Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Process of Salvation - Part 2

(Before proceeding, you must read Part 1.)

So how is a person "saved"? What does it mean to be "saved" to begin with? And what is the goal of "salvation"?

These are questions that many of us often give casual and hasty thought to. This is because we either assume we know the answers already, or we believe the questions are not all that important to begin with. We know the string of texts that we use to explain how a person is saved. You know, "All have sinned" (Romans 3:23), "The wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23), "For God so loved the world that He gave His only son, that whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life" (John 3:16). So we give a nod to God and "believeth in Him," and that's the end of the story; we're in - and that's all that matters.

While this string of texts has certainly led many into a walk with Christ, I am not sure that it really gets at the heart of what God is trying to reveal about, not only salvation, but also His character and what He's trying to accomplish in the grand scheme of things.

This string of texts presents other problems as well, mainly because it speaks to the problem I mentioned in Part 1 where we usually view salvation as a punctiliar event, rather than a process. Furthermore, we become challenged when we are confronted with Scriptural nuances in relation to salvation that don't fit into our preconceived ideas, be they speaking to the idea that salvation is something that happens in the future or something that happened in the past.

So, although the "science of salvation" can be rather simple, it can also be rather deep. Or, put another way, there is a deep simplicity to it that deserves our attention!

The Importance of Tenses

It is interesting to survey the NT usage of the words "salvation" and "save," especially noting the tenses of the latter word. This is critical. Doing so is very revealing, in and of itself. For example, the Greek word sozo is used 11x in the present tense, 31x in the future tense, 1x in the imperfect, 10x in the perfect, and 54x in the aorist. The last three tenses, though not neatly fitting into the category, are usually considered to be "past" tenses. So this means that out of the 107x the verb sozo ("to save") is used in the NT, roughly 60% of the time it is in reference to something that happened - or started to happen - in the past (though almost always it is, in fact, a completed action, since the perfect and aorist tenses both denote completed action, with the imperfect tense denoting something that started in the past, with no reference to whether it has been completed or not).

This, to me, is very telling. The NT spends the bulk of its time talking about salvation in a past, completed sense. This doesn't mean we should overlook the present and future elements of the process at all. On the contrary, these elements are critical. What it indicates to me, however, is that we need to recognize the importance of the foundational reality of Christ's accomplished salvific work, recognizing the implications of what the NT authors bring out about it.

As an example of these past tense sozo verbs, notice one of the most well-known passages on the salvation process. In Ephesians 2:8, Paul states, "For by grace you have been saved [perfect tense] through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God" (NKJV). Elsewhere, Paul writes in 2 Timothy 1:9 that God "has saved us [aorist] and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began" (NKJV). Finally, Paul again writes that God "saved us [aorist], not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit" (NASB).

Of course, it must be made clear that these passages do have some exegetical issues and they are not entirely as cut-and-dry as the versions I quoted make them appear. But, though the Greek of the passages is nuanced, I believe the versions I quoted are about as accurate as any other version.

With that being said, it is interesting to note some commonalities between these three verses as it relates to an "accomplished salvation."

1) Paul very clearly states in all these verses that we were not saved "by works." In fact, both Ephesians 2:9 and Titus 3:5 use the exact same Greek phrase to explain this: "Not of works" (ouk ex ergon), while 2 Timothy 1:9 says "not according to our works" (ou kata ta erga hemon).

2) Each passage presents our having been "saved" as a unilateral act done on God's part, accomplished by His grace and mercy, apart from anything we have done. Ephesians clearly states that it is "by grace" that we have been saved (which is an echo of what Paul had already said in v. 5), while he states to Timothy that we have been saved "according to His . . . grace," and he says to Titus that we have been saved "according to His mercy." Just a few verses later in Titus, as well, he also states that we have "been justified by His grace."

Of course, the astute student will point out that Paul does say, in Ephesians, that we have been saved "by grace through faith," thus implying that this "accomplished salvation" is not a completely one-sided, unilateral act done by God.

But whose faith does it speak of? Paul does not clarify! Thus, I cannot help but think that the "through faith" element that Paul speaks about is not our faith, but God's and Christ's faith (see Gal 2:16 in the KJV for further evidence of being saved/justified by Christ's faith). This, of course, is a whole other subject in and of itself that deserves an exhaustive treatment, but we will have to return to that in the future.

3) Each passage speaks of this "accomplished salvation" from a corporate perspective. The "you" of Ephesians is in the plural, whereas the "us" in both 2 Timothy and Titus are, obviously, in the plural as well.

What is the significance of this? Put another way, who has "been saved"? I believe contextually that Paul states that all of humanity has been unilaterally saved by God's grace. Ephesians 2:4-6, for example, states that "God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive [aorist tense] together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together [aorist], and made us sit [aorist] together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus."

This is a powerful, powerful passage that speaks to Christ's one-sided, objective work which He accomplished. Using aorist verb after aorist verb, Paul plainly states that "we" were raised up on that resurrection morning and were seated together "in Christ" when He ascended to heaven. And all this was done and completed "when we were dead in trespasses."

Furthermore, he speaks to this same point in Titus when he says that Christ "saved us" (3:5). But who is the "us"? Was it simply Paul and Titus, or even other Christians? On the contrary! Starting in the previous verse, Paul states that "when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared . . . He saved us." This is further solidified by what he shares in the previous chapter: "For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men." Or, as the NASB states it, "For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men" (the Greek of this passage is a little ambiguous and thus it has been translated differently by just about every version).

All this is to say that this salvation which has been accomplished, is not simply speaking of a select few; of believers who accept it or repent. No, on the contrary, when the Bible speaks about salvation as a past accomplishment, it is speaking about what God has accomplished unilaterally for the whole world - yes, even sinners and those who do not believe.

This idea is certainly not accepted by many. In fact, it is looked upon with great disdain. Nevertheless, this is a biblical idea, as one part - a very important part - of the salvation process. Truthfully, it is the foundational component of the salvation process and if it is overlooked, the rest of the process really has nothing on which to build.

Of course, we need to hasten to clarify what the Bible is saying when it talks about Christ "saving the whole world" as a past accomplishment. This is not universalism. The Bible is not saying that everyone will enjoy "eschatological salvation" and be "saved at last." What the Bible speaks about when it places salvation in the context of a past accomplishment is that Christ has unilaterally saved everyone from the "penalty" of sin.

Though some may object to this, since people will, no doubt, receive the penalty for sin in the future, it takes little thought to recognize the truth of the statement. One question will suffice in realizing this: has any human being yet received the "wages" of sin? The answer is "Yes." But just one! Christ.

As we already noted in passing, Paul elsewhere states that the "wages of sin is death" (Rom 6:23). This is not speaking simply of any death, however; it is speaking of eternal death - what the Bible also calls the "second death" (see Rev 2:11; 20:6, 14; 21:8). It is the penalty that Adam and Eve - and all other subsequent human beings - should have received the minute they/we sinned. But since Christ is the "Lamb slain from the foundation of the world" (Rev 13:8), and thus took upon Himself the penalty for all our sins, we have all been saved from the wages that we rightfully deserve. This is why David states in Psalm 103:10 that God "has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor punished us according to our iniquities." It is why Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:19 that God has not been "imputing their trespasses to [the world]."

The truth is, if God did impute our trespasses to us, if He did deal with us according to our sins, we would all be zapped instantly. It would be lights out. Instead, Christ has already saved and redeemed us from the "curse of the law, having become a curse for us" (Gal 3:13).

Of course, I know that many people will object to this "universal salvation" idea, insisting that we call it something else - anything else - but do not call it "salvation," or insist that every human being has already "been saved." Call it a "probation," or "second trial," they say, but do not call it what the Bible does not!

But we have already seen that the Bible does, in fact, call it "salvation," and that all have already "been saved." We have all been saved from the penalty of sin! We have all been given life completely by God's grace, secured solely by the fact that Christ took the penalty for sin upon Himself - all done freely and of His own initiative, independent of our doing or even asking. In fact, Christ did all this "while we were still sinners" (Rom 5:8), even His "enemies" (v. 10).

