Archive | Soteriology

The Resistibleness of Irresistible Grace

As a Calvinist, I don’t think grace is irresistible. Don’t get me wrong . . . I believe in all the “doctrines of Grace” that make one a certified Calvinist. All the doctrines presented by the ol’ TULIP acronym are fine and dandy. But the “I” for Irresistible Grace is unfortunate and creates more misconceptions than that memorable flower is worth.

Let me put it plainly: the saving grace that God gives to us is resistible . . . at least in theory.

Wait a minute. I suppose there is a context in which the word “irresistible” might work. Let me try:

I met my wife 19 years ago at a bar called the Dugout (She hates for me to tell this story . . . I, on the other hand, love it!). I was sitting at a table with all my buds when this new waitress walks up to take our order. Now, I was a regular at the Dugout. So much so, I think they still have a seat with my name on it. I knew all the waitresses (some better than I should have). But this night we had a new waitress who was working the bar. Once she caught my eye, it was over. I could not quit staring at her. It was like we were the only two people there. Now, of course, it was “drown night” and I had begun to go overboard with the five dollar all you can drink Milwaukee’s Best. But sober or intoxicated, I could not resist this gal. She was over-the-top, beyond all hopes, beyond all my dreams, and beyond any definition of beautiful I had ever known. She was perfect. I grabbed her as she walked by and the first words I said to her were “Before I get drunk, I want to tell you I love you.” Now, to tell you the truth, I was already drunk. But (thankfully) she was a bit naive. We ended up talking all night. It turned out that she loved Christ too. I was trying to get out of that lifestyle and she would be by my side over the next few years, as it happened. All of this is to say that Kristie was totally irresistible to me. I could not help but look at her. I could not help but love her. I could not help but think of her every moment. I could not help but grab her as she walked by. I could not help but ask her out. I could not help but marry her. And I cannot help but see her as irresistible today. Continue Reading →

This Calvinist’s Problem with “Once Saved, Always Saved”

I have often said that it is easier to tell when someone is a true Christian than to tell when they are not. In other words, some people wear their convictions on their sleeve. The power of the Holy Spirit could not be more clearly visible. With these people, their passion, understanding, grace, humility, and faith are clearly evident in everything they do. I know and can state with a great degree of confidence that they trust in Christ and are saved. They are in the race and they are running. For others, however, it is more difficult to tell. They may say they are saved, but I do not have the same degree of confidence. They may be convinced, but I am not. I am not asserting they are not saved. I just don’t know. Some people live in a perpetual state of doubt, failure, and terrible sin. They may be in the race, but they are not running. However, even when they are at their worst, I cannot confidently say that they are not saved any more than I can say that the previous individuals are saved.

Many people contact me, because they are overwhelmed with the fear that they are not saved. They seek assurance from me that God has saved them. My background, training, and tradition all push me to reassure them in the attempt to alleviate their doubts and fears to the end that they are secure in their salvation and can never lose this security. After all, I believe that without security, we have never really embraced the fullness of the Gospel message.

However, there is a flip side to this coin. And it is this other side that I wish to address.

I have someone who I can’t figure out. Conversations with him are always very frustrating. I just want to crack his head open and see what is inside. I want to gaze where only God can see. I want to know if he really knows Christ. My heart says, “I hope!” but my mind says, “I don’t know. I doubt it.”

If you were to look at the life of this friend, you would not suspect that he has ever approached the throne room of God. You would not suspect that he has ever bowed humbly at the cross, understood his own condition, or asked the Lord for mercy. I have never seen him read his Bible, and I have never heard him honor Christ with his words. His life appears to be a never-ending pursuit of what the world has to offer. Moreover, this attitude shows evidence of trying to maintain complete control over his emotional state. Comforting him with spiritual talk is a seemingly futile exercise, especially when I receive a ridiculing gaze and awkward silence when I attempt to discuss the issue with him.

Yet, when push comes to shove, this guy will give me his testimony. Every once in a while he will tell me why I don’t need to be worried about his spiritual condition. He will confidently tell me of the time when he was twelve years old and walked the aisle at Church to accept the Gospel. Once his tale is complete, he has exhausted his ability to have a spiritual conversation and an awkward silence ensues. Continue Reading →

Twelve Myths About Arminianism

1. Arminians don’t believe in the sovereignty of God.

Arminians believe very much in the sovereignty of God. To say that God gives people freedom does not necessarily mean that God relinquishes his authority over mankind. To be sovereign does not mean that one always has to be in meticulous control over everything that happens. God, for the Arminian, could shape all human events according to his will, he just chooses not to. This is still sovereignty.

