My brief answer can be found in a guest post on the Crossway blog.
Filed under Biblical Theology, Books, Center of Biblical Theology
I find this answer to be quite disturbing. What would we think of a father who alternates between beating his children up and tenderly caring for them, just so that the latter experience will stand in sharper contrast to the former?
God is certainly glorified when he rescues us from trouble and by turning terrible evil to his good purposes (Romans 8:28). But I find it an intolerable thought that God intentionally brings evil about so that he can be glorified when he saves through judgment. The Apostle Paul vehemently rejected that line of reasoning (“let us do evil in order that good may come”, Romans 3:8) when it came to his human interlocutors. Are we supposed to make an exception for God?
Thanks for your note! This is a terrible analogy because it fails to recognize how all humanity stands guilty before God and deserving of everlasting punishment. If your objection is to that, your problem is with the Bible itself, particularly Romans 5, not with my argument.
I would invite you to read my book, assuming that you have an open mind . . .
Although I’m not convinced that the biblical language of us being ‘dead in our sins’ or reaping the wages of sin, which is death, means that our default trajectory is towards eternal punishment (which I view as an eschatological punishment resulting not from our current sinful state but from the refusal to accept Jesus’ redemption), I don’t so much have a problem with that as with the idea that God predestines some of us to inevitably fall away into eternal punishment, in order to serve as a demonstration to the rest who are saved of the awesomeness of his wrath and the magnitude of his mercy.
To tweak my original metaphor, let’s say a father needs to deal with a bunch of rebellious children who knowingly and deliberately played with matches and started a fire that badly burned them and the house they live in. What would we say if the father decided to give medicines to just some of the children, and left the rest to die of their burns as an example to the others of how bad it is to play with matches and what a great salvation was effected? Even granted the fact that the children were fully culpable and deliberate in their mischief, I think we would take issue with that father.
In any case, I think your post is a bad exegesis of Romans 9:22-23. I interpret that verse through the lens of Romans 2:4. God has patience with the vessels of wrath, even though they are ‘ripe for destruction’ in order that they might become vessels of mercy, that is repent. I don’t think it implies that there are two predetermined groups of people, the vessels of wrath and vessels of mercy, and God has patience with the former in order to ultimately put on a good judgment show for the latter.
I will read your book, it sounds very interesting. And like I said, I do agree with the idea that God can bring great good out of terrible evil, and save his people by judging the wicked. Again, my objection is to the idea that God intentionally brings about that evil and predestines those who are going to be the objects of his wrath.
I would define Ephesians 2:1’s deadness in trespasses in sins they way the next few phrases exposit it. These phrases speak of carrying out the desires of the flesh and of the mind and of being under the sway of the prince of the power of the air, whom I take to be Satan. So I think that being dead in sin is being dead to God and alive to Satan, or, as Paul has it in Romans, alive to sin and dead to righteousness.
I would tweak your metaphor and say that God posted a “do not play with matches” sign, then sent messengers to try to get the kids to put the matches down, then caused those kids to sense that by playing with the matches they were rebelling against God, who had done nothing but bless them. Then, they aren’t just burned, they die in the flames, and they deserve to face God’s just punishment forever. In Exodus 33:19 God declares that he shows mercy to whom he pleases. That applies to our metaphor. God is pleased to resurrect some of the dead children, but he does not owe resurrection to any of them. God doesn’t owe mercy to anyone. He freely distributes mercy as he pleases. This is what makes it so astonishing to receive mercy.
I wish we could sit down together and trace through the argument of Romans 9:1–24 together. I believe my reading of the passage accounts for all the details in the text and incorporates Romans 2:4 as well.
And again, I think that if you have a problem with predestination, you have a big problem with Ephesians 1:4–5, and moving out from that, I think you have a problem with an omniscient creator who knows everything that will issue from what he chooses to bring into being. Can a finite being choose his way out of God’s foreknowledge?
Don’t misunderstand me: humans make real choices, and we are truly responsible for the choices that we make. At the same time, God is sovereign and omniscient. Divine sovereignty has to be held in tension with human responsibility.
