Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

Month: April, 2014



Moses and the Ten Commandments

Perhaps the major question facing mankind today is whether God has communicated His will to us. To be more specific, does the Bible have a legitimate claim to be the written, inspired Word of God? On this single question the claims of Christianity, and indeed the foundation of Western Civilization, depend.

    Atheists and skeptics openly scoff at the idea. The Bible, they say, is a human book, full of mistakes and errors. How can it possibly be the infallible Word of God? The idea, they say, is pure nonsense.

    But both Judaism and Christianity are based on the premise that our Creator has spoken to us through a succession of divinely inspired prophets and apostles. Their collected writings comprise our Bible, and the honest and sincere seeker can go to it for instruction and guidance. “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be completer, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (II Tim., 3:16,17; NKJV).

    How, then, did the process of inspiration work? The ancient Israelites were unique among the nations of their time in that they conceived of the universe as having been created by a single, all-powerful, self-existent Deity. How did they arrive at that notion? God revealed Himself to their forebear Abraham. God is portrayed as speaking to him verbally on several different occasions, at one point even going so far as to make a formal, binding agreement (covenant) with him. The same pattern was repeated with Abraham’s son and grandson, Isaac and Jacob.

    But by far the greatest prophet in the Old Testament was Moses. What we are told about him is that “since then there has not arisen in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom the Lord know face to face . . .” (Dt. 34:10). God is portrayed as speaking directly to Moses on numerous occasions, and Moses would either write down or speak to the people what God had told him. This included, among other things, the “Book of the Covenant,” which included all of Exodus chapters 21-23.

    Other prophets followed, although they did not receive revelation in the same manner as had Moses. Sometimes they would see visions; sometimes they would hear voices; sometimes an angel would speak to them. But in each and every case God communicated with them in verbal propositions, so that what they said and wrote could truly be said to be “the Word of the Lord.”

    But the greatest prophet of all was Jesus Christ. For not only was He a prophet sent from God, He is God, the Second Person of the Trinity, who had dwelt with God the Father in heaven from all eternity. “For I have not spoken on My own authority; but the Father who sent Me gave Me a command, what I should say and what I should speak. And I know that His command is everlasting life. Therefore, whatever I speak, just as the Father has told Me, so I speak” (John 12:49,50).

    God, then, has made His will known to us. “. . . holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (II Pet. 1:21). God revealed to them things that cannot be known by human reason alone. The prophets themselves did not always fully understand what God had told them. “Of this salvation the prophets have inquired and searched carefully, who prophesied of the grace that would come to you, searching what, or what manner of time, the Spirit of Christ who was in them was indicating when He testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow” (I Pet. 1:10,11). But we have the complete revelation today in the Bible.

    Does this mean that the original autographs were inerrant, as many Evangelicals today maintain? Not necessarily. While the inspired prophets and apostles received a verbal revelation from God, it was still up to them to write it down and communicate it to the rest of mankind. In this their own natural faculties were employed. They wrote in their own native languages, using their own individual styles and diction. In the historical writings the use of underlying source materials is evident. New Testament authors frequently quoted the Greek translation of the Old Testament, even where it differs from the commonly accepted Hebrew text. In some cases an amanuensis (secretary) did the actual writing of the autograph.

    Does this mean that the human author (or amanuensis) got everything down exactly as he received it from God, even down to the smallest detail? Not necessarily. That would require eliminating the human element completely. This is why we occasionally find an apparent discrepancy or contradiction in the text. But we have to assume that the human authors, as honest and sincere men, who were genuinely devoted to the God whom they served, exercised due care and diligence in recording the revelations that they had received. They were, after all, conscious of handling the very words of God Himself. The certifiable problems are few and far between, and only involve matters of slight detail. What is truly remarkable is that such an ancient book, written by so many different authors over such a long period of time, could be so free from human error.

    Charles Hodge, the famous 19th Century Presbyterian theologian (and a staunch conservative), put it this way: “It is enough to impress any mind with awe, when it contemplates the Sacred Scriptures filled with the highest truths, speaking with authority in the name of God, and so miraculously free from the soiling touch of human fingers. The errors in matters of fact which skeptics search out bear no proportion to the whole. No sane person would deny that the Parthenon was built of marble, even if here and there a speck of sandstone should be detected in its structure. Not less unreasonable is it to deny the inspiration of such a book as the Bible, because one sacred writer says that on a given occasion twenty-four thousand, and another says that twenty-three thousand, men were slain. Surely a Christian may be allowed to tread such objections under his feet” (Systematic Theology, Vol. I, p. 170).

