Man’s Final End

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Icon of the Transfiguration. Most theologians understand this to be a retroactive-revelation of Christ’s resurrection glory, and a vision of man’s final end: participation in God’s glory

In this post, I want to consider what the early church fathers called theosis or divinization. They were convinced that this was man’s original calling, and it is principally man’s final end through salvation in Christ. But what does it mean? And how do we partake in it? This is what I want to answer through this post.

The outline of this post will take three steps. First, I need to define, primarily from the fathers and biblical metaphors, what divinization/theosis actually means. Second, I will look at the nature of sin as deprivation from the help of Augustine. Finally, I will look at what salvation in Christ means through the lens of the first two steps.

First, what does divinization mean? I realize that the word divinization or theosis sounds very foreign and strange. But these were words that the Fathers often used, and they are ultimately a biblical idea; so we must explore what they mean. Frederica Mathewes-Greens defines theosis by breaking down the word:

The goal of [mankind] is union with God. This is called theosis, which is usually translated “deification” or “divinization”. Those terms are misleading, if not alarming, since it could sound like we expect to become junior gods, each an independent owner-operator of a personal divinity franchise. Fortunately for everyone, that is not the case. We can dismantle the Greek word and see it is composed of theos, which means “God”, and the suffix -osis, which indicates a process. As red dye saturates a white clothe by the process of osmosis, so humans can be saturated with God’s presence by the process of theosis.

This was God’s plan from the beginning; we were created… to be increasingly filled with his glory (Welcome to the Orthodox Church, p 68-69)

Theosis, then, means that human beings were created to be increasingly filled with God’s glory. Or, put another way, mankind was made to participate and find its life within God’s divine life.

Aiden Nichols, in his book Chalice of God, tells us that the world was created to be a “beautiful receptacle”; that the “being of the world is so constituted as to receive” (p 12-13) and not to exist on its own. Rather it was created to receive the breath of God and to live in his own life. God, out of love then, created the world to participate or to be permeated with the divine indwelling.

But why is this so? Why was man created for this end? It is because only God has the infinite and unlimited resources that permit him to live independently. Aidan Nichols explains “anything whose nature does not demand its existence must have its being from another — meaning, ultimately, from the First Cause” (Chalice of God, p 14). God’s being, or his essence, is infinite, endless, and demands its own cause and existence. Created things on the other hand demand the cause of the other.

Frank Sheed explains:

[T]he infinite Being, having all perfections is utterly changeless. Nothing else is. Every created being, however glorious, contains a certain negative element, lacks something, from the fact that it is made of nothing.

So St. Augustine writes (De Natura Boni): All the things that God has made are mutable because made of nothing. And the Council of Florence tells us that creatures are good, of course, because they are made by the Supreme Good, but mutable because they are made of nothing. (Theology and Sanity, p 124-125)

All the created order is necessarily good (because God created it!), but is also necessarily changeable or even possibly corruptible because it is created and not eternal. Thus all of creation is made dependent, open, in need of receiving a life outside of itself. Left to its own resources, creation would change, degenerate, morph; because something created doesn’t have the capacity for eternal life in and of itself. For this reason, when God created the cosmos, he intended to dwell in it, to energize it with his life and to sustain it as his eternal temple. Nichols tells us the cosmos was made to “mediate the infinite” (p 21).

This is especially true of man: mankind was created commune with the triune community and life of God. Or, if I may put it biblically: man was created to be sanctified and finally glorified by participation in the triune God by the Spirit (Rom 8:28-30). When God created Adam, it is said that He “breathed” into him, and Adam “became a living being”. The fathers understood this breath to be the Holy Spirit, energizing Adam’s human nature with the divine life such that he was rendered immortal. Adam did not contain or own this life, rather it was a divine gift of grace.

The fathers illustrated this divine participation in several ways. Frederica Mathewes Green explains one way:

How can poor human clay take on the overwhelming presence of God? St. Cyril of Alexandria gives an analogy to the way fire acts upon metal. He wrote, “when the iron is brought into contact with the fire, it becomes full of its activity — that is, it takes on the properties, the heat and the light, of fire. “While it is by nature iron, it exerts the power of fire” (Welcome to the Orthodox Church, p 70)

Another good example, which I’ve mentioned before, is the temple. Many of the fathers understood Adam to be the priest within the temple of Eden. God thus made the world to be his dwelling place, his earth-temple. And Adam was tasked as the primordial priest to consecrate and offer the cosmos to God in thanksgiving, and for God to receive and fill the world with his life. Alexander Schmemman explains it this way:

The first, the basic definition of man is that he is the priest. He stands in the center of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God—and by filling the world with this eucharist, he transforms his life, the one that he receives from the world, into life in God, into communion with Him. The world was created as the “matter,” the material of one all-embracing eucharist, and man was created as the priest of this cosmic sacrament. (For the Life of the World, Kindle Locations 152-155)

Schmemman calls the entire cosmos the “matter”, and the man the “priest”. Man was created so that he could offer the “matter” of the world as a eucharist (thanksgiving sacrifice) to the Father in order that He may accept and transpose it with his glory.