2. Arminians believe that Christians could lose their salvation if they commit a really bad sin.

This is not true. Mainstream Arminianism has traditionally taught that the only way one can forfeit their salvation is through a permanent loss of faith. All sins, no matter how bad, are covered by the cross of Christ. Roman Catholicism is the only mainstream tradition that teaches that really bad sins (“mortal sins”) can cause one to lose their status in heaven.

3. Arminianism is Pelagianism

This is one of the most widely taught misrepresentations, primarily among Calvinists. Pelagianism is the belief that man is born morally neutral. As well, Pelagianism teaches that man’s will is neutral from birth. Therefore, according to Pelagianism, man does not need the grace of God to live according to his will. Arminianism, on the other hand, believes that man is completely dependent upon God’s grace in order to be saved.

4. Arminianism is Semi-Pelagianism

Unlike Pelagianism, Semi-Pelagianism is the belief that man is born in a state of moral brokenness but, in his natural state, is still able to call upon God for aid. Arminianism, on the other hand (and like Calvinism), does not believe that man can do any good whatsoever outside of God’s intervention. Man, in his natural state, is at enmity with God. It is only the prevenient grace of God that gives man the ability to call on Him for mercy.

Arminians believe in the doctrine of total depravity to the same degree that Calvinists do.

5. Arminians follow a man, Jacob Arminius.

Arminianism represents a system of theology that has roots all the way back to the early church. In fact, it could be easily argued that the earliest Christians after the Apostles were more Arminian than Calvinistic. The designation “Arminianism” is named after Jacob Arminius. Arminius was a Protestant leader who rejected many of the beliefs of the Calvinists of his day, offering an alternative to the prevailing Reformed thought. Continue Reading →

Doubting Calvinists

No, I did not say “Doubting Calvinism.” Although I am a master of typos, this blog is about something different. First, every reader needs to know that I am a Calvinist. And while the “doctrines of grace” are not the most important issues in theology, I believe in them very deeply and find that they constitute a significant portion of my hope and comfort.

Why all this snuggling up to Calvinism? Because I don’t want to look like one of those disgruntled emerging types, continually complaining about his own family. Having said that, I am going to discuss a “problem” I often (certainly not always) see among my Calvinist brothers and sisters. I am going to state the issue and then attempt to provide a timid yet substantial interpretation of the problem.

Okay, enough of the prologue. Let me get to it.

I grew up a Baptist. As such, I was quite aware of the “Baptist way” of evangelism. First, you get the person saved. Next, you make sure they know that they can never lose their salvation. Assurance of salvation was not some tertiary or auxiliary doctrine. It was something the new believer in Christ must have, now. To be fair, this is not simply a Baptist thing. It is something that can be found in the DNA of pop Evangelicalism as well. And it makes some sense. If a new believer knows that he is secure in Christ, his works and service to the Lord will come because he is saved, not so that he can be saved. This secures his belief and understanding in justification by faith alone.

Assurance of salvation. I suppose this is the subject of this post. The question is Can one be absolutely sure that they are a believer and how important is this assurance in their walk with the Lord? Many Christians don’t believe an individual can be assured of their ultimate salvation. Many believe one can lose their salvation. Catholics believe that “mortal sins” (really nasty sins such as adultery,  rejection of the perpetual virginity of Mary, or missing Mass without a valid excuse) can cause a Cathlic to lose their salvation. Arminians and Wesleyans believe one can cease to believe, thereby forfeiting their seat in heaven. Therefore, from the perspective of those who don’t believe salvation can be lost, these belief systems cannot offer any assurance. The criticism would be that no one could ever be sure, until death, whether or not they are saved. After all, what if I decided to sleep in on Sunday and then immediately died of a heart attack without repenting? How do I know for sure if my faith is going to last until the end? For Catholics, the fact that one cannot be assured of their salvation is dogmatized.

If any one saith, that a man, who is born again and justified, is bound of faith to believe that he is assuredly in the number of the predestinate; let him be anathema.

Council of Trent, Canon XV of the Decree on Justification

If any one saith, that he will for certain, of an absolute and infallible certainty, have that great gift of perseverance unto the end, unless he have learned this by special revelation; let him be anathema.

