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.

ENDNOTES:

[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.

Posted in Grace

Common Rebuttals on Giving without Consent: Isn’t that just Forceful Coercion?

Knee-jerk reactions are common when the subject matter in question is either misunderstood, found offensive to the hearer, or alien to their personal view of reality. A common reaction that occurs with a discussion on the word “gift.” In biblical language, a gift of God is synonymous with grace.

“Grace” refers to the unearned, unmerited favor of the Creator bestowed upon the creature. Grace[i] is something freely given by God to mankind; an undeserved mercy that He is not required to give. While, it is true that there are differences in how this grace is distributed, the point is that it begins with God not with man. Grace is an activity (action) of the Creator with mankind as the recipient (receiver).

NO, NO, Grace Can’t Mean That!

The knee-jerk reaction is in response to what it means to “receive a gift.” The respondent who is eager to argue against the biblical position will say things like, “If I do not get to choose to receive (take) the gift, then it is not a gift. If you mean the ‘receiving of the gift’ is something that God must do for me, then it is not a gift but coercion. If I do not will to actively receive the gift, then I it is being forced upon me! Calvinism’s God forces Himself upon the unwilling, and I’ll have none of that…thank you very much!”

My understanding, sympathies and even empathy with that position aside, the fact remains that to receive something may be accomplished in either the active or passive sense. This is effectively demonstrated in the Gospel According to John as I have been arguing (here 1st  here 2nd  ,here 3rd). In the same way a gift is acquired either actively or passively.

I must admit that I find it strange when someone claims that a “gift is not a gift if I did not receive (actively) it.” Like a Christmas present. Or to argue that “if I receive (passively) something from God without my permission (i.e. my active choice), it is a violation of who I am (i.e. my will).” Like the rain. In that case, it is said, it is not a gift but an act of force/coercion.

Did I choose my life? No. But was it a gift? Yes. Did it require my approval? No.

“But you couldn’t give your approval, because you were not yet born!” True, but my point is that does not remove the fact of us calling it a gift from God and our parents. I suppose you could say that it was forced upon you—since you didn’t ask—but your reasoning will not change reality. Life is a gift, it comes from God and He does not ask our permission beforehand.

Illustrations from Experience and Scripture…

Hold your knees for a moment! Before you attempt to squirm your way out of that remember all I’m attempting to establish is that there are times when a gift is a gift regardless of our choice. Take for example my little sister.

When we were young, we moved to Colorado Springs, CO. Our family took a trip to the top of Pikes Peak. My parents were preoccupied with something (could have been my other sister), but I was the only one paying attention when my little sister stepped passed a safety line. I don’t know how far of a drop it was, but even now as I think of it my fingers sweat…it was pretty steep. Immediately, I grabbed the back of her coat and yanked her back to safety. In that moment I had given a gift to my sister—life—and I didn’t ask her permission or give her a choice in the matter. I took the initiative and acted where she, as a toddler, was too stupid to do so. Does her lack of “choice” (active receiving) somehow lesson the fact that she was given a gift? No.

What about a debtor whose debt is too high to pay back? He is incapable of paying back what he owes, though he is responsible for doing so. His life is forfeit. The judgment is set. However, the one to whom the debt is owed gives mercy to the debtor forgiving the debt he was responsible for, but unable to pay. Is that a gift? Yes. Did the debtor ask for it? No, but it was granted to him nonetheless.[ii]

I suppose if you still want to argue, which is highly likely since the issue is not how we define the word (i.e. in context) but rather with what you want to believe, you may say to me: “Yes, but if your sister knew the danger she would have asked for aid. If the debtor thought the Judge would be merciful, he’d have begged to erase his debt.” The problem is that my sister was unaware of the danger and so such choosing was beyond her capacity. Likewise, the debtor was unaware that the Judge would ever be so lenient, so gracious towards him, and so he did nothing and it was credited to him instead.

Counter Arguments…

A gift is defined by the giver, not the recipient. An act of merciful grace is not coercion, but doing for one what they are incapable of doing for themselves (cf. John 8.36).  Still there will be some that calls such “gifting” forceful coercion.

