2 Biblical Issues I Think Calvinism Gets Wrong

I really am a rare breed when it comes to the debate over Calvinism/election/predestination/sovereignty. There are a lot of studied Calvinists who were once unlearned (and often non-professing, de facto) Arminians. Likewise, there are enough ex-Calvinists (who are now usually Arminians, Catholics, or unbelievers) who never knew the system well, and still repeat common misunderstandings and misconceptions about what it teaches and how it works. What you have relatively few of are ex-Calvinists who knew the doctrine well, in all of its ins and outs, with nuance, precision, and depth, able to mount detailed and comprehensive arguments both for the 5 points themselves and the basic system of causal determinism that accompanies them so readily, especially ones who are still Christians and don’t hate Calvinism. I fall into this latter camp, and I do not mean by the description I gave to “toot my own horn.” My point is rather to identify where I am coming from. Very little of the normal debate involves people from this place, and it cuts off some of the normal lines of argument.

Anyway, from this unusual perspective I just want to offer two simple Biblical points that I think Calvinism just doesn’t get right. This is not stuff at the theoretical, complex theological, or moral level, just two problems that involve Biblical interpretation. Hopefully this will provide some food for thought, or perhaps even provide a place for constructive dialogue.

  1. Biblical use of election: Calvinism frames mostly all discussion of election/the elect in terms of an unconditionally chosen collection of individuals destined for eternal salvation. This does not seem to ring true with the actual Biblical use. Bearing in mind that to elect literally means to select or choose, most of the incidents of election do not appear to fall in line with this systematic concept. Election doesn’t usually appear to be about all the individuals who are going to be saved. Instead, it appears as God’s choice of a people or an individual for a specific purpose in redemptive history. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, all Israel, Moses, Aaron and his descendants, the Levites, King David and his descendants, even King Cyrus, Jesus, the Twelve, Paul, and the Church all were chosen, selected by God to accomplish particular tasks for God’s design in the midst of history. These people and groups are truly elect, that is, chosen by God. This isn’t to say that God said, “Let’s make sure this person gets to heaven,” but rather that He picked and called them to do His will, bear His word, and share His blessings. Going right along with this, these elect groups and individuals were not chosen merely for their own sake or salvation. Their very election was the grounds of blessing for those who were not elected. Israel was elected to bless the rest of the world (Gen. 12:3, Mic. 4:1-3, cf. Gal. 3:8). Moses was chosen for a role and relationship with God unique in all history (Exod. 3:10, Deut. 34:10), yet this election was for the liberation of all Israel. Jesus is referred to literally as the Elect One of God (Lk. 9:35), and His mission was clearly not for His own benefit, but “for us and for our salvation,” as the Creed says. When taken all together, the picture of God’s choosing is one of graciously bestowing a call, a word, and a blessing on historical persons and groups in order to accomplish His redemptive purpose. This is what I believe the Scriptures generally mean when they speak of God’s chosen ones/elect. (Granted, this does not mean the Calvinist doctrine of predestination and reprobation is false. At most it simply means that, true or false, “election” would be the wrong Biblical word for it. Yet I think that this alternate understanding of the terminology removes much of the weight behind the occurrence of words like “elect” from general Calvinist argument.)
  2. Limited atonement: I am convinced that limited atonement is the weakest point of Calvinism, and I am convinced of this primarily on exegetical grounds. When it comes to the plain statement of Scripture, I think there are few other doctrines without Christian orthodoxy with as little support. Generally, texts cited in favor of limited atonement rely entirely on deductions. John 10 is applied by extracting certain logical deductions from a certain reading of the text. Phrases like “save His people from their sins” and “gave Himself up for her [His bride]” are taken to imply that what they say is not true in any sense to people besides the immediate referents. Texts worded so that they could mean Jesus only died for the elect are taken as they they must mean so, and on that basis texts worded so that it seems abundantly clear that Jesus died for all are taken as though they cannot mean so. Basically, the most direct statements in Scripture on the matter (e.g. Heb. 2:9, 2 Cor. 5:15, 1 Tim. 2:5-6) are interpreted more difficulty based on logical interpretative deductions from less explicit passages (e.g. John 10, Eph. 5). Yet Scripture interpretation is meant to run in the opposite direction: passages less directly about a particular topic ought to be read primarily in light of the more clear and direct statements on it. In the case of atonement, “He died for all” is much more clear and direct than, “the Bible says Jesus lay down His life for His sheep, therefore He must not have intended to die on behalf of anyone who is not ultimately saved.” The latter sounds like it makes sense, but is a couple interpretive steps down the road, and if those steps don’t mesh with the prior clear statements, they ought to be reevaluated.

