Sorry, red shirt. I know you’re a platinum belt in Nguni stick fighting, but some alien Yeti-looking thing is going to throw you over a cliff about three seconds after you beam down to the planet. Yeah, Spock’s brain was taken out of his skull, but don’t worry viewers, McCoy can get it back in there once Kirk seduces the band of young women that stole it.
Kirk, Spock and McCoy will never pull the short straw. Why? Because the writers of the show want to make money. Keep the viewers in suspense, but make sure they turn off their TV’s feeling good about their favorite characters, looking forward to another episode.
What about God? He made the world. He must have done it for a reason. Has he written a script for history that turns the earth into a giant chess board where players are predetermined to win or lose? Some verses certainly seem to suggest that:
He predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will. Eph. 1:5
Those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son. Rom. 8:29
“You did not choose me, but I chose you.” John 15:16
A simple Google search will find you dozens of verses just like these. It seems that God has a plan that he is working out in his Creation. But why would God create a universe where everything is predetermined? The writers of Star Trek do it to make money and earn some notoriety, but God doesn’t need anything like that. He’s God.
So what can he possibly have to gain by predetermining everything? Wouldn’t a free universe be more entertaining, or at least more interesting?
Some say that he runs a tight ship for his own glory, but one would have to wonder how a pre-programmed universe could bring him any glory at all. If you met a man with a robot wife, would you be impressed by the quality of his marriage, or how loving or devoted he is? You would probably wonder how a person could be so desperate and insecure.
Is God insecure? Did he create the earth just to impress himself? To show off for the angels? I wouldn’t think so. Jesus didn’t seem insecure. He wasn’t a glory hog. He came to save and to serve, not to lord over everyone.
What about foreknowledge? Does God know each person that will choose him, so he, in turn, chooses them in advance of their future choice? That seems passive and backward. Or does his choice have nothing to do with us at all, as Romans 9 seems to suggest, making his decision to save or to damn as arbitrary as a roll of the dice? That doesn’t seem just.
Did God know that Satan would lead a rebellion when he created him, turning one third of the angels into a demonic force that would torment the world for millennia? Did he plant the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in Eden knowing full well that Adam and Eve would damn the human race by eating from it?
God’s foreknowledge seems to make a mockery of Judgment Day, turning it into a day when God blames others for things that he could have prevented before they happened.
If you think this is a simple issue, or that a single blog post is going to clear it up, you haven’t spent enough time reading the key passages, thinking through the logic of the problem, or talking to atheists or agnostics. In my opinion, denominational lenses tend to muddle the conversation, forcing whole groups of people to either ignore certain passages or try to manipulate them to fit into some theological formula.
I recently spent about six months trying to get familiar with this issue for a novel I was writing. In my research I came across a book called ‘Providence and Prayer’ that traced the spectrum of thought from the freedom-oriented Semi-Deists to sovereignty-oriented Fatalists. The author added a twelfth model (his own) calling it Middle Knowledge Calvinism. Maybe I’ll add a thirteenth and get famous for it. I’m pretty sure that’s God’s will for my life.
Rather than trying to summarize what I understand of this centuries-long conversation, I simply want to add my voice to the discussion and invite you to join in. I am not arrogant enough to think that my thoughts are definitive or indisputable, though I think this is a conversation worth having, especially when it comes to defending the goodness of our great God.
Looking at the key passages through a different lens:
Every Christmas we talk about Jesus coming to earth to surrender his life on the cross and rise from the dead, saving humanity from their sins. Every Easter we bring that message home. Christians naturally tend to filter every New Testament verse through this basic Gospel message, but let me suggest another approach. Let’s look at all of the New Testament through the eyes of a first century Jew, filtering every problematic passage into that context.
When Jesus was born, no one was thinking about sin or conversion or heaven or hell. The Jews were not worried about things like that. They were God’s chosen people. They were his elect.
For the LORD has chosen Jacob for Himself, Israel for His special treasure. Psalm 135:4
I will bring forth descendants from Jacob, and from Judah an heir of my mountains. My elect shall inherit it, And my servants shall dwell there. Isaiah 65:9
God promised Abraham that his heirs would be blessed and would be a blessing to all the families of the earth. He had promised David that one of his descendants would always sit on the throne of Israel. In other words, the Jews were not only God’s elect, but God had promised that their destiny was secure. Could God go back on his word?
There is a reason God renamed Jacob “wrestles with God.” Israel had a sin problem. They just wouldn’t stop. What’s funny is that God knew they wouldn’t stop, and he knew what he was going to do about it when the time was right.
The Lord said to Moses, “You are about to die and join your ancestors. After you are gone, these people will begin to worship foreign gods, the gods of the land where they are going. They will abandon me and break my covenant that I have made with them. Then my anger will blaze forth against them. I will abandon them, hiding my face from them, and they will be devoured. Terrible trouble will come down on them, and on that day they will say, ‘These disasters have come down on us because God is no longer among us!’ At that time I will hide my face from them on account of all the evil they commit by worshiping other gods.
“So write down the words of this song, and teach it to the people of Israel. Help them learn it, so it may serve as a witness for me against them. For I will bring them into the land I swore to give their ancestors—a land flowing with milk and honey. There they will become prosperous, eat all the food they want, and become fat. But they will begin to worship other gods; they will despise me and break my covenant. And when great disasters come down on them, this song will stand as evidence against them, for it will never be forgotten by their descendants. I know the intentions of these people, even now before they have entered the land I swore to give them.” Deut. 31:16-21
So even though God knew what would happen, he didn’t act on his foreknowledge. Apparently he prefers real relationships, even if they are doomed to fail. When Israel sinned, God sent prophet after prophet after prophet, urging them to get back to the heart of the Law, but Israel continued to rebel, though they continued to bring their sacrifices, as if God would just wipe the slate clean each time.