The thoughts of the late Norman Geisler provide an excellent example of such thinking. He wrote,

  • “Forced freedom, whether of good or evil, is contrary to the nature of God as love and contrary to the God-given nature of human beings as free. Forced freedom is a contradiction in terms…no matter how well the act of ‘irresistible grace’ is hidden by euphemistic language, it is still a morally repugnant concept.”[iii]

What Geisler is here arguing against is the idea that God gives fallen creatures a new heart[iv] (removing a heart of stone, giving a heart of flesh), what is often referred to as regeneration or being born-again, so that the individual in question might respond appropriately to the Lord. He finds that activity of God, if it is true, to be an extreme violation against creaturely will; comparable to dragging them kicking and screaming against their will. Later on, in his book he offers an interesting analogy to illustrate his point.

He writes of a man on his porch enjoying the mountainous scenery, but being set upon by a hornet’s nest forced to seek safety indoors. He writes, “…this…was not a truly free choice. He was coerced into doing it.”[v] I guess God graciously acting for the fallen creature is comparable to a nasty nest of hornets besetting the semi-innocent by stander? While, I don’t believe Geisler’s illustration has the force he thought it did, it does prove a position that he tenaciously denies (which we’ll work through in the near future).

You see, the person who desires to sit upon the porch to take in the visually appealing view is confronted with a choice. If he stays outside to view what he desired, his mortal life will be threatened by the angry hornets. Thus, he is then presented with two choices. One pertaining to pleasure, the other geared toward self-preservation. They are real choices driven by an internal will.

Though the hornets are a mighty force to behold, the man could stubbornly refuse to go inside. He’ll suffer greatly for it, for the wrath of angered hornets is not to be trifled with, but the choice is still before him. The other option is to protect what is truly valuable to him—his own skin. So, while the choice to go inside to safety may not be as pleasurable as enjoying the beautiful view of God’s creation, it is more pleasurable than receiving many stings from a dangerous opponent that can end your life. He still made the choice, no one forced or coerced him to do it.

Not liking the choices, is not the same as not having a choice. Just because the term “gift” is not couched in language you are comfortable with, doesn’t mean it becomes less than a gift. A kidnap victim may sympathize with their captor (Stockholm syndrome), but that does not mean a person who frees them from the situation is not acting graciously towards them. You could say the same about a person in an abusive relationship. The abused may see it as a violation to free them from the situation, but isn’t that activity of “saving” them a gift nonetheless? One would have to be pretty foolish to argue in opposition to this, but people do.

We’ll look at why the do in upcoming posts…

God Bless!

ENDNOTES:

[i] P. E. Hughes defines grace as “…undeserved blessings freely bestowed on humans by God—a concept that is at the heart not only of Christian theology but also of all genuinely Christian experience.” Walter A. Elwell, ed. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic [1984], 2001), 519.

[ii] This narrative is illustrated by Jesus when speaking on the subject of forgiveness (Matt 18.22-35). The debtor owes his Master what he is incapable of paying. He cannot pay the debt, so he asks for more time. The Master grants to forget his debt. The debtor did not ask for forgiveness, but time. What the parable proves is that though the Master is gracious to forgive debts owed to Him, the man in question was really wicked at heart because he was unwilling to forgive those who owed him. Only those who call on the Lord with a humble and contrite heart will be forgiven, but only true disciples of Christ are capable of demonstrating such a spirit. The rest are left facing judgment.

[iii] Norman L. Geisler, Chose But Free: A Balanced View of Divine Election, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, [1999], 2001), 98, 99.

If you’re interested in the counter view to this work check out: James R. White. The Potter’s Freedom: A Defense of the Reformation and a Rebuttal of Norman Geisler’s Chosen But Free. Revised Ed. Calvary Press. 2009.

[iv] There are various other ways that Scripture identifies the fallen state of the children of Adam. Making necessary God’s action to change them so that people might respond appropriately to His Law-Word—i.e. blinded-eyes, lame, leprous, deaf, unclean lips, slave and dead. NOTE: None of these conditions can be changed physically by a movement of creaturely will, neither can they be changed spiritually by that method. Therefore, God acts (graciously) to transform them.

