Romans and Those Who Haven’t Heard

It is my opinion that what Calvinists, Arminians, Universalists and virtually all other believers in Christ have some beliefs in common beyond a simple faith in Jesus as the Son of God — whether they want to admit it or not. And some of those beliefs aren’t necessarily good.

First, most of us believers have in common a kind of absolutist definition of the word “all” wherever it is used in scripture with regard to people — that it always means “everyone who has ever lived from the beginning of time through and including everyone who is still alive at the end of time.”

I can’t say that I buy into that. If I say “Singing at church Sunday was awesome,” and you ask me “Why?” and I reply “Because everyone sang,” you don’t assume that I meant “everyone who has ever lived through everyone who ever will.” When Genesis 6:5 says everyone was perpetually evil all the time, did that include Noah? His family?

Second, I think most believers share in an absolutist definition of “wickedness” in Romans which includes any sin, any number of sins, the nature of anyone who is not perfect and sinless. In other words, imperfection = wickedness. All sin is the same. Anyone who sins is damned.

I can’t say that I buy into that, either. Paul defines what he means by wickedness early on in Romans, and it’s pretty heinous. It’s not just slipping once in your life and saying “oh crap” instead of “oh doo-doo.”

Go ahead and read Romans 1:18-32. I’ll wait.

Now I ask you: Is that talking about people whose minds wander a bit during communion or who clap while singing praise to God in church or who let fly an epithet in an unguarded moment once in a while?

Or is it talking about sin, seriously depraved, self-seeking, God-denying, hateful, greedy, lascivious, murderous sin? Is that the way everyone is who sins? Or is that what a little sin leads to, and why it cannot be tolerated, and why it cannot be a part of God’s assembled saints? Is the wrath of God being revealed from heaven against people who aren’t perfect — or people who suppress the truth by their wickedness? Does Jesus’ statement in Luke 12:47-48 have any relevance here? (I don’t know for certain if He was speaking of eternal judgment there, but He certainly seems to support the principle that there are some sins that are worse than others.)

Third, most believers don’t believe what Paul says in places like Romans 2:6-11 (and many other scriptures) unless they get to add their own qualifications to what’s said. For them, “doing good” must include obeying God the way they define it. Otherwise, it’s not good enough. Even those of us who understand that our works don’t and can’t save us.

In the epistle to the Romans, it takes some discernment to figure out where Paul really is talking about everyone and about universal (not Universalist!) principles … and where he is talking just about people who have had some exposure to the notion of God … and where he is talking about people who grew up knowing all there was to know about God. And it’s important! Because the things said about one group of people may not apply to another group of people.

It takes some discernment to plot out where he begins talking to Jews only … and where, much later on in the epistle, he addresses Gentiles only … and where, still later on, he’s talking to everyone again. Not as much, but some. Plus, he’s writing  — obviously! — to people that have heard a gospel and have heard that Paul has a gospel and accusations against both Paul and his gospel. And that’s important to know, too. Because the things said to one group of people may not apply to another group of people. Right?

It takes some discernment to figure out whether Paul means that imperfection is the same as wickedness … if someone can actually be good and do good without hearing the name of God, having intuited His existence and goodness from what has been made, yet without having descended into the wickedness of idolatry and worship of self … if someone can actually be good and do good having heard and understood the will of God but having willfully rejected it in order pursue whatever gratifies self, at whatever cost to others and to God.

I’m not going to pretend that I have it all sorted out and there is a simple color-coded systemological map that you can overlay the epistle with and have it all neatly figured out. But I’m smart enough to pick up on the fact that Romans is not a one-size-fits-all letter with the same thing to say in every verse to and about everyone in Rome, or just every believer in Rome. Or to every Jew and Gentile who has encountered it since it was written.

The can’t-wait-to-get-to-it message of Romans — after that quick overview of global morality and immorality in chapter one — is “Stop judging each other! You have no right to! You’re doing the same wrong things that you’re judging others for doing when you judge them — you’re sinning!”

Yes, I’m especially sensitive to this theme after studying Greg Boyd’s Repenting of Religion for several months with my LIFE group. Boyd’s examination of Bonhoeffer and scripture is pretty convicting about the original sin — judging God to be untrustworthy — and expressing virtually all other sins as failures of human judgment. That’s pretty much borne out in Romans, especially as chapter two begins:

You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. So when you, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance? ~ Romans 2:1-4

This is the kind of judgment that comes from self-righteousness … the inability to see the plank in one’s own eye while trying to pluck the splinter from another’s. It’s the kind of judgment that a Pharisee or teacher of the law uses to justify crucifying an inconvenient prophet from Nazareth.

