Posted in Knowing God

God is Good, He is Love, and He Desires; But, the Potter is not like the Clay

There is no peace between God and man, until that man admits his treachery, throws down his arms of rebellion and surrenders swearing fealty to the King.  For this reason, the gospel cuts both ways. While we might refer to it as good-news, it is only good to those who acknowledge, embrace and submit to it.

This truth makes little headway into segments of popular Christian thought. The approach that gets much more “air time” is: God is love, God is good, and He gets no joy out of the wicked perishing; therefore, God desires all people to be saved. The first three statements about God are true, the conclusion is suspect however. Part of the reason, or maybe it’s the entire reason (who can say for sure?), is rooted in our understanding of the nature of God.

Recently, I heard a popular Christian apologist (Michael Brown) argue for the conclusion thus far presented. He gave a slew of biblical verses to back up his conclusions, but the one that caught my attention was Acts 17:30. He took this command of God and assigned it to the desire of a loving, good God who desires all people to be saved.

As I said earlier, this is a very popular argument presented by the modern Evangelical Church. My question is how accurate is it? That’s what I intend to look at in this closing post, and my main concern is whether we have unknowingly made the Potter like the clay?

In what follows, I’m going to cite the passage from which a specific truth of God is drawn from and then compare it with a panoramic view of the rest of Scripture, in order to see if the modern conceptions of God are valid. To attempt this in a blog post is perhaps a bit much, but I’ll put forth an effort.

If, along the way, you see something I’ve missed or have a question about why I draw a particular conclusion, then by all means speak up. I enjoy the dialogue, even if the voice is a dissenting one. Let’s get started…

God is Good = God is a god of goodness = God’s goodness applies to All

Jesus makes this categorical statement about God being good in a response to a rich young ruler seeking eternal life.

  • “And Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone’” (Mark 10.18; also, Matt 19.17; Luke 18.19).[i]

Jesus identifies two truths in one statement. The first is often smooshed over: “man is not good.” According to Jesus man is not good, he’s evil. The second is that “God alone is good.”

(Just in case there’s an atheist or agnostic reading this, I want to quickly point out that Jesus is not saying: He’s not God. The gospels identify Him as God in the flesh, and Jesus says He shares equal status with the Father. No mere creature can make that claim, and the Jews often recognizing this immediately want to put Him to death for blasphemy. Which, they do when the predetermined time comes for Him to offer Himself up for His sheep.)

What this statement about God is not saying is that God’s goodness is offered in the same degree to all people. Nor is it saying that God’s goodness prevents Him from doing things that man finds fault with. Whether or not you are guilty of making the Potter like the clay is seen in how you deal with those “troublesome” passages of Scripture.

In the second century a heretic by the name of Marcion denied that Jesus and the “God of the Old Testament” were the same God, because the God of the Jews was so wicked towards humanity. Not too long ago there was a popular professing Christian blogger “Rachel Evans” who admitted that she struggled with many of writings of the Old Testament. Passages that were troublesome because she could not rectify how a “good God” could do such things. Her conclusion was then to deny the historical reliability of them.

When I was working on my B.A., the wisdom-lit professor struggled with how Christians should handle the imprecatory Psalms of David.  His conclusion (again a popular one) was that the language was to be interpreted hyperbolically, for surely a good God would not really want those things to come to pass. And yet, we read that David is a prophet (Acts 2.30), a man after God’s own heart (Acts 13.22), and he was being carried along by the Holy Spirit when he wrote them (Acts 1.16, 4.25). That is to say, they were righteous, good prayers that God sanctioned and God would acknowledge.

I think it is natural to blanch at them at first glance[ii], but the wise person will recognize that this is precisely how God dealt with the nations that were not His people.  Lest we forget the Canaanite conquest, or the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, or the catastrophic Flood of Noah’s day, and many, many more cases that we are either ignorant of or ignore in the Bible. Were not the children of such wicked ones “dash[ed]…against the rock[s]?” (Psa 137.9). God makes a clear distinction between those who are His and those who are not. He gives good to those who honor Him (Psa 31.19). He is not required to give the same good to those who do not (Psa 31.17).

God is Love = God is a god of love = God love Everyone Unconditionally

The apostle John’s 1st epistle is sometimes nicknamed the “love letter.” One reason is because the love of God is one of its key themes (this is true of much of his writings). Here is one example:

  • “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love…So we have come to know and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1John 4.7-8, 16).

Clearly, God is defined as love. That love of God was made known through the giving of the One and Only Son, Jesus. When these statements are read, they are intended to be read in context. John has in mind a specific people that the love of God was made manifest. Those people are defined in the gospel.

Jesus came to “save His people from their sins” (Matt 1.21). He purposefully laid down His life for those people, referring to them as sheep (John 10.11, 15). He also makes a distinction between those who are His and those who are not. His people hear His voice and listen to Him (John 10.3, 16, 26), but those who are not His follow the will of another (John 10.27; cf. v.5). Jesus specifically prays for those who are His (to those He freely gives His love), but He refuses to pray for those who are not His own (John 17.9).

We ought not look at the love of God as if it is indiscriminate. God’s love is unconditional for His people, not for the whole world—i.e. every person on the planet; past, present and future. This is not a teaching limited to the New Testament, but red letter “Christians” fail to see or comprehend this.

It is true that God loves even His enemies. He gives to them wealth, time and power. When they need bread, He doesn’t give them a stone (Matt 7.9). Even the devil and his demons enjoy what I can only assume one might call the general love of God. He is kind to them, when He need not be. But they can never receive His special love. This is reserved for God’s people; the elect.

Does God desire all people to be saved? Does He draw all people to Himself? Have you not read:

  • “For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth” (Deut 7.6; repeated 10.14-15; 14.2)

Why, would God pick some people to be His but not All people? That doesn’t seem fair! Because…

  • “It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers…” (Deut 7.7-8a; emphasis added).
  • “Behold, to the LORD your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it. Yet the LORD set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day” (Deut 10.14-15; italics added).

