Unconditional Election

We now deal with the petal of TULIP which is probably the most controversial of all, and which sets the ground for the LIP that follows: Unconditional Election. Actually the unconditional part seems to cause little difficulty, except among those who regard works as essential to salvation (which is an illicit view; see link 1 below); it is the "election" part that has sent tempers flaring and tears streaming, as I can personally attest.

So then, what of Unconditional Election? It seems to boil down to a dichotomy: "Does God foreknow because he foreordains or does he foreordain because he foreknows?" The latter seems to please Arminians; the former seems to please Calvinists (though I am far from saying this is how all would frame it who refer to themselves as such).

Palmer [Palm.5P, 24f], often regarded as an extremist in Calvinism, lays the ground with a definition of foreordination: "...God's sovereign plan, whereby He decides all that is to happen in the entire universe. Nothing in the world happens by chance. God is in back of everything. He decides and causes all things to happen that do happen. He is not sitting on the sidelines wondering and perhaps fearing what is going to happen next. No, he has foreordained everything 'after the counsel of his will' (Eph. 1:11): the moving of a finger, the beating of a heart, the laughter of a girl, the mistake of a typist -- even sin. (See Gen. 45:5-8; Acts 4:27-28...)"

In principle the sovereignty of God, His ability to do as He pleases, is hardly to be denied. It would be foolish to suggest that anything happens by chance or that God may possibly wonder or fear the future. This is the error of neotheism (see link 2 below).

Yet Palmer's statement indicates a certain inflexibility in thinking and a certain interpretive assumption that leads to a logical absurdity if taken to other passages. Here is the full text of 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...

"All things" -- including the movement of every finger (which we will use as the exemplary indication), Palmer would say, is decided and caused by God. We agree that this is true, though not in the sense Palmer would think.

If by his statement Palmer means that some direct decision of God moves every finger, that God in eternity decreed, "JP will hit the 'g' key on March 3, 2002, at 6:02 PM," we do not deny that this is possible, but do not see that it is necessary.

Yet does not Ephesians say "all things"? Yes, but if this is inclusive of literally all things, then what of these passages?

Matt. 19:26 But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.

All things are possible for God -- yet as Skeptics are fond of pointing out, it is not possible for God to lie (Heb. 6:18). It is also obviously impossible for God to wish Himself out of existence, or to make 2 and 2 actually equal 5, or to make a stone so heavy He cannot lift it. "All things" here clearly does not include certain things but is expressive of a certain context.

One more example will suffice:

Mark 4:34 But without a parable spake he not unto them: and when they were alone, he expounded all things to his disciples.

As I have noted elsewhere, "All things? Including the living habits of sea slugs?" The example is facetious, but nevertheless makes a certain point. "All things" is not a literal expression but has contextual limits; the phrase expresses completeness within a context.

With that said, is there a contextual limit in Ephesians 1:11? There is, but it is not as easy to draw a line around it: the contextual limit is God's purpose, which no one has a full and detailed accounting of; the Bible gives us general outlines of God's purpose and will but does not detail all of the specifics of enactment, which would take up a book that would crack the earth's crust.

And the question then arises: Does God need to decree and cause, actively, every movement of a finger to accomplish His purpose? And does suggesting that He does not somehow denigrate Him?

Let us express the point in other terms. A certain parable runs like this:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe the horse was lost. For want of a horse the rider was lost. For want of a rider the battle was lost. For want of a battle the kingdom was lost. And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

If God wishes for a kingdom to fall, He may do so by controlling every battle, every rider, every horse, every molecule. Or He may do so by controlling a single nail, or by moving a grain of sand, or by diverting a single cannonball. By any means He chooses, His will and purpose may and will be accomplished.

And even if "all things" in Eph. 1:11 is universally inclusive, we may add, it does not indicate that God's direct influence in "all things" is at a "micro" level in which every conceivable element is personally controlled. God's will may be exercised over a "thing" like a battle via the mere movement of a single nail or a single cannonball. Some have even suggested that this is indicated in Scripture, in Hos. 6:4 and probably Is. 54:15, where God says that things have happened, but "not by me."

My question for Calvinists in this context would be, does it deny the sovereignty of God, His freedom to do as He pleases, to say that at times He may accomplish what He pleases through the most minimal of actions, and then allows what follows to take its natural course, because it likewise suits His purpose and will to do so? If so, how does this denigrate Him?

Palmer, on his extreme end, would say yes; other Calvinists would perhaps say no, and a couple writing to me have said as much. But these in turn open the door for further questions.

Biblically there is support for such a principle by example:

1 Kings 19:11-12 And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD. And, behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.

This passage has been used by some Skeptics to deny omnipresence, but it clearly does not do this; yet it also establishes a principle that God need not work through the most spectacular and obvious method to men. Indeed, to suggest that He must or always does could in some sense be taken as establishing limits to His actions (though I do not think anyone actually argues this).

