Francis Beckwith

Francis Beckwith, president of the Evangelical Theological Society, has returned to the Roman Catholic Church. The move is certainly a courageous and sincere one, although it has caused great sadness to many evangelical protestants. It is interesting that Beckwith’s study of the Early Church Fathers played an important role in his return to Rome. Click here to read Beckwith’s reasons for his return. You might also want to read Carl Trueman’s analysis of the matter from an evangelical protestant perspective.

In the Light of Grace

“How do I know whether I shall die easily or with difficulty? I only know that my dying, too is part of my life . . . And then – this is the destination, the limit and the goal for all of us – I shall no longer ‘be,’ but I shall  be made manifest before the judgment seat of Christ, in and with my whole ‘being,’ with all the real good and the real evil that I have thought, said and done, with all the bitterness that I have suffered and all the beauty that I have enjoyed. There I shall only be able to stand as the failure that I doubtless was in all things, but . . . by virtue of his promise, as a peccator justus. And as that I shall be able to stand. Then . . . in the light of grace, all that is now dark will become very clear.”

– Karl Barth, quoted in Stanley Hauerwas’ With the Grain of the Universe (Brazos Press, 2002) p. 204

Choose One Great Theologian

“When I was in seminary, a wise professor told me that, in addition to the Bible, I ought to choose one great theologian and apply myself throughout life to understanding and mastering his thought – to sink at least one shaft deep into reality rather than always dabbling on the surface of things. I might, in time, be able to ‘converse’ with this theologian as a kind of peer, and know at least one system with which to bring other ideas into fruitful dialogue.”

John Piper, The Supremacy of God in Preaching, (Baker Book House, 1991) p.  65

Vigen Guroian

Discovered a new theologian today: Vigen Guroian. I’m intrigued with his idea of using all our senses in loving and worshiping God.

“Human beings are not simply oriented by one sense or two senses. They’re, they’re oriented by several senses. And so in order for the human being to be wholly engaged, all of those senses ought to be at work. One of the jobs of a Christian is to … in point of fact, hone the senses, reform the senses, make them holy. And that process can take place within a church, certainly, where everything is focused on God.”

Click here to learn more about him.

New Book on Karl Barth

Over at Faith and Theology (my favorite theological blog) has posted a review of a new book on Karl Barth: Michael Menke-Peitzmeyer, Subjektivität und Selbstinterpretation des dreifaltigen Gottes: Eine Studie zur Genese und Explikation des Paradigmas “Selbstoffenbarung Gottes” in der Theologie Karl Barths (Münster: Aschendorff Verlag, 2002), 637 pp

Click here to go there!

Elect in Christ

My wife told me to be a bit careful about preaching on election and predestination. Meat is good for adults with strong teeth and a healthy digestive system; to give it to babies is in effect to choke them instead of to feed them. Whew! point well taken. Anyway, here a few more random thoughts on the subject:

One, I don’t think God really means for us to completely understand what predestination/election is all about. The practical point of the doctrine is simply to get us to see that we owe everything to God. As Paul puts in in Ephesians 2, Predestination/Election is to the praise of his glorious grace! It’s not meant to negate our responsibility and existential freedom to choose life. The dilemma, however, still remains and will always remain: How do you reconcile the parallel line of an eternal cause (God’s predestination in eternity) with the parallel line of a temporal effect (man’s freedom and responsibility in time)? The best answer anyone can give is, I think, “The secret things belong to the Lord, the things that are revealed to us and our children.

Two, be that as it may, election and predestination are there in the Bible for all to read. And the effect of these doctrines on many is really that of a “horrible decree” (I think it was Calvin who said that). But I think this is because we consider election in a vacuum, we disconnect it from Christ. Paul speak of election in Christ. I also take note of the observation by some that election has a positive and gracious flavor to it. It’s not an election unto death but unto life! Of course, R. C. Sproul might be correct in saying that election implies reprobation as a matter of logical inference. But even so, if we focus our eyes on Christ who is the mirror of election, in whom election has its true meaning, from whom God’s election cannot be separated, election cannot be anything else than gracious. For – and this I learned from Barth – Christ is the goodness of God. In begetting his Son in eternity, in entering into a covenant of redemption with his Son in eternity (see John Owen) God showed that he is for man and has always been for man, and this is the meaning of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is God’s being with us and God’s being for us. Therefore since election is in Christ in eternity election is then about the goodness of God and God’s being for man from the very beginning.

