Then the Lord God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:15-17 NASB)
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” (John 3:16-18 NASB)
I am headed for deep water for I am about to take part in a debate that has been raging for a long time. It is an argument between Christians of good will, individuals who hold strong opinion based on scriptures they believe point to the surety of their conclusions. I am content to believe that a great many of them know the scriptures – and theology – far better than I.
So why add my voice? And to what debate do I refer?
I speak out for two reasons.
First, I am challenged in my inner being by the force of the arguments of those who hold a view different than my own, some of whom are men I know and count as true Christian brothers and good friends. I see evidence of Christ in them and cannot deny that their lives bear the mark of the Savior’s servants. It would seem foolish of me not to give ear to the conclusions they have come to in their earnest study of the word of God, especially so when it clashes so glaringly with my own! I want to be sure of the confidence I so heartily express in my own opinions and so accept the privilege of laying them out to see if they fall faint in the shadow of those convictions held by others.
More importantly, I am jealous for the Lord’s glory. I find myself grieved by what strikes me as a diminishing of God’s greatness by the opposing view. I find it hard to be silent when I hear it proclaimed and wince with distress at how it seems to make for the worship of a God too thin.
In all fairness I must hasten to add that my counterparts feel the same way about my stance, that it robs God of glory rightly due him. This is an encouraging sign in that, above all else, we are both concerned with the glory of God!
I will do my best now to describe what is at the core of our difference of opinion. I will do so without reference to the labels that have been traditionally applied to the debate in hope that in doing so we shall all avoid the immediate prejudices that can leap into our thinking as a result. As I said, I am not a theologian and if I claimed to be intimately versed in the theological arguments held by any particular group I should be rightly called a pretender.
Let me describe the difference of opinion by first saying what it is that we seem to agree on.
We agree that in the matter of salvation, God is the author of the means. That it is by faith alone, in Christ Jesus alone, by grace alone. We also agree that God is the initiator of the saving relationship. That left to himself man is without hope in the world and any thought he might have of seeking God is prompted by God’s grace in reaching out to him and drawing him to Himself. And we are in full accord that it is the gospel of Jesus Christ that brings to men God’s offer of salvation and makes a way for them to be saved out of their lost state of alienation and enmity towards God. In all these things we are in hearty agreement.
Where it seems we differ is in the mystery-laden territory of differentiating between the sovereign grace of God and the responsibility of man.
To put it simply, my friends say that those that respond favorably to the gospel and are regenerated by the power of the Holy Spirit have done so wholly apart from any choosing of their own – it was a response authored by God absent of any possibility of an alternative course. As such, to say that they “responded favorably” or “chose to receive Christ” is a nicety, they merely reacted as God chose for them. They did so as a member of a subset of humanity that God determined to save from the rest of human kind. That although the gospel is, on the surface of things presented to all men and women, the ability to embrace the gospel with saving faith is reserved to a predetermined group of individuals, wholly absent of any willful agreement on their part, with the remainder of mankind destined from the foundation of the world to a permanently lost state and eternal hell.
As I said earlier, I harbor no illusions of making a dent in this great debate. I simply desire to sound things out in my own mind.
From the very beginning of the creation of Adam and Eve as recorded in Genesis through the final judgment of mankind as portrayed in Revelation, the language of the Bible appears to me to be the language of choice. Our ancestors start fresh with no fallen nature to plague them. They enjoy a direct relationship with God and live in a world as yet unmarred by the ravages of sin. All that they might choose (there is that stubborn word again!) lies open before them with but a single constraint issued by their Creator and Father; they must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If they choose to do so there will be the direst consequences for them and for their progeny until the end of time.
God’s warning was abandoned and the choice made to disobey Love’s sole command. The fall, and all of its horrific aftermath, became a reality as sin entered the world through the disobedience of one man. (Rom 5:19)
Of course, we all agree that none of this took the omniscient God by surprise. Before the opening act of creation had ever taken center stage God had known the beginning from the end and had prepared a way for his beloved creatures to be forgiven of their sins, made Holy, and be reconciled to Himself. Jesus, his only begotten Son, is the means by which men might be saved by placing all their hope and trust – not in their own soiled efforts at goodness – but in the perfect righteousness of the Lamb of God, destined for the Cross before the first transgression came to be.