Some Calvinist commentators point to various passages of specific events such as the selling of Joseph into slavery (Gen. 45-50), the crucifixion of Christ (Acts 2:23), and the military actions of the Assyrians (Is. 10). And they are not wrong to do so. Yet one cannot falsely generalize from these particulars and assume that God chooses to exercise His right of sovereignty in the same way for things like the moving of a finger. Perhaps He does, but perhaps He does not; perhaps He does at some times, but not at others.

Yet to suggest such a thing hardly removes any sovereignty from God, for a simple reason that I have yet to see dealt with by a Calvinist commentator (though I may see it in the future): The decision to do nothing is itself a sovereign decision. If this is not so, why do we blame people for not taking action when we think they should? And even then God's influence is far from removed in any sense. "For in him we live, and move, and have our being..." (Acts 17:28, a quote from a pagan poet which Paul uses in apparent agreement on this point). "And he is before all things, and by him all things consist" (Col. 1:17, the obvious context constraint being, that Christ is not before God).

These passages indicate a continual, sustaining relationship between God and His creation. If He released that sustenance, the creation would cease to exist. Therefore even when God decides to let matters run a certain course, His sovereignty is still being exercised. (R. C. Sproul comes very close to this, stating, "everything that happens must at least happen by God's permission." [Emphasis added; Spr.CG, 26]

Palmer [Palm.5P, 85] defends his Calvinist view by saying that the Calvinist "realizes that what he advocates is ridiculous" when he says, for example, that God foreordained Judas' sin, yet Judas is still to blame. "...[T]he Calvinist freely admits that his position is illogical, ridiculous, nonsensical, and foolish."

But Palmer has given up too quickly here. God's sovereign choice of controlling action over Judas' particular sin in betraying Jesus does not logically require that he make a sovereign choice of equal exercise of control over the rest of Judas' life. God is still ultimately responsible in a very important way, that does not absolve us of responsibility and free choice: As Creator, as what Aristotle would call the Prime Mover, God chose in all sovereignty to create this world when He could have created another, different world, or even none at all. In choosing this world over others, He also chose all that would happen in it (see more below).

Yet this does not erase our free choices: That God knows you will do X does not imply that you must do X, only that you will do X. God in choosing the world where you would do X makes Him the ultimate sovereign -- without absolving you of responsibility for your choice to do X.

The forces and factors that went into creating Judas (as our example) are beyond our ability to list, for we cannot know them. What made Judas suitable for God's purposes and will? Did God need to directly control every aspect of Judas' life, ranging all the way back to his ancestry? Maybe, but perhaps not. A single experience may have been enough to make Judas what he was in the unique sense required to fulfill God's purpose with reference to Christ.

Palmer appeals to the experience of Job before God, and he is right to do so: We do not have God's knowledge to understand what is good or what is not, and to know His purposes. Yet we may theoretically suppose that had God chosen some other to take Judas' role, Judas himself would have stood no less condemned at the end of time on other grounds. In fact, that is quite likely, so one could hardly say that any judgment on Judas for what he did is unfair. (Especially since the penalty is the same regardless: eternal punishment. It is not as though Judas will pay any larger penalty because of this particular sin -- is anyone willing to argue he had no sins other than this one, and thus did not already deserve what came to him?

Allow a facetious comparison I have made before. God chose Abraham, for Abraham fulfilled God's purpose precisely, but clearly a second person would have fulfilled God's purpose less precisely, and this is why they were not chosen and Abraham was. Now let me expand this point by a larger example.

One of my favorite fiction genres is that of alternate history, as by Harry Turtledove. A book by this author proposed to show what would have happened had George III of England and George Washington made peace, not war. As might be expected from a human production, the world was in many ways "better" but in many ways merely different and seldom "worse": air travel was by dirigibles; ground travel, including by cars, was by steam. Life's pace was more leisurely. The bald eagle was not seen as a heroic bird, but as a filthy scavenger. Alaska still belonged to Russia. An Iriquois nation existed in New York state. John F. Kennedy was alive and was the lecherous editor of a Boston periodical, never having been President. Los Angeles was a city named Victoria. And so on.

Such exercises in creativity are fun, but they make a certain point: Upon the smallest actions may history turn. And thus as well God can exercise sovereignty via a wide range of actions, not always necessarily a decree that you will move your finger "that a way". And like Job before God, we are far too ill-informed to say with any authority that what God has ordained thusly, and in any way, is wrong. To do so is like the pot objecting to the potter indeed, and is not "religious humility" but human arrogance.

The injection of primary causality in this venue is not new. Norman Geisler injects the same concept, in a somewhat different way and reaching somewhat different conclusions, when he speaks in Chosen But Free of God "knowingly determining and determinately knowing" and essentially concludes that the question, "Does God foreknow because he foreordains or does he foreordain because he foreknows?" is a misplaced question. To speak of God doing A "because" of B implies a chain of causality that would be impossible for a being who transcends time.