Third, it must be stressed that Jesus Christ is offered to all. He is the lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world. Whoever comes to him he will not turn away. Whoever believes in him will have eternal life. Christ is the sign of God’s acceptance. The cross is the sign of God’s reconciliation. That is why we are commanded to be reconciled to God. It is true that election is God’s sovereign, exclusive, all-comprehensive prerogative and initiative. But precisely because election is in Christ, and Christ is offered to the whole world, the whole world is enjoined to come to Christ and discover the possibility that it was all along elect in him! In this case, election no longer becomes frightening, but a belated surprise that my coming to Christ was all along a result of God’s invincible determination from the very beginning to have me as one of his people regardless of who I am – provided I come.

Fourth, but once again we are in a dilemma. For this invincible goodness of God to the elect in Christ surely does not mean that all are elect, for not all are ultimately saved. To say that there are those who are elect who will nevertheless fail to be saved is to say that God’s goodness in election in Christ is not invincible. This I think goes against Paul’s argument in the latter part of Rom. 8, the point of which is “nothing can separate us from the love of God.” That is why Calvinists are forced to say that election in Christ involves a definite number and a particular people who are foreknown by God from the very beginning. Election in Christ cannot refer to a hypothetical people who may or may not choose in time to be in Christ, for that leaves open the possibility that for all the predestinating God may do in eternity the outcome might still be that none will be saved at all!

Fifth, we must conclude then that we stand in a place of unresolvable tension. The whole world is in hope included and not excluded in God’s election, precisely because election is in Christ and Christ is for the whole world – he will not reject anyone who comes to him. At the same time election is invincible: the predestined will be glorified. The fact that not at all will be glorified implies that not all are predestined. To say that all are predestined but unfortunately there are some who reject their elect status and will therefore not make it is to jeopardize Paul’s argument of “No separation from Christ for the predestined” in Rom. 8.

Torrance on Predestination

I spent the morning listening to an audio of a lecture by Thomas Torrance where he said Limited Atonement (and by implication the Calvinistic interpretation of election and predestination) was a heresy. When he said this I could hear people murmuring and reacting in the background. Anyway, he said some very interesting things, such as – I’m paraphrasing somewhat here – if we interpret predestination according to an Augustinian/Newtonian framework then we are guilty of projecting to God the finite distinctions of our creaturely existence and experience. He was probably referring to our conception of cause and effect, and our experience of linear time. He also said something about predestination being God’s “Yes” and not his “No” to man, and that if ever someone turns out later to be damned it would have to be because he somehow said “No” to God’s “Yes.” I really didn’t find this satisfying because then it makes God’s decision ultimately dependent on our decision. I understand God’s predestination in Rom. 8:29-30 as ultimately winning the day, i.e., all the predestined will be ultimately glorified, without any of them being lost. I seem to hear Torrance saying that it is possible for the predestined to reject their predestination and miss their predestined destination!

