Meditation on God’s Providence (2)
We have arrived at the place where the lessons and implications of this journey through God’s Word must be addressed. The stated theme is “God’s Works of Providence.” We have explored Abraham and Sarah’s life, the formation of the Church and Saul’s transformation into the Apostle Paul. Within all of these passages can be found wonderful clues to the workings of God’s providence.
However, in order to make significant progress we will have to loosen our grip from these Biblical passages and broaden our view. This is because God’s providence encompasses the Bible’s entire story and invades our world at all points. Therefore, though what we have just considered will be starting points for this meditation, it will be quickly expanded to include the larger doctrinal and life issues that arise.
Although there are resources on God’s providence that proceed with painstakingly logical development, I have not traveled this path. What I have done is to isolate the key issues (as I have been given light to see them) and then consider the doctrinal and life consequences. The following comments provide a framework intended to make the meditation more accessible.
To begin, I state adherence to the historic Reformed position on God’s providence and rejection of the competing theology of Arminianism.[i] I make this clear statement not to exclude those who have accepted some form of Arminianism from Christian fellowship, but rather to be clear about my own point of view. Neither do I want to be misunderstood to presume that those of the Arminian point of view are excluded from God’s salvation, for to do so would be to reintroduce a work into the equation.
On the other hand, the truth about God, His nature and how He has chosen to act is of the greatest importance. That is, to draw closer to these truths is to become more able to apprehend and then act within God’s will.
Much is made of the problems raised by providence, predestination and election as understood by the Reformed. To many, the Arminian position appears to be far less difficult to defend. This is the case not because Arminianism is correct, but rather because it conforms so pleasingly to our pride. Though it is not my work here to consider Arminianism directly, be assured that there are deep and difficult (insurmountable in my opinion) problems with this theological position.[ii]
With the above as context, I will proceed along the following outline.
In Part 1 I will consider the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human will with Abraham and Sarah as the point of demarcation. The theme will be “Man’s Chief End” with an emphasis on the “ends” pursued by us in relation to God’s sovereign determining of ultimate ends.
In Part 2 I will consider the relationship between the existence of history and our participation in it with the first half of Acts as the starting point. From there I will take up the specific issues and questions raised by Reformed theology on God’s providence. This section is intended to be the report from one who has explored part of a difficult and vast domain.
Although I have drawn conclusions and taken definite positions, the goal is not to immediately convince, but rather to raise up the possibility that God’s love and justice is so perfect that He can be confidently trusted for all, even the working out of our own salvation.
The following information is intended to explain the Arminian theological position.
Free-Will or Human Ability:
Although human nature was seriously affected by the fall, man has not been left in a state of total spiritual helplessness. God graciously enables every sinner to repent and believe, but He does not interfere with man’s freedom. Each sinner possesses a free will, and his eternal destiny depends on how he uses it. Man’s freedom consists of his ability to choose good over evil in spiritual matters; his will is not enslaved to his sinful nature. The sinner has the power to either cooperate with God’s Spirit and be regenerated or resist God’s grace and perish. The lost sinner needs the Spirit’s assistance, but he does not have to be regenerated by the Spirit before he can believe, for faith is man’s act and precedes the new birth. Faith is the sinner’s gift to God; it is man’s contribution to salvation.
God’s choice of certain individuals unto salvation before the foundation of the world was based upon His foreseeing that they would respond to His call. He selected only those whom He knew would of themselves freely believe the gospel. Election therefore was determined by or conditioned upon what man would do. The faith which God foresaw and upon which He based His choice was not given to the sinner by God (it was not created by the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit) but resulted solely from man’s will. It was left entirely up to man as to who would believe and therefore as to who would be elected unto salvation. God chose those whom He knew would, of their own free will, choose Christ. Thus the sinner’s choice of Christ, not God’s choice of the sinner, is the ultimate cause of salvation.