White [57] in reply quotes an observation of Feinberg "that God foreordains all things simultaneously does not mean that there is no logical order in what he foreordains." But Feinberg is not really grasping Geisler's point here: That God is aware of linear order does not thereby entail that God thinks or acts in a linear order; indeed such would again be impossible for a timeless being, since a linear or logical order requires the passage of time to exist and be enacted.

Geisler's solution -- that God acts based both on His sovereign will and his foreknowledge simultaneously (and I would add, acts with reference to each as He desires to accomplish His purposes) -- fits the requirements of logic and is contradicted by no exegete I know of (though I am still looking) except by generalizing falsely from particulars.

My conclusion such as can be drawn from this limited commentary is that I perceive a certain unwarranted extreme in what some Calvinist writers offer in this context. James White sums up in one of many ways by saying, "One is not a Potter who has no role in determining the shape, function, and destiny of the pots." [Whit.PF, 71]

I would say, "One is not a Potter who does not have the determinative role in deciding the shape, function, and destiny of the pots," and freeing the pots to whatever extent to become, of their free choice, of a certain shape or function that suits the Potter's will and purpose, is itself a sovereign decision that, as far as I can see, robs the Potter of no glory whatsoever, especially since the pots would owe whatever freedom they do have to the Potter's free and sovereign decision to release them.

The analogy breaks down inevitably, since pots do not make decisions (and there was no metaphor available for Paul that would express the point, since there exists no other creation-Creator relationship in which free choices can be found). Yet I can see no reason why such a view robs God of sovereignty -- if this is indeed what anyone would argue. And still as yet, no Calvinist who believes this has written me to explain how this is so.

And God answered Job out of the whirlwind: "Job, you don't know SQUAT."

Now let's expand on the points above by way of illustration. To create our illustration, we will begin by hypothesizing three worlds. For the entertainment of all my fellow Star Trek fans, we will name these worlds Vulcan, Tellar, and Andor.

Our illustrations here will necessarily be highly simplified. Obviously God's choice as Prime Mover is far from limited to three possible worlds. But since it is not possible to lay out, much less show in this space, all possible options, we will have to be limited in our presentation.

Let's now consider these three worlds from certain perspectives. Our assumption is that all three worlds, like ours, will be populated by beings with free will:

Issue Vulcan Tellar Andor
Population Over History 245 billion 178 billion 345 billion
Number Saved 32 billion 117 billion 118 billion

Well, so much for the benefits of logic! (Inside joke for Star Trek fans.) Now all of you readers would easily suggest that Tellar is the world to make out of these three.

Simple enough? So it seems, but let's now work out some of the processes involved in getting those 117 billion to their destination. (The reader will note that we have not hypothesized a world where all are saved. It would be our assertion that no such world is logically possible, but that is an issue for another context.)

The doctrine of total depravity would suggest that all 178 billion of those Tellarites over their history can make no choice for God without God's help. But let's back up for a bit and discuss the matter of God's level of exercise of sovereignty. We'll need to hypothesize, for convenience, two "turning point" events in the history of Tellar. Then we'll hypothesize three levels of God's exercise of sovereignty. (In other words, 30% may mean just pulling a nail out of a few horseshoes; 55% may mean somehow directing riders; 85% may mean pulling a castle wall down, and so on.)

Obviously this is highly simplified as the number of events and the number of levels of direct involvement by God are potentially infinite in scope. But it will serve as an illustration.

Event 1 Event 2
Involvement Level: 30%
Involvement Level: 55%
Involvement Level: 85%

God's level of exercised sovereignty would clearly have a profound effect on the results of each event. We will express the effects in terms of number of persons saved. Start with event 1:

Event 1 Event 2
Involvement Level: 30% 45,000
Involvement Level: 55% 75,000
Involvement Level: 85% 38,000

How could being involved more mean less people will be saved? Ask a Skeptic -- the one who sees God as an unwelcome intruder in their lives. Some persons may react different when confronted subtly rather than directly.

But wait, because there is another issue. Event 1 may or may not be tied in to Event 2. If it is, then what happens? Then God's sovereign choice in Event 1 may affect what happens in Event 2. So now let's make two more tables suggesting what might happen depending on which route God takes:

Event 1 Event 2
Involvement Level: 30% 45,000 62,000
Involvement Level: 55% 82,000
Involvement Level: 85% 13,000

Event 1 Event 2
Involvement Level: 30% 5,000
Involvement Level: 55% 75,000 8,000
Involvement Level: 85% 1,000

If you picked 55% involvement level for event 1, you just erred -- far fewer people were saved. And that's once again why we are not God.

Our illustration here is profoundly simple, because as noted, the multiplicity of events and factors is far beyond our comprehension. Only God can keep it all together and truly know what the best route is that will result in the fulfillment of His purpose. It is little wonder that the answer to Job from the whirlwind was essentially, "As if you know." Skeptics who demand a better explanation need to have more humility: They don't have the time or the knowledge to get a complete rundown of the multiplicity, and it is hardly as though the sovereign Creator owes any of us an explanation.

