Beyond the extremes

One of the reasons I started this weblog was to develop a decent theology through writing and good feedback that will eventually land me somewhere between the two extremes of Reformed Theology (Calvinism) and liberal forms of Arminianism. Part of my quest for answers includes reading literature by authors who fall into the Reformed Theology camp who have beliefs that I am repulsed by. But, just in case I misunderstood the few men who I discussed the subject with, I thought I would go buy a book by one of the leaders of the movement and make sure I understand. I don’t want to be tripped up by semantic confusion.

I chose a book by R.C. Spraul, “What is Reformed Theology?” and read the chapter talking about why your eternal destiny is not your choice. Spraul is one of the foremost leaders of this theological movement, so if he says anything about the details of Calvinism, it holds a lot of weight with its adherents. On page 160, he says the following:

“God considers the mass of mankind in their fallen condition. He intervenes in the lives of the elect, while he does not intervene in the lives of the reprobate. One group receives mercy, while the other group receives justice.”

So what is the difference between elect and the reprobate? Apparently, God’s whim. Since men and women from both groups were destined for hell before they were even conceived, there appears to be no measure for why one person is elect and the other is not other than God rolling dice. It seems that God is ‘just’ in sending everyone to hell because all people who ever lived should rightly be sent there for simply existing, a tenant of Calvinism called total depravity. But God, in His mercy, decides to scoop down and save a few wretches by reaching into their brain and turning on the “God switch” which has no ‘off’ setting, a tenant known as unconditional election. Spraul says that this is a very reasonable way to think about God’s relationship with humankind. Reasonable? Compared with what other view, may I ask? He says, because there is a far worse one called ‘hyper-Calvinism’ which states that God influences the reprobate to do evil acts just to make their damnation sure. He describes this mindset and is horrified by it:

“Just as God intervenes in the lives of the elect to create faith in their hearts, so similarly, he works in the hearts of the reprobate to work unbelief.”

But I am confused. How is working unbelief in the hearts of the reprobate any different than creating them reprobate in the first place and never lifting a finger to help them? Is not inaction in effect a decision, thus making God responsible for their wickedness? Is anyone else confused?
So I guess I turn to the Bible to answer some of these questions. What did Jesus say about who he would reach out to and what he though of people righteous or reprobate:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16 (Jesus)

“But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” John 12:32 (Jesus)

“Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, house of Israel?'” Ezekiel 33:11 (God)

So I guess that I understand Calvinism after all. I discovered today that followers of Arminianism also believe in the concept of total depravity. On page 118 Spraul describes the concept:

“The term total depravity, as distinguished from utter depravity, refers to the effect of sin and corruption of the whole person. To be totally depraved is to suffer from corruption that pervades the whole person. Sin affects every aspect of our being: the body, the soul, the mind, the will, and so forth. The total or whole person is corrupted by sin. No vestigial “island of righteousness” escapes the influence of the fall. Sin reaches into every aspect of our lives, finding no shelter of isolated virtue.”

I don’t like the way this is worded at all, and I do not agree with it, regardless of how it is worded. I especially do not like the idea that that the only difference between the same act of will with the same motives for doing it will be considered an act of righteousness in one case, or damn me to Hell in another with the only difference being that I am a Christian or not. If I pull my child out of oncoming traffic what consequences will that have on my eternal destiny? If I am not a Christian, God will point to that act and tell me that it was responsible for me being sent to Hell. If I am a Christian, the same act with the same motives is praised by God, although not be what sends me to heaven. What was the difference? If the ‘good work’ does not cause a person to go to heaven, how will the same ‘good work’ be grounds for sending them to Hell? The only sensible conclusion is that the ‘good work’ in either case has no effect whatsoever on your eternal destiny. I suppose there will be an account you will have to give for all your actions someday, but if Christians are not sent to Heaven on account of their behavior, why would non-Christians be sent to Hell for theirs? There must be some other factor.

