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Category Archives: Protestantism

(This was written in response to a Facebook post by a friend of mine defending the Wesleyan interpretation of Romans 9)

 

About two weeks ago I was sitting in a Bible study when the minister brought up an issue that had come up in the news a while before that. It was the story of the pastry shop Greggs and their Christmas advertisement. This advertisement had caused a bit of offence and some people to be up in arms over its tasteless representation. The ad showed a typical nativity scene, with Joseph, Mary, donkeys, stable, etc., but in place of the baby Jesus lying in the manger, there sat a sausage roll. The minister then went on to make the point that these “Christians” were getting up in arms about a sausage roll whilst legions of people are starving in the world and they remain silent.
I point out first of all that there is absolutely no reason to believe that people either care about sausage rolls or the hungry but not both. That is a false dilemma. What is really meant by the minister’s objection is to point out the apparently absurdity of those who complain about a sausage roll in an advertisement.

I was reminded of American Christian speaker Tony Campolo, who in an address once made the point, “There are thousands of people in the world today who will die of starvation, and you don’t give a <rude word>. And what is shocking to me is that you care more that I just said <rude word> than that there are thousands dying of starvation.” Again, the attempt of Campolo was to point out the absurdity of those who would complain about the use of <rude word> more than starvation.

What struck me as I was listening to this minister was the sudden thought that these people who complained are perhaps not so absurd after all. Rather, what we see playing out again and again in many different forms is a battle which has taken place since the dawn of creation with Adam and Eve and the serpent and the garden. The lie of the serpent was, “[Gen 3:4-5 ESV] 4 But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. 5 For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
The serpent is tempting the woman to place herself at the centre of the universe, instead of God. Essentially, she wanted to be like God – defining good and evil for herself. In that, she attempted to rob God of his place in the universe and be able to dictate what is right and good for herself. Ignoring what God said, she was tempted to consider the meanness and injustice of God’s restrictions placed upon her and she felt that her autonomy had to be respected and honoured and centralised and her natural inclination caused her to rebel.

The failure of Greggs, the failure of Campolo, the failure of Eve and Uzzah and Nadab and Abihu and Herod and Ananais and Sapphira was the refusal to acknowledge God’s place. Yes, God is love, but that is by no means the central motivation of God in scripture. The central motivation of God in scripture, the one transcendent characteristic he gives to himself, the one thing he will be revered and honoured for throughout eternity is that he is holy. Lest we start to think that the angels repeat day and night as they surround the throne, “Love, love, love is the Lord God Almighty.” (Isa 6:3, Rev 4:8). He is motivated by the reverence due to his name. It is the reason:
He showed mercy to Israel: Ezekiel 20:9
He leads us in righteousness: Psalm 23:3
He hardened Pharaoh’s heart: Exodus 14:4, 8
He forgives sin: Psalm 25:11
He made Israel great: 2 Sam 7:23
He did not let Israel be completely destroyed: Isaiah 48:9-11
Jesus does what he does: John 4:34, 7:4, 18
Jesus dies: John 12:27-28
We are saved: Ephesians 1:3-6
We are to do all things to the glory of God: 1 Cor 10:31

What Campolo, and Greggs, and you in your description of God’s characteristics of “love, justice and mercy” miss out is that God is a holy God. Such a central characteristic which is understandable from a secular organisation like Greggs, but for ministers of the gospel to omit it entirely is striking. What is worrying is that no one really has a problem with God being loving. No one has a problem with God being merciful. We love that stuff. Technically no one has a problem with God being just (so long as we get to define what justice is and isn’t). Everyone has a problem with God being holy.

And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. – John 3:19

Those people who complained at the Greggs advertisement, or who balked at Campolo using the word <rude word> did so, not out of a sense of being ignorant or pernickety, but out of a desire to preserve the due reverence that ought to go to a holy God. This is why we see throughout scripture God’s command not only to be praised and adulated, but to be feared (Deut 6:2,24, 10:12,20, etc.). People are even killed for not fearing him (2 Kings 17:34, Malachi 2:2). We are met with examples of people who came into contact with God’s glory and their immediate reaction was one of terror (Isaiah 6:1-5, Matthew 17:1-6).

So why does God’s holiness fill us with a mix of hatred and terror? It is because a holy God must by nature detest sin. Yet we, by nature, love sin. That places us, not as the objects of God’s love, but of God’s wrath – and he is completely in the right:

[Jhn 3:36 ESV] 36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.
[Rom 1:18 ESV] 18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.
[Rom 2:5, 8 ESV] 5 But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. … 8 but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.
[Eph 2:3 ESV] 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.
[Col 3:6 ESV] 6 On account of these the wrath of God is coming.
[Rev 6:16 ESV] 16 calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb.

Due to this being such a difficult thing for people to hear, we want to ignore it entirely. The sinful heart of human beings loves the idea of a God who loves them because in their mind what is not to love? They love the idea of a God who is merciful because that means they can be excused from whatever pet sin they love to do. They love the idea of a God of justice because they also think certain others do not deserve mercy. They hate the idea of a holy God, because they are wretched sinners who, if God is holy, deserve his wrath for their wickedness.

So what do people do? They turn to idolatry. At the foot of Mount Sinai, once the Israelites saw the smoke and fire on the mountain we are told they were afraid. They felt like they couldn’t even touch the mountain, where God came down to meet with Moses, or they would be killed instantly. So what did they do? They formed a new god. A gentler god. A little calf that could be easily moulded and nurtured and could be shaped to fit what they wanted.

