Dedicated to Ryan, with whom I was discussing Romans this past Sunday. Dedicated to John Piper and Greg Boyd, whose ministries both inspire me, and who I am convinced will be great friends when they get to heaven. Dedicated to my mum, who reads my blog, but doesn’t really like it when I try to start provocative and controversial conversations. Dedicated to the Lausanne Younger Leaders with whom I have spent these last three days in Oslo. Dedicated to my beautiful wife Taryn, whose destiny is at least now entangled with mine.
#1 Judicial Impartiality
For there is no partiality with God. Romans 2:11
This is a clear unambiguous sentence, and as we wrestle with the philosophical conundrums that the Book of Romans presents to us, it is a good place to begin. There is no partiality with God. He applies the same rules to everyone. He is fair. He is just. If he were not, then the devil would be within his rights to freely accuse God. And indeed the fact that God is patiently refusing to immediately punish people for their sins so as to give them the opportunity to repent (2 Peter 3:9) is what allows the devil to “roam about like a roaring lion” (1 Peter 5:8). Now, God’s judicial impartiality does not mean that He cannot also engage relationally, personally and uniquely with each human being. But it does mean that these diverse interactions are all subject to the same standards of justice (and mercy!) – and, ultimately and foundationally, to God’s consistent nature and character.
#2 Personal Responsibility
God will render to each one according to his deeds. Romans 2:6
There is no avoiding it – we are all each accountable to God for what we do with our lives. Paul puts it even more clearly in 2 Corinthians: “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.”. Or as he tells the Galatians: “God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.” Most would rather avoid the unpleasant idea that God will hold them responsible for all that they have done. And thus there are many who say, like the Psalmist’s fool, “in their heart, ‘There is no God’ “. And we might note here that far fewer are willing to do the necessary intellectual examination of the objective evidence to be able to say ‘with their minds’ whether or not there might be a God. But whether we like the idea or not, the ethical responsibility of each individual human being is an unavoidable biblical truth.
#3 Legal Impossibility
By deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin. Romans 3:20
We’ve mentioned that some recognize that they have done wrong, but dislike the idea that God should judge them for this. We should mention too that there are those who are glibly unworried by the thought of divine judgement because they think that, all things considered, they’re reasonably good people who – if there is indeed an afterlife – ought to be considered worthy of a ticket to heaven. ‘Well, I’m not a murderer! I’m not a rapist! I’m not as bad as Hitler!’
Unfortunately, the biblical reality is that it’s not only some exclusive list of especially bad sins that separate us from God, but all and any sin. The way I find most helpful and convincing to explain it is to remind whoever’s listening that God is love (1 John 4:8) and that sin at its most basic is anything that’s not love (for Jesus taught that God’s law could be simplified without reduction to the two ‘love’ commands, to love God entirely, and to love others as one’s self). ‘Love’ and ‘not-love’ can, quite clearly, not co-exist. Like oil and water, they inevitably separate. Thus we who have sinned are separated from God. And the most terrible judgement with which our sin will be punished is for that separation from God to be made complete and unalterable.
Aside: On Hell, Eternal Torment and Proportionate Punishment
Ah, I’ve strayed onto the difficult and controversial subject of divine judgment – in short, the subject of hell. This is perhaps the one idea of Christianity that contemporary believers find most difficult to accept. In generations past, when tyrannical kings more commonly subjected their citizens to barbaric cruelty and systems of ‘justice’ were less fettered by democratic ideals, it was maybe easier to accept a doctrine of vindictive punishment. But in an age where – for all the mistakes of modern man – there is thankfully a kinder prison system and a greater appreciation of the value of human life, hell seems obviously inconsistent with the character of God revealed in Christ. And yet it was Christ who spoke more than anyone else in the Bible of the reality of hell. Jesus was the original fire-and-brimstone preacher! And if you don’t believe me, just read Mark 9, Matthew 5, Matthew 18, and Luke 16.
