Posted in Meditation and Prayer

Scraped Knees: Means for Waging the War with Sin

There is a war waging in our hearts in regards to sin and righteousness. If you do not know this, or if you fail to believe this, then I wonder whether or not you have truly touched the grace of Jesus Christ in your life. Whether or not the Holy Spirit has caused your own heart to yearn for your Abba (Father). For to know God is to know His will. To know His will is to reflect deeply on His heart as revealed in His Word as holiness, righteousness, and truth. To know Him is to pursue Him, scraped knees and all.

What do we do when the enemy of our own hearts, that remnant of a sinful nature, rears its ugly head in our minds? How should we respond? For you must do something. To do nothing is tantamount to lowering your arms and raising a white flag so that sin might have its day. The late John Owen offers some sobering thoughts, some necessary aides that we need to consider in this battle of the wills (will of God vs. will of sin).

“Now, these duties are—First, PRAYER, especially private prayer; and, Secondly, MEDITATION.”[i]

On the method of meditation, he says…

“[This] is pondering on the truth as it is in Jesus, to discover the image and representation of truth in our own hearts [as Christians]; and so it has the same intent with prayer, which is to bring our souls into a frame that in all things corresponds to the mind and will of God…when we would undertake thoughts and meditations of God, his excellencies, his properties, his glory, his majesty, his love, his goodness, let it be done in a way of speaking to God [i.e., prayerfully], in a deep humiliation and abasement of our souls before him.”[ii]

And this can only be truly accomplished when we…

“meditate on the word [of God] …and then labor to have our hearts affected by it.”[iii]

In particular, whatever peculiar sin that is raising its arms (battling) against what we know to be pleasing to the Lord. Failing to do this not only makes us susceptible to strong influence that sin uses to draw us (influence us) into all manners of vile acts, but makes the next time easier to bend the knee having calloused our hearts.

On the method of prayer, that which is intended to combat this enemy known as sin, in light of what we have reflected on the mind of God as revealed in His Word, is to

“[work] upon the heart a deep, full sense of the vileness of sin, with a constant renewed detestation of it…This is one design of payer…namely, to draw out sin, to set it in order, to present it to itself in its vileness, abomination, and aggravating circumstances, so that it may be loathed, abhorred, and thrown away as a filthy thing. The one that pleads with God for sins remission, also pleads with his own heart for its detestation.”[iv]

If you would like victory over indwelling sin, Owens tells his readers,

“This is the way appointed and blessed by God to obtain strength and power against sin: Jas 1:5, ‘Does any man lack? Let him ask of God.’ Prayer is the way to obtain from God, by Christ, a supply of all our wants, assistance against all opposition, especially that opposition which is made against us by sin.”[v]

Necessary Means…

Biblical mediation and biblical prayer are two means that God has provided His people in Christ the power over sin. This is not a prescription for sinlessness, but it is surely one that provides the true believer with the ability to sin-less. For such means, provided by our heavenly Father, are that which God the Holy Spirit quickens us in waging this war within our own hearts, as we are being more and more conformed into the image of Jesus Christ. Such is an exercise in godly dependency for which we image bearers were truly created for. Not to will what we want, but to will as He wants, as He designed us for His glory!

On our Failings…

But what about our failings in this? What about our inability to walk straightly every moment of every day? Are we then lost? Are we then without hope? Two things might be said on such thoughts. One, this work that we do is not a work that we have done, but is a work of God. What saves us, what delivers us in the end is not our efforts, but wholly His. Two, when we do fail (and we no doubt will from time to time for let’s face it we are weak), we are given this promise:

“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb 4.14-16).[vi]

AND

“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1Jn 1.9)


ENDNOTES:

[i] John Owen, Indwelling Sin: The Remainder of Indwelling Sin in Believers, Reprint 1667, Annotated by William H. Gross, (N.C.: On the Wing, 2015), Locations 1992-1993. Kindle Edition.

[ii] Ibid., loc 1994-2000.

[iii] Ibid., loc 2003.

[iv] Ibid., loc 2042-2045.

[v] Ibid., loc 2055.

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

Posted in Theology

To God Be the Glory: A Brief Stroll through Ephesians 1 & 2–Part II

A Brief Consideration of Ephesians 2:1-10

Last week I started a two-post look at Ephesians 1-2:1-10. As I explained last time, “Those that struggle with this portion of Scripture do so not because the language is difficult, but rather the concept that the language conveys is difficult. However, our theology should be derived from the text of Scripture…not the traditions that we tenaciously hold” (To God Be the Glory: A Brief Stroll through Ephesians 1 & 2, par 3). Thus, you often find a splitting of the road that people go down when walking through this (and similar) portions of the Bible.

So, what’s the difficult part? That God is the sole author of our salvation. Eph 1 details why any are found in Christ; whereas, Eph 2 discusses our state (condition) before being grafted into Christ (vv. 1-3), and then details the benefits we enjoy due to Him. Let’s take a quick stroll through the first ten verses of Eph 2 and see what we see. Enjoy!

Verses 1-3

In the opening three verses we are given a description fitting to the entire human race (past, present and future). If Ephesians 1 proclaimed our status because of what God has done, then Eph 2:1-3 speaks of our status before grace transformed us.[i]

Verse 1 reads, “And you were dead in trespasses and sins….” Dead in what way? The short answer is spiritually dead. Now, I realize that some professing Christians don’t like that phrase, but what do you suppose the Holy Spirit means by it? If not spiritually dead, then what?

Others don’t like the implications that Eph 2:1 necessarily brings to the forefront. There is nothing good in mankind. The proof is found in the description “…in trespasses and sins.” Moreover, it is obvious that “spiritual deadness” is being spoken referred to as we read on.

