Does Romans 9 teach predestination? (part 2)

In part 1 of this Bible study, I explained that the saying “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated” does not refer to either the salvation of Jacob or Esau or to any other individual. It has a specific application concerning the nature of the election of Israel within God’s purposes.

The Apostle Paul then anticipates certain objections. He lays these out at length in the following passage (Romans 9:14-24):

What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid. For he said 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 wills, nor of him that runs, but of God that shows mercy. For the scripture said to Pharaoh, Even for this same purpose have I raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth. Therefore has he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardens. You will say then to me, Why does he yet find fault? For who has resisted his will? No but, O man, who are you that reply against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why have you made me thus? Has not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel to honor, and another to dishonor? What if God, willing to show his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much long-suffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction: and that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had before prepared to glory, even us, whom he has called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles? (Emphasis mine)

Let us just stand back from this passage and consider the following question: why would Paul have needed to anticipate these (highlighted) objections from the believers at the Church in Rome? It doesn’t take immense powers of inference to read between the lines and work out how these early Christians thought. Paul knew how they thought, and clearly they had a strong sense of fairness, which was related to a person’s level of accountability before God. If this was not the case, then Paul’s words make no sense. Paul felt the need to address this issue, because he knew that it would cause some difficulty for at least some of his audience.

Roman ‘fairness’
Now I will anticipate an objection! Some perhaps may argue that Paul was trying to reform the thinking of Christians, by encouraging them to dispense with their current view of ‘fairness’ and replace it with a complete submission to an idea of the sovereignty of God which precludes ‘fairness’, at least as we understand it. Perhaps Paul believed that his brethren had picked up some kind of moral virus from the surrounding pagan culture, and his role was to disabuse them of this false notion. Well clearly this is absurd. Roman society was anything but fair! It was an authoritarian society, which made a mockery of the ideas of equality and fairness. Some people were free citizens and others were mere slaves. Some had a right to privileges by reason of birth, and others could not hope to obtain such benefits. So there is no way that the believers in Rome could have been infected by some kind of sinister “fairness bug”.

Good and wild grapes
The reason the believers in Rome would have objected to Paul’s ostensibly shocking argument is because they held to a healthy view of justice, because God is just. We know from numerous texts of the Bible that God upholds what we normally understand by ‘justice’. A good example is Isaiah 5:1-7:

Now will I sing to my well beloved a song of my beloved touching his vineyard. My well beloved has a vineyard in a very fruitful hill: and he fenced it, and gathered out the stones thereof, and planted it with the choicest vine, and built a tower in the middle of it, and also made a wine press therein: and he looked that it should bring forth grapes, and it brought forth wild grapes.

And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem, and men of Judah, judge, I pray you, between me and my vineyard. What could have been done more to my vineyard, that I have not done in it? why, when I looked that it should bring forth grapes, brought it forth wild grapes?

And now go to; I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard: I will take away the hedge thereof, and it shall be eaten up; and break down the wall thereof, and it shall be trodden down: and I will lay it waste: it shall not be pruned, nor dig; but there shall come up briers and thorns: I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain on it. For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah his pleasant plant: and he looked for judgment, but behold oppression; for righteousness, but behold a cry. (emphasis mine)

If the Calvinist view of reprobation is true, then God would not have made this appeal to His people. He would not have asked them to judge between Himself and His vineyard, in order to appreciate that His punishment of it was fair. He would simply have said: “I have decided to fashion this vineyard in such a way so that it does not and cannot bring forth good grapes. That is my decree. And because it has not brought forth good grapes, I will then destroy it. If you then think that is unfair, because I was the one who made it barren, then who are you to question Me?! I will do what I like whether it seems fair to you or not. End of.”

If this really is the way God speaks to His people, then there is no sense in explaining that He is judging the vineyard, because He has good reason to do so, on the basis that He did everything He could to enable it to bring forth good grapes, but instead it brought forth wild grapes. The people whom the vineyard symbolises have genuine free will, and they brought forth evil, because they wilfully resisted God’s work in their lives. God looked for justice from these people. He expected it. He had invested in these people, such that they would produce a moral return. But instead they wilfully rebelled against God. There was nothing forcing them to act in the way that they did. They could have obeyed God, but chose not to. Therefore God’s justice can easily be seen to be totally fair. Nothing to do with predestination, of course, and everything to do with their own stubborn will.

