For the record, I intend this topic to be a discussion starter. I don’t have any misgivings about Sovereignty or Election, but I won’t pretend to have all the answers, either. I do not think that many Christians think about God’s sovereignty until it is too late—something happens that embitters them and they throw in the towel. Along similar lines, I also don’t think that many Christians actually want to look Biblically at the topic of election. I have heard of pastors (not my own, thankfully) who—despite its clarity—actually do not even admit that this doctrine is contained within the Bible.
Enough with the disclaimers …
When my son John was away with a group from our church on a part-time missions trip to Jamaica, most of them—all but three, actually—had to wait until nearly a week had gone by to receive their luggage. (This is a common problem when traveling to Caribbean destinations. We were advised on a Christmas trip to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, to bring at least three days’ worth of clothing and essentials as carry-on, because the airline would lose our luggage. We did, and they did.)
The mother of one of the few who got their luggage on the missions trip was thrilled that her daughter’s luggage had not been lost, and considered it “an answer to prayer.” But what about everyone who didn’t get their luggage? Was God angry with them, or was it just “one of those things?” I would like to think that most, if not all, parents with children on the trip were actively and earnestly praying for a smooth trip and for the children’s safety (just as Nichelle and I were), and having their luggage would certainly be part of a smooth trip. What prayer was actually answered? (I should have asked more pointedly, but I am learning to have a bit more discretion.)
Let me further complicate this particular matter. As one of the group leaders testified, on the last day of the trip, our group in Jamaica met another group from Merrimack Valley Baptist Church. The group from MVBC had much of their luggage impounded, as the Jamaican customs officials wanted to charge them over a thousand dollars in import duties on the paper, crayons, candy, and other items they were bringing in for a vacation Bible school they were going to operate. Our youth pastor was relieved that, when the luggage was finally picked up, because customs knew why they were there, they were essentially “waved through,” and were not asked to pay any import duties.
However, if God used (or caused) the luggage’s being late to get it through customs without an import duty, does that mean that God caused the other group’s luggage to be impounded simply to reveal to our group that the lost luggage was, ultimately, a blessing? For that matter, we believe in God’s omnipotence; if God wanted the luggage to get through customs without difficulty, His power is certainly efficacious enough to accomplish this.
Prayer and Hurricanes
A similar question might be asked about Hurricane Emily. Was the fact that Emily missed Jamaica while our group was there an answer to prayer? I prayed that the group would be safe, but not that God would move a hurricane. What about all the people in the Yucatan peninsula, where no doubt other equally important missions trips were underway, where Emily made landfall? Is my prayer for the safety of a small group rather than for moving the storm evidence of lack of faith on my part?
The topic of prayer and weather is particularly interesting because Pensacola Christian College sent out the following e-mail to their mailing list seeming to imply that it was an answer to prayer when the college was spared by the previous 2005 hurricane, Dennis:
Sunday, weather reports placed the path of Hurricane Dennis directly into the Pensacola area; but just hours before landfall the Lord weakened Hurricane Dennis’ winds and moved the storm north to make landfall across the Florida Panhandle east of Pensacola. It was great to be on the west side of the storm where the winds are less intense.
During the storm, student summer workers and Summer Music Academy campers were safely sheltered in the PCC Sports Center and Communicative Arts Center—they were back in their own residence hall rooms early Sunday evening with full power and air conditioning! In addition, shelter was provided in the Pensacola Christian Academy building for over 500 staff and their families. As a matter of interest, our campus buildings and shelters are architecturally designed to withstand hurricane force winds, and we are seven miles from the beaches where the damage from waves and storm surge make great news for television but no effect on our facilities.
We thank the friends of Pensacola Christian College who prayed for God’s protection during Hurricane Dennis. Above all else, we thank the Lord for answered prayer.
This letter seems to imply that God weakened and moved the hurricane as a response to the prayers of those at Pensacola. While this may be true, it seems at once both supercilious and overly facile from a doctrinal approach. If they expected God to protect them from the hurricane, why take shelter in special buildings? Is God powerful enough to move a hurricane? Of course. Would He do so in response to prayer? Quite possibly.
Now, before I am dismissed as faithless or minimizing God, allow me to direct your attention to James 5:17: “Elias [Elijah] was a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain: and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months.” There is, indeed a clear Biblical basis for the prayers of one ordinary man affecting the weather. (I would not be so bold as to describe the prophet Elijah as ordinary, but that is the implication in James 5:17.)
