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Musings About the Sovereignty of God and Salvation
Calvinism is a system of interpretation of the Scriptures promoted by John Calvin (1506-1564) who was strongly influenced by Augustine of Hippo. The system rest on its concepts of the sovereignty of God, total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace and perseverance of the saints. As with any teaching, it should be compared with the Scriptures and accepted or rejected based upon its consistency with the Scriptures.
Our friends, those of the Calvinistic persuasion, tell us that God is sovereign. The term is defined as: 1. Chief or highest; supreme. 2. Supreme in power; superior in position to all others; specif., princely; royal. 3. Independent of, and unlimited by any other; possessing or entitled to original and independent authority or jurisdiction; as a sovereign state. 4. Efficacious; effectual, as a remedy. Syn. Dominant; Free. (Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary) Considering this definition we all agree, God is sovereign. Is sovereignty synonymous with determinism? That is the question. “Thine, O Lord is the greatness, and the power, and the glory, and the victory, and the majesty: for all that is in heaven and in the earth is thine; thine is the kingdom, O Lord and thou art exalted as head above all.” (1 Chronicles 29: 11) The terms sovereign or sovereignty do not occur in the KJV; the terms are found 305 times in the NIV; the terms are found 23 times in the NRSV.
Our friends tell us that the sovereignty of God expresses itself in determinism. “There is nothing that is outside the determinate counsel of God. (God’s Sovereignty in Salvation, Rev. Steven Houck) But this is a conclusion, not a statement from the Scriptures. Certainly He is the God, “who worketh all things after the counsel of His own will.” (Ephesians 1: 11) But what is His will? Must He use force to accomplish His will? There is nothing inherent in the term, sovereign, that requires determinism. The sovereignty of God expresses itself in any way He wills, consistent with His nature. Without doubt, Jesus was delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God (Acts 2: 23) The rulers of this age unwittingly carried out the plan of God. Had they understood they would not have crucified the Lord of Glory. (1 Corinthians 2: 7, 8; Acts 4: 25-28). These were not coerced, but God used their natural inclinations to accomplish His purpose. Yet I believe He has created man of such nature that He not only allows but requires man exercise a free will.
Our friends tell us God determines all things. But as we have seen God does not have to coerce man to accomplish His purpose. But God desires that man have an intimate relationship with man as a Father has with a son. To do this he uses two kind of influences- constraining and nonconstraining. Constraining influence cause an individual to act against his will. Example: we are ordered to behave in a certain way or face punishment. Nonconstraining influences are sufficient to bring about a determined action, but they do not force an individual to act against their will. God is love, and He wants this relationship to be based on love. At first our relationship begins in fear, but as love is perfected, fear is cast out and our relationship becomes increasingly a “love” relationship. Just as grace is not realized by works of righteousness, perfected love is not realized by fear and coercion. Love requires man to freely choose. We love because He first loved us. Of course to be able to freely choose good means that man is able to freely choose evil. (1 John 4: 8-21
It is a matter of common observation that this world is filled with many who repudiate God and their life is marked with habitual sin. If God’s will is determinate in all things then it would seem that God is responsible for evil. But the Scriptures say, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone” (James 1: 13)
As I read the apologist for Calvinism, such as AW Pink, one thought keeps coming to mind. All these folks must have graduated from the “straw-man” academy. Do they really think the rest of us poor misguided souls do not believe in the sovereignty of God? Do they really think we believe that God is “disappointed,” “dissatisfied,” “defeated,” “dethroned,” “striped of omnipotence,” Yet it is strange that people who write so much about the sovereignty of God limit His sovereignty to determinism, raw naked power. Is this the only way God works? Do they really think that God gives faith by a bolt of lightning and a clap of thunder from heaven? Can they really think that some are doomed for the good pleasure of God?