    Are the truth claims of Scripture then valid? There are several different possible answers that can be given to that question. But let it suffice to say here that the sheer number of authors involved, the multiplicity of witnesses to the divine revelation, points to the authenticity of the revelation itself. If it were just Mohammed or Joseph Smith, their credibility could be called into question. But in the case of the Bible it is not a matter of just one or two men. It is dozens of men, writing in three different languages over a span of 1,400 years. Their work has stood the test of time. Countless lives have been changed for the better; and multitudes have been led to everlasting joy. What more do we need in the way of a commendation?

    The challenge facing the skeptic is to show how the entire biblical record, from Moses on Mt. Sinai to John on the Isle of Patmos, has been falsified. “. . . by the mouth of two or three witnesses the matter shall be established” (Dt. 19:15).

Two Books by Robert Wheeler

[Editor’s note: Not too long ago we reviewed a book by Doug Sayers entitled Chosen or Not? Today Doug returns the favor and in a guest blog post reviews two books by myself.]

In his two books, “The Road to Heaven” (RTH) and “America’s Deadliest Enemy” (ADE) Bob Wheeler demonstrates that he is not only a zealous reader of books (especially the Bible) but is a very capable author as well.

His first, The Road to Heaven (2004), is a careful and thorough explanation of the Christian experience/life as it ought to be lived. The second (2008) expands upon the giant potholes, wrong turns, and potentially fatal cliffs in, and along, the road to heaven. Bob’s style is straight forward and no nonsense. There isn’t much color commentary in his writing; he tends to be a little long on explanation and short on illustration. Bob reminds me of Sargent Joe Friday and his signature line in the old Dragnet TV series: “Just the facts, ma’am.” Bob should be commended for his ardent pursuit of the truth; as this is absolutely essential for anyone who wishes to write books about Jesus, who is The Truth.

If you follow Bob’s recommendation and read only a little bit each day you will find the biblical description of how to get on the road to heaven and even more instruction on how stay on it. Unlike most modern GPS systems and roadmap software, Bob not only gives sound directions but he also points out the many detours to avoid; he explains how to keep our “car” running smoothly and performing at its peak.

Occasionally this reader found himself wondering if the author believes that the Christian life is merely about obeying a long list of “we musts”, and not about justification by faith alone. But to be fair, this is the way the Bible reads, and it has been a point of controversy throughout the history of the Christian Church. There is no contradiction in the Bible about how one finds forgiveness (that is salvation). We are, as Luther put it, saved by faith alone but not a faith that is alone. Bob notes this in Chapter 10 of RTH where he writes: “But how do we know that Abraham had faith? The answer is, because he acted on the promise.” In this point, Bob shows himself to be in agreement with historical Protestant teaching and the strength of RTH is its fundamental biblical orthodoxy. You will be hard pressed to find points with which to argue in either book, if you are a student of Scripture. This fact rescues him from using the “editorial we” throughout the book, which I find distracting. One of the most basic principles of interpreting the Bible (and all literature) is to know exactly who is talking and who they are addressing. I don’t remember any places where Bob actually said “I” believe this is what we must do, or “I” believe this is wrong with the modern church. He claims to be speaking for a group of people who he fails to name.

Based on these two books, Bob would seem to be a Calvinist sympathizer but he carefully avoids the overtly Calvinistic teachings about salvation being “unconditional” and “irresistible” for some… and impossible for others. In chapter 7 of RTH, Bob does not suggest that Jesus only died for the particular sins of a predetermined elect, who must therefore eventually repent and believe the gospel. Like the Bible, he repeatedly stated that Jesus died for “us” and he did not qualify the term. At the end of the chapter, he even addresses any potential unbelieving readers and exhorts them to confess their sins and ask for forgiveness. The Apostle Paul does the same thing in his epistles. I think the author may be like many of us. We are sure that God is sovereign and salvation comes by grace through faith but the down and dirty details of historical Calvinism are still subject to question. Both Calvinists and non-Calvinists are quoted, in a favorable way, in both books.

Bob paints with a broad (and a little presumptive) brush. He is not happy with the “modern church.” Not at all. This is unmistakable in RTH and is the main point of ADE. Now, this might tempt you to assume that Bob is just another self-appointed / old school know it all / holier than thou / wannabe prophet who assumes that he is the only one left who has not bowed the knee to worldliness and consumerism. But don’t be too quick to judge him on this point. His indictment of the modern church is not without just cause. I will offer one quibble. Especially in RTH, he brings a lot of charges which, I think, he assumes, are self-evident to any, and all, who observe the modern American Church. Here is a sampling:

“We fear that one reason why so many church members fail to live the Christian life is that many of them have never really been saved in the first place.” P41

“The great scandal of modern Evangelicalism is the large number of professing believers who show no evidence of changed lives”. P45 (Note: It could be argued that the church has had this problem since its inception.)