A reader has added some helpful observations gleaned from William Lane Craig's material on God's Middle Knowledge. Craig maintains that God's omniscience means that He knows everything, not just each and every actuality but all the potentialities as well. Within this He knows not only who will reject Him under any and all circumstances, but who will accept Him and precisely what circumstances will be required to affect their decision. In His providence (a part of His omnipotence) He therefore places those individuals who will accept Him into the requisite circumstances. Those who would reject Him in any-and-every circumstance are either placed "out in the sticks" (God knowing that they would never respond to Him, so why "waste the effort" and/or have them "in the way" as it were) or are placed as sort of "necessary fillers".

Madelyn Murray O'Hare comes to mind as a good example of one on the "necessary filler" assignment. As far as anyone on this side knows she never did (nor ever would have) accepted God's salvation. But she had a son whom God knew would respond to His call if he just grew up in the unique circumstance of having Madelyn for his mother. He now preaches the Gospel and has helped birth many into the kingdom.

With these things in mind we now take a preliminary look at the keystone passage for unconditional election -- Romans 9:6-26. Paul is answering the question, as Palmer puts it, "How can the Israelites, who had all the blessings of God in the past, be spiritually lost?" [32]

Did God's promises fail? No, says Paul (9:6), first of all the point is missed: the true Israel is not those who are physically descended from Abraham but those who are God's people, those of the promise. Then:

9:10-13 And not only this; but when Rebecca also had conceived by one, even by our father Isaac; (For the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth;) It was said unto her, The elder shall serve the younger. As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.

The typical Skeptical question in the preliminary is, "Isn't this unfair to Esau?" Not so fast. Consider this theoretical yet simplified scenario:

Jacob Chosen Esau Chosen
Maximum Number Saved 178 billion 155 billion

So, Job, what would you do? But Paul has anticipated objections as well:

9:14-18 What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid. 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. So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy. For the scripture saith unto Pharaoh, Even for this same purpose have I raised thee up, that I might show my power in thee, and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth. Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth.

Is there unrighteousness with God? Hardly. "Why not choose me?" -- Esau. At the very least it may be said in reply, "Because look what happens if you do."

Now obviously we are using mere number of saved here as an exemplary hypothesis -- the multiplicity of possibilities and events is much, much more involved. Only God can manage the multiplicity of possibilities. That's why Paul's final answer is the same as it was to Job: "Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus?" In other words, what do you know?

But we have not covered every aspect as yet. The crux of election is Romans 9:16 --

So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy.

It is our contention that Romans 9 may be better understood in terms of the rubric of primary causality. But we anticipate the objection that we would be thereby reading into the text a concept not found therein. Our answer is that we would not expect it to be found within Romans 9 or any explanation offered by Paul -- because such an "explanation expectation" would be the product of a low-context mind rather than a high-context one, like Paul's. (We will also need to take a closer look at the meaning of "mercy" below.)

The thinking of the ancient Hebrew is not, as ours, concerned with precision. As Marvin Wilson points out in Our Father Abraham, "The nature of Hebrew [the language] is to paint verbal pictures with broad strokes of the brush. The Hebrew authors of Scripture were not so much interested in the fine details and harmonious pattern of what is painted as they were in the picture as a whole. Theirs was primarily a description of what the eye sees rather than what the mind speculates." Wilson compares this to listening to an orchestra -- the Hebrew would be less concerned with each instrument being finely tuned and fully audible, than with the performance as a whole.

In terms of theology, this means that God's existence is never argued, but assumed; "God is not understood philosophically, but functionally." God is thought of in terms of what He does. Wilson concludes, therefore, that the Hebrews would have had "little or no interest" in many issues we consider important, including the debate over free will and predestination.

Second, Jewish thinking, unlike our own, involved the use of what Wilson calls "block logic." In another article, we explained some points about ancient Jewish and Near Eastern wisdom literature which has applicability here:

The paradoxical nature of Ecclesiastes -- a book filled with statements regarded as being in tension (for example, on one hand mulling over the despair of life, then shortly thereafter encouraging the enjoyment of life) -- has been variously identified as being because Ecclesiastes is either a dialogue of a man debating with himself, "torn between what he cannot help seeing and what he still cannot help believing," [Kidner, Wisdom of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes, 91], or else as the author's "challenge to the man of the world to think his own position through to its bitter end, with a view to seeking something less futile."

I prefer the second interpretation, but in either case, the compositional principle is the same, and derives from the ancient Near Eastern methodology, which we might loosely compare to a Hegelian case of combining thesis and antithesis, to arrive at a synthesis; or else for sports fanatics to a game of tennis in which the ball is batted back and forth between opposing points to arrive at a consensus.

In this regard Ecclesiastes is related to other ANE literature with the same, or similar, content and methodology. Works like A Dialogue About Human Misery and Pessimistic Dialogue Between Master and Servant (on which, Murphy comments, the "dexterity the slave displays in affirming both the positive and negative aspects of a situation is reminiscent of [Ecclesiastes'] own style" -- Murphy commentary on Eccl, xliii] from Babylon; The Man Who Was Tired of Life from Egypt; and the book of Job from the OT, are all examples of this genre in which problems were discussed and resolved via dialogue.