[v] Geisler, Chose But Free: A Balanced View of Divine Election, 186.

Posted in John 3, Salvation

Receiving From Heaven: Continued…

When last we met, we were discussing John the Baptist’s statement in John 3. Where his disciples questioned him about his diminishing ministry and the subsequent rise of Jesus the Nazarene’s. Replying to his men, the Baptist explained in no uncertain terms the following truth:

  • “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven” (John 3.27).[i]

This statement by the Baptist identifies what many do not believe, fail to accept, or choose to ignore—we are incapable of getting anything in this life apart from our Heavenly Father giving them to us. I don’t think many Christians will find that truth problematic. However, where things get a bit hairy is when I tie this truth to salvation.

Complexities in our Language…

All words have meaning, and depending upon your background you will perceive the meaning of certain words a bit differently than others. This does not mean that words are undefinable. Nor does this truth imply that getting at the truth is impossible, but it should highlight us to the need of being aware of our own biases.

In other words, what people say is not always what you hear. Salvation is a gift. To receive something is to become a partaker of the gift. How you hear the word “receive” (i.e. how you define the term) will determine how you understand it. John the Baptist says that people “cannot receive even one thing” …apart from God. (This, then, would naturally include salvation.)

He uses the word “cannot” to describe inability. It is something that we as people are incapable of doing.  Now suppose you don’t accept what I just said that “cannot describes inability.”  Why do I say that? When I was a child and I asked for permission to sharpen my pencil in class how my teacher responded to the request was determined by how I asked the question:

  • Q1: Mrs. So-n-So, “Can I sharpen my pencil?”
  • Q2: Mrs. So-n-So, “May I sharpen my pencil?”

Question 1 is a question of ability. Is sharpening my pencil something I am capable of (can) doing? That was the wrong question to pose to my teacher, as they often corrected this tendency. Question 2 is a question of permission. Is sharpening my pencil something I am allowed (permitted) to do? Looking back at John the Baptist statement to his disciples, we should be able to see he emphasizes the inability of mankind.

Pay attention to categories of thought as you reread it. Is it impossible for a person to receive some things, most things or all things apart from God giving it? The Baptist points to “all things”: “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven” (emphasis added).

Our understanding depends on where we lay the emphasis…

I realize that what really catches our attention is the word “receive.” What does it mean to “receive” something? Well, as I said last time it really depends on the sense in which the word is being used. To receive can either be in the active sense or the passive sense. How are we to know what sense is being meant by the Baptist specifically or John 3 in particular?

Context…context…context. If you want to find the answer to how John the Baptist is using the term pay attention to the flow of thought.  What is the underlying issue that the Baptist’s disciples are concerned about? Jesus’ ministry is growing: “Rabbi, the One you testified about, and who was with you across the Jordan, is baptizingand everyone is flocking to Him” (John 3.26; HCSB; italics added).

The point of contention is Jesus is baptizing Israelites in the Jordan. Technically, his disciples are the ones doing it (see John 4.2), but the practice is being performed in His Name.  This led to a debate between John’s disciples and a fellow Jew (or Jews) over purification.  Baptism is more than mere water dunking; it is a sign of new life, of one being purified from their sins. Jesus alluded to this truth earlier in John 3 in His conversation with Nicodemus when said one must “…be born of water and the Spirit” (John 3.5; italics added).

Both John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth were prophets of God. As prophets they understood the teachings of Scripture as they were sent as heralds of the truth to their generation. Jesus was greater than John since He came from above, but this does not diminish the importance of John the Baptist’s ministry[ii]. The reason we find both John and Jesus teaching baptism is because of what God promises to do for His people[iii]:

  • “Thus says the Lord God: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Lord God, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and [I will] give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and [I will] cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. And I will deliver you from all your uncleanness” (Ezek 36.22-29; emphasis added).

This is God’s Work…

One of the reasons that I kept the above quote so lengthy is because I wanted to highlight that the entire work of baptizing (cleansing the inner-man) is God’s action not persons. God does ALL the work the person being saved by this work merely receives it. Actively? Like Christmas or birthday presents or money being handed out…where I just grab ahold of them at take them? No, the Ezekiel text shows that man passively receives what God is giving.