“This is one reason why we see so few genuine conversions today: our modern preachers rarely discuss in the pulpit the law of God, and, as a result, few of their listeners are ever convicted of sin.” P53

In chapter 12 on the fear of the Lord, he writes: “This truth is at once basic to the biblical conception of true religion and at the same time widely misunderstood or even forgotten altogether by the modern church.”

On prayer: “…where the modern church is most apt to fail.” “Today, we scarcely pray at all.” P77

“The scandal of the modern church is its lack of holiness.” P143

I’ll stop there. Bob doesn’t think we do much right but it is not clear whether he considers himself, and/or his church, among the ranks of the diluted and lukewarm who “must” get their act together. Nevertheless, it really doesn’t matter whether, or not, he includes himself among the mass of the Christian double minded today, if his charges are valid (albeit thinly substantiated). His accusations would carry more weight if he would have brought in more statistics, or particular personal experiences, as proofs of his universal indictment. Notwithstanding, the books are a legitimate and urgent call to duty and should be viewed as such.

One of Bob’s main assertions, especially in ADE, is the toxic and contagious consumerism of our day that is fueled by the entertainment industry. I don’t think he is entirely blaming a free market economy, per se, for our malaise but he is convinced that it is a great enabler of our natural covetousness and lust. He bluntly says, “Hollywood is Wall Street’s whore.” P2 Here, on this point, Bob did offer some statistics that effectively illustrated and vindicated the charge. His remedy to this threat is plain, simple, and unpopular: “For many of us it is either Christ or TV. Which will it be? Which is really our God?”

Strong medicine for a serious ailment.

Again, it can be tempting with books like these to write them off as written by disillusioned wannabe prophets who enjoy bashing the church more than Tiger Woods enjoys knocking golf balls into orbit. But I don’t think that would be fair with these two. Let’s give Bob Wheeler the benefit of the doubt here and take heed to his words. If we neglect these biblical warnings then we run the risk of losing our joy, both in this life and the life to come.







Then He took the twelve aside and said to them, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of Man will be accomplished. For He will be delivered to the Gentiles and will be mocked and insulted and spit upon. They will scourge Him and kill Him. And the third day he will rise again.” But they understood none of these things; this saying was hidden from them, and they did not know the things which were spoken. Luke 18:31-34 (NKJV).

    As Jesus and His disciples make their way to Jerusalem, Jesus has His discussion with the rich young ruler (Lu. 18:18-23), and then comments about how difficult it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. He then pulls His disciples aside and discloses to them what lies ahead for Himself. He was about to be mistreated, humiliated, and then put to death; but then, on the third day, He would rise from the dead. He had said similar things before, most notably in Luke 9:22 and 44, but this time He is much more specific about the details of the coming ordeal.

    The passage tells us several important things about our Lord. First of all, in it Jesus reveals His Messianic self-consciousness. He refers (presumably to Himself) to “the Son of Man” (v. 31). This is, of course, a reference to a Messianic prophecy in Daniel 7:13,14: “I was watching in the night visions, and behold, One like the Son of Man, Coming with the clouds of heaven! He came to the Ancient of Days, and they brought Him near before Him. Then to Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and His kingdom the one which shall not be destroyed.” This indicates that the historical Jesus did not think of Himself as an ordinary human being, but as the promised Messiah.

    Secondly, He indicates that the sufferings that He was about to endure was also prophesied in the Old Testament. These are “all the things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of Man.” This suggests two important facts: 1) what was about to happen to Him was foreordained. Indeed, He had been given a mission by His Father in heaven, and that mission required Him, and that mission required Him to pass through this terrible ordeal, and 2) it serves an apologetic purpose as well. If the question be asked, “How can we know that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah?,” the answer would be that what happened to Him fits the description of the Messiah in the Old Testament prophecies.

    Thirdly, the passage describes for us the humiliating treatment He would undergo. This abuse was both psychological and physical. He would be ridiculed, insulted, and spat upon. He would also be struck on the head with a reed, and finally, He would be put to death. The thought of enduring all this, and the sense of the gross injustice that lay behind it all, must have been painful indeed. And it was probably how all of this could happen to the Messiah that the disciples found so difficult to understand.

    But this was not all. Jesus also went on to predict His resurrection, which constituted a most extraordinary kind of victory. One would ordinarily conclude that when one is dead, that all is lost. But for Jesus this was not the case. He would do something that had practically never been done before in history: He would rise from the dead.

