Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The Correlation Between Election, Grace, and Sin

Over the past few days, I have been listening to John Piper preach out of Romans 8, specifically referring to Romans 8:28 and the following verses, and he has dealt a lot with what it means to be “called”. It was really enjoyable for me to hear these messages where the issue of predestination, or election, was specifically dealt with. While I am sure that the thoughts that I am having are nothing new to the theology of election or the debate between Calvinists and Arminians, they did seem cause the issues of election and grace to come into sharper focus for me than they had previously been.

In an effort to continue on the same line of thinking as my previous article concerning what was recently said on the Bible Answer Man regarding the host’s characterization and rejection of the doctrine of election, which is historically held by Christians who emphasize a completely sovereign view of God in salvation (modernly known as Calvinists), the issue of man’s role in the salvation process, specifically regarding our depravity, has been embedded on my thoughts. I have been thinking a lot about this, not because I find it enjoyable in and of itself to examine just how rotten I am, but it is enjoyable because I want to understand myself and magnify God’s glory, power, and beauty in my salvation and my ongoing sanctification.

If, in an attempt to get a broad and biblical view of the ideas pertaining to election, grace, and salvation, we begin to think about the nature of sin and mankind’s state in sin, I think that we will naturally and logically come to the necessary conclusion that election, the predetermined and sovereign choosing of individuals to be saved by God, is a central and indispensable part of the gospel of salvation by grace that the Bible teaches.

The doctrine of sin, in a nutshell, says that the first and only sinless man who was created by God, freely chose to sin in rebellion against God’s revealed command and authority. This rebellion resulted in such a cataclysmic backlash from God, and neither Adam nor Eve, I think, had any way to comprehend this magnitude (if any at all) of God’s retribution prior to their sin, nor did they posses any lexicon that would enable them to express the reality which immediately followed their plunge into sin. And because it was such an egregious affront to God when mankind sinned, that is why we are all actually and literally dead in our trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1, 5).

The physical, mental, and emotional components of every natural man’s being were condemned to suffering, deterioration, disease, and death following Adam’s sin. This physical death occurs, either gradually or without warning, after a period of life, whether long or short in duration. However, contrasted to that, we see the initial and perpetual state of man’s spirit as being dead. The spirit does not experience life in any real sense before dying, for it is dead from the point of its very creation.

The bible does not show man as simply being wounded in a sinful condition and therefore able to move closer to God. No. The bible clearly says that no man seeks after God (Romans 3:12) and all men’s hearts are wicked (Jeremiah 17:9). This paints a bleak picture for man, not only is he dead, but he doesn’t want to seek after God. I don’t want to gloss over the fact that man’s state is ‘dead’ too quickly, because it seems to me that if we genuinely deal with what it means to be spiritually dead, it will clear up a whole lot of problems and objections before they can gain any traction.

The word translated into the English word “dead” is the Greek word the Greek word nekroV (nekros) which literally means “dead” or “inanimate” and is used to describe a dead body or a corpse. In fact, I did a quick survey of the use of this word in the New Testament, and out of the 131 times that it is used, only a small amount of that time (I believe around 10 times) is this word used figuratively. For instance, “the guards shook for fear of him and became like dead men” (Matthew 28:4) and, “for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found” (Luke 15:32).

The vast and overwhelming majority of the time that this word is used, it is explicitly referring to exactly what we, in our modern context, would refer to by using the words “dead” or “corpse”. Furthermore, I am provoked to study the use of this word and the concepts surrounding it further because it seemed that virtually every time that someone was first described as dead and subsequently as alive, it was stated very clearly that it was God who resurrected them. This may seem (and it may well turn out) to be nothing of magnificent importance to the discussion over election, but I believe that if we are taught and come to understand that when God physically raises someone from the dead that he or she plays absolutely no part in it, why would there be any difference when it comes to God’s and life giving act and spiritual resurrection of people?

Even on the surface of God’s resurrecting and life giving work, there is no circumstance where a cooperative effort between the dead and the life giver is present. For example, Jesus commanded Lazarus to live by saying, "Lazarus, come forth." (John 11:43) Christ didn’t meet Lazarus half-way. He didn’t offer to resurrect Lazarus as well as other friends or relatives of His that may have died during His lifetime. Christ didn’t ask Lazarus if he wanted to be alive again. He chose to resurrect Lazarus and Lazarus was made alive. My whole point in belaboring this story and the fact that men are dead in sin is that if we are dead, then we are unable to do anything spiritually positive.

