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A View from the Altar / Random thoughts on predestination and the existence of evil
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Random thoughts on predestination and the existence of evil

As many of you know, we’ve been regular attenders at a PCA church for the past couple of years.  One of the distinctive characteristics of the Presbyterians is that they emphasize the doctrine of predestination a bit more than others do, and that includes the Southern Baptists, the denomination of my nativity and ordination.  The phrase “a bit more” is entirely accurate.  Although the Westminster Confession of Faith is über-heavy on the notion of predestination, and although guys like Benjamin Warfield and Loraine Boettner majored on predestination, the truth is that it doesn’t weigh that heavily on how they present the Gospel or carry out church life.  That’s not to say that the biblical view of predestination is a weightless thing.  It does bear on our faith in God by convincing us that nothing has careened out of his control.  If you’ve just come through the tornado in Joplin or been told you’ve got some dread disease, it’s critical to see this as something God can manage.  Further, people who believe in the biblical accounting of predestination are the most stalwart in defending the idea that salvation is by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ alone.  I’ll come to that last part later on.

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The idea of things being determined in advance seems offensive to folks who are programmed to think the Gospel has meaning only in the context of what is termed “free will.”  I will not exasperate you with a detailed treatment of the free will controversy.  Suffice to say that our wills are bound to our fallen nature, constrained by the influences of the flesh, what kinds of things we believe (some of which are false), what we perceive to be viable options in a moral decision, the influences of the world system, persuasion offered by people nearby, and even the fact that Satan has the power to blind people to the Gospel.  (2 Cor 4:4)  Whatever is left of free will after this, well, you can have that.

But if this is true, how can we blame a guy for sins?  Isn’t this essentially the claim of alcoholics and homosexuals that they were born this way and can’t help it?  The biblical answer is that rotten trees produce rotten fruit.

Matthew 7:16 Ye shall know them by their fruits . Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? 17 Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. 19 Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down , and cast into the fire. 20 Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.

This is a whole ‘nuther way of looking at sin, righteousness, ethics, and morality.  It’s God’s way of looking at it.  Jesus says the reason we do wrong is because we are wrong — down in the inside, sick with something incurable and evil.  The evil doesn’t reside in our deeds but in our hearts.  (Mark 7:21; Jer 17:9)

Folks are often inclined to exclaim that if this were true, then the situation would be hopeless.  If I’m a rotten tree producing rotten fruit, what can I really do about that?  Answer: Nothing.  We’re hopeless sinners, so that’s why we must be born again.  (Jn 3:3)  And our incapacity to manufacture new birth out of our own resources is why we needed a Savior.  And we needed the sort of Savior who would come looking for us and not wait for us to go looking for him.  (Lk 15:4-6; Lk 19:10)  And it explains why we need a Savior who is willing to save the worst of the worst.  (1 Ti 1:15)  It places the concept of redemption in its proper frame of reference, that we are redeemed like the Israelites out of bondage and slavery to our sins.  (Jn 8:34, Ro 6:6)

The lesson that we learn peeking out from behind the big, craggy rock of predestination is that it knocks down the notion of free will, and from there we get introduced to the idea that sin is a way bigger problem than we ever thought it was.  Our need is much bigger than a fast rinse and a renewed determination to behave better.  We need a Redeemer with the power to put to death the old man and in its place raise up a new man.  (Col 3:3; Eph 4:22-24)

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One of the places where people hang up on predestination is at the point where it seems to indicate that God is personally responsible for all the evil in the world.  In fact, this is the reason for the occasional “demon worship” accusation leveled against Calvinists by anti-Calvinists.  Such a deity as the Calvinists imagine, say the accusers, looks more like the Devil.  It’s an evil charge, one which I find reprehensible, and I cannot escape noticing the irony involved in accusers of the brethren (Rev 12:10) calling Christians devil worshipers.

The belief of Calvinists is stated in the London Baptist Confession which echoes the Westminster Confession of Faith thusly:

God hath decreed in himself, from all eternity, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably, all things, whatsoever comes to pass…

The problem I have with this statement is that it leaves modern readers with the impression that God, before creation, issued a list of decrees which called into being every act of evil.  The two confessions cited above say that God is not the author of sin, yet there’s a sort of quantum entanglement between the absolute expression of decretal theology and the actual occurrence of evil in the world.  They cannot be teased apart.

The reader will be comforted to know that the Bible mentions no such primordial decrees.  They just aren’t there.  The Scriptural passages cited by the WCF in support of decretal theology are as follows:

Ephesians 1:11 In whom also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will.

Romans 11:33 O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!

Hebrews 6:17 Wherein God, willing more abundantly to shew unto the heirs of promise the immutability of his counsel, confirmed it by an oath.

Romans 9:15 For he saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. 18 Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth.

And as you can see, there’s nothing about any decrees in the texts cited, nor are the anywhere else in the Bible.  It turns out that the “horrible decree” can be dismissed as a monster somebody imagined under his own bed.  The Bible says naught about it.