    The amazing thing is that Jesus knew that all of this was going to happen, and yet he continued the journey that would take Him to His appointment with destiny. Why? He did it for us. He did it because He knew that it was the only way He could redeem us from sin. We, in fact, were the ones who deserved abuse and mistreatment, and yet He voluntarily undertook it on our behalf. What condescending love! What work of grace divine!


Descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost

The Role of the Holy Spirit

    In our last blog post we saw that Paul viewed the salvation of the Corinthians as a matter of God “choosing” and “calling” them, and that the rationale behind election is to ensure that no human being can boast before God. But that still leaves open the question of how that actually takes place. What exactly is it that God does to “call” them?

    It is at this point that Paul describes his own ministry, and he begins by stressing what it was not. “And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God” (I Cor. 2:1; NKJV). Here he is undoubtedly comparing himself with the Greek Sophists, with whom the Corinthians were all too familiar. The Sophists valued logic and rhetoric for their own sake, and sometimes put them to dishonorable use. But to hear Paul tell it, he was anything but an impressive orator. “I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling” (v. 3).

    How, then, did he get results? “And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that you faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (vv. 4,5). Here Paul draws an explicit contrast between natural means (“persuasive words of human wisdom”) and supernatural ones (“the power of God”), and he states that the basis for their faith was the latter. They were converted by the action of the Holy Spirit.

    But what did the Holy Spirit do to convert them, and why was it necessary? Paul goes on to describe the process of divine inspiration. Christianity is a revealed religion – God Himself must reveal truths to us which are otherwise inaccessible to human reason. And so Pauls says that he got his message by divine inspiration. Moreover, the Holy Spirit was somehow operative in Paul’s preaching. “These things we also speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual,” or perhaps as it might better be translated, “combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words” (NASV; cf. NIV, Amp.).

    But there is a problem here. Not everyone can understand and appreciate spiritual truths. “But the natural man does not receive the things of the “Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (v. 14; NKJV). Here the text speaks directly to the issue of human inability: “nor can he know them.” The natural man lacks spiritual discernment; this is why he “does not receive the things of the Spirit.” They reject the Gospel because they are spiritually blind.

    Which brings us back to the main point that Paul is making in this passage. It is wrong to exalt the human preacher because he is not the effective agent in conversion. “Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers through whom you believed, as the Lord gave to each one? I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase” (I Cor. 3:5-7). Strictly speaking their conversion was the result of what the Holy Spirit did, not the human preacher. This is what we mean by “irresistible grace.”

    There is an important lesson here for preachers as well. Success in the ministry depends on the activity of the Holy Spirit. The English Puritan preacher John Flavel summed it up well when he said, “Ministers, saith one, are like trumpets which make no sound, if breath be not breathed into them . . . For want [lack] of the Spirit of God how many thousands of souls do find the ministry to be nothing to them?” (Works, Vol. II, p. 58). Is this not the lack in the ministry today? How rarely do we see the message take hold of a congregation? How rarely do we see deep conviction, tears of repentance, and joy at newfound salvation? And yet that is the effect that Paul’s ministry had. Writing to the Thessalonians he could say, “For our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit and much assurance . . . and you became followers of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Spirit . . .” (I Thess. 1:5,6). Oh that it were so with us today! Souls are perishing and society is crumbling, while the church is languishing under a weak and powerless ministry. When will we recognize our need, get on our knees and pray, and beg God to return and bless us?


Unconditional Election

Parmigianino, The Conversion of Paul

Parmigianino, The Conversion of Paul

    In our last blog post we began our examination of I Corinthians chapters 1-3, and saw that Paul described his own ministry in terms of what we would call “effectual calling.” In the preaching of the gospel God effectively “calls” those who are to be saved. Today we consider another aspect of salvation brought out in the same passage – that of unconditional election.

    What is especially striking about this passage is that it specifically states that God does not call everyone. In fact, it specifically mentions certain groups of people that He does not call: “not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble” (I Cor. 1:26; NKJV). Then Paul goes on to say, “But God has chosen the foolish things of the world . . . “(v. 27). The context implies that those who are “chosen” are the same group as those who are “called.” And it is God who does both the choosing and calling.

    It is at this point that some point that some profess to see a huge problem. If God loves the whole world (John 3:16), and desires the salvation of all mankind (I Tim. 2:3-6), as he most certainly does, then why does He choose and call some and not others? Doesn’t this seem unfair?

    The reason that God does not choose everyone is that other factors enter the picture. Paul goes on to explain: “But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are might; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are . . .” (1:27,28). And why does God do that? “. . . that no flesh should glory in His presence” (v. 29).

    This, of course, is the whole point at which Paul is driving: no flesh should glory in God’s presence. No one should take credit for his own salvation. And, by implication, no preacher should take credit for the results of his ministry. This is why God deliberately chooses the least likely candidates for salvation – to make it obvious that it is not a matter of intelligence, education, wealth, power, or family connections. Rather, it is all of God’s grace and power.