As we have already noted before, the reason people do not want to call this "salvation" or do not want to say that everyone has "already been saved," is because we have a very narrow and punctiliar definition of salvation. Most of us view it from a "if you were to die today, would you be saved?" mindset. But the Bible does not limit it to this. Remember, the larger definition of the Greek words for "salvation" and "saved" have the idea of "rescuing" or "delivering." And has not God already "rescued" us from the penalty for sin?

"Only if we accept it," some will respond! Is that so? What doth the Bible say? Furthermore, what happens when you pinch yourself? You recognize that you are alive and have not received the penalty for your sins.

Simply put, what the Bible teaches is that God has begun the salvation process for every human being. After all, doesn't Paul say elsewhere that God has "begun a good work" (Phil 1:6) in us? Because of this, none of us presently stand condemned. God has given to each human being the gift of salvation and the gift of life. If this were not so, none of us would even take a second breath after sinning.

This does not mean that everyone will continue through that process, as we will see; but it does mean that the only reason why any of us will be lost and condemned at last is because we have derailed the process that Christ has begun in our lives and thrown away the gift of life. Hence, Christ, personified through wisdom, sadly proclaims, "All those who hate me love death" (Prov 8:36). That is the only conclusion He can come to when He examines the facts. Those who throw away the salvation He has begun in their lives must truly love death. They would rather go to their eternal grave than continue the life that Christ has graciously started for them.

A further implication of this foundational reality is that, so long as a person is living, breathing, and able to hear the Holy Spirit's convicting power, he or she is not lost yet - even if they are living a life of complete sin and wickedness. I know that many people are frightened by this idea, believing that it inevitably gives license to sin, but the biblical witness and logic demands we recognize this reality. If salvation is a process that God has begun for everyone, it is not until he or she has either gone to the grave or committed the "unpardonable sin" that he or she is condemned or lost, or has thrown away salvation. And, again, the only conclusion that God can draw, if this is the case, is that the person must love condemnation or being lost.

Of course, I have had people say to me, "You would never tell this to an unbeliever, of course. " Or, "I would not say this to an unbeliever because it would remove their impetus to repent." That is a great concern for many. They think that if a person hears that he or she has "already been saved" from sin's penalty, then he or she will feel like there is no need to repent. The person will feel secure in his or her state if he/she does not hear about the impending and imminent danger/condemnation.

But where, in the Bible, does it say that it is "the fear of condemnation that leads to repentance"? Where does it say that it is the "possibility of of being lost forever that brings someone to repentance"? Such tactics may be helpful in securing baptisms or turning a person away from sin for a season, but they have a hard time bringing about true and lasting repentance.

Instead, Paul unequivocally states that it is "the goodness of God that leads to repentance" (Rom 2:4). When a person is first introduced to the idea that he/she has already been saved from the penalty for sin that he/she rightfully deserves, this has a way of melting the heart and and bringing the person to humbly repenting of the sin that nailed the Savior to the cross. Fear of hell or hope of reward cannot lead to lasting and continuous repentance, so we may as well not even worry that we will remove people's motivation for repenting if we tell them that Christ has already saved them from the penalty they rightfully deserve.

Furthermore, we must allow Paul to mean what he says (and mean what he means) when he writes to Timothy elsewhere that "God . . . is the Savior of all men" (1 Timothy 4:10). Some will object and say that God is "potentially" the Savior of all men if they accept it. But that's not what Paul says. It says that He "is" (present tense) the Savior of "all men." In order for Him to be presently the Savior of "all men," He had to have actually - in reality - saved "all men" from something already.

Of course, that the verse goes onto say in the next breath, "especially of those who believe," does not negate the fact that He is already the Savior of "all men." This latter clause simply means that those "who believe" have allowed God to bring them to a richer and deeper salvation experience. In other words, God has "saved" them from more than just the "penalty" of sin - which is what He has done for "all men" already. Those who "believe" are presently being saved, not only from sin's penalty, but also its power.

Is it any wonder, then, that Paul says in the next verse, "These things command and teach" (v. 11)? Yet how few of us have actually "taught" the beautiful truth that God is in actual reality the "Savior of all men"?

We avoid doing so, however, because we are afraid it might be "confusing" to people. The reality is, we avoid doing so, not because sinners might actually be confused, but because we, ourselves, are confused on the subject. Because of the fact that we have bought into a false understanding of salvation, when someone comes along and says that every human being, in some senses, has "already been saved," we have a hard time reconciling it with our presuppositions. But does that mean everyone will be in heaven? we naturally ask, betraying the fact that we have a very narrow understanding of salvation.

We fear that telling people they have "already" been saved will lead them to licentiousness (a claim that Paul already had to address in his epistles) when just the opposite is true. We don't have time to go into this in detail now, but when people have to do something (even "believe" or "repent") before Christ's salvation can be effective in the life, we are unwittingly setting them up for failure and giving the impression that their initiative is what saves them.

From an Adventist perspective, Ellen White clearly warns us against this: "There is nothing in faith that makes it our savior. Faith cannot remove our guilt" (Reflecting Christ, p. 78). I would encourage you to read that quotation a few times through until you get it!

Unfortunately, we do give the impression that faith/repentance/acceptance is "our savior" and that these are they which remove our guilt. But the Bible teaches that it is Christ's death that has unilaterally "remove[d] our guilt," and separated that guilt from us "as far as the east is from the west" (Psa 103:12). Thus, the only reason anyone will be lost at last is because he or she has begged God to place that guilt back onto his or her account.

But when we tell people that they first have to "repent" in order for their guilt to be removed, it actually discourages them and prevents them from accomplishing the very thing we are hoping they will accomplish to begin with. Remember, it is the "goodness of God that leads to repentance," not the other way around.

In Summary

The bottom line, from examining this portion of the salvation process, is that God has begun the salvation process for every human being that comes into the world. He is everyone's Savior - in reality, not just potentially - and has already saved every human being from the penalty of sin. And, as we will learn going forward, God will bring this work to completion if we allow Him to.

This does not mean that there is no place for "works" or "obedience" in this whole process, but we need to make sure that we allow the foundation to be in place; otherwise, the structure cannot be built. It will be impossible to achieve "eschatological salvation" if we do not first recognize that Christ has begun the process for everyone and is seeking to continue that saving work in our lives.

Lastly, before closing this portion of our study on this important topic, I want to share a few other quotes from an Adventist perspective. A couple are from Ellen White, a couple are from E.J. Waggoner and A.T. Jones. Notice these, first, from Ellen White (all emphases supplied):
  • "To the death of Christ we owe even this earthly life. The bread we eat is the purchase of His broken body. The water we drink is bought by His spilled blood. Never one, saint or sinner, eats his daily food, but he is nourished by the body and the blood of Christ. The cross of Calvary is stamped on every loaf. It is reflected in every water spring" (The Desire of Ages, p. 660).
  • "All men have been bought with this infinite price. By pouring the whole treasury of heaven into this world, by giving us in Christ all heaven, God has purchased the will, the affections, the mind, the soul, of every human being. Whether believers or unbelievers, all men are the Lord's property" (Christ's Object Lessons, p. 326).
  • "The wrath of God is not declared against men merely because of the sins which they have committed, but for choosing to continue in a state of resistance" (Ellen G. White 1888 Materials, p. 1551).
  • "The sinner may resist this love, may refuse to be drawn to Christ; but if he does not resist he will be drawn to Jesus; a knowledge of the plan of salvation will lead him to the foot of the cross in repentance for his sins, which have caused the sufferings of God's dear Son" (Steps to Christ, p. 27).
This last quotation really encapsulates this concept beautifully. Simply put, Christ has started the salvation process and is trying to draw every human being into a fully saved relationship (ie., "eschatological salvation") with Himself. Thus, the only way we will not be saved is if we resist what He has started. Furthermore, it is a "knowledge of the plan of salvation" that "leads" us "to the foot of the cross in repentance for sins" - sins that have caused the "sufferings of God's dear son." Powerful, powerful thoughts!

