What God Has Done, Not What He “Would” Do

“God wouldn’t…” This unfortunate phrase appears fairly often in theological debate. Along with this one come on occasion “God couldn’t” or, more rarely, “God shouldn’t.” Yet to me reasoning which starts in this way seems somewhat misguided at best and dangerous at worst. To explain why, I shall first provide some examples of what I dislike.

  • A theistic evolutionist might say, “God wouldn’t create the natural world in a God-of-the-gaps manner.”
  • A young earth creationist might say, “God wouldn’t create life by such a violent and inefficient process as evolution.”
  • A Calvinist might say, “God wouldn’t waste any of Jesus’ blood dying for those who won’t be saved.”
  • An Arminian might say, “God couldn’t save everyone without violating their free will.”
  • A theological progressive might say, “God wouldn’t oppose people of any sex who love each other getting married.”
  • A theological conservative might say, “God wouldn’t [maybe couldn’t] provide us with a Bible anything less than 100% inerrant.”
  • A universalist might say, “God couldn’t send Jesus to die for everyone but everyone not be saved.”
  • An exclusivist might say, “God wouldn’t save those who reject His Son.”

What do these all have in common? They all seem entitled to be overly presumptuous in discussing God. I take it as an absolute axiom that God is utterly, sovereignly free. God is under no obligations outside of Himself, and is not bound to any structures, logics, or rules beyond those to which He freely chooses to bind Himself. If this is the case to, in my opinion, any meaningful extent at all, then what use is a “wouldn’t” or a “couldn’t?”

The fundamental problem with trying to reason out such controls over God’s activity is that of the infinite qualitative distinction between God and humanity. God is above; we are below. God is infinite; we are finite. God created and transcends the natural order; we were created and are radically contingent within the natural order. All of this adds us to that God’s famous declaration in Isaiah: “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not My ways.”

Given Jesus’ own life (among other realities), this radical disjunction between human expectations and divine actions should be entirely unsurprising. How hard-pressed would one be to imagine a Jew before Christ saying, “God would never become a man?” Or perhaps one did expect that God would come in a human form or something, but might have thought, “When God comes, He will come in glory and power, certainly not in a lowly manger.” Indeed, when Jerusalem was abuzz with the hope that Jesus would take up the Messianic role and set Himself up as God’s king against Rome, did He not instead take the humble role of the suffering servant? Who before this happened would have said anything but, “God could not die!”

The pattern is clear. God has revealed that His normal practice is overturning human expectations, shattering our ideas of what He could or would do. His ways have appeared startling and paradoxical throughout His whole history of dealings with mankind, Israel, His own Son, and the Church. With such a free, sovereign, and surprising God, how could we ever presume to figure out His truths by way of reasoning what He could or would do? This would be akin to predicting what a cunning, master chess player would do when you yourself barely even know the rules of the game.

Instead, I believe we should restrict ourselves to the question of only what God has done, or promised to do. An examples, what if we reframed the earlier example debates this way exclusively?

  • Did God create life by evolutionary, biological means, or by immediate miracle?
  • Has God provided His Son as atonement for all people, or only some?
  • Has God said that homosexuality is sinful, or has He left this open?
  • Did God inspire Scripture in an inerrant way, or in another way?
  • Has God said He will save all or some, and if some who has God said He will save?

None of the answers to these questions are important to this present post (and I can tell you now that you will not be able to use this list to figure out my stances on anything you do not already know). What matters is cutting away the “would” and “could” to focus on what God has actually done. Trying to work the other way, making the arguments I sampled at the beginning of this post, works as an effective red herring, taking our attention away from reality where God has truly done this or that, and instead pulling us into a vain world of hypotheticals and insolent speculation on the divine purposes. If we are to let God simply be God, and do as He wishes, then we should make a rule to assess His deeds a posteriori, not a priori.

On the other hand, I am not issuing a blanket condemnation on all attempts to reason about less clear areas of God’s activity from more clear ones. Obviously that is necessary in some way and to some degree. For example, if someone was arguing that God lied, we would be perfectly justified in responding “it is impossible for God to lie” (Heb. 6:18). Yet if we are to reason in this way, we must do so only on the foundations of what God has already clearly done and said, not inferences from the abstract, provisional, philosophical, and analogical side in our notions of who/what God is. On this latter ground there is simply far too much wiggle room, too many chances to go down a mental wrong turn without enough light to ever tell. Who is, after all, qualified to understand God’s ways anywhere but within the parameters set by God’s ways?

