? Well, the passage also adds another element, missing from the other passages:

And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit.

It sounds as though the readers were not among the original group that the speaker described as being chosen and predestined. Rather, they were added to the elect later when they heard the gospel and believed.

I doubt very much that Paul is contrasting himself, chosen from the beginning of time, with the Ephesians, who were only added later. Rather, he seems to be stressing that both those who were first to hope in Christ and those who came later were all chosen by the same God and sealed by the same Spirit. He is reassuring the Ephesians that they can have every confidence in the providence of the God who saved them, just as he does.

This emphasis makes sense when we consider the context. Paul, a Jew, converted shortly after Pentecost, is writing to Gentiles, converted years or decades later. The Jews received the gospel before the Gentiles, and Paul received the gospel before the Ephesians. However, the Gentile Ephesians were sealed with the Holy Spirit just as the Jewish Apostle Paul.

A similar emphasis applies in:

Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory. (2Tim 2:10; also Tit 1:1; 2Pet 1:10-11)

By an IUL interpretation, this passage would be nonsensical — if they are elect, then of course they will obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, because that has been predetermined. On the other hand, if Paul is referring to those who God already knows as ultimately having a relationship with him, but who have not yet received the gospel, then this passage makes sense.

Again, there is no mention of the damned, and no support for IUL.

Prepared for destruction

I've saved the worst for last. Romans 9, alone among all the Scriptures, seems to imply that God arbitrarily chooses some for salvation and others for destruction, the basic IUL doctrine.

It should strike a warning bell that this doctrine appears to be taught here and nowhere else. When God wants us to understand something, he generally repeats it many times in many different ways. If he wants to tell us that there is no hope for most of mankind, one would expect that to be a recurring theme throughout the Scriptures; when in fact the Scriptures have quite the opposite theme.

As always, context is key to understanding. Romans 9 begins as a lament for the lost sheep of Israel.

I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel. (Rom 9:2-4)

Paul has a heart for his own people, and it pains him to see that the good news has largely passed them by, by their own unwillingness to accept it.

Paul goes on to point out that Abraham's heirs are not just his blood descendants, but children of the promise. Just because so many of Abraham's blood descendants have not accepted the gospel does not mean that the promise has failed. (Rom 9:6-9)

Not only that, but Rebekah's children had one and the same father, our father Isaac. Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad — in order that God's purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls — she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” Just as it is written: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” (Rom 9:10-13)

This, then, is the context for what must be the IUL theologian's favorite passage.

What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” It does not, therefore, depend on man's desire or effort, but on God's mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden. (Rom 9:14-18)

Taken out of context, this passage seems to suggest that God arbitrarily selects those on whom he has compassion, and those whom he destroys. Certainly, our efforts cannot earn his compassion. But we have to realize, he is not talking here about individuals, but about people groups. He chose the people of Israel to be his own, not because they deserved it, but because he needed a people to bear his name in a lost world. He chose to count Abraham's line through Isaac, because Isaac was the child God promised, while Ishmael was a product of unbelief, man's desire and effort.

Why did he choose Jacob and not Esau? I have no idea. But the point here, as in the passage Paul quotes (Mal 1:2-3), is that he chose Jacob's descendants to be the children of the promise, and not Esau's — not that he chose Jacob for heaven and Esau for hell. We really have no indication in the Bible of Esau's eternal destiny.

Paul then moves on to address a potential objection related to this teaching.

One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?” 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?

What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath — prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory — even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles? (Rom 9:19-24)

Who is this rebuke directed to? Apparently, someone who doesn't think he should be held accountable for his actions, because God created him the way he is. Well, that argument is obviously ridiculous. We still have free will, and are responsible for our choices. (Is sexual behavior a choice?)

But that's not how Paul responds. Instead he says that we, created objects, do not have the right to criticize our Creator; even if he created us to be ordinary and mundane, or even if he created us for destruction.

Paul is writing to Romans, Gentiles who practiced temple prostitution and other detestable acts related to their religion. Perhaps one of them, or a group of them, had argued that they could not be held responsible for their religion, because God had notincluded them in his chosen people, Israel. Paul's response is twofold:

  1. Even if God did create you for destruction, you have no right to complain.
  2. God has made the riches of his glory available not only to the Jews, but also to the Gentiles.

In fact, some of the Gentiles have now become heirs of the promise; while some of the Jews have lost their rightful place, because they refused to accept the gospel of grace.

What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it. Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the “stumbling stone.” As it is written: “See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” (Rom 9:30-33)

If anyone mistakenly interprets this passage to argue for IUL-style predestination, their misconception is unequivocally dispelled a couple of chapters later.

If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, do not boast over those branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you. You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but be afraid. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either.

Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off. And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. After all, if you were cut out of an olive tree that is wild by nature, and contrary to nature were grafted into a cultivated olive tree, how much more readily will these, the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree! (Rom 11:17-24)

The Jews lost their place because they chose unbelief, and the Gentiles were grafted in because they chose faith. But by the same token, Gentiles who choose unbelief will be cut off, while Jews who choose faith will be restored.

Could God create people destined for destruction? Yes. Does he? Not according to the Scriptures.

Conclusion

Christ is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world (1Jn 2:2), for God wants everyone to be saved and to understand the truth (1Tim 2:3-4). To all who receive him, to those who believe in his name, he gives the right to become children of God (Jn 1:11-12). Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life (Rev 22:17). For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost (Lk 19:10).

This is the gospel message. Let us not hide it under our theology.

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