From time to time the Editors receive letters which pose difficult questions. The correspondents often disagree sincerely with the position taken by Evangelical Times on important issues of doctrine or concern. In this occasional series, we intend to air these matters and seek to provide some biblical answers to ‘hard questions’.
The problem of predestination
Mr Michael Wilkins of Barton on Sea, Hampshire, writes as follows:
I have been reading a September copy of Evangelical Times, and would like to comment on the article, ‘Becoming a Christian’, by David Fountain. It does appear that Mr Fountain adopts a predestinational angle, and as much as I agree with this, it still stirs up problems which I have never been able to answer satisfactorily.
If it is impossible to lead people to the Lord, then witness or evangelism is ‘out’ completely. Is this why we don’t seem to see many Evangelical churches out in the streets witnessing for Jesus? When I am at work, and my work-mates talk about God, how can I tell them I am going to heaven, they are going to hell, and there is nothing we can do? It is all taken care of, they are the damned and I am the blessed?
The very act of asking Jesus into my life and to save me is surely an act of works, as I have done something. However, if it is all of God, then I don’t even have to ask Jesus into my life. There is absolutely nothing I can do, and nothing I need to do.
There are Scriptures which I have problems with because they seem to indicate that God finds action, or a decision, from the person permissible. This list is not exhaustive, but serves as an example.
Joshua 24:15:’Choose this day who you will serve’… (action – personal choice).
John 1:12: ‘To as many as received Him, to them gave He power…'(action – the person has to receive).
Luke 9:23: ‘If any man will come after me…'(action – the person decides to come).
Deuteronomy 30:19: ‘I set before you life and death; therefore choose life…'(action – the person chooses).
Romans 10:8-10: ‘The word is in your mouth … if you confess that Jesus is Lord’ (action – confess Jesus, use your voice).
Romans 10:14: ‘How shall they call upon Him … how shall they believe on him if they have no preacher?'(action – calling, believing).
This last verse also tells us that preaching to the unconverted can bring them to Christ. Yet most preaching in churches is to the converted, surely a slowly developed traditionalistic error? When did most of our preachers, be they ministers, vicars, pastors or whatever, actually DO what Romans 10:14 says?
I agree there’s no quick answer, people have been hotly debating this subject for centuries. Can anybody out there help me along a bit?
This clear and honest letter both defines the problem and provides key Scriptures. These emphasise that sinners are most certainly called, indeed commanded, to respond to the gospel by actions, namely repentance and faith (Mark 1:15; Acts 17:30). Nothing in genuine Calvinism denies this primary truth.
However, according to the clear teaching of Scripture, man in his natural state is not capable of responding! He is ‘dead in trespasses and sins’ and ‘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’ (Ephesians 2:1; 1 Corinthians 2:14). Here, then, lies the apparent contradiction. Man must respond to the gospel call if he is to be saved. But he is incapable of doing so, because he is blind to spiritual reality and dead towards God.
Things to avoid
The first thing we must avoid doing is to cancel out one of these biblical truths against the other. Unfortunately, many do just that. Some say that because man has a responsibility to repent and believe, he must be able to do so in the strength of his own fallen human nature. Thus conversion becomes a matter of bending the human will, and we should apply every possible pressure to persuade people to make ‘decisions for Christ’. Needless to say, such an approach brings failure and disillusionment, because it wholly ignores the fact that man in his sin is incapable of obeying God (Romans 8:7-8). This, after all, is exactly why no one can be justified by the works of the law (Romans 3:20).
It is equally wrong, however, to take the opposite view and claim that man has no responsibility to believe the gospel because he cannot do so. This is not Calvinism, but hyper-Calvinism, and leads to a neglect of evangelism and gospel preaching, as Mr Wilkins rightly points out. Neither this paper nor Mr Fountain subscribe to such ideas, and we hope this is evident from the December evangelistic issue of Evangelical Times!
What is the answer?
We are to ‘preach the gospel to every creature’, calling on men, women and children alike to repent of their sins and believe that Jesus died for sinners, ‘the just for the unjust, to bring us to God’ (Mark 16:15; 1 Peter 3:18 AV). But knowing that those to whom we preach are spiritually dead, we must rely utterly upon the power of the Holy Spirit to bring them to life! Only then will they hear and respond to the gospel call. Thus, having described the condition of the human race as ‘dead in trespasses and sins’, Paul goes on to say, ‘But God, who is rich in mercy … even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)’ (Ephesians 2:4-5).
The raising of Lazarus from the dead, in John 11, provides a helpful illustration. When ‘Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth!”‘ he was asking the dead man to do exactly what he could not do. Lazarus was dead, so he could not hear. He was dead, so he could not respond. He was dead, so he could not stand up and walk out of the rock tomb where he lay. Yet what he could not do by nature, he was enabled to do by the miraculous power of Christ. The command ‘come forth!’ imparted the power to do so.
So it is with conversion. As the gospel is preached to ‘every creature’, those whom God has predestined, or ‘appointed to eternal life’ (Acts 13:48), are raised from spiritual death to spiritual life, by the operation of the Holy Spirit. Being thus made alive, in that very instant, they hear the call of Christ, they recognise the Shepherd’s voice; they repent and believe and follow him. Being raised from spiritual death by the power of God, they act in repentance and faith. This is the necessary consequence and evidence of receiving life.
But because their ability to act arises solely from an act of God’s grace, namely, the free gift of spiritual life and sight (‘discernment’), their actions are not works of the natural man, but rather the effects of regenerating grace. They therefore have nothing to boast about. Salvation is the gift of God, not a work of man (Ephesians 2:8-9).
This scriptural understanding should greatly encourage us to preach the gospel. Why? Because we know that there will be a response! If God has chosen to eternal life ‘a great multitude that no man can number’, then we evangelise in the sure knowledge that the Father will draw to himself those he has chosen in Christ, and not one will be lost. Are his elect hidden in the remotest jungles of the earth? Then he will send his gospel to them by the hand of missionaries or gospel broadcasts or by some other means. Every sheep will hear the Shepherd’s voice, for Christ will not be content with the ninety-nine. ‘God will see to it’, most certainly, but he will do so through the universal proclamation of Christ, crucified and risen from the dead.