A controversial explanation
On the basis of this kind of text it is not surprising that the believers in Rome would have been horrified at any understanding of God’s activity, which appeared to be unjust and trampled on a person’s level of moral accountability. Hence Paul’s need to write: “You will say then to me, Why does he yet find fault? For who has resisted his will?” Paul was not merely hypothesising, setting up imaginary objections just to knock them down like an intellectual parlour game. No. He said “You will say then to me…” He knew how the brethren in Rome thought, and he realised that what he was trying to explain was controversial.

So why did Paul approach this subject in this way?

Was he really saying that God deliberately creates some people to be recipients of blessing and salvation and others to be evil and therefore worthy only of eternal damnation? If so, then this clearly contradicts the revelation of God’s justice in Isaiah 5, as quoted above, which reveals that it is possible to resist God’s will.

And if Paul is not saying that, then why not reassure the believers in Rome concerning the nature of God’s justice? Why is Paul’s answer to the objections a kind of ‘put down’, which stifles any attempt at thought, and, frankly, makes God look like a tyrant? How can we possibly trust such a God? After all, if His will is inscrutable and we cannot hope to understand even the basics of His idea of fairness, and if we are required to believe that He creates the wicked and willingly consigns people to everlasting torment purely by irresistible decree, then how can we trust Him and love Him as our Heavenly Father? After all, if He is willing to damn that person, then He is also willing to damn me and anyone else who happens to read this article. And He does so simply because He wills it. (And if anyone argues that “God would not do that to me, because I am elect”, then that person needs to understand that he could be mistaken. After all, if God’s will is inscrutable, then we have no right to use that kind of logic against God. No one is safe under such a divine regime.)

The Egyptian connection
The solution to the problem involves an understanding of how God works in the midst of evil and suffering. There is a profound mystery to suffering, and although the Word of God encourages us to have a healthy understanding of justice and fairness (hence the parable of the vineyard in Isaiah 5), sometimes this needs to be put on hold when we are faced with seemingly intractable problems in our lives. One of the most formative periods in the life of Israel was their captivity in Egypt. The miraculous deliverance from Egypt is repeatedly referred to throughout Scripture. It is as if this event is a model for understanding suffering and deliverance.

Paul specifically refers to God’s dealings with the Pharaoh, who ruled Egypt at the time of the Israelites’ slavery there. God hardened Pharaoh’s heart and he would not allow the Israelites to leave. This is an example of what could be called ‘reprobation’. It would appear that God deliberately caused Pharaoh to be an oppressive tyrant, and then judged him for being so. This appears to be grossly unfair to Pharaoh. The Calvinist would perhaps say: “So be it”. But an investigation of the book of Exodus does not support this interpretation. The question we need to ask is this: did God harden Pharaoh’s heart from the outset, or only after he had first hardened his own heart?

The second answer is the correct one.

In Exodus 5:1-2 we read: And afterward Moses and Aaron went in, and told Pharaoh, Thus said the LORD God of Israel, Let my people go, that they may hold a feast to me in the wilderness. And Pharaoh said, Who is the LORD, that I should obey his voice to let Israel go? I know not the LORD, neither will I let Israel go.

Pharaoh’s response was to increase the burdens on the people of Israel, and there is no mention of God hardening his heart. This is also the case in the account given in Exodus chapters 6 to 8, where we read that Pharaoh hardened his heart. It is true that Exodus 4:21 and 7:3 state that God would harden Pharaoh’s heart, but we can only assume that that divine action began when the text states as much. All we can rely on is the evidence of the text, and it is not until chapter 9, verse 12 that we read that “the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh”. There are numerous references prior to this verse that inform us that Pharaoh hardened his own heart or that “his heart was hardened” (7:13,22; 8:15, 32; 9:7). We also have to remember that Pharaoh was already oppressing the Israelites; he had proven himself to be a brutal ruler for many years prior to the appearance of Moses and the period of the plagues.

Furthermore, God reveals His purpose for hardening Pharaoh’s heart: “And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and multiply my signs and my wonders in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 7:3). Clearly therefore if God had created Pharaoh an evil man, then the signs and wonders would have been evident in Egypt from the moment Pharaoh began to act in a malicious and oppressive way. Even the earlier reference to God’s promise to harden Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 4:21) indicates a future event, and yet we know at that time that Pharaoh was already a despot. Therefore it is not possible to say that God created Pharaoh to be a reprobate, but rather that God made use of an evil man to work out His own purposes.