I want to secondly move on to the nature of sin. Saint Augustine dealt with the heresy of Manichaeism, which held to a type of dualism akin to the gnostic heretics of the early church. The Manichaeans understood evil to be a substance, a thing that is part of the world that is in opposition to the good. Augustine’s insight against this impulse was to reason that if evil is a thing, a substance, then it means it was created. If it was created, it must have come from God, making God the originator of evil, or worse, evil in and of himself. This is obviously unbearable. God did not create or ordain evil.

From whence comes evil then? Augustine’s solution was to explain evil in negative terms. Evil is not a thing, something to be seen or grasped. Rather, evil is deprivation of the good. It is a corruption of the good. Evil is the very absence of what should be there. Evil is like rot in a tree, or darkness as the absence of light, or cold as the absence of heat. It is not a thing per se, but rather a reality of privation and incompleteness. Thomas Aquinas built on concept by furthering explaining that because evil is not a thing, or a substance, we may also affirm that evil is meaningless. Evil has no logical end or purpose. And actually, evil is the derailing of the purpose of a thing. Nichols says that “sin falls outside the divine understanding since it is objectively unintelligible, a falling away from being” (Chalice of God, 22). Sin is a falling away from being; meaning, it is a deprivation of that which should be. It is not properly something, rather it is a state of nothingness (this is the paradox of hell: it is simultaneously and eternally existence and non-existence. It is utter turmoil because man lives forever in this state of nothingness). Kallistos Ware expounds on this:

Against all forms of dualism, Christianity affirms that there is a summum bonum, a “supreme good” — namely God himself — but there is and can be no summun malum. Evil is not coeternal with God…

What then are we to say about evil? Since all created things are intrinsically good, sin or evil as such is not a “thing”, not existent being or substance… “Sin is naught”, says Augustine… And St. Gregory of Nyssa states, “Sin does not exist in nature apart from free will; it is not a substance in its own right”… Evil is always parasitic. It is the twisting and misappropriation of what is in itself good. (The Orthodox Way, 46-47)

Now, what does this have to do with theosis? The logical connection becomes evident when we ask: if evil is a privation, what is missing from the world that creates the evil of death and suffering? What is missing within man that makes him corrupt and die?

The answer is simply: God’s own life. If we tease out the metaphor of Adam as priest and the earth as God’s temple, when Adam sinned — when he seized the divine prerogative for himself — God’s presence was removed from his earth-temple. Adam’s sin was a turning-away from God’s very sustaining presence. And in turning away from the glory of God’s energizing presence, Adam turned into corruption, death, sickness, disease; or put another way, when Adam sinned, he forfeited the Spirit and was left to live autonomously and by his own resources; and having no eternal resources in himself, Adam become mortal, corrupt; he returned to the dust from which he was created.

Many people understand the punishment of Adam’s original sin to be an imposition of God’s hand on the nature of man: God struck the man dead. But death is not part of God’s nature. Instead, we must understand Adam’s sin as a punishment in and of itself. By this I mean that when Adam sinned, he turned away from God’s very life and forfeited the eternal, energizing presence of God. In other words, Adam dislodged mankind, even the entire cosmos, from the life of the triune God by his own sin. The communion he was meant to share in with the triune community was  broken through his disobedience. As Karl Adams says, mankind, “called to share by grace in the divine life… [became] detached from its original supernatural goal,…like some planet detached from its sun, [and] revolved only in crazy gyration round itself”. Aidan Nichols explains original sin in terms of a “failure to attain a telos” (Chalice of God, 22). This impulse, I believe is correct.

Original sin is therefore a reversal of man’s final end from eternal life in God to finitude and death in the self; and this death is not just physical, but spiritual as well. The body is not only bound toward corruption, but the soul with its moral and reasoning capacity is corrupted and in a state of death. Man’s moral compass and ability is thus askew, and his calling to be an image bearer is thwarted: instead of imaging God, he becomes animalistic and brutish. Man is stuck in this state of death — his will is bound as Augustine would say; he cannot rescue himself — and thus he needs deliverance.

This takes us to our last point: salvation. The question of salvation becomes: if man’s final end is union with God, theosis, divinization etc, and if sin is a derailment of that final end such that all mankind is constituted in death and corruption, how then does the human project realize it’s final purpose once more?

The answer is that mankind is saved through union with Christ who was obedient where Adam was not, and who was filled with new life through his resurrection from the dead. And by this I mean that salvation entails a rejoining with the divine life of God in the Spirit through mystical union with the resurrected Christ.