In other words, dead men can’t choose life…because they’re dead. Lazarus couldn’t and neither can anyone who is only spiritually dead. A person’s dead spirit does not have the ability nor the desire to make itself alive.

Now, moving on to grace! The concept of grace as it relates to salvation has been communicated in our contemporary society by using the letters as an acronym stating that grace means, “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.” This statement is true, but I do not believe that it is fully true. And the danger of having the contemporarily understood definition of grace embodied in a pop-Christian-culture acronym is that this says nothing about man’s involvement and contribution (or lack thereof) to grace. J.I. Packer articulated the danger of this type of an over-simplification or dumbing-down of a concept or truth, whether the chnage is intentional and devious in nature or if it is innocent and good hearted in nature, when he said,

“A half truth presented as a whole truth is complete untruth.” 1

Again, it is absolutely true that the grace of God in our salvation is truly God’s (Christ’s) Riches applied to us At Christ’s Expense. However, this statement says nothing concerning how it is then applied to us. The response would be to say that we receive it by grace, and that is true, but again, grace has turned into such a misused word in Christendom that it, sadly, no longer has the specific power of the truth of the full meaning. For instance, Mormons, Catholics, Arminians, and Calvinists all would probably agree with the definition of grace and say that man is saved by grace. But the question that needs to be answered is this; what do they all mean when they say, “grace”? When pressed what they mean, a Mormon would quote 2 Nephi 25:23 in the Book of Mormon which says, “for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.”

Roman Catholicism, in their New Advent Encyclopedia, breaks down the concept of grace into (at least) two categories: actual grace and sanctifying grace. For this article’s purpose, I’ll deal with actual grace which because they define this grace as a “transient help to act,”2
specifically in the act of believing. This source goes on to state that this grace “is granted by God for the performance of salutary acts”, but coupled with the prior articulation that it is a “help” in the action of faith implies, necessarily, that man, to a certain extent, wills on his own (i.e. not moved specifically by God) to believe.

Arminians would hold that man chooses to receive the forgiveness of his sins in his free will. The Holy Spirit, necessarily, does not push Joe Pagan harder or softer than Doug Christian in their spiritual journeys, but pleads with them equally and the both have an equal ability to respond in faith. If an Arminian would say, in any form, that someone who believes was given more grace or special grace that an unbeliever does not receive, that person would no longer be a true Arminian. John Piper summarized a problem with this type of view (actually, it could be applied to the Catholic and Mormon views too),
...it assumes that ultimately we, in our own will power, provide the decisive, ultimate cause of our faith. That’s the point of that interpretation. That God only foresees people, not resting in God to provide the ultimate, decisive, faith that they need to believe, but producing, on their own, the decisive ultimate ground and cause of their faith.3

Calvinists hold that grace means unmerited favor and that God favors a man (or woman) apart from any of his own works or merits. Man takes no initiating part in his own salvation in and of himself. The part that this man plays, repenting from sin and expressing faith in God, is done through a special working of the Holy Spirit in him that is not present in unbelievers. In other words, God saves a person by giving them the faith to believe as well as the desire and ability to do so.
5 In the same way then, there has also come to be at the present time a remnant according to God's gracious choice. 6 But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace.” (Romans 11:5,6)

It seems to me that the force of the distinction between grace and works is contained in the rejection of the very idea that any works that would be done in concert with God’s saving “grace” betray and contradict grace itself. The Judaizers were notorious for requiring some “works of the law” to be done in concert with faith for the salvation of the sinner. The New Testament categorically rejects this false notion of co-operating with some human work in order to attain salvation. But, even further than that, the New Testament itself describes the faith for salvation as a being gift of God itself (see Jeremiah 32:40; Matthew 16:17; Ephesians 2:8,9; Philippians 1:29; 2 Timothy 2:24-26), and so the faith that man expresses is not, by definition, something that he does apart from God because the faith comes from God.