At the potter’s wheel
This hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is the context of Paul’s reference to God fashioning “vessels for dishonour” (Romans 9:21). The metaphor of the potter and the clay of Romans 9:21 was well understood, and may be a reference to its use in Jeremiah chapter 18, verses 1-12. This passage is God’s call to the wicked to repent:

“O house of Israel, cannot I do with you as this potter? said the LORD. Behold, as the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it; if that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do to them. And at what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it; if it do evil in my sight, that it obey not my voice, then I will repent of the good, with which I said I would benefit them.” (Jeremiah 18:6-10. Emphasis mine).

This text in Jeremiah makes a complete mockery of the claims of Calvinism. If God creates people to be evil (“vessels for dishonour”) then how can they possibly be expected to repent? If the nation threatened with punishment is expected to repent, then how can it if it is reprobate, according to the eternal decree of God? And if God intends to do good to a nation, how then can it rebel against Him, if it is elect according to an eternal divine decree? Clearly the biblical metaphor of the potter and the clay does not support the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination.

God enduring His own will?
Romans 9:22 also informs us that God endured the vessels for dishonour “with much long-suffering”. How strange? If it was God’s will and pleasure that these people should be reprobate, then why would He have to ‘endure’ them at all? Surely, if the doctrine of reprobation is true, then it is His pleasure that they should be in this spiritual condition, isn’t it? After all, that is what Calvinism teaches! Are we to believe that God is some kind of masochist, who has deliberately caused some people to be profane, evil and corrupt, with the result that it grieves Him? How ridiculous!

The fact that God has had to endure these people with much long-suffering indicates that it is manifestly not His will for them to be in this spiritual condition of reprobation.

Likewise, why does the Apostle Paul have sorrow in his heart over the condition of Israel (Romans 9:1), if Israel has been rejected by God by decree? Surely Paul should be rejoicing in submission to the will of God, and delighting in the fact that God’s will is being done in the spiritual destruction of some of the nation of Israel? That is what predestination to reprobation implies. Surely Paul is admitting that he is grieved at the will of God (which is tantamount to blaspheming!).

Clearly the Calvinist interpretation is entirely false. It is a delusion. The text simply cannot bear this strange construction that has been put on it.

However, we do need to ask why Paul presented his argument in the way that he has.

A reassuring truth
There is no doubt that God is indeed sovereign. God in His sovereignty has created man with free will, but that does not mean that man can presume to live completely independently of his Maker. The reassurance that Paul is giving the Christians in Rome is that even the lives of the wicked – who are evil by their own choice – can be fashioned by God in such a way as to serve His purposes. This is the true meaning of the potter and clay analogy. For Christians suffering persecution within the Roman Empire, it is an important truth. God is not absent even when evil flourishes, but He is working out His purposes through those who persecute His people. The wicked are still responsible for their actions, even when the sovereign God uses those actions for His higher purposes. We don’t need to understand what God is doing in such situations, but we need simply to submit to His authority.

This is a far more positive and coherent interpretation than the Calvinistic theory. God is glorified, even when evil flourishes.

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Does Romans 9 teach predestination? (part 1)

This is rather a long Bible study, so I am presenting it in two parts.

Chapter nine of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Church in Rome is often interpreted to affirm the theory that God has eternally decreed who will be saved and who will be damned. This is the fatalistic doctrine known as ‘predestination’ and is commonly associated with Calvinism. A couple of verses from this chapter are often used by proponents of this doctrine as a way of silencing anyone who questions their claim, by asserting the immense gulf between the position of God and man: “No but, O man, who are you that reply against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why have you made me thus? Has not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel to honor, and another to dishonor?” (Verses 20-21, AKJV).

It has been my experience that anyone who dares to question how God can be just – never mind merciful – if He brings people into existence for absolutely no other reason than to cast them into the fires of everlasting hell, is rather condescendingly told that he has no right to question the wisdom of Almighty God. End of argument (if indeed this can rightly be called an ‘argument’!). The supreme irony, of course, is that such a put down can be used by anyone asserting any theory, including the rebuttal of Calvinist claims!

A close examination of this chapter in Romans, however, reveals that the text supports no such interpretation. In fact, an accurate and logical reading of the passage – taken in context and read with the rest of the testimony of the Bible in mind – reveals a truth which is completely at variance with the Calvinist idea.