    Paul then goes on to state the crux of the issue: “But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God – and righteousness and sanctification and redemption – that, as it is written, ‘He who glories, let him glory in the Lord'” (1:30,31). Here we see the essence of salvation. Christ is the Savior – he becomes “wisdom and righteousness and sanctification,” – and it is all attributable to God as the ultimate Cause – “But of Him you are in Christ Jesus.” The only reason that any of us are Christians is because of something that God has done in our lives.

    We might also add one further consideration. If God simply saved everyone then we would take salvation for granted – we would look at it as a kind of natural right. How many of us, honestly, thank God for the air we breathe and the water we drink? We usually don’t, precisely because God has made these things freely available to all. And so it is with salvation. If God saved everyone we would take it for granted. It would become what we know of today as an “entitlement program” – something to which we have a right. Christ did not shed His precious blood for that!


Effectual Calling

    As we have seen in our review of Doug Sayers’ book Chosen or Not?, the various doctrines often called “Calvinism” can be quite controversial. Critics have charged that the ideas of total depravity, unconditional election, and irresistible grace are unbiblical and an affront to human reason. How, one might be tempted to ask, can two groups of Christians, both claiming to respect the authority of Scripture, be so far apart in their interpretations? Can the Bible really be that difficult to understand?

    At times it may seem so, but that does not mean that the Bible is incomprehensible. What is required to understand it is a humble and teachable attitude and a complete honesty with the text. Our aim must be to understand what a given biblical author is saying in the text, and in order to do that we must pay careful attention to his use of language, the context, and the flow of thought through the passage. Words have meaning, and sentences have syntax. It really is possible to communicate ideas through the medium of human language!

    What, then, about the charge that the so-called “Five Points of Calvinism” are really not taught in the Bible? We will not take up all five of them here, and we have already considered them elsewhere, but it would be worth our time to consider one particular passage of Scripture in which at least three of the “Five Points” appear, and that is Paul’s opening discussion in I Corinthians 1-3.

    The church at Corinth is an interesting case study. In some ways it was a young, vibrant congregation; in other ways it was a pastoral nightmare. And one of the problems Paul had to confront was one that is familiar to American Christians today: a pronounced sectarian spirit. The Corinthians, it would seem, had been exposed to the ministries of a variety of gifted preachers, among them Cephas (Peter), Apollos, and Paul himself. The individual Corinthians each had his favorite, and before long distinct parties had grown up within the church, each identifying with one preacher or another.

    This state of affairs drew a sharp rebuke from Paul, and he devoted the first three chapters of his epistle to addressing this issue. The gist of his argument is summed up in Chapter 3, verses 6 and 7: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase” (NKJV).

    But what does he mean when he says that “God gives the increase”? The preacher preached the message; the sinner responded with his free will; what does God have to do with it?

    Everything, as it turns out. Paul begins his discussion by describing his own ministry among the Corinthians. “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect” (1:17). “Not with the wisdom of words” – that is a strange claim for a preacher to make! You would think that preaching was all about pulpit eloquence!

    But Paul goes on: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1:18). Here we are struck by the irony of evangelism. The message is proclaimed, but it affects different listeners in radically different ways. To some, it is “foolishness”; to others, it is “the power of God.” How could their perceptions of the same thing be so totally different?

    Paul then goes on to describe why the gospel is rejected by so many people: the Greeks, he says, are looking for wisdom; the Jews want to see miracles. But “to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1:24).

    “To those who are called” – what does that mean? It is at this point that we plunge into the heart of the controversy. For Paul goes on to explain two controversial doctrines which have come to be known to us as “unconditional election” and “effectual calling” (or, “irresistible grace,” as it is also known). “For you see your calling, brethren, that no many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called.” Here it is evident that Paul is using the term “called” in a special sense – here it is virtually synonymous with conversion. To be “called” is to be saved. Furthermore, it is God who does the calling – He calls the ones who are saved, suggesting that He is the active Agent in the process. Thus this is a calling that actually results in the salvation of those who are called. It is “effectual calling.”


Next: Unconditional Election



    In our last blog post we began our review of the book Chosen or Not? by Doug Sayers, and we noted that the author tries to use human logic (“evident reason,” as he calls it) to defeat the force of biblical passages that describe what God does in salvation. We might ask the question, what does he offer as an alternative to Calvinism? If the Bible does not teach Calvinism, as he maintains, what does it teach? When we turn to Doug’s own theology we see that his logical method leas to some startling conclusions of his own.