God chose them, because He chose to love them. If He chose to love them, and chose them, then it follows that He did not love the rest of the world in the same capacity. Nor should we conclude that this love God displayed was meant for every person in Israel; at the time of the Exodus, through the period of Judges, or the time of the Kings, or the diaspora, or in the 1st century under John the Baptist and Jesus’ ministry, or the subsequent ministry of the apostles.

Within Israel the nation, there was a nation[iii] that was truly devoted to God. A number that God had preserved despite the covenantal unfaithfulness of the rest (1Kgs 19.18). These are referred to the remnant. It is the remnant that God showed special love to, not the entire nation (Isa 10.20-22; Rom 11.4-5). And not even those limited to the physical descendants of Abraham, for the true offspring of Abraham have always been through the child of promise (Rom 9.7-8).

God is not joyful over the death of the Wicked = God desires All people to be Saved

The Word of God, spoken by the prophet Ezekiel during the time of Babylonian conquest against the southern kingdom of Judah; including the destruction of Jerusalem and the robbing and burning of the temple:

  • “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?” (Ezek 18.23; 32; 33.11).

The context is a whining group of sinners complaining that their punishment is too great to bear. They claim they are suffering for their father’s sins (previous generation) and not their own. They’ve been given sour grapes to gnash their teeth upon. God’s point, however, is that every person is held accountable for their own course of action. They are responsible for their own behavior.

The conditional statements of “If, then” do not speak of ability, but categorical facts of reality. Unfortunately, this is a common error in reasoning. What such statements conclude is the result is conclusion of the condition met. For example: A person who does not commit murder will not be found guilty of murder. A person who does murder, will be found guilty of murder. Etc., etc., etc.

The people accused God of injustice, but He points out that they are the ones who are really unjust. It is not as if God is rubbing His hands together in gleeful anticipation of killing the sinners. He does not find joy in their sin. Nor is He jumping up and down with laughter at their being found guilty.

Doesn’t this mean that God desires all people to be saved? To turn and repent? Depends on the meaning of “desire.” There are distinctions in God’s desire, just as there are in His love and goodness.

Does God desire for mankind to worship other gods, to craft idols and blaspheme His good Name? No. This is an example of God’s prescriptive will. He has an objective standard that image bearers were created to obey. To obey pleases God (cf. Heb 11.6; James 2.26). For example,

  • “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17.30).

God is not happy about His creature’s disobedience. In this sense then, God does not desire to see the death of the wicked which such behavior guarantees. However, there are times when God’s desire of purpose (His decreed will) determines the outcome through the sinful choices of fallen creatures.

No one made Joseph’s brothers hate him and sell him into slavery. They chose to do it. And yet, we read that God decreed it to take place:

  • “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Gen 50.20).

Oddly familiar when you compare it with the following:

  • “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men…Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified…For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2.23, 36, 39; italics added).

On the one hand sinful man rebelled against what God desired (the keeping of His Holy Commands), but on the other hand man’s rebellion fulfilled what God desired (keeping His decreed plan), fulfilling the words of the prophets (cf. Acts 3.18; 13.27, comp Isa 46.10).

To argue from passages like Acts 17:30 that God desires all people to be saved is in contradiction with what God says in other places. It is out of line with His Godly nature as the Bible reveals. And it offers a disproportionate view of God.

How so?

In short, they assume that God loves without distinction all creatures equally. That His goodness limits Him to a human understanding of what is good. His lack of joy from sinners perishing equates to a universal desire for all men everywhere to turn to Him.  And from such assumptions it is concluded: God’s love is unconditional, His goodness prevents Him from doing anything conceived as “bad” from a human point of view, and His desire for humans to repent is comparable to one who hopes and wishes and longs for people to come to Him, but He is left to the whims of the creature whether or not that outcome will ever present itself.

The end result being, the creature has fashioned God into his/her own image. Or, rather the image that they prefer God to be. The root of such thinking is in assuming that the Potter is like the clay.


[i] All Scripture unless otherwise noted shall be of the English Standard Version.

[ii] As may be seen in this link, John Piper gives a heartfelt answer that admits his own struggles with what to do with these prayers (see here). They are difficult because they attack our sensibilities, but we should be reminded that they are God-breathed prayers (2Tim 3.16-17), and are therefore good for the believer. Unless of course you’d like to assume that you are more righteous than a prophet of God under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Wisdom, however, will dictate the circumstance where/when such prayers are worthy.

[iii] To avoid confusion, the English word “nation” is not limited in the sense of a country with borders, for the term can also refer to a body or group of people within a whole.

Image by: <a href="http://Image by oskiles from Pixabay“>oskiles

Posted in Knowing God

God is NOT like Us

God is not like us. He doesn’t look like us. He doesn’t think like us. He doesn’t feel like us. He doesn’t act like us. He doesn’t speak like us. He doesn’t know like us.

We need to let that fact sink in—The Potter is not like the clay (Isa 29.19). Why? Because it will have a direct impact on what you believe about the Lord, about the Christian faith, and how you reason through the Scriptures effecting the way you live.

The problem arises when we give little thought to who God truly is. When we begin assuming that God is more of “a god,” rather than the Holy One, the Great I AM. Someone that has some power and knowledge, but in the end is not that different from you or I.  The Greeks and Romans had plenty of those sorts of gods. So did the Egyptians and the Canaanites. We could even throw in the Hindus, American Indians, and any other mythology that one might cling to.

I’m not mud slinging here, so please be patient. Many of the Jews in the New Testament were of the same mind. Thus, Jesus rebuked them for setting up idols[i] and supplanting the Word of God with their own “word.” The very same thing the apostle Paul does when he enters Athens.

(Hold on a minute. Before I go further, I need to let you know now where I am going before I get there. My goal is to deal with a misuse of Acts 17:30, but I need to do some contextual work first. This tends to make for longer posts. My wife is always getting on my case for that. So, the only solution I can think of is to break it up a bit. Point being, if it appears that I leave on a bit of a cliff-hanger. You know haven’t finished the job, so to speak. Know that I do plan on wrapping things up in my next post. Okay, let’s continue….)

