Friday, November 6, 2009

Reflections on Limited Salvation

16 For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. (John 3)

I've encountered among certain groups of Christians a sense of fatalism.  The idea is that God has already decided who will be saved and who will be damned before they even came into being.  This is not a view of God's omniscience, where He knows who will and who will not accept His mercy.  Rather, this view holds some people were created with the intention that they be saved and some people were created for the intention of being damned.

Under such a view, there is nothing we can do.  If we are predestined to be saved, it does not matter what we do.  If we are predestined to be damned, all our longing for God is of no avail.

It really makes me shake my head in sadness.  When did these Christians make a loving and merciful God, calling for His people to return to Him into an arbitrary tyrant?

I believe this view is not due to defending the justice of God, but defending a flawed view of God which must call injustice "just."

Free Will and God

One of the things which seem to be the cause of such a view is a fear that if man has free will to decline God's grace it means God is not all powerful.  Since we as Christians do believe that God is all powerful and His will cannot be thwarted, these people have to create a view which denies free will can refuse God's call.

The problem I have with such a view is that God made man with free will to accept Him or to reject Him, and even though God desires our good, some will not accept it.  He permits us to go our own way, as the Father permitted the Prodigal Son, yet welcomes back the repentant (Luke 15:11-32).

The Fear of Language Implying a Weakness of God

Unfortunately, some Christians fear any sort of language that seems to imply God is bound so He cannot do something.  For example, the idea that God cannot do evil seems to imply that God is not free.  After all, if we can do evil but God cannot, does this not mean we are more free than God?  So to get around it, they say "Well, God can lie, but He won't lie."  Unfortunately, this is nonsense, even if it is widely held.

Why do I call this nonsense?

Because it shows a failure to understand what evil is.  Too many people tend to have a Manichean view of Good and Evil.  Good is a real thing.  But to too many, so is evil.  So from this kind of view, people hold that God is all powerful, therefore He would have the power to do evil, otherwise a being which could do evil would be more powerful than God.

The problem is, evil is not a presence of a thing, but an absence of good.  A deficiency.  So the evil of Hitler would be understood as a lack of those things we are called to do in the service of God: A lack of mercy, justice and compassion.

When we remember this, to say "God could do evil but chooses not to" is to actually say that God is not perfect, but flawed, and merely covers these flaws with self control.

Such a view of God is of course blasphemous.  Yet those who fear that language which they think makes God seem limited, do indeed make these views associated with God.

Must We Have No Freedom if God Is To Be Entirely Free?

One problem people have is if a person is free to accept or reject God's grace, it seems to make God's ability to save less.  Double predestination and "Faith Alone"

The 1911 Catholic Encyclopedia describes the problem with the view this way towards both the so-called elect and the so-called reprobate:

…the absolute will of God as the sole cause of the salvation or damnation of the individual, without regard to his merits or demerits; as to the elect, it denies the freedom of the will under the influence of efficacious grace while it puts the reprobate under the necessity of committing sin in consequence of the absence of grace. The system in its general outlines may thus be described: the question why some are saved while others are damned can only be answered by assuming an eternal, absolute, and unchangeable decree of God. The salvation of the elect and the damnation of the reprobate are simply the effect of an unconditional Divine decree.

But if those who are predestined for eternal life are to attain this end with metaphysical necessity, and it is only such a necessity that can guarantee the actual accomplishment of the Divine will, God must give them during their lifetime efficacious graces of such a nature that the possibility of free resistance is systematically excluded, while, on the other hand, the will, under the influence of grace, is borne along without reluctance to do what is right and is forced to persevere in a course of righteousness to the hour of death. But from all eternity God has also made a decree not less absolute whereby he has positively predestined  the non-elect to eternal torments.

God can accomplish this design only by denying to the reprobate irresistibly efficacious graces and impelling their will to sin continually, thereby leading them slowly but surely to eternal damnation. As it is owing to the will of God alone  that heaven is to be filled with saints, without any regard to their merits, so also it is owing to that same will of God that hell is to be filled with the reprobate, without any regard to their foreseen sins and demerits and with such only as God has eternally, positively, and absolutely destined for this sad lot.

In other words, this interpretation of God makes Him arbitrary.  He gives His life for some, but for others, He is the spiritual equivalent of the person who will not even bother to lift His hand to save a drowning man.

The question is, how is this just?