Throughout the pages of scripture we find God revealing Himself to mankind and exhorting each and every one of us to make a choice: believe in Jesus and be saved from the just wrath of God against sin and be reconciled to the Father, or stubbornly refuse the most awesome confluence of perfect justice and perfect love the universe will ever witness and be separated from God forever.
As I have said, it is in the details surrounding the “choosing” that the debate intensifies. But I think it is important to note that in our ancestral parents who knew what it was to be, for a time, without sin, a choice was the pivotal point defining the rest of their life. So it is with each of us now. Our personal eternity is defined by the singular choice of what we decide about Jesus Christ.
Let me pause before going on to take exception to another, oft voiced sentiment with which I strongly disagree that I think akin to the same sort of thinking with which we are presently concerned.
I hear it said again and again that we deserve to go to hell from the very moment of our birth and I cannot see how one can arrive at such a conclusion!
It seems to me from what I read of God’s character and heart in the Bible that this isn’t so. We are born in sin and if we don’t take what a friend of mine rightly refers to as the “antidote” we will end up in hell to be sure, for such is the final destination of all those who refuse to put off their filthy rags of works to be clothed with Christ’s righteousness. But as far as deserving hell from the moment of birth, this is another matter altogether!
When a child is born into the world physically or mentally malformed does it not arouse in our hearts springs of compassion together with a desire to do all we may to help the poor creature? If we who are evil respond with pity to the unfortunate does it not open our eyes to see our Heavenly Father’s compassion on us who are spiritually stillborn? Our default condition at birth is not that of hell’s fodder but of Heaven’s hope! The inherited curse of sin is not met with the Father’s angry hatred of our souls, poised to cast us into hell, but with the inestimable gift of Jesus, sent to earth to show us the Father’s heart and compassionate disposition towards the desperately infirm sinner. Our default destination is Heaven – but we must eagerly and gladly take the antidote of faith in Jesus Christ or we shall not have a single hope left us for admittance. Narrow is the way that leads to life and few find it yet it is the home every human being was made for from the beginning.
As I was saying, it is in the details surrounding the “choosing” of Jesus as Savior and Lord that highlights the differences of opinion in the debate central to my writing. We are told in the Bible that no one seeks after God (Psa 53:2-3) and that no one can come to the Father unless the Spirit of God draws them. (John 14:5) It is easy to conclude from this that if we rebels against God are to lay down our arms and be reconciled to him then God is going to have to be the initiator. We see the truth of this all through scripture; God working throughout history to arrange affairs in the world so that he might have our attention. Most often, it is only through desperation that we turn to him, the last of our choices when all else we have tried proves vain. The pivotal question is this: is the love of God universally expressed to all men with scriptural evidence of his willingness to reach out and draw each one and help them to believe or did he decide before creation ever began to limit salvation to only a subset of predetermined individuals whom he will compel to believe apart from any genuine choosing of their own will?
My approach to looking for the answer is to examine some Old and New Testament passages that seem to convey that God’s heart toward the lost is universal, and that he has left the final decision as to accepting his sole provision for salvation, faith in his Son, Jesus Christ, up to each individual for love’s sake. (Please note that I did not just say that all are saved or shall be!)
Moses and the god of gold
Likely, you are familiar with the story. Moses has been on Mt. Sinai with the Lord for forty days and nights, receiving from him the Law. With his extended absence the sons of Israel have come to the conclusion that it’s time to change gods and press Moses’ brother, Aaron, to make them a new one. Sadly, Aaron relents and fashions a molten calf out of donated jewelry that gets melted down and graved. A feast is proclaimed and the people “…sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.” From the mountain where they are meeting together, the Lord tells Moses what is going on back in camp and threatens to destroy all the people and start fresh by making a new nation from Moses.