So far, in this epistle addressed to “all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be his holy people,” there has been no change of address. He’s talking to everyone, about all of them to whom he’s writing. They’ve all been guilty of this kind of judgment. Jews. Gentiles. Everyone. And yet they are people whose “faith is being reported all over the world” (Romans 1:8). He continues:

But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. God “will repay each person according to what they have done.”To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For God does not show favoritism.~ Romans 2:5-11

So there are people who have persisted in doing good … as well as those who have been self-seeking and follow evil. The standard of judgment is the same for Jew and Gentile.

When it says “God does not show favoritism,” does it say that He just going to save everyone because He doesn’t play favorites? No.

When it says “God does not show favoritism,” does it say that He will just condemn everyone who hasn’t heard because they have rejected truth they’ve never heard even though they might (or might not!) have persisted in doing good? No.

It says He doesn’t play favorites in saving Jews over Gentiles. That’s pretty much the point of the whole epistle, and why there should be no racial judgment taking place between the two groups!

All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. (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. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.) This will take place on the day when God judges people’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares. ~ Romans 2:12-16

So it is possible for people who have not heard the law to still do things required by the law that are written on their hearts. We know from this epistle that keeping works of the law does not save. But the Gentiles described in this passage would have been described in scripture as “God-fearing” before the crucifixion and resurrection. Would they have been saved before those events, yet damned after?

Can we read that passage and still believe it is not possible for someone who has not heard of Jesus to live good lives, lives repentant of living for self, lives that express belief in love for others (and God is love)? That they cannot have belief in a good creator God who has put in their hearts a moral compass and a yearning for more than this life? Can we absolutely state that God cannot or will not impute the saving blood of Christ to those whom He wills, those who please Him by lives that give Him glory whether they have ever heard His name or not?

Paul understands that it’s impossible to believe on a name that one has not heard:

As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.” For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? ~ Romans 10:11-14

Does he — in this epistle or any other scripture — ever say that it is impossible for them to receive God’s salvation? Does any writer of scripture?

Scripture says we are not under law, but under grace (Romans 6:14-15) and saved by faith, not works (Romans 3:27-28; 9:32; Galatians 2:16; 5:4; John 5:24). It also says all will be judged (not saved, but judged) by their works (Matthew 25; Revelation 20:12) and words (James 3:1, Matthew 12:37)  — and in the way that we have judged others (Matthew 7:1-2; Luke 6:37).

The only exceptions I have been able to find to those being judged are those who do not judge and do not condemn and who forgive others and those who hear and believe :

“Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” ~ Luke 6:37

“Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life.” ~ John 5:24

Are we ready to make a judgment that only one or the other of these is required? Just one and not the other? Both?

Have we as believers done one but not the other?

And aren’t we judging those who haven’t heard when we interpret scripture to say that God cannot, will not, and/or does not save them at His own discretion — when scripture does not say so? That they don’t rate an individual judgment like those who have heard and are just categorically out-of-luck? Damned automatically by chance of birth?

Don’t get me wrong: the gospel is still — and has been since Jesus lived it — the way God wants for His power to save to be shared with all; with everyone, everywhere, in every era.

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” ~ Romans 1:16-17

Those who hear and believe; who will repent and conform their lives to Christ have a promise of salvation and advantage that those who heard do not have. At the same time, I feel completely inadequate — and forbidden — to judge the life of someone else who has not had that advantage and say that their faith is inadequate because they don’t know the Name.

And I think it extremely presumptuous to say that God does not have the power, the right, the sovereignty, the love that covers sins, the grace that triumphs over judgment, to show mercy to whom He will show mercy and compassion to whom He will have compassion … to say that He is somehow contractually obligated by the way most believers have historically interpreted Romans and other scriptures to categorically condemn everyone who has not heard, understood and accepted the gospel of His Son Jesus, the Christ.

We don’t believe that’s necessarily true of categories within it like babies and small children, mentally challenged people, or those among His people who lived before the Word took human form in Jesus.

We tend to believe — want to believe — that God can impute the grace bought by His Son’s blood to those exceptions, though we have no scriptural basis for that belief.

What does it say about us that we somehow want to believe that He cannot or will not save good people who have diligently sought Him but never had the opportunity to hear His name or His story?

I believe that is our double standard, not His.

I believe it’s our error that this kind of final judgment is ours to make, before the Day when He decides.

Not that He will save all whoever lived. There are those who are mortal who have chosen to defy, oppose and blaspheme all that is good and all that is of God, just as surely as there were those who were celestial beings who so chose. Their reward is just. My pity for them has no salvific power. My conviction that God’s heart also breaks for each one cannot redeem them. They must choose and they have chosen. What they have chosen will not prevent me from loving and trying to reach as many of them as I encounter.

Because the promise always beats the possibility of a relationship with God.