But what does this mean? And how does it happen? I will give two answers:

First, the patristic view. The patristic church was fond of saying that God became man that man might become God. And by this they meant that God did something through Christ such that man can be reconstituted in union with God’s life once more.

But what did God do in Christ? Very simply, God came down to where we are — into our sinful, dead situation — to raise mankind back to him in the fellowship of the Triune life.

Kallistos Ware explains:

The Christian message of salvation can best be summed up in terms of sharing, of solidarity and identification… Christ shares to the full in what we are, and so he makes it possible for us to share in what he is, in his divine life and glory. He became what we are, so as to make us what he is.

St Paul expresses this metaphorically in terms of wealth and poverty: “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ: he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that through his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9). Christ’s riches are his eternal glory; Christ’s poverty is his complete self-identification with our fallen human condition. In the words of an Orthodox Christmas hymn, “Sharing wholly in our poverty, thou hast made divine our earthly nature through thy union with it and participation in it”. Christ shares in our death, and we share in his life; he “empties himself” and we are “exalted” (Phil 2:5-9). God’s descent makes possible man’s ascent. St Maximus the Confessor writes: “Ineffably the infinity limits itself, while the finite is expanded to the measure of the infinite”…

Christ who is the Son of God by nature has made us sons of God by grace. In him we are “adopted” by God the Father, becoming sons-in-the-Son. (The Orthodox Way, p 73-74)

In the incarnation, Christ took a share in our situation in order to reunite humanity with the life of God. This share in our situation was completed when Christ willingly partook in our death to reverse it with his life. Christ willingly experienced the enemy of death, so that through dying, he might touch it with the divine life and defeat it once and for all.
Second, I want to look at the reunion of God and man in Christ through the lens of his death as a sacrifice. I said above that God created mankind in order that mankind might give himself and the world back in love to God. Adam was created as a primordial priest tasked to give or sacrifice the entire cosmos to God in love and consequently be filled with his glory. Instead, Adam grasped the divine prerogative for himself and fell into sin and death.
What Christ did by coming into our situation was precisely to take up Adam’s failed vocation and offer himself and the entire world to God in a sacrifice of love. All of Christ’s life was a holy offering of himself, indeed of the entire world, to God. Christ was the true righteous priest who offered to God his entire life in obedience and love. This sacrifice was supremely fulfilled in the cross: the cross, we are told by Paul, was a “fragrant offering” (Eph 5:2) of the entire self to God. It was perfect obedience, an obedience which Adam failed to give up to God, and for which he experienced the fall. Christ came to reverse that disobedience by obediently offering himself in love to the Father. Here is what Thomas Aquinas says of Christ’s sacrifice:
[B]y suffering out of love and obedience, Christ gave more to God than was required to compensate for the offense of the whole human race. First of all, because of the exceeding charity from which He suffered; secondly, on account of the dignity of His life which He laid down in atonement, for it was the life of one who was God and man; thirdly, on account of the extent of the Passion, and the greatness of the grief endured… And therefore Christ’s Passion was not only a sufficient but a superabundant atonement for the sins of the human race; according to 1 John 2:2: “He is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world. (ST, 3.48.2)
Aquinas explains that what Christ offered to the Father was a superabundant sacrifice which, in its offering, reversed and replaced the failure on Adam’s part. Christ, as Irenaeus says, replaced Adam and re-headed the world through his sacrificial love for the Father.
The resurrection means principally that God saw this sacrificial obedience, received it, took joy in it, and received Him in glory. This means that the glory forfeited in Adam is thus returned in Christ! What joy!
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Does God send people to hell, or do they send themselves there?

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CS Lewis is famous for saying, “I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside”. Lewis believes this truth, that “hell is locked from the inside”, because of the fact that “man has free will and that all gifts to him are therefore two-edged. From these premises it follows directly that the Divine labour to redeem the world cannot be certain of succeeding as regards every individual soul”¹. Of course, implicit in this statement is not just that God doesn’t lock the door from the outside. What Lewis is really saying is that God really wishes that every person could be saved, but his purposes are foiled by the free will of man. And so, in Lewis’s framework, man’s choice wins supreme. 

Is Lewis right in saying this?

Jared Wilson, a prolific author, doesn’t think so. He says, 

Does love demand giving the thing loved what he or she wants [i.e., hell]? The new inclusivists insist yes, and while their desire to maintain the biblical teachings on hell are admirable, we do not find much in the Scriptures to support the idea that, a la Lewis, the doors there are locked from the inside. The sentimental tail wags the theological dog when we say that love demands freedom, and that therefore when God cosigns the unrepentant to judgment he says, “Thy will be done” to them. In one sense, he is saying this, of course, but in the most crucial sense, he is not. In the most crucial sense, when God cosigns the ultimately unrepentant to eternal conscious torment, he is saying, “My will be done”² 

I like Wilson’s points here. What he is trying to point out is that, when we think over this issue, God’s will must be taken into account. Because of course, God is sovereign. He is in control. And so, if men go to hell, and if God is sovereign, it must be true that it is God’s will (however permissive that will may be) that those men go to hell. In this way, God’s will, as opposed to Lewis, is that not every soul will be saved.  