This prophetic utterance of Ezekiel finds its fulfillment in Jesus the Christ. All this gifting of God that Ezekiel foretold is said to be received by the true children of God, but the reception of the gift is passive not active. God actively gives and people receive, but the reception of the gift is passively accomplished.

Baptism is a work of God—again not speaking of the mere sprinkling of water here, which serves as a sacramental sign. Baptism signifies new birth, a new creation. And according to Scripture all who are in Christ are newly created.

Jesus teaching Nicodemus…

If we look back at John 3 in its entirety, we find that this is what is being taught. In fact, the apostle John’s teaching (not the Baptizer) flows from Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus to John the Baptists discussion with his disciples. The first speaking of being “born-again” or “born-from-above.” The second speaking of baptism which draws attention to the need of being purified (i.e. reborn) from sin; which, is the result of the new life gained by the life-giving Holy Spirit.

Nicodemus came to Jesus at night and said to the Lord, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him” (John 3.2). What did Nicodemus just say? That it is impossible for any man to do the sort of things that has been reported about Jesus unless it has been given from above—i.e. “unless God is with him.”

Is Nicodemus a believing man? At first blush it appears so, but not according to the Lord. Yes, it is true that Nicodemus professed that Jesus must be “from God,” but so do the demons in the first century: “And demons also came out of many, crying, ‘You are the Son of God!’ but he rebuked them and would not allow them to speak, because they knew that he was the Christ” (Luke 4.41; cf. James 2.19). But what was the Lord’s immediate response to Nicodemus?

  • “Jesus answered him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again [Grk. from above] he cannot see the kingdom of God’” (John 3.3)

Oh no, there’s that pesky man “can-not” do statement again. Jesus says it is not possible for man to “see the kingdom of God.” Without delving deeply into a debate about another subject, I will merely point out that “kingdom of God” speaks of the rule of the king and not a physical location (cf. Matt 6.9-13; see 12.28). This helps us understand that the word “see” does not refer to physical sight as much as it does comprehension and understanding. Not to be limited to a mental form of comprehension or understanding, because again demons can do that, but spiritual comprehension (cf. 1Cor 2.8-14).

While, Nicodemus chokes on that statement the Lord hits him with another one:

  • “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3.5).

Once more we find man’s inability highlighted by Jesus. This time he refers to entering in.

No one can enter into the kingdom unless something else happens first. What is it? He must be “born of water and the Spirit.” Here Jesus draws from the prophet Ezekiel’s teaching (quoted above). A person must first be reborn through the waters of purification by the Spirit’s power before they can enter into the kingdom as a rightful citizen.[iv] Again, not location, but pertaining to “rule.” The rightful citizen desires to be obedient to the rule of the king.

Jesus offers a clear explanation of what he means when he speaks about being born-again,

“That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes or where it goes. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3.6-8; emphasis added).

In other words, you cannot receive something unless it has been granted to you. Using an illustration of the wind to drive His point home, Jesus says, “so it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” Just as the wind blows where it wishes coming from one direction to the next without our knowledge, so too it is with the Holy Spirit’s activity in the world. He does as He sees fit, and the only way we know He has been active is by paying attention to the results (i.e. hear [His] sound).

A Necessary Tie-In…

The use of “birth” language is especially important here. Our being born into this world is what we might consider a predominately fleshly activity. From an earthly standpoint we are the byproduct of parental coupling; the union of man and woman (cf. John 3.6a). From a heavenly standpoint we are brought into the world by our Creator’s sovereign decree (cf. John 3.6b). For God has “…determined [our] appointed times and the boundaries of where [we] live” (Acts 17.26b; cf. Deut 32.8). However, in both cases we receive life (passively) and all the bounty that pertains to it (time, wealth, and power) as a gift. Not because we asked for it, but because it was granted to us—an act of grace.

“You mean, God does not consult our wishes in the matter???” If he did, what would be the result?