Acts 17:16-34 Contextually Considered

What is the first thing that you will hear learned Christians say when they read Paul’s interaction with the Aeropagus in Acts 17:16-34? He congratulated them on being “very religious,” he even cited their poets, he did!  I’ve met quite a few that glaze over Acts 17:16,

  • “Now while Paul was waiting for them in Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that he city was full of idols” (italics added).[ii]

Paul got angry at what he saw in Athens. Just as angry as Jesus got with the Jews during His earthly ministry. Well, what got Paul so riled up? The Greeks were worshipping idols—the creative efforts of their own minds—rather than the God who made them. He highlights this in his speech before the intellectual elites:

  • “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” (Acts 17.22-23; emphasis added).

“Oh, he was so cordial and polite…he was!” “He was?” “Yeah…!” “Yeah?” “Yeah!”

Yes, Paul was cordial to his audience. He graciously said to them “Men of Athens….” He acknowledges who they were. He noted their status before others, but then he said this:

“You fellows are a bit ignorant. You have all these idols, all of these gods you worship and just to make sure you got all your bases checked you even add one to the ‘unknown god.’ Well, what you are ignorant of…what you think you worship, ‘I will proclaim to you.’”

Now you might not catch the weight of those words coming from the apostle’s mouth, so let me help. Who was his audience? They were the learned men of Athens. They were the intellectuals, the sages, the wise men of Greece. They were constantly seeking knowledge, and they assumed that they were the proper arbiters of it. Paul has not only told them they are wrong, but badly informed. They profess to have knowledge, but their knowledge of things is false.

Like the Hebrews in Isaiah’s day, these Greeks assume that the Potter is like the clay. And they’ve displayed this arrogance all throughout their city. Paul does not congratulate them, but rebukes them. Then, he corrects them. God does not “live in temples,” (v. 24) “nor does He need anything from you,” (v. 25) nor is it right “to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image informed by the art and imagination of man” (v. 29).

Essentially, Paul is saying this “Everything that you conceive in your hearts about God is wrong. God is not fashioned by you; He is to be worshiped and revered by you. You ought to have recognized these things, the evidence is all around you. He gives life and breath, and yet you grope around in the dark as if he is far, but He is near!”

And on the heels of this explanation, what does the apostle conclude? What does he say to the Athenians? This…

  • “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent…”(Acts 17.30).

In other words, God allowed this discrepancy on you part, but now the time of ignorance has passed. They are over. Now you are commanded to repent!

Two seemingly innocent assumptions are sometimes smuggled in at this point. What are they?

First, that this “ignorance” is innocent or accidental. It is not, it was purposeful, willful!

Second, that this “command to repent” is an invitation, rather than an edict from God. It is not, it is a binding demand.

If we only look earlier in the text, we see this notion identified in the charge against the apostles/disciples of Christ:

  • “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also…and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying there is another king, Jesus” (Acts 17.6).

Kings demand obedience. A King that calls for repentance is commanding the person(s) in question to lay down their arms in surrender, in submission. Do we dare assume that Paul’s command here is any less than this? He is an ambassador of the One God, the one true King, and the message is you are “commanded to repent!”

Invitation or Demand: Something that Needs Weighed and Considered

Why then do modern Evangelicals prefer to call Acts 17:30 an invitation to accept Christ, rather than a demand to surrender to Him? Because it’s less offensive? Because Jesus is called the Prince of Peace, so the idea must be “peace, peace” when we present the gospel? Because the Lord is identified as the “Lamb of God” do we then assume that means He is meek and gentle?

Is it due to the notion that God is a God of love, or that He’s good, or that He gets no joy over the death of the wicked? Do these concepts, which are certainly true of God—we could turn to the passages where they are drawn from—drive us to a misunderstanding of the true nature of God? Do many, unknowingly perhaps, make the Potter like the clay? In other words, do our convictions (assumptions/biases) we hold to be true of God, mislead us into making God like us? Thinking and acting like a human rather than the Sovereign Creator of all things?

To be continued…


[i] Some might suppose what idols did the Jews have? How about the Temple, the city of Jerusalem, their namesake as a child of Abraham, the Law and the Prophets, circumcision, etc., etc. Idols do not have to be graven images made by human hands; idols are manifested in the heart—from the wellspring of evil. This means that even the gifts that God has given us when viewed disproportionately from their true purpose are turned into, and therefore, abused as idols.  There are several indicators in the Bible that point out this was one of the chief sins of the Hebrew people…but they are not alone.

[ii] All Scripture unless otherwise noted shall be of the English Standard Version (ESV).

Image by Phaidros Krugmann

Posted in Biblical Questions

Confusion over the Potter and the pots

Isa 29:16 reads, “​You turn things upside down! Shall the potter be regarded as the clay, that the thing made should say of its maker, “He did not make me”; or the thing formed say of him who formed it, “He has no understanding”?[i]

Our theology gets a bit screwy and we mess things up when we fail to see that God, our Creator, is not like us. We were made to shadow Him, not the other way around. Being reminded of this truth is an important safeguard for the student of Scripture.

Highlighted in the Gospels…

Jesus applied these words of Isaiah to the religious leaders of His day for assuming that God thought as they did (see Mark 7.6-13). They had established traditions that they viewed as accurate additions to the what God had revealed in His Law-Word, but in reality, circumvented His instruction.

False ideas, false philosophies, even false doctrines are saturated in the notion that the individual in question speaks accurately for God (cf. Jer 14.14).

The whole time Jesus is correcting their false teachings, “You have heard it said, but I tell you…” (Matt 5.21, 27, 33, 38, 43), they are running around thinking that He is really the one opposing God![ii]

This is demonstrated in how they rebuked his disciple’s behavior, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” (Mark 2.23).