I am convinced that most believers have not really stopped to examine their words and doctrines in light of what the Scripture teaches about God’s sovereignty. We (rightly) are content to praise God when good things happen to us, and we certainly don’t curse God when bad things happen to us. The fact is, there are things to be learned from the good and the bad. According to Romans 8:28–29:
28And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to His purpose. 29For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren.
These verses also deal with another important topic that closely relates to sovereignty: predestination (also called election). We’ll get back to that later.
God is sovereign. He is the greatest in status or authority or power; He is ruler of all Creation; He is master of Heaven and Earth. By His will, the universe was formed. By His will, all things exist. We humans can scarcely grasp the omnipotence of God, as the concept of infinity itself is slippery enough, getting our minds around infinite power is even more difficult.
So, if God is infinitely powerful, what place is there in His universe for the free will of man? Is it merely an illusion? Do we actually have a choice in anything we do? Or is it all foreordained by God, and we are merely puppets acting out some great morality play?
I used to believe that it was just a matter of viewpoint: God did preordain, or predestine, all things and events, but from the human perspective, we have complete free will. The truth, as Scripture teaches it, is a bit more complicated.
And that leads to perhaps the most-ignored doctrine of Christianity today: Predestination. Simply put, God has chosen some of us to be His elect. Those who will, by His grace, trust Christ as Savior, be redeemed, and live forever with Him in Heaven.
There are two extremes in this: Hypercalvinism and Arminianism.
Hypercalvinism would teach that nothing we do can influence someone to be saved. Why have missionaries? One church I attended as a child went this route. They changed the “pot luck dinners” into “covered dish suppers,” which might actually be more correct, but one parent of a clearly lost teen wrote that he had resigned himself to the fact that his son would go to Hell for the glory of God.
Whoa! The New Testament never talks about salvation this way. The fact is, we do not know who the elect are. It is our job to keep propagating the Gospel message of salvation through the atonement of Jesus Christ, and keep praying for our lost loved ones, all of our days. The Apostle Paul wrote:
22To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. 23And this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I might be partaker thereof with you. (1 Corinthians 9:22–23)
Arminian theology (see this excellent reference at about.com) is at the opposite end. In it, mankind has complete free will. God would seem to have no more control than making a few suggestions. Clearly, this philosophy is not Scriptural, either. (However, as the about.com article points out, Arminian theology was important for getting people to realize they could make a difference in society: Slaves were not predestined to be slaves; the poor might be helped to another, higher, station; the battle against disease could be fought and won.
In between, these extremes, yet more than merely the middle ground, is Calvinism:
“I have my own opinion that there is no such thing as preaching Christ and Him crucified, unless we preach what nowadays is called Calvinism. It is a nickname to call it Calvinism; Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else. I do not believe we can preach the gospel if we do not preach justification by faith without works; nor unless we preach the sovereignty of God in His dispensation of grace; nor unless we exalt the electing unchangeable eternal, immutable, conquering love of Jehovah; nor do I think we can preach the gospel unless we base it upon the special and particular redemption of His elect and chosen people which Christ wrought out upon the cross.” (Charles Spurgeon, The New Park Street Pulpit, Vol. 1, 1856).
Whose Will Wins?
Just as God is sovereign, He has made His will clear:
4Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2:4)
If God wants all men to be saved, is there universal atonement, as the Universalists teach? Or, alternatively, are God’s will and omnipotence defeated because not all men will accept His gift of eternal life?
In regard to election, people do not become saved of their own will. The Holy Spirit must draw men to the Lord. C.H. Spurgeon put it quite eloquently:
“We declare on scriptural authority that the human will is so desperately set on mischief, so depraved, so inclined to everything that is evil, and so disinclined to everything that is good, that without the powerful, supernatural, irresistible influence of the Holy Spirit, no human will ever be constrained toward Christ.” (Charles Spurgeon, Sermons, Vol. 4, p. 139). (See more of Spurgeon’s quotes on Calvinism.)
A Premature Conclusion
I did not set out to answer all these questions in this one post, but I have had this percolating for a month now, and did not want to procrastinate indefinitely. After reading a friend’s BLOG for a while, I realized that I had fallen into the “intellectual flabbiness of the larger society,” especially where questions of doctrine were concerned, and wanted use by own BLOG to both clarify and proclaim my own faith. This is a beginning. I expect this will generate some excellent discussion, and further expect to revise and expand this particular post over the next few weeks.