Council of Trent, Canon XVI of the Decree on Justification

Ironically, for the Catholic, to believe that one can be assured of their salvation would be the means by which they lose their salvation! Continue Reading →

All Conversions are Not Equal (Part I)

There was a funny scene in an otherwise forgettable movie (and that’s not so much a criticism as a confession that I actually can’t remember what it was) in which a couple of average white Americans pretending to be renowned Japanese scientists – complete with Japanese name tags –  introduced themselves to someone who asked them the obvious question: “Aren’t you guys supposed to be Japanese?” Their immediate response was, “We converted.”

The idea of people “converting” is seen by most today as either comical in this sense (remember also the Seinfeld episode where a comedian converted to Judaism just so he could do Jew-related material?) or it is seen as distasteful.  References to conversion, unless by genuinely religious followers, are either lighthearted in nature or negative and coming from a secular or left-leaning point of view. Critics suggest that attempts to “convert” people are somehow oppressive, and cynics maintain suspicion about people’s professed conversions. Today a prison inmate who has a religious conversion is as likely be scoffed at as he is applauded for his professed change of heart.

And whether you play the scoffer or the encourager may have a lot to do with where you stand. People tend to believe and appreciate conversions TO their way of thinking, while looking distastefully down their noses at conversions AWAY from their way of thinking. If you want to be a media darling today, then convert away from your conservative religious upbringing for some professed reason having to do with how your thinking ‘evolved’. But don’t go the other direction. When the late Oxford philosopher Antony Flew, after spending his illustrious scholarly career as a leading voice for academic atheism, changed his mind and decided that God most likely exists, the response from his former camp, according to Roy Varghese in the preface to Flew’s final book, “verged on hysteria. … Inane insults and juvenile caricatures were common in the freethinking blogosphere.”

Christians have always seen conversion as more than just a change of mind, more than the acceptance of a few key beliefs and a switching of allegiances, more even than the moral alteration that causes someone to behave differently. It involves all of this but more still. Because Christians believe that God is involved (to summarize the theology of conversion in the barest of terms), there is a decidedly supernatural element.  Nevertheless conversion for Christians certainly includes a profession of belief that is specified such that it affirms some things to the exclusion of others. In the case of Flew, his was not a Christian conversion but a conversion in the looser sense of the term as people often use it; he changed positions on a very key issue that has far-reaching implications.

If we zero in on this important and obvious component of what conversion means, something will likely become obvious to us the more we think about it – namely that changing one’s mind, or professing x to be true (and, whether overtly or by logical implication, not x to be untrue), is a regular experience of life hardly unique one specific group of people. In fact it is completely non-controversial. Doesn’t everyone believe and profess certain things to be true? Hasn’t everyone at different times in life rejected beliefs or accepted beliefs, changed his or her thinking from belief that x is true to the belief that x is not true?
Continue Reading →

Sinners in the Hands of a Wishy-Washy God?

Two days before Good Friday, Al Hsu posted a provocative piece in the online version of Christianity Today entitled, “He’s Calling For Elijah! Why We Still Mishear Jesus”.  Hsu’s article has gone viral among evangelical Christians. He opens his essay by asking the following questions:

“Is God the kind of God that turns his back on his Son?” “Does God abandon those who cry out to him?” “How could God forsake the perfect God-man, the only one who has ever served him perfectly?” “Because if Jesus was truly forsaken by God, what’s preventing God from forsaking any of us?” “How could we ever trust him to be good?”

Hsu spent the rest of the article answering these questions, but his answers may surprise you: “God did not turn his back on his Son.” “He did not forsake the perfect God-man.”  “He did not pour his wrath out on Jesus Christ as he hung on the cross.”

Hsu’s argument focuses heavily on cultural perceptions of the Christian faith and how our global culture has shifted in recent years. Truth claims about Christianity have become passé, pragmatic claims have proved insufficient to deal with suffering that marks virtually everyone’s experience, and questions related to authenticity—spawned mostly by postmodernism—have proved inadequate. The question that is foremost in today’s world is whether the Christian faith is good.

Hsu’s answer to these questions is that the old Reformed view of the cross looks too much like child abuse; and, if the Father turned his back on Jesus, then the Trinity is broken. And this understanding of the gospel—the view held by Luther, Calvin, Edwards, Spurgeon, Barth, and a host of Protestant theologians for five hundred years—is bad. And if bad, then it is also false. 