I believe God created this world and us to offer us choice and then to respect our choices.

We can choose good or evil, righteousness or sin, God or Satan, salvation or damnation … love or judgment.

I am doing my best to choose to love and not to judge …

… for the reasons outlined above.

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The Incredible Free Giveaway Offer

No, my blog has not been hacked and taken over by some seamy cheat hacker trying to pry bucks from your gullible or not-so-gullible grasp. This is just a little story I made up. So indulge me.

A creative entity known as Apple decided to make known an incredible free giveaway offer of iPads and gave away an almost immeasurable quantity of iPads to all the people who heard about the free offer and responded. The hope was that the iPads would serve as a resource for people to “think different,” create good stuff, and generally make the world a better place.

Surprisingly, word did not spread as widely as Apple might have anticipated, and Apple decided to just give away iPads where the offer was not made known.  After all, Apple had always been the sole source of iPads, and it was within Apple’s purview to distribute iPads at pleasure. Apple found all kinds of people who wanted to “think different,” to create good stuff, and to generally make the world a better place. So Apple gave iPads to them, too.

Now the first group of people, who received their iPads because the offer had been made known to them, felt it was unfair to be giving away iPads to people who had not heard of the offer and had not responded to it as they had. They felt it was not like Apple to give away iPads to people who had not heard about the offer, and they began telling people that Apple should not and would not give away iPads to people who did know about the offer and respond to it.

Were they right to do this?

I’m guessing that most people would say “no” to this story, and I would be one of them.

They were not the ones making the decision. They were not part of the decision-making process about making an offer or giving away iPads. They did not word the agreement of the offer. They were beneficiaries of the process. They lost nothing; they still had their iPads. The wonder is that they largely kept the information about the offer to themselves.

You see, the people who responded to the offer were given a promise, then they received the gift. The second group of people just received the gift.

Now do me a favor. Put your cursor at the beginning of the story, sweep it and copy it and paste it into a text document app, and do a search-and-replace. Replace “Apple” with “God” and “iPads” with “salvation.”

Oh, let me just do it for you:

A creative entity known as God decided to make known an incredible free offer of salvation and gave away an almost immeasurable quantity of salvation to all the people who heard about the free offer and responded. The hope was that the salvation would serve as a resource for people to “think different,” create good stuff, and generally make the world a better place.

Surprisingly, word did not spread as widely as God might have anticipated, and God decided to just give away salvation where the offer was not made known.  After all, God had always been the sole source of salvation, and it was within God’s purview to distribute salvation at pleasure. God found all kinds of people who wanted to “think different,” to create good stuff, and to generally make the world a better place. So God gave salvation to them, too.

Now the first group of people, who received their salvation because the offer had been made known to them, felt it was unfair to be giving away salvation to people who had not heard of the offer and had not responded to it as they had. They felt it was not like God to give away salvation to people who had not heard about the offer, and they began telling people that God should not and would not give away salvation to people who did know about the offer and respond to it.

I don’t know about you, but I would still say that the people in the first group were not right to draw this conclusion and make this pronouncement.

For all the same reasons.

If you can find a scripture that says God gives up His sovereignty to show mercy and favor to whomever He wills because of His contractual obligation to those of us who have heard the offer and responded to it, I’d like to see it.

I understand that He is a just God and that we are imperfect people and that believers have an advantage in living saved lives and making the world a better place, but I am not aware that our ongoing imperfections are less egregious to God. I haven’t read anything in scripture that says we stop sinning after we believe and respond or that our sin becomes less sinful.

In fact, don’t the people who live that kind of lives that believers should be living put us to shame for having the law of love written on their hearts yet having never encountered the free offer of salvation made by God through His Son, Jesus, the Christ?

If we are going to picture God as only just and not merciful — having somehow exhausted His mercy at Calvary as if it were a finite quantity — then we truly picture ourselves as children of a lesser god.

And if we keep the information about that offer to ourselves, when others could benefit from it here and now and gladly join in the telling, well then … what does that say about us?

Now, the qualifier. I said nothing about God giving this incredible free offer to everyone, but to everyone whom He wishes to give it.  It is within His power enacted by Christ’s blood to save everyone. It is not within His nature. Clearly, we have much information in scripture that indicates He will judge and there will be those who will reject Him and His offer and face consequences that have no reprieve.

But you have to know someone to either receive or reject them. You have to be aware of an offer in order to accept it or turn it down. You have to have knowledge of a promise in order to believe or disbelieve it.

At the same time, you can reject everything that a person stands for without knowing them, or even knowing that they exist.

Anyone can accept a gift. If a life is lived which displays the acceptance of that gift, will God ultimately deny it to someone living it yet who has never heard the Name of the Giver?

