Saturday, September 8, 2012

Providence, Part VI: The Biblical Data

This is part 6 of my series on providence. Table of contents:
  1. Introduction and apology
  2. A brief history of the soteriological debate
  3. Overview of Calvinism
  4. Overview of Arminianism
  5. Comparing, contrasting, and evaluation of Calvinism and Arminianism
  6. The Biblical data
     6.5. Interlude: The God Who Seeks Us
  1. My position on providence
  2. Applications of this position to the soteriological debate
  3. Practical applications and conclusion
This post is kind of a jumping-off point for the eagerly-awaited (at least by me) one where I unpack my own position on providence. In contrast, this one is going to be as objective as possible, in which I present the Biblical foundation that I will build on next time. My thought process wasn't quite as simple as inferring doctrines from verses that directly support them. I'm going to take a lot of very simple facts that are (hopefully) beyond dispute, throw them in a blender, and come to my position in a more holistic way. Think of these facts as the ingredients. They can be divided into three categories for the three big concepts I am trying to balance: God's sovereignty, God's goodness, and human responsibility (or "free will" if you must have it in this discussion).

God's Sovereignty

God is omnipotent; He is able to do all that He wills and nothing is too hard for Him. This fact is attested to abundantly in scripture. Jeremiah attests that nothing is too hard for the Lord (32:17), Jesus says that with God all things are possible (Matthew 19:26). One of the anchors for our hope in God's providence is that He is always able to do what He wills. The simplified statement "God can do anything" is a bit misleading because though God can do all He wills, He can only will things that are consistent to his nature. For example, God cannot lie (Titus 1:2), deny Himself (2 Timothy 2:13), or tempt anyone to sin (James 1:13) because these things are antithetical to His nature. He also can't do logical contradictions or things that are by their nature impossible, so the question "Can God make a rock so big He can't lift it?" is best answered with punitive violence of some kind.

God is sovereign and in control over all of creation. This control is both extensive and intensive. God is said to be continually sustaining all things on some basic level; Colossians 1:17 says that "in [Christ] all things hold together", and Paul said "in [God] we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:26). It seems that what we consider to be the laws of physics and nature aren't fundamental to the universe, but are simply God graciously upholding creation in consistent ways that we can understand and utilize. If you're into that sort of thing, you could thank God each morning for keeping the earth in its orbit or electricity working the same way. We also see Him sometimes breaking these "laws" and commanding creation to do something incredible, like calming a storm (Matthew 8:26), parting the sea (Exodus 14), or, of course, raising from the dead after three days. From all this we clearly see that God is absolutely Lord over His creation, and nothing in the universe is outside His dominion.

God knows absolutely everything that has been, is, and will ever be. God is "perfect in knowledge" (Job 36:16) and "knows everything" (1 John 3:20). We also know that God does not change (Malachi 3:6) so He has always had this perfect knowledge and will always have it. Among other conclusions, this means that God always has equally perfect knowledge of every instant in all of time, unlike finite humans who only experience history one moment at a time. This becomes important later.

God has a plan (or "will") that includes everything that happens. Ephesians 1:11 says that God "works all things according to the counsel of His will". Revelation 4:11 states that all things were created and exist by God's will. Ephesians 1:10 says God's plan is "for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and on earth." In other words, everything that happens is part of God's plan/will; nothing takes Him off-guard and He has a purpose for everything that may happen whether we see it or not. (This is a fact that all Christians struggle to believe) This ultimate purpose is simply the pursuit of His own glory as reflected in His own actions and in the redemption or judgment of creation.

It's important to distinguish this will of whatever happens from God's will for our moral actions as revealed in the Bible, as of course the two are often at odds with each other. Others often use terms like God's "revealed will" and "hidden" or "secret" will to distinguish between the two, but this unfortunately implies that God has two contrary, clashing wills within Himself and that He deliberately hid things from us that He could have revealed in the Bible's moral teachings. What is often termed God's "revealed will" for us to perform, I will call His "desire". This goes right into another point about God...

God does not have two wills, but one undivided will that is never thwarted or frustrated. In Mark 3:23-24, Jesus refutes the idea that He could be driving out demons by the power of Satan by highlighting the absurdity of Satan working at cross purposes with his own mission: "If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand." If the kingdom of this world is not divided against itself, how much less could the kingdom of God be divided? This is the unfortunate implication of talking about God as having two different wills.

God predestines (or elects) some individuals for salvation, and in the process chooses others for damnation; this choice was made before any of us were born. This not-so-simple fact lies on the undisputed common ground of Calvinism and Arminianism, which I have well supported in posts 3 and 4. The two positions may disagree on the precise nature of and reason for this election, but they both affirm that it happens. See those posts for more evidence; for now I will simply cite Ephesians 1:4: "...even as [God] chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will." Note the last part, which makes clear that predestination is simply the part of God's overall will that pertains to salvation. Also, in John 15:16 Jesus says that "You did not choose me, but I chose you", making clear that God's choice of us takes preeminence over our choice of Him.

God's Goodness

God is love. 1 John 4:8 Not "love is God", but God is the very definition and perfect embodiment of what love is.