This is demonstrated in how they condemn His behavior, attributing it to a work of Satan rather than God “He drives out demons by Beelzebub!” (see Matt 12.22-32).

Finally, we see it demonstrated in their desire to kill him: “‘I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you going to stone me?’ The Jews answered him, ‘It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God” (John 10.32-33).

This desire was finally carried out in His crucifixion. Jesus died for the charge of blasphemy. He claimed not only to speak for God, to do God’s work, but be privileged enough to sit at the Father’s right hand in glory (Matt 26.64-65). Something no creature has the right, privilege, or ability to do (cf. Isa 42.8; John 5.23)!

Now, just in case I’ve lost you, allow me to point you back to the error God says that man is often guilty of through the prophet Isaiah. Namely, we wrongly assume that the Potter is like the clay.

Metaphoric Misappropriations: Physical Form

One of the key ways that we do this is in assuming that when we read anthropomorphic[iii] expressions in the Bible, they are the same as human expressions. The language in Scripture, in particular what we read about God, is laced with human terms. For example, the Bible says that God loves, hates, is wrathful, is good, He desires, He regrets/repents, He sits, uses His hands, eyes, feet, etc. If you read those expressions of speech in a wooden literal fashion, without considering the true nature of God, then you are effectively making the Potter like the clay.

I can understand when a young child thinks in this way. I even have patience when someone young in the faith struggles with the meaning of these metaphoric truths. But I must admit that I am baffled when I hear people who should be mature in the faith making these sorts of errors.

Notice I said “baffled” (confused, marvel at) and not angered or peeved. We are human, and as a result we are prone to error. Realizing this, my immediate response is patient, willing to teach.

However, if you have been taught to look at these things through a different light. That is, you’ve been given prescription to change, having your ideas rebuked and corrected. And yet, you still want to grope around in the dark and equate God to the creature—either in form or mode of operation, then my response will be markedly different.

Illustrative Principle…

I was once approached by someone who said to me, “What do you mean God does not have hands or feet or eyes? The Bible says He does, so why do you deny it?”

My response was, “Well, first of all God is not a creature. That’s a category error. Second, God is identified in Scripture as ‘Spirit,’ an eternal being.”

Before I was finished, I was cut off: “Yes, but isn’t Jesus God? He has hands, feet, eyes, etc.!”

“True,” I said, “but Jesus put on flesh. Before that He was identified as the eternal Word (John 1.14): God, but distinct from God the Father (John 1.1-3), and according to His own testimony, distinct from the Holy Spirit (John 14.26; 15.26).”

Now this fellow went so far as to tell me that the reason that Jesus put on flesh and became like one of us, is because that is really what the form of God is like. That’s why God made us like that in the beginning (i.e. Adam). I explained that he just committed another error. I told him that Jesus put on flesh to be like one of us, because He was not like one of us. The purpose in the incarnation was to complete the work that God had established long before creation was (Eph 1.3-5).

Jesus had to become like us in flesh and blood in order to take our place (Heb 2.14, 17). He paid the penalty for our sin. He experienced the wrath of God on our behalf (Gal 3.13). He became our substitute (Isa 53.4-6; 2Cor 5.21). However, notice that the Bible says he became “like” us not exactly like us. Jesus was notably different than what we in Adam are, if this were not the case His sacrifice no matter how noble would have been in vain.

The man, as far as I know, still does not understand the distinction to this day. The assumption he makes and struggles with is that the Potter is like the clay, when He’s not.

Metaphoric Misappropriations: Emotions

A similar mistake is made when we assume that God’s feelings (desire, love, goodness, repent/regret, anger) are equitable with mankind’s. For example, we read in Genesis 6:6

  • “And the LORD regretted [repented] that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” (cf. 1Sam 15.11).[iv]

Are we to believe based on a cursory reading of this text that God feels regret like human beings do? That His heart was grieved (broken) like human beings are?

Does that understanding comport with the nature of God as revealed in Scripture?

Is God somehow surprised by His creature’s activity? By the abuse of their creation? Are we to imagine that He is sitting on His throne room in heaven, weeping tears possibly wringing His hands in remorse over what His creatures are doing and/or have done?

How do we justify that understanding with this statement by the Lord through His prophet Samuel?

  • And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret” (1Sam 15.29; cf. Numb 23.19; Isa 55.8-9).

Correcting the Course…

The answer is found in the sense in which the biblical author uses the “regret” or “repent” and “grieve” in relation with God. A humanistic understanding relates God to the way in which humans “feel” these emotions, making the Potter like the clay. God does not “feel” the same way human beings do. The expression of His emotions is not comparable to mankind’s.

However, in these texts what is meant is that God is turning from the creature that He has made in judgment. Rather than be gracious to them and continue to put up with them, He is about to righteously judge them.

In the case of Genesis 6:6 He sends a catastrophic worldwide flood to destroy the earth and all creatures that have within them the breath of life. He removes from them the gift of life. In the case of 1Samuel 15 God removes Saul from being king, stripping the kingdom from him and his family line, and giving it to another of His choosing.

Regret or repentance then do not take on the emotional stirrings common in man’s heart, but a turning from the creature—removing His common grace—to them in judgment. This is an expression of God’s anger with the creature, but not an anger common to mankind.

Now you may fail to see the category distinction because you equate God with man, assuming the Potter is like clay, but you would be wrong. Such thinking leads to doctrinal errors as we shall see in the next post.


[i] All Scripture unless otherwise noted shall be of the English Standard Version (ESV).

**Realizing that you may miss the applicability of this reference later on, I wanted to quickly point out that when Jesus quotes from this portion of Isaiah (specifically Isa 29.13), the complete reference to their folly applies. The people honor God with their mouths (even with their actions), and yet the sin is that they replace true worship and obedience with false worship/obedience. This may not be readily apparent to the reader until you identify what the religious leadership is doing, and how this activity relates to Isaiah’s context. Isaiah faced the same sort of hypocritical error that Jesus faced, and the source of the error is the same: “mistaking the Potter to be like the clay.”