Of course with this whole conversation, questions of predestination, sovereignty, free will, and sin are necessarily brought up. And we could wade these doctrines to see what conclusion we would come up with. But we must, more than anything, understand how the scriptures address hell and condemnation.

And I think biblically, the answer to this complicated questions is yes: God sends people to hell and people send themselves there. What I mean is that biblically, the responsibility is given to both parties. And I believe that this testimony is clear from Romans 1. 

Paul tells us in Romans 1:24-32 that God judges guilty sinners by “giving them up”. Clearly then, God is active in condemnation. But, also, notice just exactly what God is giving them up to. Paul says that God is giving the sinner up to “the lusts of their hearts” and their “dishonorable passions” and their “debased minds” (vs. 24, 26, 28). In other words, God is not forcing the sinner into condemnation. Rather, he is leaving them to the sin they love so much. He is allowing them, permitting them, to choose what their hearts already want. And so, while God is active, he certainly isn’t twisting anyone’s arm. He is judging yes, but he is doing it by cosigning them to the same end they are passionately pursuing. He is nudging them the very direction they were already going. And so, I think that both man and God are active in condemnation. 

Douglas Moo says of this passage,

[The meaning of God “giving them up”] demands that we give God a more active role as the initiator in the process. God does not simply let the boat go [so to speak] — he gives it a push downstream. Like a judge who hands over a prisoner to the punishment his crime has earned, God hands over the sinner to the terrible cycle of ever-increasing sin… 

[And yet, as Paul states in verse 32,] those who engage in [sin] know that what they are doing is wrong. They act “knowing the righteous decree of God, that those who do such things are worthy of death”… People generally, as Paul claims, have some degree of awareness that the moral outrages they commit are wrong and hence deserve to be punished by God³

Moo here demonstrates that, for Paul, and for the rest of the Bible, God’s sovereignty over those going to hell by no means diminishes personal responsibility. But also, personal responsibility doesn’t cancel out the sovereign activity of God in justly condemning man. God punishes the sinner, thus resulting in that person going to hell. But also, the sinner willfully and even knowingly rebels against God, thus sending themselves to hell. They want to go there. 

And in fact, I believe Romans 1:18-32 describes all of us apart from God’s gracious and effectual calling of sinners to himself. How else could it be? Without God’s intervening grace by which he opens blind eyes, gives a new heart, and accredits the merits of Christ to us, we are but sinners walking into “ever-increasing sin”. 

There is much mystery to this, especially when we consider how free will and sovereignty fits into it. However, it is certainly in Romans 1. And it is certainly in the rest of the Bible. And therefore, we must trust God with the mystery, and revel in the fact that we are sinners saved by grace, contributing nothing to God but sin and rebellion. 

So then, does God send people to hell, or do they send themselves there?

Yes. 

¹ Problem of Pain, CS Lewis

² Gospel Deeps, Jared Wilson

³ The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Epistle to the Romans, Douglas Moo

How should Christians respond to Robin Williams’ death?

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As Christians, how then should we respond to this news that Robin Williams has committed suicide?

To begin, here are a few ways not to respond to new of his death:

Christians should never comment about how selfish suicide is. We should never comment about how Williams should’ve chosen joy over depression, as Matt Walsh so tactlessly and ignorantly suggested (source). We should never suppose that it was because of some secret sin that Williams couldn’t get over his depression, and chose to end his life. We shouldn’t even say that his suicide sent him straight to hell, as if there were any sin more grievous and deserving of hell than the next. 

So how should we then respond?

I believe that Christians of all people, should have a humble, loving, mournful and broken attitude toward this incident. And rather than making any type of comment about what he must have done wrong, or why he chose what he did, or why it was sinful, or selfish, or why we would’ve never done that, or why he could have chosen another path, our first response should simply be to mourn.

We should mourn that sin (rather than simply being bad choices we make) has so infected and affected our entire nature in such a way that it not only alters our soul, but our bodies and minds as well. 

As Christians, our worldview, and our theological grid, requires that we respond differently than anyone else to something like this. Because the Bible declares that no one is better than anyone else. All people are enslaved to sin, unable and unwilling to free themselves. Scripture declares that “no one is righteous, no not one” (Rom 3:10), and that we are slaves to our sin (Rom 6:16, John 8:34). The Bible declares that we not only choose sinful things, but that we have been born with a sinful nature, deserving of wrath and hell (Eph 2:1-10). Even more than that, the scriptures tell us over and over that apart from God’s grace, we all will (not might, not maybe, but will) choose self-destructive, selfish, suicidal sins, and we all will die because of it (Rom 3:23).