Grace, Good Things, and Lazarus

We know the story and it teases, taunts and mystifies us:

19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.

22 “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’

25 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’

27 “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, 28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’

29 “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’

30 “‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’

31 “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’” ~ Luke 16:19-31

I’ve been criticized in the last few months for proposing that perhaps not all mankind is totally depraved, and that those who hear and believe are recipients of a promise of salvation, but that salvation is not necessarily denied to those who haven’t heard.

So I just wanted to bring up this little story that Jesus told and point out that (whatever His point in relating it was at the moment), the poor man Lazarus in this story dies and receives eternal comfort. He is not commended for exceptional behavior nor for his faith in God nor for any attribute of his life over which he seemed to have control.

The difference between Lazarus and the rich man in torment was that in life Lazarus received bad things and the rich man received good things.

And if this story has any value at all in describing the afterlife (and I believe it does; a second value in addition to describing the unwillingness of some in Jesus’ lifetime who would not believe in resurrection), then its secondary value may well be in pointing out that God saves whom He wishes to save. He is sovereign. He is free to do that.

That does not mean that He will necessarily save everyone; it’s not even implied. The Lord gives life to whomever He wills:

For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it. ~ John 5:21

Is Lazarus an example of this unqualified grace and mercy? A way Jesus meant to communicate it? What are your reasons for thinking so — or not?

Feel free to discuss among yourselves.

The Nativity Story from John 1

Yesterday, a friend on Facebook asked a group of mostly preachers what they would be preaching about on Sunday, December 25, Christmas morning.

I answered, “I don’t preach, but if I did, I’d preach on the Nativity Story from John 1. Yup, John 1. It’s short, but cosmic.”

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. … The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. … For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known. ~ John 1:1-5, 14, 17-18

I love the baby-Jesus-in-a-manger version of the story as dearly as anyone. But this version has incredible power in its brevity.

The very Son of God, the Word, who was with God and was God from the beginning, took our form to live with us. The glory of which angels sang was now visible in Him. You could see grace. You could see truth. In Jesus, you could see God.

Want another tiny sample of this part of the Nativity Story?

“Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” ~ John 8:58

They wanted to kill Him right there in the temple by throwing rocks at Him, they were so incensed to hear this. He claimed to be God. But truth is a defense against blasphemy as well as libel … and He walked away, unharmed. I have to wonder if their hands were stayed by doubt in their conviction that He was only a man; that a man could not also be God.

Another glimpse?

Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work.” ~ John 14:8-10

God with Us. Immanuel.

Jesus knew who He was. He knew what Isaiah had prophesied in 7:14, and He knew that “Immanuel” meant “God With Us.” He had to have known what His mother had treasured in her heart for all those years.

And in telling Philip and the other apostles once again Who He was, He was promising to give them the very Holy Spirit within Himself so that God could do His work through them as well.

One more glimpse, this time from someone other than John:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. ~ Philippians 2:5-11

God became a single cell; a nothing; a thing invisible except through a microscope. God became a baby. A young man. A servant.

A sacrifice.

God intended all of this to happen, and that was why it was as good as done as soon as Jesus was born, and the angels could sing praise at His birth for what He would yet do as a man, and a servant, and a sacrifice.

Jesus showed us that God could be in and among man, so that God could continue His work in us and among us and through us by His own Holy Spirit.

Jesus showed us that we could be born anew; become something very different, something still like a human being on the outside, but full of grace and truth and God within.

Jesus showed us that the true glory of God is to serve, to give, to be given and spent out and used up in love to others.

He gave up a throne in heaven to wash dirty feet.

He gave up being in the Presence of God in order to be the Presence of God.

He surrendered His life there to surrender it again here, and to give it abundantly and without measure to anyone who hears and believes and asks.

The Plan

I have never really been a fan of James Cameron’s The Abyss (1989), but as someone who grew up yearning to watch Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (on at the same time evening worship started on Sundays) and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Disney’s World of Color, same time, different channel), I had high hopes when I went to see it.

Not sure anyone emerged from the chilly theater as a fan, but the movie had moments. Most James Cameron flicks do.

The one that resonated with me (to the best of my recollection)?