Well, those are what I’ve got for now. I could write more on each of these, especially the first, and perhaps I will. Nonetheless, this is a basic overview of two major Biblical objections I see to Calvinism. There is probably one other major Biblical category, all further theological, philosophical, and moral questions aside, but I will get to it some other time.

As always, I do not wish anyone take any offense, for I am not on the offense. I’m mostly writing this to keep you guys informed on where I’m coming from, and to invite anyone who has questions about my views to find answers. I still love Calvinists and respect Calvinism far more than any other ex-Calvinist I’ve met, so make sure to take it all in benevolence. Until next time, may God bless you and keep you.

2 Biblical Issues I Think Calvinism Gets Wrong

Brother Bill Is Gay. Now What?

Brother Bill has always been a pretty cool guy. He just celebrated 10 years as a deacon, and taught the youth Sunday school class for the past year after the last teacher moved away. You’ve had dinner at his house many times, and everyone loves his Christmas parties. Just last week he brought his friend to church and his friend repented of his sins and believed in Jesus. So today makes no sense. Today he came out and admitted that he was gay, and plans on pursuing a relationship with someone he met at work. Now you’re all wondering: what do we do?

The recent increased controversy over gay marriage has got me thinking again about what I suspect will be an important issue in the near future for conservative American churches. I specifically don’t include the so-called “mainline” denominations because they went the liberal route of making every essential Christian doctrine optional years ago and have no real opposition to homosexuality in general. Not so for the many evangelical denominations (and non-denominations) in the country. For the most part, we’ve stood against the tide towards accepting gay relationships the whole time.

Brother Bill came out and admitted that he was gay. What do we do?

Now we are slowly facing a new challenge, one that’s accelerating. This challenge is that of Christian progressivism. Unlike the liberalism which barely (if at all) deserves the name “Christian” due to it abandoning historic doctrines like Jesus’ deity, historical resurrection, etc., progressives continue to affirm the core Christian teachings outlined in, for example, the Nicene Creed. Many even affirm the five solas of the Protestant Reformation. But they do make very untraditional moves on social issues, including gay marriage. For the growing Christian progressive movement, there’s nothing wrong with LGBT relationships, and indeed for many progressives these are beautiful things to be protected and cherished.

This brings me back to the story about Brother Bill. With the growth of Christian progressivism, and with the increasing voice progressive bloggers and authors have even in the conservative Christian world, more and more Christians are coming to believe that Scripture does not actually condemn homosexuality. With arguments about the Old Covenant in Leviticus, pagan cult prostitution in Romans 1, and the difficulty of translating arsenokoitai, among others, they persuade many lay Christians beyond sympathy to moral acceptance of gay relationships. The arguments become especially appealing when you, like many people these days, know or have contact with people who are gay and don’t want to condemn them. So for a growing number of apparent believers, what was once a clear cut matter has become at strongest debatable.

Such a movement will likely only increase in steam in the near future, so now those of us in conservative evangelical churches will have to face a new issue: what do we do about people within our churches who think that homosexuality is not a sin, and still believe their position is completely faithful to Scripture? What do we do especially with those who, based on that belief, actually engage in such relationships?

For a growing number of believers, what was once a clear cut matter has become debateable.

Unfortunately, for many of us the first instinct will be to start making judgments about who is saved and who isn’t. They’re wrong on homosexuality? Probably not a real Christian. He’s an activist? Definitely not a real Christian. Honestly, I don’t believe this is within our calling or rights. Scripture records so much sin in the lives of believers, from Abraham’s deceptions to David’s adultery/murder to Peter’s denial, that it is hard to say any sin is outside the realm of a believer to fall. Moreover, justifying and accommodating sin has its own very visible history among God’s people, as seen frequently in the Old Testament, though also in the New. And while Scripture does frequently give us guidelines for discerning false teachers, there are no real rules or commands given to figure out which lay church members are “true” believers.