    First of all, he maintains that “common grace” gives every human being sufficient ability to repent and believe on his own, apart from any supernatural work on God’s part. “Our non-Calvinist will be teaching that an unbeliever is capable of choosing to repent and embrace the gospel without being acted on by extraordinary and irresistible outside force. He teaches that the ability to repent comes by virtue of the common grace that God gives to everyone” (p. 40). He draws this conclusion from Rom. 1:19,20, which describes God’s revelation of Himself in nature (“His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made” – NKJV) and Rom. 2:14,15, which states that even Gentiles have a conscience and “by nature do the things of the law.” But that is very far from saying that mane are able to repent and believe. The texts, in fact, say quite plainly that men do the exact opposite. The “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (1:18); and the conclusion that Paul draws from this part of his argument is that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23). Paul then goes on to say that “sin reigned in death” (5:12-21), that even as a Jew “in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells” (7:5-24), and that “the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be” (8:7,8). It is very far from the rosy, optimistic picture that Doug paints of human potential!

    Doug thinks that it is outrageous to suppose that the guilt of Adam’s sin could be imputed to his posterity. But he takes the argument one step further. Because small children are essentially ignorant of the law, their own sins are not imputed to them either. “As a result of God’s curse on Adam, our first sins as small children are not really preventable. Thus it is reasonable (for most of us) to think that the guilt of these sins would not be imputed to us. . . ” (p. 126). “. . . it is reasonable to conclude that every child is born with original sin, but may be considered in a state of grace before God. Their sin as children is not imputed to their account” (p. 127).

    But then what about adults who have never heard the gospel? Doug extends the principle even further: “Jesus died to reconcile the whole world to God . . . This means that there is hope for those who never hear about Jesus . . . His righteousness will be imputed to them if they humbly trust the truth to which they have been exposed” (p. 250). Doug cites the example of the Old Testament saints in support of his thesis, as well as Paul’s statement the “sin is not imputed when there is no law” (Rom. 5:13).

    Doug is, of course, assuming his position on “common grace.” Supposedly there are people in the world who are capable of repenting and believing apart from any supernatural work of grace. Presumably this would include people in remote parts of the world or in closed countries that never have the opportunity to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ. But the Bible paints a far different picture. The whole world lies in sin and darkness. People suppress the truth in unrighteousness. They willfully sin against knowledge. Therefore they are justly under God’s wrath and condemnation even if they never hear about Jesus. It is simply not true that there are multitudes throughout the world who want to believe but do not have the opportunity to do so. Typically they have to be awakened by convicting preaching before they want to do anything.

    We are told , “Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12); and Paul asks the very pointed question, “How shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” (Rom. 10:14). We are afraid that Doug has undermined the whole basis for missions.

    But then this leads Doug to a further conclusion. If infants are born in a state of grace, and no supernatural work of the Spirit is required to bring a sinner to Christ, what is the new birth? Doug denies that it is an instantaneous and miraculous change of heart that results in new life in Christ. “Saving faith is also best understood as the culmination of many choices. It is not something that we do once in a moment of time . . . that counts for all time” (p. 265). Citing Col. 2:13 (“And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses”), he argues that the new birth basically involves the removal of our guilt in the sight of God. Regeneration, then, is essentially the same as justification. “The imputation of Christ’s righteousness and the new birth are two ways of describing the same thing. They both describe our forgiveness” (p. 166).

    But the text in Colossians does not necessarily equate the two. It simply states that two occur together; and in the parallel passage in Eph. 2:1-10 the sinner’s spiritual and moral condition is very much in view. And as Doug himself notes, I John makes it clear that a spiritual change is clearly the result of the new birth.

    This, then, brings us to the problem that Doug addresses at the end of his book, the problem of assurance and eternal security. He tells us that Calvinism “engenders confusion and is prone to a dangerous presumption” (p. 404). Curiously, the example he cites, that of David Brainerd, is the very opposite of “dangerous presumption.” Brainerd went through a protracted period of spiritual struggle before he arrived at an assurance of salvation. It is a fairly typical Puritan conversion experience.

    Doug would have us to believe that “It seems that the poor young man went through all kinds of agony trying to decide if he was unconditionally elect and irresistibly converted” (p. 419). He then adds, “He was probably a believer long before he would dare let himself believe it.” “He was looking for his experience to line up with his flawed doctrines” (Ibid.)

    It is with keen anticipation, then, that we look to see what Doug has to offer as the alternative to the alleged “confusion” caused by Calvinism. And when we do we are astonished to find that his overall view of assurance is similar to the Calvinistic one. Like Calvinists Doug encourages us to look for evidence that our faith is real and genuine. “. . .saving faith is best proven by the humble confession of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, combined with a practice of loving obedience to His commandments” (p. 412). In other words, we must do pretty much what Brainerd did: he looked at his heart to see if the inward graces were present. It is hard to see how we would arrive at a different result.