[ii] God provides a safe guard against this in Deut 13.1-5, 18.20-22 and 1John 4.1. Comparing Scripture with Scripture, while weighing the contextual implications found in a proper understanding of the language of the text, helps prevent committing such errors.

[iii] Deals with attributing human traits to non-human things.

[iv] This is not an idle reference, there are many others that one could point to in Scripture. But for now the one’s I’m giving in this post should suffice.

Image by Ivan Burgos

Posted in Election

Unconditional Election: Answering the Charge of Arbitrariness

Arbitrary means what exactly? Well like any word there are various nuances in how a word might be interpreted depending upon the context. According to the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, arbitrary is defined as:

  1. Depending on individual discretion (as of a judge) and not fixed by law
  2. A) not restrained or limited in the exercise or power: ruling by absolute authority… B) marked by or resulting from the unrestrained and often tyrannical exercise of power
  3. A) based on or determined by the individual preference or convenience rather than by necessity or the intrinsic nature of something…B) existing or coming about seemingly at random or by chance or as a capricious and unreasonable act of the will.[i]

So, the first use of arbitrary is seen as a decision not based upon an objective standard, but a subjective one. That is relative to the individual’s presuppositions.

The second use of arbitrary is tied to authority. An absolute authority is an arbiter[ii] that exercises their authority in an either righteous or unrighteous (i.e. tyrannical) manner.

The third use of arbitrary is similar to the first. In this sense arbitrary decisions are made without proper warrant or justification. Therefore, they are identified as random or determined by chance; not based on good reasoning but a whim.

Not an exciting way to start a post, I know, but I thought it necessary in order to properly address my subject matter for today. The charge is often laid at the feet of Reformed (a.k.a. Calvinism) thought that the doctrine they teach regarding unconditional election (God’s choice in salvation) is, if true, arbitrary. “God just arbitrarily picks this person over that person.” I guess like a lottery?

At this point, Roger Olson offers some sound advice, “The most common root of confusion in theology is misunderstanding terms. Theological discourse is fraught with such confusion.”[iii]  Therefore, it seems prudent on my part to define what Reformed Christians mean by “unconditional election,” and ask the following probing question of the accuser: “So, in what way is God being arbitrary if He unconditionally elects a people to be His own via adoption in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit?”

Unconditional Election taught from Reformed Thought

  • “The doctrine of election declares that God, before the foundation of the world, chose certain individuals from among the fallen members of Adam’s race to be the objects of His undeserved favor…His eternal choice of particular sinners for salvation was not based upon any foreseen act or response on the part of those selected, but was based solely on His own good pleasure and sovereign will. Thus, election was not determined by, or conditioned upon, anything that men would do, but resulted entirely from God’s self-determined purpose.”[iv]
  • “Often the term election is used as a synonym for predestination. Technically this is incorrect. The term election refers specifically to one aspect of divine predestination: God’s choosing of certain individuals to be saved…The term unconditional simply means ‘with no conditions attached,’ either foreseen or otherwise.”[v]
  • “Many controvert all the positions which we have laid down, especially the gratuitous election of believers, which, however, cannot be overthrown. For they commonly imagine that God distinguishes between men [people] according to the merits [choice] which he foresees that each individual is to have, giving the adoption of sons to those whom he foreknows will not be unworthy of his grace, and dooming those to destruction whose dispositions he perceives will be prone to mischief and wickedness. Thus by interposing foreknowledge as a veil, they not only obscure election, but pretend to give it a different origin…[However,] the truth of God is here too certain to be shaken, too clear to be overborne by human authority. Others who are neither versed in Scripture, nor entitled to any weight, assail sound doctrine with a petulance and improbity which it is impossible to tolerate. Because God of his mere good pleasure electing some passes by others, they raise a plea against him. But if the fact is certain, what can they gain by quarreling with God? We teach nothing but what experience proves to be true, viz., that God has always been at liberty to bestow his grace on whom he would.”[vi]

Therefore, unconditional election in Reformed thought means that no condition in the creature prompted God the Creator to choose one person from another. The condition for election (i.e. choosing) is not found in the individual, but in God.

Now you may not agree with this conclusion, and you may find fault with any number of writers who hold to it, but you should know that such teaching is not a “rabbit drawn from a hat.” No slight of hand has occurred here, where learned men are seeking to mislead others. Reformed Christians throughout the ages have believed this doctrine in light of what the Scriptures teach.

A Quick Purvey of Paul’s Argument for Unconditional Election

Paul taught in the epistle to the Romans that “the gospel… [of Jesus Christ] is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom 1.16).[vii] However, this raised questions in his time because a great number of the Jews, who had the Bible as opposed to the rest of the heathen world, did not believe. No doubt this caused some confusion with his audience. For if the Jews whose Scriptures foretold the Messiah’s coming, were rejecting their said Messiah, then perhaps God was not able to save His people.

Paul’s response to this charge (concern or questioning) is found in Romans 9, where he tells his audience that “it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel” (Rom 9.6). Nor are they all “children [of God] because they are Abraham’s descendants…” (Rom 9.7a). In other words, “Do not become alarmed because so many are rejecting the gospel from Israel, for the unbelieving are not really children of God.”

I can see that raising some eyebrows, but that is what the apostle is saying. “Well, then who are the children of God?” you ask. Paul says that the one’s “who are God’s children, [are] the children of the promise…” (Rom 9.8).

“What does that mean?” you say. Well, if you read a bit further you will see that he answers that question by identifying those who are chosen not by natural means, but by supernatural decree. The first was Isaac over Ishmael (v. 9). The second was Jacob over Esau (vv.10-13). The third was Moses (and Israel) over Pharaoh (and Egypt; v.15, 17).

Paul by the Holy Spirit gives these examples to prove two things:

  1. “So that God’s purpose according to election might stand” (Rom 9.11b)
  2. “I will show mercy to whom I will show mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (Rom 9.15)

“Based on what precisely?”