What then? Are we to ignore sin, perhaps aiding and abetting, and go with some kind of interpretive pluralism or moral relativism where we can’t make any definite statements about right and wrong? Can we make no stand in our churches? As Paul would say, by no means! But what I want to suggest is that we move the “gay issue” from the sphere of individual salvation—who is saved and who isn’t—to the sphere of church membership and discipline, from the sphere of soteriology to ecclesiology.

There are no real rules or commands given in the Bible to figure out which lay church members are “true” believers.

What do I mean? I think instead of trying to figure out who is saved and who isn’t, or what a Christian “can” do or “can’t” do, we should ask instead, “What should the church permit, what should the church discipline, and what should the church excommunicate for?” If we take this approach, instead of thinking, “I think Bill isn’t saved, but I think Jackson is,” then we can simply assume that the people who are in the church match up basically with the people who are saved. How do I think this can work? I’m basing this mostly on Matthew 18:15-20, 1 Corinthians 5, 2 Thessalonians 3, and some similar passages. So imagine this situation as an example:

You see Brother Dan getting drunk with his co-workers and visiting some less-than-appropriate entertainment. Following Jesus and Paul on this, you talk to him privately about the matter and encourage him to do what is right. Next week, you spot him again. He hasn’t repented, so you take him before another trusted believer, perhaps your pastor or a deacon, and confront him. He has another chance. But he continues his behavior anyway, so you bring him before the entire church and as a church you initiate church discipline, possibly ending with excommunicating him. Once he is removed from the church, you assume that he is not a believer, but hope for his restoration.

“What should the church permit, what should the church discipline, and what should the church excommunicate for?”

This, I believe, is how we ought to handle matters of badly behaving Christians. While we as the church can recognize the ongoing struggle of the Christian with the flesh, we can also recognize and discipline flagrant sin, rebellion, or crossing lines on Christian morality. When people live with their everyday pride and gossip, we might rebuke them as a church but know not to kick them out of fellowship and treat them as an unbeliever. But when people refuse to repent of straight immorality, such as the greed, idolatry, and sexual immorality that Paul often treats like the trio of death, we are commanded to remove the evil person from among us.

So how should we apply this to the current gay debates? First, I don’t think we should bother trying to judge who individually is, in the depths of his heart, a true or false believer. Instead, we look at their church membership initiated in baptism and a confession of faith. Those who are within the church we should treat as fellow believers, and those outside we treat as lost people in need of Jesus. But as a church we must make the following decisions:

  1. Will we discipline (up to and including excommunication) members in gay relationships?
  2. If not, will we allow them in positions of authority? Teaching? Service?
  3. Will we discipline members who are not in gay relationships but believe that such relationships are okay?
  4. If not, will we allow them in positions of authority? Teaching? Service?
  5. Will we discipline members who actively promote and teach that gay relationships are Biblically acceptable?
  6. If not, will we allow them in positions of authority? Teaching? Service?
  7. Will we recognize and/or cooperate with other churches or denominations who disagree on these questions? If so, which ones?

I think the entire debate should take place within these seven questions. On that basis, we can simply assume that people within the church are believers, and assume that people outside are not. Those who refuse to repent of what we have agreed as a church is Biblically prohibited can be disciplined up to and including excommunication if necessary.

Those who are within the church we should treat as fellow believers, and those outside we treat as lost people in need of Jesus.

How would I personally answer these questions? I’m not 100% sure, but I tend to think this: (1) yes, (2) none, (3) no, (4) service only, (5) yes, (6) none, and (7) I don’t know yet. What are your thoughts? Do you agree with my overall argument? How would you answer these seven questions? Comment with your thoughts if you don’t mind.

Brother Bill Is Gay. Now What?

Election, Israel, and Yahweh’s Consuming Fire

The Cure That Killed the Patient

The Old Testament can be a very scary place. You can’t disagree if you’ve read much of it at all, unless of course you like massive body counts and total destruction. From the frequent application of the death penalty to the bloody conquests of Israel over the Canaanite peoples, there is a lot to unsettle the stomach. I know from experience the strain this violence can create on attempting to have relationship with the God revealed in Jesus Christ during the New Testament.