Anyway, I found very interesting the discussion about the “error” of thinking in Augustinian/Newtonian terms (i.e., linear logic and linear time). I wonder what kind of framework he would suggest in its place? It’s true enough that God inhabits eternity – a realm beyond and before time where the laws of physics and time as we know it probably do not apply. In that case, we are dealing with an incomprehensible concept which for all that may be a real plane of existence, but from which we are separated by an “infinite qualitative distance” – whatever that means! Anyway, it seems to me that despite this infinite qualitative distance and difference between us creatures and God the Creator, he nevertheless made us in his image, and our reason/logic though finite (and fallen and, hopefully, after that, regenerate!) nevertheless operates in a way that is not unlike his (even if God thinks intuitively in one sweep of comprehensive-intuitive eternal thought, instead of chronologically and consecutively). In other words, the attribution of cause and effect (especially in relation to predestination) to God’s mind is in some sense legitimate – except that we have no way of knowing what the the precise nature of the connections are between said cause and effect, considering that linear time (which is so necessary to our human conception of cause and effect) does not apply to the realm of eternity. I for my part am content to accept that the Bible teaches God to be the ultimate cause of our faith and decision to freely choose Christ for salvation. But the precise nature of that cause and effect is unknown to me. That is why I do not equate this with the simplistic objection that this is nothing more than determinism or fatalism. It seems to me more of a case of two parallel lines meeting: (a cause in eternity touching an effect in time; these two things do not belong to the same plane but somehow they touch each other). How that works I don’t know. But Phil. 2: 12, 13 might be a clue:

“Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.”

Before I forget here’s the link to Torrance’s audio lecture!

Foreknowledge and Predestination

Yesterday, I preached to a group of college students and young professionals during one of the regular Thursday evening meetings of the Campus Bible Fellowship-Bacolod City. Here’s essentially what I shared last night:

SOVEREIGN GRACE, SURE GLORY

 

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

(Rom 8:29-30 ESV)

Introduction: Grace is the Foundation of Glory

God has chosen certain people to experience eternal glory. This choice however is ultimately unconditional and sovereign; it is pure and sheer grace. The plan of salvation is grander than we think.

The foundation of glory is grace: the sovereign prerogative and initiative of God to show favor to the undeserving. It is truly grace precisely because it was unconditionally bestowed in eternity past, is being mplemented in time, and will culminate in eternity future.

 

Table 1: SALVATION

DETERMINATION

ETERNITY PAST

FOREKNOWLEDGE

PREDESTINATION

IMPLEMENTATION

TEMPORAL PRESENT

CALLING

JUSTIFICATION

(SANCTIFICATION)1

CULMINATION

ETERNITY FUTURE

GLORIFICATION

God desires to have eternal fellowship with human beings. That’s why he created them in the first place. That’s why he provided a way for them to be recovered after they fell into sin. And that’s why he’s working in their lives to transform their character so that they will be morally and spiritually fit to enjoy fellowship with him (i.e., “Be holy for I am holy.” “Without holiness no one will see the Lord.”) And that’s why he intends to give us glorified bodies that can no longer be touched by pain, sickness, old age – bodies like that of the glorified Jesus. By the way, this is what it means to be conformed to the image of God’s only begotten Son, Jesus Christ: it means to be like him in his holy character and like him in his glorified body. It’s all about God’es desire to have eternal fellowship with us.

 

But the question is:What moved God to do these things for us? What is the ultimate cause or foundation of his determination to do these great things for us? The answer according to our theme for tonight is grace. Grace is the foundation of glory. This appears simple enough, but actually it isn’t that simple, for the next question is: What is grace? The common answer to this question is: Grace is God’s decision or determination to bestow favor upon the undeserving. In this sense, grace is related to mercy. Grace is God giving you what you don’t deserve. You don’t deserve his favor; he gives it to you anyway. That’s grace. Mercy, on the other hand, is God not giving you what you do deserve. You deserve his wrath (because we’re sinners); he doesn’t give it to you. That’s mercy.

 

Well, does this mean that most Christians now understand what “grace” means? I don’t think so. That’s because if you ask them what grace means in practical terms, most of them will probably say, “Grace is about God saving me from my sins and giving me eternal life as a result of my having put my faith in Christ and not as a result of my good works.” Now what’s wrong with this statement? Actually this statement is biblically sound as far as it goes. It’s actually in line with Eph. 2:8-9 and John 3:16. So where’s the problem? The problem is it does not go far enough. It fails to exhaust the meaning of grace. In other words, it’s incomplete. It doesn’t take into account verses such as our text, as well as Eph. 1:3-7, 11-12 and II Tim. 1: 9.