    There are, however, some key differences between Doug’s view and the Calvinistic one. First of all, Doug does not want to tie assurance to a specific conversion experience. “We desperately need to get free from the notion that saving faith is merely done once, in a moment of time. We need to see that saving faith must be maintained until we die” (p. 411). Moreover, Doug would dismiss any notion of the inner testimony of the Spirit. He criticizes those who “are looking for divine revelation that goes beyond the biblical promise of God” (p. 410).

    But then there is also this critical difference: “saving faith must be maintained until we die,” and “It remains to be seen if we keep our faith” (p. 411). Obviously if faith is not the result of irresistible grace, then there is no irresistible grace that can keep us in the faith. “It is hard to believe that a finite and fallible sinner could have an ‘infallible’ knowledge regarding any future event, especially an event, which occurs, on the other side of the grave” (pp. 409-410). In other words, we will be saved only if we persevere to the end, and there is no guarantee that that will happen. It appears David Brainerd had good reason to worry! His “dangerous presumption” consisted in his ever concluding that he was saved at all! It is hard to see how assurance is possible at all under these criteria.

    We fear that the net effect of Doug’s theology is to minimize the role that God plays in our salvation. To hear Doug tell it, instead of actively saving us, God simply puts an offer on the table and leaves us to our own devices.

    In many ways Doug has his own unique way of presenting his case, and for this reason we have hesitated to identify his view with those of some of the vocal critics in the past.of Calvinism. (We’re not sure that some of them would have wanted to be identified with some of Doug’s positions!) But is certain key aspects Doug’s theology is much in line with the general trend in American evangelical thinking over the past two centuries, especially with the emphasis on human ability. And it can be argued that in the case of Evangelicalism generally the spiritual effects of this type of thinking have been catastrophic. We have lost our sense of God’s transcendence. We have ceased to pray. Our worship has become entertainment. Our lives are inconsistent with our profession. And is it not, at least in part, because we have come to rely on human means to promote an institutional church? We have lost our confidence in the sovereign power of God and have ceased to seek it. The results speak for themselves.



    Chosen or Not?

    Doug Sayers

    CrossBooks, 2012

    467 pp., h.c.


    In his book Chosen or Not? author and blog commenter Doug Sayers gives us a long, sustained indictment of Calvinism. It is a long, rambling philippic aimed at the theology associated with the name of the famous 16th Century reformer.

John Calvin

John Calvin

    Doug at one time was a deacon in a Reformed Baptist church. What apparently disenchanted him with Calvinism was an incident years ago when his then three year old son nearly drowned to death in an accident. That raised the question of what would have happened to the boy had he actually died. Where would he have gone? When a Calvinist friend refused to give an unequivocal answer to the question, Doug began to wonder. He surmised that under Calvinist theology God could have sent the boy to hell, even if he had not actually committed any sins of his own, on the premise that he was guilty in God’s sight of having committed Adam’s sin in the Garden of Eden. Doug was appalled, and he came to question the whole idea of predestination and original sin.

    As a result much of the focus of the book is taken up with some of the more difficult and controversial aspects of orthodox Calvinism – reprobation, the imputation of Adam’s guilt to his posterity, and limited atonement. Doug raises many of the usual objections: Calvinism is fatalistic, it makes God out to be an arbitrary, unjust monster, it leaves the reprobate with no chance of salvation, it denies human responsibility. It could be argued, however, that Doug is reacting to a particularly extreme form of Calvinism known as “Supralapsarianism.” As even Doug notes, Calvin himself did not believe that Adam’s guilt was imputed to his posterity (Institutes, II.i.89), and it is not at all clear that he believed in limited atonement. We fear that Doug is, in effect, throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.

To his credit Doug does show a familiarity with the sources, and he quotes the Westminster Confession of Faith along with a number of mostly contemporary Calvinistic authors. The chief defect in the book is its weak exegesis. Doug reminds us at the outset that “. . . we should never let that which is clear in the Bible take a back seat to that which might be inferred from the Bible” (p. 48). Yet curiously, his argument relies heavily on human logic. We are frequently told that “it is reasonable to conclude,” “our natural sense of justice bears witness,” “It is reasonable to think,” “most people don’t think it would be right,” “It would be right (or fair) for God,” “It would also be reasonable (and fair) for God.” And all of this on just a single page (p. 127)! As Doug candidly admits, “Some philosophy is inescapable and both sides of our argument should be prepared to admit it . . . the question involves both Scripture and evident reason” (p. 9).