What I find more disturbing, though, is how many people in popular theology these days are trying to handle this tension. Writers like Peter Enns and others have promoted dealing with these tough texts by more or less excising them from our theology. Because Jesus is the true Word of God and is so non-violent in the Gospels, they argue, the portraits of divine violence in the Old Testament must be distorted by bad Jewish theology. “God lets His children tell the story,” so they say.

As I explained in a recent post, this is a very problematic approach to the Old Testament. The God of the New Testament, the God who dwells fully in Jesus Christ, identifies Himself with Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament. Enns and Co. would agree with this. But what they miss is that Yahweh’s defining moment in the Old Testament is made precisely of the kind of very violence they say God must not have done based on Jesus. What is this defining moment? The Exodus. Over and over again in the Old Testament, God identifies Himself as the God who brought His people out of Egypt1. And there is no separating God’s saving Israel in the Exodus from the violent miracles involved2. So if the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has any continuity at all with the God who led Israel out of Egypt, we cannot ignore Old Testament violence. And if He is not the same God, then we’re left in Marcion’s heresy with a completely unintelligible Christ and a foundationally misled New Testament.

Another Way? Maybe Holy Love

Of course, I’ve said as much as this before. What I’d like to address in this post is an actual alternative. Usually after dismissing the tea-strainer approach to the Old Testament, I and others who stand firm on this issue don’t have much of a positive response. If discounting the stories of OT violence as Israelite distortions is the wrong way to understand them, then what is the right way? Should we just swallow the whole without trying to comprehend what our God of love was doing then?

Obviously, apathy isn’t the way of faith, either. We need to try and apply what we know of God in Jesus Christ to what happened in the Old Testament, but we must do so with recognition that the “wrath of the Lamb”3 actually does exist. So how can we do this? I intend in this post to provide something of a way forward, with help from, again, T. F. Torrance, this time drawing mostly from his shorter book The Mediation of Christ.

What do we know of God’s love? We know that this love characterizes God in a deep way4, was revealed in the cross5, and is no more or less applicable to God than His holiness6. So what do these truths tell us? A couple of thoughts come to mind. First off, if holiness is as essential to God as Scripture indicates (and anything repeated three times like in Rev. 4:8 must be), and yet John can say, “God is love,” then these two “attributes” of God must be intimately related and connected, perhaps only two forms of one reality (especially if God is simple). God is not just holy and not just love, but is “holy love.”

What does holy love look like? For an understanding of holy love to “work”, that is, to do justice to what God has revealed of Himself in our history, the definition must be able to handle both Joshua and 1 John, the “Stone the blasphemers” and the “Neither do I condemn you.” So my attempted construction of this concept is as follows: Holy love is love so powerful and incomparable that it stands above all lesser loves, endlessly opposing them for not being loving enough. A holy love cannot compromise with hatred or self-love, but instead burns against them like a fire. Holy love is a freely devoted living for the beloved, which is so for the beloved that the lover must contradict anything which threatens the beloved, whether other people or the beloved herself. So to the beloved in herself, holy love appears like this: “You reveal the path of life to me; in Your presence is abundant joy; in Your right hand are eternal pleasures”7. But to whoever threatens the beloved, holy love appears as a “consuming fire”8.

With this understanding of holy love in mind, the second part of this post will attempt to examine the specific Old Testament problems. At this point, I’ve nearly hit 1000 words, which is the max attention span of the average blog reader. So even if you could read more, I think I’d prefer to split this post because I have quite a bit more. I’ve only laid the groundwork for the rest of what I have to say. I guess try to think about what I’ve said so far until part two comes ’round.

Election, Israel, and Yahweh’s Consuming Fire

Rare Steak and the Death Penalty

Execution. Such an awful and yet, according to many people, necessary thing. Where one life was taken, another must be. When dealing with death, people usually get touchy, so there’s no mystery behind the death penalty being controversial. I mean, some of the most heated issues in popular debate involve death (abortion, euthanasia, animal rights, police shootings, and war come to mind off the top of my head). So that the death penalty is also so divisive is no surprise.

What may be a surprise to some Christians is that even within Christianity, the death penalty is very controversial. Even though I grew up with almost exclusively pro-execution believers, I soon found out on getting older how much variety there is. Christianity even has hardcore pacifists, and apparently most of the early church fathers were anti-capital punishment. I found this quite surprising, so I’ve done a little debate and investigation.