Verse 2 adds, “in which you once walked….” How did we formerly walk? Answer: “…following the course of this world…” What direction? Answer: “following the prince of the power of the air…” Who is this prince? Answer: “…the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience.”

Obviously, the description in the first two verses is troubling, but we should note that it is in the past tense. Paul is writing to Christians who “were dead,” who used to act like the rest of “the sons of disobedience,” “following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air.” And so, while it is correct to say that the entire human race is alive, the point being made is that they lived in a fashion not pleasing to the God who created them.

Verse 3 teaches, “among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”

Verse 3 teaches quite a bit actually. Verse 1 gives a declaration of the former status (remember pre-grace, pre-faith) of those to whom Paul is writing. They “were dead in trespasses and sins.” Verse 2 begins to explain that deadness in terms of a pattern of life, one set by another master (external = Satan; internal = sin). Think of Jesus’ statement in John 14:6 about Him being “the way, the truth, and the life” in reverse from an unholy, unrighteous perspective.

In this 3rd verse we see a definition of sorts of “trespasses and sins.” They are identified as “passions of the flesh.” Now if you are insistent that human nature is essentially good and not wicked (i.e., fallen/corrupt/depraved), then you will have insurmountable difficulties understanding the meaning given here in Eph 2:3. Likewise, “trespasses and sins” are described as “desires of the body and mind” which the spiritually dead “[carry] out.” Sin is not just external activity, but inward motivation. God condemns not just the action, but the motive. Finally, we learn in verse 3 that these passions and desires are natural products of those not in Christ. Paul says the “dead in…trespasses and sins” are rightly identified as “children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”

“Well…yeah,” you say “after we use our freewill to sin. After the age of accountability.” Sorry, that’s…not…in there. The Scripture says that mankind is “by nature children of wrath.” In other words, when we enter into this world. We are naturally bent towards trespasses and sins. We are naturally bent towards passions of the flesh and desires of the body and mind that follow the course of this world, “the way, the truth and the life” of the evil one—“the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (Eph 2.2).

A Shift of Focus

Once Paul speaks of the Christian’s past condition, their status pre-grace, pre-faith, pre-Christ, he then reminds them of why they are in a new state of being. Once again, we see in this section that follows (Eph 2:4-10) that the emphasis is on what God has done. Therefore, the glory, the praise and the boasting belong to God.

Verses 4-5

“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved.”

That which was said before (Eph 1) is being highlighted here. Paul says we have been “made alive together with Christ” because God is “rich in mercy.” Not only that, but also because of God’s “great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses.” God chose to be merciful and loving in spite of who we were, in spite of the condition we were in. For it is “by grace you have been saved” (Eph 2.5).

Grace is unmerited favor. It is not something owed. It is only that which can be freely given. There are variances in the forms of grace that come from God. God is gracious to the wicked and the good. That is a grace that is common to all of creation. However, there is a special grace that He dons on those whom He has loved. These are the predestinated ones identified in Eph 1.

Two times the phrase “by grace you have been saved” is mentioned in Eph 2. The first here in verse 5. The second is found in verse 8. Before we go there let’s take a quick look at something else. I want you to notice a continuing emphasis that the apostle gives.

Verses 6-7

Paul says, “But God…made us alive together with Christ…and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Eph 2.4, 6-7).

If we are going to get the genuine meaning from the text, we need to pay attention to its flow. Notice, it is God who made us alive (i.e., regeneration). It is God who raised us up (i.e., a spiritual resurrection). It is God who has seated us with him (i.e., co-heirs). It is God who has placed us in Christ Jesus. It is God who desires to show us His immeasurable grace. According to Eph 1 this is something God decided to do in eternity, before creation. He elected. He predestined.

Thus, Ephesians 2:8-10 finalizes this thought being conveyed by Paul.

Verses 8-10

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

That whole phrase “for by grace you have been saved through faith” is what Paul says “is not your doing; it is a gift of God.” What is the gift of God? that you have been “saved through faith.” Grace means gift or favor. What sense would it make to say “grace” is the gift of God, not faith. Those that want “faith” to remain as the sole property of the man or woman have forgotten that anything that we possess is from God. Therefore, the person who has faith in Christ, who has repented of their sins and entrusted himself/herself to the work He has done, has nothing to brag about over those who have no faith. For the faith we have is a gift from above.

Moreover, what we possess in Christ—namely our salvation status—is “not a result of works.” Meaning what precisely? That salvation has nothing to do with the person, but everything to do with God. Paul’s driving message is this. Only twice does he state the Christian’s belief (Eph 1.13; 2.8), but before the Christian can go smacking themselves on the back congratulating their faith as if it was naturally ours, he says two things.

  • It is the gift of God[ii]
  • Not a result of works
  • Therefore, “no one may boast.” (Man…you didn’t do it!)

Notice that he doesn’t stop there. He says that “we are his workmanship;” something God made (clay pots, earthen vessels?). Now Paul is not merely speaking of us being created in Adam—that is a given—but “created in Christ,” both are acts of God and both say nothing of the ability of the person. Our purpose for being in Christ is to “walk in [goodworks]” but these were “prepared beforehand” by God, so again nothing that we can boast about. The whole dialogue up to this point in Ephesians has stressed one central point.

What we experience in Christ is due to God’s activity both in eternity (choosing, predestinating), and in history (dispensing salvific grace and enabling belief). Therefore, the only thing we can rightly do is say (shout) in our hearts and with our voices: “To God Be the Glory, great things He hath done!”