I can’t stress this enough: faced with the terrible reality of the presence of the holy, just God of the whole universe, they rejected it – preferring a gentle, pliable little golden calf instead. For that reason, God had 3,000 of them killed.
Therefore it is of no surprise to me that you echo the sentiments of Wesley when faced with this God as shown to us by the Apostle Paul in Romans 9. “It looks like it means that, but it can’t mean that!” Because the God presented in Romans 9 seems terrible, seems harsh, seems horrible. So we create a little god who is all love, mercy and justice, but is incomplete from the God of the Bible – we ignore his holiness.

However, in doing so, we are also faced with the problem of what to do with the word of God. With texts that spell out God’s wrath of unbelievers, his hatred of those who do evil (Psalm 5:5), his tormenting the wicked forever in hell (Rev 14) and, in our context, with God’s sovereign election and reprobation in Romans 9. What people tend to do, what Wesley does, is places himself as arbiter over scripture, defining for himself who God is, what God means by ‘love’ and ‘justice’, and what passages like Romans 9 certainly do not mean. In essence, Wesley makes himself the voice of God, giving in to that lie of the devil that would seek to have us in the judgement seat instead of God. What usually happens then is that we carefully curate what we allow people to hear from the word of God, over-emphasising his mercy and compassion and (either implicitly or explicitly) ignoring those parts we disagree with. If that is untrue, then I invite you to tell me when was the last time you preached on Romans 9:13?

And so, because we are afraid that our God is a hard, unjust man, reaping where he has not sewn and gathering where he has not scattered seed, we bury the gift of his word he gave to us (or at least part of it). And what will the master of the vineyard say when he returns?

It is for this reason that I want to cling to the scripture, the whole scripture, even the parts that other people say are distasteful and insufferable, because I want to know him. At the foot of Sinai I don’t want to be the children of Israel cowering in fear and turning to their own created god. I want to be like Joshua, eagerly trying to edge up the mountain to get closer and closer to the God that I love and serve.

With that in mind, we must examine the text of Romans 9 objectively, as God’s revelation of his character to us without impeding our judgement based on preconceived notions of who we wish God to be. As CS Lewis wrote, he is not a tame lion, but he is good.

Romans 9 follows on from the Golden Chain of redemption at the end of chapter 8, and the great promise that there is no separation from God’s love for those who are the predestined mentioned in 8:29. The message is that God has chosen them, therefore they are secure. At the beginning of Romans 9, he addresses a possible objection to this teaching: that God made similar promises to the Jews, and later rejected them as his people. The accusation is that the word of God in electing a chosen people is not, in fact, secure and therefore Paul’s audience can have no assurance of their ongoing salvation. Paul’s response is:

[Rom 9:6 ESV] 6 But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel,

He points out that God’s promise wasn’t to the geographical nation of Israel, because not everyone who belonged to that nation by birth are ‘true Israel’. Instead, it was the children of the promise (v18). To illustrate this, Paul uses the story from Genesis 18 where God promises a son to Abraham and Sarah. Notice the two promises are linked here: the promise of God’s election and the promise of a son to Abraham and Sarah. Paul is drawing a parallel between the two of them. By natural means, Abraham and Sarah, being 100 years old, had no way they could ever hope to reproduce. It was only through the miraculous intervention of God. God made the promise and God fulfilled it. Even so, by natural means it is impossible for us to be born again. God makes the promise and God fulfils it. Paul will come to this conclusion in a few verses’ time.

In verse 10, Paul uses a second illustration of the twins born to Isaac and Rebekah: Jacob and Esau.

[Rom 9:10-13 ESV] 10 And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, 11 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 him who calls– 12 she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

Here Paul clearly lays out God’s divine election in sovereignly choosing individuals and rejecting others. Nothing would need to be added to these verses, we ought to close the discussion here and conclude that God’s divine election is Biblical fact. But, us being us, we need to object. Therefore it has been said of these verses that Jacob and Esau are not representative of individuals, but two separate nations. In Malachi (where Paul is quoting from) they are used as symbols of Israel (Jacob) and Edom (Esau). God, so the objection goes, uses these as symbols to show that he punishes Edom because of their wickedness and rewards Israel because of their righteousness. It is not an arbitrary election.

And the only problem is that that’s not the argument Paul makes.

Paul points out in verse 11 that God made the decision when “they were not yet born” and “had done nothing either good or evil”. This not only shows us that he is talking about the individuals and not the nations, but that God did not make the decision on the basis of either’s moral performance. Rather, he made the decision “in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls”. Therefore we have a clear example of God choosing a particular individual and rejecting another before they were even born.

The second point to be made here is that Paul is directly referencing Malachi 1:2 in his judgements on the house of Israel. Within the context of the Old Testament, God makes abundantly clear that he has not chosen Israel because they are righteous, or because they have the right faith. In fact he explains right from the outset in Deuteronomy 7:7, 9:5. In truth, both Jacob and Esau were sufficiently wicked for God to reject both. However, he chose, before the boys were even born, one over the other.

Genesis 25:23 And the LORD said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger.”

Finally, if we are to accept the Wesleyan interpretation of this verse (13) that it only refers to God’s punishment of the wicked and his preserving the righteous, then it makes sense to conclude that God fits with our conception of justice. We can easily accept that. We can rest easy, knowing that we believe God is fair to everyone.

So why then does Paul need to ask the question in verse 14?

[Rom 9:14 ESV] 14 What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means!

For if Paul only means that God rewards the righteous nation and punishes the wicked nation, why does he foresee the objection that God is unjust because of this? Paul anticipates the question because he knows the natural conclusion to God’s divine election is “This is unfair!” If we accept the Wesleyan interpretation, this objection is nonsensical. If we accept the Calvinist interpretation, then Wesley is the one making the objection in verse 14, to which Paul responds.

Notice what this means. It means that Wesley is not arguing with me. He’s not arguing with Calvin. He’s not arguing with Whitefield nor Spurgeon nor Augustine. He’s the one in verse 14 arguing with Paul.