Let us start at the beginning of the chapter. Verses 1-5 read as follows:

I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Ghost, that I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart. For I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh: who are Israelites; to whom pertains the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises; whose are the fathers, and of whom as concerning the flesh Christ came, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen. (Emphasis mine).

This is a passage specifically about Israel: the “flesh and blood” Jews, of which race Paul was a member, and, as he mentions, so was Jesus Himself. The highlighted phrases make clear that Paul is not referring to “spiritual Jews” (as he does earlier in Romans in chapter 2, verses 28-29), but to the physical race of Israelites. This point is very important, to set the context for what follows. God gave this race of people a unique spiritual status and certain blessings, which Paul lists: the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises…

Now because Paul has made clear that he is referring specifically to the physical nation of Israel (with reference to another associated nation – Edom, as I will explain), then it is, at best, poor exegesis, and, at worst, dishonest to assume that what follows is a revelation concerning God’s dealings with mankind as a whole. This will become obvious as we investigate the text.

Paul acknowledges the unique spiritual status of Israel, but in verse 1 we have read that he is in a state of continual sorrow over the spiritual state of his nation. Now why is this? Paul then goes on to explain why: not all Israelites are actually the “children of promise”. Verses 6 to 8 read as follows:

Not as though the word of God has taken none effect. For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel: neither, because they are the seed of Abraham, are they all children: but, In Isaac shall your seed be called. That is, they which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed. (Emphasis mine).

I will repeat one phrase from the above text: they which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God. There is a unity to Paul’s argument in Romans, and I have already referred back to Romans 2:28-29. These verses state that “…he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: but he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.”

Even though the physical Israel is very important (as Paul also emphasises in the verses that follow in Romans 2), it is clear that a child of God is not someone who just happens to be a member of the “chosen race”, but rather is one who is in a right relationship with God spiritually, and whose heart, rather than whose flesh, has been circumcised – ‘circumcision’ here being used to denote a spiritually transformed life.

During His ministry on earth, Jesus told some of the Jews that they were of “their father the devil”, despite the fact that they saw their spiritual security in their descent from Abraham (see John 8:33-44). “If you were Abraham’s children, you would do the works of Abraham” (v. 39).

John the Baptist also warned his hearers not to put their trust in their lineage from Abraham: But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said to them, O generation of vipers, who has warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance: and think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham as our father: for I say to you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children to Abraham. (Matthew 3:7-9).

The message is clear. The Israelites were not acceptable to God simply because they were “children of Abraham”, that is, merely members of a certain race, but they were acceptable to God on the basis of their spiritual condition. If their spiritual condition was right before God, then they were not only “children of Abraham”, but also, and more importantly, “children of the promise” (See Romans 9:8).

Paul explains that the promise relates to “the seed of Isaac”. Isaac was the promised child, borne by Sarah in her old age, and redeemed by the ram (symbolising Christ) when God commanded Abraham to go to Mount Moriah to offer him up as a sacrifice (Genesis 22). Isaac was therefore representative of those who are redeemed by God, being the product of a miracle, and having been atoned for (symbolically) by the ram. Those who are the true children of God are therefore children of Isaac, hence the saying to Abraham “In Isaac shall your seed be called” (quoted by Paul here in Romans 9, verse 7, and originally from Genesis 21:12).

Paul then elaborates on this by explaining the significance of the children of Isaac:

For this is the word of promise, At this time will I come, and Sarah shall have a son. 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 calls); it was said to her, The elder shall serve the younger. As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated. (Romans 9:9-14, emphasis mine)

Now I suspect that many people will recoil in horror at this passage of Scripture. How can the God of all righteousness, justice and mercy just decide to love one person and hate the other, purely on the basis of His incomprehensible will? Does not the Scripture state clearly that “God is not a respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34), which, of course, simply means that God does not show favouritism? Is this not therefore a glaring contradiction in the Bible?

The Calvinist would say that we just have to humbly accept it, and if it appears unfair or the Bible appears to contradict itself, then we have to submit to the inscrutable will of the sovereign God. Not only does that response contravene Proverbs 4:7, in which we are commanded by the sovereign God to “get understanding” (as well as Isaiah 5:3-4, in which God specifically challenges us to understand the logic of his justice), but it is also a device which the opponents of Calvinism can use. If it is impious and impudent to question Calvinistic doctrine by refusing to submit to the sovereignty of God, then it could equally be argued that their attempt to explain away God’s desire for all people to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4) is also impudent and impious and a refusal to submit to the will of God. If God has said clearly that He desires all people to be saved, then who are we to question Him? Yet Calvinists do that very thing! How very insolent!! It works both ways.