Universal Redemption or General Atonement :
Christ’s redeeming work made it possible for everyone to be saved but did not actually secure the salvation of anyone. Although Christ died for all men and for every man, only those who believe on Him are saved. His death enabled God to pardon sinners on the condition that they believe, but it did not actually put away anyone’s sins. Christ’s redemption becomes effective only if man chooses to accept it.
The Holy Spirit Can Be Effectually Resisted :
The Spirit calls inwardly all those who are called outwardly by the gospel invitation; He does all that He can to bring every sinner to salvation. But inasmuch as man is free, he can successfully resist the Spirit’s call. The Spirit cannot regenerate the sinner until he believes; faith (which is man’s contribution) proceeds and makes possible the new birth. Thus, man’s free will limits the Spirit in the application of Christ’s saving work. The Holy Spirit can only draw to Christ those who allow Him to have His way with them. Until the sinner responds, the Spirit cannot give life. God’s grace, therefore, is not invincible; it can be, and often is, resisted and thwarted by man.
Falling from Grace:
Those who believe and are truly saved can lose their salvation by failing to keep up their faith, etc. All Arminians have not been agreed on this point; some have held that believers are eternally secure in Christ – that once a sinner is regenerated, he can never be lost.
[ii] Some Problems Associated with Arminianism
The debate between Reformed and Arminian theologies is vast, covering centuries of human disputation. Here I will discuss only two of the more prevalent positions taken by those arguing for Arminianism.
- That God’s salvation is like that of a gift, carefully and painfully prepared by Christ and offered to us to accept or reject as our wills determine.
Let’s start by accepting the (false) premise that humans are morally capable of deciding to accept such a gift. First, it is absolutely clear that the sovereign entity in this transaction is the human. That is, should the human choose to reject the gift, Jesus Christ is left helplessly willing that which He cannot accomplish. All of His work on our behalf falls pathetically short. Secondly, if the human does accept the gift, then it is a work on their part that made the difference. In consequence, Arminianism allows for the saved Christian to secretly or openly consider himself as morally superior to those who apparently are not saved. That is, they can boast of their own act of moral superiority by which they have arrived at this blessed position. Arminian theology can twist and turn to its heart’s desire to obfuscate this implication, but ultimately to no avail.
But it gets even worse. The Bible teaches that:
As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins (Ephesians 2:1)
When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins (Colossians 2:13)
Have you ever considered handing a gift to a dead person? The act is clearly ridiculous, since the corpse has no way of even knowing that something is being offered, let alone the ability to reach out and accept. And yet, we are asked to believe a doctrine that makes our Lord God this ridiculous.
Of course, Arminianism teaches that we are indeed morally alive enough to make this decision. Once again, our pride is stroked, allowing us to evade the depth and scope of our estrangement from God through Original Sin.
- That God’s act of election is based upon His foreknowledge that we would will so as to accept Him, and so God then predestined us to that end.
This position is based on one of the most famous passages in Scripture, Romans 8:29,30.
For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.
Since “foreknew” precedes “predestined,” the argument is made that salvation is based on God’s foreknowledge that we would accept the offer of salvation.
The first point against this interpretation is that in the very next chapter of Romans the Apostle Paul makes it abundantly clear that this is not what he means. Here is the passage from Romans that proves this statement.
Not only that, but Rebekah’s children had one and the same father, our father Isaac. Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad—in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” Just as it is written: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”
What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.
One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?” But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’ ” Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?
Do we contend that the Holy Spirit, acting through the Apostle Paul is so incompetent as to teach two contradictory positions in the same Epistle, in adjacent chapters?
Secondly, isn’t there a logical contradiction in this formulation? For if God did indeed predestine us to be saved prior to our act of acceptance in time, then how is it that we freely choose when the time He foresaw actually arrives? Or, if God first ran through time and observed who accepted His offer; what is the point of a second running through time with the elect now predestined? There’s simply no point, for you need not predestine that which has already occurred. This isn’t a simple problem to sort out.
This discussion is meant to provide a brief taste of the problems and issues created by Arminian theology.