On this note, I shall end with this simply inexhaustible quote from Paul:

Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God! How unsearchable His judgments and untraceable His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been His counselor? Or who has ever first given to Him, and has to be repaid? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.

Romans 11:33-36

What God Has Done, Not What He “Would” Do

Salvation and Certainty Revisited

[This whole post is a follow-up of two earlier posts. First was I’m Not 100% Certain I’m Going to Heaven (And That’s Okay) and the second was Clark Is Certain He is Going to Heaven. Make sure to read them if you haven’t!]

Some time ago, I argued against the possibility of true, epistemic certainty of salvation. You cannot be 100% certain of salvation, I argued, because you cannot have 100% certainty of anything you experience, period, even of the existence of the Bible, God, or anything beyond your own mind.

Since then, I have come to think of this in another light. See, the assumption undergirding my entire previous post was that the only certain knowledge one can have is that which can be rationally deduced. If you cannot prove it with fundamental logical principles, then you cannot know it with 100% certainty. Sure, you can have working confidence, but not perfect knowledge. But now I wonder if that is misguided.

Lacking from my last examination of this question was the concept of union with God the Father, through the Son, through the Spirit. Let us assume for a moment that, regardless of certainty, orthodox Christian doctrines are true. In that case every believer is ontologically united to Jesus through the Holy Spirit, and ontologically united to God the Father through Jesus’ hypostatic union. Therefore each of us has a real, deep connection to God.

Let us also assume that God has perfect certainty. Given that all reality must be contingent on God, and He is indeed the Truth, this makes sense. So if God has perfect certainty, and I have a direct ontological connection with Him, then there is an avenue by which I may attain perfectly certainty.

See, I previously assumed that “I think, therefore I am” was as far as you could go with 100% certainty. “God is 100% certain of all things” is something I would also affirm. But given the reality of union with God through Jesus through the Spirit, “I” now becomes connected to “God” in such a way that perhaps this is possible: “I know x with 100% certainty because this knowledge is mediated to me directly by God, who knows x with 100% certainty.”

If this is the case, presumably through the Spirit we could know with certainty that we are united to God in Christ, at which point we can be assured of salvation. 

“But wait!” someone could object. “You could still have all kinds of rational reasons to doubt salvation, both theologically and philosophically.” Yet this does not negate my point. For not every rational excuse the mind can create negates true knowledge. I could, for example, come up with various objections to the idea that I exist. But while they might have some rational persuasive power, ultimately they could not shake the unconscious certainty that I do indeed exist. This is immediate knowledge which I cannot turn off, though in my mind I could perhaps deny or doubt it.

Likewise, I expect we can have this immediate certainty of salvation through the Spirit deep within, even if it might be unconscious and contradicted by the mind. This would be a good reason why we can experience anxiety and stress about doubting our salvation, for our minds come up with ways to contradict what we actually know for certain, bewildering us.

This is really only a beginning of these ruminations, but I hope they’ll be thought-provoking. I imagine this will lead (at least in my mind) to some more thoughts on reason and faith, and maybe on a defense of having certainty in our senses. Hmm…

Salvation and Certainty Revisited

The One Thing I Know

I have lots of questions. This is in stark contrast to the “me” of two years ago, who had nothing but answers. But that’s how things go naturally. The more you come to know, the more you realize you don’t actually know. For many issues, I would go so far as to say that certainty is really just ignorance of possibilities.

Of course, that’s not necessarily desirable. We all—and I know especially I—want to know the truth without doubt. Some argue that it is an affront on the clarity and sufficiency of Scripture to think that we cannot. Yet the more I learn about things, the more I come to realize that, however much God has given us in Scripture and through the Spirit, we are so small-minded. There is simply so much beyond us. We’re captivated by more extra-Biblical assumptions, predeterminations, and cultural mores than we realize or can escape. At some point we realize that our quest for objective understanding is really rather vain. 

This said, the pursuit of truth is never vain. What is vain is seeking the truth through figuring things out. We have limits. We’re human beings, fallen ones at that. We’re not the omniscient God. So if we want truth, sooner or later we have to realize that we can’t find it simply by learning facts in our finite lifetimes with our finite minds. There is only one way to truth. There is only one Truth.