Hebrew "block logic" operated on similar principles. "...[C]oncepts were expressed in self-contained units or blocks of thought. These blocks did not necessarily fit together in any obviously rational or harmonious pattern, particularly when one block represented the human perspective on truth and the other represented the divine. This way of thinking created a propensity for paradox, antimony, or apparent contradiction, as one block stood in tension -- and often illogical relation -- to the other. Hence, polarity of thought or dialectic often characterized block logic."

Examples of this in practice are the alternate hardening of Pharaoh's heart by God, or by Pharaoh himself; and the reference to loving Jacob while hating Esau -- both of which, significantly, are referred to often by Calvinist writers.

Wilson continues: "Consideration of certain forms of block logic may give one the impression that divine sovereignty and human responsibility were incompatible. The Hebrews, however, sense no violation of their freedom as they accomplish God's purposes."

The back and forth between human freedom and divine sovereignty is a function of block logic and the Hebrew mindset. Writers like Palmer who proudly declare that they believe what they read in spite of what they see as an apparent absurdity are ultimately viewing the Scriptures, wrongly, through their own Western lens in which they assume that all that they read is all that there is.

What this boils down to is that Paul presents us with a paradox in Romans 9, one which he, as a Hebrew, saw no need to explain. "..[T]he Hebrew mind could handle this dynamic tension of the language of paradox" and saw no need to unravel it as we do. And that means that we are not obliged to simply accept Romans 9 at "face value" as it were, because it is a problem offered with a solution that we are left to think out for ourselves. There will be nothing illicit about inserting concepts like primary causality, otherwise unknown in the text.

The rabbis after the NT explicated the paradox a bit further. They did not conclude, however -- as is the inclination in the Calvinist camp -- that "a totally unalterable future lay ahead, for such a view contradicted God's omnipotence and mercy." They also argued that "unless God's proposed destiny for man is subject to alteration, prayer to God to institute such alteration" is nonsensical.

Of course the rabbis were not inspired in their teachings. Yet their views cannot be simply discarded with a grain of salt, as they are much closer to the vein than either Calvin or Arminius, by over a millennium and by an ocean of thought.

Now for a look at Romans 9, which we supplement with observations from our essay on mercy (link 3 below) as it was understood in that time, as well as some observations from a helpful reader. We also expanded this section in link 4 below.

As noted above, Paul's purpose is to answer the question, "Why aren't more of Israel accepting Jesus?" Now on the surface this seems to be a question that is obvious to answer, and one has to give Paul credit for his patience. It doesn't take many pages of reading in the OT to discover that Israel wasn't that good at staying loyal to God, and a sufficient answer to the "Why?" is the book of Kings. I am reminded of Skeptics who scornfully ask how God could possibly send them to hell, and ask this knowing how little risk there would be and how light the burden is of a commitment to Christ, even as they continue to say that they would never worship a God who issues divine judgments that they think are excessive.

Nevertheless, Paul patiently explains, again, that there is more to Israel than a physical descent. Then we have the matter of Jacob and Esau. Why one over the other? As we have suggested, one might theorize that under Esau, fewer would be saved than Jacob; or otherwise, God's purpose was not served by Esau as it was by Jacob.

Yet this has not been suggested, as yet, by any Calvinist commentary that I have seen on Romans 9. Rather it seems that there is a stumbling block to this interpretation involving 9:16 -- "So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy." The conclusion reached from this is that, as White puts it, "There was nothing in the twins that determined the choice." [208, emphasis added] That is why Paul makes it clear that the matter was decided before the twins were born; thus the source of election is solely in God.

I am not sure whether White would disagree with what follows, but as the matter is stated by both he and Piper ("not merely prior to their good or evil deeds, but...also completely independently of them") there seems to be a certain dissonance with a later portion of Romans 9. Paul goes on to analogically compare men to vessels made by the Potter. Doesn't this indicate that vessels are made for certain purposes? (Of course it does.) And does this not suggest that to fulfill their purpose the vessels are made a certain way, and that there is something about them which fulfills the purpose?

The point I see missed here is that the indication is not so much "completely independent" of what was in the twins, as what was in them that God as the Potter (and Prime Mover) created in them to enact His sovereign will. And it is not as though Esau could "compete" for Jacob's place, or as though Jacob could boast because God made him more in line with the purpose He had established. We cannot legitimately boast of being a better runner if our legs are equipped with booster rockets.

Consider this now as well with reference to Pilch and Malina's observation that in an ancient context, "mercy" is better rendered as "gratitude" or "steadfast love" -- as in, "the debt of interpersonal obligations for unrepayable favors received." Mercy is not involved with feelings of compassion, as today, but the "paying of one's debt of interpersonal obligation by forgiving a trivial debt." To say, "Lord, have mercy!" (Matt. 20:31) means, "Lord, pay up your debt of interpersonal obligation to us!" Far from being a plea of the hapless, it is a request to pay back previously earned favor from our patron (God) whose client we are.