Trapped in a deep undersea sub-structure rapidly filling with icy water, oil rigman Virgil and estranged wife Lindsey are trying to come up with a plan to get both of them over to an airtight compartment back on the rig hundreds of yards away. He still loves her passionately; she has shown only cold contempt for him. He is wearing a wet suit; she is not.  And the minisub is a wrecked piece of junk:

Lindsey: Please, listen! Just listen to me for one second. Now you’ve got the suit on, and you’re a much better swimmer than I am, right?
Virgil: [reluctantly] Yeah, maybe…
Lindsey: Right? Yes! So I’ve got a plan.
Virgil: What’s the plan?
Lindsey: I drown, and you tow me back to the rig.
Virgil: No. No!
Lindsey: Yes! This water…
Virgil: NO!
Lindsey: …is only a couple degrees above freezing! I g-go into deep hypothermia, my blood’ll go like ice water, right? My body systems will slow down, they won’t stop…
Virgil: Linds…
Lindsey: You tow me back and I can, I can be revived after, maybe ten or fifteen minutes. Ten-fifteen minutes!
Virgil: [pushing the suit collar at her] Linds, you put this on, you put it on!
Lindsey: [pushing the collar back at him] No, it’s the only way! Just put this on! Put this on, you know I’m right. Please, it’s the only way, you’ve got all the s-stuff on the rig to do this! Put this on, Bud, please
Virgil: [putting the collar back on] This is insane.
Lindsey: Oh my God, I know. But it’s the only way.

Maybe it’s not the only way; after all, I didn’t get to see all of those scientifically-stoked hours of Voyage and Leagues. Maybe it’s just a few hokey moments of pretty good melodrama in an otherwise immemorable movie.

Granted.

But the scene resonsates with me because I have always wondered how the conversation in heaven took place where The Plan was formulated. You know: The Plan.

We can theorize and argue all we want to about atonement theories, but when we intellectualize the subject, we fail to to address and experience the raw emotion of The Plan.

The Father will have to abandon His beloved Son in ultimate anguish. The Son will have to suffer in indescribable physical pain. And die, trusting the Father who has turned His back on the sin borne by the Son. And the Son must stay dead for three days. And then be resurrected, to a whole new and different kind of body, apparently.

Somehow, among all the nice, systematic, logical theories we can muster, The Plan turns out to be the only way.

It is the only way we can be revived from asphyxiation while drowning in icy sin.

Partial Depravity

I just want to bullet a few points and then I’m going to leave this subject alone for awhile. It’s taken me most of my 56 years to sort it out this far, and I don’t expect to make any great gains in it anytime soon.