Paul’s response is to go back to the Old Testament again (Exodus 33:18) and point out that God’s stance has always been to have mercy on whom he will have mercy and compassion on whom he will have compassion. Notice the pronoun ‘whom’ refers to a person, rather than an impersonal plural ‘those’ which would indicate a nation. God is talking about choosing individuals.

In verse 16 Paul comes to his conclusion:

[Rom 9:16 ESV] 16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.

The Greek uses the term ‘thelo’ to indicate that, in the context, Paul is talking about “the one who wills”, and ‘trecho’ as “the one who runs” – from which we can conclude that Paul is again referring to individuals. This fits with the rest of the verse, nations do not act with one “human will”, nor do they “run”. Only individual people do that. This is confirmed in verse 18 where we are told that God has mercy on *whomever* he wills, and hardens *whomever* he wills. The indicative “who” indicating not a nation, but a person.

So faced with this argument, we have a choice. We can either accept the divine election and sovereignty of God, made before any good or evil has taken place so that God’s purposes might be fulfilled, or we can be like the objector in verse 19 who still cries foul. But just like the last objector, they aren’t arguing with Calvin, they are arguing with Paul (and ultimately the word of God). The only fitting response to which it seems is:

[Rom 9:20 ESV] 20 But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is moulded say to its moulder, “Why have you made me like this?”

 

And God is in the habit of doing this – he is very reluctant to be placed in the dock to answer for how he designs things to work. We see this at the end of Job where Job calls for God to answer him. God shows up and sets things straight:

[Job 38:1-7 ESV] 1 Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind and said: 2 “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? 3 Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me. 4 “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. 5 Who determined its measurements–surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? 6 On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone, 7 when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

…he goes on into the next chapter like this…and finishes with:

[Job 40:1-2 ESV] 1 And the LORD said to Job: 2 “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it.”

Job interjects, and then God goes on in the same vein for yet another two chapters like this:

[Job 40:7-10 ESV] 7 “Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me. 8 Will you even put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be in the right? 9 Have you an arm like God, and can you thunder with a voice like his? 10 “Adorn yourself with majesty and dignity; clothe yourself with glory and splendour.

 

To which Job finally, like a rabbit caught in the crosshairs, replies:

 

[Job 42:1-6 ESV] 1 Then Job answered the LORD and said: 2 “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. 3 ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. 4 ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you make it known to me.’ 5 I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; 6 therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

I pray you’ll do the same.

God bless, Ryan.

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[Mat 1:19-21 ESV] 19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

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An elderly father is excited to see his young-adult son come for a surprise visit. As soon as the son bursts through the door the father can tell that he is very excited about something. The son has a smile that stretches from ear to ear, there is a lightness in his step, and a sparkle in his eye. Finally, the father asks his son why he seems so excited.

“Well, dad,” the son begins, barely able to hold back his jubilation, “I’m in love.”

The father gives an awkward, puzzled smile, “What?”

“I’m in love!” The son repeats with greater emphasis, then hastens to add, “And I’m getting married!”

“That’s,” the father stammers, rising to congratulate his son, “that’s wonderful, son! Such happy news! But…”

“There’s going to be a wedding,” the son continues, “and everyone will be there, and we’ll exchange vows and be together forever!”

“Yes, but…”

“And there’ll be flowers and cake and dancing and eating and drinking like you’ve never seen!”

“Son!” The father shouts, stopping the boy dead in his tracks.

“Yes, dad?”

“Who’s the bride?” The father asks with a note of exasperation.

“Who’s the bride?” The son replies with a look of bewilderment.

“Yes,” laughs the father, “this lady you are in love with. Who is she?”

The son looks his father in the eye and smiles. “I don’t know.” He replies. “Whoever says yes, I suppose.”

confused-old-man

Christmas is fast approaching and with it, many people wait with fierce anticipation for one thing.

The John Lewis advert.

I remember in 2014 it was the famous penguin ad. The one where the little boy is so fixated on his little toy penguin and in the end gets another one (the message being that one John-Lewis brand penguin is not enough, you guys. Toy penguins get lonely…). Over the advert is played a droning version (who does these sad cover versions all of a sudden for adverts?) of John Lennon’s ‘Real Love’.

 

See, it’s Real Love because it is focused on a particular object. The little boy did absolutely everything with his beloved toy penguin (at upwards of £99 on eBay these days rightly he should). There wasn’t room for the toy giraffe, nor the etch-a-sketch, but all of his focus and affection was given to this one little penguin. If it was no different than the time and attention he gave to anything else, could we still call it love? Or ‘Real Love’, according to Lennon? No, love by definition is exclusive. It is limited to the beloved. One might have a general feeling of goodwill to all people, but it ought to be a different feeling altogether from that which one has for their spouse.

 

At Advent, we see the realisation of a plan which began centuries before (and further back) in the mind of God. There were hints of it given to us through the Old Testament prophets, like Isaiah and Jeremiah when he said:

[Isa 54:8 ESV] 8 In overflowing anger for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,” says the LORD, your Redeemer.
[Jer 31:3 ESV] 3 the LORD appeared to him from far away. I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.

The love letter was sent. It was clear. God had fixed his love upon his people. Not only this, but he had done it from eternity past. His is an everlasting love for the people he has been given. Jesus is speaking to his Father in the Garden of Gethsemane when he says:

[Jhn 17:23-24 ESV] 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.

And so these are the same people Jesus came into this world to save. As our text in Matthew 1:21 says, his very name is a herald of his mission: to save his people from their sins.

To save.

His people.

From their sins.