Personally, my mental jury is still out. Both sides have plausible arguments, and I find some from each side compelling. But I just wanted to address here one particular argument I used to use, which I’ve realized is flawed.

In my old death penalty debates, the Old Testament Law would often come up. Even though the Law required the death penalty, my opponents said, we are no longer under the Law, so we do not need to execute anyone. The death penalty was abolished for us with animal sacrifices and food regulations.

While I responded with multiple arguments, one I used was that the death penalty came from God before the Mosaic Law, and so couldn’t have simply gone away along with the Law. When was this? Some of you may be familiar. In Genesis 9, the Flood is over and God is establishing a covenant with Noah and his family. On God’s part, He will never destroy the inhabited world again. On humanity’s part, God says this:

I will require the life of every animal and every man for your life and your blood. I will require the life of each man’s brother for a man’s life. Whoever sheds man’s blood, his blood will be shed by man, for God made man in His image.

Genesis 9:5-6

Here God sets up the death penalty way before Moses. So when the Law became unnecessary for believers, the death penalty probably did not because that law came from a covenant made before the Law with every human being who still lived.

But, there is a wrinkle in this argument. Immediately before giving the death penalty, God commands Noah, “However, you must not eat meat with its lifeblood in it” (v. 4). So in the same breath that God set up capital punishment in His covenant with people, He also restricted eating meat which still has blood inside as part of that same covenant.

This regulation obviously poses a problem. If we use this passage to maintain the validity of the death penalty, should we also forbid eating really rare steaks, and any other meat which still has blood inside? Both of these laws go back before Moses. They are both part of the covenant made Noah and his family, and we are all their descendants. So these two laws seem to be inseparable. The text seems to imply that if we accept one, we must accept the other, and if we say one is obsolete, we must say the other is, too.

This doesn’t prove that the death penalty is out, though. Even if we think the covenant with Noah no longer applies to us, we might find another reason for capital punishment. But this revelation certainly takes some of the bite out of the Biblical evidence for the death penalty.

Or does it? There is the uncomfortable possibility that these laws do still apply to us. After all, they were never revoked. The New Testament never says they are obsolete like the Law of Moses. Plus, God’s end of the deal (never to destroy all the human world again) is apparently still in force. Even more uncomfortably, the New Testament might actually tell us that the blood law still applies. Consider this: one of the first decisions of the apostles was the Jerusalem Council, which addressed the question of whether Gentile believers (that’s us) have to follow the Law. Here’s part of what they said:

For it was the Holy Spirit’s decision—and ours—to put no greater burden on you than these necessary things: that you abstain from food offered to idols, from blood, from eating anything that has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. You will do well if you keep yourselves from these things. Farewell.

Acts 15:28-29

We all agree that at least two of the things the council said—namely that we do not have to obey the Law and that we must abstain from sexual immorality—still apply to us today. So what about the commands related to food? Well, Paul seems to indicate that we are allowed to eat food sacrificed to idols as long as we understand that idols are nothing and as long as this does not violate our conscience (Rom. 14:13-23, 1 Cor. 8). So apparently at least one of these restrictions doesn’t apply anymore. And for the rest? Who knows?

My point in all this is that the covenant God made with Noah and his descendants definitely complicates the death penalty debate, even though I myself used to use that covenant for this very purpose. In this particular covenant, separating the law against eating blood with the law requiring the death penalty seems impossible. Moreover, there is at least some possibility that both do apply. So all of this warrants more careful research. In everything, we have to make sure that we are “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15 KJV). What all applies to whom? When, where, why, and how does every verse and law apply? May the Spirit lead us into all wisdom on these matters.

By the way, even if the blood law does apply, we don’t have rule out all rare meat. Based on the way meat was handled then, the point of the law appears to have been that the blood in an animal has to be drained before eating. Getting every last drop of blood out was not necessary, or all that feasible.

(As a concluding side note, this issue is particularly interesting to me because there are immediate, albeit not major, practical applications in our diets and politics. Should we support or oppose the death penalty when we vote? Are we allowed to steaks that are really, really rare? These questions need answering for us to do certain parts of life in accordance with God’s will.)