Because of this, we aren’t any better than Williams. And so, we should mourn, pray, and be reminded of the fact that we have all chosen, in a thousand different ways, the same fate as Williams. We are all just as sinful, and all in need of Christ’s transforming grace. If we don’t respond this way, we are, in a subtle, small way, saying that we are, even if just a little bit, better than Robin Williams. This is simply not true. 

But more than this; because sin is not just something we do but is an infection that has invaded every part of our being, we must recognize that the fall affects not only our soul, or our will, but our bodies and brain. Sin has affect every part of our being, including our physiology — and part of this includes our brain, which in turn affects our mood, thoughts and reason. As one blogger once put it,

…the fall effects every area of life. We are usually fine admitting that the fall causes physical problems. Sure, if you are born disabled, that it’s not your fault but a result of original sin. But… when it comes to mental disorders or sexuality we suddenly become Pelagians. Depression can’t be inborn. Anxiety can’t be inborn. Homosexuality can’t be inborn. But if we truly believe that our birth was corrupted by the fall of man, why wouldn’t we acknowledge that these aspects of human nature have also been affected? Is the mind so divorced from the body that we are only affected outwardly, without any damage to the emotions? (source)

What a healthy view of human depravity! And in fact, the fall has affected every part of man. Yes, Adam (and all of us), when he chose to sin against God, died spiritually. But God also pronounced a judgment not just on the soul, but also the body, saying, “by the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19). Our bodies are affected in such a way by the fall, that we are born into death. From the moment of our birth, our bodies decay and are corrupted. And this decay and corruption includes our brains and bodies. It affects our moods and thoughts.

All this to say, Robin Williams did not choose depression. In fact, from what I understand, he very much so wanted to be joyful. But because he was born into sin, the fall had affected him in such a way that spiraled him into depression, and tragically, to suicide. And while this suicide was a choice, and a choice for which he will answer, it was a choice warped and infected by sin. 

We must understand, the fall affects us all in all sorts of different ways. It affects our perception of reality, our will, our choices, and our moods which in turn leads us and propels us into irrational and sinful actions that are destructive and harmful. This is how deep and wide the fall has wrecked us. And this awful incident is one such case.

And because of this, Christians should react to Williams’ death with deep sorrow, and deep acknowledgement that we are all broken and sinful people, born into death, enslaved to sin. How else could it be otherwise? More than that though, Christians should react with prayer, knowing that apart from the gospel, we all will all choose death all the time.

We need the grace of God!

Sin and the Sovereignty of God (part 4): Answering More Objections

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In my first post about objections to God’s sovereignty, I addressed the objection that if God is sovereign, then he is the cause of sin.

In this post, I want to address the objection that goes something like this: If God decreed everything that would happen, this makes us puppets, and takes away any real choice that we would make. In my opinion, misunderstanding the nature of how God makes his decree leads people to this conclusion. In my former posts, here, here, and here, part of my argument included the fact that God is able to decree the free choices of humans. That God decreed those free choices by no means takes away free will — it simply means that God can be and is sovereign over even the free actions of man.

Louis Berkhof says,

This objection [that God’s sovereignty takes away our free choices]…ignores the logical relation, determined by God’s decree, between the means and the end to be obtained. The decree not only includes the various issues of human life, but also the free human actions which are logically prior to, and are destined to bring about, the results.

In short, God’s decrees include our free choices. And what this means is that although God has planned to include my actions and choices in his plan, my choices are still my choices. Many argue for instance, that within a world where everything is decreed, prayer and evangelism are meaningless. But in fact, this is again misrepresenting God’s sovereignty. When it comes to answered prayers, God decided before hand to accomplish his purposes in and through our freely offered prayers. God dwells outside of time; so although I make my prayers in the year 2014 (or whatever year), God can decree to answer my prayers before the world even existed, and even use them to accomplish his purposes. To me, this makes prayers all the more important. God has designated the means to his own end, and my freely offered prayers are included in it. As Berkhof says, we cannot ignore the logical relation between God’s ends, and the means to his end.

Wayne Grudem has some more helpful insight with this objection. He says,

In response to the claim that choices ordained by God cannot be real choices, it must be said that this is simply an assumption based once again on [subjective] experience and intuition, not on specific scripture texts. Scripture repeatedly indicates that God works through our will, our power to choose, and our personal volition, and it consistently affirms that our choices are genuine choices, that they have real results, and that those results last for eternity…

[However], the kind of freedom that is often assumed by those who deny God’s providential control of all things is a freedom to act outside of God’s sustaining and controlling activity, a freedom that includes being able to make decisions that are not caused by anything external to ourselves. Scripture nowhere says we are free in those senses. That kind of freedom would be impossible if Jesus Christ is indeed “continually carrying along things by his word of power” (Heb 1:3) and if God “accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph 1:11).