 

The problem with the common understanding, the popular view which we have just considered, is that it seems to make God’s decision to be gracious dependent on our decision to accept or reject God’s offer of grace towards us. In which case, when you think deeper about it, the ultimate cause of our salvation, of our experience of glory someday, is no longer God’s grace but ourselves. God’s grace is no longer the foundation of glory because it is now conditioned on our decision to accept or reject it.

 

To be sure, from our point of view, we do have the power as well as the responsibility to accept or reject God’s grace. In fact, there’s a verse which says, “Do not receive the grace of God in vain.” (II Cor. 6:1). So to say that God’s decision to be gracious to us depends on our decision to accept or reject his offer of grace is correct as far as it goes. But once again it doesn’t go far enough. It sees things only from man’s point of view. It fails to see things from God’s point of view. In other words, it’s short-sighted. The fact of the matter is our decision to accept God’s grace is itself a product of grace. Underlying our decision to receive God’s grace is grace itself. It is God’s grace which moves us to receive God’s grace (c.f., Jer. 31:33; 32:38-40; Ezek. 36:22, 26-28, 32, 36b; John 6:65).

 

Now, I have spent all this time trying to lay the foundation for a proper understanding of grace because you won’t be able to understand our text for this evening unless we are clear that God’s grace, i.e., God’s decision, and not our decision, is the foundation of glory. Having done that it is now time to expound our text.

 

Overview of the Passage

There are a number of things we must note by way of overview of the passage before we expound each of the divine acts mentioned therein.

 

The Sovereign Prerogative and Initiative of God

 

Note first of all that the passage talks about the sovereign prerogative and initiative of God. Foreknowledge, predestination, calling, justification and glorification are all divine acts. It is God who foreknows, it is God who predestines, it is God who calls, it is God who justifies, it is God who glorifies. Man’s activity is not in view here. Man is in view here only as the object or beneficiary of God’s acts, but the initiative here belongs to God.

 

The Use of the Past Tense

 

Note, next, the use of the past tense. It is understandable that foreknowledge and predestination are in the past tense because these are acts of God in eternity past. On the other hand, we may be excused for thinking that calling and justification are also in the past tense because there are some at least who have already been called and justified and in their case these acts also refer to past events. But it is a cause for wonder why glorification is in the past tense because this divine act is something that will still occur in the future during the resurrection of the saints and the second coming of Christ. What then is the explanation for referring to glorification as if it were already past? The answer to that is in God’s mind the whole plan of salvation, as well as its component acts, is as good as completed. In God’s mind it is absolutely certain that those whom he has foreknown and predestined will be glorified so much so that one might as well refer to them as having already been glorified! The point here is the element of certainty. This whole series of divine acts constitutes an unbreakable chain, with each divine act serving as an individual link in the chain. If one link breaks the whole chain is broken. For the chain to remain unbroken each and every link must be unbreakable. But the whole point of using the past tense is to emphasize the fact that the chain is unbreakable, that those who are predestined are as good as glorified. It is absolutely certain that none of the predestined will be lost. It is absolutely certain that all of the predestined will be glorified.

 

Co-extensive Number of People in View

 

Note also the number of people involved as objects of the divine acts in this series of acts. If it is certain that all those who are predestined will not fail to be glorified, it follows as well that all those who are called will not fail to be justified, in the same way that all those who are justified will not fail to be glorified. In other words, the number of people in view in the one act is also the same number of people in view in all the other acts. The number is co-extensive all throughout. To introduce the possibility that some of those who are predestined, for example, will nevertheless fail to be glorified is fatal to the unbreakable character of the chain of salvation, and destroys Paul’s intent in using the past tense, which is to convey the idea of absolute certainty that none of the predestined will be lost (cf. John 6:37-39; Rom. 8:38-39). The number of people in view in all of the divine acts is co-extensive.