    Doug’s basic argument runs something like this: Suppose that “A” represents many of the doctrines associated with Calvinism: total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, and irresistible grace. And let’s say that “B” represents certain biblical texts that talk about God’s love for all mankind, the free offer of the gospel, and human accountability. To hear Doug tell it, if a Calvinist believes in “A” then he cannot possibly believe in “B.” And if the Bible teaches “B” then it cannot possibly teach “A.” Therefore, Calvinism and the Bible are irreconcilably opposed to each other.

    The weakness of this argument is that does not take into consideration the possibility that there could be paradoxes and antinomies in the Bible. For example, in Phil. 2:12 we read, “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling . . . ” (NKJV). Here we have as clear a statement of human responsibility as we are likely to find anywhere in the Bible. The sentence contains an imperative verb (“work out”) giving a direct command and laying a responsibility on the readers to act. Is this not proof positive that Paul was not a fatalistic Calvinist? Yet in the very next verse we read, ” . . . for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (v. 13). Try as one might, it is exceedingly hard to make the word “works” mean anything else than “produce a result.” In this instance the text actually goes so far as to say that God “works in you . . . to will and to do.” In other words, God controls both our wills and our actions. Did Paul just contradict himself? We don’t think so. The confusion is likely to be in our minds, not his. Let us beware of trying to be more logical than the Bible! What we have here is the Calvinist doctrine of irresistible grace, something that Doug insists is nowhere mentioned in the Bible.

    Unfortunately Doug’s logical method of reasoning leads to some regrettable conclusions. On the one hand, by maintaining that a Calvinist cannot possibly believe in “B,” he basically says that there is no real difference between a Calvinist and a Hyper-Calvinist (a Hyper-Calvinist is a person who really would deny “B”). In Doug’s view, a Calvinist is simply a “Hyper-Calvinist with a better presentation,” as he likes to say. And if a Calvinist tries to deny that he is really a Hyper-Calvinist, he is simply being dishonest. It is easy to see why a moderate Calvinist would resent the caricature.

    On the other hand Doug is faced with the considerable challenge of trying to show that the Bible really does not teach “A.” It basically involves trying to explain away the large amount of Scripture that describes what God does in salvation. The sovereignty of God, the depravity of man, and salvation by grace are all major themes of the Bible. The Scriptures tell us that God chooses us, redeems us, begets us, and keeps us. There are repeated references to the power of God and the work of the Holy Spirit. And there are also passages that explicitly discuss predestination and election. It is hard to miss the point.

    It is not that Doug doesn’t try. A good example is his treatment of Rom. 8:28-30, which reads: “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover, whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.”

    Doug’s immediate concern in this passage is to try to show that the predestination involved is not a predestination of certain individuals unto salvation. Doug tries to tell us that “Paul is listing some of the terms and conditions of the deal, if you will” (p. 94). “This is a listing of God’s gracious provision for our salvation” (p. 95). God makes the provision, and we must act upon it by faith. The ones who are predestined are simply the ones whom God could foresee would believe. But Doug insists that “No reason is given here for any specific individual’s faith” (Ibid.).

    But the passage does not say that God merely created certain terms and conditions; it says that He does certain specific things to people that result in their salvation. The direct objects of the verbs are relative pronouns which all have the same antecedent: “whom He foreknew” (v. 29). This, in turn, refers back to “those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” in the preceding verse. Verses 29 and 30 are basically an explanation of the phrase “those who are the called according to His purpose” in verse 28.

    The usual anti-Calvinist explanation here is that when Paul said “whom He foreknew,” he meant that God could foresee who would believe, and then chose them. But that is reading something into the text that is not there. Paul is probably using the word “foreknow” in the same sense in which he uses it in 11:2, where it most definitely does not mean that God foresaw that the Israelites would obey. What is in view there is their disobedience. Moreover Doug’s interpretation weakens the verb “predestined,” of its force. There is no “destiny’ involved, according to him.

    Moreover, when we look at the various other actions described in verses 29 and 30 we notice that it says, among other things, that “whom He called, these He also justified” (v. 30). This “calling” results in justification; it has the actual effect of bringing the sinner to salvation. It is “effectual calling,” the very same irresistible grace that Doug says is nowhere mentioned in the Bible.

    Thus the passage does not say that God predestined a plan; it says that He predestined people. The passage is a beautiful expression of what God does to save us.

    We could multiply examples of Doug’s exegesis, but the pattern is clear. All too often human logic is enlisted to rob passages of their force and meaning. The net effect is to minimize the role that God plays in our salvation. Is this really a sound way to approach Scripture? We hardly think so.


Next: Doug’s own theology