Our friends ask if the condition of the world indicates that God is impotent or indifferent. Must we choose between the sovereignty of Satan or God? No, there is a third choice. God for a time (He has appointed a day of judgment) allows man, beginning with Adam, to choose his course of action. Adam and all mankind have chosen poorly. We have all sinned and are unable to rectify the situation. The situation would be quite hopeless except that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes should not perish. Freedom of man’s will fits God’s purpose. Satan may hold sway in the heart of man for a time but Satan never rules God nor is Satan allowed to ultimately control the world.
Our friends tell us that faith is God’s gift (and it is), and “all men have not faith’ (2 Thessalonians 3: 2) The implication is that God gives this saving favor to the elect but withholds it from the reprobate. John Murray writes, “Since faith is thus given to some and not to others, and given to those who are equally unworthy with those to whom it is not given, the ultimate reason is that God is pleased thus to operate in some and not in others.” (THE SOVEREIGNTY OF GOD, John Murray) Is this true? But faith is also a command of God (for unless you believe that I am He, you shall die in your sins) for man and faith is a response of man. “So faith comes from hearing and hearing by the word of God.” (Romans 10: 17) “But these have been written that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name,” (John 20: 31) Whatever the mind attends to, it considers; what the mind does not attend to, it dismisses; whatever the mind attends to continually, it believes; and whatever the mind believes, it eventually does. For as he thinks in his heart so is he. Faith is not received except through the faculties of man. He must hear or read and he must consider. Faith is a gift of God but faith is also a response of man. Murray’s conclusion is wholly unwarranted. The power of God unto salvation is the good news of Jesus Christ. God uses the gospel to draw all men to Him. The lifting up of Christ in crucifixion is the drawing power. (Roman 1: 16,17; John 6: 44, 45: 12: 32)
Our friends tell us that we believe through the grace of God. Of course this is true. God has given everything necessary to come to faith. He gave His Son; He has given us the word; He has ordained that it be preached to all nations; He has given the Holy Spirit to convict the world, not just the elect. One can only come to faith through grace; the gift of faith, however, is not a bolt of lightning from heaven.
Our friends tell us that God alone works is respect to our salvation. But the Scripture urge us to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in us, both to will and to work for His good pleasure. God has purposed from eternity, Jesus gave His life and the Holy Spirit convicts and leads us but none impose themselves on the reluctant. There is a degree of acceptance and cooperation on the part of man. The glory is to God because no one can initiate and carry out this process. Salvation is not of ourselves.
Our friends tell us that God is sovereign in the exercise of His mercy. For example Jesus healed certain ones but not others. And God said, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” But God in His sovereignty has decided to have mercy on those that believe. God states, “through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand.” “For what do the Scriptures say? And Abraham believed God and it was reckon to him as righteousness.” (Romans 4: 3) The just shall live by faith. The purpose of the healing miracles was to confirm that He came from God and exercised the power of God. He often showed His compassion by the healing and feeding of the multitudes but His purpose was not to heal all or to feed all. God is righteous and no respecter of persons. He never treats anyone unfairly.
Our friends tell us that man does not have a choice, that God determines all. But the Scriptures seem to indicate otherwise. “If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.” (Genesis 4: 7); “And if it is disagreeable in your sight to serve the Lord, choose for yourselves today whom you will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served which were beyond the River, or the god of the Amorites in whose land you are living, but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:15) “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today; that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life that you may live, you and your descendants.” (Deuteronomy 30: 19); “For before the boy will know enough to refuse evil and choose good, the land whose two kings you dread will be forsaken.” (Isaiah 7: 16) Jesus stated that He wanted to gather the childr4en of Jerusalem as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but they would not. They choose not to. (Luke 13: 34) God has stretched out His hands to a disobedient and obstinate people (Israel) but for the most part they have refused His offer. (Romans 10: 21)
Is God filled with benevolent intention but unable to carry them out? Is God desirous of blessing man, but they will not let Him? Another straw man rises up. God so loved the world (desirous of blessing all mankind) that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes should not perish but have everlasting life. Salvation is conditional!