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What the Bible does say about evil is that it entered creation through Satan.  He was made perfect yet departed from his perfection through his own envy of the Most High (Ez 28:14-15; Isa 14:12-14).  Did God foresee this before he created Lucifer?  Yes.  Did he nonetheless create Lucifer with the capability of rebellion?  Yes.  Could he have programmed Lucifer with a ROM chip that had no capacity for rebellion?  Yes.  All the above, God could have done.  Why he didn’t do so we really aren’t told in detail except for one thing: God determined to grant to the Son the gift of a redeemed humanity.  This gift presupposed sin, of course, for that’s what redemption implies.

But here’s the point where I have to disagree with my London Baptist forebears: Does this drive us to conclude that God on some level willed all the sins from which we are redeemed?  I believe Scripture constrains us to answer no.  Sin and evil are not God’s will, not even on some secret level.  To affirm this is to say that God has two wills, a holy one which opposes sin and a second one which consciously decreed sin and so constructed the world that men could not do other than sin.  We rightly recoil from that second one.  A case in point is the history recorded in Jeremiah 19 in which people slew children as offerings to Baal.

They have built also the high places of Baal, to burn their sons with fire for burnt offerings unto Baal, which I commanded not, nor spake it, neither came it into my mind.  (Jer 19:5, emphasis added)

I freely confess to being a mite jejune when it comes to profound theological matters.  Even accounting for my rube-ishness, I can’t see a way to perform an honest, straight-ahead exegesis of Jeremiah 19:5 that a rational thinker could reconcile with the notion that God in prehistory issued a decree expressing his will that this slaughter of the innocents must take place.  The reason Jeremiah 19:5 is key to this discussion is that it refuses all attempts at separating between a prescriptive will and a decretal will.  The prescriptive will is named here when he says, “I commanded not.”  Any other concept of the divine will as expressed in decrees would be subsumed under the clauses, “nor spake it, neither came it into my mind.”

Short statement of conclusion:  God is against evil and always has been.

Corollary: God didn’t express opposition to evil and at the same time decree it into existence.

WCF and LBC, I love you guys, but I can’t agree with you on that issue.

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If God didn’t will sin into existence, what explains why it’s here?  Of course, nobody’s ever given a full account of that which is why the discussion continues.  But I think we can express part of this way: The Lord did not will for sin and evil to ruin his creation.  He rather accepted them as the grievous price of attaining something better.  He has done this in a way that is consistent with his holiness, meaning that he is not the author of sin nor does he will it or decree it into existence.  Further, he has determined that sin shall be overcome at last and at infinite cost to himself through the death of his Son price, and as one writer expressed it, we will see in the end that everything he has done was grounded upon morally sufficient reasons.  So, where sin abounded, grace has much more abounded.  Where Adam was created sinless and appointed lord of the earth from which he came, the Christian is imputed with the very righteousness of Christ himself and eternally inherits all things.

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Let return to the Gospel for a moment.  I said earlier that people who believe in predestination are pretty stouthearted when it comes to the doctrine of salvation by grace alone.  The reason for this is not derived directly from the doctrine of predestination but from other doctrines that seem to fit neatly in the same mental package.  Not to belabor the point, but the general idea is that people without Christ are dead in their sins.  (Jn 6:53; Eph 2:5; Col 2:13; Lk 15:32)  This obviously connects to the idea that the will of the sinner isn’t free in any meaningful sense.  The dead cannot choose to be alive.  But Christ by supernatural power can give life to the dead.  And here’s where it loops back into election and predestination: If Christ is calling the dead to life (Jn 5:21), and if he doesn’t call all the dead to life, then it’s pretty hard to escape the conclusion that he chooses his people, not the other way around. (Jn 15:16, Jn 15:19)

otherbrothersteve@gmail.com

One Comment

  1. Just to add my .02 regarding an argument that I found central to a path to the Orthodox Church: the predestination crowd, or the puzzle masters as I like to call them, are indeed both bold and vocal when it comes to preaching sola gratia, but very weak on teaching about sanctification/deification/holiness/theosis, whatever term one likes to use. At least, that’s what I experienced in rural Appalachia through teachings of the American Baptist, Presbyterian and Methodist Churches. And yet it’s clear through Scripture that we aren’t finished and complete upon regeneration — that is only the beginning of our restoration in Christ.

    And on a different note – you wrote:

    “The lesson that we learn peeking out from behind the big, craggy rock of predestination is that it knocks down the notion of free will, and from there we get introduced to the idea that sin is a way bigger problem than we ever thought it was. Our need is much bigger than a fast rinse and a renewed determination to behave better. We need a Redeemer with the power to put to death the old man and in its place raise up a new man ”

    As a point of interest, which you probably already know, this is the reason for the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception – the conception of Mary “without stain”. For how could she choose to say “Yes” to the Holy Spirit unless she was without sin? And so, in a sense, I think this is closer to Calvinist theology than one may care to admit.

    This is not Orthodox doctrine; Mary is not recognized as “sinless” or born without the stain of original sin. Rather, she is viewed as the first of the redeemed, the first to say “yes” to the indwelling Christ. How is it that Mary found favor with God? She had a pure heart. She was blameless, but not faultless; a model of obedience.

    Posted on 05-Jul-11 at 8:34 am | Permalink

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