 

Jesus, with his people in mind, came to earth in order to actualise salvation for every one of his people. It was a mission that was completed on the cross when he bowed his head and cried “It is finished!” The Greek term is derived from the term ‘tetalestai’ meaning ‘paid’ or ‘paid in full’. In his death on the cross, Christ’s mission was echoed throughout all eternity past, present and future as a resounding victory! His people, whom he set his love upon from before the foundation of the world, were saved from their sins. Jesus paid it all! All to him I owe! Sin had left a crimson stain, he washed it white as snow!

paid-in-full

However, there are whispers in some corners (shouts in others) that this redemption is not fair. Surely, they say, surely Christ died for absolutely everybody? Surely Christ set his love on absolutely everybody? Surely absolutely everybody is chosen by Christ for salvation? God can’t choose a particular people for himself, that’s unfair!

If we were to believe that ‘his people’ found in Matthew 1:21 refers to absolutely everyone in the world who ever existed or ever will exist, that makes God seem a lot more warm and fuzzy. I’ll agree. Had I been ignorant of the Bible’s stance on the atonement, I’d be much more comfortable believing that also. However, whilst it may make for a more palatable God, it throws up a few difficult challenges to get our heads around.

Primary among them, if God chose absolutely everybody – why isn’t absolutely everybody saved?

matthew-1-21

Matthew 1:21 is clear. Jesus’ mission was not simply to make salvation possible, but to actively save his people from their sins. If we are to believe that there are (a vast majority of) people whom God has set his everlasting love upon from before the foundation of the world, for whom Christ died in order to save them from their sins who have still died and will still die in their sins and spend eternity in hell, then we are faced with a paradox. God loves them from eternity, determines to save them, but doesn’t, and they go to hell instead. The same God who says they will be saved from their sin in Matthew 1 sends them to hell as “accursed” in Matthew 25.

In essence, it is the belief that Jesus’ mission was a spectacular failure. Not only this but that he covers this up by sending those same beloved people to hell.

[Mat 25:41 ESV] 41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.

But, the objector will say, God has given us free will! He would not violate our free will to save us!

Again this is a reasonable belief – that God would not violate anyone’s free will – except when you read the Bible and discover that violating people’s free will is a common occurrence for God. Two examples:

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Abraham and his wife Sarah are travelling through the kingdom of Abimilech, and Abraham suddenly notices that his wife is very attractive. This is a bad thing to Abraham, as he reasons that the people are going to take one look at his wife, kill him and take her. His plan makes no sense, to tell everyone that she’s his sister, but Sarah plays along with it right up to the point that she’s assimilated into the king’s harem.

Immediately a pestilence strikes the land, and God appears to Abimilech:

[Gen 20:3 ESV] 3 But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night and said to him, “Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man’s wife.”

Abimilech is completely non-plussed, and God gives him credit for this, saying:

[Gen 20:3, 6 ESV] 6 Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her.

I don’t know if you caught that phrase, but God just told someone he did not let him sin. Abimilech – wanting to sin, God – not wanting him to sin. Result: God doesn’t let him sin.

Let’s go again:

2ki_19_32-33-carolsfeld-theangelofthelordslaystheassyrianarmy

Sennacherib is leading an Assyrian army against Israel and is steamrolling the land. Assyria is one of the world superpowers of the time, and it seems like nothing can stop them from sweeping through the land and destroying the nation of Israel in their wake. That is until God intervenes, working against Sennacherib’s will as it says:

[Isa 37:36 ESV] 36 And the angel of the LORD went out and struck down 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians. And when people arose early in the morning, behold, these were all dead bodies.

Again, to look at the scoreboard for a moment: Sennacherib – wants to destroy Jerusalem, God – doesn’t want Jerusalem destroyed. Result: the Syrians are supernaturally slaughtered in their sleep by an angel of the Lord.

We believe in a God who loves, a God who acts, a God who intervenes on behalf of his people in order to save them in both Old Testament and New, and the will of no man is able to stand in his way. This can only be understood rightly if God has a particular people in mind – for those are the ones he intends to love. It is not loving to simply throw a rope to someone drowning, then go ahead and push them under when they fail to climb out. It is not loving for God to simply make salvation possible and then cast people into hell for not saving themselves.

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We believe in a God who loves us. A good father who rescues his children, his people. A successful Saviour who has saved us from our sins.

Yours in Christ, Ryan.

[Deu 18:9-12 NIV] 9 When you enter the land the LORD your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. 10 Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, 11 or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. 12 Anyone who does these things is detestable to the LORD; because of these same detestable practices the LORD your God will drive out those nations before you.

 

Introduction: What do we believe?

st-pope-gregory-the-great

In the Middle Ages, the Romand Catholic church had been the predominant church throughout Christendom. They had started out as the pure defenders of orthodoxy, but around the time of Pope Gregory I (540-604AD) that began to change. The church began to teach that, while the Bible was authoritative, it was not authoritative alone. Rather, special revelation, given to the Pope direct from God, was necessary in interpreting the will of God. At first scripture was kept in Latin and only the priesthood were able to read it. Then others began to see the benefit of having a Bible that they could read in their own language. 3fb6327e491356f66979f1c475f5ff77-william-tyndale-wolf-hallPeople like John Wycliffe (who was declared a heretic) and William Tynedale (who was burned at the stake) sought to bring God’s word to the vernacular. The Roman Catholic church responded with aggression and violence, executing many others who attempted this.

Then in the early 1500s The Reformation happened, and one of its central tenets became known as ‘Sola Scriptura’. As Christians, we affirm what the Catholics believe that the scriptures are authoritative over the Christian’s faith and practice. However, unlike Catholicism, we affirm that scripture alone is authoritative over the Christian’s faith and practices. We believe that there is nowhere else we can look to tell us what we are to believe and do as Christians. Consider the following verse:

[2Ti 3:16-17 NIV] 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

Notice that the Bible testifies about itself that it is useful to equip the servant of God for every good work. That is to say, the Bible is sufficient to train us in righteousness, teach us, rebuke us, correct us and equip us.