Rare Steak and the Death Penalty

God Took the Blame (Or, A Little Thought About the Problem of Evil)

If God exists, why does evil? Is He too weak to stop it? Does He refuse? Did it catch Him off guard? These questions have challenged philosophers and theologians for thousands of years, and goodness knows I can add little or nothing to their many answers. But I just felt like sharing this thought on my mind.

In Christian circles, there are usually two answers given, one by Calvinists and one by almost everyone else. To the Calvinist, evil exists by God’s decision. He ordained before time that Satan should fall, and Adam after him. He did not directly cause evil, but knowingly set up the world with causes, effects, and stuffs which led to evil. Why did He do this? To bring Him glory in conquering and judging it. God’s glory is the greatest good for both Himself and the elect.

The problems with the Calvinist answer are many. Can the intense evil and suffering in the world really bring glory to a good and kind God? Did the same God we see in Jesus imagine the Holocaust to make Himself look good? Moreover, this reasoning smacks of utilitarianism, an unbiblical ethic system where the ends justify the means, and you can get away with anything for “the greater good.” Is God a utilitarian? That’s not what we see of Him in Jesus’ life.

On the other hand, Arminians, Molinists, and self-styled “Biblicists” usually go with the free will defense. I’m sure you’ve heard it. God wants us to freely love Him, but with free will necessarily comes the possibility to do evil. He can either force us to love Him, which wouldn’t be real love, or He must allow for the possibility of evil. This is considered by many a strong and intuitive answer to the problem of evil.

Yet this approach is not without its problems. For one, how do we know free will exists? That debate is ages old, with many arguments of both sides. Moreover, if free will is real, then God has it, but we also know that God cannot sin, and indeed always truly loves. So in that case why could He not make people in the same way, free, truly loving, yet unable to sin, like He is? Besides these problems, is free will by itself a strong enough concept to bear all the weight of the world’s evil? I don’t think we can really reduce the answer to every “Why, God?!” to “That’s easy, free will.”

If these answers don’t work, then what will we say? Shall we cite Karl Barth and his doctrine of nothingness? Maybe go with Augustine in saying evil doesn’t truly exist? Somehow, I don’t think any of these work well enough. So where do we go? How do we exonerate God from evil?

Maybe we don’t.

When we look at Scripture, God never tries to explain or defend Himself on this subject. The Bible never tells us how evil came around, or why God let it. We’re completely in the dark.

In fact, in God’s fullest revelation—Jesus Himself—speaks no excuse, apology, or even rebuke. He instead did the unthinkable: He took the blame. God the Creator, as a created human being, took on full responsibility for the evil of all His creation, and He suffered the consequences. He did not fight to prove His innocence or protect His reputation, but let us punish Him as we saw fit. On Calvary humanity judged God for evil, and God submitted to their sentence.

None of this means, of course, that God actually has done anything wrong and deserves blame. What it does mean is that God is a big boy, one who doesn’t need our philosophies or even sophistry to be justified. He is perfectly capable and willing to take responsibility for the state of His world.

Of course, the other thing the Cross proves in this subject is that God definitely loves us. Whatever else may be at work, and whatever questions He leaves unanswered, we can trust that Jesus loves us. So if nothing else, we can know that God is for us.

God Took the Blame (Or, A Little Thought About the Problem of Evil)

A Different Kind of Calvinism: Let’s Talk Sovereignty and Maybe Jesus’ Humanity

When I left off explaining EC last time, I gave an unfortunately brief sketch of the EC view of human freedom. Human freedom, as opposed to libertarian free will, is grounded in God’s life of Triune love, given to us through Christ as the image of God in whom we were created. I left much unanswered, though, so here I plan to address two more topics: the relation of God’s sovereignty to human will, and a doctrine called “the vicarious humanity of Christ.” There’s a lot to say here., and this will be a bit longer than the previous posts, so let’s dive right in.

Does God Predetermine All Our Actions?

A defining trait of classical, TULIP Calvinism (TC, as usual) is the belief in divine determinism. This just means that God decides on His own everything that will ever happen, including all the choices people make. This does not mean there are no secondary causes, or that God forces people to do things against their will. It means that God even plans and decides what people want to do, and therefore also what they actually do. Here’s a quote from the Westminster Confessions, a very Calvinist document, updated somewhat freely to more modern language and formatting:

God—from all eternity, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will—freely and unchangeably ordained everything that comes to pass. But He did so in a way that neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence done to the will of the created beings, nor is the liberty or factoring of second causes taken away. Instead these are established.