  • I don’t believe the Roman epistle was intended to be — solely or even primarily — a commentary on man’s inclination toward evil. It’s an answer to Jewish and Gentile Christians who are having difficulty living with the reality of their equality in God’s eyes, and that equality is based on the fact that everyone sins; no one is perfect.
  • The first ten or so chapters are written to resonate with the Jewish-trained mind; references to existing scripture and point-of-view. This seems to be because the Jewish Christians were lording it over their Gentile brothers and sisters in Christ that they were of God’s chosen people. (There seems to be a brief break at Romans 11:13 when Paul addresses Gentiles at that point.)
  • Romans 1:18-32 is not necessarily talking about the wickedness of all people (the word “all” does not appear there), but specifically of “people who suppress the truth by their wickedness” (NIV) or “men who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (ESV) or “men who hold the truth in unrighteousness” (KJV). There’s no punctuation in the original Greek text, so we endanger the meaning by placing a comma there after “people” or “men.” I think the importance of this passage is that there is no distinguishing between Jew and Gentile; people of both groups have been guilty of these sins — hence the use of the non-specific term “men” or “people” (as the NIV renders it).
  • The text specifically names sins which are in play because of this wickedness: idolatry, sexual immorality (perhaps in the context of idol worship), trading God’s truth for a lie. And this unholy idolatry led to further sin: ” … They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips,slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy.” It’s a history of how people have gone wrong through having ignored the plain evidence of God in creation.
  • Romans 1 is not separate in thought from Romans 2, which condemns the kind of judgment and racial line-drawing that evidently had been going on between the Jewish and Gentile Christians. Romans 2:5-11 not only quotes a Psalm and a Proverb, but also agrees with what Jesus teaches in Matthew 25: God will judge according to what people do.
  • Please consider very carefully the verses in Romans 2:12-16 before confidently concluding that belief in Jesus Christ as the Son of God through hearing the gospel is an absolute prerequisite to the salvation that His blood enables and that God gives as a free gift.
  • No matter how many good things people do, it can never be enough to earn or merit salvation. That’s the point of Romans 4-9. That’s the weakness of the Jewish law. It was never meant for salvation, but preservation of God’s people as sanctified, set apart to prepare the way for the Chosen One — and by far the greatest share of them paved their own paths to nowhere instead.
  • Abraham was justified by faith in God (Romans 4:1-3); and so are we (Romans 5:1-2). But the good works we do testify to our faith, just as Abraham’s act of faith did (James 2). The purpose of those good works is to bring the judgment of those who have not heard and do not believe to bear on the goodness of God. They give us an opportunity to explain the good and giving nature of God through His most extravagant gift: His Son, Jesus, the Christ. No one comes to the Father except through Him (John 14:6ff); He and the Father are One.
  • Adam brought sin and therefore death into the world; Jesus took away sin and the sting of death (Romans 5-6). Jewish law could not bring life; only judgment, by specifying what constitutes sin (Romans 7). Sinleadstodeath … sinleadstodeath … sinleadstodeath (one of the major subtexts of the entire Bible, but especially Romans). Adam is not responsible for our sin; we are (Deuteronomy 24:16).
  • The Spirit of God/Christ rescues us from slavery to sin and the consequence of death (Romans 8). He is given to those God foreknows and predestines and calls — but there is no language there that says God only calls certain people, or that He alone determines how they respond to that call. (See Isaiah 65:1266:4, Jeremiah 7:13; but also see God’s promise to answer even before they call for Him, Isaiah 65:24.) In all cases in scripture, the subject for the word “predestined” is plural. It is never used in a singular, individual sense. The same is true of the word “foreknew” and “foreknowledge.” Is there anyone God does not foreknow? Is there anyone He does not call?
  • The point in Romans 9:18-33 seems to be that God calls to the Gentiles as well as the His chosen people, the Jews, to prove that righteousness in Christ is not achieved by obeying their law/doing good alone, but through faith. The choosing spoken of here, again, is of a group of people (Jews, Gentiles) — not of individuals.
  • To me, the sense of the foreknowledge and choosing is that God knew in advance that he would be calling a group of people to follow His Son from among the Jews and the Gentiles. He predestined this group to be, and to be mixed. Nothing in the text says He predestined individual persons to be a part of that group and made their choice for them. At the same time, nothing in the text says that God does not permit Himself to save — show mercy — to whom He wills if they have not heard of His Son.
  • Romans 10 concludes that Jews and Gentiles (that’s everybody, folks) need Jesus … and need to hear about Jesus so they can believe. Romans 11 maintains that God has not rejected his people, Israel (the Jews), but wants for them to know not just of Him but of His Son and what has been done for all people through Jesus. To the Gentiles, Paul advises that they should not get a sense of superiority over their Jewish brothers and sisters in Christ, because they were grafted in; not inherently better or some kind of “new” chosen people.
  • The rest of the epistle is filled with instructions for both Jews and Gentiles, addressed to all, capstoned (perhaps) by: “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, so that the promises made to the patriarchs might be confirmed and, moreover, that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. ” (Romans 15:7-9)
  • None of that says anything about people being incapable of imagining or doing good of themselves. Assuming that people do, in fact, make their own decisions based on the faith God gives them (Ephesians 2:8) without God making the decision for them, then people are capable of making a good decision when they decide to follow Jesus Christ. And people who do what the law requires without knowledge of the law are capable of making a good decision when they decide to do good works.
  • There is no record that Cain and Abel were commanded of God to offer sacrifices. If they were not, then both of them were capable of making a good decision in making an offering of gratitude to God … a creative choice in lieu of a command to follow. And, yes, even one out of two of them managed to mess that up  badly … yet Abel offered his gift in faith (Hebrews 11:4).
  • What value would our choices to follow God have if He made them for us? This is the rhetorical question Paul asks, almost as a joke (“Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?” ~ Romans 9:19-24). Paul’s answer is that the sovereign God has the right to make our choices for us — He made us — but His will is to call even the Gentiles as well as the Jews to the relationship made possible through His Son. This agrees with what Paul taught in Athens, that God commands all men everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30-31). Peter agrees (2 Peter 3:9).
  • But: “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” (Romans 10:14)
  • It’s important not to say “can’t” where scripture says “doesn’t.” The fact that we do not choose to do good things does not mean that we cannot.

Okay, that’s all for now. I may or may not respond to comments; I’ll just tell you that in advance. I’m not good at arguing with people and I don’t enjoy it. It doesn’t usually set a good example for people who read arguing comments and conclude that Christians are more comfortable at arguing than they are at doing good in the world.

I’m having a more and more difficult time with that perception, myself.

That means I am re-evaluating the kind of blogging that I do here, and it means that a change is in order. I don’t know what that change is, but I have a strong feeling that it will be more writing about Jesus, which I have badly neglected.

I just feel deeply that we believers have too often made a very bad impression on those who don’t know of Him except through us, especially by judging them and using expressions like “total depravity” and generally leaving the impression that God only loves people who have heard about Jesus and have accepted Him as Son of God and Savior and Lord. And that means us and not them.

Nothing could be further from God’s truth.

Call Me Totally Depraved, But …

… I think I am unfit to be either a Calvinist or an Arminian.

That’s right; they actually agree on one of their respective five points — total depravity — and as far as i understand it, I disagree with it.