What then, can we say? First, that there is something about the doctrine of hell that resonates with the human desire for justice. We can, I believe, affirm this without giving in to the temptation of vengeful and vindictive unforgiveness – indeed, this is why when we hear of others’ suffering at the hands of evil, we feel that some sort of punishment is rightly deserved by the perpetrators of that evil, even though we ourselves have not been its victims. Second, we should expose the logically flawed and mathematically embarrassing idea that the biblical vision of hell is one of infinite suffering.
Here we must finely distinguish the difference between eternal and infinite punishment. A meaningless distinction, some might say, but they would be wrong (and have probably not studied Analytic Calculus!) Jesus clearly endorsed the doctrine of eternal punishment, repeatedly quoting Isaiah’s prophecy that “their worm does not die, and their fire is not quenched”. But we must also mention the biblical doctrine of limited retribution, “[only] an eye for an eye, and [only] a tooth for a tooth” (Exodus 21:24). And surely in a finite lifetime, it’s only possible to merit a finite quantity (though perhaps nevertheless a horrifically large quantity) of punishment for your sins.
Now although I have never heard anyone else point this out, it’s mathematically quite simple to envisage a situation where a finite quantity (in this case, of punishment) is spread out over an infinite period of time. Consider a point A moving towards a destination B. Each minute A moves half of the remaining distance l towards B, so the first minute it moves l/2, then l/4, then l/8 – constantly getting closer, but never quite arriving (and with ever-decreasing speed).
#4 Gospel Simplicity
For there is no difference: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth to be a propitiation by His blood, through faith… Romans 3:23-25
Enough of tangential dogmatic discussions – let’s return to our central, glorious message, the simple gospel of Jesus! This is the single fact that every human absolutely needs to know. This is the double-edged sword that cuts through all of our social differences and personal preferences, right to the very heart of who we are, confronting us simultaneously with the unattainable standard of righteousness that God’s justice requires, and with the limitless mercy that He lavishly delivers. This is how much God your Father loves you – as much as He loves His perfect Son, whom He was willing to give so that you could be substituted out from the prison of your sin and back into the glorious game of life.
This is how much Jesus Christ, God the Son, loves you – that He would lay down His life for you, so that you could be reconciled to your Creator, your surroundings, and indeed your self. This is how much the Holy Spirit loves you, and He now pours out that divine love into the hearts of all who turn to Christ. Death has been overcome, the devil has been defeated, the curse has been broken! Humanity’s cries are heard, God’s promise is fulfilled, God’s people are justified! But it is necessary that you respond personally and turn to Jesus in faith and simple repentance.
#5 Eschatological Totality
Hardening in part has come upon Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And thus all Israel will be saved, as it is written… Romans 11:26
For if their being cast away is the reconciling of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? Romans 11:15
But “not all have faith” (2 Thessalonians 3:2). Not all believe the gospel. Although Jesus’ death and resurrection won the decisive victory over sin and Satan, nevertheless the battle wages on and we – like the Allies after D-Day – must continue to fight this spiritual battle until the mission is finally complete. ‘Will you at this time restore the kingdom?,’ the disciples asked the resurrected Jesus. And he replied by telling them that there was still work to be done, and He was trusting them – with the help of the Holy Spirit – to complete that work. Here is the point that I want to emphasize that this work will be completed! Although for a brief (at least compared to eternity!) season, we are perplexed (“but not in despair”) by the lack of faith of some, nevertheless we can be confident that there is coming a day when the fullness of the Gentiles will come in. That means all of the nations! That means every tribe and every tongue! That means a great multitude which no-one could number! And then there will be revival in Israel, and the Jews will be saved, and Christ will return with an army of angels–not to carry us away to some disembodied realm of ethereal vagueness, but to actually establish His heavenly kingdom on earth in all of its fullness.