ENDNOTES:

[i] This “transforming grace” or salvific grace is not realized historically until a person is found entrusting their life, hope, reliance, dependency, etc. into Jesus Christ. This is a logical, but not a chronological step. The manner in which faith is expressed in the heart of the believer is instantaneous (from our vantage point) with regeneration. “Unless a person is born from above, they cannot ‘see’ the kingdom [rule] of God,” (John 3.3) which is a necessary prerequisite before one submits to the command of the gospel.

[ii] For the argumentative Arminian or “traditionalist,” both of which are synergists, allow me to stop your complaint before it starts about “gifts.” The premise they have to be “received” or they are not a gift. No one denies this. What is denied is that receiving a gift has to be in an active sense, rather than a passive sense. Is life a gift? Yes, did you reach for it? No, it was given to you passively—i.e., your will had nothing to do with it. Jesus said, “So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3.8). Everything that we possess is a gift from God, but not every gift that we receive from God did we reach for and grab like fruit on a tree. This text does not say anything about you reaching for salvation. How do the lame walk to the Lord? How do the blind see what is being offered? How do the dumb ask for mercy? How do the leprous feel for it? How do the dead come to it? What is required is a supernatural act of God, which is what Paul has been speaking about through Eph 1 into Eph 2.

Posted in Theology

To God Be the Glory: A Brief Stroll through Ephesians 1 & 2

To God be the Glory great things He hath done…”

This opening of the popular hymn entitled To God be the Glory emphasizes the fact that God alone deserves glory. The reason He deserves praise above all others is emphasized in the portion “great things He hath done….” Well, what are those great things?

In the opening chapters of his Ephesian epistle, the apostle Paul shares with the members of God’s household what great things God has done for them (us) in Christ. Unfortunately, God’s accomplishments are sometimes muddled by those who insist that individuals share some part in His work. A faithful reading of the first two chapters of Ephesians squelches this idea.

The second chapter of Ephesians discusses our state (condition) before our being grafted into Christ. It follows the discussion from the first chapter, and sheds further light on why any are found in Christ. Those that struggle with this portion of Scripture do so not because the language is difficult, but rather the concept that the language conveys is difficult. However, our theology should be derived from the text of Scripture…not the traditions that we tenaciously hold. Over the next couple of posts, we shall begin looking into the argument presented by the Apostle Paul to the Ephesians.

A Brief Consideration of Ephesians 1: The Underlying Emphasis

Those that enter into fellowship with God through Christ, having the seal of the Holy Spirit placed upon them, are in that condition because of God’s action in history. It is God our Father “…who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Eph 1.3; ESV throughout). We ought to note that the emphasis given here is on what God has done. We, who call Christ Jesus Lord, do so because of the blessing that God has poured upon us. Chief among them (or included among them, if you will) is that “…he chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world” (Eph 1.4a). God did this choosing so “that we should be holy and blameless before him” (Eph 1.4b).

Which means what exactly? This verse insinuates that before our being found in Christ we were anything but “holy and blameless.” The state we were formerly in will be discussed when we start looking at Ephesians 2. For now, though, I want you to recognize one more point.

God did this act of “choosing” (eklegomai) out of “love.” Now you can place this “love” at the end of v. 4 or the beginning of v. 5. It does not change that God decided to do what He did out of love. “In love he predestined us for adoption as sons [heirs] through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved” (Eph 1.5-6). Again, the emphasis is on what God has done.

I once had a student make a very astute observation regarding our being “heirs” by way of adoption. She pointed out that an heir has no say in their status. You do not choose to be an heir. Just as you don’t choose your inheritance. The Adopter and the Author of the Will decides who shall be adopted and who shall receive what.

God predestinating means “determining before,” this decision by Him was before He began creating. In other words, He knew who He wanted out of love to be adopted, to be considered heirs with Christ Jesus. This has nothing to do with the man or woman in question, but everything to do with God who is gracious (cf. Rom 9.16).

Revelation of Graceful Inheritance…

Verses 7, 11 reveal two things that we have acquired (inherited) as a result of God’s grace.

“In him we have redemption…” (v.7)

“In him we have obtained an inheritance…” (v.11).

Again, the emphasis is on what God has done.  There is no way around it. There is no way to shift from what God has done, in an effort to say “yes, but this is what man has done!”  I think that of all the truths contained in Scripture there is nothing more distasteful than “God has to do it for you or it won’t be accomplished; it is impossible without God doing it.”

It is God who “…predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph 1.11b; italics added). This emphasis is repeated in vv. 5, 9 that came before. This is the only reason given for us who “hope in Christ” (Eph 1.12).

The Objector Protests…

“But, what of verse 13?” the observant reader asks.

What of it? What does it say? It speaks of another blessing that we have acquired from God.

In him you also…were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire it, to the praise of his glory” (Eph 1.13-14; italics added).

“But you left out a key part!” you exclaim.  What part? Ahhh…you mean the section that says this:

“In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit” (Eph 1.13; italics mine).

Do you think that this proves the emphasis should, at least in this part, be given to the person rather than God? That you have done it? That you have become a co-partner with God in your salvation?

Hmmm…Interesting.

The Slight of Hand…

The whole chapter has emphasized what God has done, how He has blessed, How He has given, but you want to emphasize what man has done? A tell-tale sign of a man-centered theology is one that tries to shift the focus from what God has done, to what the person has done. As if the person’s action is really the important factor.