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Therefore, if there is any practice that we cannot justify from the Bible, then we ought to discard it as unbiblical and wrong. This was true for the reformers when faced with paying indulgences, prayers to Mary, transubstantiation, et al, and it is true for us today when we are faced with apostasy of our own. In particular, the focus of this article: Contemplative prayer.

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What is contemplative prayer?

Contemplative prayer has come into fashion in some areas as a means of ‘listening to God’. Its proponents say that it is a way for God to directly contact the believer in a real and powerful way. At a recent service we were told that it is a ‘deeper’ form of prayer, one that gains us greater unity with God.

It begins with choosing a “centring word”. According to Rick Warren (an open practitioner of contemplative prayer) this should be a short word or phrase that can be uttered in a single breath. Normally, something like “Jesus” or “God” or “the grace of God” is suitable. This is done in order to help the believer empty their mind in order to receive communication from God.

Is it biblical?

Support for contemplative prayer is often cited from Psalm 46:10a ““Be still, and know that I am God.” From this, it is said that this is a prescriptive for how the believer is to meditate.

In a recent meeting, the examples of Jesus separating himself to pray (eg Mark 1:35, Luke 5:16 etc.) was used in support of the practice. Also used was Elijah’s experience in 1 Kings 19 where he heard the “still, small voice” of God.

Notice, however, in none of these passages does anyone have to repeat centring words, empty their minds or enter into a trance-like state in order to hear from God. The Biblical reference do not depict the exact practice they are supposed to support.

What does the Bible actually say?

“And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words. – Matthew 6:7

Here you have Jesus specifically telling people not to perform useless repetitions in prayer. The practice of repeating ‘centring words’, according to Jesus in this verse, is something a Christian should not be doing. Why? Because it’s what the heathen do (I’ll come back to that later).

What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also. – 1 Corinthians 14:15

In this verse Paul is addressing some of the craziness going on in the Corinthian church where people are praying openly in tongues with no interpretation and it is causing confusion. Here Paul has to address this and say that prayer, while it is done ‘with my spirit’, is done ‘with my mind also’. The practice of contemplative prayer, however, is focused around the process of emptying the mind, not using it. Here again we see a direct Biblical contradiction of the practice in the words of Paul this time.

In fact, any time the act of prayer is mentioned in the scripture, it is always referred to as the conscious act of making communication with God. Asking (Matt 21:22), petitioning (Dan 9:3), pleading (2 Sam 12:16), interceding (1 Kings 13:6) and making requests known (Phl 4:6). There is no mention of repeating mantras in order to clear one’s mind.

So where does it come from?

The practice of contemplative prayer in Christendom can be traced back to the Middle Ages and to Roman Catholic mysticism. Remember the doctrine of sola scriptura was as a response to the propensity of the Catholic church to adopt teaching and practices that were outside of what the Bible taught. In his book, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, Peter Scazzero references two of these mystics: Teresa of Avila and Thomas Merton.

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Teresa was a Caremlite nun who, through practicing contemplation, claimed to experience physical pain and sexual pleasure. She practiced asceticism, which was the belief that closeness with God can only be achieved through separating oneself from the world and suppressing the natural desires of the body. She also claimed to have levitated during the Mass.

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Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk who (again, in a contemplative state) had visions of himself performing the duties of a Buddhist monk. Later in his ministry he became fascinated by Zen Buddhism, and wrote extensively on uniting the practices of Buddhism with Christian orthodoxy.

What Jesus tells us in Matthew 6:7 that vain repetitions are to be avoided because it’s what the heathen do. Neither Teresa nor Merton were around at the time Jesus is speaking – so to whom is he referring when he says “heathen”?

The fact is that the practice of contemplative prayer, whilst found nowhere in scripture, is found almost identically in the ancient Eastern mystic systems of Buddhism and Hinduism. Kundalini yoga is based around the practice of achieving an altered state of perception through repeating mantras and clearing one’s mind. This has all been popularised through the New Age movement in recent times, and introduced into Christian practice through organisations such as the Emergent church. It is also little surprise that it is rife throughout the ecumenical movement.

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So what do I do?

The Bible is clear about God’s attitude towards adopting the practices and beliefs of pagan religions (Deut 18:9-12). If you find yourself performing, or being asked to perform this practice, flee from it. It is right and proper to desire to hear from God, and God has given us all the means of doing so. It’s called the Bible. Read it, asked for illumination as you do. Pray about it. Seek God regarding it. Wrestle with it. Fill your mind with the truth and resist the enemy that would fill it with anything different.

If you are teaching this to people, repent. Those who teach are subject to stricter judgement (James 3:1), and the Bible is replete with warnings about what happens to those who teach false doctrine in the name of God. Repent and turn to Christ, trust his word and come out of new age mysticism before you are deceived any further, and before you deceive anyone else.

Yours in Christ, Ryan.

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Last week a large group from my church went to Spring Harvest up in Minehead. We were unable to go due to a family holiday in Wales, but I’ve been able to catch up with some of the people who went, and the teaching through the videos that have been posted online. The people I’ve spoken to spoke very highly of the worship, the seminars, the social aspect of gathering together outside of the normal setting with other believers. Very few people mentioned the actual teaching, instead referring to a vague notion of ‘unity’. It was only in watching the Archbishop of Canterbury speak at the conference that I got a firm handle on what was meant by this drive for ‘unity’.

And I was appalled.

Please don’t get me wrong. Unity among Christians is imperative. I agree with the words of John 17 where Jesus asks for his people to be one. That is not the issue. It’s what we’re being asked, through vast assumption and little discernment, to be united with that has troubled me. It is clear that what was meant by ‘unity’ was actually ‘ecumenism’.