We need a confident conviction that this will certainly happen to carry us through the trials and tribulations that will necessarily face us in the ministries to which God has called us. We need an increasingly clear and vivid vision of the hope we are waiting for, if we are to avoid being offended by the pressure that God will allow us to face. We need to pray for supernatural wisdom to right divide the word of truth, if we are to discern what God is actually doing in the midst of the complexity and chaos that will increase.
Just because all the nations will be reached (Mark 13:10), it doesn’t mean that every individual will be saved (Matthew 7:22-23). Just because the establishment of the state of Israel is a prophetic sign (Isaiah 11:11; Ezekiel 36:24), it doesn’t mean that the Israelis are necessarily in the right and the Palestinians in the wrong. Just because those Christians who try and prepare for the return of Christ frequently make moral errors and theological blunders, it doesn’t mean that we are excused from the task of discerning the signs of the times (Matt. 16:3).
#6 Sovereign Selectivity
He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens. Romans 9:18
But why is it that some have faith, and others don’t? We have mentioned those who are simply unwilling to listen to the message, refusing to examine the evidence because they know – perhaps only subconsciously! – that the implications are too great. Far easier to deny the existence of God than accept the difficult task of integrating every part of your life with the truth and beauty of His holiness. But this unwillingness is not the case with everyone. I know people who have been ready to study the claims of Christ, who have even opened their hearts up in prayer asking God to reveal himself – but have not (yet) received the glorious assurance that for some reason has taken root in my heart. I do not think it is because I am more intelligent, or less prone to sin, that I have come to faith when others haven’t. Indeed I could name specific people who are more intellectually rigorous and more ethically consistent than I, who know and understand the gospel, but for various reasons, don’t believe it. Why is this?
Paul is ruthlessly direct in answering the question with an appeal to the sovereign freedom of God to do what He wants to fulfil His purposes. We should maybe add to this sentence the clause ‘within the bounds of His rules’, for as we began by saying, God shows no partiality. He doesn’t bend the rules for anyone. But – as we also already pointed out – judicial impartiality does not prevent God from engaging uniquely and therefore differently with each person on a relational basis.
And this means that although judicially the rules are clear (a person either receives Christ by faith as Lord and Saviour and benefits from the redemption from judgement that Jesus accomplished on the cross, or they must endure the condemnation that their sins deserve), this doesn’t necessarily prevent God selectively granting the gift of faith to some and not to others, thus qualifying those ‘some’ for redemption. Paul would call this “fulfilling the righteous requirement of the law”. In the same way, imagine a running coach with a son whom he hoped would break an athletic record – say for the 400m. There’s a difference between the coach trying to cheat to help his son break the record (either by using performance-enhancing drugs, or fiddling the timing equipment, or whatever it might be), and the coach exclusively training his son, so that his son was able to genuinely achieve the necessary standard.
And yet, and yet – if faith is something God can just impart, then why doesn’t He grant faith to more people? Paul seems to indicate that the unbelief of certain people is necessary for certain purposes of God to be fulfilled: “a hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in”. But what about Paul’s assertion elsewhere that God “desires all to be saved” (1 Timothy 2:4). What about God’s plea through Ezekiel: “Do I have any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? And not that he should turn and live?” (Ezekiel 18:23). There comes a point in every Christian’s learning, when they are confronted with the question of how to reconcile these texts. And on the one side you have the ‘Calvinists’, who remind us that Paul says in Ephesians that saving faith is “not of yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8) and urge us to embrace God’s right to have mercy on whom He will – though it effectively implies that God doesn’t really desire all to be saved.
On the other side you have the ‘Arminian’ position, which affirms God’s genuine desire that absolutely all individuals should be saved and brought to a knowledge of the truth – but seems to avoid the implications of Romans 9-11. (Although I have just discovered Greg Boyd’s thoughts on Romans 9, which look to be a provocative read).
