Revisiting Calvin and the Gift of Choice

infinite_pathsHe predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will…

Ephesians 1:5 (NASB)

Therefore, beloved, since you look for these things, be diligent to be found by Him in peace, spotless and blameless, and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation; just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, be on your guard so that you are not carried away by the error of unprincipled men and fall from your own steadfastness, but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory, both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.

2 Peter 3:14-18 (NASB)

I thought I was through addressing the Arminianism vs. Calvinism debate, having explored it extensively in my multi-part blog series and topping it off with the rather metaphysical Schrödinger’s Free Will and God’s Sovereignty. Then we had a guest speaker give the sermon at church last Sunday. He covered the first eighteen verses of Ephesians 1 and spent considerable time supporting his belief in the Calvinistic argument. He had to make God subject to linear time to do it, and otherwise said pretty much what I’ve heard before.

Then, in Sunday school class, we studied part of 2 Peter 3 including the above-quoted verses and I started to wonder. If the names of those chosen by God for salvation are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life and we have no choice in the matter, then why did Peter write what he wrote? He’s encouraging believers (supposedly people already chosen and “sealed”) to be “diligent…spotless and blameless.” He also cautions his readers to “be on your guard so that you are not carried away by the error of unprincipled men and fall from your own steadfastness.”

What? How is that possible. I thought once chosen, no one could “fall” from “steadfastness.”

My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.

John 10:27-29 (NASB)

Can you have it both ways? Can you be “unsnatchable,” so to speak, and still be able to fall from steadfastness?

Actually, during the sermon, I thought about the whole idea of being chosen. Israel was chosen as a nation. God chose corporate, national Israel, not each individual Israelites.

Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself. Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the sons of Israel.”

Exodus 19:3-6 (NASB)

But now listen, O Jacob, My servant, And Israel, whom I have chosen: Thus says the Lord who made you And formed you from the womb, who will help you, ‘Do not fear, O Jacob My servant; And you Jeshurun whom I have chosen.

Isaiah 44:1-2 (NASB)

I don’t think anyone can argue that the act of God choosing Israel and Israel’s acceptance of God’s choosing involved corporate Israel, not each individual Israelite. That means all of the Israelites present at Sinai and all of their descendents were and are chosen by God and members of the covenant beyond any “unchoosing.”

Well, of course, there is this:

For whoever eats the fat of the animal from which an offering by fire is offered to the Lord, even the person who eats shall be cut off from his people. You are not to eat any blood, either of bird or animal, in any of your dwellings. Any person who eats any blood, even that person shall be cut off from his people.

Leviticus 7:25-27 (NASB)

DespairNo one is exactly sure what it meant for an Israelite to be “cut off from his people,” but I found an interesting discussion on the topic at Biblical Hermeneutics. It may not mean that the guilty individual would be removed from the covenant. According to Jewish Virtual Library, it could mean a premature death “at the hand if heaven” (Rashi, Ket. 30b, et al.), however there are other opinions. The upshot, as I understand it though, is that even the Israelite who has committed a sin so severe as to be “cut off” is still, on some level, accountable for the conditions of the covenant, including the curses, just because that person is an Israelite.

Ancient Israelites and modern Jewish people are born into the covenant and are responsible to God whether they want to be or not. They have been chosen because they belong to a group. That seems to be a permanent condition, as I read the Bible:

Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.

Matthew 5:17-18 (NASB)

And as you may have noticed, heaven and earth are still here, so the Torah is still in force for the Jewish people…all of them.

But what about us? What about the Gentiles who are called by His Name? If Israel was chosen corporately, why, according to Calvinism, are we chosen individually?

One reason might be the vast number of nations on the earth. Could God choose some nations (besides Israel) and not others? I suppose, but by what criteria would He choose? Of course, we can ask the same question about why He would choose one individual and not another. It’s certainly not by merit or anything we have done or could do. That’s the same for Israel, as I understand it. Midrash aside, God did not choose Israel because of her merit, either:

The Lord did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but because the Lord loved you and kept the oath which He swore to your forefathers, the Lord brought you out by a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.

Deuteronomy 7:7-8 (NASB)

God didn’t choose Israel because of her merit but in order to keep His promises. What promises?