Let it be remembered that this is not said snobbishly as though God "owes" us something naturally. By comparison God made a compact with Abraham and willingly underwent the ritual of contract (passing between the halved animals) which essentially indicated that if He broke His contract with Abraham, He would be divided in half like the animals. God in His love was willing to send His Son, and is also willing to place Himself under contractual obligation to us, to start a relationship of "ongoing reciprocity," in which "those toward whom one has such a debt are equally obliged to maintain the relationship by further favors..."

The proper social definition of "mercy" brings an interesting twist to, for example, the great Calvinist keystone in Romans 9: "So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy." Understood as the NT writers wrote it, this means: "So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that pays His debt of personal obligation to us as our patron."

This leads as well to a comment made by a reader. The Calvinist seizes on verses 16 and 18 for the point that God's showing of mercy to specific persons in a manner wholly independent of the person's attributes or conduct. But then what of Romans 9:32, which explains that biological Israel has not attained righteousness "because they sought it not by faith but as it were by the works of the law"?

Faith, as we have noted elsewhere (link 5 below), contextually means loyalty within the client-patron relationship. Verse 32 suggests that the mercy -- the fulfilling of obligations -- was withheld by God because of Israel's attributes or conduct, that is, the wrong way of seeking righteousness. Romans 9:16 becomes a statement that God will fulfill His obligations (decided of His own sovereign accord) to those with whom He has a relationship, and verse 18 adds that God will harden those with whom He has no relationship, who are not His clients.

The Calvinist strongly stresses the not in this passage, and the argument seems to be that this eliminates personal characteristics (even God-given ones?) as a basis for God's election. But then what is the basis for election? Some, like Palmer, say that a "searching human mind" finds no answer. Other commentators offer little more than, "That's just the way it is." I think they have given up too quickly and offer these points for consideration.

First: Consider again our example of the three worlds. There is no possible world in which all are saved. God as Prime Mover, He who in sovereign freedom chose one world over all the others possible, in this manner thereby in essence decrees as well who the elect and non-elect will be, without in any way removing our ability to freely choose. Remember that just because God knows we will do X does not mean that we must do X, as if by force.

Second: The dwelling upon of "not" in 9:16 fails to do justice to another particular of Hebrew thought. For reference let me bring up a point from another essay on an unrelated subject:

Jeremiah 7:22 For in the day that I brought your ancestors out of Egypt, I did not speak to them or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices...

By [this Skeptic]'s line of thinking, Jeremiah 7:22 "stands in flagrant contradiction of what the last four books of the Pentateuch say" with their many commands of offerings and sacrifices. Presumably we are to think that Jeremiah represents some "anti-cultus" faction that denies the Mosaic heritage -- some would say, that he is speaking against a recent forgery of Deuteronomy "discovered" in the Temple.

The simple answer to this notes that this is rather the use of hyperbole to effect a point. The purpose of this phrase is to show the relative importance of sacrifices, etc. in terms of inward attitudes...

...Jeremiah (as well as other Biblical writers - cf. Amos 5:21-5, Micah 6:1-8, Is. 1:10-17) here employs a type of idiom designed to grab the attention of his hearers and cause his message to be noticed and remembered...in our verse (22), a rhetorical negation is used to bring attention to the fact that internal posture is more important than external ritual. By expressing the matter in terms of a negation, the hearer/reader is first shocked, then realizes from the admonitions following what the actual point is: As it is expressed in 1 Samuel 15:22 --

Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the LORD? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.

This sort of outrageous, rhetorical teaching technique was quite common to Semitic and ANE culture...Bright [Brig. Jer, 57] speaks for the overwhelming majority of commentators (conservatives, moderates, and liberals alike) when he writes of Jer. 7:22--

It is unlikely, however, that it is to be taken either as a categorical rejection of the sacrificial system as such, or as a statement that there was no sacrifice in the wilderness.

The point, he continues, is rather that "God's essential demands did not concern ritual matters, but the keeping of the Covenant stipulations." For this view, see also Alle.Jer, 64-5; Clem.Jer, 46-7; Huey.JerLam, 109; Thomp.Jer, 287-8.

The negation idiom emerges from the Hebrew word lo, which transliterates as "not." On this matter, the principal study has been done by Whitney [Whit.Jer 7:22, 152], who describes the usage of lo in Jer. 7:22 as "a form hyperbolic verbal irony intended to intensify the contrast between what is present in the mind of the audience and what ought to be present." Whitney shows this idiomatic usage of lo elsewhere in the OT: Gen. 45:7-8, Ex. 16:8, 1 Sam. 8:7, 1 Sam. 20:14-15, Job 2:10, Jer. 16:14-15, Ezek. 16:47 and Hos. 6:6. His conclusion agrees with that of Feinberg [Fein. CommJer, 75]:

...The negative in Hebrew often supplies the lack of the comparative - i.e., without excluding the thing denied, the statement implies only the prior importance of the things set in contrast to it.