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Ecumenism is the movement towards unity among Christian groups, however widely understood to mean unity between every group that self-identifies as Christian. I make the distinction because there are many groups and organisations that self identify as Christian and are not. Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses are two examples. I would add a third, which is where the contention of this issue lies for me, and it’s Roman Catholicism.

Christian unity is very, very important. I cannot restate that enough. The underlying question, however, is what is a Christian?

Is it simply someone who self-identifies as one? Or is there certain criteria we should expect? For instance, we agree that a Christian is someone who loves Jesus. At his speech at the recent Spring Harvest in Minehead the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, suggested such a definition. Therefore, let us use that simple definition for now – that a Christian is someone who loves Jesus.

woman-565104_1920Imagine if I were to sit down and explain how much I love my wife. I am so in love with her I think she’s the most beautiful person in the world. Her long, blonde hair, her tall, slim physique, her penchant for action movies and pre-19th century poetry all fascinate me. I could talk about her all day!

The problem is that’s not my wife. My wife is relatively short. She has shoulder-length brown hair and hates action movies. I doubt she’s ever read a pre-19th century poem since being forced to in school.

So imagine if I were to describe my wife in the first way, then you actually met my wife. You would assume two things. a) I’m lying or b) There is some misunderstanding, and we are talking about two completely different women. Either way, does it look like I love my wife if I’ve got so many details wrong about who she is?

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In the same way, simply saying we love Jesus isn’t enough. The question must be asked: who is Jesus?

1005d1f2f13adcd679bc9acb8caf6cbf_question-mark-red-clip-art-question-mark-clipart-png_198-299Is he the sole mediator between God and man? 1 Timothy 2:5 or does he delegate that responsibility to his mother, priests, the Pope and saints?

1005d1f2f13adcd679bc9acb8caf6cbf_question-mark-red-clip-art-question-mark-clipart-png_198-299Does the Pope serve as “The Vicar of Christ” (the term ‘vicar’ comes from the latin ‘vicarius’ meaning ‘in place of’) or is Christ still active as the high priest for all believers as Hebrews 7 says he is?

1005d1f2f13adcd679bc9acb8caf6cbf_question-mark-red-clip-art-question-mark-clipart-png_198-299Did Jesus die once for all (Hebrews 7:27) or is he to be continually sacrificed in the Eucharist (“The Sacrifice of the Mass is not merely an offering of praise and thanksgiving, or simply a memorial of the sacrifice on the Cross. It is a propitiatory sacrifice which is offered for the living and dead, for the remission of sins and punishment due to sin, as satisfaction for sin and for other necessities.” The Council of Trent, Session XXII, Sept 17, 1562)?

1005d1f2f13adcd679bc9acb8caf6cbf_question-mark-red-clip-art-question-mark-clipart-png_198-299Does Jesus save people by grace through faith (Ephesians 2) or does he save people after they perform meritorious works? Must the believer then maintain their own salvation through confession to priests and receiving the sacraments? (CCC 1131)

1005d1f2f13adcd679bc9acb8caf6cbf_question-mark-red-clip-art-question-mark-clipart-png_198-299Does Jesus regenerate through baptism (section 1215 of the Catechism “This sacrament [baptism] is also called ‘the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit,’ for it signifies and actually brings about the birth of water and the Spirit without which no one ‘can enter the kingdom of God”) or does he do it through faith (Hab 2:4)?

1005d1f2f13adcd679bc9acb8caf6cbf_question-mark-red-clip-art-question-mark-clipart-png_198-299Does Jesus alone have the power to forgive sins (Psa. 130:4; Isa. 43:25; Dan. 9:9; Mic. 7:18; Acts 8:22) or is the only way to be forgiven by confessing to a priest and being absolved (CCC 1424)?

I hope I have demonstrated above that we aren’t dealing with minor peccadilloes but these differences go right to the heart of who Jesus is. What is being presented in both systems is an entirely different gospel, with different means of grace, different definitions of grace, different functions of the atonement and a different Jesus at its centre.

In listening to Justin Welby speak at Minehead he does address these differences very briefly. He calls them ‘really difficult things’ and ‘the biggest issues’. He does this in the middle of his point that unity is more important than these ‘really difficult things’ and ‘biggest issues’. What is implied here is that “the truth of the One God” and “blessing the other” is vastly more important than worrying about whether or not we are preaching a different gospel. It was at this point that I felt he’d be much happier if he simply tore Galatians 1 out of his Bible.

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He goes on to say that unity is the reflection of God’s holiness. Saying, “Disunity is sin. We cannot be holy if we’re not united.” In this he seems to be in ignorance of what the term ‘holy’ actually means. In the Hebrew scripture the term for ‘holy’ is ‘qodesh’, which means ‘separateness, apartness, set-apart”. The word literally means to separate. It was given to the portion of the offering that was set apart for God in the Levitical sacrificial law. Therefore, to be holy means to separate from that which is ungodly, or set against God as he is revealed in his word. To say that holiness means unity, even with beliefs that are set against the word of God, is mind-boggling.

Again, I am all for Christian unity, but I hold with Martin Luther who said “Peace if possible, truth at all costs.” It is my belief that Welby actually intends for us to commit to ecumenism rather than Jesus. This is no surprise, as he openly tells us that his spiritual director is the Roman Catholic monk Nicolas Buttet, and he openly praises the Catholic mystic Jean Vanier as an “extraordinary image of Christ” (Vanier in his book Essential Writings has previously identified the Hindu Mahatma Ghandi as “one of the greatest prophets of our times” and “a man sent by God” and called for all Christians to “open doors to other religions”). One article from a Catholic source said:

Justin Welby has no doubt that he is a Protestant who prays in tongues, whose religion is a Bible religion; but, thanks to P.Nicolas, he adores Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, goes to confession, and has been on pilgrimage to the Anglican shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham.  Both Pope Francis and Archbishop Welby break the mould that the past wishes to impose on them.

