Ascend Higher! Calvin on Teaching and Exhorting Others

It certainly is the part of the Christian man to ascend higher than merely to seek and secure the salvation of his own soul.

Although not all have the office of preaching the word of God, yet a private person who is a member of the church may beget spiritual children to God if he has the occasion and ability to win a poor soul and enlighten him with the faith of the gospel.

But when most people see that God provides an opening for them and a way to instruct the uninformed, they will remain silent, keep their mouths shut, and not say a word… He will be guilty of other people’s sin because he had the means to admonish them and did not.

John Calvin, quoted in Engaging with Calvin (edited by Mark D. Thompson) pp. 36-37.

Culture: Its Theological Justification

Colin Gunton in The One, the Three and the Many offers this  theological justification for culture:

The distinctive feature of created persons is their mediating function in the achievement of perfection by the rest of creation. They are called to the forms of action, in science, ethics and art – in a word, to culture – which enable to take place the sacrifice of praise, which is the free offering of all things, perfected, to their creator. Theologically put: the created world becomes truly itself – moves towards its completion – when through Christ, and the Spirit, it is presented perfect before the throne of the Father. The sacrifice of praise which is the due human response to both creation and redemption that takes the form of that culture which enables both personal and non-personal worlds to realize their true being.

To my mind, the foregoing is at the end of the day simply an exposition – albeit a brilliant one – of Ephesians 2:10:

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

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.