Likewise, Laymon [Laym. IntB, 380]:

Hebrew idiom allows the denial of one thing in order to assert another, and the intention here is not wholly to deny but only to relegate to second place.

We therefore conclude with these scholars that Jer. 7:22 is in no way at odds with the Pentateuch. [X]'s case for disharmony is based upon his inability and/or refusal to grasp the passage in its socio-linguistic context, and it therefore fails to hold up under scrutiny.

And thus we now pose the Calvinists another question: Is there any reason why the "not" in Romans 9:16 (as well as in a similar passage, John 1:12-13) should not be read in the same sense as the "not" in Jer. 7:22 -- as a negation idiom, not excluding the thing denied, but rather, stressing the prior importance of God's sovereignty in contrast? Given the Hebraic background, I think the burden is upon those who would read "not" absolutely rather than otherwise.

In all of this nothing is denied in terms of God's absolute freedom to do as He pleases. It is a well-taken point that God owes none of us salvation and offers it only because He is merciful and compassionate. [Spr.CG, 33; though not in the way Sproul supposes]

But return now to the matter of our theoretical world. It is not logically possible, again, to create a world of free will in which all will be saved. God as Prime Mover, in decreeing a certain world to be, in effect determines as well the elect and non-elect of that world in a way that does not place in man's hand any "final say" about personal destiny (for God's choice to create and sustain this world, as well as offer grace, make Him the ultimate "final sayer" on every matter), yet also does not absolve a man of responsibility for free choice.

Now if such non-elect are inevitable, it falls into place that these inevitable "vessels of destruction" -- like Pharaoh -- will certainly be used by God for His own purposes, to decree His glory, to "make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy" and thus be an avenue for God to proclaim his glory and righteousness (as Piper sees the point of this passage; Pip.JG, 78: "By punishing Israel [God] magnified his glory by showing that idolatry is a dreadful evil worthy of destruction." [92]).

And now the time has come to tie the loose ends together, and tie this matter in with total depravity, which we previously reckoned to be a clear Biblical teaching. (Link 6 below.) There is a school of thought (associated with Arminianism, but not exclusive to it) that believes in what is termed prevenient grace. In essence, it argues that the spiritually dead sinner is given a "shot" of grace which lifts them to the point that they are able to choose Christ and be saved.

Calvinist response to this concept finds, as it does in the previous context of the Potter, an offense to the glory of God. White [178] offers a representative judgment: "If salvation is in any way synergistic in its ultimate accomplishment...then God's glorious grace must share glory with the 'free will decisions' of men!" (Emphasis in original.)

Now by no means would we fault White for wishing to glorify God in every aspect. Yet as above, we ask the question of how such synergy actually in any sense allows men to "share" the glory of God. Note our comparison above to the person with rocket boosters on their legs. If they win a race, can they "glory" in being the fastest runner? Well, yes, they "can" if they wish to look exceptionally foolish. They may claim glory, but to do so is invalid.

Ephesians 2:9 states that salvation is "...not of works, lest any man should boast." This hardly can mean that some foolish person could not make an invalid boast in this context. At the same time, I find it curious that Sproul can see sanctification as synergistic [158] and yet not see this as taking glory from God.

Sproul [Spr.CG, 33] notes that "if grace is obligated it no longer becomes grace. The very essence of grace is that it is undeserved." In that light I am waiting for an explanation of how receiving grace somehow equates with "deserving" it. Indeed, as shown in the item on irresistible grace (link 7 below), the ancient understanding of "grace", and "faith," would not even see this as an issue.

And a point I have yet to see explained as well is how making a decision qualifies as a "work." The Jews were forbidden to work on the Sabbath; did this prohibit them from thinking or making a decision? Is there any evidence that the Greek word behind "works" (ergon) ever refers to a thought or a decision? It seems to me that this is a flawed premise upon which the Calvinistic case rests.

A secondary objection centers upon verses like 2 Timothy 1:9, which reads: "Who hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began..." Several passages like this one are said to teach a specific grace towards the elect that was not intended for the non-elect.

Practically speaking this relates to the next petal in TULIP, limited atonement (which we actually end up agreeing with, in essence -- link 8 below); but even for the present context it seems fallacious to generalize from this particular. That the grace was given to us in eternity does not thereby exclude it having been theoretically available to others -- the text does not say this at all; it is concerned with us, not them. The fate of and regard for "them" is not at all stated and we cannot merely assume it. But more on this when we get to irresistible grace.

Sproul raises a third objection [70ff]. Some see prevenient grace as taught here:

John 6:44 No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day.

In response Sproul notes that the same Greek word is used in James 2:6 of the rich "dragging" the poor into court, and in Acts 16:19 of Paul and Silas being "dragged" before the authorities. The implication: The persons involved cannot help themselves. This is closer to irresistible grace (used only upon the elect) than prevenient grace.