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After all this, Welby had the gall to reference Latimer and Ridley, two of the early English reformers, who were burned at the stake for having the courage to separate from the Roman Catholic church in the first place, as examples to support unity with the Roman Catholic church! So it is clear that, in calling for unity, Welby is asking us to disregard discernment, doctrine and the legacy of people like Latimer and Ridley and so many others who suffered for our faith, and using the dying words of Latimer to do it.

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I do not feel anger or prejudice against anyone, regardless of religious persuasion. We live in a pluralistic society where I brush shoulders with people of many different faiths every day. However, it is very clear to me in my reading of scripture and understanding of the gospel as passed down to me that no one who follows the teachings and practices of the Catholic church can rightly be called Christian. I believe that scriptures like Gal 1:8 are very clear on that point. I do not say this with any malice, or triumphalism, but with a heavy heart. I want to obey Jesus Christ’s desire that I love people, and in this case I love people enough to say that they are lost and in dire need of the gospel that actually saves.

Justin Welby intimated that the world is dying without Jesus, and that the only way we can show them Jesus is if we are united. The irony of that position is that he is standing alongside, shoulder to shoulder with, people who are dying without Jesus and affirming them in doing so. I would rebut this statement that the only way we can show the world Jesus is if we are united (yes, united) on who Jesus actually is, what he does, and how we can approach him. If we present not just social improvement programs but the gospel. The full, unadulterated gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone for the glory of God alone.

Love you all in Christ, Ryan.

I’m an avid Star Wars fan. Ever since watching Episodes 4, 5 and 6 on grainy VHS tapes with my dad and older brother, I was completely sucked in to the mythology and action and characters in a big way. To this day, my pulse still races at the sound of a good lightsaber battle. My ringtone is the fierce X Wing battle from the end of A New Hope, and my message alert tone is R2D2’s trademark beeping. On my wedding day, I walked down the aisle with a pair of Darth Vader cufflinks in my shirt.

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The catchphrase of, “Use the Force, Luke.” is also burned into my memory from watching and re-enacting that scene over and over where Luke pulls down the blast shield and blows up the Deathats-no-moon-1024x640th Star. The Force is considered to be this all-pervading…well…energy that flows through all things in the Star Wars universe. Jedi like Yoda and Mace Windu talk about it as if it has a will, one which is working behind the scenes, through the most dreadful of circumstances at times, to bring about balance.

God is not like this in most respects. He is not a vague energy, nor is he found in all things. That would be pantheism. At the same time, all things are through him, and by him and for him, to bring about his glory (Romans 11:36).

Now I know what you’re thinking: this sounds like Calvinism!

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And you’re right. It does link with Calvinism. I hesitate to say it is Calvinism, because it’s simply the bare words of scripture. If you wish to argue with it, simply go back and read Romans 11:36 again. Not satisfied? Give it another read. In that one verse is encapsulated the will and activity of God. What in this universe is for him? All things. What is by him? All things. What comes through him? All things. Why? For his glory.

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In a recent blog post, my friend listed his objections to Calvinism very clearly, and I would first like to address these and then look at the alternative which I feel should not go undefended. I intend to address each objection one at a time.

  1. Double predestination

This is the logical outworking of the belief in predestination. It follows that if God chooses some to save, he must choose to damn others. The objection to this is that it is incredibly unjust (my friend uses the word ‘ridiculous’ also). He posits the following analogy:

If your father said to you that your brother would inherit his whole will but you would get nothing, and that he had decided this even before both of you were born, would you not be insensed at such a ridiculous decision?

My first response is to say that the above analogy is unjust because both sons of the father feel they deserve an inheritance. It is expected that the just thing for that father to do is to share his wealth with both his sons. What my friend is saying here is that God owes all his sons and daughters the equal chance at salvation. That is only fair.

bible-neethling-efs1755mm-6232880-oLet’s look at what the reality of the situation is, however. Owing to man’s fall, sin entered into the heart of man to the extent that God never in the Bible describes the unregenerate people as his ‘children’. The paternal relationship of the analogy is non-existent in reality, due to the presence of sin. Instead, we are told that prior to conversion, unbelievers are ‘children of wrath’ (Ephesians 2:3). It is only through faith in Christ that we become children of God via adoption (Romans 8:15, Galatians 4:5, Ephesians 1:5). The analogy does not work because it assumes that everyone has that paternal relationship with the Father and therefore that God owes them a chance at salvation. The truth is that God owes us nothing, there is no mandate coercing him to offer anyone salvation.

What does he owe us? The concern of the analogy is about what is just for God to do. Therefore, what are our just desserts here? We are told in Romans 6 that the wages of sin is death, and that death spread to all men because all men have sinned (Romans 5:12). In an oft-forgotten piece of scripture, God through the Psalmist tells us that he hates all evildoers (Ps 5:5), this is corroborated in instances in Hosea 9:15 and Proverbs 6:16-19 among others.

bcgrnnqki-1To tinker the analogy then to make it a little more accurate (still not quite there I’ll admit), an old man is beset by two robbers who are intent on destroying him and stealing all his stuff. The old man manages to catch the two men in the act. What does he owe two guilty criminals? He owes them the full penalty of the law. It’s only in letting one, or both, go that he is actually acting in an unfair manner. I would urge my friend to be very careful, therefore, in determining that in offering salvation God should be just and fair, because just and fair means we all get hell.

