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God is in Control: A Case for a Reformed understanding of Salvation

Though I know that it’s quite possible to a “Reformed Christian” and even a solid evangelical without subscribing to the “Calvinist” view, I am personally convinced that the Calvinist/Reformed interpretation of the Scriptures, especially as it relates to Soteriology – or ‘How we are saved’ – is the most internally consistent, and Biblical. Here’s my case…

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It is my understanding that the primary foundation of all Biblical Faith should be God in Christ as the center of our faith, as revealed in the Word, and that God’s supreme delight is ultimately in Himself and His own glory, not in the supposed value of man. Though at first this sounds shocking to modern ears, especially to Americans who sometimes confuse our constitutional entitlement to “certain inalienable rights” with divine revelation, this truth, that God’s supreme delight is ultimately in Himself and his own glory, is the foundation of the Gospel. Also, one must consider this; would we dare accuse God of idolatry? It should be expected that God, in his righteousness, should place proper value on things as they are – and since He, Himself, is of infinite value and worth, for Him to delight in anything more than Himself would be nothing short of that; idolatry. God doesn’t worship us, as some of us secretly suppose – a supposition revealed by our response to certain sections of the Scriptures.

The second foundation of Biblical Faith flows from the first; free will. I do not speak of the free will of man, but rather, the ultimately free and sovereign (all powerful – in control) will of God. It is frequently and clearly stated in Scripture that God does as he pleases. Psalm 135:6 states, “The Lord does whatever pleases him, in the heavens and on the earth, in the seas and in their depths.” Likewise, Isaiah 46:9-10; “Remember the former things, those of long ago; I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me. I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: my purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.” Lastly, whether or not this passage supports traditionally understood views of salvation (I question that it does), Romans 9:15 indeed makes is clear that God’s will in regard to whom he will be merciful to will not be thwarted; “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” In whatever sense the will of man might be free, even “in Christ” or in the pre-fall Adam (we must acknowledge that freedom comes in degrees), it must be clear that this “free-will” is in no sense autonomous, lest mans freedom hinder the free-will of God. What a horrifying world this would be, if God’s will were not ultimately free! If mans will were free in that man could act contrary to what God ultimately wills, thus thwarting the will of God, we have no ultimate grounds for the hope of salvation, for nothing God desires must necessarily come to be. God could not even be expected to keep his own promises, especially where the will of man is concerned, which is nearly always the case. But we know that when we speak of the free will of man that this cannot be what we mean; since God created, sustains, and intervenes in the Universe, our decisions are anything but autonomous. Anything we do is ultimately a response to the initiating work of God in creation, revelation, and His continual working of circumstances to “the good of those who love God and are the called according to His purpose.” But even the direct work of God aside, our own decisions are still frequently shaped and informed by the circumstances of our lives. Making things even more complex, even though we do indeed make significant decisions of our own wills, since, post-fall, in our natural states “no one seeks God” due to what Luther called “the bondage of the will”, even the decision to follow Christ must come first from the enabling work of God “by grace“, and “this is not of yourselves, but is a gift of God, so that no one should boast.” So, even though the decision to follow Christ is a man-made one (i.e. – man does as he wills and is responsible for his choice and lives with it’s consequences), it flows from the creative, revealing, sustaining, sovereign-willed, faith-enabling hand of God. Man does as he wills, but man’s decisions are anything but “free” in the autonomous sense.

In fact, the human authors of Scripture had so high a view of God’s sovereignty as to even recognize evil as being ultimately from the hand of God. For instance, in spite of that fact that Satan was the one immediately bringing violence upon Job, Job himself stated, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away.” Job spoke truthfully, as well, for immediately afterward the author adds, “In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong.” Also look at Isaiah 45:7; “I form light and create darkness, I make comfort and create calamity, I am the Lord, who does all these things.” Or Lamentations 3:38; “Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and evil come?” Though at first this may sound unnerving, there is also comfort to be found here, for since God is ultimately sovereign over all and even the devil is “the God’s devil”, there is no meaningless or purposeless evil, for God ultimately has allowed it and will use it for the good of His children. This view of God’s sovereignty should be carried over into our understanding of salvation, as well, recognizing that though we do have will, and are required to respond, ultimately our salvation is nothing that we can take credit for – the fact that God chose to free you, yet not another, does nothing but make the grace God has given all the more amazing. I am firmly convinced that there will be no one in hell who feels as though that punishment was unjust, and there will be no one in heaven who will feel as though he somehow earned his stay there. That is true grace and justice.

In spite of what many Arminians (the opposite of Calvinists) believe, this view of God, for believers, is anything but “horrifying.” In fact, as I have stated earlier, it is God’s supreme delight in Himself, and His pleasure is working his sovereign (i.e. – truly free) will, that is the very grounds for our salvation as elect sinners.