But I am not going to resort to such a devise, because I do not need to. The Bible clearly indicates that we are not to apply the idea of “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated” to the entire human race. In fact, it doesn’t even apply to Jacob and Esau as far as salvation is concerned, but the meaning is entirely limited to the granting of the blessing, which is normally given under the right of primogeniture, hence the fact that Jacob had to cheat his way into receiving the blessing reserved for Esau (see Genesis chapter 27).

A wonderful act of reconciliation
In Genesis chapter 33 we can read the account of how Jacob and Esau were reconciled. It really is a stretch to imagine that God was not working in the life of Esau to bring about this reconciliation with his younger brother, who had cheated him out of his blessing. When Jacob went out to meet Esau he was frightened that his brother would take revenge on him. But in verse 4 of this passage we read: “And he (Jacob) passed over before them, and bowed himself to the ground seven times, until he came near to his brother. And Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him: and they wept.” And what did Jacob say of his brother (to his face)? Did he say: “You are a totally depraved unregenerate worm predestined by God to burn in hell forever”? No. Did he say: “I am so sorry that God has passed you by and refuses to offer you salvation, because he hates you. But you just have to accept it, because God is sovereign”? No. No, he did not do anything or say anything to indicate that he was in the presence of a thoroughly evil and depraved person.

What Jacob actually said to his brother was this:

“No, I pray you, if now I have found grace in your sight, then receive my present at my hand: for therefore I have seen your face, AS THOUGH I HAD SEEN THE FACE OF GOD, and you were pleased with me.” (Genesis 33:10 – emphasis mine).

The highlighted phrase completely demolishes the Calvinistic theory. There is simply no way, in the light of this indisputable biblical evidence, that Esau could be regarded as reprobate, that is, predestined to damnation. The ‘elect’ Jacob recognised the presence of God in and through Esau. Are we seriously to believe that this level of personal forgiveness is not evidence of the presence of God in someone’s life? Are we seriously to believe that the manifestation of this kind of love, through which former enemies are reconciled, is not the work of the Almighty? If the Calvinists are to be believed, then we have to wonder quite what God actually does in someone’s life, if this is not evidence of His presence and activity? And are we to believe that the elect – represented by Jacob, who had truly experienced the presence of God (see Genesis 28:10-17) – are so utterly lacking in discernment that they see what they think is the presence of God where, in fact, only the devil is present? How absurd.

Clearly it is a gross perversion of the Word of God to interpret “Esau I hated” as referring to his own personal standing with God. It is not referring to the idea of reprobation, because the evidence from Scripture is indisputable: Esau manifested the redeeming work of God in his life.

The moral status of foetuses
Furthermore, if we come back to the passage above from Romans 9, it states clearly that God chose Jacob over Esau while they were both in the womb, and before they had done any good or evil (see verse 11). So let’s get this straight. The Calvinists believe that Esau was reprobate, that is, damned by God by decree, or “predestined to damnation”. But this divine decision would have been made before Esau committed any moral act, whether good or evil. If that is the case, then we have the scenario of God condemning someone at a time when he had never sinned. This is a totally blasphemous suggestion, because it makes a complete mockery of the justice of God. James 1:15 tells us in the clearest possible terms that sin, when it is full grown, brings forth death. This completely contradicts the Calvinist idea that spiritual death is imputed before any sin has ever been committed! Again, this is more biblical evidence to show that the “hating of Esau” has nothing to do with his personal salvation. The Calvinist may then counter with a reference to God’s foreknowledge of Esau’s future sins, but this does violence to the text of Romans 9, which clearly states that God made his decision at a particular point in time, because that decision did not relate to the works of Jacob and Esau. To argue that this was really a provisional decision that only really “kicked in” when Esau committed his first sin, contradicts the phrase “not of works”.