So like I said, TC believes God sets up absolutely everything that will ever happen. This includes every sin ever committed, every horrific death, every starving child, and every time someone rejects the Gospel and is damned. People sin because they want to, sure, but they want to because God set up their whole lives to control their wants and actions. People are condemned for their sin, but whence comes their sin? Naturally, EC does not work this way. Determining people to commit and experience evil is simply not what God does. How do we know that? Jesus. We can reject the idea that the God Jesus revealed who wept over Israel’s rebellion did so as a show, having actually planned their stubbornness. Jesus did not set up the Pharisees to oppose Him so that He could condemn them. There is no God behind the back of Jesus. On the other hand, we do not think that God is in no control. On the contrary, He works all things for good. He plans and directs all things, even while not causing them or being the one who chooses every single event. While He leaves room for humans and all creation to have an existence that is authentically independent of His controlling will, He also maintains the ability to make sure His good will wins over all the forces which try to oppose Him. How is this?

There is no God behind the back of Jesus.

Let us be clear: God has not revealed in Scripture the precise details of “how” He works things out the way He wants. We must recognize that there probably is not decent analogy for the relationship between the God who created and sustains all things from before time and His creation. This said, I do think there is a concept that might be useful for us. See, God sustains all things. The whole world exists by the power of His word, and in Him all things hold together. In Him we live and move and have our being. This means that everything that happens and everything we do requires God’s creative power to be real. I think this naturally leaves open the space for God to work “behind the scenes,” but not in some secret predestining of every action. Instead, God uses His place to do what He has told us in His word, namely to work all things out for good, to sum up all things in Christ, and to reconcile all things to Himself. Everything we do and everything that simply happens is taken by God and ordered into His singular purpose for the world: the union of heaven and earth, God and man, through Jesus. From His position as the sustainer of everything, God has the ability to work with, in, through, or even on occasion against the normal flow of things to bring it all to its proper conclusion. In this way He makes everything work toward His own truly good intention.

Sin is not God’s will, but neither does it thwart His will.

In this way, we do not have to agree with TC in saying that all things, even sin, are truly God’s will in an important way, but we also do not have to say that God is simply working with what He gets, like an outsider with no real control. I think this fits the Biblical picture of God’s work very well.

What the Heck Does “Vicarious Humanity” Mean?

Another thing I’ve mentioned in previous posts and said I would cover here is the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. So what on earth do those words mean? Well, to put it simply, Jesus was human for us. Of course, that Jesus was human for us seems obvious. But what does that really mean? The way many people see it, Jesus basically became human so that He could justly fulfill the Law given to humans and take the punishment humans deserved. If He were not human, He simply wouldn’t be legally eligible to be our Savior. The problem is that this misses what Jesus has done for us on an ontological (that is, pertaining to inner reality) level. Jesus did not merely fulfill an external legal role by being human. Instead, by becoming a human being, Jesus brought humanity and God together in Himself, in one person. Since Jesus was (and is!) both God and man, His actions were both those of God coming down to bless humanity and of humanity responding to God with obedience and faith. How Jesus’ vicarious humanity relates to us is that He lived the perfect human life, which is the basis for our life. Jesus trusted in the Father. Jesus obeyed the Law. Jesus loved His neighbor, did true good works, and lived in every respect a completely human and completely flawless life. We cannot do these things because of sin. Sin keeps us from trusting the Father, obeying the Law, loving our neighbor, doing truly good works, and living completely human and flawless lives. Yet Jesus does not let sin win. By the Holy Spirit, we get to participate in Jesus’ life.

Jesus did not merely fulfill an external legal role by being human.

This point is fundamental to how EC understands salvation. When we believe in Jesus, repent of our sins, get baptized, and live a life of holy love, we do not do them alone. As Paul said, it is I, yet not I but Christ in me. Your faith happens because the Holy Spirit has connected you to Jesus, who had perfect faith. So through the Spirit you can also have Jesus-based faith. When we repent, we are really living out Jesus’ life of turning away from sin, brought into us through the Holy Spirit. Because of this truth, we can be fully assured of our salvation. We do not need to live up to a certain level of faith or good works to know that we are saved. Even if our faith and works stink, Jesus’ are perfect, and His are the real things behind ours. Because the Holy Spirit is truly the Spirit of Jesus Christ, when we have Him were are so deeply connected to Jesus that the resurrection and salvation He won by His own perfection are brought into our own lives.