I think Grudem makes some good points here. First, just because we choose to do something doesn’t mean that God didn’t ordain to permit and use your free choices. Subjective experience alone cannot confirm or deny anything.

But also, Grudem makes a great point that no one is completely free, or outside of God’s providence. This would be impossible — even God’s permissive will is under his sovereign control. While we may say that we willfully and freely make choices in the sense that God in no way forces us to make the decisions we do, still God sovereignly decreed to permit and use those free choices, making them certain.

Grudem then critiques the theological idea that God simply foreknows everything, but does not decree anything. I found it immensely helpful. He says,

Others [who disagree with this idea of God’s sovereignty] say that God knows the future [simply] because he is able to see into the future, not because he has planned or caused what will happen…

[However, this] response fails to render our choices free in the way that [they] wish them to be free. If our future choices are known, then they are fixed and therefore predetermined by something (whether fate or the inevitable cause-and-effect mechanism of the universe). And if the are fixed, then they are not “free”…

I think that this is exactly right. Whether God decrees or not, if he foreknows the future, this means he foreknows a fixed future. And this means that the free will we may want doesn’t really exist, because the future God foreknows is fixed.

More than that, if the future is not certain because of God’s final decision, then what makes it certain? Fate? Nature? Random coincidence? Either way you slice it, something has to make the future fixed. While we do make free, non-coerced, unforced choices, these choices are either fixed by God’s decision, or by another force unknown to us.

With that said, I believe that God is able to render certain free-will actions, and that this by no means takes away man’s free choices. It simply means that God is the ultimate authority over all that has, is, and will happen. It certainly does not make us puppets.

Sin and the Sovereignty of God (part 3): Why did God permit sin?

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In my last two posts here and here, I have been arguing that God is both sovereign and separate from sin. God is sovereign in the sense that he decreed / planned / ordained (whatever you’d like to call it) all that would come to pass before the foundations of the world (Eph 1:11). I also argued that God’s decrees concerning sin were permissive. And although God decreed to permit the fall, and the free sinful choices of evil men, rendering them certain, he did not coerce or force men to sin. God interacts with sin and human actions sovereignly, yet without himself being coercive or sinful (boggles the mind a bit, right?).

In this post, I want to consider why God would permit sin to come into the world. Epicurus once said,

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”

I believe this quotes sums up most atheists and many agnostics. Most believe that the existence of evil itself proves that a good God cannot exist. Of course, I don’t believe this. My first response to this would be, “if an ultimate good does not exist, then what makes evil, evil?” If a good God does not exist, neither can any type of evil — everything would then be by definition amoral. This is why I must believe in the God of the Bible.

But why did God ordain to permit such evil from entering into this world?

Before I begin, I want to make a few points first: On one level it is absolutely valid to say that the fall happened because we are volitional creatures who make our own decisions with their own consequences. This is true; Adam willfully chose to disobey God, and this is the mess it created. But I don’t think this argument is argument enough. Because again, both Arminians and Calvinists alike are still left with the issue of God’s transcendence. He dwells outside of time and knows all things; and nothing happens unless he permits. And even if you deny God’s decrees, you have to acknowledge that God created the world knowing Adam would choose to sin. So, while he did choose sin, and while the fall happened because of it, still, none of it happened apart from God’s permission. So, there still has to be a deeper reason for sin.

With those points covered, I want to again quote Louis Berkohf. He has great wisdom when it comes to God’s decrees. Berkhof says,

[God’s decrees are founded] in divine wisdom. The word “counsel” (Eph 1:11), which is one of the terms by which the decree is designated, suggests careful deliberation and consultation. It may contain a suggestion of an intercommunication between the three persons of the Godhead. In speaking of God’s revelation of the mystery that was formerly hid in Him, Paul says that this was “to the intent that now unto the principalities and the powers in the heavenly places might be made known through the church the manifold wisdom of God, according to the eternal purpose which He purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord,” Eph 3:10, 11. The wisdom of the decree… follows from the wisdom displayed in the realization of the eternal purpose of God…There may be a great deal in the decree that passes human understanding and is inexplicable to the finite mind, but it contains nothing that is irrational or arbitrary. God formed his determination with wise insight and knowledge.

First, I like that Berkhof concentrates on the fact that God does nothing arbitrarily. It his counsel, his plan, which precludes thought and wisdom.

But also, Berkhof alludes to a text in Ephesians 3:10-11, which speaks of God’s plan as being purposed, set forth, and realized, in Christ. Paul also says in Ephesians 1:10 that God purposed before the foundation of the world to “unite all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth”. Paul also declares in Colossians that God planned to make Christ preeminent in all things (Col 1:18). Lastly, Paul speaks of God’s plan set forth in Christ with a purpose to make Himself all in all, that from Him through Him and to Him would be everything (Rom 11:33, 1 Cor 15:28). If you notice, God had a pre-creation plan that was Christo-centric, centered around Jesus’ redeeming work on the cross. And, it was God-directed, meaning that all of God’s work brings him glory and honor.