  • God’s purpose in election is “not from works but from the One who calls” (Rom 9.12).
  • Because God’s election “does not depend on human will or effort but on God who shows mercy…He shows mercy to those He wants to, and He hardens those He wants to harden” (Rom 9.16, 18).

Anticipating the cry of injustice by some of his readers, Paul writes:

  • “You will say to me, therefore, ‘Why then does He still find fault? For who can resist His will?’ But who are you, a mere man, to talk back to God? Will what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this? Or has the potter no right over the clay, to make form the same lump one piece of pottery for honor and another for dishonor? And what if God, desiring to display His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience objects of wrath ready for destruction? And what if he did this to make known the riches of His glory on objects of mercy that He prepared beforehand for glory—on us, the ones He also called [elected], not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles” (Rom 9.19-24).

The doctrine of election is derived from Scripture, not human rationale. And according to Scripture (there are other places we could turn), God is free in choosing whom He desires to place His eternal love. His will is the deciding factor.

The Charge of Arbitrariness

What do we then say of the charge leveled against the Reformed Christian’s understanding of divine election? To whom, and in what way, is the term arbitrary being applied? In the first sense, the second sense, or the third?

Def 1?

Is God using an objective standard to choose whom He wills? Depends doesn’t it, on what you think about God? To what objective standard can God appeal; would it be just for Him to appeal? Is that standard found in the creature? No. In the Creator who is Holy and Just? Yes. There is no other standard by which God can swear by than Himself (cf. Heb 6.13), for there is none like Him; He is God alone (cf. Isa 45.18, 21). So, NOT the first sense.

Def 3?

Let’s move down to the third sense since it is so closely related to the first. Chosen by personal preference or intrinsic value? Well, obviously God—like us—has personal preferences. “Jacob I loved, Esau I hated….” What about intrinsic value? Does man have value? Yes, but only insofar as he/she is the creation of God. So, our value comes from God, not from our selves. Therefore, our value is limited to how God views us, our value is not determined by how we view ourselves (contrary to the ME-TOO movement). However, God is of great value and worth; HE alone is to be worshipped praised.

So, at first glance it appears our accusers might be on to something here, but wait…. Does God choose at random or capriciously? Well, I can see where fallen man might assume so. Certainly, Paul anticipated this from his audience, but no God does not make His choices at random. Nor does He leave things to chance, but He does choose according to the purpose of His will (Rom 9.11; cf. Eph 1.5).

So, God is not arbitrary in this sense for He makes His choice based on factors we are in the dark about (cf. Dan 2.20-22; Deut 29.29). Now if you have a problem with that. If it doesn’t satisfy your curiosity. If it doesn’t fit well with you. All I can say is “How many other things do you not understand about God or His ways, but you are left in the position to trust that “the Judge of all the earth [will] do what is just” (Gen 18.25).

Def 2?

Finally, let us look at the second sense of “arbitrary” and see if this does in fact fit with the charge against God’s unconditionally electing those whom He shall eternally save. Does God have absolute power to determine the fate of all creatures within His creation? Yes, for He is the reigning King over all creation (Psa 47.2). But is God tyrannical? No, Scripture says He alone is “Holy, Holy, Holy” (Isa 6.3), and a just/righteous judge (Isa 11.1-5).

So, I suppose if one properly understood what is meant when we speak of the God of the Bible, and we were careful in how we defined our terminology, one might say that God’s election is arbitrary. In the sense that it is a demonstration of His Sovereign power, not driven by wicked tyranny, but pure justice. In this way God reserves the right to “show mercy to whom He wills, and harden those He wills” and none can lay a charge against Him.

For what can mankind say in opposition to the Lord? For He is holy, we are not; He is righteous, we are not; He is God…we are not.  Let the “one without sin cast the first stone” …Ohhh, wait a minute we can’t, because we are all sinners that have fallen short of the glory of God (Rom 3.23)!

Closing Remarks…

While those opposed to Reformed thought and the doctrines that have graciously been derived from the clear teaching of Scripture, may find fault, I ask who stands on the surer footing?  To be sure there is an illicit use of arbitrariness, but it is in the creature and not the Creator. To pick and choose sections of Scripture that fit within your preconceived notions, rather than to have your notions formed by Scripture is exceedingly arbitrary in the negative sense. Faith, truth faith, is an act of submissive obedience not perfect understanding on the part of the creature. For how can you possibly know the mind of God, or reason like Him?

  • “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts…my word…that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isa 55.8-9, 11).

Christian you may have the mind of Christ (1Cor 2.16), but your knowledge is veiled to an extent (1Cor 13.12), and you can only make sense of the truth when you think like Christ from the Scripture. You may not agree with these things, but please be honest in your denial of them.


[i] Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed., “arbitrary,” s.v., 63.

[ii] “Arbitrary” is a derivative of arbiter, one who has the “power to decide a dispute: JUDGE…a person or agency whose judgment or opinion is considered authoritative.” (p. 63). Pretty sure the Triune God of Scripture fits this definition.

[iii] Roger Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 15.

[iv] David N. Steele, Curtis C. Thomas, and S. Lance Quinn, The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, and Documented, 2nd ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, [1963], 2004), 27. Italics added.

[v] R. C. Sproul, What is Reformed Theology: Understanding the Basics, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1997), 141, 142. Italics in original.

[vi] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, translated by Henry Beveridge, Reprint (Grand Rapids, MI: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, [1989], 1993), 3.22.1. Italics added.