Moses is quick to guard the Lord’s glory by recounting all the Lord has done in bringing the people out from the land of Egypt with demonstrations of Divine power. He appeals to the covenant made between God and Abraham, Isaac, and Israel (Jacob) and the Lord relents and sends him back down the mountain to deal with the God-forsakers.
As Moses nears the camp he is so distressed by what he sees and hears that he throws the two tablets of the Law and they break at the foot of the mountain. He confronts Aaron and gets a lamentable excuse of how the calf came out of the fire after Aaron tossed in some gold. Moses calls for a choice to be made concerning the Lord and the sons of Levi respond. At Moses’ command a slaughter is begun taking the lives of over 3,000 of their brothers, friends, and neighbors. It is the next day that Moses addresses the people:
“You yourselves have committed a great sin; and now I am going up to the LORD, perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” Then Moses returned to the LORD, and said, “Alas, this people has committed a great sin, and they have made a god of gold for themselves. “But now, if Thou wilt, forgive their sin– and if not, please blot me out from Thy book which Thou hast written!” (Exo 32:30-32 emphasis mine)
Intercession is made by Moses on behalf of the people. He acknowledges their sin without excuse and pleads with God to forgive them. Amazingly, he asks that if no forgiveness is made, that he himself might be cut off from God!
Note that Moses’ appeal isn’t just for a part of the people but for all. It isn’t even confined to the sons of Levi who had just shown themselves jealous for the Lord. Although Moses was sorely frustrated by the constant, stiff-necked rebellion of the people, something was operating within him fueling a great compassion for them – to the extent he was willing to be cut off from God himself should the Lord forsake them by being unwilling to forgive.
Was it not the Spirit of Christ Himself that so influenced Moses? Is this not why he is a type of Christ, because he represented Him according to the design and will of the Father? Agreed, Israel’s future wasn’t pretty as the multitude continued to rebel against God with only two of them eventually entering the land of promise and the rest dying in the wilderness. Yet throughout their lives, God showed himself unceasingly faithful and left the outcome to each individual’s choosing. Such knowledge of God’s ways led Joshua (one of the two survivors) to eventually proclaim, “… choose for yourselves today whom you will serve…” Very much a proclamation in the language of choice!
Job, an object lesson for angels
There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job, and that man was blameless, upright, fearing God, and turning away from evil. And seven sons and three daughters were born to him. (Job 1:1-2)
Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them. And the LORD said to Satan, “From where do you come?” Then Satan answered the LORD and said, “From roaming about on the earth and walking around on it.”
And the LORD said to Satan, “Have you considered My servant Job? For there is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, fearing God and turning away from evil.” Then Satan answered the LORD, “Does Job fear God for nothing? Hast Thou not made a hedge about him and his house and all that he has, on every side? Thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But put forth Thy hand now and touch all that he has; he will surely curse Thee to Thy face.” Then the LORD said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your power, only do not put forth your hand on him.” So Satan departed from the presence of the LORD. (6-12)
Satan’s clear challenge to the glory of God is ageless: no-one chooses to worship God simply because of who he is, it is a matter of bribery, of choosing God because of the blessings he bestows. In the book of Job, with the angels looking on with keen interest, God takes up the challenge.
So how, you ask, does the story relate to the debate at the core of this writing? What does Job have to do with the mystery between the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man?
I believe much.
If you are familiar with the whole of the tale you will recall that things were made very bad for Job through Satan’s trials. Although God set a boundary that he could not cross over, the devil blasted Job in an all-out effort to get him to curse God and publicly proclaim that God was unworthy of being worshipped. Job’s suffering was extraordinary but through it all he refused to curse God even though he didn’t understand why God was allowing so many calamities to come upon him. In the end, Satan is shown to be a liar by Job’s steadfast faith. His love of God is proven to be distinct and separate from the blessings that the Lord poured out on his life and was bound up in his faith in Jesus Christ, the mediator he could see in his heart that stood between a holy God and a sinful man like himself.