Here are some quotes, in closing, from A.T. Jones and E.J. Waggoner (the first one anticipates the very same thing that I have also anticipated by way of a question!):
  • "'What! do you mean to teach universal salvation?' We mean to teach just what the Word of God teaches, - that 'the grace of God hath appeared, bringing salvation to all men.' Titus 2:11, R.V. God has wrought out salvation for every man, and has given it to him; but the majority spurn it, and throw it away. The Judgment will reveal the fact that full and complete salvation was given to every man, and that the lost have deliberately thrown away their birthright possession" (Waggoner, The Glad Tidings, pp. 22-23).
  • "His death has secured pardon and life for all. Nothing can keep them from salvation except their own perverse will. Men must take themselves out of the hand of God, in order to be lost" (Waggoner, Signs of the Times, June 11, 1896).
  • "Therefore, just as far as the first Adam reaches man, so far the second Adam reaches man. The first Adam brought man under the condemnation of sin, even unto death; the second Adam's righteousness undoes that and makes every man live again. . . . [But] the Lord will not compel any one to take it. He compels no one to sin and He compels no one to be righteous. Everyone sins upon his own choice. The Scriptures demonstrate it. And every one can be made perfectly righteous at his choice. And the Scriptures demonstrate this. No man will die the second death who has not chosen sin rather than righteousness, death rather than life" (Jones, 1895 General Conference Bulletin, p. 269).
  • "The Lord wants every one of us to be saved, and that with the very fulness of salvation. And therefore he has given to every one of us the very fulness of grace, because it is grace that brings the salvation. For it is written, 'The grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men.' Titus 2:11. Thus the Lord wants all to be saved, and therefore he gave all of his grace, bringing salvation to all. The marginal reading of this text tells it that way, and it is just as true as the reading in the verse itself. Here it is: 'The grace of God that bringeth salvation to all men, hath appeared.' All the grace of God is given freely to every one, bringing salvation to all. . . . What we are studying now is the truth and the fact that God has given it. having given it all, he is clear, even though men may reject it" (Jones, The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, April 17, 1894).
I realize, for many, the witness of Ellen White is not authoritative. That's fine. I also realize that for many who do believe Ellen White's witness is authoritative, they do not see any value in the witness of E.J. Waggoner and A.T. Jones. That is also fine. But these three individuals - Ellen White, E.J. Waggoner, and A.T. Jones - all echo what we have already seen the Bible clearly demonstrate.

Simply put, Christ has started the salvation process for everyone and has actually saved every human being from the penalty of sin. Thus, the only way a person will be lost in the end is if he or she deliberately "continues in a state of resistance" or "throws away" what God has actually given.

Of course, what we have addressed so far is simply the "beginning" of the salvation process, but the rest of it will have to wait for another time.

Check back here soon!

The Process of Salvation - Part 1

I know that I am not the first to arrive on this scene, but I have come to some interesting realizations recently about the topic of salvation. With the help of some good theological partners and a personal study of Scripture, I have started to see that salvation is a "process."

At first appearance you may be thinking to yourself, "Duh . . . of course it is," but what I mean by "process" may not be exactly what you're thinking. Then again, maybe it is.

This whole "process" concept stands in contrast to both the evangelical understanding of the idea (if I may paint it with a broad brush) and the typical - or, perhaps more accurately, the "historical" - Adventist understanding of it. The former group usually talks about salvation from a purely past/accomplished perspective - ie., salvation is something that has been accomplished at some point in time in the past. This is often accompanied by the idea that, since salvation happened in the past, it can never be forfeited by the individual. Furthermore, this salvation is only effective for the individual who has accepted - or will accept - it (though strict Calvinists would say that it was effective at the cross for the "elect").

Meanwhile, the typical/historical Adventist view places salvation at a very punctiliar point in time in the future. This is what we would call "eschatological salvation." In other words, salvation can only be strictly defined from the perspective of those who are living eternally in heaven or on the new earth. Thus, one cannot presently "have" salvation, per se, because salvation history has not ended. Salvation, then, is only a "future accomplishment."

There are, of course, Adventists who do maintain that one can have the assurance of present salvation. However, this is predicated upon the idea that one must first repent, confess, believe, and accept Christ's offer of salvation.

There are other views of salvation, of course, but these are essentially the major views that a person will encounter - especially those who are a part of my particular faith community. Though there are some differences in the above views, there are at least three important similarities in these - and just about every soteriological - understanding of the subject.

1) Salvation is understood to be effective for only a select group (either "the elect," in Calvinism's understanding, or those who "believe," in every other theory). The exception to this is, of course, "universalism" - a theory that has gotten a lot of press lately - which maintains that everyone will eventually be "saved." This latter theory is so far off base, however, that we need not discuss it presently!

2) Salvation is understood to be only punctiliar in the person's life; meaning, it has a specific point of beginning - usually effective only upon one's acceptance. Though some Adventists who maintain that salvation can be experienced now - as opposed to the future - might object to the "punctiliar" nature of my claim, far too often it is viewed by such individuals as such in reality. That is because, quite often, salvation turns into a "yo-yo" where people are "in and out" of it, thus reflecting the idea that at one point you are in it, the other point you are not, and so on.

3) Each group stresses its favorite passages of Scripture that bolster their argument to the exclusion of passages of Scripture that seem to contradict their argument. Thus, those who subscribe to the idea of "eschatological salvation" will focus on those passages of Scripture that speak of salvation purely as a future accomplishment, and they will either ignore or explain away the passages of Scripture that seem to speak of salvation as a "past accomplishment." The same is true of those who are "accomplished salvation" advocates.

What would help all groups is if they allowed all Scripture to have its place at the table and see that all these verses complement one another to form a unified whole; a beautiful picture of the process of salvation.

Specifically, when one studies the witness of Scripture exhaustively on the subject, one finds that the biblical view of salvation is that it is a past, ongoing, and future accomplishment all at once. This may seem like an inherent contradiction, but not when one thinks in terms of "process" rather than specific, punctiliar points in time. Furthermore, as we will discover, there is no doubt that the Bible very clear talks about those who "have been saved," "are being saved," and "will be saved" - categories that are not necessarily talking about different groups of people.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Instead, let's examine these three categories and grapple with the implications.

Of course, it would probably be important for us to define the word "salvation" first, as well as what we mean when we talk about the word "saved," though this will inevitably be affected by our presuppositions. However, the Greek words that are used for these two words, soteria (noun) and sozo (verb), have the idea of not only saving, but rescuing, delivering, and even healing. In the Greek culture surrounding the New Testament's composition, the words had the connotation of what the gods or men did in rescuing others from serious danger, as well as saving from illness, or even deliverance from judicial condemnation. What I also find interesting is that the word sozo is related to the idea of "making safe," a concept that has tremendous implications as it relates to salvation in its final form. (These definitions, relating to the Greek culture, were taken from Gerhard Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. VII, pp. 965ff.)

The point is, we must allow all of these meanings to have their full weight when we discuss this issue because, too often, we have a very narrow understanding of salvation which focuses solely on whether or not we would "go to heaven" if the Lord came right now. If this is salvation and "being saved" in its entirety, however, not only will we miss the fullness of what God wants to teach us about salvation, but I would argue we might miss out on that final goal altogether!

I also want to point out something else that I am in the process of grappling with: in my personal study of this topic, I have really only done an exhaustive study of these two words (soteria and sozo) in the New Testament. I have not done any extensive study in the LXX (the Greek version of the OT), nor have I done an extensive study on the Hebrew word yasha. This is, no doubt, a fault of my present thinking since the OT is really foundational to any topic in Scripture, but that is where I am right now.