My Calvinist friends tell me I am playing games with God. That is certainly not my intention. I am trying to be objective in my approach to the Scriptures, but I realize I have presuppositions, as we all do, that interfere. My background is the other extreme. The Restoration Movement places a great emphasis on obedience, so much so that some come very close to legalism. I have learned much by studying the tenets of Calvin and have revised my beliefs according. We can learn even from those we disagree. All truth does not lie in one camp. My heart goes out to those, even as I was, who are so enmeshed in any system of interpretation that they are unable to back away and take another look. Be a truth seeker and not a tradition keeper. Seek and you shall find. Knock and it shall be opened to you. I really believe that.
Our friends tell us there are only two alternatives, either God is ruling or he must be ruled. Another straw man. Be wary of “either or” arguments, often there is another alternative. God is ruling. But in His rule He allows man to choose for a while. The Day of Judgment has already been appointed.
Our friends tell us,” Because God is holy His anger burns against sin; because God is righteous His judgments fall on all who rebel against Him; because God is faithful the solemn threatening of His word are fulfilled; because He is omnipotent none can successfully resist Him and no difficulty baffle His wisdom.” (THE SOVEREIGNTY OF GOD, AW Pink) They do not tell us because He is love He gave His Son that whoever believes on Him should not perish but have eternal life. They present an out of balance view of God. Behold both the goodness and the severity of God.
Our friends tell us that God is sovereign in the exercise of His power. In various times He choose to exert His power and save some but not others. For example He saved Peter from prison but not Stephen from stoning. This supposedly explains why God will eternally save some but allow others to perish. We are in a world of choice that as a result often have violent consequences. Sometimes it serves His eternal purpose to shield some and not others. God has never promised that He will protect us all from those consequences. Stephen suffered a violent death as a result of the evil choices of the Jews. But who is to say that the death of Stephen was not God’s blessing. He was called home.
Our friends tell us that God is sovereign in the delegation of His power. He gives some the power to get wealth or imparts great physical strength but withholds it from others. The purpose of God is neither to give power nor wealth, but when those things fit in to His eternal plan, to bring a savior to the world, they are granted.
Our friends tell us that God is sovereign in the exercise of His grace; necessarily so, because grace is favor shown to the undeserving. Man has no inherent right to grace. But God states that the “grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men.” “Whoever believes in Him will not be disappointed.” No one is excluded from the grace of God by God from eternity. The grace of God is like the rain, which falls on the just and unjust. The parable of the sower tells us that as the seed is cast abroad, some falls by the wayside, some among the rocky soil, some among the thorns and some on the good soil. (Luke 8: 1-21) Even so the grace of God. God abundantly pours out His grace, many are not disposed to receive it.
Our friends tell us that the dispensation of the grace of God rests solely on the mind of God and nothing within man, but Peter, James and the Holy Spirit disagree. “But He gives a greater grace. Therefore it says, God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (James 4: 6) “For God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (1 Peter 5: 5)
Does God harden the hearts of those who are struggling to find God or those who stubbornly resist? Pharoah is the classic example. God hardened Pharoah’s heart but only because Pharoah hardened his own heart. (Exodus 7: 3-4; 9: 27-35)
Our friends tell us that, ”God, by his eternal and immutable counsel determined once for all those whom it was his pleasure one day to admit to salvation, and those whom, on the other hand, it was his pleasure to doom to destruction.” (Institutes, 3:21:7) I am afraid to make this statement less I impugn God. The Scriptures state, The Lord is not slow about His promises, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but all to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3: 9) “For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies,” declares the Lord God, “therefore, repent and live.” (Ezekiel 18: 32) “Say to them, ‘As I live’ declares the Lord God, ‘I take take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live, Turn back, turn back from your evil ways! Why then will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ezekiel 33: 11) The idea that it pleases God to doom some to destruction is not credible
Our friends tell us that His grace is irresistible, but the work of God is one of persuasion not coercion. “We love because He first loved us.” Grace is “favor” not irresistible force, grace is kindness not a bully, and grace is love not naked power.
Our friends tell us the election is unconditional; but do the Scriptures? “And we know that He causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those that are called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son….” Again, “…who are chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father…” The election then is according to some knowledge that God possessed about the elect.