I had considered this question somewhat as a teenager, but was particularly confronted with it in my second year as a student, as I discovered John Piper’s incredible array of free online (Calvinistic) resources, and found the CICCU Bible Studies for the term were focussed on the book of Malachi (from which Paul draws the verse “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated”). I found myself encouraged and liberated by the idea that God had specifically predestined me, that in spite of my mess and my struggle with sin, He had called me by name and though I might sometimes be faithless, He would be faithful. And on the other hand I found myself bemused and frustrated by what seemed to me at the time to be the way that some Christians seemed to be ducking and diving around this issue, unwilling to accept the teaching of Scripture just because it was something of a hard truth to come to terms with. It took more than a year, but eventually I had changed churches – and planted my roots in the committedly Calvinist soil of Cambridge Presbyterian Church.
CPC was not however a place, where all my convictions could fully flourish, committed as the church is to a cessationist interpretation of the Westminster Confession (I admit that to me this seems the obvious interpretation of the Confession cf. chapter I.6) as their standard of orthodoxy, and myself being a convinced believer in the importance of eagerly desiring spiritual gifts.
I spent a year and a bit as a student at CPC, and then worked with the church for a year as an evangelist. God then called us into YWAM – a very different organization! For one thing, YWAM is unabashedly charismatic; for another, there do not seem to be many outspoken YWAM Calvinists (though YWAM is not committed to any doctrinal stance on the question of predestination; and it is committed to being interdenominational – so there is room for more Calvinists within YWAM!). It needs to be said explicitly that there is no necessary contradiction between believing that God has specifically predestined individuals to salvation and believing that the Holy Spirit continues to give all of His supernatural gifts to the church today. John Piper would be an example of one who strongly holds to both. Speaking of John Piper, I might clarify now that while I continue to believe in and be comforted by God’s predestination of individuals to salvation, I don’t believe in total determinism, limited atonement, or double predestination.
And now we’ve thrown in three more bits of theological jargon that require explanation:
Total Determinism: This is the idea that not only the salvation of a certain set of believers has been predestined in advance, but that every single event has been absolutely and unchangeably determined by God. Piper would argue that this is the necessary corollary of a verse like Ephesians 1:11, which speaks of God working “all things according to the counsel of His will”. But I disagree, for two reasons.
First, the most obvious interpretation seems to me that God works through time to work circumstances from the situation (which we are still currently in) when many things are not in accordance with his will, to the one (which we will eventually reach!) where all things will finally align with his will.
Second, I see no indication that God’s will is immediately concerned with every single minute detail of the universe. God is not a micro-manager! He is concerned that all the world be flooded with the knowledge of the glory of God – but the way in which His glory is most magnified is by Him releasing control to the voluntary choices of the living creatures (not clockwork robots!) that He has created. God’s leadership is releasing and risk-taking – ours should be the same. What I have said so far would apply even if God simply foreknew all events, but only actively predestined a certain subset of those (eg. individual salvations and important prophesied events).
But I think we can go even further and embrace Greg Boyd’s idea that if God were to give us the freedom to completely make our own choices, then the future wouldn’t technically be there for Him to know or not know, and so without diminishing His omniscience, we can actually affirm the existence of genuine possibilities. Boyd’s ‘Open Theism’ is generally contrasted with Piper’s Calvinism – but I quite like the idea of what you might call an ‘Open Calvinism’ (where ‘Open’ is used in its technical, anti-deterministic sense).
Limited Atonement: This is the idea that Jesus only died for the sins of those who have been predestined – and not for those who have not. Piper would argue that ‘everyone limits the atonement–you either limit the extent of it [ie. to the elect, and not to the rest], or you limit the effect of it [ie. just making salvation possible, but not effectual]’. But this requires a simplistic and reductionistic understanding of the cross, where all that happens is punitory (not even penal!) substitution. I like David Pawson’s helpful acrostic for the word CROSS: “with regards to the devil, it was a Conquest; with regards to the world, it was a Reconciliation; with regards to God, it was an Offering; with regards to the law, it was a Satisfaction; with regards to the sinner, it was a Substitution”.