Secondly, I am also in the process of studying related salvation words like "justification," "forgiveness," "reconciliation," "righteousness," etc., but have not finished it yet (nor will I ever finish studying this whole topic throughout eternity, I know). I continue to grapple with the relationship of all these words to the salvation process as a whole. In other words, are the words "forgiveness," "justification," and "salvation," interchangeable synonyms, for example? Or are they speaking of completely different aspects of a larger package?

I know that some might propose that these other words and concepts are included in the "salvation" package and are a part of the end-salvation product, but I am not yet sure they are not speaking of the same concept in different terminology and imagery.

With all this being said, we will now turn to a more exhaustive study of the subject at hand. But that will have to wait for Part 2.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Love of God and Ephesians 1

In my last post, I introduced the idea of God's sovereignty and reflected upon the witness of Isaiah in relation to this sovereignty. My conclusion, of course, is that, even though God is sovereign, in an objective sense, He chooses to interact with His creatures in a humble and non-controlling way.

Next, I want to look at a favorite passage of "sovereignty advocates" in the NT and discuss the true meaning its author meant to convey.
But before doing so, I think it would be well to mention a few other things in relation to this topic. The first is a brief treatment of natural disasters - things that seem to fall outside the scope of direct human choice and will (though even that can be debated). What of the Japanese earthquakes, or the Hurricane Katrinas? Has God ordained for these disasters to actually take place?

As I said in my previous post, this question always comes up in the wake of such horrific events like we have just seen. But suffice it to say, I think these natural disasters are the somewhat indiscernible result of God's direct will (Gen 6:6-7; 7:10-11), Satan's interference (Job 2:6-7, and the rest of Job, as well as Matt 13:28) or man's poor choices (see Gohr, Al, An Inconvenient Truth). I think that, ultimately, God is humble enough to take the blame for such atrocities, but this should not encourage us to place the responsibility at His doorstep.

More could be said about this, but we will leave it at that.

The second point that needs to be addressed is the hermeneutic that a person uses in relation to this - and any other - biblical issue. I touched upon this briefly before as well, but the lens through which we must study scripture and explore the character of God is within the context of God's agape love. After all, John declares unequivocally that the fundamental essence of God through which all His actions flow is agape love (see 1 John 4:8, 16). With the exception of 1 John 1:5, where John describes God's fundamental essence as that of light (an idea that is closely related to love, as I understand it), nowhere else does the Bible declare God in terms of a noun equivalence. Thus, God's supreme motivation is fueled by His love, not the desire to glorify Himself.

This is a fundamental difference - perhaps the fundamental difference - between the God of scripture and the God of sovereignty-advocates. For the latter group, every action of God is interpreted through the lens of His self-seeking desire to bring glory to Himself. The God of scripture, on the other hand, throws off all self-interest and "seeks not [His] own,"(1 Cor 13:5) instead laying "down His life," (1 John 3:16) not only for His people, but the whole world (1 John 2:2), including sinners and His "enemies" (Rom 5:8, 10). This is God's primary motivation. Any glory that befalls Him as a result of this is a pure byproduct.

Of course, many will respond by saying that God is motivated by both His love and His desire to glorify Himself, but I would say that these two ideas - in and of themselves - are inherent contradictions. In order for love to truly be love it has to throw off all self-interest, as we have already seen from 1 Corinthians 13:5. Love cannot be concerned with self and other at the same time and still be love. According to scripture, it is a logical impossibility.

Any appeal to such passages as Ezekiel 36:21, where God says that He "had concern for [His] holy name," must also be understood in the context of His self-giving, self-sacrificing agape love. Thus, God is concerned for His name and reputation only insofar as they contribute to the goal of our ultimate well-being. Simply put, the sooner we can see God's trustworthiness (which is the result of His reputation), the better off we will be. And, thus, this is God's motivation in preserving His reputation.

What does all this have to do with the discussion about God's sovereignty? There are two reasons why we must have our compass straight and recognize that God is motivated supremely by His other-centered love.

For one, no matter how much sugar-coating and explaining away people try to do, insisting that God's sovereign will has elected some to be eternally lost is a direct contradiction to His essence of love. Period. There is just no way around it. God cannot be completely loving on the one hand, and yet elect some to be eternally lost on the other hand. There is just no way to slice the pie that can put those two polar opposite ideas together.

It's not as though there haven't been many attempts to do so, of course. John Piper, for one, mentions the idea that God loves people in a general way (and this is the type of love that we as humans are admonished to engage in), but then goes onto propose that there is another type of love that God has which is known as "electing love." Very little biblical support for the idea of "electing love" is given, however, with the exception of Malachi 1:2-3, where God declares that "Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated." No mention is made of the fact that this declaration was made nearly 1400 years after the two brothers lived and was, obviously, a reflection after the fact. Nor was there any mention of the reality that Malachi was really speaking of the nations of Israel (Jacob) and Edom (Esau), as is apparent contextually (see v. 4).

Yet this is supposed to be evidence for God's individual "electing love," which allegedly elects some people to be saved eternally and other people to be lost eternally. (That God definitely elected the nation of Israel to be His special people cannot be denied, but such an election in no way guaranteed the eternal salvation of any of its individual members. See Rom 9:6-8; 11:19-20; etc. This is because when God "elects" a group, or even individuals - which He does do - it is missional in nature, rather than salvific. As an aside, all this talk about God's "two wills" and "two loves," gives me the impression that - with all due respect - God must be schizophrenic or bipolar. I know this sounds disrespectful to some, but that really seems to be a logical extension of God's "dual" and "cross purposes" that He allegedly possesses.)

The second reason why recognizing that love is the supreme motivation from which God acts is because of the way it relates to God's supposed election of the saved. It sounds very loving, in theory, for God to unconditionally elect some to be saved (especially if you are a part of the saved), but it takes little reflection to realize just how unloving this actually is. The corollary theory to God's unconditional election is His use of "irresistible grace," the idea that if God has elected you to be saved, He will spring His grace upon you in such away that it will be impossible for you to resist.

Obviously, this ultimately takes the choice out of man's hands and places it in God's. Again, people can try to present arguments as to how man still has a choice in the matter, but such proposals are futile. The fact remains that if a person is saved and loves God because He draws them with an overpowering grace, this implies that the man would not otherwise choose God if left to himself. In other words, he is forced to choose what he would otherwise not choose were he left alone. I am not implying, of course, that any of us would naturally choose God apart from His influence (see Phil 2:13), but God does ultimately allow us to exercise our power to choose, rather than overpowering us.

Spelled out clearly, the logical extension of such a dynamic does not sit well with sovereignty advocates. Forcing someone to engage in "love" when he would not otherwise do so is called rape, not love. At best, it is brainwashing. Again, I know such an idea offends sovereignty advocates, and they might insist that such an idea is even blasphemous, but logic demands we be faithful to where the evidence leads.

Of course, there is a scriptural basis for recognizing that God does not overpower our freedom to choose. And there is no better place to reflect upon this than to see it in the person of Jesus. As I mentioned in my last post, the author of Hebrews clearly indicates that Christ is the "express image" of God (Heb 1:3). Elsewhere, Jesus Himself says that "He who has seen Me has seen the Father" (John 14:9), also boldly declaring that "the Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He sees the Father do; for whatever He does, the Son also does in like manner" (John 5:19). So it is in the person of Christ that we see the very essence of the Father.

And what do we see in this context when we see Jesus?

We see that Christ refused to overpower anyone - that He instead interacted with people with love, grace, invitation, appeal, but never control. As we noted before, He lamented over Jerusalem about how He "wanted [thelo] to gather" her children as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but she was "not willing [thelo]" (Matt 23:37).

Then again, we are told by Matthew and Mark, after Jesus was rejected in His hometown of Nazareth, that He "could not do" many "mighty works there because of their unbelief" (Mark 6:5-6; Matt 13:58). The word that both Matthew and Mark employ for "mighty works" is the Greek word dunamis, which literally means "power" or "ability." Thus, Christ's power and ability were negated because of the people's lack of faith. Indeed, He was powerless and unable to perform many miracles because He chose to honor their freedom rather than exert His power. How sad it must have been for Christ, who wanted their ultimate good, but whose intentions were tragically thwarted.