Even if our faith and works stink, Jesus’ are perfect, and His are the real things behind ours.

At this point, one might ask, “So am I not really important? Is Jesus the only one doing anything? Am I just an empty puppet for the Holy Spirit?” The answer to this is “By no means!” Jesus is not a puppet-master, but the giver of Life. When Jesus’ life comes to us through the Spirit, we become our true selves. Jesus is, to quote Thomas Torrance, a “personalizing Person.” He does not eliminate our personhood by living in us, but instead creates it! Jesus’ vicarious humanity means that He is the human who makes all of us truly human. So salvation is all of Christ, but that doesn’t mean nothing of us. “All of grace” becomes “all of man.”

Wrapping Up

I know this post was too long, and it covered a lot of pretty deep stuff. But I do hope it has been helpful and even edifying. When I began studying Evangelical Calvinism, I didn’t get a lot of what it was saying, but now it is so refreshing to my soul. I think I see Jesus more clearly, and more as love, than I did before, and I enjoy it. This is the end of my EC series, so I know there are questions I haven’t answered. I imagine for every question I did answer, you may now have five more. So if you have questions, please comment and I will address them in a final FAQ. You can also email me at macadamiadaze@gmail.com if you want to discuss anything more in depth. 

A Different Kind of Calvinism: Let’s Talk Sovereignty and Maybe Jesus’ Humanity

Yeah, About that “Abstain from All Appearance of Evil” Thing

All my life I heard Christians tell me to be careful about how my actions look to others. They bring out 1 Thessalonians 5:22 in the trusty KJV, which says, “Abstain from all appearance of evil.” So there you have it!
“Don’t do anything,” you would hear, “that might look compromising.”

Because of this belief, lots of “not-rules” have appeared. Sure, it might not sinful to drink, but you shouldn’t do it anyway because it might appear evil. Yeah, maybe you could evangelize people at bars, but that would hurt your witness so you shouldn’t actually do it. You get the idea.

The problem with all this at face value is that, well, Jesus didn’t seem to agree. Jesus went to parties with tax collectors of the worst reputation. He spent lots of time ministering to prostitutes and remained unmarried, which is sure to raise glances. The Pharisees couldn’t get away with accusing Him of being a drunkard and glutton if He didn’t spend an awfully suspicious amount of time eating and drinking (alcohol, mind you), especially with unsavory characters.

Really, when you look at Jesus’ life in comparison to the popular use of “abstain from all appearance of evil,” it doesn’t seem to match up. Did Jesus do wrong? Should we not follow His example?

Of course, that’s not right. The problem is our understanding of the word “appearance.” In modern English, it usually is used about what something looks like, so that the verse means “abstain from all that looks like evil.” But that’s not the only meaning of “appearance,” and the one the KJV intends had to do with instances, or when something shows up, in its different ways. To make this clear, look at the same verse in translations for modern English norms:

  • NIV: reject every kind of evil
  • NLT/HCSB: Stay away from every kind of evil.
  • ESV/NASB: Abstain from every form of evil.
  • NET Bible: Stay away from every form of evil.

The idea of the verse is that, whenever evil appears, however it appears, we should keep away. We should avoid everything that is evil, every kind and from it takes.

What the verse is not saying is that we must watch everything we do to make sure none of it can be misinterpreted wrongly. Christians have not, historically, believed that to be necessary. The early church was content to meet in private early in the day, doing all sorts of things that aroused suspicion. They rarely made an effort to disprove the people who thought they killed babies, practiced cannibalism, and wanted to overthrow society. They were too busy doing good, even when it looked wrong to onlookers.

So don’t worry too much. While you shouldn’t do stupid things that make you look bad, always do what is right, always love, always enjoy the good things God have given you, and always be willing to share the Truth with others, even when it makes other people (even Christians) raise an eyebrow.

P.S. Here is Bible.org on this for people who care: 1 Thessalonians 5:22— The Sin Sniffer’s Catch-All Verse

Yeah, About that “Abstain from All Appearance of Evil” Thing