Edom my brother
“Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated” is actually a quotation from Malachi 1:2 and refers to God’s judgment on the Edomites, who were the descendants of Esau. If God had decreed that Esau should be reprobate and this was applied to his descendants, then why did the Lord issue the following command in Deuteronomy 23:7 – “You shall not abhor an Edomite; for he is your brother”? Are we seriously to believe that God is commanding His people to accept the Edomites, affirm them as brothers, even though He has decreed that they are everlastingly reprobate? Is there really a form of righteousness commanded by God, but which does not reflect His righteousness? Of course not! And what a far cry the Calvinist idea is from the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, who when commanding us to “love our enemies”, explained that this action reflected the perfection of God (see Matthew 5:48 and the preceding verses). God’s desire was for Israel to love (or, at least, not abhor) the Edomites, because He did not abhor them. The commandment of God reflected the will of God. His ‘hatred’ of the Edomites, as expressed in the prophecy of Malachi, therefore specifically related to His judgment on a wilfully evil nation, and not because they were under some eternal decree of reprobation.

So to sum up the evidence relating to God’s ‘hatred’ of Esau we have:

1. The evidence that God had clearly been working in Esau’s life to effect reconciliation with Jacob, and the latter, being someone who had previously powerfully experienced the presence of God at Bethel, recognised God’s presence in his brother.

2. God’s ‘hatred’ of Esau was unrelated to Esau’s moral state, being still in the womb and not having done anything good or evil, and yet the Bible makes clear that spiritual death and damnation is the result of sin, not of non-sin.

3. We have the evidence that the descendants of Esau – the Edomites – were not reprobate, because God expressed His will through His law to Israel, commanding them not to abhor an Edomite “because he is your brother”. God’s law reflects His will. How can any Christian dispute this?

Against this wealth of biblical evidence all the Calvinist has to offer is his insistence that the saying in Romans 9:13 refers to eternal salvation and damnation and should apply to the whole human race and every individual within it. No supporting evidence given for this daring extrapolation.

So what does this saying mean?

Overturning primogeniture
Esau was the firstborn son of Isaac, and for that reason he had the right to inherit a special blessing from his father. This is the right of primogeniture. It is a natural inheritance of blessing and rights by the firstborn. God, however, came and overturned the natural right of primogeniture by deciding that “the elder shall serve the younger”. Jacob and Esau were the sons of Isaac, the “son of promise”, miraculously given to Abraham and Sarah. The message is clear: the election of Israel was not based on human factors, but had its roots in a miracle (the conception and birth of Isaac to an elderly woman), in an act of atonement (Isaac being redeemed by the ram on Mount Moriah) and in the overturning of natural rights, in this case, the right of primogeniture (God’s choice of Jacob over Esau). Thus Israel’s status as the ‘chosen people’ is not based on the rights of natural descent, but solely on the work of God.

For all nations
Now a Calvinist would agree with this. Election is God’s choice. However, election cannot be understood to mean that God chooses some people for salvation in preference to others, who are then predestined to damnation. Election does not imply reprobation. In Genesis 12:3, God told Abraham that “in you shall all families of the earth be blessed”, and this promise is reiterated to Jacob at Bethel: “in you and in your seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed” (Genesis 28:14). God’s intention was that Israel should be a blessing to all nations. Israel was not chosen in order that other nations should be cursed, but rather Israel’s election was the means by which other nations should be blessed. It’s a kind of win-win situation. This is further confirmed by the prayer in Psalm 67:1-2 – “God be merciful to us, and bless us; and cause his face to shine on us; Selah. That your way may be known on earth, your saving health among all nations.” (emphasis mine).

God’s ‘hatred’ of Esau was nothing more than a symbolic way of emphasising that God does not work His purposes out through the application of natural rights, but through the application of His grace, a grace that chooses some people as a means to bring blessing to all people.

Paul then anticipates certain objections….

To be continued…

What is a “lukewarm Christian”?

In Revelation chapter 3, verses 15-16, Jesus described the church at Laodicea as ‘lukewarm’. What does this actually mean? Does the text give us any indication as to how to interpret this saying accurately?

The passage is as follows:

3:14 And to the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write; These things said the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God;
3:15 I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot: I would you were cold or hot.
3:16 So then because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth.

3:17 Because you say, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and know not that you are wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked:
3:18 I counsel you to buy of me gold tried in the fire, that you may be rich; and white raiment, that you may be clothed, and that the shame of your nakedness do not appear; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see.
3:19 As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent.
3:20 Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.
3:21 To him that overcomes will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne.
3:22 He that has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit said to the churches.

It appears (from numerous sermons, articles and videos) that the most popular and prevalent interpretation of the highlighted verses goes as follows:

An unbeliever is ‘cold’.