But now onto the NT passage that is oft' used by sovereignty advocates.

Ephesians 1

Though there are definitely other passages in the NT that might be relied upon more heavily to "prove" the idea of God's completely deterministic and controlling sovereignty, Ephesians 1 is right up there with the rest of them. Among other elements of the chapter, Paul tells the believers in Ephesus that God "chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world," (v. 4) and that He "predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will" (v. 5).

Thus, it is supposed, that since God "predestined" and "chose" Paul and the Ephesian believers, it must necessarily follow that these individuals have been unconditionally elected for salvation, unable to "undo" what God has decreed. Such is the conclusion that sovereignty advocates draw.

There are, of course, other interpretations of this passage that have merit but may not quite hit the nail on the head. One interpretation is that God, based upon His foreknowledge, does truly "choose" and "predestine" people to be saved. In other words, God looks into the future and sees who will ultimately choose Him, and then "chooses" such individuals ahead of time to be saved.

For obvious reasons (I believe), this view seems superfluous! What is the point of God choosing people from the very beginning who, based upon His foreknowledge, He knows will ultimately be saved? Is it suppose to impress us that He can do such a thing?

Another view, which may have significant merit, is that God has "predestined" and "chosen" everyone to be saved but that, ultimately, only those who choose to respond to Him will be saved at last. This interpretation seems to rely heavily upon Paul's statement elsewhere that God "desires all men to be saved" (1 Tim 2:4).

Like I said, I think this view - in a general sense - has a lot of merit, but I am not sure that this is what Paul has in mind in this specific instance. I say this because Paul uses some very "charged" words (though, admittedly, they may simply appear to be charged to our ears now, as we live on the other side of this "predestination" debate) like "chose" and "predestined" that go beyond God's simple desire for "all" to be saved.

So how do we interpret Paul's words here?

First of all, we have to recognize the significance of Paul using the word "chose" in verse 4. The Greek word is eklego and it is used 126x in the Septuagint (the Greek version of the OT that the NT writers relied upon, also known as the LXX) and it is often used for a very specific purpose - that is, to describe how God has "chosen" Israel to be His people (see, for example, Deut 7:7; Psalm 78:68; 135:4; Isa 44:1; etc.). Though the LXX definitely uses it to describe how God "chooses" individuals (though with no reference to their salvation), Paul obviously has the corporate concept in mind because He informs the Ephesians that God has chosen "us" (v. 4).

Of course, we need to identify the "us" that Paul speaks about. This is really the crux of the matter when we deal with Ephesians. Who are the "us" that Paul says have been "chosen" and "predestined"?

Paul starts the book in the first person plural, talking about "us" and "we." He does this until 1:13, where he all of a sudden switches to the second person plural and for the rest of the book he talks about "you" (the Ephesian believers). But who, specifically, are the "you" to whom Paul writes?

He answers this in 2:11: "Therefore, remember that you, once Gentiles in the flesh - who are called Uncircumcision by what is called Circumcision made in the flesh by hands - that at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now, in Christ Jesus, you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ." He also goes onto say in v. 19 that "you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God."

Quite clearly, Paul is writing to a bunch of Gentile believers who were - at one point - on the "outside" looking in, ones who were not "chosen" in the OT to be God's people but now clearly are.

This is why Paul says that God chose "us." Paul, a Jewish writer, announces that God not only chose "him," but He chose "us," and that this was God's plan all along, having predestined, not only Israel, but also Gentiles. So Paul is not speaking here about individual election, but about the fact that, just as God "chose" Israel in the OT, really His plan all along was to include Gentiles as well. After all, God is the "Savior of the world" (John 4:42; 1 John 4:14), as well as the "Savior of all men" (1 Tim 4:10).

Similarly, it is very clear, as I said above, that Israel was chosen in the OT for missional purposes, not salvific ones. It was not God's purpose to choose Israel for salvation, per se, but to announce His salvation to the world and invite all nations into fellowship with God (see, for example, Isa 2:2-3). They did not get it, of course, believing that God had chosen them exclusively for salvation. In this sense, they ultimately made the mistake that sovereignty advocates make, thinking that God's "choosing" them meant salvation rather than mission, also believing that God had "unconditionally" elected them simply because they were of Abraham's literal seed. Clearly, Paul flipped this idea on its head in this passage in Ephesians, as well as in others, like Romans 9:6-7.

Of course, this Jewish/Gentile conflict was often at the heart of Paul's epistles. Paul took on Jewish believers for feeling like they were superior to Gentile believers and actually God's exclusively chosen people. So he comes along and says, "No, no. Hold on a minute. You know how the Old Testament says that God 'chose' Israel to be His special people? Well, God's eternal purpose all along was actually to 'choose' anyone and everyone from all nations, and the only reason He did 'choose' Israel to begin with was for the purpose of announcing to the whole world that God wants - and has 'chosen' - everyone to be saved." Furthermore, he even went so far as to write to the Galatian believers that "there is neither Jew nor Greek . . . for you are all one in Christ Jesus," boldly proclaiming that if anyone was Christ's, then he/she was of "Abraham's seed" (Gal 3:28-29).

Thus, Paul, in many senses, was accomplishing what the nation of Israel was originally designed - yet failed - to do: that of announcing to the whole world God's desire to save all.

This, to me, is very clearly what Paul is saying contextually in Ephesians 1. He is not talking about individual unconditional "election," he is talking about the fact that God has chosen Gentiles to be among His people just like those who were Jewish by birth. This does not do away with the good news that he announces in the surrounding verses - about how we have been "accepted in the Beloved" (v. 6), or how we have "redemption" and "forgiveness," (v. 7), etc. It just places into context what Paul really means when he uses the words "chose" and "predestined."

Simply put, there is no room to interpret the passage as sovereignty advocates do so.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Is God Sovereign?

For many Christians, the most vital aspect of God's character is His sovereignty. They cling to this attribute without reservation. Everything in scripture is interpreted through this lens. Ideas such as unconditional election, predestination, and irresistible grace flow from this foundational hermeneutic.

This topic is especially relevant in light of the earth's latest disaster, an 8.9 magnitude earthquake in Japan that has left thousands dead. In the wake of such disasters, many people ask questions about God's character and often come to the conclusion that God willed for such a thing to happen to achieve some greater good. Indeed, they cling to His sovereignty.

But is it truly accurate to say that God is sovereign? Or, at the very least, is it appropriate to emphasize this attribute over and above all of God's other attributes?

First, let me assure you: I do not subscribe to "open theism," the idea that God does not really know the future (I recognize that "open theists" do not put it in these terms, insisting instead that God, being omniscient, does know the future - but saying that He knows the future as possibilities and, in fact, knows all the possibilities of the future. However, this way of putting it is meaningless, since there are, in theory, an infinite number of possibilities for the future). But it seems to me, based on the witness of scripture, that emphasizing God's sovereignty as the supreme message of scripture, is not only misleading, but also dangerous.

Let me explain . . .

To begin with, let's be clear: the Bible does not use the word "sovereign" at all - at least not the KJV, NKJV, NASB, or many other responsible translations. The NIV, NLT and NRSV do use the word, but these are not based on anything particular in the Greek or Hebrew of either testaments. (For example, the NIV often translates the Hebrew word adonai as "sovereign" when it precedes yahweh, thus making "sovereign Lord." The KJV translates this phrase as "Lord God," though this is not necessarily a literal translation, either. See Gen 15:2 as just one example.)

This, of course, does not necessarily amount to a whole lot, since we do use words (like "trinity") to describe biblical ideas, that are not themselves biblical words. But, at the very least, one must recognize that when one talks about God's sovereignty, he/she is not using biblical language, per se.