Out of love, Jesus died for our sins so that by faith we can share in His death and resurrection, enjoy relationship with God, and have eternal life. "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him will not die but will have eternal life." (John 3:16) This is the distilled essence of the gospel. My church did a sermon series that asked how you would "tweet" the gospel. There is my answer. (Actually, it's 150 characters, so I would tweet a link to this post. Twitter is ridiculous.)

God is the source of all good, even our faith and repentance. Paul's verse-quoting mashup in Romans 3:10-18 makes clear the extent of our depravity. The only reason the world isn't hell on earth (or a smoking cinder) is because, as mentioned above, God does not abandon His creation but continues to sustain it and prevent us from being as sinful as we could be. James writes that "Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above" (1:17) Every stage of our salvation and sanctification is done by God; even our faith itself is a gift from God (Acts 5:31, 11:18; 2 Timothy 2:25).

God wants all people to be saved. 1 Timothy 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9, Ezekiel 18:32. I will not further argue this point here, except by saying that if God does not sincerely desire the salvation of all people, then He is not perfectly loving, because it would possible to imagine a God more loving than the true God.

God can work good through our acts of evil. This is strongly implied by the fact that all things, even acts of evil, are part of God's plan and therefore accomplish some good purpose. For an example, see Genesis 50:20, where Joseph said of his brothers selling him, "As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today."

God is perfectly truthful; He cannot lie or deceive anyone. "God is not a man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and he will not do it? Or has he spoken, and he will not fulfill it?" (Numbers 23:19) "And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret." (1 Samuel 15:29) Titus 1:2 outright says that "God never lies". Proverbs 30:5 says that "Every word of God proves true." I am strongly affirming this now because later I'll be dealing with some difficult verses that seem to contradict God's truthfulness.

God is not the author of sin. This is probably the most crucial of all my points to the development of my position on providence. It can be broken down into three subpoints. First, God does not cause anyone to sin, because if He were the source of the sin He condemns man for, He would cease to be both good and just, which He certainly is. (Luke 18:19, Deuteronomy 32:4) No evasions or talk of God's ways being "higher than our ways" here; there is no way to affirm that a good, just God would cause anyone to sin.

Second, God does not tell or command anyone to sin, because they would be faced with the impossible choice of either obeying God by sinning, or disobeying Him and therefore sinning. So God telling someone to sin is the same as His causing them to sin. If you say that God can suspend His law in special cases, this contradicts Matthew 5:18 where Jesus states that "not an iota, not a dot will pass from the Law until all is accomplished." This would also mean that God is divided against Himself, which as we saw above is not the case.

And thirdly, God does not tempt anyone to sin. James 1:13.

Human Responsibility

We are responsible for our actions as moral agents. This is the core of what I mean by "human responsibility". The fact that God judges us according to what we have done (Revelation 20:12) necessarily means that we are held responsible for what we do. This has a wide variety of implications about human nature that are too subjective to post here, so I will save them for the beginning of the next post.

We are slaves to sin and cannot free ourselves or make ourselves holy on our own. Though we are responsible for our own actions, we are also unable to consistently act according to God's standards. We are said to be slaves to sin (Romans 6:17) in our natural state; without Jesus we can't please God or bear any good fruit (John 15:5) Since we are responsible for our actions, this slavery is not on our will; no one is forcing us to sin, but our very natures are fallen into sin so we keep freely choosing other things over God.

Because of unbelief, not every person is saved; salvation is conditioned on our faith. Again see John 3:16, or Luke 7:50 which affirms the connection between faith and salvation even more strongly. Also Romans 9:32, where Paul affirms that the reason some in Israel didn't attain the righteousness they sought was that they did not pursue it by faith, but by works.

We are made holy and conformed to God's image by the power of the Spirit (but not apart from our own will and responsibility). Philippians 2:12-13 is a good statement of this mysterious partnership between the Holy Spirit and us in which each member is essential to sanctification of an individual. Romans 8 is a beautiful exposition of God's crucial role in our transformation from rebellious sinners to obedient and loving children.

Finally, a bit of preparation for my next post. I think the central questions that Calvinism and Arminian answer differently go something like: what is the nature of God's providence, His reign over and work through every event in history? How do His will and ours work together in deciding events, and how do we explain the difference between what He commands in the Bible and the world? Why is everyone not saved? They are two different systems of interpreting the Bible to answer these questions, but as I said about baptism, though the truth of the Bible is not up for debate here, the veracity of any system for reading it is. Calvinism and Arminianism are both internally consistent, but can they be inferred from the rest of scripture? In my opinion, the presence of unresolved contradictions in Calvinism--brushed under the rug with Romans 9:20--is strong evidence that it cannot.

So, we have all this biblical data. But a list of scripturally supported facts does not constitute a complex doctrine like providence in any coherent sense; though organized into three categories, the points are largely unrelated and indeed it's hard to see how some of them (not everyone is saved, but God wants everyone to be saved?) Can be true at the same time. Next time I will finally get into how I have learned to assemble and reconcile these facts into a single picture of God's providence.

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