I do not believe every act of will is tainted by sin. Going to the bathroom, eating, sleeping, and recoiling when touching a hot stove cannot be considered sinful behavior on any level. If I drop an apple on the floor and pick it up, how is that considered evil? I will add one more that I believe is without taint – to be drawn towards beauty and mystery in life and to willfully choose to pursue it. There seems to be an infinite number of actions like these that I could never imagine a person being considered evil for. I do believe that you can do good things badly, like eating or sleeping too much, but the simple act of doing these things can hardly be called evil.

So the question begs to be asked: what makes an act evil – is it the act itself or the motivation behind the act? I would say it is the motivation. The act of eating is not evil. The motivation to eat cannot possibly be evil either. Can eating ever be done badly? I would say it can. In what way could eating be harmful, and thus evil to me? The methods in how it is done. If I eat too much, the act is not wrong, the motivation is not wrong, but my choice to overindulge and bring damage to my body would be wrong. So it appears that there are methods to acting on good motivations that house potential danger to myself. So it appears that my first category of willful actions listed above are ones that have no inherent possible way to be wrongly motivated, but can be harmful when the methods to satisfy the reason for the motivation are bad.

But I am still not happy with this. Why was I motivated to eat in a harmful way? Is it unconscious? Is it for complex emotional reasons? It seems that my act of eating and my methods for satisfying hunger have nothing to do with eating at all, and more to do with some other area of my life which is far more complicated – possibly relating to poor self image or a chemical addiction or something else entirely that is unknown.

I use the example of eating to draw out the obvious fact that our acts of will are by no means black and white. Often times, our motivations are unknown to us, and might be caused by chemical imbalances, addictions, etc. I would imagine God being cruel and unreasonable to condemn me to Hell for overeating because my hypothalamus had malfunctioned and I never heard about Jesus to become a Christian in the first place.

On the flipside of things, it appears in most things I do, at best, or at worst, I do with mixed motivations, (good or bad unconscious, body-chemistry driven, good or bad conscious). There never is a time when I do most things without probably all of these motivators. Writing this post, for example is motivated for a desire to understand truth, but also by pieces of pride. I believe I will always be this way because at the core of my being, I am governed by a system of free choice and physical bodily realities that influence my every act of will. Most things I do (not all), in order to truly be free, will have within it bad motivations as well as good. Even if I were to do a very bad thing, there would still be tiny pieces of good motivations mixed in.

Now that we see the complexity in human behavior, is there any difference between the non-believer or believer in their actions? Not really. Do they both not have the same motivations? The Christian will now have additional motivators, but will not their old ones stay behind? I am still obviously motivated by pride, and a thousand other bad motivators, so I would emphatically say yes.

So I will conclude that not all my willful actions are tainted with sin, nor are the ones by non-Christians. Harmful actions may or may not even be the result of conscious bad motivations. So how am I to be judged? Would God throw out all my bad actions that were motivated by bad brain chemistry or unconscious things and just judge me on the willful, bad, conscious ones? But that doesn’t work either because I have just determined that everything I do consciously I do for mixed reasons. Whichever of my mixed reasons is the greatest, does that determine if an act were good or bad?

The Bible teaches that if anything is done for even the smallest bad reason, the whole act is evil. But the context is important – The reason it is deemed evil is not to discourage us from doing anything ever, but only to make it clear that it has no merit for getting you into heaven. The act itself God will approve or disapprove based on the many complex factors behind it, but that process and its reward or punishment is independent of a person’s eternal destiny. God knows that you are designed for free choice – and that kind of being is going to have to be a divided person in the context of every action they take. It is not by good works that God determines a person’s eternal destiny, but something else entirely – if it were on good works alone, we would all be guilty, both the Christian and the non-Christian, and would all be thrown into Hell, and God would be very strange and unreasonable for creating us in the first place.

So apparently, I do not fall between either theological system (Calvinism or Arminianism) but outside the acceptable limits of both. That’s a comfortable thought – I guess I pass the non-religious test by not blindly accepting any man-made system. 🙂

    4 Responses to “Beyond the extremes”

    1. Ryan
      1

      Hebrews 11:6a Now without faith it is impossible to please God…

      Reasonable enough, right? All the unregenerate must do is have faith and thus please God.

