Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Providence, Part VIII: Application to the Five Points

This is part 8 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
The providence series continues! A bit of restructuring: I have decided to axe post 10--not, of course, because there are no difficulties with my position, but because I think I covered the important ones when discussing the problems with Calvinism and Arminianism (some of which my view shares) or in my other posts that arose from my struggles with doubt in the past months. Anyway, after all of that study of God's providence and sovereignty over us, I am now ready to summarize my current view on soteriology, which I overhastily rushed into in my previous attempts.

Total Depravity

Like Calvinism and Arminianism's versions of the doctrine of total depravity, mine is distinct largely because of the concept of free will on which it is based. Like the honest Calvinist, I would say that total depravity is not so much the bondage of the will as it is about the bondage of our natures. This is why I think free will is largely a red herring in discussions of total depravity; it's just not what "total depravity" or the parts of scripture backing it up refer to. We shouldn't expect it to be so philosophical. I am free to do what I consider to be good, to try to be good, even to try to know God, but my own efforts do nothing to change the fact that I am a sinful person and I am by nature separated from God. I've experienced the seeming paradox of wanting to love God more, but being unable to make myself. This is the essence of total depravity: we are by nature alienated from God and unable to make any move in our selves toward Him; I'm willing to believe we can't even truly desire to do so without His hand on our hearts.

Calvinists, however, often go a bit too far (with, I believe, the best of intentions) in defining total depravity, particularly in the metaphor of "deadness". An example of this kind of thinking: is found from a sermon preached by Mark Driscoll on predestination:
That being said, God’s heart is love. God’s invitation is Jesus. Our rejection is our own responsibility. And the reason why we reject and refuse Jesus Christ is because we are wicked. We do evil continually. We are slaves to sin. We do not seek God. We do not do good. We do not fear God. Our thinking is hostile to God. We are unable to understand the greatness of Jesus. We are children of wrath who are spiritually dead. Dead, dead, dead! Physically alive, spiritually dead.
Now at this point, some will ask, “What about free will? Can’t we choose God?” My answer is simply, “Dead people don’t make any decision..."
 And later:
Lazarus didn't call out, “Jesus, help me. I’m dead.” He didn’t pursue Jesus. He didn’t cry out to Jesus. He didn’t stick a hand out of the grave, begging for Jesus. He was dead, as Ephesians and Colossians say that we are spiritually dead. And what did Jesus do? Jesus came to him, as Jesus comes to us. And Jesus called for him, as Jesus calls for us. And Jesus said, “Lazarus, come forth.” And Lazarus, through a miracle of Jesus, was given life from death. And exactly as Lazarus was brought forth from physical death, so the children of God are brought forth from spiritual death.
Notice the progression of logic here: he starts from the sinful nature: "We are wicked." From there he moves to the language of Ephesians 2:1 and Colossians 2:13 of spiritual deadness. After making a clear distinction between our physical nature (alive) and spiritual nature (dead), he then draws some parallels between spiritual deadness and physical deadness that I don't think are warranted--starting with a total lack of agency. And then the story of Lazarus, which I don't think was ever intended to be a metaphor for total depravity.

Like all metaphors, the metaphor of spiritual deadness needs to be handled carefully and not abused or taken beyond its meaning in the text. If spiritual deadness meant a total lack of spiritual agency in the same way physical deadness means a total lack of physical agency, then we would be just as unable to decide evil as good. We would be unable to accept or reject God; we would simply have no spiritual dimension and would be completely materialistic beings, totally ignorant and apathetic of God. But this is not the case. In fact, everyone, from the fundamentalist to the atheist, is, in some sense, a worshipper of something; people all undeniably have spiritual agency. Therefore I conclude that such a close parallel between spiritual and physical deadness is unjustified. With the Calvinist misconception of total depravity as this kind of spiritual deadness, it's easy to see how salvation can be viewed as entirely God's doing with humans as passive beneficiaries of the process.

So, if we do have some kind of spiritual agency, what does it mean that we are dead in our sins without Christ? I think it means that this agency, by which we are able to enslave ourselves to the myriad pleasures of the world, is powerless to bring our hearts any closer to a perfect God. We are cut off from, unable to reach the true Life. We may like the idea of God, outwardly identify as Christians, and try to seek Him in some sense, but unless God makes a move and comes to us (and we respond with faith) we will never find Him or come the slightest bit closer to freeing ourselves from sin. By way of a preview, I am contemplating doing a post or series of posts on the Beatitudes in Matthew 5, and I think the phrasing of the first one, "poor in spirit", is apt here--we are, in a sense, morally and spiritually bankrupt, with no reserves of our own to draw on, totally dependent on God to be good.

The Condition of Election?

To be brief, my position on conditional/unconditional election is more of a lack thereof. I think both the Calvinist and Arminian views go beyond what can be known for sure from the text and should be treated as sanctified speculation on the same subject, not as established doctrine (and certainly not as a basis for division).