Then behold, the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “This man will not be your heir; but one who will come forth from your own body, he shall be your heir.” And He took him outside and said, “Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” And He said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” Then he believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.

Genesis 15:4-6 (NASB)

God made His promise to Abram (Abraham) in a vision after the encounter with the Priest-King of Salem, Melchizedek (see Genesis 14:17-20, though in actuality, God first directly interacted with Abram and promised to make him a great nation at the beginning of Genesis 12). The text seems to indicate that it was Abram’s faith that was the key factor in God making a covenant with him, but if we accept that as fact, then we have to admit that Abram had a part in his being chosen by God. If that’s so, following the inevitable logic, then God renewed His promises to Isaac, and then to Jacob, and then to the Children of Israel through Moses, all of which culminated at Sinai.

abraham1This choosing echoes down through history and will ripple even further and into the Messianic Age (all this is summarized in The Jesus Covenant: Building My Model). I can’t seem to find a way to pry the Jewish people or even one single, individual Jewish person out of the covenant promises that started with Abraham, continued into Sinai, and that were renewed for the future in Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36.

Non-Jewish believers are attached as one of the conditions of the Abrahamic Covenant (but only one, not the whole thing), which, if we were to apply the same “logic” to us as we do to how the Israelites were “chosen” by God, seems to indicate that faith is also the “glue” connects us to God.

But how does God choosing Abraham filter down to God choosing Gentiles?

… and after he brought them out, he said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” And they spoke the word of the Lord to him together with all who were in his house. And he took them that very hour of the night and washed their wounds, and immediately he was baptized, he and all his household. And he brought them into his house and set food before them, and rejoiced greatly, having believed in God with his whole household.

Acts 16:30-34 (NASB)

That seems pretty simple. But if the jailer and his household were “pre-chosen,” so to speak, why would he even ask that question? He’s been pre-selected. He has just come to the point where he has realized it. What if he wasn’t one of the chosen and he asked that question? Would Paul have said, “Sorry, pal. You aren’t one of the elect. You are out of luck”?

Probably not, but then I don’t think we have an example in the Bible of a person asking how to be saved who wasn’t going to be saved. Oh wait!

And someone came to Him and said, “Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may obtain eternal life?” And He said to him, “Why are you asking Me about what is good? There is only One who is good; but if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” Then he *said to Him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not commit murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother; and You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man *said to Him, “All these things I have kept; what am I still lacking?” Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But when the young man heard this statement, he went away grieving; for he was one who owned much property.

Matthew 19:16-22 (NASB)

But then again, the rich young ruler was Jewish and was already chosen by God because of Sinai. I’m not even sure how that’s supposed to work relative to the Jewish Messiah except that anyone who would come to the Father has to go through the Son. Did the young fellow lose salvation because his wealth meant more to him than obedience?

terror-keepers-of-the-faithQuestions remain. First of all, the idea of being chosen is rather “mushy.” Why was Israel chosen corporately but the rest of us must be chosen individually? Can any Israelite lose their chosenness? Evidence seems to say not, but my exploration of that area was hardly exhaustive. If a non-Jew is chosen can he or she lose that chosen status? Depending on which verses you read in the New Testament, the answer varies. What was the mechanism or process by which God chose Abraham and does that process apply to Gentiles since it is through Abraham that we are attached to the Messiah and thus to God?

Faith seems to play a part in both the choosing of Abraham and of the rest of us.

…and being fully assured that what God had promised, He was able also to perform. Therefore it was also credited to him as righteousness. Now not for his sake only was it written that it was credited to him, but for our sake also, to whom it will be credited, as those who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, He who was delivered over because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification.

Romans 4:21-25 (NASB)

Ephesians 2:8 says that even faith is a gift from God, so we can’t say that our faith is what we bring to the table, so to speak. God gives us the faith we need in order to be chosen by Him. But then, I found a counter-argument to this point at faithalone.org:

From a cursory reading of this verse, it appears that the relative pronoun that (v 8b) has faith (v 8a) as its grammatical antecedent. However, in its Greek construction that is a demonstrative pronoun with adverbial force used in an explanatory phrase. This particular construction uses a fixed neuter singular pronoun (that) which refers neither to faith, which is feminine in Greek, nor to any immediate word which follows. (See Blass, Debrunner, Funk, 132, 2.) What all this means is that the little phrase and that (kai touto in Greek) explains that salvation is of God’s grace and not of human effort. Understood accordingly, Ephesians 2:8 could well be translated: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, that is to say, not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.”