It seems to me that the Calvinist understanding and exposition of scripture is the only one that consistently holds to the truest understanding of God’s complete and total sovereignty and grace in the salvation of men. Since the term grace has, unfortunately, lost some of its teeth and offense in our culture, I am seriously considering using other terms in conjunction with grace that have not been watered down in order to be crystal clear about the biblical understanding of grace.4 There were three words that I believe will, when used in combination with grace, clarify the meaning of grace and hopefully dispel any misinterpretations or misunderstandings of what is meant when I use the term grace. These three words are “apportion”, “impart”, and “lavish”.

Where as both “apportion” and “impart” refer to the bestowing of something one another person (“bestow” was another word in the running), “lavish” seemed to communicate the massive quantity or quality of the gift as well giving the mental picture of dumping the gift on the other person in an overwhelming fashion. Furthermore, if I were to use a word and meaning that is even more contemporary in our society, I would say that God unloads His grace on us. In this context, “unload” is used in the sense of firing a gun’s ammunition at a target or in the sense of someone dumping out of their thoughts and emotions onto a willing, or unwilling, listener. God’s grace is more accurate than a sniper’s bullet, and the sinner on the receiving end of His unloading of grace is less willing to choose grace on his or her own behalf than the target caught in a sniper’s crosshairs chooses to receive the deadly bullet.

Again you may be thinking, “What does this have to do with the doctrine of election?” Well, my goal up until this point has been to articulate two doctrinal stances that most Protestant and evangelical Christians would confess because they are so plainly laid out in the Scriptures. First, man is dead, not wounded and in need of a physician, in his sins. And second, salvation is by God’s lavishing of His grace upon us. I firmly believe that all of my protestant brethren would agree with these statements. The problem, and where the division and disagreement comes from, is that these same people do not maintain a sense of continuity between these confessions of faith and truth with how they relate to one another in salvation.

The Bible clearly and unabashedly uses the terms “predestine”, “foreknown”, “elect”, and “chosen” when referring to those who have been saved by Christ. If we hold to the two biblical principles that I have been laboring to articulate, then when it comes to defining and articulating what the doctrine of election is, what possible optional understandings do we have? If we are elected based upon our own free-will choice of God that is necessarily uninfluenced by God, we then turn the cross of Calvary into a bargaining table where if we bring our choice, then we’re saved. By doing this, we neither maintain the doctrine of man’s deadness in sin nor the complete grace of God in salvation.

For reasons that are eternally glorious to the Holy Trinity, and only the Trinity, God has chosen to lavish some men and women with a special elective love that is only bestowed upon some. None deserve this treatment by God, neither those who are elected nor those who are not elected. Could God have chosen to save all mankind and still have remained the same just and holy God that He is? I assume that He could have, but He didn’t. Could God have chosen to save no one and still have remained the same loving God that He is? I assume that He could have, but He didn’t.

It is not for me to validate God’s plan and method of saving the sinners that He has chosen to save, nor is it my task to come up with articulate ways of expressing the revealed plan of God in salvation so as to make it completely understandable and seen as infinitely benevolent and gracious to all men. That is for the Holy Spirit to do in the heart of the believer. My desire is to attempt, in my feeble way, to show what the Bible says and show that the conclusion of sovereign election in salvation is both biblical and logical. It is for me to read the Word of God, to say what it says, but it is not to make a doctrine more palatable to men by changing what words mean by means of clever speech or imposing debating techniques. The simple and plain articulation of God’s Word is sufficient to validate itself and persuade the heart and mind of one who truly desires to be conformed to the mind of Christ. This conformity is not an easy thing to achieve for anyone, even the elect, to do, and it is definitely not something that is easy to do consistently.

1 Heard on the radio on 3/30/07 WOTMR

2 http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06689x.htm

3 John Piper “Foreknown, Predestined, Conformed to Christ” preached on 8/4/02, radio broadcast 3/30/07. This quote came from transcribing the audio of this sermon.

4 The “teeth” and “offense” of the idea of grace is profound. It is offensive because man is naturally disposed (because of sin) to want to be master and in control. Grace takes it out of our control. It has teeth because it cuts any cords of man’s contribution, no matter how small or large we might see them, toward his own salvation.

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