Isaiah states in verse 14 of chapter 63 that God delivered Moses and his people “to make for himself a name,” or rather, for his own renown and glory. Likewise, Psalm 106:8 says “…yet he saved them for his name’s sake, that he might make known his mighty power.” John Piper says in THE PLEASURES OF GOD, and rightly I believe, that “God’s first love is rooted in the value of his Holy name, not the value of a sinful people. And because it is, there is hope for the sinful people, since they are not the grounds of their salvation, God’s NAME is.” This idea is carried over into the New Testament as well; Jesus life and work are aimed at revealing and honoring the Father’s name, which leads to His further glory. Jesus prayed in the garden, “Now my soul is troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour?’ No, for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then the Father responded, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” Again, I believe Piper speaks wisely concerning this; “…we should think of the death of Jesus as the way the Father vindicated his name – his reputation – from all accusations of unrighteousness in the forgiveness of sinners. On this side of the cross we should pray just as David did in Psalm 25:11; ‘for your name’s sake, O Lord, pardon my guilt, for it is great.'”

If it is true that God is ultimately sovereign in salvation, and it is clear from several passages from the Gospel of John that God does not enable all to follow Jesus, some would call this God “unfair.” So be it. God is unfair, in our modern, democratic, Americanized, and very man-centered view of fairness — especially if we believe that God in some sense “owes us one.” But few Christians, even free-will theists, can escape this criticism, if one believes it a valid one. With this view of fairness in mind, was it fair that God chose the descendants of Jacob, rather than the Egyptians, Assyrians, Chaldeans, or Persians, to be the people to whom He would reveal himself and work through, in spite of their being a “stiffed-neck people.” Is it fair, as you understand fairness, that God holds accountable for sin those who have not heard the Gospel nor had a chance to “choose Jesus”? Is it fair that God saves only those who place their faith in Christ, rather than sincere believers of other religions? Is it fair that Jesus, who knew no sin, carried the sins of the world on the cross, so that those who deserved death would not die? Fairness and Justice are not necessarily the same thing. God is just, and this justice allows that any single one of us who have chosen sin, all born of Adam, can be left to our own devices, which ultimately leads to destruction, and God would be fully just in allowing this. God displays his mercy in laying the justice of some on Jesus, and granting them eternal life in Him. Either way, the “fairness” of God in a particular theological position is not proper grounds for critique of the truth or falsity of that position.

As to why God chooses as he does, we do not know – it is a mystery, and keeps us humble as his creation. We do know this — Scripture affirms that God is sovereign in all things, and that man is still responsible for his decisions. We must uphold both of these in tension. I don’t claim that the Reformed/Calvinist positions are perfect — we have far yet to go; the critiques of the free-will theists are healthy, and sending us back to Scripture to reassess what we believe, but I still feel that on the whole, the Reformed view of Salvation is clearly the most Scriptural.

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Filed under: Calvinism, John Piper, Mystery, Reformed, Salvation, Theology

4 Responses

  1. Matt says:

    What does I Tim. 4:10 mean “For therefore we both labour and suffer reproach because we trust in the living
    God, Who is the Saviour of all men, especially of those that believe”.
    Especially of thos who beleve, I have never been given a good answer to this, it has bothered me for a while.

    Matt

  2. heatlight says:

    GREAT question. It is important to note that the word ‘save’ as used in the New Testament has many different meanings. There are cases where it meaning has to do with protection from events in the here and now, and another sense in which it relates to issues of our eternal condition. Even considering the core of eternal salvation, there are ‘justification’, which is a legal righteousness before God (essentially being seen as though you had never sinned), ‘sanctification’, which applies primarily to our purification, some of which is immediate at salvation, and some of which occurs over time – in this sense we are not only ‘saved’, but also ‘being saved’, and lastly, ‘glorification’, which appeals to our final ‘salvation’, where we are made perfect like Jesus for eternity. So even there, in the heart of eternal salvation, the concept has multiple realities. The thing is, those are the ONLY ways in which the idea is used in the Bible, so in a sense even those who are damned are in some sense ‘saved’ in this life, as the rain falls on the just and unjust, and the gospel, even when rejected, has a degree of positive effect even on the world which rejects it’s truth. Sometime listen to Mark Driscoll’s sermon “Unlimited Limited Atonement” right here:
    [audio src="http://www.marshillchurch.org/audio/Atonement8_Driscoll_112005_16k.mp3" /]

  3. […] starters, it would probably benefit everyone to read my older post GOD IS IN CONTROL, as it relates directly to this topic, but for those who can’t find the time, here is the […]

  4. […] Again, I will revert to an excerpt from a later post, GOD IS IN CONTROL: […]

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