A fervent, zealous and utterly committed radical Christian believer is ‘hot’.

An undisciplined, half-hearted, worldly, lazy, cowardly, non-committal professing Christian is ‘lukewarm’.

Jesus has told us that He would prefer a Christian to be an out-and-out unbeliever than to be a half-hearted believer. Thus ‘cold’ is preferable to ‘lukewarm’.

The text in Revelation therefore presents us with a spiritual thermometer, in which the mercury rises as spiritual commitment increases, and yet our Lord hates the middle temperature more than the lower one.

A legalistic measuring stick
This interpretation thus provides the ammunition for certain church leaders to castigate their flock with accusations of “not doing enough for Jesus, not giving enough time or money; not evangelising enough and so on”. Those who wish to crush and control Christian believers with guilt and fear naturally champion such a reading of this text. Interestingly there are many images on the internet under the phrase “lukewarm Christian” which feature a thermometer. Clearly the idea of “cold – lukewarm – hot” is promoted as a rather legalistic measuring stick to assess a Christian believer’s level of commitment.

It might come as something of a shock to such overbearing leaders that this interpretation is completely false, as the application of common sense logic will reveal. A different – and indeed far more radical – interpretation can be deduced from the text itself, and this is supported by some background information regarding geographical context.

In verse 15 of the above mentioned biblical text we read: “I would you were cold or hot”.

Jesus made clear that He wants the believers at Laodicea to be either ‘cold’ or ‘hot’. Does Jesus Christ want professing Christians to be unbelievers and totally alienated from God? If this is what ‘cold’ means, then that is exactly what He wants! In the context of the entire testimony of Scripture, this is clearly absurd.

Scale of preferences
Of course, some may argue that what it means is not that Jesus really wants Christians to be out-and-out unbelievers, but that He would prefer that to their being ‘lukewarm’. There is a certain feeling of plausibility to this reading, but it is not supported either by the testimony of the rest of Scripture or indeed by this passage of Revelation. The verb ‘prefer’ or an equivalent does not appear in the text.

The original Greek word for “I would” is ophelon. W.E. Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (Zondervan: 1940) explains that “Ophelon (the 2nd aorist tense of opheilō, to owe) expresses a wish, “I would that”, either impracticable, 1 Cor. 4:8, R.V. (A.V., “would to God”); or possible, 2 Cor. 11:1; Gal. 5:12; Rev. 3:15.”

Clearly the verb expresses desire, and the use of the aorist tense indicates that the action should be understood to relate only to the immediate context in which it is relevant. Concerning the use of the aorist tense, the New Testament Greek scholar J.W. Wenham in his book The Elements of New Testament Greek (Cambridge University Press: 1965) states: “The action of the verb is thought of as simply happening, without any regard to its continuance or frequency.” (emphasis mine).

Therefore the use of “I would that” relates directly and immediately to a particular church, that is, the Church of Laodicea, in which all to whom our Lord was speaking were professing believers in Him. Now it clearly makes no sense for Jesus to say to such people: “I would prefer that you were unbelievers than non-committal, compromising believers”. The point is that they were already believers, at least nominally. Was it really our Lord’s desire that they should completely unlearn and ‘unknow’ what they knew about the Christian faith and remain in that state of ignorance?

This would be as absurd as saying that a mathematics teacher, who is concerned about the educational attainment of his pupils in this subject, would say to those who are lazy and fail to do their homework: “I really want you to forget all about mathematics. Reject the subject and do all you can to obliterate all you have learnt from your memory.” Of course not! A responsible teacher would say: “What I really want is for you to knuckle down, do the work and get a good grasp of the subject”.

If the “spiritual commitment thermometer” reading of Revelation 3:15-16 is correct, then the only conceivable desire Jesus could have expressed is: “I would that you were hot, and not cold or lukewarm.” Now, as mentioned, someone may counter this by bringing up the question of preference: “OK, it is true that Jesus would really want believers to be ‘hot’, but He would prefer believers to be ‘cold’ rather than lukewarm.”

As I have already stated, this view sounds superficially plausible. The only problem with it is that it contains a terrible irony.