      Romans 8:7 For the mind-set of the flesh is hostile to God because it does not submit itself to God’s law, for it is unable to do so. 8 Those whose lives are in the flesh are unable to please God.

      Whoopsie! Those who do not have faith are unable to submit themselves to God’s law. How do you propose they have faith, when Paul makes it quite clear they are unable as unregenerates to do so?

      1 John 5:1a Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Messiah has been born of God…

      And there you have it, folks. Regeneration must precede faith. This is not only biblical, but it makes logical sense. The spiritually dead cannot produce faith. How could it? – it’s spiritually dead. Thus, we must be “first” made spiritually alive [Now before someone says, “so you believe there is such a thing as a pre-faith regenerate?” allow me to say regeneration precedes faith logically, not temporally. In the same way those who have faith are justified immediately (although faith logically precedes justification), faith is logically dependant on regeneration]. Ok, so how is an individual made spiritually alive?

      John 1:13 who were born, not of blood, or of the will of the flesh, or of the will of man, but of God.

      Aha, we are spiritually born again by God’s will, not anything we do. Wait. Since everyone is not regenerated (unless one believes in universalism, a whole ‘nother topic), and regeneration is monergistic (i.e. we do not play a role – John 1:13), and regeneration precedes any pro-active part of salvation by the individual (1 John 5:1), salvation must be unconditional. Hm.

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    2. Jonathan
      2
      Author Comment

      Ok – here’s a crack at a response to you. Good argument by the way.

      Hebrews 11:6
      I think Hebrews 11:6b explains Hebrews 11:6a. It explains these four questions:

      1. Why is it impossible to please God without faith?
      2. What specific act are we talking about that pleases God that must involve faith?
      3. Faith in what?
      4. What is the effect of God’s pleasure?

      The act mentioned in this passage that pleases God is a man or women seeking Him. We cannot enlarge the scope to all other acts (that involve moral decisions or not) if this verse is all we have because it is just talking about this one act specifically. The object of our faith that is mentioned is a faith in the existence of God. So I’m pretty sure this verse is saying that a person must actually believe God exists in order for God to be pleased with our action to draw closer to Him. The wording here may be closely linked and inspired by Jer. 29:13 (a beautiful verse in my opinion). That verse tells us that that effect of God being pleased is allowing Himself to be found my us. With this verse alone, there is no evidence of God flicking a “faith switch” inside a person without their free will involved.

      Romans 8:7
      This is where things get interesting (and confusing) to me. The mindset of the flesh means the “sinful mind,” or more specifically, the “sinful nature”, or as I call it the “self-destructive” nature, since that is a large part of what sin is. The burning question of the day is this: is the sinful nature the ONLY nature before a person is able to have faith in God? I would say no because of at least two verses that come to mind.

      Romans 1:18:

      18The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.
      21For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.

      All men, even wicked ones, know the truth that God is real through the evidence of the created reality that we all live in. For some reason, they choose to ignore it. This verse is quite clear that they have free will to “suppress” the truth that they already know. They have made the choice to be consumed by their sinful nature. The passage goes on to explain the effect of choosing to turn away from the truth of God – that God “gave them over” to the effect of what living by their sinful nature – sexual impurity and lust. It is like the effect of hitting yourself in the head with a hammer – if you continually do so, God will allow you to break your skull if you ignore his built-in warning systems to stop, namely feeling pain. There is nothing here about being forced to be wicked. There is nothing here about always being wicked. The state of humanity comes down to this: They choose to follow their sinful nature.

      Romans 2:14:

      (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, 15since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.)

      All men, including men who have never heard of the Jewish people or of God’s revelation among them, have another nature other than the sinful one – it is the nature of the conscious. I believe this to be a part of the image of God all men are created in (Genesis 1:26). This is what the man or woman who never really knew God’s law to the Israelites or of Christ will be judged by. There is nothing in here that suggests men who have this nature to do things required by the law have had the “God switch” turned on. They are just operating under a clearly defined mental nature – the conscious.