Here’s the way that Wikipedia phrases the first of Calvin’s five points:

Total depravity“: This doctrine, also called “total inability”, asserts that as a consequence of the fall of man into sin, every person born into the world is enslaved to the service of sin. People are not by nature inclined to love God with their whole heart, mind, or strength, but rather all are inclined to serve their own interests over those of their neighbor and to reject the rule of God. Thus, all people by their own faculties are morally unable to choose to follow God and be saved because they are unwilling to do so out of the necessity of their own natures. (The term “total” in this context refers to sin affecting every part of a person, not that every person is as evil as possible.)[10] This doctrine is borrowed from Augustine who was a member of a Manichaean sect in his youth.

And how the third article of the Arminian Remonstrances reads:

That man has not saving grace of himself, nor of the energy of his free will, inasmuch as he, in the state of apostasy and sin, can of and by himself neither think, will, nor do anything that is truly good (such as having faith eminently is); but that it is needful that he be born again of God in Christ, through his Holy Spirit, and renewed in understanding, inclination, or will, and all his powers, in order that he may rightly understand, think, will, and effect what is truly good, according to the word of Christ, John xv. 5: “Without me ye can do nothing.”

Now, the fact is, I agree that no one is capable of being saved by his or her own effort, or without the blood of Christ. I agree that faith is the gift of God (Ephesians 2:8 ), but I do not find anything in scripture that says this gift is given exclusively to those who have heard the gospel of Jesus Christ.

  • Faith may come by hearing (Romans 10:17) — it certainly does for many, many believers — but scripture nowhere says that it comes solely by hearing. You have to add the word “only” to get that meaning.
  • There may indeed be no one who is sinless before God (Ecclesiastes 7:20; Psalm 143:2; Romans 3) … but not one of those passages (or any other) adds, “and therefore they are all automatically damned.”
  • Nor does any of them say that a man is incapable of anything truly good. In fact, a good number of Old Testament heroes are spoken of as righteous or fully devoted to God in spite of their sins (Noah, Genesis 6:9; 7:1 … Abraham, Genesis 15:6; Romans 4:3, 9; Galatians 3:6; James 2:21, James 2:23 … Daniel and Job, Ezekiel 14:14, 20 … King David, 1 Kings 15:3). And as far as we can tell, none of them ever heard the gospel of Jesus Christ in this life. People can imagine, think and do good … even if the rest of Noah’s generation thought only evil all the time (Genesis 6:5). Noah did, unless somehow you can explain to me how Noah was righteous even though he was also a person whose heart’s inclinations were only evil all the time.
  • In addition, when God created man, He pronounced man along with all His creation, not just “good,” but “very good.” (Genesis 1:26-31).
  • This is where I disagree with Calvin’s Reformed thought even further; man (through Adam and Eve) chose not to be good one time; God gave them the choice of two trees in the garden, and one was promoted by the serpent to be more attractive though forbidden on pain of death itself. One of God’s greatest gifts to us is choice, and our choices matter to Him, and they have consequences. We have chosen ever since not to be perfect, but that does not mean that we have chosen not to be good. It only takes one time choosing self to bring sin into our lives and render us imperfect. But that does not mean that God sees us as unrighteous and consigns us to the fires of hell upon the commission of the first sin; through Christ’s blood He justifies the ungodly. He judges fairly — and I believe that would have to mean, individually, rather than as part of a class of people (“sinners”) that He can condemn because it will save Him a great deal of time and effort.
  • This is where I diverge from Arminius’s Remonstrances even further because the fourth article reads:

That this grace of God is the beginning, continuance, and accomplishment of any good, even to this extent, that the regenerate man himself, without that prevenient or assisting; awakening, following, and co-operative grace, can neither think, will, nor do good, nor withstand any temptations to evil; so that all good deeds or movements that can be conceived must be ascribed to the grace of God in Christ. But, as respects the mode of the operation of this grace, it is not irresistible, inasmuch as it is written concerning many that they have resisted the Holy Ghost,—Acts vii, and elsewhere in many places.

So — if I understand it correctly — this article of doctrine says that only God can sponsor anything good; all good actions come from God as well as all good things and good can only be ascribed to Him. Where does scripture say that? I’ll agree that His grace is not irresistible (one of the points of Calvinism says it is), but where does God’s word tell us that no man is capable of any good at all, of himself? Wouldn’t that be a requirement of free will and choice; the ability to choose within oneself between genuine good and inarguable evil? Don’t we even call it “making a good choice” or “making a bad choice”? Isn’t the purpose of giving people a choice finding out what they will choose?