Could it not be understood that Paul is merely telling you how God’s predestinating choice of love took place in history? Could it not be that Paul is saying that this blessing was realized in your life when you embraced the gospel’s command, and at that moment were sealed in eternity with the Holy Spirit? Therefore, this descriptive statement (Eph 1.13-14) is telling you how God has worked out His plan of purpose in your life, and the proof that you are truly an adoptive co-heir with Christ is that the gospel struck you open. Therefore, you turned to God beseeching mercy, and according to the riches of His glorious grace you experienced His merciful redemption?

Surely, that makes much more sense.  But maybe not. Maybe you aren’t convinced. Perhaps, these are the kinds of discussions that turn you off. The sort of Christian talk; Bible pillow talk, that keeps you tossing and turning throughout the night.

But let’s be honest, shall we. Faith in God is NOT mankind’s default mode of operation. Faith in the salvific work of Jesus Christ is NOT mankind’s default mode of operation. Faith in the Holy Spirit driven Word is NOT mankind’s default mode of operation. We are in every way antithetical towards God, His rule, His will and His Word. Which is a focal point of Paul in Ephesians 2.

To Be Continued

Posted in John 6

The Meaning Christ gives John 6:37: Counterargument to Haden Clark, Part I

The most important part of biblical study is “observing the text.” Once that has been done you are able (capable) of rightly “interpreting the text.” Fail at the beginning and you will misstep throughout.

A few years ago, I was sitting in a public setting where an individual asked me the following question, “Isn’t reading the Bible just a matter of interpretation? Some people just interpret things, differently right?” In my response I explained to the individual and his wife who was sitting with him that you may draw several “applications from the text,” but there is really only one correct interpretation. I said,

“Suppose you wrote your wife a letter. When you wrote the letter, you had a specific point in mind (maybe several), but the point is that you are expecting your wife to understand your intent. She may take what you have written and be able to apply it to a variety of circumstances, but a correct interpretation is found in discerning what you had written to her. It wouldn’t be possible for others to read it and say “this is what it means to me” when you meant what you said to her.”

I’m sure that my response was not as polished as I just gave it to you now, but the intent was the same. Both husband and wife said that the explanation given made a lot of sense.

One of the amazing things about Scripture is that there is only one interpretation that can be correctly drawn from it. Sometimes the reasons we have varying interpretations is because people don’t do the necessary labor to draw from the text what is written. Our ignorance of language and events in time can also hinder us. However, there are other times when the correct interpretation will be rejected. The person’s biases prevent them from adopting the viewpoint that God is giving in His Word.

INTRODUCING THE SUBJECT MATTER

In what follows I shall provide a counterargument to an article written by Haden Clark at Help Me Believe, and his understanding of John 6:37. Clark believes that the ability to come to Christ is afforded to all people. Therefore, he sees the “drawing” of God discussed in John 6 as something God is already doing for the entire human race. What he tacitly denies is the concept in Reformed Theology (ironically drawn from passages like John 6) defined as Unconditional Election. Clark rejects the idea that the “drawing” of the Father to the Son is an act of divine election where the Father gives to the Son a particular people that He has chosen to put His love on (into) throughout human history; for all eternity.

In this post I will provide a point-by-point statement and response format for the reader.[i] It is recommended that you read Clark’s post (Read here) before you read my own in order to properly weigh between the two conclusions drawn. I would also recommend (obviously it is not mandatory) that you read through John 6 on your own. At the end of the main section, I will provide the reader with a quick review of the context of John 6 in order to see the flow-of-thought of the gospel writer, and to provide a basis for the conclusions I draw from the text.

“Everyone whom the Father gives” John 6:37

Clark writes,

“I love passages of Scriptures that interpret themselves. Sometimes we will read something ‘difficult,’ or hard to understand, but the Bible itself will provide us with the correct interpretation.” (line 1).

My Response:

It is true that there are some difficult passages in Scripture. They boggle the mind, so to speak, at first glance. But it is also true that if we do a little “leg work” the Bible itself helps us come to the correct interpretation. Often times this is accomplished by comparing Scripture with Scripture. Taking the clearer statements of God to give understanding to the more difficult ones.

However, it is erroneous to assume that the “Bible interprets itself.” The Scriptures are written revelation. They don’t do anything. They are words on a page. The interpretative process is done by people. We interpret. We draw conclusions. And so, while I appreciate the sentiment “Let the Bible speak,” it doesn’t actually speak. God expects His people to draw from the text His intended meaning as we move to correctly interpret it.

Clark writes,

“I cannot tell you how many times I have heard John 6:37 ripped out of context and given a Calvinistic interpretation, while completely ignoring the fact that Jesus himself interprets this verse just a few verses later” (line 3). He then quips, “I don’t know about you, but I’ll take Jesus’ word for it” (line 4).

My Response:

I agree that we should not read our biases into the biblical text. Regardless how strongly one holds to Calvinism (i.e., Reformed Theology), Arminianism (i.e, Remonstrant Theology), or even the strains that bleed off from these two major theological branches. (Just as a side note, Evangelical Christians are either monergistic or synergistic in their theology. Either they believe that Salvation is a sole work of God, or a corporative effort by God and man). Based off of my observations I would say that Clark is a synergist, and in fact leans strongly beyond a semi-pelagian understanding.  That being said on his initial point, we agree, making the text say what your theology does is wrongheaded in the worst possible way. Why? Because it misrepresents God’s intention and maligns His Word.

There is also agreement with his seemingly sarcastic quip, we should take Jesus at His Word. He is God, the Living Word made flesh (John 1.1-3, 14). Jesus is the correct interpreter of Scripture; we should listen to Him. Not just on those “red letter” portions of our Bible’s (if you have that sort of edition lying around), but all of it. This also means that if we are correctly understanding Jesus, we should never see Him teaching something that is contrary with the rest of Scripture. Any apparent contradictions are a product of our misunderstanding, not His.