Jesus said to him, “I am…the truth.”

John 14:6

 

The One Thing I Know

Clark Is Certain He is Going to Heaven

If you read my previous controversial post on certainty and salvation, you now need to read Clark’s post on his own blog which responds with an opposing argument. Here’s the link explaining why you can be certain of your salvation:

Re: Certainty of Salvation: the Rationalist Perspective | Investigationes pro Divinum Verum

If you need the tl;dr version, here’s his conclusion (but I encourage you to read the whole thing):

In quick summary, the existence of the mind can be shown to be properly basic, meaning, a self-evident axiom. Reason is not separable from the mind. God exists, firmly dispelling the evil genius hypothesis. If the Bible is divine revelation, which, barring some incontrovertible opposing reason, it certainly is, then it is characteristic of God. If something is characteristic of God, then it is certain. Therefore, one can be certain of personal salvation.

Clark Is Certain He is Going to Heaven

I’m Not 100% Certain I’m Going to Heaven (And That’s Okay)

“Are you 100% certain that if you were to die today you would go to heaven?”

I cannot tell you how many times I have heard that line. I’ve heard it in sermons, witnessing studies, Ray Comfort videos, and real life situations. Only one problem.

This is just a bad way to share the Gospel.

Why? Because there is no such thing as 100% certainty for human beings.

“But Caleb,” you say, “doesn’t the Bible tell us that we can know we have eternal life, and doesn’t it reassure us with shall and will?”

Of course it does. But alas, knowledge is not the same as 100% certainty. If you believe something is true, and it is true, and you believe it rather confidently for the right reasons, you know it.

“But surely you don’t know something unless you have certainty?”

I would agree for the most part, but even certainty isn’t the same as 100% certainty. Certainty is simply beyond all reasonable doubt, while 100% certainty would be beyond any and all possible doubt. This is impossible. Disagree? I think it is proved fairly easily.

To start, let’s take something you probably think you know with 100% certainty. How do you know that the words you are reading are actually on your screen.

“I see them, of course.”

But I ask, then, how do you know that what you see is real?

“Well, I can’t know it by myself since I could be hallucinating, I can ask someone else, and they can confirm it.”

How, then, are you supposed to know that you are not also hallucinating the other person?

“Um… I can go touch them?”

But then you are pushed to another question, namely how you know that you are really touching someone and not just imagining it. See, in the end, there is no way to prove, either with logic or empirical evidence, that anything you see or experience is real.  This is relevant to the question of salvation, because if you cannot eliminate the possibility that everything you’ve ever experienced is basically a dream, then you cannot have 100% certainty of anything you experience.

You may have an answer, though. You tell me, “Ah, wait, but salvation is a matter of God’s Word. Scripture is infallible, even if I’m uncertain of my experiences.”

Yet in this, the assumption remains that Scripture exists and you have read it. But if you cannot prove your experiences are real, you also cannot be sure that the words of Scripture have actually ever been written anywhere. They could also be in your imagination. And in this case you cannot know with 100% certainty anything about God or Jesus or salvation.

“But Caleb, surely we can know God’s truth with 100% certainty? Can’t God enable us to know this directly through the Holy Spirit?”

Maybe He could, but I would instead argue that we are not made that way. God did not make us to know things without any possibility of doubt or question, because to do that He would have needed to make us infinite in understanding, but instead He made us finite. We are limited by our human nature so that there is always some uncertainty.

Why would God do this? (This is also about why this matters.) I cannot claim to know the wisdom of God, but I suspect it goes into faith. Faith is not about certainty, but about believing and living under Christ even when we’re not certain about this life. You do not have faith in what you know for sure; you have faith in what you trust despite the possibility of being wrong.

To take this back to my original point, the problem with saying, “Are you 100% certain you’re going to heaven?” is that it places the emphasis on your knowledge, your belief, and about getting to heaven, not to mention placing a huge stumbling block in the way of skeptics who think philosophically. The Christian life is about following Christ in the uncertainty that faith disrupts, pursuing Jesus through the fog because even though you can’t see anything, you trust that He will lead you to glory.

I’m Not 100% Certain I’m Going to Heaven (And That’s Okay)