ENDNOTES:

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

[ii] The difference between what John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth were doing was in terms of ability. John could only baptize with water pointing to a supernatural work of God; whereas, Jesus the Christ would baptize with the Spirit. Why? Because they were gifted according to their calling as the Baptist explained to his disciples (cf. John 3.31-36). John could not do what Jesus did, for he did not receive this ability from God above.

[iii] Please note as a rule of thumb that any doctrine found being taught on in the New Testament had its foundation laid in the Old Testament. These are not new teachings in the sense of never having been taught before. They are new in the sense that they are updated and perfected (in meaning and application) in Christ Jesus. The book of Hebrews probably illustrates this truth in detailed and thought out format more exhaustively than any other New Testament document.

[iv] You should ask yourself the following question: Why is that necessary? Why does man need to be purified? What does he need a new spirit within him? Again, Jesus says this is true, not Kris; although, I do concur. Not that the Lord needs my concurrence, but He does require my humility (as well as yours) on this subject.

Posted in Salvation

Receiving from Heaven: What does it mean to “receive?”

A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven” (John 3.27).

This is what John the Baptist said to his own disciples when they noticed that the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth was beginning to pick up momentum. In that moment, John realized that his hour in the spotlight of God’s sovereign plan was diminishing: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3.30).

This man had an understanding of the realities of life from God’s perspective better than many today do. In verse 27 he speaks of the inability of mankind. Not a popular theme—human impossibility—but one oft repeated throughout this gospel. No small wonder when you consider that the writer was one of Jesus’ inner three. For Jesus constantly highlighted that what was impossible for man to do, was not impossible for God (cf. Matt 19.26; Mark 10.27; Luke 18.27).

The question regarding salvation is often debated on the grounds of various terms. The one I wanted to briefly discuss today has to do with the word “receive.” John the Baptist says that an individual “cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven.” This statement says multiple things at once.

First, the Baptist is highlighting the fact that all things come from God. He is our great benefactor. All gifts come from the Father of heavenly lights as another biblical writer so eloquently put it (James 1.17). Second, the statement speaks of human inability.

I will grant some may not appreciate tying this verse to the question of salvation, but I will explain why I have done so a little later. For now, what I would like you the reader to consider is the implication of the statement.

John the Baptist understood this…

The Baptist is not offering this as a hypothetical situation, but a clear category distinction.  No one can “receive” anything unless it has been “given” from above. Nothing…nada…zip…zilch!  “If God ain’t giving it, you ain’t receiving it!” to use some of my backwoods charm.

Consider the breadth of what the Baptist is saying. Look at his life. His disciples want to know why he is not upset that Jesus’ ministry is overtaking his own. Jesus is gaining notoriety; whereas, his limelight is quickly fading. And, his response? “Fellas, it’s not a big deal. Everything that we have in life, everything that we received is a gift from God. ‘A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven.’”

What had the Baptist received that was from God? Everything. His birth was brought about miraculously. No doubt his parents Zechariah and Elizabeth wanted to have children. That was their desire, but they were not able. “Elizabeth was barren and both [her and her husband] were advanced in years” (Luke 1.7). But God was gracious to them, giving them a son in their old age (cf. Luke 1.13-14). The Lord gave them a son, and He gave their son a name—John. The Lord gave John a ministry as a prophet. Being from the tribe of Levi he had already received a high calling from the Lord, but an ever-greater gift was granted him in that he was the herald for the coming King—Messiah (cf. Luke 1.15-17).

Again, what had the Baptist received from God? Everything!

Let me put it another way, “Was the life, the calling, and the subsequent ministry that the Baptist “received” from the Lord something that he first had to accept and take? Did he have a right or the ability to refuse what God had granted (gifted) him?”

Well, when did the Baptist receive his calling? Before or after his conception? Before or after he reached an age where he might choose to accept or reject it?

In order to answer those questions, it would seem that defining the term “receive” is our best bet. I have often heard the statement that in order to truly receive something as a gift, then I must be able to choose or reject it. It is then argued, “If I don’t take it or if I don’t have this ability/right, then it is essentially being forced upon me.”

This is a popular method by non-Calvinists to argue against the notion that in order to believe (i.e. have faith in God) one must first be regenerated—i.e. be born-again; born-from-above. For if God has to regenerate me before I believe, then he has not given me a gift but forced me to do something against my will.