It should be noted that the use of the word “merit” here means more than a physical work, such as a sacrifice or any other good thing towards God, but also includes turning towards Christ in repentance in faith. Trusting that the Father sent the Son to die for sinners; specifically, “to save His people from their sins” (Matt 1.21). And that what Christ accomplished in the work of Christ sufficiently paid for their sin (personally as a substitute). To which the Holy Spirit works in drawing those said individuals to Jesus for eternal life. To do this is, likewise, a good thing—a spiritually motivated thing—but that motivation is not found in fallen (i.e. natural) man. Therefore, while some will say “You’re right our good works do not save us, but our faith does!” Please note that believing in (on) Christ alone is properly defined as a good work in the sense that it is a movement towards Him; as faith apart from obedience is dead. And so, Calvin’s use of “merit” applies to those who say “Well, God saw in history that I would believe, and that’s why I am elect;” an inaccurate use of the word “foreknow” as see in Rom 8:29.

[vii] All Scripture unless otherwise noted shall be of the English Standard Version (ESV).

Image by Gerd Altmann

Posted in Grace

Why Effectual Grace is often Mislabeled Forceful Coercion Rather than Deliverance

In my last post we began looking at a common rebuttal (knee-jerk reaction) to the concept of God giving grace (a gift) in the sense of regeneration. When it comes to the subject of regeneration—to which saving grace specifically speaks—there are two schools of thought within Christian circles. The first states that regeneration must come after faith. The second argues that faith is a byproduct of regeneration (i. e. Logical order; blinded eyes need healed before they can see). In other words, the debate is centered on whose activity—God or man—is primary (takes precedent) and whose is secondary?

To be fair, those who hold to a position different than Reformed theology (my own) would more than likely identify God as the primary mover when it comes to salvation. They would point to the work of Jesus Christ on the cross, and the Holy Spirit after the Lord’s ascension to the Father’s right hand as the grounds on which an individual’s salvation stands or falls. Without this act of “grace” on God’s part, no one would be saved.

So far, so good. At a glance, it appears there is not much of difference between the two camps (i.e. Reformed and non). However, this is not the case.

The Point of Contention

The Non-Reformer (a.k.a. non-Calvinist) argues that if grace is truly grace (a gift), then God must offer it and we must actively reach for it. Salvation comes down to a matter of choice for the fallen creature. God did the groundwork, but the person must put the finishing touches on it. In other words, man has the final say in choosing or rejecting the grace of God found in Christ. As noted in the following statement by Norman Geisler:

  • “In short, it is God’s ultimate and sovereign will that we have free will to resist His will that all be saved.”[i]

This is called synergism, where salvation is seen as a cooperative effort of God and the creature. God does the majority of the work (the heavy lifting), but the finale is decided by the person who wills.

Herein lies the point of contention. They reject the concept of grace being a gift, if God does not consider the choice of the individual in question. If God changes a person’s heart without asking whether or not they want it, then that action of God (regardless of what adjectives we place before it—i.e. good, loving, etc.) is seen as nothing more than forceful coercion. This makes it a violation of the sanctity of the person in question, from their point of view.[ii] If you are not Reformed, you believe this from some degree to another.

An Argument over the Condition of Mankind Post-Fall

The reason for this accusation of force or coercion is tied to how one views the state of mankind. Depending on how serious the consequences of Adam’s rebellion is viewed, determines where one sets his flag.  While the synergistic camp agrees that salvation necessarily needs to be based on the person’s decision, they differ on how this is actually accomplished.

Classical Arminianism holds to the doctrine of prevenient grace[iii]—a preventive measure that heals the will of fallen man. Not entirely, but the grip of sin’s dread curse is loosened just enough that the person is free to respond positively to the gospel call. Well, that is, if they will it.

Another position (the traditionalist? What I’d call the naturalist)[iv], which is gaining ground in some circles, is the idea that man’s will is not affected by sin to the point that he/she cannot choose between the good or the bad. Man is not so sinful that he/she is not able. If he/she desires it, whatever that desire might be, then that is what they do.

Synergistic thought dabbles along this broad spectrum. Prevenient grace acts like a dam that holds back the river of sin, allowing us to see the gospel of Jesus as a precious gift. Or, you’ve been created with a capacity that is impossible to have been tarnished, harmed or maimed by the fall in the garden. The first attempts to deal with sin, biblically defined, seriously. The other leans on her daddy Pelagius for comfort.

Helping Identify the Reason for Disagreement over the term Gift

While I strongly disagree with these positions I can at least understand where in the world the charge of “force or coercion” comes from; when, it is stated that regeneration must come first, before faith, as a logical step in the gracious activity of God. The Synergist believes, they have the ability to choose. If God does not ask them—when they can make the decision on their own—then this amounts to an instance brute force.

So when it is said with a bit of sarcasm that this form of grace (i.e. the Reformed understanding) is comparable to, “…patients [being] dragged kicking and screaming into the operating room, but once they are given a head transplant, they (not surprisingly) feel like an entirely different person!”[v] I am able to see what drives this conclusion.

Geisler charges, that irresistible grace “force[s]…a person from not loving Christ to loving Christ. Hence, irresistible love is forced love. And forced ‘love’ is not love at all.”[vi]  Why, because it removes the choice of the fallen man.

From the Reformed position this is why God’s grace (irresistible/effectual grace) is necessary. Apart from saving grace the individual is left in sin. The natural human condition leaves him in a position of hopelessness.

However, the synergist views such activity by God on an individual as not loving, but the work of a power-hungry monster that makes the poor little fella do what he doesn’t want to do. Comparable to a man on his porch enjoying the view, but then being attacked by an angry nest of hornets. In case you don’t see the connection, God is viewed as the angry nest of hornets forcing the man to do what he doesn’t want. Even though the man chooses to go inside, Geisler thinks “…this…was not a truly free choice. He was coerced into doing it.”[vii]

Not Liking the Options Makes it a Fake Choice?

I’ve already revealed my disagreement with Geisler’s conclusion. He says it wasn’t really a free choice, but why? Because there were other mitigating factors that motivated the man on the porch to make his decision. Geisler writes, “…Free will demands that the act is not coerced, whether externally or internally.”[viii] Says who? Geisler or God? He concludes, “This is in accord with what both good reason and a proper understanding of Scripture teach.”[ix]

Umm…that’s just blatantly false. Reason, which I’m guessing he’s speaking to some extent in light of human experience, and the Scriptures teach very clearly that there are always mitigating factors (both internally and externally) that determine human choices. Do those factors remove the reality of free choices? Did they do so for the man on the porch in Dr. Geisler’s analogy? No, on both counts.