Let’s face it: all the talk of “total depravity” is just a redefinition of another doctrine of men: Original Sin. It is so tenuously based in scripture that believers in Christ can’t begin to come to a consensus on what it is, what it means, or how it applies to mankind. It seems clear to me in Romans 5:12-21 and 1 Corinthians 15:22 that the acts of Adam and Eve introduced sin (and therefore death) into the world. Since Augustine, we’ve read the word “eternal” before “condemnation” into the Romans passage, where Paul is talking about the condemnation of a death sentence — where there was none before Adam and Eve! His point is that the first man brought sin into the world; Jesus took it away. Adam is no more responsible for my sins than I am for his or my great-great-uncle’s or my yet-unborn grandchildren’s (if any — Jeremiah 31:29-31) .

I’ll admit I don’t understand everything about Calvinism and Arminianism. To my view, they lead to extremes: one to excluding man entirely from the salvation process; the other, to virtually excluding God’s sovereignty in favor of free will. I don’t understand all of the arguments that are used to explain away all these doctrines’ inconsistencies with scripture. I don’t get all of the points that new Reformed voices make to ameliorate the extremes of their classic position (does that mean they are reformed Reformed?).

I do understand that these doctrines are two systematized approaches to theology (study of God’s nature), soteriology (study of salvation) and probably lots of other religious stuff, and they are systems created by men.

And I believe I understand what Jesus says about nullifying the word of God by human tradition and invalidating worship by teaching human rules (Matthew 15:1-13; Mark 7:1-13). God doesn’t have to fit in our rulebooks, no matter how cleverly we deduce them or how cogently we argue them or how persuasively we phrase them.

Anything I need to understand about the relationship between God and us — what He wants for us; what He has provided for us — I can see pretty clearly in the life and actions and teachings and sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus Christ, His Son.

He didn’t pronounce anyone totally depraved; completely unreachable by God due to their slightest sin. Instead, He seemed to go out of His way to find good in the people that His countrymen expected the least good from, like a Roman centurion (Matthew 8:5-13) and a Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:21-28). He challenged people with His own perfection (Matthew 5:20, 5:48; John 5:14; John 8:1-11). He was a perfect (mature, complete) example; I believe that He feels we deserve that as much as God’s perfection required it in order for Jesus to be our sacrifice … and that we deserve a challenge of perfection, even if it’s impossible for us to achieve ourselves. But I don’t ever hear Him saying or implying that it’s impossible for us to be good, or to do good, or to have faith in what’s good which can be counted as righteousness.

I think this point of Calvinist/Arminian agreement — total depravity — is pervasive in Restoration Movement thought, too. It supports our view that God cannot and/or will not save anyone who has not heard the gospel, believed, repented, confessed, been baptized, and kept all of our man-made rules, too.

Some of our man-made rules and interpretations give Old Testament heroes the benefit of the doubt, even though none of them ever heard the gospel of Christ in order to believe in it, repent, confess His Sonship or be baptized into a fellowship where we in churches of Christ could explain [sarcasm alert] the salvific importance of a cappella worship. We also excuse babies and small children and usually folks who are mentally challenged from the requirement to obey, though scripture says no such specific thing about their acceptance or rejection by God. So, we Restoration folks kind of believe in total depravity, too … but we also believe in the exceptions we wish to make in it.

Can we even look at these issues from outside our own doctrinal boxes and see what scripture says and doesn’t say?

Those who are saved eternally, are saved by Jesus’ blood and the Lord’s judgment — which is His choice. Those who have heard the gospel and have chosen to accept it and have been immersed into a Christ-like life are recipients of a promise of salvation (Romans 10:9), which they are free to continue accepting or can walk away from it and from Him forever (Hebrews 6:4-6 — now that’s depravity!). Those who have not heard the gospel cannot possibly be expected to obey its implications (Romans 10:14). But you know there are good people who have lived as if they had — including patriarchs who lived before God made clear in His law what kind of good He wanted for His people! Those who haven’t heard, yet live obedient lives, perceive and believe in the necessity of good over evil, repent of and repudiate acts that gratify self at the expense of others … they are a law for themselves (Romans 2:14). We will all be judged by what we have done (Matthew 25:31-46), because what we do testifies to what we believe (James 2).

That’s what I read scripture saying. Not five points decided upon by a Reformation synod or five minimal acts of obedience deduced by the founders of a Restoration movement.

And I can’t find anywhere that scripture says those who have not received the promise are automatically excluded from the gift of salvation through the grace of God in Christ because of their total depravity, or anything else.

So it would appear that I am not fit for Calvinism; I’m not fit for Arminianism.

I do find a fit for myself (and everyone else, excluding no one on the chance circumstance of having heard the gospel) between God’s sovereignty and our own free will to choose and within a human nature that is touched by sin, struggles with sin, yet — along with a lot of other people (some of whom have heard of God’s grace and some of whom have not) — yearning for what is good and right in the world, fully capable of imagining what that looks like and often willing to help make that happen.