I think from these texts, it is clear that God had a pre-temporal plan to permit our own willful acts of sin, so that in response to our willful rebellion, he might redeem all things in Christ. And, he purposed to rectify the world in Christ, that all things might be from, through, and for God and his glory. God, in his infinite wisdom, and in response to the sinful will of man, saw an infinitely more glorious outcome as accomplished through Jesus’ death and resurrection. And so, though God could have stopped Adam’s rebellion outright, he permitted our sin that he might accomplish this outcome of summing up all thing in Christ (Eph 1:10).

This is why Paul speaks so magnificently in Colossians 1 of Christ being “the first born from the dead (speaking of his resurrection), that in everything he might be preeminent” (Col 1:18). In God’s wisdom, he purposed to redeem this fallen world and fallen sinners in and through Christ. I believe this is what the Bible portrays as God’s eternal purpose, being set forth in Jesus, fulfilled by him, coming from him, and being all for him. This is God’s wise decree.

And if you noticeGod’s eternal purpose involves the salvation of willful sinners. God’s plan includes the free justification of sinners worthy of death (again, while God is sovereign over free acts, he doesn’t force anyone to sin as they do). This has always boggled my mind. God, in his own right as God, could have destroyed his own creation for their rebellion. Or, he could have simply chosen not to create volitional beings he knew would sin — yet God, allowing and permitting free acts of sin, chose before the creation of the world to save mankind through the sin-atoning suffering of Jesus. And he chose to do this freely, through faith.

Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians that in salvation, Christ becomes the center, being our “righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.'” (1 Cor 1:30-31). In all things, God’s purposed to rectify in and through Jesus; and in salvation, Christ became the source of all and any good.

God has and is accomplishing his purpose through Christ, and sinners get to benefit.

*For more great insight on this, you can read this great post by Michael Horton on the same topic here.*

**I believe that this answer can be given by both Calvinists and Arminians. Even if you don’t believe in a pre-creation decree (Roger Olson et al), you have to agree that God foreknew the fall, and allowed it to happen for a greater purpose. I believe this is it (I do realize however that many Arminians may be reluctant to agree with this post).**

Sin and the Sovereignty of God (part 2): Answering Objections

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In my last post, I said that even though God is sovereign over sin, he by no means causes, commits, or even condones those sins. I said,

Though God’s decree to permit the fall rendered it certain, it by no means makes him a sinner. And this can be said of all sin. Though God knew it would happen, planned beforehand to permit it, and even used it for his plan, it doesn’t mean he committed the sin, or forced anyone to sin

I think that if Christians affirm God’s sovereignty, this must be the case. God decreed to permit sin to enter and corrupt the world without himself efficiency committing any sin. This view of God’s sovereignty over sin is the classical Reformed view; it is a view that has been held by Reformed theologians for centuries — and all of these theologians affirmed that God’s sovereignty included the sinful actions of men; that in his wisdom, God decided beforehand to allow sin to enter the world, even though it goes against his holy character. And most importantly, he did it to bring a better good out of the situation.

However, many Christians who would not consider themselves Reformed think that this view of God’s sovereignty over sin makes him culpable in sin. Roger Olson, a theologian whom I truly do respect and have read many of his works (but obviously differ with on this topic), says:

Does God foreordain and render certain sin in general and specific sins? Calvinism says yes but then usually retreats into the language of “permission” which, non-Calvinists believe, is inconsistent with Calvinism’s divine determinism. If God “designs, ordains, and governs” sin and evil, then, as Arminius himself said (and Wesley agreed) God is the only real sinner. Adding that God does not “cause” sin but only “permits” it only raises the question of how God “ordains and governs” sin without causing it. (source)

For Olson, for God to decide beforehand (or ordain, or decree) to permit the sins of free moral agents makes him morally complicit in all sin and evil. I guess that doesn’t follow for me. Let’s start with a few presuppositions that I start with in making my own conclusions: First, God foreknows all that could, would, might, and / or will happen. Second, nothing will / would happen unless God permits or causes it to happen. Lastly, this means that God has the ultimate say in what will happen, even if he is not the immediate cause of it. So, with that, we can say that God decreed to permit Adam to choose sin, while not himself having committed the sin.

Olson obviously disagrees. He proposes his own view by saying,

Now, an Arminian begins with the fact that God only permits sin in general and specific sins and then says that, yes, God also uses sinners and their freely chosen sins for his purposes, but without sin being part of his antecedent will. Sin is only part of his consequent will—what God wills to allow because of the fall and its consequences. So, the men who crucified Jesus, for example, were only “destined” to sin insofar as they planned and carried it out freely and God permitted them to do what they wanted to do. But this was part of God’s consequent will, not God’s antecedent will. And God did not render their sin certain. He knew what they would do, but he did not effectually manipulate them to do it nor was their sin part of God’s “design” except consequentially.