Thanks Dr. Hamilton for your patient, measured replies. I’d love to sit down and have a long talk (or several) about these issues. I am a committed Christian with regard to the basics of the faith as outlined in the creeds but am still undecided on several major inter-denominational issues like foreknowledge, atonement, inerrancy, etc. Well, perhaps more than undecided on predestination: I do see clear logical and moral challenges to its credibility.
I’m concerned that your second paragraph tweaking of my modified metaphor focuses too heavily on the specific experience of Israel. Yes, God certainly held Israel to high standards because he made himself clearly known, established and covenant and then regularly sent prophets to warn them of the consequences of their rebellion. But what about those pagan nations other than say Ninevah and others in close proximity? Does not Paul say in his Areopagus speech that God ‘winked at’ the former times of ignorance (Acts 17:30)? It is only now that Jesus has been exalted that God calls everyone to ‘turn or burn’ as it were.
Yes, God does say that He will show mercy on whom He chooses. But is it not significant than in most passages where that assertion is made the problem is not defending God from accusations of cruelty because of his choice to damn some, but precisely to defend his justice in the face of His extravagant mercy (Isaiah 55:7-8)! In the letter to the Romans Paul echoes the Exodus passage in response to Jews who were complaining that God was being unfair in extending His grace to the Gentiles. Frankly, I find it troubling that some try to justify God dispensing as little mercy as possible, when I find the biblical emphasis to be the opposite. It is the extravagance of God’s mercy that must be defended, not its particularity!
With regard to foreknowledge, I tentatively suggest that, just as there are some dynamical systems which tend towards the same final state even when they start from a variety of initial conditions, God has predetermined the crucial events of his plan of salvation while leaving many of the specific details open. For example, I agree that the crucifixion took place according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, but without the key players (except for Christ, of course!) being determined in advance. I find Paul’s phrase “in the fulness of time” suggestive here: God waited until all the pieces were set, until He saw that the time was right and events would unfold as He had planned. Just as parents allow their children free reign in the playground as long as they are convinced they will be safe, I think God gives His creatures as much freedom as possible consistent with His providential plan for history.
Thanks for your kind note. These things are mysterious, and the challenge for us is to hold everything that the Bible teaches together. I don’t want to take anything away from what the Bible says about God, nor do I want to take anything away from what the Bible says about the astonishing capacity that humans have as people made in God’s image. It’s as Chesterton said, furious opposites inextricably linked together powerfully pulling in opposite directions and never coming apart (something like that he said).
That to say, though it may not be clear to us how sovereignty and election and predestination can fit with human freedom and responsibility, the Bible teaches both and we can’t let go of (or redefine) either.
2nd paragraph: God never winks at sin! That’s not what Paul is saying in Acts 17. You seem to have a concern for those who have never heard. Praise God for that. I pray that it will make you more passionate about evangelism and prayer and that it will not cause you to trim down the Bible’s teaching. You might be interested in my review-essay of a book arguing for inclusivism. You can find it here.
3rd paragraph: Actually, the problem in Romans 9 that Paul is dealing with is that the Jews have rejected the Messiah. So he explains that this is not because God’s word or promise has failed, rather, not all Israel is Israel – that is, not every Israelite is elect (Rom 9:6). Paul proves that not everyone who descends from Abraham is elect from Scripture in 9:7–13, then answers questions about whether this makes God unfair (9:14–18). Paul then raises and answers the question about whether this means humans can be held responsible (9:19–23). I agree with you that God’s mercy is astonishing, and this is emphasized by the biblical authors as they point to those who did not receive mercy so that they can say to those who did things like “Jacob I loved, Esau I hated” — look at that text in Malachi 1 — Israel is asking God for proof that he loves them, and he tells them to compare the way he treated them with the way he has treated the descendants of Esau. He wants Israel to see how mercifully they have been treated.
Last paragraph: You seem inclined toward open theism. I don’t think that what the Bible says about God can be squared with those ideas. I would encourage you to look at the writings of Bruce Ware (God’s Lesser Glory and God’s Greater Glory – 2 diff. books), and you might check out some of John Piper’s works.
I hope this helps!
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