Eventually God stopped accepting their sacrifices. He stopped listening to their prayers. He stopped blessing them. He allowed enemy armies to invade, hoping to inspire faith and devotion. Finally, after enduring many centuries of outright depravity, he sent his own Son, giving his chosen people one last chance to take hold of the promises before God fulfilled them through someone else [Luke 20:9-19].
Then Jesus said to the woman, “I was sent only to help God’s lost sheep—the people of Israel.” Matt. 15:21
Jesus sent out the twelve apostles with these instructions: “Don’t go to the Gentiles or the Samaritans, but only to the people of Israel—God’s lost sheep.” Matt. 10:5-6
Sadly, just like the wicked kings of Israel, the religious leaders rejected the word of God. This time, however, Jesus put the hammer down.
“You stand as witnesses who agree with what your ancestors did. They killed the prophets, and you join in their crime by building the monuments! This is what God in his wisdom said about you: ‘I will send prophets and apostles to them, but they will kill some and persecute the others.’ As a result, this generation will be held responsible for the murder of all God’s prophets from the creation of the world—from the murder of Abel to the murder of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, it will certainly be charged against this generation.” Luke 11:48 – 51
Jesus came to a people that were absolutely sure of their salvation. They stood firm in their circumcision, holding to their biological ties to Abraham, claiming the promises of God. But listen to what Jesus said to them:
“Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God. Don’t just say to each other, ‘We’re safe, for we are descendants of Abraham.’ That means nothing, for I tell you, God can create children of Abraham from these very stones.” Luke 3:8
This is exactly what my last post was about. Jesus is not bound by anyone or anything. He is God. He decides. And Paul writes about Christ’s final decision in Romans 11:17-23.
Some of these branches from Abraham’s tree—some of the people of Israel—have been broken off. And you Gentiles, who were branches from a wild olive tree, have been grafted in. So now you also receive the blessing God has promised Abraham and his children, sharing in the rich nourishment from the root of God’s special olive tree. But you must not brag about being grafted in to replace the branches that were broken off. You are just a branch, not the root. “Well,” you may say, “those branches were broken off to make room for me.” Yes, but remember—those branches were broken off because they didn’t believe in Christ, and you are there because you do believe. So don’t think highly of yourself, but fear what could happen. For if God did not spare the original branches, he won’t spare you either.
Notice how God is both kind and severe. He is severe toward those who disobeyed, but kind to you if you continue to trust in his kindness. But if you stop trusting, you also will be cut off. And if the people of Israel turn from their unbelief, they will be grafted in again, for God has the power to graft them back into the tree.
Through Christ, the Church has become God’s chosen people, God’s elect, the new Israel. And just as Israel inherited the promises that Abraham earned by his own faith and obedience, the Church inherits the blessings of God through the sacrifice of Christ. God’s people have always been chosen by grace, not just in the Church Age.
We are mistaken if we think that we can ignore the warnings of the Old Testament just because we have been made new creations in Christ. Listen to what Paul and Peter said to the early Christians:
These things happened as a warning to us, so that we would not crave evil things as they did, or worship idols as some of them did. As the Scriptures say, “The people celebrated with feasting and drinking, and they indulged in pagan revelry.” And we must not engage in sexual immorality as some of them did, causing 23,000 of them to die in one day. Nor should we put Christ to the test, as some of them did and then died from snakebites. And don’t grumble as some of them did, and then were destroyed by the angel of death. These things happened to them as examples for us. They were written down to warn us who live at the end of the age. If you think you are standing strong, be careful not to fall. I Cor. 10:6-12
Therefore I endure all things for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory. 2 Tim. 2:10
Therefore, brethren, be even more diligent to make your call and election sure, for if you do these things you will never stumble. 2 Peter 1:10
I have been translating through Ephesians recently. The first chapter has always been a challenge for me, stirring up so many troublesome issues. This time, however, I can see that Paul is telling the Ephesian church that God, in passing the torch to the Gentiles, is not changing his program.
Christ was always the plan, even before the world was made. This is not a course correction. This was his eternal purpose. Abraham was a shadow of Christ, bringing physical blessings to his biological descendants. Christ is the promised Messiah, bringing spiritual blessings to his spiritually-enlivened people.
In Christ, the chosen one, we are chosen. In Christ, we are predestined to participate in his eternal purpose, being redeemed by his blood, forgiven, and united with other believers. But just like Israel, it is not about each individual person. It is about a people that are set apart, his bride, the Church, the new Israel.
Despite all the warnings in the New Testament about avoiding Israel’s fate, I’m not at all worried about my own salvation. Why? Because I saw how devoted God was to his first wife. Israel was belligerent from the beginning, resisting God for almost two thousand years before God finally sent their divorce papers [Jer. 3:8]. If God is that committed to marriage, I should feel pretty secure about ours.
Just because divorce exists doesn’t mean it needs to throw a shadow over a committed couple. God hates divorce. And so do I.
At the same time, I am concerned about the American Church. Are we making the same mistake that Israel made, being so secure in our salvation that we don’t take sin seriously? Have we cheapened God’s grace? Or am I pressing this issue too far?