I respect Sproul as a teacher immensely, yet it is clear he has not worked in a prison, as I have! Even the poor, even Paul and Silas, though "compelled" had options to get out of the situation. They could have bitten and scratched their "draggers" or gouged their eyes out. They could have run or fought. Of course that may well have cost them their lives, but then that matches just as well with the sinner fighting off prevenient grace. You do so at the cost of your eternal life.

Finally, there is a broad objection against prevenient grace that Sproul offers [124-5]. "Why did you say yes to prevenient grace while [others] said no? Was it because you were more righteous than they were? If so, then indeed you have something in which to boast." Why, it is asked, do some cooperate with prevenient grace while others do not?

Oddly enough the answer seems to lie in a discussion we had with a Skeptic on similar matters. The broader question, also asked by Sproul, is what it is that motivates our choices. Like our Skeptic, Sproul made the point that all of our actions are motivated by reasons and that we merely choose our strongest inclination of the moment. How this is determined to be absolutely and universally true is not clear, since it is hardly possible to put our inclinations in test tubes and see that this is so.

Our thesis is that at the root of the reaction to prevenient grace there lies not a matter of being more or less righteous but, from the context of human experience and knowledge, a "wildcard" that permits us to make the choice.

Is this reason to boast? Hardly. God equips us with this wildcard, an ability He also has; we would be fools to boast of it, or of accepting His grace.

Our conclusion, such as can be reached prior to any possible answer to questions offered above, is that the U in TULIP is not grounded as much in Scripture as it is in Western philosophical assumptions and thoughtforms being applied to Scripture. The same may also be said, though, for the Arminian alternative. As such our finding is that neither side in this debate is completely right.

Update: To my surprise there is a name for this view I have proposed, and it is one advocated by various Christian philosophers like Plantinga and Craig, in various forms: it is called libertarianism. At any rate, we have recently read through John Frame's No Other God, a critique of open theism, and in the process of critiquing that view Frame also drops a few lines against libertarianism. We'd like to look at these here.

  1. Frame appeals several times to Biblical data about "God's sovereign control over human decisions."

    We have addressed this above:

    Calvinist commentators point to various passages of specific events such as the selling of Joseph into slavery (Gen. 45-50), the crucifixion of Christ (Acts 2:23), and the military actions of the Assyrians (Is. 10). And they are not wrong to do so. Yet one cannot falsely generalize from these particulars and assume that God chooses to exercise His right of sovereignty in the same way for things like the moving of a finger. Perhaps He does, but perhaps He does not; perhaps He does at some times, but not at others. Yet to suggest such a thing hardly removes any sovereignty from God, for a simple reason that I have yet to see dealt with by a Calvinist commentator (though I may see it in the future): The decision to do nothing is itself a sovereign decision.
  2. It is objected that Scripture "does not explicitly teach the existence of libertarian freedom."

    Well, it doesn't "explicitly" teach ex nihilo creation, the Trinity, or other doctrines we hold true either; these are things we deduce from the text and from background material, assembling the pieces like a puzzle, and are also things a high-context reader would take for granted. As Frame does not even deal with any of the relevant background material (for example, reading Romans 9 in terms of Hebrew block logic) this is rather an odd objection. Frame also does not consider at all the possibility of God as the source of human responsibility in terms of primary causality.

  3. Frame notes that "Scripture teaches that in heaven...we will not be free to sin. So the highest state of human existence will be a state without libertarian freedom."

    Frame offers no cite for this, and I cannot find such a cite offhand, but is it not considerable that the combination of the Spirit's influence with our past experience will be the factors that keep us from sin in Heaven?

  4. Frame objects that libertarian freedom is never referred to in civil courts and "never assumed to be a condition of moral responsibility."

    I honestly wonder what courtrooms Frame has been in? This principle is indeed the foundation of all civil judgment; otherwise why are the mentally ill excused from guilt? Frame is misdirected when he says that to show a bank robber is guilty, it would have to be shown that his "decision to rob a bank had no cause."

    Here is an error of excess: Sproul made the point that all of our actions are motivated by reasons and that we merely choose our strongest inclination of the moment. We do not say ALL our actions are so motivated, but it is clear that a great number of them are. In most cases following such inclinations is of no moment: what shirt we choose to wear, for example, because the consequences of such an action are seldom of great importance. By this paradigm we can make a libertarian choice to follow our strongest inclination, or ignore it. Frame simply misses this distinction.

Though Frame lays out 17 separate arguments against libertarianism, they are essentially summed up in major details by the above. Perhaps he could offer more, but it is clear that his responses do not deal sufficiently with the arguments for libertarianism or with the Biblical background data.


  1. Link
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  • Palm.5P -- Palmer, Edwin. The Five Points of Calvinism.
  • Pip.JG -- Piper, John. The Justification of God.
  • Spr.CG -- Sproul, R. C. Chosen by God.
  • Whit.PF -- White, James. The Potter's Freedom.