The Double Predestination Argument

The argument for Double Predestination has been explained by RC Sproul as:

Another significant difference between the activity of God with respect to the elect and the reprobate concerns God's justice. The decree and fulfillment of election provide mercy for the elect while the efficacy of reprobation provides justice for the reprobate. God shows mercy sovereignly and unconditionally to some, and gives justice to those passed over in election. That is to say, God grants the mercy of election to some and justice to others. No one is the victim of injustice. To fail to receive mercy is not to be treated unjustly. God is under no obligation to grant mercy to all — in fact He is under no obligation to grant mercy to any. He says, "I will have mercy upon whom I will have mercy" (Rom. 9). The divine prerogative to grant mercy voluntarily cannot be faulted. If God is required by some cosmic law apart from Himself to be merciful to all men, then we would have to conclude that justice demands mercy. If that is so, then mercy is no longer voluntary, but required. If mercy is required, it is no longer mercy, but justice. What God does not do is sin by visiting injustice upon the reprobate. Only by considering election and reprobation as being asymmetrical in terms of a positive-negative schema can God be exonerated from injustice.

There is a problem with this.  We need to consider God punishes the guilty for their own sins, but forgives the one who turns back to God.  Consider Ezekiel 18:

20 The soul that sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son; the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.

21 “But if a wicked man turns away from all his sins which he has committed and keeps all my statutes and does what is lawful and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. 22 None of the transgressions which he has committed shall be remembered against him; for the righteousness which he has done he shall live. 23 Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord GOD, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live? 24 But when a righteous man turns away from his righteousness and commits iniquity and does the same abominable things that the wicked man does, shall he live? None of the righteous deeds which he has done shall be remembered; for the treachery of which he is guilty and the sin he has committed, he shall die.

25 “Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way not just? Is it not your ways that are not just? 26 When a righteous man turns away from his righteousness and commits iniquity, he shall die for it; for the iniquity which he has committed he shall die. 27 Again, when a wicked man turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is lawful and right, he shall save his life. 28 Because he considered and turned away from all the transgressions which he had committed, he shall surely live, he shall not die. 29 Yet the house of Israel says, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ O house of Israel, are my ways not just? Is it not your ways that are not just?

Now, if a man cannot turn from sin without grace from God AND God only gives that grace to a limited number, then how can the wicked man turn from sin and save his life?  If God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (verse 23), how can He stand aloof when men in need of salvation are dying in damnation.

Also consider this line from Sproul: "God grants the mercy of election to some and justice to others. No one is the victim of injustice."

However, if all of us are guilty and worthy of damnation, but God only chooses to punish some of us, this is an arbitrary and unjust act.  It smacks of favoritism, and The Bible tells us in Acts 10:

34 And Peter opened his mouth and said:Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him."

Sproul's comment in fact contradicts what the Bible tells us about God.

Is It Just That a Man Be Punished For Something He Cannot Control?

Consider this.  Suppose a law be passed that all men shall live in houses, and anyone living as a vagrant will be severely punished.  The problem is the vagrant cannot choose to live in a house without the means to acquire a house.  Punishing a man for not living in a house when he does not have the means to gain some sort of shelter in a house is in fact an unjust law.  The vagrant is doing no more than it is possible for him to do, and he is being punished for not doing the impossible

Likewise, if the only way a man can avoid committing sin is the Grace of God (which is true), and a man does not receive that grace (what the proponents of Double Predestination call the Reprobate), what justice is it for that man to be damned for sinning?  This man is doing no more than is possible for him (under the view of Double Predestination), and is being punished for what is impossible for him to do.

Romans 9 and Double Predestination

Romans 9 is often cited as a justification for the view that God picks some people to be saved and others to be damned.  For example:

19 You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” 20 But who are you, a man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me thus?” 21 Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for beauty and another for menial use?

Such things are used to say that God made some people to be saved and others to be damned.  Yet, in context, we can see the issue Paul is addressing: Why is it some Jews are not accepting the Gospel while Gentiles are?  The Jews were the chosen ones of God after all.

Paul seems to address this at the end of Chapter 9:

30 What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, righteousness through faith; 31 but that Israel who pursued the righteousness which is based on law did not succeed in fulfilling that law. 32 Why? Because they did not pursue it through faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, 33 as it is written,

“Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone that will make men stumble,

a rock that will make them fall;

and he who believes in him will not be put to shame.”