I would agree that actually the Substitution is properly not ‘with regards to the sinner’ in general, but ‘in regards to the believing/repentant sinner’ in particular. And I believe that this faith is not possible without God’s predestining help. (Though I find Wesley’s idea of ‘prevenient grace’ – that “enables, but does not ensure, personal acceptance of the gift of salvation” – to be an interesting one). But I am convinced that the legal satisfaction of objective justice accomplished by Christ’s death was more the result of the infinite value of His life as a divine person, rather than the specific quantity of punishment that He suffered. On the other hand, I would be happy to affirm the idea of ‘Definite Atonement’ (though disputing the claim that this is an identical and equivalent doctrine to Limited Atonement), that the finished work of Christ on the cross is the direct and effective cause of the faith of all who will believe.
Double Predestination: The word ‘double’ here indicates that just as God predestines individuals to salvation, deciding unconditionally to grant them the necessary faith to believe in Jesus and thus be delivered from judgement, so he must predestine all remaining individuals to damnation, actively willing that they specifically be condemned. Here Piper goes beyond even the classic Reformed confessions: the Westminster Confession, for example, consistently distinguishes between God ‘predestining’ some to salvation, and ‘ordaining’ the rest to judgement.
The difference might only be whether it be an active primary desire or a passive, secondary consequence. But to me it feels important. This implication that predestining some but not all to eternal salvation means that some have been left to eternal damnation is without doubt the most difficult problem with the doctrine of predestination – even if God’s ordaining of the rest to judgement is subtly different from His predestining the elect to salvation. Paul gives three reasons (i. to show His wrath; ii. to make His power known; iii. to highlight by contrast the riches of His glorious mercy Romans 9:22-23) as to why God might be justified in creating someone “prepared for destruction” – but none of them seem relevant to the actual individual whose fate it is to have not been “granted repentance unto life”. Has Paul no empathy?
Anyway, I have a suggestion which I have found helpful as an idea – you are free to take it or leave it. It goes like this: - first, remember our argument that suffering in hell is eternal but not infinite. - second, suppose very simplistically that we are able to quantify happiness and suffering on a single dimension, such that one unit of suffering be equivalent to a negative unit of happiness - third, we suggest that it is at least feasible that in a finite lifetime one could experience more joy (by virtue of the presence of God’s undeserved goodness encountered in so much of creation) than the finite amount of suffering that would be earned from the lifetime’s accumulated wrongs (to be experienced in hell) and that would have been experienced in that lifetime - fourth, if we affirm a real degree of ‘Open-ness’, in which the choices of this person are not determined in advance, then in particular the possibility of whether the aggregate score of happiness versus suffering would turn out to be positive or negative would also not be determined (or even known?) in advance. It’s just a thought–let me know what you make of it.
#7 Vital Humility
Indeed, o man, who are you to reply against God? Romans 9:20
In all of this discussion, an essential quality is humility. First of all, we must humble ourselves before God – who are we to require answers from him? Second, we would do well to stay humble in all of our discussions with other people – especially those whose position differs from our own. I present my thoughts here, not because I am convinced that I am right – but because now Ryan is asking these questions I feel a responsibility to try and elucidate the conclusions that I have reached, so that he can learn from them and decide for himself (hopefully with the help of whichever others of you join in this conversation – feel free to correct whatever you think are my theological mis-steps) how to make sense of all these things.
To keep it all in perspective, it’s healthy to remember Paul’s caution to the Colossians (2:8) that we should “beware! lest anyone cheat [us] through philosophy and empty deceit”. These questions of free will, determinism, the nature of time, and the existence of the future are incredibly complex topics once you begin to consider them in a philosophical manner – but such consideration can sometimes prevent us from hearing the straightforward and primary call to faith and obedience. On the other hand, we cannot shrink back from the subject either. Paul says in Romans 11:25, “I do not desire that you be ignorant of this mystery, lest you be wise in your own opinion”. He may be talking primarily of the destiny of Israel, but it’s all in the context of the mystery of predestination and the sovereign will of God. And there’s nothing like trying to wrestle with the subject of predestination to keep you from feeling ‘wise in your own eyes’!