Both conditional and unconditional election are, at heart, attempts to get into the mind of God--to answer the question, "Why does God elect those whom He does?". Without a direct word from God on the matter, such attempts are ultimately doomed (Romans 11:33-34). Do we try to make such simple rules to explain others of God's decisions? In fact both views try to constrain God--conditional election makes our foreseen faith the sole determining factor in our election, and unconditional election rules out anything about us from God's decision. Is God not free to show mercy to whomever He pleases for whatever reason He knows is best? Yes--God is not obligated by anyone or anything outside Himself, but only by His own word and promises to us.

In the language of Christian Smith in The Bible Made Impossible, precisely why God elects those whom He does is "underdetermined" by the Bible, at least in the level of detail Calvinists and Arminians seek. The only condition given for election is "foreknowledge" (Romans 8:29), which is vague enough to be interpreted either way--either God foreknowing those who are eternally His, or God foreknowing the elect as those who will have faith in Him, or something else entirely. In his book in Arminian theology, even Forlines admits that conditional election cannot be directly read out of scripture, but is inferred by the fact that salvation is conditional.

I don't think that the Bible has a conclusive answer to the question at hand, as is commonly expected of it. The Bible doesn't have all the answers we want, but the answers we need--the good news of God and His kingdom come to earth. The direct lines of causation drawn from election to faith and salvation, or vice versa, are both simplifications--they could be true, but are certainly not beyond reasonable doubt. As I argued in post 6.5, God's pursuit of and love for us are unconditional, and His hardening, wrath, and rejection are conditional--but how these are related to His eternal "plan" and our election are far from crystal clear.

Unlimited Atonement

I mostly agree with Arminius on the third point. You could say that Christ died "for" everyone, but "especially for" the elect, those who would believe. The gospel is only truly the gospel ("good news") if it comes with a real chance to be saved which can be accepted or rejected, which is hard to reconcile with the idea of definite atonement. Also, I would direct suspicion to the meaning of "for" in this point, which can have all sorts of different connotations and is the source of most of the confusion--the question is not merely one of quantity; there are alternatives beyond Christ simply dying "for" everyone or "for" only some, which the turn-of-phrase "Christ's death was sufficient for all, but efficient for the elect" is getting at.

Resistible Grace and Our Spiritual Agency

I think that Acts 7:51 is sufficient evidence that God's work through the Holy Spirit can be resisted. You may say, "Acts 7:51 is not talking about the irresistible work of God in actually bestowing salvation on sinners, but some other work", which I would say that in the Calvinistic view the whole process of salvation (of which turning from rejecting prophets and the Son of God is part) is supposed to be irresistible. If one part is resistible, it all is.

The elect are simply those who (by their choice and God's determination, not causation overriding their desires) do not resist the Spirit. Similarly, the reprobate are not so against their will, but because of it (Romans 9:32). God gives the real offer of salvation by faith to everyone; the elect are all those who accept it. But I don't think the Calvinist and Arminian views on this point have to be terribly different. God influencing someone and fully foreknowing what their response will be is essentially different to, though functionally identical to, Him causing their response.

To put it another way, consider again our aforementioned "spiritual agency". If, by the Calvinist view, we have none, no ability to accept or reject God, it's easy to see how grace can be irresistible. But, of course, we do have spiritual agency, and though it cannot get us any nearer to God, it can (sadly) move us away from Him. We are able to slow or undo God's work of salvation in us, but not hasten or effect it but only let Him do so.

Perseverence: A Present Promise Based on a Future Reality

Hebrews 3:14 tells us how to know we belong to God: "We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first." Unpacking that: "We have come..." (past and present tense) "to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end..." (present and future tense) "the confidence we had at first." In other words, our faith is only real if it lasts.

This (and Philippians 1:6) seems like convincing evidence for the Calvinist point of perseverance of the saints on top of all the verses cited for it, but I think the message can go both ways. If we are truly in Christ, part of God's elect, then He will preserve our faith like He promised, but at the same time the perseverance of our faith is how we know we are elect. Once again, our status as elect (determined by God) is not the cause or source of our salvation; we are not saved "because" we are elect, but because we have faith.

Similar to the process of sanctification (with which it is inextricably bound), our assurance of salvation is conditional both on our faith and on God's preservation. This makes faith seem like a work we do to remain saved, except that faith is specifically contrasted with works, and the work of Christ in us makes it entirely possible to remain in faith whereas salvation by works is always impossible. Once we are in Christ, I would say that rejecting Him is more of a work than remaining is. Either way, it makes little practical difference: if anyone is in Christ, he has eternal life; if not, then he does not. Anything beyond that is semantics.

Again, my point here is to allow you to disregard all my thinking in previous posts and simply let you go back to thinking in terms of five points with a new perspective. The question of how God predestines and saves people is much deeper than that and without a firm, Biblical foundation for the philosophy underlying the debate your position will likely be whatever interpretation of the relevant passages sounds the best to you. The question of predestination has never been as simple as two sets of five points; don't think you have to choose either.

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