 

Exposition Proper

Having done with the overview, I now proceed to the task of expounding the divine acts mentioned in our text. However, I will no longer discuss so much glorification, calling and justification for lack of material time. Besides, as far as glorification is concerned, I have already explained what it is when I discussed a while ago God’s desire to conform us to the image of his Son so that we may be spiritually and physically fit to enjoy fellowship with him forever.

 

Predestination

 

Instead of following the sequence laid down in our text I shall for the meantime skip foreknowledge and proceed instead to predestination. What is predestination? Our text says God has predestined those whom he foreknew to be conformed to the image of his Son. We already know what conformity to the image of Jesus is. It simply means glorification, which is the culmination of salvation. Predestination is therefore predestination unto glory or predestination unto salvation, because to be glorified is to be saved to the uttermost. Predestination therefore means that God in eternity has fixed or determined the eternal destiny of some people. He has determined even before he created the world that a certain number of people will eventually be saved and will reach glory without fail.

 

Now I mentioned predestination first because actually – and don’t be surprised by this – almost all Bible-believing Christians believe in predestination. Almost all Bible-believing Christians are in agreement that the Bible does teach predestination. There are just too many verses in the Bible about predestination,so that it would be next to impossible to miss it. In other words, as to the fact of predestination it would be safe to say that in general there is no disagreement among Christians.

 

Foreknowledge

 

So why is it that predestination is such a controversial topic among Christians? The controversy has to do with the reason for predestination, i.e., the basis for predestination, rather than with the fact of predestination.The most common view among Christians with respect to predestination is that God predestines certain people to be saved and eventually to be glorified because he foresaw that they would believe in his Son and receive him as their Lord and Savior. And they cite as their basis for this view the words of our text, “Those whom he foreknew he predestined.” The controversy then among Christians regarding predestination is not really about predestination per se. The controversy rather is about the meaning of foreknowledge as the basis of predestination. Does God predestine you because he knew beforehand that you would believe and receive Jesus Christ as your Savior? And is this what foreknowledge really means?

 

You will immediately see then that the issue of the correct interpretation of foreknowledge is crucial to the correct understanding of predestination. But more importantly, our understanding of foreknowledge will affect our understanding of grace.

 

For a number of reasons, together with many great Bible teachers of today, such as John Piper, John MacArthur, D.A. Carson, J.I. Packer, John Stott and a host of others, I do not agree with the common understanding of foreknowledge, at least as far as Rom. 8: 29-30 is concerned. I agree that foreknowledge generally means God knowing things beforehand and events before they occur. However, as far as our text is concerned, foreknowledge as a basis for predestination does not refer to God’s foreknowing that some will believe. For the sake of clarity I will refer to the common view as “foreseeng.” I will reserve the term “foreknowledge” for something else, which I will explain in due time. Here now are the reasons for my disagreement:

Firstly, if God’s decision to predestine some to glory were based on his foreseeing that some will decide to believe in Jesus as their Lord and Savior, then once again the foundation of glory becomes no longer grace, no longer God’s decision, but our decision. And, as a consequence, the glory for our salvation will no longer belong to God alone.

 

Secondly, the text does not say anything about God foreseeing our faith. What the text says is: Those whom he foreknew…” In other words, it is not the faith of certain persons which he foreknew but the persons themselves. To make things clearer, let us take for example the case of Jeremiah. The Lord said to Jeremiah in Jer. 1:5 “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.” Clearly, in this example, what God foreknew was not Jeremiah’s faith but his person.