#8 Gloriously Unfathomable Divinity
O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out! Romans 11:33 I think the key is to not rest content with whatever philosophical conclusions you might reach, but to turn it all into fuel for worship. Praise God for His inscrutable greatness! Praise God for His impartial justice! Praise God for His individual love! Praise God for His sacrificial generosity! At the end of this deep discussion of the most profoundly challenging questions of the faith, Paul breaks out in doxology, and then goes on to tell us that our ‘logical act of worship’ (12:1) is to present our bodies as living sacrifices unto God.
#9 Evangelistic Necessity
How shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? Romans 10:14-15
And let’s not forget that in the midst of all of this, Paul is speaking as one who knows that not just he but all of us “have received grace and a missionary mandate to call forth the obedience of faith among all the nations for the sake of His name” (1:5). The gift of predestined saving faith is not just beamed directly down out of heaven, but is activated by the preaching of the gospel – this seems clear from Acts 13:48: “And when the Gentiles heard this [ie. the gospel], they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed”. It seems to me that while God may have predestined people to salvation, He’s not made any decisions about who gets to share the gospel with those people, and have the privilege of being the labourer God uses to sow the saving seed of the gospel into their hearts.
Whoever you are that be reading – there are people on your street, in your city, in your sphere of influence that God has appointed to eternal life, and if you step out in faith and courage you will have the privilege of being the one that they point to when they share their testimony of salvation in heaven, before the myriad angels and watching angels. This, says Paul in 1 Thessalonians 2:19, is a believer’s joy and crown – precisely those other believers who are the fruit of their evangelism. If you don’t share the gospel with them – well, like Mordecai says to Esther, “if you remain completely silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise from another place” (Esther 4:14), but you will have missed your chance.
I realise this seems a novel way of looking at things – it’s certainly quite different from the way that the call to evangelism is typically fuelled by the fear that many will burn in hell because you failed to do your Christian duty. Some will complain that in thus taking the pressure off, I’m undermining the need for evangelism. But what if it were the case that our evangelism would be more successful if we were not motivated by guilt, fear and condemnation but instead propelled into conversations about Jesus by a joyful sense that the purposes of God will certainly be soon fulfilled, and we have freely volunteered to be involved in the glorious final chapter of history that the Holy Spirit is finishing writing even as we speak!
#10 Intercessory Agency
My heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved… Romans 10:1
As well as the necessity of evangelism, I also want to highlight the agency of intercession. Paul mentions his prayer for Israel, as well as asking that the Roman believers “strive together with me in your prayers to God for me, that I may be delivered from those in Judea who do not believe…and that I may come to you with joy by the will of God and may be refreshed together with you” (15:30-32). One of the reasons I am not a determinist, is that 2 Peter 3:12 teaches that we can be “hastening the day of God”. And although that passage doesn’t quite say it explicitly, I believe that prayer is one of the primary ways that we do this. In Revelation, John sees “golden bowls, full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints” (Revelation 5:8), and then as a result of this incense, the power of God is released upon the earth (Revelation 8:5).
I believe that many of the things that God wills are bowls of incense that are waiting to be filled with the incense of our prayers before God’s power is released and those promises are fulfilled. This will not always look like we expected! Paul asked the Roman believers to pray that he would be delivered from those in Judea who did not believe that he might come with joy to Rome and be refreshed. I doubt he expected that God’s deliverance would come through him being put under arrest and his arrival in Rome would be as a political prisoner! But nevertheless, those prayers were undeniably answered, and God’s power manifestly poured out on and through Paul. May the same be true of all of our generation who have been granted the gift of faith.