(An interesting admission, to be sure, since the Bible is pretty clear we are not willing in our natural state, but perhaps that is a subject for another day.)

An Example Given in his Calling…

Before we go about defining “receive,” let’s see if we can follow the Baptist’s logic in the text. Let’s look at his calling: “did God force John the Baptist into his ministry as a herald of the coming King?” Think…when did the Baptist receive his calling? Before or after his birth? Which came first the calling or the birth?  The calling—his being appointed/ordained—came first.

You see, the Baptist’s ministry as a prophet of the Lord was predetermined long before he was born into the world[i]:

  • “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me…Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction” (Mal 3.1; 4.5-6)

John the Baptist was that messenger sent to the children of Israel in the first century in the spirit of Elijah. Both Jesus (see Matt 11.14; 17.10-12) and the other gospel writers highlight this fact (see Luke 1.16-17, 76; John 1.23; cf. Isa 40.3-5). Again, we must ask, “Was the Baptizer forced into this ministry that he received from the Lord above?”

The only thing forced is the refusal to fully define the meaning and sense of a word. To receive something does not mean “I have to grab for it or be able to reject it, less it not be a gift but coercion.” There are two senses in which this word may be accurately defined and used; either active or passive.

So, in which way did John the Baptist understand his ministry as a gift (something he received) from above. Was it actively or passively received? Obviously, we can show that it was actively received after he grew up, lived in the desert, wore a goat-skinned tunic with a leather belt, eating honey and locust, proclaiming the good-news of the kingdom, calling on people to repent and baptizing them in God’s name in the Jordan River.

Identifying a problem…

However, there is a problem if we want to stop and say:

  • “There it is! That proves my point! John the Baptist had to actively accept his calling as a prophet before he did those things.”

Yes, that would be true if the sovereign King over all creation were nowhere found in the discussion, but that is not the case. Not even in the slightest. The necessary prerequisite is that the “receiving” of the calling from God must first be passively applied.

He had received his calling before he was born. God did not inquire of him, “Would you do this thing for me?” Rather, God said “for this purpose you were made.”  Did the fact that God predetermined the sort of man the Baptist would be make him any less of a man? No. Was it any less of a gift because it was something that had been granted to him without his consent? No, from his point of view it was an occasion for great rejoicing:

  • “The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is complete” (John 3.29).

As I said before John the Baptist had a much clearer understanding of the true nature of things than many well-meaning, but poorly informed Christians do today. He looked at his calling and compared what he had received from God as a gift. Not because he grabbed for it, but because God made him what he was. God’s grace was richly poured into the Baptist’s life well-before he could even talk. He received from God truly good things. He identified them as a gift from above, not because his action was the first priority; rather, God’s action was the first priority.

With this insight, he could look at Jesus and say “he is from above and I am from below…He is above all and I am just an earthly man, ‘He must increase and I must decrease’” (John 3.30-31; paraphrased).

I’m not finished with this discussion, but I want to pause for a moment to give you an opportunity to mull these things over. (Well that, and I want to spend some time with my family for our celebration of the 4th of July.)  Sometime at the beginning of next week we will return to discuss the term “receive” in a more specific salvific sense; again, looking at the active and passive senses in which it maybe understood.

God Bless!

ENDNOTES:

[i] “Since his days are determined, and the number of his months is with you, and you have appointed his limits that he cannot pass…” (Job 14.5); “…all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, ‘What have you done?’” (Dan 4.35).  Just a couple examples, (there are more) that explain how our lives—even our very steps—are sovereignly determined. For further reflection see Jer 10.3; Prov 16.1; 20.24.

Posted in regeneration, Salvation

Regeneration Logically Precedes Faith (Belief): A response to Haden Clark

Today, I wanted to take a brief moment to give my own thoughts in response to an article that I recently read by Haden Clark (here), whose contention is that our belief precedes our regeneration. A belief common to many Evangelical Christians today. In this response I hope to offer a counter balance to his conceptual argument against Reformed thought. I am admittingly intrigued by his proposed biblical support forthcoming, so I refrain entering into that water until a later date.