2. My choice

This is an argument based on my friend’s choice to follow Jesus which can be pinpointed to a particular time in his life. Immediately my thought is that if we place our own personal experiences over the authority of scripture then we are on a slippery slope. The downfall of the modern day pentecostal movement is replete with people who interpret scripture in the light of their personal experience rather than the other way around.

I was speaking to a young person over the Summer who came to me with a problem. This was a very devoted, godly young man, who came to me and said that he wasn’t sure he was saved. Sometimes he felt saved, but at other times he didn’t (this young man attended a denomination with Arminianism at its core). He had spent the previous evening in a worship service on his knees weeping for God to let him know if he was saved or not. Imagine that? Imagine having to come to your Father and beg him to let him know if he loves you or not? Imagine expecting that to change based on your own performace? Yet this was the situation this young man was in.

I will lead my friend who wrote the blog through the same journey I took this young man. “Last night,” I said, “you were seeking God. Would you say that’s correct?”

The young man agreed.

“But if you look at Romans 3:20-21, it says that no-one seeks God. No not one. So how can you be seeking God if God says no one seeks him?”

The young man was stumped, and it took someone else to say, “God is seeking you in the first place.”

The young man left that conversation with a newfound assurance and trust in the Father who loves Him with a steadfast, everlasting love (Jeremiah 31). That anyone who comes to the Lord shall in no wise be cast out (John 6:37). Why? Because as Jesus puts it:

No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him – John 6:44

The young man, just like my friend, had the perception that coming to God was his decision. Due to this, he had no assurance because he could easily just decide not to follow Jesus and would then not be saved. I had the same perception until I read the scriptures and found that I had only chosen God because the Father had drawn me to Jesus in the first place. What he has begun in me he is faithful to finish, and in that I have such assurance of my salvation. Assurance that lets me sing, “Thank you for saving me, what can I say?” because he is the one who does the saving, not me.

3. Hyper Calvinism

The objection here is over the sovereignty of God in all things. We’ve already seen that my friend places himself in opposition to Romans 11:36 here, but I think we can afford to nuance this a bit.

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If we consider the example of Joseph, we can see clearly the providence and sovereignty of God in even the darkest of circumstances. Joseph was thrown into a pit, sold into slavery, put in prison and left to rot until he was miraculously rescued. Not only this, but he saved the land of Egypt, and his family (the very brothers who threw him in the pit in the first place) from starvation. God, in his wisdom, used even the “free will” sin of Joseph’s brothers to bring about their salvation. The brothers willed to sell Joseph into slavery, but in all of it God was working his sovereign purpose to preserve the bloodline of the Messiah that was to come.

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Whose will was carried out that day? God’s? Or the crowd’s?

Jump forward a few thousand years and we see the same thing play out at Calvary. Judas has a “free will” decision to betray Jesus. Pilate has a “free will” decision to have Jesus killed or not. The crowd have a “free will” decision between Jesus and Barrabas. The guards had the “free will” decision to break Jesus’ legs or not. And through it all, every single decision that was made served to fulfil the prophecy God gave through Isaiah some 500 years before. In the midst of such seemingly random chaos, God’s pre-ordained plan was being filled out to the letter.

All things are through him, and by him, and for him. We can trust that, in the bleakest of circumstances, in the hardest of struggles, that God is still working in us his will and pleasure. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. 2 Corinthians 4:17.

Eph 1:3-6 ESV – Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.

My friend calls this sort of reading scripture “dogmatism”, which is merely a namecalling technique liberal people love to use when they want to dismiss an argument or opponent without having to face the argument. He even likens people who do this to ISIS fanatics who behead children, which would be hilarious were it not clearly offensive. In a rare moment of Biblical appeal, he gives three scriptures which apparently “undermine predestination”. These are

Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers. (1Tim. 4:16)

You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. (Heb. 10:36)

You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. (Matt. 10:22)

Which seems to be explaining that salvation is secured through perseverance in the faith.

WHICH IS EXACTLY WHAT CALVINISM TEACHES.

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I’d thank my friend to familiarise himself with the P in TULIP. Calvinism (in accordance with Romans 9:18) teaches that God elects those he will for salvation. Calvinism does not teach who those people are, because it doesn’t know. Rather, the only way we can tell if someone is truly predestined is if they persevere in the faith (1 John 2:19).

The pet complaint against Calvinism is that it paints a heartless, callous God who damns people to hell unfairly. Hopefully, I have addressed some of those concerns in this response, although it’s not intended to be an exhaustive list. I’m always open to discussing and debating finer points in order to get to the bottom of what the scripture actually teaches.

However, I find the God of Calvinism by far more preferrable to the God of Arminianism. I cannot accept a God who might love me today, but cast me out tomorrow based on my performance for him. I find that hard to reconcile with the idea of a good Father. Maybe it’s because I’ve recently become a Father myself, but I know that my little girl made no decision to be born to me, nor to accept my love and acceptance. I will certainly not raise her with the expectation that she is my daughter today, but might not be tomorrow unless she continues to please me. I tremble at the idea anyone could believe in a God like this.

I tremble at the idea anyone could believe in a God who is subserviant to the will of man. Often the charge laid against Calvinism is “Why pray then?” And my response is often, “If God is not sovereign in salvation, why are you praying?” Are we not, in praying for God to save someone, asking God to overrule their free will? How horrifying would it be if the answer came back, “Sorry, I’d love to save the crack addict, the prostitute, the drunkard, the abuser, but gosh darnit they don’t want to be saved!”

Instead, I believe in a God whose mission in Christ Jesus was not just to make it possible for some people to be saved if they want to, but to save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:21). That salvation belongs to him alone (Jonah 2:9) and he is able, beautifully able to save (not just a little bit and wait for us to do the rest, but) to the uttermost (Hebrews 7:25) and never cast them out (John 6:37).

I love Star Wars though.