My point is this: if Job were nothing more than a mechanical puppet without a will of his own to choose then the exercise as a whole would have been a sham! Satan would simply have discounted it’s relevance by pointing out to God and the angels that Job had no choice in the matter but to behave exactly as God wished through his divine pulling of the puppet’s strings. The absence of such a claim is strong evidence that the glory of God is made all the more recognizable by the fact of choice. God’s pleasure in Job was a genuine gladness at the freely chosen response of the creature to his Creator.
Am I saying, then, that Job came through the trial victorious in his own strength? No, I dare not make such a claim! Surely, the grace of God was at work to help sustain his faith! Somewhere between puppetry and independence lies the mystery of the truth.
Paul and the Jews
I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh… (Rom 9:1-3)
Sound familiar? Doesn’t it sound very much like Moses’ cry to God on behalf of his kinsmen that we read about earlier? Is it not the same theme from the Old Testament reaffirmed here in the New? It shouldn’t surprise us, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today, yes and forever.” (Heb 13:8) It is the Spirit of Christ that speaks through both Moses and Paul. It is this same Spirit that further prompts Paul to say, “Brethren, my heart’s desire and my prayer to God for them is for their salvation.” (Rom 10:1) Paul’s prayer, inspired by the Holy Spirit, is for the salvation of all the Jews, not a subset. As Spurgeon once said, “Save the elect and elect some more!”
Some would have me place my attention further down the passage in Romans where we read, “… Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” (v13) They point out that God’s choice concerning the two men was established before they were even born and had done anything either good or bad. (v11) Agreed, God’s sovereign choice was made concerning the older brother serving the younger but not as regards salvation! No verse stands on its own. (Are there other reinforcing verses?) Do you truly believe that God hated Esau’s soul? As for me, I’ve no doubt that he hated the condition of Esau’s heart and his life choices but neither do I doubt that he loved Esau’s soul just as much as ever he loves any of his creatures!
Jesus, our ultimate example
In Jesus Christ we find all the fullness of deity in bodily form. (Col 1:15, 19) He is the visible expression of the Father and the perfect messenger of the heart of God towards men. How ably the desire for their salvation is epitomized in the cry of our Savior, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, just as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not have it!” (Luke 13:34)
Do we not notice that herein lies the crux of the problem, that some men will simply “not have” the salvation extended to them through the grace of God in Jesus Christ? That it isn’t a question of God’s unwillingness to aid them in believing but rather a hard disposition of their own hearts against the tide of God’s love?
Consider Paul’s pronouncement concerning the heart of God, “… who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” (1 Tim 2:4-5) Notice that Jesus is the mediator between God and “men”. For God so loved, not a subset of the world but the world of all men and women, that he sent Jesus to die on the Cross in our place that we might know the Father’s heart and be given the opportunity to respond to Love’s great gift by choosing to accept the salvation Christ gave His life to provide.
I am settled on the matter. The love of God is the same towards the vilest sinner as it is for the noblest saint and his heart is ever towards pursuing them, drawing them, loving them that they might be saved from eternal separation from their Creator. He has not made them mechanical and robotic having no will of their own in choosing to respond to his love. He gives no command in all of scripture that he is unwilling to help his children obey, least of all the command to believe in Jesus Christ whom he has sent. To be sure, we can do nothing to save ourselves. Not the single, tiniest contribution can we make!
If I were to be offered a piece of freshly baked cherry pie, would I diminish the “glory” of the cook if I chose to accept the offered pie? As I ate of it and smacked my lips from its goodness and exclaimed how wonderful was the taste of it, have I robbed the pie’s maker of rightful praise, or have I magnified their position as a great baker? It seems to me that if I had no choice in the matter but to take the pie and eat it apart from any true desire of my own, any words coming out of my mouth ought to be suspect and hardly the stuff of genuine praise!
Can we not likewise reach out our beggar’s hands and take the Bread of Life the Father has provided us in Jesus Christ and give the glad thanks and amen for such an amazing grace? There is no diminishing of the glory of God in our choosing Christ. Rather, it is the choosing with God’s unfailing and universal help that enhances his glory to the everlasting praise of his wonderful name!
© M.D. Kimball, May, 2006 (This writing may be freely copied in its entirety without prior permission from the author.)