Ironically, though Clark does not spend much time “drawing out” what John 6 actually says. He, like Leighton Flowers, leaps around from this passage to that. He points to John 12; 13; 17 before he returns to John 6. That is to say, he seeks to build his case outside of John 6 in order to tell us what John 6 says. Now, I don’t want to appear snarky but if you are going to claim that it is wrong to ignore the context, “to rip” a teaching from where it is given to mean something that aligns with your theology, then you might want to sit in the passage, work through the passage, before jumping to other passages in order to form John 6 after your own thinking.

Clark cites John 6:37-38, 44:

  • “Everyone whom the Father gives to me will come to me, and the one who comes to me I will never throw out, because I have come down from heaven not that I should do my will, but the will of the one who sent me…No one is able to come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up on the last day” (LEB).

Clark then writes,

“These verses are often interpreted to mean that God infallibly calls some people, as opposed to others, to come to Jesus, and they will be saved. In other words, it is impossible to come to Jesus, that is believe in Jesus (John 6:35), unless you are first infallibly called by God” (line 5).

My response:

I would think, using some basic grammar rules we should be able to see—even in English—the sense of Jesus’ statement here in vv. 37-38, 44? Let’s try it.

In verse 37 we find that Jesus puts emphasis on the Father’s action in history: “Everyone…the Father gives,” Jesus says, “…will come to me.” He does not say “everyone…will come to me;” rather, “everyone whom the Father gives will come to me….” The Father is the subject that is committing an action of giving to the Son. The Son is the direct object, for He receives the action of the Father. The stress of verse 37 is on the Father who gives and the Son who receives.

Then in the second half of verse 37 (i.e., 37b), we see the emphasis being placed on the person who is being given. Jesus says of those the Father gives, “…whoever comes to me I will never cast out.” Obviously, if we are sticking with the context of v. 37, we see that only those that the Father gives come to Jesus, and when they come (whoever they might be) Jesus promises to never cast them out (i.e., to do away with them). Why? Because they have become the property of the Son.

“According to whose will?” you ask. Jesus answers that in verse 38. Let’s have a quick look.

Jesus says, “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.” This is a purpose statement or a mission statement, if you will. What is it? To do the “will of him who sent me.” Well, what is the will of Him who sent the Son from heaven? The answer is actually in verses 39-40, but Clark leaves them out. (We will discuss them later).

Perhaps, he didn’t feel it was necessary? Or maybe he thought it would take too much time. I’m not sure what Clark’s reasoning is, but let’s move on to verse 44.

Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.”

First notice that this is a universal/categorical statement (meaning without exception): “No one…” speaks of all people. Second notice that this is telling you what they CANNOT do. “No one can come to me…”  it is impossible for a person (past, present or future) to come to Christ. Sounds pretty hopeless, doesn’t it. Third notice that Jesus adds a condition, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him….” The only way a person can come to Jesus is if the person in question is “drawn” by the Father. This is a necessary condition that has to be met prior to the person coming to Christ Jesus.

What is interesting is that Jesus ties this to the manner in which He came into the world. How did he get here? The Father sent Him; it was an act of God, a movement of His will (a phrase used about 15 times in John’s gospel).[ii]

Clark writes:

“Usually, there is a strong emphasis on the word “draws” which can be interpreted as ‘drags’. Nobody comes willingly, they must be dragged, effectually called; in other words, caused” (line 6).

My Response:

Why do we nasty Calvinists put emphasis on the word “draw?” Hmmm…probably because that is what is being emphasized in the text. This is an example of grammatical stress since the term helkuo (draw) is the action of the subject.

Clark argues against defining “draw” as “drag,” because of “the obvious and horrible consequences of such a theology” (line 7a). Okay, but is it a theological construct to define a word according to its usage? He also says,

“The text is king. Whatever God’s word says, we shall stick with it, even if we don’t like it” (line 7b).

My Response:

I wonder if Clark feels that way about six-day creation, the Flood of Noah’s day, or any other “difficult” passage that we might entertain? I suppose that would have to be a subject for another day.

Brief Word Study…

How do we know what “draw” (helkuo) means? The way we define a word is based upon the words usage contextually speaking, and word studies are performed by looking at how the same word is used throughout the Bible. Any given word can have varying senses in which it might be used. Context helps in knowing the sense of the term. And the more a word is used in Scripture the better understanding lexicographers (those who write/compile Hebrew/Greek dictionaries) have defining it.

The reason “drag” is seen as the meaning of draw (helkuo) is because that is how the biblical writers (in particular John) use the term (cf. John 18.10; 21.6, 11; Acts 16.19; 21.30; Jam 2.6). Since we are in John’s gospel let’s look at how he uses this action verb, I will leave it to you to read the other ones mentioned above.

Here are the ways that the gospel of John uses the action verb:

  • “Then Simon Peter, having a sword, drew [helkuo] it and struck the high priest’s servant and cut off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus)” (John 18.10; ESV).
  • “He said to them, ‘Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some [fish].’ So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul [helkuo] it in, because of the quantity of fish” (John 20.6; ESV).
  • “So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled [helkuo] the net ashore, full of large fish, 153 of them. And although there were so many, the net was not torn” (John 21.11; ESV).

By looking at these three instances of “draw” used in John’s gospel we find that the meaning is to “drag” or to “pull” or to “haul,” and so depending upon your English translation you will find various synonyms used to describe this act of force being put on an object whether it be a sword or a net or yes, even a person. Outside of John’s gospel the verb is used in a similar manner.