Second preference compromise
The whole point of this interpretation of Jesus’ words to the church at Laodicea, is that it speaks against compromise. Compromise is seen as the worst of all worlds. How then can such a position be defended by imputing compromise to our Lord? If what Jesus really wants for believers is complete commitment described by the adjective ‘hot’, then why would He state a second preference, namely, ‘cold’, and settle for that as long as His people were not ‘lukewarm’? The whole point of this interpretation is that there are no second preferences! There is no tolerating a ‘Plan B’ that falls short of God’s perfect and uncompromising desire for the Church. It is “all or nothing”.

Thus the interpretation shoots itself in the foot. How can we be expected to uncompromisingly serve a compromising God? It simply does not add up.

If the interpretation is not that of a spiritual commitment thermometer, then what is the correct reading of this text?

A question of water supply
Clearly both ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ are equally desired by Christ. Both describe genuine spiritual commitment and fruitfulness. In the context of the original saying, it really is not hard to understand that this is the case. ‘Hot’ and ‘cold’ concern the temperature of something to drink, which is, quite obviously, water. In a hot climate a cold drink is refreshing. Hot water can be therapeutic.

This interpretation is supported by the geographical and historical context of the city of Laodicea.

Laodicea was located near two other cities: Hierapolis to the north-west and Colossae to the south-east.

Hierapolis (today known as Pamukkale) was a spa town, with a natural spring producing hot water. This natural benefit induced the inhabitants to worship Heracles, the god of health and hot springs. Today there are seventeen hot springs at Pamukkale whose water ranges in temperature from 35 to 100 degrees centigrade.

Colossae was situated on the Lycus river, which disappeared underground for about 900 metres just north of where the city was located. The phenomenon would have cooled the water, and hence it explains the presence of cold springs near the city. It is understood that the ceiling of this underground chasm collapsed in the earthquake of AD 60.

Unlike these two cities, Laodicea, despite being the wealthiest city of the region, had no natural source of water. Water had to be piped in from other areas via an aquaduct. When the water arrived it was usually lukewarm and contaminated with various minerals.

It is therefore easy to understand how the Laodicean Christians would have understood Jesus’ words. Their water was neither refreshingly cold nor therapeutically hot. Being lukewarm, it had an emetic quality, likely therefore to cause vomiting.

The geographical context of the Laodicean Church strongly indicates that ‘cold’ cannot possibly describe anything other than spiritual blessing. In a hot climate cold water cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be considered ‘bad’.

Therefore ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ represent qualities of spiritual blessing and fruitfulness, with neither one being superior or more desirable than the other. Both are facets of Christian commitment. For this reason Jesus desires them both and they simply characterise different approaches to the work of the gospel. This is further confirmed by other biblical references to cold water, representing the work of the Holy Spirit, for example, John 4:6-15, when Jesus, being wearied from His journey, asked the Samaritan woman to draw water from the well and give Him a drink. Obviously this water would have been cold water, and Jesus then likens it to “the living water” that He can give and that will become in the person receiving it “a well of water springing up into everlasting life”. Are we seriously to believe that the drink Jesus asked for really represents “unbelief and a lack of a relationship with God”, because it was a drink of cold rather than hot water?! Clearly this is nonsense.

Set against the ‘good’ of “hot and cold” is the evil of ‘lukewarm’. The adjective ‘lukewarm’ clearly describes the kind of ministry and spiritual life, which falls short of providing the benefits that, spiritually speaking, “hot and cold water” provide. Cold water brings refreshment in a hot and arid land. Hot water has a healing property. Cold water relieves those who are burdened and exhausted, while hot water comforts and heals those who are broken by illness. By contrast lukewarm water falls short of providing both these benefits.

The message is very clear.

What a lukewarm Christian is not
The lukewarm Christian is not someone who just doesn’t measure up against a legalistic “spiritual thermometer”. It does not describe someone who isn’t giving enough in terms of time, money and commitment to the local church. But rather it is someone who manifestly fails to bring refreshment, healing and deliverance to those who are weak, burdened, ill and suffering.

Those who take it upon themselves to trouble other Christians with accusations of half-heartedness and compromise, really ought to consider whether they themselves are actually candidates for being vomited out of Jesus’ mouth. Burdening other Christians with guilt and playing on their vulnerability and fear of God’s judgment is not consistent with ministering the cold water of refreshment and the hot water of healing.

Those who refuse to live in the liberating grace of God and discourage others from doing so, are the true “lukewarm Christians”. As Galatians 1:6-7 indicate, they are “preaching another gospel”: the gospel of legalism. For this reason they are the ones who, tragically, will suffer the kind of judgment described in Revelation 3:16. Continue reading