Hsu then focuses on the cry of dereliction from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He points out that the Gospels don’t unpack the meaning of the cry, and that for us to see it as God turning his back on Jesus is to read into the text. Hsu makes the argument that when the ancients quoted a verse, they meant the whole passage in which it was found to be understood. In the case of Psalm 22, that would mean that we should reflect on the whole psalm to grasp Jesus’ meaning. It is true that, often, the context from which a verse was quoted was in view, but not always. Hsu uses Luke 4.18–19 as proof, where Jesus reads Isaiah 61.1–2a in the synagogue in Nazareth and declares, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Ironically, this is one of the clearest passages to demonstrate that the whole context of the Old Testament text was not in view. The Lord stopped short of reading the rest of Isa 61.2 (“the day when our God will seek vengeance, to console all who mourn” [NET]), which most interpret as referring to the Second Coming of Christ. In other words, Jesus stopped short of quoting the whole verse because he wanted his hearers to understand that only the first part was fulfilled in his first coming.

Hsu camps on the whole of Psalm 22 as what Jesus meant when he quoted the first verse from the cross. But in doing so, Hsu makes certain assumptions that are questionable. First, although he claims that the whole psalm is in view, he seems to be saying that the whole psalm—except verse 1–is in view: “Here is direct refutation of the notion that the Father turned his face away from the Son”; “Jesus is not saying that God has forsaken him. He’s declaring the opposite. He’s saying that God is with him, even in this time of seeming abandonment, and that God will vindicate him by raising him from the dead.” In other words, Hsu argues that Psalm 22.1 should be understood to mean that God only seemed to abandon his Son. However, if God did not abandon him, there are a host of verses in this psalm that would serve Jesus’ purposes better (e.g., Ps 22.24: “For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted, and he has not hidden his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him”).  

If Jesus didn’t die in our place, if he didn’t receive the full force of God’s wrath against sin, then what did he accomplish on the cross? For Hsu, the point of the cross was for us to know that we are not alone in our suffering. And he is bold enough to say, “there is nothing in Scripture that says that the Father rejected the Son.” This might come as quite a shock to the majority of Christians who have held otherwise throughout twenty centuries.

As Hsu admitted, the Gospels don’t unpack the meaning of the cross. We must turn elsewhere to understand its full import. The Gospels tell us the what.  The New Testament letters, especially those by Paul, tell us the why of the cross.  

Paul was a Pharisee’s Pharisee, and before he met the Lord on the road to Damascus, he was white hot at Christians’ claims. They had the audacity to claim that God had blessed Jesus the Nazarene by raising him from the dead. Paul understood the implications, if this were true: If Jesus had been raised from the dead, then the Old Testament—the only Bible in existence at that time—was no longer infallible; and, Paul couldn’t have that. The key text that drove his theology was Deuteronomy 21.23, “anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse” (NIV). For Paul, it was impossible that God could have blessed Jesus by raising him from the dead, because he had cursed him by hanging him on a tree. Therefore, when the apostles began to proclaim that God had raised Jesus from the dead, Paul had to act. However, he was confronted by the ascended Lord from heaven on that dusty road to Damascus, and then confronted with two seemingly irreconcilable truths: The Bible was infallible, yet God had raised Jesus from the dead. Paul spent the next three years alone in Arabia, unraveling this paradox. He must have spent that time studying the Bible and connecting the dots. “How could I have missed this?” he must have thought. In any case, Paul emerged with a clear understanding of the gospel: Jesus Christ died in our place, suffering under the wrath of God, to pay for our sins. Thus, his resurrection from the dead was the proof that God accepted his payment on our behalf. Continue Reading →

Does the Roman Catholic Gospel Save? or “Getting the Gospel ‘Righter'”

It seems that just about every week a new book comes out on the subject of how we are getting the Gospel wrong. I am getting tired of it. Once I read a book and adjust my thinking to getting the Gospel right, I find out in the next book I read that I got it wrong again! Is the Gospel that difficult? Does every generation get the Gospel wrong, thus requiring the next enlightened generation to get them back on course?