Two other occurrences occur in John’s gospel (6:44 and 12:32). Clark refers to the latter one a little later in his post. I will work through John 12:32 in a future post, but for now a few preliminary things need to be addressed. For Clark denies that the normative use of draw (helkuo) in Scripture is the meaning here in John 6.

Clark writes,

“There is one major problem with this interpretation: it completely ignores Jesus’ interpretation…Jesus himself explains what he meant by these words. We don’t need anyone to tell us, we can just read Jesus’ words” (line 8, 9).

My Response:

Two disagreements emerge here. First, the claim (implied) that Calvinists ignore Jesus interpretation is false. Reformed Christians are trying to understand Jesus’ point as much as the non-Reformed. Second, Clark obviously believes that someone needs to tell others what Jesus meant or why write the post? Singing to the choir? If we didn’t need teachers, then why does Christ appoint them? While I think I get the gist of Clark’s point (i.e., its obvious what Jesus is saying, “just look at his words”), the notion is misguided.

Studying Scripture is work, and as much as people might like the phrase “let the Bible speak,” part of the necessary labor in biblical study is finding out just what in the world Holy Writ is actually saying. Granted there are some things stated very clearly, but I’ve seen people screw them up as well.

Momentary Pause for Explanation

At this point Clark moves to John 6:64-65. He has already shown distaste for the idea (even the possibility) that God would draw some, but not others. In order to eliminate this conclusion, he attempts to argue that Jesus’ words were really just about his disciples, not the crowd that day.

  • “But there are some of you who do not believe.’ (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) And he said, ‘Because of this I said to you that no one can come to me unless it has been granted to him by the Father’” (John 6.64-65; LEB).

Clark writes,

“The important thing to notice here is that when Jesus says he knows that some of ‘you’ do not believe, he is referring to his disciples. Jesus made the original statement in verse 37 in front of a larger crowd, however, he only gave the explanation to his disciples. This is something Jesus commonly does in John’s Gospel” (line 12).

My Response:

I agree that two different audiences are in mind in v.37-38, 44 and that of vv.64-65. How do we know this? By paying attention to the flow-of-thought in the narrative. The transition occurs in John 6:59-60, where it is written: “Jesus said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. Then many of his disciples, when they heard these things, said, ‘This is a difficult saying! Who can understand it? (LEB).

Notice that the crowds are not eliminated from the discussion in the sense that they have disappeared. Rather, the focus has now shifted on those who ought to know (and believe in) Jesus; his disciples. The point of John 6:64-65 is that they don’t, and the reason they don’t is because of what Jesus said earlier in his message in Capernaum, and then repeats to them: “No one can unless it has been granted to him by the Father” (emphasis added). To turn around and say that Jesus’ words in John 6:44 don’t really apply to the crowds in general, but the disciples in particular (i.e. “Judas is specifically in mind” line 29) is a peculiar leap in logic. How Clark seeks to justify it is even more bizarre.

Momentary Pause for Explanation

We are now about to leave John 6 in order to explain the meaning of John 6? If it sounds a bit confusing, I will admit that I was confused at first as well. Clark is trying to decipher why Jesus would tell the crowds what he did in John 6:44, and why he said what he did to his disciples in John 6:65. He thinks he has found his answer in the repeated statement “…[his] hour had not yet come” (2:4; 7:6; 7:30; 8:20)”  (line 15). Clark cites John 12:23, 13:31, and 17:1-5 as his grounds of justification.

Let it be sufficed to say that Jesus did come for a specific purpose into this world to tabernacle amongst us (John 1.14). He came to “save His people from their sins” (Matt 1.21), by laying “down his life for the sheep” (John 10.11). The question Clark is seeking to answer is “who?” I know he is looking for the “why?” by appealing to these other texts, but Jesus in John 6 is talking about the “who” and He says the “why?” is determined by His Father in heaven, not man on this earth.

If that is confusing, let me be a bit clearer. John 6 by itself is easily enough understood if you take the time observing the text. The difficulty comes to submitting to the conclusion it offers. Jesus is clear that it is impossible for anyone to come to Him unless the Father who gives, is drawing the one(s) given to the Son.

Clark assuming the opposite writes,

“For a temporary period of time, people were prevented from ‘coming to Jesus’ so as to fulfill the purpose of Jesus coming into the world: Jesus getting to the cross and dying for the world’s sins” (line 28; also see 34).

My response:

Where in the text of John 6, or the rest of John’s gospel, are we specifically told that this prevention of coming (being drawn) to Christ is “for a temporary period of time?” If the biblical text does not say it, then on what grounds can the claim be made? Wouldn’t this be an example of reading into the text what one desires it to say? Furthermore, how would people coming to Jesus in belief during his ministry hinder him from fulfilling his purpose upon the cross? Again, where in the Bible may we turn to find this teaching?

Clark’s conclusion:

“There is no indication from the text [John 6] that Jesus is teaching unconditional election, or effectual calling” (line 30). Claiming that “…there is a better option. One that is derived from the text itself and not a predetermined soteriological system…[Namely,] God is not drawing a select few to himself. He is drawing the whole world. He is drawing the whole world. He desires all to be saved, and we can take the Gospel around the world, to every individual, knowing that every individual is being drawn to the Son…or granted permission, to come to Him” (lines 33, 35).

My Response:

I disagree. Jesus has said to the effect that it is impossible for a person to come to Him unless the Father draws them. This is evidence of them having been gifts from God the Father given to God the Son. In both John 6:44 and 6:65 we have clear statements of the reason why people are drawn to the Son, by the agency and power of the Father giving them to the Son. From a Trinitarian understanding we must not downplay the Holy Spirit’s role in this, but Jesus has already informed us in his teaching to Nicodemus. For every true believer is “born-from-above,” and this an act of the Spirit’s effectual power (cf. John 3.3-8; also 6.63).