Moreover, there is a parallelism between not of yourselves in v 8b and not of works in v 9. This parallelism serves as a commentary to v 8a (“For by grace you have been saved through faith”) which speaks of salvation in its entirety. It is difficult to see how faith, if it is the gift of God, harmonizes with not of works of v 9. We must conclude, then, that in Ephesians 2:8 salvation is the gift of God.

You can click the link I provided above to read the entire explanation, but if this analysis holds water, then I can say that faith is what we bring to the table. Salvation is the gift which we cannot earn through works so we cannot boast.

I know that nothing I’ve said here will convince a hard-core Calvinist that the whole “election” thing is wrong, but I think, once again, I’ve thrown enough monkey wrenches into the machine to keep Calvin and his supporters from thinking they’ve made a “slam dunk” with their arguments. Yes, the guest speaker at my church last Sunday provided a number of Bible verses that seem to support the “divine election” position, but there are just as many other parts of the Bible that support the idea that God, in His sovereignty, mercy, and love, has allowed human beings to participate in their own salvation by faith (or lack thereof, sadly).

schrodingers-cat-in-a-boxGod chose Abraham for a wonderful destiny, both as an individual and as the Father of the Hebrews. That promise passed down to Isaac, to Jacob, to Jacob’s twelve sons, to the twelve tribes, and ultimately to the Jewish people corporately. Non-Jews are grafted into a single condition, the promise of the Messiah, in the Abrahamic covenant, through faith, just as Abraham had faith, and that is our link to being chosen.

We’re chosen because of faith. Salvation is the resulting gift. I believe God loves human beings in a unique way, and out of that love, He chooses to allow us room in the universe to make independent decisions, much like a father will allow a child to make choices, even when the father knows some of those choices won’t be for the good.

There are times when love can kill. There are times when you love someone so much, you cannot allow him to breathe. He must do things the way you understand is best for him—because you cannot bear that one you love so much should be in any way distant from the truth as you know it.

“After all,” you imagine, “I must do for him what I would have done for myself!”

But true love makes room for the one you love.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Love in Not Doing”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

As for how God can write names in a book “before” Creation if both the book and God exist outside Creation and thus outside of time, you’ll have to see a certain cat in a box for the paradoxical answer.

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13 thoughts on “Revisiting Calvin and the Gift of Choice”

  1. I think most have been looking at this issue as if it is an algebra problem where you are trying to solve for, “x.” Instead, look at it as a dance through his ways past finding out, where you can’t always make out the steps, music or who is leading. In response to Dr. Michael Brown’s debate Dr. James White, I posted a few things (which I saved) about how I didn’t agree with either position, it wasn’t my battle, and why the false dichotomy of only two choices? You are probably already familiar with Abraham Joshua Heschel, who saved me from, “Elijah Syndrome.” That is, “poor me, I must be the only one who thinks this way.”

  2. I’ve always appreciated that the folks who argue in favor of Calvinistic determinism try to do so rationally. But what so frustrates me is that they then irrationally and stubbornly refuse to acknowledge clear demonstrations that their argument is based on faulty exegesis, selective reading, and failure to recognize errors of interpretation for the source linguistic and cultural expression. Clearly, choosing is done by both parties in a relationship, represented in this case by a finite limited corporate body comprising individuals who have made a choice and an infinite but self-limiting individual Who also has made choices about how to interact with the limitations of both the corporate body and the individuals within it. One of the greatest failings of the Calvinist position is its overemphasis of the absolute sovereignty of the infinite party in this relationship while ignoring that such a sovereign is capable of sovereignly choosing to limit Himself and act in response to the choices of others (and ignoring that such behavior is demonstrated in the scriptural account).

  3. I tend not to see the entire paradigm as valid. It seems the product of one particular period in history that coincided with the belief that the universe was entirely deterministic and that ultimately, everything could be predicted and known.

    …faulty exegesis, selective reading, and failure to recognize errors of interpretation for the source linguistic and cultural expression.

    It would be interesting to have the specifics of that information.