The man freely chose to do as he desired. Originally, that desire was to enjoy the view from his porch, but factors changed that and he preferred in the end to preserve his life. Though, I’m pretty sure Geisler didn’t intend the analogy to be used in this way, he unwittingly provided the grounds for proving what he denies.

**Pause for just a moment please…

  • Before I move on, I want to debunk a myth that is deeply entrenched in Christian-American thought. Man is not born in a morally neutral position towards his/her Creator. Neutrality is false in apologetic reasoning, and it is false in theological reasoning. There is no neutral ground between God and man. The Bible does not teach that anywhere. This is why analogies like the drowning man or the sick woman fail. Our disposition towards God (Father/Christ/Holy Spirit) is tyrannical rebellion, not objective reasoning. Please, if you are convinced otherwise, show me the text (contextually) that states it!

**Back to the Analogy…

Now Geisler’s analogy shows us one person who is confronted with two options. The first is geared towards pleasure seeking (enjoying the view from the porch). The second is geared towards self-preservation (fleeing from the angry hornets). This is a wonderful picture of fallen mankind.

Fallen People Love? This Causes Them to What?

What do sinners love above all else? Their sin (e.g. Jer 14.10; Prov 8.36; Matt 6.24). This is demonstrated in what they pursue daily throughout their lives. As sinners, we constantly seek gratification for the flesh. How that gratification is sated depends upon the person’s idol of choice. For some this is false religion, others it is power, wealth and social status, and yet still others turn to family (spouses or children) to worship, or drugs, alcohol, sex, food, animals, nature, etc. Many are the ways that sinful man gratifies his pleasure seeking self.

But above all else, fallen mankind seeks to preserve his/her own life. Self-preservation is the chief way in which sinners attempt to be like God. They want to know good and evil, and God is evil! We see many expressions of this in our society today.

My only point is that when the man was confronted with a danger to himself, his primary desire at that point shifted from pleasure seeking to live preserving. His choice was real, it was freely made, even though it was beset by mitigating factors in the decision-making process.

What is ironic, I think, is that Geisler (and those like him) fail to see that the gospel is not a sweet-smelling savor to all people (cf. 2 Cor 2.16). To fallen mankind the gospel is very much like the hornets in the story.

“Kris, why would you say that?” My answer to you is this,

  • “This, then, is the judgment: The light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. For everyone who practices wicked things hates the light and avoids it, so that his deeds may not be exposed” (John 3.19-20; HCSB).

People love darkness, people love their sin and the light is offensive to them. They prefer to preserve their lives rather than be brought into the light. The gospel is beautiful to those who are not perishing, not to those who are.

Who are the perishing ones? Anyone who has not been born-again.

Not and Invitation, but a Command

It is the natural state of mankind to flee from the gospel, because the gospel is a violation of what they hold dear—both their sin and existence. The gospel is not a flowery invitation, but a command of repentance:

  • “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent…” (Acts 17.30).

To the unbeliever the gospel of God, of Jesus Christ, is comparable to a nasty hornet’s nest (e.g. Exod 23.28). God does not plead with us by wringing His hands like a wishful mother. The command to repent means to throw down your arms! To stop your rebellion! To bow the knee and submit to Christ’s/God’s will! Acknowledge that He is King or face the dire consequences of your betrayal!

The self-preserving nature of fallen man immediately recognizes his/her enemy. They refuse to change their mind and instead flee to the darkness from which they came. This individual willfully chooses this option over bending the knee and acknowledging the authority of another over them.

  • “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh…[which] is death…For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom 8.5a, 6a, 7-8).

Thus, the need for God’s effective grace. Doing for the sinner what he can’t, what he won’t do for himself/herself. Delivering us from…well…ourselves.


[i] Norman Geisler, Chosen But Free: A Balanced View of Divine Election, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, [1999], 2001), 98.

[ii] Ibid, 96-101.

[iii] Roger E. Olson identifies prevenient grace as the source of human libertarian free will. Saying prevenient “…grace…precedes and enables the first stirrings of a good will toward God.” Roger E. Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 20.

John Wesley stated that “Salvation begins with what is usually termed (and very properly) preventing grace; including the first wish to please God, the first dawn of light concerning his will, and the first slight transient conviction of having sinned against him.” John Wesley, “On Working Out Our Own Salvation,” in The Works of John Wesley: Sermons 1 &2, Vol 5-6, Reprint (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007), 6.509.

Nazarene theologian W.T. Purkiser explains prevenient grace in this way: “Salvation is by the grace of God, but it is not restricted to a group arbitrarily limited by an unconditional election. It is for all men. Through the free gift of God’s grace in Jesus Christ all men, not merely the elect are given a gracious (as opposed to natural) ability to hear and heed the gospel…Prevenient grace, then, enables the sinner, otherwise dead in trespasses and sins, to hear the gospel call, repent, and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and be saved.” W. T. Purkiser, Exploring Christian Faith (Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill Press, 1960), 272.

[iv] I realize that the term “naturalist” may have a different connotation than I am assigning it. To be clear, I am not talking about a person who thinks that nature is all there is or a person who steers clear of processed foods. In using this term, I am merely tying it to the belief that Adam’s original created condition is still the natural condition. The fall, while changing some things (what exactly, I’m not sure?) did not affect the internal nature of mankind when it came to be capable of choosing good or evil. From the little that I have read on the “traditionalist” this seems to be the natural state that they believe mankind is in. Therefore, the label naturalist.

[v] Geisler, Chosen But Free, 99, 100.

[vi] Ibid, 100.

[vii] Ibid, 186.

[viii] Ibid, 187.

[ix] Ibid, 187.