I don’t see a real difference between this view and mine, other than the fact that Olson believes that for God to decide / decree / ordain what will happen beforehand makes him complicit in sin.

But here’s where I have a problem. Even within the Arminian view of foresight-and-permission, God still foresaw the fall and all the consequent sins that would be committed, could have stopped those sins from happening, and decided not to stop them. If God dwells outside of time, and consequently can see free choices before they actually happen, why didn’t he stop those free choices which were sinful? Even more basic, why didn’t God simply not create humans if he knew they would sin? Both Calvinists and Arminians must answer that God decided to allow his free moral agents commit sins to accomplish a greater outcome. We may disagree on the reasons, but have to at least have an answer.

Here’s a helpful quote from Michael Horton on this issue:

[This issues is a] vexing challenge not merely to Calvinists but to anyone who believes that God knows exhaustively and eternally everything that will happen. In other words, everyone who affirms God’s exhaustive foreknowledge has exactly the same problem as any Calvinist. If God knows that Adam will sin—or that you and I will sin—and could keep it from happening, but does not, and God’s knowledge is infallible, then it is just as certain as if he had predestined it. In fact, it is the same as being predestined. Then the only difference is whether it is determined without purpose or with purpose. (source)

While Olson might be uncomfortable with God deciding what to permit / not permit before it happens, this is not really different from God foreseeing specific sins and allowing them to happen. In both instances, they happened necessarily because God decided to allow them.

With that said, God’s decrees do not make him the cause or originator of sin. Because God decreed to permit those sinful actions does make them certain — but it by no means makes him sinful.

I have two more posts on this subject here and here

On the Nature of Sin (part 2)

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In my first post, we discovered that sin is a core heart issue, and that apart from saving faith in Jesus, is impossible to remedy. I want to consider another text from Romans in which Paul talks about the inability of man’s will in being pleasing to God. Akin to the doctrine of depravity is the thought that man’s will is so hopelessly bound; that apart from the Spirit’s regenerating work, we are simply unable and unwilling to change ourselves.

Paul says in Romans 8:8, “those who are in the flesh cannot please God”.

In Romans 7-8, Paul has been discussing his own inability in his flesh (man in his natural state) to obey the Law of God. This discussion climaxes at the end of Romans 7 where Paul declares that though he has the desire to do what is right, within his own power, he has “not the ability to carry it out” (Rom 7:18). Notice the totality of Paul’s statement: in our natural state, we cannot please God. This statement is one of absolute inability. We are utterly powerless to obey. Though we may know what is right, and even desire what is right, we lack the resources to live what is right.

This is in fact Paul’s entire argument in Romans 7. Everyone has at least some understanding of right and wrong; but, this knowledge alone does not enable us to actually obey it. Paul says that he in fact “delight[s] in the law of God, in [his] inner being”; and yet, he completely lacks the capability to apply and live out this revealed law (Rom 7:22). So then, Paul concludes that he is unable to obey God, being dead to God and alive to sin (Rom 7:24).

This is the deep rooted nature of our sin. Without outside help, we are chained, bound, completely helpless. And though we might desire to obey, we simply cannot. Even with our best effort, “evil lies close at hand” (Rom 7:21).

And so what is the solution to this law of sin that dwells in us? Paul tells us in Romans 8 that the Spirit of God is the solution. Martin Luther rightly says that our own effort to obey God “will never give rise to a single instance of ability … if God does not give the Spirit”. We must be enlivened, awakened, raised. We must be given new life from God by his Spirit. And Paul tells us that if we live by the Spirit, we will be alive to righteousness (Rom 8:10). This Spirit-enabled life comes from faith in Christ Jesus, who breathes life into us, giving us his righteousness, and making us a new creation (Rom 8:1-4, 2 Cor 5:17). We are not only given new life, but a new nature. We are given a new will through which we can live toward God and obey his commandments.

John Piper says that “the very nature of mercy that we need is will-awakening, will-transforming mercy”. We need a new will by the power of God. And God does this by awakening us by his Spirit. Apart from this sovereign awakening transformation from God, we are left unable to please Him. Praise God that he can and does awaken sinners to new-creation glory. 

As God said to his people in Ezekiel, “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. And I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses. And I will summon the grain and make it abundant and lay no famine upon you. I will make the fruit of the tree and the increase of the field abundant, that you may never again suffer the disgrace of famine among the nations. Then you will remember your evil ways, and your deeds that were not good, and you will loathe yourselves for your iniquities and your abominations. It is not for your sake that I will act, declares the Lord God; let that be known to you” (Ezek 36:26-32). 

What is this grace but divine enablement? It is God’s divine, righteousness-imparting, new-creation-making, will-transforming gift of obedience.