Last week, I wrote a post about whether or not Roman Catholics are saved. I chose this topic because, within the past couple of weeks, I had been asked this question (or some variation of it) four times. It is an important question, which caused quite a conversation. I had to close the comments down on this blog topic within 24 hours of posting it!  The reason for closing the comments was not so much the belligerence of Roman Catholics who did not agree with what I had written, but because of some very (ahem…) committed Protestants who were being less than gracious. James White did a thoughtful Dividing Line broadcast, where he strongly disagreed with me. Over the last week, the most common objection I received about what I had written was that I had been asking the wrong question. What is the right question? Well, the consensus seemed to be this: “Does the Roman Catholic Church have the right Gospel?”, not, “are Roman Catholics Saved?” There are myriad ways I could have phrased it:

“Are Roman Catholics saved?”

“Can Roman Catholics be saved?”

“Does the Roman Catholic Gospel save?”

“Does Roman Catholicism have the right Gospel?”

All of these require a slight variation in response. Most of my Protestant friends are more than willing to admit that Catholics could be saved, and that some are saved. However, they are quick to point out that “Rome’s Gospel does not save.” Of course, in order to make such a comment, the assumption is that we already have the “right” Gospel, which begs the question: “How much of the Gospel do we have to get right?” Another way to put it: “How much of the Gospel can we get wrong and still have the right Gospel?”

Head hurt? Mine too. But stay with me.

The Gospel is simply the “good news” of God. However, there is so much to it. We can boil the Gospel down to its basic essentials, or we can expand it to include all of its implications and benefits. If we take the former, then it is absolutely necessary to have the right Gospel. However, if we take the latter, how can we ever expect to have the “right” Gospel? I don’t have everything right. I don’t necessarily know what I have wrong, but I like to think that I am open to change, and am willing to nuance my views as I learn. In other words, “Do we have the right Gospel?” is not as black and white an issue as we may be inclined to assume. There is so much of the Gospel in which all of us can improve our understanding.  In other words, I think we could all have a “righter” Gospel today than we did yesterday.

Paul speaks of the Gospel in two ways. His letter to the Romans, the entire book, is the Gospel (Rom. 1:15-17). Romans 1:17 makes it clear that, in this context, the vindication of God’s righteousness (which is, I believe, the essence of chapters 1-11) is part of the Gospel message. Here, sin (Rom. 3:23), justification by faith alone (Rom. 3:21), imputation of sin (Rom. 5:18), imputation of righteousness (Rom. 4:1-5; Rom. 5:18), the vindication of creation (Rom. 8:16), the freedom from bondage (Rom. 7), the power of the Spirit (Rom. 8), the security of the believer in Christ (Rom. 8:28-39), and, I believe, the eternal elective decree of salvation which vindicates God’s faithfulness (Rom. 9-11) are all part of the Gospel message. However, in 1 Cor. 15:1-8, Paul seems to suggest that there are issues within the Gospel that are of “first importance.” These issues surround Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. Was Paul saying that these were the only issues which were of “first importance”? Here, he does not mention (much less emphasize) faith, grace, imputation, Christ’s humanity and deity, or Christ second coming. All of these, we would say, are integral parts of the “good news.”  All of us would say that getting the Gospel “right” needs to include these things. Continue Reading →

Determining If One is Christian Might Depend on the Color

(Lisa Robinson)

No, I am not talking about color as in race, although that may play a factor in some cases.  I am talking about the colors red and green.  Let me explain.   One of my theology profs opened up a lecture with this statement, loosely quoted;

Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone came with an LED device on their forehead with two probes – one red and one green.  Green indicates they are Christian and red indicates they are not.  That way there would be no guessing as to whether you were dealing with a regenerated person or not.  Unfortunately, we don’t get those kinds of clues, which does leave some doubt in some cases.

In most cases, I think we know whether one is a Christian or not.  But in some cases, there is doubt on varying levels.  It occurs to me that we can approach this determination through the lens of glass half-full and glass half-empty perspectives.  The glass half-full Christian will want to see green.  They will tend to accept the person at face value or otherwise base-line levels of articulation of the faith.  The glass half-full will see the examinee as innocent until proven guilty.  Conversely, the glass-half empty will tend to see red.  There is a high level of scrutiny that is required in order to reach a satisfactory determination of one’s Christian status.  The examinee is guilty until proven innocent.

Now please  understand that I am not suggesting that we “go green” without any examination or discernment.  We don’t want to go to extremes and give someone a pass just because they go to church or use Christian verbiage.  We do not want to be naive but we do want to be discerning. Continue Reading →