Moreover, Jesus does not say that the Father “draws” the whole world to Him in John 6. Nor does it state His desire to save “all” people. Nor does the term “draw” ever mean “granted permission” as if mankind as a sinner wants to come to Christ, but can’t do so until God “lets them.” Which seems to be the way that Clark is implying. Again, the text does not say that.

Finally, I would add that Clark’s assumption that the Calvinist is alone in being driven by theological biases is not accurate. For so is Mr. Clark. And this is true of all who read Scripture. D. A. Carson offers some sound advice on this point that we would all do well in abiding by,

“But if we sometimes read our own theology into the text, the solution is not to retreat to an attempted neutrality, to try to make one’s mind a tabula rasa so we may listen to the text without bias. It cannot be done, and it is a fallacy to think it can be. We must rather discern what our prejudices are and make allowances for them….”[iii] (Italics added).

Closing Remarks:

The fact is that Clark’s governing assumptions regarding “freewill,” and the “good-naturedness” of mankind leads him to conclude that if God does not draw all equally, then He is somehow defunct in regards to love or kindness or goodness. And yes, I will grant that my overarching assumption is quite the opposite. I believe that man has a form of free-agency, but due to a corrupt nature pursues that which is not in accordance with God’s Holy standards. Therefore, it is necessary for God to “draw” a person, lest the person be left in his/her rebellion against their Maker. Refusing and not capable of doing the good that God requires; which includes trusting in the work of Christ while confessing one’s sinful, broken estate.

John 6, despite Clark’s claim, offers wonderful proof of the saving activity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Father has chosen to call a certain people to be given to His beloved Son as an eternal possession (John 6.37-38). He effectually draws them to Christ (John 6.44), and by the power of the Spirit grants them life (John 6.63). They are those who hear the word of God and listen (obey) His voice, demonstrated in their undying faith in the Son. Salvation is about the Glory of God, and not the glory of man. We share in this glory through adoption, but it is not our right unless it has been granted from above.


Appendix

John 6 in Context[iv]

What we see in John 6 is two high points in the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ. The first high point is the extent of his popularity as exhibited in the beginning of the chapter. The second (you might prefer to call it a low point) is the great number of those who followed Christ ceasing from doing so.

John 6:1-15

This historical episode gives us the glimpse of the greatness of the Son of God. Multitudes were drawn to Him and pursued Him at great distance. Using the opportunity to point the people to the truth of who He is, Jesus took a small boys lunch made up of two barley loaves and three small fish and fed 5,000 men (possibly over 10,000 if we include women and children). Having blessed what God had provided, he broke it and fed all who were hungry. When the meal was finished, twelve large baskets were filled to the top. The people in their excitement sought to make Him king—if by force—but Jesus, knowing men’s hearts withdrew to pray.

John 6:16-21

Having sent the disciples away earlier in the day, after finishing His prayer the Lord made His way to His disciples. They had got in a boat heading towards Capernaum. Jesus walks across the water, tells his disciples “It is I. Do not be afraid” (John 6.20; NET). And “immediately the boat came to the land where they had been heading” (John 6.21). This particular evidence was given to His disciples.

John 6:22-52

The next day the people they had left behind realized that the Lord was gone (John 6.22). “And seeing boats from Tiberias…they got into the boats and came to Capernaum looking for Jesus” (John 6.22b-23). One might say that they were being “drawn” to the Lord. They desired to see Him, and did not hesitate to make the journey to Him. However, when they find Jesus, he says to them, “I tell you the solemn truth, you are looking for me not because you saw miraculous signs, but because you ate all the loaves of bread you wanted” (John 6.26). In other words, their reason for following Him was not in faith but looking for earthly blessing. Thus, Jesus’ response: “Do not work for the food that disappears, but for the food that remains to eternal life—the food which the Son of Man will give to you. For God the Father has put his seal of approval on him” (John 6.27).

(Side Note: The similarities between this episode and the one in John 4 with Jesus and the Samaritan woman are very interesting. There he offered her water to drink. Here, Jesus offers the crowds food from heaven. Both were promises of eternal life to the believer.)

The crowd asked how they might receive this blessing (John 6.28), but when Jesus told them “This is the deed God requires—to believe in the one whom he sent” (John 6.29), they balked. They demanded a sign to prove that Jesus was who He said He was (John 6.30). They offered a justification from their history—Moses and the manna (John 6.31). Which is interesting because familiarity with that period shows that many of those people were stiff-necked and did not believe (have faith in) the Lord God.

Not much has changed, since when Jesus tells them “the bread of God is the one who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world…I am the bread of life. The one who comes to me will never go hungry, and the one who believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6.33, 35). But these people who had followed after Him did not believe as proved by these damning words, “But I told you that you have seen me and still do not believe” (John 6.36).

That is to say, they saw the signs that Jesus had done in their presence, they heard the gospel come from His lips, but seeing the truth with their eyes, and hearing the truth with their ears, they still failed to believe. And this is where Jesus says the very things that explain that reality of unbelief amongst the people that Mr. Clark has spent his time trying to deny and to get others to do the same thing.

“…you have seen me and still do not believe. Everyone whom the Father gives me will come to me, and the one who comes to me I will never send away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of the one who sent me. Now this is the will of the one who sent me—that I should not lose one person of everyone he has given me, but raise them all up at the last day” (John 6.37-39; italics added).