The faithful who is saved is indeed still making an act of faith, and the promised who fail are not acting, but are presuming that because of their observances of the Law their salvation is assured.

We are seeing in this, something that negates the theory of Double Predestination.  We are seeing a difference made between certain Gentiles who come to Christ because they believe, while certain Jews are not attaining righteousness because they approach it from an attitude that because they keep the law, they are owed salvation.

Of course Paul is right in saying that one who pursues salvation based on what he does is not owed salvation.

Are We Owed Salvation?

However, there is a difference between saying it is unjust to punish a man for something he cannot avoid and saying God owes us salvation, and this is an error many have made in misrepresenting the teaching of the Catholic Church, which has wrongly been accused of Pelagianism. 

What we are speaking of is the idea of what is just.  If one is finite in nature, it makes sense to say it is not unjust to save only some in keeping with limited resources.  However, if God is infinitely powerful, the question is justly asked "Why does God not only refuse to save some, but it is His positive will that those men be damned… even before they are born?"

Atheists have asked, with validity, where the justice is in bringing people into existence if they are only going to be damned.  A just answer can only be given if we understand that God provides the necessary grace for salvation, but some men refuse the gift.  When we look at Romans 9 from this perspective, the section of the potter and the vessels makes more sense and shows the justice of God.  He does indeed know who will accept His grace and who will refuse it, but those who will ultimately refuse it cannot claim it was unjust that they were created, because God sent His Son for all of us.

The Bible Tells Us We Are To Act

Consider John the Baptist, who is seeking to preach a message of repentance and a baptism for the forgiveness of sins.  People are coming to him with a question:

10 And the multitudes asked him, “What then shall we do?” 11 And he answered them, “He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.” 12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” 13 And he said to them, “Collect no more than is appointed you.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” (Luke 3)

Indeed, in the same chapter, we see him rebuking the crowds for wanting salvation without a change of behavior:

7 He said therefore to the multitudes that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruits that befit repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9 Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

If we repent, we will show it in our actions.  Or to take the opposite tact, if our actions do not show contrite behavior, we are not sincere in our atonement.  Now if God actually wills for some of us to be damned, what good is a prophet who is sent to tell us to repent and to turn to God?  If they are predestined to be saved, such a message is unnecessary.  If they are predestined to be damned, such a message is futile.

Consider too Matthew's parables on those who enter the Heavenly Kingdom and those who are cast outside of it.  Consider Matthew 25:

31 “When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. 34 Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? 38 And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? 39 And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’ 46 And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

This is not a message of predestination.  This is a message of telling people not to presume their salvation, reminding them that they need to act on what they profess and not to assume that their profession of faith is enough.  How we behave to our fellow man on earth reflects whether we are doing God's will.

Also consider Mathew 7:

1 “Judge not, that you be not judged. 2 For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. 3 Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

Such a message is futile if one is already predestined to be saved and another damned.  If one is already saved, how can he be judged by the measure he gives to others?

The Fruits of Double Predestination

The fruits of this idea are negative for Christians.  It creates an attitude of judgment which is to be directed towards whoever disagrees with the Christian judging.  I know I have personally encountered some believers of this error who sought to write off my objections by saying my view "proved" I was one of the reprobate.

It also negates the need for the missions.  Christ told us to preach the Gospel to all nations, but really why bother when God has already decided who is saved and who is damned?

It negates the need for proper living.  Luther's infamous letter to Melanchthon gives us the hyperbole of even if one commits fornication a hundred times a day and murders a thousand times a day it cannot separate us from the grace of God has indeed led to the error of Once Saved, Always Saved which has been abused by those who think it does not matter when we do fall into sin.

(In contrast, the Catholic view would hold that God is indeed always ready to forgive no matter what sins we commit… but we are required to repent and turn back to Him if we would receive His forgiveness).

The view of Double Predestination is very similar to the view of "Fate" among the ancient pagans.  If a man was fated to do a thing, no matter how he struggled, his path was set, and even seeking to avoid this fate would lead to the final conclusion (Consider the story of Oedipus for example). 

Likewise, if one is predestined to be damned, life is nothing but despair.  If one is predestined to be saved, there is nothing we need concern ourselves with

I believe such a view is unworthy of Christians to consider, giving a blasphemous view of the justice, mercy and love of God.

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