A QUESTION OF ORIGINS…

Which came first? The chicken or the egg? The question puzzles millions, but only because of a difference in starting points. If you believe in an evolutionary style process where little by little information was added until you have a semi-final product (if its evolving, it can never be final), then no doubt you assume that the egg needed to come first. If you believe in biblical creation, then you realize that the chicken necessarily came first. God created birds, fish, various land creatures, and human beings according to their kinds, and He made them male and female.

The solution to the question is found in the authority that is acknowledged and appealed to. No one was there in the beginning. At least you and I were not, and so our beliefs about what was and how it came to be is decided on what we are found submitting to.

Although, the question of the chicken and the egg is not exactly the same it is similar to the question regarding belief: Which came first, faith or regeneration. Faith speaks of action. While, the world will often see faith as a “blind-leap,” a wishful hoping and wringing of the hands, true faith is the trust one places in another. This trust is not just by word of mouth—an expression of mental assent—but by a purposeful activity towards something.

A QUESTION HISTORICALLY WEIGHED: BY WHOSE AUTHORITY

Salvation is an important Christian doctrine that is often seen as an intramural debate within the body of Christ. The argument that often occurs in Christian circles regarding the issue of creation vs. evolution is the same sort of argument that occurs in the area of soteriology (salvation). Who has the final word? Who gets the final “say-so?” Who has ultimate authority?

One of the key doctrines that sparked the reformer Martin Luther to address the Roman Catholic Church with his grievances was on this very issue—salvation. Who saves who? Is it the Church or is it God? Is it something man must first assent to? Or is it something that God must first move upon? Who is responsible for our belief in the gospel of Jesus Christ? God or man?

Erasmus and Luther debated this very issue in the Bondage of the Will. Erasmus believed that it was strongly implied that man has some ability to believe in God. For, why would God command something that we the creature could not respond to? If God commanded it, then we must be able to respond properly (i.e. exercise faith). Luther strongly disagreed because Scripture does not imply the creatures ability, but strongly denies it. The denials are not implications, but rather direct rebuttals of any form of goodness in man.

Is belief in Jesus Christ a good or bad thing? Is having faith in the gospel of God—trusting in what God has done in history, specifically in Jesus of Nazareth—a good thing? Obviously, it is we would be foolhardy to deny it. But, that leaves us in a bit of a conundrum for the Bible is very clear on this: there is no goodness in fallen man. Not even a tiny, little spark.

SEEMINGLY AGREED UPON ASSUMPTIONS AND HOW THEY FALL APART

And yet, our faith in Christ, is an exceedingly good thing. Why? Because it is a gift from God, something that we did not originally possess, but was given to us. Haden Clark agrees,

  • Faith being a gift is another concept worth pointing out. All are in agreement on this point. Calvinists, Arminians, and Traditionalists all agree that salvation, faith, repentance, and the whole nine yards are a gift from God” (par. 18).

That is to say, it is the grace of God that brings about our salvation, faith, and repentance. It is the unmerited favor of our Lord that bestows upon us such wonderful treasures. Ironically, where we seem to agree is where we are found in strong disagreement. The problem is that we do not define grace in the same way.

Clark’s analogy serves as a good example of what I mean. He writes,

  • If I freely gave you a one-hundred dollar check that you took to the bank and cashed, and then proceeded to march around town boasting about how you had earned it, who would take you seriously? No one who knew the truth of the matter” (par ).

Well, what is the truth of the matter? According to Clark it appears that God grace is similar to a person offering you a gift of money, and you reaching out and taking it. However, what are the underlying assumptions? First that the person being offered the gift is fairly neutral to the prospect of a free gift. There is no apparent hostility between the two individual’s. Second, that the person who “receives” the gift is free to take it. Nothing binds the person. Shackles of any kind are non-existent. Third, that the individual “receiving” the gift is capable of discerning between that which is good and that which is not. Spiritual depravity is denied.

I am familiar with this line of argumentation. I used to believe it, even taught it for a time. What changed my heart/mind regarding it? My belief did not find allegiance with the text of God.

A better analogy might be offered at this point.