**To the Observant Reader, please note the following.  

Earlier I mentioned that Clark left off verse 39 from his explanation, but adding it along with what follows helps the reader better understand the intent of the gospel.

Jesus not only says that whoever the Father gives will come to me, but that such a person He will never send away, because He was sent to do the Father’s will. Which is what exactly? First to never send away the one the Father gives to the Son (v. 37). Second, to not lose one single person the Father has given him, but to raise each and every one up on the last day (v.39). Third, it “is the will of my Father—for everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him to have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6.40; italics added). Meaning every single person that the Father draws to the Son will be granted eternal life, for they will believe in Him.

**Not only are those whom the Father given sent to the Son, but they are kept by the Son and raised up on the last day; everyone receiving eternal life with Him.

But…

Many of these people did not believe in Jesus before He said this (John 6.36), and they most certainly did not believe in Him afterwards. Even though they followed him across the Sea of Galilee. For when they heard Jesus’ truthful testimony, they “…began complaining about him because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven,” and they reasoned amongst themselves, “Isn’t this Jesus the son of Joseph, who father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven?’” (John 6.41-42).

Jesus tells them to stop complaining about him (John 6.43), and then He tells them the reason they do not believe: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6.44: NET). He then adds that “Everyone who hears and learns from the Father comes to me” (John 6.45). But who hears and learns from God? Again, looking back to what has come before we are able to discern that it is limited to the ones that the Father draws, giving to the Son. Only that type of individual “believes [having] eternal life” (John 6.47).

But the Jews to whom Jesus spoke did not hear or listen to God, they did not believe in the one sent from the Father, and this is proved by their failure to comprehend His message as they argued amongst themselves against Him (John 6.52).

John 6:53-71

After his lengthy teaching on His flesh being bread and His blood being wine, which is just a metaphoric way of saying that in Him is that which is necessary to receive and sustain life eternally, we find that it was not just the crowds that complained against Him, refusing to believe, but many of His own disciples.

Those who had followed Christ for some time joined in with the other grumblers and complainers. Saying, “This is a difficult saying! Who can understand it?” (John 6.60). Some assume that the difficulty lies in the metaphor, and this is certainly part of it. But the heart of the matter is much deeper. I would imagine it is more akin to John the Baptist’s warning during his ministry: “…Don’t begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that God can raise up children for Abraham from these stones!’” (Luke 3.8). In other words, what saved them was nothing but God alone, “…not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man…” (John 1.13).

Jesus says to them, “Does this cause you to be offended? Then what if you see the Son of Man ascending where he was before? The Spirit is the one who gives life; human nature is of no help! The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life. But there are some of you who do not believe” (John 6.61b-64a; italics added).

Notice that Jesus is not merely speaking about Judas Iscariot here, although in just a few verses He does call him a devil (John 6.70). Interestingly enough what caused the disciples unbelief is the same thing that caused many in the crowd at Capernaum not to believe: “Because of this I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has allowed him to come” (John 6.65). The phrase “Because of this…” can also be translated as “This is why…” (ESV; HCSB); or, “Therefore said I unto you…” (KJV); or, “For this reason…” (NASB). Therefore, according to Jesus the reason they do not believe—either the crowd or his disciples—is because the Father had not drawn them, and this was evidenced by their inability to accept the Lord’s teaching. And this further proof that they were not included in the number that “heard” or “learned” from the Father (John 6.45). For if they were, they of the Father, then they would believe in the Son (cf. John 6.57).

But when “…[Jesus’ disciples] quit following him and did not accompany him any longer” (John 6.66), they proved the point He had been making all along. Which started at the beginning of his teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum (John 6.25-52).

Again, if we take John 6:37-38, 44 in context we find that Jesus does in fact teach an effectual calling by God the Father in giving to the Son those Christ is intended to raise up on the last day. To get the correct interpretation outside of John 6 like Clark attempts is unnecessary. Moreover, when we look at the John 12:32-33 and 17:1-5 in their context there is nothing in them that subverts this meaning. Instead the opposite happens. These passages in fact complement the understanding given above.

In future posts, I will take the time to work through them. Until then may the peace of Christ be upon you, and if you do not know it…may you come to know it.


ENDNOTES:

[i] I have chosen to indicate where in Clark’s writing I am citing with the phrase “line ‘x’” throughout this post. Since, English grammar normally requires a paragraph to be 3-4 sentences and Clark often finishes a thought in only two, I thought it more appropriate to label each segmented thought this way. Hopefully this aids the reader in identifying where Mr. Clark is being quoted from. I have kept the Scripture texts he cited with the “line” mentioned. So, for example “line 4” would include his citations of John 6:37-38, 44.

[ii] See: John 5.23, 36; 6.44, 57; 8.16, 18, 26, 42; 10.36, 12.49; 14.24; 17.21; 17.25; 20.21. The Father sending the Son is an act of giving on the Father’s behalf (cf. John 3.16).

[iii] D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, 2nd Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2004), 129. It should be noted that Carson does warn the biblical student from “…reading one’s personal theology into the text” (128). His point is being aware of them so that we can step back from the text during our learning process and ask key question of our view: Is my teaching on this area wrong, do I then need to be corrected? Am I being hindered from accepting what the text says because of personal bias, refusing to submit to what is written, and therefore need to be rebuked on this or that point? Ignoring our presuppositions is not fruitful, but being aware of them and then weighing them in the light of Scripture is necessary and good.

[iv] All Scripture in this section is of the New English Translation (NET), unless otherwise noted.

Image by <a href=”http://Image by Josep Monter Martinez from Pixabay“>Josep Monter Martinez

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.

ENDNOTES:

[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.

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