More importantly, what does one mean when he/she talks about God's "sovereignty"? The literal definition of the word "sovereign" means "having supreme rank, power, or authority," a definition that I am not sure anyone would disagree with as it relates to God. To be sure, God, by very definition, stands over and above all others.

But those who emphasis God's sovereignty do not primarily have this idea in mind. For them, God's sovereignty inherently means that He controls everything that happens in the universe - and, in fact, He has willed and predetermined every single thing that has ever happened or ever will happen. Or, as The Westminster Confession of Faith (which is the de facto "creed" for many who align themselves with this understanding of God) puts it: "God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass" (3.1).

Thus, not only did God ordain for there to be an earthquake in Japan last week, He actually ordained and intended for 10,000+ people to die in its wake. This goes beyond God simply
"allowing" bad things to happen; He actually "wills" for it to happen to accomplish some greater good that we cannot quite figure out as finite human beings - though many do maintain that some how, such events will ultimately bring glory to God.

This concept elicits obvious questions about God's character - especially in the minds of those who recognize that God's fundamental - and overarching - essence is that of self-giving, self-sacrificing love (see 1 John 4:8; Rom 5:8; Matt 5:45; etc.). Nevertheless, such a paradox doesn't seem to deter many from embracing the picture of an all-controlling God and, in fact, actually gives some people great comfort.

For the rest of us, however, the two concepts seem irreconcilable.

On What Basis?

So if the Bible never explicitly mentions that God is "sovereign," on what basis do people make such a claim?

First of all, let me make something clear: I believe that in an objective sense God is sovereign - that He does stand over and above all else and that He can, if He so chooses, control absolutely everything that happens. As a free moral being who has every power at His fingertips, God could choose to interact with His creatures at this level.

But not only do I gather from scripture that God does not try to typically interact with His creation with an inferior-superior attitude - but instead chooses to approach us with humility (see Matt 11:29 where Jesus, who is the "express image" of God, according to Heb 1:3, describes Himself as "meek and lowly in heart," or John 15:15, where Jesus announces that we are no longer His servants but His friends who get to "know what [God] . . . is doing," or Phil 2:6, where Christ is described, as The Message puts it, as not clinging "to the advantages" of being God) - but I especially do not find any scriptural basis for the idea that God chooses to ordain and control absolutely everything that has happened or will happen in the universe.

This is not to say, of course, that there are not passages in scripture - often appealed to - that "sovereignty advocates" rely upon. There are, admittedly, scores of passages in scripture that seem to point in the direction that God's will is absolutely and always followed no matter what. And though there is obviously not enough time to examine each and everyone of those in their context, I do want to address two passages from scripture in the next two posts - one in the OT and one in the NT - that are often considered "slam dunk" passages for those who advocate God's complete and sovereign control over everything that happens in the universe. I do believe that by demonstrating how these passages are often misunderstood by sovereignty advocates, it will be enough to demonstrate that the hermeneutical approach by such individuals in dealing with the rest of scripture is, at best, questionable.

The Witness of Isaiah

One of the passages that is often appealed to in relation to God's alleged "omni-control" comes from the prophet Isaiah. Actually, to be fair, there are a number of passages in Isaiah that allegedly lend themselves to this concept, so I will quickly cite a few of the examples that come from this important Messianic book.

As just a small sampling, God describes Himself as "I [who] form the light and create darkness, I make peace and create calamity; I, the Lord, do all these things" (45:7). Elsewhere, God repeatedly makes it clear that "besides [Him] there is no other God" (43:10; 44:6; 45:5-6, 14, 21). But perhaps most significantly, God declares "the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things that are not yet done, saying, 'My counsel shall stand, and I will do all My pleasure'" (46:10). Similarly, God announces that just as the rain and snow fall out of heaven and touch upon the earth, never returning to heaven, instead bringing forth buds and giving seed to the sower, "so shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; it shall not return to Me void, but it shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it" (55:10-11).

The last two verses are especially impressive, giving clear - and undeniable - evidence that God is all-powerful and able to do whatever He wants.

But, as always, we do great disservice to our biblical study when we divorce a verse from its context. (I find, just as a side note, that whenever I come across a verse that bolsters my presuppositions, I very rarely study its context; however, whenever I encounter a verse that contradicts my presuppositions, I always study its context! I can't help but think that many - if not most - biblical students do the same thing!) And, in this case, the overall context of Isaiah points to the undeniable reality that God, instead of flexing His muscle and insisting that everything has happened or will happen because it was/is precisely how He wants it to happen, chooses to honor the freedom of His creatures.

After all, isn't this the precise reason God sent, not only the prophet Isaiah, but every biblical prophet? We usually think the primary purpose of a prophet was to tell God's people what was going to happen in the future. To be sure, this was one of the prophet's roles. But, more significantly, the chief purpose of a prophet was to inform God's people that they weren't listening to Him or doing what He desired, and to "return" to Him. Not surprisingly, we see God using this precise language ("Return to me") in Isaiah 44:22, as well as many of the other prophets (see Jer 3:12; Joel 2:12; Zech 1:3; Mal 3:7), often times without much success (see Jer 15:7; Hos 7:10; Amos 4:6).

Furthermore, Isaiah plainly spells out the reality that God's people were not "listening to" or "obeying" Him (see 28:12; 30:9; 42:24; 65:12; 66:4). These last two passages are extremely significant because they spell out plainly how God's people were not doing His will at all, but instead following their own will. God essentially repeats the same thing twice when He laments, "When I called, no one answered, when I spoke they did not hear; but they did evil before My eyes, and chose that in which I do not delight" (66:4).

The last clause of the verse is highly significant and must not be quickly brushed aside or discounted. In language that turns my mind back to that great messianic prophecy, where all humans are described as sheep that have "turned, every one, to his own way" (53:6) rather than God's way, Isaiah unequivocally declares that Israel had "chosen" what God did not "desire."

Interestingly, when the OT was translated into Greek, the LXX translators chose the word boulomai to describe God's desire that had been thwarted by the choice of His people. This is highly significant because many sovereignty advocates point to the NT's usage of the noun form of this word as evidence that God ordains everything to happen (see, for example, Acts 2:23 and 4:28).

But from this single passage in Isaiah we see very clearly an interesting dynamic: that is, that God often has definite plans or desires (Hebrew, chaphets) that are sometimes negated or neutralized by the choice of human beings. This does not deny the reality that God can overrule the choices of His people, but it is to say that God will not overpower the choice that He has freely given individuals.

Of course, the response from many sovereignty advocates often goes one of two ways: they either insist that God's sovereignty does not negate man's responsibility, or they propose that God has "two wills" (see "Are There Two Wills in God?" by John Piper, as just one example of this explanation). In other words, the first explanation tries to reconcile God's complete control over us as human beings and our alleged choice in the matter, while the second explanation insists that God actually desires one thing (for all men to be saved, for example, as 1 Tim 2:4 maintains), while at the same time desiring a seemingly - though imagained, as the advocates say - contradictory thing at the same time (desiring that some of those "all" actually be lost).

Besides the fact that either explanation lacks true biblical support, perhaps the biggest problem and frustration with them is that, no matter how many verbose elucidations are given or logical gymnastics are engaged in, such explanations defy and contradict simple logic. So, when all else fails, some simply appeal to God's words that "My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways" (Isa 55:8), and that seems to settle it. But more on this in the future . . .

Besides this telling passage that comes at the end of Isaiah's book, however, the stage was actually set in relation to the God-human dynamic at the beginning of the book. Instead of insisting that His desires would be unconditionally achieved, God makes it plain that He would honor, and not overpower, the free choice of His people. And one does not have to read very far into the book to recognize this truth!

After inviting His people to "Come now, and let us reason together," (1:18) an interesting invitation in light of the fact that many people want us to turn our reasoning off in relation to this subject, God then goes onto to plainly state, "If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword" (1:19).