Our friends tell us that “foreknowledge” here does not refer to God’s prescience of all things but signifies the saints were all eternally present in Christ before the mind of God. (THE SOVEREIGNTY OF GOD, AW Pink) This is equivalent to saying that “foreknowledge” does not mean “foreknowledge,” and should be judged accordingly. “Chosen according to the foreknowledge of God” means “chosen according to God’s prescience of all things” and nothing less.
Other friends tell us, “God’s foreknowledge, then is eternal love for his chosen people.” (God’s Sovereignty in Salvation, Rev Steven Houck) Now the Reverend is free (he should deny such freedom) to deny the commonly understood meaning of words but we do not have to follow. The Reverend assures us that based on Psalms 11: 5 God hates the wicked. How sad to make such a general application. The truth is that God so loved the world (not just the elect) that He gave His Son. “For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies,” declares the Lord God, “Therefore, repent and live.” (Ezekiel 18: 32) “Say to them, ‘As I live,” declares the Lord God, ‘I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn back; turn back from your evil ways! Why then will you die, O house of Israel.”?
(Ezekiel 33: 11)
What then is that knowledge? Certainly it was not based on works of righteousness or any other act of positive volition. But there is a factor, which is the condition for granting grace. What is it? Both Peter and James tell us that God gives grace to the humble but resists the proud. (James 4: 6; 2 Peter 5: 5) This, coupled with Jesus statement, that those who would come to Him must deny themselves (Matthew 16: 24), leads me to believe that that factor was humility, those who are poor in spirit. In deed, in that portion of the Sermon on the Mount, which we call the beatitudes, it is the first quality mentioned by Jesus. (Matthew 5: 3)
When we say that God gives grace to the humble but resists the proud, our friends ask if we do not think that God is powerful enough to humble who He wills. Yes God has the power and the right to use us as He will, but what pleases Him? Does God will to win us to Him by raw, naked power or did He choose to win us to Him by having His Son die for us.
Our friends tell us that “who saved us and called us with a holy calling not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace” means that salvation is not due to anything in us or the rewarding of anything done by us. Yet the same Spirit tells us, “He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to Hid mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit.” There are more than twenty factors that are said in the Scriptures to save us. Apparently the “washing of regeneration and the renewal of the Holy Spirit” is not considered a work of righteousness. Again, Paul says, “So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not in my presence only, but much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure. Is obedience to God’s command necessarily a work of righteousness?
Our friends tell us that the ultimate destiny of every individual is decided by the will of God. But when Adam and Eve were created, God said it was “very good.” They alone were created in the image of God. They alone had moral sensibilities. They alone, had the ability to choose a course of action based upon moral consideration. They choose poorly, and sin and physical death entered our world
Our friends remind us that we are by nature “children of wrath.” My question is, when did this occur? Was Adam created by God as a child of wrath? Was it after the fall of man? Was it when the individual sinned? I personally believe it is blasphemous to suggest that God created evil or that He takes pleasure in the reprobation of man.
Our friends tell us that man is totally depraved, totally unable to do any good, totally unable to respond to God. To be sure man can become depraved (Ephesians 4: 17-19; 1 Timothy 4: 1,2; Romans 1: 20-28), but is he born depraved? Cornelius was not. While dead in his trespasses and sins he was said to be a devout man, one that feared God. He was recognized for his prayers and alms giving.
Our friends tell us that the story of the potter and the clay demonstrate that the ultimate destiny of every individual is determined by the will of God. Again we ask what is the setting of these verses. When is a person fitted to be a vessel of honor or dishonor? Is the setting from all eternity? I don’t think so. Of the same lump indicates the guilty. All are guilty before God. From this lump God has fitted some to be vessels of honor and others to be vessels of dishonor. This occurs when by faith one obeys or because of lack of faith one disobeys.