 

Thirdly, many careful students of the Bible have noticed that the word “knew” is in a number of significant instances used as a synonym for “love” or “choice” or even “sexual intimacy”. For example, in Gen. 4:1 we read “Adam knew Eve, “ which means Adam loved or made love to Eve. To take another instance, in Amos 3:2 God says of Israel “You only have I known of all the families of the earth,” which at first sounds strange because how could the ominiscient God suffer amnesia with respect to all other nations? Of course, what the verse means is that Israel was privileged to be loved by God in a special way above all other nations (cf. Deut. 10:15). Based on these considerations, we can conclude that the foreknowledge of persons in Rom. 8:29 refers to God’s choosing to love certain persons even before they were born and even before they have done anything to deserve his love. To foreknow in the context of our text is simply to “forelove”. Some Bible scholars even say that the foreknowledge of persons mentioned in Rom. 8: 29 is in essence the same as the election of persons in Christ before the foundation of the world mentioned in Eph. 1:4. And in this connection one is reminded of I John 4:19 which says, “We love because he first loved us,” as well as of Jer. 31:3 “The LORD hath appeared of old unto me, saying, Yea, I have loved thee with an everlasting love: therefore with lovingkindness have I drawn thee.” (KJV) One is reminded as well of that most controversial of passages, Rom. 9: 10-13, “And not only so, but also when Rebecca had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad–in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of his call– she was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.’ As it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated, ‘ ” which I will not discuss at this time because I intend to devote a whole sermon on it some time soon.

Conclusion: Grace is the Foundation of Glory.

Let me end our study of these very deep doctrines by going back to our main theme: Grace is the foundation of glory. I know that what you have learned today is bound to raise some very serious questions in your mind, questions such as: What about man’s free will? How can a person be held responsible for his decisions if his destiny was already fixed even before he was born? What’s the use of preaching if people are already chosen to be saved? Will they not certainly be saved regardless of whether the gospel is preached to them or not? And the most difficult question of all: How could God be just if he has sovereignly and unconditionally chosen who will be saved, and by implication, who won’t? To be frank, these are not only difficult questions, some of them may well be nigh unanswerable. I intend to provide biblical answers to these questions to the extent that the Bible itself provides them next chance I get. Allow me to say this just to whet your appetite: the doctrine of God’s sovereign grace does not negate man’s responsibility to choose eternal life. There is a sense in which man is truly and genuinely free to choose whether to accept or reject God’s grace. We must be quick to add however that man’s freedom cannot in any wise influence, condition or negate the superior and ultimate freedom of God to do whatever he pleases without consideration of his creatures’ choices, to put it bluntly. Even so, we must also add that God does not exercise his sovereign freedom apart from his holy, righteous and loving character; nor does he do so apart from his perfect wisdom. God does not only choose freely and sovereignly; he also chooses righteously, lovingly and wisely. Nevertheless, his ways are not our ways for his thoughts are higher than our thoughts.

 

I hope however that the difficulty of these things will not detract from the importance of knowing them and believing them, firstly because, for better or for worse, they are taught in the Bible and we must assume that they, just like all other biblical truths, are profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness. Secondly, regardless of its difficulty the doctrine that grace is the foundation of glory gives to God alone all the glory for our salvation. In other words, the doctrine that grace is the foundation of glory glorifies God much more than the view that grace is ultimately dependent on our decision. And lastly, the doctrine that grace is the foundation of glory helps us to see the real extent of the gratitude that we owe to God. We owe him not only our salvation, we owe him even our very decision to receive his salvation. In other words, we owe everything to his grace. As Karl Barth put it, “The perception of grace is grace.” The very decision to receive God’s grace is the result of grace itself. It is grace which precedes as well as concludes. It is grace all throughout. Salvation is all of grace. Grace in the beginning, grace in the middle, grace in the end. Grace is the foundation of glory so that all the glory for our salvation may go to God alone. Soli Deo Gloria!

 

1Not mentioned in Rom. 8: 30 but certainly implied, as sanctification is the process which culminates in glorification. Incidentally, regeneration (also not mentioned in our text) should be understood as being the commencement of sanctification.

Grace and Gratitude (2)

“And if the essence of God as the God of man is His grace, then the essence of men as His people, that which is proper and demanded of them in covenant with God, is simply their thanks…. The grace of God calls for this modest but active return…. That he should be thankful is the righteousness which is demanded of him before God. And if he is not thankful, that is his unrighteousness.”

— Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.1 (T&T International 2004) pp. 42-43