Can it be any plainer? God uses that very important word "if" (Hebrew im, used 40x in Isaiah) to denote the conditional nature of His desires - not because He is incapable or powerless to truly achieve His will, but because He chooses to interact with the world on this level and honor our free exercise of the will.

The LXX version of this passage is also interesting because it uses the word thelo to translate the word "willing" in Hebrew - significant because the noun form of the word is what Matthew uses in the Lord's prayer when Christ invites us to pray that God's "will [thelema] be done on earth as it is in heaven" (Matt 6:10). Thus, these two passages, coupled together, show us that God's heavenly will can be frustrated on earth by man's will - since it is clear that God's will and desire was for Israel to be a "special treasure" (see Exo 19:5) upon the earth.

Clearly, though, this desire of God was never realized in the nation of Israel, as is evidenced by Christ's lamentation over Jerusalem, "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted [thelo] to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing [thelo]!" (Matt 23:37). Again, any appeal to the idea of God having "two wills" in this context lacks scriptural and logical support. (It is also interesting to note how Christ Himself describes the role of prophets - that of attempting to gather Israel into relationship with Himself - but how they were clearly rejected by the will of man.)

Of course, what are we then to make of the alleged "sovereignty" passages in Isaiah? To begin with, let us admit our humility. Though I fully believe that God does want us to understand His mind and not leave us in the dark, we need to recognize our limitations and the fact that we don't know everything God knows (again, this does not mean that God doesn't want us to know - nor that we should stop trying to understand His mind. See John 15:15).

Secondly, there is a definite sense in which God does act sovereignly in the affairs of universal history. He does act independently of our will and choices at times. One simple - yet important - example of this is the cross: none of us asked for God to come down in the form of man and die the death we deserved. In fact, if the choice had been left up to us as to whether Christ would come down to take our place on the cross, we would have rejected the very initiation He took (though we wouldn't have even been around to begin with anyway).

Thirdly, when God talks about His word not returning to Him "void," but "accomplishing" what it pleases, I believe there is a tension going on that deserves thought. Some rightfully interpret such passages in light of God's "foreknowledge," recognizing that God can look into the future and - though not determining it - see that some will, in fact, respond to His word. Thus, He can say with confidence that His word would not come back "empty-handed," so to speak, but would find a residence in the heart of human beings (though not all human beings, even though this is His desire).

This parenthetical statement does not limit God's power in any way because, truly, all those whom God desires to respond could respond if they chose to - which speaks powerfully to God's power, though, sadly, many will choose not to. But this, in no way, diminishes God's power; rather, it highlights His love all the more. (I realize the idea that God's power is not diminished by the fact that some do not respond, though He wants them to, is almost incomprehensible - even illogical - to "sovereignty advocates," but, just the same, we need to be faithful to scripture.)

I believe there is also another dynamic going on with this idea that may seem foreign to many. Nevertheless, it deserves attention. That is, when God declares that His word would not return to Him "void," He is saying that with faith - in other words, God actually has faith in what His love, word, and faith can accomplish - and, indeed, God actually has faith in us. In some senses, we might say that God has "faith in faith."

As I said, the idea that God actually has faith is probably foreign to many people but, nevertheless, it is a biblical idea. The NT writers - and Christ Himself - actually talk about the "faith of God" and the "faith of Jesus," though most versions do not translate it as such. But it's there. See, for example, Mark 11:22 (Young's Literal Translation, which translates the "subjective genitive" accurately), Romans 3:3 (KJV), 3:22 (KJV, YLT), 3:26 (YLT), Galatians 2:16 (KJV, YLT), 2:20 (KJV, YLT), 3:22 (KJV, YLT), and Revelation 14:12 (KJV, NKJV, NRSV, YLT).

Though this topic deserves a whole post itself, and will more than likely get one in the future, suffice it to say, instead of overpowering His creatures with His "sovereign" will, God, instead, chooses to interact with them from the motivation of love and through the eyes of faith - both of which can be freely spurned and rejected should anyone want to respond with "unbelief."

Equally true, of course, is the reality that we can - by His grace - respond with faith and freely choose to have His will accomplished in our lives. And such a reality is far more a reflection of true sovereign power and influence than if He were to be an "omni-controlling, micro-manager" whose will could never be resisted (because logically it cannot truly be resisted).

None of this, in anyway, undermines the reality that "all things work together for good" (Rom 8:28) and that, ultimately, God will get His way, but, again, the way He accomplishes this is not by controlling and ordaining every single thing that happens, but by influencing the world, through His love, towards the grand accomplishing of His ultimate goal of complete and true universal safety (see my previous post entitled, "Safe to Save?")

Of course, there are other passages in scripture that need to be grappled with, but that will have to be in the next post.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Still . . . the Sabbath

(Note: this post is a message I shared with a friend of mine who asked me about the Sabbath. He/she has been a lifelong Seventh-day Adventist and sees the importance of the Sabbath, but wonders about its endtime significance and whether those living in the last days must be Sabbath-keepers in order to be "saved." This is a question that often arises and so I thought it would be helpful to share it publicly as well. Since it is not a simple issue and needs a lot of background information, the post is long - though it is not definitive in any sense. It is a pretty "raw" explanation of the issues and is in no way scholarly/exhaustive. It is my attempt at giving a timely response!)

I want to share my thoughts with you about your Sabbath questions. This is a very important one that cannot be answered hastily or without a great deal of deliberation. There is no quick, easy answer that can be given without a great deal of misinterpretation by the listener. And thus, I have written a long, long, long response that might be intimidating! I will understand it if it takes you a long time to read it and/or respond.

But here goes . . .

You specifically asked the question this way: “I believe Saturday is the correct day, but I dont think that in the end times it will really come down those who worship on Sunday will be wrong and not be saved as I have been taught as an Adventist? thoughts?”

Whatever answer we come up with, we need to make sure, of course, that our views are based on the Bible and not people’s opinions, or human emotion, or speculation. We also need to listen to Jesus’ warning: “Take heed that no one deceives you” (Matthew 24:4). The devil is a “liar” and the “father of lies” (John 8:44) and it is his goal to “deceive the whole world” (Rev 12:9) and he wants nothing more than for us to be confused about God, His character, and His plans. Similarly, Revelation 13 – which is where this whole Sabbath discussion centers around – makes it plain that the devil is going to use an earthly power to “deceive those who dwell on the earth” (Rev 13:14). So we need to take Jesus’ counsel seriously that we make sure “no one deceives” us.

As a foundational thought, though, I think it is important we recognize a few things that are paramount to this whole discussion. First of all, it is vitally important to note that there are basically three conflicting principles that are being fought over between God and Satan. Those three are: truth (God) vs. error (Satan), freedom (God) vs. slavery (Satan), and love (God) vs. fear (Satan). Every battle in life revolves around these three principles.

Simply put, God is all about truth, freedom, and love, while Satan is all about error, slavery, and fear. And this is the war that is being waged between God and Satan—that which we call the “Great Controversy.” (Interestingly, Satan is actually accusing God of engaging in the very things—ie., error, slavery, and fear—that is true of himself. We see this right in the very beginning in the Garden of Eden, in Gen 3:1-5, when Satan spread his first lie to humankind through Eve).

How does all this relate to the Sabbath?

Well, we need to take a step back and realize a few basic facts about God that are outworkings of His character of love. First of all, it is clear from Scripture that God loves the whole “world” (John 3:16). It is also clear from Scripture that He wants EVERYONE to be saved (2 Peter 3:9). It is also abundantly clear that He is trying to make it as easy as possible for everyone to get to heaven, and that there is no reason why anyone should not be in heaven, by virtue of the fact that He has already paid the penalty for every human beings’ sins (1 John 2:2). And, in fact, the only reason anyone will NOT be in heaven is not because they didn’t follow this rule or that rule, but because they resisted God’s love and lived a life of “unbelief” (Heb 3:19).