Our friends tell us that the election is according to grace. And so it is! But they tell that this means the election is entirely gratuitous, excluding even faith as a condition. This is not true for the theme of the epistle to the Romans is, “the just shall live by faith.” On the contrary Paul asserts “for this reason it is by faith, that it might be in accordance with grace. This principle is written in both the Galatians and Hebrews epistle and of course in the Prophet Habakkuk. Grace is never set against faith; on the contrary we read that faith is our introduction to grace. Grace is set against works but even all works are not indicted. A cursory reading of the eleventh chapter of Hebrew will show us that all works are not works of righteousness. Through faith Abraham obeyed. Thus works of righteousness (works that proceed from faith in other than God) are excluded. But all works are not works of righteousness. Those works that proceed from faith in God should not be included in that category.
Our friends ask us if we are so powerful that we can save ourselves while dead in trespasses and sins. We are not so powerful, but the word of God, which created the heavens and the earth, is. The power is not found in us but in God’s word. The word is living and active and powerful! Thank God.
As I read the Scriptures I find we are called on to believe, to repent, to obey. We are exhorted to love one another, to abstain from certain activities and even to abstain from certain thoughts. To think about things that are pure and lovely and good. It all sounds like we have some responsibility to choose wisely. Why? If the Holy Spirit is working irresistibly according to God’s will, it couldn’t be any other way. There is no need to admonish, to exhort, to encourage man; it couldn’t be any other way.
Our friends tell us that “the work of the Holy Spirit preceding our believing is unequivocally established by 2 Thessalonians 2: 13...What then is “sanctification of the Spirit”? We answer, the new birth.” (The Sovereignty of God, A.W. Pink) First: I do not agree that 2 Thessalonians 2: 13 establishes a particular order. If the verse read as 1 Peter 1:2,”sanctificationof the Spirit unto obedience” then I would be inclined to agree. In 2 Thessalonians we have only a listing of factors without any particular order. Second: It is more logical to equate “sanctification of the Spirit with either “sanctify them through thy truth, thy word is truth” or with the convicting work of the Spirit in John 16: 8. Third: By equating “sanctification of the Spirit” with the new birth Mr. Pink demonstrates a basic lack of understanding of the new birth. In the natural realm of procreation the birth is preceded by a begettal. Similarly in the spiritual realm of regeneration the birth is preceded by a begettal through the seed, the word of God. The begettal occurs when one believes. (John 1: 12, 13; James 1: 18) Also our friends fail to notice that the new birth is a birth of water and the Spirit.
Calvinism is not for me. Yes I believe in the sovereignty of God. Yes He has determined His eternal purpose in regard to salvation. In His sovereignty He has decided to draw man to Him through love. The gospel is the power of God to salvation. It is ironic that ones who talk most about the sovereignty of God are the ones who limit His working to their presuppositions. Yes man can become depraved. No, he is not born depraved. The gospels are full of stories of men, dead in their trespasses and sins, doing “good” things. (Luke 7, Acts 10) No the election is not unconditional. It is in accordance with factors, faith which works through love, determined and known by God. Thank God the atonement is not limited. No, the Holy Spirit does not work irresistibly but He does work powerfully and actively through the word. We are safe in the arms of Jesus but there are to many instances cited, to many warnings about apostasy to imagine it can’t happen.
Faith is many things but love is the ultimate goal. (1 Corinthians 13: 13:
1 Timothy 1: 5)
Faith comes by hearing the word. (Romans 10: 17)
Faith is a gift of God. (Philippians 1: 29)
Faith is a command of God. (1 John 3: 23)
Faith is a response of man. (Acts 16: 31)
Faith is the condition. (John 8: 24)
Faith is a work of God. (John 6: 29)
Faith is a work of man. (1 Thessalonians 1: 3)
Faith is the principle of life. (Romans 1: 17)
Faith is the avenue to grace. (Romans 5: 2)
Faith is by grace. (Acts 18: 27)
Faith is the source of obedience. (Romans 1: 5)
Righteousness is imputed for faith. (Romans 4: 3)
Faith is perfected by works. (James 2: 22)
Faith works through love. (Galatians 5: 6)
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