You are a criminal standing before the judgment seat. The books are opened, and the evidence is stacked heavily against you. “What say you?” says the Judge. Our mouths at that moment are found shut. In the past, we may have offered excuses to others in our lives for our sin, but before Him in the light of His holy Law we know in our hearts that we are rightly condemned. “Guilty! The verdict is punishment by eternal death.” When all hope seems lost, another opens His mouth. He says to the Judge of all the Earth, this one is spoken for. I have paid the price, laying down my life for his. I have already bore His punishment on the cross.” At that moment, the Judge looks at you and says, “Though your sin is deserving of death, One worthy and able of paying your debt has stepped in. Rather than receiving wrath—which you deserve—I give to you mercy. You have received the gift of life, when death was all that was promised to you. At that moment, you look to your Savior, your new Lord and pour out praises and undying fealty to Him. In Him you trust alone, for He has done what you could not do for yourself. He has given you eternal life—the gift (grace) of God.

To be fair, I will point out to you my own assumptions.

We are not basically good, but fully evil. Though we assume that we are free and nothing binds us, the reality is that we are slaves of sin. Our crimes are against a Holy God whose Law, which is perfectly spiritual and good, shuts our mouths. Had no one acted on our behalf we would all be damned. Our choices in life do not lead us to Him, unless He has been the one guiding our steps. The gift of God’s grace is not that we reached out to Him in hope, but that He reached out to us in love, and placed that love in our hearts. He first demonstrated this love by taking our place on the cross, and we return this love in faith because He changed our hearts, giving us new life. His grace He poured into us, we did not seek to do this for ourselves.

DEFINING TERMS WITH SHADES OF DIFFERENCE

Clark points out rightly that Calvinists believe, “If God grants you faith, you will necessarily believe” (par. 20). That is true. In Reformed thought, salvation—which includes our faith—necessarily leads to belief in the Triune God of Scripture.

Understandably so, given his own presuppositions, Clark finds this very distasteful. Why? It has to do with the way in which we defines “gift” or “grant” or the “grace of God.” He concludes,

  • If I give you a gift that you cannot resist, I didn’t give it to you. I forced it upon you to the extent that you could not reject it” (par. 22).

So, it is a violation of man, if God does for the creature what the creature is incapable of doing himself? It is a violation of man if God opens the eyes of the creature showing them the light of glory by giving him eyes to see? It is a violation of man, if God saves the creature from his own destructive living, stopping him from running headlong off a cliff chasing after the hounds of hell?

Perhaps, this is easier for me to see that this is not a violation of the creature, since I have children of my own. I pour my love into my kids lives doing for them what they do not intend to do for themselves. Perhaps, they sometimes view it as a violation of their own precious wills, but they are fools. It is my duty before God, and out of love for them, to correct their waywardness. To do for them what they cannot do for themselves.

Clark does not like mischaracterizations of a person’s position, and I agree with him. But he is mischaracterizing what Calvinists believe when he says that our view of God’s saving us is in reality Him “forcing upon” us the gift of eternal life. We believe that it is God doing for us what we are incapable of doing for ourselves, because of our fallen condition and inward hostility towards Him. If He did not act in such a manner, we would be left in our sinful state. His giving us such mercy, rather than wrath is not seen as violating us, but loving us.

IMPORTANT QUESTIONS TO BE ASKED

Why do we need a new heart? Why do we to be made alive? If we are fully capable of turning, trusting, and responding to God apart from receiving these things, then why do I need them?

If faith comes before regeneration (i.e. being born from above), then why do I need a new life? I can already run to God, choosing the good. It seems to follow that I could likewise be obedient to the Law, for the gospel is also a law which demands that I repent of my sins and swear allegiance to Christ anyway. The consequence of failing to do so guarantees my damnation, just like the consequence of refusing to obey all of God’s other instructions.

Scripture identifies the order of life as a gift of God. Something that He brings about, and we the creature enjoy the benefit. What is true of our natural birth, is likewise true of our spiritual birth. “The Spirit is the one who gives life; human nature is of no help” (John 6.63a; NET). That’s why we have nothing to boast in; even our belief.