  4. I think you have illustrated most of these details in your various prior posts, though it would take some effort and motivation to compile the citations that I only noticed in passing where the Calvinistic reading of passages also falls short of understanding the Hebrew and Judeo-Greek linguistic and cultural background. Certainly you have cited passages regarding human choice selectively ignored or underrated by Calvinists. And an example of faulty exegesis would be a failure to note the entirety of passages such as Eph.1:4 “just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love”; and, Rom.8:29 “For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren”. In both of these passages the focus is on HaShem’s decision long ago that all those whom He already knew would be accounted as “in Him” should become holy and blameless similarly to Rav Yeshua. It is not saying that the individual identities of members in that group would be chosen by HaShem without any consent from the individuals. I say consent rather than initiative because HaShem has long been at work calling everyone toward Himself, as noted by Rav Shaul in Rom.1:19-20 that HaShem has made plain what may be known about Himself so that humans would be without excuse, and in Rom.10:11-13 that “whoever” believes or calls upon HaShem will be rescued and not shamed, and in 1Tim.2:4-6 that HaShem desires all to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth and that Rav Yeshua is a ransom for all. Clearly HaShem’s intention is contrary to any notion of preventing anyone from doing so, and He has already taken the initiative so that only the human response remains to be added. Thus any notion of predetermination must be applied only to the result and not to the cause.

    I do suspect you are correct that a philosophical view about a more general universal determinism or predictability is the likely culprit lurking behind the Calvinistic doctrine, not unlike the way that Darwinistic macro-evolutionary presuppositions have influenced the interpretation of the Genesis creation account. Prevailing “scientific” paradigms do tend to be used or mis0used to influence scriptural interpretation.

  5. I appreciate all of your contributions to my “knowledge base,” PL. I just had a “conversation” on today’s blog post about how we all have blind spots and missing pieces in our understanding. Everything helps. Besides, I didn’t get much sleep last night so I’m kind of loopy today.

  6. Hi James,
    Calvinists love to quote one short phrase from Ephesians 1 but they completely ignore the context. I wrote about this in my old blog:
    http://onefiles.blogspot.co.nz/2010/03/election-predestination-in-ephesians-1.html

    Overall I think the same thing can be found regarding ALL Calvinist proof texts – context is disregarded.

    Ephesians1 makes it clear that it is IN HIM and THROUGH HIM that predestination takes effect. It also reveals how we become “in HIm” – and it is not through some arbitrary unilateral selection that God makes. It involves a human response.

  7. This may seem like a strange question, but if belief (emuna, faith – “amen”) is a gift, then what about hope? Is hope a gift also? And what does that imply? I’ve never heard anyone address this. Hope in Hebrew is tikva which is interesting because it’s cognate to the word “fixed, appointed”. The Book of Messianic Jews says belief is the substance (firm reality) of things unseen. Is hope also something like that, something solid, real, substantial, crucial? And how is it a gift, and how is it common to believers and non-believers in the common grace area(s)?

  8. Greetings, George.

    I don’t know how to answer your question. Really, faith as a gift from God seems to be a lot more mysterious than it seems at face value. I can’t comment on hope as a gift since I don’t recall it being referred as such in scripture (although if someone can point out that it is, I would be interested in reviewing those verses).

    When you say “The Book of Messianic Jews,” are you referring to the Book of Hebrews in the Bible? I just want to make sure I understand what you’re saying.

    Blessings and thanks.

  9. @James — It is quite likely that George in New Zealand has been reading a copy of David Stern’s Complete Jewish Bible, which identifies the letter to the “Hebrews” by the name “Messianic Jews”. Considering how popular this translation has been over the last 33 years since the publication of the NT (Brit HaHadashah) portion and 24 years since the CJB publication, it is actually surprising that there haven’t been more references to this letter by this terminology in this blog.

  10. I’m not so sure Stern’s translation has the same traction in the Hebrew Roots/Messianic Jewish communities it had in the 1990s, PL. Of course, my blog only taps into a certain portion of those communities and it’s quite possible that I’m just not being read by those who primarily use the CJB.

    My actual intent is not to be a “Messianic Jewish” blog as such, but to try and appeal to a wider audience of believers and even non-believers interested in the Christian/Jewish interface.

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