      John 1:13:
      The discussion of being “born again.” Make sure read John 1:13 with John 1:11-12 in mind!

      “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God…”

      Receiving an invitation to be born again requires free choice. If not, how can it be rejected? People who freely accept God’s invitation to be born again are then “reborn” by an act of God. You cannot be “born again” against your will, like being born naturally because of someone else’s decision (like your parents). The born again part is God’s doing. The choosing is ours. It is freely chosen, and once chosen, the rebirth is done by God. We DO play a role!

      1 John 5:1a.
      This statement is simply stating the effect of a person who is already born again by his/her own choice and is a litmus test of a person is really “born again” or not. If they don’t believe that Jesus is the Messiah, then they are not “born again.” You are right when you say we are born again by God’s act. That I don’t disagree with. What I disagree with is the position that it is not a choice. John 1:11-12 says without a shade of a doubt that it is a choice, and God will not give it without our reception to his invitation. It even goes so far as to say he “rejected his own” (those opposed to God among the Jewish people, NOT all Jewish people) because they rejected his offer.

      You have some great points! I would look carefully at the surrounding verses of the ones you quoted and take them into consideration. In biblical logical argument texts (especially with Paul) context is so important, otherwise it’s easy to take things out of context. You have to look at the overall argument, then look at the localized point, then you can interpret the single verse that resides within that point.

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    3. Dave
      3

      Given the strong Reformed tencendy to center everything back on God–a tencendy which I find quite admirable–I would assume that the testament is for God Himself. Surely it isn’t for humanity. What would be the point of that? So God must not save all people because He wants to prove His glory to Himself.But who are we to question why God does what he does? Yes, by all means ask the question why , but you seem to have already come up with the answer in respect to this issue Because God wants to demonstrate his glory, whether to the other spiritual powers, to humans or simply to himself. But why is that a bad thing? So then we come back to humanity again as the possible audience for this display, but here we encounter another problem, because the reprobate, in their utter rejection of God, will never really be able to see the truth about who God is. Though they languish in the tortures of hell, they will always be focused on themselves, never on God, never really getting it why they are where they are.But surely Scripture (e.g. the Rich Man and Lazarus) tells us that the reprobate will realise exactly why they are there. They will see that they have sinned and that hell is their punishment for that sin.We need to go back to the start and realise that God’s election does not come before humans’ sin (from a temporal perspective). Humans sin and that leads to judgement and hell. God offers salvation to all who will turn and repent, but none do. This is the starting point for election, for it is only at this point (as it were) that God elects a people for himself, to save despite their rejection of Him alongside all of humanity. It is not as if God chooses x% of humanity to be rejected. The x% reject God which is completely the other way round from how you are presenting it. All God does is take some of those wretches who reject him, through no merit of their own, and elects to save them to demonstrate his glory in salvation.These is no conundrum. God does it to demonstrate his glory to the other spiritual powers, to the elect, to the reprobate and to himself. He can do this because he is God and we are mere creatures (and to see the argument God makes, just read the last chapters of Job).

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    4. Jonathan
      4
      Author Comment

      Thank you Dave for posting! This is definitely a confusing issue. Here are some thoughts:

      Humans sin and that leads to judgement and hell. God offers salvation to all who will turn and repent, but none do.

      Why offer salvation at all if it can’t be received? By offering, it must mean there is a way to freely receive it.

      It is not as if God chooses x% of humanity to be rejected. The x% reject God which is completely the other way round from how you are presenting it. All God does is take some of those wretches who reject him, through no merit of their own, and elects to save them to demonstrate his glory in salvation.

      When you say God “takes some,” that means he chooses some and rejects the rest. Since you said that none ever choose God, that means no one is capable of choosing God, because God designed them to be only evil. I do see what you are saying when you say I have it backwards. My point is that Reformed theology seems to be saying that God created all men to be totally evil since they never will choose God. This I can’t agree with because it has no biblical support unless you proof-text and take verses out of context. I believe the biblical message is that God gives us free will to choose Him, but He seeks us out when we are not looking, and He woos everyone, not just a few chosen people.

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