This last idea is very important: the only reason someone will not be in heaven is because of their unbelief—because they have refused to respond to God’s love by faith. If we are not saved “by works” (Ephesians 2:8-9), this also means we are not lost by a lack of works.

What the Bible does present, however, is the idea that a person who is actually living by faith has works in his/her life. In other words, doing good works are the “fruit” of one’s faith. James is very clear on this when he says that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:17) and then goes onto say, “Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (v. 18).

So I like to put it this way: we are not saved BY our works, but we are not saved APART from works. In other words, the reason a person will go to heaven is not because of anything good they have done, but every person who does go to heaven will have good works reflected in their lives.

But does this mean that everyone who goes to heaven will have been a Sabbath-keeper on earth?

Not at all!

There will be millions upon millions of people (I would imagine) that are in heaven who never kept the Sabbath on earth. This is because when it comes to participating in good works in our lives, all of us are a “work in progress” and God cares more about the direction we are going, rather than how far we got by the time we die. This is why we should be careful in judging people. We may not see some things in their lives and assume that they are not living by faith, but they may be at a different place in their journey and God has not yet convicted them of the same things He has convicted us of. This is the case with many when it comes to the Sabbath. They are living up to the best “light” they have been given, but for whatever reason they have not yet been convicted of the beauty of the Sabbath. (This does not mean there is no place for lovingly encouraging people in righteousness and using discipline with people when they persistently refuse to follow something God has plainly revealed to them—especially those who are in leadership and “claim” to subscribe or teach one thing, but refuse to or downright deny its truth or importance.)

Does this then mean we do not worry about whether they come into the beautiful joy and rest of the Sabbath?

Well, there is where the “end times” comes into play as revealed in the book of Revelation.

What the book of Revelation essentially shows is a group of people, living in the “end times” right before Jesus comes, whose spiritual maturity and growth has “sped up,” so to speak, and find themselves a long ways down the road towards what God has been trying to do all along with humanity.

Remember, Satan has accused God of being unloving, fear-driven, and controlling. He furthermore has insinuated that God’s people are merely following Him for these reasons, and when the going gets tough, there will be no real reason why anyone would want to follow God (we see this in the story of Job). Furthermore, He has claimed that God’s law is arbitrary (think back to what He told Eve in the Garden about God’s restriction of not eating from the tree) and there is no reason for it, and that when people really understand this they will not want to follow it.

Then think about this scenario for a second: imagine that you are an angel or another created being in the universe and everything is right in the world. Everyone loves one another. There is no such thing as hate, violence, or anger. Then, all of a sudden, God creates this place called “earth” and a short time later, this thing called “sin” is introduced into the universe and there are created beings that display anger, hatred, violence—people killing one another, stealing from one another, etc. If I was a perfect being, living somewhere else in the universe, a thought that would come to my mind would be, “What in the world was God thinking when He created that place??”

Furthermore, think about this: at some point, in the near future, God will announce that these sinful/hate-filled beings are going to be “released” from their little corner of the universe and coming to a neighborhood near you! These imperfect beings are going to inhabit perfect heaven.

Wouldn’t such a thought be a frightful proposition? It would be like a neighbor, bringing home notoriously violent dogs, training them, and then announcing to everyone that he is going to release them to roam around freely in the neighborhood.

Wouldn’t you want some assurance that these dogs—or humans—could completely behave themselves before being released? After all, your safety is at risk!

And so this is the dilemma that God finds Himself in. His actual plan and character is on the line because of the fact that He brought us into existence, not to mention the fact that Satan has made claims against Him that He is unloving, arbitrary, controlling and manipulative.

In a word, the Bible teaches that GOD is actually “on trial” and being judged, and He is waiting in these last days to be “proven right” through His people (see Romans 3:4). This is what the “great controversy” that we speak of is all about. There is something far greater than my salvation and future that is on the line; God’s future is actually hanging in the balance.

This is hinted at through the Bible whenever you come across the word “mystery.” Paul, in the book of Ephesians, touches upon this when he says that “from the beginning of the ages” there has been this “mystery . . . hidden in God” that people cannot quite figure out (see Ephesians 3:9-11). Other created beings from the universe are scratching their heads and saying, “What is God up to?”

Amazingly, Paul goes onto say that “now the manifold wisdom of God” is being “made known BY THE CHURCH to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places.” In other words, God is trying to reveal His character of love, truth, and freedom through us. (After all, a testimony is more powerful about someone when it comes from others, rather than yourself. This is what Jesus says in John 5:31, “If I bear witness of Myself, My witness is not valid.”) Paul elsewhere talks about this “mystery” when he says that “God will to make known what is . . . the glory of this mystery . . . which is, Christ in you, the hope of glory.” So when we allow Christ to live “in us” and through us, and His life and love are reflected in our lives, God’s mysterious plan that He has been working on from the beginning is revealed.

Most importantly, the book of Revelation talks about how, in the very end, this “mystery of God would be finished” (Revelation 10:7). This, again, is what God is trying to bring to completion right now.

All this seems to relate to the Sabbath in a very simple and logical way. God’s people are defined in the very end as “those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus” (Revelation 14:12). They are also defined as those who “follow the Lamb wherever He goes” (v. 4). In other words, they follow Jesus and do exactly what He wants them to do.

But the only reason they do so is because they have a “love affair” with Him and are responding by faith. They do not follow Him and His commandments because they want to earn salvation, or because God is controlling or manipulative (like Satan maintains), or even simply because they want to go to heaven. They follow Him completely because they have been so blown away by His love and faith in them as shown in His crucifixion, that they would rather die than not do what He asks of them.

Of course, the Sabbath is one of those “commandments” they keep (and it just one of them; we cannot neglect the other ten to overemphasize the fourth—nor can we especially neglect God’s greatest commandment to love Him and love others [see Matt 22:36-39], which is what the whole really law boils down to [see Romans 13:10]). But the Sabbath does have special significance because the book of Revelation gives it special significance. Chapter 13 actually mentions the word “worship” five times, each time pointing to the fact that the devil’s agents are going to try to force people to “worship,” even resorting to the death penalty to force people to do so (v. 15). This is a control and fear-based tactic, which is not God’s ways of worship at all.

Instead, God simply “invites” people to freely worship Him (see Rev 22:17), without any fear or manipulation, without any control or coercion. This is seen in the fact that in Revelation 14:7 God invites people in the last days to “worship Him.”

And what is the basis of that worship? We are invited to “worship Him who made heaven and earth, the sea, and the springs of water.” This last clause is a direct quote from the Sabbath commandment (see Exodus 20:11)!

So this is the difference between Sabbath and Sunday worship in the last days! Satan’s minions are going to try to enforce Sunday worship as a means of control, threatening even death to those who refuse to do so. This is clearly a reflection of Satan’s tactic: use error, control, and fear. And such Christians who agree to worship on Sunday upon penalty of death are actually living a life that is a reflection of the fact that they think they can “earn” their salvation (after all, worshiping on Sunday is actually a man-made tradition).

On the other hand, those who choose to honor the Lord by keeping the Sabbath are doing so freely and by faith. This is a choice they have made and they refuse to be bullied by the devil’s tactics. Their lives bear witness to the fact that God is so loving that they would rather honor Him than follow a man-made tradition and rule—even if it means death. They have fallen in love with God so much that they would rather die than do something that would be a misrepresentation of who He is.

Believe it or not, I am sure there is more that I could write on this that would explain it more, but I trust I have written enough for you to chew on!

What I have written could probably use some “tweaking,” and I am still working through all the implications myself, but that is the basic story as I see it.

Hopefully it makes sense to you! And hopefully I was not imbalanced with my explanation. Either way, please let me know if there is anything I can explain in a better way.

Hope this helps!!

God bless,


PS. The reason we would want others to keep the Sabbath – especially in these last days – is so that they can, of course, enjoy the full rest that God wants to give them, and so that they do not fall into deception. Above and beyond that, though, God is looking for a group of people who will finally and forever say “yes” to Him.